Steven Knight Talks Taboo

Created by award-winning writer Steven Knight in collaboration with Tom and Chips Hardy, the new BBC/FX series, Taboo, presents a combustible saga of treachery, conspiracy and betrayal. Set in 1814, the new series follows the exploits of the adventurer, James Delaney (Tom Hardy). Believed to be long dead, Delany, transformed by his experiences abroad, returns to London from Africa to inherit what’s left of his late father’s business empire – only to discover enemies lurking in every corner.

Stephen Knight is best known for Dirty Pretty Things, for which he was named British Screenwriter of the Year and received an Oscar nomination. His films include Eastern Promises, Closed Circuit, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Pawn Sacrifice. Most recently, he directed Jason Statham in Hummingbird and Taboo star, Tom Hardy, in Locke (both of which he also scripted). Knight is a co-creator of the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the creator of the current BBC hit series, Peaky Blinders. Upon the release of Taboo on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download in the UK, we spoke with Stephen Knight about the making of the show in Los Angeles.

What’s the setup for Taboo?
The story begins in London, 1814.  An adventurer (Tom Hardy) who’s been in Africa for 10 years, who everyone thought was dead, returns. He starts the process of rebuilding his father’s shipping business. But of course it’s way more complex than that. He is a very damaged character. His arrival has a profound effect on the rest of his family. And he decides, as an individual, to take on the world, effectively. He takes on the American government, the British government, the East India Company and the Crown throughout the course of these eight hours.

Do you see a connection between today’s world and the one you’re exploring in 1814?
I completely believe that human beings haven’t changed in terms of their essential selves. They’re jealous, they’re in love, they’re angry, all in the same way. They wore different clothes, they spoke perhaps with a different accent, but they are the same. So in that sense there’s a continuing thread. But in my opinion, around this time – post-French Revolution, post-American Revolution… There was also a revolution in society where people were beginning to become what we would see as ‘modern individuals’. In other words, people were extracting themselves from their congregations, their religions, their villages, the class that they were in, and becoming themselves. James Delaney is sort of an example of that process…

What’s the significance of the title, Taboo?
In this story we will explore patterns of behavior that are considered to be unacceptable, even at the time… Here, James Delany comes back to London and breaks many taboos. But I think the taboo he breaks most significantly is the one against, as I said, individuality. In other words he doesn’t give loyalty to the King, he doesn’t give loyalty to the company. He operates to the benefit of himself and his family purely.

This is also a revenge storyIsn’t it?
Well, at the beginning… With Taboo I would always say expect the unexpected. As it develops you’ll see that it goes in directions that I’m sure you are not expecting. I’ve seen it described as a revenge story, but it really isn’t. James Delaney is a man who is sort of careless… He’s gone through a journey before this begins where one could imagine at some point he thought, “I might kill myself,” but decided not to. There’s a Francis Bacon quote, which I like: “Since it’s all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary.” So that’s what he does… But he’s certainly not motivated to get revenge on the people who killed his father. That’s the last thing on his mind.

What’s at the heart of the series for you?
The James Delaney character. In a way we’re seeing the world through his eyes. So when we see supernatural things, when we see things that maybe aren’t there, we see them through his eyes. What I wanted to do was create this almost invulnerable character who’s closed and doesn’t give of himself at all, unless he chooses to.  He keeps everything to himself, and when he decides to speak, it’s because he’s decided to speak. I wanted to take that ‘bullet character’, throw him into the explosion that was happening in London and see what happens, see how it goes. That’s what interests me – to take a character like him and put him at the heart of interesting historical events and see how he bangs around… Taboo, unlike I think most British period dramas, which tend to look at history through the prism of class…This is through the prism of commerce, of money. And that’s what this is about. It’s about commerce. I believe, at the time, for all the importance of class that we know about, in truth it was more about money.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in period dramas on television, yet Taboo seems quite different from more traditional genre fare. Was your goal to make it distinct?
As a writer, you just write what comes out. You write what you feel. And so it’s not an attempt to be different in the same way as Peaky Blinders isn’t deliberately different. In my opinion it’s more accurate that way. Historians, looking back, will always look for patterns, will always look for sequences, straight lines. But people living at the time weren’t.  The reality is dirtier and more chaotic than history would have us believe… In the research I did, I made sure to try to find these characters from reality that really existed, that don’t fit with what you’d imagined. The character Dumbarton, for example, is based on a real person. He was an American spy, a doctor at St. Bart’s Hospital, and a leading researcher into how you dye cotton. Now who would invent that character? Why would you do that? Reality is always more interesting and bonkers than fiction. So, I was trying to put people like that into the mix.

Are you the showrunner for Taboo as well?
No. I know the American system has showrunners, but for me it wouldn’t work; I’m doing so many other things. What I do is write the script. It’s done more in the conventional British way. You usually get two directors for the two halves of the series. They direct, produce, and shoot it.

Did knowing Tom Hardy would portray the character inform your writing?
Yes. I knew Tom was going to play this character, so therefore the character that you write is familiar. For me, an actor is a certain ‘thing’. Of course actors can do all sorts of stuff, they can be many ‘things’, but for me the basic soul of that character was already there… It’s almost like you make a mold that you know is going to fit perfectly over that shape.

What was most valuable for you, creatively, about working with him?
His immersion into the character, which is complete.

In the first two episodes you’re playing at the juncture of what used to be the British Empire and the Americans, who are very much the enemy…
That’s why I wanted it to be that year [1814]. Because this is the year that I believe is the beginning of the process of when the handing over of the baton, the power, from Britain to America began – at the end of that war, the War of 1812. Without giving too much away, this whole series is also about America. Because what happens is that this individual… It’s a revolution, because he decides to be an individual and begins to attract to him these other people who don’t fit in. They orbit around him and they become a gang. And eventually they’re going to go west. And that’s America. Every ship that landed in America was full of people who didn’t fit in where they came from, for whatever reason. It’s the story of how America attracted these people and why America became a power.

In the first two episodes, you have these more fantastical elements, for lack of a better word, that keep popping up…
Because we’re looking at the world through [Delany’s] eyes and he has had certain experiences that lead to him hallucinating.

Is that something we can expect to play a bigger role as the series progresses?
It becomes significant, yes. There are two ways of looking at it, and even by the end of Episode 8 there are still two ways of looking at it. Either, we’re looking at hallucinations through the eyes of a damaged person, or he has some sort of connection with a different world and that connection helps him. It’s never decided upon. People have to make up their own mind.

Tell us about your supporting cast – Jonathan Pryce, Jessie Buckley, Oona Chaplin, Jefferson Hall, David Hayman, Franka Potente, Stephen Graham, Michael Kelly… – and why you picked them?
You pick the best actors you can get and fortunately for this pretty much all of our first choices said, “Yes”. We got what we hoped were the best actors – a dream cast. And I think it helps to have Tom [Hardy], because people want to work with Tom.

Is it still hard work to get movie stars to sign onto a TV-show these days?
No, no. Actors love it, because of the pace at which it’s made. There’s very little hanging around. But in terms of the barrier between film and television, I think that’s gone now. As a writer, even, it’s different. But one is not better than the other. So I’m writing film and TV. I don’t think one is of any greater quality than the other.

Is the 8 to 10 episode format here to stay from your viewpoint?
I would have thought so. I’ve heard interesting things. In Britain everyone says, “You should do the American system.” In America you have ‘the writers’ room’ which the British could never get to work, including me. “We want to get the American star writers’ room going, because of all the fantastic television coming out of America.” When I come here I hear people say, “No, no. The new trend is toward the single writer, the single vision…” You know, the grass is always greener, I suppose.

Is there a difference in terms of creative approach?
I don’t think there is any difference in how far people are prepared to go. American television started this revolution. I think it started with Twin Peaks, myself.  I think it was that long ago. I do think what’s underestimated though is that screens got better. Remember what we used to watch TV on? What would be the point of making that look fantastic? Whereas now people watch on proper screens. It’s worth making it look really good. I think all these things have come together. And I think people commissioning television are prepared to take risks that people commissioning films are not. That’s why it’s working.

What was the shoot itself like for Taboo?
Cold (laughs)…

Where did you film it?
In London… It was a great experience. Very collegial, because the actors are all…  A lot of them are theater actors as well, so there was a bit of a theater feel to it, in terms of performance, with the actors helping each other. I mean, filming is always brutal anyway, but Kristoffer (director, Kristoffer Nyholm; Eps 1-4), is used to filming in Scandinavia, so (laughs)…

How did you set about creating the distinct look of the series?
In terms of costumes and what’s on screen, there are researchers who make sure that it’s all accurate. In terms of the characters and the story, again, it’s looking into real events, real people who existed… I mean, in 1814, London was the wildest place – just madness. No rules, no boundaries, no barriers. People would do drugs and sex and booze. You even have to tone it down a bit. And even if you tone it down, people think you’re doing it on purpose. You’re not. You’re just showing what was there.

What was it like seeing the pilot episode, cut together, for the first time?
It was fantastic. It’s always fantastic. For some reason in television, I don’t know what it is, but in television, as a writer, you find when you see the finished piece it’s much more like how you imagined it. In television what you write is what you shoot. In film it’s a much more difficult process. You go through so many more stages. Sometimes it’s much better than what you’d imagined, sometimes it’s worse, but it’s not what you imagined. This is what I imagined.

How long do you see the series lasting?
I want it to be three seasons. It will be at least two, but three would be great, because I want to get them to their destination, which is set up at the very beginning.

Taboo is out now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD.

John McArthur
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