Published on: 31 January 2023 in Industry

“I wanted it to feel alive and urgent”: Jesse Quinones on directing a new vision for Waterloo Road

Reading time: 16 minutes and 9 seconds

This year, the BBC brought back its beloved TV continuing drama Waterloo Road, introducing new characters, a new aesthetic, and a new lead director – Directors UK member Jesse Quinones.

We spoke to Jesse about how he made the move from working in indie film to TV drama, the broad range of influences he brought into his pitch for the show, and how he put together the show’s epic opening riot sequence. Read the full interview with Jesse Quinones below.

You can watch Waterloo Road now on BBC iPlayer.

How did you first get the job, and how familiar you were with the show before you became attached to it?

In around 2011, I was on a retreat for the BBC Writersroom. I met one of the development executives for Waterloo Road, and following that, met Cameron Roach, the executive producer. We got on really well and developed a few ideas. So, we stayed in touch and anytime I was on something — if I made an indie film, for example — I sent it to him. Then I caught wind that Waterloo Road was coming back through his company, Ropeladder Fiction, and I just dropped him a note and said, “If you’re looking for directors, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring.” I didn’t think anything of it, because I had never done TV before. He messaged back and said, “Are you serious?” and I said “Yeah!” So we jumped on a Zoom call and had a chat about it.

I had watched bits of the original show over the years, but after I met with Cameron I watched the first few seasons, and then the last season which was set in Scotland. He asked me what I thought of it, and I told him I really loved the first four seasons when it was in Manchester. It felt like there was an edge to it, and it really tried to capture something immediate that kids and teachers were going through. I thought it would be cool to capture that same initial spirit, but with a 2022 outlook. I think that’s what Cameron was after as well, so we had a really good meeting. I just thought I was going to get a slot, but they came back to me and said: “How would you feel about directing the opening block and being our lead director?”

I’d like to know more about your pitch to the BBC. What did it look like and what kinds of references did you cite?

I put together a lookbook that touched on a few different aspects. I referenced other shows, but I also referenced films. My first independent film was a coming-of-age story set in Miami, based on my life, and it’s a little gritty and urban. One of the BBC executives had watched that film and said they liked the sense of realism, so I looked at other films which captured that, like Moonlight and Juno, some mumblecore films to incorporate fly-on-the-wall elements. In terms of camera style, I wanted to make it feel cinematic and that the camera was always engaged. I also wanted to convey the idea that the biggest character in the show was the school itself, and it was a living breathing thing. One of the visual references I used was from Ozark, which had a tracking shot following multiple characters. It requires a lot of choreography, but I felt it would make the show more urgent and give it a slick aesthetic. Colour was another big thing. I wanted the show to be steeped in realism, but with punctuations of colour. In episode one, we juxtaposed green tones with warm browns and yellows to accentuate what the different characters were going through. And with performance, one of my favourite films about kids that came out recently was Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron, which shows that even when kids are going through tough times, they can still laugh and smile. I wanted to convey that spirit.

You brought in a diverse range of influences, which could be considered quite unusual for this pitch. Were there any concessions to the style of the show that you had to make?

The first thing I read was an extensive treatment, around eighty pages. Cameron had very clear ideas, so it wasn’t like I was given a blank state. There were definitely things in place. The art department, run by Tina Sherifa Hicks and Katy Tuxford, did an amazing job of taking over an abandoned school in Swinton and had already done blueprints of the school and a lot of work on the design. Ultimately, it was Cameron’s baby, and it felt like I was bringing to life the concepts he had in his head. So it was definitely a collaboration between him and myself, the art department, costume, camera, and cinematography, who came up with the idea of shooting with a 2:1 ratio — which felt cinematic no matter how you were watching, whether it was television, iPad or laptop. For me, it was about holding on to all of those different aspects to steer it in the right direction. 

Once you found out you were going to be lead director, how did you find your other collaborators?

Some people were already there, like Ted Ames, the Director of Photography. The art department too. We interviewed for costume and make-up. Same with the first AD; we had a couple of great ADs, Rick O’Connor and Gemma Nun. It’s different to film, where you’re pulling the whole thing together as a director. With TV, it’s very collaborative. But I liked it, because we were all on the same page of knowing what the show should look and feel like, so it was a really fun experience. Same with the cast. We only had the original cast in place, the rest we pretty much auditioned, so we spent a good three weeks casting.

The actors were fantastic. How experienced were they and how did you go about finding them?

I’m glad you like them! Michelle Smith, the casting director, went through all kinds of agencies, and for every role there were so many actors that auditioned. A lot of them came from a mixture of theatre or short film, others didn’t have agents and just came for the open call. Some had no television experience. Alisha Ford, who plays Kelly Jo, had done theatre, but never anything on screen. But she turned out to be incredible. We were really blessed to have rehearsal time; we had a one week bootcamp where I gave them character work and exercises, and we had a woman called Dionne King who also worked on Rocks. She helped the actors to open up and give them space to play and try things out, it’s almost spiritual. I'm a big fan of letting actors figure their roles out. My direction isn’t necessarily telling them what to do, but asking a lot of questions and pulling the answers from them. Even with Angela (Griffin) and Adam (Thomas), the last time they had played those roles was 10 years ago, so we built out these really meticulous timelines to fill in the gaps and make them feel like three-dimensional real people. They were really open to collaborating and exploring new territory for those characters, which was really exciting.

Was there much time set aside for rehearsing and interaction between the characters, or was scheduling more pressed?

We definitely had time during the boot camp. I always feel like, as a director, it's important for me to be adaptable. In my films, I’ve worked with people with varying levels of skill and experience, and so it's my job to plug into how they work, and what helps them find truth in that scene. With someone like Angela, she knows how to find the light, play a scene a variety of different ways, all those little things. I learned from her because she was so on top of it. With the younger actors, sometimes it was about forgetting that they were making a show and forgetting that fourth wall, and finding an honesty to that space. Some work well under tension and others need to be relaxed, so it was about trying to find the best environment with everyone. But there is definitely a time pressure with TV that took me a couple of days to get used to. In film you’re doing good if you’re hitting four or five pages a day, but with this you need to hit a heavy page count, so you have to work fast and efficiently. We had around two weeks to shoot an episode.

Storyboard art by Jake Yates.
Storyboard art by Jake Yates.

Episode one starts with a bang. In the first ten minutes, both a school riot and a car crash take place. How did you pull that off?

It was a really tough episode to shoot, there’s a lot of moving parts, and when I first read the script my first thought was “woah, that’s a lot of coverage.” I storyboarded that entire sequence and the intercutting of those two events. I felt that if I didn’t have a sense of what I was trying to capture, I would just get lost and I'd have 200 people staring at me whilst I tried to figure it out, which is the last thing any director wants! So, I storyboarded a lot, but even so we did need some pickups for those days, because there were so many moving parts. 

I wanted those scenes to feel alive and urgent with the way we shot it, rather than the camera simply there witnessing it. It drew slightly from a sequence in episode one of the original series, where the camera snakes around the playground. I wanted the camera to feel immersed in the environment. I also didn’t want to spoon feed the audience and over-explain each character. I wanted action to take place, and then let the audience find out more about a character through their response to that obstacle, so that first episode felt like they were catching up.

What was your set up for that scene? How many cameras did you have?

For the riot we shot two cameras. The first three or four scenes we had forty extras, so every time you see that camera change set up, we moved the forty extras to make it feel packed. So, that took a lot of time, and that’s why I needed to storyboard it, so I knew where to move the kids. In the last couple of scenes, we had 150 students there, a mixture of cast and support actors. We had more free reign with that. It was about getting as much coverage as possible to capture the scale, but also tracking the characters so the sequence was story-driven.

Storyboard art by Jake Yates.
Storyboard art by Jake Yates.

How much had you shot before that sequence?

Not a lot. I tried to push it back as far as I could [laughs]. We didn’t get it to the last week, but we got it to the end of week two, and it was still one of the most challenging shoots I’ve had in my career.

What was your favourite sequence to direct?

I’m proud of the riot sequence because it was so tough to pull off. There’s two others I’m really pleased with. One is when Donte goes to the hospital. On Twitter, all of the fans were outraged about the death scene, and I felt so bad they were so upset, but shooting it was so special and emotionally raw. There’s also a scene in episode two where little Tommy is in the living room, and Donte comes in and recognises that his son isn’t ready to go to a funeral, and tells him to go to a neighbour. I had this idea that it would be nice to get the whole scene in one set up without any coverage, so the shot slowly dollies in, and as they go outside, we see them talking, but we don’t hear it, as it’s shot through a window and becomes a frame within a frame. Wherever I could, I wanted to make this feel like film rather than TV, and with TV you would usually have close-ups and dialogue and more coverage. I was grateful to the producers and BBC for letting us keep it like that, because it’s somewhat risky. It’s a long, emotional scene with no cuts.

Tell us a bit about the music. There’s a contemporary soundtrack. How did that evolve?

Previously, Waterloo Road has used majority tracks with very little score, and we wanted to rebalance that a bit and give it a distinctive sound. So we had a composer called Adiescar Chase, who had also done a show called Heartstopper. She captured an edge, some fun and punkiness, which we also had with that opening track by Sam Fender. There’s certain moments where characters might have their own track to introduce them for a key moment, but overall I wanted the score to help the show feel distinctive.

How did the editing process compare to your previous experience in independent film?

We had two amazing editors work on the episodes I did, Owen Oppenheimer and David Stark. Episode Two was easier to get in the can. What I learned with television is that there’s a lot of pressure on the opening episodes for every note to be hit. There were certain beats, especially in the opening and closing episode, where we wanted to use pick-ups and then tweak. 

That was an amazing experience because in indie film, you shoot the thing and it is what it is, there’s no more money — so you have to make it work. But with this, because of the high stakes and how invested BBC were, they allowed us to reshoot to add to the story. It was almost like sculpting. It was fun to carve this thing into the final product.

Not only are you rebooting the show, but the school itself is going through a rebrand in the programme. Tell us a bit about how you brought that rebrand to life visually.

There was this concept of wanting to see a transformation, in both the school and the uniforms. We wanted to make the school feel lived in, as if it had been inhabited by students for many years. It’s a working class school, and it was important for that to feel realistic. 

On a visual level, our designers and the art department mocked up new versions of the Waterloo Road logo, and we looked through them to see what held the spirit of the original, but what also brought a new edge to it. In terms of location, it was tricky because the set was nowhere near as big as what we portrayed on screen. There’s a blueprint of the actual school, and a blueprint of the fictional one, so the art department put a lot of thought into where everything went.

So, you directed the first block. How much did your paths cross with the directors that followed you — did you have a chance to communicate with them?

Yeah, when I created the lookbook for the BBC I shared it with all the directors, but I wanted them to feel that they had the freedom to bring in their originality and make it their own. Paulette Randall followed me for Episodes Three and Four, Amanda Mealing directed Episode Five, and Six and Seven were directed my Makalla McPherson. It was interesting because they all have such distinctive styles — Paulette has a theatre background, Amanda has a lot of experience in TV and Michaela was similar to me, with a background in indie film. So they all brought something different to it.

What did you find most-eye opening between the difference in indie film and TV drama? 

I have a couple features that are in development now and ultimately I’d love to straddle both film and TV. But I’m used to films taking a long time to get made, not having an audience. This was such a smooth process, because Waterloo Road already had a fanbase and people were hungry to see it. The crew were also some of the hardest working crew I’ve ever worked with, who are so passionate about the show. There was a moment where I wanted to add a Waterloo Road sticker to the set design, so Gwyn Binyon, the standby art director, went and created one all within a manner of 5 minutes before shooting. That addition really does something to the scene, and that’s the level of commitment they all have. With casting, I learned so much from Angela and her level of experience and professionalism, and the way she treated the cast and crew. I don’t know if all TV is like that, but it was a wonderful introduction. In terms of challenges, it’s very fast-paced and i had to learn to kill my darlings to get the scene done. It was a process of picking my battles, but i would love to do more TV.

What’s coming up next for you?

I directed an episode of Inside No 9 for Season 8, which will come out sometime in the spring. I also did two episodes of Season 2 of Waterloo Road, coming out later this year. I also wrote a feature film — it’s a heist movie which should hopefully be progressing this summer. 

You can watch Waterloo Road now on BBC iPlayer.

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