5 Minutes with… 2AM's Richard Laxton
Take a cursory look at director Richard Laxton’s (impressive) back catalogue of work and the first thing that strikes you is the sheer diversity. There’s the low key naturalism of Bafta-winning comedy Him & Her, the tempestuous glamour of biopics like Burton and Taylor and, most recently, chilling Nordic mystery series Fortitude, currently airing in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and more. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that all of his work is shot through with a deeply felt appreciation of humanity – how we think, how we relate to the world around us. While much of his work does indeed contain beautiful images and richly-imagined worlds, as far as the director is concerned, without emotional truth and resonance there’s no hope of reaching an audience in any kind of meaningful way.
As Fortitude slinks into the final third of its gripping first season, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Richard (who is represented for commercials by 2AM) to find out more…
LBB> How did your involvement with Fortitude come about? What was it about the script that jumped out at you initially?
RL> It was being talked about in autumn 2013, they sent me the script and I went for a meeting about it at the end of 2013. I read it and I just went ‘wow, this is a world I’ve never had a chance to dig around in before…’ I thought it extraordinary and yet emotional; I thought it was compelling. If you take a story and put it into a landscape like that, suddenly it has a whole other layer to it.
When we live in cities we’re very much surrounded by the images and evidence of manmade stuff and as soon as you set a story in nature, by virtue of being there, shooting there, you’re forced to really appreciate the scale of the human in relation to the world. I thought it was fascinating. There was a great cast being assembled and I thought it would be quite a fantastic thing to do.
LBB> The show touches on an interesting combination of genres, sometimes you feel like you’re watching a whodunit, then Scandi-Noir, then sci-fi thriller and then there’s a hint of the supernatural. How do you see it?
RL> You’re right, it crosses genres I suppose. If I stand in a dramatic landscape as the weather is turning and the light begins to fall I think I am – and probably most people would be – struck by what is bigger than me. If you have an imagination, that can either run riot and leave you scurrying to a bus stop, or maybe it can leave you with a better understanding of nature.
When you’re in a big landscape and you see the Northern Lights and you see the stars, you start thinking about the universe. It presses all these buttons, which is great. And then you’re talking about permafrost, capturing a bit of history millions of years before, so that feels scientific. And then you put people in a community like that and it’s like a Big Brother igloo. Things are going to be tested and tried and the human condition will dysfunction as well as function.
I suppose there’s also a morality at the core of it. For example Hildur Odegard has a desire to build an ice hotel, for very pertinent reasons to do with industry and community, but at the same time boring down through a glacier is not something that you can do and get away with Scot-free. So there’s a lovely exploration of the devouring sense of the human being versus the planet.
I remember my father always saying to me – he was a very keen sailor and had been in the Navy – you should never think you’re bigger than the ocean because it will always get you. It’s an extraordinary and powerful force.
LBB> I love the production design. When you look closely there are so many rich details that help build the world and tell the story. How did you and the rest of the team go about creating the world of Fortitude, its aesthetic, its visual palette etc.?
RL> There were four of us directing it at different stages and because I joined so early in the process we did a lot of work with Gemma Jackson, who is a great designer. She set up Game of Thrones and has done some gorgeous, lyrical work as well. She’s a very, inspiring, excitable energy. She’ll dig around to find something that is extraordinary and which honours human truth.
It’s always a challenge because we shot it in Iceland and it’s set in Norway so we had to bring that more Nordic sensibility, although it is there particularly on the East coast of Iceland where we shot. She brought some beautiful touches in and her insight and creativity was brilliant.
LBB> You’ve mentioned transplanting Norway to Iceland, but what other production challenges did you face?
RL> The most problematic thing was the snow… because we didn’t have any! During the first main principle photography it was raining and the winds were howling and the snow was just being washed away. We had a visual effects snow team there on standby to fill in. But then at other times, you’d wake up to two feet of snow. We were trying to shoot above the snow line and I tried to come up with three options for each location, one for if there was no snow, one for if there was some snow and one for if there was lots of snow. The more snow there was, the lower we could shoot.
That was a challenge. In episode four, which went out as episode three in the UK, where Frank and Dan go up the coast looking for the little girl and Ronnie on the boat, all the snow had melted around where they moor the boat. It all had to be added in post. That day we actually had a barbeque.
But when we were recceing we had special four wheel drives with massive wheels because there was so much snow and we couldn’t get to the airport because they’d shut the mountain road. So it was very changeable. But it was an extraordinary experience and Iceland was an extraordinary country.
LBB> Obviously Fortitude is just the latest project in a distinguished directing career! How did you first get into directing? Was it something you always wanted to do?
RL> I always wanted to do something like this and tell stories. I did a degree at Bournemouth in the late 80s in Communication and Media Production. I wrote to the BBC and got some summer jobs and I eventually was asked to be a runner on a BBC drama, a Jeanette Winterson adaptation directed by a woman called Beeban Kidron. I knew I wanted to direct… I had an inkling of it in college, but I think I was a bit scared of it. But then when I stood on set I thought, ‘ I don’t want to do this job, I want to do her job’.
I set about writing a short film and I saved up some and made it. I got into the London Film Festival, got an agent and started directing BBC drama. I didn’t really do any comedy until I did the pilot of Free Agents [in 2007] for Channel 4.
LBB> Some directors can end up quite pigeonholed, but you seem to embrace different genres or tones. After all Him and Her is an award-winning comedy, and the glamour of Burton & Taylor is miles away from Fortitude! How have you managed to avoid this pigeonholing throughout your career? And, as a creative person, what does exploring all of these very different worlds bring to you?
RL> My career’s been a bit weird because at the moment I’m editing a sitcom and doing the post production on a very dark drama. I’m currently working on a new series called ‘Mum’ with Stefan (Golaszewski ), who I worked with on Him and Her, and we’re cutting that but I’m also giving notes on a man with mental health problems played by Stellan Skarsgard for a show called River.
I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been given the opportunity to go into dark drama or character or biopic or comedy. It’s all about the emotion, it’s about the story, the human condition, the truth… and if that’s explored through comedy then that’s great or if it’s explored via a dead mammoth in a glacier then that’s also great.
LBB> The advertising world is getting more involved in creating longer form content, branded entertainment and that sort of thing – what could/should they learn from the TV world?
RL> I think both long form and short form are very challenging for different reasons. I think what’s fantastic about short form is that it forces you to be very judicious, frame-by-frame. The wave form of the story is very different. I think long form is about pace and energy and knowing the graph of your piece and knowing where you’re pushing and where you pull back. That can happen in short form as well, but long form is my natural home.
LBB> TV is having quite a moment and people are starting to respect it more as a creative medium…
RL> It’s partly to do with the hand held device. What’s the difference between watching a slightly mediocre film on your iPad and watching a very well-written TV show? And filmmakers are now starting to make TV. Stellan Skarsgard had never made any TV until River.
LBB> I’d imagine from a director’s point of view, and probably from an actor’s point of view, there must be something really rewarding about being able to get into a character in the depth that TV allows.
RL> It’s great if it’s well written, but if it’s not it’s like pulling a piece of chewing gum until it’s thin. It’s great for an actor but it’s also hard to sustain energy. In America you get signed for five or seven seasons… but then they pay them a lot for that pleasure.
LBB> Regardless of the genre, do you have a particular method for working with actors?
RL> I love working with actors. I first make them feel comfortable enough that they can fall over – then they’ll make the most interesting choice. You can’t direct an actor through fear.
I know instinctively when I’m talking to them and I meet them whether they are someone who can land ‘truth’. I always talk about performing from the point of view of trying to portray the way people really are rather than the way people like to think they are in TV genre. With Him & Her, many people thought it was improvised, which was very frustrating for Stefan because we work on the script very specifically and very tightly!
It doesn’t make any difference whether I’m doing comedy or drama. The harder thing about something like Fortitude is that a lot of the characters are required to sit in the driving seat of the plot, so they can feel that they’re abandoning the characterisation or truth and I have to find a way to land them back in it. My process is one of listening. And I work with them very closely on the day, on camera. I love photography and I love capturing an essence of a world or a time, but I also love making sure that the actors within that world then shine. Burton and Taylor was an example where we had to work really hard on getting Richard and Liz right and then creating the 80s in New York and London.
LBB> So how do you strike that balance between getting a really beautiful looking image and then also allowing the characters to shine?
RL> All I want to do is to make things for an audience. I want the audience to connect and feel. I want them to watch a piece of work and learn something about the human condition. Hopefully through that people will start to garner a bit of emotional intelligence about the world; compassion and understanding are big things for me. That does not happen in a pretty image. It can happen in a beautiful image with a bit of something else. Similarly, if I put Helena Bonham-Carter in an Elizabeth Taylor wig and make up and I don’t create the world around her, the audience won’t buy it, they won’t be seduced to the world.
I tend to work inside out to the audience, which is quite difficult to articulate. For me it’s about being emotionally connected with the material.
LBB> From what you’re saying it sounds like you work from a place that requires you to be an observer, someone who understands human nature, psychology. Is that something you devote quite a lot of energy to?
RL> I suppose I was always a very isolated, bullied child and the son of an addict, so I spent most of my childhood not knowing how to be in the world. I then spent a lot of time turning that inwardly, which was not very healthy, and then trying to understand humanity from quite a young age. I have a particular fascination in function and dysfunction in the human condition. I made two dramas about addicts, I made one about Tony Hancock and then there was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and there’s no surprise there considering my history. I suppose I have a particularly attuned sense of human beings and I’ve done a lot of reading about it and a lot of work on it myself. I’ve done a lot of psychotherapy work and I love it, I see it as a kind of psychological gym. That all comes into my work. I know when I’m reading a script whether I can connect with it or not, if it digs around deep enough.
LBB> When you’re dealing with big themes or stories or something has big ambitions, it can be the small details that can be the crux of whether people buy it or not...
RL> At the moment I’m cutting Mum and with every performance I think, ‘is that someone acting? Ok that goes, let’s find a better performance’, or ‘is that someone trying to be funny? I think that has to go’. Stefan and I always joke that we make drama for the comedy department. If we’re doing what we think the audience will find funny, it gets dumped on the floor. If we’re doing something that the audience will believe but is amusing as a by-product, then it stays in.
LBB> Do you prefer working on projects where you’ve been involved in the script or something that someone else has written?
RL> If I like the script, I wear it. If it’s in the development, they send me the script at the early stages, which happens more in TV than in films. Also if I get a script, we’ll have such lengthy conversations about it. I have to know it like the back of my hand. Then it becomes part of me. And I love good writing. I love reading it.
LBB> I know you’re in post for River and Mum at the moment – what’s next for you?
RL> I’m still reading a script that I’ll shoot next year. I’ll have a series of Mum if it goes through to think about, plus I’ve got two films in development. The films will roll out over years; Stefan and I will try to do something together, movie-wise, and there’s another beautiful little low budget film that I love. And there’s a comedy I have done a taster for with an actress who I’ve worked with quite a lot. We shot a teaser over two days last year to take round for a series which is going to broadcasters any minute now.