To celebrate the release of Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent starring Clare Danes and Tom Hiddleston, Chris Connor was given the opportunity to speak with acclaimed British Director Clio Barnard, behind the recent film Ali & Ava and previously The Selfish Giant and Dark River. Clio discusses the Festival and Awards response to Ali & Ava and transitioning to TV and working with Danes & Hiddleston for The Essex Serpent as well as the challenges of adapting Sarah Perry’s smash hit novel.
Congratulations on The Essex Serpent and Ali & Ava. Were you familiar with Sarah Perry’s novel before you started working on the series? Had you read it already?
I hadn’t, I read it after I was involved. I knew about it actually, I’d heard about it. Then I was sent the pilot script, which I really was very intrigued by. So when I first heard about it, I was very intrigued by this idea of this serpent in this particular landscape, and I was on the train going through that kind of landscape on my way home. I thought, what a brilliant idea to take this kind of folklore and see what it does for the inhabitants of this particular landscape and this woman, Cora Seaborne. Then I read the pilot scripts and was very intrigued by her and her relationships with the people around her. Then I read the book.
I remember it being a word of mouth success when it came out and seeing it in bookshops absolutely everywhere. Was Sarah involved much in the development of the series?
Sarah, is a phenomenally sort of generous, open hearted person and she was involved right from the start. There was a certain point where we felt the scripts were all ready for her to read and we had a zoom call with her, me and Anna Symon, the writer who adapted the novel, Sarah and Andrea Cornwell, our producers. She loved it, which was a massive relief. She really loved it.There are some things in the screenplay, which are different from the way they are in the novel and, you know, that’s always quite nerve wracking. She loved all of those changes. So that was a really good zoom call.
The series is quite Gothic in tone. Were there any films or series that served as influences?
Well, I’d say, David Raedeker, the cinematographer, Alice Normington, who’s the production designer and I, we all looked at various different references, and I suppose it’s going to sound horrendously pretentious, but we did look at quite a lot of Tarkovsky because of the way he uses reflection and the way he uses landscape and because we knew we’re in this very watery world, that reflection was really going to play a part in it.
I also worked with someone called Phil Clark, who’s part of the Series Art Department and we always make these sort of picture documents before I start on a project. That was also a very sort of important part of the process. I think David’s supremely talented cinematographer, I think he really photographed that landscape in a really beautiful way. So I think, you know, he, Allison, I and Jane Petri who is a costume designer, we kind of really were in a bit of a crucible of creative joy. There was a great pleasure, I suppose, in finding how you’re going to translate all of this stuff aesthetically to the screen.
How have you found the transition from the films you’ve made beforehand to doing a marquee TV series like this?
There was a lot of things that were very, very different, the length for one thing. Doing six hours rather than 90 minutes. Usually, I develop the screenplay to workshops with the people who inspired the story and actors, and then I write a draft. This was completely different because Anna wrote the screenplay and it was a period drama and it was a much longer shoot, there are so many things that were very varied. Big storylines, and yeah, it was a big challenge and a very rewarding one.
Did you always see yourself kind of moving into TV?
No, it was not like that was a goal or anything like that. It was an opportunity I suppose, it was something that was presented as something that I was intrigued by and curious about and wanted to explore.
While we’re on the topic of Apple TV, do you think there’s a reason they’ve been so successful of late because a lot of the projects have had incredible reviews across the board? Do you think there’s a reason behind the platform success?
I don’t know that I can answer that. That’s probably for the kind of exec producers who were kind of involved in all those different projects to answer because I suppose in some ways, I’m doing my one, you know, that’s where my head is compound completely absorbed in doing, what I was brought onboard to do.
You must have been delighted to have such a talented cast with Tom Hiddleston, Claire Danes and Clemence Posey, did they make the kind of the transition easier for you, when you’ve got that kind of talent?
Well, I mean, it’s, in some respects, quite daunting, because you kind of think, wow, it’s these actors who have done incredible stuff with these reputations. In some ways, it makes it easier because they’re really great and, you know, totally committed, it was a kind of a very brilliant ensemble cast, they’re wonderful. Claire is wonderful. Tom, Frank, Hayley Squires, Clemence Posey, Jamar Westman and a young cast as well, who hadn’t done that much before that it was wonderful.
Are you able to tell us about anything you’ve got lined up next?
I think I’m not at the stage where I can do that yet, unfortunately.
Do you see yourself doing more TV?
If the right thing came along then absolutely.
How early on in the process of the show did you get involved? Were you there from the beginning? Or was it already kind of in motion when you joined?
It was in motion in that there was already a pilot script. I then got involved. So I was involved in pretty early on.
You must be absolutely delighted with the reception that Ali & Ava has had, you know, playing at LFF last year and then the string of BAFTA noms. How did it feel having it play at the festival?
It actually premiered in Cannes at the directors fortnight in July, and sadly, I couldn’t be there because I was shooting The Essex Serpent and because of COVID, restrictions and I couldn’t go there and then come back and get gone to set. So yeah I was really delighted with the reception. The release of it had been delayed, like lots of things because of the pandemic. So it was kind of coming out into the world at the same time as I was finishing up well not finishing, when I was right in the middle of post production on The Essex Serpent.
How did you find promoting one thing while working on another? Was that quite odd?
It was quite odd. It was quite difficult because both things in some ways necessitate that you’re completely absorbed in them. So yeah, it was quite difficult, I did find it quite hard.
The Essex Serpent starts streaming on Apple TV+ from Friday 13th May