♦ The BBC’s new political thriller, Collateral, starts soon and here’s its director, SJ Clarkson, talking about it…
How did you become involved in the project?
I was in New York, midway through directing the opening episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders when I received the first two scripts for Collateral. They were early drafts but I could tell from the off they were incredibly powerful. Part state of the nation, part character study, part thriller – a challenging mesh up that had the potential to make a great four hours of television. I had had a marvellous run in the world of superheroes but was looking for something different, something back home in London, and something that gave voice to my own growing frustrations with what was happening in the world.
Had you worked with David Hare before? Were you a fan of his writing?
I had never met David although of course knew him by reputation. We come from very different worlds and backgrounds, and I think that is what makes our collaboration so exciting – it was genius on the part of The Forge executive producers, George Faber and Mark Pybus, to pair us up.
I recall our first conversation, which was so refreshing. I was in the cutting room in LA and David was at his house in France – after the initial introductions I began to gush about his work – specifically his screenplay of The Hours – a film I admire greatly. He stopped me rather abruptly saying ‘No don’t worry about all that, save that for later – what did you think of Collateral?’ At that moment I was in – we are both obsessive about ‘the work’, say it how it is and want to make it as good as it can be – we have a shared passion for storytelling.
Collateral is really an ensemble piece with several strong performances.
How important was it to get the casting just right?
Casting is key to any project and I knew, tonally, we needed a group of actors who had the gravitas to pull off David’s brilliant dialogue but also the ability to mine the wit and humour which is a key component to the piece.
The casting process was a joy and we really were blessed with the cream of both stage and screen. It seemed everyone was excited by the prospect of this piece and we were overwhelmed in securing so many of our first choices. And it was incredibly exciting when Carey Mulligan said a big yes!
Carey and I met to talk about the script and the character of Kip and I talked to her about my vision for the piece. Within about 30 seconds of meeting her I knew I didn’t want to make this without her and was therefore thrilled when after a short while she turned to me and said, “I’m a thousand percent in”.
Carey has impeccable taste, is piercingly intelligent, exceptionally talented and is unrelenting in her desire to make every line and every beat both truthful and real. We had a fantastic dialogue throughout, constantly interrogating and challenging the character and scenes – collaborating with her was one of the highlights of the project.
The show touches on several of the institutions that define contemporary British life: law enforcement, the media, government, the church, the military. Did this affect the way you approached the piece?
One of the biggest challenges I had was to find a visual grammar and cinematic approach to connect all the worlds in Collateral. With so many characters to introduce and so much jumping between worlds I knew the framing, transitions and cutting would be key to give the story momentum and join all the pieces.
I wanted to craft it so there was a visual connection that led you from one character to the next with a look, a camera move, a match frame for instance. It was always my intention to keep the energy and momentum high, with camera moves that lure you in or catapult you from one place to the next so for the first few minutes you are being propelled through the story meeting all these characters and though you might not necessarily get the connection straight away – eventually all these pieces would come full circle.
That was part of the fun as well – I love taking the audience on a journey, a rollercoaster that is constantly moving, changing directions and then slowing and drawing you in to the character and story.
There are several moments where characters think they are doing the right thing, but come to find out they were not. Do you think this is a defining characteristic of modern life?
Experience teaches us how to read a situation: like when you run and trip over your untied shoelace as a kid it doesn’t stop you running, but you know not to do it with your laces undone. Same goes for situations with people – our experience gives us that insight to foresee what’s coming. But then you add other people to the mix, their experience, what’s happened to them that morning and everything changes.
You might think you know how something will play out or how someone will react, but a series of small shifts, changes or a misjudgement can create unforeseen circumstances that can set off a whole chain of consequences. And that’s what makes great drama. Every character in the piece at some point in the story has a choice that will change the course of their lives – in some cases it’s only small and specific to them, but in other cases it can be life-changing and affect many. I think that’s what is so fascinating about this drama.
Was it important to film this drama in London?
I’m not going to lie – it is not the easiest of cities to film in. I’m sorry to say I think London is slowly pricing itself out of TV. However London is a huge part of Collateral. It’s a character in its own right and I don’t think the piece would be what it is without having the city as the backdrop. It is so diverse in both its people and places – so rich and layered and offers up so many visual opportunities. I wanted to capture the spirit of the city, the energy, the attitude and the atmosphere.