Yesterday I was lucky enough to interview Jonny Campbell, the director of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which premiered last night on HBO and continues tonight. Mr. Campbell has directed episodes of Shameless and Doctor Who (the amazing “Vincent and the Doctor” episode along with “Vampires of Venice”), and won a BAFTA for his work on In The Flesh. We discussed his work on fan-favorite In the Flesh as well as his process in adapting The Casual Vacancy from book to screen. The Casual Vacancy is a story of a village tearing itself apart, revealing the townspeople’s idiosyncrasies, and addressing social responsibility and one’s response to the poor and disadvantaged. At times darkly funny, it portrays a town whose residents are selfishly stuck in their beliefs and traditions, unaware they have the power to change. This sadly comical selfishness comes to play an important role as events unfold.
Calling in from the UK, Mr. Campbell started by discussing some of the shooting locations (located mostly in the West Country in England –some near my old home in Oxford); I had to mention straight away that the series feels distinctly British. While many UK dramas set in the City could almost take place in any city in the world, The Casual Vacancy feels almost naturally born from small-town parish life in the UK. Still, the story is a familiar one–no matter what the country, the vacuum felt by a sudden death, and the chaos that can surround it, can be understood by all. Mr. Campbell said, “I hope that the universal nature of the human story behind The Casual Vacancy will translate to American viewers.”
Mr. Campbell’s ability to translate something very British to an American audience also led him to great success with his series In The Flesh. The show (tragically) was cancelled after two seasons, but the cancellation allowed Mr. Campbell to cast two of the actresses from the show into Vacancy. Mr. Campbell said that he wanted to give Emily Bevan (Amy Dyer in Flesh, Mary Fairbrother in Vacancy) and Marie Critchley (Sue Walker in Flesh, Ruth Price in Vacancy) roles in the mini-series.
“I had to try and fit as many [In the Flesh actors] in as I could. It was like a lifeboat, to try and save people. It was wonderful working with Emily, especially, as we found her for In the Flesh.” It was a struggle to find an actress for Mary, who is older within the novel. But, “I came on the idea to cast Emily. She did such an amazing job.”
As this was JK Rowling’s first book after the Harry Potter series, I was curious to know if Mr. Campbell felt any pressure directing the adaptation. “I did, but I feel that I respond well to that sort of pressure.”
This was her first adult novel after the global phenomenon that was Harry Potter, “and there was always going to be a different reaction to it,” and a sort of pushback from fans wanting only more of the same. “That challenge, that attempt to do something different interested me.” He mentioned Doctor Who–Mr. Campbell felt there was a great deal of pressure on Matt Smith, taking on a role with people almost wanting him to fail. “I wanted to be part of that, to help say ‘you know what? You’re all wrong’. To get to work on the show at that time was more interesting than when it was soaring high.
“It’s part of what I enjoy as a director, those sort of challenges. So while it was daunting, I was more interested in making sure JK Rowling felt I did the work justice while still presenting it on screen.”
Already released in the UK, the reaction has been “suitably provocative.” Audiences have been divided over the mini-series; while the majority of people ‘got it’, there were some who were unwilling to open themselves to the story and engage. “Everyone has their own view of it, which is so refreshing. I really respond to that, as well. There is no point in doing something if people are apathetic to it.”
Mr. Campbell commented that it truly only takes one person to have a strong, positive response to the story to know that you have done right. He related a story of an email he received from a young man who sat his mother down to watch Flesh. At the end, the mother verbally expressed her love for her child, which she hadn’t really done before. “It made everything worthwhile–all the hardship, all the filmmaking, being wet in the forest shooting zombies.”
“The stories won’t resonate with everyone–not everyone has had the same experiences, or wants to engage. Which is fine. But if one person is touched, that’s all that matters.” Those are the sort of stories that he looks for, as a director. “I am looking for that seam, that experience, of human integrity.”
With Vacancy, “It isn’t about the death,” it is about the quiet moments and the connections between two people. “There are some fantastic, strong female characters in this piece, and it was great to try and mesh them all together and do justice to them and their story.”
The mini-series itself is very cinematic, and there are times, especially in the first episode, where the camera stays static and allows the actors to emote directly into the lens. I was curious to know how Mr. Campbell decided to edit down the shots–if he took cues from the actors, or if he had his own ideas on where the beats should land.
“The part of storytelling is really important here,” he said, “It is important not to be impatient, and allow people to have their emotional moments. There are so many characters, but each needs to grieve on their own way. You can’t rush it.
“It was about finding ways to connect the characters together, to let each react to the news of Barry’s death in a different way, but at the same time to not short-change them.” The sudden death of someone in apparently good health is a sudden shock, and everyone reacts in a different way.
By showing a wide range of reactions at different points within the grieving process, he hopes that it will allow people to find a character who they can connect with, and one who resonates with them. “While choices are made in the editing room, it’s important not to hurry the actors, and allow them to express themselves fully. Choices can be made later on how to juxtapose the scenes.” He gave extra praise to Abigail Lawrie (Krystal Weedon) for her work in showing how devastating the loss of Barry was on her character.
Music always seems to have a strong place within Mr. Campbell’s directorial work, so I was interested to find out more about his process on how he decides what pieces and artists to use. “With Vacancy, I approached the music in a different way,” he explained, “often I get into editing and work with the editor to find music to place into the piece. This time, I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, he worked with the band Solomon Grey. He shared the story of how he discovered their work, highlighting their time traveling around Ireland, using traditional instruments of the area interwoven with an 80s sound. “It totally blew me away, and I realized it was the approach I wanted for Vacancy.” He wanted the musicians to be on the journey with him through the shoot, using the locations and world to create the music organically. “They even created new bands out of themselves, to create different styles of music.” [Note: Solomon Grey’s music and a documentary on their time in Ireland can be found here]
“I think it’s important to try and not go with the usual, to break away from the crowd. It takes a certain level of confidence and experience to feel empowered to do that,” Mr. Campbell admits, “In your head you always feel like a young filmmaker, but at a point you have to step forward and put your reputation on the line to give these new people their break.”
A strong focus on humanity and the human experience can be seen throughout all of Mr. Campbell’s work. No matter how fantastical or down to earth the story is, there is always a strong human element, and characters engaging in human behavior, for better or worse. “I often look back and start to realize that even though I’ve tried to do different things, I truly enjoy telling ‘human’ stories.” Those are the stories, though, that stick with viewers, regardless of the genre.
As for upcoming projects, Mr. Campbell was quite mum, but simply stated that he always likes to have something new to engage with. While he is reading a great deal, and having meetings, there isn’t anything concrete.
The Casual Vacancy is a co-production between BBC and HBO; Mr. Campbell called the experience “fantastic”.
The Casual Vacancy will be showing at various times on HBO this month, and is available now on HBO GO and HBO On Demand
Special thanks to my editor, Theresa Karasek, for her additional work on this piece