Clio Barnard has made a name for herself, making authentic films focused, mostly, on the working class of northern England. Her new Apple Plus TV series, though, The Essex Serpent, is something of a departure for the award-winning director while remaining at its heart ‘quintessentially Clio’.
Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent tells the story of Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widow and amateur palaeontologist who becomes fascinated by tales of a mysterious sea serpent swimming through the estuaries of Essex. Deciding to investigate the beast, she sets out to the marshes, where she meets Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), the local pastor.
The pair form a quick bond despite their opposing philosophies, but things turn sour when the locals turn on Cora. A gothic romance in the truest sense, The Essex Serpent is a beguiling and absorbing watch, and you can see it yourself on May 13. We enjoyed it so much that when we got the opportunity to sit down with Barnard, we jumped (or should that be ‘dove’) at the chance. Here’s what we spoke about…
The Digital Fix: I’m going to start this interview in a particularly unprofessional way and fanboy a little bit about Ali and Ava. It was magnificent. I mean, like, honest to God, one of my favourite films of the year so far, that’s all I’ll say.
Clio Barnard: That’s really lovely to hear. Thank you so much.
Sorry about that! We’ll start in a very obvious place. What was it about The Essex Serpent that spoke to you as a director?
CB: I was very curious about Cora Seaborne as a character and her coming out of this abusive relationship, then discovering love in all its forms. I was intrigued by the Essex Serpent itself and the idea of this real myth from 1649, I think?
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There was this pamphlet that was printed about this serpent. That and the landscape and kind of the folklore within the landscape, I suppose? And how that impacts people’s psyche. So I think that really, that’s what got me hooked.
It’d be impossible not to believe in monsters living in that boggy mire! This project’s a little different to your previous work like Ali and Ava and The Selfish Giant. You touched earlier on the domestic abuse Cora experiences, which of course, Ava experiences in that film. Was that your way into the series?
CB: It’s couldn’t be more different. It’s television, it’s a period drama, it’s six hours, not 90 minutes. All the other feature films I’ve made have been contemporary, they’ve been set in the north, and they’ve kind of, in a way come from making The Arbor.
That’s really inspired by Andrea Dunbar and by getting to know a group of people in the North of England, who were working-class people and wanting to put the stories of the people that I met and got to know on the big screen.
This is very, very different. But I suppose the similarities are there. It’s about a woman who’s been in this very abusive relationship, discovering love in all its forms. I think there is something similar to what happens to Ava.
In terms of what’s happening for her. And I think the other thing that, that probably links, the work is, is landscape and nature, especially thinking of The Selfish Giant, I suppose the role that might play in people’s lives.
Was it intimidating coming from features to TV? Because like you say, you’re going from making a 90 minute, maybe a two-hour piece to all of a sudden, six hours?
CB: Yes. Is the short answer [laughs] Yeah, it was a challenge. Yeah, it was. Like, how do you keep six episodes in your head at the same time? How do you manage all of those different storylines, and all of those different relationships and all these different characters?
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I suppose, in terms of the team, the stamina that you need to shoot for that long, you know, like a six-month shoot rather than a six-week shoot? You know, there are so so many different things. I could go on [laughs].
I’m curious then. Did you approach things differently? Did you go in with a ‘features mindset’ to begin with? Then slowly realise, ‘Oh, wait, no, this isn’t going to work?’ Or was it that you knew it was going to be a different beast from the beginning?
CB: I think from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a different beast. I think in other ways, me and the team sort of approached it, like a six-hour feature in some ways. I mean, certainly, in terms of the schedule we were shooting, we were shooting it more like a feature film than to a TV schedule.
You know, in week one, we have bits from episode one, and then bits from Episode Six. So you had to kind of think across the whole arc of the character, the whole arc of the story, all at the same time, if you see what I mean.
So we decided to approach it like that. Like, you would have a feature film and I suppose also, it’s quite unusual also for one director to direct all six episodes. So it’s the same creative team for the whole thing. There was a kind of coherence to it.
Also, I loved collaborating with David Raedeker, the cinematographer; Alison Armington, who was the production designer; Jane Petri, who designed the costumes; and Lucia Zucchetti, the editor. So I think, I think in our mindset, it was a six-hour feature.
I adored the show’s traditional gothic tone. It’s spooky but romantic was it easy to strike that gothic balance?
CB: It was a very tricky balance to strike because there’s this love story in kind of series of love triangles, or friendship triangles. It’s quite complex in terms of the different characters and all of their different relationships.
That’s very absorbing, in a way, in terms of the work that I was doing with the cast, but in terms of a sort of storytelling, it’s a challenge, I suppose. It can kind of pull you away from them or gothic elements, I suppose. So there was a kind of constant rebalancing that had to happen whilst we were shooting and then again when we were editing.
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I suppose the landscape and the serpent and the villagers who believe in it, and especially Naomi are the other Gothic within the story. Then we’ve also got what’s going on for Cora in terms of her demons.
So yeah, keeping that atmosphere alive and with all of the tools that are at your disposal, like the sound design, Tim bark has a very intricate sound design and the score by Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir.
One of the best things about the show is something you rarely see in TV and film, the blurry line between friendship and love, and how you can love someone in a platonic way. Life is messy, and human relationships are messy. How much did you enjoy exploring that in Cora’s life? Because while I was watching it, this felt like it was one of your main focuses.
CB: That’s a brilliant question and maybe another crossover in a way between Ali and Ava. This exception is what the cinematographer of Ali and Ava called ‘the messiness of real life’, you know?
There’s a kind of possessiveness sometimes, or jealousy within friendships, as well as in romantic or sexual love. There’s a lovely bit in between Martha and Cora, where Martha is interested in Cora, without trying to give too much away, and Cora realises she’s jealous about a growing friendship of Martha’s.
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I think what Sarah Perry (the author) does really well, and what Anna Symon (the screenwriter) did really well, in her adaptation of the novel, is kind of keep all of those threads alive in terms of the nuances of all those different love and friendship triangles that are going on.
I will have to ask you a little bit about Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. What was it like working with them?
CB: Completely brilliant. Yeah, they’re wonderful, both of them. And yeah, at a certain point, it felt a bit unrealistic that we’d have them standing on the marshes up to their knees, ankles, and thighs in mud.
But they were amazing both of them and absolutely 100% committed and just got really stuck in and did a kind of deep dive into those people that they were playing. Yeah, it was a really wonderful experience.
You mentioned the mud. What was it like shooting there on the marshes?
CB: Oh, it was quite a challenge! The tide, you know, the landscape is transformed when the tide is out and when it’s in, which meant there were certain practical challenges with that to do with continuity and how long it takes to shoot a scene and how long it takes for the tide to come in.
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We went to work on a boat which was fun! It was really fun going to work on a boat to get us to the island and back again. Yeah, I mean, I remember Claire’s skirt, just got absolutely soaked in mud, it was so heavy ! Then the amount of running that Lily, who plays Naomi, had to do and Gerrard, who plays Henry ended up running across the marsh. There’s a lot of running on very, very unstable ground.
There was a scene with Henry and Niomi where we had a marine team who would constantly watch the tide and our first AD constantly watching the tide. But visually, it was beautiful, and David Raedeker did such a fantastic job with the cinematography. There are so many reflections, it kind of offers up something very eerie and strange and beautiful.
Episodes 1 and 2 of The Essex Serpent are available to stream from May 13, 2022.