Susanna White: Reigning at this Parade

Maggie Brown
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The expensive and sophisticated BBC/HBO co-production Parade’s End delivers a call to arms to costume drama. As Maggie Brown discovers, it also presented challenges for the woman at its helm, Generation Kill director Susanna White

Parade’s End, the BBC2 period drama that may be the tasteful literary adaptation to unmask Downton Abbey as a soap opera, required an especially experienced director to weave its starry cast together and bring an often meandering narrative into focus.

The epic saga is loosely based around the cataclysm of the First World War, which the central character endures. But it is more truly focused on a destructive marriage and an anguished love triangle, with an enthralling Rebecca Hall playing damaged wife Sylvia to buttoned-up aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, played in stiff upper-lipped style by Benedict Cumberbatch.

So the task needed someone able to interpret Tom Stoppard’s script, adapted from Ford Madox Ford’s novels, while controlling a shifting cast of 110 actors of varying levels of stardom and experience, on 146 sets in England and Belgium, without letting it become disjointed.

Accordingly, the BBC and HBO – main funders of the £13 million, five-part series – turned to Susanna White, 51, whose career has taken off like a rocket in the past eight years. She is hard to pigeonhole, with work including the BBC-led adaptation of Jane Eyre in 2006, the acclaimed Bleak House, produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark, as well as her award-winning Generation Kill for America’s HBO in 2008. Finally, in 2010, came her break into movies with Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. She was on a list of just five trusted directors that HBO drew up for Parade’s End, alongside a demand for casting at a very starry level.

“It took me a long time to emerge. I’m afraid I put it down to being a woman,” she says of her slow start. “Even after 12 years of making documentaries for the BBC, I still found it very hard to get work, even to get on to the drama director’s scheme at the BBC. I remember someone on the selection panel saying, ‘What makes you think you can control 100 people?’.”

White, an Oxford University English graduate, won a Fulbright scholarship to study film at the University of California. She has been passionate about film since the age of eight, when she nagged her parents to buy her a Super-8 video camera.

She never held a BBC staff job, but was assisted up the ladder by legendary BBC documentary overlord Edward Mirzoeff, who ran the 40 Minutes documentary strand. Jane Root, controller of BBC2 from 1999 to 2004, supported her drama transition, and commissioned a £200,000 budget drama about Philip Larkin, Love Again, starring Hugh Bonneville and Eileen Atkins, which set her up.

The big turning point came with Generation Kill, the HBO series based on a book by Evan Wright, a journalist who was embedded with US marines in Iraq in 2003, and scripted by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns. White was the lead director, with Simon Cellan Jones.

“I think they said, ‘Oh wow, only men in it – she can control 50 plus actors’,” she says. She points to the similar career enhancing experience of director Kathryn Bigelow, who made The Hurt Locker in 2008 about a US bomb disposal team.

White was sent the script of Parade’s End three years ago, and just wanted to do it. So, how does she approach her work?

“I aim to have a very calm, focused set. I don’t do unnecessary shouting, I don’t throw my toys out of the pram,” she reveals. “Normally, early in a shoot I have to put my foot down. On Parade’s End, there was one American actor not doing what I wanted. He was distracting others, joking. I took him to my trailer and told him, ‘You are off my set if you behave like that’. He thanked me for doing it like that. He never misbehaved again.”

White says she likes to achieve a “quiet authority” on set. “I am pretty forceful about getting what I want, by having a very clear vision.

“Also, most actors just want to feel secure and come out of it well. When you are starting out as a director, working with famous actors can be very tricky. Some don’t want to take notes. I just ignore them for a bit, then they come and ask when they see others are benefiting.”

As the budget for Parade’s End was so big, White says they “had to get a certain level of actor”. She was very involved in casting, as was Stoppard. Anne-Marie Duff, Janet McTeer, Rupert Everett, Rufus Sewell and Stephen Graham are just some of the standout names cast.

Hall was available for only seven weeks between film projects to record the drama. So White had to fit everything in around her. She describes the actor as “unbelievable, immaculate in her preparation.” She says: “The scripts were not straightforward, but she is so intelligent. She and I had a real connection. We are hoping to do another film together.”

Hall is equally gushing about working with White. “I had seen her Jane Eyre, which was brilliant, and Generation Kill – also brilliant,” she reveals. “I decided that anyone who can pull off these diametrically opposed pieces is probably going to be just right for this material, because she knows her stuff.”

And what about Cumberbatch? How does the director feel about him?

“I am just very fond of him, given his success,” White says. “He’s an actor who likes talking about things a lot. He’s incredibly positive. He was tired, having just come off the set of Sherlock, and he was force-feeding himself doughnuts, to put on weight, because his character is described as a ‘big, baggy bolster’. But I wanted to keep Tietjens attractive.”

Casting Cumberbatch in the central role initially caused questions at HBO. They had not heard of him, but that eased with the success of Sherlock. It also helped when Boardwalk Empire’s Graham was cast as the ebullient Vincent MacMaster, a colleague of Tietjens.

However, Parade’s End was a nightmare production, says White, since the shoot started last year without a full complement of actors. The schedule was up in the air because not all of the big characters had been cast – a third, in fact.

“I had to rely on all my experience,” says White, who often had to return to scenes several times. “I had to ask the actors to go to the book and research their backstory. I was truthful, saying, ‘I can’t do all the research for you’.”

Sewell, who plays a mad vicar called the Rev Duchemin, was selected just three weeks before shooting a surreal breakfast scene at Rye, where Tietjens meets suffragette Valentine Wannop, played by Australian Adelaide Clemens, and falls in love.

Unsurprisingly, given the difficulties, White welcomed a new BBC director’s agreement earlier this year spelling out the central importance of the director in giving notes, making the first cut and effectively ensuring the creative delivery of the project. “Everyone knows who wrote Downton Abbey, but few know who directed it,” she says. “That imbalance needs to be addressed.”

In person, White, the wife of a Sussex farmer and mother of twin teenage girls, is modest. Also key to why she meshed with Parade’s End and its lush feel is her love of the English landscape. “I put my foot down over shooting in the marshland around Rye, not Northern Ireland,” she admits.

She is now being lined up to direct Johnny Depp’s new family film based on the book The Magic Hat of Mortimer Wintergreen, which is currently in development, backed by Warner Bros.

But surveying her cannon of work, one thing is clear – Parade’s End is probably the most difficult thing she has directed. While it’s not yet clear how well the narrative will pan out, there’s no doubt her talent will be well and truly recognised.

* Parade’s End begins tonight (August 24) on BBC2 at 9pm

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