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Director Jonny Campbell Talks HBO’s The Casual Vacancy [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

If you’ve seen the first season of In The Flesh, you’re familiar with the visual style of director Jonny Campbell. If you’ve seen Doctor Who‘s “Vincent and the Doctor,” you understand director Jonny Campbell’s aesthetic. He may not be a household name in the US (yet), but I’m hoping that will be rectified shortly. When I talked to Campbell yesterday, he told me he’ll be taking meetings in LA next week. I hope he finds an American TV series to put his stamp on, because I’m sure I would watch every episode.

Pagford is a quaint, picturesque town in the Cotswolds, a seemingly idyllic English village with a cobbled market square and ancient abbey. Behind the pretty façade, however, is a town at war: rich vs. poor; parents vs. children; wives vs. husbands; and teachers vs. pupils.

The miniseries, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, has a very distinctive look and feel. Before we talked about The Casual Vacancy, I wanted to get to know Campbell a little bit better. We talked about the start of his career, why he’s done the majority of his work in TV, why he wanted to work on a challenging project like this and what we might see from him next.

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TV GOODNESS: You began your career in documentaries. What made you want to switch over to drama?

Jonny Campbell: “I started off in documentaries doing little features for daytime television, cut my teeth making those little short films. And then I got on a very sought after course at Granada Television, called The Director’s Course, funnily enough, which basically took half a dozen wannabe directors to learn about every aspect of directing — from studio to directing the news to directing coverage of an orchestra playing to drama and so on.

I’d actually directed drama at university in school in an amateurish capacity, but never saw that, at the time, as a career move. It was just something I enjoyed doing. I liked acting and I loved watching television and going to cinema, but it just felt like it was a world alien to me as I was growing up.

So, when I left university I got this opportunity to work on the show and that’s what I started doing because that’s what they did. Then after I’d done this course, what transpired was that my talent lay more with actors and with telling stories, so after that point I pursued drama, which had kind of been latent within me all along.”

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your credits. Have you worked exclusively on TV series and miniseries?

Jonny: “I’ve done a TV movie, I did a feature film a few years ago. I’ve mainly done some of the prominent TV series in the UK and the last couple of projects, The Casual Vacancy, obviously is a miniseries. In The Flesh was the 3-part miniseries as well.”

Photo Credit: BBC America
Photo Credit: BBC America

TV GOODNESS: Do you prefer working on TV series and miniseries? It seems like there are so many great stories to be told on television. Films are great, of course, but I’m loving so much of what’s on TV these days.

Jonny: “Yeah. We can’t get through it all, can we? I would agree and I think, and it’s not exactly an original thing to say but, what used to be the domain of feature films is now moving into television sometimes because rather than do 3 feature films, people do a series.

It gives the directors and the audience and everybody an opportunity to create characters and then be with them for longer. It’s quite straightforward, really. if you could create something that people are gonna love, 90 minutes sometimes isn’t quite enough. Some things are more suited to a feature film length and other things need close on 50 episodes to scratch the itch for everybody. If you can keep people hooked for 50 hours then it’s a no-brainer and that’s what you would do.

Plus the variety, the quality of filmmaking on television has risen a lot. That’s not to say that it also hasn’t gone backwards in some other areas or become more beige and formulaic. It’s a very interesting time. I think the lines are definitely being blurred.

As I’ve been moving through my career, when I started the progression was to start in television and then to move through to single films or miniseries on television then into film.That was the graduation process. But now, the more I wanted to be at when I started my career, the world’s already changed. You realize you’re in the place already where everyone in film is wanting to come to, so now I think it’s just about material.

In the last 5 or 6 years I would say, when I’ve been in a position be a bit more choosy about the things I’ve done, that is what drives you. Your choices say a lot about you. Ultimately that’s the most important thing you can do, is follow projects which you feel that you can do your best work with, rather than just, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a gun for hire to do anything.’

In the UK we tend to, well the system works slightly differently. In the UK, as a director you work right through the pre-production period, the shoot and all the post-production. In America, unless you’re doing the first episode of something, you’re brought on for a much shorter timeframe. And then your services are no longer required after a certain point because there are some very talented showrunners and producers taking care of business. And that’s a different mindset to get your head around.

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

TV GOODNESS You mentioned In The Flesh, which I loved, so I was excited to hear you were working on The Casual Vacancy. When did you hear about the project and what made you want to do it?

Jonny: “I heard about this about January or February of last year when I got sent the script. Why did I want to do it? I read the screenplay. It was only the first episode of the 3 and I pondered it. There’s a lot of characters in there, so I was intrigued by the opportunity to basically paint a canvas of a world.

A drama would normally focus on,’ This is a general picture. We’re now homing in on this particular part of this world.’ And you stay there. We’re going downtown or we’re going to the Upper West Side of this particular neighborhood and it’s salubrious or it’s poor. Drama’s tend to make a choice and that is a microcosm that they then focus on.

This was about going into everyone’s house, going into the complete strata of society and that interests me. It felt like a huge challenge to try and do that. It had a very different kind of storytelling as well. When you read a lot of scripts, like I do, you can spot the formula coming through a lot and you go, ‘I know what’s gonna happen next,’ whereas this felt a little bit different. It felt like it wasn’t homing in on a particular character, it was following a mood.

You could say, ‘This is a story, not about a person, it’s about grief and how grief wafts its way through their window and through their house and then out and across to another family.’ It was just very different and it was requiring quite a lot of work on the part of me reading the script for the first time and now on the part of the audience to try and go, ‘Hang on. This isn’t telling me what to think like things normally do. I’m normally guided more than this. Hang on. Who’s guiding me, here? I’m left to make up my own mind about a lot of this.’ It feels a bit odd. It feels a bit awkward and I love that. I found that a bit different and refreshing, to do a project like that.

TV GOODNESS: I felt that as I was watching as well. I was off balance because I wasn’t sure what was coming next, which was great.

Jonny: “It does require people to concentrate. It’s not something you can do while you’re on your iPhone. It’s [not] an easy watch. When people are grieving, you can’t say, ‘Come on. Can you get a move on, please? Can we go to the next scene now?’ The pacing of it had to be consummate with the nature of the story.

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

We wanted to build up the character of Barry and understand him and get to know him first so you actually sensed his loss. In the book he dies on page 2. You literally have several paragraphs to get to know him and then he drops down in the street dead. And then the rest of the story unfolds through the other characters talking about the fact that he’s died. Of course you glean lots of information about who he was through the ensuing chapters and there are a couple of flashbacks in the novel as well where he comes to life, effectively, again.

We’ve tried to retain that. Sarah [Phelps has] done that in the screenplay, but the storytelling itself, the pacing of it was all about this ordinary life. Things start out at this pace and then when something like that happens, time stands still for a little bit and then things speed up and it spirals and it ends up increasing, hopefully, in energy as it shoots off the end of the runway at the end. It’s got a circular feel to it.

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

Again, I was fascinated by the idea of telling a story where it’s a bit of a jigsaw, it’s a tapestry or a mosaic. I don’t know what is the best analogy or metaphor is for it, but the through line of Krystal’s story is a strong one. That’s the rock formation that is most prominent and everything else is there in order to inform us about that story.

That’s only something you discover as you step back. I was talking to someone just before this conversation. It’s a bit like being in an art gallery and you’re stood right up against a picture and you’re looking at it and you see these details, but if you actually just walk a few paces back you get the whole. And that was the idea for this. You start quite close in. As you go out, you go, ‘This isn’t about their family or that family.’

Krystal is symptomatic of something. We are following her story on a more personal level, in slightly more detail, but that’s in order that there’s a sharp relief about her story in contrast to the others. They all play a part in her downfall, you know?

TV GOODNESS: I have to say, it looks beautiful. Were you going for a certain aesthetic when you filmed this?

Jonny: “Yeah. Have you seen the whole thing or have you just seen the first two?”

TV GOODNESS: I’ve seen all three parts.

Jonny: “The idea was to hook people in at the beginning, slightly let their guard down. You’ve got to imagine nobody’s read any previews. [Laughs.] You can’t assume anybody knows anything when the start the story. Of course, everyone has read something usually, about it otherwise they wouldn’t watch it because they wouldn’t know it’s on.

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

But as a filmmaker, you have to say, ‘Look. We’re setting out our stall here’. So you build up the picture. It was important for it to be idyllic, beautiful, desirable, the kind of place you look at it and go, ‘I’d love to go there on holiday. I’d like to live there. Aren’t they lucky?’ Because that’s also something that Howard and Shirley are trying to protect. The aesthetics, the facade that hides the ugliness underneath. But it’s a lot more than that. Visually, Tony Slater Ling, the DP on this project — who I’ve worked with on my last few projects. We have a really good mind meld to come up with what our vision for it is and in this case — he suggested that we use some vintage lenses to add an extra poetry to the storytelling and to frame, certainly the teenagers with almost deliberately more aesthetic and pleasing look than the adults.

Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO
Photo Credit: Steffan Hill/HBO

As an audience, you’re almost automatically drawn more towards the younger characters then you are to the adults. It’s subliminally in the way it’s shot. So there is beauty, but the emptiness creeps into the imagery as well as the story progresses. As they say ‘the winds of change,’ the ‘winds of doom’ blow through it. So grain or desaturation will take place in different locations at different times depending on where the story is.

The Casual Vacancy graphic at the beginning, that is deliberately chosen to echo the printing from the 19th century novels and then that actually decays. In episode 2, it’s gone a bit further. In episode 3, it’s faded a bit more kind of like stop animation photography of an apple rotting on a table or something. You’re trying to capture some elements of that.”

TV GOODNESS: You did a great job. I’m wondering what you have coming up that audiences can look forward to. Is there anything that might tempt you to work on this side of the pond anytime soon?

Jonny: “I’m coming over to LA in about a week’s time to have some meetings. I’d love to find a project that gets my juices going over there. We’ll see what happens. I tend to do one thing at a time. I know some directors that are much more prolific than me, are able to immediately know what they’re going to jump and do. While they’re in the edit on one project they’re already doing the next thing.

I find that I’m not very good at multi-skilling that way. I like to see a project right through to the end and focus 100% on that. What I’ve found in the past is that when I come out the other side, I then start to think, ‘What is it I actually want now? What do I need now?,’ rather than trying to second guess what I want. ‘Cause then I feel like a different person, having done this, than I was at the beginning. I try to do something diametrically opposite to it.

I don’t have anything lined up just yet. There’s a couple of feature films that I’m talking about, kicking off a TV series that I’m talking about, but nothing fixed as yet.”

Edited for space and content.

Check local listings for re-airings of The Casual Vacancy or watch it on HBOGO.

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