Shooting a Scandal
Director SJ Clarkson opens up about helming Netflix’s suspenseful thriller Anatomy of a Scandal, bringing drama to a courtroom and how her start in theatre influences her cinematic style.
SJ Clarkson has made her name as a television director on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning with credits on British dramas such as Footballers’ Wives, Bad Girls and Hustle, Clarkson went on to work on shows including Mistresses and Whitechapel. Then in the US, she directed a number of hit series, among them Heroes, Dexter, Orange is the New Black and Succession. Most notably, she was the lead director on Netflix’s Marvel series Jessica Jones and miniseries The Defenders.
Yet despite her wide-ranging credits, and a brief scene in time-travel crime drama Life on Mars, Clarkson has somehow avoided directing a courtroom drama – until now. She directs all six episodes of Anatomy of a Scandal, a Netflix series that blends psychological thriller and courtroom suspense to tell the story of Britain’s elite through a personal and political scandal.
When star government minister James Whitehouse is exposed for having an affair with his aide, it threatens to destroy not only his career but also his marriage to Sophie and their loving family. Meanwhile, barrister Kate Woodcroft is also on the rise until her prosecution of James and its wider impact places intense strain on her self-esteem.
Created and written by David E Kelley (Big Little Lies) and Melissa James Gibson (House of Cards) and based on Sarah Vaughan’s book of the same name, Anatomy of a Scandal stars Sienna Miller (The Loudest Voice) as Sophie, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Kate and Rupert Friend (Homeland) as James. The cast also includes Naomi Scott, Josette Simon, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Joshua McGuire.
“They’re hard to sustain and hard to be engaging,” Clarkson says of courtroom dramas. “I like the pomp of it, though. The courtroom was a byproduct of reading this amazing thriller with these incredibly exciting characters and this compelling story that twists and turns and has reveals that are surprising and satisfying. I immediately saw the cinematic opportunities of it, and rather than courtrooms feeling like a burden, they were a blessing. Courtrooms are about retelling stories, and I became fascinated by how inaccurate our memories are. If you could show that in a cinematic way, that could make it incredibly exciting.”
Clarkson was first handed a copy of Vaughan’s novel before it was published in 2018, and found it to be a real page-turner. “I was so captivated by it; it was obvious it would make a great adaptation,” she says.
The director then met Kelley, Gibson and 3Dot Productions executive producer Liza Chasin, before the show was pitched to Netflix. She was in the early stages of “soft prep” before the UK went into its first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, which put the project on hold for the next five months. That gave Clarkson and Gibson extra time to work on the scripts, with daily Zoom calls between Clarkson in London and Gibson in New York.
“When you’re directing all six episodes, you want to make sure they’re as ready as possible because you don’t really have time to be prepping while you’re shooting,” she says. “That’s not really an option.”
Both in the UK and the US, Clarkson has directed lots of pilots and mid-season episodes, but Anatomy of a Scandal is just the third time she has steered an entire series, following Love, Nina in 2016 and David Hare’s 2018 thriller Collateral. “I suppose it’s like making a giant movie because you take ownership from start to finish. That’s exciting and also terrifying because there is no let-up. You have six episodes of television in your head continually and you’re juggling them,” she says, noting that Anatomy was filmed in location blocks and out of continuity.
“Normally, what you would do is if you’re in a courtroom, you go in, you do a couple of weeks and then you pop out, have a breather and maybe do some location work,” she explains. “But because of the pandemic, we ended up doing all the courtroom at the same time. When you take on a six-episode series, you really are authoring the entire thing and it’s an awful lot of material to keep in your head at the same time.”
What Clarkson did find liberating, however, was the chance to pick up any shots that might have been missed later in the schedule. “One thing we all know about drama when we’ve done it long enough is things are going to change. You need to be fluid. If things change or if things didn’t land, you can pick it up later. But the schedule is brutal. You are filming for 90 days during a global pandemic. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint.”
When she worked with Hare on Collateral, Clarkson would visit the writer in his studio and go through the scripts, the pair reading them out together. “That’s a really great way of getting under the skin of it, but it was awful because neither of us are particularly good actors, although he might disagree,” she jokes.
There was a similar process with Gibson, having group chats with Kelley and then working through scenes together. By the time shooting began, the six scripts were all pretty much locked and infused with Clarkson’s visual intentions, so when filming began, how the courtroom scenes would play out and where the story’s numerous flashbacks would cut in and out were already in place.
Revealing moments of the affair and the early stages of James and Sophie’s relationship, it was important the flashbacks moved the story forward in the present day but also arrived and left organically. “What you show in flashback is part reminiscing but part giving more information or sowing seeds and laying breadcrumbs of where we’re going,” Clarkson says. “It was quite a challenge to know where to land them and which ones to have in because there were more in the book that we didn’t put in, and we actually created some of our own for the series to help us with the way we were steering the narrative.”
Like any adaptation, Anatomy of a Scandal has evolved in its transition to television. Notably, each chapter in the novel takes a different character’s perspective, and while that approach was discussed for the series, ultimately the show takes a different path. But Clarkson often returned to the novel – her “bible” – whenever she was in doubt about what was at the core of a scene or a character’s motivation.
“We’ve really tried to take the spirit and essence of the book,” she says. “My hope is it’s the ultimate binge-watch. That’s how I felt when I read the book. I kept turning the page and I was like, ‘I have to infuse the cinematic storytelling with this same level of engagement and propulsion.’”
If viewers were to look for any visual connections to her previous work – “SJ-isms,” as she calls them – they may spot some elements that hark back to the early stages of her career working in theatre. In Anatomy, there are numerous shots featuring reflections in puddles or mirrors, while the camera itself often moves through a scene. That approach is particularly successful in the courtroom, where characters are stood or seated in the same place throughout proceedings, but the moving camera provides a sense of propulsion in an otherwise static arena.
“What I got excited about was the elements of fragmented memory and how I could show that cinematically in a fresh, engaging way that would make you lean in [to the story] and then also question it,” she says. “That was a benefit to courtroom scenes. One scene was 44 pages, and in a British courtroom, you don’t get to walk around. You don’t get to do this wonderful blocking with the prosecution parading around the courthouse.
“So much thought in those early days went into the actual geography of the courtroom. I put Sienna in the public gallery because it felt like a theatre, like she was watching her life play out in front of her. We were always thinking about things like that.”
Although the show is set in London, Clarkson likes to say Anatomy of a Scandal is set in a parallel universe, one where people don’t wear masks to keep them safe from Covid-19 and where Big Ben isn’t covered in scaffolding – it was actually recreated using VFX. The series also showcases some of the city’s other landmarks, though many of the show’s settings – including the courtrooms and the Whitehouse home – are builds. Clarkson worked closely with designer Melanie Allen on the layout of these key sets, while location manager Antonia Grant, “the best in London,” pulled together five different locations to recreate the Houses of Parliament, including one in Manchester.
“It’s about really working with your team as a director and pulling on their resources and talent, and then getting a brilliant first AD, in my case Richard Styles, to pull a schedule together that we could actually complete, because the magnitude of it was huge,” Clarkson says. “And then getting my longtime collaborator Balazs Bolygo to light it and shoot it. That’s the gift of being a director. You get to work with all these amazing people who make you look good.”
Clarkson’s theatrical flourishes are most noticeable at the end of episodes – cinematic punctuations that certainly show off her directorial flair and come at emotionally heightened moments for the characters. One example is at the end of episode one, when James is told he will be questioned by the police, and Friend is physically hauled off his feet as if he has been hit by a truck. Similarly, at the end of episode two, when Sophie’s world is turned upside down by some intimate court revelations, Miller begins to freefall through the air.
“Sometimes you’re lucky enough that when you read something, you get these ideas. You always want to go, ‘How do I end the episode with a bang?’” says the director. “It’s just fun for the audience to give them a cinematic punch at the end of it. Hopefully it’s driven by psychology. You don’t ever want to just impose it on it because then it’s just style over substance. If you do that too many times, and you can, there are moments when you take out the grounded nature of what I hope this is. I hope it’s grounded, even though there’s a heightened quality to it.”
As Clarkson’s directing style evolves with every project she takes on, so too does her approach to working with actors. In rehearsals, she will have questions for them about their characters but won’t sit down and talk through the script. Where she does highlight individual scenes, often she will ask her cast to switch roles and read each other’s parts. In another callback to her theatre background, she will also work on movement and play some theatre games to help them get into character.
Inevitably, the pandemic did hinder some of Clarkson’s preparation with the actors, as they were kept apart where possible to avoid any Covid cases spreading through the main cast. Dockery and Miller were separated until their shared courtroom scenes.
Rehearsals were particularly useful for an early scene in episode one where Simon, who plays defence barrister Angela Regan, and Dockery are shown in the court changing rooms robing up before heading into court. They spoke with a legal consultant and practiced putting on their robes and wigs until it became effortless, in a bid to make it seem as though the actors really were well-seasoned barristers.
“I knew in the opening scene I wanted them to be able to put that robing on effortlessly, that they just sort of slung it on, so that was something we rehearsed,” Clarkson says. “We rehearsed getting in and out of that costume and putting the wig on without a mirror, because then it seems real. My job is to just try to make everything feel real.”
She would also hold actor surgeries, where they would talk together about their characters, what might not be working for them or what they might be most nervous about. “It’s like going to the GP. You talk through those things because often actors will have a great insight you don’t know about or something you haven’t thought about. That way, you’re being fluid and you’re working with them.”
With the Houses of Parliament recreated using five different locations, and scenes in some cases shot five months apart, one challenge Clarkson faced was continuity. Friend would sometimes walk through a door when shooting started in November 2020 and come through the other side when filming completed in March last year.
“Thank god for my brilliant script supervisor. Tessa Kimbell is a goddess,” says the director, who felt a sense of achievement from merely completing the shoot. The series launches on Netflix worldwide on April 15. “Everybody worked so hard. There were some very long dialogue scenes, especially in the courtroom, working with Sienna to plot out Sophie’s journey and making sure that in every scene we did something different and revealed something new. And what was wonderful is we still managed to have some fun during a global pandemic. Even though it did take two years, we probably are a stronger bonded group as a result.”
Now preparing a new Marvel Studios movie for Sony that is said to centre on a character known as Madame Web and set in the Spider-Man universe, Clarkson says she should find every job challenging, and the day she doesn’t, she should probably give up. There’s little chance of that with the number of new series being commissioned by broadcasters and streaming platforms alike, but it does make projects difficult to staff up, such is the demand for skilled crew.
“It’s a blessing and a burden that you’ve got these amazing opportunities,” she says. “But if we get it right and we can nurture new talent and new skills that come through, Britain will be such a great place for production.”