Acting out

Acting out

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
July 23, 2019

IN FOCUS

Dominic Savage gives DQ an insight into the making of I Am, a trio of honest, distinctive dramas created and developed alongside the three actresses who star in them – Vicky McClure, Gemma Chan and Samantha Morton.

Sitting in the bar of Bafta’s iconic headquarters in central London, filmmaker Dominic Savage admits screening his work for the first time can be a nervous and stressful affair.

That’s not because he’s worried about whether the audience will like what he has made; his films and series are often challenging and uncomfortable watches about subjects unlikely to be described as entertaining. Instead, he focuses on whether the viewers in the auditorium – or at home – will find an emotional connection to the drama that will provoke them to look at their own lives in a new way.

“It’s not necessarily about ‘like’ because they’re quite challenging watches. They’re hard to like and you’re affected by them,” Savage says, noting the fact there’s rarely any cheering when the credits roll on one of his works. “They’re quite a disturbing, unsettling watch. It’s often very emotional after watching my stuff.

“The power and beauty of TV is that these ideas are connecting with a massive audience and what they should do is move, provoke and challenge and make them think about their life and other people’s lives. That’s the beauty of it.”

Savage is speaking to DQ before a screening of his latest project, three-part anthology I Am for the UK’s Channel 4. It’s a more nerve-shredding occasion than usual for the filmmaker because the drama is particularly personal and poignant for both Savage and the three leading actresses who worked alongside him to develop and create each hour-long film. “They’re very personal for me and the actors, so it’s a big deal because there’s such a lot of us in it,” he notes. “It’s a very different experience.”

Dominic Savage on set for I Am Nicola, which stars Vicky McClure (right)

Each episode is named after its leading character, with Vicky McClure (Line of Duty) starring in I Am Nicola, Samantha Morton (Minority Report, Harlots) in I Am Kirsty and Gemma Chan (Humans) in I Am Hannah. The actors worked with Savage to develop the emotionally raw, thought-provoking and personal stories, with improvised dialogue used during filming that meant the actors and Savage were able to change the direction of the stories as shooting took place.

“It’s a very fragile process. It feels like a process where I know there’s risk involved because you never quite know what it is you’re going to get and how you’re going to get it,” Savage explains. “I don’t just want to create an interesting drama; I want to create something that’s powerful and difficult and that has emotions in it and a degree of originality. You want to feel what you’re doing isn’t repetitive and feel like it has a difference about it. But you don’t want to be too different either. There should be an organic effortlessness and originality. So there is a whole mix of very fragile feelings and sensitivities that goes into making it. It’s just different.”

In the beginning, Savage met each actor with an open mind and a blank page, with the ideas for each film formulating from their conversations. “But we don’t talk about ideas, we talk about life in general,” he says, which would lead to certain themes or topics that Savage would then take away and develop.

Morton and Savage talked very early on about the broad subject matter of women whose circumstances  force them into sex work. “I looked into it and there were elements for me that I felt very disturbed and moved by,” he says. “I thought this was an important thing to do. Then you formulate the story and I kept feeding these ideas back to Sam. That’s how it starts, with a broad territory that I then start to create the story from.”

Similarly, the topic of an emotionally abusive relationship spawned from the writer/director’s talks with McClure. Then once the subject was agreed, the challenge was finding the dramatic points in the story to make it a satisfying drama.

Samantha Morton in I Am Kirsty, which focuses on sex work

Chan’s film is about a woman in her mid-30s who is going through a crisis about what she really wants from her life and ultimately comes to relieve herself from the burden of others’ expectations. She plays Hannah, who is thinking about whether she should be getting married and having children and whether she really wants that kind of future. “It’s a fascinating territory,” Savage says. “A lot of women are finding they don’t necessarily meet someone they want to spend the rest of their life with and have children with. This is one of those women.”

Announced by Channel 4 in October 2018, the project precedes that date by more than a year, when Jay Hunt (now Apple’s European video boss) was still C4’s chief creative officer and was chatting to Savage about his film The Escape, which stars Gemma Arterton as a mother-of-two who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after leaving her husband and children.

Savage told Hunt about the film’s female-centric perspective and how, having completed the feature, he was interested to explore more women-led stories. “I like the ‘collaborativeness’ of it. I like empowerment of the actors in it. I like the fact it’s very distinctive and the way of working is very real and very personal and very powerful and emotional for all of us,” he explains. “It matters to us.”

The next stage was identifying the actors. Savage had previously worked with both McClure and Chan on 2012 BBC miniseries True Love, which similarly employed a semi-improvised style. And while he hadn’t worked with Morton before, Savage hugely admired her as an actor.

Each actor faced an uncompromising task fronting their episode, which was not only deeply personal to them through their involvement in the creative process but placed further demands on them during filming. Savage’s camera movements mean McClure, Morton and Chan are a near-constant presence on screen, often in close-up, to ensure the stories are presented entirely from their perspectives.

Gemma Chan leads I Am Hannah, about a woman who feels uncertain over her future

“You can’t hide,” Savage says of his filmmaking process. “Because you have to be in the moment, you have to be truthful and real, you have to present something of yourself, so there are personal truths that come out. But what’s important is, as you’re making it, you evolve. You’ll do a scene where it then transforms into something else. It’s not just the scene in the script. We know what we’re trying to do but then something else comes from it they didn’t expect and I didn’t expect, and then I say, ‘Let’s do that a bit more.’ There are so many ways in which you can keep going with it, and I love the fact there’s this energy to it.”

The authenticity of the characters is amplified by their surroundings, with Savage keen to film in real locations that married up to the characters’ circumstances. So Morton’s I Am Kirsty was filmed in the home of a real single mother, while McClure’s I Am Nicola was shot in a real couple’s home. “There’s an authenticity of feeling. It’s a real, live place,” Savage notes.

While each film has a very different style and tone, on account of the stories they tell and the unique creative relationships Savage had with each of the actors, the filmmaker says the process behind each instalment was largely the same. “We worked very closely from the word go, kept talking about ideas, having meetings, sending [the stars] the script and getting their feelings about any changes,” he recalls. “But when I write script suggestions, that could just be a starting point or an end point. How we get there, we didn’t know, and that’s exciting.

“I’ve done many a drama that I actually wrote the whole thing. It’s just different. You know what you’re going to get and you don’t change it so much. Sometimes you’ll change a line, but you know what the scene is. What you don’t know is the way in which it will happen, but you know what is intended. With improv, you’re much more open to other things happening and ideas and not really knowing what’s going to happen.”

Savage sums up his experience on I Am – produced by Me + You Productions and co-funded and distributed by Sky Vision – as arguably the most intense and powerful work he has ever done, as each episode focuses on a single character, built on a relationship with a single actor. “Normally it’s a much more shared experience, but all the attention here is on that female character,” he adds. “It’s much more about them. I want to make more like that. I don’t see a problem making every film I make like this, not just with women but men as well. I’d like to do a series of male stories, so stay tuned.”

Vicky McClure and Perry Fitzpatrick in I Am Nicola

With that, Savage heads into the Bafta auditorium for a screening of I Am Nicola, which turns out to be every bit as raw, intense and moving as Savage hoped. McClure’s titular character is stuck in a stale and emotionally abusive relationship with the controlling, untrusting Adam (Perry Fitzpatrick). It’s an affecting, thought-provoking hour of television that sets the mood for the following two films.

Speaking on stage after the screening, McClure admits it’s rare for an actor to have control over the story. “I love improvising anyway; I’ve done it for many years and it’s just a joy because it doesn’t come about very often,” she says. “It’s a subject I really wanted to put on screen because it’s quite simple but, to that person at that time, her life is falling apart. Nothing can make her pain worse. It doesn’t need a murder or an affair or something to make it any worse than it is.”

She says the drama is a mash-up of the collaborators’ feelings about relationships and the mundane. “I love watching that,” the actor says. “I like watching people just taking the shopping out of the boot. I enjoy watching something that feels like I can relate to it, yet it’s building up towards something. If every scene has to have massive purpose, that’s not real, and what we needed to do was make sure everything felt as relatable as it is.”

In a world of television drama where every storyline is more extreme than the last, it is this relatability and authenticity, shining a light on the relationships and circumstances of three ordinary women, that makes I Am stand out.

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