Bringing to life the literary work of a beloved author like J.K. Rowling is no easy task, so HBO’s adaptation of The Casual Vacancy didn’t get just any director. The network turned to BAFTA winner Jonny Campbell, who told LA Fan Cultures Examiner in our e-mail interview how he got the job and what it was like for him to adapt the best-seller to the screen.
“The producer Ruth Kenley-Letts sent me the script of the first episode and it reeled me in,” explained the director, whose other credits include Spooks and Ashes to Ashes. “I found the characters and themes refreshingly different. It was a bold and provocative piece, which didn’t follow a formulaic pattern. It also felt like an important story to be telling – especially at this time.”
Rowling’s name and reputation had built a certain anticipation for the miniseries before it was ever announced, so how much did the project’s high profile add to the mix?
“Naturally, that was a factor which couldn’t be ignored,” Jonny told us. “It made it all the more important for me to ensure I was fully engaged with the material rather than being seduced by the premise of working with [a] J.K. Rowling story. The stakes were always going to be high – especially since the subject matter of the novel was also ‘new’ for J.K.Rowling to be tackling and had caused similar controversy upon publication.
“Anything with heart and conviction, which isn’t purely created for entertainment’s sake, will inevitably divide people’s opinion,” he continued. “Something which I expect to do and revel in when you succeed, since then you know you have shaken things up in some small way. The story irritated some people and inspired others. It certainly wasn’t beige television.”
“I think the biggest challenge was to create a cohesive world from dozens of locations [and] to cast the huge ensemble with some fantastic talent, young and old – especially Abigail Lawrie [who plays Krystal] in her first ever role,” Jonny added. “[I] am also extremely proud of the original soundtrack by the superb up and coming band Solomon Grey – it’s very different. I’m most proud of the myriad reactions to the drama, which has taken on a prophetic quality after the recent UK general election.”
“It was a joy to work with such talent as well as collaborate with a fine team,” he continued. “It was rewarding seeing the cast create their characters and add so much subtlety and nuance in their performances.”
He’s no stranger to working on top shelf British drama, so we asked him how Casual Vacancy ultimately stacked up against the likes of Spooks, Ashes to Ashes and the biggest of UK series, Doctor Who.
“It’s always a different experience,” he reflected. “It was the most ambitious one I’ve done and was always going to be the most provocative and divisive as well. Not everyone is ready to watch drama, which challenges people’s social conscience or seeks to adjust their moral compass. Some see it as a personal attack!
“With Doctor Who‘s ‘Vincent and The Doctor’ we were able to address the issue of mental health and suicide into a family show – similarly with my previous project In The Flesh, which dealt with grief, mental health and suicide again through a twist on the zombie genre,” he continued. “The Casual Vacancy moved many people in a similar way. Entertainment is not necessarily incompatible with provoking thought.”
It’s easy to see how he’s become such a respected director; he cares tremendously not only about his work, but about making that work mean something more than just a good night in. To that end, what else off his resume would he recommend to new audiences?
“I’m proud of my work on the original UK series of Shameless,” Jonny told us, “and then I guess Ashes to Ashes, In The Flesh, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and Eric and Ernie – a single film about Britain’s favorite ever comedy double act.”
If you missed The Casual Vacancy when it aired, you can catch it on demand via HBO, or it will be released on DVD in August. You can pre-order your copy now on Amazon.