Welcome back to the Directors UK podcast!
In this episode we welcomed BAFTA-nominated director and Directors UK member Will Sharpe, who spoke to us about his latest series, Landscapers. Joining him in conversation was BAFTA-winner and fellow Directors UK member Armando Iannucci.
In this conversation we hear Will speak about placing the audience in the frame, finding the characters in the rehearsal process and how the working contributions from costume designer Charlotte Walter helped build the intricate world for the series.
You can also read a full transcript of the conversation below.
Armando Iannucci: I’m Armando Iannucci. I am a balding, if not bald, late middle-aged Scottish Italian with a large nose and a checked shirt, using my agent’s offices, so I’m in a rather corporate background and there’s a pig right behind my left shoulder. I’m delighted to welcome Will Sharpe to talk about the craft of directing, among other things. I’m sure we’ll touch on all sorts of things tonight. Hello, Will.
Will Sharpe: Hello, hi, thank you for having me. I am a half-Japanese man with black hair wearing a grey jumper in a sort of off-green room. Thank you for having me.
Armando Iannucci: Well, let’s start. I think I first knew of you or heard of you when you did Black Pond, which was a film. I’m sure you think it was only about four years ago but it must’ve been at least ten years ago, really shot on a very, very low budget.
Will Sharpe: Yes, I think it was 2011 that it came out. We shot it for £20,000, my friend Tom Kingsley and I, and I think we worked out that it costs the same for the whole film as one second of Transformers or something like that.
Armando Iannucci: Much more entertaining than one second of Transformers. Did you get your money back?
Will Sharpe: We did, yes, just about. Yes, we hired out the Prince Charles Cinema for a week and I think that was because we had heard somewhere or read somewhere that if a film plays on the same screen consecutively for over five days or something, then there’s a kind of tacit obligation to review it — or that was my understanding at the time. So we were trying to get it reviewed and it thankfully, in the main, worked out.
Armando Iannucci: In our conversation we can double back on that but instantly I fixed you in my mind as someone who writes and performs and directs their own material. The thing about Landscapers is I think it’s your first TV production which you’re directing someone else’s script, is that right? So I’m intrigued as to what the thought processes were when the script arrived. Obviously there’s a connection with some of the cast you’ve worked with before — Olivia Colman obviously in Flowers. You know, what made that switch?
Will Sharpe: Well, I was just coming out of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which similarly was not originated by me, but I did end up working on the script for that. Similarly with Ed (Sinclair), I collaborated quite closely with him on these scripts. When I first read them, I think I was immediately taken with how empathetically written they were, how he was really trying to understand the world from the point of view of Susan Edwards and Christopher Edwards as he imagined them to be. I think with all projects that you end up working on, it was just something that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night with an idea about how to direct a scene and, you know, there were some really exciting and interesting formal ideas, questions, challenges in that, but also enough room, I felt, for discovery and development. As soon as I started talking with Ed and the production team, it felt like we were fundamentally on the same page, so I guess that made me feel confident that there would be a freedom to explore. I think the first conversation we had was about this idea of truth and how, even from the very start, certain truths were presented in slightly different ways or from different points of view. That felt like something very fertile to dig into.
Armando Iannucci: You kind of set yourself a challenge. Right at the start, we know what the outcome is. We hear that they were convicted and sentenced. It’s a true story, as well. So, you’re setting yourself that ambition of presenting the fact but then spending four episodes trying to explore whether that fact is the actual truth. Actually, just to skip right to the end, there’s still a level of ambiguity at the end. Is that part of the initial idea that appealed to you?
Will Sharpe: That was something that came about in the edit, actually, and I felt like I wanted it to be really clear from the outset that it’s not the thrill of this. You get some crime procedural for free, if you like, but that really we’re telling a kind of romantic psychodrama. I suppose the bluntest way of saying it is that people could Google this anyway, so why not take control of that? You know, control of the truth, and control of the facts and use them to our advantage to make you feel unsettled as an audience member about these various precarious truths and how they’re presented to you. I guess I wanted to put the audience in the frame so that they could participate in this process of playing out different truths in different ways. Yes, hopefully it makes the ending clearer in a way and more interesting.
Armando Iannucci: What appealed to me about it is there are so many ambitious mixes going on there because there’s the fact, yes, we’re given the bald facts at the beginning, so we know what the conclusion is — but how we get there is left up in the air. There’s also that mix of deliberate artifice. You know, one minute we’re in the police station, next minute we’re in the pub that they’re talking about or the bedroom that they’re talking about, giving David Thewlis the gun to shoot at her parents and so on - and yet you try and preserve the reality of the emotion, I suppose.
Will Sharpe: Yes. So I think there is an inherent tension between truth and fantasy in the show, and I think a lot of it stemmed from us trying to understand where did this fascination begin with old Hollywood, you know, Western films that they famously collected. They spent hundreds of thousands of pounds collecting old Hollywood memorabilia that they couldn’t afford. Part of that was clearly a form of escapism, but it also felt like it fed into this role-playing relationship that Chris and Susan had with each other. More and more, I started to feel like a another big theme for this show was freedom, and that Susan’s very traumatic backstory might perhaps mean that if you’ve been through something like she went through as a child, perhaps you have felt like freedom has been taken away from you long before you’ve been arrested for anything. So, I think all of those different ingredients seem to create a space in which Susan and Chris are telling themselves truths that they need to believe in or want to believe in. They’re telling each other truths. They’re also presenting very rehearsed truths to the police. Sometimes they remember romanticised versions of true memories. So I think every decision that we made as a crew and cast was trying to get the audience into the head-space of particularly Susan, but also the shared head-space of Susan and Chris. It felt like, ‘Well, they might remember this is a, sort of, French cinema way,’ then that might get you into an empathetic feeling with them and understanding how much their relationship means to them — then that flies.
Similarly, you know, something which came about initially from trying to evolve some of the early ideas and to extrapolate from them to more dangerous pastures. In episode three, when we literally walk from the interview room to the dramatised version of the story as Susan, and it’s being dismantled by the police, that again — I think if it had just been for the hell of it, I don’t think it would’ve been something that we wanted to entertain. But because it felt like, ‘Well, in this moment, Susan is realising that the very carefully crafted truth that she presented in episode two is being completely exposed, completely torn apart by Lansing and the police,’ and she’s so exposed that actually now the audience at home watching seems to be in on it, and able to make a judgement on her, it felt like it would hopefully help the drama and the emotion of it.
I guess the other thing to say, which is perhaps obvious, but I think with every project, I feel like the performance always comes first and everything else is subsidiary and supplementary and in support of that. So I feel like the text and performance is where I always start and I always finish in the edit. So, hopefully that grounds it as well.
Armando Iannucci: No, absolutely. You’re right. You know, you can put in these devices or, for want of a better word, tricks — but they’re not tricks. They’re actually an inherent part of the way you’re laying your stories and themes out. That moment that you mentioned in episode three where we’re basically a television or film sound stage, walking from the scene of the crime to the next bits of the episode. Going through my mind when I saw that for the first time was actually when I was in the process of adapting The Personal History of David Copperfield. For me, it was about how this is a story about a storyteller, in that he, in the end, becomes a renowned novelist. So what he’s done is actually slightly reshaping his own disordered chaotic life to give it some sense of meaning. That’s what made both Simon Blackwell and I (who I co-wrote it with) think of these ideas of the theatricality about it, of the scene becoming a canvas and the canvas lifting up. Then suddenly you’re in the middle of a field or the house is made of paper and it’s a model. All the time, I’m thinking, ‘Is this just a trick or does this mean something?’ In fact, in our edit, we discarded some of those things because I thought, ‘Actually, no, this is just showing off.’ So it’s such a fine line, isn’t it — and sometimes the artifice actually makes the real emotion all the more powerful because it’s shouting out against it.
Will Sharpe: Yes, I think that’s a good comparison and I definitely felt that watching it. When the hand reaches in, he is also being torn out of the moment, so that’s why it works. It is a fine line but I felt like the default, as when you’re working on a script, ids are you sharing in the moment with these characters.
This might be of interest. This is partly a practical cost thing, so we could only afford to have projector walls as walls of the set for a certain number of days — but also, again, from a performance point of view, I really wanted to shoot the (as it were) straight version of the interviews first to make sure that we had the performances down and had found the emotion or the drama of the scenes or the comedy of the scenes in that way. Then if there was something that we wanted to do as a transition, or for a section of the scene with whatever it was, we shot that sometimes quite a bit later in the schedule, almost as pick-ups.
Armando Iannucci: Had you edited some of those scenes already before going into that?
Will Sharpe: No, I mean, there were assemblies but, yes, not with a view… I tend to sort of take note in the assemblies when I’m worried about something or if there’s something I feel like, ‘I just want to make sure that we got that.’ Otherwise I try to wait till the final cut.
Armando Iannucci: Yes. These stories I grew up reading of when directors would end the day’s shooting going back to watch the rushes. That used to strike me as an absolute nightmare because by the end of the day I’m just absolutely shattered. There’s something about spending a day making decisions all the time that, kind of, slightly wears you out. So the idea of then sitting down and watching…
Will Sharpe: Making more decisions, yes.
Armando Iannucci: Yes. Are you doing a rough cut in your head as you go along? Do you have some sense for the shape of it?
Will Sharpe: Yes, definitely, and in terms of performances and coverage, you might have-shot listed for a slightly boldly low number of shots, in the hope that you can use the developing to tell the story. You know, sometimes that’s great and there’s the way of thinking that if you don’t shoot additional coverage and the decision is made, then it’s easier to fight for your Plan A. Equally, sometimes I felt like, it’s actually probably wise to shoot some coverage while we’re here just in the case. In the editing, often we would use that, you know, just whether it’s to speed a scene up or whatever point of emphasis. I really wanted the show to feel psychological and like there were blurred lines between the different truths — and this is a precarious world, and used occasional transitions and things. It felt like I needed to be more on top of it.
Armando Iannucci: Well, that point, because I certainly felt by the end of it that I wouldn’t say it was an optimistic ending — but I felt that whatever they did, and whether or not they were guilty or whatever the reasoning, seeing the narrative they carried in their heads about each other and the past may well have been the best thing for them as they then go to prison. It gives them those safety mechanisms that they might need to survive in a place like that. You know, it didn’t feel to me like they were totally horrified about what was going to happen next, because they had this set of slightly rehearsed responses to real life that they carried with them.
Will Sharpe: Yes. We were reaching for a sort of paradox at the end where we didn’t want to present you with a… I guess you could say bleak and uncomplicated truth about murder and crime, which is that it is almost invariably very sad. You know, that is part of the takeaway, I think, but we also wanted you along the way to explore the different complex relationships, that web of events that led to the moment of the crime and to formulate your opinion about a truth that hopefully feels like it’s somewhere between all the different truths that we’re presenting you. It’s this elusive truth.
The idea of playing out Susan’s inner world as a Western came quite late on for the final episode. I think it was because we wanted to be able to get to a point where there is a feeling of almost being uplifted at the end. But what’s hopefully harrowing/hollow about that is that you feel like it’s a mask on top of the reality of the crime, or that there’s something disturbing about it — if we can give you your moment of freedom, riding off into the sunset, and if we can, through photography and music and the performances, give you a feeling of freedom at the end… but you know that something terrible has happened. I think that’s why, on the day, we used quite a bit of rear projection, whether it be for driving scenes or for the end in the horse ride. So David and Olivia are on this robotic horse that does this. I remember on the day thinking, ‘Let’s get one where the backdrop just disappears, and it just cuts to black and they don’t see it.’ It was very speculative. It was just something where it’s like, ‘Let’s get it, just in case.’
Constantly in the making of this show, there were ethical dilemmas here, there and everywhere. That’s part of where the idea, for instance, of including real news footage in the credits or things like that, were just us being honest with you about how we as storytellers have no agency over the truth. Something about when we put that moment into the edit, I just felt very frightened by it, because I felt like I was successfully swept up in their moment. Then when the backdrop disappeared, I just felt… it’s almost like being shot or something. I just felt really terrified. So I guess that’s what we’re reaching for at the end. Hopefully along the way we’ve helped you to invest in their love for each other. Which, in a way, is the only truth we, confidently invest in.
Armando Iannucci: It’s a really touching element all the way through all four episodes, really. In fact, as you say, that’s the most certain thing, their love for each other. Therefore, I thought at the end they would be thinking about each other in prison and would be somehow hopefully communicating mentally. You said that was something you worked out, so let’s swing right back to the beginning of the process, then. You know, what is the process prior to actually shooting? Are you working closely with the writer? How early are you getting the actors in? How are you working out the stages of this storyline in terms of how you want to end up?
Will Sharpe: Yes, principally, collaborating with Ed, the writer, and doing some writing myself, offering things up. We’re recce-ing at the same time, as you normally would and you’re discovering things like if you’re going to shoot in St Pancras, you’ve got about nine hours of a night shoot to do it in and the rules are very strict — especially because of COVID. So, that becomes a scene where it’s more meticulously thought out in the script and trying to think about, ‘Well, this we can achieve, this we can’t achieve.’ Being practical about it but hopefully to creative ends. Then the casting process is happening. We did rehearse this and I think, for me, rehearsal’s great just partly to meet everybody properly and get a sense of everybody’s different language or how they work, what works for them, what doesn’t. Also in the case of this, there were some scenes where people are switching from being in the moment. There’s the scene in episode two where Susan, Olivia’s character, is in the moment with her mother and then narrating the scene to the police, and then in the moment. Just getting a sense of how that feels, getting a sense of how does a romanticised version of Chris and Susan behave — what’s their posture? What’s their way of talking compared to the down and dirty CCTV-captured Susan and Chris in the interview rooms? So, a bit of that in rehearsal, but not too rehearsed.
Armando Iannucci: You said rehearsal, I’m a big fan of that. I mean, I kind of rehearse everything because, as you say, first of all it’s a chance for everyone to get to know each other but also I find if you’re going into a shoot where everything’s out of order, you first need to have everyone do the whole thing in the right order so they know.
Will Sharpe: Right, yes.
Armando Iannucci: I mean, we just hire a church hall for two weeks and some cheap biscuits and some flasks of tea and coffee and there’s no one else around. You know, all those conversations that otherwise you’d end up having on the set while 150 people are standing around waiting to pick up, it’s far better and more economic to have it there — but I remember when I started directing being kind of amazed that rehearsals weren’t the norm, really. So, what’s your rehearsal process?
Will Sharpe: I didn’t rehearse every single scene on this. Partly I think that was, again, just a practical thing. You know, still in COVID, people’s availabilities and things. I think probably going forward I will try to knock off more time. Sort of insist on the value of rehearsals, as you say, but this was about a week, I think, for us. So, key scenes which felt like they might open a question. Trying out key relationships, so David and Olivia together, but also the police together and the interview scenes and getting a sense of everybody’s different dynamics. It’s also a chance, as you say, for people to air any questions they might have, or worries. It’s great to get open early so that there’s no tension or worry on set about asking me anything.
Armando Iannucci: There’s a lot of throat-clearing and awkwardness the first couple of days, and it’s far better to have that really early on rather than on day one of the shoot, isn’t it? Also if these characters are meant to have known and loved each other for decades, the police team have all been on top of each other… so you want to be able to capture that instantly. I remember when we were rehearsing The Death of Stalin, we had a window of opportunity where we could have Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin and Paul Whitehouse in the same room at the same time. I remember Simon Russell Beale afterwards saying how he loved the rehearsal process because it gave him a chance not just to work out where he was in each scene but to know where everyone else was in each scene. I’ve always remembered that as a useful thing. So, yes, I’m a huge fan of rehearsals. Also it gets you to work out some physical distance and do a bit of the blocking so that you’re not spending the first part of the day on that.
Will Sharpe: You know, it can help you with the script as well. Particularly at the moment, where readthroughs are often on Zoom. I mean, readthroughs are funny anyway, but it can help you to identify if, ‘Oh, actually this scene is too long,’ or it’s in the wrong place.
Armando Iannucci: Did you have Ed with you all the time all the way through as the writer?
Will Sharpe: I mean, he came to set occasionally but he did leave me to it, in a way. The key crew members on set, so Eric Wilson, the DoP, Sam the gaffer and myself, the grip, we all had these headsets with a talky thing here. So everything was done very quietly, fed back so that I wasn’t constantly running in and out, hiding under tables, to try and minimise traffic on the set basically. So what it meant was that for guests, if you like, it was actually very hard to keep track of what was going on. We were all just whispering to each other. Sort of like, ‘Yes, I think we should go again but maybe just slow the track down a little bit.’ Then we’d go again and so nobody really knew what was happening. I think somebody said it was almost like being in a monastery because it was so quiet.
Armando Iannucci: What are the cast hearing then?
Will Sharpe: I’d obviously go in if there was something with the cast. I don’t know if in some way, you know, this theme of freedom… I found myself thinking about it in terms of the way our own freedoms were being necessarily limited during that period. I don’t know if there’s some way that fed into the yearning, the sense of longing for some opening. I think we wanted to shoot on sets partly because it was safer, but also because we wanted to present to you a world in which these truths felt very flimsy and precarious and just have big expanses of black sometimes, where it felt like, ‘Well, there are huge swathes of detail missing from this story, so I don’t know how I feel about this.’ I also think we felt like it would give the whole show a feeling of confinement and claustrophobia, and wanting Susan in particular to feel how she has been trapped by her own actions and mistakes — but also by circumstance and the things that she suffered at the hands of her father. She’s somebody who I really wanted the audience subconsciously to be wanting to break free, so that then at the end of episode four when they finally sort of achieve that — albeit it in a slightly ambiguous way — they’ve been on some level reaching for that. I don’t know if having masks and visors and being slightly at arm’s length from each other in some way fed into that. It definitely did for me when I reflected back on the experience of shooting.
Armando Iannucci: Well, everyone watching this can probably testify to what an odd experience it was, especially trying to do something funny. You’re trying to direct with masks on and distance and Zoom table reads and so on. But it’s a testament to the show because funnily enough, when you started mentioning COVID, I suddenly realised it hadn’t dawned on me as I was watching it when it had been shot. It didn’t feel like something shot under COVID restrictions. So, I also ought to mention to people watching that we’ll be taking your questions quite soon, if anyone’s got a question, just type it down and I’ve got a little screen down here and I can see the questions coming up. So, going into the shoot then, are you a massive prepper? Are you working everything out or are you ‘Let’s just wing it and see what happens.’ What’s your anxiety level?
Will Sharpe: Well, my anxiety level is high, although people often say to me, ‘How are you so calm?’ And I’m always never calm when people are saying that.
Armando Iannucci: Like me, I just internalise all my anxiety and people think that I am absolutely unflappable, whereas inside I’m screaming.
Will Sharpe: Yes, and I think probably the more concerned they get, the quieter I get if anything.
Armando Iannucci: Yes, yes.
Will Sharpe: But I think that’s the delicate balance always, keeping the freedom and the hunger and the instinctive side of the process, so I always want to leave a window open to discovery. But I also shot list, make sure everything is at least preliminarily shot listed, whether by me or together with Eric Wilson, and then you find the more ambitious sequences which need more prep, whether it’s a health and safety discussion or a piece of equipment, whatever it is.
Armando Iannucci: Are you storyboarding at all or working with them on any of the scenes?
Will Sharpe: Often storyboarding for me is the easiest way to communicate to a lot of people, everyone in the crew, what exactly we’re imagining. We had Rachel Garlick, a very brilliant storyboard artist on this. So, we storyboarded things like the end of episode one, where we had this slightly Supermarket Sweep time on the clock shoot at St Pancras. And then we also weren’t allowed to shoot on a Eurostar train and for various reasons, in the end the most practical and economical way of shooting became bringing a carriage into the Drumsheds, which was our makeshift studio. So, we were also stitching together stuff from St Pancras and stuff that we were shooting with rear projection out the window in the studio with David and Olivia. And then also a police convoy that was shot just on a disused runway at a military airfield, because we decided we didn’t want to go through the hullabaloo of shooting on the motorway — and also we quite liked the idea that this convoy again could just be surreally in this big black void. So, sequences like that we storyboarded, and again all on Zoom, so lots of using the frame to describe ‘The cars will be down here, and I’m the clock.’ Or, it’s things like the last shots of the series, a lot of which was doubles for Chris and Susan riding on a horse. That was delegated to a second unit — it was a very important sequence, but for various reasons it’s delegated to a different team. It felt important to storyboard it to make sure they knew exactly what we were imagining. But yes, I guess it’s for sequences where it’s something that reads very complicated and needs to be made simple for a large number of people, but I don’t storyboard every scene.
Armando Iannucci: Are you visual at all? Can you draw? I’m hopeless so I am very reliant on other people for visually what it is I’m after, and I find it very hard to explain until I’ve seen something like it. So, I envy people who can.
Will Sharpe: I’m not a good draughtsman, it looks like I’m going through something quite traumatic with all of my drawings, they’re quite messy and hard to make out! So yes, I definitely need a storyboard artist to transfer it to paper usually.
Armando Iannucci: Because you had so many different styles in this, you had the reality as it were, but there’s the flashbacks, there’s doing them when they first meet, which is always a bit of a challenge, getting actors to suddenly look twenty years younger.
Will Sharpe: Yes, well again I decided quite early on that I wanted David and Olivia to play these parts all the way through.
Armando Iannucci: Absolutely.
Will Sharpe: Apart from the ten year olds. I didn’t want to do extensive CG, and I didn’t really want to do prosthetics. I saw it almost like A Christmas Carol or something, where I felt like it would actively help the show, and it would be a clearer statement of intent, to have them their own age, almost in a theatrical way, inhabiting their younger selves in a memory, or in a version of a memory. So, that was something which just felt like, why hide it? You know they’re the actors playing them anyway.
Armando Iannucci: But you don’t want to go down The Irishman way of CGI?
Will Sharpe: No, and probably we couldn’t have afforded it even if we did go down it.
Armando Iannucci: But also, your memories are of how you look like that. I can’t remember how exactly I looked twenty years ago, I think I’d be shocked to see how different I am if I did.
Will Sharpe: Yes, and I think one of the things we talked about was the thing of mistrusting your own memories, or how you might have a very vivid memory of something taking place in a certain place, in a certain location with specific people, and you’ve been telling that story for years and years. And then someone else might pick you up on it and say, ‘Actually no, that didn’t happen there, and you hadn’t even met those people at that point.’ And you’re so convinced of it, and I think hopefully it adds to that psychological feeling.
I was going to say, the other thing was at one point we were wondering about maybe playing the whole thing in black and white — different kinds of black and white — to lean into Susan’s love of classical cinema, and for various reasons that was a no-go. But that led to this thing of Christina Casali, a designer I remember, because we’ve been talking a bit about Wong Kar-wai.
Armando Iannucci: Who is fabulous, by the way, she was my designer on Stalin and David Copperfield.
Will Sharpe: Yes, she’s brilliant. And on the way to a production meeting, she showed me a photograph of these very lurid red and green hands, and there was something about it that felt very violent. And so, in the end I think we started to use red and green as colours that were emblematic of the crime or of their guilt, and haunted the show with these colours and haunted the memories, the purer, romantic, innocent black and white of their memories was slashed through with these very lurid, violent colours. I think Christina had the idea that the rhododendrons on top of where their bodies were buried would be red and green, and so you’d feel how those colours have seeped out. And then Eric would say, ‘Well, when we’re in Nottingham Square, I’ll light the building up red so that as soon as the show starts, there’s a slightly unsettling feeling, a feeling of murder, hopefully, on some level’. But yes, I’m a big believer in being really cross-pollinating and I always feel like a hippie when I say this, but I really believe that the spirit in which something is made or how together the cast and the crew are in the making of something can be felt on the screen. And I’m sure there are many very successful films and series that were miserably made by people all behaving terribly, but I don’t think you can make something that has heart in that way. I feel like in order to give a sense of honesty and sacrifice, and the love that went into making something, you really have to manifest that and be a team, I think.
Armando Iannucci: I think that’s so important. I have a no arsehole policy when crewing up and casting, and a certain actor may be the most brilliant actor of his or her generation, but if it would suck the life out of the ensemble feel by having to address their demands, then there’s no point. Especially in my field anyway, in doing comedy, you want there to be an atmosphere of fun around on set. So I think that’s important. And yes, I remember Christina when we were doing David Copperfield, me talking to Christina about how ‘It’d be nice to get something that’s not CGI when we do slightly unusual things or transitions.’ And her showing me Victorian illusions — Pepper’s Ghost which is the mirror that made ghosts come on stage, and it’s just a mirror projection. We didn’t have that idea as we were writing, we just had a vague notion of something that’s not CGI. And it felt so right because of course Dickens was into theatre, he was an amateur dramatist anyway, and he loved illusion and he loved doing magic, so it felt absolutely fitting to put in these physical illusions. And that’s a new one to the audience, especially people growing up on Marvel CGI fests and are therefore just used to it — it’s no longer exciting, really. To actually see some real tricks done. But as I say, that’s what I felt when I saw you get your cast to walk off the set and wander around the stage and go into the next set and so on. But it’s an interesting conjuring trick.
Will Sharpe: Yes, definitely a frightening thing to talk through on the tech recce, you’re explaining what we’re going to need to plan and, ‘Well, won’t we be in shot?’ ‘Don’t worry about that, that’s okay.’ And it was quite a frightening thing to shoot in a way. I guess it’s probably evidence that you’re trying something interesting if you feel a bit frightened about doing it.
Armando Iannucci: Well, things like that, there’s no going back. You can’t then go into the edit and slightly cut around it. But there is something thrilling about doing it, committing yourself to it in advance and going for it, really, knowing that you won’t really know until you watch it back whether it’s a good scene or not.
Will Sharpe: Again in that episode, for instance, there are also very long-held close ups of David Thewlis and Olivia Colman — and I think for me, it’s funny because that’s where all of my energy is going into, it feels like it’s those human moments with the actors where you’re together which anchor everything. And then there are these other organisational feats, if you like, which again require a feeling of fun, but also a feeling of belief from everyone. But that almost feels like it’s happening secondarily to the heart of it — which is people saying things well, and behaving interestingly.
Armando Iannucci: That’s the art of directing, getting people to say things well.
Will Sharpe: Yes!
Armando Iannucci: And in more or less the right order that it makes some kind of sense, yes. But you were taking on different styles, you were doing 1930s, 1940s cinema, you were doing flashbacks, memories, childhood flashbacks as well. Were you changing the equipment? Were you shooting everything on the same cameras?
Will Sharpe: Shot most of it on a Sony Venice, on these old, slightly creaky but interesting anamorphic lenses in the main, and actually Eric made this choice to side-mount all his lenses. So, we were shooting with a camera on its side which gave us just a slightly different kind of effect from the lenses, and was helpful for some of the things we were doing later.
Armando Iannucci: And what does that do, then, putting it on its side?
Will Sharpe: I guess it means that the bend is slightly different that you get from the lenses, it was something to do with the amount of the thing… I can’t remember what it’s called, in the camera. He also reconstructed the two strip grade digitally for the Wild West scenes in episode four. But we also had a video camera, like a literal video camera that we carried with us. I knew that I wanted to expose, we were going to use it in some parts of episode four, I think — and also wanted to just capture some of the building of the sets, the dismantling of the sets, to mix. Then in the edit I think is where we made the decision to mix that with real archive footage to try and further blur the lines, and there’s even some written and recorded news voices and some real news reporters. And that was something that we just carried with us sometimes, a couple of guys that the line producer knew had their own video cameras would come to shoot. And other times Eric would shoot it or I would shoot something, or one of the camera team, if we saw something interesting, would shoot it just in case. So, we had loads of video material, and in the end originally that was all going to be in the final episode — but we made the decision in the edit with Ellen to feature it in the credits, to get you into that zone quicker.
Armando Iannucci: Yes. We’ll get into post in a second, but while we’re on the shoot, perhaps a couple of questions.
Will Sharpe: It’s called a sensor, it’s called a sensor! I’ve just remembered.
Armando Iannucci: A sensor, okay. I’m like you, I don’t have the tech. People will be shouting numbers at me and making them up and I’d have no idea. And I think it’s true of a lot of people who start off writing — maybe especially in comedy because comedy’s to do with timing and stuff. If you’re writing comedy, you’re acting it out in your head anyway, so you have a rough idea of how it should look or what you should be seeing. But whether you can describe that or not to the people you’re working with is down to you. But it’s interesting that comedy writers tend to then go on to direct, whether their own stuff or other stuff.
But yes we have some questions, on the look first of all: Although it’s set in not that long ago, about eight or ten years ago, the wardrobe and production designer has a slightly — well, she’s written here, ‘Either a timeless or 1970s vibe.’ Was there any conscious thinking behind this, just the look of it really, what people were wearing?
Will Sharpe: I think some of it is maybe just the period of either the flashbacks, mid-80s flashbacks, or I definitely remember talking about how sometimes a house stays the same for a long time if you moved in. But I guess in terms of the costume styling and things like that, Charlotte Walter, the costume designer, and I were trying to think of how to chop up these old Western, old Hollywood influences and sprinkle them in through the show, so that they’re subconsciously there or uncannily there. We didn’t want it to feel too procedural, we didn’t want it to feel like a straight up TV crime drama. So, she made the decision not to have any fluorescent jackets or belts or anything, which immediately changed the way the police felt when they’re out and about. The cars are also branded differently and they have a slightly sheriff-y emblem that hopefully finds the line between believably what you might have and the reality of what the Nottingham Police brand is.
Armando Iannucci: So, it’s trying to avoid doing anything that’s too generic. Although I have to say, I think you certainly have got a spin-off in terms of the police unit there. This proper Landscapers universe, because they were a great team, I thought.
Will Sharpe: Yes, I loved working with all three of them, they were brilliant. And yes, so sometimes Charlotte might give DC Lancing a lace tie as a nod to the Western, but in a way that sat with the clothes that she was otherwise wearing. Or Wilkie might be wearing some boots in the wider shots you see, but again it’s hopefully mostly subliminal.
Armando Iannucci: And were you just normally one camera on the go, or did you have multi cameras given you were in a studio and wanted a studio feel?
Will Sharpe: Our default was one camera, some of the interview scenes would be two cameras, and then if there was a move or something which made it difficult to use two at the same time or to light two at the same time, it would just be one. But I guess again that’s something that we would do in prep. We’d go through, identify our two camera days or even three camera days, identify the days where you need a tracking vehicle, whatever it might be, early on. But no, we defaulted to single camera.
Armando Iannucci: And were you tight for time? How long did you have for each episode to shoot?
Will Sharpe: I can’t remember now off the top of my head. It was one block. I think they had budgeted or allowed for a bit more time because of COVID, because we didn’t know how much that would slow the process down. And as with every schedule I’ve worked on, there were days where we had plenty of time, and other days which were very adrenalised and you really needed to be decisive and move on quickly and make quick decisions. So, the Flowers schedule was faster because the budget was lower and it was commissioned in a different way. But it wasn’t infinite time either.
Armando Iannucci: And going into post, did you make any big changes that you hadn’t foreseen as you were shooting? In the edit, was there something that instantly leapt out as, ‘Well, that goes there.’ Or, ‘This episode’s now this episode.’ Sometimes these things suddenly hit you, and the thing you end up with is very different from how you imagined when you went into it.
Will Sharpe: Yes. Well, having the legend at the front of episode one, and I think partly for me that was about the changing meaning of the word innocent. So, at the beginning it says, ‘To this day they protest their innocence.’ And hopefully that means you wonder if they didn’t commit the crime, and so you’re waiting to find out how they’ve been wrongly accused, perhaps. And in the end I think it almost becomes a word that means they are deserving of empathy as human beings, that maybe what they mean, is, ‘But can you at least try to understand us in our story, even if we did commit the crime?’ So, there was one big thing, the other was maybe the first AD shouting, ‘Rain.’ And, ‘Action.’ And seeing the rain come down, that was something that we knew we wanted to shoot — but initially there was a slightly different opening which started with a bugle player on the roof announcing the show. And then we would see the crew, and then it would take us in, and I think it just took a little bit too long and the shot wasn’t executed perfectly, because that was another one of our very adrenalised shoots, a night shoot in the middle of Nottingham Town Square. But in the edit I started to just find it initially quite funny, I think, that someone shouts, ‘Rain.’ And then it starts raining, and then realised that actually that was a very clear way of showing you the difference between off and on. And it felt like a fun, playful but also just helpful way of showing you our cards fairly early on.
Armando Iannucci: It gets round the problem because I’ve always found rain very, very difficult to pull off.
Will Sharpe: Yes, yes.
Armando Iannucci: There’s so many shows I’ve seen it rain, but I if I look further down the road I can see no drops. I can see the rain in front of the camera but nowhere else, so calling attention to that from the start is a useful way of getting around that issue.
Will Sharpe: Yes. And maybe actually also the credits, including archived footage in the credits from early on. Well, one of the first things I asked when I came onto this was, ‘Are we able to interview the real Susan and Chris?’ And for various reasons including the pandemic, that wasn’t possible. But I guess it always felt like we should take this idea of these different truths to its logical limit — if that’s the exercise that we’re sharing in with the audience.
Armando Iannucci: Has there been any reaction from them?
Will Sharpe: I don’t actually know if they’ve seen it I know that they had seen the trailer at one point because one of the people who advised on the show was Susan’s solicitor, the person who the character of Douglas was based on, he’s called Darrell. So, he sent us a message saying that Chris had seen the trailer on a laptop or something, and seemed vaguely approving of it as an idea.
Armando Iannucci: I wonder what their notes are. I think it was the scene between Susan and her solicitor either in the cell or in a holding cell at the police station, that is one of the most emotionally charged scenes, and one of the most amazing scenes I’ve seen Olivia Colman do. It was really quite emotional and impactful, I felt.
Will Sharpe: I think that was day two of filming or something, very early.
Armando Iannucci: Was it?
Will Sharpe: Yes, really early, and I remember talking to Olivia about that fact and she seemed up for it and was like, ‘Bring it on, we might as well start somewhere.’ And yes, as ever, just very impressive and quite quick to get there.
Armando Iannucci: Do you find you worry more about the actors than they do sometimes? Sometimes I get terribly worried if I’ve scheduled something that I think, ‘God, that’s two very long scenes for them back to back, how can we get round that?’ And then you speak to them and they go, ‘No, that’s fine.’
Will Sharpe: Maybe sometimes, I guess it depends on the actor, but I definitely believe in emotional scheduling. I guess the ultimate is when you can shoot everything in story order, but thinking about, ‘Well, when they shoot this scene it would be great if they had also shot this scene already so they know what to carry into it.’ And, ‘Well, this is a very important group dynamic scene so I think, let’s make it as late as we can so that people have found each other.’ And just to add I guess an extra square to the impossible Rubik’s cube that the First AD is already trying to solve.
Armando Iannucci: No, sometimes it’s important. I very rarely say no when I see the schedule, but every now and then, I think it’s more if I know that there’s a big scene, we’ll come up with some new stuff while we’re shooting it — so I don’t want any other big scenes to be scheduled prior to it, that are meant to happen in the story after it. Because there’ll be things that come up in that scene that are new, that we know we’ll want to then mention in the scene that comes after it. So let’s not go ‘I know we’re there for one day and we can’t come back, but can we do it the other way round?’ Often it’s the right thing to do as well, if you feel that there’s an uncertainty there that’s going to emerge.
Will Sharpe: Definitely. That reminds me actually of the trial for episode four. Episode four was shot probably in the least time. I think it was shot in eleven days overall, maybe twelve, and part of the reason was that we were trying to find time for other things. And I felt like the trial was a high page count, many different scenes, but there were certain shots which I knew would work throughout the trial. And so, we tried to devise a way of filming that there was Chris’ day and Susan’s day — but as much as possible light and shoot the whole trial from a certain angle, spend a day doing these three angles, and then turn around. Rather than going through the whole script and micro-adjusting everything, which meant we could shoot however many pages it was in the four days that we had.
Armando Iannucci: There’s something about you having this gut feeling, such as in the trial: ‘That’s not going to be the be all and end all of the episode, so let’s not make it overwhelm the schedule.’ And once you’re committed to that, I think it forces the issue. It means that actually what’s going to make the episode is the stuff that’s going on around the trial, leading up to it and just after it, and the periphery. Once you make that commitment, I think it’s very easy sometimes to just play safe and think. ‘We’ve got to cover everything from every angle, because you never know.’ If you make those decisions early on, it can be quite liberating.