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The ‘Fleabag’ Awkward Family Dinner Is a Cinematic Comedy Masterpiece

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, director Harry Bradbeer and editor Gary Dollner breakdown the best 30 minutes of TV this season.

"Fleabag" Season 2, Episode 1

“Fleabag” Season 2, Episode 1

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When Phoebe Waller-Bridge started writing the second season of “Fleabag” she knew she wanted a scene where the principal characters gathered around a dinner table. So inspired by the scenario, the creator-star eventually wrote, in one big creative “whoosh,” an entire episode based on it.

“There’s something quite theatrical about it all being in one location, and I find that quite inspiring, quite exciting, because it’s all about the flow of the dialogue then,” said Waller-Bridge. “You don’t have to think so much about telling a story over a longer period of time. It was just in the moment. The thing that excites me most about writing is the moments between people actually saying things to each other. And so this actually was joyful for me, because I got to stretch it out over the whole episode.”

Waller-Bridge, who has written every episode of “Fleabag,” doesn’t have a writing staff, but she does have an “unofficial writers’ room,” which includes story producer Jenny Robins and director Harry Bradbeer. Their extensive discussions surrounding Waller-Bridge’s early restaurant pages, which was originally pegged as being the centerpiece of the season’s third episode, became the lens through which they tackled the bigger questions of what they wanted from a second series. In more ways than one, it became the starting point for new series.

“I’d written two original episodes, one and two, and it just didn’t seem to kick off quick enough,” said Waller-Bridge. “So I just chopped those two off and started essentially in episode three, the dinner party scene.”

“Fleabag” Season 2, Episode 1

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The Season 2 opening title card, “371 Days, 19 Hours & 26 Minutes Later,” announced the episode’s challenge: With the Fleabag’s family gathered to celebrate her father’s engagement to her Godmother (Olivia Colman), the 30 minute episode would need to:

  • Establish the backstory how Season 1 ended with Fleabag’s family severing their relationship with her.
  • Establish how those dynamics evolved off-screen over the last year.
  • In a show that normally features scenes focusing on the relationship between two characters in conversation, this episode would explore the unspoken conflicts between five different characters (sister-sister, husband-wife, godmother-soon-to-be-stepdaughter, father-daughter, etc.) happening and evolving simultaneously.
  • Introduce the “Hot Priest” character (Andrew Scott) and the religious themes which would anchor the new season.

“We were photographing a family trying to have a good time whilst dealing with tremendous issues all within each other, and from each other,” said series director Harry Bradbeer. “And the more played out it was in some ways quite like a French film.”

The comparisons to a French director like Jean Renoir, in terms of its “everyone has their reasons” dramatic storyline, is in some respects apt, but what the “Fleabag” team denied themselves was physical movement. The largely multi-tentacled conflict would play out largely with the characters seated around a dinner table. And yet, somehow the complicated backstory and layering inherent in Waller-Bridge’s writing is perfectly translated into a piece of filmmaking that effortlessly moves and builds in tension – eventually exploding into violence, reconciliation and, as Fleabag announces in her opening line, a “love story.”

“My approach to it as a director was actually to go quite old school,” said Bradbeer. “I never moved the camera and I think that was the right decision. We could have lost our nerve, and thought, ‘Well okay, everyone’s static, everyone’s sat down, let’s try and make it interesting by moving the camera.’ But, and I mean this may be just my years of experience, but I know that never works. Because nothing’s more interesting just because the camera’s drifting about. In fact it’s infuriating, because it means you miss a great deal. Lot of stuff ends up being unusable, and you end up driving the audience mad. What they want to do is see the faces and see the story.”

At the heart of how this incredible episode was pulled off is the nearly inseparable collaboration of Bradbeer and Waller-Bridge. There isn’t a word in Waller-Bridge’s drafts that Bradbeer doesn’t play “midwife” to, while the writer-star discusses and scrutinizes every shot with her director.

“We worked absolutely side-by-side. I mean, I never leave him alone. He calls me his little mosquito sometimes because I’m just always around him,” said Waller-Bridge. “It’s such an important, significant collaboration for me in my life. His visuals are informed by character. And I think that’s really unusual for a director, because usually it’s the other way around. A lot of the time actors are left sort of swimming because the director’s just so obsessed with the visuals. But Harry lets the heart of the show inform it.”

Bradbeer’s intimacy with the material resulted in compositions that cut like a knife into each of the dynamics of the various relationships swirling around the table. “The style came out of it quite naturally, as being a tense round-the-table exchange of closely built material and eye lines,” said Bradbeer. “You make a plan of sorts, but really, the most important thing you can do is actually look at what’s in front of you, and decide, ‘Well how do I get to the heart of that?”

Instead of relying on various masters of different sizes and angles, Bradbeer shot a wide variety of intense, often tight shots, which pierced the heart of each dramatic beat.

xamples of coverage from "Fleabag" S2 Ep 1

Examples of coverage from “Fleabag” Season 2, Episode 1

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“[It allowed] us to have as many beats going around the table as possible, because we’re restricted by location,” said series editor Gary Dollner. “How Harry covered it in such a grand way meant we could bounce around the table whenever we wanted to, to really rinse all the looks and the different dynamics around the table as well.”

What Dollner is able to do with this coverage is a masterclass in editing. The cutting at times gets absurdly fast for a stationary scene, but it allows the viewer to clock everybody looking at each other and track the layered dynamics of the scene, always in step with the flow of the dialogue and drama. Bradbeer, who admits he was extremely concerned about how the episode would turn out, marveled at how addictive it became to watch Dollner orchestrate his coverage.

“He’s an emotional person, and I think that shows in his editing,” said Waller-Bridge, who refers to Dollner as one of the show’s writers. “He feels very passionately about rhythm. I’ve learned so much from him about when to go to a wide, and sometimes we have these hour-long conversations about what it does to the rhythm and to the breath of the person watching it. He really does think that deeply about it.”

One of the things Waller-Bridge was particularly drawn to in writing the restaurant episode is how she could build and hold tension by staying in one space. Yet to deliver both the comedy and pathos required, the episode would need to breathe as well. To accomplish this the episode would rely on one of its favorite devices – a playful jump cut in the middle of a mounting scene.

“It becomes stitched into the DNA of the show where maybe two or three times you could be quite abrupt with an edit,” said Dollner. “You could hammer home the point either for comic effect or to mark a dramatic beat.”

Fleabag needing a cigarette break became the motivation for two of these cuts. The first happened in the middle of one of the Godmother’s intolerable humblebrags about her eccentric cadre of friends: “One of the fascinating things about father here is his mother was originally a lesbia–.” Cut to: Fleabag taking a drag.

"Fleabag": The hard cut interrupts Olivia Coleman talking.

“Fleabag”: The hard cut interrupts Olivia Colman talking.

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“It was just a case of trying to make that overt cut as funny as possible, by interrupting Godmother in the middle of her speech,” said Dollner. “We could be quite playful with the way we could just cut a conversation mid-flow, to allude to the passing of time.”

This was a moment Waller-Bridge scripted, which came down to a matter of execution – performance, cadence, and finding the right cut point. Parts of the Season 2 opener, though, required surgery and experimentation. While Waller-Bridge and Bradbeer live in Dollner’s editing suite for the better part of three months, the trio will often ruthlessly take apart and reinvent an episode just to see it from a different perspective and open themselves to different possibilities.

“There’s a lot of rewriting that is done in the edit, and I have Gary to thank for a lot of that,” said Waller-Bridge. “He’s very happy to work to extremes. He’s completely fearless about throwing things out and as am I and Harry. So it can sometimes be massively destructive. Sometimes our producer will come in and we’ll have just made it like a four-minute short film with none of me in it, and we’re like ‘we love it.'”

At one point the trio went so far as to cut out all of Waller-Bridge’s trademark direct addresses to to camera to see if the episode would play without breaking the fourth wall, only to discover both that they were missed Fleabag’s confessional and complicit relationship with the viewer.

Phoebe Waller-Bridges breaks the fourth wall in S2 Ep1 of "Fleabag"

Phoebe Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall in Season 2 Episode 1 of “Fleabag”

“That was one editing cul-de-sac we went down, but I think sometimes you have to go down those in order to find the right way,” said Dollner. “What we did tinker around with, for quite a long time, was the opening to that episode.”

The opening to the season posed a number of big questions: How much does the audience need to be grounded in Fleabag’s grief that defined Season 1? Should they use flashbacks versus hitting the ground running? Which of the flashback jokes would land, while also threading the needle story-wise? Yet more than anything it was a question of tone, both comedically, but also specifically establishing the new threads and themes the season would explore.

The answer ended up coming in the form of music. Waller-Bridge would recruit her sister Isobel to write and record a piece of strident choral church music in which singers would simply chant words for private parts – “cock, cunt, arse” – in Latin and Greek, that captured the sacred and profane themes of the season. The strident music struck Dollner as an orthodox fit, until he started to cut to it.

“There was a point where we weren’t sure at all, but then we laid down Phoebe and Isobel’s aggressive piece of music and it started to cut brilliantly and helped in terms of finding a rhythm for that opening,” said Dollner. “Maybe it was the introduction of this new religious character who was going to be so central to the storyline and the narrative that it just at some point felt right – and also I think that sense of almost claustrophobia that the setting gave that first episode.”

The music motivated Dollner to experiment with trying to find deliberately over-the-top dramatic cues. At one point a “happy accident” happened where he pulled the audio and cut together shots of the characters laughing as the music mounted during the episode’s opening.

“That was a piece of Phoebe’s genius, the idea that the music has to be lustrous,” said Bradbeer. “But also to keep classical and strident, a kind of a god [element] in some ways, and angels in some sense. A piece of church grandeur. She’s brilliant, no one else could come up with that.”

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