Exclusive: Director Stephanie Laing Talks Mammals, Now on Prime Video

MammalsMammals, which is now streaming on Prime Video, tells the story of Jamie (James Corden), a Michelin-starred chef, whose world is turned upside down when he discovers secrets about his pregnant wife (Melia Kreiling) that will change their relationship forever.

To promote the series, SciFi Vision recently spoke with director Stephanie Laing about working on the series and bringing it to life. Read the full transcript below, and be sure to check out the series on Prime.

SCIFI VISION:   Can you start by talking about how you got involved with the series?

MammalsSTEPHANIE LAING:  I got some good scripts from Jez [Butterworth] and James Corden, and basically, I read the first episode, and I could hear his voice so clearly. I was a big fan of both of theirs. So, that's basically how I got involved. I think they, I suspect, reached out to me, because I still kind of do a lot of my work in tricky tonal stuff that is character driven, and I think that Mammals fits the bill.

Definitely. So, other than knowing you were going to work with them, what was it particularly though about the script that sort of drew you into it?

I mean, it's completely surprising and very layered and very nuanced. I think it's not that often that you read something that surprises you through the end. Like, all of it surprised me. Page five - surprise; page twenty-seven - surprise, big surprise. It was great. I didn't expect the ending, and I thought this is a great opportunity to really, for me visually, and as a director, to match Jez's words from a directorial standpoint.

I didn't expect the ending, either…It was definitely surprising.

Well, it’s because it changes your opinion of somebody in one shot.
You're right. So, what was the hardest part for you, bringing it from the script to the screen?

I think every project is challenging in its own way. This one was shot during COVID, so that, of course, not to be a broken record, because everybody says [it], but that was challenging. Outside of that, I think, just maintaining the tone and really, for me, kind of performance-wise, playing different levels and never playing the joke. Maybe delivering the joke, but not like a joke, you know what I mean? Just putting everything straight and grounded is something we just really focused on in performances and making sure that it felt real, so that when we got to the edit, we could protect the tone.

Was it hard sort of finding that balance? Because there's a lot of darkness in the show. As much as it's funny, it's got those moments kind of weaved throughout it.

For me, I do a lot of dark comedy, and I think, perhaps, embody that in my approach to life, about just sort of embracing the absurdity. Sometimes the saddest things are also the most absurd and funniest. And, again, going back to just performances, and, you know, just in order to protect that tone, just playing it real, because so many things in our lives are completely absurd. There are days where I'm like, “If I wasn't laughing at how bad this was, I probably wouldn't get up.”

Yeah, I can understand that. I also wanted to ask - I couldn't find it on Internet Movie Database, but where exactly did you film this, because especially the scenes at the beginning, it's really beautiful there.

We filmed in London and those scenes were filmed in Cornwall. We found that cabin, and I loved it for how beautiful it is, but also how dangerous it is. It was just very jagged and scary, but then also quite beautiful. So, that was filmed in Cornwall.

You started to talk about it, but what were some of the specific difficulties because of COVID that you ran into?

I think it's just like, limiting the number of background [performers] we had on set, or just in general, just operating within the parameters of people getting COVID and being shut down and coming back up. Some days not having a gaffer or whatever, just a crew member. So, the general things of every production, and at that time that we were filming, which was in the summer of 2020, it was still very much on everyone's mind. So, just the protocol, the logistics of it, but it was not unique to Mammals. I think that's a unique time in the world.

Definitely. So, within this show, surprisingly, you also sort of have a period piece, basically, with Lou (Sally Hawkins) and everything. Can you talk about that and sort of what you did, I guess, from a directorial standpoint to make it stand out from the rest of it?

Yeah, I think we were just trying to be very careful not to slip into her fantasy the same way every time. So, we wanted to really, again, surprise the audience about when she was going into the fantasy, so that it never felt expected. I think that can be said, actually, about the entire show, that we really wanted to keep the ball in the air at all times and not linger on anything too long so that you might start guessing who Paul is or, you know, maybe that Jamie has a secret too. But for Chanel, the DP, Mattias Nyberg and I just really approached it from taking the visual up a notch from the other parts of the show but still seamlessly molding it in to where we were. But those are very fun scenes to concept out. Then, of course, we have Sally Hawkins, which, you add her to the mix, and what else can I say? She's incredible.

She's great. The other thing I wanted to talk to you in particular about is - well, actually, I guess it was a couple of times, and obviously, it's CG; I mean, I know it's not really there, but can you talk about sort of filming the scenes around the whales and how you put that together, the part that's in camera?

Yeah. I mean, it's like, for us with the whale, I mean specifically at the end of Episode Six, the whale was a tennis ball. Just from an actual production point, it was just like, “is the tennis ball the whale's eye?” and watching everybody perform around a tennis ball. But once traffic was released, was moved from the street, it was kind of hilarious. But you know, other than that, it was just pretty much straightforward visual effects. It just obviously wasn't there.

Yeah, it's pretty big. You kind of just have to leave an empty space for it, I guess.

Yeah, exactly. For me, the most important part of the whale was the eyeline to Jamie. That tennis ball was actually quite important, because the whale is looking at you in the eye, and you're looking back at him.

When you were brought onto the project, was it completely cast, or were you partially involved in that? I'm not sure exactly how that works.

No, actually just James Corden was the only one attached when I was brought on. Then, very quickly, Colin Morgan joined, and Sally joined, and then Melia, she self-taped. We watched a lot of self-tapes and a lot of auditions, but the only person we tested with James Corden was her. She was incredible, and we knew from the minute we saw her first self-tape that she was the one

Do you have a favorite scene? Now it's already aired, so we don't really have to worry too much about spoilers, but do you have a favorite part of it, of the of the season?

The culmination of Episode Two is one of my favorites. Just in that moment of James smashing the violin as Sally Hawkins is going into the water, that's one of my personal favorites of the season, to be honest. I just think it's saying so much emotionally. Every time when we screen it with an audience, when I've been in the room with other people, it's dead silence, which is kind of incredible. It's really nice. Like you go from, particularly in Episode Two, there's a lot more laugh out loud moments, to ending that way. It's no small feat, and it certainly made the episode a challenge. So, that was just one of my particularly proud moments.

When you do something like that, film something like that, how many times did he have to break a prop violin to keep doing that? Or did you just do it once?

No, I think that he broke it three times, and she went into the water twice.
So not too many.

MammalsYeah, it was a lot of prep and a lot of practice without the violin, and a lot of prep without Sally going into the water to practicing what we were doing camera-wise so that when we were ready to put her in the water, we knew exactly what we were doing. Because when we filmed, it was quite cold; it was at night. The water was heated, but still, she's wet in a wedding dress, and it’s like, “how many takes am I going to get?”

Yeah, you have to redo the costume too at that point. So, I wasn't sure; I tried to look it up to see if I could find out, but is there plan to be more than this season? I mean, I kind of assumed that it was meant to be that shocking end, but I didn't know if there was a possibility of going on or not.

I think there's always a possibility, and in true Mammals fashion, only time will tell. We'll see what happens. But yeah, I mean, I would personally love it if there were more of it. We also shot a sort of very complete six episodes, so it could end there.

Yeah, it could. Now, this show has a lot of [symbols]. I mean, it has the symbolism of the whale, obviously, but some other pieces as well. I like that this doesn't spoon feed you like certain shows do. It doesn't come out and just tell you everything, but I was just kind of curious, what, I guess, you got out of it? Like, what's the biggest message you took away from it, from the project, just in general.

Just in general? I mean, well, professionally, I took away how important it is, as always in my life, working with great material. Starting there, how important it is, and then having something to build on; it's so incredibly important. Obviously, Jez is such an incredible writer, and he's reinforced everything I know already about performance. It's really a performance piece. It's very character driven. I also really learned, again, for myself, that I'm attracted to those kinds of stories that are somewhat hard to tell, but are character driven. Then, on a personal level, I think it's just such a dissection of marriage and relationships and fidelity and how that can change over time. And do you believe in signs? I think a lot of people do. Even today, I had some weird thing happen where I was texting with someone else. I was having a meeting, and the street name was a character name in a project I have in development. We're like, “I believe in signs!” Having these moments behind the scenes on Mammals too, like we filmed in a house right next to a house that the author of Moby Dick, Melville, lived in, and we were filming the next day, not knowing, and it was a sign. I was like, "Oh, my God, do you believe in signs? Of all the places we're filming, it's next to this!" So, yeah, just the belief and there being, I don't know, it would be lame to say goodness in all of us, but the belief that love matters, and it changes, and it's okay. It's really just about acceptance too.

 All right, that makes sense.

I think even more than that, that things are not always as they seem, is obviously a big part of it, and maybe that there're two sides to every story and probably and possibly, more than two sides. If everybody is living their truth, then no one's lying.

Right, very true. So, do you have any other projects you want to promote?

Yeah, I'm back on season three of Physical for Apple TV. That's with Rose Byrne. We just started production a couple of weeks ago.

Other than, how you said, things that surprise you, is there anything else specifically you're looking for when you decide if you take a job or not? Is there anything else other than that, that you sort of look for in it?

I look to like, when I'm reading it, after I've read it the first time, do I still think about it? Like does it surprise me and am I still thinking about those characters? Am I still thinking about that story? If I've put it away, and I have kind of forgotten about it, I'm like, “No, not for me.” So, I think it really just has to stay with you, and I think you can see it visually sort of right away and you're like, "I understand this, and I feel inspired and challenged by this." So, I just think [if] you're a few pages into something, you know right away if it's for you.

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