'Write stuff, film sketches' This Country director Tom George on starting out, directing TV and more
Tom George is the director of two-time TV BAFTA-winning comedy series This Country starring Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper as well as the International Emmy-nominated children's TV show Hank Zipzer. Here Tom tells Mandy News how he started out in television, how he got involved with This Country and what filmmakers can do to succeed.
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you became a director and got involved with the film and TV industry.
I started out as a runner in documentaries before moving into music and scripted work. I always wanted to work in scripted tv & film but had no idea how you did that. It took me about 10 years just to work it out.
How did you get involved with This Country?
The BBC had just commissioned the project and the producer Simon Mayhew-Archer agreed to meet me. He’s told me since that he was planning to fob me off, but unfortunately for him we really got on. We had a similar idea for what the series should be like, particularly in terms of tone. He invited me in to do a couple of days story work with the writers, Daisy and Charlie Cooper.
I ended up being attached to the project for nearly a year before we shot the first series, which is very unusual for a director in TV. That year we spent together as a four, finding the tone and style of the show, was probably the most important part of the whole process.
Now we’re more like siblings than colleagues. I’m the older brother and Daisy’s the youngest - brilliant but rebellious. Charlie’s the middle child, quietly holding the whole thing together. Simon’s sort of the cat, but an omnipotent one who is also in charge of everything. Like Bagpuss.
What goes into making an episode, from pre-production to being ready to air? How long does it take, how many cameras, etc?
Making a series of This Country takes about six or seven months. It starts with the writing where Simon and I do story work and script editing with Daisy and Charlie. We’ve got a more collaborative way of working than on many scripted programmes. Our roles overlap in places and we don’t let ego get in the way.
On set we shoot a mix of one and two cameras and always let the logic of the documentary style lead the way. We want the show to have an “under cut” feel, rather than cutting to a different angle or a different take every few seconds. This fits the observational documentary style, but it’s also a performance preference for me. Watching a scene unfold without lots of camera cuts draws you into the performances.
It’s liberating for the actors too, but it’s also a challenge as they have to be consistently good. This is why we fight for more rehearsal time than you would typically get. You can only work in this way if you have the time to develop a connection between the cast members and give them the space to really inhabit their characters. Often in rehearsals we won’t look at a script. We do improv and character work, much of it in the real world.
In rehearsals for series two we sent Martin Mucklowe (played by Paul Cooper) and his work mate Dan (Jimmy Walker) to buy condoms from the local chemist in the village we film in. The challenge is to stay in character for extended periods of time. The chemist was closed and they came back with bog roll from the local shop. But they had a funny story that they’d actually lived through together, like real mates.
What are the challenges in making a documentary-style?
The main challenge is to set the rules of the documentary and then stick to them. We’re constantly interrogating what the crew’s role is in every scene: Why are they here? Would they be filming this? Would the characters let themselves be filmed doing this? If it’s a documentary then you can’t suddenly have a scene with two characters in bed at night, because the crew wouldn’t be there. In one sense this is a challenge but it has its own rewards – it forces you to solve problems without breaking these rules and that often leads to interesting scenes or novel approaches to filming a scene.
Congratulations on winning two TV BAFTAS, what is it you think that makes the show so successful?
Thanks! It’s hard for me to be objective, but I think it’s got a good balance of comedy and tragedy. We’re also constantly trying to make it true; true to the characters, true to real life, true to the documentary style.
Above all Daisy and Charlie are brilliantly funny – but that’s not enough on it’s own. It’s got to feel like it’s rooted in something, so you care about the characters and want to know what’s going to happen next.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a director?
Make stuff. Write scripts, film sketches, edit things, work with actors whenever you can. It’s the best way to learn. Don’t get too obsessed with cameras. You need to know about them, but they’re just a tool. I don’t think good chefs are on websites reading about the latest ovens.