Paramount+ series The Chemistry of Death brings Simon Beckett’s novels about a forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter to the small screen. Director Richard Clark tells DQ about finding the right formula for filming the rural crime drama across the UK and the freedom he had behind the camera.
With more than 25 years’ experience in directing for television, Richard Clark has worked on shows as diverse as historical dramas Versailles and Outlander, crime drama Whitechapel and the recent small-screen reimagining of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Yet throughout that time, he says he has never had as much creative freedom on a show as he has enjoyed helming all six episodes of Paramount+ series The Chemistry of Death.
“I would work a scene and if I didn’t like the dialogue or something wasn’t landing, I would just strip it back as we were filming,” he tells DQ. “I’m very comfortable doing that, but it’s the first time I’ve had the autonomy and the authority to do it. It meant we had a very fluid way of working, unlike anything I’ve done before. In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, I’m lucky to change a line or two, so it was very unusual. It doesn’t happen, frankly, at all.”
Launching last month on streamer Paramount+, the series is based on author Simon Beckett’s first two novels – The Chemistry of Death and Written in Bone – about forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter, a retired English police investigator who is drawn back into his old profession following a mysterious and gruesome murder.
Following the tragic loss of his family, he builds a new existence in the small English village of Manham, working as a family doctor. But when a mutilated body turns up in the woods, the local police unexpectedly ask David to help solve the murder case.
In the second part of the series, Hunter heads to a small Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, where he becomes involved in a murder inquiry that soon threatens to put his own life in danger.
The series was developed by Paramount+ in Germany, where English author Beckett’s novels have remained immensely popular since The Chemistry of Death was first published in 2006. Local producer Nadcon then teamed up with UK-based Cuba Pictures to produce the series, which is written by Sukey Venables Fisher. Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway leads the cast as Hunter, alongside actors including Lucian Msamati, Amy Nuttall, Katie Leung, Jeanne Goursaud, Nick Blood, David Hayman and Hardy Krüger Jr.
Clark joined the project in January last year when just a couple of scripts were available, but he was immediately drawn to the idea of a crime series set in rural communities across the UK.
“There was a lyrical quality to the writing and a haunting quality that I thought could be interesting,” he says. “I also really wanted the landscape to be a character in the show rather than a setting for the story, and I thought the protagonist could be really strong.
“He’s not an easy protagonist because you’ve got a character who’s not a detective, so they’re not at the heart of the investigation. It’s quite difficult to keep them at the centre emotionally, but I saw the potential for this quite damaged, haunted character who I thought could be compelling.”
Clark pulled together a pitch document that emphasised his interest in presenting an “omnipresent, timeless” landscape that looms large over the communities where the “slightly fantastical, horror-tinged” stories play out. He also wanted to focus on the sense of memory and past trauma already in the books and represented on screen by jumbled, shaky flashbacks featuring Hunter’s wife and daughter before their deaths.
“Particularly as you move through the episodes, I feel like we managed to really get to where we wanted to go,” he says. “There’s a lot of authenticity to the characters in the performances, but there’s also a kind of Lynchian madness to these story worlds as well.
“Particularly in this country, we tend to look at television through the prism of ‘Is it real?’ That sometimes limits how we approach narrative, how we approach stories and what is acceptable – and anything that’s not real is quickly condemned and slated unless it’s fantasy, and we tend to be snooty about genre. But the influence of US TV has started to shift that – shows like Sex Education, The End of the F***ing World or Lockwood & Co – and we are starting to break free of that slowly and reluctantly.”
When Clark joined the series, the Norfolk-set first book was going to be dramatised over the first two episodes, with the second book playing out in the Hebrides over the final four instalments. But the director adjusted the pacing so the two stories came together midway through episode three, linking them by Hunter’s journey through his grief and trauma.
Although they both deal with the grim discovery of dead, often mutilated bodies and the impact of those deaths on two close-knit communities, the two stories could not be more different, as the action moves from the Norfolk countryside to the remote, foreboding mountains of the Hebrides.
But throughout, Clark sought to pull them together with a controlled visual language that used tracks and dollies to create a “floating camera” effect. The only time a handheld camera was used was for Hunter’s memory sequences.
“I wanted to shoot very simply, so there are scenes that are only one shot and the whole thing plays out, so you’re very reliant on the script working and the performances being good,” he explains. “It means you’ve got nowhere to hide in the edit, whereas if you shoot with two cameras, you can hide things in the cut and quickly skim over something. It goes back to a quite classical approach.
“We don’t have close-ups very often. We hold the camera back wide. The cutting is quite minimal, except for Hunter’s subjective state of mind, so we juxtapose the two together. A lot of work goes into that, and if you’re going to go for that, it has to be well lit and the performances have to work. It’s a high-risk strategy.”
Working with a relatively modest budget, Clark also had to manage a series that features two stories told with entirely separate casts and filmed in different parts of the UK. “It’s incredibly ambitious for the money we have,” he adds, “and it’s busy out there [in terms of the content on offer to viewers] so you think, ‘How do we make our mark? How do we make a show that has a bold and clear sense of what it is?’ The visual grammar we deployed was an attempt to give it some visual weight and a distinctive boldness. And I think we did it.”
The director also praises the support he was given by executive producer Dixie Linder and producer Matt Carver to bring his vision for The Chemistry of Death to the screen. “I hope we’ve made a decent show as a consequence of that,” he says. “They did extraordinary work, and it was not easy.”
In particular, shooting on the coast of Scotland meant the crew couldn’t all be accommodated locally, so many had to stay in Inverness, a 90-minute bus ride away. “So we were losing three or four hours a day in travel time, which is huge,” Clark continues. “Most producers would go, ‘Well you can’t do that. You just lost five days shooting.’ Matt had the courage and experience to go, ‘No, we’ve looked at other places but I can see why you need to do it here,’ and he backed that.”
With more books in Beckett’s David Hunter series available for adaptation – the most recent entry is 2019’s The Scent of Death – there is every opportunity for The Chemistry of Death to become a returning series. The challenge in adapting the novels, says Clark, is that they need a “fairly significant overhaul” to become episodes of television, as they are told from Hunter’s perspective and reveal his inner thoughts – something The Chemistry of Death attempts to replicate with some elements of narration.
“You have to keep the protagonist at the heart of it when they are not the detective and on the periphery of the case, so finding ways in which they become intertwined and involved in the story is a narrative challenge and an emotional challenge,” he says. “The danger of stories like that is you can have a main protagonist and it’s all the peripheral characters who have the interesting stories going on in their lives. The protagonist becomes a narrator, a focal point, and all the other stories revolve around them. It’s surprising how often that can happen, so making sure David Hunter has an emotional journey through the stories is the challenge.”
That means Hunter’s backstory plays a key part in the series – whose sixth episode is released this Thursday – as he continues to be haunted by guilt over the deaths of his family and the role he played in the tragedy.
“He’s deeply trying to resolve it within himself through his work, which makes him brilliant but means he’s in danger of not being professional or overstepping the mark on occasions,” Clark says. “That’s where the tension lies within him and for him with other characters.”