Poetry in motion
DQ goes behind the scenes on ITV’s Beowulf, based on the epic poem.
It’s described as an epic re-imagining of one of literature’s greatest and most enduring heroes. UK broadcaster ITV’s forthcoming drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a western set in a place populated by both humans and fantastical creatures during the Dark Ages of Britain.
The first episode, due to debut on the network in 2016, follows Beowulf who, after spending years as a mercenary warrior, returns to Herot to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane, Hrothgar – the man who raised him. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt it down, in turn winning favour with Herot’s new female Thane and the wider community.
So begins a series about courage, greed, betrayal, revenge, loyalty, power and love, featuring fights, chases, raids and battles filmed on a sprawling set built in the north east of England.
Writer James Dormer executive produces with ITV Studios creative director of drama Tim Haines (Primeval, Sinbad) and ITV Studios executive producer of drama Katie Newman (Primeval: New World). ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing the show.
But just how was this sweeping 13-part drama – which is based on a 3,000-line poem written sometime around the 11th century – brought to life?
Before pitching the series to ITV, Newman wrote a five-season arc showing where the story could go, setting out characters and, importantly, designing a map that imagined the layout of the Shieldlands.
She says: “I was very surprised by the poem’s depth of character and how relevant it is considering how old it is, and just what a great story it is. Both Tim and I liked the world and wondered how to make it into a television show. Although the poem has a certain feel and tone we connected with, we used it as a jumping-off point to then be free to imagine from there.”
Newman says the key to Beowulf’s development was thinking about westerns, with Beowulf returning to a town he left as a child and becoming the sheriff: “Tim and I both got excited because suddenly it all made sense – a frontier town where there’s danger from outside and within.
“We then set about creating the world beyond Herot. Everything grew from there. And because we didn’t want to be historically accurate, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows you freedom.”
Haines describes Beowulf as a classic hero: “He’s the original hero in many ways. For western fantasy, Beowulf is where it all started. He was a name for a hero that becomes the core of heroic fantasy in western storytelling.
“The original Beowulf would be a boastful, sexist, arrogant murderer but we had to give him more nuance. He’s a Beowulf you can recognise and identify with now.”
To build the world of the Shieldlands for television, Haines says it was important to have a central location. “Building a new destination every episode would mean you’d be bankrupt by episode four, so you need to come back to a place. That fits with the idea of home, which is very strong for our character. You want the audience to feel that every week they’re escaping to somewhere. Every drama builds a world, but with ours it’s everything you point a camera at – you have to build the towns, find the wilderness and dress everyone and everything.”
As such, finding a filming location that could present a number of different landscapes was vital. “We wanted it to feel bigger than the couple of kilometres we were filming in so we had mountain people, forest people and nomadic horse people,” says Newman. “The advantage of filming in Northumberland is that it gives you a rather incredible range of landscapes. We tried to make it feel bigger to make it feel epic.”
Haines, who says the production would have shot in Ireland had it not been for English tax breaks, adds: “What I liked about Northumberland is England gets thinner. You go from highlands and moorlands to the coast very quickly though lots of different environments. For a show like this where you want to go to a different place on the map in each episode, you want it to feel different. It’s difficult if you’re in the middle of rural southern England where it doesn’t change that much.”
Central to building the world of Beowulf were costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes and production designer Grant Montgomery.
Wheeler-Holes says that although creating clothing for a world of myth and fantasy might sound easy, the impact of the Lord of the Rings film franchise and HBO drama Game of Thrones meant it was important Beowulf should stand apart from them, limiting what he could do. “It was helpful that the executive producers were insistent that the series was not driven by period accuracy but rather by the show’s own sense of style, freeing things up massively,” he says.
The drama is set between 800-900AD in a world similar to the frontier towns of American westerns, so Wheeler-Holes found mixing western themes with those of fantasy as a fun place to start. “Colours are important to me as a designer, allowing a shorthand to be created to link or distance people in the minds of an audience,” he explains. “When looking at a family show like Beowulf, things need to be simplified so that character traits for groups of people can be recognised by all age groups. Put simply, the tribes of the Shieldlands are all colour-coded – green, blue, red, saffron, black… We can recognise who is from where and who their allegiances are to.”
He adds: “Working with the actors, directors and producers to come up with costumes that everybody loves on a show like Beowulf is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. It has been a joy creating a world in which the characters, I hope, wear clothes rather than costumes. One in which you can almost smell the people and one which we’d all, secretly, love to be a part of.”
For production designer Montgomery, Beowulf offered a unique opportunity to create a world from scratch, including sets, furniture, banners, wagons, shields, weapons, glass and pottery. He says his influences ranged from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and production designer Ken Adam (James Bond franchise) to painter Gustav Klimt, as well as 1960s epics such as Cleopatra and Spartacus.
The town of Herot included a giant exterior of Hrothgar’s mead hall (the interior of which is covered with gold), assorted buildings, smelting pits that all begin to smoke at the touch of a button, walkways, a troll arena and a ‘Wheel of Pain’ that is turned by the trolls.
“This was a massive undertaking in design and build terms and took 18 weeks to complete from blueprint stage to finished build,” explains Montgomery. “It was built through the late autumn and winter of 2014 to April 2015. High winds and snow storms hindered the build but a brilliant construction team led by Paul Ward and art director Nick Wilkinson completed the enormous task.
“I designed the town to reflect how the wealth of Herot is bound up with the sweat and labour of many in the smelting pits, so that the audience could relate the two sides of the town.”
Built in a disused quarry, the mead hall set is 35ft high and 150ft long. Wolf heads and columns were sculpted and cast from moulds, while furniture ranging from Hrothgar’s bed to the glassware were made in Europe and Morocco.
Montgomery says Beowulf’s hut, in particular, was one of his favourite sets. “All the shields adorning the walls were designed to represent the separate tribes that inhabit the Shieldlands, along with the troll heads that represent past conquests. The shields and troll heads were sculpted and cast into a lightweight silicon rubber and expanded foam. The whole feel was to create a sheriff jail as if it were a cross between a western and a viking town.”
Beyond the sets and costumes, CGI also plays an important role in the series. Haines says that although there are creatures, Beowulf isn’t a “monster of the week” series, and he’s keen to stress that while fantastical in many ways, this isn’t a magic show.
“In a world-building sense, we’re developing a fauna. The original occupants of the Shieldlands were giants and a whole ecology of what humans call ‘mud born.’ They’re this fantastical group of creatures,” he explains. “These creatures go from wolves up to giants and skin-shifters who are as intelligent as human beings. In season one, you see probably half a dozen. They appear in different shows and they are niche. Their identity becomes more established as you go along.
“Trolls are more sophisticated, gorilla-like creatures that are capable of limited communication. The skin-shifters were the old druids, the priestly class who hate the humans. But there’s no magic in this show. The closest we get is the skin-shifters can change form. That goes back to an idea that people can shape-shift, which is very much of the Dark Ages and, therefore, allowable in our story. Otherwise everything is flesh and blood. There are no wizards or magicians.
“There was a feeling from ITV that they didn’t want another magic show. This is a brutally real series. It makes it easier to stick to the rules. The point of magic is there are no rules. It’s like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver – if you’ve got something that can get you out of trouble like that, where’s the excitement? Whereas if you’re in a fight with a troll, you’d be lucky to step away alive. We wanted to give our creatures biological parameters that make them believable to the audience, just as the characters themselves are believable.”
Ultimately, if it is to become a major international hit, creating a series on the scale of Beowulf demands a sizeable budget, and both Haines and Newman hope viewers will see the vast majority of the money on screen.
Haines says: “This is the sort of programme that ITV is making to compete with popular, internationally successful shows. It’s no good saying ‘we’ll give you £1m (US$1.5m) per episode’ when everything you’re competing with, even if it’s a modern US love story, is probably US$2.5m an hour.
“If you’re competing with Game of Thrones, it’s disingenuous to suggest you’re going to have a big success unless you’re prepared to spend a bit more money. As a producer, you just have to make sure the money appears on screen.”
The Beowulf cast tell Michael Pickard why the new ITV drama isn’t just a monster show, while costume designer Ralph Wheeler Holes reveals the thinking behind the main characters’ get-ups.
Riding horses, sword fights and battles with monsters was all in a day’s work for the cast as they filmed ITV’s forthcoming fantasy drama, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
But for Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speleers there was more to the appeal of starring in the show than the chance to put their physical skills to the test.
Bew, who stars as the titular character, says: “The appeal for me was what (exec producer) James Dormer had taken from the original poem and run with to create this world. For me personally, as Beowulf, he’d created this backstory that felt very real, very rich and different to the poem. It retained a lot of those core elements but he’d added something in it that was much more enigmatic.
“We’d talked about the difficulties faced by someone who becomes so notorious for being a great warrior and what kind of trouble that attracts. That infamy isn’t necessarily useful in such a dangerous place that’s not just full of monsters but is also very rough to live in – this western-like place where, if you leave the safety of these small towns and go outside, there’s so much that’s unpredictable, which makes for a lot of drama.
“In our show, Beowulf is a reluctant hero and a conflicted, troubled guy who I thought was very real and incredibly exciting to play. And the other characters that have been added also felt very real.”
For Speleers, previously seen in Downton Abbey and Wolf Hall, the appeal lay not only in his character Slean but also in the ambition of the project.
“Slean is a very torn young man, full of turmoil. He doesn’t really know his place. Everything he believed was going to unfold for him hasn’t. He was meant to be made thane by birthright but that’s been stripped away. Instead, his mother, with whom he has an incredibly close bond, has taken that mantel, and that’s another way for his father Hrothgar to stick the knife in from beyond the grave, almost to cause more problems for Slean.
“He also has this very tough relationship with Beowulf, because he came in when they were both young boys and essentially stole Hrothgar’s affection, which downgraded Slean and pushed him into the gutter even more. So he is angry and full of rage, but he’s also conflicted because there’s a real tenderness to him, and there are certain female characters that bring this tenderness out of him.
“The other thing that enticed me early on was the ambition. It was the balls of it. It’s been a really intense and, at times, tough shoot, but I remember the first time I went up to Herot, the township. It’s a massive set they built on top of the Pennines in a disused quarry and it’s epic. It’s relentless. It’s so much fun but there’s no time to think about it, it’s just constant.”
Whalley, who has starred in The Borgias and Wolf Hall, says she enjoyed the western element of the series, characterised by Beowulf’s return to his childhood home to become leader.
“What I really enjoy about the whole thing is that everyone is not as simple as you might first think,” she explains. “Everyone has backstory, everyone’s conflicted. I particularly liked the whole western element of it, but even that’s quite modern because, when you look at the world as a whole, it’s man and the wild and how we’re encroaching on it.”
The size and scale of the purpose-built set also took on a character of its own, creating new challenges for the cast to overcome.
“The weather in the quarry will change every half an hour,” reveals Bew. “When we rehearse, you look at the clouds and you say, ‘In 40 minutes we’re going to be in the cloud.’ It doesn’t pass overhead, it’s around you and you’re in it. There’s nowhere to hide. The quarry has this fantastic cliff edge that’s teeming with life and then the clouds come in and drop over the cliff like ghosts and come in around you. It’s incredible to work in a place like that.”
The presence of monsters in the Shieldlands – from shapeshifters to trolls – meant the cast were also challenged to act opposite something rather less scary.
“When you’re fighting a monster, sometimes you’re actually fighting a man in a green suit. Then they take him away and you do the same scene again without that guy there,” explains Bew. “The acting with the green thing is not that hard – it’s when they take it away and you’ve got to imagine the green thing and imagine it grabbing you (that it can be difficult).
“We’ve got 30 to 60 people working on all the CGI in this show. It’s hugely ambitious to make all these monsters and they’re really delivering on it. It’s phenomenal – for TV, for the speed we film, the action, the sword fights, the horse riding, the turnover, the terrain. Everything has to be considered, and the crew are just heroes.”
Whalley has been equally impressed by the crew: “It was a really special unit. They delivered big time. The first time we saw the promo was at the wrap party and we were all blown away. We couldn’t believe what we had achieved.”
As the leading man, Bew says he faced several personal challenges, such as learning to ride a horse, and suffered a few knocks during the shoot.
“I broke three ribs in week three,” he reveals. “All the running and riding in episode two, that’s real pain. Funnily enough, I could ride the horse OK – it was getting on and off (that was hard). Similarly, lying in bed at night was incredibly painful. So shooting a scene where I’m lying on the ground and seeing this creature and I have to get off the ground really quickly, that was probably the most challenging physical thing I did on the show, which is ridiculous. I do leap off the horse a few times and jump on things.”
Undoubtedly, the ambition of Beowulf – from the scale of the set to the 13-episode order – is something rarely seen on British television, and Speleers says the show is perfectly pitched for families to watch together: “I don’t think we’ve had anything like this for a family audience. There are things that are relatable, there are strong morals and there’s conflict, which is going to be great for a family audience to watch.”
Whalley notes: “If you’re seven, you’re going to watch it and be more into the swords and the trolls, but if you’re not seven, there’s so much more, there are so many layers.”
Bew says the challenge of producing 13 episodes of television has been noticeable but praised ITV’s ambition and “bravery.”
“TV is international now,” he adds. “Everybody’s plugged in and everybody’s turning into TV junkies. It’s amazing how with shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield and Mad Men, the lead characters are conflicted people who do despicable acts but you can’t help but stay with them and live with them, and you want to see more and empathise with them. It’s such a phenomenal time for TV.”