Digging deep

Digging deep

By Michael Pickard
May 30, 2023


Writer-director Patrick Smith joins stars Natalie Cutler and Theo Holt-Bailey to dig into comedy series Groundbreaking, about a group of archaeologists working in a town where inexplicable events lead them to believe supernatural forces are at work.

If British archaeology programme Time Team were dramatised in the mockumentary style of The Office, set against stunning Irish landscapes, it might look something like comedy series Groundbreaking.

Produced by Kiyo Films, the series follows Gale (Natalie Cutler), who is 15 years into a demoralising career that has shattered her romantic and unrealistic expectations of archeology. When she embarks on what she secretly knows will be her last dig, she partners with a ragtag crew in the uber-religious Irish town of St Quinn, where they encounter a hostile community, a rancorous contractor eager to slow them down, and a series of inexplicable events that indicate something bizarre at work on this mysterious island.

Created and directed by Patrick William Smith, the show also stars Steven He as Finn, Brian Villalobos as Goose, Clara Guziewicz as Reilly and Theo Holt-Bailey as enthusiastic intern Ori.

While archaeology has been handed an adventurous, thrilling image thanks to big-screen franchises such as Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, The Mummy and Tomb Raider, comedy series Detectorists showcased a more sedate look at metal-detector hobbyists.

It is perhaps in this latter camp that Groundbreaking falls, with Smith keen to present archaeology the way it actually is.

“It really is not romantic. It’s arduous and painful and boring,” Smith tells DQ at French television festival Canneseries, where Groundbreaking was screened in the shortform competition. “And I think we hadn’t seen that before.”

What elevates the series is its heightened visual style, which is achieved through the roving camerawork, character voiceover, archive video footage and the soaring vistas of the tremendous Irish landscape.

“I’m a huge fan of the mockumentary format. There’s a lot of room to keep playing with that and we hadn’t seen one outside, and certainly not with archaeologists,” Smith continues. “I have this need to discover things all the time. I like to go out and explore and find secret places and things like that, so there’s something in me that just likes the idea of discovery.

“The biggest thing that maybe started the process is this fascination with toeing a line between wonder and reason. In The X-Files, with Mulder and Scully, somebody wants to believe in all these things, while somebody else wants to explain it. I like that you can put an audience in a position where they can’t choose. That was the origin.”

Cutler describes Groundbreaking as “the greatest pilot I’ve ever read.” She says she laughed out loud while reading the script, “which I’ve never done before.”

Produced by Kiyo Films, Groundbreaking is filmed in mockumentary style

“It’s one of the only scripts I’ve ever been given where it was just fully formed,” she continues. “I could hear Gale, I could see Gale, I could understand her and I could see everything visually. It was so strong that I couldn’t say no to that.”

“The characters leapt off the page,” Holt-Bailey agrees. “The mystery was so intricately crafted. I think it’ll be a real delight for people to figure out where it’s going.”

“It also felt like a role I’d been waiting for,” Cutler says. “I knew what I wanted to play and I couldn’t verbalise it. And then I got sent the Groundbreaking script and I was like, ‘This is it.’ I’d describe Gale as the female Ricky Gervais. I love Ricky; he’s my favourite thing on the planet. I’m obsessed. I just wanted to play something that was the female Ricky Gervais, and the universe sent me Groundbreaking.”

Disillusioned by life, Gale finds herself a decade into a career that hasn’t panned out exactly as she had hoped. Cutler says she could relate to this, and believes viewers will understand too.

Ori is almost the polar opposite: young, naive and uninhibited, he arrives like Indiana Jones looking for the Arc of the Covenant – but will his eagerness prove to be endearing or off-putting for the jaded Gale?

“I love Ori. He’s just a beautiful character,” says Holt-Bailey. “He’s naive and completely effusive and got a sense of wonder about him. He’s just so happy to be there. Anything’s possible for Ori, but he’s also completely useless. A lot of comedy comes out of that and, as the story goes on, they learn from each other. There’s a really beautiful arc that Gale and Ori go on.”

Natalie Cutler plays archaeologist Gale, whose career hasn’t panned out as she’d hoped

“Ori definitely helps Gale to see the magic in life as well as in the archaeology,” Cutler adds.

Smith co-wrote the scripts with Wendy Bird Womack. With the focus on a small ensemble of characters, he says it was important that each of the main cast could be quickly defined by their roles and personality in the group – before the story dismantles those stereotypes and reveals their hidden depths.

“Just as we were going to go into production, Covid hit and we got shut down, so we had another year to chew on the scripts and make it different,” he reveals. “But then when we cast, we had 12,000 taped auditions. It was absurd, but we just had this huge pool to work from.

“Then once we had our cast, we still had to push back production by another three or four months after we’d already read the script together. But once we could hear their voices, we could go back into the script and rewrite some things based on who they were, what they were bringing and how they were interpreting it. That stuff developed over time.”

Before the director arrived on set, the cast would break down the scenes without him. Then once Smith arrived, they would work through their ideas – with one golden rule always at the forefront of their ambition.

“We figured out that if it wasn’t making us laugh, we couldn’t shoot it,” he says. “We had to find a way to make sure everybody had something to do, and we found a lot of character in the first three days of shooting. A lot of it was really collaborative. It wasn’t all on the page.”

Holt-Bailey concurs: “We found so much when we were shooting. The script really was a fully formed novel when we got it, but I don’t think there was a single scene where we didn’t discover some new beats. It was so cool.

Shooting took place in Connemara, West Ireland

“Because there was such an international cast, Patrick was also really keen to make sure it was authentic,” the actor continues. “So we’d have a lot of discussions like, ‘There’s the line as written. Is that really authentic to how you’d say it, to how someone of your culture would say this?’ So we were constantly adding things like that to make it more and more authentic.”

“It was so easy to improvise because we almost knew the rules,” adds Cutler. “The rules were there in the script in terms of how it needed to sound.”

Cutler certainly embraced her entry into archaeology. Before production started, she went into the field with archaeology students from the University of Birmingham to learn how to conduct a real dig.

“She came back and really filtered us,” Smith says. “‘No, no, no, you have to hold it this way.’”

“And I also learned not to seal the bags,” Cutler says. “A lot of times when archaeology is depicted, they’ll put bones into bags and then seal them. So when I was on location with the professors at the university, I was like, ‘Is there anything that we shouldn’t do? Do you see things on TV where you’re like, a real archaeologist would never do that?’ And one professor said, ‘Yeah, don’t seal the bag.’ When you put bones into a bag, if you seal it, they’ll sweat, and an archaeologist would know to leave the bag open. So we left the bags open. Hopefully real archaeologists spot that and go, ‘Ah, I’m seen.’”

The actors also had to get to grips with the eight-part show’s mockumentary style, but Cutler and Holt-Bailey quickly got used to having two cameras on them in each scene – one main camera following the dialogue and another picking up additional coverage of the performers.

Filming took place in Connemara, a national park on the west coast of Ireland, where the Groundbreaking cast and crew would be the only people for miles around. That isolation – and the fact they spent the two-month shoot living and working together – meant a close bond and sense of camaraderie was quickly built between them all, while production was undeterred by the unpredictable weather conditions.

“We had to have two production schedules because we knew if it was going to be raining, we couldn’t just lose a day,” Smith explains. “We just had to go do something else. It meant they couldn’t really prep in the morning because we’d be doing a different scene instead. It was challenging – and we had days where midges came at the worst moments. We have so many takes of people having to smack themselves. It was a challenge.”

Despite those difficulties, the whole team looks back on making the show with huge fondness, not least Cutler.

“I loved it. It was like a school trip when you go away with your friends and you’re without your parents,” the actor says. “We were just all together on this amazing school trip, and it was just so much fun.

“I’ve never been on a set like it. It’s the greatest set I’ve ever been on. I just wish I could do it for the rest of my life.”

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