Making a Pact
Producer Elwen Rowlands and director Eric Styles take DQ behind the scenes of Welsh thriller The Pact, in which four friends are drawn into a world of secrets and consequences following a mysterious death.
With ambitions to produce TV drama for local and international audiences, Little Door Productions set up shop in Cardiff in 2019. But founders and producers Elwen Rowlands and Hayley Manning could not have foreseen the events that would shape their first series, six-part BBC Wales mystery thriller The Pact.
“It’s been insane because of Covid, basically,” Rowlands tells DQ. “It was fantastic on so many different fronts, but it wasn’t the first production we anticipated. It was a little bit of a challenging one.”
Filming had been due to commence on March 23 last year, but was suspended a week earlier as countries around the world started to impose lockdowns in the face of the emerging pandemic. Working together with lead director Eric Styles, Little Door resumed preparations last summer ahead of shooting finally getting underway in mid-September and continuing until Christmas.
“It was just complete free-fall. No one had been in this situation, no one knew what to do. But the industry really pulled together very quickly and we were supported by our colleagues, by agents. Everybody was trying to work out how to save the industry, really,” Rowlands continues. “Naively, we were thinking it would be [a delay of] about eight or 12 weeks. Then it became clear it was so much bigger than that.
“Those last few weeks were very tough because community transmission was so high all around us and we were testing on a daily basis. It was a huge collective effort to make the show. Everybody took responsibility for safety and acted responsibly and followed the protocols, not only on set but also outside of the work environment. People were being super careful not to bring Covid into the into the workplace, and luckily we got through it.”
Before production was paused, Styles and the producers had built a very specific vision of how the show would look and feel. When filming did start, that vision didn’t change, though some locations were lost during the downtime as homeowners were understandably wary of allowing a film crew into their home in the middle of a pandemic.
“Other than that, it was surprising how we all got into a groove once we started working,” Styles says. “The thing that freaked me out was the notion that everyone would need to wear masks. As a director, you obviously want to have a really close relationship with the crew and the cast. We experimented with clear masks and they just looked like you were in some kind of crazy horror film. When we got the cast together for the readthroughs, everybody was still in masks and it was just very strange. But within a couple of days of shooting, everything became really normal.”
Communicating and working with the actors was particularly difficult, though Styles says the effect of the cast only taking their masks off for each take generated a sense of spontaneity and freshness that might not have been there under normal circumstances.
“Perhaps, in a very strange and bizarre way, it was actually a good thing for the show, but certainly what we ended up achieving by the end of this incredible slog through Covid was very close to what I wanted to do at the beginning, so it didn’t really hinder us,” he adds. “We ended up finding a pace of work that was really fast. I didn’t feel that we compromised on anything and I’m really pleased with how the show looks and feels.”
The Pact introduces a group of close colleagues – Anna (Laura Fraser), Nancy (Julie Hesmondhalgh), Louie (Eiry Thomas) and Cat (Heledd Gwynn) – who work together at a brewery. But when a company party takes a dark turn, leading to the death of young boss Jack (Aneurin Barnard), the four friends are drawn into a fragile pact of silence, bound by a secret that will change their lives forever.
Meanwhile, Anna’s police officer husband Max (Jason Hughes) and his fierce superior, DS Holland (Rakie Ayola), begin to investigate the suspicious death, unaware Max’s own wife and her best friends are at the heart of a conspiracy. Furthermore, as brewery worker Tish (Abbie Hern) becomes increasingly suspicious of her co-workers, Jack’s estranged father Arwel (Eddie Marsan) struggles to conceal dark family secrets.
Set up in Cardiff to take advantage of an increasing amount of funding that UK broadcasters are directing outside London, Little Door sought to create a drama that reflected contemporary Wales while telling a story that also offered international intrigue. Doctor Who and A Discovery of Witches writer Pete McTighe pitched his idea for The Pact, which blends complex character arcs with page-turning tension, and BBC Wales commissioned the series. Lionsgate is handing global sales.
McTighe was influenced by female ensemble dramas such as Widows, Tenko and She’s Out, and wanted to write a characterful drama that explores secrets and their consequences.
“We knew it was going to be about this group of women and that friendship was at the heart of it. Pete mapped it all out and then it grew as we got into writing the first couple of scripts,” says Rowlands (The Last Post, Vera). “There’s a mysterious death so there is definitely an investigative strand that grows over the show, but I wouldn’t describe it as procedural. There’s definitely an investigation both within the police and the women themselves who are trying to piece together what’s happening.”
Styles heard about the show and registered his interest with Little Door, which was in the rare position of being able to send the director all six scripts to read before pre-production had even started.
“That is a terrific situation to be in, and that’s not necessarily the case with TV. I’ve worked on jobs where you don’t have the script until days before shooting,” he says. “The fact we had all of this at our disposal was fantastic.I read all six scripts over a weekend and I thought they were really beautifully written and had a really fabulous and genuine sense of mystery and intrigue that was unputdownable.
“It’s quite easy to see this as a crime thriller but, really, it’s a fantastic mystery story about some very ordinary women being pushed into an extraordinary situation and just seeing how they deal with what becomes an incredibly frightening situation. You just saw that sense of them unravelling in real time, and it became a wonderful way of empathising with these characters and made the situation much more profound and affecting. I fell in love with the story and just really wanted to be part of it.”
With four main characters to introduce in the first 30 minutes, as well as the events that leave Jack lying dead in a forest, there was a lot of information for Styles to unpack in the first episode, in which viewers get a sense of the friendship between the brewery workers before their world is turned upside down.
“It all comes back to the writing, and Pete managed to create these little moments that you just became really drawn to,” Styles explains. “For me, this is a story about having to really examine how people are dealing with this evolving trauma they find themselves in. It’s not necessarily the initial crime, but it’s how they deal with each other. It’s looking at the strains and the pressures they’re put under as a bunch of friends and how they have to conceal that from their families and their work colleagues. It becomes really interesting drama.
“What I liked about it was, as you were reading these scripts, this big mysterious death plunges the characters into this unforeseen territory of drama and jeopardy. Every week, we discover more and more about them as people and have loads of layers being revealed in a very subtle, sensitive way.”
While the TV industry faces up to how events over the last 12 months will be reflected in on-screen drama, one thing The Pact does do is acknowledge the impact of Covid-19, even if only in passing. Just in episode one, characters mention the difficulties of the past year and how “half the country’s bankrupt.”
“We had quite a few conversations and we really were very torn about how to deal with it,” Rowlands reveals. “We had conversations with the design department about whether we would have hand sanitisers in the factory and two-metre distancing lines everywhere to reflect a post-Covid world. We decided we wouldn’t do that, but there are a couple of small references throughout about it being a tough year.”
On set, the producers built an ensemble cast of recognisable Welsh and non-Welsh actors, while Marsan utilised an accent coach to help him perfect his Welsh speech to play Jack’s father. Hesmondhalgh is known for her long-running role on Coronation Street, while Fraser will be recognisable to Breaking Bad fans as Lydia. Barnard (Dunkirk), Thomas (Keeping Faith), Gwynn (Ordinary Lies), Hern (The Twilight Zone), Ayola (Noughts + Crosses) and Hughes (Midsomer Murders) are also joined by Mark Lewis-Jones (The Crown), Adrian Edmondson (Save Me), Gabrielle Creevy (In My Skin) and Aled Ap Steffan (Gangs of London).
“Because it was an ensemble, we hadn’t really thought about casting until we approached [casting director] Sarah Crowe, who completely embraced the brief to try to cast Welsh as much as possible,” Rowlands says. “Then we worked out which actors didn’t need to be Welsh and that opened it up. We were keen to have authentic Welsh portrayal, but also a few names that had meaning outside domestically for the UK and internationally. It’s a dream cast, really.”
Behind the camera, Styles (Hidden) and co-director Rebeca Johnson (The Flash) wanted to find a balance between the naturalist depiction of the world in which the show is set and the heightened psychological drama contained in the events that unfold.
Based in Newport, close to Cardiff, the production took advantage of the “primeval landscapes” to portray the life of a small community nestled among the Welsh valleys. “We wanted to get a sense of timelessness and also to present that landscape in a way that initially is quite playful and then turned a little bit more sinister,” Styles notes. “We also decided we were going to work with a limited colour palette, so the story is predominantly in ochres, natural greens, browns and blues. We wanted to stay away from any bright primary colours, so the only reds in the story are the very bright reds associated with Jack.”
Another key element of the series is the music, with composer Mac Quayle (Mr Robot, Pose) logging in from the US to score the drama and working over Zoom with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
“He’s brought this incredible energy and a musicality to the show,” Styles says. “I tend to like themes in music for drama, and he’s done a really great job. This always needed to be a very atmospheric, moody piece. We were talking about the way the forest is introduced with a playful quality and then finding ways to completely subvert it when it becomes something that’s more menacing. He really went with that and then took it in a really interesting direction.”
“That was one of the positives of Covid, because he’s based in LA and normally you want to meet with a composer,” Rowlands adds. “But everything was happening remotely in post-production anyway so you think, ‘Why can’t we have a composer in LA? We’re doing it all over Zoom anyway.’ It was great to be able to utilise the orchestra and have him Zooming in to work with them.”
Fuelled by the success of other BBC Wales dramas such as Hinterland, Keeping Faith and Hidden, The Pact will become the first BBC Wales commission to air simultaneously on BBC1 when it launches next Monday, with all episodes also being made available immediately on BBC iPlayer. Rowlands hopes viewers who decide to tune in are pulled headfirst into the mystery at the heart of the story.
“Pete’s done a fantastic job on those on those scripts,” she says. “I really hope people are intrigued to stay with that to find out what happens and are all surprised by the twists and turns.”