We invite you to read an interview with Nick Copus, director of „The Day of the Triffids”, a miniseries which had its premiere on 28 and 29 of December on BBC. The stars of this version of John Wyndham’s novel are Dougray Scott, Eddie Izzard, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox.
There were already at least two movie versions of Wyndham’s novel. Which elements will distinguish your „The Day of the Triffids” from for example the 1962 classic?
The only way I can answer that is to say this: The novel is an amazing bit of writing. At its core it’s every Zombie film ever made. That single notion of humanity being consumed by a single event, and then by a change in nature. But Wyndham was writing about the rise of the Soviet Union and the loss of the individual. The Triffids were a symbol of a mindless Soviet force as he saw it that would consume us all.
In the Howard Keel film, there was far more a play on that period’s fascination with the freak show and the thrill ride scary flick, film noir meets the Saturday night drive in… It was a film the really took the title of the book, the killer plants, the meteor storm and very little else. In fact the whole light house story-line was a footage lifted from another movie as theirs ended up being too short. It is brilliantly bad… But I loved the opening attack in the greenhouse, really scary!
The 1981 BBC Version was far more focused on the ideas in the novel but based on nuclear war and the end of the society. It became a way of telling how things might be for those of us who survived a nuclear war. It was consequently a very dark story and very scary in a real way, no matter how rubbery and silly the Triffids were. It is still considered a very scary series and I don’t think we can surpass it. We needed to merely make our own version. I think that the 80’s series is iconic and in many ways a cul-de-sac in TV. Only few other series that dark have ever been made. It also speaks so much about the 80’s, rather mixed up time in our history… But it was also very eclectic and forward thinking time where a modern social conscience appeared to have been born. All you need to do is look at a hairstyle magazine to see where most of the horrors were coming from back then… ( I was a punk myself and so very much a victim as well).
Our film was born of updating the novel to fit the modern world. The book was so much of it’s time in almost every aspect. I mean it had a whole section focused on the principle that if things get bad, women are going to need to get out of the house and the kitchen and learn to fix cars and generators. These are hardly current notions ( in most parts of the world ). So we had to put all that to one side, we had to put Wyndham’s description and view of London to one side as it was very dated. For example in our film the Triffid oil rather then a form of food becomes a bio fuel that will no longer hurt the planet. And the list goes on. Would we upset the purists? … Probably, but the alternative was to set it in a past that really would of been uninteresting to many and insulting to others. Not to mention outdated politics and ways of living that simply do not translate into a modern film. So I coined this phrase of saying I was doing 'a Modern Period Piece’.
I initially did this by setting the rule that the locations, settings, costumes and even the weapons in the film would be an eclectic mixture of old and new. It would be difficult to put your finger on where and when you were. I think we semi succeeded at this and we did try to show London in a way that I think Wyndham would have appreciated. In reference to the Triffid gun that shot the decapitating disks. I felt this was an odd sci-fi aspect of the novel that did not work in the edgy way we were making the film, so we adapted riot guns to fire very large scatter gun shells that would shred the plant. My rule was always go low-tech, always go with technology that already exists… No matter how many films we’ve seen it in, we still do not have flying cars or lasers on sale at the mall…
But overall my focus was simply to not so much consider the previous Triffids films, but really to look at the whole genre of 'end of the world films’ in particular, the „Dawn of the Dead” franchise and very much the brilliant „28 Days Later”, a parallel story based on Triffids. I wanted to make sure that even on a TV budget and with TV constraints we gave something new that may felt familiar but when those films went right, we went left. And so you saw something you have not seen before. But I always came back to Wyndham and aimed to payas much homage to this great book as I could convince the execs at the BBC and Power to do in their script. In the end I would like to believe I am bringing a very modern homage of „The Day of the Triffids” to a 21st century audience.
But films will live or die by the quality of the story and the characters in that story. I could just tell how hard it was to get this script right and the massive amount of time and effort and re-writing and changing on set that had to be done to make it work. I will say that it went through what I would describe as „development hell” to get it to where it ended up, to get it to what you will see, and even now I think, yes, it works, but is it perfect? No… Far from it. Needless to say a film lives and dies by the story and our investment and caring for the characters. So in the end I will consider this film a success if indeed it achieves that… The Triffids and all that CGI nastiness that I LOVE. All those shots of London being destroyed that we spent months and months on… All the action and the big names will amount to nothing if people do not care about Bill and Jo and their struggle to survive. In the end I would say that the novel – if stripped down to its bones – is really a love story about two people who are pretty lonely in the world. And it takes the planet falling apart for them to find someone they can be with. And that is what I made this version about.
Did you consider your version of „The Day of the Triffids” as a miniseries from the very beginning? What are the main advantages and disadvantages of this form over a „normal” feature movie in your opinion?
It was always a mini. I was hired to direct the mini. As a TV project it was something that was offered to me in an amusing way. The producer was looking for his leading man and wanted to consider an actor I had just worked with, so he watched my film to view that actors performance. In the end that actor was busy, but he liked the film so much he pursued me to direct Triffids. From his first contact, to me being hired took almost nine months, over which time I did a massive amount of work on the script, and preparation of the visuals, but I had yet to land the gig on paper as it were. It was always commissioned as a three hour version, a two parter for TV.
As far as that being better then a film. Let’s just say that a script should be as short as it can be, there should be no fat. So if it works in 180 minutes then you’re fine, if not, if it should only be 90 minutes, then you’re in trouble. I think the novel has more then enough material there to be this long, so that was never a concern of mine. The challenge be it 90 minutes or 180 minutes or 5 minutes... Getting it perfect, that is a job that never ends, and the reality is if you are going to be a good director you should better know how to fix a script. You may not be the best person to re-write it, but you should better know what is wrong with it, and be ready to fight to fix it.
Triffids as far as script writing was concerned, as far as getting the mini series, the 180 minutes right was a real down and dirty fight. I have early drafts that were just beyond awful. It has come a long way. But that fight never ended, when you have so many cooks, so many execs, so many people who have their own ideas you have to compromise and when you know the compromise you are making is a political one not a creative one, that is pretty tough, but also a very important part of this kind of filmmaking. I would like to think all that efforts made a far better film. But You will have to judge it for yourself.
Is your „The Day of the Triffids” a faitful adaptation of the novel or did you allow yourself to introduce some changes in the plot or the construction of the characters?
I think I answered this in question one.
But I think the biggest change has been the creation of Torrance, played fantastically by Eddie Izzard. We created a really fascinating and elegant bad guy, who is more on the borders of the horizon in the original novel. In my film I wanted Torrance to be potentially anyone of us, who at a moment of crisis makes a decision to go one way rather then the other. He is not evil per-say but as you make decisions that are, shall we say, „morally incorrect” you begin to walk down a certain path and the further down that path you go, the further down that path you go…
I knew I wanted this guy to have no past that we were aware of, and that we simply never knew anything about him, except he survives this plane crash, he is kind of born of those flames as he walks away relatively unhurt. Even his name is born of that instant and thus he could be anybody or everybody, any one of us. In the end I wanted people to recognize that being evil is a choice, and that the real fear comes from 'evil’ and not from the Triffids, which quite frankly are just doing what any species does – they are surviving and much as they are terrifying and deadly they have no real malevolence, not like we do…
Back in 60’s and 70’s the novel was considered as a metaphore of the Soviet Union threat. I’d like to ask you what this story is about for you today, when the first decade of XXI century is coming to an end?
Again I touched on this in question one.
This version has at its setup around an environmental idea that the Triffid oil has replaced all fossil fuels and thus saved us from global warming. When I first came on board, the story was not overly character driven and somewhat lightweight. I knew I was not going to focus on the Soviet or Cold War aspects of the old films. And much as I felt the environmental message was a good one, it did not go far enough into the depths of the script for me to feel it would hold on its own. I did push allot for aspects of the story to reflect the notion that the Triffids were – to a certain degree – mother nature reaping a physical revenge on what man had done to the planet. That in some evolutionary way in the darkest jungles of Borneo this new form of plant evolves and is destined to become the next species to rule the world, man’s exploitation of the species and his playing god with its genetic development blended with the blinding merely speeds it all up. For the most part many of these ideas are in the film, but a little buried. It was tough to get the powers that be to really embrace this beyond a few nods. I think perhaps it is there but again you will need to be the judge. In the end I focused on the characters and the love story between Jo and Bill and in the wake of the end of the world a selection of lost people come together and form a family that go on into whatever the future holds. My focus was simply that one of our greatest features as a species is our ability to find connection, love and hope against the most horrific and terrifying events…
As a note on this aspect of the story, and I will keep coming back to this as it was a process that never ended, was that I made it clear if they wanted a „Dr Who”, I was the wrong director. Not that I am knocking „Dr Who”, it is great for what it is. But I felt the „Dr Who” style, that the BBC have had so much success with, would however not be true to the novel and its deeper themes, or even come close to the tone and fear it conveyed. So I felt strongly if they wanted a candy cane approach for the kids as it were I was the wrong filmmaker. It was made clear to me that they wanted it to be as scary as it could be, as long as I stayed within the guidelines of British TV, „Pre-Watershed”… I asked myself could this film live up to its potential and still be shown before 9 pm in the evening? That was a challenge I was willing to take on.
As a note – the BBC cut quite a bit of the nastiness out during post, much to my sadness then, but they still could not get it to be suitable for the „Pre-Watershed” and thus it is scheduled for 9 pm. But the things that got cut sadly remained cut. We also got our timings wrong so there are at least 30 – 40 mins of story that was cut out due to the time constraints.
The cast of your series is quite impressive, I have to say. Can you tell us about the cooperation between you and the actors? Was it a big challenge for you to control such legends as Brian Cox or Vanessa Redgrave and such fine actors as Eddie Izzard or Dougray Scott? Do you think you could learn something from them?
Casting is always a fascinating thing in TV and films. On big mini series it’s always about making the poster. To sell these sorts of shows you need names that hit home and the executive producer on Triffids focused on the fact that he needed five names. I am not sure how many times that was said to me… But he needed five names… In most cases that kind of mentality and much as it is all driven by the realities of the business and the money needed to make this project it is still hard from a creative point of view to feel that a film of this fame and history is just a commodity. But it would be foolish to believe it is not. Or there is anyway to make it were it not sellable. In the end I will say this project became an exception because frankly the people who came to it actor wise, were all the right people and the execs made all the right decisions.
Actors to me as a director are… Well it is simple – a good actor is a good actor no matter how little or how much success they have had. In the case of Triffids what each of leads brought to the film was the ability to give you all that talent and experience which you haveto drag out of them. On a tight ten hour a day on camera schedule that kind of thing is a god send and you are a fool if you do not listen and take on all they are saying and suggesting. You may not agree with it, and you may not use it, but the breath of experience on that set really helped us get through. I would say as a director that you never stop learning and as soon as you shut your blinders to those around you, be it Vanessa Redgrave or that new runner who just got you a coffee, you are only limiting yourself to what might be a brilliant idea.
I will say that each one of the people you mention was very different, and that you do need to figure out the lay of the land and how best to work with them, actors are strange creatures and part of the fun is figuring them out, and bonding with them. I pride myself on being an actor’s director by listening and communicating and being open, and most importantly investing as much as they do. Trust is really what it comes down to.
I will note that one thing I learned was if you have an issue with a line of dialogue that the powers that be are adamant must be said as is, were you as a director cannot change it, any of actor of ilk can and will and no exec has so far in my experience had the confidence or guts to stop them. It is interesting how rapidly as a director talent has an influence over you but stars do not. While execs are far too easily pushed around and in awe of the actors they employee. This is a useful note to pass to any director but perhaps not to any exec.
Overall Eddie Izzard was the one person who I really wanted in this film back in 2008… and no one wanted to even consider him back then, not that they did not like him, he just was not right… The BBC felt a UK audience only knows him as a transvestite comic and would not buy it. But I stuck to my guns and in the end an executive came over to my side and he had the power to force it through. My understanding now is that Eddie is being haled for his performance in Triffids. Frankly from day one on set no one could take their eyes off him and he is the most humble and dedicated of actors…. Eddie said to me one day: ” How often do transvestites get to be shotgun toting megalomanic country ruling bad guys… This is brilliant who do you want me to shoot now?”
What is your approach regarding special effects? Did you prefer using traditional effects or CGI? Or perhaps you tried to use them as little as possible and focus on the characters and the story?
I can only really say it was all CGI. There was simply no other way to do it.
We have bits and pieces of root and tentacles that we would wrap around people to give some texture and then we would pull them on rope or spray them with some sort of nasty liquid, but it would all be painted in postproduction. We build 16 static Triffids for the farm scene. All wrapped in plastic and the rest were a digital set extension. We had large wooden pillars, stands that were the triffids on set for eye line etc but that was it.
I spent four months doing storyboards and pre-visualisations and we spent over a year getting the Triffid right and then getting a full CGI model of it moving around in a way that we did not groan. The reality is doing mass murdering, moving, man eating plants that are scary… It’s hard! I think we did it but you will need to be the judge. There are about 400 visual effect shots and matte paintings. it was a huge ask on a TV budget and caused no end of grief. I know the last shots were only being put in a few days ago.
I’m a story teller who makes a living doing what he loves. Everything interests me, but of course I have a predilection to comic book and graphic novels and action with depth. But I will go were the projects are, in the end TV is good because you get to make it, movies it can go on and on and on and you never get there. I like to work and keep trying new things. I think „The Day of the Triffids” is iconic and a real stepping stone for any director, it was a huge boost for me to make it and a thrill to direct no matter how things play out in the future. I was proud to be asked and I am very proud of what I did on that film.
Let’s imagine such a situation: a very rich producer calls you and says: „Mr Copus, you’re a very lucky man, because I give you the opportunity to make an adaptation of a sci-fi novel of your own choice. I’ll give you 300 million $ budget and a free will to do anything”. Which novel would you chose and why?
That is a interesting question and from one day to the next the answer will change. But I will say this: When I was 12 I was reading „The Hobbit” in the Rocky Mountains while on Holiday with my family. I looked around me thinking these could be the misty mountains and I quite reasonably said to myself…””The Hobbit,” this would make a great movie. I’d like to make this movie, live action, maybe I should be a filmmaker…” Needless to say I won’t be the person making that film, but he is one of my favourite directors and it probably will cost about 300 million so you were close”.
But I did become a filmmaker…
Thank you Nick for this long and exhaustive interview.