Suffolk cinematographer Steven Hall helps create a surreal vision of ravaged Britannia
PUBLISHED: 17:29 25 January 2018 | UPDATED: 17:41 25 January 2018
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Britannia, a new epic series about the Roman invasion of Britain, has launched to great fanfare on Sky television. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Suffolk-based film-maker Steven Hall about the joys of recreating Ancient Britain as a surreal wild frontier
This week saw the launch of Sky Atlantic’s new all-star drama series Britannia – an epic tale of the Roman invasion of Britain, pitting the cruelly pragmatic Roman army against the wild warrior queens of The Iceni and the blood-thirsty Welsh druids.
Because of its epic nature and period setting, it’s been touted as Sky’s replacement to Game of Thrones but its surreal presentation will ensure that it swiftly develops a cult following of its own.
The series has the clear stamp of playwright Jez Butterworth, author of award-winning stage hits Jerusalem and The Ferryman, the latter still running in the West End.
For north Suffolk-based second unit director Steven Hall, its appearance on our screens is an opportunity to catch up on a series that he finished work on 18 months ago. “It’s pretty spectacular stuff and it’s fairly way out in the way it was shot. Jez has a definite way of working and it certainly shows through on screen. It was hard work, 15 hour days, for six months but the results on screen are amazing,” says Steven.
While each episode had its own director who worked primarily with the main actors, Steven was given a crew of 50, a couple of hundred extras and co-stars and had to stage the epic battle scenes and shots of the Romans marching through the landscape.
The nine-part series stars Kelly Reilly, David Morrissey, Mackenzie Crook, Zoë Wanamaker, Hugo Speer, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ian McDiarmid.
Steven, who has worked on films and TV as diverse as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, The Mummy, the Star Wars prequels, The Force Awakens along with TV work on Grantchester, Doctor Who and the BBC’s epic adaptation of War and Peace, first heard of the series while working in the middle of the African bush.
“I first heard about it in 2014 while I was shooting second unit on United Kingdom in Botswana. The producer for Britannia is a chap called Rick McCullum, who produced the three Star Wars prequels that I worked on. I first met him on The Phantom Menace and we were working together again on United Kingdom and people were starting to talk about Britannia.
“My ears prick up, what’s that about? Oh, it’s about Romans invading Britain, that’s interesting I’ve done Romans on Gladiator and it’s shooting next year 2015, great. As a freelance you are always looking for work.
“Jump to April 2015, Britannia is now a large-scale, ten-part TV series that is set to fill the void left by the final series of Game of Thrones.
“Jez Butterworth came on board as the writer and I knew Jez from a film of his I worked on called Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman. It was about Russian mail-order brides and we did some location work at Stansted Airport.
“So I was waiting to start work on Brad Pitt’s wartime drama Allied with Bob Zemeckis, shooting some additional stuff for that, while, at the same time, Britannia was looking to confirm my availability to go to the Czech Republic for second unit work.
“I was in a real fix because Bob Zemeckis is a real hero of mine and I also really wanted to work on Britannia. Fortunately, for me, they decided to replace the original writer, bring in Jez Butterworth, and start again, so that gave me time to finish Allied and then get to the Britannia location in time to start work.”
Steven arrived in Prague on June 21 in blazing heat and left on December 20 2016 in a sub-zero ice storm. He said that the six months working on the TV series were thrilling. “We had a big enough budget so we could indulge ourselves and really get things right. I loved the fact we were able to recreate Stonehenge and we had some wonderful military advisors on set so we could get the battle scenes right. People were killed in the right way,” he laughs.
“It was a very enjoyable show to work, if a little disjointed at times, and towards the end we did have time pressures. Work on the main unit got a little behind, so I was called on to work with some of the lead actors to keep things on schedule, which was great. I did some work with Mackenzie Crook who was lovely to work with.
“The attention to detail was incredible. It was shot in a very surreal way, at least on the main unit, they were experimenting with lots of different types of lenses whereas my job on the second unit was the capture the grandeur of the landscape and the grittiness of the battles. I was told to give my scenes that epic quality.”
He says that the finished show is very much Jez Butterworth’s vision. “His scripts are very good and he knew what this was going to look like. The Donovan theme music alone suggests that it is not what I thought it was going to be. People talk about as the new Game of Thrones. It is definitely weirder than Game of Thrones and I think as the series continues it will develop its own identity. As it goes on, it’s strangeness will allow it to stand apart.”