Little Birds: Secrets from the set – British giggling, a dreamy soundtrack, dominatrix lessons and free-form sex scenes

We hear from the creators and cast of Sky Atlantic’s erotic melodrama Little Birds about how they brought Anais Nin’s writing to life.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 10 August 2020 - 12.53pm

Watch Little Birds on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV

Set in the heat of 1950s Morocco, Little Birds brings together the political and personal in a steamy and heightened melodrama.

Based on the erotic short stores by Anais Nin, the series stars Juno Temple, Hugh Skinner, Yumna Marwan and Nina Sosanya, and follows the story of a New York heiress who arrives in Tangier in 1955 as political tensions are simmering.

A story about independence, personal discovery and freedom, the Sky Atlantic drama is a red-hot must-watch this summer.

BT TV heard from the cast and creators about how the making of the show, which was filmed in the Spanish town of Tarifa last year…

Made by chicks for chicks

Juno Temple in Little Birds on Sky Atlantic

With a female producer, director and writer, Little Birds has a strong anti-patriarchy tone running through its core.

“I love this story of two women who have two very different backgrounds, different existences on a planet, yet have this this relationship that means they learn how to love themselves,” Temple, who plays series lead Lucy Savage, explained.

“It’s quite rare to get a series about two strong female characters who complement each other.”

What’s also rare in 2020 is to see a series proudly declaring itself a melodrama, but producer Ruth McCance is intent on reclaiming the genre.

“In TV globally melodrama is the biggest genre. It’s only in Anglo-Saxon and North American TV where there is the obsession with investigative storylines. Everywhere else, melodrama is the form of mainstream entertainment,” she said.

“It’s often viewed as very female and for female viewers, and in some ways is disparaged because of that. People saying: ‘It’s just for housewives’.

“But then you have the masters of melodrama from the 50s to the 70s, and this idea that it can be a subversive form.

“So we wanted to reclaim melodrama – it’s not just for housewives… It’s made by chicks for chicks.”

Visiting a London dominatrix

Yumna Marwan, who is making her debut on English-language TV in Little Birds, admits that when she read the scripts, she was stunned that the series was appearing on European TV.

Marwan plays Tangier dominatrix Cherifa, who crosses paths with rich westerner Lucy Savage (Temple). The pair become entangled on a parallel journey to liberty.

“She is a self-made, bad-ass sex worker with gold teeth… I had to play her,” laughs Marwan.

“I thought there was no way this was going on European television. It blew my mind. She’s very sexualised and I felt like there was so much space in the writing to give this woman the proper touch she deserved. She is the best entrance I could get into the Western industry.”

Marwan said that she watched dominatrix porn in preparation for the role, but revealed that the most useful research came from a trip to London.

“I visited an actual dominatrix. She showed me what she used and does, but the best bit was the conversations about her relationships with the clients and the space that she makes,” said Marwan.

“That conversation helped a lot. And luckily for me, one of her clients waiting outside, was happy to let me flog his backside, so I did that.”

Finding the soundtrack of Anais Nin

Hugh Skinner and Juno Temple in Little Birds

Viewers will be enchanted by the dreamy soundtrack of Little Birds, which includes music from Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington and Eartha Kitt.

One significant musical treat in the series is when Jacques Brel’s Au Suivant is performed by a nightclub singer during a moment of discovery for Lucy.

Director Stacie Passon said that the music was inspired by a picture of Jacques Brel that writer Sophia Al-Maria shard with her.

“This sweaty picture of a man, Jacques Brel, just captured my imagination with the way he sang. It felt like the emotion coming off him - it felt very post-war and very traumatic. It felt like a protest song and an anti-war song.”

The musical choices were inspired by a discovery in Anais Nin’s diaries of her own musical passions.

“That was like a piece of treasure,” said Passon. “As Tangier is an international zone, we didn’t restrict to Arab music, French music. We went off the reservation a lot of times. We dropped in songs that Nin liked, by Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lee and a ton of jazz.”

'I had to stop my eyes watering'

Nina Sosanya says her secret fantasy has always been to have the life of a rockstar, so her role as free spirit and entertainer Lili Von X was a dream role.

“I was looking at a breakdown of the character they sent me and she was described as a slightly Eartha Kitt. I had to sing a song in the style of Marlene Dietrich,” said Sosanya,

“I looked at Eartha Kitt and Rita Hayworth a lot, the people who had been looked at all their lives. I based her on people who expected to be looked at and expected cameras everywhere. She’s an amalgamation of all those huge stars in the 40s.”

Talking about the show’s bold and unflinching take on sex, the British actor admitted that she had to quickly adapt to activities on set.

“When you get there and you’re doing the mechanics of things, it’s slightly less erotic,” she said.

“You had to get over the giggling British side you bring to the party. I had to stop my eyes watering.

“But it was all very beautiful. My first day was filming on a beautiful cliff looking out towards Africa with maybe 20 Spanish dancers, who just gave themselves bravely, courageously, openly and inclusively, which set the tone for me with the shoot.”

'Erotica is what the sweat behind your knees taste like'

Capturing the passionate moments in Little Birds required a 'free-form' approach to filming rather than the modern technique of using Intimacy Coordinators, which have proved successful on series such as Normal People and Sex Education.

Hugh Skinner said that the respect the cast has for director Stacie Passon, who previously worked on Amazon Prime Video series Transparent, gave everybody on set the confidence to work on the intimate scenes with confidence,

Passson said: “[The sex scenes] were free-form. I like using intimacy coordinators. But I’ve done a lot of this sort of thing. It really is about trust.

“The role of the director is just to set up the scene, see what happens and hope that everyone feels safe.”

Temple said that when she read Little Birds on a flight to Los Angeles, it was her first introduction to “real erotica”.

“Erotica that is about what the sweat behind the back of your knees tastes like,” she said.

“The idea that you don’t have to see it, but just think about it and the way it makes your insides feel. I remember it being a pretty intense flight for me.”

Watch Little Birds now on Sky Atlantic with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass.

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