Scaling The Serpent
Director Tom Shankland, writer Richard Warlow and exec producers Preethi Mavahalli and Damien Timmer take DQ along the 1970s ‘Hippie Trail’ to reveal the long journey to making BBC and Netflix drama The Serpent.
Delays are not uncommon when making TV series, but eight-part drama The Serpent has seen off more hold-ups and difficulties than most. During a seven-year journey to bring the story of murderer Charles Sobhraj to the screen, the production went through an extensive research and development phase before overcoming Thailand’s rainy season, actor availability issues and a global pandemic.
Inspired by real events, the show follows the long road to the apprehension of Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), a serial killer who preyed on young Western travellers across India, Thailand and Nepal’s ‘Hippie Trail’ in 1975 and 1976 – crimes that made him Interpol’s most wanted man.
When Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a junior diplomat at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, is unwittingly drawn into Sobhraj’s web of crime, he sets off a chain of events that lead Knippenberg to seek justice against the killer.
“It’s like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel – it does take a while to create something elaborate,” director Tom Shankland tells DQ. “But truthfully, as Tahar Rahim would say, it’s the curse of The Serpent. It was one disaster after another, which meant that it kept going down, getting pushed, coming back. It was really a massive act of faith and a labour of love from everybody. Everyone doggedly just would not let go of telling this story.”
With development starting in 2013, filming on The Serpent began in September 2019 on location in Thailand and continued until March last year, when the production was forced to go on hiatus because of the pandemic. Then when it restarted in August, the final scenes were completed in Tring, Hertfordshire, on the outskirts of north-west London, ahead of the show’s launch on BBC1 on New Year’s Day.
Shankland says he was “ecstatic” at the decision to film in South-East Asia, but problems with actor availability meant filming didn’t start until Thailand’s rainy season had begun.
“It would be a sunny morning,” he recalls. “We’d set up a scene by the pool, shoot a couple of wides, get involved in a bit of nice coverage. Suddenly, within 10 minutes, the sky turns black and rain is thundering down. There’s one scene that we reshot about four times because we could never get it done because of the rain. But the Thai crew were amazing and obviously very experienced at working all through the year.
“Then we were afflicted by a number of very mysterious illnesses and ailments, which no one could explain. We were convinced it was the story of Charles Sobhraj, who drugged people and kept them ill. And then we were like, ‘The spirit of Sobhraj is haunting the show.’”
Rahim left the shoot to film scenes for director Kevin Macdonald’s feature The Mauritanian, before returning to set with Jenna Coleman, who plays Sobhraj’s partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
“We had to let Tahar go and then come back,” Shankland continues, “I believe Tahar and Jenna were on the aeroplane going to Bangkok, and Tahar said the fateful words, ‘Isn’t this going to be great, Jenna? We’ve just got a two or three weeks work to do. Now we can relax and finish the show.’ Then this weird story was on the news about Covid-19 and we had to shut down with one week to go.
“To be one week shy of wrapping was such a crazy feeling. But by this point, we were already in post-production and we were working really hard trying to pull the stories together. And everyone was feeling very excited about how things were evolving in the cuts.
“We just thought, ‘We can’t let this go. We have to finish this.’ We looked into all the solutions available to us and managed to get what we needed in Tring, of all places. Tring is now forever going to be our Disneyland, where anything is possible. Any world you want to create can be found in Tring.”
It was Shankland (Les Misérables, The City & The City) who first started the conversation about Sobhraj over dinner with Mammoth Screen CEO Damien Timmer (World on Fire, Parade’s End), who has a particularly personal attachment to the project as he spent some of his childhood living in Bangkok during the same period.
“It feels like 700 years ago,” Timmer jokes. “Tom and I have worked together many times over the years and were just having a jolly dinner, and Tom said there’s this guy you might know, Charles Sobhraj, because I spent some of the 70s in Bangkok as a kid and lived two streets away from his house of horror. Out of that weird combination of Tom knowing the story from an adult perspective and me growing up with Charles, we thought this isn’t a story the people in the UK know but it’s an amazing story.”
Research about Sobhraj and his crimes began in earnest, but it was when the production team contacted Knippenberg, who now lives in New Zealand, that the project really came together.
“His part in the whole thing has never been in the public domain, and when it became a cat-and-mouse story, it was like, ‘OK, there’s a much bigger story here than just Charles Sobhraj,’” explains Mammoth executive producer Preethi Mavahalli. “That’s when Richard engaged with the whole thing and picked it all up in its current fashion. Tom and I had a few very long conversations with Herman about his experience, where he told us the whole story, and he had all these documents, research and files. It started from there.”
Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow came on board and, after discussing the case with Shankland, he settled on mirroring the story of Sobhraj with that of Knippenberg’s investigation.
“The key thing was Herman,” he says. “For me, that’s how you tell the story. These two very different men had such a profound effect on each other’s lives. Suddenly it seemed like the structure for pulling together this really bonkers series of events was to use Herman to apply some order to it all.”
The Serpent, however, is decidedly out of order, with the show initially flashing back and forward between Sobhraj’s story and Knippenberg stumbling upon the mysterious disappearance of two Dutch backpackers several months later. The two timelines then merge towards the end of the series.
“I could have just focused on Herman and played in that spring of 1976 with him, but the other thing I felt very strongly about when Tom first span me the tale was that Sobhraj, in a very manipulative way, sold the story to the world that his victims were drug dealers as a way of saying, ‘They don’t matter.’ Everywhere you look, there’s little compassion and interest in the people who actually lost their lives, and that seemed like something we ought to very urgently correct.”
As for Sobhraj himself, the character appears both cold and charismatic at the beginning as he slowly and carefully entraps his victims.
“He’s still mysterious at the start. I didn’t want it to be one of those murderer shows where TV writers think they know why someone does such awful things,” Warlow continues. “I wanted us to be looking at Charles in the way the people who fell for him were looking at him, rather than immediately start tinkering about with his psyche.”
Shankland says a decision was made early on to lean into the stories of Sobhraj’s victims and the battles Knippenberg faces against the limitations of the diplomatic community once murders are uncovered.
“All of these things seemed as interesting as just trying to explain the mind of Charles,” he notes. “Having said that, there is no way we wanted to embark on this story without going inside Charles. There was a general decision that we would spend the first half of the show meeting Charles through the eyes of those who met him, fell for him and were trying to investigate him, and then spend the second half of the show slipping more into the experiences, memories and perspectives of Charles and what made him tick.”
Standing beside Sobhraj though the series is Leclerc, who at first appears complicit in his crimes without much influence over him, when in fact she is slowly beginning to uncover the truth about him and realising there isn’t much she can do about it.
“It is an examination of her obsession with him and an examination of how obsessive love can blind you to the reality of a person,” Warlow notes.
“The more Richard dug into the scripts, the more Marie-Andrée became such a fascinating character,” Shankland adds. “Her psychology is incredibly fascinating – and I have to say Jenna is so absolutely mesmerising in the way she takes us through the twists and turns of that relationship.”
Rahim (The Eddy, The Looming Tower), Coleman (Victoria, The Cry) and Howle (The Witness for the Prosecution) lead an ensemble cast that also includes Ellie Bamber as Angela Knippenberg, Amesh Edireweera (Ajay Chowdhury), Mathilde Warnier (Nadine Gires) and Tim McInnery (Paul Siemons).
By happy coincidence, the first meeting with Rahim – “one of the best actors in Europe,” according to Warlow – revealed he had wanted to play Sobhraj ever since reading Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s book On the Trail of The Serpent: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj when he was just 14.
“Tahar, at a very simple level, is a fantastic actor who in a nuanced way could just nudge Charles into slightly different personas, but he does it in an incredible, subtle way, which is exactly what we were hoping for,” Shankland says. He also remembers an initial meeting with Victoria star Coleman at the Mammoth offices, where she read a couple of scenes in Marie-Andrée’s native French.
“She’d been working on the French for about 24 hours with a teacher, and I have to say, it was one of those moments where you think, ‘Everything I’m seeing now is Marie-Andrée.’ It was so compelling,” he says. “There was a braveness in the fact Jenna was going to take on learning this language – it’s not even French, it’s Quebecois – and from that point on, I felt Jenna was going to be fearless, which was critical for whoever played Marie-Andrée. She was so committed and mesmerising every day.”
Visually, The Serpent appears to be straight out of the 1970s, with an often grainy quality to the footage and regular changes to shooting ratios. Shankland also blended archive footage into the drama as a way of setting the scene for what was to follow.
“We tried to ban ourselves from using Steadicam or any bit of kit you tend to fall back on when you’re doing something now,” he explains. “We really did try to use equipment we might have had if we were doing this at the time. We never wanted it to fall into pastiche, but we definitely thought there would be some value in trying to have a few rules like that to keep us in check.”
The director also sought a “looseness” to the drama, with a blend of scenes that focused on storytelling and others that would evoke the experience and atmosphere of the locations and the time period.
“Any time we were in that world, we would just give a bit more of a floaty quality to the storytelling,” he notes. “We shot quite a lot of Super 8 footage as well along the way, which has found its way into the cuts. When we were mixing this up with the some of the archive footage, we would grade some of our footage to look a bit like the archive footage, so we could interweave a sense of reality and try not to make it look like TV.
“There was also a small thing we did with Herman’s story where we decided we’d shoot it on spherical lenses and make it look a little bit more classic, following his slightly more logical thought processes. The framing would be a little bit more static, he’d be a little bit more centre frame. It’s a small way to ring the changes between the Charles timeline and the Herman timeline.”
For Mavahalli (Noughts + Crosses, McDonald & Dodds), the motivation to tell the story of The Serpent was always to shine a light on the whole story behind Charles Sobhraj and to give a voice to Knippenberg and the victims.
“That aspect of this show means it’s been very different from anything else I’ve ever made,” she says, noting the lengths to which the production team went to research the story and contact the families of victims.
“There’s a huge legal side to this that has been massive. It’s always been important to tell the story fairly and accurately but also to have the creative freedom to do what Richard and Tom needed to do across eight hours. It’s kept us really grounded and adds another layer onto making this kind of show compared to the usual TV drama.
“The more we all found out, the more complex it would make the whole process because it would just keep on bringing a new layer, which is why the creative process kept on going and going into the edit. It constantly made us interrogate the story we could tell. Some of the hardest choices were about what we didn’t include.”
Timmer admits he didn’t share Mavahalli’s objectivity towards the project, which is coproduced by Netflix for international audiences outside the UK and Ireland, but his personal links to the story meant he was able to share family photo albums of life in Thailand in 1976 with the production designer.
“It made a huge impression on me and it was fascinating to recreate Bangkok,” he says. “We’ve all had a real adventure with the show. It’s been a very long journey and we’ve all been changed by it. It felt like an interesting personal trip down memory lane to me, and then, on a practical level, the madness of filming something in Thailand and the realisation that Covid was going to change things has been incredibly complicated, interesting and really nerve-wracking at points. But it was an experience we all really embraced in a very wholehearted way.”