Y Gwyll/ Hinterland, which currently runs for five ninety-minute episodes, follows DCI Matthias (Richard Harrington) as he investigates strange mortalities around the gothic shores of Aberystwyth, West Wales. Many of the locations, such as Devil’s Bridge, are unfamiliar or have never been captured on film. The eerie landscape is used as both a scenic and psychological space, framing the main arc of the story as Matthias’ work becomes a kind of twisted distraction from his past troubles.
Hinterland is remarkable in that each scene was shot twice, once in Welsh and once in English, with the actors deftly switching between the two for the dialogue. An edited bilingual version, shown on BBC Four last year and now available on DVD, makes for interesting listening. Characters tactically change language depending on the situation, serving the show’s more general interest in the theme of community, and individual communities as either victims or perpetrators of crime.
Having been acquired by the US arm of Netflix and aired in Denmark among other territories, Hinterland has helped its Welsh-language broadcaster S4C extend its usual remit. Although the show is doubtless riding the wave of Nordic noir, the show’s uniqueness means that reviewers have been hesitant to draw too many comparisons with iconic productions like Wallander and The Killing. This distinctiveness is more vital now than ever. The Licence Fee Agreement between the UK Government and the BBC Trust, which provides S4C with 90% of its funding, is soon to expire. Although a new agreement should be drawn up in 2017, cuts are likely and S4C is under considerable pressure to prove its worth with quality television programmes.
Cinematographer Richard Stoddard won a Cymru BAFTA for his work on Hinterland, beating BBC One’s Sherlock. Between late-night second unit shoots for Doctor Who, he was able to shed some light on S4C’s latest brand-booster:
Q: How did you come to be involved with Hinterland?
A: I became involved with Hinterland whilst shooting the second half of Being Human series 5. A good friend of mine, Lloyd Ellis, was hired as a First Assistant Director and kindly suggested me to the production team. After a couple of interviews, the production team offered me the second half of the series [as cinematographer], as well as the 2nd Unit for the first half.
Q: Hinterland presents a wild and remote perspective of the Aberystwyth landscape. Were you conscious of trying to help create that look?
A: The term ‘Nordic Noir’ was prevalent very early on in my involvement with Hinterland. References such as Wallander, The Killing and Winter’s Bone helped describe the look and the feel that the production was aiming for. The landscape in the surrounding countryside is so stunning, it’s not too difficult to make it look good. It felt like the films wanted to be influenced by non-Welsh projects, so there were very few, if any Welsh references.
Q: Moving between vistas and shady interiors, there are a range of well-chosen shooting locations in Hinterland. Could you tell me about its preproduction?
A: The locations in Hinterland were initially scouted by the location manager, followed by the director and myself and finally a full recce crew. On the recces, as in many other aspects of film making, each department needs to communicate their requirements in order to facilitate an efficient shoot.
Working closely with Eryll Ellis the production designer, we’d discuss how we’d shoot the scenes and make the location even better to suit our needs. For the pub in episode 3, we decided to build a false exit so that characters could come and go as if going outside, but are actually exiting in to another room of the original pub. In episode 4, we built a false reception in the guest house where the murdered girl had stayed, as the actual location we used didn’t have quite the right layout, but it was convenient to access and film in.
Q: My favourite moment in Hinterland comes in the opening to episode four, where two boys pulling a white horse along a river find the corpse of a young woman sitting upright in the reeds. The lighting seems soft or diffused, and the scene is very ethereal. How did you shoot it?
A: The opening sequence of film four was shot at 50 fps [frames per second] to give us the option to slow it down in post-production. In the edit however, it was decided to keep to the original 25fps. The story beat that was being aimed for was one of innocence, represented by the two boys who make the discovery and of the unfortunate girl who’s been left in the marshes. A 1/8th classic soft filter was used just for that opening sequence and then [colour] graded to suit.
Q: Your co-cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski said the Hinterland team watched the noir-ish film The Lives of Others for visual inspiration. Hinterland’s reviewers have now coined the term ‘Celtic noir’, after the Nordic noir phenomenon. Where does its originality lie?
A: Nordic Noir was very influential in the look of Hinterland and therefore Hinterland cannot be totally original. Its uniqueness is really its geography and language pace, which has a different tone to any other crime drama that’s gone before.
We can hope to find out more about Matthias, DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), and the dubious Chief Super’ Brian Prosser (Aneirin Hughes) in series two this autumn, initially on S4C and its online catch-up service, Clic.