Life goes on
Life After Life writer Bash Doran and director John Crowley reveal how they juggled flashbacks and narration and avoided period drama clichés in making this four-part BBC series based on Kate Atkinson’s novel of the same name.
Narration and flashbacks are not normally storytelling devices at the top of a writer or director’s wishlist. But in Life After Life, the BBC’s four-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s award-winning novel, writer Bash Doran and director John Crowley had to grapple with both.
What emerges is a compelling, emotional journey through the life – and lives – of Ursula Todd, who dies tragically in childbirth in 1910. But on that same night, she is reborn and survives.
Time and again she dies in different circumstances – by drowning, from influenza, in a car crash – and is reborn into a slightly alternate life that traverses a cosy Edwardian childhood with her three siblings, living through two world wars and some major life events.
Comparisons may be drawn to films such as Groundhog Day or even Sliding Doors, but rather than having its protagonist relive the same day for comedic reasons, Life After Life ultimately asks, beyond just existing, what is the point of living?
“It takes a very psychologically authentic approach to what it might be like if you kept reliving your life, but you didn’t know that was happening,” writer Bash Doran tells DQ. “That is what makes it distinct from most incarnations of this genre. The audience knows more than the heroine. She intuits it, but there’s no definitive proof in the same way you and I have a moment of déjà vu.
“Once she starts to really trust her instinct that she’s been here before, she asks herself the inevitable question that is not just ‘can I change?’ but ‘can I change the world?’ Then it moves into a very painful analysis of what an individual can do in the face of overwhelming historical forces. It’s really fascinating and profound, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers. But it does offer compassion and insight into the great dance we do with life, knowing that our time here is limited.”
Produced by House Productions and distributed by BBC Studios, the show’s origins can be traced back to when House co-CEO and executive producer Tessa Ross first came to Doran (Traitors, Boardwalk Empire) with the idea of adapting Atkinson’s novel for television. The writer knew that previous attempts to translate it for the screen hadn’t worked, but Ross was “very persuasive,” she says. While Doran wasn’t sure she could succeed where others had failed, she has a love of structurally complex puzzles and thought there might be a way to both honour the novel’s voice and still make a television show.
“It’s not particularly plot driven. It doesn’t take that idea of dying and being reborn and go to a simplistic place of learning how to live life perfectly,” she says. “There’s a lot about it that made it very challenging, but I knew Tessa wanted to make something beautiful and I took this leap of faith in her confidence.”
Before adapting “one of the great British novels,” Doran sought inspiration by reading interviews with director James Ivory and producer Ishmail Merchant, whose collaboration led to film versions of EM Forster’s Howards End and Henry James’ The Bostonians. She also rewatched 2001 Mexican feature Y tu mama Tambien, which she calls “the most successful use of voiceover, in my opinion, and I felt it was impossible to do the adaptation without voiceover.”
She wrote paragraphs about how she thought each episode should be structured and figured out which parts of Atkinson’s novel she would omit or expand on, “but all in service of keeping what was truthful about the novel.”
“I told the BBC there were certain approaches I was not going to take,” Doran continues. “It gets to the inevitable place of if you could kill Hitler, would you kill Hitler? I don’t think that’s a good story. I don’t think that’s an interesting story. The story is so much bigger than that.”
But when a key element of the story concerns the protagonist’s multiple deaths, how much is too much? Doran says it was a question of finding a rhythm for the series, and also a question of taste. “I actually thought one of the reasons this would make compelling entertainment was the fact that you do have the pleasure of anticipating the next death,” she notes. “There was a lot of talk about how many was too many, what kind of deaths they would be and just playing with the audience’s expectations.”
Doran shared some cups of tea with Atkinson at London’s Savoy Hotel, and would send an occasional email to the author, but for the most part they both kept their distance from each other – an approach the screenwriter appreciated.
“I did have the novel open,” she continues. “Kate has a real dramatist ear for dialogue and I tried to use as much as I could because her dialogue is so characterful. Her characters are so extraordinarily alive and complicated, and not just vehicles for plot and action. It was a process like no other.”
Led by Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho) as the adult Ursula, the ensemble cast includes Sian Clifford (Fleabag) as her mother Sylvie, James McArdle (Man in an Orange Shirt) as her father Hugh, Jessica Brown Findlay (Brave New World) as Aunt Izzie and Jessica Hynes (Years & Years) as house cook Mrs Glover.
The family element of the novel was a particular attraction for Doran, who felt the story wasn’t just about Ursula’s repeated lives but also how her relationships with her parents and siblings evolve through each iteration of her life. For example, where a decision in one life can wreck her relationship with Sylvie, a different decision in the next life can change it completely.
“I also just happened to be in love with the character everyone says is the least likeable, Maurice, the older brother,” she adds. “I would fully watch a spin-off show with him, the selfish, pompous, vulnerable civil servant who I loved. He’s a very funny character.”
As viewers will come to learn, Ursula’s deaths are marked by falling snow and her apparent disappearance into a black void, only for the screen to cut straight back to the moment of her birth. Each rebirth also focuses on different elements of past lives to bring the audience back to the present, though the familiar action never seems repeated as it’s characterised by different camera angles, characters or actions.
Doran talked a lot with director John Crowley (Brooklyn) about whether each of Ursula’s lives should have a different look, but he wanted to avoid anything too gimmicky. Instead, his chief job was to make each life feel like it was the only one she had ever lived. The idea of falling snow also came straight from Atkinson’s novel and was one Doran had already incorporated into the scripts.
“There is a wonderful visual problem at the core of it, which is how you join the [new] life and always make it feel fresh as if it’s for the first time, and you then skate past material that sometimes you’ve seen versions of before,” Crowley says. “We came up with a principle that everything has to be the same and different. We would never repeat a shot and would always adjust details – it might just be a costume detail or a set detail, but you’re not necessarily drawing attention to these things.
“Occasionally Ursula has a sense of déjà vu, but little more than that, certainly until episode four, where there’s a bit more of a feeling of ghosts of earlier lives that are still haunting her on some level. Then you have this exterior narrator’s voice [provided by Lesley Manville], which is outside the action. That’s where we came up with the idea of the voids and the punctuation point of between lives.”
Crowley directs all four episodes, marking the first time he has helmed every episode of a series. He was similarly introduced to the project by House Productions’ Ross, with whom he had previously worked on 2007 feature Boy A when she was an executive at Film4.
Crowley was sent Doran’s first two scripts and then read a copy of Atkinson’s novel, and joined the production very quickly after meeting up Doran and Ross in person. Over the next few months, he took a pass at all four scripts and began planning, until the first UK Covid-19 lockdown struck two weeks after their first meeting in March 2020. Shooting had been tentatively planned for that autumn but was bumped back to spring 2021, when production did go ahead.
Filming Life After Life was like shooting a four-hour movie that neatly broke into four separate episodes, he says, with scenes shot out of sequence and then assembled in the edit. “I really enjoyed being able to run a little deeper with character in the way that you can in TV, because you have a little bit more time to dwell on something and to flesh out the idea properly, visually as well as emotionally.
“The big challenge was shaping it emotionally, because it is shaped across the four episodes. You also want the repeat of lives to not be irritating to a viewer, but to be cumulative so there’s a greater degree of investment as it goes on.”
Working with DOP Stuart Bentley (I Am), Crowley devised a visual style for the series that incorporated a lot of handheld camerawork with elegant, composed wide shots. He also likes to rehearse a lot, and after spending two weeks with the cast before production began, he would rehearse further on set before each take.
The director’s “secret weapon” proved to be casting director Fiona Weir (Room, Ammonite), who is also his wife. Weir was charged with assembling a large cast that also included numerous child actors who would play the young Todd children at different ages.
“That’s where a lot of the work was done,” Crowley says. “We have three different Ursulas, and that means three different sets of children. It was tricky because sometimes you’d have all three on one day and you’d juggle between them – and a lot of different babies, of course. It was a very busy set but it was a very happy and well-run set. It never tipped into chaos, thankfully.”
Having worked on adaptations before, the director loves the process of bringing books to the screen, as evidenced with his work on Boy A and Brooklyn. The biggest issue with adaptation, he says, is having enough screen time to do justice to the source material.
“I don’t feel I had enough time when I did The Goldfinch,” he says of the 2019 feature starring Nicole Kidman and based on the book by Donna Tartt. “It was a huge book to try to make work as a single feature, so I was very grateful to have some breathing space with this so it doesn’t feel like you’re shortchanging the film and shortchanging the book. That’s the worst of both worlds, of course.”
Working on Life After Life was also a massive undertaking for production designer Suzie Davies, who had to recreate Edwardian England, the Blitz and 1945 Berlin, among numerous other periods and locations, and all during the Covid-19 pandemic. Archive footage of the First and Second World Wars also features during the series.
“The difficulty was to try to avoid clichés and get a freshness into the material, because I was very aware that the milieu of the story and the Todd family is one which has been very well shot in the past and is a staple of period drama,” Crowley notes. “It felt like we had to be truthful or naturalistic with it and get all the period detail, colour and feel of it exactly right. I didn’t want to lean too heavily on VFX, either. There was a very particular approach to try to stay close to Ursula throughout.”
Despite the numerous characters surrounding its protagonist, Life After Life always comes back to Ursula in a story of a woman coming of age through living repeated lives. “Once you get to a certain stage in life, you feel that there are all these ghosts of paths not taken that walk with you,” Crowley says. “If you stick with it, the rewards of seeing how she turns into who she turns into are rather wonderful.”
“The world feels very precarious and I hope what people will take from it is that having people you love in your life is not nothing, and that really is what Life is about,” Doran adds. “I hope that helps people make sense of our feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness and also shows a path to where we do have power and where we can be our best selves.”