Stirring up Hate
Executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Andrea Dewsbery and director Georgi Banks-Davies take DQ inside the making of Sky original drama I Hate Suzie, about a faded star who becomes embroiled in a hacking scandal.
When she first learned that Succession writer and playwright Lucy Prebble and actor Billie Piper were pitching an idea for a new TV series, Bad Wolf co-founder Julie Gardner was on a state of high alert. “I would want to work on anything by Lucy and Billie,” she tells DQ. “They could adapt the phone book and I would be standing there.”
Prebble and Piper had first worked together on 2007 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, while Piper later starred in Prebble’s 2012 stage play The Effect, about two people who volunteer for a drug trial and end up falling in love. Before then, however, Gardner had been the executive producer of the Doctor Who revival in 2005 that saw Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor pair up with new assistant Rose Tyler, played by Piper.
“I love Billie but I hadn’t worked with her since Doctor Who,” Gardner says. “I had never worked with Lucy but watched her shows. I knew her theatre writing well and the idea of the two of them together was irresistible.”
The show in question is I Hate Suzie, an eight-part drama written by Prebble that sees Piper play the titular Suzie, a faded star whose life is upended when pictures of her in an extremely compromising position emerge after a hacking. The series shows her unravelling as, episode by episode, Suzie navigates the stages of shock, denial, fear, shame, bargaining, guilt, anger and acceptance, while her best friend and manager, Naomi (Leila Farzad), tries to hold her life, career and marriage to Cob (Daniel Ings) together.
“We’re all presented with so many scripts, so you’re looking for two things,” Gardner explains. “One is do you want to turn the pages? Are you on a journey? Is it an exciting read? Are you desperate to get to the end and desperate to know more? That was absolutely the case with this script. The second thing you’re looking for is quality of writing, which can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What you could feel from the very first page was there was a truth to the writing. There was a point of view. There was an authorship, which might be a strange word to use, but there was a real specificity to the work.
“In the current climate, what you’re really looking for is something that stands out. That doesn’t mean the piece has to be big and high-concept and singing and dancing. You might be looking for something that might be very quiet. In some ways, this piece feels almost like a chamber piece but it has some big ideas and it has real heart and humour. You just really wanted to read it.”
Since it was established by Gardner and co-founder Jane Tranter in 2015, Bad Wolf has built a reputation for producing high-end dramas such as His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches. Gardner says the quieter, character-led I Hate Suzie gave the company a chance to back an authored piece of work and support the writer’s vision.
“When you get a piece like this that has an immediate quality in the work, the creation and the writing, it immediately fits,” she says. “That project would fit on any serious producer’s slate. It’s lovely to be doing big visual effects and big world-building in something like His Dark Materials, but the world-building on every project is important. It sits very organically as a Bad Wolf project where we’re backing the writers and what the creators want to say.”
Producer Andrea Dewsbery (The Spanish Princess) was equally drawn in by Prebble and Piper’s ambition to push into the dark corners of life and emotions. “The scripts made me laugh right up until the point something so horrendously truthful happens I feel a bit sick, and that is what they did for me the whole way through,” she says. “You read so many scripts and then you read one that sings in that way to you. You can’t really resist it. The chance to work with Billie and Lucy was the big pull really.”
The collaboration between Prebble and Piper is at the heart of the series, the pair having created the series together before exec producing it. Showrunner Prebble was also on set every day.
“They say they’re control freaks, but I find them joyously collaborative,” Dewsbery says. “As the producer on the ground, it was amazing to have them both there all the time. It’s a real gift to have that sort of access to the creators of the show and always feel like you’re discussing things and making sure it’s all moving in the right direction. Lucy’s brilliant when posed with a challenge. She’ll figure something out in terms of lines of dialogue or what happens that just feels like they’re very complementary. We got stronger as we kept going.”
Behind the camera on her first television series is director Georgi Banks-Davies, who is known as a commercials director but came to Prebble and Piper’s attention after her short film Garfield played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
“What I thought was so brilliant about I Hate Suzie was it was just stopping me in my tracks constantly,” the director says. “It’s so multi-layered in what the characters were going through. I was instantly taken by it. I knew what their creative ambition for the show was and I knew Lucy and Billie wanted to break all the rules. I like to think they brought me on board because I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know how to make television. There were no barriers in my way, and the production supported that.”
Banks-Davies worked closely with the creators to give each episode a distinct visual and performance style that chimed with the central emotion highlighted by each stage of trauma Suzie passes through. Episode one, Shock, was designed almost like a French farce, she says, where the camera feels as though it is on a continuous journey with numerous close-ups of Suzie as she comes to terms with what is happening to her. In contrast, episode six, Guilt, is a social realism drama where the camera sits back and observes the performances as they play out.
“They really wanted to do something brave with the filmmaking, which didn’t follow any of the conventions we’re used to seeing,” Banks-Davies says. “When I read the episodes, I couldn’t imagine creating a standard style and putting it across the whole series. It just felt wrong. The filmmaking and the performances around it allow you to submerge yourself in the world and the feeling and emotion Lucy so brilliantly cultivates in her writing.”
Working on set with Piper, who knew her character better than anyone, was the “great gift” of the project for the director, who describes the show’s star as the “perfect actor” to work with. “I push actors to be brave, trusting and to forget about the constraints of filmmaking. I don’t want them to remember what they did in the last take. Billie really loved that too,” she says. “I was there to keep her on the right trajectory in how the character would navigate the series, the storylines and the themes. My job was to give her that security, space and freedom to really realise the character.”
While time and budget constraints are challenges faced by every production, filming on I Hate Suzie was complicated further by the decision to shoot entirely on location in and around London. Suzie’s house was discovered in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, while filming for episode two also took place at London Comic-Con, where Suzie appears on stage to talk about an old TV series in which she used to star.
“We kept returning to Suzie and Cob’s house but, beyond that, every episode was really new,” Gardner says. “The location count was very high. The guest character count was very high. The scene count was quite high. It was a strange one in some ways, being a small, quite intimate, quite domestic show. But within that, it was also quite a weirdly big show. We were a show entirely funded by Sky and the UK tax break. We haven’t sold abroad upfront, so that dictates how you position the piece and what you can do [with the budget]. We had to be quite inventive. That was mostly a good thing – it found its spirit in that way.”
The “hero house” was Banks-Davies’ choice. Despite being told she was “completely insane” for choosing a beautiful house in the countryside that came with tight spaces and low ceilings, the director says the property fit her impression of where Suzie might live.
“I had it in my mind from the script stage that the house Suzie lived in shouldn’t be Beckingham Palace, it should be real,” she says, referring to the nickname for the palatial mansion once owned by superstar couple David and Victoria Beckham. “She’s a star but they don’t live in a £100m house. There was a realism I wanted to make sure came across, which was that they bought a dream but it wasn’t as idyllic as you think.”
Banks-Davies also wanted Suzie to live in a house where the character seemed constantly exposed, with every door leading to another space. “She’s never truly comfortable anywhere. When every room has two doors on either side, there’s no escaping,” she says. “There’s no privacy. There’s no freedom. I knew I wanted a house like that, and you can feel it in episode one as you’re continually going around and around. The character is constantly unnerved and on the back foot, so the location becomes really important for that.
“As difficult as it is to work in, you can’t substitute that realism on screen. And as soon as you take actors into that space, they feel it. I constantly try to strip away the mechanics of filmmaking to create realism for the actors. That’s the heart and essence of where I start with everything. But it makes it really difficult.”
A further challenge was still ahead, however, as the coronavirus-enforced lockdown in the UK earlier this year meant post-production had to take place remotely ahead of the show’s launch in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV on August 27. NBCUniversal International Television Distribution is selling the series overseas.
The picture edit had been completed on five episodes by the time lockdown came into effect, with Gardner describing the ensuing process as an “emotional rollercoaster.” She continues: “It was all very doable because we had a great post team and Lucy and Billie have an incredible work ethic and are very reliable. They can work to deadlines. Picture post was easier, but sound post is incredibly challenging because everyone’s listening to a mix on a different device at different volume at different level. Just getting ADR [additional dialogue replacement] done when you’ve got actors scattered across the UK with varying degrees of WiFi capacity was hard, but very possible.”
“Sometimes it felt like we got through it through the sheer force of everyone’s determination and spirit,” Dewsbery adds. “The director’s brilliant, Lucy and Billie were brilliant. Everyone pulled together and our post-production team was fantastic. We got through it.”
With the door left open for a potential second season of I Hate Suzie, Gardner hopes the series will provoke a national discussion about what people would do if they found themselves in a similar situation to the main character.
“There’s a debate to be had about a woman in society today under an extraordinary exposing spotlight,” she says. “This is fundamentally a character piece. Who is Suzie Pickles at this moment of extremity and extreme stress and collapse? Who is this woman and what do we learn about her family, her life, her career and her attitudes at a moment of real unmasking? That top note is the central character, and the hacking story is an engine to allow you to peel away at the character.”