We live in a world where people from all walks of life—especially public figures, for some reason—love to align themselves with Jesus Christ. People who feel misunderstood often liken themselves to the man who hung out with prostitutes and others shunned by society, but also claimed to be a good guy—the good guy, in fact. And while there have been many films and TV specials that have taken on that story and the New Testament, we don’t often get (or may have never gotten before) is an interesting work that really ask the question, “What if God was one of us?” In the case of the miniseries The Casual Vacancy, an adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s first novel written for adults, the question seems to be, “What if God was one of us, and then he suddenly died, and we had to see how the people around him fared without someone rooting for them—and how those against him carried on with their dastardly deeds?” It’s a big question for sure, which is why it’s rather spectacular to see it addressed with tragedy and comedy, in a narrative that takes its characters and their stories very seriously, even as it pokes fun at the silliness involved in small-town politics, high school life, and relationships between the young and old.
Paste caught up with director Jonny Campbell to talk about tragedy, comedy, and how he and writer Sarah Phelps adapted the work of one of one of the world’s most famous authors.
Paste Magazine: I love that Barry represents this moral compass that doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. He takes care of his family, his neighbors, and then he goes on this sort of very short crusade for his whole community against Sweetlove house. Can you talk about shooting the scene where he gives that amazing speech in the Church? How did you and Rory Kinnear approach it?
Jonny Campbell: Well first, yes, he is sort of the personification of brotherly love and goodwill—it’s this almost Jesus-like approach. And so the vacuum that’s created when he dies is symptomatic of the vacancy in their lives without this particular spirit. And that’s included in the name—J.K. Rowling chose his name [Fairbrother] deliberately, in a similar way to the way a Dickens character might have a name that aligns with their sensibility.
With Rory that was obviously the scene. Now, it’s a nightmare to shoot those scenes from the director’s point of view. There are so many people and so many angles you need to get. We rehearsed it the night before in the actual church and that meant that the following day—the whole day—was spent shooting that scene, but they’d all gone to bed the night before with a better idea of what the scene was going to hold. And that helped a lot. And Rory gave a very professional performance because he was so consistent, and with each camera angle he’d bring in a new little element to the speech. It sort of shut everyone up, every single time he did it (laughs).
Paste: It’s a great moment. And throughout the series there’s such great comedy, and then of course such great tragedy. Just one example is the scene in the final episode where Shirley confronts her husband with the computer, and he starts to have a heart attack. My jaw was on the floor because it was both terrifying and hilarious. I’m wondering what it was like for you when you first read the script. What scenes really drew you to the project?
Campbell: In part it is the moments like that, that you search for as a director. It makes you feel kind of intrigued, and it makes you laugh and then it makes you feel sort of embarrassed that you’ve laughed. So it tosses you around a bit on its surface, like a wave. And I do like that—the black humor and the darkness, and that scene is one of the best examples of something that starts being slightly cheeky, and frivolous, and full of humor and we think we’re going to enjoy this awkwardness and this humiliation, because we don’t like this character—we don’t like either of them, actually. When we first see her and that salami pops up we know what’s coming, but we haven’t actually seen it. We haven’t seen them snogging. And then suddenly you almost feel pity and feel sorrowful for this woman. I love stuff like that. I just love the kind of drama where you think it’s one thing, and it takes you one place and then it becomes this potential life or death situation, within seconds.
Paste: You’ve talked about how you’re a big fan of Charles Dickens, and you mentioned him earlier. Why was it important for you to embrace that vulnerability in the young characters who really become a huge part of this narrative, which—at first—appears to be about the adults of this town?
Campbell: The youth are, as it turns out, the life and blood of this piece. This story is really about the next generation and what they face. And it’s also about their different starts in life. There’s a variety of characters who all attend the same school, and it’s about how their decks are stacked. That’s one of the things that J.K. Rowling has done with this story. She depicts how those lives can be intertwined, and how some children don’t have the opportunity to be children. And obviously one of her particular fortes is writing characters who are teenagers or children. She feels for them, and for their plight, and it comes through in the writing and in the adaptation as well. It comes through with Robbie at the end of the story—I’m keeping things open and keeping people talking about his fate and what it might be.
Paste: I know Rowling was very hands-off with this project, but when you first met with her, were there any specific requests that she made?
Campbell: She was really excited to see the location pictures. And in terms of sharing some of the casting ideas, and putting faces to some of the names of the characters, she wanted to establish that the people fit or represented, in some way, her characters. It’s never going to be the exact character that she envisioned—she may well have known some of these characters! But that was very reassuring. When it came to other things she was obviously particularly concerned about Krystal’s story and preserving the notion of tragedy, and also things like the symbolism of the river—that was very important to her. The way the river snakes around, it has a sort of spiritual connotation.
Later on when I met her after she’d seen more of what we shot, she was very happy, especially with the casting of [Richard Glover as] Simon Price, because that was a difficult part to get right. He had to be a fool, and also scary to his own children. Glover managed to bring a huge amount of comedy to that role, which also emulated the role in the novel.
Paste: You also talked about sticking to the screenplay as opposed to the book. Why was that important for you?
Campbell: Partly because I hadn’t read the book yet. When the director comes to a project, the writer has already started a lot of work on it. Sarah [Phelps] had already started making decisions in her head at that point. She’d done the initial heavy lifting in terms of how to weave these characters together and build this community of people. So there was no point in me reading the book back to front and coming on and saying, “Well hang on a minute, that’s not what it is in the book.” She’d already had her meetings with J.K. Rowling at that point and she’d been given the blessing to go on and work with those characters. And those characters wouldn’t be as alive as they were if they were just taken from the books and simply transposed onto a screenplay.
And I really love how Sarah chose to end the script on the next generation—kids going back to school, a year older. They still might be grieving, but life goes on, and then there’s the symbol of the river. Life goes on.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Campbell: I’m actually heading to L.A. to have some meetings. I’ve been very fortunate to read a few great scripts over the last few months and I’m looking forward to seeing which one might spark into the next project for me.
Paste: Whatever it is, I’m excited. Thanks so much for this!
Campbell: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.