In the early aughts, an English couple, Christopher and Susan Edwards, were found guilty of the 1998 double homicide of Susan Edwards’ parents. However, for years after, the Edwards’ pretended the older couple was still alive, forging correspondence from them and drawing from their bank accounts. What would make people commit such acts and what really happened between the two couples is now at the center of HBO’s dramatized limited series “Landscapers” from Ed Sinclair and Will Sharpe.
Sinclair wrote all episodes and Sharpe directed them, with the two collaborating closely on how to empathetically portray memories of events that are altered slightly depending on which party is recalling them.
“The first thing we talked about was this idea of the truth and whether there is any single truth ever that you can categorically say is the main truth,” Sharpe tells Variety. “Landscapers,” he continues, displays “the different truths that Chris and Susan perhaps told themselves and needed to tell each other, the truth that they told to the police, the truth that the police are trying to unpack in the solving of the mystery and the truth of their relationship and the nuances of that.”
The real Edwards’ saga played out in the news when they were arrested and on trial, and Sharpe says both he and Sinclair read “the transcript from the trial quite extensively,” as well as “whatever [other] reading we could” in order to get as full a picture of the people they were bringing to life as possible. Sinclair also had direct correspondence with the real-life Susan (played by Olivia Colman) and Christopher (played by David Thewlis) and developed a relationship with Susan’s solicitor. While they “were very keen to be as nuanced and fair and accurate as we could,” Sharpe says, they also wanted to be “as respectful of the perpetrators as we are hopefully of the victims and indeed the police.”
“At its heart, it’s a love story between Chris and Susan,” Sharpe says of the show. “The fact that they stayed together for 15 years after the crime — the way they seemingly were involved in the crime — all of that seems to suggest that there was some kind of special romance between them. But I found myself thinking about the idea of freedom, basically, and truth and love as a subset of that theme.”
In order for the show to really dive into that theme, Sharpe and Sinclair wanted to bring the audiences into their protagonists’ worlds and their minds. This starts simply enough by following Susan to a shop where she spends more than she should on a classic movie poster, but it unfolds in many more ways, including hearing her narrate pan pal correspondence she claimed was from Gérard Depardieu, traveling back in time to her memories of confrontations with her parents, and seeing her break the fourth wall during police interrogation scenes.
“She had this very traumatic backstory as a child, and I found myself wondering if perhaps to a certain extent going through something like that might have made you feel kind of like freedom was taken away from you,” Sharpe says. “And so, was she, in some way, through engaging with the world of Gary Cooper and the world of Gérard Depardieu and these cinematic stories, trying to find some kind of freedom for herself, however fleeting that freedom may be? As the series goes on, I think we’re asking the question of what kind of freedom can you find for yourself within the confines of circumstance — of what has happened to you that wasn’t your fault, of the mistakes that you may have made along the way?”
Sharpe shifts the visual style of the show accordingly to allow some of Susan’s influences to affect the show itself. In police interrogation scenes, he and his team used deep blacks “to represent an absence of information, like key details that are missing,” he points out. “This very private truth that Susan and Chris came to believe in is suddenly under the scrutiny of not just all the characters in the show, but also all of us. We feel the presence of CCTV cameras, recording equipment in the police interviews as a sinister presence. We wanted to feel how nervous Susan and Chris might have felt that their truth was suddenly going to be put under such scrutiny.”
He also draws upon old Westerns and French New Wave for some pivotal moments. The latter, for example, becomes a crucial way to present flashbacks not only to “lean into Susan’s love of France and her love of classic cinema,” but also to represent the story that is unfolding in those moments as “purer and less vulnerable and more true,” Sharp explains. “But even in those, after a time, I think we start to question how reliable they are.”
“Landscapers” shot in an East London studio during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant production kept as many sets contained as possible, and simply adjusted lighting rigs and gear as needed to capture the different styles. “Even the scene on the Eurostar was actually shot by bringing a Eurostar carriage to the studio because that just made more sense somehow, practically. We had already been using back-projection and certain analog techniques in the world of the show,” he reveals.
Getting in the space with Colman and Thewlis for rehearsal proved essential to finding their movements in sets that ranged from a tense interrogation room to a minimalist house, especially over time. “One thing we did talk a little bit about in rehearsal is if Susan and Chris occasionally start to see each other as a kind of idealized, Hollywood, glamorous version of each other, how might that affect the way they move or their posture, the way they speak to each other?” Sharpe shares. Additionally, there was a tight tonal balance to strike and complex scene work as Colman, especially, would have to slip between personas from time to time.
“There’s one particular scene in Episode 2 where Olivia is somehow giving an absolutely convincing and heartfelt emotional performance as the character of Susan, but also able to snap out of it periodically to play the narrator,” Sharpe previews. “We wanted to make sure that you were carried along by the adrenaline of the scene, and when Susan the character is momentarily turning to the police as an aside and then snapping back into the performance, [Olivia] needs to stay in the zone. All of that really was on the actors, ultimately. There are certain transitions — how we get from one place to another, how we dive into someone’s mind and then come back out of it — which took some planning and are more constructed, but in that particular example, it’s all on Olivia and it was extraordinary to watch, actually.”
“Landscapers” premieres Dec. 6 at 9 p.m. on HBO.