It takes a special and often elusive alchemy for a show to resonate with critics and the public alike. Dominic Savage’s BAFTA-nominated “I Am” anthology series has managed that very trick, drawing praise from both quarters for its searing kitchen sink realism told squarely from a female perspective.
Variety spoke with the series’ creator, writer and director Dominic Savage, along with his producer Krishnendu Majumdar and “I Am Kirsty” actor Samantha Morton, about their experiences, the show’s origins and USP, and future plans.
Shot in a naturalistic style evocative of the documentary form, “I Am” is a powerful excursion into the trials faced by women. There have been two seasons to date, totalling three episodes apiece, with topics spanning coercive relationships, mid-thirties identity crises and emotional breakdowns, all explored with an unvarnished verité all too rare in contemporary television.
“I Am Ruth,” which kickstarts a third season, represents a departure from the show’s standard hour-long format. The episode stars Kate Winslet alongside her real-life daughter Mia Threapleton as a fictional mother-daughter relationship imperilled by the teenager’s slide into a depression brought on by the pressures of social media. It’s a water cooler conversation-starter and a very timely tale.
“There’s a dearth of female-led stories, and there’s been a need for them for a long time,” says Savage of his focus on telling women’s narratives. “There hasn’t been enough at all. These films are so distinctly in that perspective, so unashamedly that woman’s story. And it is still quite rare.”
For Savage, the seeds for “I Am” first originated with his 2017 feature “The Escape” with Gemma Arterton. The film emerged after they were introduced without any work intentions. “Following our meeting, I came up with an idea for her. It was a very singular perspective of a character’s experience. As she’s a woman, it became this female experience film.”
The enterprise provided Dominic with food for thought and he soon cooked up the concept for “I Am.” With backing from London-based production company Me+You Productions, the “I Am” anthology found a home on public service broadcaster Channel 4 in the U.K.
“We wanted to find a vehicle where Dominic could tell the stories he wanted,” says Majumdar, co-founder of Me+You and “I Am’s” producer. “He came up with ‘I Am.’ We pitched it to Channel 4, who believed in it.”
“I Am Kirsty” star Samantha Morton believes British audiences are “lucky” to have Channel 4 and that the broadcaster, which is facing the threat of privatization by the U.K. government, is fulfilling an implied obligation to push the envelope.
Morton tells Variety: “If you’re coming from Channel 4, which uses public money, or places like that, there’s a duty of care to artists, filmmakers, and the public to make television and film that challenges society — [drama] that is artistic, and is allowed to be artistic for the sake of it. It doesn’t have to be artistic for the dollar or the pound. It’s great if people make their money back, but it’s not about profit. It’s about integrity.”
First broadcast in 2019, the first “I Am” series starred Vicky McClure, Morton and Gemma Chan. As a working method, Savage espoused the approach he fostered in “The Escape,” by meeting with actors and seeing if a story would naturally emerge.
If something did appear, it would be something that personally resonated with the actor. Together, they would work up the idea before shooting the drama in chronological order, with handheld cameras, and without any scripted dialogue. It is what Majumdar calls a very “purist” way of filmmaking.
“Eternals” star Gemma Chan, who starred in “I Am Hannah,” describe the experience as “unique.”
“We crafted a story outline together which became a more detailed treatment,” explains Chan. “When it came to filming the scenes, the dialogue is almost completely unscripted, which is terrifying but also very freeing. It forces you to be completely truthful and responsive in the moment. What I love about his work is that there’s an immediacy and rawness that is rare.“
The result is a unique and personal process for the lead. Adds Morton: “It gives people like Kate [Winslet], Vicky McClure or any of the other actresses who have been in the ‘I Am’ series an opportunity to do something that they really care about, as opposed to being simply an actress for hire.”
For the episode of “I Am Kirsty,” in which she starred, Morton portrayed a single mother on the poverty line. “I went to Dominic with a true story about somebody I knew who was really struggling and something that had happened to them. It was loosely based on my childhood as well. Basically, I was one of the children within that story,” Morton reveals.
She continues: “It was liberating. It felt freeing. Dominic is seriously one of my favorite directors. I think he’s an incredibly important filmmaker.”
Says Savage: “You know you’re doing something right when people out there feel represented. For instance, with ‘I Am Ruth,’ it’s been phenomenal the number of parents and young people that have messaged, saying, ‘This is my story as well.’”
“Even senior child psychologists have been in touch saying their patients and the patients’ parents have been talking nonstop about the film and how it’s done something for them; helped them understand something. I don’t think it gets better than that.”
So far, there are no plans to draw “I Am” to a halt. “It feels really important to keep going. There are so many more stories to tell,” says Savage. “And there are so many more great female actors to work with. It’s almost become a duty to do it, because you know it really matters to that audience.”
Savage notes that there have been “thoughts” about including male stories, “which I’m not against,” he explains. “That could be interesting. But I just want to keep going with the female stories, because I think we can’t make enough that redresses the lack of [stories before].”