‘Britannia’: How Jez Butterworth Created the Crazy Ancient Epic Starring David Morrissey

Anne Thompson
·9 min read

Thank the gods for brilliant screenwriters. That’s why they’re the most sought-after gold currency in today’s streaming wars, from Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) and Peter Morgan (“The Crown”) to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Killing Eve”) and Lena Waithe (“The Chi”).

These scribes hole up in their lonely rooms and think and dream and write, conjuring characters, dialogue, scenes, and episodes that will grab viewers away from something else they could be watching. And a special few bring to life entire made-up worlds, including David Benioff and Dan Weiss (“Game of Thrones”), Ronald D. Moore (the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica”), and now, the creator of “Britannia,” lauded British playwright Jez Butterworth (“Jerusalem,” “The Ferryman”).

This is Butterworth’s first go-round as a showrunner. He’s written plenty of screenplays for Hollywood (“Ford v Ferrari”), but was driven away from his early directing ambitions by a miserable run-in at age 29 with Harvey Weinstein on his sophomore movie, “Birthday Girl,” starring Nicole Kidman.

“It was a fucking horrible experience,” said Butterworth. “The most awful I’ve yet had professionally. And it was down to Weinstein in many ways, and I didn’t want to do it again. I wouldn’t sign a three-picture picture deal with Miramax after that. At that point, Harvey pulled the movie from cinemas in America, 2,000 screens, telling me my career was over and I would never work again.”

He hasn’t directed since.

In 2016, producer James Richardson approached Butterworth with a series that wasn’t working. “He was at an impasse,” said Butterworth on the phone. “The last thing you want to do is come in on something you haven’t come up with. But this was too good to miss out on. I had lots of ideas. He gave me the guarantee I could start from scratch.”

He was hooked. But he had no time to waste. He threw out the old scripts, kept the concept, and holed up in a country cabin in Devon, where he and his brother Tom and Richardson brainstormed, throwing ideas on a whiteboard and mapping out an outline for 10 episodes based on the historic second Roman invasion of Britain led by Aulus Plautius in 43 AD.

What fascinated Butterworth was the idea that even for the mighty Roman empire, winning such a war was less about legions and more about which gods control the hearts and minds of the people. Butterworth brought into the narrative competing gods of that period, including the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who in the Butterworths’ telling is speared to death on the cross by Roman General Aulus’ right arm, Lucius (Hugo Speer).

“When one religion gets pushed off the board by another,” Butterworth said, “the complications of that, sociologically, politically, and spiritually, run through. One pantheon is ushered off stage, and a whole new one brought in. It’s a dramatic time. It seems to go back to the beginning, when wars between gods were hugely dramatic. People suddenly change, everything they believe in is slightly different. Christianity was one of a dozen (if not hundreds) of competing cults that were trying to occupy the space left by Rome. I liked the idea of inventing one of these death cults and putting it up against the Celtic cult of a messiah, having things all occur in the shadow of what the audience knows.”

In Butterworth’s sprawling fictional narrative, Aulus is pitting his soldiers, who believe in the Roman gods led by Jupiter, against several warring Celtic tribes who worship the controlling ancient Druids, led by tattooed seer Veran (Mackenzie Crook), who is challenged by his brother Harka (also Crook). “He’s such a versatile actor that it’s not until the two are face to face in the final [Season 2] episode,” said Butterworth, “that you see it. Even then they’re different people.”

But Aulus, who wields some magic of his own, is following another master: Lokka. “Walking Dead” star David Morrissey, already cast as Aulus, was a Butterworth admirer, and agreed to stay on board as a matter of faith, even as new scripts were in progress. “I’m winging this as I go along,” the rookie showrunner told Morrissey, “writing and reinventing it.”

Even though the actor had to start building Aulus’ character and costumes before he’d read the final stories, he made the right call. His Roman conqueror is an actor’s fantasy: wily, powerful, manipulative, political, astute, sexy, ruthless, murderous, and deep-down evil. Which makes him a compelling watch.

Morrissey’s first shooting day involved riding on a horse at the head of the Roman army and massacring a village. “Not much subtlety there,” he said. Then he waited for the scripts to come.

“We know the Druids existed but don’t know much about them,” said Morrissey. “Jez is able to really let his imagination go wild. You can worship gods and then change their names. You ingratiate yourself slowly, changing the rules and forging alliances. He sets the tribes off against each other. He’s trying to be all things to all men; he’s brilliant at politics. He’s not to be trusted but he can present a trusted face. He likes risk-taking. Has a sense of humor about what he does. He enjoys life to the full, has a lust for life, and he also has confidence. But if he’s plotting against Roman Emperor Claudius, who is he really working for? This man has other powers beyond human ken. He is mortal, and he’s earthbound. But if he does have other powers, whose are they? Does he know the force at work in himself, or is he the victim of it? ”

Morrissey never minded the elemental hardship of carrying an often exterior series. “The secret is I love it,” he said, “even in situations where I’m standing in the middle of some freezing field with the rain teeming down, soaked to the skin in a week of night shoots.”

Aulus and the Druids alike are searching for a fabled messiah. That’s resourceful teenager Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), the Joseph Campbell hero of this journey. Trained by surly outcast shaman (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who thought he was the chosen one, she’s the reluctant innocent who will save the world. “I really liked a character who turns out to be more John the Baptist than Jesus at best,” said Butterworth.

Not surprising for the author of “Jerusalem,” Butterworth’s rich sources go back to William Morris, James Frazer, J.R.R. Tolkien, and T.H. White. His world is pre-Arthurian, with references to King Pellinore and the Lady of the Lake. Butterworth keeps his characters moving on multiple exterior locations (Wales, Czechia), and does not hesitate to kill them off. (It’s wise not to stay attached to anyone for long.) While the show brooks comparison to “Game of Thrones,” Butterworth never saw that series.

After Season 1 came to an end, premium cable channel Epix joined Sky to produce two more seasons (and air all three in the U.S.). Butterworth returned to Devon to hatch more plots — this time with another brother, John-Henry, added to the mix.

The three Butterworths executed the scripts for Season 2, which settles into a smoother ride. In Season 1, Butterworth felt, “I was always behind. It was like drinking from a firehose. I started to suspect that I wasn’t getting notes anymore because there wasn’t time for them.”

With Season 2, they had more time. “We knew our situation better,” said Butterworth. “Once you’ve written a first season, you do get better at it.”

James Richardson is in charge of executing production on the series, hiring the directors (many of them women) and working, after shooting of Season 3 restarted in August, at a soundstage and exteriors outside London after a three-month COVID hiatus, with safety protocols. “We are all in different bubbles,” said Morrissey. “Temperatures taken, and tested four times a week. We isolate ourselves. But there’s been no change in the writing. No concessions.”

“It has not been easiest thing,” said Butterworth. “James found it stressful. We think it’s our finest season so far. We’ve learned what we’re doing to some extent, what works, and we know what each character wants to say, after 20 episodes, in the 21st.”

But he loved expanding his horizons. “This was completely different from all my experience in film and Hollywood, where there isn’t storytelling,” he said. “Screenplays are going from 120 to 100 pages and getting shorter. It feels more and more like movies are almost winding up as haikus. With television there’s such a volume of content to produce that they have to rely on the fact that you know how to tell a story.”

“Eccentric epic” is an apt description for the freewheeling and chaotic “Britannia,” with its anachronistic, punk-art direction, costumes, hair, and heavy makeup. Each episode lurches from high-stakes drama, hot sex, and fantastic witchery, to comic relief. In Season 2, two AWOL Roman soldiers sample an apothecary’s stash and remain high as kites, philosophizing on the random order of the universe, and spike the drinking water of the Roman camp. Cue: “I Feel Free” by Cream, which makes perfect sense for a show whose theme song is Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”

The women of this world wield mighty power, whether in line with the Druids or against them. When Machiavellian Queen Amena (Annabel Scholey) is sent by her lover Aulus to visit her sister Andra (Samantha Colley), the Keeper of the Lake, she is greeted with an accusation: “The demon is Rome and you are the demon’s envoy.” Brits aren’t the only ones who demonize the unknown as the enemy. Another would-be queen, Ania (Liana Cornell), reveals the rotten lot of women in that period, as she pivots from one partner to another (no matter their gender) and is forced by Veran to give up her child.

The big reveal in Season 2, Episode 7 (airing Sunday, November 15) comes when Harka and Aulus meet, and a butterfly flies out of his mouth. “The dark has come,” says the Druid.

Indeed.

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