Landscapers is a new HBO limited series based on a true crime story originating from England in the 1990s. But the retelling isn’t a linear narrative and asks the viewer to navigate surreal journeys in order to understand the perpetrators and why they did what they did.
NPR sets out the story. “Susan, played by Olivia Colman, is a bright-eyed, optimistic former librarian with a secret habit of paying too much for movie memorabilia — especially posters of the old Gary Cooper westerns she once watched with her grandfather. Christopher is a doting, protective husband, played by David Thewlis, searching for work as an accountant in France, where the couple have moved from their native Britain.
READ MORE: HBO’s ‘Landscapers’ unearths the bizarre love story at the center of a grisly crime (NPR)
“But viewers soon learn they are hiding a deadly secret: The pair moved from England to prevent authorities from discovering they had buried Susan’s mother and father in the backyard of her parents’ home 15 years ago, letting the world continue to believe the older couple was still alive.”
The production is peppered with an almost theatrical toolset as scenes that are being re-told suddenly merge in to one, with classic overhead lighting shining down on sparse sets. Multiple camera formats are used to help underline the difference from fantasy to more straightforward exposition.
Landscapers was shot by Erik Alexander Wilson, BSC in an East London studio during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant production kept as many sets contained as possible, and simply adjusted lighting rigs and gear as needed to capture the different styles. Director Will Sharpe detailed the production in an interview with Variety.
“Even the scene on the Eurostar was actually shot by bringing a Eurostar carriage to the studio because that just made more sense somehow, practically. We had already been using back-projection and certain analog techniques in the world of the show,” he revealed.
READ MORE: By Playing With Visual Styles, ‘Landscapers,’ Starring Olivia Colman, Peels Back Layers of Truth About Love and Murder (Variety)
Sharpe inherited Landscapers after the American director Alexander Payne dropped out because of a scheduling conflict, as The Guardian discovered during their profile of the actor/writer/director. “The bones of the story could have made for a fairly conventional true-crime procedural: were the Edwardses really responsible for the death of Susan’s parents? How did they hide in plain sight for so long?”
“Sharpe, though, pushed to go deeper; there is a dream-like, fantastical element to his retelling of events. One of the incongruities of the case was that Christopher and Susan Edwards were obsessed with Hollywood memorabilia, spending a six-figure sum on posters, photos and letters; when they finally handed themselves in to the police, their personal effects included handwritten notes from the actor Gérard Depardieu.”
Sharpe talks about a previous show he co-wrote called The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, comparing it to Landscapers. “They’re both projects where the central characters are people who are difficult to understand, or who maybe didn’t quite sit in the world in as straightforward a way as they could have done,” says Sharpe. “I wanted to understand these people. I knew I could never fully achieve that, but I wanted to try as best as possible to get into their headspace.”
READ MORE: ‘I have an outsider’s perspective’: why Will Sharpe is the A-List’s new favourite director (The Guardian)
Color tone plays a large part in the series. It supplements mostly Susan’s moods, separates flashes of classic movies and moves the plot on when it needs to.
Thomas Urbye, senior colorist at The Look, in London, describes the brief he received from cinematographer Erik Alexander for color grading the show. “During our initial conversations Erik was keen to adopt a very specific look for the color grade of Landscapers that was reminiscent of the original three- and two-strip Technicolor formats of the early 20th century.
“He shared some resources with me and Grace (another colorist here), and we were able to recreate these looks for use with the Sony Venice camera by utilizing a number of unusual color processes. These were used as show LUTs during shooting along with a black-and-white LUT, which was helpful for reviews and editorial.
“There were a variety of different cameras used including 16 mm, CCTV streams and miniDV. Some of the digital media was even projected digitally at the end of the edit, and recaptured on 16 mm to then be dropped back into the final grade.
“As ever, it was important that these formats and looks served the story. At times they transition between each other with multiple dissolves, and while complex in post, it has produced a unique piece of work.”
Wilson commented on the process for the final grade. “I had already begun creating my own looks during prep, and was able to show Thomas what we were looking to achieve. Both myself and Will (Will Sharpe the director) were keen that the grade and online could happen simultaneously, due to the nature of the complex blending transitions and multiple camera formats and effects.
“We were able to further control the three-strip and two-strip looks in the final grade; often the three-strip effect would push the reds too far, so we had to refine them as needed. Once the main grading passes were done and it was just VFX outstanding, I was able to travel abroad and review episodes via an iPad Pro using The Look’s Moxion system.
“Here I could make notes, review Will’s comments and reply, and even draw shapes on the screen! From our initial meeting through to final review, I was delighted with the collaboration we had with the team at The Look.”