Director James Hawes On The World Of Apple TV’s Slow-Burn Spy Thriller ‘Slow Horses’: “It’s Grotty And Flatulent”

TV

Apple TV’s six-part mini-series Slow Horses, adapted from the novels of the same name by Mick Herron, landed on 1 April with a one-two punch and promptly kept viewers waiting, having decided to parse out the remaining four episodes out on a weekly basis. “It was Apple’s decision,” says director James Hawes. “But if the response I’ve had is anything to go by, the anticipation it has created is fantastic. I’ve got people ringing me up to say, ‘Why are you doing this? I wanted to finish it over the weekend!’ The greatest compliment you could have is that people are demanding more—and now.”

Starring Gary Oldman as dishevelled spy Jackson Lamb, the series concerns the exploits of the lower ranks of the British secret service. The show starts with a bang, then moves to a grimy, twilight world full of operatives—like Jack Lowden’s River Cartwright—who have made major mistakes and will be spending a lot of time in purgatory to pay for them. It’s a tough pitch in a world more accustomed to the slick heroics of Mission: Impossible and Bond, but the critics have approved. “It’s been amazing,” says Hawes. “I can’t tell you there isn’t some relief, because it’s been two and a bit years of my life and it would’ve been very depressing if it had been otherwise. But what’s astonishing is the positivity of the response, the amount that people have enjoyed and engaged with the series and also the global reach of the show. There are reviews from all over the world, and people seem to be getting the tone. It really has landed incredibly strongly.”

The upshot is that viewers won’t have to wait too long to revisit Lamb and co in their tatty London office. “Apple have already shot the next six,” reveals Hawes, “and they will air sometime later this year. And there is every hope and intention that there will be another couple of seasons in the immediate future.”

Deadline spoke with Hawes mid-way through the show’s first season.

DEADLINE: Where did the project start?

JAMES HAWES: See-Saw got in touch with me and they sent me the script. Gary was obviously attached. A couple of the other cast were in the frame, and they were hunting their lead director. That’s the process that happens in TV: you respond to the material, how you see it, what you think the keys are. I met with them a few times, enthusiastically jumped on board, and got in my hands dirty on the script with [the screenwriter] Will Smith. One of the great things about working for See-Saw is directors get treated like movie directors. And that’s not about grandiosity, it’s about being cemented very, very firmly at the heart of the creative process. So you’re there, hand in hand, with the producers and the writer, as the key author for the shoot. That was enormously empowering, and Will and I struck up a particularly strong alliance through the whole process. That was about a month before the first shutdown. [Laughs] So the timing was just perfect!

Slow Horses

DEADLINE: How did you go about casting?

HAWES: We were thinking about the ensemble very much. And there was some casting in pairs. We literally met some potential cast in pairs to do chemistry casting. We wanted the casting to be just off beat. We needed actors who had the ability to do straight drama but also had a sense of comic rhythm and timing, to have that little comedy bone. And then it really was then about building that ensemble, casting people somebody like Saskia Reeves, somebody I’d worked with 20 years before, who’s just such a damn good actress—someone who could bring all the backstory and the gravitas and who would be the sort of actor who could work on a scene with Gary and feed off his brilliance and inform him with their own brilliance. I think we managed this across the board And it was a thrill. In the end I don’t think we had a bum note. [Laughs] He says, slightly arrogantly!

DEADLINE: What piqued Gary Oldman’s interest?

HAWES: Gary would say it’s obvious: it’s the script. He also loved the books, because Mick Herron has created such depth and layers and history for his characters. So it’s not just what’s on the page there that Will and the writing team have managed to bring to the page so accurately, but there’s the promise of more research to do in the novels, and legs for those characters—journeys for those characters—through the eight novels that exist. So I think he was excited by that. I know that he, as was I, was excited by the tone, that this does feel like something that’s a confident development of the British spy genre. The reviews, which have been quite embarrassingly amazing, have all seemed to get the terms of the show. With very, very few exceptions people have understood that this is absolutely true to the pedigree of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré and Len Deighton, but with that little twist and a bit of a contemporary edge to it.

DEADLINE: Is there any kind of basis of truth in it? How much research did you put in?

HAWES: I’ll answer the research question second, because the first answer is really Mick Herron’s answer, which is that Le Carré knew how to write spy thrillers because he had been a spy, but Mick Herron knew how to write a spy thriller because he’d read Le Carré, and that’s as far as his experience had gone. In fact, there are, as any intelligence expert in the UK will tell you, all sorts of inaccuracies, but the fact that you can believe it, I think, tells you how good the world building is, that it feels like a coherent world, that you sort of believe the chain of command. You believe some of the crazy schemes they come up with. And actually we did take on an ex-intelligence officer as a consultant for a while, training the actors on some of the surveillance stuff they did, talking through what it feels like to be a spy. And he was able to say to us, “Well, apart from anything else, we do cook up these crazy schemes.” Not necessarily simply to further their own ambitions, but, even from the very early history of the security services, to gather intelligence or catch out some organization. That’s exactly what they do.

DEADLINE: As you said, London is very much a character in the story…

HAWES: Part of that is informed, again, by the novels, because Mick Herron had set them in this particular row of houses opposite the Barbican. I went with the location and design team, and that area is actually multiple properties. There’s everything from corner shops and Italian restaurants to an Airbnb, so we couldn’t use that in total. I loved the idea that, from the first floor up, this had once been the property of a lawyer who’d, in the ’70s, probably knocked it through and made a higgledy-piggledy Escher-esque kind of conversion. So the production designer came up with a set which echoed the external architecture and created this very rabbit-warreny sort of interior. But to answer the broader location question, I wanted London to be a powerful character in this, and I wanted it to be a London that was a little bit the back-alleys, the under-the-bridges, the between-the-rail-tracks sort of place. So we created a world that I think feels coherent. It’s a sort of space that feels like an everyday London, not a tourist, glitzy London.

DEADLINE: The series has a very languid pace. Did Apple ever have any notes?

HAWES: The thing is, as a team, we stress-tested it, and we stress-tested it right away through the edits as well. I think it is a grown-up show. I think people who come to this genre expect to be treated as intelligent viewers, and that demands an amount of conspiracy and invites the audience to do little bit of work in uncovering the layers. So I was really keen that we didn’t over-signpost, that we let the audience feel like they were engaged and having to be their own intelligence expert, but it’s also powerfully confidently character-based. And that invites you to let it breathe. It’s not all about a hell-for-leather narrative. Yes, there’s going to be more of that and it will accelerate through the season, but what’s key to this is these characters with very rounded backstories, with quirks, with interrelationships, and I think it’s allowing you to get to know them at a more perhaps big-screen pace.

Slow Horses

DEADLINE: Did you use any spy movies as a reference? Or was that just a given?

HAWES: Yes. Very early on, we did a 40-page visual document of how we were going to realise the show. And included in that were movies that were inspirations for us. And they include some of the obvious things like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and also some great European espionage thrillers, like The Lives of Others. But I feel there’s sort of three-stage history so far in the intelligence thriller. There’s the British era of James Bond and Len Deighton, and then the Americans picked it up and turned it into the conspiracy thriller: All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View … And then we sort of borrowed it back, especially in [British] TV with [shows like] Edge of Darkness and State of Play. So we gave Slow Horses a colour palette that was steeped in those American and European movies of the ’70s and ’80s. That was very conscious—it feels like it’s got history. It really was an attempt to build visually on the legacy of those films and shows, and feel true to the genre.

DEADLINE: The show’s theme song is certainly very striking…

HAWES: A very particular thing about Slow Horses is the tone—it shifts between being a proper thriller with real stakes and people that die to, almost immediately, the very dark humour that is a crucial part of its DNA. Making those turns can be very particular. We have a huge, cinematic opening, and then we make quite a sharp U-turn into a different tone that the life of the “slow horses” themselves, with all its grottiness and flatulence. Quite early on I thought, “I think a song is going to be really good in the opening credits to help us nail the swagger of the tone and undercut the jeopardy that’s set up in the opening sequence.” Something to say, “Guys, there’s something else going on here.”

DEADLINE: How did you get Mick Jagger to do it?

HAWES: It’s a very British show, and it’s a very London show, so I just had one name in mind—and it was Mick Jagger, because somehow he could speak to all of that. And it felt like it needed a very particular approach for lyrics, something that Mick, the poet, could bring to the piece. So what happened was the music supervisor Catherine Grieves and the composer Daniel Pemberton and I thought we’d be brave and approach him and see what happened. Daniel wrote a tune—quite a bluesy, swingy tune—and Will Smith and I put together a page on what we thought the opening song might touch on: the idea of second chances, having no way back, and “I don’t want to be a loser all my life”. We sent that, and a short trailer, off to Mick. The next thing we knew, he was at it. There was quite a magical moment, not very long before Christmas, when I got a call from Daniel saying, “You have to get somewhere where you can listen to a recording—right now.” And he sent me through Mick’s first draft, which he’d done on his iPhone. It was one of those pinching-self moments, because it was just brilliant. It captured the show, it captured the characters. Turns out that he’d read all the books, so some of the research that he, as a lyricist and songwriter, would normally do, he’d already got in the bag. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a roaring success for the show.

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