Lewis Arnold graduated from the NFTS Directing Fiction MA in 2012. His short films Charlie Says and Echo, made while studying at the NFTS, screened at a host of international film festivals and picked up various awards including a National Film Award for Best Short. Upon graduating, Lewis embarked on directing his first TV project, two episodes of the BAFTA winning Misfits for Channel 4. Since then, Lewis has worked consistently on a number of high profile television dramas for BBCITV and Channel 4 including Dark Money, Broadchurch and Humans. His latest project is the three part true crime drama Des starring David Tennant of which he is co-creator, director and executive producer. Des has become ITV’s biggest drama launch of 2020 and features two more NFTS graduates in key roles, composer Sarah Warne and sound designer Nikola Medic.

Three people talking on film set
Lewis on the set of Dark Money

How did the project of Des come about?

Back in 2015, Des co-creator and writer Luke Neal saw my NFTS graduation film Charlie Says, and approached me about making a drama around the Dennis Nilsen case. At this point I had no knowledge of Nilsen or his crimes but I was won over by Luke’s passion for the case, leaving our first meeting wondering how Nilsen had remained undetected for so long. I started to research the case, watching documentaries and reading Killing for Company by Brian Masters. My curiosity and interest grew and I agreed with Luke’s instincts that there was definitely a story worth exploring.

Who from the original case has been involved in the production?

We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had access to officers who worked on the case at the time. Their insight into Nilsen and the case was invaluable and helped us fill in lots of blanks, while also correcting some of the inaccuracies that had been put out there. We also met and spoke in great detail with Brian Masters, who is one of the key characters in the drama. Brian’s book was very useful; but we were also able to speak to him directly about his own experiences and emotions during his time interviewing and befriending Nilsen.

Did you film in any of the real locations?

Practically speaking, it was an incredibly challenging drama to make, as we were filming in modern London while trying to depict London in 1983. However, after struggling to find an exterior property that matched the distinctive look of 23 Cranley Gardens, we did end up shooting in the area of Crouch End. This was due to the fact the houses around Cranley Gardens shared the exact same architecture, which we couldn’t find in other London boroughs. The interior of Cranley Gardens was an exact set build of the real space, as created by our wonderful production designer who even went as far as having the original wallpaper replicated, and hunted down matches for almost all of the furniture Nilsen owned. I have to applaud the level of detail across all the sets and locations, the production design team created an authenticity that easily enabled our actors to transport themselves back to the time of the case.

David Tennant and Jason Watkins on set on Des
David Tennant and Jason Watkins in Des

How did you approach directing Des?

We knew that this show would essentially be built around the performances of our three lead characters, with Peter Jay and Brian Masters being the audience’s way into the crimes and mind of Dennis Nilsen. I was incredibly blessed with a talented ensemble led by David Tennant, Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins, so a lot of the direction focused on getting out of the actors’ way and allowing them space to play and explore the material. For this to work we would try to be flexible in terms of how we blocked and approached scenes as to not make distracting choices with the camera, that could easily take the audience out of the moment.

Group of people on film set
Lewis on the set of Des

What is the most important thing you learnt at the NFTS that still informs your work today?

I was surrounded by brilliant filmmakers from various disciplines. You’re constantly learning from them, as they’re interrogating your work with you and making mistakes that you are learning from too. I learned so much about performance and visual storytelling from my fellow directors as well as from tutors like Ian Sellar (NFTS co-head of Fiction.)

Now you are an established director, can you share your top tricks of the trade? 

  • Read the scripts every day during prep! You can never read them enough.
  • Communication is key. Make sure that as well as talking to your departments, the departments are also communicating with each other.
  • Be open and receptive to all ideas – the best ideas come from the places you least expect.
  • Prep and planning is so important but also don’t be afraid to throw it away if another way to tell the story presents itself.
  • If you get stuck, you will often find the answer in the script.
  • Above all, be kind.

Lewis recently launched Directors Now, a free online resource that brings together the breakout stories of 100 directors currently working in the industry today. To download a copy go to directorsnow.com.

If you are keen to follow in Lewis’s footsteps and stand out in the film, television and games industry, check out nfts.co.uk/places-available.