How did you decide on shooting locations?
We looked at a number of other places, for example, Turkey was a serious proposition at one time, but then things got more difficult with the attempted coup and other issues relating to refugees. In the end, Spain seemed a logical place to come. There is a very good film infrastructure and film crews. There were challenges – particularly the difference between Spain as a settled country and Syria which is a war-torn country undergoing all sorts of terrible depravations. So in order two recreate that we basically used two different techniques. The first was physical – the art department and costume and extras that we put into the place, and the second was to use visual effects and CGI to turn Spain into Syria; to turn a nice structured town into a bombed town, or a church square into a mosque square.
We had 44 locations over a period of 27 days shooting in Spain – a really high number. The locations leant themselves really well and then it was down to the dressing and the signage. We had a really big team of about 25 people who worked in advance of the rest of the crew – making the markets for those scenes for example, then setting up the next location then coming back and clearing the previous one.
What did you find most challenging?
It’s been a huge challenge! What we were trying to do – and I think we’re going to pull it off – is a movie-style production values on a television-size budget. I think the scale is quite substantial for a TV show, and I hope it shows up on the screen.
We were doing our best to recreate the reality of life in Syria – to show the sorts of experiences that people are having on the ground in Syria. And that poses a number of problems. The first is that you’re filming in a place where these things are unusual. So if we had particularly sensitive scenes we tried to film them in a way where they were not offensive to the local people. So we wouldn’t show things we wouldn’t show on screen. And the other sensitivities are to do with the way, for example, children are treated. We worked very hard to ensure that the children on set were not exposed to some of the more egregious and horrifying things that will eventually end up portrayed in the series. Though in fact, most of the more upsetting things are actually off camera, and be played on the reactions of our characters.
Another of the challenges we had was sound. Spain’s a Christian country and you don’t have a lot of church bells ringing in Syria. So we were doing a scene on a rooftop, with an actress telling people what it’s like to be in the Caliphate, and then the bells kept going off!
This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Peter – what’s he like to work with as a producer?
Peter’s one of the best directors that I’ve ever worked with in terms of real integrity, in terms of his ability to work very sensitively with actors and astonishing preparation. HIs research is meticulous and exhaustive. One of the tricks he pulls off is that his end pieces look as if they’re sort of documentary and sort of ‘off the cuff’. But the truth is that everything is incredibly carefully planned. So the vast majority of the shots are
hand held; a lot of them are walking tracks; but they are minutely planned, they just look as if they are spontaneous. That’s the trick. And he does it brilliantly. But it does mean that whereas you know with another director you might just have a shot of a little bit of a street, with Peter you’ve got a whole street to deal with.
How did you go about the casting process?
The casting process was exhaustive. One of the one of the characteristics of the volunteers who go to fight in Syria is where they all come from. They come from the UK, from Poland, Germany, France, The Far East, Middle East and Africa. So we tried to take account of that in our casting. We had to find a lot of cast from a lot of different countries and we had a lot of visa issues to deal with because we were bringing people in from unusual places, so the casting was enormous. We’ve got cast 11 different nation, so it was unusual to have such a high number of people who are flying in and out all the time in order to keep
The State premieres on Wednesday 23rd of August at 8.30pm on National Geographic.
Header Image: Steve Clark-Hall, Producer of 'The State'. Photograph from Channel 4.