Here’s how profoundly director Edward Berger was affected by the Patrick Melrose novels: He remembers the exact bookstore where he discovered them. “In 1993 or something I walked into St. Mark’s Bookshop [in New York] and looked for a book and stumbled upon the first book of Patrick Melrose, ‘Never Mind.’ And I just devoured it.”
With every new release of Edward St. Aubyn’s work, he “just gobbled them up,” so when he heard that the books were in development for a potential series, he immediately put himself up for the job of bringing them to the screen. After meeting with the producers, Showtime and Sky, he finally got the offer, to which his reply was simple: “That would be a dream.”
Born in Germany, Berger has shifted between film and TV for years, with recent credits including “Deutschland 83,” “The Terror,” and the independent film “Jack,” a Golden Berlin Bear nominee at the Berlin International Film Festival. Both “Jack” and “Patrick Melrose” focus on the complicated bonds between parent and child, though Berger framed his interest in the “Melrose” novels in the context of their tale of rebellion.
One of the first conversations Berger had with St. Aubyn (nicknamed Teddy) revolved around what kind of feeling the author wanted the audience to take away from the series. “[St. Aubyn] thought for a little bit, and he said, ‘I think liberation from the change of our paths.’ And that’s when I realized that’s what I can identify with, you know, because that is what all of us have to do, break free somehow. You go through puberty and rebel against your parents and then do something different then what they want you to do. So I think that’s what I can relate to. That’s what I wanted to tell. That’s why I loved the books so much.”
He also relished the opportunity to focus on one character in an intimate way, another rebellion against the notion that these days, “everything is big.” “The opportunity for me was perfect — basically five hours about exploring the psyche of one man,” he said. “The opportunity to tell the story of this one man and exploring one man’s psyche without murder, without big scandals but the family drama — it’s so unusual.”
Told over five episodes, “Patrick Melrose” covers five very different eras of Patrick’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) life, from a childhood complicated by rich but highly dysfunctional parents to an adulthood spent in the grip of addiction. Thus, central to the series was Cumberbatch’s performance, whose process Berger loved.
“It’s just amazing how he comes to set with very little preconception, but just loves to explore it in many different ways,” he said. “He loves to experiment and he loves to try out different takes. And none of them are the wrong path, they all feel right. The immense energy and the immense variety of ideas and immense explosion of ideas. It was just wonderful.”
Cumberbatch was also a producer, which meant that he was involved in the post-production process. “I spent months and months with him in the editing room, trying to find the best take,” Berger said. “By changing the take you can suddenly change the entire meaning of the film, the entire take of the film. And watching every take, I thought, ‘God, it’s amazing how I always understand his emotional and psychological process. I always see his thoughts in his face.’ It’s so satisfying to work with an actor who is always so inventive and always seems to be so truthful — never making it up, always trying, searching for the truth.”
Each episode, while directed by Berger, features a very distinct visual style, which Berger said was inspired by the scripts. “The first one felt very subjective, very much in Patrick Melrose’s head. Sort of diving into his head and exploring, going with him through New York,” he said. “Very subjective, very visceral, very fast, very frantic, very schizophrenic. Many personalities, many voices talking to each other. So it should be fast, it should always be the camera behind him instead of in his neck with him. It’s really his view of seeing the city. So that’s way I tried to film it, so that you get that physical experience of this manic drug addict running through the city.”
Meanwhile, the second episode, which focused on Patrick’s childhood, seemed “very objective, almost as if someone has stepped outside and looked at the whole arrangement of the sick family from the outside. Like in a Michael Haneke movie.”
Also, as Episode 2 was set in 1967, Berger had the idea to only use the film technology and techniques of the era. “Basically, it was filmed differently. Staying further back, more wide shots, slower cutting. We framed it in a way they did back then — no big dolly moves or Steadicam things. Just really simple, static observance of the whole situation. Let the whole situation, because it is so terrible in itself, play out by itself. Not try to manipulate it with big camera moves or camera tricks.”
Then Episode 3, Berger felt, should be more fluid in its feel, “so I decided to shoot it in much longer takes, Steadicam, not much cutting, a lot of tormented long takes. Going through the party with Benedict, exploring what he sees.”
In general, Berger said, “Patrick Melrose goes through such different times in his life, such different moods, such different psychological states. It just felt appropriate to completely change the style of the film with each one, until he finally arrives at some sort of peace. A first step towards normalcy in the very end.”
While these days, we’ve come to distrust creators that say their limited series are truly limited (looking at you, “Big Little Lies”), Berger said that the “Patrick Melrose” finale is final, and very satisfying for him. “We’ve spent five hours with him, we’ve explored him, we’ve looked in from every side and we’ve created a very simple end. It’s just really satisfying to know that a certain group of people have done this show together and we’ve put that there and it’s a complete work. It’s like a long, long big movie, it feels like. I think it’s just a very satisfying thing, to have done something from beginning to end.”
“Patrick Melrose” is available now to Showtime subscribers.