peter kosminsky - the undeclared war interview

Peter Kosminsky Interview: The Undeclared War

From the Emmy-nominated director of Wolf Hall and White Oleander comes the political thriller series The Undeclared War. The drama is set within the Government Communications Headquarters, also known as GCHQ, as the UK security agency works to prevent a Russian cybernetic attack during the country’s general election.

Hannah Khalique-Brown leads the cast of The Undeclared War alongside Simon Pegg, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Edward Holcroft, Adrian Lester, Alex Jennings, Mark Rylance, Kerry Godliman, and German Segal.

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In honor of the show’s American streaming premiere, Screen Rant spoke exclusively with creator & director Peter Kosminsky to discuss The Undeclared War, how long it took to develop the series, the long casting process, a potential season 2, and more.

The Undeclared War

Screen Rant: The Undeclared War is really quite the thrilling series from start to finish, I did not know what to expect going in, and I was blown away by it. How did the concept for the series really come to mind for you?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, what do people like me do? Our job is to use a really powerful medium, which is what TV is, at least in my view, to try to act as a kind of notice board for the general public. There’s so much that goes on in our world we’re not really clear on, some of it effects us very directly. Some of this stuff costs our nations a great deal of money, and yet, it’s sort of going on quietly behind the scenes. I don’t mean, necessarily, that there’s some kind of malicious motive going on, but it’s just not something that people are generally aware of, and I go looking for that kind of thing, whether it’s a personal story or something to do with public policy in my country, or in your country, or anywhere that impinges on our society, really.

I’ve been doing this for the best part of 40 years, so when I started to hear about this hot war that was going on in a domain of conflict, cyber, that I didn’t even know it was formalized as a domain of conflict. I sort of knew about land, sea and air, I didn’t really know about cyber, and that there’s a hot war going on in it right now that is inherently escalatory, and therefore, inherently, really dangerous, at a time when the world is dangerous, generally. I thought, “Well, people don’t know about this, maybe we should make a TV program about it,” so that’s really where it started, it was just this sort of sense that there was something unknown that should be known.

How much research then did you find you had to do to really help fuel this story?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, the first thing to say is I’m no computer expert. [Chuckles] Although I’ve been using Apple Mac since 1991, so sort of an early adopter, I guess, but so to understand even — let’s rephrase that, because there’s no way I’m going to understand this stuff. But to even begin to be able to have a conversation with people who understand it, I had a lot of work to do. It took five years to make the show, from inception to transmission in the UK, and the UK transmission occurred just two or three or four weeks before the US transmission on Peacock.

So of those five years, I would say three years were just research, it probably took us about two years to actually make the show. Of course, COVID got in the way, but by some pure fluke, I was in the writing phase at that moment, which requires me to do what I’m doing now, sit at this screen in my room and type. So, we were all locked down, but I wasn’t going anywhere anyway, because I was writing. So yeah, about three years of research, I would say, although it continued, and I’m already doing research on a possible second season. So it’s a continuous process.

What would you say was one of the more interesting things or one of your favorite things that you learned from that long research process?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, here in the UK, GCHQ is a really secret place, so just starting to understand a bit about that world by talking to people who had interacted with that world, that, for me, was quite interesting. This was a closed world to me previously. Probably then the next most interesting thing for me was trying to get my non-technical head around how a really good coder’s brain works.

That’s where the whole code world sequence of being inside Saara’s head and seeing how she visualizes what she’s doing inside the computer sort of came into existence, because I was trying to understand how a coding prodigy, how does someone like that’s brain work? And how on earth can I sort of convey that to an audience who is 99 percent unlikely to know much about coding and that kind of thing. So those were probably the two most exciting and interesting aspects of it, but it was constantly exciting and interesting, I was learning stuff I didn’t know all the time.

The Undeclared War Hannah Khalique-Brown

Talking about Saara, she is certainly one of the most compelling characters of the series, and Hannah does a phenomenal job bringing her to life. What was it like looking for the right person to fully embody Saara during the casting process?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, long is the short answer. I think we took about two years of auditioning different Saaras, and Hannah was there right at the start and, obviously, was a very strong candidate from really early on. But I just needed to be sure, I wanted to try working with her in lots of different parts of the show. I have a rather sort of selfish view that auditioning is kind of free rehearsal, really, and also, particularly with the lead, I’m learning about the script at the same time by hearing a really good actor like Hannah, or one or two of the others who were in the running, working the material, reading the lines, playing the scenes.

I’m learning about what’s working and what’s not working, and given how intense it is, once we get on the set, how little time we have to do everything we need to do, that is gold dust for me. I make those changes offline without it costing tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s a win-win, a long auditioning process, as far as I’m concerned, although it’s obviously very frustrating for the actors.

Alongside her, Simon Pegg is also great as Danny, it’s a unique turn for him in how serious it is. Did you have Simon in mind, as far as a frontrunner, right out the gate, or were there a few other actors you also had in mind for Danny?

Peter Kosminsky: Well, with this kind of thing, you always have a few people in mind. But I was really intrigued by the idea of casting Simon Pegg right from the start, because you can watch him in the various roles he’s played, some of them are really sort of out-and-out comedic, others not so much. But he’s always required to deliver a funny line with the extraordinary comic timing that he has. But I could see that there was a really terrific actor in there. I don’t know why I’m sounding surprised, because comedy is one of the hardest things to do well as an actor, but I thought what he generates is warmth.

I think on screen what he generates is a sort of sense of honesty, trust and compassion. When I watch him, I feel these kinds of things, and those were all qualities that I wanted to imbue into the characterization of Danny. So, he was always going to be a strong contender, really, but what I didn’t know as well as somebody who has been making his life in the largest movies there are was whether he would want to come and slum it in a TV show. Turned out he did, luckily, we were all beneficiaries.

Simon Pegg The Undeclared War

I had actually asked him about his recent return to television, and he said, it’s no longer you’re either a movie or TV star, they’ve really become very much on the same wavelength of quality. What was it like finding the look of the show?

Peter Kosminsky: I think what I was most concerned to achieve was a sense of immediacy. I love where TV is at the moment, because I’m a guy who grew up on science fiction in books, so I’m, what we say here, like a pig in s–t, I get to see the kind of shows I dreamed about seeing when I was a kid, when the idea of a visual effect was to hang a piece of cardboard from a piece of string from just out of shot and hope no one noticed that it was hanging there rathe than moving elegantly through space. But the reality is, there’s quite a heightened, sort of fantastical, quality to a great deal of stuff that gets made these days.

What I wanted to say with The Undeclared War is this is real, this is a cautionary tale, this could be happening now, this could be what happens in two years time, when we in the UK have another general election, or when you guys have your midterms or something like that. So I wanted a realistic style, I didn’t want it to be too glossy, or too, sort of, luminously bright, so Gavin Finney, my longtime DOP collaborator and I, we used the handheld technique. Pretty much everything was shot handheld, although Gavin uses a rig that has some stabilization in it, so you don’t feel seasick all the time, at least I hope not. We very much used the sort of point of view and reaction technique, so Saara was our focus, except when we were doing the scenes in Russia.

We followed her around, the camera didn’t get ahead of her, so the audience doesn’t really have the advantage over Saara, the audience is always sort of going on the journey with her, so the camera kind of sits on her shoulder handheld, follows her along the corridor, follows her into a room, rather than preceding her into the room, and sees what she sees and then cuts back onto her face for a reaction. That’s what I call a point of view and reaction technique.

That, for me, is something I’ve been doing for a while now, it creates a sense of reality and immediacy and of discovery, which when you’re trying to reveal stuff that you think public may not be aware of, that stuff fits pretty well.

I couldn’t agree more, it works very effectively in the series. Did you have any major properties that you turned to for visual inspiration for the look of the series?

Peter Kosminsky: Not really, that’s probably a failing in me. When I’m working on stuff, when I’m writing it or on occasions when I get sent scripts to consider directing that had been written by other people, I really just see it playing in my head. I don’t know where that comes from, whether that is subconsciously drawing on references. I’m not trying to be arrogant here, but I’m not thinking, “Oh, this should have the look of a Canaletto or this should feel like an early Denis Villeneuve film.” I’m just thinking what’s right for the scene, what’s right for the show, what’s right for this character, how do I need to convey this character?

So, there are certainly more sort of elegant visual stylists working than me, that’s for sure, but when my focus is very much on character – I have a reputation, for better or worse, as an actor’s director. I’m lucky enough to be able to work with some wonderful actors, some of whom were just starting out in their career, and I’ve given a little helping hand to some really quite well-known people who were just starting out, so that’s where my focus tends to be, on character, on performance, and I’m trying to find a style that seems to help convey the correct emotion and mood, but without trying to show off, “Hey, look at me, look at what sort of visual wizard I am.” That, to me, kind of just gets in the way of the storytelling.

Hannah Khalique-Brown as Saara in The Undeclared War

I think that’s a good approach to how you film. You mentioned contemplating ideas for a second season, and I had talked with Simon, and he said he also had talked with you about that possibility. What are you really feeling for the possible future of The Undeclared War?

Peter Kosminsky: Ultimately, that’s in the hands of the broadcasters, the financiers. We have ideas about another season, I don’t know if you happened to — depends how wide awake you were in the depths of episode 6. But at one point, there’s a reference to, “How have the people who designed the malware that is attacking Britain been able to hardwire a MAC address of a particular computer inside GCHQ into their code?” A MAC address is a fairly, I think I described it in the script as like a fingerprint. This is a sort of super secret facility, how could they know the MAC address to write it into their code? That was not an unintentional loose end, that would possibly be a starting point for a season 2, so I’m not gonna say more than that. But I’m just gonna say that.

Others within that GCHQ world are going to wonder, “Okay, how did they get that MAC address?” Because Gabriel, the neurodiverse character who kind of saves the day, says, because Saara said, “How could they, it’s impossible,” and he says, “No, it’s obvious.” And she’s angry, because she doesn’t like to be patronized, and she says, “What he means, well, someone told them.” So, maybe that’s where we might start. You heard it first on Screen Rant.

The Undeclared War Synopsis

The Undeclared War Simon Pegg

Set in 2024 in the run up to a British general election, THE UNDECLARED WAR tracks a leading team of analysts buried in the heart of GCHQ, the UK’s version of the NSA, secretly working to ward off a cyber-attack on the country’s electoral system.

The cast includes Academy Award winner Mark Rylance (“Wolf Hall,” “Bridge of Spies”), Simon Pegg (“Star Trek,” “Mission Impossible”), Adrian Lester (“Riviera,” “Mary Queen of Scots”), Alex Jennings (“A Very English Scandal,” “The Crown”), Maisie Richardson-Sellers (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and exciting newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown.

THE UNDECLARED WAR is co-produced by Playground and NBCUniversal International Studios, a division of Universal Studio Group. Peter Kosminsky will executive produce alongside Colin Callender (“Wolf Hall”, “All Creatures Great and Small”) and Noëlette Buckley (“Wolf Hall”, “King Lear”) for Playground. Robert Jones (“Babylon”) is the Producer. NBCUniversal Global Distribution is handling international sales.

Check out our other interviews with The Undeclared War stars Hannah Khalique-Brown and Simon Pegg.

The Undeclared War is now streaming on Peacock.

Author: Brandon Murphy