There's a great in-depth profile on Parade's End in this week's Broadcast
magazine:Mud, sets and tears in WW1
I missed the preparation time on this WWI-era drama, but having Tom Stoppard writing on set for an A-list cast helped us negotiate the challenging conditions, says Susanna White.
Production company Mammoth Screen
Commissioners Ben Stephenson, Janice Hadlow
Length 5 x 60 minutes
TX BBC2, 9pm from Friday 24 August
Director Susanna White
Writer Tom Stoppard
Executive producers Michele Buck, Damien Timmer (Mammoth Screen), Ben Donald (BBC Worldwide), Simon Vaughan (Lookout Point TV); Judith Louis (ARTE France)
Producers David Parfitt, Selwyn Roberts
Production designer Martin Childs
Post-house Galaxy Studios NV
Summary Adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s four-volume series of modernist novels focusing on a destructive love triangle that develops as the looming World War I threatens to shatter society’s values.Susanna White
Like all directors, I need a game plan. Whenever I go into a shoot, I draw graphs of the characters’ emotional journeys, plan blocking of scenes and work up storyboards of key sequences to bring my vision to the screen as effectively as possible.
With Parade’s End, shooting five hours of drama multi-episodically, with dialogue by Tom Stoppard, involving 110 characters who age over 10 years, this would seem to be more essential than ever.
But such were the challenges of this unique project that I sometimes found myself walking onto one of the 146 sets for the first time on the morning of filming. Or I’d be a week away from shooting a complex scene and one key actor short because there hadn’t physically been time to cast them all before the end of prep. It wasn’t that the read-through was lacking in names – younger actors walked in wide-eyed to join Rebecca Hall, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Rupert Everett and others. The huge room in Lincoln’s Inn was full.
A year after I read the scripts, the right constellation of stars came together to satisfy the broadcasters and we suddenly found ourselves hurtling headlong into production. We had a small window of opportunity with Rebecca and Benedict and needed to start shooting a key episode centred on the 24 hours around Midsummers’ Day before the end of September, while there were still leaves on the trees and the hope of sunshine.
What I missed most perhaps was the opportunity that rehearsal brings to define the tonal quality of the piece and refine timing, particularly around comedy. There is a key scene in episode one where Benedict’s character visits the home of a mad clergyman suffering from Tourette’s. Tom’s writing veers brilliantly between farce and deep emotional undercurrents and it was crucial to keep it feeling real. But with Rufus Sewell confirmed only a fortnight before filming and the likes of Stephen and Miranda Richardson busy with other commitments, we could not rehearse until that morning. I was glad it wasn’t my first job.
Fortunately, Tom was often on hand to talk to. I welcomed his presence on set. When extra lines were needed he’d write them rapidly, but the existing dialogue was there to be explored, not changed – so much thought had gone into patterning and layering across the five hours. It wasn’t a set where actors could improvise.
When it came to the war sequences, my gaffer Paul Murphy had one request: hold back the mud. He’d had his fill of it on Jane Eyre and Nanny McPhee. But this is a World War I drama and that means trenches. We dug a system of them at Branchon in Belgium. Tom and I had visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, trenches stretching as far as the eye could see, wide enough to gallop a horse down. How could we compete? We took the opposite approach and drew on documentary photographs to come up with narrow channels through mud walls, only just wide enough for two men to squeeze past each other. We shot on two Alexas, with some additional material on the Canon D5.
We pared it right back – few duckboards, few sandbags, opting instead for organic curves of pure mud with bare shattered trees, like the spare landscapes in paintings by Paul Nash. One shot of the battlefield at night is a direct quote from a Nash painting, brought to life with moving flares and explosions. Ford Madox Ford was involved with the Cubists and Vorticists and there are references to paintings throughout. The era is the end of the Pre-Raphaelites and the costumes have a lot of the rich colours associated with that movement, particularly Sylvia’s.
We went for a much more subdued palette for the trenches and the images become more fractured as the characters’ Edwardian values are shattered. The three mirrors of the opening titles, modelled on Vorticist photographers, become a recurring motif as things start to break down.
The trenches were so narrow that the only practical way to work in them was to shoot from above with a technocrane. I wanted the focus to be on the men, not the hardware of war.
Our production design team built a model of the trenches and our evenings were spent plotting where the explosions would be, which areas would be flooded, where the cranes would go. The plan was to create a stretch of trenches with a flat view into No Man’s Land and to extend them in CGI. We borrowed authentic WWI weapons from Belgian museums. War Horse producer Kathleen Kennedy kindly lent us some military costumes.
On 11 November, we were at Aalter, filming in a chateau that we used as General Campion’s HQ and some London interiors. Rupert Everett and I stood side by side observing the two-minute silence, knowing that during the war the inhabitants of that chateau would have been able to hear shelling rather than the birds we now listened to. The whole trench shoot was a humbling experience. If our days were long and cold, it was nothing compared to what the real troops went through.
My tricks of the trade
Hold your nerve over casting. Don’t go with second best – drama stands or falls on the quality of the casting and how well the minor parts are played.
In emergencies, think of drama like documentary. If you only had one chance to shoot a scene, where would the camera be?
Surround yourself with the best possible talent. I had Oscar winners. If you need to delegate, be able to do it with confidence.Belgium: the best and worst
It’s inevitable that on a drama of this scale, certain decisions have already been made before the designer starts, so work can never begin with a blank sheet. With a script by Tom Stoppard of such range, ambition and percipience, you almost welcome someone else to make the first mark, and in this case someone had attached a big, day-glo post-it note to the blank sheet that read: BELGIUM. To me at least, Belgium was unknown territory.
At best, it meant shooting trenches where there had actually been trenches, with the right landscape, 360 degrees of authentic, unspoiled horizon, the right flat light. It meant finding chateaux the like of which I’d never seen, one a deliciously apt oxblood pink for General Campion’s HQ, another with the potential for a parade ground and a dead straight tree-lined avenue beside it for an infantry base depot, and a third so surprising that its exterior could pass for Scotland, its interior for Germany. And so they did, with help.
At worst, Belgium meant faking England, in a story where England should be seen at its most English. Thanks to his usual empathetic collaboration, first AD Phil Booth produced a miraculous schedule where, in spite of sets numbering in the hundreds, ‘at best’ prevailed. We only faked England in two Belgian interiors that could be sandwiched between English locations, and in a hundred metres of English hedgerow made from Belgian hedgerow in pots, a lot of pumped fog, and some brilliant lighting from Mike Eley.
Authenticity of location helped with our wishes to see trenches that looked, felt, and even smelled, like the real thing – flooded, unstable, nightmarish. Accommodating a camera crew was low priority, capturing the hell of it top priority – something of the ‘abysses of chaos’ that Ford Madox Ford evocatively described.