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Help | Interview with Jack Thorne (Writer & Creator) and Marc Munden (Director)

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Can you tell us about Help and how it came about?

Jack Thorne: Stephen Graham approached me quite a while ago to say, “Please write something for me and Jodie Comer!” I was astounded by the idea, but couldn’t think of anything good enough. I went looking back through the history of Liverpool but I couldn’t find anything where I was just like, “oh this is the story that needs telling.” Then the pandemic happened and I was looking at everything going on, and there was a care home near where I used to live where there were a huge number of deaths and I became very interested in what caused that and then when it was in good enough shape, I shared it with Marc Munden. Thankfully, he took the dive and joined and did an astounding job.

Marc Munden: I got it in instalments, that was what was really interesting about it. I mean, it’s Jack, I knew I was going to do it before he even sent me the instalments but then they came in and wow. The first 15-20 pages were Sarah and Tony meeting in the care home and real and sweet, unique and idiosyncratic, like Jack always is, and then I’ve got the second instalment and of course this it has this middle section where COVID hits and I hadn’t really expected that, and just took another turn. And then finally, I got the third instalment, which was the last act and it really felt like a solid Dickensian novel in a sense, I was getting a new section and feeling every turn.

Sadly it’s a very current piece, with the pandemic still going on. How long did it take you to write because it was quite a quick turnaround. And what was the process like on that?

Jack Thorne: It was a very quick turnaround, actually, we went the wrong way to begin with. I was writing about something slightly differently originally, because I was a bit scared of writing about COVID. Marc and I have both worked with The Forge’s George Faber [fellow Exec Producer on Help] before and George is an excellent prodder! There’s no prodder like him really, in the whole of the country! We spoke to him and he just said “you’ve missed the story”. We had discussed why it was important to tell the story and I was explaining what’s happening to care homes at the moment and the reason why we need eyes on it and he just said, “well you’re missing the story then, the story is that of COVID.” He started throwing lots of articles at me about the way in which patients were discharged into care homes, all these different things that I was aware of and it just brought into sharp relief. It was always going to be about Stephen having dementia but I had started to think about the other important elements that I wanted to address. I was thinking about the kids that fall off the bottom of the education system, the kids that don’t necessarily fit and, and how we could tell the story of someone finding their vocation as my mum did. My mum was a teacher and then she became a carer, she was very good teacher, but she was a far happier as a carer. I wanted to highlight the people that instinctively find it within themselves to care.

Marc, Help is so unique, it looks and feels and breathes in a way only you could direct. There are elements that people have picked up on including horror and thriller tropes. What were the elements that you were really keen to land and what made it unique for you?

Marc Munden: First of all, love. Jack always said it was going to be a love letter to the care sector and that permeated the whole thing. Also, it comes out of the love that Stephen and Jodie have for the project as well, they really loved the reasoning behind it and they really loved the script. I think that sense of what it takes to be a carer is something that was really, visceral in Jack’s script and the sort of selflessness that you have to have. There is love  between the two of them, but there’s love for the job as well so I wanted that to shine through, it’s a badly paid job and many people do it for the love of it. That was important to show without us sentimentalising it. But then of course when COVID hits in the film I wanted to make it as real as possible. You want to immerse the audience in this scenario, which a lot of carers went through for real, it may feel like a horror film in the middle section, but that’s what people went through, it was real horror. It’s not manufactured in the sense of it being an artificial threat, the threat was very real, and people experienced that and so it’s important for the audience experience that as a lot of those carers experienced it. I know it feels like a sort of genre film in places and I’m very aware of that and I’ve always drawn on the genre whenever I’m making stuff. National Treasure is the same, for me National Treasure was a paranoid thriller, the sort of thing they made in the seventies with like The Parallax View, it was about the audience trying to work out what the truth was, and who is telling the truth. Jack’s writing is so profound and has all these elements that you can dig out of it, but with this, it felt that that horror was very real and apparent in people’s lives.

Jack Thorne: People always talk about Marc and his use of the camera and all that stuff that he does so brilliantly, but his process is built on actors and one of the things he insists on is having this rehearsal process, that was a bit strange in this case, because it was taking place under lockdown and COVID restrictions and because Stephen suddenly was isolating in a hotel for a lot of it. The thing that Marc does so wonderfully is trust actors faces. So in that middle section there are some genre like shots, but there’s also just a lot of Jodie’s face, because they’ve worked together so closely to tell the stories through her face and it’s extraordinary.

That leads us on to the next question about the research process. Can you please tell us about that?

Jack Thorne:  The thing that was peculiar about this process was how raw it all was. With a lot of my stories there’s a lot of damage and that means you’re often in situations with people that are expressing such vulnerability. With this, they were still in the middle of it. And I have never had a situation where people are crying down the phone or the zoom at me, because they are so overwhelmed with their responsibility and feel that they are culpable. We did all that we normally do in terms of just being sure that we’re telling the story correctly and we had people read the scripts, and actually we had someone read the script very late on and say this is wrong and we needed to fundamentally correct something that we hadn’t realised we needed to fundamentally correct and that’s an essential part of the process, we have to be sure that we’re supporting and telling the story of care workers. But yes, the rawness was the thing that set it apart.

Marc Munden: I think that was because people were still coming to terms with it, they were still working it out in their own mind. They were still yet to grieve, a lot of those carers

Jack Thorne: And they probably have PTSD, and they’ve been denied doing what they always do. They’ve been denied the moment of helping someone through their illness, through their death, they’ve been denied the opportunity to do their job. And this was, you know, I don’t know whether genocide is too strong a word, but this was a thing that was thrown at them and they were forced to cope with things beyond their control. It’s horrific what they were left to deal with.

Marc, is there anything you’d like to add re the rehearsal period?

Marc Munden: Well, we had the script, which was really, really well drawn from the first draft, as it always is with Jack. But I think what was interesting was what Jodie and Stephen brought between the two of them, because Stephen initiated this for the two of them and I think what they came with a real of energy and force was this hunger and desire to be working together and riffing off each other and making these characters as real as possible. There’s a lot of both of them in those characters and Stephen sort of became an older brother to Jodie, I think that’s what really came out of that period, their bonding. There’s so much of them in those roles and it’s not something you often get the opportunity to access.

Jack Thorne: And their specificity in terms of what they do…. You know, both Marc and I were getting calls from Stephen from about two months out. I remember once being on a romantic walk with my wife, we had left my kid with my sister, it was our only time that we had managed to grab together for a very long time during the whole pandemic and I’m there walking around a graveyard and I get a call *adopts Stephen’s accent* “Jack, I need the 1982-1983 Liverpool kit, and I collect trainers, that’s very important, I collect trainers, I mean boxes and boxes of trainers.” And I’m there walking around with my wife thinking “I have to pass this onto costume”. And then with Jodie, I had a version of Sarah in my head that was a bit more like some of the kids I went to school with who were a bit more out there and Jodie just pulled it back, all the history was exactly the same, but she just wanted to modulate what it was slightly which was it was very, very interesting seeing that develop.

Talking of football kits, we believe there is a reference that runs throughout?

Jack Thorne: I knew that Jodie was from an Everton family, so I was not losing the opportunity to bring that in, but I wanted to save it to right near the end, and I knew that Stephen was a mad Liverpool fan. I’d written in the 1982-83 squad, because I knew that was sort of his era. I worked out in terms of when he would have started going to matches and what that would have been like, and so I thought I would save it and get it in at the end. And there is an improvised line there, “you’re a blue nose”, I didn’t write that, but I love it!

The dialect is so spot on, did that come from Jodie and Stephen?

Jack Thorne: Yeah, a fair whack, and then there was other stuff where I heard them talking, such as HP Sauce in Scouse stew, I heard them talking about that. And so there was a bit of me sat there eating my crisps, listening in and stealing stuff!

Marc Munden: The beauty of that Liverpool/Everton moment in that final scene went on forever and had a life of its own on set, it’s stuff for real that you don’t expect to have. They totally cracked it.

Jack Thorne: There’s one line in there that’s just for Liverpudlians, that I think only Liverpudlians will understand, “that’s the Dee”…. It came out of someone on production saying it and I was like “we’re writing that in”, it’s one just for them.

You have an amazing cast of Liverpudlian actors, proper national treasures involved. How was the casting process? What was it like for both of you working with all of them?

Marc Munden: We knew we wanted to cast Liverpudlians, but Stephen and Jodie were also really, really fierce about it, which was good. Having people like Cathy Tyson and Sue Johnston, and some really interesting actors like Alicia Eyo, who played June, those were real treats. A lot of the people that were in the film were carers as well, Alicia is also a carer. Having Angela Griffin in a role where she’s not very glamorous, but she’s very, very real was so special, to see them really dig in there. Sue Johnston was the same, it’s a very, very brave role to play.

Jack Thorne: We’re so lucky to have lots of incredible actors playing quite small parts for us, Lesley Sharp came and did a role which is just two scenes. The Liverpudlian thing was really, interesting, but also if we cast people who weren’t from Liverpool we wanted them to use their own accent. Casting were incredible, and Stephen does have a phone book full of people! We ran into problems with someone and Stephen just literally got out his phone and went “who we gonna get?!” I mean, Sue Johnston, I think he basically just sat on her during the filming of Time, and said “you’re coming to do this thing with me”, and she was like “It’s not much of a part?!” and there’s Stephen Graham saying, “yes, but you’re coming to do it!” and of course she came and made it a brilliant part. And Ian Hart, he did such a beautiful job, he has to do a really difficult thing in playing a character who is totally real, is trying his very, very best, and occasionally get things a little bit wrong. It was really important that this wasn’t a perfect care home, it was a really, really good care home, filled with beautiful people doing important work, but mistakes were made because they were handed enormous responsibility very fast. He makes some really good decisions, he bans visits before it was advised, he makes some decisions right and some wrong, because he’s human, in the way we all would in that situation.

Marc Munden: It’s important to say this was a small family run home, and in our research, it was those bigger care homes, which may have had two or three homes that did better in the pandemic. There was one carer in a larger home that we spoke to which had a flu outbreak in the home the year before, and knew how to contain that within the care home and learned from that and applied exactly the same things when it came to COVID. This is a small care home, run by a family, Ian’s character is the son who’s taken over from his Mum as a tribute to her, it’s so beautifully and subtly played. He’s aware of his limitations but there’s a lot of love there.

You’ve worked together before for Channel 4 on National Treasure, what’s unique about working together?

Marc Munden: I’ll start! There’s no one that writes like Jack, and there’s no one that writes with the same depth and heart, he’s unique in that. The two pieces you’re talking about, Help and National Treasure are polar opposites in lots of ways. National Treasure is really about someone that is fundamentally really damaged, a bad person who is aware of their crimes and Help is a piece about love and selflessness. They’re really, really different pieces and what’s interesting is that Jack can write about someone that he might not like, I remember him saying about Paul Finchley [Robbie Coltrane’s character in National Treasure], and how it was hard, but he’s able to do that and write from the heart about love as well. And when you get his scripts and excavate it with heads of department it becomes that much richer and that’s not always the case.

Jack, over to you!…

Jack Thorne: [jokes] Pah, he’s an arsehole! He’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!

Marc Munden: [laughs] We’re lumbered with each other now!

Jack Thorne: Marc’s extraordinary! I think there’s an awful lot of pressure put on writers to be the sole story tellers, the bearers of story and I think Marc takes that responsibility too and he shares it with the actors. His rehearsal process is always extraordinary. He’s got these little, very posh books, that are like these little art books, he has the script on one side and then he writes notes on the other side, someday they’re going to put them into a museum, because they’re amazing. And he writes down the most precise notes for the actors and for himself, as to what’s come out of the discussions with them during this rehearsal process, and then when they’re on the set, he reminds them of it, and he takes them through it and you see them start to build the characters, it’s fascinating to watch. And through Marc’s incredible process the actors become so entrenched. Some times in telly you see actors that aren’t really part of the process, but by saying ‘this is all of ours, and we’re all telling it together”, that’s such a profound and beautiful process and I love every second of it.

What would you like people to take away from Help?

Jack Thorne: Anger. Real profound anger. I think we let people down and I think the way the government is reacting to their responsibility for this, is appalling. I think the fact that social care is being pushed in terms of the urgent reforms that are needed. The fact this hasn’t been seen as a moment that requires true reflection. The fact that it’s sort of being pushed away, and that responsibility is being denied. Matt Hancock stood there on that stage and said there was a protective ring around care homes, well there was a ring around care homes, but it wasn’t protective. We left people. It’s been interesting since the trailer has come out, there have been two schools of thought almost, one is that people can’t wait to see it because of Jodie and Stephen, and one is that it’s too soon. And it’s not too soon, because it’s still happening and it needs to be urgently addressed and it’s appalling, Freedom Day for many was not Freedom Day, it was lock back down day. We have to tell these stories because people are being ignored.

Marc Munden: Well, it’s about the care sector and hopefully we have a way to highlight and influence the way the care sector is handled in the future. It felt intentional, dropping the bat at their expense for the NHS. What’s interesting about this is I think Sarah is an iconic character in the sense that she has no qualifications in the way the Government might recognise from their public school and Oxbridge upbringings, except that she’s absolutely brilliant at this job, which is a qualification in itself and it’s recognising a whole sector of people. They may be educated, they may not be, but the thing is what they’re doing is not recognised by certificates and pieces of paper. They’re putting their heart into this job into this world. You can’t quantify carers and caring in the same way as the medical health sector because it’s a very different thing and with an aging population we really have to have a think about the industry around that and it needs to be rethought in terms of the amount of money is going into it. The government put a lot of money into the NHS, quite rightly like they needed but they ignored this sector, which is important.