Getting Martin Amis' Money to the screen, with help from Nick Frost

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As a former literature student, I had read Money and thrilled at its outrageous characters, gawped at its rich textual layers, and sniggered at the misadventures of its protagonist John Self - a drink-addled, swaggering misogynist, whose hopelessly flawed nature was at the centre of Martin Amis' wicked tragi-comic story. So when the opportunity arose to produce it as television drama, I jumped at it.

But it wasn't without a certain degree of trepidation I approached a drama adapted from the much admired and blackly-comedic novel about an ill-fated film production.

Would I find myself juggling the egos of my cast, pushing desperately for last-minute rewrites and wrestling with spiralling production costs, in an homage to Amis' much maligned anti-hero Self? The answer was... yes and no.

First, and completely key to the enterprise, was finding an approach to the screenplay that made dramatic sense of the narrative, felt true to the spirit and tone of the book, yet didn't feel like a regurgitation of prose onto the screen.

Writers Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford pitched a very sensitive treatment of the material, getting to the heart of "what's eating John Self".

And so they set about plotting out the drama, editing and re-editing the material from the book, finding the most direct way of accessing Self's reptilian brain, dramatising his brutally honest first-person narration, yet ultimately finding what was human and sympathetic about him.

It was probably the most painful task in the whole process: we all had favourite (different!) passages of the book we felt could be part of the drama.

However, with only two hours of screentime, we had to make difficult choices in order to arrive at a cohesive, manageable story.

They didn't tell me when they were writing early drafts of the scripts, but Tom and Chris had always been writing the character of Self with only one actor in mind to play him.

When they told me that Nick Frost (best-known for Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead and Spaced) was that actor I punched the air at the brilliance of the idea (who else could make such a selfish, boor of a character likeable and, indeed, funny?), but my clenched fist then slowly returned to my side when I realised quite how busy Nick is and, potentially, impossible to secure.

A draft of the script was sent to Santa Fe, where Nick and Simon Pegg were busy shooting their first co-written feature film, Paul. 48 hours later, and my nails bitten down to the quick, a message was relayed back from the New Mexican desert: "I'd love to do it. When can we start?"

So far, so good, surely? Well... not quite. What I haven't yet mentioned is that the drama is set in 1981. In London. And Manhattan....

With six weeks before filming commenced, director Jeremy Lovering joined the production in what would become his trademark whirlwind of incisive questions and even more brilliant story and visual ideas inspired by the book, and started working with casting directors Gemma Hancock and Sam Stevenson, to find the actors to embody the fabulous, sexy, at times grotesque characters that Amis created in his novel.

It felt important to have some authentic American-born actors in the cast, especially for the characters of corny soap actress Caduta Massi, and Fielding Goodney, the ersatz producer of John Self's film and his confidante in the glitzy, dangerous world of Manhattan.

Jeremy and I went incognito to see Jerry Hall in the stage version of Calendar Girls and she was hilarious, not to mention completely gorgeous and credible as Self's fantasy teenage crush. Jerry read the script, came onboard and soon started rehearsals with Nick - and she instantly brought us all into fits of giggles.

Now I am a HUGE fan of Mad Men. Not only that, I am a COMPLETELY BONKERS fan of Vincent Kartheiser in the role of Pete Campbell in Mad Men. So when Gemma and Sam told us he was reading the script it was another nail-biter moment.

Once again, although he loved the project, the reality of bringing him to London was to prove difficult, with lots of last-minute paperwork being signed and faxed, and no time to rehearse with him during pre-production.

We started filming, and a week in, Vincent arrived at the airport and came straight down to set to meet the team - unexpectedly complete with a bushy beard!

For reasons that become obvious towards the end of Episode Two, the beard would pose something of a story problem, so Vincent sadly said goodbye to his proud whiskers and dyed his hair blonde, in readiness for the perfect-teeth perfect-tan "money glow" of supporting role Fielding.

Nick, meanwhile, was working his buns off: the combination of a short filming schedule, plus the fact that his character is in almost every scene, meant that when he wasn't on set, he was running between costume and make-up in readiness for his next scene - continuously, for five weeks.

His stamina and focus, yet an ability between takes to entertain and energise the whole crew during frequent torrential downpours, was much-valued by everyone.

But dreadful winter weather aside, there were lots of other fundamental problems posed by the production, not least with its modest budget: i.e. how on earth do we pull-off a period drama based predominantly in New York, without actually moving the cast and crew beyond the perimeter of the M25?

The answer was found in a wily combination of story-boarding, lateral thinking and the fantastic team we gathered, from respective costume and make-up designers Rebecca Hale and Jane Walker (both gingerly using their own photo albums sporting various hilarious 80s fashions as research material), to production designer Tom Burton, to director of photography Ben Smithard, to line producer Abi Bach, to location manager Rupert Bray, to the visual effects and post production team at Molinare.

We also had an indefatigable BBC-based production team, all of whom eschewed the usual comforts of home, leisure and sleep to ensure the smooth running of the shoot logistics.

Our main challenge was conveying the bustle, noise and chaos of Manhattan in the early-80s, as it's the vivid backdrop against which Self's increasingly nightmarish story of dissolute night-crawling unfolds.

Fortunately, I'd heard rumours of a wind-blown standing set at Pinewood Studios, so we trouped down en masse to see what it looked like. It looked like this:

Hardly a bustling metropolis - but what it gave us was the foundation stone for the rest of our design and locations.

We then found location interiors that would match the exteriors that the street set offered us, as well as building Self's glamorous hotel suite in a studio sporting an enormous translight with a blown-up photo of a 1981 New York skyline, complete with Twin Towers.

Our props team exhaustively trawled for all the right details to populate the various sets, including authentic vehicles.

When every detail was in place and the set was lit, here is a rough screenshot from the moment in Episode One when Self realises he is late for his pitch, and runs frantically through the streets of Manhattan:

After the main shoot was complete, Ben took a handheld camera to New York for 48 hours, shot a series of cunning stills of Manhattan buildings and skyline, then brought it back to the visual effects team.

After they had carefully composited the pictures together and tweaked and pushed a dizzying array of knobs and buttons, here is the same moment in the finished drama:

Seeing this particular sequence come together, alongside a groovy score by Daniel Pemberton and an atmospheric sound design from Molinare, was for me the best moment in the entire production - where everyone's hard work came together to achieve an effect greater than the sum of its individual parts.

The moment only lasts a couple of seconds, but for me it encapsulates the combination of talent and magic in making TV drama.

Ben Evans is the producer of Money, which airs at 9pm on BBC Two on Sunday, 23 May.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by vandelay

    on 14 Jun 2010 10:47

    Are there any plans to repeat this on any BBC channels?

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Charles

    on 4 Jun 2010 09:34

    Great, nice job!
    Project Pinewood has already opened its doors, I see...
    Would be great for British TV and film (and European producers).

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 28 May 2010 17:58

    Hello derek500 - very good point! As well as the HD channel, Money was on BBC Two initially, then repeated on BBC One. A lot of detail to get in.

    All the times when the programme next goes out are listed on the programme page that we link to. For simplicity, we'll make it clearer in the footnotes from now on that all the schedule information can be found there.

    So thank you for your suggestion - it's improving the blog!

    Fiona, TV blog editor

  • Comment number 2. Posted by radioarm

    on 27 May 2010 08:11

    Sorry Ben, wrong story, wrong casting.

    The story should have been - obnoxious, arrogant man gets his just dessert's.

    It was - loveable, chubby man with a drink problem gets shafted at every stage.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by derek500

    on 23 May 2010 20:57

    Why does this blog like so many others promoting new programmes, fail to mention it's also on BBC HD?

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