In July, Channel 4 and BAFTA Television held a special screening of the first two episodes of Southcliffe. This was followed by a Q&A with the producer Peter Carlton, writer Tony Grisoni and director Sean Durkin. They were joined by some of the cast; Sean Harris (Stephen Morton) Rory Kinnear (David Whitehead) and Anatol Yusef (Paul Gould). The Q&A was hosted by writer and journalist Amy Raphael.
Introduction by Piers Wenger, Channel 4 Head of Drama:
Southcliffe has got to be one of the Channel’s bravest and most important dramas The story of a town caught in the middle of a killing spree was an imaginably difficult one. When bringing it to the screen, we were all committed to telling the story with integrity and truth and making it feel real and not sensationalised in any way. This is reflected in Tony and Sean’s incredibly restrained and unflinching approach to the story. If nothing else, this piece is about the coming together of those two great talents.
Q: Tell me the genesis of this idea. It’s a strong idea but I imagine one that you were slightly hesitant about, given that the subject matter is very challenging.
Peter Carlton: It didn’t come up immediately that we would make a story about a spree killing. Tony and I had worked together before and talked for a long time about the things we wanted to do and one of the things that obsessed us both was living peoples’ relationship to death. Death is something that happens all the time in cinema, but it’s that thing of - do we ever treat it seriously? And in one of those discussions, Tony talked about the methodology he used in In This World, a film he did with Michael Winterbottom. They had done many hours of interviews in order to create the characters and he said he wanted to use that and then blend it with almost a high concept approach. We wanted a big subject way of magnifying death so you could show the reality of peoples’ lives in a big picture. Almost immediately after that, we thought what could that event be - is it a natural disaster? Is it a plane crash? And Tony suddenly said, ‘No it has to be something very close to home’. And the extraordinary thing about a spree killing is they usually come from within the community, so it’s not something outside, it’s not an act of God. It’s one of us or one of you doing it. And that was the genesis of the project. And we went in and spoke to Channel 4 and said; ‘We want to do a four-hour drama about death and grief. And we don’t have a story line, we don’t have any characters and we don’t have any plot. But will you give us some money to spend four months researching it and then Tony will write all the scripts? And then we will see how it works out.’ And, rather remarkably, they said yes.
Tony Grisoni: One of things was the idea of really wanting to tell a set of stories that weren’t in London and weren’t in any city. And one of the places that I was visiting to get out of London was Faversham, a market town in Kent. I just really liked the place very much and I really liked the people. And I decided it would be great to set something there. And the other thing that Peter mentioned there, was about going to people. I was spoilt, I eventually had three researchers who went out into the field and went searching for people. There were two questions we had: one was to ask people to tell us about their personal experience about having lost someone close to them suddenly, and the other was asking them to tell us any supernatural experience they had. The idea was that, instead of me sitting there making up stuff, I would be guided by what these people were saying. I got really interested in the strange and inventive ways people deal with loss and it seemed much more interesting than anything I could make up. Those were the main elements really. Then the real luxury was going to Faversham that stood in for Southcliffe and I could set things in a real location. I could set them in the local pub, in the boatyard and it was a real place, it had a real sense to it. And one of the many beauties of this thing was that the producers fixed it so we could actually film there in Faversham.
Q: So are you saying from what the researchers came back to you with, you took that material and completely fictionalised it?
Tony: These aren’t people, these are invented characters. I just put in what was good. You can’t be careful if you’re doing something like this. You have to be free. You take these ideas and you scramble them together, then you unscramble them. By the time it has hit the page, it’s nothing like the documentary fact it began with, but it is informed by that.
Q: As actors, what did you feel when you first read the script?
Rory Kinnear: I read an earlier draft but the drafts changed a lot through filming, before filming and after filming. So it’s as much a reveal to watch it as it is to read it. The early draft I first read was even more brutal, with depressing acts within it. What was at the forefront of my thoughts, was how could I make a drama that is chiefly about something as terrifying and terrorising as an event like this attractive to an audience. And I guess it’s in the non-sensationalist way everyone went about achieving it and in the very human and very detailed earthbound way we explored peoples’ reactions to an event like this, which range from the extreme to the mundane. And it’s through exploring the normality of people’s responses to something that is extraordinary that I think you get something that can appeal to anyone who has had a sensation of grief, or indeed loss.
Q: And Anatol, tell me how you got into your character having everything and then having, seemingly, nothing?
Anatol: I don’t know how I got into it. I was going to say about the script, it had a sense of epic and domestic - not necessarily just in the subject matter but I think in the process of making it the atmosphere on set. It showed that ordinary people can be extraordinary, in all colours. So from an actor’s perspective, it was a dream job. And then you like to think that you can back yourself, to have some of the imagination to do that justice. I don’t know how one prepares for that kind of loss. You just trust the fact you have enough empathy.
Q: I think that scene where Paul falls apart (in Episode 2) is so fantastically done. Sean Durkin, as you’re behind the camera, how do you approach a scene like that as it’s so potent?
Sean Durkin: I just had a very vivid sense of that scene. It was just something that felt close to home for some reason. It’s a moment that’s very male and grief-stricken. And I guess it was really just about putting the camera down and letting those guys build up that energy and Anatol break like he broke. For a lot of it, that’s what it was – it was setting up in the right place and trusting these guys to do what they do and letting it play out. It was never saying ‘This part of the song, you break’.
Rory Kinnear: I’m sure the others would agree Sean is probably the least prescriptive director I have ever worked for. And most of the scenes were either single set-ups or a maximum of two set-ups so you play the whole of the scene throughout. Quite often you are doing it in bits and pieces and you have to hit a note at one point so they got the shot. Whereas with this, the camera was pointed at whoever was there so we were allowed to play it out. We weren’t asked to achieve a particular thing in that scene; it was just how you responded to it. There was flexibility to it, both with filming and the script too.
Anatol: There was trust and freedom. When it flowed with Sean, it was kind of magical to work with.
Rory: When you are trusted, you feel that sense of trust and you do your best work for them – it’s probably a good parenting lesson!
Q: Sean Harris that was a stunning performance as Stephen Morton. How was the experience for you playing somebody that intense?
Sean Harris: It was a good experience and I count myself very fortunate to be involved in it. I know Tony and I’ve worked with him on three projects now. So when it comes to you, straight away you start to read it. I really identified with Stephen, I really knew him. So it became quite personal for me and I felt no one else should play this role because I don’t think anyone could. Because I knew him and I come from a place like that, I know that mentality. I know what he looked like, not what he was wearing, I mean, when he looked at you, what that would look like. I understood that thing about tiredness, I’d seen it and I’d been around it. Seeing being exhausted by life and what that does to you - it spoke to me. It was little things like that. Just how difficult daily life can be, getting out of bed, going through it. How much effort that takes and for me, there’s something very beautiful in that. I find that struggle really quite powerful and quite beautiful – the way people just keep going, when they just want to lie down and want everything to stop. So that was very important to me, the relationship with the mother was very important to me, it was very interesting. I kind of knew it, very powerfully. But it was Sean Durkin really, I think what’s he done is very, very special and I’m just very lucky to be involved in it.
Q: Tony, something we were talking about before – you said screenwriting was easy and you just need a vocabulary of 50 words. The structure of this and the jumping in time is amazing. Was this a big challenge to move the action round without the viewer getting lost?
Tony: It’s a more complicated story than just me and a laptop. It started off because one; it’s fun to write a story in a non-linear way – it’s just fun. Two; there are lot of different interlocking stories. Three; one of the things that came out of the research of people suffering any major tragedy is that it kind of smashes time and space in a certain way. You hear over and over again, people have had that experience of hearing someone or having the sense of someone who has gone as if they are there, present now. And all of that seemed to inform it. So when Peter and I were really working together on the scripts for a year/year and a half, right from the beginning, the narrative was broken up like that. I got really excited about the idea of seeing a character doing something like Stephen Morton does up front and then going back in time. I was aware they could do anything, they could repair a radiator and you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off them. In the very early draft, the first scene was Stephen shooting his mum, which seemed a bit too brutal. But that was interesting because then of course what happened was then Sean Durkin joined us and then we worked together on the scripts - because it’s became like a baton passing and we kind of disassembled it. And then it went back together again and Sean filmed all that stuff and then there’s another person involved and that’s Victoria the editor. And guess what, it gets rewritten again. So it’s a long process.
Sean Durkin: I think it is something I almost developed in a way of getting around dealing with the 52-day shoot with 90 speaking parts. The only way I could manage that as a director was to not think too far ahead. The way I like to work is not to think too much about it, so there’s always a trust and a chaos that’s really exciting to exist in. So although it is very constructed and that is all in the script at the beginning, you break it all apart and get into it and you trust it’s going to find its way back there. But I never see it all completely clearly because it’s always too massive when you’re in it. So you just have to focus on the moments and then there are things you discover when you’re shooting, new ideas as we are going and then that falls apart in editing. It’s just this on-going collection of ideas that come from everyone involved.