Tony Grech-Smith tells Fergus Morgan about his journey from script supervisor to directing NT Live broadcasts of shows including Yerma and Julius Caesar, the challenges of prepping for a live-streaming event and formulating a camera plan
Tony Grech-Smith isn’t shy of a challenge. As a multi-camera director working with NT Live, he’s taken on some of the most challenging live theatre broadcasts of recent years. He filmed James Graham’s political play The Vote when it was live-streamed on election night in 2015. Two years on, he filmed Yerma at the Young Vic, which took place entirely in a glass case. And last year, he took on Nicholas Hytner’s immersive, promenade production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre.
“We have a joke at NT Live that I never get the straight- forward ones,” he says. “I’ve never had a simple, proscenium-arch play to work on. But I love that reputation. I love the variety of work I do, because with variety comes challenges, and the challenges are what keep it interesting.”
Grech-Smith graduated from Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication with a BTec in television programme operations in the mid-1990s. He cut his teeth as a script supervisor at ITV, then paid to go on the BBC’s multi-camera directing course in 2004, and finally started building a career as a director, project by project, on shows including Top of the Pops, The Chase, Springwatch and Strictly Come Dancing.
In 2015, he was approached to direct the filming of The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse on the night of that year’s general election. “It was very fast,” Grech-Smith says. “There was lots of action, lots of comedy. I had three camera operators, working 17 cameras, to capture this vast, intricate performance.”
Off the back of that, Grech-Smith was asked to direct his first NT Live: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, again at the Donmar, in 2016. Since then, he’s taken charge of live broadcasts of Yerma, Julius Caesar, Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, and Joe Hill-Gibbins’ The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida, capturing the performances of Billie Piper, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes, among others.
A few weeks ago, Grech-Smith embarked upon his seventh NT Live project – the National Theatre’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island in the Olivier, which is broadcast to cinemas on June 27. “The first time I got into the Olivier, it felt like I’d arrived,” he says of his experience filming Antony and Cleopatra. “It felt like I was finally allowed to play with the big toys.”
This show marks a decade since the first NT Live broadcast of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper.
Grech-Smith agrees to take on a project months in advance. He sits down with a production’s director, who talks him through their plans. “With Nick Hytner, our meeting for Julius Caesar lasted about 10 minutes because he was so busy,” he says. “For Small Island, Rufus [Norris] showed me a model of the set and talked me through his vision. After that, I wait as they rehearse and arrive at a final script. Sometimes I’m invited into rehearsals. Sometimes I’m not.”
Then, Grech-Smith goes to see the show, notepad in hand. “The first time I saw Small Island was actually on press night, and it blew me away,” he says. “I watch the play from the audience, and that’s when I form my initial camera plan. I work out where I need cameras, and what I need to capture.”
“There’s always something I haven’t expected,” he adds. “With Small Island, for example, there’s a lot of projection and that limited the cameras I could use. I couldn’t use a crane or a jib, because that would have cut through the projectors and cast a shadow on the stage.”
Grech-Smith’s plans vary depending on the space available – the tight confines of the Donmar, compared with the cavernous Olivier – and the style of production he’s filming. For Hytner’s Julius Caesar, for example, he chose to have a roving camera amid the promenade audience. “Not every shot was smooth,” he says. “So it captured that breakdown of society really well.” For Small Island, he used six cameras – four in the stalls, one at the back of the auditorium, and a curved tracking camera at the front of the stage. “When the Olivier revolve is used, that one picks up some amazing shots,” he says.
After he’s seen the show in person, he watches a recording taken from the back of the theatre – a “scratch tape” – and scripts it, analysing it closely and deciding exactly what shot to use when.
“It takes me days and days,” Grech-Smith says. “I think it took me five days to script Small Island. And they’re long days of me watching the scratch tape, line by line, movement by movement, considering which shot to take at every particular moment. I think I have about 1,200 different shots for Small Island.”
He continues: “I’m not trying to shoot a movie. I don’t want the audience to notice my camerawork. I want them to watch my interpretation of a performance in such a way that they forget they’re at the cinema and think they’re at the play.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Camera assistant at MTV in 1995.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Vote, broadcast live on More4 from the Donmar Warehouse.
What is your next job?
Launching a range of games for EA Games, broadcast live from Los Angeles.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t wait until you’re ‘ready’ to do anything, no one’s ever ‘ready’. You can achieve anything if you just push yourself.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I keep my eyes and my mind open – influence might come from TV, film, Instagram, art… you never know when you’ll be inspired.
If you hadn’t been a multi-camera director, what would you have been?
Maybe an architect or a designer. I’ve always had an interest in drawing.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not a ritual as such, but I usually take myself to a restaurant for breakfast before any big show. It gives me a chance to quietly think through the potential challenges of the day and
also gives me what will probably be the only ‘space’ I’ll get all day.
Grech-Smith then meets with his team – a script supervisor, a visual editor, and several camera operators – and discusses his script in minute detail. “I’ll say things like: ‘Shot 812, camera four – I’ve written medium-long two-shot, but it’s actually going to have to be a head-to-toe shot instead.’”
A rehearsal filming follows, after which Grech-Smith, the show’s director, and all the heads of department watch the recording in a cinema, make notes, and discuss what worked and what didn’t.
“We’re discussing wigs, we’re discussing make-up, we’re discussing microphones and cables,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s their play, and I’m not precious about that. No director has ever hated what I’ve done, but they’ve always pointed out things I haven’t seen.”
It’s a collaborative process, though. “Rufus might say he thinks one shot could be tighter because it’s not powerful enough,” says Grech-Smith. “But I’ll say: ‘Well, actually, I don’t want to go tight there, because it won’t fit well with the next shot.’”
Grech-Smith also chats to the cast of a show. “Before the first filming, I always do a meet-and-greet with the company. I want them to know that I’ve really studied their performance, that I’m not just some guy who’s turned up with a bunch of cameras. I also tell them to forget about the cameras, that I don’t want them to do anything differently.”
Another lengthy rescripting process follows the cinema screening, followed by another rehearsal recording, and another notes session, the plans gradually being refined and refined until it’s time for the final filming.
“On the night, I’m in a big truck outside with my script supervisor on my left, my visual editor on my right, and the execs and producers in a row behind us,” Grech-Smith says. “I’m the conductor of an orchestra, and the team around me are musicians. You do get shouty directors, but I’m not that person. It doesn’t always go to plan – things might be late or a camera might miss a shot – but having that calm, considered approach gets the best performance out of everybody.”
Then, it’s over. A theatrical production, transmitted around the world and captured forever.
“There’s definitely a buzz after you come off a live broadcast,” Grech-Smith says. “I remember getting in a cab at the Young Vic after Yerma, and going on Instagram and seeing posts from people in Moscow who’d loved it. It’s amazing to be able to reach out to that big an audience.”
Born: 1974, London
Training: BTec HND in television programme operations, Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication
• Top of the Pops (live directorial debut, 2006)
• The Vote (first live theatrical broadcast, 2015)
• Antony and Cleopatra (first National Theatre show, 2018)
Small Island will be broadcast to cinemas on June 27. Further details at: ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk