Geoffrey Sax (‘Christopher And His Kind’) interview

Directed by Geoffrey Sax (Doctor Who: ‘The Movie‘, Stormbreaker), BBC Two’s new one-off drama Christopher And His Kind stars Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and explores novelist Christopher Isherwood’s formative years in 1930s Berlin in the run-up to the Second World War.

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The film airs at 9.30pm on Saturday 19th March on BBC Two.

CultBox caught up with director Geoffrey Sax to find out more…

What attracted you to Christopher And His Kind?

“It was the script. It’s just a compelling story, with a really intriguing backdrop in pre-war Germany.”

Were you familiar with Christopher Isherwood’s work and his autobiography on which the film is based?

“I was vaguely familiar with it, but I’d be lying if I said I was an expert. I’d seen A Single Man, which had just come out at the time, I was aware of Cabaret, I was aware of Mr. Norris Changes Trains. The first thing I did when I got the job was to read the books from cover to cover.”

The film has an amazing cast, including Lindsay Duncan (Doctor Who: ‘The Waters Of Mars’), Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later), Toby Jones (Doctor Who: ‘Amy’s Choice’) and Douglas Booth (Worried About The Boy). Were you involved in the casting process?

“The only person who was set when I joined was Matt Smith. I think it was because he agreed to sign on to it that it got the green light. Then I came on board and I was thrilled that Matt was doing it. The rest of the casting was done in conjunction with myself, producers and casting director.

“It’s always difficult really. We met an awful lot of actresses before we met Imogen Poots [who plays Jean Ross], but when she read she had a very quite different take on it to everyone else. She just seemed absolutely delightful for it.”

What was it like working with Matt Smith?

“Matt was very, very focused; very prepared. When we first met, just after I’d been brought on board, he and I went for coffee together and he’d already done a huge amount of research. I was going to encourage him to do that, but he’d already done it!

“He’d been speaking to a voice coach about the voice and was looking at the mannerisms that people used in that period of time. Working with Matt was great, I really enjoyed it actually.”

Christopher And His Kind is his first new major TV role since he started on Doctor Who. Was he nervous at all?

“No, if he was nervous he certainly never showed it. Any good actor will immerse themselves in that role and hopefully make that role completely unique and individual. I certainly saw none of the Doctor coming out at all.

“He learned how to do Isherwood’s walk and the voice. We then let it go a bit as we didn’t want him to be hamstrung with it. He was so immersed in the character and watched so many hours of footage; he spoke like him a lot, even off camera. Not all the time, but before a shot, he’d start the voice so by the time we said action he was already there.”

What were the sex scenes like to film?

“We had a closed set for the sex scenes, just to make it easier for the actors. But to be honest, Matt was so relaxed about it and he knew going in what he was going to have to do, he wasn’t hung up about it at all.

“Because he was relaxed, the other guys were – actors always take their lead from the leading player, so they were fine too. There was never any tension. Given what we were doing, I would say it was extremely relaxed. The set was very well run, the crew and the cameramen were very sensitive.”

Was anything left out of the final cut?

“Nothing really was cut from the final programme. The only thing… the camera did linger for one fleeting moment on Matt’s bare behind, and we were asked to get rid of that. But apart from that, everything else that I put in my cut was in the final movie.”

You shot the film in Belfast. Was it tough finding locations which looked like they could be 1930s Berlin?

“You know, when I first went to Belfast I was kinda surprised, because I thought it’d be very hard to find anything there. I had been there before and I hadn’t immediately thought “this looks like Berlin”.

“To be truthful, when I first went there with Celia Duval, the producer, we had a walk around and we were at a slight loss about how we were going to do it. But when we went with our production designer and location manager, we started really nailing down what we could do.

“With period drama, it’s all about parts – you pick your angles. It’s as much about what you don’t see as what you do see. That corner there could be part of the street, that building could be his apartment block.

“We found a huge amount of locations in a stately park in County Down. We were down there for about 8 or 9 days and got a huge amount there. I think at the end of the day, the advantages of shooting in Northern Ireland outweighed the disadvantages by quite a long way.”

How long was the shoot?

“The shoot was 22 days – for period drama that’s incredibly tight. We had to shoot fast, especially with the scale of the piece. It was very, very tight: there’s music in it, there’s action and you’re trying to dramatise the rise of the Nazi party!

“Even filming in Berlin, we may have got more scale there, but it’d still be incredibly hard, because so much has been torn down or bombed. It’s the same doing period pieces in London. It’s always just selecting what the camera can see.”

Did you use any CGI in the film?

“The whole lot was shot in camera. We even left in aerials; we just didn’t have the money to do take them out. Actually there’s a bit of CGI in the bridge shot, in the background, when Casper and Isherwood fight and then kiss. But apart from that, there’s no CGI at all.”

It’s nearly 15 years since you directed the American Doctor Who TV movie. What are you memories of working on that?

“Is it as long as that?! Oh my word. I had a great time doing that. We shot it in Vancouver, which I love – I’ve shot four films there now. It was like playing with a train set; it was an enormous amount of fun to do. We had Eric Roberts as The Master, so that was all fun. It was a very positive experience.”

It was planned as a pilot for a possible series. Were you disappointed that it wasn’t picked up to return after that?

“I was disappointed that it wasn’t picked up, because I was hoping that it would appeal to an American audience. But I think it probably needed to be a different kind of story to introduce a new audience to it.

“I think it assumed that people knew about the Doctor and what the rules were, so a lot of the American audience came away bemused and confused. It had a lot of promise though, definitely.”

Are you a fan of the current era of Doctor Who?

“Yeah, I really like it. Julie Gardner asked me to direct one of the very early episodes, but I couldn’t do it as I was tied up with another job. But they’ve all done an amazing job with it. Russell T Davies’ scripts are always of an extraordinary high quality. All the actors have been great too: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and now Matt. Matt’s just incredibly watchable.”

Would you like to work with Matt again on an episode of Doctor Who?

“Funnily enough, they approached me recently about doing a Christmas one and again I was tied up so couldn’t do it. But I’d love to work with Matt again. I always enjoy working with actors who take the job seriously and are prepared, so I’d very much welcome the chance to work on the show.”

You directed the 2006 Stormbreaker movie. Are there any plans to adapt another of the Alex Rider books for a sequel?

“Unfortunately Stormbreaker just didn’t take off in America, much in the same way as Doctor Who actually. The books aren’t as well known in America. There wasn’t the money to do a huge advertising campaign over there, so it didn’t make enough money. As far as I know there are no sequels planned, which is a shame as I think it could have been a really good franchise.”

Alex Pettyfer is doing really well, with roles this year in I Am Number Four and Beastly. Did you always know he’d go on to be successful?

“I’m not surprised. He’s very charismatic on screen and he looks great. As he’s grown older, I think the camera loves him even more than it did on Stormbreaker. I can certainly see why Hollywood would go after him.”

What else have you got coming up?

“Funnily enough, I did a film called Frankie And Alice that we actually did before Christopher And His Kind, starring Halle Berry and Stellan Skarsgård. We premiered that in Los Angeles. I’ve just been out there and we won an NAACP award and Halle Berry got ‘best actress’, so we’re very excited about that. Hopefully we’re going to get a wider release for it in the US later this year.”