The Escape Artist Director: "Working With David Tennant Is Something Else"

Interview with Brian Welsh, the director of David Tennant's new BBC One drama, The Escape Artist:

Can you tell us what the title ‘The Escape Artist’ means to you?
The story is about Will Burton who is a criminal defence barrister. He’s at the top of his game and he spends his days getting criminals off on technicalities and using his amazing brain to work his way through evidence. ‘The Escape Artist’ refers to his ability to escape from any situation.
Where would you place The Escape Artist in terms of genre?
I would probably describe The Escape Artist as a legal drama that you never feel safe in. You know that there is danger. It’s totally unique.
What was your vision for the piece?
When I first looked at the script I almost saw it as a mixture of genres. In one way it is a courtroom drama and in another way it’s a Hitchcock-esque thriller. There’s also an emotional family theme at its heart, which deals with loss and grief. So that was one of the things that drew me to it, because I didn’t see it like other courtroom dramas.
How did you try to avoid clichés in the courtroom scenes?
We made a choice to use a big courtroom (courtroom one in the Old Bailey) that allowed us a lot of space and the opportunity to manoeuvre the camera around the environment in quite a unique way. I tried at all times to avoid descending into the clichés that we all know too well (i.e. do you swear by the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth). We tried to keep to the information that was necessary for the story and also the information that had an emotional resonance for the story.
David Tennant plays Will, can you tell us about casting the role?
Well, David was on the show before I came to it, but working with him is something else. He’s a force of nature. It’s an incredible gift to be able to learn pages and pages of really complicated legal jargon and dialogue, whilst keeping an honest emotional truthfulness throughout. He’s a special man.
How much rehearsal did you do with David?
We talked a lot about the moral complexity of the piece. There’s almost a Machiavellian element to Will’s character. We also met some criminal barristers who had this swagger and charm about them, as well as wit and intellect, these were the attributes that allowed them to win in this ‘game’ that is essentially it. David and I spent time going through the script before we began filming about some of the subtext decisions. The script is really rich with subtext. We also played a lot on set, in some cases there was a number of ways in which it could go and David was great with it.
Can you tell us about Kate and Will’s relationship, and why it was so important to have Ashley playing Will’s partner?
When I read the script for the first time Ashley Jensen was the first person that came to my mind. She has a warmth and intelligence that felt like a great contrast to Will’s work environment. I think she really demonstrates the strength and stability of his home. I didn’t want the character to be a stereotype in any way, which was why it was so great that as soon as Ashley came in she was just full of ideas.
Can you tell us about Toby Kebbell’s character, Foyle?
I knew absolutely that Foyle had to be able to battle with Will’s intellect, and be as smart if not smarter than him at times. The story is essentially about these two guys and their slightly animalistic competition with each other. Toby, whom I’ve worked with before, I knew would elevate this character off the page. I talked to Toby a lot before starting about how we could really push David Tennant’s buttons. One of the most exciting scenes for me, even at the script stage, was when the two of them meet for the first time. There’s not a lot of action or high drama, it’s just two guys speaking. However, it’s the richness in subtext and what’s going on between them that make it so much more interesting to me.
Can you tell us about Monica Dolan and her character?
Monica Dolan is an actress whom I have admired for a very long time. She came onto the show very late and I was nervous because we didn’t have very much time to chat, apart from a two-hour phone conversation. We discussed this female character who is on the parish council and is quite sexually repressed. She sees this charming man who appears to be a pillar of the community, almost like a rock star. Monica is so wide open and instinctive as an actress that we shot a lot of her stuff on one day.
Could you tell us about Sophie Okenado and her character Maggie?
I was really keen to cast Sophie as Maggie from the outset. I knew that she had some innate personal attributes that felt very in tune with Maggie. There was also something about her ethnicity and her desire to succeed in the Oxbridge-elite world that I knew Sophie could really identify with. There’s something about the way that she works, the rawness, the freedom she brings to it that’s the type of acting I really love. I’ve never seen Sophie do something twice from take to take.
In terms of Maggie’s character she’s always second place to Will. They regularly engage in sparring matches and he often takes her out when she least expects it. She’s utterly driven to try and beat him. Through this story she makes some decisions to try and put herself in that place, ultimately some real darkness comes out in her soul as well.
What was it like to film in the historical areas of London such as the old Bailey?
It was amazing to be in that environment. Quite early on we came up with a colour pallet for the look of the show, I wanted it to have a heavy, dark feel. I was amazed at how nicely The Old Bailey fitted in with our film noir vision. Then we found Kingston which had the same architect as the courtroom we used in the Old Bailey. It was important for us to stay authentic to that world but also to maintain the look we wanted.
There are some interesting, small scenes in the script like cancelling a subscription, why did you include moments like that?
Another thing that drew me to the script was that it explores grief in a very honest way. It deals with the everyday mundane things that one has to cope with after the trauma of loss. It could be cancelling insurance, or a bank card, or trying to get their password for something, and having to deal with these robots on the end of the phone who don’t understand what you’ve gone through. I suppose the bureaucracy of losing someone is beautifully illustrated in the script and was something that I could really identify with.
How was your relationship with David Wolstencroft?
When I came on board we only had the first script. I really enjoyed working with David and feeding through ideas, he’s a really collaborative writer. I had a lot of questions about Will’s character and also thematic questions on law and the legal system etc. David and I spent hours talking about that, and I enjoyed the collaboration.
Was having the audience jump out of their skin something you really wanted to happen?
Definitely. I think it’s important in a show like this where you have so much suspense and fear, you need those ‘jump’ moments. It’s part of what the audience buys into anyway.
How did you create that suspense?
It really is all about what you hold back and what you show. Trying to find a balance between the information that you need to feel that impending fear of doom, and what’s best left to the imagination. Also there’s choosing the right points for music and not pre-empting things too much. It’s an on going process that continues into the edit and beyond. You’re essentially always playing around to try and maximize those moments.
If you were going to get somebody to watch The Escape Artist what would you say to them?
I wouldn’t want to say too much about the show because it’s so surprising in so many ways. I guess part of the beauty of it is that it’s a mixture of so many genres and you never quite know what’s coming next. I guess I would just plea to them to trust me because it will take you on a real journey.