Director of Channel 4's Utopia Chats About their Visual Aesthetic, Violence, Controversy

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Utopia’s director, Marc Munden, chatted to Den Of Geek readers about Utopia's distinctive style, its superb series 2 opener, and more…

In the swish screening room underneath Channel 4’s London headquarters, Utopia director Marc Munden chatted to a group of Den Of Geek readers after a preview screening of the first two surprising, stunning episodes of series two. Catch up on what was said, from big yellow bags to moral quandaries, rhino dung and more…

That first episode is quite a bold one insofar as it has none of the characters as we know in it, how hard was that to get past the channel? Was there much debate about doing it that way?

I think people were sceptical and then when Dennis started to write it people just got behind it. Once Dennis had written it, everyone just came on board and it just got better and better. It’s a difficult one because it just comes out of the blue. In retrospect what it does is give the series an emotional heart which the rest of the episodes riff off, so you see where Jessica has come from and where Arby’s come from. For me, it feels like a love story, I always thought, this is Dennis writing a love story because it’s about their mutual passion over the ideology, but it’s also about Carvel’s love for Jessica and the love between he and Milner.

To have a returning series come back with no-one you recognise is quite a brave thing to do.

I think that’s why we’re doing it on Monday and Tuesday [episode two of the new series airs tonight, Tuesday the 15th of July at 9pm], so people can then reorient themselves on Tuesday.

Your directorial style is quite contrary to where everyone else is going. At a point where a lot of television is going faster and faster, you’re using methods like stillness, keeping your subject in the centre of the frame and letting your camera creep. Did you look at what everyone else was doing and go off in the other direction? Was that a very conscious choice?

I don’t think it’s really a reaction to television. It was something that I wanted to do just because I enjoy working with actors and working within the scenes and I wanted to present something where it allowed the performances to breathe a bit more and also allowed the camera to do things. There are a lot of horror and thriller tropes in the grammar of Utopia and I wanted those to be allowed to breathe.

On the subject of performances, what on earth did you do to baby Arby to get those reactions in the opening episode?

Those reactions are sort of four seconds out of forty minutes of filming. We used all sorts of techniques – iPads slung underneath the camera that he’s staring at, Thomas The Tank Engine, Toy Story, all those things were going on. It was a lot of dead time and a lot of tears and mum being on set.

If you have very young children in the cast, you can only have them on the set for an hour at a time, maybe two hours, it’s very strict. We were initially promised twins and then of course when they turned up, they weren’t identical twins [laughter], so we got a lot of the rushes with a completely different looking young Arby, which we realised after a couple of days was just not going to work. We may have filmed the back of his head at some point. A lot of dead time, though, a lot of dead time.

When we talk about Utopia, the moral dimension of whether the Network right or wrong in their long-term aims is what comes up. How did you approach amping that discussion up in the second season?

This is really Dennis writing that question of ‘what do we do about population control?’ He’s having the argument with himself I think, throughout this series. That’s what this series is about. We feel we can’t go on like this on a planet that can’t support that many people, but how do we address it? Obviously, the Network’s method for this, which is to forcibly sterilise people, is not satisfactory [laughter], but how else do you address it? That moral argument is what this series is about. It’s played out through which characters take which side, we saw Wilson Wilson coming around to the Network’s side in series one, and there are more surprises to come as we go through.


Series two is looking beautiful with Utopia’s characteristic strong visual style, graphic novel-style framing, and innovative colour palette, and the first episode in 4:3. How much has your direction been influenced by the script and what was the interaction between the directing style of the first episode of series two and the subject matter?

For the first episode in particular, Dennis had wound the fictional story in with the real conspiracy theories around the death of Airey Neave and so on. I knew that we’d be using quite a lot of archive footage so it was a really simple, practical way of binding it in with the archive footage because it’s in 4:3. But then having done that, we started to look at the archive footage and it’s all in different mediums, some tape, bits of film, 16mm film, and it was a question of trying to get a look which bound them all together.

There were a lot of influences. William Eggleston, a 1970s photographer who did some great stuff, John Hinde who did these wonderful pictures of Butlins and Nostalgic Ireland where the colours sort of bleed out – we used those as models – and then we actually graded the archive footage to look like that. Essentially, it probably is very similar to the 2:35 [aspect ratio], the widescreen stuff, in terms of its framing. It’s a different piece anyway. There’s less humour in it but there’s more emotion. It feels slightly different but in terms of the aesthetic it’s probably quite similar apart from the colour grading and the aspect ratio.

What did you do in terms of shooting and editing to make this look distinctively different to anything else that’s on TV?

I don’t look at other drama and go, how can we make it different? There were very clear things that I wanted to do when I first saw the scripts for the first series. Because it was funny, it was really important to me to cast people who could do comedy. There weren’t lots of gags but there was a lot of wry humour and it was really important to me to bring out all that humour even though the subject matter was really, really dark. I think what you get is that tension between the humour and the tension and violence brings you into this absurdist landscape, a sort of heightened feel. I think that’s what’s different.

Obviously, I wanted to make it colourful. Somebody said to me recently, was that a way of making the darkness and violence more palatable, and I wish I could say ‘Yes! I absolutely thought about that’, but actually it was just a way of trying to heighten the landscape. When I read it first of all, I had this idea that it was obviously set in the real world, because the issues about the population explosion and GM crops and that sort of experimentation were very real. So it felt in some ways that we were in the real world, but behind the scenes. It was a bit like being on the North London line and seeing the houses from the back, things that you’ve never seen before. It was an attempt to see that real world in a very different way.

Then there were big influences from Polanski’s early films and Kubrick’s one point perspective framing. The Polanski thing was the big reference for me, with the humour and the darkness at the same time. It’s probably a combination of all those things. The music’s quite different as well, the music’s quite quirky so it’s probably the cumulative effect of all of those things.

About the music, how did you come to select Cristobal Tapia de Veer as a composer?

Cristobal hadn’t really done that much film music before when I first met him on a series for the BBC, The Crimson Petal And The White, and I had a really good experience with him. I used to do all the music for my films myself in the beginning and I’m very hands on so for me, working with him was a bit like going back to the start. My first film I did it in a 24 track studio with a mate and we did everything, all the music, all the sound effects. So it felt a bit like I’d found a soul mate again that I could make music with. I was determined to work with him on this. So we brought him over from Canada - he lives in Montreal - for the first series of Utopia and he lived in a little bedsit and drove himself completely crazy.

He’s classically trained, he went to a conservatoire in Montreal and has a completely orthodox musical background. When I met him he was a producer who made dance music. I knew that I wanted the music to be quite uplifting in some sort of way and he actually recorded a whole album of stuff - samples and things - before we started cutting. In that, there were a lot of stuff with drones - we use a lot of drones on the soundtrack - and we took elements of those from this thirty minute album of pop songs he’d made, there were no lyrics but lots of samples and we took the quirkiest bits of that for the first series.

Then this time he came over and it was a lot of analogue stuff. The first time he came over he bought a bit of rhino dung and a bone that he’d found and the rest was all samples. He played that first Utopia tune with chopsticks on the rhino dung - God knows how he got it through customs - and this time he brought a lot of old-fashioned synths with him so the music’s different but still uses a lot of the same samples.


Was making the music more analogue this time around a conscious choice with regards to the first episode being set in the seventies?

That’s how it started. Cristobal was like, ‘you’re making stuff from the seventies, we’ve got to use synths!’ and that’s how it started.

We shot episode two first, we shot episode one last. We shot episode two, then three then one, then we cut them, which is what determines the order of the music, so we cut episode one first.

Going back to the first episode, how much of the deliberate backstory was there so that anyone who hadn’t seen Utopia series one could still enjoy Utopia series two?

It’s an interesting question and something I was thinking about when we were cutting it. There are obviously lots of Easter Eggs in there for those that have seen the first series - whether it’s fully self-explanatory I just don’t know because I know the first series too well, so I don’t know whether if you come to the second series and watch it for the first time.

I think it takes you for a ride, you’ll probably come away with questions and you probably won’t get the full impact of who Christos is for instance. Hopefully you go on a ride and hopefully it’s self-explanatory but I think definitely if you see the first series then you get all those little references that follow you.

With all the violence, child violence and rewriting history, has there been anything editorially that’s been difficult to put on the show or anything you’ve had to change?

No, I don’t think so. I think we haven’t changed anything really editorially. I think this series is much more... it’s better this time around, it’s clearer and the story’s stronger and it’s more audacious in lots of ways but you’ll still have the same shocks and surprises, hopefully, nothing’s been... we haven’t pulled our punches at all.

I need to know if you’ve got any household pets?

[Laughter] Not anymore.

Series two seems to have more notable graphic violence than the first series. Was that a conscious decision?

I’m not sure it was more graphically violent. More graphically violent than the eye torture? One wants to make something that has people right on the edge of their seat but not totally disgusted by it, that’s the art. It’s difficult, people react in different ways to violence, some people have got a bit more intolerance to it, so it’s difficult to gauge. I think we have a very strong idea of not glorifying violence, because all the violence has its knock-on effects in the series, and you see the way it affects Alice in the first series, you see the effect it’s had on Arby. So I think it’s all taken quite seriously, it’s just how much we show of it. I don’t think it’s more graphic in this one.

The message seems less subtle in this series, it’s pretty clear who you hate - a specific Prime Minister…

Those are little added extras, the idea that the Network may have been responsible for Thatcher is Dennis’ little joke. I don’t think that’s at the heart of the piece. I think essentially, the central conceit about disseminating Janus is just as complex and will have just as many twists and turns. The central conceit of the first episode is taken from history because those things happened very soon after one another in the spring of 1979, and Dennis just wove them together.

Can you tell us why you used the red title sequence in the first episode of series two?

It’s quite instinctive, that sort of thing. For the first series, Dennis had written the yellow bag and I was determined it was going to be like a massive yellow bag, a fuck-off yellow bag, and once we got the yellow bag, lots of things sparked off that. Normally when you show the cut to execs and things you might have a bit of a rough ident, but we made the ident white on yellow and everyone said they really loved it and that became a big thing then. With the first new episode, it was like it feels a bit darker, it feels a bit seventies so we did red on black.

Where can you buy the yellow bag?

You can’t! They’re all made for us now. The first one was doctored from a scuba diving shop, but they’re made for us now.

In the last series, I had to bring the bag into town for an ADR session and I was going to my local tube station and the guard stopped me and said ‘hey, where are you going? I said, I’m going to work, and he said That bag... It’s the Utopia bag! Can I have a photo?’, The gas canister happened to be in it because we were using it for sound so I got that out for the picture.

Have you had any influence on HBO’s American version of Utopia, or has that had any effect on where the UK series is going in this series or in future?

Dennis Kelly and Jane Featherstone, who is the exec producer, have talked. It’s being written by Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, which David Fincher directed and has just directed bits of the series. Dennis is not really involved in it. They’ve seen the episodes, they’ve seen the scripts, they’ve seen part of this series as well and they’re just going to get on with it. I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued as to what they’ll make of it. But it hasn’t gone out there yet.

Is the story of the Network concluded at the end of this series?

You’ll just have to watch and see.

Marc Munden, thank you very much!


What did you think of the two-part premiere, ONTD? Anton is Carvel, y/y?

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