The beat goes on

The beat goes on

By Michael Pickard
August 11, 2023

The Director’s Chair

As Heartstopper returns for its second season, director Euros Lyn takes DQ behind the scenes of the Netflix comedy-drama, discussing his partnership with creator Alice Oseman, working with the show’s breakout cast and coping with the weight of fan expectation.

More than a year after the first season of romantic, coming-of-age comedy-drama Heartstopper dropped on Netflix, the wait for season two was over. At 08.00 on August 3, all eight episodes of the show’s second season arrived on the streaming platform.

Just four hours later, the most devoted of the show’s passionate and loyal fanbase had already watched them all, and Netflix’s social media manager was having to field questions about when season three would be arriving.

It’s a side-effect of the streaming age that viewers can wait a year for their favourite series to return, only to watch every episode in less than a day. But for Euros Lyn, who has directed both seasons of Heartstopper, there can be no greater compliment.

“It’s been very nice to dip in and read some of the reactions,” he says. “What’s really gratifying is we’ve taken so much care to invest the show with the highs and lows of the relationship between Nick and Charlie and what’s at stake for them, Nick’s journey to come out and all the other relationships between all the other characters. So much care has been put into it. To see those story beats land with the audience and get a sense of the emotional response to what we’ve worked very hard to craft is very gratifying.”

When Lyn speaks to DQ on the day of the season two launch, enough time has passed for fans to have watched the new episodes twice on the spin – a prospect the director wouldn’t be surprised to hear had happened.

“Heartstopper is the kind of show I know people watch over and over,” he says. “It’s a comforting show in many ways because it has positivity in bucketloads, and hopefully it’ll be one of those shows that when people feel they need a little boost of positivity, joy and love, they’ll got back to it time and time again.”

Euros Lyn (right) on the Heartstopper set with actor Sebastian Croft

Based on series creator and writer Alice Oseman’s graphic novels of the same name, the first season of Heartstopper introduced the story of big-hearted Charlie (Joe Locke) and rugby star Nick (Kit Connor), who meet at school and discover their unlikely friendship is blossoming into an unexpected romance – one that is supported by their group of friends as they embark upon a journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

Now in season two, the show expands its focus to explore how Nick and Charlie are navigating their new relationship as Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) face unforeseen challenges together and Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney) work out if they can be more than just friends, all while they tackle end-of-year exams, a trip to Paris and the school prom.

Netflix renewed Heartstopper for second and third seasons just a month after the show first launched in April 2022, and Lyn says he was always going to return to pick up the story of Charlie and Nick after they cement their relationship and Nick comes out to his mum (played by Olivia Colman) at the end of season one.

“I loved working on season one – it feels like one of the high points of my career, getting to work with brilliant people and telling world-changing stories,” says the director, whose other credits include Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Kiri and Damilola, Our Loved Boy. “It feels like the kind of show that makes a difference and shifts the dial, and to be part of that is something very special that I don’t take lightly.

“In some ways, people think there isn’t a huge amount at stake in Heartstopper. That it’s a light, frothy storyline, which at times it is. But falling in love for the first time, especially when you fall in love with someone of the same gender and you hadn’t before considered that might be you, is absolutely life-changing. It’s an earthquake. So from the beginning of the first season, I considered these dramatic storylines to be enormous, as big as you’d get in any epic Shakespearean drama.”

The Netflix series continues to follow the blossoming relationship between Charlie and Nick

Reuniting with Oseman for season two, Lyn says there were never any conversations about “amping up the drama” or creating conflict where there wasn’t any. Instead, it was about further exploring the story Oseman had “very eloquently” told in the comic books and figuring out how best to tell it within a television structure.

“There’s more material in the TV show than there is in the books, which is brilliant for the audience because they think they know what they’re going to get but there are lots of surprises along the way,” he says. “There are lots of relationships in the TV show to explore, like Tao and Elle, Darcy and Tara, and even the teachers in season two. There’s lots of drama built into this show from the word go.”

Unusually in television, Lyn is ever-present on Heartstopper, having filmed all 16 half-hour episodes across both seasons so far. Oseman is also credited as the sole writer on the series, meaning they have fostered a unique partnership behind the scenes.

“Alice has a very clear idea of what she wants to say,” Lyn says. “And because the idea exists in the graphic novels, there’s a very clear starting point for what that story is. My job is to tell the story and to bring it to life.”

When he was first pitched the show by executive producer Patrick Walters, Lyn remembers it was described as a teen love story between “this guy who plays rugby and this other guy who’s a bit geeky.” Unfamiliar with the comics, the director admits he wasn’t expecting much. But when he did then sit down to read the source material, he was “blown away” by Oseman’s work.

“My heart was stolen by these characters,” he says. “Falling in love for the first time is something you never do again but, in life, every time you fall in love, you take a bit of that experience and you relive it. Reading Heartstopper for the first time was very much about reliving my experiences of love in my life. I felt so moved and touched and I knew instantly I wanted to be involved to make this show, and I knew I had something to give it as well. That’s why the relationship works so well. I see in Alice’s work stuff that I’ve lived that’s moved me and I can reflect that back into the show, and in turn that gets reflected for the audience and moves them.”

A third season of Heartstopper was commissioned at the same time as its second

Partnering with cinematographers Diana Olifirova (season one) and Simona Susnea (season two), Lyn has also created an eye-catching visual style for the series – one that leans into the frames of the comic books illustrated by Oseman. Fans on social media often post images of the books and the series side by side to demonstrate how the show has faithfully recreated key moments from the story.

“Bringing a graphic novel to life, it was to important to take the spirit of what Alice had drawn,” he explains. “There’s something about the mise en scène, the way she composes a frame, the way she places the characters in the frame and how much space there is that has emotional impact, and I wanted to bring that into the TV show.”

Often, those comic book conventions go against what might normally be shot for television. In one of Oseman’s frames, for example, two characters might be very small in a profile shot against a vast background. “In a normal TV show, you’d be in close on a profile two-shot. But because this was inspired by a comic, it’s a great big wide shot with the stars spread out, and it makes you feel something,” Lyn continues. “Embodying that in the show felt really important.

“In season two, there’s a lot more new, invented stuff for which there aren’t comic book references, so we worked very hard to imagine if Alice was to have drawn this scene how might she have drawn it and how might she have invested emotion in it. That was a thought process we employed.”

A unique element of the show is the way Oseman’s “doodles” are also used on screen to heighten the emotions of characters at “Heartstopper moments” in the story – electric sparks flickering when Charlie and Nick hold hands or butterflies floating around their heads when they meet. An animated rainbow ocean also appears in season two.

The first script Lyn ever read had Oseman’s animations drawn in the margins, and this fantastical, magical addition to the series was also used to sell the project to Netflix.

Lyn has directed all 16 episodes of the series to date

“After she’d done that, everybody looked at it and said, ‘We have to see this on screen. This can’t just be to create an impression for a commissioner; this has to be something we share with the audience,’ and from that moment on, we knew we wanted to put animation into the show,” he explains. “But for me, it was really important that it wasn’t a gimmick or even a homage to the graphic novel, but that the animation fulfilled an emotional purpose. The leaves can blow across [the screen] with real energy and force, and that speaks to something uplifting. But in other scenes, a lonely leaf can swirl around and speak of loneliness and despondency. Every single animation has been designed to make the audience feel something.”

The emotional storytelling through S2 has been further enhanced by the young cast, many of whom were newcomers to the screen when they appeared in S1 but returned for the second run with much more experience. Locke, who stars as Charlie, is one case in point.

“When Joe started season one, he’d literally come from home on the Isle of Man, he’d never shot a single frame, a single scene on television before,” Lyn remembers. “Now he’s been off doing all sorts of stuff and is absolutely brilliant. Coming back for season two, the confidence and the craft they’ve all picked up means we’re working with much more experienced actors, and that brings more depth, more skill and allows for us to concentrate on emotional storytelling a bit more.”

For Lyn, the challenge making Heartstopper doesn’t come from any particular scene, a tricky location or a difficult shooting schedule. Instead, “there’s a lot of pressure of expectation,” he says, which came naturally in S1 with adapting a popular comic book series and increased with its subsequent success, particularly among the LGTBQ+ viewers who resonated with storylines relating to a group of teenagers discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.

That weight of expectation increased further ahead of season two with some of the decisions Lyn and Oseman made to take the show, which is produced by See Saw Films, in a “different” direction.

“We wanted the characters to feel more adult and we wanted the relationships to be more nuanced,” he says. “After the first flight of falling in love with someone, actually, in the real world, you have these itchy, scratchy problems you have to deal with. Nick realises every time he comes out, he has to come out to new people. That complexity was something that was a real challenge to maintain and make sure that, for an audience, we’re treading new ground. They are coming back to something familiar but it’s evolved into something new.”

With season three already in the works, Oseman has said “love” will be a key theme, picking up from where season two leaves many of the couples in the show. Lyn only confirms he will be back as an executive producer.

“Alice is writing furiously at the moment and doing brilliantly,” he adds. “To say more than that, I might be exterminated.”

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