Still Up is the story of two insomniacs, Lisa and Danny, and how their relationship develops over the course of regular late night conversations. "The premise of the show is that there are these two people who, on the surface, lead quite different lives," explains John Addis, who directed all of the episodes. "Lisa is a mum to a young girl and in a relationship with a dependable partner, while Danny is single and very much stuck at home. What ties them together is their shared experience of insomnia and through a series of chats in the dead of night they form a deep connection. In so many ways they're perfect for each other but they both have complications which would make it hard for them to actually be together. The series charts the course of their slowly developing relationship from platonic friendship to the potential of something more."
The show's creators, Steve Burge and Natalie Walter, based the series on their real life experiences - they're both insomniacs - and characters they recognised. The pair first met ten years ago when Walter was performing a Radio 4 sketch series for which Budge was one of the main writers. "I always thought Steve was one of the most talented comedy writers I've ever worked with," says Walter. "His sense of humour is so funny, offbeat and original. Steve liked my stories and so we decided to work on some comedy scripts together.
"Still Up wasn't the first script Steve and I wrote together but it was the first one where all the different elements came together - the characters, the setting and the storylines all clicked."
They realised that their sleep issues could be a great starting point for a comedy series after they began talking late in the evenings and into the early mornings. "Sometimes when I couldn't sleep I would log onto Facebook in the middle of the night and I noticed that Steve was on Facebook, too", recalls Walter. "So we started chatting and exchanging silly messages, jokes and pictures. It was that time, really late at night - after 3am - when it's easy to have these strange, funny, freewheeling conversations and not really worry about what you're saying. The idea for Still Up gradually emerged from those chats with Steve."
Budge and Walter's co-writer Bryce Hart also related to the central characters the creators had developed, himself having struggled with insomnia for years. "The thing about being awake at a time when the rest of the world is asleep is that anything seems possible," Hart says. "It's an exciting world full of possibility where dreams feel like they can come true which was the perfect environment for Danny and Lisa to slowly explore their feelings for one another."
Walter notes that a few of the show's characters - and the strange situations they find themselves in - are loosely inspired by people the pair know or things that have personally happened to them.
Burge describes Danny as a "less pathetic version of me." Lisa's partner, the fitness-obsessed Veggie, played by Blake Harrison is the world's most regimented sleeper. "He's a lovely guy but just doesn't have the shorthand that Danny has with her - although it doesn't stop him trying," says Hart. "And he's happy that Lisa has someone to chat with through the night."
Producer Arabella McGuigan says that finding the actors for so many guest roles was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series. "One of the joys about a show so focused on two people is that you can be very free with your guest characters," she says. "They're there for comedy, insight or poignancy, and when you only have them for one episode, that can be a gift for casting. We have some wonderful, starry guests, and the diversity and range our casting director, Lauren Evans, has brought to the whole cast makes it all the more real for our metropolitan show."
Executive producer Paul Schlesinger says the end result is a series that provides an incredibly immersive experience. "I think the writers did a brilliant job at creating a community of slightly odd characters who most of us never see because we are tucked up in bed. It's this night time limbo world which the series - and hopefully people who watch the show - will have fun engaging with."
When the script found its way to Schlesinger, he immediately thought about director John Addis, who had helmed a short film he had loved. Addis initially came on board to direct the pilot but was subsequently asked to take on the full series - his first long-form project as a director. "The whole thing felt a bit surreal to be honest," says Addis. "It's my first series and it all came off the back of a short film that I made. It's incredibly exciting and I feel very lucky to have been able to do it."
Addis was immediately drawn to the material as it matched his emotional sensibilities as a director. "It's completely my tone which is warm, open-hearted comedy," he shares. "You have these slightly outlandish characters and heightened set pieces but at the centre of it, there are these two people and their relationship. That emotional core to comedy is something I love and the scripts exemplified that."
"We lucked out on getting John," raves Burge. "After we saw the pilot, it was obvious we could trust him to interpret the scripts and give the episodes a warm, almost ethereal, sheen." Walter agrees, noting that they knew they needed a director who could capture that unique 3am atmosphere. "It's that feeling of strangeness and dislocation from the rest of the world, which is especially heightened for Danny because of his agoraphobia," she says. "John created the mood and atmosphere we were aiming for in the scripts brilliantly.
"The other challenge for the director was that so much of Danny and Lisa's relationship happens beneath the surface and so much remains unsaid. John, along with our amazing lead actors, Antonia Thomas and Craig Roberts, were able to portray and suggest all the different layers of Danny and Lisa's relationship in a really funny and yet subtle way, even the layers that the two characters are not fully aware of themselves."
Thomas and Roberts' work was cut out for them given that they weren't physically in the same room for most of the shoot. Due to the technicalities of having the characters chat to each other on their devices, each scene had to be shot twice, with one of the leads in a voice booth feeding in their lines and performance via an earpiece to the other actor on camera. Addis notes the support that the actors provided for each other in real life was what made their relationship feel so real on screen.
"We had conversations early on that the off-camera actor would be in a voiceover booth feeding lines," says the director. "That can be a hard thing for them to commit to, especially for that long period of time but they wanted to be there for each other which was great. It really came through in their performances. There's an amazing naturalness and warmth about them and that's what Craig and Antonia bring to these characters. They both did such an amazing job."
"They just are Danny and Lisa," confirms Hart. "It's such a joy writing for actors you know are going to nail a certain line or physical joke. They're brilliantly funny and have great chemistry together. Hopefully we've got some of that Sleepless In Seattle magic dust sprinkled over a really relatable story. Life is complicated but there's hope there if you look for it. We were focused on the hope."
Addis' background as an editor also affected his approach to bringing this unique aspect of the piece to life. "Editing helped me in the preparation because we had to think carefully about how we were shooting both sides of the conversation so the two pieces would fit together nicely," he shares. "With the screens, one of our objectives was for the actors to not look at screens that often as we wanted to focus on the people, not the tech. So even though they're always in different places, we wanted it to feel as if they're in the same space."
Production designer Simon Walker was tasked with creating sets for the lead characters that not only reflected their personalities but could also provide the camera team with a way of shooting in the most interesting way possible. "From the first read I wanted to create two very different spaces," Walker says. "Lisa's got a family, is an aspiring illustrator, and is more outgoing. I wanted to reflect that so her space is colourful, lived in, creative, aspirational and relatable. I liked the idea of her house feeling like a messy hug."
In comparison, Danny's flat is distinctly different. "I wanted Danny's home to be an apartment, a converted industrial space, which again would give us plenty of space to play with," says Walker. "As we were spending so much time in Danny's flat, I created a space that was a bit more versatile with brick walls for visual interest and a split level. Danny's apartment was to be more ordered and have a more muted, darker colour palette. We looked at how the layout could work with the camera movements, what types of lighting would work best, and how the set and costumes could work together to be visually appealing and help tell the story."
The story is set in London and whilst there were early conversations about having the protagonists live in different cities, the capital hit the mark for many reasons. "So many places are open throughout the night and that's why I love it," says Burge. "It means you can pop across the road for groceries at 3am."
"London's geographical size was also important," adds Walter. "We needed Danny and Lisa to live close enough to one another that the two of them meeting up more regularly was at least a possibility. But at the same time, they had to live far enough away from each other that it wouldn't be easy for Lisa to pop over to see Danny instead of calling him. London is one of the few cities big enough to make that dynamic work."
Of course, shooting in London, especially late at night, provided its own complexities. "One of the main challenges when you're shooting out on location is you might have to be off the street by 10pm which is tricky when the show is all set at night," explains Addis. "But there was a real sense of everyone being in it together which I think partially came from the slightly odd hours we were having to keep."
Walker worked tirelessly to blend the studio interiors with London's exterior locations. "It was tricky, but we matched doors and paint colours, brought props in for continuity and created a visual link. After doing everything as practically as possible the rest came down to a feeling. London is very diverse and I am often surprised by the difference in architecture and the feeling of an area just when turning a corner."
And as the series nears its launch, has the creative team gotten any better sleep since filming a show about the subject? "No!" says Burge. "I've had trouble sleeping since I was a kid so I do most of my writing in the early hours. Apparently the trick is to keep your eyes open and repeat to yourself 'Don't fall asleep, stay awake' - and this supposedly tricks your brain." As for Addis, who started the series without the sleep issues of his colleagues, he laments, "I became so dependent on coffee over the shoot I ended up sleeping really badly!"
Interview with Antonia Thomas and Craig Roberts
What initially attracted you to this project?
Antonia: The writing. It immediately made me laugh. The characters are so beautifully drawn and layered. They're funny, quirky and offbeat. Initially I was only sent some audition scenes and those scenes in isolation were hilarious. I also loved the premise. The fact that two insomniacs keep each other company in the middle of the night and talk about anything and everything seemed a very charming premise.
Craig: The scripts Steve and Natalie put together felt very relatable, funny and emotional. I loved it. I've also always wanted to work with Antonia and then I checked out director John Addis' short film he directed and I loved that as well. He had a very clear voice and I was excited to do it.
Can you tell us about your characters?
Craig: Danny is a journalist. He used to write for the NME. He used to be in a band, loves music and played the keyboard. And he has insomnia but he's also living with agoraphobia. He went through a traumatic experience and it completely changed his life. There's a level of anxiety from the offset with him that I didn't need to act because I have it, too. So it was a pleasure to not have to shut down my anxiety but keep it present. I have a fear of going to sleep sometimes because I have a fear of missing out.
Antonia: Lisa is a very loving, lovable and offbeat person. She is a mother and she's in a relationship that is solid and stable with a lot of love in it. But she also has this whole internal life that has been slightly neglected through being a mum and the day-to-day drudgery of life. She's a creative. She wants to be an illustrator and she can't really express her creativity in her day-to-day life. The conversations she has with Danny in the middle of the night are these special little moments where there's a space and a person with whom she can be herself.
What do they find in each other at night?
Antonia: Danny's humour, his charm and wit. He makes her laugh and she can be her silliest, weirdest self with him. He doesn't judge her because he's the same kind of a creature. She doesn't have that in her relationship with Veggie. He is a lovely guy, but he doesn't quite get her humour. Danny is a kindred spirit in that way. I think their love language is humour. That's what fires her up - having a good laugh.
Craig: Even though he's in his house and they're on the phone, there's a sense of escapism. When they're speaking to each other they can both shut off the real world, forget about their worries and everything that's going on. There are moments of focusing on themselves more when they're together and they can talk about things. It is unique and beautiful to have a friend like that.
Is there a moment in the series when they each think a romantic relationship might be on the cards?
Antonia: Yes, there's a moment when she realises that she would lose him because there's no need or there's no space for him anymore. That is the moment when it starts to click that she might like him in a different way. But life is messy and complicated and she has responsibilities.
Craig: I'm pretty certain that when we find Danny those feelings are already there. It's more of a journey for Lisa to realise that those feelings are there. Lisa's with a partner, she has a kid and she seems quite content with where she's at in life, at least at the beginning. So I don't think Danny thinks it's a possibility for them to get together. He used to be somebody you'd go for a pint with or somebody that had really good chat, but now he's gone in on himself. He wants to get out there though and she pushes him to be better.
What was it like to work with this fantastic ensemble cast?
Antonia: Firstly, working with Craig was brilliant. Craig and I have known each other in passing for years and I've wanted to work together. He's such an extraordinary talent and he's perfect for Danny. He's also a wonderfully generous actor. The process of filming this was very different from anything I've ever done before because we were not face-to-face for much of it. We both said that the only way that it would work - and the only point of doing it - was if we could actually be there for one another. So that meant being there all the time, whether we were on camera or not. We had great fun together. Likewise, Blake, who plays Veggie, was also an incredibly generous, lovely actor and man. We were extraordinarily lucky with the cast that came in to do a turn. There were so many fun, brilliant actors that I really admire.
Craig: I had always wanted to work with Antonia. She's fantastic. It's an amazing but bizarre experience to constantly be on the phone with somebody. But it also feels very relatable. especially with what everyone's gone through in the last couple of years. Often what makes a show is the people and the producers, and John cast people who were absolutely perfect and very funny.
What was your experience collaborating with director John Addis?
Antonia: John is such a brilliant, lovely person and an amazing director. This is the first television show he's ever directed, although he'd made a couple of fantastic shorts. Even though he knew how he wanted it to look he was so collaborative with us. We felt we were creating this world together and we wanted the best for it. He steered the ship in a beautiful way. He is a huge talent.
Craig: And his training ground is in editing so he knows story very well. He was very kind, warm and welcoming.
How did you find shooting in London, especially at night?
Antonia: Shooting in London was such a joy. I've rarely had the opportunity to work at home so it was a luxury to be able to film in my hometown. London is so beautiful.
Craig: London really is beautiful at night. I've lived in London for a good part of my life now. I love it very much but I also hate it at the same time - especially at night. It is very fitting for this show and for my character because he doesn't really like going outside.
Do you have any rituals to help you get a good night's sleep?
Craig: Yes! Don't go on your phone. Don't go on any social media. Stay away from it.
Antonia: I don't. I struggle with sleep. Halfway through filming, I had a bout of almost-insomnia and I got into a spiral of anxiety that stopped me from sleeping. I usually try to have a bath, not to look at my phone and put lavender on the pillow. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
What do you hope audiences with enjoy about this series?
Antonia: I hope they'll enjoy the connection between the characters and the fun they have. I don't think I've ever watched anything about insomniacs before. I hope people will enjoy the laughs and the journey these characters go on.
Craig: Ultimately, I hope people enjoy it and like the characters. Their situations are relatable. I also hope it inspires people to take more risks with people they like.