What research process did you go through to create the sets?
We watched a lot of news footage! And Peter had a researcher on this for about two years, so there was a huge bank of research that was absolutely invaluable. We had a lot of things that people wouldn’t usually have access to, but it was pretty awful, harrowing footage to watch. But I don’t know how else we would have gotten the research, really. A lot of the research was about the way people actually live – and particularly the way women live as opposed to men. A young boy of 17 got two wives, a big car and a new house. So it was great. And the women were taken and basically shut away. So any freedom they thought they have, they don’t have.
How did you decide on locations?
We had a great contrast of areas to reproduce and recreate. We had warzones, to domestic interiors, to cafes, to hotel interiors. The location had to be somewhere quiet and safe. We couldn’t go to North Africa or Jordan because we had a cast who were running around the desert with guns and masks, so it was going to be very sensitive. Spain lent itself very well to that. Then we needed to identify all the different areas that we needed to use within ,hopefully, a tight locale. We eventually went for the South of Spain in a place called Almeria and some surrounding towns. So we were actually very close to North Africa. It’s very arid,, very baron and actually looked very Syrian as well.
And Spain was completely different to the freezing cold army base in the South of Wales, where we filmed interior scenes! We also built sets for parts of other buildings, like the Maqqa, which we filmed in Vejer. You always hope that the actors will walk in and think “this is where I should be”. You hope you’ve got the atmosphere for them to feel they’re in the right place: this is their room or this is their prison cell.
How did you recreate Syria in southern Spain?
We had to recreate several different areas down there to represent Raqqa and different parts of Syria. When our characters arrive in Raqqa, ISIS had taken the best houses, the best cars, so they and the city hadn’t been damaged as much by airstrikes. So we didn’t have to just create completely ruined houses on location. So, for example, we worked in one location – Vejer - to create the women’s hostel in a really beautiful old Spanish building.
We had difficulty getting Arabic props. So we went to Istanbul to prop. And we bought truck loads of props, small domestic goods and brought them back over to Spain and back over to the UK for the Wales shoot. So that solved that problem in one hit!
We tried to be as authentic as possible. We didn’t want to over-stylize it because we were doing a factual recreation of people’s lives and events--not exactly a documentary but we tried to be as realistic as possible with our recreations of rooms and interiors.
You’ve worked with Peter on several projects. What’s he like to work with?
Working with Peter is completely different! You learn so much about a subject you knew nothing about. Or you knew very little about. With Wolf Hall, you think you know Henry the Eighth looked like this and did this, but actually there’s a whole world of things we didn’t know about. It was a huge learning curve. And so has this been. Peter shoots using a handheld camera, and he follows his characters. So he walks through the environment with them. He follows them in, and then he will turn and see them through a corner and around through a room and into another room. So it’s really mobile. So we have to dress the journeys. It’s a challenge because the travelling shots are in 360, so obviously you’re seeing a lot more than a static camera.
The State premieres on Wednesday 23rd of August at 8.30pm on National Geographic.
Header Image: Patricia Campbell, Production Designer for 'The State'. Photograph from Channel 4.