From locations to extras, shot selection to music choice, we wanted to deliver a working class story that goes against the grain, says Nick Murphy
Production company World Productions
Commissioners Anne Mensah, Lizzie Gray
Length: 6 x 60 minutes
TX Sky Atlantic/Now TV, from 28 February
Executive producers Simon Heath, Jessica Sykes, Lennie James
Director Nick Murphy
Producer Patrick Schweitzer
Writer/creator/lead actor Lennie James
Director of photography Chas Bain
Post-production The Farm, Narduzzo Too
”Shark dicks, Nick! It’s all about shark dicks!” That’s what Lennie James said to me when we first met nearly two years ago.
He was explaining why he’d chosen to devote much of the first 10 pages of Save Me to a heated debate in a Rotherhithe pub about whether sharks have one penis or two.
It was clear what he meant: “We start as we mean to go on.”
That scene, that messy, exuberant clatter of dialogue, would not only be the first scene we filmed; it was to become shorthand for what we wanted to bring to the entire show.
So what does ‘shark dicks’ represent? Well, for one, it’s an arresting opening. Across the board, I wanted us to confound expectation in our design, blocking, performances, pace and emotional weight, even the shot selection and music choices.
I didn’t want any of it to feel like a drama you’d seen before. In fact, if anyone who was watching the show paused it at any point, I don’t believe they would be able to predict what was going to happen in the next 10 minutes or even 10 seconds. Of all the things that make me proud of this production, this tops the list.
But that ‘shark dicks’ scene is also about the idiosyncrasy, warmth and wit that we worked so hard to cram into the series. Why are dramas set in and around housing estates always so damn grim?
In real life, I don’t pretend many of them aren’t grim as housing standards go, often scandalously so, but working class communities on television almost always lack the colour and visual diversity they’re packed with.
Setting the tone
In Save Me, we run these scenes alongside, and inside, the most serious of dramatic situations. Why have a background extra walking discreetly by when we could have a man in pyjamas with his shopping, a woman in a burka stealing a sneaky vape underneath her veil, a bruiser on a hover-board, or some elderly Sikhs playing rugby with a plastic bottle?
Whatever the schedule and financial pressure to drop these things, we resisted. And it plays a huge part in the tone of the show.
This process ended up delivering more than we bargained for. As Lennie’s character Nelly makes his way through the estate, I wanted a naked bloke on a high balcony to be howling like a wolf. It’s got nothing to do with the story; it’s just that there’s a guy near me who howls outside his house when he’s bored and I guess I wanted to tip my hat to that.
What we didn’t foresee is the effect this would have on the dogs in the estate. Almost at once, they all erupted into barks and howls themselves, from all over the estate. Lennie just went with it.
Although his character is entering a kind of hell, it still felt right that he would laugh at the lunacy of the situation – a naked wolf-man leading a dozen dogs in a mad chorus. I loved it so much I used them again later in the series at a critical moment in the story, but I can’t honestly claim that was my idea.
Location and design play a massive role in expressing the vibrancy and verisimilitude of the world. I wanted to use real places, with real views out of windows, those real in-your-face murals that nice middle-class areas lack.
Production designer Melanie Allen and her team transformed the abandoned flats we found in Stratford into bold expressions of each character. As with the ‘look at me’ extras, it takes huge bravery to go with many of the choices she made.
Nick Murphy - my tricks of the trade
- Announce at the read-through that the production won’t tolerate bullying. I’ve done it on the past five jobs and it sets the tone.
- On set, act as if your mother was there.
- Only employ nice people. Seriously.
- Relax. There are five great films to be made from any decent script. You only need to make one of them.
I’ve seen a few shows where the desire to lift the mood has produced something so colourful it looks more like a sitcom than real life. That’s ridiculous, but as the portrait work of Scottish photographer Niall McDiarmid shows so beautifully, these aren’t places of an exclusively glum, grey palette.
We went with individual hits of colour and even codified them to certain characters: Nelly is yellow, Teens is pink, Zita is red, Claire is pale blue and so on.
Whenever their characters are discussed or relevant to the scene, a hit of their accent colour features in shot. It’s a game, but one that helps define our world.
Getting this stuff right in a production requires everyone ‘top-to-bottom’ to get the point. And everyone did. Everyone knew what ‘shark dicks’ meant, even if we couldn’t agree on how many they had.
LOCATION HUNTING: KEEPING IT REAL
Patrick Schweitzer - producer
Lennie James’ remarkable, vibrant scripts were just crying out for distinctive but real London locations. We realised we would need to assemble Nelly’s world out of component parts: his housing estate, the local pub (his second home), the strip joint where he works.
Few of these are sitting there on location websites.
Obviously, the dwindling number of suitable unit base sites can make London filming a headache, but even at scouting stage, it’s not straightforward. Yet the huge amount of time required to get around the city was a godsend.
Nick Murphy and I had our most fruitful and creative conversations sitting in bad traffic, and it was then that an understanding of the world we wanted Save Me to occupy started to emerge.
Finding a pub that wasn’t on a busy high street but had room around it for lighting and equipment wasn’t easy, but the Palm Tree in Mile End worked out perfectly.
Nelly’s estate exterior was found in south-east London, but the extent of control that designer Melanie Allen needed pushed us to find some unused flats in Stratford and Acton to act as interiors.
Small flats meant the crew had to squeeze into tight and often unheated spaces. A protocol developed for who could move where and when. It became a kind of weird and efficient ballet – except the dancers were wearing fleeces and polar jackets.
As some of the places were on the tenth and eleventh floors, and the only lift tended to be used for equipment, everyone got a regular staircase workout, too.
But it was absolutely worth it. Forget green-screen nonsense – we got real views from windows and, more importantly, the unfakeable awkwardness of real locations.
Nick and I had wanted the spaces to bully us a little rather than us having it all our own way. Across the show, it produces a magic that we don’t believe could have been found in studio.