Girls with money, men with power. A group of fun-loving young American girls explode into the stiff upper lipped London season of the 1870s, kicking off an Anglo-American culture clash in Apple TV series The Buccaneers, reports Adrian Pennington.
The ensuing drama is played out to a soundtrack featuring female musicians from Taylor Swift to Olivia Rodrigo. “There is the intent from ground zero to reinvent the genre and let it cut loose from the corset strings of period drama tropes,” said Oliver Curtis BSC (Netflix’s Stay Close) who helped design the show look and shot episodes 1 and 2 with director Susanna White (BBC’s Bleak House). “It’s about a collusion of attitudes and sensibility which, from a stylistic point of view, could take you in lots of different directions.”
Inspired by Edith Wharton’s unfinished final novel of the same name, from series creator Katherine Jakeways, the eight-part drama is produced by Forge Entertainment and stars Norwegian actresses Kristine Frøseth and Alisha Boe with Mia Threapleton and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).
Curtis had not made a period drama since 1998 when he was Bafta nominated for his work on Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair, shot on 16mm and in 4:3.
“I think Vanity Fair had a more conventional literary structure in terms of episodes and depiction and of course was made at a time when we had the luxury of much more time to shoot,” he said. “There was also not the same awareness of diversity in front of and behind the camera.
Wharton novels have been transferred to screen before, and successfully too, by Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence (1993) and in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000). More recently the period drama has been re-imagined with a more contemporary vibe in shows like The Great and Bridgerton.
“There is so much period drama on TV that you have to be distinctive, and I think that the writers and producers of The Buccaneers had that in mind when they put it together.
“Our young women characters very much drive the story and in that sense it’s a feminist tale with multiple storylines that can take you in a different direction. There’s a lot of energy, it’s vibrant as well as being moving and thoughtful.”
He continued: “The American women who arrive in the Old World have not come to stand on ceremony. They are uninhibited and they are not going to wait to be told what to do or where to sit. They are disruptive elements so in that sense we are picking up the spirit of disruption in the drama and injecting that into the camera work and a playfulness of the mis en scene.”
White and Curtis met during production of Danny Boyle’s drama Trust. In prep for The Buccaneers they talked about the transgressive quality of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) and for look design Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) “everybody’s reference for period drama.”
“We also referenced one of my personal favourites, La Reine Margot (1994) in terms of its lushness and richness and the transgressive qualities it has too.”
Behind the Scenes: The Buccaneers – Cameras and lenses
Curtis shot The Buccaneers using an Alexa LF paired with Arri DNA lenses, complemented by a Nikon 80-200 Morpheus zoom and a FujiFilm 19-90 Premista lens. The Arri DNA lenses played a pivotal role in shaping the series’ visual style.
“In period drama there is an expectation of the grand interior, of the ball room and open spaces but at the same time you need to convey a great intimacy by looking into the eyes of your characters. So we need to strike a balance.
“We had to be close to the character’s expressiveness and their exchanges but also not lose site of the spaces they were inhabiting and that they were disrupting.
“The combination of the beautiful portraiture lens of the DNA glass and the large format sensor, which gives you a good field of view whilst also being flattering, in portraiture was ideal. Had we shot Super 35mm we would have been forced onto wider lenses which are not as flattering in the close up.”
Behind the Scenes: The Buccaneers – Light and Space
Dynamic camera techniques, including tracking and Steadicam shots, added energy, reflecting the characters’ infectious spirit.
“When you’ve got an ensemble cast and the blocking is fairly fluid and not too static the camera has to adjust and configure itself around their movements. Also shooting ‘B’ camera most of the time gave the editor coverage to build pace and find the action within the scene.
“Something I hadn’t really taken on board previously is that the clothing from that period was much more reflective than most modern fabric. The bustles and corsets are textured and reflect the light so you get a lot of animation in the costume and movement.”
In the 1870s electricity was available in the homes of wealthy New York society while British aristocracy still had gas, oil lamps and candles. Curtis leapt on this as a storytelling device.
“The New York interiors are flooded with light, they are bright and open and accessible but when our heroes arrive in London the light hardly penetrates indoors. We keep the lighting levels low key there to build that contrast. Gradually as the women infiltrate high society the light starts so flood in.
“I still kept my cues from motivated sources because you want to have some verisimilitude with the world you are depicting but at the same time it was more of a progressive development in terms of contrast ratio and contrast.”
Edinburgh and Glasgow stood in for New York and London with the Georgian and Victorian buildings there perhaps less photographed for screen than National Trust houses and period property in and around London. They shot landscapes in the Scottish Borders. North Berwick was substituted for scenes set in Tintagel, Cornwall. Other interiors were staged at Pyramids Studios at Bathgate near Edinburgh.
Glasgow streets were dressed (with help from VFX) for Maddison Avenue in New York, for instance, and the City Chambers was used for interiors of London’s Grosvenor House, scene of a grand debutante’s ball.
In the Glasgow City Chambers there is a marvellous white staircase which Susanna thought ideal to stage a parade of two hundred white gowned debutantes being watched by potential suitors,” explains Curtis. “Our narrative observation was that this was akin to a farm auction.”
It was a very challenging space to work in. A giant sky light overhead meant the DP had to compete with all the vagaries of the Glasgow weather and the staircase itself descended around an atrium making it tricky to position and move a camera.
“We manged to work our way down the building in stages,” he said. “Where there were doorways leading onto council offices I asked [production designer Amy Maguire] to build window plugs (where designers create a window) so we could bring daylight into the belly of the building where otherwise it would be gloomy and dark. This created interesting pools of light and contrast where we could stage different beats of the story. It was an unusual piece of staging for something that could otherwise have been a conventional ballroom scene.”
He used helium balloons to help light spaces in period houses partly to protect the delicate cornicing from rigging. They came in useful during the debutante’s ball scene too where the balloons were towed down the staircase as the camera team worked their way into the bowels of the building.
Behind the Scenes: The Buccaneers – Power concerns
Curtis also took care to use lower powered LEDs where possible to keep power consumption down. This included the Lightstar LUXED-12 for daylight exteriors which can even run from a household mains socket.
“If there is a tool to replace tungsten fixtures or the use of diesel generators then we should be using it as a matter of course,” he said.
“Apple were keen for it to be a colourful, layered show so we utilised the tools of the DI to enrich and enhance what we have on set. I spent a good amount of time with colourist Paul Staples at Company 3 because it was important to maintain consistency with the weather issues we inevitably had in Scotland and also to look after skin tones and cosmetics.”
Brought up in the Cotswolds, Oliver began his photographic education studying photography at Filton Technical College in Bristol. He went on to study film and television at the London College of Printing. His first few years post-college were spent learning the craft in documentaries, promos and short films for the Arts Council of Great Britain and the BFI. It was for the latter that he lensed his first feature Madagascar Skin (1995) He has also been second unit cinematographer on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and directed numerous documentaries for Channel Four and BBC TV, including Trotsky’s Home Movies.
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