Slow Horses Director James Hawes - 'I said, well, what about Jagger?'

27 Apr

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James Hawes is a seasoned director who counts Black Mirror, Doctor Who, Snowpiercer, The Alienist, Penny Dreadful and The Challenger among his list of credits. But it's his most recent project that's really putting him on the map: Slow Horses. The Apple TV+ series is wrapping up it's first season this friday and ahead of the finale Contributing Editor Jonathan Reed sat down with James to break down the show, talk about his approach to the material and, of course, working with Mick Jagger!

Screen Times: This show was announced way back in 2019, and now it's out for everyone to see. It's been getting really great reviews and fans of the books into really like it too. After all this development and shooting and editing of the show, how does it feel to finally have it out there for people to watch? Have you been enjoying all the feedback?

James Hawes: Yes. I mean, honestly, the first reaction was one of enormous relief because as you say, it was more than it was two and a half years of my career - longer for those that were involved in the development that went in fact back six or seven years - and then to have such a broadly brilliant perception, globally, I mean, for a very British series to be received so well, not just at home, but in Germany and the States and Australia. The reviews around the globe have been fantastic, which means we've made something that has traveled, has been proudly British, but as somehow struck a chord.

So how did you become involved with the show originally? Were you a fan of the books?

I was approached with the set of scripts and I tend to start by going to the scripts. I'll be perfectly honest I hadn't read Mick’s books ahead of time. Sew-Saw (Films, the production company) got in touch with me. I was one of the few directors who were sent the scripts for a response to the material. See if it struck a chord with me, something that I felt I could get excited by and bring to life and I surely did. A few meetings later, I was on.

What a lot of people have found really striking about the show is how real it feels. It's not very much your James Bond style. The places in the show are really identifiable in London. I actually work literally around the corner from Slough House. The characters all feel really down to earth. I wonder how you went about creating this feel within the world? You started your career working in docu-drama on the BBC. I'm wondering if that sort of experience helped with the creation of this really down to earth, real world?

I think there's a number of things. I think, first of all, we have to credit Mick Herron for having placed it so firmly in London and so the Slough House that we brought to life was the address that he imagined in the book. Then I'm glad it feels rooted in reality, because that was something I set out to do, to make it feel like it could be happening somewhere around the back of your commute to or from work or on your doorstep or in the street just a few over, if you happen to live in London. I didn't want it to be the slightly heightened espionage thriller that we see, I wanted this to feel rooted and earthy. A real part of that is because it's a very particular tone; you've got that rich vein of comedy running though it as well. I thought that would best play in a show that had established it’s geography, it’s world, its rules. Before going off into those slightly different tones. But with the locations team, with the design team, we really hunted out places that felt like the flip side of London, the cafes that are just round the back of Smithfield market. The routes from Waterloo into town that went under the bridges rather than over them. We felt that that was the world of shadows and alleys and fire escapes. That's quite sexy and speaks to the genre.

Absolutely. It's a really great world that you've created. There's so much to talk about the show, which we I'm sure I could talk at you for a very long time about, but I won’t! However, there's two big scenes that I really wanted to address specifically. One of them is literally the first scene in the show. It's Stansted airport, a really fantastic scene. I wondered how on earth you went about filming such a huge scene? It kind of reminded me of that scene in Waterloo, in the Bourne Ultimatum, which I know was actually shot during a busy day. Did you do anything similar here? How did you decide on Stansted as well? Because I believe that it's set in a train station in the book?

Yeah, it was in Kings cross. I’m going to not going into too much detail, but King's Cross didn't want us. And that's partly about the practicalities of the number of different stakeholders, Railtrack and LNER and Eurostar, and getting all of them together with their little corner of their acreage with time for a film unit to turn up and you sort of understand that the people want to help, but at the same time they need to travel. And then of course, when it came to shooting, we didn't have the Waterloo option, the Paul Greengrass ‘do it amongst the crown’ option because there were no crowds. It was lock-down and London was empty. In fact, throughout the show, including outside Aldersgate and Slough House, when you see the traffic and the pedestrians, that's all us. We created the traffic, the people on the pavements, because had there been people allowed through they'd all be masked. As it happened in the city, when we were filming that in February, it was deserted. The flip side of that was that other transport hubs were available to us and weren't working and Stansted was one of them. We managed to get into this window where they said “if you can come there before we reopen, we're sort of servicing the airport again, you can have a terminal to yourselves.” So for two days we had a terminal just for us, again, everything in that terminal, everything around that aircraft is us. There are no members of the public just wandering in. So we have created that whole world; the getting ready for the departure, all the people around the carousels. And then when you come through customs to come landside and those airport sequences, that is all Wembley, that's Wembley Stadium. We then did the same thing. Art department came in and they created places to get your luggage prepped and places to change currency. So it feels genuinely like an airport, but I wanted to expand the world a bit. I wanted it to keep escalating. So that's a long way of saying we created the whole thing. We couldn't go [to Kings Cross], because either we didn't get permission to go in, or it was at a time of the pandemic where there simply wasn't a world to join. We have to build our own.

The show feels very, small in terms of the way the characters are very small world, however, that shows that how it is a really big production as a whole, because you are working in there with such huge amounts of extras. I think what's great about that scene is Jack Lowden (River Cartwright) is tripping over luggage and bashing into people, I guess that explains it if it was all extras. Was there a lot of  rehearsals to his route through people, bashing into people?

Yes. And those all count as stunts, you can't just do that with an average extra or whoever. There's potential for somebody to fall badly. So those people all have to know how to fall if they get hit. So all those pieces were planned, storyboarded, rehearsed and then shot. And even though we had that baggage hall to ourselves, we only had it to ourselves for four hours. So, at the same time you had to populate it, give everybody a story. So I had a team of brilliant assistant directors who were giving everybody a story and putting them into families or traveling groups. So they knew what they were doing, what their route was and then we could create the obstructions through which Jack Lowden, and River Cartwright, would run.

Who's your assistant director?

That is guy called George Walker, who was overseeing most of the action.

Shout out to George, then. A fantastic job. So the other scene is very diametrically opposite - it’s probably one of my favourite scenes in this season - which is the meeting between Lamb and Taverner, played by Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas on a bench next to a canal, in episode three. I really loved the way you frame that scene but it also made me wonder how you went about shooting it as a director. How do you set up a scene like that? Where you give these actors this space to flex their skills and really fire off each other, because that really comes across on screen.

Rehearsal is the first answer to that. We spent time in the studio. Turning the pages on those scenes. We'd already spent time on the characters and their backstories. And how much did these two characters know about each other? How often have they crossed swords in the past? What was the mutual respect or distaste for each other? So then they've really got into their character’s skeletons beforehand. And then we sort of flesh it out by turning the pages and running the lines and deciding the shape and stresses and tensions of each of each scene. It was a very cold February, two nights, in fact, on which we went to film that. Well we did it across two sections: we had to wait for dark, but we only have a window. Again, these are the logistics of filming, we had to wait for dark, but we had to be out of there - because it’s a residential area -  by, I think it was 10:30pm. So we only have this very limited chunk of time. That bench is not usually right there. So we had our own bench that we could move and adjust. I had cameras on the boat because obviously you can't get far enough back to get all the angles you want. We control that bit of space. And then it was about letting those brilliant actors feed off the rehearsal, but obviously, importantly, their instincts. It feels like such a classic spy trope, you know, the meeting on the bench somewhere. But putting it on that corner of the canal - and you can imagine we scouted the length of the canal to find what felt like a good place. And then to shoot particular shots, they're called French-overs, where you shoot over the shoulders of the two characters rather than flat onto their faces. And that gives a sense of conspiracy and intimacy about it. So we really worked to give it that, and we chose that area, partly because Kristin Scott Thomas gets to make quite an entrance with the camera again on the boat doing a tracking shot behind her, which was something I haven't seen before and felt deeply atmospheric as a way to introduce her and “okay, who’s she goes to meet?”, turns the corner and you reveal Jackson Lamb.

Yeah, I loved that. The way it was placed right on the corner just under the bridge. As a director, it's probably a bit of a treat for you just to sort of sit back and watch these two masters?

It is, there's always that time when you think God, am I going to have notes to give them what? What do I do? And then you just have to trust your instincts and work out very clearly what it is you want to change or play with. Sometimes it's just an experiment and both Kristen and Gary were extremely good at taking a note and working it and equally challenging me and saying, well, why'd you want that? What does that mean? What's that mean? So it was proper, dynamic, rigorous working with performance.

Shout out to the duck at the end. Very well trained duck, just sliding across…

Amazing. And the number of times you have to go to get the duck in the right place…

I know, such a diva I'm sure. So, it's definitely worth talking about how great the casting is universally across the entire show. It's really great how everyone gets a little bit of time in the spotlight, with such a large ensemble cast who are gonna feature later on in the next season and then hopefully if you get to do some more seasons. I wonder how you approached making sure that the right characters got the right amount of focus during the season? For instance, Jonathan Pryce, essentially has a cameo in the first season, but I'm imagining we're going to see a lot more of him as the story of progresses.

Yes, I think it's also, it's not necessarily just about screen time. It's about the impact they have on the story and the moment on the screen. So, whether it's Jonathan Price, coming on for those two scenes at the end of episode one and episode six, he really packs a punch and he's mentioned as a presence and he has history in the service and in their stories. So you feel his weight. You could say the same about Jed Moody played by Steve Waddington. He has one major scene, which he plays with Kristin Scott Thomas in episode two at The Oval cricket ground but of course, what happens to Moody, and for those that haven't seen is I'm not going to spoil it, has a huge impact for the other characters within Slough House. So I think some of that's down to the writing, then the brilliant Nina Gold in the casting, and she and I talked and worked and really chewed over “how is this going to feel like the dysfunctional family we want to get it to be?” We thought about the cross casting, how they would be distinctive from each other, how in the case of Min and Louisa, they might bond and be a pair and spark off each other. We brought actors in together to get that chemistry, make sure we got it right. We were casting what we felt was our own kind of The Adams Family of the espionage world.

Could you talk about your relationship with Will Smith, the writer? What's great about his scripts are so they seem so tight. There's no fluff. The dialogue is so sharp. Did you discuss about how you would translate this to the screen? What were those conversations like?

The great thing about Will Smith is what a production collaborator he is and at every stage. So one of the first things that a director does when they join a production is to be a right pain in the arse and particularly over the script. And it's my job to then stress test it and talk about whether we've got enough comedy or too much comedy. You know, how many farts are too many farts? Are there enough thrills? People are turning up for a piece of spy genre here. Are we fulfilling that appetite? So before production even really got underway there were intense script meetings. For days and days. And Will, as well as the other writers, Morwenna [Banks], Mark [Denton] and Jonny [Stockwood], went off to work on their episodes so that they were pretty bomb-proof by the time we went into rehearsal. Then there are two other things that happen during that process. Obviously there's a rehearsal. So actors have their own opinions about some of the dialogue, shaping it into the voices of the character that suits them. Some of it's about the music of language, the music of speech. Some of it's places where maybe the characters are deliberately, for instance, Liverpudlian as some of them are. So they might change some idioms. So it feels rooted. And that's another bit that you were talking about making it all feel like it belonged in this world: getting regional vernacular right. It's all part of it. Then on the day you'd find it would have an organic change to it. So sometimes we'd be changing stuff there as we shot it. The other thing that happened is when you're finding locations, you have ideas and opportunities. You see ways to move it. For instance, the scene at the cricket ground was actually written to be on a bench beside the Thames and I thought “I’ve seen that”. I've seen two old spies walking along the embankment. But there's something about an empty stadium or empty arena that's quite spooky, you know, it's a little bit mafia. It's like any place which is built to house hundreds of thousands of people: when it's empty, it's vulnerable. It felt very London. So I come up with some random ideas like that and then Will would say, “Yeah. Okay. Absolutely. I can see how it could work there.” And then tweak whatever we needed to do to house the scene in a different location.

So my next question is three words, which are ‘Mick’, ‘Jagger’ and ‘how?!’

The answer to that story is ‘dare to dream!’ There you are: three words back! I wanted a song to open the show. I thought it would really help with introduction to the tone, especially after the episode one opening, which is sort of perhaps a more traditional ‘Bourne-esque’. And then how do we make the turn into the tone of Slough House and Jackson Lamb? Our composer, Daniel Pemberton wrote a melody and our music supervisor, Catherine Green and I had a lockdown dinner on a freezing terrace, because those were the rules at the time, where we could sit outside, but our production had strict rules as well. And I said, “Well, what about Jagger?” I mean, I know it's mad, but let's ask because everything about him feels British and London and, like Jackson lamb, he's a then and now person, he had history in the seventies and the eighties, and he's still current. Plus we need words and we need a poet like Mick Jagger. It turned out by complete chance that he was a fan of Mick Herron, that he knew our composer’s recent work who had been recently nominated for an Oscar for a song he'd done for a movie. We sent him the trailer and he responded to that and the page of ideas about what might go into an opening song. And a few weeks later he sent his first demo, which is recorded on an iPhone and said, “how's this?”

Do you have notes for that?! Or do you just say, “yeah, that's great Mick, thank you! We’ll take that!”

It did cross my mind and then I thought, well, who the hell are you? I mean, honestly, who is going to give notes to a rock legend, unless they’re another rock legend and sadly I'm not!

It is a wonderfully Mick Jagger piece. It really exudes Mick Jagger. It's the most Mick Jagger thing I've heard in a long, long time. And, yeah, I think it works perfectly with the tone of the show. So we're almost out of time but I just wanted to finish the interview off by talking not about Slow Horses, but about something that's maybe a bit more close to home. Recently the UK government announced that they were going to sell off Channel Four. For those who don't know Channel 4 is a publicly owned television station in the UK. They've produced compelling, really great material in the UK over the last few decades. The most famous recent one was probably Black Mirror, before I moved over to Netflix, which you directed a couple of episodes of. You've spoken a bit on Twitter, as well as about the threats to the BBC as well. So I just wanted to give you maybe an opportunity to talk about how you think these changes you think would effect the industry. You started at the BBC, for example, and your general thoughts on this matter, from someone who's in the business and speaks to people in the business.

How long have you got?! I think the changes to Channel 4 would be an absolute disaster for its ability to be a home for creativity that doesn't have to always answer to commercial imperatives. For a start Channel 4 is working. It's making them money. It success story in innovative shows is extraordinary. It is a place that has dared to take risks that has created, as you say, with things like Black Mirror. And obviously that's just one of many shows that have gone on to define entire genres, because that was a way that we invented new near future fiction and a real comment on society and politics in a moment that is now gone to Netflix and gone global. I do feel the same about the BBC. My God, the BBC is not perfect: it's made many of its own mistakes. But we have to remember that publicly funded broadcasting part of our media sector is still respected worldwide. It is the place that people grow from. They learn to make their mistakes. They make their connections. It's the sandpit where you can experiment and to take that away, would hamstring a lot of the creativity that is the engine of, let's remember, the second largest contributor to the UK economy - the creative industries - and a huge part of that is what we do in television. It's not by chance that so many streamers and studios are coming here and building new facilities to have the industry produce more content, to tell more stories. We struggled on Slow Horses to get enough technical and creative because the industry is so busy here, where are those people going to learn unless they've got the likes of channel four and the BBC to grow. And it's not enough to say that the independent producers will do that. They won’t, that's not their imperative. Some of them are great in mentoring and sponsoring and helping the systems, but it's not the same as having an institution there, of the stature, of the robustness and of the inspiration that Channel 4 has been, as you say, for decades.

Well, that was far more eloquently than I could ever have put it! I absolutely agree with that. I'm a graphic designer, so somebody who works in creative industries and yeah, it's certainly something you struggle with in the UK with some of these attacks from the government on funding and education and things like that. So, well said!

Just one other bit, you know, you traveled the world and the brand of the BBC is trusted and turned to globally, especially in times like now with the war in Ukraine. And I know the BBC has made its mistakes and I know people are out there there will question their responsibility as governors of news and fact, but the fact is they are still a global standard for news reporting and accuracy and balance. We need to be proud of our brands and aware of the soft power that news, documentaries and drama can transmit around the world. We don't want it all to be Harry Potter and Downton Abbey.

So finally, one last thing. One thing we like to do on the podcast is to give out recommendations. And so I wonder if there's any movies or TV shows or music that you've really enjoyed lately that you would like to recommend to our readers. Maybe the more obscure, maybe the better.

I’m between projects and I've been watching some other box sets, if you like. I've been enjoying Dopesick on Disney+/Hulu. I've been enjoying American Rust. There are some great, tough dramas out there and those were two quite challenging ones. I've also just rewatched a couple of movies recently and one of them was District 9, a movie set in South Africa. That is a really good example of a genre piece, because it's SciFi, that tackles the issue of apartheid and race discrimination completely brilliantly. It's one of my desert island movies. So there's something to go and rediscover.

Excellent. Well, thank you for those tips and I'm sure our readers will be diving into those picks if they haven't already. Thank you so much, James, for taking the time to chat today, this was a real thrill. I along with everyone else have been really enjoying the show and are looking forward to season two, whenever that might appear and we will keep our fingers crossed for hopefully for a season three or four and maybe some more! Thank you so much James.

A real pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.

The first season of 'Slow Horses' is now available to stream on Apple TV+. The season finale airs April 29th. Season 2 will follow at a later date. This interview transcript has been edited for clarity.

‍Jonathan Reed
Jonathan, ScreenTimes’ Contributing Editor has been lucky enough to work on Apple products his whole life, ever since his Dad brought home a Mac Performa aged 11 (him, not his Dad). Apple is just engrained in his life, especially nowadays, as a graphic designer. His nerdy enthusiasm for Apple is only matched by his love of TV and film. Whether a buzz-worthy new show or blockbuster, a small cult show or an indie film, he’ll watch it. So Apple TV meets right in the middle of that Venn diagram! He also writes on his personal site, He lives in London and is writing his own bio in the third person.