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The Missing: Finding the location for a dark journey

Tom Shankland


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One of the many things that excited me about directing Jack and Harry Williams' scripts for The Missing was the clever use of two time zones to tell their twisty-turny thriller. I loved the idea of really contrasting the bright, colourful atmosphere of a family holiday in France, with a bleak, wintry present when all our characters are more estranged from each other.

Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O’Connor) in the town square with Oliver

For 2006, the year Oliver Hughes goes missing, I kept thinking of summer holidays I’d had as a kid, when we actually did break down a few times in France. I remembered the exotic sounds of mopeds and cicadas, the bursts of colour in a market, the way everyone seems to live on the streets and in town squares. After Oliver’s disappearance, I wanted to make those same sensations feel threatening. The woods around a beautiful outdoor pool would now exude menace. Cheering voices in the Grand Place would suddenly sound abrasive and threatening.

Tony searches the same town square after his son Oliver has just disappeared

In the wintry present, we used many fewer extras so streets would be almost deserted, making Tony Hughes – Oliver’s father - look more isolated in his dogged quest to find Oliver. I kept ordering up more rain and then snow, to get a feeling of Tony’s ‘stop at nothing’ determination to find Oliver.

Tony returns to Chalons in the present day to pursue a new lead after eight years

Despite the different atmospheres in each time zone, it was important to me that the overall tone of The Missing was naturalistic and consistent. Aside from some subtly different lighting and lenses, we tended to shoot both time periods in a similarly composed style. The director of photography, Ole Bratt Birkeland, and I would joke that we were making ‘pretty realism’ as opposed to 'gritty realism'.
Although the performances and design are very authentic, Ole and I felt that if we could infuse the imagery with mystery and a certain kind of melancholy beauty, the viewers would be more likely to come on a dark journey with us. I’ve always been a big Hitchcock fan – he was master of blending nasty events with seductive, suspenseful imagery. You never feel like looking away, whatever hideous things might be going on in the story.

The trail reveals Tony's determination to find his son

The biggest decision about the look of The Missing was always going to be what town we chose to be Chalons du Bois. Along with Willow Grylls, the fantastic executive producer who developed the project with Jack and Harry Williams, I made a trip to Belgium in summer 2013 to look for the town. The French speaking part of Belgium is a very good match for Northern France, and it was pretty close to Paris and London, where we were also planning to shoot.
As soon as we drove into Huy, we  knew we’d struck location gold. Although the town felt real in the sense that it wasn’t a tourist town, everywhere you looked there was something curious or atmospheric. There was a beautiful river with a massive power station right next to it, bang in the centre of town. You enter the town by crossing over a very striking modern bridge – magical river islands to one side, grim factory to the other. An eerily windowless castle glowers over the town. There’s a creaking cable car suspended across the river, which has never worked since a helicopter crashed into it.

Emily and Tony attend a press conference about their son's disappearance

Instantly, I started to picture the places where certain characters might live and the way we could stage set-pieces. It was a joy to shoot in Huy, especially during the World Cup when Belgium were doing pretty well. We’d be shooting a scene full of celebrating football fans, and suddenly car horns and cheers would erupt all around us, as the Belgian team scored a goal.

Tom Shankland is the director of The Missing. Read a second post from Tom, all about working with The Missing's cast.

The Missing continues on Tuesday, 4 November at 9pm (10.35pm Scotland) on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

More on The Missing

Radio times: Is BBC One's The Missing the new Broadchurch?

The Telegraph: The Missing review, 'supremely compelling'

The Guardian: The Missing review - hauntingly brilliant television

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

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