Directing the 2nd Unit for BBC One's Press by Mike Bartlett
So you’re standing on The Strand with Ben Chaplin surrounded by gawping pedestrians and you’re running out of time. You need to shoot your scene quickly but precisely – you’ve got Ben for the next hour before he’s needed elsewhere – so you tell him exactly what you need, the camera goes up on sticks, the team lines up the shot and your first AD shouts “action”. Ben does the scene flawlessly – but a pedestrian walks into shot. You call “cut”. You need to go again.
This is the “second unit”, a splinter crew from the main production team, and over the course of several months you’ll be working with actors like Ben, Charlotte Riley and Paapa Essiedu on moments, images and scenes that fit into the tapestry of BBC One’s Press, a flagship production about the modern media written by the estimable Mike Bartlett. You’ll also be shadowing superstar director Tom Vaughan throughout the production as he effortlessly brings Mike’s words to life through a thousand decisions a day, executed quickly and confidently. The last time Mike and Tom worked together they made Doctor Foster, a TV phenomenon. The pressure, it’s fair to say, is pretty high.
The scene is shot, high fives all round. Ben smiles, tells you he likes your hat and heads back to the main unit. Later, you’ll find yourself in an industrial estate after dark, directing a fleet of articulated trucks emblazoned with the logo of “The Herald”, one of the show’s fictional newspapers, as they make their way into the night. It’s like a moment from a Michael Bay film – thundering vehicles barreling past camera – and you realise you need more light for your overhead shot, filmed from a nearby hill. The lighting team springs into gear, runs downhill to set up more lights. Your AD shouts into a radio, and the lorries creep forward. One of the lorries is too slow off the mark – the convoy doesn’t look slick enough – so you call cut. You need to go again.
Over months you work on many moments like these. Lowloaders and dollies, swinging to a fifty. While Tom works tirelessly on scenes with the cast, you find yourself on an airstrip in the middle of nowhere directing a stunt for a pivotal moment in episode one with a coordinator who staged the fight scenes in the Star Wars movies. The stunt isn’t looking quite right – the police car needs to go faster. “Let’s go again” you say, and you pinch yourself, because it isn’t every day you’re working with people who trained Darth Maul how to swing a lightsaber and telling them you need another take. But then you remember you’re here for a reason – in this era of peak TV, there aren’t enough directors with the experience required to look after shows of this budget and scale. And so Directors UK and Skillset have set up a competitive scheme to give up-and-coming directors the experience of “high end” shows to help push their careers forward. You applied, interviewed, made the cut. You need to get the moment right. And so you go again.
That’s one reason you’re here. But the real reason everyone’s shivering on a remote airstrip at 9pm – is the excellence of the material. Press is an exhilarating, insightful piece of writing – whip-smart characters arguing about the challenges of journalism in an era of fake news, and the pressure to do the right thing in a world which values clickbait over commentary and entertainment over nuance – and everybody involved, from fearless producer Paul Gilbert and tireless line producer Kirsten Eller, rockstar production designer Paul Cross and unflappable First AD Kristian Dench to the runners Alicia and Emily hushing quiet in the wings of 3 Mills Studios, is working their hardest to bring Mike Bartlett’s words to life with the diligence, focus and attention to detail that his script demands.
When Press airs on BBC One on Thursday 6 September at 9pm I hope people enjoy the show for the nuance of Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley’s excellent performances, the sparkle of Mike Bartlett’s writing and the verve of Tom Vaughan’s powerhouse directing. But I also hope they’ll sit through the credits at the end and read every name – it’s a roll call of excellence. So many talented people giving their utmost for six hours of evening entertainment.
As for me? Fingers crossed, I’ll be directing my own high end show soon. Cut. Print. Let’s go again.
Nimer Rashed is a Director