Olly Grant, Broadcast
The producers of ITV’s take on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Here they explain how the achieved it
The producers of ITV’s take on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Here they explain how the achieved it
The producers of ITV’s take on the Anglo-Saxon epic tell Olly Grant how they created a fantasy universe from scratch and made an ancient saga work for a modern audience
Production company ITV Studios
Commissioner Steve November
Length 12 x 60 minutes
TX 7pm, Sundays from 3 January 2016, ITV
Executive producers Katie Newman; Tim Haines; James Dormer Producer Stephen Smallwood
Writers James Dormer; Guy Burt; Mike Walker; Jack Lothian
Directors Cilla Ware; Jon East; Julian Holmes; Stephen Wulfendon; Kerric Macdonald; Merrick Losey
Casting director Sam Jones Music Rob Lane
Costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes
Production designer Grant Montgomery
Make up & hair Christine Cant
Editor Dan Crinnion
VFX Milk Distributor
ITV Studios Global Entertainment
It’s mid-morning at Blyth Studios, Northumberland, and two monsters have just come off camera for a coffee. “Alan wants a Snickers,” says a man with furry legs and a face like a gargoyle. He looks at his friend: “You okay?” The other monster shrugs: “Hot.”
Tea trolleys are often the scene of the most surreal on-set moments. But beastly encounters come as standard on Beowulf, ITV’s new fantasy drama inspired by the Anglo-Saxon verse epic. In one corner of the studios, an ex-textile factory near Newcastle, the crew films a skirmish in a reconstructed cave. An actress is hanging from the ceiling in a cage and a man walks by in lime green CGI leggings. The floors are smothered in Dark Age props: spears, animal skins, a giant’s head and two huge stone warriors that look like super-inflated Vikings.
ITV has been open about its interest in hefty, family-focused historical sagas with global sales appeal. Slotting into the Jekyll & Hyde slot for the new year, Beowulf certainly ticks those boxes. Set in a fantasy universe called the Shieldlands, it follows the titular warrior (Kieran Bew) as he returns to his home city Herot, to pay homage to the king (William Hurt), before a diversionary showdown with the monster Grendl.
That’s largely where fidelity to the poem ends; the 13 episodes then unspool across a landscape peppered with tribes, trolls and assorted nonhuman grizzlies.
The idea started with former Impossible Pictures colleagues Tim Haines and Katie Newman, now of ITV Studios. Newman loved the concept when Haines mooted it, but couldn’t initially see the hook. “We kept thinking, how does this work as a TV show? What’s the story motor?” she recalls.
The lightbulb moment came “over a really bad coffee at Mip”, says Newman. She had been thinking about HBO’s Deadwood, and the two notions suddenly rubbed up against each other. “I walked up to Tim and said, ‘I’ve got it. Let’s make it a Western.’” Not post-watershed cowboys-and-cuss- words, but the basic tenets of the genre: the lone hero seeking redemption in a vast, dangerous frontier land.
“Getting that hook was really helpful because it gave us a precinct, and it helped us understand how the stories could unfold. So our Beowulf comes home to Herot and essentially becomes Sheriff [the word ‘Sheriff ’ actually comes from an Old English term, ‘shire reeve’’]. Bad stuff unfolds and he has to step up. He’s the isolated man reconnecting with his family, which is quite a Western tradition.”
Newman took a two-page synopsis to Strike Back writer James Dormer, who started to put the meat on the bones, and to draft in more female characters and family themes.
Genre-wise, the result sounds like Game Of Thrones meets Merlin with a splash of Primeval. But Newman prefers Tolkien comparisons, since the show is actually trying to pitch its fantasy to the middle ground: not explicit like Thrones, yet more adult than a standard teatime romp. Bew’s Beowulf, for instance, is mid-30s and suffering a touch of midlife crisis. “He’s had a wife and child, he’s a man with wounds,” says Newman. “Tonally, that automatically shifts it.”
Next up: designing a coherent fantasy universe. To give it scale, the trio created a network of tribes. There are about eight scattered across the Shieldlands, from Banning (farmers) and Wulfing (overseas pillagers) to Warig (ruthless monster types). Each had to be instantly distinct, since viewers won’t know any of them from Adam.
Much of that was down to costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes, who colour-coded each group. “Herot is red, gold and black in varying degrees,” he explains. “The Banning live off the land and the colours of their clothing echo this. We see greens, browns and rusts. The warriors wear brown leather armour and helmets adorned with horns and tusks.”
The Wulfing tribe provided one of the biggest headaches. Two days before filming, the practical difficulties of using stuntmen became apparent. “Since they are stealthy in nature, I came up with the idea of a hood; those hoods can be up or down depending how much of the faces we were required to see in the various scenes,” says Wheeler-Holes. Hoods for 50 men were duly knocked up in 24 hours.
Complex headpieces turn out to be a bit of a theme of Beowulf. In the neighbouring room, make-up and hair designer Christine Cant shows me the stack of books she used for inspiration – A Thousand Tattoos, The History of Hair, Decorated Skin – and her scrapbook of finished work, which is encyclopaedic in its quirky influences: tattoos based on Viking runes and ‘Irish tree language’, Egyptian mascara, strange hairdos.
“God love him, look what he let me do to him,” she chuckles, flicking to a photo of a Varni warrior with an outlandishly shaved scalp. I notice a preponderance of male ponytails. “Yes, and you know why?” she says. “Eastgate Quarry. It’s the windiest place on earth. Hair blows in their faces the whole time. So we had to keep it confined.”
The former limestone quarry in Upper Weardale, Northumberland, is where the crew built Herot. To call it large is an understatement. “It’s probably the biggest exterior set that has been made for British TV,” reckons production designer Grant Montgomery.
“Even the model we built took up half the room in our art department. But the place needed to have scale. I wanted it to look like a huge frontier town. I was thinking of Sergio Leone, but also those epic movies of the 1960s like Cleopatra and The Fall Of The Roman Empire.”
Wild and empty
Northumberland is a good stand-in for the Scandi milieu of the poem, with varied landscape options that are often wild and empty. “You can shoot 360 in Eastgate without interference,” says Montgomery.
Late in 2014, his team started building: the key Mead Hall, a troll arena, houses, smelting pits, walkways.
Securing the quarry wasn’t straightforward. One potential issue was the local fauna. “I did a presentation to the council planning committee, at which there were six planning officers, one of whom’s title was ‘head of birds’,” recalls producer Stephen Smallwood. At the meeting, concerns were raised about a peregrine falcon that had been known to visit the site.
“He said that in the event it was still there, we would be refused planning permission because it was an endangered bird,” Smallwood explains. “However, it hadn’t been seen for two years, so he decided that it would be alright.”
Once on site, the biggest challenge was the weather. “The construction team had to work under the most savage conditions. You get 50mph winds there, day in and day out. At its worst, you can’t stand upright. One day, we abandoned shooting midway because it was too dangerous. Bits of set were being dislodged and flying around. But it settled down and in fact the weather at the back end of the shoot was benign.”
The wind, though, was still making its presence felt at the end of the shoot in September. The final day was delayed when a thane’s wig flew off and got stuck on his sword; it had to be hastily glued back on.
The conditions eventually took their toll. “Not unreasonably, the actors kicked up about where they could take shelter when they weren’t filming,” Smallwood says. “We created a space for them inside one of the exterior buildings. I can’t tell you it was gorgeous, but it was a heated shelter with light.”
The quarry’s microclimate sounds so brutal you wonder if it might prompt a rethink for series two, but the team came to regard it as a rite of passage. “It’s a badge of honour,” says Smallwood. “At the wrap party, we gave everyone a sewable badge that said: ‘I was there at Herot in 2015’.”
Standing on set in Eastgate for the first time, two years after it all began, Newman felt the world of Beowulf finally solidifying around her: “You start with a two-page idea, and suddenly you’re standing there with all these people who are working to create it – and that’s magic.”
Grendl is Beowulf’s standout monster, but the poem’s vague descriptions of its chief agitator leave plenty of wiggle room for interpretation. A Google image search brings up gargoyle-ish humanoids, mutants, even dragons.
Using concept work by Scandinavian CG artist Daniel Bystedt and in-house artist Grant Bonser, VFX firm Milk experimented for several months before arriving at the final Grendl. “In the early stages, we were thinking about things like The Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum, but we ended up veering away from that,” says VFX supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara. “Obscure photos we found of monkeys and bears with alopecia gave us a skin texture that was very useful.”
Unlike most of the monsters on previous Haines-Milk collaboration Primeval, the creature needed to be empathetic, which meant upgrading the conventional ball-on-a-stick CGI technique to an actor in a green-screen suit. “It gives you a performance, which the animators can use to pick out subtleties of movement,” Deguara says. “But it also allows the creature to play off against the actor: if she touches him and he winces, you’re getting real interaction.
“For TV, it’s a very rare thing to do a full creature that’s interactive and emotional with another actor.”
For the trolls, green-screen actors had to wear stilts and crutches to get the four-legged look. Ultimately, though, each creature had to feel like an integral part of the Shieldlands environment, rather than a CG imposition on it. “There’s a tracking shot near the start where the cameras pan across Herot past a troll to Beowulf. You just feel that this creature fits perfectly into that world,” says Deguara. “It doesn’t look out of place. It feels like it should be there. It’s organic.”
How do you create a complete fantasy universe from scratch? Tolkien took 12 years and 9,000 pages of manuscript to develop Lord Of The Rings; George RR Martin started the Game Of Thrones franchise 24 years ago and still hasn’t finished.
Newman, Haines and Dormer had rather less time, so from the start they threw their ideas into what became known as the ‘Beowulf Bible’, a resource guide that would act as an anchor and reference point for their developing world.
Two years on, it runs to 50 or so pages and contains everything from narrative ‘roadmaps’ of the potential story arc across five series to monster breakdowns: Trolls, for example, “live in loose clans often dominated by a matriarch and avoid contact with humans”.
“Writing the bible was pretty crucial for us, because this world is meant to be a big place – it’s not just a precinct with a couple of cops,” says Newman. “We had to get our geography right. It started with the big-picture stuff – the story over five series. Then we broke that down with the creatures, the tribes, the characters. It was a way of working out the rules of this place. For example, our world doesn’t have magic, so while there are things like trolls, it’s all organic. There’s an element of groundedness.”
The bible became a useful sales tool when the team pitched to prospective buyers in LA. ITV Studios Global Entertainment had it printed up and leather-bound, an artist was commissioned to sketch out creatures, and a photographer added landscape ‘postcards’ of potential locations.
If all goes to plan, the book will be dusted down in the next few weeks. “Part of the process of storylining series two will be to update the bible with more characters,” says Newman.