The Virtues: Interview with producer Mark Herbert

Category: Interview

Where did the idea for this project come from?

Shane has many ideas between projects, often based on characters he’s met. After This Is England, we both thought it would be nice to do something that wasn’t period. We wanted to do something contemporary. And we started off discussing a sort of weird, fucked up nativity story, because he’d had had this idea of doing this ‘Joseph’ character for some time. And then, like all things with Shane, he workshopped it and it developed organically. And there’s a personal side to all of this for Shane, something that he needed to tell. Then, in workshop, it became The Virtues. That’s why we really give him the space to workshop his ideas, to help find a form of truth, though the drama is a work of fiction.

So, with it developing so organically, does that mean the whole thing is a much longer process?

Yeah. In normal film-making, you’d have a script that goes through five or six drafts, and then once it is developed and locked, you film that. With Shane, he’s constantly developing the script in rehearsals, in his prep. So we do have a really, really brilliant script that Jack [Thorne] and Shane wrote together. That first pass of getting something on paper is pretty quick, but that template then goes into the workshop process, and that’s when it changes. Some scenes never change, and others change completely. It’s all about giving the actors time to emotionally engage. With this series, we moved into an old school in Sheffield, and that became our studio. Shane never switches the camera on unless he and the actors believe it’s the right time. This is very different from how we work with other directors. It means we create a structure around him that allows his process to flourish. It’s crazy, on paper! On most productions everything has to be scheduled, you have a budget, everything is locked down and agreed. With Shane, he’s earned the trust of the channel to break those rules, because they know he delivers. And you have to have the right crew. We work with the same crew, and they appreciate that it’s going to get results. You can’t have a traditional crew who might say “Well, if it’s not scheduled, then we don’t know what we’re doing.”

I would have thought the person in the crew who’s going to find that way of working the most difficult is the producer – you!

I’ve worked with Shane for 15 years. Providing you have the right Heads of Department, who will embrace the process, it’s fine. I just get people who I trust, and who know that we’ll get the results. And having the backing of Channel 4 is really important, because they don’t come to us and say: “You said you were going to film this today, and you haven’t.” It would be a nightmare if the broadcaster wasn’t embracing the process.

As a producer, are you mostly on set, or are you in an office on the phone?

A bit of both. There was myself and Nickie Sault on this, she was Shane’s first assistant director previously, so would always be on set. The way Shane works is - he gets out in the morning on set with just the actors. No-one else, no crew, no nothing. They block out the scene. That can be half an hour, it can be three hours. Then he calls the crew in, they see the rehearsal, and then the equipment comes in and we start filming. There are times when Shane might ask me to come in. The simplest way to put it is that Shane’s always worrying about today, and I’m always worrying about tomorrow. So, if that means being worried about tomorrow by being in an office and talking things through, or making sure that the art department are prepared for a change in schedule, I’m doing that so that when Shane lands on the set everything is ready to go.

Talk me through the incredible pub scene in episode one. I understand it was quite a raucous shoot?

It was very early on in the shoot, and we were having some teething problems. So, running late, we turned up at a pub near the courthouse, not a pub you’d take your kids to, let’s put it like that. And I remember turning up, and we only had a couple of hours left in the day, so we thought we’d just see what we could film in the limited time. We weren’t really under pressure, because it wasn’t an expensive location, or somewhere that needed a lot of dressing, so if we didn’t get what we needed, we could just come back and film it another day. When you’re not under pressure, that’s when you get the best results, because everyone is more relaxed. When we arrived, our art department had been really careful to make sure all the drinks looked like alcohol but, of course weren’t alcohol, and the bar was closed, obviously. But the people we were filming with were locals, so by the time we turned up, they’d maybe had a few drinks. But we decided we’d shoot anyway, and it just made for the most amazing atmosphere. Stephen, who doesn’t drink in real life, was absolutely brilliant, and we filmed the whole thing in just two takes. It was extraordinary.

Most of the story is set in Ireland, and the cast is largely Irish. Were you tempted to film there?

We were and we did look at the idea. But the way Shane works, the way we wanted to film, involves being able to work long hours some days, and then to knock off early on other days. And a lot of us in the cast and the crew have families to get home to at weekends. But that way of filming does not fit very well with booking flights in advance and sticking to a schedule.

Most of your films involve working in fairly bleak and impoverished locations – do you never just want to work on a film set in a five-star hotel in Barbados?

[Laughs] Funnily enough, while we were filming this in Sheffield, our production company was also filming scenes for Yardie in Jamaica. You could say that it’s better to be out there in the sunshine than under the slate grey skies of Yorkshire, but I think a lot of the most interesting stories come from these forgotten areas. And, like I say, I’ve got a family to go home to at the end of the day, so I was very happy to be shooting in Sheffield.