How ‘Slow Horses’ Took Over an Airport (and Wembley Stadium) to Deliver a Sneaky Series Opening

[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 something of a magic trick. The new Apple TV+ series starts with eight minutes of well-constructed, spy-story flourish, the equivalent of a stage performer dazzling you with one hand while secretly picking a lock behind their back with the other.

On the page, the adaptation of Mick Herron’s novel commences with a 15-page prologue of junior MI-5 agent River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) tracking down a possible target at a crowded transport center. James Hawes, whose recent directorial career prior to “Slow Horses” includes episodes of “Penny Dreadful” and a pair of “Black Mirror” installments, was tasked with executing that idea across a number of different vectors.

First, Cartwright’s chase and the team of MI-5 officials guiding him — led by Kristin Scott Thomas’ steely Diana Taverner — has to provide an entry point for viewers unfamiliar with the source material. It’s dropping them into this world in a way that by Hawes’ own admission is designed to “give us the shiny, Aston Martin cocktail-swigging bit of the spy genre” before the “handbrake turn into the rest of the show.” Whether you know or not that Cartwright is doomed to spend the remainder of the season among the crusty Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) and his motley band of misfits and rejects, Hawes manages to get across a lingering feeling that our would-be hero might well be running down a suspect through the Action Thriller Uncanny Valley.

Cartwright’s eventual “failure,” the jarring cut to the show’s opening credits sequence, and the gradual reveal that this tightrope opening was not what it initially seemed is quite the kickoff for a season that never really stops toying with expectations. Hawes spoke with IndieWire on the phone about the challenges of building believable tension in a fictional world where entire jobs are built on not trusting anything. This discussion of the scene below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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

HAWES: The novel actually wrote this as taking place in Kings Cross Station. For various reasons, we couldn’t do that. Like any railway station, there are all kinds of different stakeholders. Administratively, they didn’t want us in the way. There were too many people to have to get permission from. And to be honest, they weren’t terribly keen on the scene, which was a terrorist attack. Amazingly, the airports said, ‘We see this differently. We see this as demonstrating how clued up we are to prevent a terrorist attack. We see this as deterrence.’ And Heathrow initially said, ‘We’ll get you in. There’ll be limitations, but you can come and play at Heathrow.’ Then the pandemic hit. Like most of the airline industry, they were pretty busy just saving their part of it to be bothered with a film crew. Production did talk about doing it on a cruise ship or a Thames party boat, and I could feel that dreadful, disappointed pit in my stomach where all the directorial ambition was just being sucked away. I thought it was all going to disappear on me. And then we got a break. Stansted Airport, which is much more of a holiday traffic airport, was very, very closed down for the pandemic. They gave us a tiny window in which, if we turned up, they would give us access. And for once, the pandemic was our friend.

There’s a certain kind of choreography that goes into making a sequence like this work. How did you have those conversations once you knew you had a location?

I went there with the writer, the VFX supervisor, a production designer, and we talked through what the possibilities were. We had to reimagine the journey, because obviously, it’s very geographically dependent. River Cartwright was originally running through terminal buildings. Stansted doesn’t offer that geography. So I came up with the idea that he goes down onto the tarmac, that he catches the guy as he’s boarding the plane. Normally, you wouldn’t be able to run across there. It’s a live airfield. But we were able to do that. A writer once said to me that once you start your hero running, all he can do is run faster, run left, run right, climb a bit, double back. You’ve got to invent obstructions and incidents along the way. And that’s what we started to do.

Actually, there is another location we used. When you get through baggage reclaim, I wanted to continue building out our world and moving towards a climax, and Stansted didn’t [offer] me that. But the moment he comes through from baggage reclaim, that’s all Wembley Stadium, the national football stadium. What that offered me was all those escalators, all those different tiers. I wanted to be on River’s shoulder, traveling with him. I also wanted these broken conspiratorial frames. You get look-throughs over people’s shoulders through windows, through doors. I could see how that would play really well at Wembley. So then the production team came in and they set up a duty-free stall in a corner and brought in some trolleys and dressed it. And then we rejoined Stansted Express for the final part of that sequence.

So after all of the planning work, what did the actual shooting schedule look like?

Preparation was everything. Communication was everything, so that people knew where they needed to be with the right bit of equipment on the day. We had three days to shoot in and around the terminal and tarmac. We had a day for the Wembley part, a day for the train, and a day in the [MI-5] hub. That’s a TV schedule. It’s focused. I like to think it gives you a certain energy. That’s when as a director, suddenly you are building this world, and you’ve got that train set to play with. If you’ve thought it through properly, and the actors will always test you on this, there’s a logic to how they’re running and behaving and what they’re reacting to and against. Jack Lowden is brilliant for that. He will tell you if anything smells just a little bit cheesy, if it smells off. But he also he loves the cut and thrust of the action. And he did his own driving.

“Slow Horses”

Jack English/Apple TV+

Obviously with this opening, the idea is to really invest and immerse the viewer. But I imagine on some level, you wanted to put in a few details that, if people went back and watched it again, might clue them in the fact that what they’re watching is actually a training exercise.

There are little bits there that you can go back and find. I have people dotted through with clipboards and video cameras. The idea is that they’re assessors of the exercise. One of the things we did in preparation, we had the airport security teams advising us on what they’d do in a real situation. Most of the police that you see in the airport are real policeman telling you, ‘This is what I’d do.’ Most of the stewards in the high-vis jackets, they’re the real airport staff responding as they would. So there are clues and there’s authenticity done throughout. And there’s the character’s desperation, I suppose. His performance tells you he’s probably taking risks he might not necessarily do if he really believed that there’s a bomb in the bag. But hopefully you go along with the ride believing there’s a real jeopardy.

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

It’s always a balance between how much you feel the need to give the story geography to the audience and how much you want to keep them working. And I strongly believe if you signpost everything, it just becomes dull, especially in a genre that has intrigue and conspiracy attached to it. There’s a lot in the way I’ve tried to tell this story that is about withholding the reveal. You hold back that little bit further, even the way I shoot things. River coming back up the stairs, prior to the sequence you discussed: Who is he? Where is he? His head is down, you don’t recognize him straight away. Again, using these sort of slightly broken frames. Lamb, you don’t find him straight away. You find a file, you find a sock with holes in it. Only when he sits up, do we reveal him? And we’ve done the same with story. I think audiences are damn smart, especially in a genre piece. They know. They’re working it out.

The first two episodes of “Slow Horses” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. New episodes will be available on Fridays.

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