Tag Archives: Hardy Son & Baker

Turning the Scrooge

British screenwriter Steven Knight has reinvented A Christmas Carol for the BBC and FX. DQ speaks to some of the creative team to find out why this isn’t Peaky Blinders meets The Muppets.

Of all the screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Yuletide yarn A Christmas Carol, a three-part adaptation commissioned by UK pubcaster the BBC and US cable channel FX (which will show it as a movie) promises to stand apart from those past, present and yet to come.

For while screen icons such as Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer and an animated Jim Carrey have all taken on the iconic role of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, not to mention Michael Caine’s iconic performance alongside the Muppets, none were in the hands of screenwriter Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders and Taboo.

In the first of a series of adaptations of Dickens novels, Knight has chosen to tackle the story of Scrooge, who is visited by four ghosts from the past, present and future on Christmas Eve and taken on a journey through his lifetime to see how his self-interested, penny pinching behaviour has impacted his own life, that of his overworked employee Bob Cratchit and others around him. Is it too late to save himself?

Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge

The miniseries was first announced in November 2017, but it wasn’t until the start of this year that producer Julian Stevens (Informer) and director Nick Murphy (Save Me) joined the production, by which time Knight had turned in all three scripts. Production designer Sonja Klaus (Taboo) had already joined the project, with her work to recreate early Victorian London well underway.

But with the drama destined to be on air this Christmas, it meant a quick turnaround to get the show into production and delivered on time.

“Fans of Dickens will know the word ‘Scrooge’ as shorthand for a miser or a measly man. But actually, there’s a lot of information in the novella that Steve has brilliantly brought out,” Stevens says. “We’ll have a Scrooge who’s got a bit of swagger to him, he’s confident in his business acumen, of his ability to gain wealth. It’s not something he should be apologetic for, and that probably chimes well with a modern audience.”

In terms of the plot, Knight has added contemporary relevance to the consequences of Scrooge’s actions. “The universal story of kindness to others still exists but the examples that we’re showing of Scrooge as a businessman will resonate with a contemporary audience. That’s really what appealed to me about it. It wasn’t ‘contemporising’ the story in terms of setting, it wasn’t trying to do a modern telling of that story.”

Murphy describes Knight’s scripts as “phenomenally ambitious,” comparing them to a pimped-up version of Dickens’ story. “He has taken tendrils of the story and inflated them, poured acid on them and given characters a motivation and a depravity they certainly didn’t have in the story,” the director explains. “He’s given all the characters a huge amount of bite. They are fully functioning, aggressive contributors to Scrooge’s journey – that’s where the genius of what he’s written comes out.”

To questions he gets about why he’s making yet another version of A Christmas Carol, Murphy says he responds by stating the story is used as a prism through which to view modern themes such as coercion and control. “In Steve’s story, Scrooge’s greatest crime is not withholding his finance, but his abuse of power,” he continues. “From a director’s point of view, that’s been fascinating. It’s so much more rewarding to explore than just, ‘I should have been kinder.’ The Muppets did that perfectly well, they don’t need us to do it again.

The Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis plays the Ghost of Christmas Past

“Steve’s such a muscular writer and this isn’t Peaky Blinders-does-Dickens either,” he adds, referring to Knight’s award-winning gangster drama. “As great as Peaky is, he’s not a one-trick pony but it’s got all the chutzpah you would imagine.”

Stevens began pre-production by bringing Murphy on board, hiring Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockmann to lead casting, and getting location scouting underway. As a relatively youthful-looking Scrooge, Guy Pearce (Jack Irish) leads the ensemble cast alongside Andy Serkis (Black Panther) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Stephen Graham (This is England) as Jacob Marley, Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders) as Lottie, Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) as Bob Cratchit, Vinette Robinson (Doctor Who) as Mary Cratchit, Jason Flemyng (Save Me) as the Ghost of Christmas Future, Kayvan Novak (What We Do in the Shadows) as Ali Baba and Lenny Rush (Old Boys) as Tim Cratchit.

“From a purely practical point of view, one of the main things we realised we needed to do is source some sound stages,” Stevens says. “The way the scenes were written, we had to build sets. You couldn’t really go into locations because walls move and ceilings needed to be taken out. So we had to build sets.”

Filming ran over 10 weeks, with half the time in studios and the rest on location. Houses belonging to Scrooge – complete with wires to allow windows and shutters to fly open – and the Cratchits were both built on stages, as well as a coal mine required for an episode two set piece. A textile mill was also built and later superimposed into a real location.

On location, filming took place around London, most notably near Temple tube station and in the leafy suburb of Hampstead, where the production team took control of a single road for three days and covered it in fake snow to recreate Scrooge’s wealthy neighbourhood. For the Cratchits’ part of the city, an old hospital in Warwick was transformed into a more run-down area.

“With A Christmas Carol, a lot of it is set at night so we were filming [in the summer] when the days started to get longer and the nights started to get shorter,” Stevens says. “We went to Temple partly because it can be closed off and we can film really late. That’s where we put Scrooge and [business partner] Marley’s office. We built the set in the studio then took the front off and put it in a car park, with green screen around it. Then with the magic of visual effects, we created a few streets around it.”

Coming from a background of contemporary dramas, Stevens says managing the balance between special effects on set and visual effects proved to be the steepest learning curve, particularly on a period show infused with the supernatural and with all the costume and design elements that come with it.

Jason Flemyng receives a touch up to his Ghost of Christmas Future make-up

“You have to think of everything ahead of time, from the planning of the set build to the costumes and the special effects and visual effects and how they work, as well as the vast amounts of fake snow and even the different types of fake snow,” he explains. “To get your head around what you can do practically and what you can supplement in post-production with visual effects and where the budget is better spent was a huge learning curve.

“We were fighting sunlight and green trees but what it meant most of all was we didn’t have rain very many days, which is really problematic if you’ve got fake snow on the ground. But the way Steve writes, the relatively small cast and few locations meant it was quite a controllable job, which is probably how we managed to get it finished on schedule.”

A Christmas Carol is produced by FX Productions, Scott Free and Hardy Son & Baker, reuniting the creative team behind Knight’s dark period drama Taboo. Production designer Klaus had also worked on that series, and she was among the first to get the call for A Christmas Carol. “[Executive producer] Ridley [Scott] loved Taboo so much – that was an amazing show to do – and because Taboo was very dark, Ridley was very into keeping that [style]. This is not Taboo but there’s a dark side, which was really important to get across,” Klaus says. “Living in England at that time, if you were poor it was pretty shit. It was pretty grim, and you have to show that difference. A Christmas Carol is about that difference between the poor and the rich and the fact Scrooge is given a chance to change his ways and look back and think, ‘Jesus, I was a bit of a shit.’”

Klaus says the opportunity to build so many of the sets meant she could help to shape the characters in their surroundings. Scrooge’s meagre existence, for example, is heightened by the fact that he is presented as a thin, scrawny man in an oversized bed in a large bedroom with high ceilings.

“That’s what it’s about,” she says. “He’s this Johnny-No-Mates who’s got all these people telling him, ‘If you don’t buck up, you’re going to end up in the fires of Hell for the rest of your life.’ You need to emphasise that, so that’s what I did.”

A particular highlight for the designer was discovering Warwick’s Tudor architecture that would be used to create the Cratchits’ world, while scenic artist James Gemmill created many of the backgrounds that would remove the need for CGI to extend the vistas of London.

Director Nick Murphy pictured with actor Stephen Graham between takes

Klaus continues: “I love Steve’s writing, and he paid me the biggest compliment. He said to me, ‘It’s amazing, I don’t know how you do it. It’s like you’re in my head.’ For a writer to say that to me without having talked to him at all about what it should be, I almost couldn’t take the compliment. I just love his stuff. I love his writing. He’s so inspirational and amazing. For an artist like me, he’s just another great artist I love working with.”

Behind the camera, Murphy similarly had a free hand to interpret Knight’s scripts, which he says carry very little visual description but do specify mood, tone and action.

“I wanted it to be authentic – I didn’t want the fantasy to overtake reality because we have to convince the audience these are real human beings with real problems, and that’s hard to do if you’ve created a falsified Victorian England,” he says. “This is a world in which there is horse shit on the streets and real problems in people’s lives. It’s not a postcard Dickens.”

Therefore, Scrooge’s world is one that reflects the “scoured, bare interior of the soul,” with austere, empty rooms that contradict cluttered, messy London outside. “Then gradually, just as his soul fills up, so the visual world of Scrooge fills up and the emptiness falls away.”

This approach also translated into the director’s composition of Scrooge, with the character initially on screen isolated and alone, while other characters would be squeezed together in frame so they have a feeling of togetherness. “Then we gradually pervert that during the course of the show, so you bring Scrooge into the real world,” Murphy explains. “After that you have very flowery, elaborate language from Steve. His dialogue is phenomenal. But the challenge in there is to deliver such lines in a way that feels grounded. Not overtly modern but not wrapped up in genre.

“So what we’ve ended up with is some really nuanced, painful, beautiful performances from a myriad diverse cast and that is something I’m most proud of – that it hasn’t been buried in the Dickens-ness of it all. However fancy we get, drama is people in a room with a problem. That’s the core of drama, and the human story Guy has delivered is first and foremost one of a human being going through a very painful rebirth, no matter how elaborate those experiences are.”

Christmas dinner for the Cratchit family

When it comes to the story’s supernatural elements – enter the quartet of ghosts trying to teach Scrooge the errors of his ways – Murphy was intent on avoiding the kind of visual theatrics you might see in the Harry Potter films.

“On some level, we could argue the whole story is a dream of Scrooge’s own making through guilt, so I feel this could all be the creation of a Victorian magician,” he notes. “It is shadow play – surfaces lying to him and silhouettes – rather than elaborate 3D creatures being made or anything borne of a digital age. My hope is you feel he’s walking through a particularly terrifying Victorian circus. It feels much more in camera. That’s been quite tricky to pull off but that’s part of the plan.”

Despite the focus on in-camera stunts, Murphy estimates there are still about 1,000 visual effects shots in A Christmas Carol, “and that doesn’t even get us started on the snow. I never want to see another ounce of fake snow in my life,” he jokes. “We shot this in June and July. There was acres of the stuff.”

He recalls one moment on set shooting at ‘The Graveyard of Christmas,’ where Marley meets the first ghost at a venue the director describes as “two football pitches of dead trees in the snow with a massive bonfire in the middle.”

“That’s a big undertaking but even filling entire streets with snow and then firing the stuff into the air and hoping it falls right on camera is a very arduous, long-winded process,” he adds. “That’s been part of the challenge as well. We’ve got camels in the show and all sorts of things and, let me tell you, I don’t know much about camels but I do know they don’t like to do anything that you want them to do. The golden rule of being a camel is don’t do what the tall skinny director wants you to do.”

For all the changes and thematic updates made to Dickens’ story, Murphy believes the great author would approve. “Scrooge isn’t wearing a nightcap. He’s not an octogenarian,” he says. “What I can guarantee is he does say, ‘Bah! Humbug!’

“Steve’s not a fool. He respects the books enormously. We all do. We’ve kept in a huge amount of references and inclusion of the story. It’s not just taking the Scrooge character and riding roughshod over it. This is not a distant cousin of Dickens, it’s a punked-up sibling.”

Klaus adds that while there have been a lot of Christmas Carol adaptations, this one stands out for Knight’s focus on the dark side of Scrooge and the dirt and grit of Victorian England. “You do get a sense of that,” she says. “But also there’s a joyous side to it because we have the Cratchits. The audience, when they watch it, will want to go round to their house for Christmas and that is what they should feel. That means we’ve got it right.”

For Knight’s part, he has described his take on A Christmas Carol as a respectful and “timely interpretation of a timeless story.” In any case, the creative talent in front of and behind the camera mean this version will be a unique interpretation of Dickens’ beloved tale.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Breaking Taboo

Best known for seminal Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), director Kristoffer Nyholm tells DQ why Tom Hardy-led thriller Taboo is like nothing ever seen on TV before.

Ever since Forbrydelsen (The Killing) became a worldwide sensation, Kristoffer Nyholm has become synonymous with the Danish crime drama. The director led the first two seasons of the series, shaping its dark, moody atmosphere and shining a new light on its Copenhagen setting.

But while directors are often household names in cinema, television continues to be considered a writers’ medium. It’s rare for a director to helm every episode of a small-screen series, with all the credit placed at the feet of the writer or showrunner whose fingerprints are indelibly inked across hours of storytelling.

Kristoffer Nyholm

Thanks to the iconic standing of The Killing, however, Nyholm can be considered among those directors whose names stand out from the crowd – and it’s the increasing importance of the role of director in television that he believes has led to the current slate of groundbreaking, ambitious drama being produced around the world.

“In the film business the main focus has always been on the director, and scriptwriting comes in second. So it’s important that a lot of new wonderful television series are bringing focus to the writer,” he explains. “But in order to develop the language of television, the director is an important part of that process because those scripts can be interpreted and filmed in many different ways.

“There’s a tendency now for fewer long-running series and more limited series, which means they can become more cinematic, and that’s clearly where good directors come in and become part of the development process. We’re in a place where there’s a hybrid between television and films – we’re only at the beginning of that process and it’s very exciting. But it’s very important that, at an early point, directors can be a part of a process where drama is created because the collaboration between writers and directors is underdeveloped and there is so much more to gain.”

Collaboration between the creative team was key on Nyholm’s latest television project, Taboo, an eight-part series starring Tom Hardy that debuts on BBC1 on January 7. It launches stateside on cable channel FX on January 10.

Set in 1814, the story follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself.

Taboo is a passion project for its star and executive producer, Tom Hardy

But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice and, with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.

Hardy is also an executive producer along with writer Steven Knight, Ridley Scott, Kate Crowe and Dean Baker. Scott Free London and Hardy Son & Baker produce for BBC1 and US cable network FX, with Sonar Entertainment distributing the series worldwide outside the UK.

Nyholm first met with Hardy and the producers last summer and says he was inspired to join the series by the actor, for whom Taboo is a passion project co-created with his father Chips Hardy and Knight.

“I loved the first two scripts,” Nyholm says, “and Tom told me about his motivation for the series – he wanted to make a story about looking at historic London as a barbaric place at a time some consider to be the cradle of the modern world we know today.

“In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story – a fusion of understanding your own life and understanding the world you’re born into, and that idea to connect those psychological, emotional depths in a character, together with his awareness of the political system, was really exciting and a new way of making a drama.

“Tom put words to this main character and then said, ‘We don’t know exactly where we’re going but, if you want to go on this ride, we would really love to have you with us.’ That was very exciting – and he said if it breaks down, I hope we can say we tried. I thought this artistic, brave commitment was something that I felt strongly for and that Tom had really thought about this. It was a very inspiring meeting that set off the whole thing.”

Nyholm joined the project at such an early stage that the series was yet to be cast or crewed. But that allowed him to become an integral part of the creative team, helping to bring Hardy’s vision to life around the central character he would play himself.

“He takes a very big responsibility,” the director says of the Hollywood star. “Like a Renaissance man, he cares about all the elements and he’s very open in the process. He’s also a very kind person, a gentleman, so that was a big inspiration. Part of the story came from him so he was like having an extra page of the script.”

Jonathan Pryce plays a major role in the series

A tattoo-covered Hardy dominates the screen every time he appears – in fact, he’s rarely out of shot – while the captivating sets bring the hustle and bustle of 19th century London to life. Helming the first four episodes, Nyholm worked closely with director of photography Mark Patten to bring an unconventional shooting style to the production, one that let the actors do their job as the cameras recorded them unobtrusively.

“We kept things open in many ways so when we came into a new set, we didn’t just go and do the classical setups – big picture, two cross-angled close-ups and maybe a little travelling. Instead, we made it a priority to stay in a certain angle to capture a mood or, if there was something very characteristic in a scene like a big fireplace, we’d say every shot will have the fireplace in the picture. This is the magnet of the scene and we’ll go around that. Sometimes people would walk out of picture and we’d just leave them there.

“Steven wrote some really wonderful scripts – but he’s not loyal to one genre in one episode, he would go from one to another. So when you think this is really a high-paced drama, suddenly it’s very different, it’s a man on an expedition searching for something, and now it’s a love story. He would switch moods very often, which means we would also be very open to the scenes and try to not fit them into a system.”

With only very quick rehearsals for each scene – “I don’t like to empty the bottle” – the director prefers to shoot just three or four takes before moving on. “There’s a truth in the acting and you want to protect that,” he explains. “It’s a very subtle thing but that’s the main part of my work, that’s what I love doing. They don’t have to act exactly how I want them to act, because they’re the actors. They have a feeling for what they want to do but I have to respond as a person watching and, for me, it’s like watching something truthful for the first time and it has to work for me as well. I love actors – it would be strange not to, but it’s a sacred moment when they do their work and I feel privileged to be close to that process.”

Pryce is joined by fellow Game of Thrones star Oona Chaplin in the main cast

Nyholm might call himself an actor’s director, choosing to use his time on set with his cast – which also includes Michael Kelly, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Franka Potente, Stephen Graham and Tom Hollander – instead of fretting over “the small things that aren’t important.” And as a result, there wasn’t a day on set when he wasn’t happy with what they had produced, despite some other challenges.

“There were some days that were more tough than others, of course, because we also work physically, under the influence of weather and sometimes things that technically were more difficult. We had to do a lot of work with limited time and with a lot of locations, so there was a lot of moving around and setups in places we hadn’t been before. We had a crew that very quickly found a way of moving into a spot and knowing what was important and what was not important – that was a big thing.”

Nyholm is currently in pre-production for his next project, feature film Keepers, but admits he now feels at home working across Europe, particularly in England. Other credits include Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and European crime drama Jo.

“When I work in England, I feel at home and it’s close to Denmark,” he adds. “The big thing is the world is becoming smaller and working as I do today would have been much more difficult 15 years ago. My world has become much bigger and I really enjoy being in England. Hopefully I’ll do more.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,