British director SJ Clarkson has a string of hit TV shows to her name on both sides of the Pond.
In the US, she’s directed series such as House, Dexter and Ugly Betty; while her UK credits include Mistresses, which she also created, Life On Mars and Nigel Slater’s memoir Toast.
SJ’s latest series is the spy-thriller Hunted, written by The X Files’ Frank Spotnitz and starring Melissa George.
With Hunted kicking off on 4 October at 9pm on BBC1, I caught up with SJ to talk about the magic of creating new worlds and keeping it real in action scenes.
Initially, I thought I wanted to be a theatre producer. I worked for Cameron Mackintosh whose career was flourishing with Cats, Miss Saigon, and Les Mis. It was a very exciting time. I really admired him and loved watching him work. However, I came to realise that I preferred the creative side to the business side. I loved the idea of creating a world and a space for a story to grow.
I used to go to the cinema all the time when I worked in theatre, and gradually I fell more and more in love with film. I remember watching the Wizard of Oz at a very young age and thinking it was incredible how it turned from black and white to colour. It was the magic of it that drew me – I wanted to be part of creating that.
How do you get to the heart of the script in a series like Hunted?
It’s all about tone. I look at a script and think what it could be. On the page, Hunted is an action piece. At its basic core, it’s about a character who wants to find out who’s trying to kill her. But it’s how you tell that story.
There are certainly elements of Mission: Impossible, like an awful lot of high-tech stuff, but what interested me was taking the action genre and high-octane storytelling and making sure characterisation was at its heart. I hadn’t seen that before with a female protagonist.
You can’t get away from directing action being technical. It just is. You’re not really hitting someone in the face with a stick, so you have to work out technically how you’re going to sell it. Does the trick of the eye, the smoke and mirrors of where the camera is and where the swing of the punch is, all line up to make it look right?
Obviously there are very stock answers to that. If you’re doing a punch, you want to put the camera on the opposite side and be behind them so when the punch swings through the reaction comes back to camera. So that’s very specific.
It’s about understanding technically how you’re going to tell that story, how you’re going to sell that piece of action, but equally it’s about trying to find new ways to do it. That was the challenge in Hunted. We wanted to make it very real, so it was much more about getting in there handheld to try and make the punches sell as real and as close as possible.
The performance is key too. It’s very easy when you’re doing one punch after another for it to feel more choreographed. The trick is to make it come from a very real place. With Melissa, it was often about making sure we kept that level of anger inside her to really sell those punches.
In some ways, it’s liberating being on location; in others, it has restrictions. For example, we started filming in October and finished just before Christmas, so we had limited daylight as the nights were drawing in. Sometimes you’re up against it and you’re fighting that, but sometimes that momentum and energy can really produce something brilliant.
And there’s nothing like shooting at a location. No matter how wonderful a set is, it can sometimes still look like a set. And it can take as much time to light a set to make it look real as it does to set up on location. It’s swings and roundabouts.
We wanted to make Hunted feel as real as possible and the location was a real asset for that. We filmed Tangier in Tangier. I love the theatricality of the first episode’s initial fake-out and the theatre I found to film that in really helped.
We thought about building a set for the café scene in the first episode as, initially, it was written as an interior. Then I found a little café on the beach in Tangier which looked perfect. But inside it was the size of a shoebox, so I had to think up new ways of telling the story.
I saw an old gas stove in the café and it gave me the idea for Sam [Melissa George] to set one of the bad guys on fire. His screams would then draw everyone inside the café and she’d have to go outside, taking the fight out there. When I was outside calling to my designer to tell him this idea, I saw his shadow before I saw him so I knew where he was coming from, and I thought that would be a brilliant idea for Sam in that scene. So, the location informed how the big fight sequence would take place which is really exciting because that wouldn’t have happened unless we were on location.
What was the most satisfying thing about working on Hunted?
My favourite part of directing is setting up a show or telling a story from the ground up. I love the magic of seeing a world open up in front of my eyes and being part of that creation. It’s very exciting to take something that’s known but create it with a different tone, atmosphere, or look so that it’s familiar yet unexpected and exciting at the same time.
And the biggest challenge you faced on the series?
Our main location – our bad guy Jack Turner’s house – fell through on my first day of filming, which left me with very little time to prep. The script had been written around that house and the new house didn’t have the geography and architecture required. Sam lived in the house too and there were lots of secret passageways, and a whole structure we had to impose on this new location, which made it very complicated and challenging to create the house while filming and maintain the drama.
How do you cope with a problem like that?
You’ve just got to fix it and make it work. How do I get Sam downstairs when there’s somebody coming upstairs and I don’t really have the geography I need? You just sit in the location and you think of ways you can tell the story, move the characters, and tricks of the camera you can use. All those years of experience hopefully pay off and you start to think of ways and shortcuts. It was a challenge for sure.
What do you like to watch on TV when you’re not working?
I watch as much as I can. I’m obsessed by The Great British Bake Off! I like food and since doing Toast I love watching cookery programmes. I love to look at new dramas too, but sometimes it’s just nice to switch off and watch someone bake a cake!
I’ve just finished Banshee, another show for HBO, which is set in a fictitious town called Banshee. We shot it in North Carolina, but it’s set in Pennsylvania. It’s about a con-man who becomes a sheriff. It’s a love story at its core, amidst all the action and violence. A guy who went to jail 15 years ago after taking the fall for his lover and partner-in-crime comes back in search of her, but she’s married somebody else. Now he wants to claim back what’s his.
Photos for Hunted by Giles Keyte