Digging into true crime
Writer Ed Sinclair and executive producer Chris Fry tell DQ how Sky and HBO drama Landscapers blends real life, romance and fantasy in one of the most imaginative and visually compelling true crime dramas of the year.
In 2011, Ed Sinclair felt a sense of burning injustice. His wife, actor Olivia Colman, was starring in Tyrannosaur – a hard-hitting film that, despite positive critical reviews, failed to light up the box office.
“Not enough people watched Tyrannosaur, and I just thought of everyone involved in that film – [writer and director] Paddy Considine, [actors] Peter Mullen, Eddie Marsan,” he tells DQ. “It just felt so unfair that it hadn’t been a bigger film because that’s an all-timer for me.”
Until then, writer Sinclair had penned short film scripts, with prose his “great love.” But having read numerous feature scripts Colman had been sent over the years, he became inspired to start writing his own, “because Olivia needed really good parts so the kids can see how good she is.”
Fast forward 10 years and the now Oscar-winning Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) is one of the world’s most in-demand actors. What’s more, her latest project, Sky and HBO television drama Landscapers, is written by Sinclair.
“Obviously she’s in no need now for anyone to fight her corner and tell everyone how great she is,” he jokes. “She’s had an incredible last five years, which have been absolutely wonderful. It’s ridiculous to think that [reaction to Tyrannosaur] was the thing that started me on the road to Landscapers.”
The four-part miniseries, which debuted in the US on HBO last night and arrives on Sky Atlantic in the UK tonight, has its roots in true crime but blends romance and fantasy in what is one of the most imaginative and visually striking series of the year.
A seemingly ordinary couple, Susan and Christopher Edwards, become the focus of a police investigation when a pair of dead bodies are discovered in the back garden of a house in Nottingham.
But Susan (Colman) and Christopher (David Thewlis) have been on the run from reality for more than 15 years. It’s only when Christopher reveals a long-held secret to his step-mother than their role in a terrible crime begins to emerge.
Separated for the first time in their marriage and inspired by Susan’s obsession with old Westerns and classic cinema, they cast themselves as Hollywood heroes in their own fantasy world – a place that offers them sanctuary from real life but one that may also be their undoing.
“It’s an exploration of personal truths and personal responsibility,” Sinclair says of Landscapers. “It is quite formally playful in that respect and tonally quite playful as well. It veers quite dramatically between darkness and light. That’s an attempt, I suppose, to get into the thinking of the two protagonists and their love story. As well as being a crime story, it’s a love story.”
The series is based on a true story that emerged in 2013, with Susan’s real solicitor, Darry Ennis-Gayle, speaking with Sinclair about the case. The writer describes the increasingly fanciful details of Susan and Christopher’s relationship as “just wild,” with one such example being Susan’s made-up friendship with French actor Gerard Depardieu.
“But that is a great and exciting challenge for a writer, to try and bring together these very disparate elements. Some of them are almost objectively funny, and then there’s the dark stuff and obviously the murders and the crimes,” he says.
“I suppose any writer looking at that story would go, ‘Well, that’s something really interesting here.’ That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to find the thing that holds it all together. But firstly I was looking for something to write for Olivia and there was a strong potential there with Susan. Then the other thing, the moment where I really felt like I found my way [into the story], was reading that Susan seemingly had been sexually abused by her dad as a child. When you look at her very well-developed fantasy life and her evident need to escape from reality, that felt like that was the beginnings of a story.”
Comic relief arrives in the often expletive-laden banter between the police officers – played by Kate O’Flynn, Samuel Anderson and Daniel Rigby – charged with securing convictions against the Edwards after they uncover two bodies buried in the back garden of Susan’s parents’ old house.
“We didn’t want it to come across as in some way condoning what they’ve done or in any way excusing what they’ve done, which is obviously horrific,” Sinclair says. “So we gave the police officers humanising faults and foibles, which come across in a comic way, and that was crucial to allowing us to feel for them as well and not feel like they were the baddies. They were just humans as well, doing their best to get through this very strange experience.”
Once they are separated in custody, the fantastical elements of the series also help to bring Susan and Christopher together again, outside of the police investigation room, which helps Landscapers avoid becoming a straight police procedural.
“It wasn’t meant to be a true crime story in that respect,” Sinclair says. “The challenge was how to get Susan and Chris out of the interview room and get them to interact even while the police interrogation was happening. It was definitely challenging making all these different elements work but it was really exciting to be allowed the freedom to use those methods to get around problems as opposed to just maybe slightly more mundane, writerly approaches.”
Shopped by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, the series comes from Sister (Chernobyl) and Sinclair and Colman’s production company South of the River. Sister’s joint creative director of scripted, Chris Fry, has been working on the project for the last four years, and remembers Sinclair’s ambition from the outset was to tell a true crime story in a really innovative way.
“It felt like a true crime drama I’d never seen before, because of Susan being a bit of a fantasist, so it has a fantastical element to it,” he says. “I saw there being lots of opportunities for it to be really visually interesting in the script. There was obviously the procedural element to the show, but we’ve never wanted that to play too highly in the mix. It was always much more about them as people, and what might have driven them. I just love being able to try and be innovative and do things in a slightly different way, and the script definitely presented itself in that way.”
Key to the look of the series has been director Will Sharpe, the Bafta-winning Giri/Haji actor who previously brought his unique visual style to 2016 comedy Flowers. Because he helmed all four episodes of Landscapers, the show was able to carry a consistent look and tone that takes Sinclair’s scripts and brings them to life in with a mixture of black and white flashbacks, lighting changes that shift viewers’ attention from one part of a set to another and scenes that transport characters from a police interrogation room to a pub, a coach and the Edwards’ front room, as Christopher gives his version of events.
The series also reveals the filming process behind the drama. At times the camera will pull back from a set to reveal the staging, or follow characters walking between sets.
“When you hire a director like Will, you hire something with a strong visual sense. You trust him as a filmmaker,” Fry says. “He wanted to tell the story in a different way, in a confident way and in a way he felt emotionally connected to. The great thing about the way the story is told is there were various different visual elements to it. There’s the present day and there’s the flashback sequences to them [Susan and Christopher] when they were younger. There’s also what we call the ‘myth,’ which is their version of the truth.
“The scripts enabled the director to come aboard and look at how to make those three worlds so distinctive, but also cohesively work together in one piece. I think the results speak for themselves. He’s created an incredible four-part drama and it goes in all sorts of incredible places. But it all feels like one cohesive piece because the characters and the performances are so strong and grounded and truthful.”
Despite writing Landscapers with Colman in mind, Sinclair didn’t initially share his work with her for fear of forcing her into committing to a project she wasn’t certain about. Instead, he worked with the team at producer Sister – which also includes co-founder Jane Featherstone, senior creative executive Katie Carpenter and development director Alice Tyler – who encouraged him to be “brave” and to not think about the budget.
“That’s really good advice for any writer,” Sinclair says. “You just need to find the story, first of all. When Will came on board, the thing he was most concerned about was the muddled mode of expression. You’ve got the love story, the crime story, Susan’s imagination, the myth of the world Susan and Chris create and the story of what happened that night. When you go in and out of those things, the danger is you end up with a very bitty, almost sketch-like feel, like a sketch comedy.”
The challenge then was to find a way to make the story coherent while blending numerous disparate tones and styles.
“That’s why Will is so brilliant at what he does,” Sinclair continues. “He had so many test shoots and did so much work about how much was going to be black and white, how much was going to be colour, how saturated it was going to be and looking at old films and different development techniques on old films. He and Erik Wilson, the cinematographer, did a huge amount of work on that. This is a world that hangs together properly and doesn’t confuse the hell out of the audience, even while giving them those access to flights of fantasy and the rest of it.”
Filming was due to take place in May 2020, with Landscapers in pre-production last spring when the Covid-19 pandemic first struck. Delayed by almost a year, the show was eventually filmed between March and June this year at The Drum Sheds in Enfield, north London, where many of the show’s smaller sets, such as interview rooms and prison cells, were built because the pandemic meant cast and crew were unable to film in the real places. Shooting also took place on location in and around London, in Mansfield and Nottingham.
During production, Sharpe also worked closely with director of photography Wilson (Paddington 2) and production designer Cristina Casali (The Pursuit of Love) to achieve many of the show’s visual effects in camera.
“When I first read the script way, way back when I was looking at budgeting it, I could see there would be two routes, either an in-camera route or a much more effects-heavy route,” Fry says. “But personally I prefer the in-camera route, and Will did as well. Most of the lighting changes, back projections and wonderful visual flourishes you see are in-camera. There isn’t a huge amount of VFX.”
Airing in the UK and the US, Sinclair hopes the series about a domestic murder investigation will find a global audience, noting how the more idiosyncratic and esoteric a show is, the more universal it can be for audiences wherever they are watching.
“We didn’t want it to be a police procedural. It was never a whodunit or even particularly ‘how did they do it?’” he says. “There is leeway within the show to think perhaps some of the things they were convicted for or the account the police gave didn’t quite work in some respects, and there’s all sorts of outstanding mysteries. But the story was really about why Chris and Susan told themselves the story they did and whether that was ultimately going to lead to a break-up of their world. That’s where the love story comes in.”
tagged in: Chris Fry, Cristina Casali, Daniel Rigby, David Thewlis, Ed Sinclair, Eddie Marsan, Kate O’Flynn, Landscapers, NBCUniversal Global Distribution, Olivia Colman, Paddy Considine, Peter Mullen, Samuel Anderson, Sister, South of the River, Tyrannosaur, Will Sharpe