Fleabag Director Harry Bradbeer On Thespians and Psychopaths
When magnetic TV series Fleabag, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was released in 2016, it proved to be a huge breakout hit – picking up a BAFTA and a huge following amongst critics and audiences alike. Now, the multi award-winning director of Fleabag, Harry Bradbeer, collaborates with Waller-Bridge once again for a new spy thriller series, Killing Eve. Premiering in the U.S. in April to rave reviews (and currently at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), the Emmy-Award-nominated show has already been renewed for a second season and is set to storm U.K. audiences this Saturday, 15th September.
Bradbeer recently expanded his distinctive directorial style to commercials, with a genre-defying campaign for Jaguar, through his representation by Park Village. Ahead of Killing Eve’s highly anticipated U.K. launch, we catch up with the director, who reveals his thespian beginnings, obsession with faces, and how he got into the head of a psychopath…
Q> How did you get into directing?
Harry Bradbeer> As a student, I wanted to be an actor. But then I had this strange calling to make films. The moment I stood behind a camera, it felt like home. Being on stage is a truly visceral experience but directing used every part of my brain. Not only was I working with actors (which was natural to me), I was getting involved in the design, lighting, and the camera as well. And writing too! It was heaven.
Q> What motivates you professionally?
Harry> I never tire of working with performance and actors – which, in truth, is never that easy! And I’ve also been fortunate with all the new challenges I’ve faced. I’ve never got stuck in one genre or show. There’s as much challenge in directing a series like Fleabag as there is in Killing Eve, The Hour, or Dickensian, where there are all sorts of extraordinary technical demands. Seeking out challenges, new worlds and developing my own projects have always kept me busy. It’s tremendously stimulating.
Q> What draws you to a project?
Harry> Real human interest that has something new to say. A project can be technically remarkable or set in an extraordinary world but if it doesn’t resonate with me as a human being, then I won’t go for it. The two questions I always ask are, ‘Do I believe it?’ and ‘Do I care?’
Q> Your new TV series, Killing Eve, launched in the U.S. to amazing reviews and will be hitting U.K. screens this year. What was it like working on that?
Harry> We were dealing with a far bigger budget than what we had for Fleabag. It was a thriller with scope and it was shot internationally. One of my challenges was to find a balance between scale and intimacy, to not let the style overshadow the characters. Often, in a film about spies, psychopaths, MI5, and murder, a flashy style takes over and before you know it, the camera’s flying around on a crane, you’ve shot loads of material but you haven’t got to the heart of the characters. We needed to avoid that temptation!
And it had to feel fresh. We were keen not to show MI5 as a shiny, glassy world through slowly moving cameras, as is often the cliché in spy thrillers. In casting, the aim was to find two strong actors who could occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of female human experience. We wanted to portray an unlikely relationship and we found that in Sandra [Oh] and Jodie [Comer].
To be a real psychological thriller, we had to get into the mindset of a psychopath. My idea was for the camera to feel like it was sat inside the heads of the two characters, observing the world. That first scene in the ice cream parlour is typical of this. The way it moved, and took on Villanelle’s Point of View, made you realise you’re not in the presence of someone mentally healthy. It introduced a unique character, and created tension, humour and wickedness.
Q> As in much of your work, Fleabag and Killing Eve carry a distinctly witty gallows humour. How do you manage to strike this delicate balance?
Harry> For me, seeing tragedy and comedy together is as natural as breathing. When I first met Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] and pitched for Fleabag, I promised to make the pathos work just as beautifully as the comedy. So, we sought any opportunity to get a glimpse of Fleabag’s pain, and then for her to immediately try to cover it up. Her vulnerability – against her bravado – is what makes us believe and care for her. It’s a human trait to pretend we’re fine when we’re actually drowning inside.
Q> Your ‘Mistress of Mischief’ ads for Jaguar E-PACE are the antithesis of the serious, macho conventions of the car commercial genre. What was shooting that like?
Harry> I’ve always wanted to make commercials that have a warmth and humanity to them. Richard [Morgan] and Chris [McKee] at Spark 44 developed lovely scripts for the campaign. I wanted to draw people into the car via the character of the ‘Mistress of Mischief’; I loved the idea that the car is her accomplice, rather than a ‘product’ that was always in your face. Originally, there was dialogue, but [actor] Annabel [Scholey] did so much with her eyes and expressions that it was more enjoyable reading her thoughts!
I love faces. If you look back at my work, the last shot of almost everything I do is a close up. It’s because I want to leave the audience pondering. They think they can read minds; and there’s no landscape more interesting than the human face, particularly one making a decision about the future. It’s a bit of an obsession.
Q> You signed with Park Village last year for commercial representation – is this your first foray into commercial directing? What are you looking for in the commercial projects you pick?
Harry> A long time ago, I shot a piloted commercial for McCann Ericson called ‘Branston on the Brain’. It was totally bonkers and never saw the light of day! Properly speaking, I guess Jaguar is my first commercial. And while I’ve worked with a lot of female comedy performers, I’d love to work with a wide range of performers and comedy styles. Commercials are all about connecting with an audience in a simple primal way. There’s something very honest about it. I love that commercials give you a clear remit; a strong motive for the director. And like in a drama or a comedy you’ve got to make the audience care and believe.
The adverts I remember have always made me smile or laugh my head off. They often feature great actors with a bit of comedy and pain behind their eyes. Take the famous Hamlet advert in the photobooth starring Gregor Fisher: a proper story, a proper product – it’s genius. It’s also one shot. I use developing shots in my TV work and would love to do more in commercials: you’re seeing life as it happens - and there’s tension before the release of comedy. It makes the audience hold its breath, before you hit them between the eyes!
Q> What can we look forward to from you this year?
Harry> We’re currently shooting the second series of Fleabag. The Fleabag team gelled so well on set of the first series and it’s like a family now. I have a number of film and TV projects in development, including a film at Studiocanal and a drama series at Channel 4. I’m also attached to direct two comedy pilots in the US - one with Amy Poehler producing. There are lots of interesting commercial scripts about and I believe the plan is to develop more ads in the ‘Mistress of Mischief’ series for Jaguar, which would be fantastic. I’m always looking for fresh approaches to comedy and character - something that takes your breath away.