Directing a dictatorship

Directing a dictatorship

By Michael Pickard
April 12, 2024

The Director’s Chair

Director Jessica Hobbs takes DQ into the world of The Regime, HBO’s darkly comic drama set within a crumbling autocracy, discussing her partnership behind the camera with Stephen Frears and why her best day on set was shooting a Santa Baby music video with star Kate Winslet.

After filming seven episodes across three seasons of The Crown – and picking up an Emmy  for her trouble – director Jessica Hobbs wanted to try something completely different.

But while it might share the grandeur, scale and status of Netflix’s royal drama, HBO’s The Regime is a much more subversive story set within the corridors of power – one that is full of dark, satirical humour à la Veep or The Thick of It as it serves up a sometimes frightening look inside the world of an autocratic ruler.

Kate Winslet stars as chancellor Elena Vernham, who has grown increasingly paranoid and unstable, leading her to turn to a volatile soldier, Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), as an unlikely confidant. As Zubak’s influence over the chancellor continues to grow, Elena’s attempts to expand her power eventually result in both the palace and the country fracturing around her.

Jessica Hobbs

“I was really interested in the realm of political satire in today’s world, because I feel like that’s what we’re living, sadly for real, especially in the coming year,” Hobbs tells DQ. “It wasn’t planned for the show to come out in a year when there are the most elections globally that have ever been held, but I’m grateful for it. As ridiculous as it is, it’s no more or less ridiculous than what we’re watching day to day on the news.

“I’d also always wanted to work with Kate, and she did not disappoint. She was brilliant – and I liked it because it terrified me. I actually read the script and thought, ‘I’m not quite sure how to do this. I’m not entirely sure what it is. OK, let’s see what the next 18 months bring.’”

Written by Will Tracy (Succession), the series sees Hobbs share directing duties with Stephen Frears (The Queen, A Very English Scandal). She had been taking meetings at HBO and discussed one project she didn’t feel was right for her. Then when the US cablenet mentioned The Regime, she was immediately engaged by the premise.

She subsequently met Frears, found they had a similar approach to directing and signed on to share the six-episode load. Frears helmed episodes one, two and four, while Hobbs shot parts three, five and six.

“It was one of the highlights of my career. Being on the set with him was riotously fun,” she says. “I met him and [executive producer] Tracey Seaward and they were just like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So it was great. It was very straightforward. I had a meeting and then started straight away.”

The Regime, starring Kate Winslet, takes place in a fictional unnamed country

Hobbs headed straight to Vienna, which serves as a key location for the unnamed European country Elena rules at her whim, seemingly changing her character – and her appearance – depending on whom she is addressing, from local school children and unhappy union bosses to members of her cabinet and the US secretary of state. The Austrian capital’s Schönbrunn Palace provided the exteriors and many interiors of Elena’s spectacular home, which is made up of almost 30 different locations. The six-month shoot also took in parts of the UK including Sheffield, Esher and the Brandon Estate in London, as well as set builds at Shepperton Studios.

It wasn’t just a palace that Hobbs, Frears and the design team had to create, however. “We had to make up an entire country from scratch,” she says, “and those choices had had to be very original and specific and yet feel grounded in today’s world.

“We were creating a kind of small Central European country, and at one point there’s an invasion [in the series] and we had to design maps of where that would be but make sure it didn’t look like anything that does exist. Stephen and I had to bed it in something that felt believable to the audience, but we never even name what the country is, and that’s where it feels a bit of a high-wire act, because it’s hard to reassure an audience if they don’t know where they are.”

With Hobbs working alongside Frears, The Regime wasn’t filmed in separate blocks as might traditionally be the case when multiple directors work on the same show. Instead, they worked with the same heads of department and often filmed parts of their own episodes on the same days as each other, in an effort to maintain the show’s mix of “dangerous and ridiculous” across all six episodes.

“We prepped everything together and we started shooting together, and then we would switch,” Hobbs explains. “For example, Stephen did the first two days and I did the next two. Then he’d do a day-and-a-half. I’d come in at lunchtime, take over, do a few more [scenes]. We tried not to cross over within days – there were locations that meant we had to – but it meant we shot out locations.

Winslet plays chancellor Elena Vernham, a character with whom it’s difficult to sympathise

“It also meant we could watch what the other was doing, and that really informed us in terms of the way we were doing it. We were shooting all six hours at once, which was complicated. It’s a lot to hold in your head – and a lot for Kate – but it really helped the show. It’s feels very cohesive because of that, because we had such access to each other.”

Winslet, who like Hobbs is also an executive producer on The Regime, signed on before Hobbs joined, and the director says the Oscar-winning star was keen to play a character who doesn’t resemble her – in the way she looks, moves or talks.

“She came up with the idea for Elena’s wigs, which was brilliant because, as a leader, she just changes the way she presents herself to the nation depending on what they need,” Hobbs says. “She’ll become more nationalistic, more ‘of the people.’ She’ll become more heightened. If she needs to be more elegant, she’ll become more American-like, depending on where she’s trying to get particular traction from.

“But Kate’s just brilliant. She’s a total powerhouse. She thinks incredibly deeply about what she’s doing, and then when she gets to set, she’s really playful and very funny. It was an antithesis of Mare of Easttown, which she was extraordinary in, but it’s wonderful to see her stretch herself and do something like this.”

Starring alongside Winslet is Schoenaerts, whose troubled soldier Zubak – dubbed ‘The Butcher’ – starts off in service of Elena and supporting her staff’s efforts to cleanse her palace, such is her paranoia about becoming ill. But by the end of the first episode, she starts to listen to his advice over that of her ministers, leading them to share a turbulent relationship that at times sees him put in prison, but also join her for relationship counselling in matching pyjamas once their love affair ignites. By the end, they’re on the run together as Elena’s decisions lead her country to civil war.

The complex relationship between Elena and Herbert (Matthias Schoenaerts) is key to the plot

“He is a highly intelligent, very emotionally true actor,” Hobbs says of Schoenaerts. “He’s also incredibly funny. Both he and Kate have brilliant clowning abilities, so they’re able to be quite dangerous and dark and funny at the same time. Neither of them have any worries about being too insane or ridiculous, so it was quite freeing. They have to do some crazy stuff.

“I always describe it as a love story about two people who never should have been introduced, and that makes sense when you get to see it. There was great trust between those two, because they have to do this kind of dance between them. That’s really tricky. Despite their external ways of behaving, they’re both very vulnerable characters.”

New Zealander Hobbs admits it’s hard to have any allegiance to Elena, noting how she can be “outrageously awful,” even to her supposed supporters who have come to learn never to upset her or stand in her way. Meanwhile, Zubak also has moments of brutality that make it hard to have sympathy for him.

“For me, the real empathetic star of the show is Andrea Riseborough,” Hobbs says. The British star plays Agnes, Elena’s palace manager. “She is very quiet, very observant, very much unswayed by the insanity around. She’s just like a truth serum that goes through it. When you’re watching a show about a narcissistic dictator, it is very hard to fall in love with that character. You can enjoy their outrageousness but it’s a lot to ask to have empathy for them. So with Agnes, you have empathy for what it would be like to live in that situation.”

Behind the camera, Hobbs and Frears worked with cinematographer Alwin H Küchler, production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Consolata Boyle to create the world of The Regime.

Andrea Riseborough is Agnes, the manager of Elena’s palace

“We really looked at the way the palette shifted from being quite bright and garish and gold to much darker territory by the time you get to the end,” Hobbs explains. “Then we also looked, cinematically, at moving from the grandeur of things to the madness of it all by the time they’re on the run, when the camera is much more paranoid, hidden and hand-held. But we did really try to choreograph what those visual things were doing. We wanted to know how the camera could relate to her wildly shifting emotional states.”

Among the numerous standout moments in the series, Hobbs points to the scenes Winslet and Schoenaerts share with guest star Julia Davis (Nighty Night), who plays Elena and Zubak’s counsellor Marina.

“When the three of them started to improvise, I couldn’t even call ‘cut’ because I was laughing so much. They were brilliant,” she says.

But it is a scene towards the end of episode three that particularly stands out for the director, one that demonstrates a turning point in Elena and Zubak’s relationship as she comes to realise how much sway he has over her and rebels against him, teasing and taunting him until he attacks her.

“He’s felt safe and suddenly he realises what he’s dealing with, and the way that we’ve blocked and choreographed that and the way that worked for Kate and Matthias, I love that,” Hobbs says. “It’s a real reflection of, ‘It’s not funny anymore.’ There’s a much darker thing at work here as to who has the power. It’s watching her wind him up because she wants him to commit a violent act. She wants him to take action. She knows exactly what to do. So that’s a scene I really love.”

The Santa Baby sequence was shot on the last day of filming

Then there’s the clip of Winslet, as Elena, singing Santa Baby on a festive stage surrounded by fake snow and backing dancers – a moment that plays out on a television in the palace dining room as the dictator attempts to enjoy a family Christmas while shells and bombs fall in the distance, a prelude to the dramatic events that bring the series to its conclusion.

“It’s so funny. It was the last filming day and it’s one of the best days I’ve ever had on set,” Hobbs laughs. “I designed that whole crazy, ice-laden set and Kate can do all that stuff. She can walk down some stairs and perform to camera. The first AD, Lydia Currie, started in those entertainment shows, so she knew how to do the sweeps of the camera and the stuff I’d seen and was trying to recreate.”

Hobbs, who is repped by Casarotto Ramsay, says The Regime is a “slow burn of a show,” one that takes a little while to reveal its true self. But for viewers coming to the series – it debuted on HBO in March and launched on Sky and streamer NOW in the UK this week – “my big thing would be, ‘Stick with it,’” she adds. “It’s really rewarding if you stick with it. It does speak a lot about our current state of affairs, and that’s no bad thing. Hopefully don’t fall in love with Kate’s character too much. Powerful people can be incredibly dangerous, but also very charismatic. That’s why they bring these waves of populism. They just say what the people want to hear, true or not, and that’s very reflective of the piece.”

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