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28 October 2014

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Michael Cumming, director of Snuff Box

Michael Cumming

Michael, were Mark Thomas and Brass Eye the first things you directed after leaving Film School, and was it always your intention to direct comedy?

Sadly, no on both counts. After leaving the Royal College of Art Film School, I had ten years of doing television that was not remotely funny before meeting Chris Morris in 1996.

I was always a fan of comedy - particularly Monty Python and then its spin-offs (Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns and Rutland Weekend Television) and had performed in bands for comedy revues at the Edinburgh Festival in the early '80s. But my first work in TV was directing short films for Tomorrows World - Judith Hann wearing a hard hat on top of Battersea Power Station was one of mine. I also did children's TV, documentaries and commercials, but the final straw was directing on The Word. After that I knew it was time to move on. I think Chris [Morris] consciously didn't want someone with a comedy background to direct Brass Eye, and I had done enough TV to be able to parody most styles, but I also got on with him and found his ideas inspiring.

Since Brass Eye I have almost exclusively directed comedy and had the pleasure of working with some funny f*****s on all kinds of series, including The Mark Thomas Product, Lucas & Walliams in Rock Profile, The Lenny Henry Show, The Mark Steel Lectures, World Of Pub, Alistair McGowan's Big Impression, Bremner, Bird & Fortune and Three Non Blondes.

How did you approach the direction of Snuff Box, considering that the format is quite unconventional?

The unconventional format was what attracted me to it in the first place - I read the script of what became the first episode and laughed a lot, and after meeting Matt and Rich I knew they would be the sort of people who would want the series to be as different as possible. Once we started to rehearse the material and got to know each other it became apparent that we all wanted to make a unique kind of show.

Snuff Box has a distinct look all the way through, even during different sketches, often with a feel reminiscent of the 70s/80s (which is also reflected in the music). What were your visual cues?

We tried to set Snuff Box in no particular time, with costumes, sets and locations ranging from the 50s to the present day. We didn't want to make it a period piece, as there was already time travel in it, so we jumbled it up a bit. There are shots where 70s television sets stand on top of DVD players, 50s suits alongside 70s dresses, telephones are usually the large Bakelite type, but there is one mobile phone in the series - a style soup if you will.

Visually, I always prefer to work in a filmic way rather than a televisionic (which is a word I invented) way - single camera rather than multi camera, film not tape. It just makes it seem more real to me and when you are dealing with the kind of fantastical ideas that Matt and Rich come up with it somehow gives them a grounding. Also, I was sick to death of sketch shows that all looked the same, so whenever possible I tried to find ways of shooting that 'they' wouldn't do. The final look I went for was 'classic British film of the 60s/70s' as I didn't want it to have that shiny, polished, digital look that is the default setting on a lot of television.

Some of the scenes did have a specific inspiration. Ten Rillington Place is a favourite film of Matt's, and watching it again I was amazed by how powerful the hanging scene was, even though it was shot very simply. I watched the Python film ...And Now For Something Completely Different (sketches from the TV series re-shot with a bigger budget) and tried to bring a little of that early 70s style to things like the golf sale sequence in episode one, and the psychiatrist's office in episodes three and six.

Could you tell us a little about the locations and sets which were used - especially the long white corridor?

The corridor was part location, part set, but I don't want to go too far into how we achieved all the transitions through the magic door, otherwise everybody will be doing long white corridor scenes that develop into hangings, won't they?

The Gentleman's Club and the drawing room of Sir Charles Berry were shot at the same fantastic location - a private house that we dressed to look like a club. Most of the exteriors were shot around Brick Lane in old East London - it's so fashionable there nowadays that they don't bat an eyelid when ten people with piss-stained trousers walk down the road shouting.

How long did it take to film the final scenes with lots of the characters together in one place, and was it the most challenging section to direct?

I definitely remember not having enough time to shoot the final wedding scene - I think we had about half a day to do the scene and the huge dance routine at the end of the series. The filming was very frantic, with many of the cast members from other episodes returning, a troupe of dancers and lots of extras - all trying to learn the dance moves. We also wanted to bring back lots of the characters that Matt and Rich had played throughout the series, but there was no time to get them in and out of that many costume/makeup changes, so in the end we shot a few of Rich's characters in a blue screen studio and used electrickery to place them into the scenes later.

Michael Cumming, thanks.

Work Experience

Read more about some of the shows Michael has directed:

Berry & Fulcher Interview

Berry and Fulcher, horribly in depth.

Read interview

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