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Interview with Spooks: The Greater Good director Bharat Nulluri

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Spooks The Greater GoodBharat 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.

Bharat NalluriDid 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.

There have been criticisms of the British film industry about it not having commercial viability on its own without the support of Hollywood studios. Do you think Spooks: The Greater Good proves that it does have a viable commercial backbone?

I hope so. Well, it comes out this weekend so we’ll so see what happens! But word is very good, we’re already talking about sequels and all the rest of it. It’s a complex and huge issue, the commercial viability of film, how you distribute, how the platforms are released and everything. I think it’s dangerous to think about it as ‘us and them’. It’s a combination now everyone works together. A film can have its roots in Britain but gets its money from America but shoots in Britain to be distributed by the French. It’s such a global market. It’s interesting how much the Americans are here. All our studios are full of American movies, the TV industry in America is coming over to London and there’s a lot of American television being shot here. They are really seeing it as a centre of filmmaking. Everything we’ve ever done has been a combination, it’s how the world works now.

Could you envisage directing another instalment?

Oh, it’s my baby, so yes. Absolutely.  I would love it if I can, it went really well, it was one of the most enjoyable shoots I’ve done. We had a great cast. We knew the template, we knew the score. It was a really enjoyable shoot.

One of the most memorable moments in television history was when Lisa Faulkner was tortured and killed by butting her head in a deep fat fryer in just the second episode of Series 1 of Spooks. It absolutely shocked me when I saw it. There is a scene early on in the film when a major character is brought back and then killed fairly soon after their entrance. I was wondering if that was a nod to that scene and the idea that nobody is safe in this world?

Yes, it was a literal nod to that. When we were developing the script I remember coming into the room and saying ‘We don’t have a deep-fat fryer moment here! It will be expected!’ So yes, it was, that’s exactly what it was. There is an expectation of the show to do something in that field. But yes, that was a quote from me on the day: ‘We need a deep-fat fryer moment!’.

Could you imagine other TV shows you have worked on, like Hustle and Life on Mars, making a similar transfer from the small screen to the cinema?

Wouldn’t that be great! Fox nearly made a Hustle movie, so that was on the cards a few years back and I don’t know where that’s got to. If Spooks is the success that we are hoping it will be I suspect that might open the flood gates for a punch of things actually. What normally gets transferred to TV are the comedies, whether they be The Inbetweeners or Mrs Browns Boys or in the old days Carry On. There’s no reason why you couldn’t get Hustle the movie – I’ve been pitching Life on Mars the movie for a while, but who knows! Doctor Who the movie is the one everyone wants, or Sherlock the movie. The quality in the writing is so strong across the board, when it’s good it doesn’t matter if its film and TV and I could imagine that crossover could happen more and more. Without a doubt.  

Spooks: The Greater Good is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: 



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