The Luminaries

An epic adventure mystery based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name

Interview with Claire McCarthy

We spent a long time figuring out how to translate that world; the things that we wanted to take over as well as the things we felt worked better in the book, that were maybe too conceptual to put into the tv series.Claire McCarthy
Date: 15.06.2020     Last updated: 15.06.2020 at 11.23
Category: BBC One; Drama
Claire McCarthy is the Director of The Luminaries.

What drew you to The Luminaries?
I am a big fan of the book and thought it was such a rich, beautiful world and Eleanor has written such an incredible, textured story. So, when I found out that they were planning to make a TV series I was determined to somehow get in the mix. I had been in London doing post-production on a project and was reading The Luminaries for the second time on the tube on my way into the edit room. I read it again and kept on thinking about how visual the world was and how wonderful it would be to stage it. I was lucky enough to meet with Working Title whilst in London and they allowed me to pitch on it, and I just threw everything at it and fortunately it worked!

Tell us about that pitch and your initial ambitions for the drama?
It's such a rich world, the world of The Luminaries, and in thinking about bringing it to life I really wanted to capture the cinematic quality that's on the page. The characters are so rich, we have a world that's in this intrepid part of history where people would travel from the four corners of the globe and come to New Zealand to find their fortune and to start a whole new life. So I was thinking about what was the language of the show - what was it to look like? What was its colour palette? What was the visual language that would speak to the theology of the book in a way that could be faithful to the book, but also take it somewhere where it would be digestible within six episodes? What could we ground in the scripts and in the journeys of the characters so that we could go on this rollercoaster ride?

I was intrigued by Anna Wetherell's character and I was really excited that the first script of The Luminaries was very much about Anna's journey and vested much more in the love story between her and Emery Staines, as well as the female friendship between Anna and Lydia. I thought that was really interesting. In the book, Anna is much more of a cipher for their experiences. In our retelling, Anna is more the subject than the object; it's her experiences and we tell the story through her eyes. These are all the complexities that the book also has but we're retelling it in a different way. It was about simplifying and thinking about how to make that world feel cinematic and truthful to the book and also bringing a visual language that would draw an audience in, in an entertaining way.

How would you describe the world of The Luminaries to people who are expecting a version of the book?
It is a re-telling and a different version of The Luminaries. It's almost like we've reframed the story from a different point of view by vesting it in Anna's character. There is so much richness in the book to draw from, and so many intricate details. The audience who are already fans of the novel will see that it's Eleanor's book but retold. The complexities and the richness of the book are intact.

What I really love about Eleanor's rewriting of the story is that it’s a very bold retelling and it could have only been Eleanor to write this screenplay. It might have felt a little irreverent for somebody else to rewrite it. In some ways, the story is constructed like a piece of clockwork, its architecture is so intrinsic to the pleasure of reading that book. Eleanor was cognisant of that, and we spent a long time figuring out how to translate that world; the things that we wanted to take over as well as the things we felt worked better in the book and were maybe too conceptual to put into the television series.

Another thing that I found really delightful about Eleanor's retelling is that we're set in a period, in New Zealand in the gold rush of the 1800s, but there is a sense of play and a tongue-in-cheek, roguish quality in Eleanor’s writing where she delightfully brings these rich characters to life.

With the 1800s setting also comes this Victorian 'sensation' idea, the Victorian novel where you would commonly see the innocent ingénue who moves through the world and is corrupted by the forces of that world. In some ways Eleanor has lampooned the Victorian sensation idea, which makes this feel contemporary. Anna Weatherell is not an ingénue and she's not an innocent: she is a woman with a past. We don't find out exactly what it is that she is running from, but we understand that she is playing by her own rules, that she's resilient and that she’ll last the distance.

Would you describe this as a period drama?
Yes, The Luminaries is set in the 1800s during the New Zealand gold rush, which at that time was the frontier. It was a pioneering settlement which people were rushing to from all around the world, to try to make their fortune. We have such a vast collection of interesting people from all across the globe, and these kinds of disparate ideas and different cultural relationships. Within that world we're telling a story that's an intriguing murder mystery as well as a story of female friendship and also of star-crossed lovers; we have a rich world in which all these large, textured, rich themes are being explored.

We are aware that it's a period setting but the narrative drive has an energy to it and there's a muscularity to the way we're telling the story. We didn't want it to feel slow or languid, or to feel like we're in a dusty, musty period piece. The characters have a sense of humour, they have flaws and they make mistakes. It's sophisticated in the sense that we're not dumbing it down for an audience but we're asking them to get involved, to get their hands dirty and to ask them to think while they watch.

What did Eve Hewson bring to the role of Anna Wetherell?
Eve Hewson is an incredible actor and has so much depth to her and such soulful eyes. Her stillness is as interesting as when she starts to inhabit the character with words. She's an actor that you believe would survive the things that her character had to go through and has brought so much to this piece.

Anna Weatherell is not an innocent in a classic Victorian sensation idea. She's not corrupted by the world around her, she comes with her own past, and we wanted a richer idea of what a woman could be within the story and within this historical context. Anna has sent herself to the gold rush, she has her own secrets and her own sense of dynamism and power within the story. She's playing her own game.

Casting an actor that has an in-built sense of strength and resilience, who isn't just flimsy or tossed about in that world, was really important in casting Anna Weatherell, and Eve is incredible. She's just absolutely amazing. It’s a big ask for a young actor to shoulder the scope of a whole series, and it was a difficult and a long shoot at times and Eve was incredible, so dedicated to making sure that she gave her all day after day.

How do the planetary elements of the story how themselves through the characters?
Anna Weatherell’s planetary association is the Moon and so she's absorbed light, reflected light. In many ways, in the story we see her retreat to her shadow-self and a lot of the story reflects the idea of aspects of the Moon. These are ideas that float in the story, they're not in the forefront. Emery Staines is the Sun and he's ever the optimist. He always finds the glass half full and has a beautiful benefit of the doubt about the world around him.

What did Himesh Patel bring to the role of Emery Staines?
Casting Emery Staines was a real challenge. Himesh has extraordinary comic timing, he's a great dramatic actor and but he brings a beautiful, soulful quality. He's also really funny, incredibly smart and brings an interesting viewpoint about masculinity to the story. Emery is not your typical alpha male, and Himesh brings a lightness of touch, positivity and optimism to the role.

Tell us about the character of Lydia Wells and that Eva Green brought to the role?
Eva Green plays Lydia Wells, and she's so delightful. Lydia is a villain in a classic sense, but she has this charm and ability to really wrap everyone around her finger. She's such an unusual woman and we were excited about the idea of showing women in different lights, women who are flawed, women who make mistakes and women who will do anything to get what they want. It was intriguing to see the way that Eva filled those boots. She is so wonderful, such an incredible actor and such a consummate professional. Eva is an intricate planner and I just loved working with her. She has such a presence on screen, she's a real dynamite and I just adore her both as a comrade and also as a friend.

It must have been a huge challenge to create this world - where do you start?
It was a huge team effort by all the creative heads of department. I was very fortunate to be working with Felicity Abbot, who's an incredible production designer; our cinematographer, Denson Baker, who is my long-term collaborator and is an incredible artist; and Dan Birt, who's the set decorator.

It's a period film so we had to make a lot of things from scratch. We didn't have existing locations that we could just walk into. We probably had about 10,000 historical references from museums, we visited Hokitika a number of times, we'd collect and reference pictures from the era as well as reference pictures from other gold rushes from a similar point in time to investigate the details of things like equipment, the way people looked and just the whole aspect of what it was like to be digging gold. It's such a filthy, dirty, visceral world, you've literally got your hands in the dirt and you see pictures of people covered from head to toe, caked in mud. We really wanted this world to feel filthy, textured, grounded in the earth, and we wanted to feel like people were inhabiting that world as opposed to just being ornamental or just placed in sets.

I was working with a fantastic team. The colour palette is more gothic and grounded in the shadows. We wanted a sense of mystery and intrigue and a kind of burnished golden world inside the interiors. We were very influenced by gold and not only did we have to research how gold could be filmed, and how it would appear on screen, but also just the way that we would light largely through flame, candlelight and natural light. We were trying to inhabit a specific kind of world and the resources that they would have at that time, so we were embraced that as a visual aesthetic. We wanted there to be a visceral quality to the show, rather than it to feel typically period or dusty, and so there needed to be an energy and a dynamism to the way the camera captured the world.

What did Edward K. Gibbon and Jane O’Kane bring to the look of the series?
Costume and hair & make-up designers are incredibly crucial appointments, particularly where there are so many characters who need to look distinct from one another. We were very lucky to have Edward K. Gibbon join our team as the costume designer. And also very lucky to have Jane O'Kane join us as well who is an incredible make-up and hair designer. The things those two did, in such an effortless way, and the way they led their teams just was remarkable.

Edward didn't have a costume store that he could grab period clothing from. We ended up having a small consignment of period costumes sent over from the UK, but other than that, the Kiwi team made everything from scratch. The cutters, pattern makers, the recycling and sourcing of fabrics, the workmanship and craftsmanship is world-class. There is a lot of intricate detail and thought that has gone into the look of the sets and these characters. There are little hidden treasures that if the audience knows the book, they will understand.

Can you tell us about the incredible work that went into creating these sets?
Building sets from scratch is quite amazing. We shot at a location called Jonkers Farm, which is a big hunk of beautiful farm just outside of Auckland. We had ambitions for it to be a 360-degree set where you could walk through and film from any angle, and we almost achieved that, it was probably about 280 degrees in the end.

We built - from scratch - the Hokitika town, which included the main township and all the elements that are within that: the jail, the cemetery, the opera tent, as well as 10 or 12 workable buildings plus additional components of buildings. I can’t even put into words the amount of work they did. If you don't have a believable world, and the effort's not put into creating that world, no matter how hard you try it just won’t feel real. It needed to be a living, breathing, visceral experience for the actors and it was.

We were trudging around in the mud and slipping around the rain. We were constantly wetting-down and it was certainly hard going for everyone, but it really translates to the screen. I'm sure I haven't made many friends in that process! But it was a labour of love to get that texture and a commitment to the creative ambition of the show.

Within the interior of The House Of Many Wishes, which is Lydia Wells' world, there are so many whimsy and delightful ideas in there about Kiwiana and the intersection of the world of that time. There are things that are now extinct, images and pieces of New Zealand’s history. Each set is a little jigsaw puzzle of delightful storytelling that speaks to both the world of the story as well as the world of New Zealand at that time.

The one thing that as a visual idea in the show that comes from the book is the idea of the planets, there's this idea of orbiting and shadowing and circles, which is quite a feminine symbol. The book covers the phases of the moon and each chapter gets shorter and shorter as you read the book. We weren't able to mimic that structural approach in the series, but as a symbol and as a motif visually we used a lot of circles in our design. We have the astrological and the lunar ideas in the show, and also the stars and the constellations, but we have translated them into architectural ideas and sets.

The House Of Many Wishes is one of the biggest sets. We did a lot of research into how Dunedin looked, and we were struck by this strange, gothic, Victoriana, mish-mash building that was situated near this rocky outcrop in Dunedin that we found in old maps and discovered it was called The Hotel Oriental. It had this really salacious past and had burned down three times. There'd been a sole female lease holder and it was a house of ill repute. We read about some terrible things had happened within those walls. It became our reference point for The House Of Many Wishes. Although it's Victoriana, there is collectivism to the world which comes from the cultural diversity of the people living there at that time. Lydia’s world is one of dream weaving and magic and sleight of hand, and there is a gothic glint in the eye. We used a lot of mist and atmosphere to make the series feel painterly, rather than crisp or brittle.

Had you spent much time in New Zealand before coming to this project?
It’s been a great honour to be in another culture, in another country. Although, as an Australian, we are very closely affiliated, there are lots of things politically and artistically that resonate for me in New Zealand’s culture. My husband, Denson Baker, who's also the cinematographer on The Luminaries, is a Kiwi and he's part Māori. My son was able to go to school in New Zealand whilst we were filming, and go to Kapa Haka, and connect to his Māori roots which has been one of the great privileges of this project.

One of the things that The Luminaries is exploring is the cultural tensions and relationships of that era, which was a huge thing at that time. The Chinese community was completely vilified and shut out, and it was hard for anyone that wasn't white to survive in that world. Territories and treaties were being written at that time, wars were being fought and there's a cultural discussion that's happening which we don't necessarily put a pin in, but it's felt within the story.

We have the character of Tauwhare played by Richard Te Are. He’s a wonderful Māori actor and his character really is a moral compass for the story in a lot of ways. He really brought mana and his own artistic sensibility to that character. He went to Hokitika and he met with Ngāti Waewae and all the community there who were so kind to us and really honoured our process.

When we started filming, we had representatives of the Hokitika Māori community who came to visit the set and gifted us a really beautiful piece of greenstone. They blessed our production and were there the whole time to consult with us on all the Māori content and of the show and also supply us all the pounamu (greenstone) for the show. So, there was an integrity to it and there was a discussion and a discourse about the way the work was being done between the team. So, even though I am a foreigner, and I'm not from the culture, I felt very connected to it.

Pictured: Claire McCarthy on set