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Medieval Mayhem, Inspired by Caravaggio: Combining Unexpected Visuals for ‘The Bastard Executioner’

At times we’ve gone for a very classical look," says DP Mike Spragg. "Then we couple that with a very handheld, contemporary camera style."

In the early 14th century in England, King Edward II ruled during a time of rebellion and great violence. On FX, The Bastard Executioner, a sprawling medieval epic, tells the tale of Wilkin Brattle, a 14th century knight whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner.

The Bastard Executioner is set in northern Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval. Shot primarily in south Wales, the series debuted Sept. 15 with a two-hour pilot filmed by cinematographer Henry Braham, BSC (Tarzan, The Golden Compass, Nanny McPhee).

Cinematographer Mike Spragg (Beowulf, Strike Back, The Musketeers) shot second unit for the pilot, with the proviso that he would shoot the series. “Ordinarily I wouldn’t do second unit, but I knew it would be an interesting project, so I made the deal to go with it,” says Spragg. Part of the interest for Spragg was to work directly for a U.S. production. “I was always working for English bosses,” he explains. “Bastard Executioner was the opportunity to work directly for the Americans.”

Stephen Moyer as Milus Corbett. Photo by Ollie Upton/FX.

But the bigger draw was the creative talent involved. Spragg says of Kurt Sutter, creator of The Bastard Executioner, as well as Sons of Anarchy, “Kurt is an extraordinary writer. Here was an opportunity to work with Kurt and [director] Paris Barclay, something I really wanted to do.” Spragg came to the attention of Sutter via producer Chris Thompson, who produced The Bastard Executioner pilot and had worked closely with Spragg on the 2013 British series Strike Back.

Spragg says his immediate challenge was the fact that Bastard Executioner is a period piece. “Obviously the look of Bastard Executioner is different from The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, which are contemporary, very handheld, very available light,” he says. (Sutter served as writer and producer on the FX series The Shield, in addition to creating and writing on FX’s Sons of Anarchy.) After discussion, he, Barclay and Sutter settled on “a very interesting look,” according to Spragg.

“At times we’ve gone for a very classical look, often based on the Dutch or Italian masters like Vermeer or Caravaggio,” he says. “A lot of our interiors reflect those historical references. Then we couple that with a very handheld, contemporary camera style. Kurt doesn’t want cinematography for the sake of cinematography. He wants to integrate camera with character, for the camera to tell the story, and also the sense of a natural style, where the audience is party to the event.”

Braham, who had just shot Tarzan with a RED camera, chose to shoot the Bastard Executioner pilot with the same camera, at 6K. “We’re continuing to shoot the show on the RED, at 5K,” notes Spragg, who says this is his first experience using that camera. He’s had a learning curve with the RED, which he calls “a much more complicated camera [than the ARRI Alexa] in how it’s set up. But it’s a light, flexible camera and it produces some very lovely pictures.” For lenses, Spragg uses ARRI Ultra Primes and Alura zooms.

Katey Sagal as Annora of the Alders. Photo by Ollie Upton/FX.

Locations play a crucial part in the look and feel of The Bastard Executioner. Spragg, who has shot numerous documentaries for Discovery Channel in the United States, compares the landscape and the weather of south Wales to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” he says of Wales. “The problem is that it rains a lot.”

Some of Wales’ most spectacular locations are on display in the series. In episode 3, for example, there’s “a stunning sequence on the beach that was used in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood,” Spragg says.

The time period in which the series takes place happens to be the era during which the English built lots of castles as part of their domination of Wales. More than 100 castles are still standing and some of The Bastard Executioner’s shooting took place at these historical locations. “These days you can shoot anywhere,” says Spragg, “but Kurt wanted the authenticity.”

One location used in the show is the gardens, portcullis and inner courtyard of St. Donat’s Castle, a castle built in the 14th century that’s now an international college.

The façade of the show’s Castle Ventris (home of Baron Ventris) and an adjacent village were constructed at Dragon Studios near Bridgend in south Wales. Dragon Studios was built with private funds 10 years ago and eventually taken over by the Welsh government. Other productions that have shot at Dragon Studios include Ironclad, Doctor Who, Upstairs Downstairs and Merlin. Dragon Studios has four soundstages and a large backlot.

Stephen Moyer as Milus Corbett, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Baroness Lowry “Love” Ventris. Photo by Ollie Upton/FX.

Lighting interiors was one of the trickiest aspects of shooting The Bastard Executioner, says Spragg. “We’re talking about a period with very little glass,” he says. “Only nobles had glass in their windows. Everyone else had very small windows, with interiors lit by fires and candles. Many of the castle interiors are semi-underground, so there is very little light from outside. It was a very dark period.”

To give the director freedom on the set, Spragg’s goal was to light these interiors practically, in a way that imitated flames and candlelight. He used Showtec Sunstrips, banks of 10 LED lights that can be controlled by a DMX board. “I think they’re a very effective way of replicating flame or candlelight,” he says. “They’re also long and narrow, which means they can be hidden on set very effectively.”

Another key location is the cave in the forest where Katey Sagal’s character, the mystic Annora of the Alders, and her protector, the Dark Mute (played by Sutter), live. “We did a fantastic sequence in episode 3, when it poured with rain for two days,” says Spragg. “I used an ARRIMAX 18K as opposed to backlight. It’s in a temperate rainforest, and those are so beautiful. It looked spectacular. We tried to turn the weather to our advantage.”

Getting continuity of weather was another chief challenge. For the aforementioned scene, Spragg notes that when they completed the first day of shooting, they brought in rain machines in case the weather didn’t cooperate the second shooting day. Fortunately, it rained again and they didn’t need them. “We’re constantly battling the elements,” says Spragg. “It is a challenge.”

Sutter and Barclay had strong ideas about camera movement. “It was the sense of wanting to bring the style of their earlier shows to the new venture,” says Spragg, “to take what is essentially a classic period drama and modernize it.” He contrasts it to the camera work in Downton Abbey, another period production shot in a castle, which he says is “shot very beautifully, very composed and placid.”

Lee Jones as Wilkin Brattle (center). Photo by Ollie Upton/FX.

He adds, “What Kurt and Paris want is mess and spontaneity and things going slightly wrong. If it’s not a perfectly composed shot, it makes it a bit more real. It’s basically documentary style.”

That philosophy came to bear in a big fight sequence in episode 7, set in a camp of nomads suspected of being rebels. “There are many individual fight sequences within it,” says Spragg. “Stunt people choreographed it and we shot with three cameras but didn’t rehearse. We didn’t want it to look like a constructed sequence.”

Spragg notes that the team used a new piece of equipment on the production: Stabileye, a gyroscopic camera mount similar to a Camera Revolution Libra but, says Spragg, “a fraction of the size.” He adds, “It can easily be handheld, so you’ll see a lot of fast-moving shots through the villages and the battles that were shot that way.”

Stabileye was so new, says Spragg, that The Bastard Executioner was probably “one of the first productions to use it on a daily basis.” The production also used a Technocrane “to get into interesting places,” he says, and used the Stabileye on the crane. “It became our regular gyro head,” says Spragg.

Stephen Moyer as Milus Corbett, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Baroness Lady Love Ventris. Photo by Ollie Upton/FX.

The production had three camera teams. Spragg operated A-camera, Steadicam operator Steve Murray also headed up B-camera, and Spragg’s former focus puller Jorge Luengas operated C-camera and was second unit DP. “We have three cameras on all the scenes, although some sets are too small to do so,” he says. “It also means we have the opportunity to have a small second unit go behind and pick up details.” With five cameras on the truck, transportation was a significant challenge.

“We’re often in the middle of nowhere and we have to be taken there by four-wheel drive vehicles,” says Spragg. “We work a 12-hour continuous day and accessibility is difficult.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges, The Bastard Executioner has the look and feel that Sutter, Barclay and Spragg were all going for. “It’s a sophisticated story that works on many levels,” says Spragg. “It’s a very dark story that will require a massive amount of audience attention. But if you stick with it, you’ll get it. It’s the motorcycle gang … but this time they’re riding horses.”