Bard Labour

by Wendy Ide

A flagship series for US cable network TNT, the irreverent drama Will — a fictionalised account of Shakespeare’s riotous early years — presented several challenges at the production stage. Many of these resulted from the sheer scale of the project and high quality of the production values. Executive producer Alison Owen describes the series, which was conceived by Baz Luhrmann’s long-time screenwriting collaborator Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), as “an enormous endeavour”.

Having shot a pilot at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden in Hertfordshire, the main challenge was to locate a space that could match Leavesden’s soundstage for size in order to construct the show’s main location: the theatre. “We had a number of requirements,” Owen recalls. “We had to be able to find a stage, or a set of stages, where we could create a large number of interior worlds. We had to have a big backlot where we could pretty much build a Tudor Shoreditch. And we needed somewhere that had good locations that we could sprint out to, and get more production value that way. But mainly we needed a really big stage that would encompass our theatre.”

To assist with their efforts, the British Film Commission liaised closely with the US and UK production teams, co-ordinated searches with the UK’s regional and national screen agency network and contributed to the production’s scouting costs. When the team discovered the largest stage — nearly 70,000 sq ft — at Dragon Studios, Bridgend, 28 miles west of Cardiff, they realised that, with a couple of tweaks, it could house their theatre set.

Ultimately, the production used all four stages at Dragon Studios, plus the five-acre backlot. “We were doing what’s known as double banking,” says Owen. “Most days we had many crews shooting. We were shooting one of the episodes and then people would be doing pickups or additional scenes from other episodes. So it was fantastic we had the whole world in one place.”

Wales also provided a wealth of locations, which local screen agency, Wales Screen, helped source, as well as advising on local crew. The production utilised the dramatic landscape, but one of the main discoveries was St Donat’s Castle, a romantic medieval structure (now a residential sixth-form school called Atlantic College) that was formerly owned by William Randolph Hearst. It had been initially ruled out because it was not from the Tudor period. “But the more you go back to places and the more you think about them, the more you start to see ways that you can use them,” says Owen. “We ended up using the hall, the chapel, the exterior and the interior, big spaces and little spaces. The college was wonderfully co-operative.”

And the changeable Welsh climate was also not an issue. “The advantage of having so many stages and your backlot in the same place is that you have constant weather cover,” says Owen. “Occasionally, if you have a whole day planned on location, you have got your equipment there, you have cranes and you can’t afford the luxury of not shooting and rehiring the stuff. You have to film, come what may. On those days we have been lucky, I don’t think there has been anything that we have been completely monsooned out of. Funnily enough, every time our American colleagues from TNT have come over, it has been gloriously sunny.”

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