Writer-director Hugo Blick opens up about his latest drama, Emily Blunt-led series The English, how he sought to reimagine the Western genre and why he compares himself and Blunt to John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
From crime series The Shadow Line and spy thriller The Honourable Woman to political drama Black Earth Rising, writer-director Hugo Blick has never been afraid of tackling big geopolitical issues wrapped in genre. Now he is turning his attention to Westerns with The English, an epic story of identity and revenge set against the sprawling landscapes of 1890 mid-America.
The six-part series stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, an aristocratic Englishwoman who unites with Pawnee ex-calvary scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) as they overcome obstacles both physical and psychological on their journey to the new town of Hoxem, Wyoming. There, after an investigation by local sheriff Robert Marshall (Stephen Rea) and young widow Martha Myers (Valerie Pachner) into a series of bizarre and macabre unsolved murders, the full extent of their shared history will be truly understood as they come face-to-face with the future they must live.
Produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks, the series is commissioned by BBC Two in the UK, where it launches this Thursday. Coproducer Amazon Studios will then release the series on Prime Video in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Nordics on Friday.
Distributor All3Media International has also sold the series to numerous broadcasters around the world, among them Canal+ in France; Disney+ in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg; Prime Video for the Nordics; HBO Max for CEE, Latin America, Spain and Portugal; Magenta TV for Germany; Pumpkin Film in China; and NAVER Webtoon in South Korea.
Speaking to DQ ahead of The English’s world premiere at Mipcom in Cannes last month, Blick and executive producer Greg Brenman discussed the show’s origin, their partnership, working with Blunt behind the scenes and why Blick wanted to create some escapism for viewers.
Hugo, why did you want to make a Western?
Hugo Bick: The great Jimmy Stewart said the Western is the purest form of cinematic art. If you put a man in the landscape, the bigger the landscape, the greater the pressure upon that man – and that pressure is usually revenge – then you have a very elemental, visual palette. It’s the ambition of many filmmakers to engage with that genre. But the swap-out here is instead of having the great Jimmy Stewart as our revenge motif practitioner, we have a woman, played by Emily Blunt. It’s pretty rare to have a woman in the genre. Normally women in this venerable genre have been harlots or card sharks, people of suspicion, in fact. So to have a woman of agency, of revenge, is unusual.
What’s perhaps unique is the second part of our story. We have ‘above the title’ a Native American playing a Native American in a lead role within the genre. The genre doesn’t have a great history of native representation. There are wonderful examples of storytelling and if you look at something as venerable as John Ford’s The Searchers, which many hold up as the greatest of its type, well, Chief Scar is not only played by a German called Henry Brandon, but he’s blue-eyed. Chaske Spencer, who plays Eli in our project, and in between takes used to have a running joke finding out who else had played Native Americans within the genre who were effectively [European]. That would include people like Rock Hudson, Elvis Presley, Jeff Chandler… the list was endless. The opportunity to evoke a Native experience within the Western genre was one of the main purposes of making the picture.
What was the genesis of the story?
Blick: When I was a young man, I was sent out to Montana and so I experienced the last vestiges of what you might think of as the Old West, and what I saw was some of the best and some of the worst aspects of that. As a consequence, I loved Westerns, I wanted to engage in a Western and I wanted to engage with it in a particular way. But technically, there’s a very demanding aspect to it – you take people out into the middle of nowhere, you have a circus of horses and all the things that come with it logistically. To engage in that epic level of storytelling, I’m glad I approached this at the later part of my career rather than the first part.
What are the common themes you address here that fans of your work will recognise from previous series?
Blick: One of the things they might enjoy about my work is they’re never very similar from one to the other. I’ve explored in The Honourable Woman the relationship between Israel and Palestine, in Black Earth Rising, post-genocide Rwanda and here I am in a Western, and previously a neo-noir in The Shadow Line. They’re very different. But I guess there’s a uniting theme in identity – the loss of identity and the reclamation of identity. In this specific story, The English, that is personified in these two lead characters – their loss of identity and their reclamation of it. This feels very essential.
How do you embrace the tropes that make Westerns so popular but also avoid some of the cliches?
Blick: The cowboy part of the Western is very clear – it’s revenge. The ones we engage in, they’re about a guy who has had something wrong done to him so he’s going to go out and find the bad guy and sort it out. That revenge motif is very much present in our story. But what’s unusual is it has this other element, the ‘epic’ element, the thing you would normally see in Doctor Zhivago, and that’s the love story. There’s an intimacy between our two lead characters who support each other in their variant vulnerabilities and strengths to take this survival journey with each other and fall in love or express ideas of what love is. That makes this story epic and intimate, and it shifts it so it isn’t just about the linear ‘shoot ’em up,’ which could become a little cliched and expected. It has this unusual heartbeat of being about two vulnerable individuals who have to survive and, in surviving, they hopefully engage an audience to wish that they will. That’s what’s unusual about it and I hope it makes for a unique presentation for an audience.
Did you take any inspiration from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and others?
Blick: What was so remarkable about shooting the picture in Spain was that when you arrive, there’s fantastic crew, many of whom had relations – uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers – who worked with Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and many other practitioners of the Spaghetti Western, and it made for a fantastic, experienced crew who knew from their historical relationship with the genre what this technically required. There are elements I like about both Sergios’ storytelling and others I’m not so keen on. I absolutely love the flair, the way in which they create that ‘swish’ to their narrative storytelling, and the flair for violence and epic emotion is something that is hugely part of our inheritance.
How did you use music in the series?
Blick: The music score is only just below the characters because a score is the articulation of a character’s view even when they’re not saying it. That’s the joy of great scoring. It’s like adding bone structure to a story. Federico Jusid, who is our composer, had to do two things: he had to look backwards to the inheritance of the genre and then he had to make it his own. I’m as certain as I can be that he’s done a wonderful job of that. He speaks to the past, to Ennio Morricone, to John Barry and to Clint Eastwood’s work, but he also carries it forward in his own articulation and I feel by the end of the project, you come away with the sense of that score that will echo in you, and it will just be about The English.
How was writing the series during the pandemic lockdown?
Blick: The rhythm of my writing schedule matched, unfortunately, the lockdown – or fortunately for me, given I was writing. But what it offered me was this opportunity to escape. I was doing it with my script, and now the audience has the opportunity – as the winter months draw in and we still have this echo of lockdown – to enter into this epic landscape, with fabulous sunsets and vistas and epic storytelling, about survival and the intimacy of emotional needs in an escapist environment that allows us to breathe and get away from what has been a horrendous few years. We’ve been so locked in and airless, and here it is. Breathe your way through that dust into a hell of a story.
With a history writing about geopolitics, how might current events in Europe inspire your next project and the themes you’re looking to embrace?
Blick: I always circle a couple of projects in my mind and it’s not yet time to land them, so I won’t know entirely what I want to do next until the new year when this project is completely delivered. But I am certain that the reflection of now and what’s happening in these tumultuous times that we’re living in will, if not by actuality be reflected, be thematically engaged with. You can’t not. You live for now.
The story we’re telling in The English reflects upon a venerable genre and uses a classical historical knowledge of the technical side of it but really hopes to speak to the issues that are immediate. Why else does an audience want to engage and come with you? They don’t want a history lesson that’s just about the technical aspects of the genre. They want to feel this speaks to them now. As a writer, you’re always trying to feel the tremor on the surface of the water and reflect that, no matter what genre you’re engaging with.
Greg, this is your third project with Hugo. When The English came to you, what were your first thoughts?
Greg Brenman: When I read the first episode, I was just struck by how extraordinary it was. What a wonderful character Cornelia is and what an extraordinary personality and character Eli is. I was absolutely compelled and bowled over, and desperate to find out more, so we needed to make sure the series got made. As ever, it presented us with an interesting challenge: where would we make it? How could we get it financed? The thing we agreed very early on was, unlike the other two shows, we would probably need to cast it quite early because the demand, budget-wise, was going to be fairly big, so we needed someone to help us find a home that could support the vision.
Emily came on very early. Hugo sent her a script and within two weeks, me, Hugo and Emily were racing around LA meeting potential buyers. Amazon was our first port of call and they bought it in the room. Emily’s been fantastically important, both creatively and as an exec producer, helping with the heavy lifting in terms of bringing financing to the project. And because Covid elongated and stretched out pre-production to the point of torture, she managed to keep Amazon on board all the way. There were moments when everything was slipping and sliding and it got pretty hairy, but she was really important.
Blick: Sometimes I concern myself because people might feel it’s a vanity thing, offering a film star an exec producer [role]. In this case with Emily, she was sent the first pilot script but then the rest of the scripts were developed with her in mind, intimately involved in her relationship to the story and beyond just her character. Then in the edit, she was incredibly closely involved in the way we constructed it, almost as far as it felt like [Beatles songwriting partners] Lennon and McCartney – and now I realise I’m McCartney, because I like the poetry, and Emily would be like, ‘get on with the chase.’ So between the two of us, we found a great balance. I thought it was very effective and way beyond what others might consider is just vanity. She knew what she was doing as an exec producer and she participated full-bloodedly within that.
tagged in: All3Media International, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Studios, BBC Two, Black Earth Rising, Chaske Spencer, Drama Republic, Eight Rooks, Emily Blunt, Hugo Blick, Stephen Rea, The English, The Honourable Woman, The Shadow Line, Valerie Pachner