With several successful miniseries, a film, and memorable TV
episodes under his belt, British director Jonny Campbell has built a career
that has allowed him to work on diverse genres and formats. Winning a slew of
awards, including a BAFTA, for TV series like zombie dramedy “In the Flesh” or
the iconic “Doctor Who” episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” Campbell has become
one of the most respected and versatile helmers working in the U.K. today. His
most recent project “The Casual Vacancy” is based on J.K Rowling’s
adult-oriented novel by the same name and it’s available through HBO now.
Campbell plans to spend some time in Los Angeles this month to seek
opportunities this side of the Atlantic and it wouldn’t be surprising to see
him land projects as interesting as his already eclectic body of work is.
We had the chance to talk to him about his unorthodox start
in the industry, the stories that speak to him, and why he prefers directing over the solitude of writing.
Carlos Aguilar: I understand that you didn’t get involved in the entertainment business in a traditional way or following the film school route. How did you get started?
I got started sort of by accident. I studied languages in university, French and German. I wanted to get into marketing or advertizing when I left
university, but there was an economic crisis at the time. I had to look into other fields and I just happened to be on set one day with a family friend who
said, “Come and have a look at what I do for a living.” I was almost like an apprentice helping on a live TV show holding the sound cables. I thought, “Oh
this looks like an interesting place to work.”
I had no experience in television. I had just done some acting and directing theater in school. I didn’t
know much about that world. While I was there I asked someone if I could come back and watch what they do, watch the director and the studio, because it
was a world I wanted to work in. Then I carried on getting on people’s nerves until they let me do more stuff. Eventually they needed a runner, so I
started as a runner, and then I worked with a filmmaking crew doing short documentaries.
Aguilar: Seems like you’ve work in very diverse projects throughout your career including some really unique ones.
Jonny Campbell: I’ve done quite a lot of different shows for television in the U.K, some commercials, I also made a movie a few years ago, and more recently I’ve
concentrated on miniseries because the canvas is just a bit larger to tell a story and to develop the characters. My last project before the “The Casual
Vacancy” was called “In the Flesh,” which is a mini series about a family coping with a zombie apocalypse in Northern Britain, but played quite
straightforward. There is dark humor and heart, Wired Magazine labeled it “a thinking person’s ‘Walking Dead’” It’s quite different.
Aguilar: Are you currently developing any projects after the success of the miniseries?
Jonny Campbell: I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m just reading lots of scripts and having lots of meetings. I’m going to L.A. for a couple weeks to reconnect with some
people and meet new people. You have to see which stories stay with you, there are some many things out there swirling around. It’s difficult to
pair up with material that suits you.
Aguilar: What were some of your concerns when working on “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling? And was it about the project that intrigued you?
Obviously you are always going to be conscious of how famous J.K. Rowling is as a writer and why she is famous. It’s because of the nature of the stories that people have
fallen in love with them for some many years and they have become such a huge success. This interested me because it shows her changing directions. It’s her
looking to tell a story for an adult audience, in that sense it made her the underdog. It had to be surprising. More important than working with such a
famous author, was to feel an affinity with the material and for the story to move me.
That’s what it did and that’s why I wanted to tell
that story. It didn’t matter who’d written it. I felt it was a story that needed to be told because it tapped into a lot of themes that I like. It deals
with certain issues like grief and problems within these families. It’s a very character driven piece and as a director something like this with over two
dozen characters to focus on never gets boring [Laughs]. You’ve got to bring so many different lives, houses, and locations to life. It was a real
Aguilar: You’ve worked extensively in television, more so than in film. In your experience, do you find these two formats very different ?
I think that the more experience you get as a director you feel like you are aiming towards doing film, but actually what’s happened is that television is
really coming to its own. It offers another opportunity to tell really intricate stories in a very cinematic way. The lines of division between film and
television are sort of irrelevant now. You just have to get with the material. Some stories are suited to be told over 96 minutes and other stories need a
ten part series. I think you just have to figure out which type of stories stay in your head and make you really want to do them.
Aguilar: You’ve directed episodes of the popular show “Doctor Who” and a post-apocalyptic zombie series, are you a fan of the science fiction genre?
I don’t actively seek it out. I do like it and I’ve done a tad bit of it, but it always starts with the story. “Doctor Who” didn’t really appeal to me as a
thing to do just to do because it was science fiction. It was the story about Vincent van Gogh and how the Doctor uses the time machine to bring him to the
present day to help him with his depression by showing him how loved he is as an artist today. That moved me and made me think, “How amazing is this.”
Although that can’t happen, with the beauty of storytelling you can make these stories come to life, and through that you can create stories about human
nature and move audiences. That’s what attracted me about that story not necessarily the genre, but the genre allows you to do unusual things.
with “In the Flesh,” which is about bringing people back from the death. That premise allows you to explore how a child talks to his parents after he’s
committed suicide. It’s a horrible scenario, but as people experience grief one of the things they want the most is for their loved one to come back.
It’s part of the human psyche, part of what we yearn for, so to actually dramatize that is very fulfilling. Still, ultimately it was about the family issues
and the character development that was interesting in those stories, not the genre itself. The genre is a means to an end, and it’s exciting to play with
whether it’s time travel in “Doctor Who” or zombies. In “The Casual Vacancy,” it was nice to have the opportunity to imagine someone’s nightmare, which again
is a fantastical way of portraying the characters’ thoughts.
Aguilar: Working in television you have to deal with large groups of actors, what’s your approach to getting the results you aimed for on screen ?
Jonny Campbell: I
think I understand what an actor has to go through to get the performance. I
always have an idea in my mind of how I want the actor to perform in a
particular scene or speech. Then you rehearse and you talk about the scene, so
hopefully it feels like the actor is saying the words for themselves rather
than just repeating what they’ve learned. It’s all part of the process to allow
the actor to be that character. Ultimately the actor will know that character
best because they’ve spent all this time thinking about it. All you can do as a
director is notch here and there.
Obviously if something is going disastrously
wrong then you intervene and you have a conversation to make it better, or you
cut some parts of the scene if it doesn’t work at all. That’s very rare. Hopefully all
the choices you made from the person you chose to play that part, to the
rehearsals, to the lines of dialogue, feel right for the story and they can be
believable and interesting. You have to make sure you appreciate what they are
going through in front of the camera, which is different from what you are
doing behind the camera. I’ve done a bit of acting myself so I kind of know how
difficult it is and I appreciate the comfort of being able to sit behind the
camera watching some fantastic actors grapple with the material.
Aguilar: Is there any
material you’ve written that you would like to bring to the screen or do you
find it easier to just focus on the directing aspect of storytelling?
Jonny Campbell: There
are a lot of stories that I come across with that I’d like to turn into a
script, but I do get a lot of enjoyment and fulfillment from working with
writers. Writers are a different breed. I think I’m good at knowing what works
on a script and what doesn’t, but staring at the blank page and generating the
material in the first place is not necessarily my forte. I might generate an
idea but then I want to find the right writer to take it on and then
collaborate with them. That’s what I really enjoy. The process of solitude
where you come up with the ideas to put on the screen doesn’t entice me in the
same way. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really fantastic writers
at the top of their game. It’s been a very rewarding experience.
Aguilar: In terms of the visual aesthetics of your work, how do you decide what fits a certain project and what doesn’t?
Jonny Campbell: I
try to let the material tell me how it needs to be told in terms of the
visuals. I’m not a big fan of over-stylizing, I think a project can be stylish without
being overly dependent on a particular style. It should always be about the
storytelling so that the director almost becomes invisible. The story has to
exist without letting people know about all the decisions that lead to what they
are watching. What you really want to do is take them on a journey and tap into their emotions, their funny bone, or their sense of wonder. Hopefully they
learn or question something about the human condition that might be thought
Aguilar: Are you anxious about your upcoming meetings in Hollywood or do you see this next step as another challenge?
Jonny Campbell: I
did a series of meetings a few years ago and I think the more projects you do the
more confident you get. You get to know your own mind and what stories you want
to tell. It’ll be interesting to find kindred spirits or people that when you
talk about a project also get exited about it. That’s when you know those are the people
you can work with because you might share some of the same sensibilities. That’s
the point where I’m now. I’m ready to pull myself out of my comfort zone
and explore other avenues. It’s an adventure. Lets see what comes of that.