"It’s not inaccurate to call this a true-crime drama," Will Sharpe says of Landscapers, the limited series he directed that premieres December 6 on HBO. "It’s a drama based on a crime that really happened, but occasionally in true crime, the show will pick a side and tell you a version of a story that makes you feel one way or another. We could tell you this story any number of ways and make you feel any number of things, but instead we leave it to you to draw your own conclusions."
To be sure, Landscapers—which will run over the course of four episodes—is based on true events. Namely, the 2014 arrest of Susan and Christopher Edwards (played by Olivia Colman and David Thewlis) for murdering her parents and burying their bodies in a garden. The pair seemed unlikely killers—she was a librarian and he was a bookseller—and they managed to keep the fact that her parents were even missing a secret for years until they were caught. What the series does isn't just a retelling of the gruesome story, however, but an exploration of who Susan and Christopher were, who they became, and why their story played out the way it did.
Here, Sharpe—who also wrote and directed the recent The Electrical Life of Louis Wain—explains where the series sticks to fact and where it looks elsewhere for inspiration.
When it came to telling the story of the Edwards for television, Sharpe began by exploring not only the scripts by writer Ed Sinclair, but also the words of the real people who inspired his characters. "I definitely wanted to do my own research," he says. "I read the transcripts from their trial, and Ed had some correspondence with Susan and Christopher Edwards that he was kind enough to share with me. There was also a documentary—which is very different from our show—that I watched, and I went to visit some of the key locations from the story."
Ultimately, what this research made clear is that what Landscapers has to say isn't just a cut-and-dry true-crime tell all. "Ultimately, there are different versions of the truth," Sharpe says. "There are the stories that they told themselves and each other and there are the stories they told the police and it was important for us as storytellers ourselves to realize that what we’re presenting is also just a version of the story, it’s a dramatization and a fictionalization of what happened. We’re trying to be as fair and nuanced as we can, but at the end of the day we can’t really know what any of these people were thinking."
While certain elements of Landscapers can be verified, others—like the Edwards' life in Paris, where they fled after the murders—had to be fictionalized. And that was something Sharpe decided to take advantage of, using different points of view and styles to identify how the two saw themselves as opposed to how the world viewed them.
"A lot of it is trying to get into the characters’ head space and to imagine the world from their point of view and build a show that’s influenced by them," Sharpe says. "One of the key details is hat Susan was fascinated by classic Hollywood and stories of the Wild West. They’d both spent a lot on autographs and memorabilia, and the overly simplistic version of the story is that they spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on those things, they were supposedly pen pals with Gérard Depardieu, you do the math. The friction between truth and fantasy is related to the question of what kind of freedom you can find within the confines of your own circumstances."
When it came to rehearsing the series, Shape is clear that he and his cast were focused on telling a compelling story but not overthinking it. "We rehearsed the scenes as scenes and didn’t get philosophical in rehearsal," he explains. "Our shorthand for this was calling it 'the myth,' which was the zone of Chris and Susan’s constructed stories. In that arena it feels like their story is quite vulnerable to attack, but there are other arenas in which we can see them thinking of each other as the romantic leads of their relationship. How does that impact your posture or performance?"
And while there are references throughout the series to the Edwards' love of Old Hollywood, they're done in a way to make audiences think about the world they created for themselves and not played for laughs. "Occasionally you might see little nods—a necktie or a badge—to Westerns, but we were always thinking about how much was too much," Sharpe explains. "What feels like the uncanny psychological space where you feel like you’re in a cinematic version of the story but not a pastiche?"
While Landscapers does take a real-life tragedy as its jumping off point—and both Susan and Christopher Edwards are currently serving sentences of 25 years to life for murder—that's not the totality of the story Sharpe wants to tell. "At the end of the day, this is a love story—at least I think," he says. "In terms of the criminal aspect of the show, we’re trying to be complex and nuanced and respectful of everyone involved, but at the heart of it is this relationship between Chris and Susan and trying to use whatever little pieces of evidence we have to imagine what that connection might have been like. In that sense, there’s a romance at the heart of it."
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