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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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