Director Jonathan Entwistle was outside London comic store GOSH when a scrap of paper in a bin caught his eye. The scrap turned out to be a page from The End of the Fucking World: a then self-published comic miniseries by Charles Forsman about two teenage outsiders. One is a self-diagnosed psychopath who longs to kill someone and the other is struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. The pair leave home to go on a road trip and their story soon takes a darker turn.
Forsman’s comic was a cult hit, winning a place on several ‘best of 2013’ lists when it was published as a graphic novel by Fantagraphics. Entwistle fell in love with its deadpan humour and contacted Forsman over email. The pair discussed adapting the story for the screen and almost seven years later, Entwistle has directed an eight-part series based on the comic for Channel 4 and Netflix. The series is available to download on Channel 4’s on demand service All 4 and will arrive on Netflix in January.
Bringing Forsman’s graphic novel to life
The illustrations in Forsman’s graphic novel are sparse. “They’re incredibly cinematic- they’re a little bit like storyboards,” says Entwistle. Most panels feature minimal black-and-white drawings of the book’s characters and little else. Backgrounds are either indistinct – a field with some grass or a barely furnished room – or non-existent.
Entwistle’s TV series has a distinctive aesthetic. It was filmed in England but looks and sounds American. The opening episodes feature scenes set in a forest, a roadside diner -the kind with leather booths and waitresses in matching dresses – and a modernist house with wood panelled walls. This look and feel is inspired by the comic’s tone and offbeat humour, which reminded Entwistle of the likes of Fargo and Twin Peaks.
“We took very little visually [from the book] but everything tonally,” says Entwistle. “I’m a huge Coen brothers fan and there’s a very distinct type of Americana that has that flat humour. The comics very much had that and that’s what attracted me to [them].”
“Hopefully it feels part Little Chef and part Denny’s”
“We shot around three quarters of the show in Surrey, in Woking and Bracknell and those kinds of … suburban places. We also shot out of Longcross Film studios … but we built a lot,” he continues.
“In episode two [James and Alyssa, the show’s main characters, played by Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden] go to a cafe. That’s just a UPCV chair store by the side of the motorway that we turned into a cafe. Hopefully it feels part Little Chef and part [American diner] Denny’s. That’s what I wanted the world to be – for people to be unsure [of where it is]. When you watch a movie like Blue Velvet, you’re aware it’s set in American suburbia but you don’t really know where it is. It could be anywhere.”
The show is set in the present but interiors have a retro feel (James’ house – a modernist building in Streatham – had to be completely refurbished inside, with midcentury furniture and wood cladding replacing contemporary fittings, while diners have a 1970s feel). Characters dress in modern clothes and have smartphones but technology is used sparingly.
“I wanted it to feel [like it could have been made] any time from 1988 to 2006, which is kind of when I grew up. I grew up in a suburb of Manchester in that type of suburban world that had been in stasis since the 80s,” explains Entwistle. “We had this idea that we weren’t doing something retro. We weren’t having a modern day and making it 70s – we were sort of setting it in 70s places and making them modern.”
“There’s nothing sadder than a 50s ballad”
The music also stands out. Tracks range from heartbreaking 1950s ballads to Janis Ian’s At Seventeen – a song that perfectly captures a sense of teenage angst. “Sometimes, the music amplifies the drama on screen and other times it undercuts it. You can see the way it works in tandem and against all the way through,” says Entwistle.
Songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s are coupled with original music by Blur’s Graham Coxon, which Entwistle describes as “guitar-based suburban noir”.
“There’s nothing sadder than a 50s ballad – like a melancholy ballad about a girl who doesn’t get picked up for the prom. [Those songs] are the saddest creepiest kind of music you can listen to and it just felt like they fitted with the world [of the show],” he says.
“[In later episodes], there’s a pair of detectives that join the show. That’s when we were able to go down that more Twin Peaks-y route and a lot of Graham’s music is featured in there.”
“We have amazing scripts and amazing writing in UK television … but stories could be helped so much by giving people a world to buy into”
It’s unusual to see a British show – particularly a contemporary comedy-drama – with such a stylised aesthetic. Channel 4 series Utopia had a distinctive look and sound, with super saturated colours and an eerie soundtrack from Cristobal Tapia de Veer, but most shows of this kind are rooted in a particular era or an alternate world. Peaky Blinders captured the grit of post-War Birmingham, while Taboo transported viewers to London in the early 1800s. But two of this year’s most talked-about series – Stranger Things and the award-winning Handmaids Tale – were loved as much for their evocative production design as the writing and performances.
Entwistle thinks we need more “authored TV” in the UK: “I think that’s what’s missing from large swathes of British TV is a style on top of great scripts. We have amazing scripts and amazing writing in UK television … but stories could be helped so much by giving [viewers] a world to buy into. I think people are desperate for that, they love it – I do, anyway,” he says.
For audiences to buy into a stylised show, however, it has to be coupled with compelling performances and writing. “Something I feel is really important … is that the characters play normal in a kind of weird world. For me that’s the way you create an off-kilter world by letting the characters play it straight when everything else is weird around them,” adds Entwistle.
“The best comedy is sad”
Deadpan humour is hard to perfect on screen but Entwistle believes the way things are shot is key to making people laugh. He often uses straight-on close ups of individual characters instead of over-the-shoulder shots. Most of the scenes in the show’s first few episodes were shot this way, with only one character in the frame at a time. “If you shoot people’s faces so you can edit from face to face to face that is immediately funnier and more deadpan because you can use reaction as well as action in the scenes,” he explains.
He also believes it’s important to balance humour with sadness and drama. The show swings from funny to dark to sad throughout – an approach also adopted by the brilliant Catastrophe and Fleabag. Part of what made these shows so compelling was their mix of humour and sadness. Life isn’t all laughs and Entwistle doesn’t believe TV shows should be either.
“The best comedy is sad,” he says. “Real life is funny, sad, dark, light and I never understand why dramas have no humour in them…. Some shows come across as earnest and sentimental because they’re either very dramatic and serious and pretentious … and that’s one thing I really wanted to avoid. Because I knew [the series] was going to be stylised, I was terrified we might end up making something pretentious so that’s why [the actors] had to play it very real.”
Getting an idea made
It took Entwistle years to bring The End of the F*****g World to the screen. After discussing an adaptation with Forsman, he teamed up with producer Dominic Buchanan and pitched the idea to make a feature film based on the comic to Film 4. He was given funding to make a short which starred Barden and Submarine’s Craig Roberts as James. The film was well received but production companies were reluctant to invest in a full-length feature.
“I think what we were trying to make – this sort of indie Americana in the UK – just wasn’t ticking anyone’s boxes at the time,” explains Entwistle. Undeterred, the pair repackaged the idea as a TV series and with help from Clerkenwell Films (the production company behind superhero show Misfits), they secured backing from Channel 4 and Netflix.
Filming began in April this year and wrapped up just a few weeks before the show aired on Channel 4. Entwistle has directed short films as well as ads for Netflix and Paypal but this is his first TV show. He was also Executive Producer on the series.
Offering advice for other directors looking to make the leap from shorts to features or whole series, he says: “You have to be tenacious. If you feel at any point that you don’t know exactly what you want from a project then maybe you need to think a bit harder about it. I knew from day one, when I found this, that I would make it in some sort of guise. You can’t get downhearted because, certainly in the UK it’s getting harder to make things here, and it’s certainly hard to make authored television here, but hopefully we’ve opened a door because it’s been popular.”
“You also have to be really positive and proactive and you have to understand the business and how it works. And the most important thing for is that the audience doesn’t care how good you are at making something it doesn’t want to see,” he continues.
“You could be an amazing director of a specific type of story that the audience aren’t interested in and you’ll never get it made. And that’s how it should be. You should be making shows and movies for the audience and not yourself.”