Helming A New Poirot
The BBC’s new Poirot starring John Malkovich, The ABC Murders, is currently running on the channel and it is coming to US TV soon so here’s its director Alex Gabassi talking about the show from the BBC themselves…
What was it about The ABC Murders that drew you in and made you want to direct it?
I was hooked the moment I first read Sarah Phelps’ scripts. There is a texture throughout the whole story that I really wanted to explore and I love how Sarah alludes to atmosphere in connection to a character’s personality. Everything within this story is key to the plot and I love that. The first meeting I had on the project was with Helen Zeigler (Executive Producer, Mammoth Screen) and we just really connected. I went straight home from the meeting and having only read one script, spent a week coming up with concepts and drawings. The images that the script evoked in me were so striking and that is due to Sarah Phelps’ talent.
As a director, how do you balance Sarah’s detailed script notes with your own vision for the piece?
Sarah writes her scripts like they are novels and so I read them that way. She takes pleasure in adding adjectives and quirky sentences here and there that give you a sense of the wider piece. As a director, you do have to create some kind of hierarchy within these things and select what you show and what you don’t. Sarah doesn’t see any hierarchy in the detail she adds in to the script, so if there is a rat at the scene of the crime, it is just as important as the bloodied knife, but as the director I have to decide which of these I choose to show. However in my case, I chose both! Sometimes these details might be subtle or in the background but I love that someone has the impetus, energy and creativity to create such a novelistic scripts and it made me incredibly enthusiastic.
Can you tell me about your own experience of Agatha Christie growing up in Brazil?
My first contact with Agatha Christie was at the age of nine when I was living in Brazil. I lived with my grandmother and some aunts as my father had died. My aunts used to pay a book subscription to a publishing company every month and they often would have a series of Agatha Christie books and I remember being really drawn to the plot of And Then There Were None. They used to tell me that I was too young to read it but I would sit and look at the covers. I eventually read them and I read Cards On The Table, Elephants Can Remember as well as And Then There Were None. But despite these early experiences of Christie, I just came with a blank page to this project and I think that it did help. Not having lived with the weight of familiarity of all the previous adaptations that have come before and I believe that has allowed me to bring something new and approach characters differently.
John Malkovich is such a great actor to have in your central role. What was it about him that made him right for this role?
John Malkovich was a gift. He is both a wonderful actor and person and there are so many reasons why I felt John was perfect for the role. For me, John is the right age for this story, he has a masculine energy, he is physically big, he has an incredible presence and the energy of a dangerous man; it’s just so wonderfully at odds with the vulnerable Hercule Poirot we meet in The ABC Murders. John has a pacing and rhythm in the way he delivers his lines that suits the Belgian accent; the pacing sounds like you are carefully choosing your words. As a foreigner myself I know how hard it can be when you are in a difficult situation, with different people or a different environment, how you choose to talk to people, which words you use, how you want to portray yourself, how you want to be seen and at this point in Poirot’s life, in this story, he is thinking about all of these things. He feels a little bit of an outcast. The story does touch upon the rise of the right-wing and I think John stands out so perfectly in a way that you immediately think that he is a foreigner and not part of society.
How do you approach a story set in the 1930’s and make it feel contemporary?
We have a set of characters that are each very different and from different strata of society. You have the aristocrats with the Clarke family (which is the more usual Agatha Christie territory) but you also have Rose and Lily Marbury and the Barnard Family and all these different locations around the country. Having such scope within the story means you can create different moods.
I like to give the actors a lot of freedom and I never tell them what to do at the rehearsal. I just want to see what they do, where they are going and what is driving them. I encourage them to interact with objects and bring the character to life a bit. In the case of Shirley Henderson’s character Rose Marbury, we talked about the idea that maybe the character would have been a drunk. There is a scene where she is introducing Cust to his room at her boarding house and she walks around the room, opens a wardrobe and takes a bottle out. We don’t explain anything or even cut to the bottle, we just want to imply that every time she has a vacant room at the boarding house she hides her bottles there and for me, that subtext feels contemporary.
The script is contemporary in the way it tackles characters, in many ways it is more about character than plot. Another key point here is that I don’t have a British experience. I didn’t grow up here. I don’t know how an aristocrat would eat or how he would hold his knife or fork; for me he’s just eating and these details are not important for me within this project.
There is this nostalgic idea that the trains back then were very clean and that all the architecture was art deco but the fact is it was just as dirty as it is now, and perhaps even more so. This brings so much texture to the piece in terms of sound, dirt and factories. We chose to show the backyards of these factories as you would see them from the train rather than wide establishing shots that might be more typical for a period piece.
With Ordeal by Innocence there was a house, in And Then There Were None there was an island but you have a more complicated task in that The ABC Murders has a networks of railways. How did you think about it, how did you approach it and how did it pan out?
The approach we took to the trains was very much the same way that I approached the typewriter: two machines that have a life of their own. I wanted to explore these two things in minute detail and create monsters within them. When you read the script and look at the amount of trains and stations it’s pretty daunting, plus we had 35 locations! A lot of the real trains we wanted to use weren’t available because of being open to the public over the summer and so we had to invent ways to show a variety. We built two trains in CGI (one cargo train and one passenger train) and we shot real trains with drones. We can change the colours of the CGI trains to create more and we can shoot the real trains in different ways to create more and more versions. In terms of the railway environment, I chose to avoid the big wide shots of the trains cutting through the countryside. They can be beautiful and give scope but I didn’t feel they would work for the environment that we were creating. For example; Bexhill is on the beach and so you have to create some kind of railway track along the coast to really establish the place. The fact that this particular length of railway track may or may not be real doesn’t matter, I am not bound to the realities and sometimes reality doesn’t look real in fiction. If we invent something that gives the viewer a greater sense of the tone or the character, then let’s invent it.
Can you tell us what Rupert Grint brings to the character of Crome?
The casting of Rupert Grint as Crome is down to the wonderful minds of Karen Lindsay-Stewart (Casting Director) and Emily Jacobs (Casting Assistant) who brought his name to us. When our Make-up and Hair Designer, Sam Marshall, and Lindsay Pugh our Costume Designer put Crome’s look together, I immediately knew we’d found it. Crome tries to show some authority but somehow he’s not quite there yet; Rupert had grown a real moustache and it was perfect. Most of the time Crome is just this young, ambitious detective who is clashing with Hercule Poirot, an older detective, and trying to show he has authority. The Poirot/Crome relationship was important and at the end of the first episode you get a hint of why Crome does not respect Poirot. But they both come to realise that they will have to join forces and work together and that Crome needs Poirot to crack the case.
Eamon Farren really stands out in the role of Cust. Can you tell me a bit about what Eamon has delivered in that role?
Eamon Farren was my first choice. I love him. I came across a photograph of Eamon when he was in The Present, a play with Cate Blanchett, and as soon as I saw his mug shot from that play, I knew he was our guy. Eamon immediately looks menacing. My only concern was whether he would create empathy but he came in for an audition and was very strong. I trusted that he could do this. He is a lovely man and he can access kindness, pain and danger as well as this sense of total loss that suits the character perfectly. There is also a sense of mystery to him and his face is a landscape of loss. Every time the camera is on his face he would give me a different landscape.
Can you tell us about the look of the world you wanted to create?
In terms of tone and how we wanted to portray the world, our first stop was to talk to Jeff Tessler (Production Designer) and Joel Devlin (Director of Photography). I wanted to have texture everywhere, as if we were looking through a dirty lens. My approach in terms of style of shooting was to be very precise. I like movement with a purpose and an end; I am not one to shoot 360 degrees around an actor without a motive. I knew that the script, which is so bold and contemporary, would allow me to shoot in a very precise and classic grammar and still feel contemporary. Jeff Tessler (Production Designer) designated a painter to be on set every day, so every time I needed something made dirtier the painter would do it for me. That was such a gift and I loved it! For example we added greasy hand marks onto a door at the Clarke house; Franklin would have been going through that door since he was a child so the handprints start at the bottom and grow up to the height he is in the story. It’s not about whether or not the audience notices that detail in particular but they’ll know there is something there. The actor will use it and touch it and feel connected to the history of their character. Everything was approached in that way. I was adamant that we would have wallpapers that would really tell us something about the world. So one wall is stained with smoke from a fire that might have happened ten years ago and the mark is still there because the character doesn’t care, or another has a stain of liquor, maybe from an argument with a past lover.
What are the highlights for you from your time on The ABC Murders?
There are so many highlights! There were so many wonderful performances and little moments: Lily singing to Rose or Hercule’s pauses every time he thinks about something in his past. It is very emotional for me to be doing a project like this here in the UK. It’s a dream. It’s a dream to work with these wonderful actors and trusting your choices. So my highlight is the whole thing – the whole experience itself.
What is it about Agatha Christie’s stories that go beyond borders and language and time? What makes these shows so popular globally?
As a Brazilian, Agatha Christie is a really interesting blend of two things for me: one is that on the surface it looks very British and as a foreigner you like that culture. You also recognise Christie’s canon of incredible work that’s full of well plotted stories, intriguing and original ideas. The second thing is that Christie tells stories in a very simple way: she does not explore characters on a deep and profound psychological level; she introduces characters to the reader with a very clear description and design. So much so that the characters become archetypes and you feel you understand them very quickly. That is why it is so rich to have someone like Sarah Phelps adapting Christie’s text because Sarah takes this world and recognises the great story and beautiful characters and she examines it all very closely. That is when Christie’s work becomes a very interesting playground for adaptation because you have a wonderful plot set-up, exotic locations and exotic characters but she leaves enough space within the detail of the characters’ inner worlds for the readers to complete themselves: Christie doesn’t force her characters on you, she just invites you to meet them. That appeals to anybody.
How has it been working with Agatha Christie Limited and Mammoth Screen?
James Prichard (CEO) and Basi Akpabio (Creative Director) at Agatha Christie Limited were fantastic from the beginning. They were very enthusiastic and very open to having a Brazilian director work on this project. I think we all connected when I first brought all my materials, my storyboards and my concepts as they could tell that I was so in love with the story. They made me feel so encouraged. Working with Damien Timmer (Managing Director, Mammoth Screen) has been such a lovely experience; it’s been very calm and very creative. He was very open to me doing things beyond the script; I had a very clear vision for the programme and he trusted me to capture it. I was so grateful for their support and encouragement. Our crew on The ABC Murders was like a small army and it fuels everyone to give their best when they know they are supported. They were all incredible and I only have good words for them.
If you had to describe the show in one word what would it be?
Journey: a beautiful journey into an unknown landscape that we’re going on together.