Wolf Hall is No 2 in our end-of-year roundup. Here, the director talks about his nerves on showing Hilary Mantel the rough cuts, filming the most powerful moment of his career, and spending £30,000 on beeswax candles
Congratulations … Wolf Hall is up for three Golden Globes and is many people’s TV series of the year. Are you surprised that a slow, spare, complex, candlelit story about the Tudors, with an ending we already knew, has proved such a hit?
The scale of the audience surprised me. When we started, Wolf Hall was a fairly esoteric project. It was always going to be demanding: slow, political, with a lot of talking and not much action. I thought it would attract a small audience and was completely unprepared when we broke BBC2 box-office records and peaked at an audience of six million.
What do people continue to say to you about it?
The execution of Anne Boleyn – the last 10 minutes of the series – seems to have had a huge impact. I’ve been making television for 35 years and I can’t think of anything I’ve shot that was so powerful to make and that translated to the audience in this way.
Is there a scene that has stayed with you?
In a 17-week shoot, the longest I’ve ever done, there was a moment in episode three that will stay with me for ever. Thomas More is handing the chain of lord chancellor back to Henry, and Cromwell and Anne are watching from a high window. It’s a moment of triumph for Anne and, completely unexpectedly, Cromwell has this little fantasy about running his hand across her neck and collarbone. It’s in the book and I was very keen to include it. The performance that Claire [Foy] and Mark [Rylance] give in this little joust is one of the best moments in my working life.
How did Hilary Mantel respond to the series?
I showed her rough cuts of the first two episodes. When it ended with the death of Cardinal Wolsey, I was as nervous as I’ve ever been. One is used to waiting for the reaction of executives, which can be hard – in the past, they have done real damage to my films. But when you’re talking about two extraordinary Booker-prizewinning novels by Hilary Mantel, it’s a whole other experience. She raised one hand in the air with her thumb up. She couldn’t speak because she was choked. It was a good moment.
Do you think Wolf Hall has broken the mould of what period drama can be?
I think what differentiated it was that we tried to do it as if it were happening now. If it were being shot in Tudor times, there wouldn’t have been a focus on the costumes or the buildings. You would focus on the people, interplay, drama and emotion just as you would if it were a modern BBC1 drama.
You’ve referred to Wolf Hall as the most daunting project of your career. Still the case?
There are other things I’ve done that have been as challenging, but Wolf Hall was the most daunting because I had only done one piece of costume drama, Wuthering Heights, and it had been a spectacular flop. I thought I was a very odd choice for Wolf Hall and there was a little voice in my head saying: “You’ve tried that and you were crap at it.” I didn’t want to ruin it.
It sounds as if you almost said no …
I was under pressure to agree to do Wolf Hall and I took some persuading. I didn’t think I was the right person for the job.
You’re currently working on a Channel 4 drama on Islamic State. Is it a relief to return to a contemporary project or are you hankering after another period drama?
The truth is I feel more confident as a result of having made Wolf Hall. It was a complicated and very difficult series to make and it has put a salve on a rather bloody open sore for me, which is what Wuthering Heights had always remained. It was probably the worst experience of my professional life. So, the fact that I’ve been able to tiptoe back into costume drama and not make a complete pig’s ear of it is a huge relief. If someone were to ask me to do another one, I wouldn’t be as anxious about screwing it up.
Another one such as The Mirror and the Light, Mantel’s third part of the trilogy?
It’s still some way off. I spoke to Hilary two weeks ago and she is right in the middle of writing it. I wouldn’t anticipate a conclusion in the next 12 months. It’s a treat for the future and I very much hope I will be able to direct it.
What have you enjoyed on TV this year?
My highlights have been in the cinema rather than television. I loved Spotlight, about the investigation by a Boston newspaper of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. And Todd Haynes’ Carol is one of the best pieces of film-making I’ve seen in a very long time.
Has directing Wolf Hall changed you?
I think so. I was pretty rigid in the view that my job is to hold a mirror up to contemporary society by making television about issues of public policy, the Iraq war, problems in Israel and Palestine, the betrayals of the Labour party, and so on. Doing Wolf Hall has made me realise that there is a wider world out there.
Will you ever make a film by candlelight again?
Wolf Hall has taught me that a) it’s possible and b) it’s dangerous. A lot of people thought it was too dark. If I did it again, I would double-check the levels of darkness every time.
How many candles did you go through on set?
The candle budget was about £30,000. They had to be beeswax candles, accurate to the period, so they weren’t cheap. We certainly got through them.