Leading The Action
The BBC’s The Serpent has been a huge hit and here’s its lead director Tom Shankland talking about it from the BBC…
How did The Serpent come about?
I was in Nepal, in a Himalayan village, aged about 19, when I first heard about Charles Sobhraj. There were a few of us huddled in the dark, telling traveller tales, buzzing after a day of trekking through the most beautiful mountains in the world, waxing lyrical about the amazing people and places you see on the road, when someone said, “you can’t trust everyone you meet”. She went on to talk about a guy – possibly a Frenchman – and his girlfriend.
Apparently this Frenchman was in gaol now but keeps escaping… I had no idea if this French guy was some kind of hippie bogeyman – a camp fire ghost story – or real. Either way, it was so unsettling to be in such an astonishingly beautiful place, and picture such bleak and brutal murders. Many years later, the memory of that conversation in Nepal popped in to my head. Was there anything real there?
I did a little digging and found Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s book, The Life and Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj, all about a man who seemed to fit the bill. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! There were so many things in this story that intrigued me … Sobhraj, for sure, Marie-Andrée and Ajay, but also all the poignant, restless, adventuring, spirits of his victims, and, of course, the remarkable, quiet, diligent heroism of people like Herman, Angela and Nadine.
There was also this incredibly rich and complex backdrop to the events: the tumultuous geo-politics of Vietnam-war era Asia, the dying days of the hippie dream, the complex relationship between ideas of East and West. And all of this craziness unfolding in that heady, free-wheeling era when people travelled without mobile phones or the internet – when contact with home was all via poste-restantes or the occasionally crackly phone call. The whole cocktail was completely intoxicating, and as a film-maker, there was no question that this was a time and place that I wanted to bring back to life.
What were the main challenges of the shoot for you?
We had an amazing cast and wonderful international crew, so despite the insane Bangkok traffic, shooting in rainy season (one scene was probably reshot four times), weekly catastrophes and the small matter of a global pandemic, there was never a day when I lost faith in or passion for what we were doing. In some ways, the rollercoaster ride of the shoot created an energy and shot of raw real life that fired into the scenes. I was always looking for moments that felt true – sometimes springing a spontaneous bit of improvisation on the actors and crew for an extra shot of reality! Some of the rushes were gloriously chaotic, but all of the takes had a great moment or two that ended up in the show.
The daily challenge, as on any shoot, is to stay true to your vision in the face all the uncontrollable elements that get thrown in your path. Me and the great crew were always wary of 70s cliches and too many slick thriller tropes. We wanted everything to look and feel authentic and nuanced. Whether it was our old anamorphic zoom lens, or embracing a certain grunginess in some of our locations, the vision was always to take the audience back to a real-feeling time and place – not an overly slick looking thriller full of flares and “wow, far out” dialogue. Our cast were very on board with this approach and always dug deep to find and feel the real emotion in the story.
Did any of the real-life figures depicted in the series come to set while you were filming?
There were some nerve-wracking days when the production would tell us that one of the real people from the story wanted to come and visit the set. The first was Nadine Gires. I remember we were filming at our Kanit House location. The real Kanit House was knocked down a good few years ago but, of course, we tried to find a location that resembled the original place as much as possible. There are a few amazing photos of Nadine and Marie-Andrée relaxing around the pool of Kanit House that were precious references for us. They perfectly caught that tension between a certain free-wheeling 70s laid-back glamour, with a palpable tension in some of the body language.
When the real Nadine walked on to set, Mathilde (who plays Nadine) was especially terrified. I invited Nadine over to the monitor and she watched in silence as Tahar, Jenna and Mathilde played out a little scene by the pool. I kept looking away from the monitor to Nadine trying to read her reaction. Finally, there was a slow small nod of approval. I think it was difficult and fascinating for her. Nadine is remarkable woman. She was so young at the time and effectively risked her life to expose what was going on at Kanit House. Her presence was a reminder of how important it was to get things right and try to do justice to the truth of the real people’s experiences. The fact that we had caught the flavour of what she remembered was a massive vote of confidence.
It was always a pleasure to have Herman on set. Over the years developing the scripts we’d had some fantastic conversations and I was always struck by his intelligence, humour, passion and incredible memory! Having said that, we were still somewhat nervous when Herman and Vanessa came to visit the set. I think it was particularly nerve-wracking for Billy. But Herman loved what he was seeing and hearing. On one visit, we were doing a scene with Billy and Tim, who plays Herman’s older wiser friend, Paul Siemons. Herman loved what Billy was doing and said that listening to Tim was exactly like listening to Paul. Herman is also something of a cineaste so I was very happy to get a thumbs up for our recreation of some of key moments from the story.
At the centre of The Serpent are two very different couples: Charles and Marie-Andrée, and Herman and Angela. What qualities do you feel Tahar, Jenna, Billy and Ellie bring to those roles?
One of the things that became very clear early on was that this wasn’t a simple Hunter-Hunted story – this was also the story of two very different couples and two very different kinds of love. Tahar Rahim is an actor I’ve loved ever since seeing him Audiard’s Une Prophet. He is a wonderful subtle actor who is always looking for the truth in whoever he is playing. Tahar is also a brilliant linguist and I knew that we wanted Charles to be able to slip in and out of languages and identities, to some extent.
Me and Jenna joked at the start of the shoot that when she signed up to play Marie-Andrée , in the original drafts, Marie-Andrée was a cool, enigmatic figure who just did a lot of smoking on the balcony. With each new script revision, Marie-Andrée came more and more out of the shadows – now Jenna had a lot of work to do!
This says everything about how amazing Jenna is. The story of Marie-Andrée – how complicit was she? How much did love blind her? How much did the fantasy of reinventing herself overwhelm her moral sensibilities? This was an incredibly complex role. On the first day we met, Jenna read one of the toughest scenes of the whole story when Marie-Andrée finally breaks down with Charles in a street in Kathmandu, and all her anxieties erupt to the surface. Jenna was totally fearless as she launched in to this scene in a language she’d been learning for about 24 hours – she blew me away!
Aside from that scene, most of Marie-Andrée ’s real feelings are never to be found in the dialogue. Jenna’s ability to convey Marie-Andrée ’s insecurities and silent suffering were absolutely compelling. Sometimes, these moments did indeed happen on that balcony, smoking…
Billy and Ellie were the perfect contrast – a couple who talk to each other, generally try to support and encourage each other. There is a lightness there too. Of course, they both have their struggles and conflicts. They are young and smart – pushing against the somewhat patriarchal, colonial values of the diplomatic service and ex-pat community. Billy immediately tapped in to Herman’s sense of simple moral indignation that the murder of young Dutch couple could slip completely beneath the radar. That is the fuel that drives Herman through the story, but there are so many other qualities to Herman that Billy brought out – his humour, his loyalty, hints at his own demons. Billy was perfect!
Ellie is the one actor from our cast who I’ve worked with before and I love her. She is so effortless and likable in everything she does. Of all the languages our cast had to learn, perhaps Ellie had the toughest job, mastering some speeches in Thai about exit visas! Angela is a super-smart woman whose intelligence and skills were always pushing at the envelope of what was expected of her as a ‘diplomat’s wife’.
Ellie epitomised something about a smart, young, international-minded woman in the 1970s, who starts to feel the urge to break free of the role she has signed up to. There was a great rapport between Billy and Ellie, just as there was between Tahar and Jenna. I love watching these two very different relationships play out through the story.
What were the most memorable moments of the shoot for you?
It was an unforgettable shoot, and as this has been a project so close to my heart for such a long time, just to see us inching closer to actually finishing the show is incredible.
From the beginning I was always excited by the idea of bringing the lost era of the hippie trail back to life, so I hope the audience get to experience that from the comfort of wherever they’re lying or sitting in the strange, wintery present. Of course, as a film-maker, I hope we’ve all done our job and intrigued, moved, scared and inspired the audience, but most importantly, I hope that we’ve portrayed the lives of the young people who set out and never made it back, in a way that rescues them from Sobhraj’s false narrative and celebrates their humanity.