Interview with Spooks: The Greater Good director Bharat Nulluri
11th May 2015
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Bharat Nulluri directed the opening episodes of Spooks when it launched in the UK in 2002 and returned to direct some of the final series and now Spooks: The Greater Good, the cinema debut of the spy drama. It proved astonishingly influential and has been lauded by viewers, critics and filmmakers such as JJ Abrams as the series that changed the face of television. I spoke to him about what it’s like transferring a much loved show to the big screen, the risk of upsetting fans and his hopes for following this film up with a sequel. Having directed the first episodes of Spooks, then returning to the final couple of episodes almost a decade later and now with the film, what was it like having that jump? We’d always talked about it having a film aesthetic, with a scale and scope like that. I brought that aesthetic to it, but you have some limits on TV. I think why the TV series stood out for ten years, or certainly then, was that it had this ambition to be larger. Now, TV is huge and it’s as big as movies, but then it was very fresh. Making the movie we got more money, more time – all the things we talked about having when we made the TV show – and managed to put them in front of the camera this time. We got to go to Berlin and do huge set pieces all around London and fly helicopters. I could bring a huge scale to it and also get more time to develop the characters. And with the TV show you never have an ending, really, it keeps on going, so it was nice to have a beginning, middle and an end. Did the fact that the TV show had cinematic ambitions make that transfer easier? Yeah I think so. The TV show was always about Mi5, direct to the UK, whereas a lot of times with TV-movie transitions they end up going off abroad. We made sure we were very honest to the original TV show. In a way it was easy, but we didn’t want to lose our core viewers – we used to get eight million viewers – so we didn’t want to lose them and upset them by not being true to it but we also wanted to make a movie that those who had never seen the show could come to. That was the hardest thing but I think it’s worked quite well. The TV series was famously one of the few shows to remain shot on 16mm film instead of going digital, and now here we have the first digital Spooks. What was it that made you and your DP chose the Alexa (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong)? Was there ever a discussion about using celluloid or other cameras or formats? I was a film die-hard. I was always like ‘HD’s not as good as film! HD’s not as good as film!’ and we fought hard and managed to keep it going right until the very end on 16mm film. We kind of sold that on the ‘it’s easy to shoot under the radar on 16mm film’ thing because of all the plug-ins you need for HD. We got away with that for a while. And then the Arri Alexa came along and I’m a bit of a convert, actually, especially filming something like this. It was the right camera for it. It gives you so much flexibility, especially night time stuff, and daytime stuff. You can just shoot with such little light. Until the Arri [Alexa] came along I would have shot everything on film, but Arri have changed the landscape. There are quite a few scenes shot in busy parts of central London. Did that pose any problems? You can see it as a problem or you can see it as an advantage! I like shooting and not showing your hand. We’ve never closed streets off, we keep everything running so that you have the real world around you whilst you’re shooting the drama and without people even recognising it. Every now and then you get some people walking up to the camera and start talking and they don’t realise there is a long lens somewhere on top of a building, that’s a problem, but nothing too big. I think the biggest thing was shooting on Waterloo Bridge with Kit Harrington and he had just shot another movie and all these posters with him on would appear on busses behind him! We had to keep on doing it and keep going. That was probably the biggest issue. But no, I’ve never shot a film where people have been more keen to help us. When you go around for locations people know the show. If you go to a building to shoot on the third floor a janitor might say ‘I know a much better place where a sniper would be on another floor’. So it’s good everyone knows the show and the London feel kind of takes ownership of it.
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