Cast Offs – Edgey New TV Drama: the Directors Story
Cast Offs is a new Channel 4 comedy drama that hits our screens next week. Framed as a documentary, it sees six disabled characters sent to a remote island to discover whether they can survive un-assisted. Satirical, poignant and unashamedly honest, the show has already gained a mountain of press attention; described by The Times as a ‘brilliant observed comedy drama, and a breakthrough in television’s depiction of disabled people’.
The two directors behind the show are Miranda Bowen and Amanda Boyle, both of whom have been closely watched by BEV over the last few years – we screened Amanda’s short films Hotel Infinity in 2005 and Pop Art in 2009. Happily, Victoria Wright, one of the stars of the show, leapt at the chance when we suggested she grill her two directors – read on for their behind-the-scenes story.
Victoria Wright: What was it about Cast Offs that attracted you to the project?
Miranda Bowen: The idea was bold, fearless and truly original. It was totally unapologetic and although I was originally given just a one page outline for the series, it wasn’t hard to make the decision. It was nothing like anything I had seen on TV before. It felt like an opportunity to do something that was truly radical. There was an opportunity for an insight into a world that I had previously had very little contact with. I kept on thinking throughout the process, “I can’t believe that no one has done this before’. And I had loved Jack’s short films and Joel is hard to say no to.
Amanda Boyle: I loved the taster scripts. Jack Thorne was someone I had been stalking for years and the rest of the creative team were equally amazing. I’d worked with Judy Counihan before and Joel Wilson was someone I just immediately wanted to work with. I remember thinking ‘don’t seem too keen’ in the interview, I really wanted it! Once we were into prep it was all about getting the satire/drama balance right and nailing the tone. Obviously tricky on a project such as Cast Offs but I love a good challenge.
Victoria Wright: How were you involved in the audition process?
Miranda Bowen: Sasha Robertson, our casting director, cast the net far and wide. It was a fairly unconventional process. Initially we held castings where we tried to meet as many people as possible, both actors and non actors. Then Amanda and I devised a series of workshops. We needed to make sure that we had a range of disabilities that would work together to generate good comedy and drama, equal numbers of women and men, but ultimatelym they had to be damn fine actors.
Amanda Boyle: We cast the show before most of the scripts were written; which was a huge bonus as it meant we weren’t limited to looking for particular characters. We could react to the people who came to the castings and this gave the project a real sense of freedom. The workshops were crucial. We saw some superb actors who we sadly didn’t cast as it was about finding a group of people who worked well as an ensemble.
I remember in your casting Victoria, you had to invent a secret. You claimed that you’d had plastic surgery to become funnylooking. I remember the look on the face of the person you were acting with. It was a brave, bold and funny moment – everything we were looking for.
Dan, played by Peter Mitchell, was the last part we cast. I went round Wheelchair Basketball clubs looking for him – and found some brilliant performers…but no-one right. In the end Sasha emailed all the Wheelchair Basketball clubs and in an open audition Peter just turned up. It had been a total punt. He had flown from Ireland, having never acted before. As soon as he said hello, we all turned to one another. We knew he was our Dan.
Victoria Wright: How did the collaboration between yourselves, and the writers, actors and producers work? (Amanda – I’m thinking here about the meetings you and I had before shooting the series as an example. I’m also thinking about how you collaborated with each other even though you were working on different, separate episodes – was there any clash with your vision of the series/directing styles?)
Amanda Boyle: It was a dream situation. We both were making three very authored films that were very much our own however because there were elements that were shared – locations, cast and style – we did some very rigorous prep work together. I learnt a lot from Miranda. In many ways our approaches and ways of working are very different but they really complimented each other. Jack, Tony and Alex were the best writing team I could have imagined. I pestered Jack continuously for about six months working through every nuance of his script. He’s incredibly patient and generous. It was quite simply the best creative experience of my career so far. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve seen ‘Series 1’ on the Cast Offs DVD sleeve.
Miranda Bowen: Certainly in the initial phases, the script and casting process, before shooting began, Amanda and I worked very closely together. I think we both had very similar ideas and a cohesive vision of what the series should look and feel like. It took a while for us all to find the tone of the series, but I think once that was established, all became a lot easier. We devised quite specific rules as how to shoot. Given that we were having to invent film maker ‘alter egos’ – ie put ourselves in the shoes of a fictional group of directors and producers who decide to make this fictional tv programme we had to think how they would direct it. In a sense we had to be as generic as possible, so any auteur flourishes that we may have been inclined towards had to be left at the door. In a sense we too were playing roles in how we directed the series. We had to be strict. It had to be convincing as a documentary which meant we couldn’t film reverse shots or allow the camera to arrive at a scene before the action. On the island we decided that they would have had multiple cameras much like in big brother – fixed cameras and then several small unit camera crews who would follow them outside the main camp, which made coverage a bit easier. Amanda and I would try to check in with one another even once we were swallowed up by the rigorous shooting schedule. It was good to have an ally when you are working to such a rigorous schedule and with so many questions about style and tone hovering persistently.
Victoria Wright: On Cast Offs, you worked with two people who had never acted before (myself and Peter). What were the challenges and – if any! – the joys of directing actors who had no training or previous experience?
Miranda Bowen: Obviously Amanda is better equipped to answer this than me as she directed yours and Peter’s episodes but I directed you both in the island sequences and I can’t say that it really made a difference. I often forgot that neither of you had acted before. You both performed with great professionalism and proficiency and it was a joy working with such a talented group of actors.
Amanda Boyle: I work really instinctively. I’ve got various tricks and tools but on some days they work and others they don’t, which is a total pain in the neck. We didn’t have much rehearsal time – one day per episode…so with both you and Peter it was about finding time outside of that to get to know you both which was invaluable. Cast Offs has been a real collaboration and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Victoria Wright: Cast Offs is unique in that it’s the first mainstream adult drama series about a group of disabled characters. You directed 6 disabled actors in the lead roles and two of the writers are disabled. Did working with so many disabled people make you more aware of the some of the issues and barriers we experience? (eg attitudes, language, access) Did it open your eyes to disability politics and culture? You spent several weeks with some very stroppy, un-pc crips – you must have learnt something!
Miranda Bowen: Oh god yes! It really opened my eyes to a variety of experiences and insights that I hadn’t really been exposed to before. After the initial casting session, which I felt quite unsure how to handle ‘diplomatically’, I realized that actually venerable reverence is the last thing that was useful! I guess the main thing is that the disability becomes invisible after really a very short period of time. I really enjoyed the subversive humour and irreverence of the banter but was also really astounded by the basic lack of compromises the ‘abled’ world makes for disabled people. The London Underground only has a handful of stations that wheelchair users can use. I became really aware of how governed by preconceptions we all are too. Tim (blind actor) told a hilarious story about how bored he was of having to constantly re-cross roads that some altruistic passerby had taken his arm and ‘benevolently’ guided him across despite the fact that he didn’t want to cross it in the first place. That, and the blind having accentuated hearing… The list goes on….
Amanda Boyle: I totally agree. I genuinely think I was blinded by stereotypes and clichés at the start. I’ve also always hated British Rail but one journey traveling with Peter from Luton airport into central London made me loathe it in ways I’d never even imagined.
Victoria Wright: Did you have any involvement with the editing of the series?
Miranda Bowen: Oh yes. Cast Offs was a fairly unusual series in the amount of creative input Amanda and I had. We worked very collaboratively with Joel and Judy (exec) in the post production period but by and large Amanda and I worked long hours with our respective editors, Leo Scott and Daniel Greenaway to mine the right tone and feel for the series from the raw material.
Amanda Boyle: Absolutely. The execs at Channel 4 were gently supportive through the shoot and then very clever with their notes in post (which I know is no mean feat having worked in development). They even allowed us to edit from home – which led to very surreal chicken dinners with my Romanian mathematician relatives and Dan, my brilliant editor.
Victoria Wright: how did you each start out in directing?
Miranda Bowen: I studied Fine Art film at St Martin’s which was largely experimental not least because of the stone age era cameras they had that certainly left you with ‘experimental’ results even when they weren’t intended. A number of exhibitions in cold warehouse spaces later I was skint and realized that I might have to earn some money in order to survive. I started to work as a freelance receptionist in advertising agencies in order to finance my shoestring budget films. The experience became the subject matter for the first properly funded short I made, ‘Stagnate’. I began work as a visual researcher at a commercials production company and before too long they saw my reel of short films and offered to take me on as a director. Commercials are a very good way to learn your craft. I made a few more short films as part of Film 4’s Cinema Extreme initiative and Channel 4’s ‘Coming Up’ strand, then Cast Offs came along…
Amanda Boyle: I always wanted to direct but it took me a while to get round to it. I started out years ago acting, then worked in film production, then script development, then producing…then finally writing and directing short films. I’d like to think it all informed the way I direct. In many ways directing is the only role that I’ve felt at home in; fortunately!
Victoria Wright: How would you compare directing for TV drama with directing short film drama and/or commercials as you’ve done before?
Miranda Bowen: In the case of Cast Offs there wasn’t much difference from making short films. I am very aware that Cast Offs was quite a unique experience in this sense – the approach was very collaborative and as directors Amanda and I were very involved in the genesis of the series and worked alongside Joel, Jack and Judy to evolve the tone and narrative. It just took 10 months rather than 2! Commercials are a whole other kettle of fish and not really comparable.
Amanda Boyle: We approached the six episodes as six shortish films – however the fact that we were each making three of them made it a longer shoot. Whenever I made short films I’d always told people that it took me the first week to work out how to direct the film and then it was over. Having more time to get to know the actors and scripts was a huge treat, and for something like Cast Offs, totally vital.
Victoria Wright: You’re both very talented ladies – what’s next for you both?
Miranda Bowen: A big, fat holiday?! A few things are currently bubbling but nothing is set in stone. I have a feature script set in south west Africa that I would really like to make which we are looking for funding for and a noirish psychological horror with Warp X, set in a city bank… we shall see what happens…
Amanda Boyle: What I love about this job is that you never know what’s next. I’ve got my fingers tightly crossed.
Cast Offs is broadcast from Tuesday 24th November on Channel 4.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews