INTERVIEW: Exploring The Sound and Fashion of The Essex Serpent
The crew of Apple TV mini-series The Essex Serpent sat down with JumpCut to discuss crafting the sound and fashion of the Tom Hiddleston-starring show.
The Essex Serpent is an Apple TV mini-series based on the book by Sarah Perry and directed by Clio Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant, Ali & Ava). It stars Claire Danes as Cora, a recently widowed woman with an interest in natural history and paleontology, who travels to Essex with her son and servant Martha (Hayley Squires) after she hears rumours of a giant serpent being spotted in the estuary. There, she meets local vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Stella (Clemence Poesy). She is drawn to Will, but also wants to maintain a close friendship with London-based doctor Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane).
We spoke to three of the behind-the-scenes creatives involved in the series. Herdis Stefansdottir & Dustin O’Halloran composed the score. O’Halloran’s previous work includes Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Garth Davis’ Lion, and Francis Lee’s Ammonite – some of which were collaborations with Volker Bertelmann. He was Oscar-nominated for the score to Lion.
Scottish costume designer Jane Petrie also took the time sit down with JumpCut. Her previous work includes Danny Boyle’s 28 Weeks Later, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King and David Michod’s The King. She was the costume designer on the second season of The Crown, for which she won an Emmy.
The serpent obviously represents different things to different people – how did you want to represent it musically?
Herdis: There is a specific theme for the serpent, which is melodic. That’s something we created to always be there when we needed to reference the serpent or to use the music to give the feeling that there is something underneath, lurking. It was one of the first pieces we wrote.
Dustin: There’s kind of two serpent themes. The opening (pre-title sequence in Episode 1) and then the titles, which comes back later. But basically, the idea of the serpent is that there is something dangerous, but also seductive, and it consumes everybody in different ways. Everyone’s fascinated by it, but it also represents the unknown and there’s currents of love and tension between the two characters (Cora and Will), so it’s sort of the forbidden fruit for both of them. There’s a lot of ideas of temptation.
Herdis: It’s dangerous but seductive, pulling you from underneath. We had to put a lot of dimensions into the serpent theme – it couldn’t just be foreboding or scary. It had to be very simple, it couldn’t be too complicated. But we had to do a few rounds to try to capture all these emotions into a really small melodic theme.
How did you want to approach Cora’s costumes, as the main character? I have to ask about her signature piece – the grey coat with puffed sleeves
Jane: It’s interesting to hear you say that that is her signature piece. You can’t design something like that and think “this will be the signature piece or this costume needs to be iconic.” I can’t do that, I can only do what feels right.
I knew that the coat had to do several things, I knew there were plot points that it had to cover. It was going to have to be sturdy, it was going to get wet and muddy, I knew there would be a rain machine. We thought it would be good if the hood was detachable for a start, and it worked a little bit like a shawl. It was either that, or she’d have had lots of costume changes, which I didn’t want to do, I wanted it all to fit in one travelling case. So, there were a few things that we had to slightly engineer to avoid costume changes, so she was prepared.
By the time I found the cloth, all the mood boards were up and around us, and a lot of the research – we were in quite deep. It’s a misty grey, but because it’s got that red fleck and the black fleck through it – it felt like she could stand out but be part of that landscape as well. That’s something that needs to happen to her, she has to become part of the Essex landscape. It has an emotional impact on her and she starts to feel part of it. So, I didn’t want it to jar.
Similarly with Will, how did you want to approach the costuming of his character? I feel like his signature pieces are the duster-style raincoat and the green scarf which he gives to Cora.
Jane: Yeah, I struggled with the scarf actually, I think that was probably the hardest garment, I found it really difficult. I found a scarf that I really liked for Will, but it wasn’t going to work with Cora’s costumes. Things like that are really difficult because it has to serve so many purposes, there’s always a spanner in the works. We tried lots of scarves – tiny, beautiful ones that Cora looked amazing in, but looked wrong on him. Or big ones that looked bad on her in London.
But the scarf we ended up using is actually mine, it’s made by friend Jo Gordon who has a knitwear company. I just thought “let’s try this” and we chopped the ends off. It was the best middle ground. I still struggle with it because I kind of think it isn’t his or her scarf, it’s the scarf that served the purposes.
And then Will’s oilskin – we talked a lot about the cloth we would use to make his costumes with. Tom (Hiddleston) was really clear, he felt that Will was very much a man of the people and of the village. And that they’d been there for a long time, they were well-liked, very much a part of the community. So, the cloth is the same that the fishermen use – their smocks and trousers are made in the same fabric. But none of them have got that more middle-class great coat. His suit was made of the same kind of cotton cord that some of the villager’s trousers and waistcoats were made from. So, I used authentic patterns for his class with the cloth of the working-class costumes that we made for the villagers, in order to embed him.
Cora’s best outfit (in my opinion) – the fossil-hunting one – I love the fact that she has trousers, braces, the red scarf and the hat. How did you build all of these elements?
Jane: It came off the page at me, that was my instinct. I put that costume together on a dress-stand quite early and I liked it a lot. And then I needed to find a way of it not being just another convenient costume, because I have to find the logic in all the garments. So, when they arrive in Colchester and they get given a leaflet about the serpent, her hat is hanging on a stall behind and then the trousers were hung up in the cottage. They were the two items where I was thinking “where did she get them? They’re great and I really want to use them, but how am I going to justify it?” So we managed to fit them into the set dressing. Then it felt like they weren’t in her wardrobe, but we knew how she’d come across them. Then she just wore it so well, Claire (Danes) was just fab and she looked great, so it was easy.
Cora’s birthday party in Episode 4 when Will and Cora dance together, you start with a piano being played in the room [diegetic music] then it segues into your score. How did you construct this track, knowing it had to work with the piano piece?
Dustin: That was a very complicated scene, because we didn’t know what was going to be played in the scene and obviously that was going to affect what went into our music. Those scenes are the hardest because you have to blend an existing piece of music and make it make sense and flow.
Herdis: We kind of had to start at the end to get to the beginning, it was interesting. When we were doing the music, we were almost working backwards.
Dustin: It’s not a serial television show, it’s basically a long film. So, we had to understand the evolution. We had to see the rough cuts of everything to create this big arc of the story, which was very challenging because it’s a 6 hour movie.
Herdis: And there was so little repetition, when you write a TV score, you can reuse material a lot. But we have a few strong themes, but the music has very little repetition.
With Cora’s birthday party dress in Episode 4 – it’s grey so fits in well with the rest of her costumes and you designed an unusual neckline to hide her scar. How did you construct this outfit?
Jane: I think our biggest problem with that dress was the sleeves collapsing. It was heavier than it looked, but she had a weird night in that dress, so the droopy shoulders kind of worked in a way. There’s a snaky serpent through that grey, in the weave and pressed into the silk.
I don’t really use a lot of jewellery in my design, unless it’s really targeted and specific. And it would have been easy to use jewellery, but I thought it was a little bit first-base. So, we figured out how to incorporate (hiding her scar) into the cut of her garments. With that dress, we made it slightly asymmetric with the crossover, we pleated up some calico and played with it on the stand and figured out how it might work. It was just problem-solving, really.
One of my favourite pieces of music is in a London-based scene, after Luke (Frank Dillane) and Cora argue in Episode 5, Cora runs home. Can you tell me about constructing this track and its prominent use of the cello?
Herdis: This is like a boiling point, an emotional climax – there’s a lot of anger and frustration that is coming out. Dustin is a cello player. Which makes it interesting when we’re writing, because I’m not. So, sometimes I’m writing something that sounds absolutely ridiculous on the cello. But I think not knowing the instrument can actually result in something that sounds different or amazing.
Dustin: We worked with a really wonderful Icelandic cellist and did a lot of sessions with her, layering different parts of the cello. There are tracks where it sounds like a quartet or a bigger section, but it’s all cello, which was actually really cool. Clio (Barnard) was very sensitive to high strings, especially with a period drama. It’s such a fine line between it going into Downton Abbey…
Herdis: Yeah, the violin was a slippery slope, so we used that very sparsely.
Dustin: There’s very little violin, or it’s played low. Clio just really resonated with the lower frequencies and the rawness of it and it fit really well.
Herdis: That particular scene is a very raw scene and I think that came out in the sound of the cello, in the way it’s played. You’re not thinking classical music. We call it baroque and roll (laughs).
I feel like when Cora is in London, there’s more red and orange in her colour palette. Did you want to distinguish between her Essex wardrobe and her London wardrobe?
Jane: The London wardrobe was designed through Michael’s eyes (Cora’s husband who dies at the start of the first episode). I was thinking about her abusive relationship, and how controlling he was. I felt that he had a say in every single garment that she wore, so it’s his taste more than hers. There’s a Japanese thread to what Alice Normington did in the design of the house, so I ran with that a bit and the Kintsugi vase that’s mentioned. The first time we meet Cora she’s wearing a cloth with gold thread that’s very similar to that vase. So, they were Michael’s colours really. You know when she has that dream and she’s underwater? The red dress that she walks out to sea in, that’s his pyjama fabric, which is also his waistcoat fabric. It’s his cloth that’s in her nightmare. So, it was all about him really, that side of the wardrobe.
Then, the travelling outfit, I knew I could go quite earthy with it, and it would still be in-keeping. The toffs used to say “you don’t wear brown in town,” so I went with those earthy, country tones. It just felt like I was building an appropriate wardrobe. She took some ballgowns with her, which were just completely inappropriate for every event she went to.
One of my favourite scenes, visually, is in Episode 6, when Stella gets in the boat surrounded by little treasures and she kind of offers herself up to the serpent. What did you feel you could offer to that scene, musically?
Dustin: That’s actually the merging of the two serpent themes, it has elements and variations of both in there.
Herdis: That was a tough one to crack.
Dustin: It segues into a much longer scene, everything is kind of coming to a head – the love, the serpent, the danger. Stella is a really beautiful character too, because she’s so accepting of it (her impending death) and visually, it’s also really beautiful. Everything in the score is tactile, and everything in the show is handmade. The art department did such a crazy job, handmaking all of these objects and the director was so into this handmade feel. So, we wanted to represent a lot of the materials.
Herdis: The music is really handmade too, every single sound is us going in and close mic-ing, recording every single detail and piecing it together. It was a beast! It was a lot of work. It was so essential for it to have this unique, handmade feeling, going into every single detail because the visuals had that.
With Stella, I feel like she’s mainly seen wearing blues – was this all leading up to that amazing sequence in Episode 6 in the boat? In both the costume and production design, she’s surrounded by sea-green and blue tones often.
Jane: That was scripted, actually and I know it’s in the book as well. I think it came from one of these Victorian illnesses, when you get a bit delusional, that blue is a common tone [see Picasso’s blue period]. It’s in the book that Stella gets more and more obsessed with blue, so we went with that. That hot blue that she has on when she gets in the boat, that’s a really difficult colour to use on film, I would normally shy away from that. It’s a hot, electric blue, so I was a bit nervous about it at first. But we built up to it, there was a really clear context for it and Clemence wore it so well. As she became Stella, I worried less about all of that.
Her costumes were influenced by Gustav Klint’s wife Emilie Flöge – she was a great reference for Stella. I loved the smocking and the homemade element to the whole of the vicarage actually. When Alice was designing, she said that Michael’s house was Hell and the vicarage was Heaven, so we had those running themes as well in the two homes. And then Cora is the earth between those two.
The Essex Serpent is now streaming on Apple TV.