Friday, 23 October 2009

Murderland Q&A (David Pirie), BFI

As promised, here are some notes from the Q&A session that followed the preview of Murderland at the BFI t'other week.

There was a fairly high-powered panel, including Laura Mackie (Director of ITV Drama Commissioning), David Pirie (writer, pictured), Bel Powley (cast member), Catherine Morshead (director) and Kate Croft (producer).

The session was moderated by crime writer Mark Billingham, and kicked off with Laura Mackie saying that what sparked her interest in the script was its originality and sense of authorship, along with David Pirie's passion for the project. From a commercial viewpoint, it also helped that Robbie Coltraine - a long-time friend of Pirie - was already attached.

Talking about his inspiration and approach to the script, Pirie invoked David Simon ("Fuck the casual viewer") and said that audiences respond better to dramas that force them to pay attention and concentrate; you patronise the audience at your peril. The purpose of depicting the events from a number of angles was to make the viewer constantly question what they'd already seen.

He was partly inspired by the reverse narrative structure of the 2007 series Fallen Angel, which moved backwards in time to uncover the layers of a clergyman's daughter who becomes a psychopathic killer. He also wanted to include a feminine POV, reflecting the "women's melodrama" strand of noir exemplified by Mildred Pierce.

Pirie was also keen to focus on the victim - a character who is often overlooked in murder mysteries and used as an almost throwaway catalyst to get to the main cop v criminal conflict. He wanted to shift away from the standard procedural towards a more emotional and personal slant on the events surrounding the killing. Murders might get "solved", but it's often much harder for those involved to achieve a sense of closure.

The script is structured so that you invest in Lucy Cohu's Sally throughout - especially in the third and final episode, in which the flashbacks are related from her perspective. The writer said he enjoyed playing with point of view to generate emotion, and Catherine Morshead added that the POV aspect of the script made it very attractive to her as a director. She also said that the editing process was very important in refining the narrative by slightly changing emphasis and POV.

Pirie spoke a bit more about his idea of "noir with heart", saying he based the story on lengthy discussions he'd had with Robbie Coltraine about what they'd like to see on TV and the balance between love and obsession in Hitchcock's films.

He also said that we don't really do noir in the UK, focussing more on procedure, and admitted that pure noir wouldn't play well on ITV. So, he aimed to create characters the audience would care about to generate suspense, using the emotional basis of the script to ensure there's more going on than just wanting to see the plot resolved.

Pirie also elaborated on the title, which he arrived at very early on. It works on two levels: firstly, it refers to the psychological condition into which Carrie falls after her mother's murder - a fugue state of obsession with the crime, which leaves her open to DI Hain's manipulations.

However, it also refers to the fact that Carrie's childhood is traumatically curtailed by the murder. She has a map of Fairyland on her bedroom wall, but Murderland represents the dark territory into which she moves following the killing, eventually resulting in the meltdown on her wedding day, 15 years later, which sends her back to Hain.

In terms of examining the lasting effects of murder on those close to the victim, James Ellroy's memoir My Dark Places, based on the murder of his own mother and his subsequent investigation of the crime, was cited as a key influence on the series.

For screenwriters, the general message that came from the Q&A was that you should always aim for quality and an original viewpoint, rather than trying to second-guess what the audience is looking for. It's easy to do a generic crime story, but more difficult to strike out in a more original direction. The key element is always passion for the story you want to tell.

The event was inspiring, with the participants creating the impression of a supportive and collaborative creative environment, with the vision of the writer at the heart of it. There seemed to be a strong belief that strong writing will persevere even through hard times.

David Pirie: BFI screenonline profile
Broadcast: Behind the scenes feature on Murderland

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