AFC Interviews at Lille’s "Series Mania" Festival

Alistair Little reviews the shooting of the first three episodes of "True Love", by Chloe Wicks

By François Reumont for the AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°353

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"True Love" is one of the series screened in Lille as part of the International Panorama. Co-created by actress and writer Charlie Covell (known for "The End of the Fuck*ing World" on Netflix, 2017-2019) and Iain Weatherby, it deals with euthanasia with both suspense and a sharp British humor. Leading this project is actress Lindsay Duncan, who delivers a lively and deeply moving performance next to her four other septuagenarian co-stars. Cinematographer Alistair Little captures the visuals of the first three out of six episodes, directed by Chloe Wicks whose credits include the recent "The Flatshare" for Paramount Plus."True Love" was aired on Channel 4 in the UK from January 2024 and can be streamed on their VOD platform. (FR)

Ex-detective Phil and SAS veteran Ken meet for the first time in years at a friend’s funeral. When another pal asks for their help when he falls sick, should they make the ultimate sacrifice?

Shot over 38 days between winter and spring 2023, the first three episodes of Charlie Covell and Iain Weatherby’s new series is set around the coastal areas of Bristol on the west coast of England.
Alistair Little explains: “The script was both finely crafted and filled with very strong themes. . Love, Death, Redemption and Purpose. It was also a subject matter that presented a lot of moral questions to the audience. Chloe Wicks wanted to ground the story in reality but not feel overly bleak. At the heart of the show is a love story so it was a very interesting challenge to strike the right balance in tone. Even though there are dark and violent moments it was important we felt the warmth and friendship between these characters as their actions are motivated by an act of love.”

Picture frame

Beginning with a funeral scene that introduces the protagonists and the friendship pact formed among them, the series then opens with one of them making a plea for help. The typical pier of a British seaside resort serves as a backdrop, introducing the maritime aspect to come. Alistair Little elaborates: “This sequence on the pier marks a dramatic turning point. It’s also where the seaside appears for the first time. Tom’s character makes his request in broad daylight, on this pier. Of course, an indoor set and a darker atmosphere would have radically changed the scene. It’s an act of kindness that Tom asks of Phil and Ken. And it’s also the moment when they suddenly realize the gravity and seriousness of the situation...”

Picture frame

The cinematographer emphasizes: “Filming near the seaside is always a challenge.
Firstly because of the wind, which can be unpredictable and change direction very quickly.
I remember we scouted several locations in calm weather that turned out to be much windier on the shoot day, preventing me from using frames and light sources I had originally planned.
The other element to consider was the Bristol tidal range, which is one of the highest in the world. By the time you’ve shot one angle, you can suddenly turn around and find that the sea has withdrawn a good hundred meters behind you. When you add the changing weather to this mix, achieving continuity isn’t always easy. So, you have to accept these conditions and the accidents they may happen - sometimes very lucky ones - and embrace them. If I take the example of that scene on the pier, I remember arriving on set and discovering a very low mist enveloping the horizon. It literally gives the impression that the pier is suspended in mid-air. Something absolutely impossible to predict, which contributes a lot to the unique atmosphere of that scene.”

Picture frame

Questioned about the references and ideas that led the team to this image, the director of photography mentions a few films revisited during preparation: “First, there was 45 Years, a film by Andrew Haigh (cinematography by Lol Crawley), starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay where we were influenced by the films naturalistic imagery that felt honest and real. Also, Another Round, by Thomas Vinterberg (cinematography by Sturla Brandt Grøvlen), especially for the themes of camaraderie and friendship that runs through the film. We really wanted to capture this atmosphere in "True Love", through the characters, without any particular visual artifice. I also have to mention visually Tar, by Todd Field (cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister), and the graphical imagery of Cate Blanchett’s character often in a black suit. There was a lot of dark costumes worn by our lead cast and Phil’s character in particular would often be wearing black. We really tried to embrace this visually and play with silhouettes to underline the darker themes.
In terms of a lighting approach, we tried to keep the lighting simple, often with just a single source, and tried where possible to light the space. Having built a relationship with Chloe over the years through many shorts, we had developed a good short hand and aimed to be resourceful and efficient with our setups. Everything was shot on location, and we frequently found ourselves in small spaces. It was often a struggle to fit the dolly into some of the locations and the older buildings had very low ceilings, making lighting a challenge.
Like in the evening pub scene where the characters gather for a wake at the end of episode 1. Here, only simple Lite Gear LED strips could be hidden off-camera or behind practical sources to enhance or better control their effects. The size and hideability of the sources were the main choices to cover this scene with five characters. This was all shot with a single camera because the room was just too tiny to consider anything else.”

Picture frame

Later, episode 1 concludes with a scene on the sea, in a simple sailboat with Phil, Ken, and Tom . A challenge for the cinematographer: “This scene on the boat was quite a challenge. To simplify the logistics as much as possible, we set up the boat on a marine lake at Clevedon (south of Bristol), which visually opens onto the bay. Our boat floated in water barely 2 meters deep, with this arrangement allowing us to get an angle of about 30° of usable background to simulate the open sea. The rest was occupied by the coastline or Clevedon pier. The proximity of the dock allowed me to set up silk frames to diffuse the sunlight if needed and ensure continuity. Each camera angle on the boat required rotating the boat each time to align with those 30 degrees of sea background. Of course, the weather was unpredictable, and we regularly went from sunshine to clouds... The most challenging aspect was that camera was facing north, forcing us to film the characters with a front light. The exact opposite of what we typically try to do in this kind of situation, using the sun as a backlight - much more easy to control. I must admit that I’m quite proud of the result, and that the continuity works quite well in this extremely important sequence in the story...”

Chloe Wicks and Alistair Little - © Clerkenwell Films
Chloe Wicks and Alistair Little
© Clerkenwell Films

Asked about his choice of equipment given these natural light conditions, Alistair Little admits opting for the new Alexa 35 camera for the first time in his career, along with a set of Cooke S4 lenses. “Regarding the lenses, I didn’t have much doubt about the character of the Cookes for this series. Their slight warmth and consistency appealed to me right from the start, and it was indeed the right choice. As for the camera, I had the opportunity to get one of the first Alexa 35 from our rental company Films@59 in Bristol. And I was very happy with the results. Its wide latitude and excellent color rendition made it a very valuable tool in these challenging conditions. The dynamic range was also a big help when exposing for both our leads as they have dramatically different complexions.”

Questioned about the image textures provided by Arri (chosen on set by the director of photography, rather than applied later in post-production), Alistair Little admits to not having used this function on "True Love". “I tested the textures on the Alexa 35, and I found them quite successful in test screenings. But for this project, we decided to keep it as simple and natural as possible, keeping the option for post. The greatest challenge was to keep continuity at all time and to set a clear direction for the rest of the story. However, I can definitely imagine using them later on other films, and I’m looking forward to it!”
In conclusion, when asked about this filming experience with this group of acting veterans, the director of photography shares : “It was a real joy to work with them. As a cinematographer, it makes your life so much easier and I learned a great deal from them. When the pressure rises on a set towards the end of the day, being helped by the actors to simplify the blockings is so precious. I remember, for example, the road scene in episode 1 when Phil is pulled out by the young policewoman. Lyndsay Duncan (Phil) and Clarke Peters (Ken) immediately suggested a very simple bit of choreography, which allowed us to develop the shot and not worry about extra setups. It made the scene much more visually interesting and the audience can get much more immersed into the performance. Anyway, the balance between a young team like us and such experienced actors was really cool. They were very generous in giving their energy and experience to the project.
About my team, although those three episodes were shot 70% with a single camera, I must commend the exceptional work of my camera team and Paul Edwards, my B Camera operator, who also handled the Steadicam for some scenes. And I’m also very grateful to our producer Alex Walsh-Taylor and Clerkenwell Films, who were very supportive throughout the entire process and who trusted me despite my limited experience in TV series shooting.”

(Based on interview by François Reumont, on behalf of the AFC)

"True Love" - 6x45min – Channel 4 UK
Production: Clerkenwell Films for Channel 4
Created by: Charlie Covell & Iain Weatherby
Written by: Iain Weatherby
Directed by: Chloë Wicks, Carl Tibbetts
Director of Photography: Alistair Little, Susanne Salavati