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Interview with Jakob Verbruggen, director of BBC series 'The Fall'

Date: 
21 May 2013

Five part series broadcast on Mondays at 9pm on BBC 2.

Jakob Verbruggen jokes that he owes his chance to direct BBC television series The Fall to the Scandinavians. 'There is an interest in the European way of filmmaking,' he explains. 'I think that the British, inspired by a constant stream of successful Scandinavian series such as The Killing and Borgen, are trying to refresh their television drama. They want a fresh look, a fresh visual style and I think that's why they got me on board.' On a practical level, the connection came through Code 37. Verbruggen was one of the principle directors on this Flemish television series and went on to direct a successful spin-off feature film, Code 37 The Movie. When British production company Artists Studio picked up remake rights for the series, they asked Verbruggen to read the script of The Fall. 'It was a surprise that they called me, but I'm happy that they did,' he says.

Different atmosphere

After graduating from the RITS film school in Brussels in 2002, Verbruggen was initially taken on as an assistant director and eventually directed two episodes of the crime series Missing Persons Unit (Vermist). He went on to work for production company Menuet which launched Code 37. This series featured police inspector Hannah Maes, who takes over the vice squad of the Ghent police force. At the same time she investigates a violent crime in her family's own history. Verbruggen's idea for giving this series a different atmosphere was to borrow elements from the western genre. 'It's in the set design, the way the actors look with their western boots and the way they carry their guns,' he explains. The Fall also centres on a tough female cop. Police inspector Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson of X-Files) is brought from London to Belfast to review a murder investigation. When she finds other unsolved murders are connected to the case, she becomes convinced that a serial killer is at work. In parallel, we see the serial killer going about his everyday life.

Voyeur

Verbruggen’s approach to The Fall also has some distinct influences. One was to draw on documentary techniques, using a casual, hand-held style of camerawork. 'That brings the audience closer to the story of the police investigator and creates a heightened reality for the personal world of the serial killer,' he explains. At the same time he wanted to generate a sense of mystery around the characters. 'It's not a whodunit or whydunit, it's whether or not the killer is going to get away with murder,' he says. That means giving viewers time to get to know both the killer and Stella Gibson. ‘The killer in The Fall is a voyeur and so we tried to make the audience as much of voyeur as possible.' This meant deploying a range of camera techniques, from hand-held and steady cam to cranes and long tracking shots. Being able to do this was one of the advantages of working on a series for the BBC. 'Filming is the same everywhere and there is never enough time, but here you could feel there was a bit more budget,' Verbruggen says.

This was also apparent in the number of people involved, for instance on production design. 'There are more people in the art department,' Verbruggen says. 'I thought: poor Belgian art directors! They work their asses off, and they're very good, but they have to do it with three people, or five on a feature film. Here there were at least twice as many people involved.' But with more money comes more responsibility, and Verbruggen was struck by the way in which the writer, producers and the broadcaster were closely involved in taking decisions about shooting the series. 'It's not that I was restricted, but I could feel that every step was being watched. I had to prove myself, which was challenging, sometimes tiring, but also very interesting.'

Experience

Being able to work closely with the writer, Allan Cubitt (renowned for his work on the Prime Suspect series), was very rewarding. 'There are good scripts in Belgium, but if you read a BBC script you can feel the experience the writers have in telling a story and helping directors visually,' Verbruggen says. And there was something special about working with Gillian Anderson who is more than just a famous face from the X-Files. 'She has 10 TV series and 10-20 films more experience than I have, so I had to be very focused and make sure I did my homework.' Similarly it was necessary to let Anderson explore the limits of her character. 'If things were difficult or she was not happy with takes, then I could make a contribution,' he says. Nothing beats the feeling when that pays off in a scene. 'You see it from behind the monitor and you think: yes, that's why you're a star! It all comes down to good understanding and teamwork.'

Future

In the immediate future Verbruggen plans to take a well-earned holiday. I've been working non-stop for two years,' he says. 'It's a good moment to take a little break and reset my mind.' He still dreams of making an original feature film, for which Code 37 The Movie is a good first step. Beyond that he is open to offers for more TV work. 'I haven't been spoiled by the experience of working on The Fall. If there is a good project, I'm happy to come back and work in Belgium. But we'll see what the UK adventure brings.'

Based on an interview with Jakob Verbruggen in ‘Flanders Image’, May 2013