New Zealander Jessica Hobbs talks about her directing duties on The Crown and the anxiety that comes with depicting increasingly recent royal history. By Russell Baillie.
The Crown isn't Jessica Hobbs' first period drama by a long shot. No, the Emmy-nominated New Zealand director, who has overseen five episodes in the two most recent seasons, has a long history in shows with a long history.
In the mid-1970s, she had a role in The Governor, the biggest local television series of the era. Her mother, Aileen O'Sullivan, was cast as Sir George Grey's adopted niece. Young Hobbs was duly frocked as part of the extended Grey clan. She remembers the late Corin Redgrave, who played Sir George, keeping her amused between takes. "It's only now that I'm working with kids that I often think about those devices that he used to just keep my attention really on what he was doing."
Hobbs laughs on the line from London when it's pointed out her elevation from vice-regal to regal drama has taken a while. She must know how Prince Charles feels. But she thinks the experience on The Governor may have planted a seed about making dramas rather than starring in them.
"Even then, I remember being more interested in how they were creating it than being in it myself. There was an indication then that I was clearly not meant to be an actor. It wasn't to do with whatever anyone else was doing."
Her younger siblings – Rebecca, Chris, Katrina – all became actors, helping bolster the medical staff of Shortland Street and getting famous enough to be on Dancing with the Stars.
Meanwhile, Jessica was working her way through the ranks in New Zealand and Australia. She started out in second assistant director roles on the likes of Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table and Gaylene Preston's Ruby & Rata.
"I had all these women who made me feel like it was absolutely possible to do it."
As did her mother. O'Sullivan switched from acting and broadcasting to a long career as a stage and television director, her shows ranging from fashion-mag soap Gloss to arts docos and telefeatures.
Suggesting to Hobbs that as the quiet hard-working over-achiever following in her mother's footsteps, she's essentially the Princess Anne of her family elicits much more laughter.
"Um, no. I genuinely always wanted to direct. I was a film obsessive. I love television drama. I used to watch things obsessively. I remember being at school and thinking there are people who create these worlds, but not really knowing what that job was, because at that stage, my family were very theatre-based. And that was a brilliant world to be in, but I was very attracted to film and television."
These days, television has become as big or bigger than movies, especially on The Crown, the Netflix series that has dramatised the reign of Queen Elizabeth II from its beginnings until 1990 and has plans for two more seasons.
The show was created by Peter Morgan, the writer who first put QEII and her prime ministers on stage in The Audience and on screen in The Queen, the 2006 film set at the time of Princess Diana's death and starring Helen Mirren in the title role.
The Crown is a rather larger undertaking. Each season of 10 episodes, still mostly written by Morgan alone, has required a budget estimated at NZ$100 million and a team of four directors. They take a year to deliver two or three episodes each. It's undoubtedly the biggest period drama in television history, and as has been noted, it costs more to make The Crown than to fund the actual Queen. She doesn't quite have Netflix's subscription base, however.
Before joining the team for the royal epic, Hobbs had been playing in the premiere league of British television for some time. Establishing herself in Australia in the late 1990s, she rose to director on shows such as Heartbreak High, All Saints, McLeod's Daughters and Rake. When the 2011 domestic drama The Slap got noticed internationally, Hobbs found herself with work offers in the UK.
Among her first shows was the second season of Broadchurch, where she worked for the first time with Olivia Colman, the woman who would be queen. Hobbs also directed Emily Watson in thriller Apple Tree Yard, Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker in unconventional police drama River and Walker again in The Split.
Then came the call to join The Crown. She was the show's second female director and first colonial.
"Often I'd get people saying, 'Oh, you're very direct', and I would think, 'Yes, I am. I'm allowed to be.' I'm not bound by English custom because I don't know it.
"It's also nice to have that outside eye on a city when you're shooting it or on a people when you're filming them. I think it does provide a good perspective."
She found some complications in the early days, such as figuring out that shooting something at "Buckingham Palace" can mean five different locations. "Because it looks so seamless on screen, it's quite hard to get your head around just the mechanics of the scale of the show."
Each episode as a film
Hobbs oversaw two episodes of last year's season three, which followed the Windsors between the mid-1960s and 1977.
Her first, Moondust, was set in 1969 in the year of the first moon landing. It dramatised the Apollo 11 astronauts visiting Buckingham Palace, where they were greeted by fervent fan Prince Philip, a man in the midst of a mid-life and spiritual crisis.
"It's really interesting when you read a script that terrifies you as a director," she says of Morgan's screenplay for the episode. "I love the idea that he was trying to take this notion and then make this leap into it being an idea about a self-realisation to do with faith. I thought that was such a difficult bridge to jump. I really wanted to explore it."
Hobbs also directed the season-three finale, Cri de Coeur, with its memorable dialogue-free closing scene of a lone Elizabeth sitting in her gilded carriage carrying her to jubilee celebrations, her husband and oldest son trotting along behind.
The episode earned Hobbs a directing Emmy nomination. It was one of those episodes that feels like it's packed a movie's worth of story and production design into an hour.
"The whole approach to the show is they encourage you to treat each episode as a film. They want you to direct it in a way where they can stand alone and they can be seen out of context and they can be seen as a one-off. It is an enormous freedom in television. It's rare to be given that opportunity. That was one of the reasons I really was so excited about doing the show in the first place."
Hobbs performed finale duties, too, on the new season four, with an equally memorable piece of camerawork, this time focused on Princess Diana. It takes place as the royals pose for a cheery Christmas photo, but a shift in focus captures a fraught Diana within the ensemble.
"That wasn't the way it was initially written, but I felt it was worth exploring, and one of the things Peter [Morgan] really loves you to do is explore the material. There are certain things that give you a very strong feeling – the hairs on your arm stand up. That happened."
Much of season four is devoted to depicting Diana, who thought she'd signed on for a fairy tale, finding life inside the royal family and being married to Prince Charles increasingly wretched.
Hobbs remembers flying into London on August 31, 1997, with the pilot announcing the news of Diana's accident as they came in to land. Her month's stay in the UK was defined by the shock and mourning.
"I found myself taking flowers to Kensington Palace, not knowing what I was doing that for, but somehow getting caught up in the collective grief. And so I was very attuned to that."
Filming scenes in London and Manchester with newcomer Emma Corrin as the Princess recreated the Diana-mania of the mid-1980s, complete with cheering crowds.
"She's a 24-year-old who hasn't been married and hasn't been the most famous person in the world, but she understood the attention that she was getting as an actor when we would be filming around London," says Hobbs about Corrin stepping into the spotlight.
"Because she was stepping out of cars as Diana was, it was at times quite overwhelming for her. We did that classic thing. We would talk about 'you can use this, this way that you're feeling is going to be a way into what she was feeling. So go towards that light, go towards that audience screaming your name.'"
The Iron Lady's demise
Hobbs' fourth-season finale also captures the demise of Margaret Thatcher – played by Gillian Anderson – as prime minister. Hobbs wasn't a fan of the Iron Lady.
"I'd lived here at the end of Thatcher's reign and so I was very conscious of that. And I'd said to Peter, 'I don't think I can do the episodes setting her up and the good stuff. But I really would love to do her demise.' We had some great and intense arguments and discussions about the pitch of some of those things. Obviously, I have a particular personal perspective, which always means you have an internal bias … and you have to constantly check in with that. But also people employ you because they want your voice. So, that was our tussle.
"It was really interesting for me, because Gillian loved Thatcher and I did not love Thatcher. But I loved working with an actor who loves her character. That was absolutely appropriate, but we got into some great discussions about where we could pitch her with the Queen and what was going on."
The scenes between Anderson's Thatcher and Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth certainly suggest a tense relationship. Elsewhere, Colman gets to verbalise Her Majesty's displeasure – especially with her eldest son and his marriage – with much more fire.
"She was unleashed a little in the new season, which I thought was a great thing."
While working on The Crown didn't change her mind about Thatcher, Hobbs thinks better of the woman at the centre of the drama. "I have to say I did not start the show as a monarchist in any way, coming from where I come from. But now I have so much respect, particularly for the Queen when you look at the decades of work that she's done, the number of prime ministers she has seen off and that constancy and presence.
"When we went into lockdown the first time here, the speech that she gave was more soothing to the nation than anything that was happening on a governmental level."
Having her played by Colman possibly helped. "She's just an absolutely brilliant person and extraordinary actor. I always refer to her as the kind of true north. If you ever want to know what the emotional tenor of the scene is or where it should be sitting, you just watch Olivia."
As the era The Crown depicts becomes more recent, Hobbs says that's more unnerving for her and others on the series.
"It is much more frightening for us as the creators of the show as we get closer to the present. The anxiety for all of us is more … we're representing the people whose families are alive and people who are still alive, who all have different perspectives."
The production, she says, has a team of 10 researchers who have interviewed widely and are available if she has concerns about how characters or events are being represented.
They have created timelines for the main characters based on the production's own library as well as the National Archives, Cabinet papers and interviews. But there will undoubtedly be some quibbles about historical errors in the new season.
Here's one now: the episode depicting Charles and Diana's 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand with the infant Prince William gets the country wrong when it comes to recreating the photo op with the blanket on the lawn and the made-in-New Zealand Buzzy Bee. Aw, strewth.
In her defence, Hobbs didn't direct that one, though she did notice the verdant lawns of Government House, Auckland, were replaced by paddocks in the outback.
"I was not allowed anywhere near the Australia-New Zealand episodes," she says, laughing. "I did have a moment on the Buzzy Bee. But I thought better to stay silent."
Season 4 of The Crown is available on Netflix.