Director Richard Laxton and co-star Adeel Akhtar discuss the appeal of River.
As the series continues, viewers are becoming more and more captivated by Abi Morgan’s psychological drama that veers away from the traditional crime show. We follow John River (Stellan Skarsgård) on his quest to solve the murder of his former partner Stevie (Nicola Walker) whilst balancing his case load and, all the while, dealing with a psychosis that threatens to bring his career to an end.
We went behind-the-scenes with director Richard Laxton – whose film credits include Effie Gray (2014), An Englishman in New York (2009), as well as Him & Her (2010-2013) and Fortitude (2015) – and River’s new partner Ira King, played by Adeel Akhtar (Pan, 2015, The Dictator, 2012, Four Lions, 2010, and TV’s Utopia, 2013-2014).
River has been receiving rave reviews since the first episode aired on BBC One.
Richard Laxton: I’m very proud of River. I love it. I would never look at my own work and say, “It’s amazing!” but I loved directing it and I love the fact that people seem to be liking it. It’s kind of tricky when you have a story and you have to put the audience inside somebody’s head who would not be viewed as someone “normal” or “ordinary” and still make them feel like they care, empathise, and belong in the show. It’s a challenge but I am glad people have connected with it.
What attracted you to the series from reading the script?
Adeel Akhtar: I had done some comedy and drama roles recently and so my agent called me up to let me know about a new drama written by Abi Morgan, produced by Kudos, and starring Stellan Skarsgård. I knew it was going to be good. It was just a bonus that I got the role, that the series turned out to be as good as I thought it would be, and that I was trusted to push the narrative along. That’s my honest answer: I was asked to do it and it was an amazing story to be a part of.
RL: I wasn’t sure what to make of it! I opened up the script and I read “INT. CAR” and went on to describe these two police officers and I immediately thought, “Christ, not another one of these!” Then from the first scene I was intrigued because it had a unique pairing and I just couldn’t put the script down. I read it and I felt so exhilarated by the beauty of it. I met with the producers and they liked what I said and we seemed to be on the same page. I felt it would be a corking challenge to get that right and, if done right, it would be very touching.
Would you have been as interested in the series if the focus was more on the supernatural, rather than the psychological?
RL: No, probably not. It’s difficult to answer that but I’m drawn to any story that looks through with a high wattage lamp on the complexities of the human condition. It doesn’t matter if that’s set in a police station, or a spaceship, or in Victorian England, or a bedsit. It’s really what we are exploring and where I get the chance to explore and take an audience into a further level of understanding.
AA: Even though the story is more about this man who has not been able to get emotional closure from the people around him in his life, I think that anything in the hands of Abi Morgan would be pretty amazing. If she decided to go down the supernatural route it would have equally been an amazing show. But she didn’t and I suppose there is a reason for that. That reason may be that it would be too challenging to tell that story and it feels more human this way. If you add a more supernatural element it would be dressing it up too much; dressing up this character of John River as being a completely different person. Whereas you get the feeling he is shedding himself and he is emotionally naked in front of you, going through these psychological experiences. Whatever psychosis he has he is very raw and emotional to the viewers. I think Abi was going for a truth and more of an emotional transparency other than distancing or alienating the audience.
Are you also a fan of Nordic Noir or Euro Noir crime series?
RL: I am a huge fan of The Bridge. I love The Bridge. I love The Killing and I have worked with Sofie Gråbøl which made me watch The Killing when I knew I was going to be working with her. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the genre, although I did direct Fortitude, which I suppose is Nordic Noir. I never thought River was something like that. I just thought it was about a rather troubled, vulnerable, and beautiful man who was grief-stricken and saddled with a disordered mind. I didn’t then apply Nordic Noir to it. I looked at the story from inside out. I know Stellan Skarsgård was going to play him and I could connect with what I thought his version of John River would be. Then we went on the journey together to figure out who John River was going to become.
AA: I’ve seen some of The Bridge but that is really as much as I have seen of Nordic Noir! They are doing something special with the drama series and the ability to tell a good story, aren’t they? It’s difficult to put a finger on it. I’m not as big a fan of Nordic Noir as I want to be but I will be from now on! With the main protagonist played by Stellan Skarsgård I can see how River can be an easy comparison to make. I have also seen a bit of Wallander as well – the original and some of the UK version. They have some original, brave storytelling that takes a lot of risks. River also takes risks, in regards to having a protagonist who suffers from seeing dead people!
Richard – can you also share with us what it was like to direct episodes of another crime drama with a twist?
RL: With Fortitude it was amazing. A fantastic experience. It was a breath-taking setting to place the story which I felt was so intriguing when I read the first two episodes of the show. Fortitude has so many great, great actors and there is something about spooky storytelling which is really good fun! I loved the character of DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) and we had a lot of work to do together creating this character for the screen; the way he gets the investigation going and the way he chose to play those scenes. We worked on how his character was almost antagonistically deadpan, which was also very exciting to watch. It was an overall amazing cast, wasn’t it? Sofie is delightful. Everyone was, really. It was an extraordinary experience. Iceland was complicated with its unpredictable weather but really amazing.
An interesting factor in River is that John River’s nationality is mentioned in the first episode and so briefly foregrounded to establish River’s character. However, this hasn’t been drawn upon into great detail as the story focuses on the character and not really where he is from.
RL: I think if the piece had been less visceral about a human being regardless of his obvious nationality, it may have felt more conscious to the audience. I think because he is such an extraordinary, connective, and mesmerising actor, I never really questioned it. It is briefly talked about in the first episode and his background is referred to throughout the series from a troubled childhood. Because it’s not a police procedural show you don’t get saddled with the same kind of comparisons.
What was it like working with Stellan Skarsgård? It appears you were a big fan beforehand.
RL: I’m a huge fan! I remember seeing him in Breaking the Waves (1996) when it first came out and Lars von Trier, for me, has always been compelling and intriguing as a filmmaker. Stellan was living in Sweden and came over various times for meetings. I had lunch with him and we hit it off. He has a humungous heart and a humungous vulnerability, or an honesty about him which allows him to play a character with vulnerability so well. I found it beautiful. Watching his performance, we would examine scenes that appeared to be too police procedural for his character and we would play against it. We didn’t want it to become a police show. Stellan has turned down many opportunities to play policemen before and he never wanted to do it. I was very excited that he proved to be more inspiring and phenomenal as a man than I could ever have imagined! He has a true, beautiful spirit and he is an amazing man. When you meet people in your life who truly affect you and they are very inspiring in how they deal with life themselves, it is a very privileged experience.
AA: He is just one of those actors you see about; you switch on a film and he’s there! He does a lot of stuff. When working with Stellan I found myself keeping very quiet around him. Not that he would want you to be quiet around him. If anything he wants you to engage and he encourages silliness on set! He was always cracking a joke and the first thing he does with everyone is give them a big hug when they arrive on set and when they leave as well. He’s a very sweet man but I was very quiet around him just because I was watching him work. It was amazing to see. He was always there before the crew arrived and the last to leave. Every day he was very present, very sweet, and always ready to have a conversation. That was something I wanted to bask in a little bit. Someone asked me what was the thing that I took away from my experience filming River and it was actually that. It was just him, Lesley Manville, and Eddie Marsan. Working alongside these heavyweight actors, I was just happy to watch them do their thing and wonder how I could make myself better.
That is quite fascinating as Stellan Skarsgård usually plays very dark and ominous villains so it’s profound to hear about this side of him.
RL: The real man. People have quite a reputation for being very jovial on set and he is an absolute giggler! He is a very funny man and we had a real laugh, as well as telling this story about a very fragile man. I think actors often enjoy clambering out of themselves and playing the dark side as they don’t get to normally exercise it. He said something very interesting at a Q&A panel before the UK transmission of River. He said the reason he was drawn to it was because it was emotional. He said it was a fantastic part for a woman that men of his age never get to play. He felt that to be very invigorating. That is an indication and a little linger into his brain of how open he is and not worried about his image or ego. He is just fascinated with getting the chance to play complex characters.
AA: You’d expect me to be more giggly and Stellan to be more serious! I just finished a job recently and it was very intense with a lot of killing involved and I was thinking, not “what would Stellan do in this situation”, but, when a role is very intense and you are carrying a lot of weight you have a lot of pressure. I’m surprised how important it is to have a light touch in those circumstances because it keeps you sane; it keeps you able to come in in the morning, crack a joke and smile. It gives you longevity and I think that’s why Stellan has such a long career. He has that ability which doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the role. While at the same time he can cope and has the capacity to do that. That was a big lesson to learn for me.
Despite any self-criticisms, which scenes were your favourites and most challenging to shoot?
RL: I really enjoyed directing and loved watching the opening car sequence with the soundtrack because it was also painful to do. It was a night shoot and went on until about four o’clock in the morning. But there is something about getting the character of River and Stevie during that music sequence. I wanted to show how London is a vibrant, multicultural, and multi-architectural onslaught on the senses, despite the notion that is often marched out of having the city represented as “another character” in the film. As much as it was possible to make this happen from the script, it helped me to frame River’s disordered mind in way. I loved and am satisfied with River beating up Thomas Cream (Eddie Marsan) in the cell, when he turns out not to be there and River is bashing the wall. I loved doing the psychotherapy scenes between Rosa (Georgina Rich) and River because I enjoyed trying to get the performances as pitch perfect as I could. I could go on. As much as I say I hate watching my own work; I loved making those scenes.
AA: There are scenes later on in the show where River and Ira share small moments trying to socialise and, with cases aside, are just two men trying to get along. Also, I could watch Lesley Manville paint a wall, really. I love everything she does. And Eddie Marsan – I could watch him in anything. I like watching them in their own scenes because I have a link to them as an actor in the show and being part of the story elsewhere. I love every scene I’m not in to answer your question.
Adeel – your scenes with Stellan are very touching as Ira tries to humanise him, in a similar way to Stevie words of encouragement.
AA: Good. I hope so. I’m just trying to get him into the world and to realise it is not as scary as he thinks to open up. It’s probably scarier in his head than it is out there in real life.
The first episode of River almost seems like it could exist as a stand-alone short film. From your backgrounds in directing and acting in feature-length films and televisions series, do you have a preferred format? What are the advantages to working in television over cinema?
RL: It depends. At the moment I am working on another comedy series with Stefan Golaszewski from Him & Her. It is a 30-minute episode comedy but I love the observational, naturalistic tone of it and that it explores the mundane, everyday life. That, to me, is as interesting as exploring John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and his relationship to Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning) by society’s expectations; that women had no voice and had to escape being deprived of their own sexuality. That is a bigger canvas, set in 1880 and having been shot in London, Scotland, and Venice. I treat each story with as much care. I think in television there is a less arduous and painful task to get to the point of shooting because it tends to be funded before you are even in pre-production. Whereas with film, especially independent film, you are on this precarious plane wondering if the greenlight has happened, if the box office numbers look good, which characters carry financing, and it can get very complicated. It can get in the way of the desire to tell the story. I love them both and it is about the script. I’d rather do a great TV show than a terrible film.
AA: I don’t really have a preference as both are as impactful as the other. It all just comes down to writing and how it’s going to be directed. There are really terrible TV shows which you follow for ten hours only to wonder why you bothered and others that you feel satisfied with, just like in film.
Especially now with such a high production value that goes into television series, giving productions a cinematic scope.
RL: I think the television audiences and their expectations are very sophisticated. It’s very challenging as a series like House of Cards is very ‘filmic’ and has a higher budget with higher numbers to crunch than we have in this country. With River, I wanted to deliver this to audiences because it is also for Netflix. Also, I wanted to deliver a show with the same confidence and aspiration with an emotional intellect. We have a tradition for being less sentimental and more brutal, especially with terrestrial television.
AA: When it comes to television we are asking a lot more of ourselves now. I think that’s a good thing that you can turn on the TV and you can recognise when a series has a cinematic quality to it. Things that follow will be of a higher standard. That’s exciting.
Interviews by Antony Smith
Continue watching River on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One.