The last time I drove through Ashford was with my Dad travelling from Wexford in a clapped out Hiace van to pick up costumes in Dublin for an upcoming stage play. Ashford hadn’t changed much in 12 years besides a snazzy looking Centra and new chipper. I try to drop a pin, but to Google Maps, Ashford Studios doesn’t exist. I ask for directions from two passing power-walkers. Greeted by a security man and two cheery sparks, I am directed to the production office.
A friendly production assistant gives me sides and a call sheet and I am briskly brought through to the towering sets that belong to season four of The Vikings. Exquisitely designed Parisian Royal Palace chambers bustle with grips, sparks, production design, camera and sound department - A tight crew with three seasons under their belt operate as a well-oiled machine. I am relieved to see there are some familiar faces. Above me, massive HMI’s are adjusted on the lighting grid. Shafts of fractured light shine through the high windows giving the dressed set a naturalistic and broody atmosphere. A fitting lighting style for Rollo’s chambers - the fearsome Viking warrior wracked with internal struggles.
As the activity intensifies, feeling a little superfluous, I move to one side, sit on a piece of 8th century decorative French furniture and await my introduction to the award winning director Ciaran Donnelly. The monitor and director’s chair is set up. A grip approaches and shakes my hand – ‘You’re new?’
‘I’m here for the mentorship.’
An AD looks up ‘Shhh. Quiet on set.’
The doors into Rollo’s chambers close. Quiet descends on set. Muffled voices of the actors and director discussing the scene as they rehearse and block it. A strapping Viking strides through the door. Once exited, he listens and waits for notes. I catch a glimpse of the director. He talks through the scene with another enormous Viking built like a tank – Rollo – played by the brooding Clive Standen. The first AD calls a tech rehearsal. Crew and cast shuffle into Rollo’s chambers. I’m not sure if I should go in too. ‘Go on – go on! You should be in there!’ The friendly grip gives me an encouraging nudge into the packed room. We all watch the scene. Camera operators and the Director of Photography, PJ Dillon, confer with Ciaran who gives clear and decisive instruction about coverage. They talk shots, lenses and camera angles. The camera team listen intently.
Two cameras are used in every set up. The turn around is efficient but The Vikings creator Michael Hirst does not underestimate the importance of giving his unique drama space for performance, and time to allow the experienced HODs to bring a powerful cinematic presence to the small screen (as Ciaran later explained, some of the battle scenes took four days to shoot). As the crew get to work setting up the shot, Ciaran makes his way towards the monitors and I nab him. I introduce myself. He shakes my hand and I ask him what’s the usual etiquette when shadowing a director for the day – we keep walking. ‘There is none. You can ask me whatever you want to know and you can follow me for the day.’
He introduces me to Emer Conroy, the script supervisor. ‘Laura’s going to be farting around with us today.’ I shake Emer’s hand ‘Ciaran’s going to be teaching me..’
Emer’s dry wit. We have a laugh.
I want to make every moment count. I ask him about his career. How long he’s been working as a director? What brought him to this point? His relationship with his HOD’s… Can I look at his prep/storyboards/shot lists? What lens is he using for the close up, the mid, the wide? Why did he choose that lens?
Ciaran takes an interest in my background and previous experience and asks me what I want to direct. He wants this experience to be of value to me and recommends I go and explore the other stages and sets.
Ciaran is neither intimidating nor overtly friendly. He is professional, grounded and real. He has an understated confidence, is relaxed and converses freely between takes. He responds to my questions, but never misses a beat of what is happening on the monitor. At a glance he can spot a nuance that isn’t working, a shot that needs adjusting.
Ciaran’s art and craft as a director is second nature to him.
He looks at the framing from the A camera. ‘Too flat.’ He removes his cans and heads in to reframe. Emer explains. ‘The shot is too straight on. The background looks flat. It can be a common mistake a lot of new film makers make.’
Ciaran repositions the actor, reframes and comes back to his chair. He takes a sip of a green concoction from a jar. He’s on a health kick. I tell him about the wonders of apple cider vinegar – I’m learning more in a few hours of observation than I have learned in a month sitting in a lecture room.
Ciaran queues up his ipad and shows me the assembly of a scene they shot a few days previously. I can’t believe it’s just an assembly. It’s brilliant. An action packed ambush scene. He explains how it rained the entire day they were shooting. The rain and mud and heavy, hanging clouds all serve to enhance the visceral bloody scene that wreaks of coldhearted treachery (this is The Vikings after all) but these are not one-dimensional characters. They’re multi-layered - three dimensional - a maelstrom of internal conflict is manifest in the subtle nuances of the writing and performance, reminiscent of the greatest Shakespearean tragedies. Season four will not disappoint.
This is more than cohesive story telling. Ciaran captures, not just the action, but moments that give the spectator fleeting glimpses into the complexities of flawed characters. It is in these moments that The Vikings characters are set apart from other such stereotypes and capturing the layers of internal conflict is what makes them human. This ability does not come from technique alone, it is from somewhere much deeper. It comes from a place of emotional and instinctual understanding of the human condition, of compassion and empathy – the pineal gland, coined by the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes as the ‘Seat Of The Soul’. The ability to translate this is rare and where true talent lies.
Ciaran tells me the scene isn’t quite there yet. It’s early days in the edit.
The first scene of the day is wrapped. The crew begin packing up as we make the move to the adjoining sound stage in good spirits but an unsettling atmosphere hangs in the air – a figure emerges from the shadows, approaching at speed. A light flashes from the blade of a silver dagger he carries in his hand. I leap up to wrestle the dagger from him… well, not exactly… A busy production designer holds up the dagger and asks Ciaran if it’s the one he requested for the upcoming scene? Ciaran suggests a smaller dagger could be concealed more discretely. Absolutely. In every department there is meticulous attention to detail - another element that contributes to making the show great.
There is an absence of executive producers, creators or writers. Michael Hirst writes every episode himself so he’s pretty busy. The show is in it’s fourth season and Michael and the producers trust their directors. The on-set atmosphere is closer to an Amish barn raising than a scene from Tom DiCillo’s 1995 classic Living In Oblivion – although, occasionally, even The Vikings has its moments.
Ciaran talks me through the upcoming scene. He is refreshingly honest, outlining some of the areas that may prove tricky to navigate. The crew continue to pack up and we’re on the move. Music swells as we walk through a relaxed costume department. Industrious costumiers busily repair and create new pieces under the watchful eye of the legendary, Emmy winning, HOD - Costume Designer, Joan Bergin.
Purposefully, we make our way into the studio - breezing past the mouthwatering catering table - where we will be shooting a scene with Morgane Polanski – the daughter of a relatively famous director who is now a budding actress – so, no pressure - genuinely – there is no pressure. Ciaran has anticipated where the mechanics of the scene might be a little problematic and is well prepared for all eventualities. He draws a floor plan for me, illustrating the coverage he will need. About 16 set-ups, give or take. He rehearses the actors, clear and precise about what the scene needs, he creates a safe environment for the actors, allowing them time and freedom to work it through. Ciaran is firm but fair – He knows what he wants and the actors respond respectfully, acknowledging what is required of them even during some of the more complex technical shots.
While watching the tech rehearsal I accidentally bump into my once dialogue coach from my acting days, Poll Moussoulides, who gives me a fascinating background on how they created a suitable Viking accent that would work for an American viewership and would also ring true. Poll explained the lengths the creators go to to ensure the authenticity of the show. With extensive research the creators include sporadic use of the old Norse language and, in some scenes, old French. It leaves little wriggle room for actors to adapt the dialogue on set. It’s a continuity dream!
Emer tells me about the director who’s coming in for the next block of The Vikings. She’s an actress turned director. There is hope! Poll hands me a typed sheet of paper with the phonetic pronunciation of the old Norse and old French that features throughout the series.
Ciaran focuses on the monitors, flicking from camera A to camera B, going back and forth to the actors to give notes. A technically tricky close up requires his presence away from the monitors with the actors - ‘It’s a matter of variables.’ - He talks them through it. He’s against the clock but he keeps his poise and never, ever looses focus or his patience.
Ciaran transforms performances. Earlier in the day, I watched as he discreetly gave an actor direction after the first take. The actor takes on board Ciaran’s directorial note and in the second take, completely elevates the performance. The difference is quantifiable. This director has played the scene in his head a thousand times. He knows every plot point, every internal conflict each individual character is wrestling with. He is skilled in the art of recognizing some common bad habits actors may have - particularly when nerves kick in – while remaining deeply respectful of their craft. He has the ability to know immediately what is not working and how to fix it.
Watching an experienced director at work not only teaches you something new, it reaffirms the things you have been doing right and makes glaringly obvious the areas in which you have been going wrong - or need to work on. Every new production and fresh encounter in this industry teaches you something of great value, even if it it may not be what you want to hear.
Being a director is a vocation.
Back in my early acting days, before there were any screen acting courses, I felt the best way to learn how to be a film actress was to watch and do. So I signed up as an extra and asked if I could hang around on set to watch some great actors work. I have always learned best this way. Shadowing a director in their working environment, observing the decision-making process - right there, in the moment, indepth - without the pressures of having to be the one to know all the answers - is a rare opportunity.
To receive the knowledge and advice of a seasoned, award-winning director on a critically acclaimed TV drama, is, by far, one of the most beneficial experiences in my career. As I further develop my skillset and continue to learn my craft it is the next best thing to doing - without the stress.
The final shot of the day is in the bag. It’s a wrap. I shake Ciaran’s hand and thank him. Driving away from Ashford Studios I hope to make the journey back there some day.
Before I head home, I stop off in the chipper and order a pizza, savoring my last few moments in the little village that will forever be engrained into my memory.
Many thanks to all cast and crew from The Vikings, Ciaran Donnelly and the SDGI team.