“Although we were telling a true crime story, I never felt like it had to be in a sort of documentary style,” executive producer Tom Shankland says about The Serpent, which derives much of its appeal from its sexy, decadent 1970s vibe.
Yes, Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc were dangerous psychopaths. In the 1970s, the suave Frenchman murdered a slew of backpacking hippies in Thailand and Nepal, while his Quebecois accomplice helped draw potential victims into their net.
But the couple also possessed a singular sex appeal — which helped them in luring those victims.
Their real-life odyssey is the subject of the Netflix and BBC series The Serpent, where they are portrayed by Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman as equal parts glamorous and terrifyingly amoral. Charles and Marie-Andrée stand in stark contrast to Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), the upright Dutch diplomat hot on their trail.
Much of the show’s appeal derives from its sexy, decadent 1970s vibe. “Although we were telling a true crime story, I never felt like it had to be in a sort of documentary style,” said executive producer Tom Shankland, who also directed the first four episodes (he also helmed the 2019 miniseries Les Misérables).
In an email and a video call from Buckinghamshire, England, Shankland, 52, discussed some of the aesthetic inspirations behind The Serpent.
The films of Nicolas Roeg
“I think there are moments where you want to abandon the strict rules of space and time and create a third thing, a sort of weird, disorienting vortex into something horrible,” Shankland said. An expert in this type of brainy mind-scrambling is one his favourite filmmakers, Nicolas Roeg. “With him, it’s never just a script, it’s never just the acting — it’s always about the strange effect of the editing, the interesting shot choices that he makes,” Shankland said. “I love the way that the location and texture of a place become either a visual metaphor or a way to bring out the emotional subtext.”
Roeg’s influence can also be felt in the nonlinear narrative of The Serpent, which constantly goes back and forth. “I loved his timeline montages in ‘Don’t Look Now’ and slightly out of control editing in ‘Bad Timing,’” Shankland added. “I’m sure some of these were in my mind when we were shooting and cutting sequences like the brutal murders in the Kathmandu valley in Episode 4.”
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
While Shankland mentioned Barbet Schroeder’s 1969 movie More, about a couple descending into a drug hell on Ibiza, even more influential on the series was the revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), by Robert Altman. “I love the way his camera always gets interested in details other than the plot: the snowy landscape, that amazing furry coat Warren Beatty wears, the extras talking about shaving, the guy dancing on the ice,” Shankland said.
The show even nods at one particular scene from the movie. “Warren Beatty’s sat at a table in the saloon, getting the cards out,” Shankland said. “The zoom lens leans a little closer and he does a killer smile. I think I unconsciously did that exact shot in a scene of Tahar selling gems in episode two — the seedy glamour of Charles Sobhraj, the tight, charming smile from the cobra before he bites.”
The French director Olivier Assayas’ sprawling portrait of the 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal made quite an impression on Shankland. “I always loved the low-key, authentic ’70s design of Carlos,” he said, adding that he wanted the series to have a similar visual precision: “It had to feel grounded at the level of what a space looked like, what an apartment looked like, what a street looked like — and Carlos is beautifully designed from that point of view.”
To Shankland’s delight, the Carlos production designer, François-Renaud Labarthe, joined the Serpent team. “When we had to shut down because of COVID, we were lucky to have this very meticulous French designer who managed to create bits of Karachi, bits of Paris in this place called Tring just outside of London,” Shankland said.
Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline Bisset and Dominique Sanda
For Coleman, whose outfits seem to have acquired a cult of their own, Shankland drew inspiration from the 1970s style of such actresses as Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline Bisset and Dominique Sanda.
“There is something a little ‘Pygmalion’ about Marie-Andrée’s journey from Quebecois provincial to ‘Queen of Kanit House,’” he said, referring to the couple’s apartment complex in Bangkok. “Her small-town dreams of Parisian sophistication made me think of ’70s Bardot — there’s a great picture of her in a peacock chair, very ‘Emmanuelle,’ but she looks really strong, like she’s a queen.”
For the many scenes of Marie-Andrée looking alluringly cryptic while smoking, Shankland recalled a Bernardo Bertolucci movie released in 1970 but set in the 1930s and early ’40s: “I often went to Dominique Sanda in ‘The Conformist,’” Shankland said, “those shots where she comes to the door and looks so cool with a cigarette.”
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the Beatles
Shankland explained that a montage juxtaposing the killers revelling in their bad deeds and Knippenberg trying to convince the police to investigate, in the fourth episode, was shot and edited to work with ‘Jump Into the Fire’ by Harry Nilsson. “I was desperately hoping we would get the rights and gambled that the people with the chequebooks might fall in love with it,” he said.
While “music is in the DNA of the show,” as Shankland put it, one song that does not appear looms over it: the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ from 1966.
“I listened to it probably every day for a year and a half,” he said. “There’s something about the interaction between Indian instrumentation and Western pop music that was perfect for this phenomenon of the kids from the West going East and thinking the answers were over there. It’s also one of those songs that sometimes takes you on a good trip, sometimes on a bad trip, but you have to surrender to it.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli c.2021 The New York Times Company