Hinterland/Y Gwyll is one of the UK’s very best crime dramas, so the fact that it’s now in full swing again (on S4C, it’ll be on BBC4 later in the year) is very good news. I managed to catch up with showrunner Ed Thomas to talk about the series, and it was a really great and fascinating chat, not least because he spoke to me about his plans for the show’s future, how he takes westerns as his cue for inspiration and how the landscape and people of Ceredigion shape his stories. It’s all after the jump.
The Killing Times: You must be thrilled by the response to the show… it’s had lots of critical acclaim but is also seen as a really strong Welsh export.
Ed Thomas: You might know better than I do! Sometimes you get so wrapped up in the bubble of making it you forget there are all kinds of interested parties out there. people who love crime, they consume it in books, films and on television. We have to compete against True Detective and Fargo and all the other great American detective shows. Sometimes it’s great to know that something like The Killing Times is behind us… sometimes if you’re having a bleak Monday morning at the top of a mountain when one of your cameras has just broken, you get a text or a tweet from someone in Chile who loves it.
TKT: You mentioned all the hard work that goes into it, does it come together quite quickly?
ET: The thing is we were careful of the design of it and making the budget work for us. Whether you consume it in Wales or the rest of the UK or in other territories, what we’re getting fed back to us is that people believe in its own kind of authenticity. The stories come out of the area and people feel the stories are about family, soil, blood, belonging… all the kind of stuff that fits with what I know about Wales. So we were really clear: the only way we could do something like Hinterland/Y Gwyll in both languages and make it authentic for the Welsh language audience – who are very particular – was to make it be really specific. We picked Aberystwyth in Ceredigion because we believed that Welsh is spoken enough there and the landscape… it has a big, little country feel. Also, we’ve never had the experience of writing things like this. We’ve written different things but never crime dramas. The procedural stuff really worried us, so one of the ways we could almost avoid that procedural stuff and make it more authentic was… well, I didn’t believe a briefing of 50 cops on a murder show would be done in Welsh in the real world. It would be done in English. So the war room, where the four of them discuss the case in a very lo-fi way, came out of the idea of trying to keep the Welsh language and keeping it authentic. What that means is that we can also be fleet of foot in terms of the procedural fetish that some other shows get into and get out into the hinterland and shoot the characters and everything else. So that became a plus in terms of the design because while looking for authenticity in the Welsh language you find that you can cut a lot of the procedural bollocks out in the English language, and therefore get out there.
TKT: This is the first time I’ve spoken to you so I want to take it back right to the beginning. What were you aiming for when you first came up with the idea for Y Gwyll? What were the kind of stories you wanted to tell?
ET: We’d already worked a fair amount in Welsh and English but S4C came on early and pledged 40 per cent of the budget, so we had to go out and raise the rest of the finance. What we knew we had to do was find a way of exporting a version of Wales that’s free of stereotypes. Historically Wales hasn’t been a hotbed of drama production, for various reasons. We wanted to make sure that we could be very local but with a universal appeal. We picked on the crime drama because it’s the most consumed genre globally. Secondly, we’re based in Wales and we know our versions of Wales and in many way the themes that we wanted to touch on were themes that were prevalent in other works we’d done. It’s kind of a love letter to a disappearing Wales, and a changing, disappearing world. When you go into Ceredigion and up into the farms there are a lot of derelict places. But what we also found were people who had moved in – hippies who had made farms with no electricity. So it’s an eclectic, sort of wild west place. The Devil’s Bridge story, which we started with, was a myth, a strange and spooky real myth. Then we realised and this is probably the cleverest thing we did as a production, we went up there and reccied these places before it was green-lit with the location manager. Story two was going to be a different story, but we binned it and kept staying local – that enabled us to take the whole production up there. The most cost-effective way of doing a show like this is to keep it in, say, Cardiff, where we’re based, shoot the interiors in Cardiff and then go up to Ceredigion and shoot the pretties. But if we had done that I think we would have ended up with a fundamentally different show. What ever it costs to place us and the crew up in Ceredigion, the benefits far outweighed that cost because everywhere we looked we found an interesting theme or bits of character or a situation. These local things gave it a resonance and a past. We found a farm where nine brothers lived and one of them had wrapped all the beams in newspaper. It’s as if Wales never had a post-modernist era. We’ve gone straight from early modernism to whatever state we’re in now without irony or self-conscious post-modernism, if that’s not too posh of me to say that.
TKT: When I watch Hinterland/Y Gwyll it takes me back to my rural upbringings – of farmers out in the country where everything’s knackered, who house people – forgotten people almost – who have lived there all their lives and really struggle to make ends meet. Are these the kinds of people you wanted to give a voice to?
ET: Yeah, definitely. If you’re outside the M25 you can easily think that the culture and the lingua franca is a million miles away from areas of the UK. From very early on we pitched to our distributors that this was all about a big, little country. It’s the UK with a little tilt. It’s life Jim, but not as you know it. They bought into that. If we could give that big, little country thing a kind of Sam Shepard frame they’d come on board. It’s very much like doing an old-fashioned western…
TKT: I’ve read you describe Hinterland/Y Gwyll as a western before and wanted to ask you about that…
ET: If you look at some of the lenses we use… we’re slightly beneath the eye line with our framing. The camera’s on the floor a lot so it gives you that classic western shot, without ever becoming too self conscious.
TKT: You mentioned the lenses there, but also the colour palette is interesting. It goes from slate grey to bleached-out, again like a western…
ET: Exactly. I directed episode four in the first series – in Borth with the railways – and we shot it in late May. We’d come out of a really long winter that year and everything that had been green had been burnt yellow. The hills were still green but that savannah and flatlands so we had to make sure on the static shots that we wiped out the edge of the horizon. So we were doing the opposite – instead of shooting upwards we had to shoot down, almost. So it was deliberate to keep it all bleached out and washed out, and when we put Mared Rhys’s red coat into all that and you could see the characters 200 metres away!
TKT: You mentioned that this is your first crime drama, what were your inspirations/favourite shows to draw on?
ET: I’ve written 10 plays – I’m 53 now – and one of them was made into a feature in 1996, and was about a Welsh family obsessed with America. Thematically I think Hinterland grows out of an interest in your own square mile from where you’re from. Some of the stereotypes of Wales… I couldn’t believe people were still dealing in them, even now. I wanted to make those stereotypes work for us rather than work against us. I loved Fargo and films like Badlands, but instead of getting too wrapped up in all that you have to say to yourself: these are the kinds of themes that interest us, and these are the kinds of people we know exist and these are the stories are around, and then do something yourself. I’ve always liked the writer Sam Shepard and loved the way he connects the local to the American Dream in a very simple, mythic way. Can we make a cop show mythic? And if we can make it mythic can we give it space so it’s not indulgent? In other words Mathias is kind of existential but he’s not a twat. He’s a grieving man for reasons we now know. On top of that it’s all about landscape, authenticity and real people. Mathias has got all the tropes of a tortured cop and when we wondered what was new about this or him, and he’s not really any different from all the rest of them. He’s going to live in a caravan, not because he’s Jim Rockford, but because one morning he’ll get up and run, but the next he’ll go to the cliff edge and think “fuck it, shall I jump?”
TKT: Mathias is living on that knife-edge, for sure. Why did you choose to drop a tortured soul into a place like Ceredigion? Was that for intrigue and dramatic tension?
ET: I created the character for Richard (Harrington). I’ve known him for 20 years, ever since he was a young boy hassling me for a job. We became friends. Rich didn’t go to drama school, he learned on the job. He’s such an interesting man in what he can bring. He’s a complex guy as well. He’s not finessed and he can bring a rawness to it. On good days he gets angry with himself for losing his ‘nakedness’. He was the go-to person to build this around. I wasn’t going to tell you this, but Rich calls himself Mathias and I call Mathias Rich. I knew I could write something that he could fit into like a glove. One of the things that belongs to him is the compassion. Straight away. That was a little problem in series one because normally in these male/female cop partnerships the female role is the compassionate one. In this Mathias takes a lot of compassion away from Rhys. We had to reboot Mared Rhys and had to ask ‘what does Mared bring to it now?’ He’s cornered the market in compassion.
TKT: I was going to ask you about their relationship. After one episode of series two, it feels like their relationship has broken down completely…
ET: He’s all instinct, she’s all procedure. But in order to be a good instinctive cop you’ve got to have shape as well. And in order to be a good procedural cop you’ve got to have instinct. They think they know each other and Mared thinks Mathias is reckless, and Mathias thinks Mared is more procedural. They’re both wrong. They both share similar qualities. We didn’t want to go down the road of there being any love interest, but inevitably if you work in a close team on a murder inquiry some fundamental truths come out, which can easily lead to other things. We haven’t shut the door on that, but we wanted to make them interesting, complex and hopefully engaging characters. And not to reveal too much about them in series one was a deliberate thing. Back then about 90 per cent of each episode was about the case and the story and the other 10 per cent was about Mathias’s past life and a little bit of intrigue about Prosser and Mared. In series two we’ll reveal a little bit more, so the arc will take a bigger share of the story. We hired Rich for 13 films and if we’re lucky enough to go through three series that would make 13 films. There’s a question that’s asked in film one that will finally be answered at the end of the arc. Story one will finally be put to bed at the end of story 13.
TKT: What is that question?
ET: I can’t tell you that!
TKT: But you do have a very strong arc you’re following…
ET: Yes. The rough plan was… if it had fallen flat on its face in series one it would have been goodnight, finished. So the first thing to do was to make sure that the belt and braces of the production and story really worked. The plan was in series one we would hardly reveal anything, just enough to keep people watching. Thankfully the feedback we got was that people were intrigued by the characters. The plan was then for series two to reveal more and at the end of series two it’ll kind of give you a strong indication of where series three will be going.
TKT: With all that in mind and the fact you have a very strong sense of where you’re going with all this, what’s your writing process like? Do the characters and storylines pretty much write themselves because you do know where you’re going? Do you have a big team?
ET: My process used to be that I’d go away and write the first draft and we would then construct the beats. That’s changed fundamentally. In series one we had three writers, and then another one came on board – someone we’d known for four or five years and fitted in. By series two we thought we’d open it up and get more writers involved. That’s worked because the series has grown, but it also brings its own difficulties, too. I think it’s incredibly difficult now to ask for new writers because increasingly the design of the arc and where we’d like the series to go… you have to know that intimately and the writing process has redefined that. We all sit down and may respond to an idea from one of the writers, but together write the beats and backbone and structure. We write it very much from the limitations we’ve always been faced with. For example, it’s 90 minutes on BBC4 with no break. S4C want the 90-minute episodes, as well as two 45-minute episodes with a climax at the end of each one. BBC Wales show the first hour and they also want a climax at the end of 59 minutes to take us into the news, then there’s another hour an hour.
TKT: It’s such an incredible production process. Do you ever just want to tell everyone to bugger off and accept just one version?
ET: Every step of the way comes back to how it was funded. The days of a TV channel solely funding things is going to be limited in the future. Raising finance for this is like raising finance for a film. Sometimes we’ve managed to get on board a lot of partners who, before this, never got into bed with each other. S4C and the BBC have different briefs. But along the way the fact that S4C, BBC4 and BBC Wales, as well private investors, all have to be catered for and satisfied. BBC Wales and BBC4, for instance, are very different from each other. The fact that we could come up with one show that can satisfy all of those audiences is really rare and I’m thrilled about it. I just don’t know how we did it! We write in 12-minute sections, and then there’s a break. One of the writers might write one part, then I write another. It varies. We know that the mechanics of the story work we can then finesse it into a 90-minute film. I never thought I’d arrive at that way of doing it, but it works.
One more last thing. My mum and dad, who are have both passed away, they had a butcher’s shop on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, which was in the family for a 100 years. That place is part of the wild west. I was brought up with a tiny slaughterhouse and a butcher’s shop, and killing turkeys. The characters that came into my world as a young kid were just terrific. That part of Wales has now become gentrified and forgotten about. It really is a love letter to a forgotten and disappearing world. We’re the Jeremy Corbyn of filmmaking!
Hinterland/Y Gwyll: Sundays, 9pm, S4C