Facing Off Against Evil
♦ Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike and Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott return for Strike – Career Of Evil, the third story from the major TV series for BBC One, The Strike Series, based on J.K. Rowling’s best-selling crime novels written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Here’s its director Charles Sturridge talking about the third season…
What is the premise of Career Of Evil?
It’s very different from the other two Robert Galbraith novels, which are set in specific worlds that are foreign to the key characters – the world of fashion and the world of literature. Career Of Evil is about having to face, in the case of both Robin and Strike, almost everything that’s gone wrong in their lives in order to solve the mystery of who could possibly want to destroy them.
Whereas the first two books, in a sense, see them voyaging out into new countries, Career Of Evil sees them shoot back into their own pasts, so it has a very different dynamic to those first two great stories.
Where are we now where we meet Strike, in the third story of the series?
Well there are lots of ways of answering that question. In a way you judge all of the books, and Career Of Evil is no exception, not by the time of day or the time of year, or the date they’re set in. You judge them by the temperature of the relationship between Strike and Robin and as it gradually becomes more complex.
In Career Of Evil it’s at its most complex so far, but there’s more to come. This is the first book where they operate as equal partners. That she’s now essentially accepted as a partner. Professionally of course.
What do you think he represents, in the sense that we don’t see many detectives these days in the way that we used to?
No, and of course he is a private eye rather than a detective. In other words, he is kind of the figure of detective legend, the curmudgeonly sole operator in some respects. He’s an ‘ex-lots of stuff’: he’s an ex-student, he’s an ex-soldier, he’s an ex-lover of a hell of a lot of people. He’s somebody who has ducked and dived out of different situations and finds himself, because of his mixture of obstinacy, doggedness to some extent, instinctive intelligence and his inability to work with anybody else, on his own doing the one thing that he kind of enjoys. Which is, some would say, investigating; others would say, finding out that he was right all along. Although that’s not entirely the case in each story.
How much did you and JK Rowling work together on this story? How advantageous is it to be able to talk to the novelist?
It’s very advantageous and she is incredibly good fun to work with. We’ve had a really unexpectedly pleasurable time together. Unexpected because you’re nervous of working for anybody, but with someone who is as potent and as powerful and has that kind of access to audience sensibilities, it’s a very exciting arena to work with.
But, the thing about working with a writer, the writer of a book, is that you know a lot of stuff before you meet them, because it’s in the book.
When I started to look for locations – which is basically the first thing you do when you start a film – I would arrive at, say, a street in Catford, stop and look where I was standing, and I’d recognise this as obviously the place where she stood when she described this street. What I quickly understood is that she’s been to almost every place she writes about.
To the extent that when she first saw a screening of the first half of Career Of Evil, at the end she said: “What I love is that they’re sitting at the table in the pub that we sat at in Barrow-in-Furness.” Robin was sitting at the same table that she sat at.
To work with somebody who’s mind you can get into in that detailed way was very pleasurable.
There are characters that we know already from the other two books and the other two shows. When it comes to casting, you’re working with existing players, they’re coming to you. Are there advantages to that?
Essentially, any series of books or series of programmes, you’re going to have characters who exist in all of them. Career Of Evil is the third book. You have this fairly tight-knit group who then encounter a whole new world of characters in each story. From my point of view in terms of casting, Tom and Holliday were cast before I was cast. So that was one thing that was a given. But then there was a tonne of new people. This story has lots of characters in it who were very enjoyable to cast.
Something that Galbraith’s books do very cleverly, is that they give all of these characters quite a lot of airtime. Is that something that is difficult to balance when you’re trying to cram several hundred pages into two hours?
I can’t remember how many pages Career of Evil is, but I’m guessing it’s around 500 – clearly if you’re compressing that into 100 minutes you don’t have the same amount of room to develop the audiences sense of detail on the character, but you do have something that the novelist doesn’t have, which is that you have a real human being.
I think a lot of my job as a director is to take characters that may only appear once, and to build detail and nuance and information into them. So that you understand ow they came to be where they are, and you do have a sense of that character.
Particularly with this story, we spent a lot of time with individual performers working out a great deal of detail. We had the book to draw on because the book had more stuff than was physically shown in the film, but also looked for ways in which we could increase the audience’s sense of who the characters were, what the consequences of their actions were and what, in my opinion, was the extraordinary powerful quality of Career as a story, the level of personal tragedy that each character had been through.
The book deals with a large group of people who have had very traumatised childhoods… which includes, of course, the main characters.
Career Of Evil is a much darker story. Are you conscious of bringing your own directing style to the table?
I think here you’ve got three books, a single author, but three different directors.
As directors we looked at each other with that mixture of fondness and suspicion and said, you do your movie, I’ll do mine. We literally all made the same speech to each other. Generously, I mean!
One of the pleasures of working with Jackie [Larkin – Producer] and Ruth [Kenley-Letts – Executive Producer], was to take this material and make it the way you think it should be. We clearly had two very potent rocks in this, the characters of Strike and Robin and very beautifully engineered performances by Tom and Holliday.
You don’t fully see how the show will really look until you get to that last moment and look back at it all. It comes out of the shared experience of working together with your Director of Photography, your designer, your writer and cast and producers.
Tom in particular has a huge weight to bear in bringing that character into three dimensions – did he surprise you in any way?
Tom surprises me all the time. He approaches every issue, not from the least expected angle, but from an angle that you don’t initially see. This is a very helpful quality for Strike because you can see it in Strike too. He very rarely goes straight through the front door. He’s usually climbing through a window, into the bedroom, back down the stairs again, out into the garden and back through another window. You think, oh my God, you’ve arrived at the same place but how did you just do that? Tom surprises with the way he tackles everything, from a line to a situation.
Unlike the other stories, where he’s investigating and gaining knowledge, here it’s all about memory. He’s not discovering, he’s actually remembering. Is that what makes Career of Evil different?
He’s under pressure, about to lose his business and is having to face some very difficult moments of failure in his past. He’s also dealing with his physical complexities, with his leg. But at the same time Career Of Evil offers some very enjoyable set pieces – a chase through Soho for example. We spent a week wandering around saying, if I was running, where would I run to…? and built up that map.
It had some physical set pieces which were enjoyable to do, like a big fight in a tiny room. So, it had intellectual challenges and physical challenges.
Was it a pleasure to be shooting in London?
Fantastic. London is famously difficult to shoot in. I’ve shot in France where the police will happily close down whole towns so you could do a shot, whereas you always felt in England, they would say, you want to film? No, please don’t, can you do it on a Sunday?
But actually, we had incredibly enjoyable access on this production and we also had an opportunity to show the London I live in. These offices in Denmark Street, the chase through Frith Street and Old Compton Street and into Chinatown. It was exciting to be shooting the London you knew, as well as some pretty exotic parts of London I knew less well.
We certainly went to lots of different bits of London that weren’t so typical. It was a real thrill to shoot in London and to shoot in such a mobile, contemporary way.
We’ve got an opportunity in Career Of Evil to leave London and go elsewhere, which also gives us an insight into Robin’s life. Can you tell us how you approached the change in environment?
It’s quite normal as a director, when you do a project that has some landscape opportunities, for the producers to say, “Yes, we really want to show England, we want to show the country as it really is. But just one thing, could you stay within the M25 while you do it?” Because staying somewhere overnight is expensive, it’s more and more difficult to get out of that London circuit, so it was a great pleasure to be able to really get out of London.
What makes Strike a memorable character?
There’s a mix of reasons. He harks back to the kind of detective we used to see more in the 1940s and 50s, the lone character not really asking anyone for permission, having an uneasy relationship with the police, who more or less don’t like him but have to put up with him.
It’s clear he historically comes from an undeniably Chandler-esque route in his heartbeat. But the particular thing here, because lots of people have tried to do this, is to make that kind of character with a sense of personal morality, a character with a sense of personal mission, not look idiotic when presented with a contemporary setting.
This is an odd thing to say, but he is a very enjoyably attractive man. I think that’s quite hard to pull off, that there is a kind of sexiness about him, there’s a sneaking admiration for the way he behaves. One enjoys the fact that he’s not demonstrative, one wants to grab him by the lapels and say, for God’s sake be a bit more demonstrative than that!
Tom and Holliday together really pull out of those moments where she totally gets what an arse he can be, at the same time as thinking, he’s quite good news.