Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

Making Melrose

Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.

Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.

Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.

The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.

In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose

The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”

There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.

“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.

For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.

“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.

The Sky Atlantic and Showtime series also stars Hugo Weaving

“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”

The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.

“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”

One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.

Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.

The show comprises five episodes, covering the five Patrick Melrose books

“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”

Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.

“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.

“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.

“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”

Get Out’s Allison Williams is part of the ensemble cast

Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.

“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.

“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”

Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”

The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”

Patrick Melrose is directed by Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror)

“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”

Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”

Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”

Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.

“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”

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Timeless tale

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star in a feature-length adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel The Child in Time that very nearly didn’t get made. DQ chats to the stars and screenwriter Stephen Butchard about the film’s journey to the screen.

When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch describes a script as “brilliant,” the chances are it’s in production somewhere. But until recently, that wasn’t the case for The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel.

Butchard had written it “some time ago” as a one-off TV film but the clamour for serials and returning series meant his script couldn’t find the backing it needed to enter production. However, once Cumberbatch signed on to star and executive produce through his fledgling SunnyMarch TV label, doors unsurprisingly opened to the project.

The Child in Time, directed by Julian Farino (Marvellous, Entourage), was subsequently picked up by UK pubcaster BBC1 and Masterpiece for US network PBS and is distributed worldwide by StudioCanal. Pinewood Television is a coproducer.

Benedict Cumberbatch is both star and executive producer of The Child in Time

Cumberbatch plays Stephen, a children’s author who is still grieving the loss of his daughter two years after she disappeared while they were on a shopping trip together. His wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), has left him and best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside to battle demons of their own.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says of the first McEwan novel to be adapted for television. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts, encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor notes that Stephen is a million miles from his previous television roles – “particularly the more famous one” – and admits that was part of the attraction. “That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned,” he says, adding that it was a coincidence he took on the role just as he became a father for the second time. “The extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it.”

Cumberbatch describes Stephen as “an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” which also presented him with the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ person. “There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude, mindset, skill set or cultural background or all of those things. I brought more of myself – as I sound and as I move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times, but it was also great because of that.”

Kelly Macdonald was cast after her performance in Trainspotting 2

The dystopian novel, which has bold political themes running through it, has largely been stripped back in Butchard’s adaptation, which instead focuses on the characters at the centre of the story.

“It’s the type of book that stays with you,” says the writer, who is also in charge of BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, itself adapted from historical novels by Bernard Cornwell. “It doesn’t stay with you because of plot or anything like that; it stays with you because of its atmosphere and tone, and that was the thing I wanted to concentrate on.

“I also knew I didn’t want to start with the abduction of the child because for me, although that’s at the core of it, that’s not what the film’s about. It’s about people dealing with that and finding their own way forward in life, having to carry that burden.”

Part of the challenge of bringing McEwan’s story to the small screen was broadening the scope of the novel, which is read entirely from Stephen’s perspective. “So you have to build them as individual characters in their own right, not wholly through the prism of Stephen,” Butchard notes. “That’s a departure [from the novel], but that always happens in any adaptation. As far as the plot goes, it follows the same stepping stones in terms of how the relationships go, but then it’s about how you visualise what is internalised in the book. What scenes can you bring into it or what dilemmas can you bring into it? People will easily recognise the book and its themes, but there are things that you kind of invent and bring in to help you move forward and put it on the screen.”

Macdonald was cast after Butchard watched the Scottish actor in Trainspotting 2, in which she reprised her role as Diane from the original 1996 film. “We thought she would be great and together [with Cumberbatch] it works really well,” he says.

The Child in Time premiered on BBC1 at the end of September

Macdonald picks up: “What appealed to me when I read the script was it felt honest in its portrayal of love and loss. It’s a very emotional story but it’s not depressing. It hasn’t gone down that route. Julian’s got such a gentle touch and the way he directed it was he very much wanted an almost positive tale of love coming from loss, and I think he has managed to do that.”

The actor also praises Farino for creating a protective atmosphere on set, as the cast were often required to play out intensely emotional scenes.

“You have to do them or there’s no point in telling this story,” she says, “but it was a very safe environment with Julian at the helm. Everybody was so enthusiastic and wanted to do a great job, so it wasn’t draining. It was enjoyable, strangely, despite the subject matter. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was just a great creative place to be.”

Since her screen debut in Trainspotting, Macdonald has enjoyed a varied career across film and television, notably preferring single films to long-running series. The exception to the rule is her five-season stint on HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, which she admits was too good to refuse.

“Boardwalk ran for the perfect amount of time for that show and I’m enjoying getting different work now,” she adds. “TV series are great and it’s as close to a nine-to-five job as you can get for an actor, but not knowing what I’m going to do next does appeal and you get to have some variation there.”

In his role as an executive producer on The Child in Time, Cumberbatch talked over the script with Butchard and was also involved in hiring director Farino. “I’ve never been involved at that stage of things before so it’s intriguing,” he admits of his off-screen role. “But it’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, when it’s in a very raw state and you give feedback as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance.”

But with the book now 30 years old, is the story still relevant? “I think it’s absolutely timeless, I really do,” Butchard concludes. “It’s a story of the strength of the ordinary man and woman and how we actually deal and cope with events in our lives. We still find strength from somewhere, be it the love of another person or faith. For me it is a story of love and courage, and that’s why it’s timeless and why it’s still relevant.”

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Time for a change

Benedict Cumberbatch takes centre stage in The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting novel about loss and grief. The star tells DQ about shaking off his more famous alter-ego and stepping into a producer role.

As the eponymous detective in Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is used to playing an extraordinary character in ordinary situations. So his latest role, starring in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, is something of a reversal.

“He’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” the actor says of Stephen Lewis, the character at the heart of the BBC1 film, which airs this Sunday. “It was a challenge. There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ The engagement with the material is there but it feels very strange.

“I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude or mindset, skill set or cultural background, or all of those things. So the transformative aspect of what I’ve done in a lot of those roles is very far from me and I was bringing a lot more of myself – as I sound, move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times but it was also great because of that.”

The Child in Time is the first TV adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel

The Child in Time follows Stephen, a children’s author, two years after the disappearance of his daughter as he struggles find a new purpose to his life without her. His wife Julie (played by Kelly Macdonald) has left him and his best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside, battling demons of their own.

In a slight departure from the dystopian source material, which also has a strong political strand, The Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard’s adaptation focuses on the characters at the heart of the story, producing a film about the loss of childhood and themes of grief, hope and acceptance.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts and encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time, and what happens in trauma with time and how the conscious and subconscious can slide. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor, who is as comfortable on screen as on the stage, admits the role is “a million miles” from some of his best-known work – “particularly the more famous one” — but says that was part of what drew him to the drama.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who also exec produces, stars alongside Kelly Macdonald

“That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned; not doing the usual or the unusually usual. And the extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it. [I didn’t think] I could get my teeth into something emotionally raw just because I’m a new dad for the second time, it just happened that way.”

The Child in Time marks the first television commission from Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch TV label, which coproduces with Pinewood Television and Masterpiece for PBS. StudioCanal is the distributor. As such, the actor is also an executive producer on the film.

“It’s different when you’re there with a producer’s hat on because you’re there thinking about who would be right to direct it. I’ve never been at that stage of things before,” he explains. “So it’s intriguing. It’s the first time; we’ll see how it worked, but everyone had a great experience making it, which is a great testament to us doing something right as a production team.

“I really enjoyed it. It’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, in a raw very state, to then give feedback about what you feel as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance. It’s very peculiar. It’s always horrible, it’s never nice. The way you look, the way you do things, it’s horrible and, trust me, the internet is full of hate but it’s nothing compared with the self-critic in your head for brutality. I’ve said it all before they have.”

L-R: Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock

SunnyMarch is already building up a slate of projects, which began with documentaries and is now expanding further into high-end drama on the back of The Child in Time. Cumberbatch will also star in Melrose, an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“It’s one thing with me at the front of it,” he says of Melrose. “There are lots of things we have on our slate that do fulfil the promise of diversity and giving a bolder place for women both behind and in front of the camera. What I’m doing in the immediate future doesn’t reflect that because we’re trying to get it off the ground and do things that are probably a bit more expected in the tundra and with me involved.”

Until those projects evolve, The Child in Time is “a big deal for us,” Cumberbatch admits. “It’s the first McEwan adaptation for television so that was a huge boon for us. We were very excited about that.” Looking toward the future, SunnyMarch is seeking “diversity in every sense,” the actor adds, “not just to do with opportunities for all but also the range of material with those opportunities, so genre-wise, large screen, small screen, live events, found material as well as published or unpublished fiction or biographical work. We’re trying to create as diverse a slate as possible in every way.”

But after three seasons and 13 episodes as Sherlock – and a somewhat series-ending epilogue to the most recent instalment – is there more to come? “Maybe,” he teases.

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