Sara Pascoe's BBC Two comedy series Out Of Her Mind is not like a conventional sitcom, with fourth-wall breaking moments, animation, flashbacks and many other devices utilised to tell the story of her character. Directors Ben and Chris Blaine - AKA The Blaine Brothers - had the task of bringing her vision to the screen. They explain more in this interview, offering up some great insight and tips in the process.
Hi guys. Normally we start off by asking creative duos how they met, but we think we can perhaps guess the answer here...
Ben: Yeah, I spent a long time auditioning hopefuls for the part and in the end Chris just seemed the most promising candidate.
Chris: I didn't want to work with him. I spent years trying out other jobs, as a croupier in a casino, as a gardener, as a carer in a care home, as a palette smasher in a factory (good with sledgehammers), but making up shit with Ben's always been the thing.
So, how did you end up entering the world of directing?
Ben: Directing is just a necessary bi-product of making stuff, our interest has always been making stuff. Initially my thoughts were all theatre and Chris was all animation. He got himself a VHS-C camcorder to make stop motion films with and, well, I didn't have a theatre. Inevitably by the end of the summer our friends were glued up with fake beards and were making a spoof of the Bible.
Chris: I got to do some very basic animations in that, the parting of the 'red C' being my favourite. The film ended up getting labelled as 'blasphemous' by our headteacher and banned for obscenity, which meant we made a decent profit on it selling contraband VHS copies on the school black market.
We thought 'making money at films is easy, we can do this for a living!' And then proceeded to make a lot of short films for a long time, all of which lost money. But we didn't mind because we loved making stuff.
As well as directing your own things, you've edited other directors' work. Have you found that experience helpful?
Chris: I think we've found editing for other directors a really valuable thing to do. For this show in particular, we were very much inspired by some of the amazing blocking that Ben Gosling Fuller had done on Marley's Ghosts, where he worked out some simple but really effective movements of actors and camera that really served the story and the comedy, and we definitely were thinking about that with Out Of Her Mind.
More generally, editing for other people taught us how hard and fast you have to work in television, how to shape stories of different lengths with the building blocks available, and how many of those blocks you actually need. It also helps you see how to work with notes from execs and get the best out of other people's ideas. Partly that's because this isn't your own thing, you're helping shape someone else's thing, helping them reach the destination they were aiming for, so you're less blinded by where the idea started. It also taught us that it's always easier to try out an idea and see if it works rather than sit and argue about why it won't, and so often it'll turn out that everything you thought wouldn't work actually does.
Everyone was happy for us to edit the show [Out Of Her Mind], which was lovely, but as two men we felt it'd be good for us to get a female perspective on the edit. Bridgette Williams is great in the way she watches everything, looking for the truth of performance, rather than just working with the circle takes. She was instrumental in helping us see when we needed to focus more on certain relationships or characters whilst we were still shooting, which was invaluable. It is such a different sort show, it really made sense having another pair of eyes looking to make sure it still felt like a TV show and not just freeform jazz on the theme of family life.
Ben: Oh it's pure nepotism. I first met Sara nearly 20 years ago, she was the best friend of my then ex-girlfriend, Cariad Lloyd. They staged a version of Alice In Wonderland at university and Cariad made me film scenes which they projected on a big screen during the show. We've all been close ever since. We share a lot of the same instincts. They both worked on our short films, both in front and behind the camera. Cariad plays fictional Sara's best friend in the show, very heavily pregnant with our second child. Their scenes together were a real joy to film, with us and our regular DOP [director of photography] Oli Russell behind the camera there was no front, it was like we were all just picking up where we left off. I think we've really captured the energy of their friendship.
That said, it was a real surprise when Sara came to us with Vs Monogamy. We were tucked up on the far west coast of Scotland writing a horror movie and she was just like, 'do you want direct my pilot for the BBC?' She could have had her pick of anyone and we are definitely industry outsiders with a background in cult indie cinema but I guess she knew we'd enable her insanity way beyond what was good for our career.
Out Of Her Mind is ambitious, in terms of presenting surreal scenes, flashbacks, fourth-wall breaking narrative, animation and other non-conventional storytelling forms. It must have been an exciting project to be involved in?
Ben: It was a total thrill, well worth waiting 20 years for. Her mind moves so fast. She has this great big notebook and we'd sit in meetings and her pen just darts from thought to thought. Nothing ever felt like a problem it was always "ok, what we do instead is this - and that's better anyway".
She was like that on set too. There's a scene on a bus in the first episode and it was supposed to be moving and come screeching to a stop at the end of the scene but somehow it broke down in Ealing Studios' car park. They couldn't even turn the lights on because the engine wouldn't start. Straight away she was like "ok, the bus isn't moving so I'll just be ringing the bell and nothing happens because it's not a real bus just a prop in my TV show". She's unstoppable. Unlike the bus.
Chris: I don't think we ever expected to get into in-depth discussions about existentialism and the very nature of the representation of our inner lives on screen in script meetings for a mainstream terrestrial TV sitcom. But we did, and it was encouraged from the top down. And that was joyous. It's exactly the kind of thing we've always loved doing. We love to tell stories about big ideas and the deepest inner fears and emotions we have, all the while undercutting it with humour, and in this show Sara's doing all that and more.
To talk more about some of those special elements... How much of that was in Sara's scripts, and how much of it was your input, in terms of how things should look or segue?
Chris: Sara definitely knew how she wanted to blow stuff apart and be able to go anywhere her train of thought wanted, but she was very open to us suggesting ways of doing things. Like the dancing uteri at the start of Episode 3. Sara had written one uterus dancing on the screen behind her, so we had our brilliant animator Chris Shepherd sort that out for us so we could project it on the day, but I love bringing animation off screens and into live action and knew we could do something really beautiful with them in this single shot. That was a fun thing to do.
Or the 'horror' sequence at the start of Episode 4. This was written as live action, but Oli our DOP instantly warned us that for something so slight it'd actually take a huge amount of time to shoot it well on set, and so we suggested doing it as stop motion, to give it a creepy Svankmajer vibe. Sara loved the idea and we found the perfect animator in Isabel Garrett for that, sent storyboards back and forth for it, and then it expanded into more of the show.
Ben: Like us, Sara'll never say no to a good idea though she's very good at spotting which good ideas aren't right for her story.
Chris: Yeah, the title sequence is shot on a tube train carriage, but rather than try and do this on a real train we used a carriage in the London Transport Museum Depot in Acton.
Ben: It's a static train with lights moving outside and the pair of us jumping up and down to shake the carriage to give the illusion of movement.
Chris: The depot is full of old trains and buses and it's very beautiful and we suggested ending the series by having Sara walk into the depot and onto the train, where it would become the title sequence again. But Sara quite rightly wanted it to end with everyone she cared about inside the 'Magic Eye' as she dubbed it, and it's a really lovely ending and makes more sense story-wise. It was the right choice.
We're big fans of extra bonus bits occurring during and after the credits. Did you put them in as you had extra footage to use up, or were they always planned?
Ben: All planned. Sara loves those. As ever with Sara, if it looks like a happy accident it's the result of months of careful thought. If it looks like it took her months of careful thought then it will be improvised.
There's two of you. How does that work? How do you resolve creative differences?
Ben: Well, yeah, there's two of us. But then there's three when you include Sara. And our producer Goz is intimately involved in every creative question so that's four. And Oli our DOP has worked on pretty much everything we've done for about 17 years, so that's five. And this show was very much the creation of Miles Ketley the exec at Stolen Picture and though him, Simon, Nick and the brilliant Emma Bell were incredibly supportive of what we all wanted to do, they definitely all played crucial roles in shaping the artistic soul of thing, as did Kate Daughton at the BBC so that's ten...
Chris: And Bridgette the editor, Brian the production designer, Leah the costume designer, they all played big parts in shaping what it would be, so that's thirteen...
Ben: No director really works alone, at least, no good director does.
A TV show like Out Of Her Mind has a big crew... there's pages of credits. It must be hard to remember everyone's names, and what they're there to do?
Ben: Not really. I mean, sometimes people don't introduce themselves because they think you're too busy but over six weeks you usually get there in the end. It can be hard to believe, but everyone's job matters. So even if they don't start out by saying hi, everyone usually has at least one moment where they save the day and then you definitely know who they are and what they do.
Chris: When we started out it was just us making stuff together, and we've made many shorts with just me on camera and Ben on sound and no other crew. But when we were looking to make things run better we'd unwittingly reinvent the wheel - like the time we realised we probably needed someone who could plan and keep track of the time we were taking to shoot, and who could chivvy us along if we were running behind, and tried to think what that job would be called, only to discover it was an actual job on an actual shoot, called a "1st AD"... Every job on a set has been invented for a reason, because that person will do that job better than anyone else.
And indeed on this set, we were surrounded by a really great, dedicated crew who were open to our crazy ideas. And Matt Gallagher our 1st AD did an amazing job to make it all run smoothly for everyone involved, even though we were often trying to do hugely complicated stuff in a tiny amount of time.
Do you have any directing tips for those looking to get into the profession?
Chris: the only way you learn how to direct is by directing. By making stuff. Make films. Make videos. Make shorts. Make longs. Make friends. Share. Ask. Listen. Be open. Expect to be rejected a million times. Stay open. Tell people about the stuff you're making. Expect them to shrug and ignore you. Ask them to help you make the next thing you do, and they'll probably shrug and point you to their assistant. Work with their assistant. Start to listen more, not just talk about yourself. Watch other people's stuff and tell them when you like it. Don't rely on getting whatever prestigious scheme you've applied for, make your work either way.
Ben: Never stop thinking about the audience. Never underestimate them. Know who your audience is and think how you'd delight them, surprise them.
What's next for yourselves? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
Chris: We'd definitely love to do a Series 2 of this show if it comes about. In the meantime we're polishing up some of our own stuff.
Ben: There's this impossibly complicated time-loop romance show we want to make with one of the actors from our film Nina Forever. People had been fond of telling us it was brilliant but totally impossible, but thanks to making this impossible series with Sara I think we're starting to be trusted that we could actually make it work, so that's exciting.
Chris: We're also working with some writers on projects they hold dear to their hearts which we think could become something really special. I'm sure, as always, we'll end up knocking out some more short things just because we love to keep making, and we're also gagging to do some more comedy stuff as we love it!