Behind the scenes on See-Saw’s arctic thriller The North Water

The North Water

Producers on Colin Farrell and filming close to the North Pole

The BBC initially showed off the See-Saw drama series The North Water at the last BBC Showcase event to be held in Liverpool in early 2020. The series had started filming, and See-Saw had produced a trailer. Mediaweek got to spend time with See-Saw executive producers Jamie Laurenson and Hakkan Kousetta who ran the TV division globally. Laurenson was head of television, while Kousetta was COO, television.

It has taken until the second half of 2021 for the series to be completed and then screened in the UK. This month the series debuts on BBC First in Australia after some Foxtel customers first got a preview on demand.

Since our interview with Laurenson and Kousetta they have departed See-Saw and started their own London-based production company 60Forty Films.

The North Water

Picture Shows: Captain Brownlee (STEPHEN GRAHAM)

See-Saw and The North Water

“We read Ian McGuire’s novel in pre-publication,” said Jamie Laurenson told Mediaweek. “We were blown away by it and we looked at each other and thought we have got to do this. There was then a big intake of breath as we wondered, shit, how we would do it.

“Very early on, we talked to writer and director Andrew Haigh. He had not done anything like this before, but I think he would say one thing common to all his work was a sort of an honesty about the way he’s examined the human condition.

“While The North Water is a thriller, and has a kind of propulsive kind of heartbeat through it, it is also an examination of the human condition.

“It’s also kind of a moral thriller, as well as a psychological thriller, and almost an environmental thriller, it contains all those things. Andrew immediately responded to the novel, and immediately had a kind of vision for how to execute it.”

Kousetta explained: “The business of actually trying to put it together, took a bit longer, but we developed it with the BBC. They were incredibly supportive as we embarked on the journey of trying to work out how to adapt the story.

“It took a very long time to logistically work out how we were going to shoot it.”

Along with BBC Studios, See-Saw brought in CBC/Radio-Canada in association with Super Channel on what became a UK/Canada co-production.

Part of the challenge for the production was the decision to film part of the series in the Arctic.

“That comes down to Andrew, his vision for it. He’s a naturalistic filmmaker, everything he’s done has been in that mode. Mother nature is an extraordinary thing that’s all around us, and is both challenging, dangerous, and incredibly beautiful. We couldn’t have achieved that quality we wanted for the show against a green screen and using matte paintings.”

Laurenson added he wanted to explain the trouble they went to filming on location so people didn’t dismiss it as simply special effects. “Everything is real,” he said.

Kousetta: “We wanted this to look like nothing you have ever seen before. We did go further north than anyone’s ever filmed a drama. The three weeks that we shot in the Arctic, we shot from the end of September, were in Svalbard.”

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole – 800 kilometres north of the Norwegian mainland and 950 kilometres from the North Pole.

“We had we had brilliant polar fixer, Jason Roberts, and an amazingly experienced skipper of the Activ, which is the hero boat called Jonas Bergstrom. They were incredible wranglers and advisors for us on that section of the shoot. We did go to 81º north, and as far as we know, that’s the furthest north any drama has ever shot. A lot of it’s to do with the wind conditions as to where the pack ice is at that time of the year. There are tourists too and Arctic expeditions that go up for major documentaries.”

(Jason Roberts is an award-winning filmmaker, polar expert, dedicated environmentalist, and world leading authority on Polar Bears. He has devoted his life to both the Arctic and Antarctic, working with the production of natural history documentaries, Hollywood feature films, and landmark drama series.

Cavendish (SAM SPRUELL), Henry Drax (COLIN FARRELL), Captain Brownlee (STEPHEN GRAHAM),

Casting Colin Farrell

Laurenson: “Colin Farrell and Andrew spoke about the role. It was first of all a very brave decision for Colin to take it on and it’s a testament to him as an actor that he’s prepared to take on such a range of challenges with the roles he plays.

His character Drax is an amoral character and there are not many people that are going like Henry Drax. I can’t speak highly enough of him, the commitment he had to the role with the physical transformation he underwent to play the role and more than anything, the spirit with which he undertook the job.”

Kousetta: “He set the tone for everyone in terms of kind of throwing himself into the experience and making sure that it was more than just a job. It was a real commitment to deliver the best possible work.”

The cast also features Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham.

The North Water synopsis

Based on the prize-winning novel from Ian McGuire, and set in the UK and the ice floes of the Arctic in the late 1850s, The North Water tells the story of Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), a disgraced ex-army surgeon who signs up as ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. On board he meets Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), the harpooner, a brutish killer whose amorality has been shaped to fit the harshness of his world. Hoping to escape the horrors of his past, Sumner finds himself on an ill-fated journey with a murderous psychopath. In search of redemption, his story becomes a harsh struggle for survival in the Arctic wasteland.

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