5 Minutes with… Nick Hirschkorn
Something quite enchanting has come to our screens. Susanna Clarke’s sprawling tale of magic, war and the politesse of Regency England, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, is charming TV viewers in the UK and is set to captivate audiences around the globe. And it turns out we’ve got an ad industry veteran to thank for it.
Nick Hirschkorn, the MD and founder of Feel Films, honed his producing skills in the world of commercials and music videos, producing award-winning spots during the glory years of Arden Sutherland-Dodd. For well over a decade he’s been combining his work in the fast-paced advertising industry with the grander (if slightly more tortuous) world of long form entertainment. He’s produced on projects like 2004’s Five Children and It and the Sky 1 movie Skellig, and with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell he’s tapping into a growing appetite for quality TV drama. Despite his long form success, he’s still deeply embedded in commercials. In fact, one of his passions is tempting talented movie and TV directors into advertising; Jonathan Strange director Toby Haynes is one of several such talents on the Feel Films roster, which also includes filmmakers who have worked on the likes of Skyfall, Game of Thrones and Iron Man 2.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Nick to find out more about producing this epic tale of duelling magicians and to pick his brains about what ad agencies could learn from the world of drama.
LBB> Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is finally on our screens after five years of negotiation, development and production. When you started thinking about the realities of bringing what is a quite expansive book to life, did you have any doubts or concerns about the practicalities of it?
NH> I didn’t have doubts about how achievable it was or the practicalities. I love the book. I want to find great material that I can make into something I’d want to watch myself, and this qualified perfectly. It’s a ground-breaking piece of literature and to get the opportunity to do something on that scale is really exciting for me. It’s never really scared me. All the stuff that I’ve done has been relatively ambitious and I think you’ve got to be. It’s got to really stand out. Why get into the film industry to be safe? It’s pretty unsafe to start with!
LBB> Toby Haynes was the director on it; why was he the right person to bring in?
NH> Interestingly, he was also represented by Curtis Brown, the agency that also held the rights to the book. You’ve probably read this story in the press, but for many, many years he’s been saying that he’d really like to direct Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. In all these meetings, whenever it came up in discussion, Joe his agent would pipe up with, ‘as directed by Toby Haynes!’ and everybody would laugh. He had been pursuing it for so long, but his star was rising at the BBC just at the time when we were looking for a director. He had just come off doing the Reichenbach Falls for Sherlock and a Wallander episode that everybody was jumping up and down about. He comes from a background of Doctor Who, so he really knows special effects inside out and when I met him we totally clicked.
LBB> He directed all seven of the episodes, which is something that’s still quite unusual but seems to be a growing trend in drama. What did that approach bring to the project?
NH> I’ve never shot anything that’s broken up by different directors because I’ve done films. For me it wasn’t a difficult leap to make. Working on something split up between three different directors doesn’t feel as natural, certainly for something with such an authorial voice as this. Toby, Peter Harness [the screenwriter] and I worked together over the whole series and that was the perfect alchemy.
LBB> The locations are stunning, where did you shoot it?
NH> We were based in Yorkshire, out of Leeds. The Yorkshire screen fund were keen to invest money, and that drew me up to recce the area. I found that if we were based in Leeds that there were more stately homes within a 45-minute radius than there were in London. We wanted to dress stately homes rather than build sets from scratch, and it worked really well. We based ourselves in Leeds, which a great city to live in because it’s got restaurants and clubs and decent accommodation and we didn’t really need to travel for more than 45 minutes. It gave us access to lots of great countryside.
What’s very important with any film production is that you’ve really got to create colour. One of the things that annoys me enormously is when you feel like you’re in the same enclosed space for all of it. You get bored very quickly. With Jonathan Strange it had to feel like you were moving from the moors to London to Napoleonic France.
LBB> I watch a lot of VFX, particularly in commercials, and usually there’s quite a difference between the look and finish of effects in high end advertising production and TV. TV often faces more constraints than advertising in terms of budget and the sheer volume of shots to get through. So I have to say, I was really impressed with the quality of the effects – it didn’t feel like something made for TV at all. How did you pull that off?
NH> We set off trying very, very hard to make sure that all the VFX were extremely cinematic. One way you do that is to target your set pieces and channel your efforts into those areas. It was also about making sure that these were conceived as movie set pieces rather than television set pieces. That means opening yourself up to the ambition, allowing them to be storyboarded properly, planning them properly and having the time to deliver them properly, as opposed to having to deliver them in three weeks. All of these things allowed us to do something really special.
Also, the guys at Milk (the VFX house) are remarkable. We just won the Bafta last year and won it again this year and if we don’t win it next year for Jonathan Strange I’ll be very disappointed!
LBB> I wanted to ask about the production design. It’s set in a very particular historical era, but it also has that magical vibe and perhaps taps into some quite ancient, almost pagan themes too… Where did you start when you were figuring out what this world was going to be and developing a cohesive vision for the aesthetics of it?
NH> Before I get a production designer involved, what I always do is to get some concept artists on board. It’s sort of a Hollywood movie technique. I got three key visuals very early on; the talking statues, the resurrection of lady pole and the rain ships. We did beautiful pictures and they went a long way in terms of setting the tone.
There was Howard, a concept artist I’ve worked with a lot, and then there was Jim Kay who is an amazing illustrator [A Monster Calls; Harry Potter], and we just spit-balled ideas. We then brought on a guy called David Rogers, a ridiculously brilliant production designer. He won the Emmy for Great Expectations, which was directed by Brian Kirk, another one of Feel Films’ directors. He has this unbelievable way of putting mess in front of the camera. He made it a truly authentic period piece; I think it needed that.
LBB> Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is your big news at the moment, but as the MD and EP of Feel Films you also do a lot of commercial work too. Feel was founded in 2004 – when you started out, was it founded as a commercial company or did you start off with the ambition to combine commercials with long form drama?
NH> Prior to starting Feel, I had always been a commercials producer. I started very young; while I was at film school I worked on music videos. I then got a job producing live action and post production. Then I went to MPC and then Hungry Eye. There was a long period between the ages of 18 and 28 where I did commercials and music videos, and I loved it. At the age of 26 I started a production company with a director called Thomas Krygier, who was very hot at the time. We joined forces when I was at Arden Sutherland-Dodd, and at the time it was Campaign’s production company of the year, and we were doing really interesting, big budget stuff. Thomas had just finished shooting the launch of the Eurostar and a big Lucozade spot and we went off and set up our own company which was called Krygier Hirschkorn.
We were doing more and more of the same stuff. It was great, travelling around the world and being treated like rock stars – it was the best time to be in commercials! But I remember standing on a beach in Costa Rica when I was 28 thinking, ‘shit I‘ve completely forgotten why I got into this in the first place; to do films and features and long form as well as commercials’. I decided to divert a bit of my attention towards that and started developing some of my own stuff. There was one film we were funding with our own money and then a director friend of mine came to me with a film he was working on called Five Children and It. It was a $20million picture and it did quite well. Eddie Izzard, Ken Branagh and Zoe Wanamaker were in it and we had a theatrical release all over the world. It was a gala film at the Tribeca Film Festival and at Toronto and at Dubai.
When I came back I realised I needed a different company. I needed one that could have the commercial side but would also let me develop film stuff. We closed down Krygier Hirschkorn at that point and I set up Feel in 2004.
LBB> Talking about Jonathan Strange, which has taken five years to make it onto our screens, I can see the appeal of being able to balance long form projects with the snappier pace of commercials production!
NH> It’s great and the balance is really important to me as a filmmaker. If I was just doing the long format stuff you’d want to shoot yourself, especially if you ended up working on projects that don’t go anywhere.
I think what the commercials and music videos did so well for me – and continue to do – was that they allowed me to try things out, use different techniques and visual ideas. If you’ve done ten years of commercials you’ve probably done about a hundred years of shooting movies! You’ve used every crane, every helicopter, every new technique; you’ve used 35mm, 16mm, Ari Alexa, Red; you’ve done everything in every possible way and I don’t think you could have that experience if you’d just done a couple of films.
LBB> What do you think the worlds of commercials production and drama production could learn from each other?
NH> As I said, commercials are a fantastic training ground; it’s very fast and loose and quick. The level of perfectionism that’s required is something that is just not there in long form, whether it be drama and documentary. In feature films there’s a bit of that, but not to the extent that there is in commercials. We pore over 30 seconds and we probably go too far in commercials, but it’s a brilliant training ground and you really should be that specific.
On the flip side, what I think commercials can learn from drama is that, actually, you don’t need to be that ridiculously anal. It’s the story and the characters that matter. I know these seem like diametrically opposed views, but finding that middle ground, dependent upon what project you’re working on, can be very useful.
LBB> And do you find it a tricky thing to find directors who are comfortable working in both worlds?
NH> I think it’s really tricky. I’ve always felt more comfortable bringing someone from a long form environment into short form because I think they have all the necessary skills and will be able to distil it down. I think it’s much harder to take someone who is exceptional in commercials and expand them out to long form – and people will absolutely disagree with me on this! You need to really understand character, dialogue, interaction… all of these things are the bits that get cut out of commercials. To create a character in 30 seconds, you’re dealing with stereotypes and signs and signals that people can pick up quickly. There’s an art to creating a detailed character or an emotionally engaging person in a 30 or 60-second spot, which is very different to the way you’d build that up over seven or eight hours.
Not to say that there aren’t commercials directors who have made the transition brilliantly; you’ve only got to look at Tony Scott, God rest his soul, and Ridley. What he was able to achieve, coming from commercials, was miraculous. There are people like David Fincher too, amazing people who have done a very, very good job. But I feel more comfortable going the other way round.
.Jonathan Taylor's Range Rover spot, starring Daniel Craig
LBB> A really striking example are Nick Murphy's Territorial Army campaign, which were shot and braodcast live from Afghanistan, which is the sort of project that really needed someone with his documentary and current affairs experience.
One of Nick Murphy's live spots from Afghanistan...
And then, another dimension to this is that the appetite for longer form branded content in advertising is growing like crazy…
NH> …this is one thing that I find interesting, challenging and frustrating in the advertising business. The ad agencies are saying ‘this is what we need’, yet when it comes down to it they stay in their safety zone of hiring the guy that does the 30-second commercial.
What they need to do is to broaden their horizons. Having educated their clients they then need to look at people outside of that tight-knit community. There are people doing this sort of thing all the time who are not in the advertising business. That’s what we’re trying to do with our directors like Toby Haynes, Nick Murphy, Brian Kirk, because they can bring something else to the table. Even Stuart Bateup brings something different to his Waitrose ad with Heston Blumenthal because he’s shot the Hairy Bikers for TV. These shows work because you have an emotional connection with whoever is in front of the camera and he’s able to get that straight away. Why work with someone who’s just able to photograph food?
Stuart Bateup's 'Heston' spot for Waitrose
LBB> What do you think agencies could do to make themselves more comfortable around a different way of working?
NH> I don’t think there’s anything they really should do to make themselves feel more comfortable; I think they need to understand that in order to excel at anything you have to embrace the fear. I do it every single day of my life. If you’re not doing something that makes you feel a little bit nervous and a little bit scared then you’re not pushing yourself. That’s my view.
LBB> It seems – at the risk of getting a bit psycho-analytical! – you seem to be a person who thrives on new experiences and creative stimulation. Outside of the film world, what inspires and excites you?
NH> What I have a true love for is really good drama on the stage. Last weekend in New York I saw Skylight with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy – I missed it when it was on in London. It’s just an awesome piece of writing. The idea that two people can just get up on stage and captivate you, that’s the heart of drama. I’m always suspicious of any directors that I work with who can’t sit through a whole play!
One of the best plays I saw on Broadway was Venus in Fur with David Ives. It absolutely knocked me out. When you have a really great theatrical experience it leaves you breathless. I’m actually working with some of the biggest guys in Broadway on our next project…
Books have always been a big part of who I am. I love really good writing. If you love good writing, it has to be in your soul, you can’t create it.
LBB> So to finish off, this massive project is finally hitting TV screens… what else is on the cards for the rest of the year?
NH> I have two really fab projects in development with the BBC. I’m developing a series called Wolf Brother, which is a Saturday night family show. It’s about a boy and wolf in 5000 B.C. I’m also developing the Rivers of London series of books by Ben Aaronovitch into a show
On top of that there’s a movie that I started working on a while ago, which is set in the world of classical music. I’m doing it with James Horner, who composed Avatar and Titanic. James composed all the music and we’re collaborating very closely on that. It’s about a violin prodigy and the music has to be written beforehand, which is interesting.
There are a couple of projects that I’m developing with Toby Haynes; one movie and another multi-episodic piece. So there’s a lot on the slate at the moment!
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is on at 9pm on Sundays on BBC1 in the UK. It will be hitting BBC America on June 13.