Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Anna Madeley, Prasanna Puwanarajah & David Nicholls talk "Patrick Melrose" & Working With Benedict Cumberbatch

For part one of this interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Hugo Weaving see here

Anna Madeley - Mary Melrose

What is Mary like?

Mary is a caretaker. Be it in her work editing books or at home with her beloved family, Mary loves deeply and hopes to protect people from pain. Having lost her father quite young and been brought up by a rather distant and upstaging mother, she is driven to create a happy future for Patrick and her boys. A drive that gives her the strength and tolerance to care through some extreme circumstances.

Did you read the novels?

I did. And they are an incredible read. A real rollercoaster through Patrick’s life as he negotiates his world, both hilarious and very dark. They were also useful to see the inspiration for the script. Adaptations have to take on a life of their own and cannot contain every moment of a novel. But reading them gives you a wonderful resource. It helped give me a strong sense of their social world, the huge changes it was undergoing and the shattering impact that was having on lots
of people.

What’s the relationship between Patrick and Mary like?

I think they’ve had a good time together. Patrick can be a lot of fun and Mary falls for his humour and charm and also his capacity to care. But the family’s life and history are complex and by the time we meet them as a married couple they are about 10 years in and the strains in the relationship are very present.

Did you have any time to build a relationship backstory with Benedict Cumberbatch?

Last year I did The Child in Time with Benedict and we got on really well. As actors we get used to creating instant relationships but it always helps to have a history. It gives you a confidence with one another as you inhabit the world of your characters. We only had an hour’s rehearsal before shooting but it was a conversation that kept rolling – what were those good years like? How did they communicate? You see them share a sense of humour together at important moments. Mary is able to hear and take on board all that happened to Patrick and she doesn’t walk away. On the contrary she is more generous towards him because of his complex past and wants to help him live the life he ultimately desires. I think it’s a hopeful story.

How was shooting?

Shooting was fantastic. It was a long shoot so it was challenging to sometimes have scenes that were sequential in the story line being filmed five months apart. However one of the real joys was working in such beautiful locations. Playing a family who were very wealthy meant that we filmed in some really stunning properties. For me the highlight was the chateau in France. It was the perfect backdrop for our story. A gorgeous house looking out over an ever shifting vista of the mountains. Such beauty mixed in with the tangled web we had to weave.

What was it like working with the rest of the cast?

The cast were fantastic. Really generous and fun and hard working. It made the days where we filmed big dinners or parties really enjoyable. I love watching other actors work. It’s a real privilege. We also had two wonderful boys who had never been on set before. So we improvised quite a bit with them and sometimes turned things into games.

What was the biggest challenge?

Finding the balance between the sadness in the story and the humour of it. It could be quite emotionally draining. And in a more practical sense, trying to make sure you didn’t get bitten by any mosquitoes on the beautiful summer evenings in France!

And the most fun?

Filming the funeral was actually hugely fun, which might sound bizarre. It was quite late in the shoot and we all knew each other’s characters really well by then so we were able to fully enjoy the extremes of personality that had been put in a room together.

Prasanna Puwanarajah - Johnny Hall

How did you get involved with the show?

It was a message from my agent. I didn’t know the books at that point, but my agent did and said, “ You need to get these read, because they’re pretty extraordinary.” Then it all turned around quite quickly and within about a week I’d been offered it and I’d read the first book. The scripts were ready in a way that actually can feel quite rare. They’re beautifully adapted by David Nicholls – sensitive, faithful and funny with such crisp characterisation.

Who is Johnny Hall?

He begins as an addict. He doesn’t have the emotional dragging anchors that Patrick Melrose has in terms of his childhood but he is nevertheless an outsider who finds refuge and solace in drugs. He and Patrick connect because they’re both on the outside of their respective worlds, trying to escape them. At the start he’s witty, erudite, “a hedonist who’s gone a bit wrong” as Teddy [Edward St Aubyn] called him when we spoke about the character. He and Patrick are on it in quite a major way and so when Patrick decides that he needs to turn his life around, that’s a wake-up call for Johnny as well. In the third episode you see Johnny and Patrick moving apart, because Patrick is still Interview trying to get to a point where he’s ready to be ready, whereas Johnny’s recovery is already under way. It’s a relationship based on wit and irony, but also on honesty and love over decades of time.

When Patrick and Johnny are together there’s almost a sense of a double act. Johnny’s not floored by Patrick’s wit in the way that some people are.

I think those scenes are very funny. Patrick and Johnny deal primarily in irony; the very first time you see them, Johnny’s first line is, “So, half an orphan, congratulations.” They’re two friends who are quite gleeful about their slightly supercilious and manufactured world weariness. They’re amusingly delighted with themselves which of course is all a front that they use to avoid talking about the important stuff.

Is he based on a real person?

My understanding is that he’s an amalgamation of a number of people in Teddy’s life – he’s more representative of an energy of support and friendship and closeness. That means you can invent rather than have to worry too much about the specific energies of the person who this might be based upon.

Have you created additional backstory?

Unlike Patrick we don’t see his upbringing. All but a handful of Johnny’s scenes were two-handers with Patrick so yes, I have a little bit. I decided that, in the context of the late 70s, early 80s, he’s a British Asian man – clearly coming from money – who finds himself at odds with his personal and family heritage. He meets Patrick at university. It becomes a vicious cycle in which he then reacts to his life by pushing away from it all and he ends up propelling himself more and more to the outside of his own life.

Did you and Benedict create that friendship in the shoot or did you do any work around it?

We’ve linked up and gone through the script and scenes, but we also find it as we go. There are takes where we’re playing the scenes at an emotionally connected and honest level, then there might be a take where we just chuck that out and everything is just completely shot from the hip and all about irony. We enjoy each
other’s company in real life and it’s been a lovely collaboration.

How was it working with the director, Edward Berger?

I met him for the first time in the audition and I liked him immediately. He’s incredibly collaborative. He and cinematographer James Friend together bring an incredible cinematic aesthetic to this, so at times it reminds me of my favourite aspects of independent cinema, but also one of the episodes reminds me of late-
90s American TV: it’s a glorious festival of Steadicamming with extended three-, four-minute shots through country houses. Actors love that stuff. It’s like performing a tiny play.

Did you need to study how addicts behave?

I did a little bit, yeah. I looked into the recovery process and we had some brilliant help in rehearsals and on set from incredibly generous people who themselves are in recovery. There are certain little things that as a medical person I was quite familiar with, like how a person handles a syringe, but our advisors were vital in helping us understand the subjective feeling of intravenous drug use, the sensory journey you go on, then what it’s like to be in withdrawal. There’s a scene in episode three where Johnny speaks at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and it was so careful and delicate and specific. I contemplated going to a meeting but in the end I decided not to, because I didn’t want to make that sort of intrusion. I did a lot of reading around it and spoke to a few people about their
journey through recovery.

Did being a doctor give you any other insight?

I think the pressures of practising medicine or being a healthcare professional are and probably will always be the most extreme pressures I’ve felt in my life. I
suppose Johnny and I are/were both trying to head away from eras in our lives to a place where you recognise the person that you can faithfully be.

What was the hardest part of the role?

Well, there was a bit where I was standing in my boxer shorts and shirt on the 18th floor of Trellick Tower with no shoes on, it was sleeting outside, it was minus four and the crew were in huge parkas with these eyes peering out... Normally that sort of stuff doesn’t bother me, but it genuinely was horrendously cold.

And the best bit?

The scripts and the colleagues really. It’s so extraordinary and interesting and beautifully rendered. The locations and the costumes are extraordinary and the actors are great, the crew are great and all of the artists and collaborators are as good as can be.

David Nicholls - Screenwriter

How did you get involved with the series?

Well I’d always loved the books. I was working in a bookshop when I read the first, Never Mind, and thought it was very powerful, but brilliantly funny too. I read each of the books as they came out and they soon became a dream project for me.

From the word go?

Yeah – I loved the first novel, but as they went along they took on the qualities of a family saga, the way characters re-emerged and the situations and images and dialogue were echoed, the stories weaved together. At the same time I could see that I wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice to do the adaptation, but I kept my ears open and when the rights came up about five years ago I had a meeting with Michael and Rachael.

Did they come looking for you?

No – I think I was on a list. I certainly had to stake my claim and make a pitch. When I write about that world I’m writing as an outsider and Teddy’s writing more as an insider. As novelists, I suppose that we both write a kind of social comedy but Teddy is smarter, harsher and wittier than I am. But I’d had some experience of adapting tricky material, and was delighted when I got the job. I had a quick meeting with Teddy and then began the process, which has continued over all these years.

What’s the relationship like between the screenwriter and author when adapting an autobiography?

I’d always taken the stance that I would treat the books as fiction. Even novels that are autobiographical distort, change and adapt real life, and given that Teddy has already gone through that process, why would I unpick it? Even though I could have, my policy was never to phone Teddy up and say “What really happened? What was it like?” Which isn’t to say that Teddy hasn’t been brilliantly supportive – he’s given loads of feedback all the way through but it’s always made sense to me to have a certain amount of distance from the author, to focus solely on the material.

What was the actual process of adapting them like?

Thrilling... daunting... Pile the five books on top of each other and that’s 900 pages of prose, page after page of brilliant dialogue, scores of named characters, events covering 40 years plus a complicated family history – it was all quite overwhelming, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked quite so hard on a project. We wanted to remain faithful to novels that were never intended to work as a TV show. Imagine pitching a show where the central character disappears for episode two, that leaps back and forth through time and locations; it takes a leap of faith. But I’ve loved the challenge and submerging myself in that world, and what has kept it exciting is this extraordinarily rich central character – fierce and vicious sometimes, then vulnerable and sympathetic at others, but always brilliantly witty and self-aware. I think Patrick Melrose is one of the great characters of recent literature – his mother and father too. I can’t think of a more monstrous father than David Melrose – and that has been thrilling.

Did you use any of the dialogue from the books?

For the most part, yes. Edward St Aubyn has this wonderful prose style, but his dialogue is superb too and I’ve used it where I can. But a great deal of the best material is in Patrick’s mind, with no plausible reason for him to say it out loud, and that can be frustrating – all those great lines and brilliant jokes, all in his head. Inevitably there are also scenes that we’ve had to add, times when I’ve had to write dialogue in the style of Edward St Aubyn, and that’s always unnerving. I hope that it’s not possible to see the join. I hope I’ve kept the best of the novel’s scene too. There’s certainly plenty of fantastically spiked dialogue, especially from Nicholas Pratt, played brilliantly by Pip Torrens.

There are some horrific scenes in the books...

I think probably your memory is more explicit than what’s on the page – the books themselves are quite elusive and ambiguous. We’ve taken that further just because of the practicalities of filming – it makes sense in a drama to withhold things. It’s a responsible approach to material that is in some places very dark. These are books about breakdown and mental illness and suicide and abuse and yet that experience has been filtered through a very sharp brilliant social comedy.

You put the second book, Bad News, first...

That’s the biggest change – I wish I could claim credit for it but it was actually a broadcaster note – the kind of note that makes you want to cry because it’s not just a question of changing the header and the title page. You’ve go to do major engineering. But it makes perfect sense because it sets off a mystery – here’s this person who’s clearly damaged so what has caused this condition? Then that’s revealed over the following episodes. It’s a very unconventional show in that every episode has a different look, feel and tone but I have tried to thread the characters through all five episodes so you get a sense of ensemble. For instance Nicholas, Patrick’s godfather, is in nearly every episode and Mary, who becomes Patrick’s wife, is in the third episode but not in the third book. That aside it’s pretty faithful I think.

Great cast and crew...

Yes, Benedict’s perfect – it’s a really extraordinary performance and incredibly committed, brave, well researched and fearless. Very free of vanity – because towards the end of the series when Patrick falls back into alcoholism he becomes a very unappealing character. He’s a self-pitying physical mess and Benedict really goes for that. I don’t think at any point he said, “I’m a little bit harsh in this scene is there any way I can soften it?” It’s no surprise he has played Hamlet because there is quite a lot of Hamlet in the book – the obsession with the father, the constant self-analysis and the wild mood swings. I think that we all felt he was both made for the role and the role was made for him. From quite an early stage, we found it hard to think of anyone but Benedict. I realise that I’m not entirely objective, but I think it’s a stunning performance.