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Allan Cubitt talks to IFTN – Creator of ‘The Fall’
15 Dec 2014 : Seán Brosnan
Allan Cubitt with Gillian Anderson who plays Stella Gibson on the show
Ahead of the IFTA panel discussion on ‘The Fall’ with creator/writer/director Allan Cubitt and producer Julian Stevens (Artist’s Studio) taking place at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin on Tuesday December 16th at 12.30pm, IFTN caught up with Cubitt to talk about the IFTA-winning show which concludes its second season on Wednesday, December 17th on RTÉ One.

‘The Fall’, starring Jamie Dornan as a serial killer and Gillian Anderson as the woman trying to track him down, has been a resounding hit with audiences and critics alike. Here, Cubitt talks to IFTN about his work on the show.

IFTN: Was setting ‘The Fall’ in Belfast an important aspect of the show for you?

Allan Cubitt: ‘It’s very important and its gained in significance for me personally as I have worked on it. We were there in the first instance because I had a relationship with BBC Northern Ireland. I had worked with Stephen Wright before and when I first got the idea for it and spoke to Gub Neal about it, we thought that BBC Two would be a good home for it and thought we would take it to Stephen and it was a short step from that to setting it in Belfast. Once that decision was made, the setting has become more and more important to me across the two seasons, particularly in terms of writing and directing season two, knowing the city so much better than I knew it before and I think it informed the way Belfast has functioned in season two. It’s integral to ‘The Fall’ now and I wouldn’t want to be making it anywhere else that’s for sure.’

After leaving the directing to Jakob Verbruggen in the first season, you decided to direct the entire second season yourself – can you take us through that decision?

‘It was a very obvious thing for me to do. I mean, I would have loved to direct the first season but when you’re working as a writer on something like that, it’s often seen as a good idea to bring someone else in to divide the labour. But I was always very present on the set during season one and I did a lot of work in the cutting room – and I think everyone realised how much work I did in the cutting room so I think it was a fairly short step from that to directing the second season. I started out directing before I got into writing – I was directing in the theatre before I became a writer way back when so had circumstances been different earlier on in my career I would have wanted to direct a lot more of what I had written but the chance was there on this project – the first season had gone very well so I suggested it to BBC and they agreed so I am very pleased to have had that opportunity. But I also think it’s for the good of the show really.’

With the first season being so well received – how did you successfully avoid the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ that befalls so many television shows?

‘It’s a good pressure – I had encountered it much earlier in my career because my first very big break on television – which was actually given to me by Gub Neal as well – was when I was invited to write ‘Prime Suspect 2’, after ‘Prime Suspect 1’ had been a huge success with 12 million people watching so I already had the experience of going into something where expectations are high – maybe even too high – but I knew the second season would need to be better than the first season to be judged as being as good as the first season. A successful show is a nice pressure to have but I always knew there was a lot more story to tell with ‘The Fall’. Right from the beginning, I had conceived that there was a lot more to this than just a five part drama. What it boils down to really is can you keep developing the characters – can they sustain themselves and ultimately do you have enough story and I hope that the story is detailed enough and gripping enough to hold its’ audience.’

When we spoke to actress Aisling Franciosi (who plays babysitter Katie) and DOP Ruairí O Brien, they both spoke of the sparse dialogue and use of imagery as being a huge part of the show. That must require a lot of trust on your part of your cast and crew…

‘Yes, it definitely does. But they have to trust the writing first of all before they’ll produce their best work. The experience across all of my career is that actors and DOP’s and all your creatives will prefer something if it’s not overwritten – they’ll be much happier finding the spaces within scenes where they can explore. As long as the subtext is rich and the story is gripping, I am someone who is very keen to avoid expositional dialogue that is on the nose. You’re all in the same boat trying to make stuff that is a little sparser and not so spelled out still have an impact and ultimately a clarity to it.’

Music seems to play a big part in the show – there is a very unsettling score (by Northern Irish composer David Holmes) serving a kind of sinister undercurrent to each episode….

‘Oh yeah, it absolutely is a big part of the show. And I got very lucky that Stephen Wright knew David Holmes personally and he put us in touch with him. He’s a Belfast man so he understood the city and the show and I think he brought something special right from the beginning and really renewed his efforts to bring something great again in the second season and pushed the music even further into more abstract, more disturbing, more elemental territory. It’s a great part of ‘The Fall’. It’s not a score that tries to tell the audience what to think at any point, it’s a long way from the kind of musicality that might be used to manipulate emotions or create tension, but it is unsettling and incredibly effective.’

I’ll move on to the two main characters – Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson) is quite a morally complex person – driven to the point of obsession to do what’s right in bringing Paul Spector to justice – but also quite unemotional about some morally questionable things like sleeping with married men…

‘I don’t think she’s unemotional at all but I think she is someone who has learned how to disguise her emotions. One of the things that I certainly feel went very well in relation to Gillian’s performance in this season has been in episode five where Stella watches the Rose Stagg (Valene Kane) tapes and is in floods of tears. She is someone that is full of deep feeling but she has recognized that to do the job that she does and succeed in a male dominated world, she is going to have to keep those emotions in check. As for her sexuality, it is what it is really, it’s there. Much like her swimming, it’s a need she has to express herself physically and to offset the tension and extreme pressures of her work. It takes the form it does because it appears she doesn’t have any close relationships. Strangely, nobody has picked up on this but it related to Sarah Kay talking about a tribe in Northern China where the women have a ‘sweet night’ where they invite someone to sleep with them provided they are gone by the morning [laughs]. It’s not supposed to be overly voracious or in any way like a bloke operating or anything like that, she challenges attitudes to sexuality and gender that are probably too reductive, too set in stone and are outdated. Gibson is just Gibson.’

Conversely, serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is a married man who follows some twisted, moral code and seems almost likeable when we see him at home with his kids or at work….

‘In a way he has his own code but I think he is a complete and utter narcissist that is really only interested in his own gratification all the time. For me for example, the scene where he seemed to be doing something quite fatherly and sweet by sending his daughter her dolls back and a letter via ‘pixie-post’ – for me that is actually being deeply manipulative. He’s lying to her and making her collude with him – she ends up storing the letter in the loft where he stores his stuff and I think I am making it pretty clear that this is a child that is being corrupted. The heart of the piece for me is Olivia (Spector’s child) because there are always victims that no-one ever thinks about. His children will be scarred for ever by who he is and Gibson says it to him on the phone at the end of season one “what would happen when your daughter finds out who you are: it will kill her”. So, I have always been pretty clear that he has got another set of victims and they are his family.’

‘I made the decision that as a bereavement councillor he would always say things that are plausible – good advice even. Like telling Liz Tyler not to judge her husband but at the same time he is drawing a picture of her breasts! Also, he says to Annie Brawley that her being attacked is no-one’s fault but he is talking about himself so it is beyond ironic [laughs]. I was mindful of the fact that a person’s criminality takes up a small part of their time and perhaps even a small part of their character. I mean, he is driven to his sexual obsessions to a very large degree but that’s not the only thing he is. He is intelligent, charismatic and charming as well. Gibson says that the killer will appear to be these things but the key word is ‘appear’. One of the things that I am trying to play with in ‘The Fall’ is the difference between appearance and reality and the reality of Spector is quite graphically there in his deeds but I wanted to avoid illustrating that more than once or twice perhaps over the whole drama. I worked the rest of the time on looking at how he manipulates the surface of things and the appearance of things.’

Finally, any advice for Irish screenwriters reading?

‘I meet new writers all the time and my advice is always to start in the theatre if you can – a theatrical set up where the script is revered is a great place to start. It costs much less to put on and you could probably convince good actors to take part in it. It helps nurture your voice as a writer and if you succeed there, television work may come knocking for you. I don’t believe that episodic television is the best place to start as a writer – where characters and storylines may be handed to you and there may be little room to manoeuvre. The theatre teaches you to push the boat out, experiment and be brave.’

The 90 minute series finale of ‘The Fall’ will broadcast on RTÉ One on Wednesday night a 9.35pm and on BBC Two on Thursday night at 9pm.

IFTA’s panel discussion on ‘The Fall’ with Allan Cubitt and producer Julian Stevens (Artists Studio) will take place at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin on Tuesday December 16th at 12.30pm.

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