One of the best reviewed TV series to be screened this year, BBC2 police corruption drama ‘Line of Duty’ debuted last week with the largest audience for a new show on BBC2 in seven years. Irish cinematographer Ruairi O’Brien (Five Minutes of Heaven) worked on all five episodes of the police corruption thriller, working alongside ‘Love/Hate’ director David Caffrey on the first three episodes. He talks to IFTN about the series and his recent work on Chris O’ Dowd’s ‘Moone Boy’ and BBC thriller ‘The Fall’.
You must be delighted with success of ‘Line of Duty’. I hear that it has the highest ratings in its time-slot for the second week in a row…
Yeah, I didn’t hear that yet. I know that the first episode had the biggest ratings for any debut show since ‘Rome’ on BBC2 so for them it’s quite a hit and I’m just delighted to have been involved. It’s always nice to be a part of something that people actually watch!
Did you become involved with the project quite early on?
Well, yeah it was quite early on. The producers of the show were looking to meet with cameramen and just discuss the show and that with them. A production designer that I’d worked with before mentioned my name and David (Caffrey) remembered me from before. I’d done some work with him on ‘Love/Hate’ as second cameraman. So I met with David and the producers and we discussed the script and I threw out a few ideas and from there we just got stuck into it and it worked. I guess I charmed them properly; told the right lies!
Being a UK production it must have been great working with David again having had that experience with him on ‘Love/Hate’?
Yeah, David did the first three episodes of five on ‘Line of Duty’. The first block of episodes as it were. I’d only done a few days with him on ‘Love/Hate’ so I didn’t know him that well but then ‘Line of Duty’ was quite intense and you just get stuck in and through that you get to know someone quite well. David’s got a great attitude on set. He tries to make the shoot as fun as possible and he’s very open to exploring new ideas so it was great working with him.
What was the shoot like?
It was long! It was a real grind to be honest. It was originally meant to be shot on a single camera but we decided to bring in a second camera for a lot of it. There’s a huge array of characters on the show so for me it felt quite disjointed as a shoot. Obviously when you then cut it together in the edit it begins to make a lot more sense. David wanted to shoot in a very frenetic style so you constantly had zoom lenses moving in and out and you’d cameras moving and handheld stuff. There was this constant motion so that was a challenge. Even on fairly static dialogue scenes, we were trying to keep it very lively. If the actors weren’t moving, the cameras were.
Was there a lot of prep in the run up to the shoot?
No, not really. It was three weeks prep, which is kind of standard. For me the preparation is mostly about trying to get to know the script inside out and the locations. Once you know the locations well it’s important, because they are the things that will catch you out. Sometimes you get occasions where the director wants the location to look entirely different than it does, so you have to be prepared for that. On ‘Line of Duty’, we just kind of made a very basic plan and got stuck in. David isn’t really one for storyboarding or over-planning things. He’s quite spontaneous and likes to just get stuck in and try things out there and then. So it was a very spontaneous shoot. We filmed the whole show in Birmingham, pretty close to city centre, which is a great place to shoot. We shot for 11 weeks and Birmingham is small enough to get around but has that big city feel. I’d a great crew around me, including my regular focus puller Tony Kay, who did a really, really amazing job because it was a very difficult job in terms of focus pulling.
How big of a challenge was it for you in deciding to switch from a single camera operation to two cameras?
Well it made lighting much more complicated and it made working in small spaces very complicated, and we had quite a few of those issues. So it complicates everything really. Yes you get to shoot more stuff, but it’s not easier. It’s much trickier to make pleasing pictures when you’re lighting basically for two directions at once so that was the main challenge. Obviously as well you have got a larger crew, so it just changes the dynamic on-set. It’s good for the actors because you don’t have to do one shot at a time. You don’t shoot one actor first and then the other three minutes later, so it feels far more live to them because there’s an actually more spontaneous situation for them and they can be a bit freer, so it’s great in that way. Giving the actors a bit more freedom is always a good thing.
The show has really attracted great reviews…
Yeah, we’d great scripts to work with, which is obviously a huge thing. The plot is just so interesting and it really unfurls so well over the five episodes so I think the audience really has a lot to look forward to over the coming weeks.
Did you have a particular look that you were going for?
Funnily enough, we didn’t actually talk much about the look during the prep. Jed Mercurio, the producer, had a few ideas and David is very open to that kind of stuff. He’s more interested in movement than in lighting or graphic things. He just wants to keep it constantly alive. When we got to do the grade, we had an incredible colourist in London called Jet Omoshebi. The shoot was quite chaotic at times with changing weather and a very fast pace and all that kind of thing, and so Jet did a really great job in tying it all together and developing a look for it because, like I said, we didn’t really go in with a planned look in mind. It was all done really in the grading, and she did a really great job.
Since ‘Line Of Duty’ wrapped last November you’ve had a busy year with ‘Moone Boy’ for Sky and ‘The Fall’ for BBC?
Yeah, doing ‘Moone Boy’ was great because I never really get to do comedies so it was something new for me. It was great to try a whole different style of work and it was a great way to experiment and try new things, which is healthy.
What kind of things did you experiment with?
Just a different way of lighting really. I wanted to go for this kind of studio, American-TV look. Declan Lowney, who directed it, showed me a few things and we came up with this kind of very lit look. Hopefully it’s not too unreal looking, but then saying that the series is largely about the imaginary world of an 11-year-old boy so you don’t want anything too sinister. It was trying to strike that happy/shiny balance without being too ridiculous.
Is it easier for you when the director has a look in mind?
It depends. If someone is a bit too tight on their ideas, it can be difficult to pull them off, but if someone is a little more fluid it is easier. It’s always more fun and interesting when somebody is open to suggestion.
You also just came off ‘The Fall’, which was shot in Belfast?
Ha yeah. I feel like I’ve been kicked to death after doing that one. It was an intense shoot. Again it is five hours of TV drama so it’s like two-and-a-half movies without a break. You’ve quite a lot of material to shoot and it’s a TV schedule and TV schedules can be murderous with quite a lot of ground to cover. On ‘The Fall’ a lot of it is set at night and often we were struggling to have enough time to work in when the light was dark enough. The whole balance of work and night caught us out as a bit, but that’s part of the job.
What’s next for you?
I’m kind of keen to do commercials and short projects for a little while, just to take the pressure off. I feel I’ve done three fairly long jobs in a row. There are one or two jobs on the table that I’m looking at but there’s a definite appeal to doing something a little shorter and a little less intense, but who knows. If the right script arrives, it’s very hard to resist.
The third episode of 'Line of Duty' will air next Tuesday (July 10) at 9pm and is directed by David Caffrey. Ruairi O’Brien is the cinematographer.