Birdsong: Interview with the director

Friday 27 January 2012, 11:22

Fiona Wickham Fiona Wickham Editor, TV blog

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Sebastian Faulks' World War I novel Birdsong is about "the violence of a love affair, and exquisite love in war", says screenwriter Abi Morgan, who has adapted the modern classic for BBC One.

Director Philip Martin told the BBC TV blog about the experience of making the two-part drama.

What drew you to this script?
Abi Morgan's brilliant idea was to intercut between past and present, so that the story switches between pre-war France and WWI itself - to create a great tension. Balancing the love story (the past) with the war story (the present) was the challenge.

What kind of notes did Sebastian Faulks make on the script?
Sebastian was a great collaborator and joined us on location in Budapest. He gave us space to do our thing - but was there to help if we needed it. We all carried battered copies of the novel in our back pockets and I think everyone in the cast and crew spent the whole time trying to find ways to do justice to this epic story.

What does the title mean?
Birdsong doesn't quite stand for a peaceful, natural sound marking the ending of conflict - but actually the indifference of the natural world to the activity of humans. There's a great introduction to the paperback edition from Sebastian, where he talks about the meaning of Birdsong and how he wrote the book. It's fascinating to read, especially as it seems he wrote the book really fast - in a kind of trance.

Isabelle Azaire (Clemence Poesy) and Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne)

Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) and Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne)

This BBC version of Birdsong is described as "painterly" by Ben Stephenson (BBC controller for drama commissioning) - is that how you visualised it?
I wanted pre-war France to feel like a dream: crystal clear yet mysterious. The director of photography, Julian Court and I found a touchstone in a quote from the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, who said a painting should be "a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no-one can define or remember, only desire... ".

What were your thoughts on tackling the erotic tone in parts of the book?
It's difficult in any area to translate something from a book to a film - they're both different. But it's particularly tricky with sex. Eddie Redmayne, Clémence Poésy and I spent long hours talking about it and we tried to be very clear about exactly what was going to happen in each moment - so that the build-up of sexual tension was done in a very precise and detailed way. What we tried to do was to make the experience of the audience watching match the intensity of the experience of reading the book.

There are two horrifying deaths in episode one - typical of WWI - how did you decide how gory to be in showing those deaths?
I suppose you try to make the deaths as powerful as possible, without making the audience switch off. The war was brutal and inhuman, with new technological ways of killing, like gas - so it feels important to reflect that fact... but to do so in a way that isn't self-defeating.

Did the actors visit war graves or the sites of conflict?
Both Eddie Redmayne and Joe Mawle visited the battlefields - and went into a newly discovered chalk tunnel in La Boiselle, with Peter Barton, a WWI historical consultant. I think they were some of the first people to be back inside the tunnel since the war itself. They found a poem, written on the chalk wall of the tunnel by a soldier almost 100 years earlier, which was incredibly moving. I also found the 1916 film of the Battle of the Somme extremely useful for research. Even in black and white, you could feel how hot and dusty it was and get a sense of the strange, upbeat energy of the soldiers - which was unlike anything I'd seen before.

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Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) rejoins his men at the front

Were the sets built or on location?
For the war story, we built sets just outside Budapest. I felt the audience's experience of the trenches should be 360, so we searched for a piece of ground which gave us uninterrupted views of the horizon. Production designer Grant Montgomery used hundreds of dead trees, quarried chalk and reclaimed timber to create an extraordinary world. For the French story, set in pre-war Amiens, we filmed on location in Budapest. This was perhaps the trickiest bit, as there's no tradition of the kind of architecture we were looking for.

Can you tell us a little about the uniforms?
We couldn't find enough uniforms in London - and so decided to make them in Poland. Charlotte Walter the costume designer tracked down a company using looms that made exactly the same cloth the original uniforms, and under the watchful eye of the curator of costumes at the Imperial War Museum, Martin Boswell.

Where do you find the replica guns?
We brought some working guns over from London - which gets complicated and requires lots of paperwork, as everyone seems to think you're about to stage a coup! We also had some terrific Lee-Enfield replicas made in Budapest.

How does an actor safely smash a glass on set without getting hurt in the way that Laurent Lafitte (playing René Azaire) does in episode one?
The glass is made out of spun sugar, so it can smash without being dangerous.

What was your worst moment in production?
There was a day when were due to film a lyrical summer picnic sequence when - predictably - after days of sunshine, the Budapest monsoon began. But the day also contained one of my favourite moments, when Stephen and Isabelle's ankles touch on the boat trip. It's all about body language and eyes and faces... like a wildlife film but with humans in it.

Philip Martin is the director of Birdsong.

Birdsong continues on BBC One and BBC One HD on Sunday, 29 January at 9pm. Episode one is available to watch and download in iPlayer until Sunday, 5 February.

Fiona Wickham is the editor of the BBC TV blog.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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    Comment number 21.

    This was probably a good production, but for me it was spoilt because much of the dialogue was lost because of poor sound quality.
    My hearing is not brilliant, but with headphones I can usually hear as well as most able bodied people. Whereas my wife could probably eavesdrop a whispered conversation at the far end of a tube train (almost). For us, it was only when we turned on subtitles (halfway through the second episode) that we were able to follow the story.

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    Comment number 22.

    Incredibly moving and so beautifully acted, especially Eddie Redmayne and Joe Mawle. Taking us viewers on an emotional journey, through the very depths of despair and the bare brutal truth of war, the dreadful human suffering and the shocking loss of life in the first world war and to the heights of love and romance, myself and my husband were just so moved and cannot stop thinking about this wonderful two part series, this will win awards, well done BBC. It is British Drama at its best. Eddie you are amazing, no wonder you are doing so well. Joe Mawle as Firebrace was incredible too, so moving, you felt his pain when he found out his son died. WOW WOW WOW! Just wish it had been a longer version than two 90 minute epsidoes and its left us wanting more!

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    Comment number 23.

    Absolutly brilliant once again the bbc showes everbody how good they are at making high class drama, I was gripped from start to finish and did not want it to end. It made a change from the crap reality tv that seems to dominate our screens these days. Well done bbc more off the same please.

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    Comment number 24.

    Was the Somme "hot and dusty"? I always thought it was raining solidly for the entire battle.
    That said, the production was superb - especially using the flashback device instead of following the linear progression of the book.
    And at the risk of sounding like a pedant, Eddie Redmayne's eyes are green, which means he carries the dominant "brown eye" gene, so his daughter may well have had brown eyes.
    Good to see excellent BBC Drama, especially straight after "Sherlock".

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    Comment number 25.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I read some years ago. I found this adaptation rather annoying at times. Too many long, lingering glances accompanied by unnecessary background music. Also some of the dialogue was impossible to hear. Finally, Tipper relied to Steven's question 'How are you Tipper?' with 'Yea, I'm good, thank you sir.' Not in 1916, I think, and if I had my way not in 2012! Having said all that, top marks to the BBC for attempting the adaptation and doing it with style, even if it did not quite come off.

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    Comment number 26.

    I thought the first episode was not as good as the second. Steven appeared to be a bit of a wimp so that any action (ie defending his lover from the husband) seemed out of character. However, the second part made up for the slowness of the first.

    One thing I have been trying to find out about is the music. It sounded very much like Speighel im Speighel by Arvo Part and I thought an excellent choice. What a pity that the BBC constantly fails to give any credits to the music or musicians in their programmes.

    Hello BBC? Can you do this in the future please?

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    Comment number 27.

    Nice program, but in common with many friends, I couldn't make out the dialogue. Luckily I can turn on subtitles in my TV. Really ruined it.

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    Comment number 28.

    The mumbling was terrible and I can't switch on subtitles so missed loads of dialogue. The music (if you can call three notes continually played over and over, music) was unbearable, it ruined every possibly moving scene, it became a joke with us - 'dong dong dong' every time something profound was about to be said or happen. I kept hoping that things would improve and I really wanted to enjoy this but it was a big let down. Eddie was the only good thing.

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    Comment number 29.

    Joe Mawle was excellent; but Eddie Redmayne a magnificent actor? Not for me I am afraid. He appears to have just the one facial expression to cover all emotions. I found myself having to guess what his character was supposed to be thinking during the facial close-ups. I had the same problem with his character in "Pillars of the Earth".

    Perhaps when he is older and has more character to his face, this will cease to be a problem. Until that time, it is my opinion that his acting ability shall remain on par with Roger Moore's left eyebrow.

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    Comment number 30.

    Having been captivated from the first word, Birdsong has long been my favourite read - having re-read so many times, on hearing the book was to be adapted for television I was more than thrilled! In my opinion Faulks would not have allowed the BBC to administer any sort of injustice to his beloved story; of love and war and everything in between - and fittingly they did not! The screenplay was breath-taking and the characters were exact replicas of those live out the story in my imagination. Bravo BBC for giving credit to a literary work of art; Bravo to those who acted out the story with effortless professionalism, they are a credit to themselves. My only question -BBC, when will I be able to purchase the DVD?

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    Comment number 31.

    I have finally sat and watched Birdsong and what a lovely story and wonderfully acted. Brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion and as an true romantic goes to show how when you find true love what an impact it has on your life....... Brillant..... Well done BBC..... one I dont mind paying my TV licence for...

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    Comment number 32.

    Hello everyone, really enjoying reading the range of comments here. Just to pick up on a few - jackreedser #2, sorry you found the interview questions inane. I take your good point about the trenches - clearly those sets were built and I could have made that question more pinpointed. It was what Philip calls the ‘pre-war Amiens’ scenes I was thinking of when I asked that question - the beautiful house Isabelle and René share, and the café in the town. I kept some of the questions fairly broad because a section of viewers won't have read the book - or at least like me, won't have read it recently enough to remember the nuances.

    kentcommentator #26 - hello and thanks for your interest in the music. I've asked this end and it was all composed especially for the series by Nicholas Hooper. That info has now been added to the Birdsong programme page.

    And a-fan-of-faulks #30 - I just did a quick internet search and it seems the DVD of Birdsong can be pre-ordered now from the usual places.

    Thanks everyone here, for taking the time to post your comments on the blog.

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    Comment number 33.

    Well done BBC, you absolutely NAILED it. Must say I was a bit worried when I heard this was being brought to TV as it seemed a bit 'untouchable' to me. But it was wonderful and faultless as far as i'm concerned. Sebastian Faulks - you the man!

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    Comment number 34.

    RE: Kerry. I bet the parents you know are brown eyed with blue eyed children? Its not possible for 2 blue eyed parents to have brown eyed offspring.
    Must have been someone elses daughter, poor Stephen!

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    Comment number 35.

    well done bbc Absolutely great war time drama,about love and loss,

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    Comment number 36.

    it's such a shame about some of the comments on here... this does it for me, great casts, great production, very intense, gripping and well interpret. I thoroughly enjoyed it and not many things on TV pleases me. Eddie Redmayne, 'the man who speaks with his eyes' and Joe Mawle... both of you couldn't have interpret it better... Bravo!

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    Comment number 37.

    A truly wonderful production - mixture of passion, beauty and the horrors of war. The music was so evocative.It captured the spirit of the book perfectly. Thank you.

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    Comment number 38.

    I read the book some years ago but my recollection was that it was in 2 parts, the love affair and then the war. I was therefore looking forward to a 2 part series as i thought it would follow the book. However the disjointed toing and froing between the 2 parts lost the tension build up of the love between the 2 people and made the first part boring to watch, I gave up after 3/4 hour. I watched the second half as my husband was watching it and it improved towards the end but I still think it could have been better

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    Comment number 39.

    Can someone tell me if the fawn dog seen running on the battlefield in episode two is a Cropped eared Briard ??

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    Comment number 40.

    I thought this was a brilliant adaptation of the book. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps a bit puzzled why Isabelle's relationship with the young German officer was omitted, which was a point of hight tension in the novel. Still, a fantastic version.

 

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