Broadcast March 4th 2016 - Stag by Jonathan Green

 Broadcast

MATCHING LOCATIONS

Jonathan Paul Green
Production Designer

 

When faced with the prospect of shooting an ambitious, stunt-packed, three-part thriller, on a “comedy” budget, in the remote Scottish Highlands, I guess you’d be filled either with dread or immense excitement. For me, it was most definitely the latter.

Our shoot was split between real exteriors in Scotland, the forests and other locations around Pinewood Studios, and in the studios themselves. This presented one of our biggest challenges – trying to make it feel like it was all shot in one place.

I had to construct a studio interior to match an exterior bothy on the shores of Loch Katrine, carefully replacing all the windows on location, so that we could blow them out. Meanwhile, we simply could not find the right kind of remote-looking tavern, so we converted a farmhouse in a glen into the fictional Southmuir Arms. The interior we found, somewhat incredulously, several hundred miles away in a real pub near Slough.

 

Perhaps the biggest challenge was to make a mild river crossing in leafy Iver feel like it was a raging, swollen ford in Perthshire. And then on top of that, recreate the whole thing indoors – including rain, rapids, Landrover and foliage - on the Underwater Stage at Pinewood.

Staging stunts and effects in the remote terrain of Scotland was fraught with difficulty. From transporting a car shell overnight a mile up a single dirt track just to set it on fire, to blowing up a series of landmines, the scripts called for a lot of incredibly dramatic action.

But shooting in Scotland was truly magical. The difficulties were far outweighed by the immense privilege of shooting in incredibly rare, remote locations, against the sheer rugged beauty of the Highland backdrop. 

While the cast were to perform many of the stunts themselves, we also had a number of extra prosthetic cast members – including Wendy’s legs, which travelled between London and Scotland. They stayed with us constantly, becoming a much-loved member of the art department team, along with our stuffed toy stunt spaniel.


Producers BBC Comedy; Idiotlamp Productions
Commissioner Shane Allen
Length 3 x 60 minutes
TX 9pm, Saturdays from 27 February, BBC2
Director Jim Field Smith
Writers Jim Field Smith; George Kay
Executive producers Myfanwy Moore; Jim Field Smith; George Kay
Line producer Maria Cooper
Composer Trond Bjerknes
Director of photography Rob Kitzmann
Editor David Webb
Production designer Jonathan Paul Green
Post-house Molinare (picture post and final mix); Bang Post Production (sound editorial); Final Cut (offline edit)

Jim Field Smith
Director / co-writer / executive producer

Making Stag has taught me five things, which I’d like to pass on to any drama writers:

  1. Never write a show set outdoors.
  2. Unless it’s The Caribbean.
  3. “People talking in rooms” is a perfectly acceptable ambition for a show.
  4. Just because someone says yes to your ridiculous idea, doesn’t mean you should actually go through with it.
  5. Write a show set in a Caribbean hotel.

 

There’s a saying in Scotland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. I think five is generous. On the set of Stag, we came up with a saying of our own: “Four seasons in one take”.

The schizophrenic climate of the Trossachs was just one of the many challenges this production posed. But who can I blame?

I’m no Alejandro Iñárritu, but there were times during the scouting process when I would scurry enthusiastically up the side of some Glen or Ben, pause to take in the epic Highland panorama, only to turn around and see the patient but disbelieving faces of my team. “It’s fine!” I would say, “We just walked up here, no problem.”

Of course, I’m conveniently forgetting that right now there’s only five of us, and soon there’ll be closer to fifty. Then there’s the heavy equipment, the lack of roads, toilets or phone signal.

And let’s not forget: that weather. That rain. Not the heavy rain, although there’s plenty of that. I’m talking about the constant, mizzling, permeating dreich that gets into your bones and drains every last millilitre of morale out of your soul.

 

In fact, this story about a bunch of arrogant Southern idiots being brought to their knees by the forces of nature, was starting to seem autobiographical with every passing moment. It wasn’t long before George Kay and I were ruing the day we’d pitched this preposterous three-parter to Mark Freeland and Shane Allen.

“Sounds great,” they cooed. “Off you pop.” In fact, at every stage of the journey, our absurd plan was met with nothing other than sheer bloody enthusiasm and encouragement. If anything, pushing us to make it bigger, darker, weirder.

Warning bells should have rung when we nipped over the Atlantic to try and drum up some co-production financing but succeeded only in banking a wealth of confused expressions: “You’re going to put yourself through all that pain, and you’re only making three episodes? What’s wrong with you?” came one typical response.

Then we discussed our budget. “That seems a little low, per episode,” drawled another American exec. We gulped and muttered apologetically through our bad teeth: “Erm, that’s the entire series budget”.

So we found ourselves with weeks to go before we started shooting, slashing 20% of our budget, and slicing two weeks off our shoot – just to make it an even more “method” experience.

Besides, what’s the point in having fancy catering if you can’t get it anywhere near the set? That’s what we chuckled to ourselves, daily, as we huddled around a wet sandwich.

Maybe that’s how we got through it all, laughing like demented deniers, screaming in the face of abject discomfort. Actor JJ Feild, half way up a mountain with his shirt off, on the verge of hypothermia, corpsing uncontrollably as Amit Shah gently rubbed Calmex into his nipples.

 

Christiaan Van Vuuren, the consummate Aussie, buried up to his neck in a muddy pit, merrily ad-libbing extra jokes as the midges threatened to eat his face off. Jim Howick aboard a quad-bike, catching a faceful of explosive debris from a too-close-for-comfort pyrotechnic, and screaming with a mix of pain, fear and shear bloody bravado for an astonishing take that made the final cut.

And our crew, every last one of them, beaming faces peeking out of hoods like a hundred Kenny McCormicks, hand-balling cameras, props, costume bags and tea-urns, twisting ankles and sliding on their arses down 45-degree slopes.

It was these people that took the show by the scruff of its neck, between their teeth, like a mighty lioness with a miserable half-drowned cub, and dumped it on the finish line.

But as we finished our rollercoaster shoot, and I eagerly welcomed the dry, warm embrace of David Webb’s editing suite, another chilling realisation hit me. What’s the point of going through all that grief, if audiences just aren’t going to buy into this show, and its vertiginous peaks and troughs of humour and darkness?

So began the final phase of Frankensteining this show to life. Helped in no small measure by the music of Trond Bjerknes – a man who somehow almost understood the tone of the show better than us – we slowly found a mood, a balance, a rhythm that seemed to make sense of all these bizarre images we had created.

The Callsheet Interview by Jonathan Green

This was an interview for the website TheCallsheet.co.uk from November 2011

Q & A with Jonathan Paul Green, Production Designer

Brasseye, Ali G, Mock the Week, Green Wing, QI, Episodes and Smack the Pony. Production Designer Jonathan Paul Green is one of the country's leading creative talents. As well as some of the biggest comedy shows of the last 15 years, Jonathan has also designed Top Gear, Children in Need, Top of the Pops and the MOBO awards.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve literally just finished working on Season 2 of Episodes starring Matt LeBlanc, which we shot in London and LA. Right now I’m working on a few small pilots, getting Top Gear up and running, and have a couple of new possible sitcoms coming soon.

What got you started in the industry?

I left Art School having studied sculpture, and started working in the Spitting Image workshop making puppets.  I also did some prop and model making on Indiana Jones and that basically set me on my course.

 One of your early design jobs was Brasseye, what did you make of it when you read the scripts and what influenced the look you gave it?

Chris Morris had a big hand in the overall look, which was fantastic, because he’s a genius. The scripts were really unusual and surreal, which to be honest, is an absolute dream for being creative, and suited me perfectly having come from a Fine Art background.

You designed The Ali G Show, what can you tell us about the design process and working with someone like Sasha Baron Cohen?

Working with Sasha was a real treat. I felt very privileged. He was at the early stages of his career, but I knew he was destined for great things even then. He has an amazing comic mind, and as with Brass Eye, I had a very free reign to be as creative as possible, with almost nothing being taboo (which is very rare!)

I started by buying loads of American import hip- hop magazines and flicking through for inspiration. The street graffiti vibe was an obvious choice, so I tried to use it sparingly, but there’s so much visual interest in that genre, and nothing could be too bling for Ali-G.

Somehow you seem to get more inspired when you’re working with utterly brilliant characters.

I shared a lot in common with Sasha, and we all had a great deal of fun making Ali-G. The hardest part was not laughing during takes.

 You are asked to design for lots of live shows like Children in Need, the MOBO’s Top of the Pops & Daybreak. What technical and practical considerations go into those creations?

The only difference with a live show, is that there’s no opportunity to change or fix anything once filming starts. It has to be perfect from the get-go, which means making sure the set looks good from all camera angles. There’s a great buzz of excitement around a live show, it’s very different, which can also mean ‘stressful’.

Top Gear has become one of the BBC’s most successful series in the world. How did it go from cuddly magazine show to racing hangar?     

I joined the show about 5 years ago, when they moved from a smaller, set-less warehouse into the bigger hangar they now occupy. I worked with the Director Brian Klein and Exec Producer Andy Willman to come up with a concept that encompassed the Top Gear ethos, whilst still allowing plenty of space for the huge audience. I wanted to design something that was a bit like a museum for Top Gear history that had the grit and grunge of a high-octane car show.

So I designed a series of vehicles on ramps that would be visible above the crowds, painted the huge hangar door and designed an area inspired by Airfix models. The Cool Wall already existed, but it was just a simple board, so I re-designed it with different branding for each section.

I think the show has just evolved and grown into this huge being, which is tremendously popular with women, which is a great testament to Andy Willman’s vision and expertise.

You have designed several long running format shows like QI and Mock the Week. Were you drawn to comedy or was comedy drawn too you? Also, do you wish that you could give those sets an annual make-over?

I think fundamentally, I was drawn to Comedy.  It’s such a fun and exciting genre, and all the people that work in it tend to have a great sense of humour. It’s definitely where I’m happiest.

As far as annual makeovers, once you’ve worked hard to establish a look, it becomes very difficult to change it. The audience become familiar with it and generally gets upset if you change anything.

Once a show has it’s look, it becomes part of the brand, and so any changes are not normally well received. I do sometimes ask to tweak things, and sometimes I’m asked to add things, but normally its because there wasn’t enough money to do everything first time around.

When you are not working, where do you look for inspiration?

It’s actually quite rare that I’m not working! Actually right now is about the quietest I’ve been for ages, and I’m still working.

That’s not through greed or excessive ambition, I just love to be busy with interesting projects.  It’s also more likely that I’m simply terrible at saying no!

Inspiration is the toughest thing to come by, particularly when you need to be inspired to a tight deadline. Thankfully, with the Internet, it’s easier and easier to find things and stumble across new inspiration. I still tend to flick through magazines, but ultimately, it’s a good old pencil and paper that gets my brain into creative mode. I’m a bit ‘old school’ in that respect, but my artistic outlet has always been a sketch book.

Your work flips between studio based projects and location work, do you have a preference?

No, not really. I like to do both. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve never been pigeon-holed as one type of Designer. I would hate to work in just one discipline. I think I’m a bit of a free spirit. I like to be challenged with new and exciting things all the time. Every single job is different, and I love doing things I’ve never done before.

Having said that, studios are always preferable during the winter.

Which set or project are you proudest of and why?

It’s almost impossible to single one out, so I’ll be cheeky and list a few.

I think I’d say Green Wing (right) and Episodes for it’s overall scale and look, and the fact that I was able to successfully make the sets look as real as the locations.

I’d also say Q.i for it’s lovely design (without wanting to be too over self-congratulatory). It’s simple but works so well in the context of the show and is a joy to work on.

And finally the Mobo Awards, because everybody there told me it was the best it had ever looked, and it was an incredible event.

What’s been your best day at work?

That’s a good question.

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked on some great shows with some incredible people.

I’ve had a number of best days at work, but recently, having David Crane (who wrote Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik walk on to my set and tell me it was amazing, has to be one of them.

If you could give a producer one piece of advice about design or the art department, what would say?

Don’t ask Designers to pitch set designs. Meet with them, interview them, discuss the project, and then decide who’s best suited to your team. Or at least after that process, just ask 2 people to offer up set ideas, and pay them for their time. Working collaboratively gives everybody a far better end result.

Asking a designer to pitch one look is as useful as asking a musician to play one note.

What do you look for when getting your team together for a project?  

It’s easy to go for familiarity and to use people you know and trust.

I’m after hard working people with a passion for what they do and a commitment to the job.

I also look for people that will work well together as a team, and people that are proactive. People that will spot a potential problem without me having to point it out to them.

I’m a very fair person, but if people take advantage, I tend to lose faith in them.

It’s a tough demanding job, so being personable and friendly is vital.

If you could change one thing about the UK film and TV industry, what would it be?

Apart from the pitching process in TV Entertainment that I mentioned earlier, I’d really like to see some sort of trainee scheme to help people into the business.

I’d also love to see some tax incentives from the Government to encourage more films to be made in the UK, and finally, I’d like to see TV Broadcasters offer up more money for a second series if a show is successful enough to be brought back, like they do in America, rather than offer Production Companies less money than the first time.

I also wish that people were rewarded more for the efforts across the board, rather than having to deal with crew rates that have stayed the same for the last 10 years.

I know you said “one thing” but how many wishes am I allowed?

What do you do to you relax when you are not working?

I love going away on holiday with my family, and spending ‘normal’ time with them.

I also love walking and hiking. I climbed Kilimanjaro last year, and it’s totally given me the bug.

Is there anyone you would you most like to work with (that you haven’t already)?

I’d love to work with Ricky Gervais, the producers of Modern Family or Terry Gilliam. If not them, I’d be happy with anybody that’s highly creative with a great vision, and a passion for the craft of making shows.

You can find out more about Jonathan and his work on his website. Check his profile page on thecallsheet.co.uk and follow him on twitter @jpgdesign

"So You Want To Work in TV?" Article by Jonathan Green

Taken originally from an interview at TVPeople.info

So You Want To Work in TV

HOW TO GET A JOB IN A TV ART DEPARTMENT

Jonathan Paul Green is a very experienced Production Designer whose credits range from Daybreak and Watchdog to Green Wing and The Chase. Jonathan is obviously a man who knows all about designing the look of a TV programme and he kindly agreed to share his advice to anyone interested in a job in a TV Art Department. And even if you don’t want a job in the art department it wouldn’t hurt to understand how it works. The more you know about roles other than your own in TV the better you are able to communicate with different departments.

Over to Jonathan:

“I often get many emails from people asking me how to get a job in a TV Art Department.

Most people track me down through my website www.setdesign.tv and because it’s really designed as a showcase for my work, doesn’t really offer any advice.
I almost always respond to every email with a short message offering some basic help. It’s very easy to spot the time wasters, and I just don’t write back to them.

The people that are really interested, will write back, and then I know they are serious.

To get into TV, you need to have a passion for it, a yearning to get involved, and willingness to work hard.

I was that person when I started out. I was ambitious then, and would write letters to all sorts of people. Big-Wigs in the Film Industry, celebrities, in fact anybody I thought might be interested in my plight.
Some responded, most didn’t, but I had an enormous spirit to work in the business and achieve something.

Fundamentally, you need to have some skill and some artistic background.
The more you can do, the easier it is to employ you.
It’s good to have some technical drawing skills, and be computer literate.
You need to be artistic and creative.
Being able to drive also helps.
I came from a Fine Art background and taught myself technical drawing, so not every route is the same.

The next most important thing, is that you need to be nice. Getting on with people is a huge part of your work. The rest is ability and talent. Nobody will employ you if you’re not a nice person.

The first thing I would advise, is target the right people.
Don’t write to Directors or Producers or Production Companies.If you want to work in the Art Dept. The people that employ you first off will be Designers. When you’re a Designer, then you can write to Producers.

The best place to start, is your TV. Watch the credits of shows you like, and make a note of the Designers. Then do a google search to see if they have a website.

There’s also a directory called The Knowledge. It’s expensive, so try to borrow one, and get the contact details of Designers that interest you.
I think you can subscribe to it online if you’re not in the business: http://www.theknowledgeonline.com/ or www.kays.co.uk is another directory.

Next, be persistent, but not overly so.

I will almost never meet up with a student or new person unless: a) something remarkable catches my eye in their CV; b) their email has a quality to it that needs following up; c) they badger me.
It’s a very fine line between badgering and becoming a pest, and I’m afraid I can’t tell you what that is. You need to know it yourself, otherwise you’re annoying and I probably won’t want to see you!

Timing is also crucial, and sadly completely out of your hands.
I recently had a CV from a petty cash buyer, three days before I needed to find a new petty cash buyer. Sometimes luck does play a part.

Jonathan Green, Production Designer

Once you’ve made contact with a Designer, it’s important to know that your first job in the business, will not be as a Designer.
I get many emails from people asking how to become a Designer, and they want to get work as a Designer.
You do need to realise that your first job will probably be un-paid, and you’ll be doing runner type work. Be ambitious, but be realistic. In a mixed metaphor kind of way, it’s a long hard road up the ladder.
Write to Designers and say you want to work in the Art Dept. Don’t tell a Designer that’s worked his whole career to become a Designer that you want his job.

I’ve also had letters from people wanting to be Directors….know your target audience.
Also write to people in the type of work you’re interested in.
A Theatre Designer will have not have much work in the LE sector (usually), so research the route you want to take.

I absolutely HATE employing people un-paid. I worked for nothing myself to get started, and its abhorrent, but unfortunately, sometimes it has to be done. Please don’t do it more than once. Twice at a push, but above all, if you don’t value yourself, nobody else will.
The flip side of that, is don’t expect huge wealth. Budgets are getting smaller, and crews are shrinking. It’s not a great time to start off in any business, and the TV Industry is no exception.
You can expect to be paid anything from £350-£450 per week as an art dept assistant starting out.

So in summary:

  • Have the right skills, and have many of them. The more you can do, the easier it is to give you a chance.
  • Write to Designers in the field you’re interested in (TV & Film generally don’t mix).
  • Send an email that shows you’re interested. Be relaxed and be yourself, and show your passion.
  • Be persistent but not pushy or over-confident.
  • Make sure you meet face to face. This is so important I cannot stress it enough.
  • Be willing to work for nothing for your favourite Designer just to get a foot in the door (experience on a job is worth far more than your degree).
  • Research the business, and try to find out what people’s jobs involve.
  • Be willing to work hard and long hours.
  • Have an amenable character.
  • Have a real passion to work in the business.
  • Try to work for a number of Designers if possible to gain a wide range of experience.

I have a really fantastic Art Dept that I use on a regular basis. Consequently, it’s very very hard to get work with me, because I tend to hang on to all the good folk that work with me. Having said that, sometimes some of my team are busy and I need to look elsewhere, and sometimes I’m so busy with jobs that I need more people.
Please feel free to write to me, but I’m afraid I can’t promise to see you or even to employ you. But you never know….

So that’s it. Life in the TV business.
Rewarding, rarely glamourous, arduous, but if it’s your thing, it’s the best job in the world”.

Thank you, Jonathan, and you can find the original of that article on Jonathan’s own site – well worth a look at.

Interview in Offscreen Magazine by Jonathan Green

This was published in Offscreen magazine in April 2009

Jonathan Paul Green – Production Designer

(Recent credits include FM for ITV2, & Horne & Corden for BBC3)

From a very early age, I knew I wanted to work in Theatre or Television.

I always wanted to create ‘worlds’ and environments, so becoming a Designer seemed like an ideal choice..

After leaving school, I went to Art School, doing a 2 year Diploma at Chelsea, and then a 3 year BA (Hons) Fine Art Sculpture degree at St. Martins.

I’ll always remember sending a degree show invitation to Roger Law of Spitting Image, and being absolutely amazed when he actually turned up in person.

There was me, a nobody sculpture student, and Roger Law had turned up to see my work!

We got talking and he told me to write to him in Sept when the new series was due to start, which of course I did, and managed to talk my way into getting my first job in TV working in the Spitting Image workshop.

At that time, Spitting Image was in its heyday, and I felt privileged beyond measure to be a part of it.

I spent a number of years there, becoming their workshop Art Director in a fairly short time, which gave me the overall responsibility of the puppets on set.

During that period, I also worked for a number of model making companies, including Artem and Henson’s Creature Shop, and was even involved in helping to create part of the Temple, in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.

After a while though, it soon became clear to me that Design was the area that I really wanted to move into, and I got myself a job as an Art Director for a number of Designers.

Having a Fine Art background, and a lot of experience making things and being on set gave me a great grounding, and I designed my first set (Rory Bremner’s first TV show for Channel 4 after leaving the BBC) in 1991 at the age of 26, only 4 years after starting work making puppets.

It didn’t seem like such a meteoric rise at the time, but I was ambitious, and hungry to move up the ladder.

And so began my career as a Production Designer. I was always fortunate to work on a huge variety of shows. Pop Promos, a few commercials, a couple of Short Films, and a wide variety of TV Shows, and I would pride myself in being amenable and helpful, and try to get on with everybody.

I’ve also been fortunate to have worked on some very popular shows. I tend to work mostly in the Comedy and Entertainment areas of TV, and have been responsible for the design on Top Gear, Q.i , Ready Steady Cook, Green Wing, Scrapheap Challenge, Smack the Pony & Brass Eye, to name a few.

In fact Q.i is the one set I get most asked about. People are very complimentary about it. I somehow feel it would be hard not to be inspired to design something great, when working with a talent as great as John Lloyd.

More recently, I designed the set for Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie Save Our Bacon” ITV’s FM, which was part location, part large composite recording studio set, and involved building a studio set within a pig barn in Suffolk.

I also designed the new BBC show Horne & Corden staring Mat Horne & James Corden, which was directed by Kathy Burke and Dave Skinner.

Another hugely enjoyable show to make, which was part location sketches and part studio.

My next project is The Kevin Bishop Show for Objective Prods.

I’ve always felt extremely privileged to be doing what I’m doing.

I really love my job with a passion, and am lucky to have worked with some amazing talent, both in front & behind the camera.

It’s the collaboration with exceptional people that keeps me driven and interested.

The Industry has changed enormously since I started in it, and sadly a lot of it for the worse.

There are challenging times ahead, but for as long as there are quality productions around with people who are passionate about making quality TV, then all will be good.