Fresh from scooping a hat-trick of Welsh BAFTAs, His Dark Materials returns to BBC One this weekend for a second season. To mark the occasion, Deadline sat down with Ruth Wilson, who plays the dastardly Mrs Coulter in the sweeping Philip Pullman adaptation, and the show’s executive producer Jane Tranter.
Tranter’s Wales-based Bad Wolf shot Season 1 & 2 back-to-back last year, meaning the second run — based on Pullman’s The Subtle Knife — was cut during the height of the coronavirus crisis. As Lyra (Dafne Keen) enters the mysterious abandoned city of Cittàgazze, the fantasy drama will take on a quieter, more adult quality, and Tranter says it has been hard to escape the pandemic — especially after production staff fell ill with the disease. She thinks that the enormity of the coronavirus crisis will mean that the season is shot through with a “brooding anxiety.” This is not to say that Covid is literally a part of Lyra’s world, but Tranter believes the atmosphere of making the show during lockdown has infused with the narrative.
It’s something that Wilson instantly recognized. Speaking from quarantine in Prague, the actress reflected on recently wrapping Harry Wootliff feature True Things. The shoot got underway at the beginning of 2020, but was forced into hiatus by coronavirus and resumed filming in September. “Whatever that film ends up being, it’s definitely a record of what we were going through at that time and that will translate into the language of the film,” she says.
The pandemic has also naturally brought with it logistical challenges. His Dark Materials’ second season will be an episode shorter than originally intended after Bad Wolf was forced to abandon filming on a standalone episode featuring James McAvoy’s swashbuckling Lord Asriel. Tranter says they were lucky that the episode was “freestanding” but she says it did provide some storyline that has had to be teased out in other episodes. She hopes that Bad Wolf can return to McAvoy’s interlude at some point in the future, but for now all eyes on Season 3.
The BBC and HBO are yet to confirm the recommission, but Tranter tells Deadline that Jack Thorne and a team of writers are currently busy on six of the eight scripts, with hopes that production can begin potentially as early as spring next year. Bad Wolf has also set up a limited company to house the series. Meanwhile, Tranter confirmed that her original vision to split the adaptation of The Amber Spyglass into two seasons has been abandoned. “The Amber Spyglass is quite right adapted into eight episodes and I will fully and humbly admit I was completely wrong,” she smiles. Either way, Wilson says she “can’t wait to get back into Mrs Coulter’s boots.”
Elsewhere, Tranter reveals that A Discovery Of Witches resumed shooting this week after a Covid-induced pause in production, while she adds that she nearly wept with relief when the British and Welsh governments said that film and TV work can continue despite another lockdown. Wilson shares Tranter’s happiness at being back at work. “I’ve never appreciated my job so much that I can escape our world and go into another one,” she says. Scroll on for the full interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: The Welsh BAFTAs — are they recognition of the work that you’ve been doing in Wales in terms of building your base there and trying to create a real hub for production?
JANE TRANTER: Yes. I mean, the Welsh BAFTAs are special for a number of reasons. I mean, they’re special just because of the event in and of itself; it’s very much Wales’ own attitude and Wales’ own design of the evening. They’re always great fun. It’s just a really friendly grounded kind of highly anticipated event in the Welsh calendar.
Then I think, obviously from a Bad Wolf point of view, being recognized in any way, either by nomination or win from the Welsh BAFTAs is very lovely. We made our home in Wales and people didn’t have to be as welcoming and embracing as they were. I went in with a vision of wanting to set up in Wales with some of what I had experienced while filming in New York when I made The Night Of, which I made over quite a long period of time and it really gave me a chance to think about what community means to industry and what a studio means to community and industry.
RUTH WILSON: Honestly, I had no expectation of winning that award, and they asked us to do pre-record videos a few weeks prior, so we all had to record one. And I happened to be in Ramsgate filming, my parents were visiting so I’d just got them in the background thinking this will never be seen. And so I forced my parents to be part of the acceptance speech and they looked like statues with glasses of wine, it was quite sweet.
TRANTER: They looked brilliant, but I think there is kind of like a whole art form in doing these things, which actors obviously do very much better. I had to record one and … in order not to make me look so stupid, our amazing editorial team put a load of daemons in the background and at one point I was talking about [senior VFX supervisor] Russell Dodgson and his creation of the Golden Monkey and Iorek, and you had Iorek walk past through the window and the Golden Monkey on the sofa. But it will never be seen, never be seen.
WILSON: I think you should just put it out there anyway.
DEADLINE: How about you just give it to me?
TRANTER: Welsh BAFTA will have to give us an award for that.
DEADLINE: And Ruth, you like to play a fairly big part in the His Dark Materials creative process beyond just reading the lines. Is the award vindication for having that deeper role in the creative process?
WILSON: I hope I don’t get in the way. Sometimes I like to. But I think with this particular piece it was quite interesting because I think when I signed up for it, which was two and a half years ago now, there was a real discussion about how these daemons were going to manifest and how we were going to get underneath this very unique and fascinating kind of language that Philip Pullman put in the books, and the psychology of what all that means. And so Jane Tranter and everyone else … decided to bring in these puppeteers, which for me was amazing because that was how the collaboration could become something more interesting.
So yeah, there was a discussion about how we can access this language and that’s required, I suppose, input from the actors more than just saying their lines. It was like how do we interact with these daemons? What do they mean to us psychologically and how can we put that on the screen in a cinematic way that the audience can understand too, without too much exposition. So, that was a massive collaboration. It was a collaboration between, of course, Jack [Thorne] and Jane, and everyone on this written script side, but also it was a collaboration with the puppeteer, Brian Fisher, and then also Russell Dodgson and everyone at Framestore. The creation is sort of a collaboration of all those people creating part of this character because the daemon is Mrs Coulter too. My monkey is my soul.
And I think that’s why this series and this experience on this job has felt so exciting and it feels like every time we come back there’s more and more you can dig into because it’s so collaborative and everyone finds new things in the books or finds something they respond to in the books. And Philip Pullman, to me, a sign of a great writer is someone who asks questions and doesn’t give answers, and for an actor and any creative, that’s really exciting because it’s sort of up to you to create your own version of those answers,
TRANTER: But I think, just to answer that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character be created in the way that Ruth went around creating Mrs Coulter. Ruth put together Mrs Coulter in a number of ways, so clearly working with Brian and the puppeteer was huge for the reasons we said. I think it’s interesting to talk a bit about the physical kind of putting together of Mrs Coulter because that was a huge part of it … Ruth would give us a massive range, I mean, like an incredible range of options that gradually we all worked together to think, “Alright, which one is Mrs Coulter?”
WILSON: Yeah. I remember thinking, accessing this character, “Okay, I’ve got to approach it in a physical way.” Usually, I do work quite psychologically but I felt with this one it feels so physical and it feels like it’s a physical manifestation, her psychology with the monkey, but then also in every other way. And I think, like with her outfits, it was like, “Okay, I want her to be approachable to kids, and to men, and to women. She’s got to manipulate.” She’s a master manipulator. Each scene is designed for who she’s going into that scene with and actually having to manipulate. And then of course as that goes on, as she starts falling apart or as things happen to her, that changes.
But on the day, it was really fascinating because I think it was a process of us trying to work out what the tone of this piece is too. It’s a fantasy, it’s for kids, it can push the boundaries of reality, but still, it’s grounded in some psychological truth and has loads of philosophy at the heart of it. So it gave me the freedom to slightly push the wings of reality sometimes, but also come back to something really psychologically true. I’ve loved working with everyone and it has felt one of the most creative productions I’ve been on.
DEADLINE: In an auspicious bit of timing, we’ve got Season 2 premiering this weekend. It must feel like a while ago that you filmed this though, given that it’s spent a lot of time in post-production?
WILSON: Yeah, exactly. We’ve been in lockdown so it feels like 15 years ago we shot that.
TRANTER: Yeah. I mean, but we’ve spent most of lockdown looking at Mrs Coulter. And then looking at the monkey and how he fits in with Mrs Coulter. And the fact we’re still doing it. Even as it transmits, we’re still desperately putting the last bits together.
DEADLINE: What does that look like, Jane? Specifically what kind of things are you tweaking at the last minute?
TRANTER: Fortunately for everybody, it’s not me who’s tweaking at the last moment, particularly. But essentially, the very last things you do are of a sound mix, and I am a great believer that actually … you know, you always have several goes at writing a script. You have the actual script, and all those different drafts which can change as you’re filming. So you have the script that you write before filming, you have the script that Jack writes during filming, you then write the script again in the edit and you always write the script again to some extent in the sound mix because music can really influence the direction of a scene or atmosphere, or how you feel about a character or underpin something.
We quite often have quite a lot of ADR because of the daemons talking and things, and then you can change that or think you don’t need it. So we do the sound mixes, they’re like the very last thing. And the visual effects can also, to some extent, be another working of the script, how Pan is reacting in a scene can tell you an awful lot about something. I think that’s the case for any production, but I think it’s really the case for this production that it’s not over until it’s over. So we are working in an orderly fashion, to be clear, and it’s not unusual to be finishing while something transmits, but we’re nearly done, but not quite.
DEADLINE: Is there a confidence that you have for Season 2 that came from Season 1? Have you got to know the show better?
WILSON: Yeah. I definitely think in terms of language of the world that we’re in. For the whole first season, every department was discovering what this world was and what works and what didn’t. And I think by the end of that season we had definitely come to an understanding of what the tone of the piece is, of what works, and also the audience responded to it in a really great way. So I think there is a sense of understanding the language of the piece.
With Season 2, The Subtle Knife, it’s sort of domestic in some ways, or personal, and the relationship between Will and Lyra is something that’s new and that’s developed in this season obviously. I saw the first episode last night, Jane, and it’s beautiful, and their chemistry is amazing, and it’s going to take the audience with them throughout this. It’s really vital that that works. And also, we didn’t have much time, you go from finishing the first season, it takes ages to do the post. It takes a whole year to do the post, but you’re also prepping a second season, so that was also …
TRANTER: It was a lot.
Also, one of the things about the first season is that ignorance can make you very brave. What you don’t know gives you an awful lot of courage. And there was a brilliant feeling in Season 1 that was sort of really scary. I always felt on Season 1 it was literally like I’d sort of swung a tightrope over the Niagara Falls and was kind of pushing along and saying to everyone, “Come on, come on, come on. We can do it. But don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.” And when we looked at what we had done on Season 1, it was literally a kind of like, “Fuck me, we did that?” It was kind of like there was a naivety to it.
But we were still shooting the final elements of Will’s world, the Amir Wilson piece that we dropped into the first season, like a week or two weeks before we started filming Season 2. And so Season 2 just seemed to come very quickly and we had more experience, which both made you slightly more anxious because you knew what was to come. Is the birth of your second child better or worse because you know what it’s felt like? And I do think, to some extent, when we all looked at each other a year ago at the end of the shoot, it looked like we all had some kind of post-traumatic stress or something, but it was all fine, it just was very, very, very intense. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
The Subtle Knife has a slightly different structure to it. It’s a much more grown-up structure, if you like, and it is slightly quieter. But I feel that in the piece there is a rather wonderful kind of brooding anxiety to it that I think almost came out of the way that we made it, and then editing on it in lockdown, and having one episode go and having to put it back together around that, that actually I’m not sure would’ve been there if we hadn’t filmed it in that way.
DEADLINE: Oh, that’s interesting. So you think the sort of conditions in which you’ve had to make it this year have contributed to how it will look and feel creatively on the screen?
TRANTER: As a whole crew and unit, you do build an atmosphere together. And I think that if you are creative and you are thoughtful and mindful about what you’re doing, you’re always thinking about that work in the overall context of the world around you, and there was an anxiety and we were all editing this remotely. Stephen Haren, the producer on the show who oversaw editing with us, was editing while having Covid and so did one of our other editors, and you see everyone’s pale faces come back. I think if you’re open-minded and thoughtful and creative, you will let some of that through. I don’t know, that might be too poetic, but for me, that’s how I work and that’s what I always feel.
WILSON: I’ve done a film this year [True Things]. It was shot seven days before lockdown and then it got locked down. But we came back to the film after lockdown and I think whatever that film ends up being, it’s definitely a record of what we were going through at that time and I sort of think that will translate into the language of the film and into all our energies on that film. That week before we shut down was so anxious, was so anxiety-filled, and we didn’t know if we were going to be able to carry on. Every day was escalating tension, and the death rate was going up. You can’t help but bring that energy into that film.
DEADLINE: What about safety protocols for you, Ruth? How are you grappling with those? Are they inhibiting your creativity in any way, or are you actually finding that working within a bubble is no bad thing?
WILSON: It’s weird. On the film that we did, it actually seemed to work … in London, England, in Ramsgate, it worked really well. That was a low budget film, it was very few actors involved, and the protocols are really strict, we changed our masks every four hours, we were tested only once a week, but no one got Covid or no one tested positive, and we got through it relatively easily.
On this job, I’m out here [in Prague] now, and there’s more protocols, weirdly, and we’re being tested more regularly, but that probably results in more positive tests. So we’ve had to quarantine and freeze filming for two weeks while we’re all in quarantine. So that’s a huge expense for the production. It also means that our first day on set is our first day out of quarantine. I can’t imagine all those actors who have been caged up in a hotel room heading for a first day on set. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
DEADLINE: What’s the project Ruth? What are you working on?
WILSON: I’m not allowed to say because we haven’t pressed it yet, but it’ll come out soon enough so you’ll find out.
TRANTER: You’ll recognize it because it will be a drama of caged animals.
WILSON: My real monkey will come out. It’s strange as there’s so much demand for content for all these streamers, but we can’t provide it as quickly as we did before. Everything is slower and costing a bit more money. So I think actually, it’s a strange time for everyone to sort of negotiate.
DEADLINE: And Jane, I guess you’ve experienced that directly on A Discovery Of Witches. You’ve had to pump the brakes on that. Is everything back up and running?
TRANTER: We started back up again today. I mean, I think we always assumed that the production would have to have that little touching of the brake. You work in a different way. There’s not many people on set. It’s more like a closed set, which probably isn’t a bad idea, that not everyone crowds around everyone and everything the whole time. People’s work happens in a different way and everyone’s in their own bubbles and you’re constantly spraying everything down. You just do what you can.
DEADLINE: Netflix has spoken about the fact that it has actually sped up some processes — have you found that?
TRANTER: I haven’t noticed that. People aren’t all coming on set at the same time. The actors go and there is a massive stampede of everyone getting onto set in order to start doing all the things. And they can’t do it all at the same time. And it has a big effect on finding locations because you can’t be in small cramped locations, because you’re all too close to each other and you finish a take and you have to put your mask on, and you can’t all hang out in the same place. The actors can’t all go and sit in a tent off to the side or whatever, they all have to be separated out. I have not noticed that it has sped things up. I don’t think it’s massively slowed things down, but I can’t see how it’s faster.
DEADLINE: There must be some relief that you can carry on working despite the fact that we’re now going into a second lockdown here in the UK.
TRANTER: Honestly, I almost wept, apart from the fact I didn’t really feel I deserved to, but the relief that actually we could keep filming. So what it is like for people who can’t [work] is very, very punitive.
DEADLINE: There’s a sense that the industry can cope with the new normal of touching the brakes occasionally when there are outbreaks, but another full-scale shutdown would just be a disaster, wouldn’t it?
WILSON: Our industry is really creative and finds solutions around how to work and get work made. The team that I had running my film was extraordinary finding solutions around problems and making it work. And so I think we will find a way of moving forward and not having full-scale lockdown again. And it does mean it might be a bit slower and might be we have to put, like Jane says, put brakes on things. It might mean that productions may cost a little bit more, but we will be able to manage and survive that. It was so wonderful coming back and being amongst people. Having five, six months, whatever it was, hiatus and not being allowed out and not being able to see each other… I’ve never appreciated my job so much that I can escape our world and go into another one.
DEADLINE: Sky Studios CEO Gary Davey has spoken about reworking A Discovery Of Witches to ensure you can stop filming and still be able to transmit something. How has that worked, Jane?
TRANTER: You’re very mindful about how your blocks work. So actually, if all you got to shoot was two episodes, have you got the right cliffhanger and can you edit that into a shape so at least you can transmit something? There’s good news and bad news really for television. I think the good news for television is that its platform is very Covid-friendly. The thing that is difficult in television is, Covid makes it a little more expensive. There’s been a reduction in the number of episodes in order to cope with the additional costs.
But I think that one of the unique things about television in the UK is that it is largely made by independent production companies. There’s a broad spectrum of them from those big production companies like Left Bank, which are wholly owned by a major studio, and then in turn, are wholly funded by one broadcaster in terms of Netflix. And they’re kind of like safe and protected. And then you go through all the way down to the bottom of very small independent production companies that are just started. Writers, actors, directors, new producers, people who are sort of starting out. And then there’s people like Bad Wolf, who is unusual for an independent production company, and we make high scale, high budget production like His Dark Materials or Discovery of Witches, and we make it independently. Which means that when it comes to a stand down, when it comes to Covid costs and those sorts of things, you have to sort that out financially for yourself. If we had been making A Discovery of Witches, for example, two years ago and Covid had hit, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to keep going. This was before the insurance piece steps in, but the insurance piece doesn’t really quite work with productions of a certain budget. My fear is that the, let a thousand flowers bloom kind of approach, that everyone has really fought to support … will be very hard to maintain because those smaller indies will just have to tuck themselves into the super indies and the distributors and the studios, and that independence could easily go.
DEADLINE: I wonder if I could just jump back to His Dark Materials. You’ve had to lose the James McAvoy/Lord Asriel episode. Do you think that will revive itself in any shape or form in the future?
TRANTER: That would be lovely. We were lucky in that the majority of that episode was sort of freestanding. It was something that we worked on with Philip Pullman and Jack to sort of think about, “All right, what would Asriel have been doing… but clearly we’re powering forwards at the moment to The Amber Spyglass, so I don’t know.
But it’s certainly there. As Ruth said about Philip and the novel, you ask questions but you don’t give answers, and one of the great things about an episodic series is that each episode asks questions and doesn’t … it shouldn’t anyway … automatically supply the answer within that episode. That answer will come later. And unfortunately, there was some answers in that missing episode. So we had to rearrange quite a lot of things and look at different ways that we could answer those questions elsewhere in order for it all to make sense.
It was just terribly exciting to see James as Asriel … he was there with the Asriel wig on, we had the Asriel expedition clothing, and he’s James McAvoy and he comes in like a hot knife through butter with a kind of hurricane of energy with him. And he was there, and we literally did about four hours [of shooting before shutting down].
DEADLINE: You said you’re charging on with Amber Spyglass. Where are you at with season three? I mean, clearly, it hasn’t been officially confirmed, but scripts are underway? Jack’s beavering away?
TRANTER: Jack, just as on Season 2, Jack had other people writing with him. When we do talk about Season 3, you will find that that is the same. Again, it goes back to what Ruth was saying, that it was tricky doing the script for Season 2 at the same time as we were posting and prepping, and doing everything. But this has actually been a very nice time. We are working on six out of the eight scripts at the moment and have good outlines for seven and eight, and it’s just very, very exciting. I have to say, Amber Spyglass is my favorite out of the three novels.
DEADLINE: It’s good. It was probably the richest of all three. You’ve spoken about the fact that you want to split it in two. Is that still the ambition?
TRANTER: No. No, that’s not. I wanted to split it in two, but we’re doing it in one. You can’t always have what you want.
DEADLINE: Can I read into that that HBO and the BBC perhaps feel slightly differently?
TRANTER: If I’m really honest, I mean, they just said to us, “Tell us how many episodes you need,” and when we looked at it, it really fitted really well into eight. I’m just greedy. I really like the real estate of television. I like stories told really slowly and that kind of like, “Let’s really dig into this,” but truthfully that was me just longing to go on making His Dark Materials all of my life, and actually, The Amber Spyglass is quite right adapted into eight episodes and I will fully and humbly admit I was completely wrong and talking out my butt. I really wanted to just keep doing it.
DEADLINE: And Ruth, you’re ready to go again? Is that something that you look forward to?
WILSON: Yeah. She goes on a great journey in Season 3. I can’t wait to get back into Mrs Coulter’s boots.
DEADLINE: Have you read anything yet? Have you managed to get hold of the script?
WILSON: No. Let them do their work, their magic.
DEADLINE: When would you hope to shoot, Jane?
TRANTER: It would be next spring, early summer.
DEADLINE: How difficult is it going to be to remount in the current environment?
TRANTER: It’s going to be really straightforward! I don’t know. I think it will be easier next spring/summer than it is now. We’re very blessed that we Wolf Studios to film Season 3 in. And so I think we’ll be able to do that mix of filming in a studio and visual effects work, maybe filming on location but doing builds on location. Oh, there’s the most amazing location for Mrs Coulter in the first couple of episodes, which I can’t talk about but it’s just amazing. So I think we’ll do a mix of building in remote places on location and building in the studio.
DEADLINE: I look forward to it. It seems like it’s been a ridiculously busy time for you guys. You’ve got Industry coming up next week and then you’ve just had I Hate Suzie on Sky. Are you in a period now where you’re looking at some of the development slate and thinking about the next shows to take forward?
TRANTER: Yes. Having had the confidence to make His Dark Materials, and Season 3 will stretch that confidence for us again, there’s part of me that when I look forward I think, “Okay, what can we do that’s bigger than that? If we can do all of this, what else can we do?” Bring some of that cinematic scale to that long-form real estate of television.
And then there’s part of me that is, “And what can we do that’s really, really teeny.” Something tiny and intimate to sort of juxtapose. And obviously, it’d be really disingenuous to say that we don’t long to make the Book of Dust, which sees some of the early Mrs Coulter and Asriel in La Belle Sauvage. And then The Secret Commonwealth sees Lyra aged 20, but it also sees Mrs Coulter’s family.
DEADLINE: Yeah, it was a hell of a tome. That’s going to be a good book to adapt.
TRANTER: Yeah. So obviously I long to do that, but that’s just a fantasy at the moment while we work our way through Season 3 and what we do next.
His Dark Materials Season 2 premieres on BBC One on November 8 and HBO on November 16.