“Slow Horses” Opening Scene: Director James Hawes Unpacks Tense Chase

Director James House makes a corkscrew that promised a spy show without betraying the distorted nature of the story that will follow.

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the premiere episode of the Apple TV+ series “Slow Horses” .]

The opening scene of “Slow Horses” is like a magic trick. The new Apple TV + series begins with an eight-minute well-designed, espionage story, which equates to a performer blinding you with one hand while secretly choosing a lock behind his back with the other.

On the page, the adaptation of Mick Herron’s novel begins with a 15-page prologue by young MI-5 River Cartwright agent (Jack Lowden) locating a possible target in a busy transportation hub. James Hawes, whose recent directing career prior to “Slow Horses” includes episodes of “Penny Dreadful” and a couple of installments of “Black Mirror”, was tasked with carrying out this idea in a number of different vectors.

First, Cartwright’s pursuit and the MI-5 team of officers who lead it – led by Kristin Scott Thomas’s steel Diana Taverner – must provide an entry point for viewers unfamiliar with the original material. He throws them into this world in a way that, according to Hawes himself, is designed to “give us the glamorous, Aston Martin-swigging cocktail party” before the handbrake turns into the rest of the show. Whether you know it or not that Cartwright is doomed to spend the rest of the season between the crisp Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) and his miscellaneous band of outcasts and rejecters, Hawes manages to get a prolonged sense that our would-be hero could very well. to run under a suspect through the Action Thriller Uncanny Valley.

Cartwright’s final “failure”, the tumultuous cut in the series’ opening series, and the gradual revelation that this tightrope walker was not what it first seemed to be is the beginning of a season that never ceases to live up to expectations. Hawes spoke to IndieWire on the phone about the challenges of creating credible tension in a fantasy world where whole jobs are based on trusting nothing. This discussion of the following scene has been summarized and edited for the sake of clarity.

INDIEWIRE: This had to be the biggest logistical challenge of the season. When you know that the first episode will start this way, where do you start the planning process?

HAWES: The novel actually wrote that it takes place on Kings Cross station. For various reasons, we could not do it. Like any train station, there are all kinds of different stakeholders. Administratively they did not want us in the way. There were too many people from whom we had to get permission. And to be honest, they did not like the scene, which was a terrorist attack. Surprisingly, the airports said: “We see this differently. We believe this shows how aware we are of preventing a terrorist attack. We see this as a deterrent. ” And Heathrow first said, “We’ll get you in. There will be restrictions, but you can come and play in Heathrow.” Then the pandemic struck. Like most of the airline industry, they were busy enough just to save some of it to be bothered by a movie crew. The production actually talked about doing it on a cruise ship or on a Thames party boat, and I could feel this horrible, frustrated pit in my stomach, where all the directorial ambition was just sucked out. I thought everything would disappear from me. And then we took a break. Stansted Airport, which is much more of an airport with holiday traffic, was very, very closed due to the pandemic. They gave us a tiny window which, if we showed up, they would give us access to. And for once, the pandemic was our friend.

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There is a certain kind of choreography that makes a series like this work. How did you get these conversations once you knew you had a site?

I went there with the author, the VFX supervisor, a production designer, and we talked about what the possibilities were. We had to rethink the trip, because obviously, it is very geographically dependent. The Cartwright River originally flowed through the terminal buildings. Stansted does not offer this geography. So the idea came to me that he was going down on the asphalt, that he was catching the guy as he was getting on the plane. Normally, you could not run across. It is a vibrant airport. But we were able to do that. One writer once told me that once your hero starts running, all he can do is run faster, run left, run right, climb a little, double. You have to invent obstacles and incidents along the way. And that’s what we started doing.

In fact, there is another site we used. When you have completed your baggage claim, I wanted to continue to build our world and move toward a climax, and Stansted did not. [offer] me this. But the moment it comes out of the baggage claim, that’s the whole Wembley Stadium, the national football stadium. What it offered me were all these escalators, all these different steps. I wanted to be on River’s shoulder, traveling with him. I also wanted these broken conspiracy theories. You receive looks over people’s shoulders through windows, through doors. I could see how he would play very well at Wembley. So the production team came in and set up a tax-free counter in a corner and brought some trolleys and dressed it. And then we went back to the Stansted Express for the last part of this sequence.

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After all the design work, what was the actual shooting schedule like?

Preparation was everything. Communication was everything, so people knew where they needed to be with the right equipment during the day. We had three days to shoot in and around the terminal and the asphalt. We had a day on the Wembley side, a day on the train and a day on [MI-5] central spot. This is a TV show. It is focused. I like to think it gives you a certain energy. That’s when, as a director, you suddenly build this world and you have the train ready to play. If you have thought about it correctly and the actors will always test you on it, there is a logic to how they run and behave and what they react to and what they react to. Jack Lowden is brilliant about that. It will tell you if something smells a little cheese, if it does. But he also likes to cut and push action. And he did the driving himself.

Slow Horses River Lamb Apple

“Slow horses”

Jack English / Apple TV +

Obviously with this opening, the idea is to really invest and immerse the viewer. But I guess at some level, you wanted to put in some details that, if people came back and saw it again, they could understand that what they’re watching is actually a workout.

There are small pieces out there that you can go back to and find. I have people dotted with drafts and camcorders. The idea is that they are exercise evaluators. One of the things we did during the preparation was to have the airport security teams advise us on what they would do in a real situation. Most of the cops you see at the airport are real cops telling you, “I would do that.” Most of the flight attendants with high aesthetics jackets, are the real airport staff who respond as they would. So, there are indications and there is authenticity that is done everywhere. And there is character despair, I guess. His performance tells you that he probably takes risks that he might not necessarily take if he really believed there was a bomb in his bag. But we hope that you will follow the path believing that there is a real danger.

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One of Slough House’s first scenes, Lamb mentions an exercise that went wrong, but you won’t actually see evidence until River is in the office with Webb (Freddie Fox). Do you have to trust that the audience is patient enough that the answers will come and you do not have to feed them everything right away?

It’s always a balance between how much you feel the need to give the geography of the story to the audience and how much you want to keep it working. And I firmly believe that if you point them all out, they just get boring, especially in a genre that has intrigue and conspiracy. There is a lot in the way I tried to tell this story about hiding the revelation. You hold it a little further away, even in the way I pull things. River climbs the stairs before the sequence you discussed: Who is he? Where is? His head is down, you do not recognize him immediately. Again, using this kind of slightly broken frames. Lamb, you do not find him right away. You find a file, you find a sock with holes. Only when he sits, do we reveal him? And we did the same with history. I think the audience is very smart, especially in a piece of the genre. They know. They process it.

The first two episodes of “Slow Horses” are now available for streaming on Apple TV +. The new episodes will be available on Friday.

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