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The Pillars of the Earth

December 2009

Characters and casting: the bad guys

Above: Director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan with a storyboard describing how a scene will be shot

Before I delve into characters and casting, I thought you’d be interested to know where things are in the post production process of the television adaptation of my book, The Pillars of the Earth. Principal photography was completed on November 21st in Budapest, after 112 shooting days and since then, the post production team has been going full speed.

Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, is working on his ‘Director’s Cut’ as you read this and editing hundreds of hours of footage which is indeed a daunting task.

The music composer is hard at work writing the score for The Pillars of the Earth. As an amateur musician I can imagine what an exciting challenge it must be for a composer to write music to complement the scenes, the stories and characters. Music is used in so many ways in a film: as background to dialogue, to emphasize pivotal moments in the story, or to introduce a particular character. Music is yet another of the key creative elements of this project.

Now to characters and casting, one of the most important parts of the process of making a story come to life. It’s essential for the producers to have a clear vision of how they see these characters. Equally important is the Casting Director who leads the process of identifying actors to play the individual roles. The Casting Director must have complete familiarity with every aspect of the stories that comprise the book and must also be able to see clearly the vision of the producers as mentioned above. It is the cast with whom the audience immediately relates.

The Pillars of the Earth is a big book filled with many characters. Some of the most interesting characters to write are the villains. Villains give the writer the opportunity to explore the dark sides of human behaviour. Villains may commit heinous crimes which I feel more or less comfortable writing about, but which would be inconceivable to ever dream of actually doing. Actors often say they really enjoy playing the ‘bad guy’ because for them too, it provides the opportunity to dig deep and to find the essence of such a person somewhere in their own psyche.

There are three characters in particular I like. Waleran Bigod is the Archdeacon of Shiring who later becomes Bishop. He believes that he is God’s will, so he can use whatever means necessary to gain power within the Church. This is a character who is a master manipulator, a man who will not be put off his relentless pursuit to achieve greatness within the church, a man of the church who even resorts to murder. Writing such a duplicitous character was fun, even though I had to be very careful to ensure this evil man was believable. The marvelous Ian McShane plays the dark soul that is Waleran with unnerving effectiveness. An actor of consummate skill, McShane weaves the many facets and characteristics of Waleran into his screen persona.

Lady Regan Hamleigh of Shiring is our next villain. Regan lends new meaning to the word ‘ambitious’. What her husband Percy lacks in intelligence and savvy, she more than makes up for. Possessed with the desire to move her family up the social ladder, Regan will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. She forms an ominous partnership with Waleran as each pursues a ruthless agenda. Motivated as well by her unmotherly attraction to her son William, Regan is incapable of thinking without ulterior motives. She is played with chilling power by the splendid British actress Sarah Parish. Parish readily convinces us that Regan is a formidable force of nature, and the layers of her performance are stunning.

And then there’s William Hamleigh. One of the first things Oprah Winfrey said to me when she rang to let me know she had read the book and was going to name it as one of her book club selections, was how much she loathed this character. She’s not the only one. When I travel, I often meet readers who say “…that William Hamleigh”. Oprah talked about the characters in the book as if they were real people she’d met on a trip or something. That was a big thrill for me of course.

William is Percy and Regan’s strikingly handsome yet brutish son. He is his mother’s pawn in her master plan to gain power and wealth for her family. William is the embodiment of pure evil. His obsession with the Earl of Shiring’s daughter, Aliena, becomes the driving force in his life.

The young British actor David Oakes plays William. He is one of the nicest young actors I’ve met, always smiling, so easy-going, yet finds within himself the ability to totally convince us that this is a man with absolutely no redeeming characteristics, a person beyond all civilized hope but one who might actually succeed in achieving his goals.

It’s one thing to write these characters. But it’s an extraordinary experience to see them become real in the hands of such wonderfully skilled actors.

See you next month.

— Ken Follett

December 2009

The TV series official site

See the Tandem/Muse/Scott Free website for the production, for information on the filming, cast and crew news and Ken’s blog… www.the-pillars-of-the-earth.tv/