Funded by Grand Scheme Media & Creative Skillset, I’m running a series of very affordable 2 day script-editing workshops, with some excellent, experienced guest screenwriters, around the UK between May & July 16th (in Belfast, London, Cardiff, Bristol, Salford & Glasgow). More details, & how to book can be found on the TRAINING NEWS page of the Grand Scheme Media website http://grandscheme.tv/
This week, my notes from a BAFTA event I went to in February, a preview screening of the opening episode of CRITICAL, followed by an interview with writer / producer JED MERCURIO and two of the show’s lead actors, LENNIE JAMES and PRASANNA PUWANARAJA. They were interviewed by CHRIS CURTIS from Broadcast.
(By the way at most of these BAFTA events, as well as being interesting and entertaining, they give you FREE DRINKS afterwards!)
I think CRITICAL is a really interesting – and excellent – show. A very bold attempt to re-think the genre of medical drama. And it was a brave decision by Sky to commission this as a 12 episode series. Like all Jed Mercurio’s work, it’s innovative, ambitious and the quality of the story-telling is strong and original.
CC: CRITICAL is more akin to a factual format, being about the ‘golden hour’.
JM: I don’t equate it with a factual format. My pitch was ‘ER meets 24’. The sense of being in real time, an immersive experience, rather than cutting away. So, if a patient’s unstable, we take it to the max. Intensive, visceral, emphasised by having nothing to cut away to.
LJ: We were doing a lot blind, learning as we went along. ‘Going to the moon’ – we didn’t know what it would be like. Just about playing the moment. At the start it was striking how much as actors we didn’t know what we were talking about!
PP: Some of the longer takes were 20 minutes long, multi-camera, incredible crew. We’d go into a take knowing we’d come out the other end with one act of the show. Then unwind for 45 minutes before doing it again. If you screw up as an actor 15 minutes in…! There’s the pressure on the characters helped by the pressure on the actors.
JM: A decision was made early in the process to have them talk like real professionals. We know enough – the audience’s basic understanding of human physiology. eg not explaining the blood gases just PP saying ‘Shit’ in response to what he’s reading. There’s an authentic texture. If we explained things, it would hit a bit of a bum note. There are ways of doing it but the show is at its best when it’s driving forward relentlessly. I need to pay tribute to the cast and crew. Actors had to learn to do the procedures, and get comfortable with them.
PP: actually worked as a junior doctor for 2 years before becoming an actor, and was involved in trauma calls. He said – the set was so hyper-authentic in the detail. Also hyper-contemporary. It’s a show about developments in critical care coming out of current battlefield medicine. In the show when Lennie James’ character arrives in the story at the start of ep.2, the characters have to get up to speed – it’s about actual life and death, not academic considerations.
JM: Real time in that situation, if it takes the ‘fast bleep’ team 5 minutes to get to operating theatre, that can be the longest 5 minutes of your life. We play on that in the drama. We stay with the characters for that 5 minutes. However sophisticated the medium, we’re still dealing with human behaviour and institutions.
LJ: There are set areas in which we tell the story. There’s a complicated and powerful love story while we’re going about our working lives. It’s important to me that it’s my hands doing the operation. It became about us becoming a team, shooting it with crew working the prosthetics, lot of people learning as we went along.
CC: One of the things we don’t learn is about the patients.
JM: I don’t recognise the traditional medical drama’s ‘talking cure’ from real life. We went for something much more primal. We all have the humanity to want to fight for life. For the hour of the show, it’s about the team fighting for a life. There’s no room for anything else, and there’s nothing that would make it any more dramatic. We find out tiny things that are magnified. As audience, we are rooting for the team rather than rooting for the patient.
PP: If you work in any field for ten years, it begins not to affect you in the same way. It’s also a defence mechanism – you can’t afford to get personally involved in every case – you need to loiter and have a ‘twix’ moment at times.
LJ: I was staggered by how skilful the real medics are, and how they share their skills with us so openly and generously.
JM: We made the decision to not have the presence of the lead character for most of the first episode – the end of episode hook is that he’s going to come into this world and make it something better. When Lennie James’ character arrives, we’re already thinking ahead.
LJ: To prepare, the actors became medical students for two weeks, and throughout the series, we each had mentors. I spent one day with a surgeon in 7 operations. The brilliant thing was that the medial advice was so specific. For every story, we had someone on set who knew about the procedure we were doing.
JM: The idea was to replicate the cutting edge of medicine. And it was an aesthetic decision to make the unit in the show as hi-tech as was credible within the current NHS.
The script was the blue-print for the shoot. But there were things that happened beyond that in rehearsal, in the shoot, in post-production. It was a constantly on-going editorial process.
Every episode is meant to be different and distinctive – episode one is probably the least gory!
For the editor, there were sometimes 5 cameras running at 1 time on a scene therefore a lot of coverage. Editors had to try and make sense of everything that was happening.
What helped with my medical background was knowing that it would be possible – and to impart that to the other writers that came on board. I did 6 months of trauma work in the early ‘90’s – so I had to do the training too – and put what I learnt into the scripts.
The other writers could see that level of detail and had to write likewise. When the writers embraced the technical aspects, and worked at it, saw it through, they did a fantastic job.
With 13 episodes, you need a lot of really good ideas (about trauma medicine). If someone pitched a good idea we went for it, regardless of the depth of their CV. There’s a minimum of psychological and emotional overlay to the medical action. Having 13 episodes allowed us to play emotions and action together.
Until next week,
All the best
April 24th 2015