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January 11, 2018

Long Day’s Journey into Knight

Dominic Minghella has gone from one-time child actor to guiding a massive historical epic series.

Hillary Atkin
  • History
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  • History
  • History
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Writer-director Dominic Minghella has spent nearly all of his career on the other side of the pond—until he came to Los Angeles for post-production of History’s hit drama series Knightfall, of which he is the showrunner.

The 10-episode drama is set in France in the year 1306, when the legendary elite warrior monks known as the Knights Templar have embarked on a life or death quest to find the mythical Holy Grail, Christianity’s most prized artifact.

It is an intense journey fraught with power struggles—political and religious—and often violent outcomes. The knights, led by actor Tom Cullen as Sir Landry, are losing former allies and gaining powerful new enemies, including the King of France, Philip IV, as they struggle to retain their dominance in the medieval world.

The months-long production overseen by Minghella included huge battle scenes, an intimate love story, a mishap involving one of the lead actors and a mysterious fire that destroyed a set.

All of it was a far cry from his previous work.

The younger brother of the late, acclaimed director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), Minghella made his name writing and producing popular British television series including Hamish Macbeth, Robin Hood and Doc Martin.

We caught up with him over the holiday break as he was vacationing with his family in Italy.

What initially brought you to the Knightfall project?

I think I was attracted to the notion of medieval superheroes as veterans.  That was arresting.  To start almost at the end, with the Templars way past their heyday.  The alternative - a show set in the Holy Land, with much more simplistic them-versus-us fighting - would have offered correspondingly less opportunity for shades of moral gray and personal drama. 

I like epic, but I'm always trying to make it personal.  Knightfall's premise gave me the chance to tell stories in a more personal way; the finale of season 1 is all about the blending of scale and intimacy.

In similar vein, the Paris setting of our show allows us to explore the real history of the antipathy between church and state, as played out between King Philip and the Templars. 

There's plenty of politics to explore, and its resonances are pleasingly modern, given that we are set at the beginning of the 1300s.

Describe some of your experiences filming the 10-part series in the Czech Republic and in Dubrovnik, Croatia—your greatest challenges, your biggest joys.

We shot the Fall of Acre in a bay in Dubrovnik, Croatia, at the height of the tourist season; which meant we could only work for a couple of days.  It was a very frenetic and ambitious sequence - it was the full stunt, extras, CG, high-stakes extravaganza - and, because of scheduling, it was our first outing as a crew.  Not for the faint-hearted-and I am faint-hearted! 

Worse, one of our leads, Simon Merrells (Tancrede), while filming missed his footing when sprinting up the gang plank onto a boat, and plunged into the water.  As I saw him go, I remembered a decision I had made with our costume designer, Diana Cilliers, to use real chainmail.  The fake stuff is amazing, but it doesn't work in all lighting conditions.  The real stuff always works, of course. 

But real chainmail is very, very heavy.  And Simon was no doubt being dragged down by it.  Our standby safety divers were already swimming toward him, but my faint heart was in my mouth.  I imagined having to call his family with sickening news.  And then there he was, rescued, dripping, waving, grinning, loving the whole thing, ready for the next take. 

Simon is a trooper.  You'd want him on your team.  I'm lucky to have him on mine.

The rest of the show was filmed in Prague and environs.  I have nothing but admiration and praise for the Czech professionals.  There were no exciting incidents - the story is one of incredible people giving their all for your show, and that is the best story you can hope for.

Wait a minute. Tell us about the fire that burned down your set of medieval Paris. How did it happen and how did it impact the production, your cast and crew?

Oh yes - apart from the fire!  Yeah, that was a very bad thing.  We had this fantastic set - the biggest backlot in Europe -- designed by the master Ondrej Nekvasil in painstaking detail, and built to last.  Several streets, squares, city walls, shops, churches, you name it.  A beautiful Temple complex, and an incredible Palace Square and entrance.  The interiors were in studios down the road. 

So we had excellent weather cover, which we rarely needed because it didn't rain much.  In fact, it didn't rain at all.  In California you know what that means.  A long, hot dry spell in August, with strong winds...And once that combination hit, I remember being called from the cutting room just in time to see the whole thing go up in flames.  After all the work we had put into it. 

It did make me cry.  And I know the design and build team had their hearts broken that day.   Helicopters made endless trips with water, dozens of fire trucks attended, but it was hopeless.   Our main unit was shooting about 50 miles away, and they could see the smoke and flames from there.

As to what caused it, nobody knows.  I guess it was an Act of God.  Funnily enough, one of our scenes in the episode we were shooting has a Saracen warning the Templars that the Holy Grail would bring them nothing but trouble - "Paris will burn; your Temple will burn; you will burn".  Luckily no Templars, actors or otherwise, were burnt in the making of this series.

The production impact was serious of course, but we didn't stop shooting.  Not even for a day.  Production crews are resilient, adaptable folk. We shot what we could shoot.  We wrote ahead on interiors, so we could keep feeding the production machine.  The set rebuild began quickly, and we had to balance our desire to shoot on it with our desire to finish it. 

It takes a great team to do what we did; if you're in logistical trouble, call the Knightfall crew. The fact that we did not miss a beat speaks volumes to the incredible cast and crew we had on set.

A major casualty of the fire was my time in post, which - because no episode had completed at the time of the fire - effectively could not begin until we had finished shooting. 

History has given the series a big push, with large outdoor billboards proclaiming “Holy Hell” in prime locations in LA and New York. Some have compared it to Game of Thrones. What reactions have you received thus far to the series?

In this crowded market, I think History has to pull out all the stops to market its show and they’ve done a great job. Whilst I am pleased they want to get behind it, I do sometimes wish shows could be left a little more to find their own audiences.  As a viewer, I don't like to be over-sold a show.  I like to find it myself, and "own" it because I "found" it - that's hard if you feel a show has been rammed down your throat.  

That's a romantic view of how we consume product, though, and let's face it, in a world of 400+ shows, if you don't know something is there, you're never going to find it.  
The main thing to be sure to get right is the selling of a show as it really is, and not to misrepresent it.  That would only drive the wrong kind of viewer to the material, and then they'd be disappointed. 

I think History has done a great job of selling the show as it really is - which is only partly a sword-swinging show, and much more about politics and relationships.

I don't think it is fair to compare us with Game of Thrones, because GoT is only trying its best!  Seriously, we are a very different show, arising from real history, real people, real events, and a real time and place.  We can take dramatic license with history, and we do, but we have key tent-pole events to which we want to adhere. 

And we don't have fantasy (the notion of the Holy Grail notwithstanding). Nor, on History, are we going to see much in the way of extreme nudity, or hear much in the way of swearing.  C'est la vie.  I do envy them their extended running times -- our episodes are chopped-up 42 minutes compared to their gloriously uninterrupted 55+.  That definitely is a creative challenge. 

Our finale has an extra act, though, and shows what we can do with a little more room for maneuver.

 As for audience reactions, viewers seem to really be enjoying Tom Cullen in the lead role as Landry, and they didn't know they needed to see Jim Carter play a Pope until they saw him in Knightfall.  

Viewers are enjoying the badass action and gore as much as the scheming and politics, and Julian Ovenden's Machiavellian lawyer is fast becoming a fan-favorite baddie. 

It was a pleasure to be able to cast some relatively new faces - great talents who have not necessarily led shows before.  To do that you need a visionary casting director, and I was lucky to be able to hire Debbie McWilliams and her team.  When they're not doing Knightfall they do James Bond.

For a show about knights, we seem to be doing pretty well with the women in the show, who are far from pawns in a male universe.  And I think people know when they tune into History that they're going to get a good blend of fact and drama, which informs as well as entertains.

Did you have a previous interest in the Knights Templar and the medieval world - and what resonance does it have today?

I had no idea who they were.  So it was exciting to learn about them, and that journey continues.  My writing team and I recently went to meet the Master of the London Temple; it's no longer a Templar thing, but the circular church from the 1100s remains.  It is designed to make you feel like you're in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  And it does feel special.

Once you begin to learn about the Templars, you realize they are everywhere in Europe.  And it's embarrassing that you didn't notice before.  I find my fellow Europeans surprisingly uninformed about them - myself included - but many Americans know their story, and in some detail.  Maybe it's all those History documentaries!

As for resonance, so many of our problems seem to stem from conflict in the Middle East.  It feels very alive.  It's not our job in 2017/8 to helicopter in characters, or viewpoints, from the future.  We have to start from what those characters might fervently have believed, and work from there. 

But that doesn't preclude them having doubts, especially after years as veterans, and so we have our characters begin to unpick their own preconceptions and wrestle with them.  That is inevitably going to resonate with modern times, as we in the West also try to understand our roles, for better or worse, in the Middle East.

You’ve been an integral part of several television dramas in recent years, including creating BBC’s Robin Hood and ITV’s Doc Martin. How have those experiences shaped you?

Don't forget Hamish Macbeth, on which I cut my teeth, and I learned a lot from that show which informed Doc Martin and Robin Hood - principally about building worlds that could survive several seasons.  Doc Martin, which I wrote and created in 2003 (ish) is still going.  I've been incredibly lucky to be in at the beginning of these shows.  It is a privilege. 

Statistically speaking, how many shows are you going to be able to drive in one life?  The answer is not many.  Every new one is a small miracle of faith, placed in you, by anxious executives.  I take that faith and responsibility very seriously.  We owe it to the audience to strive until there is no more time or money or energy left to make a show even a tiny bit better. 

On Knightfall we made a gorgeous 5.1 surround sound mix, in the full knowledge that it would not be broadcast in that format, but that there might be some fans who buy the Blu-ray - and they will appreciate it.  I'm very ambitious.  I think audiences know when you don't care; it transmits itself subliminally.  I would not be able to bear that.

It’s coming up on 10 years since your brother Anthony Minghella’s untimely passing. You’ve written movingly about him on your blog. What impact did his life – and his career – have on you?

The 10-year anniversary is going to be very hard.  To be honest, and without being melodramatic, every single day is hard.  He was extraordinary.  We sort of knew and we sort of didn't.  Every family feels its members are special.  So it's hard to know where family-special ends and objective-special begins. 

Even with his great films and heaps of awards, I think we still felt that confusion.  It was perhaps only with his death that we fully understood that the world owned him, or wanted to own him, as much as we did, and of course when someone is gone, there is solace in the world sharing that loss. 

Beyond his talents there was this incredible charisma there, like you were with the most important person in the world.  And that made you important too.  So many people felt that.  He had an aura, and he wore it so incredibly easily, so disarmingly.  I'm proud of him.  And jealous too.  I don't have it.  I am loved, I know, from here to Timbuktu and back.  But I don't have that thing that he had. 

It's just not something that occurs very often, this confluence of charm and ability, this huge warmth and generosity.

 What he gave me, apart from permission to be a creative person, which is itself an extraordinary gift, is the confidence that generosity is empowering - help others to shine and everybody wins. 

Also every character has their own valid point of view.  And nobody speaks in complete sentences.

On the personal side, I see the great trail he left behind.  I want to leave a great trail.  That's not a bad ambition, is it? 

What memories do you have of acting in his 1978 film, A Little Like Drowning?

It was the beginning and the end of my acting career.  I had a line about a friend who would go fishing with his Dad.  "They sit in a shelter all night."  Every time I gave the line, the crew fell about laughing.  I didn't know why, but it was because I had a lisp in those days.  I was saying "they shit in a shelter all night". 

The film was locked away and we only saw it after he had died, at a screening specially laid on by the BFI (British Film Institute).  I had been dubbed.  Thank God.

Anthony’s children, your niece Hannah and nephew Max are also in showbiz. What is in the family DNA that led you all to your respective careers?

Hannah is the President of TriStar.  Max is an actor (The Handmaid's Tale) and a writer and a director.  This is totally unfair.  I want their careers.  And the unfairness does not stop there: my son, Dante, is a writer working on Knightfall, and my daughter, Louisa, is writing and directing plays at the tender age of 19. 

Another niece, Lillie, and her partner are very successful in casting in London, as is my nephew, Ben.  My sister Edana is an accomplished jazz singer in the UK, and also wrote some of Doc Martin with me. 

Probably our creative genes come from my Mum's side, which is very musical and my Mum was an amazing storyteller.  And our drive may be to do with being immigrants -- Italians growing up post-war in England, after a period in which many Italians were interned.  We had to prove we weren't the enemy. 

My parents worked seven days, all hours like many immigrant families - and on top of that went to council meetings and served on endless committees and in myriad civic and charitable roles, including as the local mayor and magistrate.  Maybe it was an effort to be more English than the English. 

Whatever, but as children of these industrious, community-minded parents, we certainly knew we had to work hard.  I don't think that parental push will ever go away.  It is exhausting.  But it is a gift too, a key which opens up the world.

Season 1 of Knightfall runs through Feb. 7 on History.

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