I just got off the line with SundanceTV President Sarah Barnett. You’ve had a lot of history working with the BBC and I know she came from there as well, so I was wondering if there was anything that changed while you were working on “The Honorable Woman” because of SundanceTV. Did you notice any differences because they were a co-producer?
When you’re looking for co-production partners, what you try to do really carefully is analyze whether everyone is pursuing the same idea. When you go into meetings with potential partners everyone may say they see the same thing, but really, when you get down to it, they don’t. What happens then is that the production you create is always going to be at odds with the one they saw and thought they would be provided with. It’s really important to have clear-eyed conversations about what the project is and what it isn’t.
Luckily with Sarah and SundanceTV, I was able to fly out and meet them in person to tell her and the producers what it would mean if we did this show together. They completely saw what the show could be and what it was all about. We all knew what the show was. The execs at the BBC and the execs at SundanceTV all came behind the same principle of the project, which is a good thing to do and a good way to provide a piece of jewelry that everyone thinks is kind of beautiful.
So what was your vision when you were pitching it? What did you say?
The essential idea was that it was all about this woman, a stateless woman — so therefore Maggie Gyllenhaal was very important to that idea. It was this woman who was neither Anglican nor Israeli, and also one with an American education.
But this woman was willing to take a position on the world stage to hopefully advance the possibilities of reconciliation. But of course, because it’s a drama about humans, the issue that was most important was that she was a woman who had yet to find that reconciliation within herself. So she may be able to stand on the world stage and say that this is what we’re going to do, but the only way it’s going to happen is if she takes that long, hard, rocky road towards personal reconciliation before anything else.
That’s the story. Of course the honorable woman appears to be Nessa Stein, but it grows throughout the story since it’s also about Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal), the nanny, and she grows in stature throughout the story and we begin to question whether she is an honorable woman. At its heart, it’s an evolving tale about two women, and that’s what they got behind at SundanceTV.
It seems very clear in the first episode especially, the two ideals — the presentation of these two woman as being very honorable and trying to do the right thing, and then the slight subversion that maybe there is something else going on underneath.
It’s sort of the vehicle of a thriller. There’s a thriller with Chiwetel Ejiofor called “The Shadow Line,” sort of a neo-noir kind of exercise. It’s very masculine, as most of these thriller-constructions are — they feel driven by masculinity. What’s nice is that we have managed to have all the set pieces and suspense of the thriller, plus the social commentary in casting women characters that are the soul of half of the story.
Another thing that seems kind of successful and exciting is marrying the vehicle of the masculine genre of the thriller into a psychological exploration of one strong woman, Nessa. [She’s] strong, and, beneath that, a number of strong women with personalities that have strengths and weaknesses. It was interesting to use the vehicle of the thriller to explore psychological insides as well.
Absolutely. I liked what you said about going against the grain. This genre is traditionally dominated by men.
I think “True Detective” is a fabulous piece of work, but all the women in it are either dead, mothers or prostitutes [laughs]. And as brilliant as that show is, I kind of really, really loved the idea that these women aren’t archetypes. They have powerful jobs, yes, but underneath all that they are insecure. That’s what Maggie has managed to embody, this idea of the cool confidence of a world stage human hiding underneath the vulnerabilities and strengths and weakness of a fully grounded female character.
I was curious how you came to the decision to trust an American actress, somebody who was born in Manhattan, to portray a UK diplomat.
It’s only because she’s so smart. I didn’t want to have the more obvious casting of someone who would be a bombshell; the kick-ass, do-everything ideal. That’s an archetype of ideal feminism. This wasn’t going to be “Nikita” or something ungrounded. What I loved about meeting with Maggie initially is that she’s clearly super smart and she’s clearly super cool in the right way. She watches, she’s careful. She has a considerate personality, and I really like that. I had seen previously that she had a very, very good ear for the UK accent. The UK is a bit ahead of you in terms of episodes, and I here people say she has a better accent than we have! She has absolutely mastered a UK voice of a particular kind of democrat, which is better than mimicry because it has its own soul. In a way, I prefer speaking to Maggie in her UK accent than her own! [Laughs]
It was her uncanny ability to find that accent. And if she didn’t get that accent right, that’s all that would’ve been discussed. I knew she was smart and I knew she had a great voice, but what I didn’t know was how well she would inhabit that character. Even though I’m the writer, when an actor is working so well with her material, what I want to do is step out of the way so that they can be in complete possession of the character. It allowed me ultimately to just place the camera in the best position and witness the full performance, because I thought it was strong enough that it knew what it was up to. Maggie was a rare event for a writer-director. She was a perfect piece of casting for me.
I haven’t finished the series yet, but so far I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said.
What’s interesting about the journey is that it is a story that should be really discussed in its entirety. It is such a singular piece of electricity that pulses through the story — one piece of electricity. It’s a huge, almost epic story but it’s singular, it is one story that has a beginning and an end. The journey that we take Nessa Stein on has some target moments when it shifts; one is in Episode 4 and the other in Episode 8, the final episode. And there’s some work in there that Maggie has managed to encapsulate that is the best I’ve ever put a camera in front of a witness, and it’s because of the way it evolves. It’s not what you see in Episode 1 or 2 or 3, but 4 — it reveals the secrets that the first three episodes allude to. You can’t just change the structure. It’s a story about shock through the first three episodes, then in Episode 4 you reveal what she’s been deeply shocked by, then [Episodes] 5-8 you reveal the consequence of that shock. And seeing Maggie’s performance evolve through it is quite a remarkable thing.
Do you think it matters how people watch the miniseries? Binge viewing has become a very addictive thing, and, with a miniseries, it seems like it might be even easier to do that. Do you think it’s important that people watch it week-to-week?
People’s opinions divide on it. I would’ve thought yes these days, since people love seeing it in one go and going to websites where you can see it all in one go, but I’ve heard in equal measure people say, “No, I love the kind of control and the delicious expectation of the drip of week-to-week.” I’ve noticed in the UK […] that it’s genuinely exciting to watch the viewing public and the critical reception evolve and shift and change over these weeks because it’s happening slowly. Over the last two months, the viewer has changed and wherever we are in the macro-geopolitics has changed, so you sort of experience the world in a slightly slower curve. And if you change, the story changes, and I think it becomes quite valuable that you have that weekly experience. But there’s no doubting that the idea of watching this over one weekend will give people an awful lot of pleasure.
It seems like miniseries are becoming more and more prevalent these days. Networks in particular and audiences as a result are very interested in seeing these kinds of shows with a close-ended aspect, whether it’s “True Detective” or “The Honorable Woman.”
Yeah, surely. I was brought up in the ’70s and ’80s and most of my experience with movies was on television. The movies on in the ’70s, when I was really engaging with storytelling, were on late at night because of their subject matter. I would consume them on television, so my consumption has always been through the box. And so, as a consequence, I’ve always felt comfortable with those stories that are weird and dark and that change. In the UK, in things like “Edge of Darkness” and “Tinker, Tailor, Solider Spy,” they have been present sporadically over about 30 years of TV history.
What’s changed is that moviemaking, the 90-120 minute storytelling which was prevalent in the ’70s telling these kinds of uncomfortable, discomforting stories, these things have been less and less. And yet the audience’s appetite to consume these byzantine and quite uncomfortable stories hasn’t diminished, it has just migrated to be able to explore these characters and stories in greater depth than we could on a movie. Movies have become more vivid and predictable in their storytelling and more money-oriented in the chances they make returns. On television we get performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson because that’s where the great, explorative material is starting to emerge.
Do you feel that as a writer, television is the best place for you to be able to explore these issues? Is television the only medium where you can really get to the areas you want to get to?
I think Steve McQueen’s film with Chiwetel [Ejiofor, “12 Years A Slave”] is a great piece of storytelling and filmmaking. But film is sporadic, it can take an awful many years to get it up and running. Here, the television has a marketplace of urgency. It wants these stories and it wants to tell these stories and it wants people like me to tell these stories. I can hopefully really explore them in this episodic nature and a depth that sort of alludes to a strange combination between a cinematic exercise and a novelistic approach to character. These characters aren’t archetypes. They really have to shift and develop because the amount of time you spend examining them, and that gets a little bit closer to the human condition. A polished diamond of a perfect movie told in two hours is shy of ambition. It’s less and less of a primary ambition because television long form drama is offering so much and so much great audience reaction as well. On this show, we got a conglomerate in the first week of over 3 million [viewers] on a minority channel. That’s a huge number and huge amount of eyes watching our program!
I feel like that’s something that comes up more and more these days. A lot of writers, directors and actors are so concerned with wanting their work to be seen by as many people as possible, and they feel television is the place to do that.
I’ve heard Maggie speak of that as well. Some great independent film that she will have made an equal amount of effort in the construction of her character may not be seen by very many people. In terms of television, you certainly are going to penetrate. This show is uncompromising storytelling. It’s not trying to pander to any particular audience or demographic. It’s concerned with telling its story in the best way it can and hopefully it’s engaging a good number of people. Now we’re coming to you, and it’s a very good way of viewing work and an exciting way of doing it. And yet, it doesn’t take away from that great polished diamond that a single movie can provide to an audience.
Right. I mean, no one is ever going to say there won’t be any more good movies.
No! But the liberty that people at the BBC and at SundanceTV have offered me and Jane Campion [“Top Of The Lake”] to be able to go off and make our products is unspeakable. Don’t get me wrong, they have editorial interests in each episode, but it never feels legalistic. It always comes down to if this is the best possible story and if we are telling it in the best possible way. It’s all about creative optimism as opposed to nervous accounting, which makes it really exciting. In terms of economics, eight hours of television in the UK really doesn’t come to light as much. And we really felt liberated by the chance to tell this story.
One last thing. The Middle East is often pictured as tumultuous and dirty with constant activity. But your direction of the series has a strong element of grace to it, even in the more gruesome scenes where people are being murdered. Where did that decision come from? How did you choose to depict this story in that way?
In terms of the Middle East, I have a lot of experience in the region and I find it utterly beautiful as a space, both Israel and the West Bank. So there’s that mindfulness. I have always admired films like “Point Blank” or “Odd Man Out,” and these stories are genre stories that have this meditative feel, where you got this central figure that you’re exploring by their psychology and by the necessary tropes and driving mechanisms of the thriller. I’ve always found that balance and tension really attractive. What I really wanted to do was to try and get underneath and in the skin of Nessa Stein’s character. By nature she has a coolness and a beauty and an environmental attraction to her, but by the end of Episode 1, all those beautiful structures of London that surround her, that she hoped would be her protector, are only there to highlight her isolation. Hopefully the filming reflects her psychology.