Tag Archives: Richard Yee

Making it in Manhattan

Richard Yee, co-creator, co-writer and director of Sky1 comedy drama Sick of It, discusses a scene from the season two finale that took the production to New York. The series is produced by Me + You Productions and Alrite Productions and distributed by BBC Studios.

Richard Yee

In season one of Sick of It, main character Karl retreated into himself after the end of his relationship, with only the voice in his head for company. In season two, Karl is still riddled with self-doubt and insecurities, but more hope has crept into his life. He’s started to venturing outside his comfort zone and has unexpectedly fallen for his aunt’s carer, Ruby.

The season finale brings this to a head when Karl reluctantly travels to New York to tie up some family business and Ruby takes it upon herself to join him. The scene is then set for them to finally get together.

From the beginning, when co-writer Karl Pilkington (who also plays the lead character) and I sketched out the arc of the season, we always wanted the storyline to take us to New York, and it was always my intention to film it there too. The trip to New York was the culmination of a slow-bubbling attraction that had developed between Karl and Ruby in the series, and a realisation in Karl that he’s got to let himself live a little.

From standing in a dated living room staring at his uncle’s coffin at the start of season one to running through the colourful streets of New York with Ruby at the end of season two, Karl’s mindset had changed, and the city was a living, breathing manifestation of the hope that had crept into his life. I wanted to capture the energy of New York on screen and for that to seep into the performances. I also had great cinematic ambitions for the series, so New York felt like the perfect location to bring it to a climax.

Karl Pilkington and Marama Corlett film a New York taxi scene in Sick of It

Of course, we were never budgeted to film in New York, so the inevitable question of ‘Why don’t we just fake New York in the UK?’ or film against a green screen was bound to come up… and come up it did. Again and again and again. In fact, halfway through production, we were still struggling to make New York work on our budget and it came up again, before an alternative suggestion was put forward – that we rewrite the finale and set it in Scotland instead.

As much as I love Scotland (I’m half Scottish, half Chinese), I was more determined than ever to stick to my original intention. I pushed back until finally production pressed the button and booked our flights to New York.

When we arrived a few days before the shoot to prep, the omens weren’t good. As soon as we hit Manhattan, street after street, many of which were on the route our scout had previously recce’d for our opening scene, were now dug up. The New York Department of Transportation had chosen the week of our filming to dig up Manhattan’s avenues and start resurfacing the roads. To add insult to injury, our hotel was directly next to a section of road they had chosen to dig up that night. They call New York the city that never sleeps, but they don’t tell you it’s because they dig up the streets in the middle of the night.

When Karl Pilkington and Marama Corlett (who plays Ruby) arrived a couple of days later, the roadworks were still underway outside our hotel. And in a mirror of what happens in the episode, they ended up in adjoining rooms. While I recce’d and prepped with my new production team day and night, Karl and Marama hung out in New York together. We’d bump into them randomly in the street as we scouted spots to shoot, and later at night would run into them in bars completely by chance.

Filming the taxi in Manhattan posed a unique set of challenges

We hadn’t even started filming but, by sheer virtue of being in New York together, they were living out their roles and developing their chemistry without realising they were even rehearsing. Things were looking up again – but then came the day of filming.

First up was a scene in an iconic yellow taxi. We’d planned a new route that avoided the resurfaced roads and roadworks and were all set to go. If only the same could be said about our picture car. The engine overheated en route before an actor or camera had even got close to it, and the driver had to turn back and pick up a new car from Brooklyn. Two hours later, we eventually got on the road. It wasn’t the best of starts.

Over the next two days shooting around Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and Manhattan, we managed to make the time up, working at a fevered pace. There were times I wasn’t sure if we ‘got it,’ but my New York script supervisor, Anna Lomakina, who had had just come off Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, knew the city well and helped me tune into the frenetic rhythms of New York and how you film there.

Even if you have the resources, you can’t control New York. You can’t wait for trains to stop, or silence to fall before calling action. You have to embrace the chaos of it. The Safdie Brothers, whose brilliant new film Uncut Gems is based in New York, are masters of this. They never close down roads. Instead of stopping members of the public walking through the frame, they encourage it, and the cast play out their scenes in as close to a real-world environment as possible. They embrace chaos in a way that’s anathema to most filmmakers but manage to bottle the spirit and unpredictability of New York in a way that feels alive.

New York’s infamously busy Times Square was used as a location

Our final night in New York revolved around another driving scene, this time through Manhattan at night. Editorially, we wanted as much colour and light on the streets of New York as possible, to contrast with the more subdued colours of Karl’s world in the UK.

Invariably, that drew us to Times Square. No one in their right mind drives through Times Square, let alone tries to film a scene there, especially where continuity of background and performance is needed. But that’s what we did. Even at midnight, the traffic was stop-start and it was near impossible to match speeds against the backdrops. The continuity nightmare was made worse when it started raining halfway through. To save time, I was jumping in and out of the following vehicle myself to wipe dry the picture car to keep a modicum of continuity.

It was nerve-wracking having no control, it was one of the hardest scenes in the series to edit and there’s no doubt it would have been much easier to film in the UK in a studio. But it just wouldn’t have been as good. The lights looked beautiful on our vintage lenses, the excitement of actually being in New York rubbed off on the cast and their performances; and when you watch the scene, you share their excitement of being in New York for the first time.

I have no regrets and would take the real New York over a green screen any day of the week.

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Feeling Sick

Karl Pilkington co-created, co-wrote and stars in his first comedy drama, Sick of It, in which he plays a version of himself whose closest friend is his uncensored alter ego. He and director Richard Yee, Pilkington’s fellow co-writer and co-creator, reveal all to DQ.

From breakout radio star to reluctant global traveller, Karl Pilkington has built a reputation for his gloomy personality, straight-talking manner and self-deprecating sense of humour. A former radio producer, he rose to fame with appearances on podcast The Ricky Gervais Show with comedy stars Gervais and Stephen Merchant, before going solo with unscripted travel series An Idiot Abroad and The Moaning of Life.

Now after an acting role alongside Gervais in the The Office creator’s Channel 4 series Derek, Pilkington stars in his first comedy drama, Sick of It, which he also co-wrote and co-created.

Richard Yee

Melancholic, sweet and emotional, the six-part series sees Pilkington play Karl, a crotchety cabbie who’s living with his aunt while trying to get over his split from his long-term girlfriend. However, his closest friend is his alter ego, known as ‘the inner self,’ an uncensored version of Karl who appears only to him and can say exactly what he thinks – giving advice that often lands Karl in trouble.

From the team behind An Idiot Abroad and The Moaning of Life, Sick of It is produced by Me+You Productions and Alrite Productions. The series, distributed by BBC Studios, launches in the UK tomorrow on Sky1 and Now TV.

DQ met Pilkington and co-creator, co-writer and director Richard Yee to talk about the star’s move into scripted television, his thoughts on acting and why viewers shouldn’t come to the series with any expectations.

Karl, it’s very interesting to see you in a scripted series and acting twice, coming from a non-acting background.
Pilkington: I’m not good at knowing how I feel about things until after, but I think it’s good. I know I tried my best, I know that much, and I know it looks good and the music’s good in it. I think the stories are not just knockabout stuff. We’re not going for laughs. It’s got a bit of weight to it.

How much of you is in the Karl we see on screen?
Pilkington: It’s me, doing the acting thing. I sound like myself and I look like myself. So I’m not really pushing myself – but that’s the point. As much as it’s not based on any true story, it’s still based on me and what my world could have been, in a way. Nothing happens in there where I would say, ‘That’s ridiculous, that would never happen.’ It’s all, ‘I’d do that, I’d say that.’

Is it true you weren’t going to be in it at the start?
Pilkington: In the early days, yes. But [to Yee] did you always know I’d be in it at the beginning?
Yee: I didn’t know you were going to be in it twice. I thought you’d be in it, but I just thought it was going to be a process. Karl doesn’t ever really want to make TV.
Pilkington: I do but it’s got to be right and I’ve got to get my head around the idea. I’ve got to be comfortable, and that took quite a long time. So when we were knocking around with ideas and stuff early on, I wasn’t saying, ‘This is me.’
Yee: It had to be a process of just getting used to the idea. Once Karl got more comfortable with it, it was like, ‘OK I’ll be in it,’ and then, ‘Alright, I’ll be the main character.’ Then you ended up in it twice.

Sick of It sees Karl Pilkington play both the main character and his alter ego

Are comedies risky at the moment because social media users can be quick to criticise a show after just a few minutes?
Pilkington: I’m not a one-liner person. I’m not a comedian. If people are expecting that, it’s a little bit odd. It’s like, why’ve you got that in your head? I’ve never done that. So why are you expecting that from me? With the podcast and stuff, it’s been about stories. I like stories. That’s what this is. I keep saying to people, it’s just six little short, simple stories that go off in different directions.

Is there a story arc we see through the six episodes, following Karl’s breakup from his girlfriend in episode one, or are they largely standalone stories?
Pilkington: There’s a little one. They are mainly individual stories. It’s a series where people will say they like episode two and five, or three and six. They’re that different. It’s not just like, ‘Yeah we’ve made one, that’s how it works so let’s just copy and paste that.’

How did you find the writing process?
Pilkington: It was such a new way of working. I was going, ‘I can’t stand this.’ It’s like you’d be sat in an office for a full day and you’d be thinking, ‘This is rubbish.’ Then just before you go, you think, ‘What if?’ and then you get a little idea you can start on the next day. It’s really weird. It’s not like any other job where you’re painting a wall, you know what you’ve got to do and there’s an end to it; where you put the second coat on, step back and say, ‘It’s done.’ This is never done.

The six-part series is produced by Me+You Productions and Alrite Productions

Was it all scripted or was there any improvisation?
Pilkington: I’d change thoughts or things that don’t affect the story. If I thought something was better than what’s in the script, I would change it, and that was happening up until they said ‘action.’ It was a nightmare. I remember someone saying the crew all place bets on how many times the script’s going to change. It was eight weeks of that, tweaking all the time. I did like that pressure, and hopefully people will like it and it’s all been worthwhile.
Yee: Sometimes we think people are expecting a knockabout comedy. That’s our worry, that they’re expecting that. This isn’t like that.
Pilkington: Nothing ever has been, but for some reason – maybe it was working with Ricky and Steve [Merchant] so by association – I am [a comedian] as well. But it’s like, ‘No, never have been.’ That’s why it works, because they’re the funny ones and I just tell a story and they jump on it. That’s been the most frustrating thing with this. I worry about people who could enjoy it not enjoying it because they’re not in the right frame of mind. People are expecting something else and because it won’t be what they wanted, they won’t like it. It’s like a rebrand almost, trying to get people to try something different. But in a way, it doesn’t help that I’m called Karl in it and that I sound like myself. It’s difficult.

Richard, how did you find the balance between writing and directing?
Yee: It was easier to direct because I knew Karl and when we were writing in the room, we would act out the scenes together. It’s hard with a crew of 60, but it was about getting Karl to not think he’s acting and to just be himself and be in the moment. The challenge was making the two Karls feel real and natural. It was tricky because it’s actually quite a high concept, and it was a longer schedule because you have to film a lot of the scenes twice. The first week was probably quite scary for both of us.

Sick of It launches on Sky1 tomorrow

Do we see Ricky and Stephen in any cameos? Or is it nice to have your own show?
Pilkington: We’ve done everything together so if they even cropped up in a cameo, people would say, ‘Oh they’re going back to what they did.’ It could never be that. It wouldn’t work. Ricky’s a comedy actor and people know the relationship we have with each other. It would be weird.
Yee: When we decided Karl would play Karl, we could have set it today, post-Idiot Abroad and post-Moaning of Life, but it would have been wrong if Karl was played as a known TV figure. What people like about him is he’s more of an everyman; he’s really relatable and authentic.

Are you planning a second season or more scripted projects together?
Pilkington: If this goes alright and Sky are up for it, we could do it. There’s loads of places you could take it. But other than that, I don’t look far ahead. When I was doing Idiot Abroad, it was never like, ‘So, Richard, if I do this for a bit, can I write something?’ That was never the thing. I fell into that by accident, that happened, it went alright, better than I thought, then I had the chance to do Moaning of Life. I did a few books I never thought I would do. This is just another thing I’ve had a go at and enjoyed doing, but I do think there are legs in this because once that idea of inner self has been established, there’s a lot of things in the first season where you don’t try and do too much with it. But I think you could start to get quite clever with it. We could do that – who knows?

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