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Interview: River director Richard Laxton

17th November 2015

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New BBC Drama River tells the story of a police detective who is suffering a massive psychotic event as a result of the loss of his partner, whom he still sees and communicaties with in his own mind. Renowned as being edgy, in depth, intriguing and immensley expressive, River is gathering fans all over the country and internationally online.

The drama stars Stellan Skarsgard, Nicola Walker, Eddie Marsan and is wrtten by Suffragette's Abi Morgan. Director Richard Laxton spoke exclusively to the National Student to discuss his dramatic techcniques, working with cast, writers and his own thoughts on the show as a whole.

What techniques and effects do you use to bring River's character to life? Because he is a very relaetable character to the audience, despite not being in a relatebale position.

First of all, I emotionally connect with the story and the script and I emotionally work from inside the story out. So with River, I just found ultimately that I needed to treate him with compassion. so I was never in judgement about him and I was never in a position of looking at him as though I was looking into a fish tank. I wanted the audience to be captured by the cameras and be in the fish tank with him, looking out to the world, and I had to really connect him to the audience so they could see the world from his point of view by getting the audience as near as possible, sitting on his shoulders so they could see the story through him.

That was they way I made the choice of location of lighting and camera work performing and the energy in everything. I wanted to put him in a very ordered kind of cubist office environment, so looking in mirrors and through windows, which was a sort of in a way, at odds with his disordered brain but was somehow ordered by everything around him.

Also working with Stellen so closely on how he would depict this man and what we wanted to find in the heart... finding the heart in any story is my job, and a good storyteller tries to do that well, and I hope I am. It's to say ok, there is the connective tissue to the character. If I hadn't felt connected when I read the script, I wouldn't have directed it. Because I can't really direct a story very often that doesn't really touch me. Sometimes in a genre piece you can kind of connect with taking the audience on an intriguing rollercoaster, but my homeland as a director is in pieces that, even if it's in comedy, is the emotional connection in the audience and how they feel for the story and character.

It's very clear to see from the camera angels and every effect that there is a lot of storytelling in the directorship itself, so how closeley would you say you worked with Abi Morgan (the writer)? Would you say you worked around each other or that her writing and your directing were intertwined?

If I love a script and I get to direct it then generally I direct from inside the script out. I don't come at a script and think, "I'm going to make this a version of my own thoughts." I think, what is speaking to me? What is the heart of this piece? So ultimatley, you're already on the right side because you're working on it, climbing inside their work and working from inside, out. Not outside, in.

She and I had many script meetings and chats and I love her to bits because she's an emotionally intelligent, incredibly sensitive, nuanced writer who is a master really at connected and articulating human fragility. So therefore, she liked my work and she was very thankful to put her baby in my arms.

There is definitley a lot of emotive language and connections and it's certainly driven by that. There is also a very big sorrow that surrounds River, with his closest friend being dead. How did you make these dead characters so vibrant? We're usually given a depiction of a pale, ghostly, unrecognisable person, but you make them seem really present and alive.

Well I can honestly say I've never really seen a ghost but I've often thought about people and memories of people in my life who've died, and I don't think about them with sort of grey makeup and a white sheet (laughs). If I had a memory or emotional experience with that person, that's how I would remember them and picture them.

I just thought the only way to deal with a manifest is to make them unapologetically there and vibrant to the audience as they are to River. River isn't seeing them through some kind of treated gauze because they are very effecting to him, the effect him highely. So I have to deliver that same experience to the audience.

I remember when I thought of how they would appear in River's head and how he would see them, and I'm not going to be in anyway tricky about how they are and of course they make a statement to the vision. I remember thinking..."I hope this f**king works" (laughs) or else it's going to be disastrous - but you just have to go with your instincts. You just have to get the audience engaged and get them to care, be as effecting to the audience as you can. Whether that's in terms of laughter, tears, intrigue, whatever, and just make them feel and they way to do that is to hold the piece in terms of confidence, not necessarily scale and be confident in the way that you present to the world.

They really did seem alive and I can safely say it worked! The camera angles are the big reveal in the first epiosde because it's when it pans to the back of her head and you see she's dead. I take it setting the tone is crucial to you?

Yeah, tone is everything when you're doing a piece like this because you've got to make sure everybody is in the same world. You have to make sure the performances match and you have to instinctively think about the audience. I have a huge responsibility in my job to the audience. Will they understand the story? The plot? Will they engage with the characters and feel the story? And then my job is to do that in the most appropriate way, whether that's in a convoluted mashup of a scene or a deliberatley elegant one.

In the scenes in the therapist's office, it was really important to me that those scenes were where he landed in the spotlight. I wanted the camera on his eye line, I wanted to put him in this place where he had to sweat it out, where he was being analysed.

Obviously, everyone in this piece is a fantastic actor in their own right and really brings a phenomenal performance, like many of your pieces in the past. Would you say there is a secret as a director to bringing out that enthusiasim and great talent form actors?

Most of these actors have a great talent already, but you do have to constantly keep tickling their imagination and also I tend to work as a director, a bit like how an actor works with a script. You know, I climb inside, I feel it and then I know how I'd want it to sound and play out, but I would never tell them how to say their lines.

I might get them to give a performance based on a note I give but I am very lucky in that I have worked with some very talented actors and some who are very, very experienced. Stellen for one, same fo Nicola. When I did a film about Burn and Taylor and worked with Helena Bonham Carter, all those actors who are used to working with very highly intelligent directors. I'm not describing myself as that by the way (laughs), but you have be be confident. If the actors have confidence in your directorship and vision, then they will do anything for you because they want to help you create something great.

Stellen has said in the past that he would never do a cop drama. What about this show do you think stands out from all others?

Because I don't think it's a cop show, I think that's just where it happens to be set. I think it's the story of a man's fragile mind and vulnerability and grief. I think it's how the out of the ordinary have to sit in the ordinary world, and I think it's a wonderful oppurtunity to show that you never really know what's going on for the man next to you on the train or walking down the street. He could be struggling with mental health. That was massively important and a huge responsibility for me to connect and write passionatley on BBC1.

Absolutely, there is an awareness out there about mental health but it's unlike a show so mainstream to make someone seem so relatebale, despite the audience maybe not feeling what he does. I think that's done absolutely fantastically.

Well good, I'm glad you think that.

There is clearly a close relationship between River and Stevie - but what type of relationship/love is it? It's very undefined, is it paternal, friendly, romantic or is it open to interpretation?

I think that's open to interprestation, I think you have to see what plays out in the series. But I think there's a reason they connect, and the reality in life is that you can connect closely with people and both of you can have a different version of that connection without it in any way negating or reducing the power of that connection.

I think it's up for interpretation for a certain extent, but I would keep watching to find ou. And I think the wonderful thing about River is that he's a very, very private man in a way, and he's frightened of his feelings sometimes. He says in episode one, "I think that I fell in love once and it felt like food posioning."

Powerful Line.

Yeah, that's a man who being in love is difficult for. I imagine - well, I know it is - but I notably try to make (that) the view when working on it... keep watching and then work out what is reflecting back in her relationship with him.

My fan theory is that he's always sort of had the issues and problems, and she never questioned it, she let him be, she was there for him.

Yes, absolutley. The thing is they're both isolated, and she's isolated from her family. She left her Irish family and rejected them and became a police woman. Both of them are fish out of water and that's why they're connected I think. She knows what it's like to be in a complicated emotional dynamic so she can be compassionate to him, probably in a way she could never be to herself. You could argue that Stevie's self esteem is quite low...and on that subject I will say no more (laughs).

River is available on Blue-ray and DVD from 23rd November. 


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