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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am no prude but both I and my partner found the sex scenes overly graphic and offensive. They were not erotic at all - just crude. The soldier lying with his guts showing was also too graphic. Then the next day we watched a 1950's movie - also an intense love story. What a difference! The subtlety of the shots made it so beautiful and tender - not like the oral sex and hand in flies scenes in "Birdsong" which were just plain lewd.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    You have the attention of the director of a successful, widely viewed, critically acclaimed BBC production and you conjur up questions like: "What does the title mean?" And "Were the sets built or on location?". Do you know many working WWI trenches or maintained bombed-out cathedrals? Inane, dumbed-down interview. Awful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Scherrizarde, have you read Birdsong? I found the version on film was very close to my mental image of both the characters and the events. I wouldn't describe the relationship aspect of Birdsong as a love story, but a lust story.

    There was also a warning before the start about the scenes that may people may be upset by, so you made a choice and shouldn't then be surprised at what you saw.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I'm currently reading Birdsong after watching the first episode; I think it is important for an audience to see how truly awful and disgusting that war was, it is too often romanticised, no matter how many lives were lost. The dignity and splendor of Remembrance day does not reflect the horrors those soldiers had to face. I found the love scenes very erotic and powerful, much like the one's in the book and I don't think it's about love per-say, he's young and she's never been with anyone really, so it's very much about lust as it is about first love.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Watching this, I can see why the novel has not stayed in my mind. Does anyone in the real world - even during the Great War - really talk in slow clipped whispers, staring at each other for long periods, and actually say nothing in the end? Dull beyond belief, i sense little or no character, and even for unsympathetic characters you must have dialogue and action, or you get nowhere. Also, am I the only one to spot the total lack of discipline of British army soldiers when officers are about - I feel sure it wasn't like that then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Well done BBC a great production, well acted, loved it was a change from repeats,
    Thank you....

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Bird Song was one of the best directed bbc productions that I can remember. Tears to the eyes and never to be forgotten.


  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Simply wonderful. I loved every second. Sensual and brutal with perfect juxtaposition. Thank you BBC for yet another stunning drama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I think Isobel was a bit confused about the identity of the father of her child. She and Steven both had blue eyes but their supposed daughter had brown eyes, the husband's I think!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Really enjoyed Birdsong. It was deep and emotional. The story kept me interested, not a dull moment... Very good acting and the scenes with the soilders would be how I would imagine it was back then. The love scenes were exciting, a shame they never got to reunite in the end but a good story line re: the little girl. Thoroughly enjoyed the last scene with Jack and Stephen. It brought tears to my eyes and I even text my Parents and Brother to say that I love them haha re: Jack's words before he died "there is nothing else but to love and be loved" - I loved it - well done, lets have a few more dramas on like that please!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Hi Sally. Re: your comment above... I know loads of people who have a child with different coloured eyes to their parents. It does not mean that the child belongs to someone else. It might mean that the childs colour eyes generate from their grandparents or beyond that (genes).

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    EXCEPTIONAL!!! I enjoyed every single minute of it. Well done to all concerned with this drama it has been a long time since something has had me glued to the TV. Eddie Redmayne now has a new fan, he has the most expressive face of any actor to date. Let's have more drama of this quality please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Well that was wonderful, what a weak comment really but I cannot think of anythig better to sum it up concisely.
    Thanks BBC for the production which was faultless

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I think most who have complained about this drama have actually missed the point completely, the book on which this is based is (If memory serves me well) way over 500 pages, and in many ways is FAR more descriptive than the TV drama is or could ever be.
    In my view it was a complete success and the stars Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) and Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne) were excellent. The mixture of sexual scenes and scenes showing graphically the full horrors and total inhumanity of war, were necessary to create a balance of both extremes. The acting was very real and the script was written (I believe) to extract passion and anger, hurt and loss, without the usual Hollywood over acting and over scripting.
    It was a lesson in pure acting, facial movement and gestures saying everything that needed to be said.
    Director Philip Martin did a fantastic job of making the almost impossible in such a short amount of time and screenwriter Abi Morgan equally did an excellent job in condensing such a huge work into a script of only hours.

    Thank You all involved …

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I would like to applaud the BBC for screening birdsong, it was brilliant and i wept an ocean at the ending, it was beautifully shot and was tender and violent all at the same time, a fantastic drama and if people were offended there is always an off button or change the channel after all we are all adults and it was after the watershed...well done BBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I have read the book "birdsong" and just finished watching the bbc filmed version which i felt was both epic and beautifully told! I feel I have to comment after reading some if these negative reviews. It brings to life some of the most prominent scenes within the book very tastefully and I am pleased to say the whole thing was exactly as I'd imagined!, and as for eddie redmayne who plays Steven, the main character, his performance in my opinion was stunning, what a magnificent actor!, I understand everyone is entitled to their opinion but i feel you are mad not to appreciate this moving and beautiful film, I would highly recommend it ( as long as you have some tissues at the ready!) brilliant!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I really cannot agree with the negative comments posted here..this was a wonderfully moving production based on an excellent book. The scenes in the trenches although sometimes horrific, were justified to show the true horror of this terrible war. As for the sex, it was passionate, lustful and loving and as others have said here, there was a warning beforehand and it is very easy to switch off if you don't like what you are seeing. I was moved to tears on many occasions throughout tonights episode. Well done the Beeb for a great adaptation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Sorry Sherrizade you are prudes.
    This was the BBC at its very best. Real horror, real passion, real emotions, yet
    wonderfully careful and fine-honed performances.
    Totally agree with impressedone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    In truth I have not read the book, but I was privileged to watch this BBC production. It is a superb screen play adaptation, superb acting and in my opinion is a very special drama. This will be remembered as a great BBC series for many years to come. Great job by the BBC staff involved, they should be proud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I have read the book and just finished watching what i beleive was an epic and beatuiful series aired on the BBc. I feel I need to comment after reading some of these negative reviews. The filmed version brought to life for me, the most prominent scenes within the book and they were exactly as I had imagined if not better. It was filmed tastefully without being dishonest to the book. I was completely moved by the whole film so much so I watched it again straight after it had finished with my mum who had missed it. As for eddie redmayne who plays the main character Stephen, I thought his performance was stunning, what a magnificent actor! Actually the entire cast were fantastic, they couldn't have chosen the characters any better! If you are feeling negative towards this film then I feel you have not taken the time to appreciate how beautifully the story has been filmed, it's pace only added to the intensity of an emotional and honest story! So judge for yourself if you have not watched this, it is truly amazing!


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