Outlander Homepage Originals by Susie Brown
Photo by Mark Mainz
For 5 seasons now, Outlander fans have been taken on a different journey every week, as the lives of Jamie and Claire Fraser unfold before us on the screen. We have marvelled at the drama, the romance, the heartbreak and the humour that the actors portray as they skilfully bring Diana Gabaldon’s story to life. But what about the person in charge behind the camera, the person responsible for overseeing and coordinating the world that we have come to love so much? Here at Outlander Homepage, we were thrilled when season 5 director Stephen Woolfenden agreed to talk to us and give us a glimpse of this complex process.
It seems that Stephen was always destined for a career in the Arts. From an early age, he was immersed in the life of the theatre.
“Dad was a conductor and composer and was Head of Music at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Mum was an oboist and music publisher,” Stephen explained. “I saw lots of plays and went backstage and played with swords. When I was seven, I had an audition with the director Trevor Nunn to be one of the princes in the tower in Richard III, but I burst into tears after a few moments and ran away from the rehearsal room!”
“That was the end of my acting career but the start of something else,” Stephen continued. “I started making animations on my Dad’s 8mm camera in my teens and became really interested in films. I joined the National Youth Theatre in 1984 and did a season as an Assistant Stage Manager and Deputy Stage Manager. I loved being behind the scenes, working with actors and the adrenalin of live shows. I got a job as a stand-in for Cary Elwes on the film Lady Jane, which was, funnily enough, directed by Trevor Nunn! I was retained as a runner for the shoot and knew then that film set life was for me.
After that, I was a Production Runner on Return To Treasure Island in 1985 for ITV/Disney, produced by Alan Clayton, my uncle. He was a key mentor to me and encouraged me in all aspects of film and TV production. So I went to university in Bournemouth and studied a new degree course in Communication & Media Production, specializing in Film & Television. After I graduated I became a 3rd Assistant Director, then a 2nd Assistant Director then a 1st Assistant Director. I enjoyed life as a 1st Assistant Director on films and TV all over the world, working with and learning from some great directors – Herbie Wise, Gillies MacKinnon, Hettie MacDonald, Tom Hooper and David Yates. I got a small reel together by volunteering to direct 2nd Units on my days off. One of the last things I was 1st Assistant Director on was the the David Yates-directed ‘State of Play’. It was a great shoot and an inspiring set to be on. David and I got on and worked well together and he encouraged me to start directing full time. I got a break at the BBC on a children’s Saturday morning show – ‘The Mysti Show’ which had a drama episode every weekend that ran for two seasons. It was a great starting point and an on-the-job training ground.”
“ A few years later and with other directing credits behind me, David Yates called. He had just been hired to direct Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix and invited me to meet for the 2nd Unit Director’s job. I got the gig and have been David’s 2nd Unit Director ever since - on four Harry Potters, Tarzan and two Fantastic Beasts. We had started prep on Fantastic Beasts 3 but were suspended because of the coronavirus just before shooting was due to start. Fortunately, we are due to restart very soon.”
So how, we wondered, did Outlander fit into the mix?
“My path to Outlander came from me really liking the show, “ Stephen replied, “along with the stable of directors, crew and actors they were using. I was interested in the USA production model it had adopted in the UK. Also, I had directed a few projects for Left Bank Pictures who are the production company that service the production in the UK. I first had a Skype chat with Maril Davies and David Brown in 2016 for a block on Series 3, but the dates didn’t work out and I went on to direct Poldark instead. We spoke again in 2018. The finale of season 4 was a possibility and I jumped at it. I actually got the call to say I had the gig when I was in the Highlands on ‘Detective Pikachu’. I really enjoyed 413 and luckily got asked to return for series five.”
Next, we asked Stephen if he could describe the directing process and how he approached each episode. Is there such a thing, we wondered, as a typical day in the life of a director?
“No!” Stephen laughed. “There is definitely no typical day in the life of a director! As to my approach, it changes with each episode, but you always appreciate the writing, and challenge it where appropriate. You have to understand where the episode fits in the series and what it does to the ongoing journeys of the characters. You have to find the key scenes in episodes and use those as the building blocks for tone, character study, visuals and truth. Once you are settled on those central themes and ideas and events in the episode, then you can design that overall approach and the specifics that relate character to story and so on. From there, you communicate these ideas to the cast, the showrunner and the writer/producers, and hopefully you strengthen and develop these ideas together. At this point, you are working closely with Heads of Department and crew to bring these ideas to the set. Preproduction is such a wonderful process. Script, concepts, design, storyboards, recces, sequence planning, rehearsing, testing, scheduling, historical research and seeking out visual references are are all part of the mad five weeks you have to prep a two episode block of Outlander.”
This seemed like an amazing amount to squeeze into five weeks, particularly when the actual rehearsing and directing was still to come!
“Rehearsal is so important and on a fast moving TV series like Outlander,” Stephen said. “We simply do not get enough rehearsal time. You have to move so quickly on set on shoot days that you need to have a clear plan of your intentions, while also allowing for the organic process of rehearsal, the conditions on the day and other ideas that present themselves. A key skill is getting the balance between being very organised and having a strong plan for each shooting day, but also being flexible and welcoming to new, constantly developing ideas that take everybody’s work to another level.
Every scene you can rehearse in preproduction is such a bonus for a number of reasons. It helps build your relationship with the cast, it allows you to experiment, to test the writing and give informed script notes, and it saves so much time on shoot days. Most importantly it gives the director and the cast confidence going into the scene and that is so valuable.”
So how much is ‘not enough’ rehearsal time?
“We had perhaps a day and a half of rehearsals close to the start of shooting,” Stephen told us. “In that time, we rehearsed the wedding drinking game, Murtagh & Jocasta’s wedding night and morning, Roger & Brianna's wedding night, Claire & Jamie’s wedding night & battle morning, Roger & Brianna’s big scenes in episode 8, Jamie & Murtagh’s battlefield, the scene where Roger visits Murtagh before the battle and some sessions with new characters where possible.”
That sounded like an amazing list, so we asked how these rehearsals are run.
“They often start with a ‘page-turn’ through the episode,” Stephen explained, "with each cast member sharing their thoughts and ideas of how the episode is being shaped and to agree on a course for the characters.”
“When it comes to shooting, there is no typical day. Each one is different and has unique demands. The one overriding constant is that it is a very pleasant place to work. Outlander has a really strong company atmosphere, where everyone encourages collaboration, appreciates all the great skills on show and likes to have fun whilst getting the job done.”
Getting that job done requires a team, and Stephen explained a little about their roles.
“Most Outlander episodes have a requirement for a 2nd Unit shoot,” he said. “2nd unit shoots anything from action, title cards, dropped scenes, delayed scenes, seasonal specific scenes, cast availability issues, rewrites and reshoots. On Series 5 we had the wonderful Adrian McDowell as 2nd Unit Director, who did a great job. For instance, I wrote a battle ‘beat sheet’ for episode 507 and scheduled what we could into the main unit schedule. That still left at least two days work of battle moments in the forest, that Adrian and I discussed and planned for his unit to complete. It’s so important to communicate the look and the feel of the episode to the 2nd Unit Director so there is a seamless transition between moments. Matthew B. Roberts also directed a Splinter Unit towards the end of the shoot that worked on specific moments that needed to be enhanced, developed, matched, reshot or rewritten – mainly as a result of notes coming from the edit process.”
The 7th and 8th episodes of season 5 will long be remembered for their drama, with the death of Murtagh and then Roger’s PTSD journey following his hanging. We asked Stephen how he approached the emotions of these moments.
“It was great to be able to rehearse with Sam & Duncan before the shoot day in 507,” Stephen recalled. “That was so important. We worked in a rehearsal room and found a choreography that was incredibly simple, yet moving. Sam was keen to catch Duncan and it developed into a beautiful dance – a fall, catch, twist and the laying down by the wonderful tree. It was an intense shoot and everyone knew the significance of what we were doing. Sam and Duncan stayed in the moment whilst we dealt with special effects, blood, wasps, the sun going in and out and all those difficulties that you don’t want to encounter at such a moment! I like how this event is an almost peaceful contrast to the noise and violence in the middle of the battle.”
It certainly sounded like an intense time and Stephen agreed with this assessment.
“507 was an epic shoot,” he said. “The first time we put the redcoat on Sam on set was a real moment. Fortunately, the schedule landed in such a way that we shot 507 almost entirely before we shot anything from 508. This helped the intensity of the battle episode and helped inform us all as to the state of play of the characters in 508.”
When we commented on the effectiveness of the “silent movie” style scenes in the eighth episode, Stephen gave praise where it was due.
“To the great credit of the writer Danielle Berrow, the silent movie scenes in 508 were always in the script,” he said. “What a gift! It was such a clever, brave and creative way of communicating Roger’s PTSD. Matthew B. Roberts encouraged us to shoot a series of tests to explore the visual language and supported the process throughout the shoot.
The Director of Photography, Stijn van der Veken and I spent a day of preproduction with some stand-ins and a camera team testing aspect ratios, film speeds and special equipment to get inside Roger’s head and close to his eyes. We then spent a session editing the material, experimenting with frame, cutting the material further, grading it, and adding grain and vintage assets to help find the silent movie language. We then presented it up the line to Matthew B. Roberts who loved it and gave us the green light to use this approach. And of course, big credit must go to Richard Rankin for his detailed work throughout the entire process.”
With all the drama this season, we wondered if Stephen had any funny or memorable moments to share from his time on set.
“Every day is memorable!” Stephen replied. “I like to laugh at work, so I encourage a happy, playful set: one which is fun to be on up to 12 hours a day or night. As I said earlier, Outlander is a set that always respects and encourages hard, intense work as well as the acting and directing process, but fundamentally there is a great company atmosphere that creates a positive working environment.
“The wedding was a great way to start season 5. The entire company was together and it felt like a celebration. It was a great way to launch a 7-8 month shoot. I loved the scale of the wedding and then the intimate details of the scenes inside the houses before the ceremony. I was really moved as we filmed Caitriona with Sophie, Sam with Sophie and Sam and Caitriona doing the wedding preparation.
By contrast, one of the most adrenaline-fuelled shoot days was the start of the battle in episode 7. It was an important scene with 20 odd cast, 130 supporting artists, cannons and horses. It was always a tight day and the move from the previous location had taken time. We were standing there with half a day to go and this whole sequence to shoot - a daunting prospect. But over the next five hours, we all went at it with such energy and commitment that we finished on time: 54 shots completed with 3 cameras. Memorable!
But speaking of memorable moments, Stephen told us that it was the children that provided a lot of them.
"Working with the toddler Jemmys and other babies was new for everyone in season 5,” he explained. “It was a daily joy and test producing some very ‘interesting’ and funny moments, which the cast dealt with brilliantly. We knew very early on that very few takes were going to be possible, so there were some very tight moments. For example, when Sam was holding Jemmy in the kitchen on the wedding night, that was one take and a fantastic improv from Sam as Jemmy started crying! And remember when Jemmy does that little look on Sophie’s shoulder when everyone was dancing? That was also one take – I had actually left the monitor thinking it was all over but then something magical happened. Special mention should go to Caitriona, Sophie, John, Cesar, Lauren & Caitlin – the time and energy they spent with the children saved hours, entire scenes and in some cases, whole days. The production owes them big time! For example, Caitriona saved the ‘boar’ day by just dedicating herself to connecting with Jemmy. Sophie too had a daily workout with Jemmys. The cast often spent time off set, or in lunch break working with the children, chaperones and parents.”
And that sense of fun on set that was talked about?
“As a director, I tend to wait a few seconds to say ‘Cut’, “ Stephen said. “This was a tip from Werner Herzog. Sometimes you can just get a bit of something special: some natural poetry or some silliness. Different cast members react differently to this. Sam, Caitriona, Sophie and Richard have all given special reactions or thoughts in these brief moments – and they have also been very funny. Caitriona and Lauren were very funny when I let the camera run when they are standing over Leith Farrish’s corpse and I think some of this is in the Blooper Reel. Indeed, I have recently signed a clearance form for the season 5 blooper reel and that is another wonderful collection of fun moments. At one point, I can be seen literally dancing to keep one of the Jemmys from looking at the camera or bursting into tears!”
“I am always amused at the funny social media posts that the cast make. They are very clever at finding brief moments on video or silly stills that give so much to the fans. It’s a really important part of the show now and a great example of the atmosphere on set. As well as the gold standard social media “blackbelts” of Caitriona, Sam, Sophie & Richard, I am constantly laughing out loud by posts from Lauren, Caitlin, Colin, Tim, Maria, Kyle, Duncan et al. I wept when I saw Tim Downie make a little video in the carriage, drinking his coffee, as he left the wedding. Colin’s archive of shots and videos is like a behind the scenes video and Kyle’s photos are a great testament to the fun on set. “
Finally, we asked Stephen where he would go if he could travel through the stones and he narrowed his choices down to three.
"Firstly, I would have liked to have been a member of Bob Marley & The Wailers road crew, or the official photographer on their 1977-79 World Tour,” he said. “What an adventure this would’ve been, close to greatness! Secondly, I would have enjoyed being a student at the Guildhall School of Music, London in the late 1950s/early 1960s, to witness my parents getting together and watching them play at a time of great social change. It’s a bit Back To The Future but what a fun thing to be able to do! Finally, I would have loved to have been a member of the production team on Jacques Tati’s ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot’ in 1951 France. He was a great filmmaker at his peak. The detail in this film is extraordinary and the fun making it was legendary.”
Legendary seemed like an appropriate word on which to end this interview. We would like to thank Stephen for giving us such a legendary insight into the world of directing - and hopefully, we will see more of his work in the seasons to come.
This interview was conducted by Susie Brown, a writer and teacher-librarian who lives in Australia. She is certainly looking forward to seeing a dancing Stephen on the blooper reel!