The Pentagram partner’s latest project sees him swap the world of magazines for TV as he unveils his work on Landscapers, a true crime mini-series from Sky Atlantic and HBO that tells the true story of Susan and Christopher Edwards, a mild-mannered yet murderous couple.
Starring the ever-brilliant Olivia Colman and David Thewlis, written by Ed Sinclair (who is also Colman’s husband) and directed by Will Sharpe, the four-part series examines how the librarian and accountant from Dagenham were convicted in 2014 of murdering Susan’s parents, burying their bodies in the back garden and concealing the deaths for the next 15 years.
Landscapers has been met rave reviews so far, thanks to its refreshingly offbeat take on the true crime genre. When he was asked to work on the mini-series, Willey also proved to be a big fan. “What I ended up admiring most about it is that there is probably a fairly straight telling of this story that would be perfectly fine — it’s an intriguing enough story after all — but the fact that Will Sharpe and Ed Sinclair took such interesting, brave and creative decisions with the way the story was told and presented makes it one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in a very long time,” he tells CR.
The designer began by speaking with Sharpe and producer Katie Carpenter, who shared ideas, references and colour palettes in keeping with the look and feel of the rest of the production. “There’s a Western theme that runs through the series, and the thin boundary between the real and the imagined is constantly shifting over the course of the four episodes,” Willey explains.
He worked with type designer Diana Ovezea to draw a bespoke typeface for the show — a wide and heavy sans-serif font that draws reference from 50s and 60s Western film titles including The Big Country, The Appaloosa, and Ride in the Whirlwind. “The width of those typefaces emphasise the physical format/ratio of cinema but also, in the case of those Westerns, they emphasise the expansive landscapes, which almost always centre around a horizon line,” says Willey.
“When people think of a ‘Western’ typeface, I suspect they tend to think of a reverse contrast slab serif typeface. Those typefaces can be appealing but they often end up feeling overly pastiche or kitsch. We wanted a subtle nod to that typographic language. A not-too-on-the-nose reference that left the typeface feeling modern, or timeless, but distinctive,” he adds.
For the Landscapers title, the designer opted to project it across a range of different materials, including burlap, canvas, cotton sheets, tarp and silk scrim. “Olivia Colman’s character, Susan, has some poignant moments in the script that really stuck with me, where a sort of magical escapism allows her to look at the line where a sofa meets the wall, or where her blanket meets the prison wall, and see a landscape and a horizon. The folds and shapes of the blanket forming a rolling landscape, the top of the blanket a ridgeline, the wall a sky,” he explains.
The team filmed the type as it moved up across the various materials, distorted and fragmented by the folds as it traversed over the ‘mountains’, before becoming fully legible as the projection hit the flat wall, or ‘sky’. “By projecting the type (and filming the projection) we were also softening the type, making it less digital, less computer generated, more like the imperfect projected silver-screen titles of Susan’s beloved old Western films,” says Willey.
For the end credits of the first three episodes, the lack of cast names and other regular credit features meant they could become more of a mini production in and of themselves, showing a mix of news footage from the time intercut with behind-the-scenes footage from the show and news reel narration over the top.
The titles for the final episode mark a departure from this approach, embracing the sharp colours, heavy drop-shadows and styling of a Western film, in keeping with the episode’s own descent into that world. “The music at the end of episode four (a track called Spaghetti Landscapers by Will’s brother Arthur Sharpe) that runs on those red, white and black title cards is so good,” says Willey.
Landscapers airs on Sky and HBO; mattwilley.co.uk