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Allan Cubitt Talks 'Death & Nightingales' with IFTN
06 Dec 2018 : Nathan Griffin
'Death and Nightingales' Writer/Director Allan Cubitt
IFTN caught up with director Allan Cubitt to discuss the long journey in bringing ‘Death and Nightingales’ to the screen, working with Irish rising star Ann Skelly, reuniting with Jamie Dornan and the future of Irish co-productions.

Based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Irish author Eugene McCabe, ‘Death and Nightingales’ follows the story of one young woman’s struggle to control her own destiny in Northern Ireland in the 1880s. She decides on her 25th birthday to escape her limited life and difficult relationship with her landowner stepfather, with the aid of a charming new-comer.

Irish actress Ann Skelly (‘Red Rock’, ‘Kissing Candice’) stars alongside Jamie Dornan (‘The Fall’, ‘Anthropoid’) as the central character Beth Winters, whilst Matthew Rhys, Martin McCann, Charlene McKenna and Valene Kane complete a strong and predominantly Irish cast.

Cubitt is a three time BAFTA nominated writer/director who has worked on a number of top television series including ‘Prime Suspect 2’ (1992), ‘The Hanging Gale’ (1995), ‘Murphy’s Law’(2003-7) and ‘The Fall (2013-16). Allan has also been nominated for two IFTA Awards and was the recipient of the ‘Best British Crime Writing’ award for ‘The Fall’ at the 2015 British Screenwriters’ Awards.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Cubitt to discuss the BBC/RTÉ mini-series.

IFTN: How did this project first come about and when did you first discovered the novel?

Allan: “It was actually the producers, Jonathan Cavendish & James Mitchell’s discovery. They bought the rights to the novel not long after it was published. They acquired the rights when they were still partners in Little Bird, an Irish, Dublin-based company that made ‘Into the West’, ‘Ordinary Decent Criminal’ and ‘December Bride’. The company subsequently disbanded, but held the rights to Eugene's book agreement. For years they tried to get it off the ground as a feature film. My first involvement about 10 years ago, was to write a feature film version of it for Jonathan. At that time, I think possibly because he had some Canadian money, he asked me to set it in Canada, which I did. I found some very interesting parallels between the ethnic French d’Artanians who excursed the Native Americans, but also the d’Artanians were put out by Protestant planters. However, it was an Irish story, and rooted in sectarian divisions in Ireland (which was) of course, still pertinent when we were working on it when Eugene published it in the 90s. It is still pertinent today, to some degree. Therefore, Canada was not a great place to set it, and it wasn't surprising it didn't come to anything.”

“Some years later, Jonathan approached me about doing something for TV. I said ‘no but what I'd really like to do is Death and Nightingales, it's stayed with me’. He said, ‘That's interesting. I'd be very interested in doing that again now, set in Ireland’. So I wrote quite a number of screenplays for feature. Whilst it’s not a long novel, it’s a very dense and packed novel.”

“When we were launching ‘The Fall S3’, Patrick Holland who is head of BBC Two asked me what I’d like to do next, I said, ‘It's interesting that you should say that. I've got this novel that I've always wanted to do, and it suddenly occurred to me that it would make a great three part television drama.’ We took it from there. The show was then green lit, I wrote the three hours last year and I was out on my pre-prep recces by March. It’s strange actually, I haven't quite even finished it now, and it's going out. From probably taking 20 years to this point, It happened quite quickly in the last year.”

IFTN: The series sees you reunite with Jamie Dornan who you brought to prominence on ‘The Fall’, and who has spoken so highly of your relationship and the opportunity you gave him on that show. Was he always in mind for you whenever you began casting this project, and can you tell me a little bit about that working relationship that you guys have?

Allan: “I talked to Jonathan about Jamie once I had worked with him on the first season of ‘The Fall’ and I was very aware of what I thought he was capable of doing. I mean, when you think about it, he was barely born when the book came out and she (Ann Skelly) probably wasn't born when Jonathan got the rights to it, so perhaps we've just been waiting for Ann Skelly. I bet that's what's happened, because I can't imagine anyone better than her.”

“By now Jamie’s career is such that you have to sort of basically say, I've got something you might be interested in doing, will you have a look at it for me? And then when he says he wants to do it, you feel dignified because there's plenty of other offers on the table and plenty of pressure on him not to be doing it. He's not the lead in the piece, so it's even more gratifying that he has chosen to do it, and that does speak to our relationship. The fact that he’s comfortable working with me, and he's very right for the part meant it was a happy reunion. He was the first person cast, or the first person to say he was interested in doing it. It was actually Jamie who said ‘You should look at Ann.’ I looked at Ann and I thought yes, that's our Beth, she's exceptional.”

IFTN: What was it about Ann that caught your eye?

Allan: “She is simply one of the best actors I've ever worked with. She is luminous on camera, she's intelligent, she works very hard, she's very detailed, she's got fantastic instincts for what's right, she's complex, she goes that far, she's deep, she's expressive, and she's incredibly dextrous, she's only 21 and she's not done a great deal so it's sort of mind blowing how good she is. There was a long scene in episode three; I could play you the entire tape and she doesn't put a foot wrong across it, you could almost broadcast the entire take. But you don't because you are intercutting between the two characters and you're going for reactions. You are cutting to other people’s lines and all the rest of it. When you're watching it on the monitor, watching her perform, it's even more breathtaking than it is when it's cut together because you're just on her.”

So she has an exceptional quality and just as it was great and exciting to present Jamie in ‘The Fall’. It is just as exciting to present Ann in this, because I think she's a star, and I think she's got all the qualities that an actor needs to do exceptional work. I'm really excited for people to see that and I hope it will propel her career in a way that ‘The Fall’ did to Jamie.”

IFTN: How has the co-production dynamic worked between BBC & RTÉ and do you think it's a viable option for Irish dramas going forward?

Allan: “I absolutely think it is; RTÉ were involved in ‘The Fall’ as well. For me, personally, I'm so focused on what it is I am doing, putting the money together is not something I involve myself in at all. James Mitchell was very integral in that. James, as I say, was Jonathan’s old partner, and I think he is more of the business side of things. Jonathan's more the creative side, so they put that together. There's no doubt that BBC gave us about half of what we needed to actually make it, so they did a very good job of bringing the budget up to something that allowed me to do what I did. It was a tight schedule, but we didn't have to steal it, and we did some quite difficult things, including water work, within the schedule that I had. Some material that was in the script could not be in the end film because there simply wasn't enough room in the schedule. There wasn't enough money to extend the schedule, and therefore there wasn't enough room in the schedule, so something had to be cut accordingly. I don't feel I have compromised too much in that regard. Again, I would say that RTÉ, Northern Ireland Screen, left me alone to get on with what I was doing, so there was no, what I might call interference! But, I certainly think it is a viable option.“

IFTN: Northern Ireland Screen have been quite prolific with original content over the past few years. How have you found working with them over this series, and in the past on ‘The Fall’?

Allan: “I think they have always been incredibly supportive. I think ‘The Fall’ was good for them, good for the region. Fundamentally, it was very well supported by Northern Ireland Screen through the three seasons. I know them well so we went into our initial meetings and were received as friends, and as I say, had their support, all the way through. They're there if you need them. They leave you alone to produce the drama and don't interfere. My commitment is always to use as many people from the North. If not the North, then the South, when I'm working there. I'm not trying to bring in HODs from England. I'm trying to use the people I know, or the people that I have got to know on ‘The Fall’ or those that may be HODs on ‘Death and Nightingales’ and are new to me, who were fantastic.”

“I was working with Gillian Devenney who did all three seasons of The Fall, starting off as art director, and then production designer, and production designed Death and Nightingales for me and did a phenomenal job. David Helms did the music on The Fall, he's done the music for this. There's a lot of continuity for me and of course, I'm casting people that I worked with on The Fall, I would always try and do that if I was working here, because they feel a bit like a repertory company to me. They're people I know well. We approached a couple of people from ‘The Fall’ who couldn't do this, or chose not to do this, but I would always be going to people that I rate and admire and I want it to be as authentic as possible. It's a desire for authenticity and supports the local industry here, which is why I've gone and cast a Welshman in a leading role.”

IFTN: I heard Jamie talking about that as well, and I'm sure it brings a great camaraderie onto the set whenever people already know one another. Where they can be quite comfortable in knowing their roles, and getting the best out of each other onset.

Allan: “It's really good, but it was the happiest shoot I've ever been on. We had a blissful summer, because the weather was with us. You can imagine that with so much exterior and our TV schedule, we could've got into terrible difficulty had it been pouring rain or snowing or something. We're going out in the middle of the night, and it was just like being out in the midsummer night’s dream. It was just blissful, and because Matthew is such an exceptionally, lovely human being. Jamie, of course, I know is a dream to work with. Ann is wonderful to work with. Charlene McKenna, Michael Smiley, Martin McCann I've worked with before, but everybody who came in to work on it, was equally as professional but relaxed and friendly as one another, and there was simply no friction on the set in any way, shape, or form.”

“I think that probably does show in the final material because everyone was so on top of their game, right across the board. Costume, makeup, design. My standby art director. My script supervisor. Everyone was really pulling together and everyone loved it. We found extraordinary locations to film in, which are a huge part of why it looks as good as it looks: Springhill house was a gift; Myra Castles farmyards were extraordinary. I also did a director's statement. I talked all day and they all sort of signed up to my vision of the piece, and then took it and ran with it, and poured so much into it themselves because they felt, I think, excited by what I'd proposed in the first place and by the material. Here you end up with something that I think has a set and quality about it, that you don't always see on filmed material.”

“I can't lay enough emphasis on the fact that I think Eugene is a writer of extraordinary talent and heart. It all feels so authentic, because he's a dramatist for dialogue. All his short stories, and indeed in Death and Nightingales, which I might add is his only novel, is always immaculate. I think if this does a little bit to promote Eugene it would be nice.”

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