Billed as a smart, sophisticated thriller, Carnival Films' Midnight Man is the latest drama to air on a network fast building a reputation for upmarket ambition, even if success, so far, has been somewhat limited.
The ITV1 three-parter starring James Nesbitt and Catherine McCormack is part of a new spate of dramas inspired by the war against terror and Iraq which include ITV1's recent Whistleblowers, BBC1's The Last Enemy and The State Within - all characterised by themes of espionage, conspiracy theories and dirty dealing in high places.
Writer David Kane admits that he and executive producer Gareth Neame from Carnival were very much influenced by 1970s conspiracy thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation when coming up with the show's theme of a lone journalist unravelling a tale of corporations with a secret, vested interest in global conflict.
“These films were all inspired by Vietnam and were a reaction to the paranoia and lies that characterised that war,” reveals Kane. “In Britain today we are in a similar situation where a lot of people don't trust what the government says [about the war in Iraq]. Some people believe that the motives for the war were genuine - others that it was all about oil or arms sales.”
“There are vested interests that are definitely keen on fanning the flames of conflict,” declares Kane. “Spending on defence shot up after 9/11 and a lot of people have profited - there has always been war profiteering and it's something people have always found distasteful - Midnight Man is about the extremes that people will go to keep their businesses ticking over.”
Neame, who also oversaw The Whistleblowers at Carnival and The State of Play and Spooks during his BBC days, is less keen on talking up Midnight Man's politics - probably because the “P” word is not always synonymous with blockbuster ratings.
“Saying Midnight Man is political is like saying the Bourne trilogy are political films,” argues Neame. “It's not really a political drama - it's a thriller where you root for a strong, well-drawn and original character who is put through extremes.”
In fact, when the idea for a series based around Kane's character of Max Raban, a failed investigative journalist with the debilitating psychological disorder phengophobia - an abnormal fear of daylight which reduces him to rummaging in dustbins at night for tabloid titbits - the “P” word wasn't mentioned.
The intrigue was added later on when Kane came across an article in an Italian newspaper about a group of ex-soldiers, police and security experts who tried to set up an organisation targeting Islamists who they felt were a threat to Western democracy. “They tried to get money from the CIA but were all caught and arrested. But it gave me the idea of coming up with an organisation which did a similar thing, only more successfully,” says Kane.
Nesbitt was one of a handful of names considered for the role of Raban. His enthusiasm for the project and its “unusual hero” and the fact that he “felt right” helped secure him the role according to Neame, although it is unlike any other he has played. “James has a very comedic, accessible, everyman quality ,” says Neame. “[In Midnight Man] we see a dryer, wryer humour from him than we have seen before.”
By working in the middle of winter, costs could be kept down by working half days instead of a full night shoot, with the crew starting in the afternoon and working through the evening, finishing around 11pm.
One of veteran thriller director David Drury's first tasks was paring down the number of locations to a more manageable number given the number of shooting days the budget allowed. Says Drury, who directed award-winning 1985 thriller Defence of the Realm: “When you have a fixed amount of time and money you have to focus the mind. There can be a virtue in embracing strict parameters.
“Initially the shoot included 49 locations - there were days where the whole unit was set to move three or four times. But [producer] Alan Wands and I got our heads together and decided on what could be melded together... turning three locations into two with the same script. That way it became far more efficient.”
This gave Drury and his actors more time for on-location rehearsals - a Drury trademark. “I'm a great believer in rehearsals to find the characters,” he explains. “I work a specific way, sitting down in ‘family groups' with the actors and script and talking about relationships. I go onto the set with just myself and the actors and nobody else, so that they get to know the space. Only when we are comfortable will I invite the crew in.”
The one character which didn't need much rehearsal time was what Drury calls “the metropolis”. “I wanted to try and capture the feeling of London as a character, but without the clichés - Big Ben and all that. I wanted to give Max Raban and the action a contemporary urban edge in an environment which was recognisably London without looking ‘film noir'.”
According to director of photography Simon Richards the aim was that the photography for Midnight Man should look classically warm and rich - rather than adopting the “cool, dark mood” of the contemporary urban thriller. “The photography was classic: a warm and rich colour palette rather than desaturating the colours as has been the trend in thrillers in recent years.
“We also set it up as a one-camera shoot and filmed in a classical, formal way, avoiding the fast, handheld type of thriller camera movement so familiar these days. Our visual reference was The Godfather - rich colour and classical style with no trickiness.”
Film was favoured over HD, which Carnival has used on dramas such as Hotel Babylon and the forthcoming Tender Loving Care. “It's still the best medium,” says Richards, who insists that HD is a term hijacked by tape, which can just as well be applied to film. “It's the highest definition there is, which gave us the greatest latitude at night on the street with a small lighting package.”
Pick-ups and establishing shots were grabbed on the hoof where the opportunity arose rather than having a second unit team. “I had assistant cameraman/focus puller Jim Jolliffe, who I use as a second unit cameraman. There were times where he was able to find a spot and pick those shots off. Sometimes after wrap Jim and I would grab a set of legs and go off and shoot scenes of London after everybody had gone home: traffic, bridges and buildings - that kind of thing.”
Sound was also important for establishing the metropolitan feel, with Bafta-winning sound man Steven Phillips (Anna Karenina) under pressure to capture both the dialogue and the sounds of the city. “David [Drury] loves up-front sound effects and impressed on me that he wanted the characteristic noise of the city,” recalls Phillips.
“We recorded on a six-track Fostex PD6, splitting all the mics down so in the dub they could fiddle to their hearts' content if they weren't happy with my mix. I also included a mic which was offset or outside so that we had a wild track the sound editor could use to lay those effects again without having to source them elsewhere.”
Dialogue had to be recorded first time with Phillips doubling up on boom operators so that dialogue from off camera characters could be recorded. “David didn't like us to get in the way of characters' performances so we had to mic both sides for off-camera conversation because he wanted to have the option of bringing in dialogue overlaps.
“We had to stand back quite a bit and not get in the actors' faces. The last thing David wanted was for us to go up to actors and fiddle with their mics all the time.”
For Drury one of the biggest dangers with conspiracy thrillers is getting immersed in the politics rather than character and storytelling. “There's a danger of becoming agit-prop, trying to sell a particular political message which is suicidal. With Midnight Man what I've tried to deliver is entertainment.”
In that respect, Drury feels that TV has some advantages over cinema. “Although you don't have the budget, TV allows you to tackle certain issues that you can't in cinema. It gives you the time to focus on character and storytelling.”
Rise of conspiracy
David Kane's Max Raban is the latest in a series of heroic investigators who end up at the centre of international conspiracies.
A failed hack, who has had to resort to rummaging through bins to uncover tacky tales to sell to the tabloids, Raban redeems himself when he stumbles on a much bigger story.
State of Play, screened on BBC1 in 2003, was one of the first of the new generation of political thrillers. In it reporter Cal McCaffrey follows a murderous trail at the heart of government, while more recently Tony Marchant's ITV1 series Whistleblowers featured two lawyers delving into the dirty linen of our biggest institutions.
Midnight Man exec producer Gareth Neame, who has been involved in all three series, has always been interested by conspiracies. “I've been fascinated by small people trying to fight back against big organisations - it's wonderful meat for drama.”