By Paul Risker.
There is a certain air of excitement, or rather, anticipation that comes with the arrival of a new detective walking the trail of mystery in the crime genre. This can be attributed to the recent success the genre has found in the Nordic Noir phenomenon and which has been supported by the French crime series Spiral (2005- ), Braquo (2009-2014) and Witnesses (Les Témoins, 2015). River (2015), however, transcends the claustrophobic confines of a one dimensional crime drama that is difficult to boil down into a simple description. On the one level it is a detective, crime and mystery story, and yet beneath its surface, River can be seen to feature shades of the supernatural. To the more observant eye, its context is a deeper and more penetrating psychological study of the angst-ridden detective, as opposed to a supernatural haunting. River moves beyond the terrain explored in these aforementioned foreign crime and detective stories and the Nordic Noir phenomenon to offer a British series that counters the recent dominance of the continent, but which ironically casts the Scandinavian actor Stellan Skarsgård in the lead role.
The first two episodes – a third of the series – were directed by Richard Laxton, whose career has been a mix of working in television and film. Alongside River, 2014-15 has seen Laxton direct two episodes of the TV horror-mystery Fortitude (2015-) as well as Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014), which recounts the controversial story of art critic John Ruskin’s love affair with the film’s title character.
In conversation with Film International, Laxton looked back to a childhood fascination with stories and examined the ways in which acclaimed English director Mike Leigh’s dalliance with television in the 1980s was an important moment in his own creative journey. Then bringing us forward to the present or recent past, the filmmaker offered his thoughts on creating the beginnings of the world of River that then led into a discussion of the nature of film versus television, and the identity or role of the camera in relation to the characters.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I was always interested in story and when I was at school I was fascinated by television. I loved watching television as a kid and then at school in my English class we studied this TV drama called Abigail’s Party (1977) by Mike Leigh. This was around the time that it first came out, and so I guess I would have been about fifteen. I had no idea you could tell stories that were set in the world I came from, which was kind of suburbia. I was completely fascinated and that for me was always what sparked my interest in exploring the nature of the human being, although I’m not sure I would have articulated it like that when I was fourteen. But somehow I was drawn to this kind of world and storytelling genre if you like, or the storytelling device of film and TV. And then slowly and surely, I just decided that this was what I wanted to do in some form. I studied some acting at school and I loved watching any documentary on television about how film was made – I’d be glued to it, and that’s how it all began really.
How did you become involved in the River project and what piqued your interest in taking on the role of establishing the series?
I knew one of the executive producers and I knew Abi Morgan, although we had never worked together. I was sent the script and they asked me to read it. I absolutely loved it, but I wasn’t interested in the idea of doing a police show and so I was initially reluctant to read it. I thought: I don’t want to do a cop show, but it was nothing like a cop show, and I didn’t think about that when I was reading it. I felt that it was an extraordinary and compelling story about this man who was a troubled and a unique soul, and I thought: I just really want to tell this story. So I went along to meet and talk with them and we all felt like we were singing from the same song sheet, as it were. And they said they wanted to work with me, and so that’s how it came about.
Looking through your filmography you have worked across both television and film. With television you will typically do one or two episodes of a series, maybe more, whereas with a film you are there from start to finish. How do you compare and contrast the way you feel or perceive the experience of television in contrast to film?
It depends. I have done quite a lot of single films for TV, which is like the same as making a movie, except that it’s generally faster and on a lower budget. I set up River exactly as I would a film – creating a world and casting a spell over the audience by trying to be as convincing as you can, so that they will stay engaged and believe in the world that you are presenting them with. I think there is much more of a crossover now between television and film than there used to be, because production values in television have become so much more sophisticated, and the way the audience watches film and TV now has crossed over in terms of mobile devices, iPads and everything else. And in fact Abi doesn’t really write any differently for film than she does for TV, and I don’t direct it differently. The scale of the story might be different in those two mediums, but the way I approach the scene or a piece is to climb inside the writing and tell the story from the inside out. And for me that’s the same whether it’s for film or TV.
The two episodes you directed have a visual and musical playfulness that radiates outward from the opening driving sequence with River (Stellan Skarsgård) and Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson (Nicola Walker). From the music to the zooming in and out with the camera you infuse a playfulness that seems to settle from episode three onwards. It strikes me as an interesting contrast and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this reading of the series.
Naturally in the first episode or in the beginning of any world you want to create a sparkle of magic. And let’s not forget that I also had to try to depict or to give the audience an essence in the opening of what that central relationship between River and Stevie was like, so that when they realised she was no longer alive they could feel River’s loss. Making that opening driving sequence playful and vibrant was a way for me to try to show the audience a side of that relationship as it may have been. I think when the series calms down and settles into itself then there is generally less tolerance for that kind of thing from the audience, because that is the point when they want to sit down and roll up their sleeves and just stay in the world. But also one of the scripts I directed was Inside Out, and I don’t know that had I directed the others then I may have approached them differently. But I don’t think about that because I wasn’t engaged in those scripts in the same way that I was whilst I was shooting.
One of the aspects of the show that I appreciate in particular is the way in which the series approaches the camera. It is said that the difference between literature and film is that with literature you can get inside the head of your character, while in film you don’t have that same ability. Watching the opening episode of River I realised how within film the camera becomes an extension of the main character, which raises the question of the relationship between the character and the camera, as well as the reliability of the camera and what we are seeing.
Interestingly enough you say that because my main ambition with this series was to try in every way possible to have the audience sit on the shoulder of River. It would have been very easy to make River with the audience observing him from an emotional distance, but I wanted them to feel and experience with him his disordered brain and vulnerable mind. So as much as was humanly possible I was very keen to keep the audience with him, and to see the world from his point of view so that it therefore turns with the audience.
With there being a mystery to be solved, it ties in rather nicely with the story you are telling, and therein creates an effective synergy.
Well yeah, I think it does and you’re right, and I hope that’s what it feels like. But I think all I had to try and achieve, or rather, one of the things I had to try to achieve was seeing any mystery or investigation that he was involved in, whether it was Stevie’s death or the other cases through the lens of River himself. Specifically the way that he has so much sensitivity to the human condition and the way he may connect with and listen to people in a way that someone else wouldn’t. And this was always another way to keep the audience connected to him.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree and how has the experience of River both impacted you personally and professionally, as well as having served to inform you moving forward?
I loved the opportunity in River to release my visual imagination, and to depict a man with a disordered mind or a challenged brain in a difficult emotional landscape. Working on the show really made me think about the isolation of mental health and the way in which I hadn’t considered it to such a degree before. And I think meeting Stellan Skarsgård was a life lesson in how to be a good human being. He is an extraordinary human being – kind, compassionate, mischievous and very, very bright. Working with him was truly life changing and in terms of my work, it makes me want to dig deeper into my choices of work so that I can really can touch an audience in a way that the less predictable than perhaps some of the mainstream TV shows might allow.
River was released on DVD & Blu-ray Monday, November 30th through Arrow Films.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.