“I went in cold but it just leapt off the page for me. The writing was so nuanced and subtle,” remembers Dennis. “It had a seductive tonal mix that I’d never worked on before, with two people walking an emotional tightrope with the highest of stakes as they peel back each other’s layers.
“Are they running towards each other or just away from other things?”
Told with a mix of genre-bending playfulness and genuine emotional risk, Run is titled for the pledge a former couple made in their youth: should either Ruby Richardson (Merritt Wever) or Billy Johnson (Domhnall Gleeson) text the word ‘RUN’ to the other and their university-era love replied likewise, they would each walk out on their respective lives, meet at day’s end at New York’s Grand Central Station, and catch a train across America.
When the long-separated duo, each with lives the other barely knows about, do just that at the start of the series, they’re shocked, scared, and seduced by the chance they’re taking and the damage they may well have done. “This is unforgivable,” says Ruby, but Billy is ready to forgive her and more.
With its piquant half-hour episodes, Run stays one step ahead of the audience with plot twists, clarifying flashbacks, and Waller-Bridge in a recurring supporting role. There’s good reason Dennis, who eventually directed the first four episodes, calls it “part-relationship mystery, part-comedy, part-thriller”.
“The rhythms are in the writing and you feel the tonal shifts in the words. Vicky’s intent was very clear on the page, even though it’s open to interpretation for the actors,” Dennis said.
“Ultimately we burrowed so deep in the prep that the actors embodied who these people were and their gamesmanship and the memories they shared that it all became organic. If you keep the relationship at the core, you can shift the tone greatly.”
Dennis was speaking last week from her family home in Melbourne, where the final steps in Run‘s work-from-home post-production – with files bouncing between social-distancing households in London, Los Angeles and here – was occurring as she sat in her study and checked the sound mix on the final two episodes via her audiophile husband’s high-end speakers.
The director has previously done stints herself in London and Los Angeles to further her career, and remains “a trans-Pacific commuter” with a Hollywood abode, but being in Melbourne takes Dennis back to her television breakthrough with eight episodes of The Secret Life of Us between 2001 and 2003. Love My Way, Rake, and Offspring would follow. But once she started working in America in 2014, the mix of shows was positively eclectic. Dennis was alternating episodes of dystopian dramas and loopy sitcoms.
“That was always my aim, but at the beginning it was a huge risk,” she says. “I’d looked at other directors’ careers and seen how easy it is to get pigeonholed in one genre. I’d done a lot of dramedy here in Australia, but the show that launched me in America was [thriller] Secrets and Lies. I went there straddling genres and I conscientiously tried to move between the one-hour and half-hour formats, and my agents supported me in that risk and it paid off.”
On Run Dennis is not only the lead director, but joins Waller-Bridge as an executive producer. “It was very flattering,” she says modestly, but her input was wide-ranging, from script notes to figuring out how to shoot a story set on a train. Using an actual train wasn’t feasible due to sound issues and ever changing natural light, so the production team came up with a better system.
Two carriages with interiors that could be easily swapped out were built in a Canadian studio and put on giant bladders so they could sway like a train on the tracks. Outside were LED screens which projected exterior scenes shot from a camera carriage that actually crossed America on a real train. The footage could match the character’s perspective and allowed backgrounds and light qualities to be dialled up as the actors worked.
“I wanted it to be really textural and sensual in the frame,” notes Dennis, who was referencing filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock for a thriller’s menace and Wong Kar-wai for the erotic friction. She then used handheld cameras to shoot two stars who were a lock to work together as soon as they auditioned.
“Once we saw them together we knew,” Dennis said. “Merritt and Domhnall are such exquisite actors and they can nuance a line with the smallest head tilt or pitch shift and make it completely organic and believable.
“They’re so reactive to each other and the best listeners. They’re the best example of actors who really listen. There was a plethora of riches in the cutting room.”
She adds: “Vicky doesn’t judge her characters. She challenges the actor and the show challenges the viewer. And I’m only doing my best work if I’m challenged. I get claustrophobic as a director if I’m repeating myself. The way I’m wired is that I do my best work if I’m learning.”
WHEN: Fox Showcase, Thursday May 7, 8.30pm
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.