All posts by Adam Benzine

Indian independence

Netflix’s acquisition of Richie Mehta’s manhunt series Delhi Crime made waves at this year’s Sundance. Here, the showrunner tells DQ why he decided to plough ahead and make the Hindi-language drama, despite having no broadcasters attached.

Richie Mehta wasn’t planning on making a TV series. The filmmaker – whose predominantly India-set movies include 2007’s Amal and 2013’s Siddharth, as well as the 2016 documentary India in a Day – was in Delhi in 2013 working on a movie script when he crossed paths with family friend Neeraj Kumar, a former commissioner for Delhi’s police force.

“He looked at my script and said, ‘Alright son, forget about this. The story you should be doing is about this gang rape on the bus,’” Mehta tells DQ.

Richie Mehta

The event in question, which forms the basis of Mehta’s seven-part series Delhi Crime, is the infamous December 2012 assault on a private bus in South Delhi, which saw a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern brutally beaten, raped, tortured and murdered by a gang of men.

The horrific crime prompted international shock and condemnation, leading to protests and riots, and forced India into a national reckoning over its treatment of women. “I was in Delhi when it happened; I saw the protests that had arisen, I saw the riots,” Mehta remembers. “It was insane. The whole country was moved.”

A week-long manhunt led to the apprehension of the men responsible. One died in custody, another – a minor at the time of the attack – was sentenced to three years in prison and the remaining four were sentenced to death by hanging.

After mulling the idea, Mehta, who is Indo-Canadian and Toronto-based (and also no relation to filmmaker Deepa Mehta), initially rejected his contact’s proposal, suggesting that a local or female filmmaker might be better placed to tell the story.

Sensing the filmmaker could be swayed, Kumar dismissed his protests. “He said, ‘I have seen your work, I think it should be you. I am going to give you some police files, I’m going to give you the verdict – which is 350 pages – and I’m going to introduce you to all the investigating officers involved, especially the woman who led the investigation, [revealing] how these six guys were caught across the country in six days with no information on them. And if you think there is a story there, I will give you the world on this.’”

Ultimately, the access proved irresistible. “They trusted me with so much information that they had never trusted anyone with,” the showrunner recalls. “As I got all these details, I realised this could be a compassionate look at law and order, done in a way that not only illuminates the issues these people face trying to do the right thing, but also how this manhunt across North India was so sprawling and so varied that each detail revealed another aspect of why this thing happened.”

Delhi Crime stars Shefali Shah as lead investigator Vartika Chaturvedi

With such extraordinary access, one might wonder why Mehta chose to make a drama, rather than a documentary. But he says the open doors came with caveats.

“Whenever I would meet the Delhi police and talk to them, they would say, ‘You’re not recording this, are you?’ because they could be held accountable. It’s a very media-savvy culture and they would get nailed. So I would say, ‘No, I am taking notes.’ They were telling me really intimate details about their lives, but they would say, ‘If you want to recreate it, go ahead. You can generalise this point but please don’t make it specific to me.’

“So, I realised I could actually be more truthful if I depicted it dramatically rather than with a documentary, of which there have been many. People would come from the CBC and the BBC to interview them and they would just tell them what they wanted to hear, because that was the safe thing for them.”

After opting for a dramatic approach, there was still the question of whether to make a movie or an episodic work. It was former high-ranking HBO executive David Levine who first convinced Mehta to adapt the story into a TV series, rather than a feature. (Levine stepped down as HBO’s exec VP and co-head of drama in February, after more than a decade with the pay TV network, to become Anonymous Content’s president of television.)

“He said, ‘Why don’t you go write it and then I can look at it,’” Mehta recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a TV series.’ So he said, ‘I will give you all the research material from The Wire and I will teach you how to write a series.’ And so for two years he taught me how to write a series based on that material, purely because he wanted to see this exist. He’s a wonderful person and a real collaborator.”

The show focuses on a horrific real-life crime that took place in December 2012

As the months passed, the filmmaker would send various drafts to the exec, receiving notes and rewriting accordingly. “One of the things I learned from my HBO tutelage, in a series like this, it’s that it’s the opposite of a film’s priorities,” he explains. “It’s world first, character second and plot third, which is the exact opposite of what you would do with a film.

“If you have a supermarket paperback, its plot-oriented,” he adds. “Whereas if you have a piece of literature, you have your tree trunk, which is the plot, and you have the branches, which are character digressions that add to the world. You are allowed to do that in this space, versus in a film where you are not. That became a guiding light for me. Yes, the trunk is the plot of this manhunt, but really the value of this tree is the leaves that come from the branches.”

Despite Levine’s support, broadcasters and networks – including HBO – were skittish about the prospect of taking on such a dark work. “In the West, they would say, ‘It’s Hindi language; not really for us,’” says Mehta. “And in India they said, ‘We don’t want to touch this.’ I would take it to broadcasters and they would say it was too controversial.”

With traditional TV doors closed, Mehta turned to independent financiers to tell the story, securing investment from Mumbai-based Golden Karavan and Hong Kong-based Ivanhoe Pictures (the latter of which coproduced last year’s rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians) to shoot in New Delhi.

Actor Shefali Shah (Monsoon Wedding, Juice) was tapped for the role of lead investigator Vartika Chaturvedi, with a supporting cast that includes Adil Hussain (Life of Pi, Hotel Salvation), Denzil Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Rasika Dugal (Qissa, Manto) and Rajesh Tailang (Siddharth, Selection Day). Mehta’s Canadian ties qualify the project as a Canuck coproduction, with all the series’ postproduction sound and music work having been completed in Toronto.

Netflix picked up global rights to the show in January

Heading into production with no broadcaster attached constituted a significant risk. But the gamble paid off this January when Netflix purchased global rights to the series at the Sundance Film Festival, in a landmark deal that marks the first major global rights, scripted episodic sale in the festival’s history. Such deals have been commonplace for years for feature films, but with Sundance only in its second year of hosting an independent episodic strand, the acquisition is the first of its kind.

While the first two episodes screened at Sundance under the title Delhi Crime Story, Netflix has retitled the series as simply Delhi Crime, with all seven episodes dropping globally on March 22. The streaming giant also plans to build the show into an anthology series, telling further Indian crime stories under the banner.

Simran Sethi, the streamer’s director of international originals, describes the series as “an important story told with sensitivity and responsibility,” adding: “Shows like this bring a much-needed lens to the lived reality of women around the world.”

Mehta reflects that the acquisition brings a happy ending to what was, in many respects, “a huge gamble” for his international producers. “For me, the risk was time and energy, but they rolled the dice and put in their money,” he says.

“And it was a huge risk because it was a very controversial subject and it was a big project. There were more than 200 actors, 400 locations and seven hours of content. And they were gracious enough to give me the freedom to figure it out.”

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Loss leader

Kit Steinkellner’s widow-focused drama Sorry for Your Loss has given Facebook’s Watch platform its first real episodic hit. Here, the showrunner discusses making a ‘traumedy’ for an audience of two billion.

Sorry For Your Loss is not Facebook’s first drama series.

With teen-focused dramas on its slate such as Turnt, Five Points and Skam Austin, the social media giant has, since April of this year, begun to establish a foothold in scripted episodic content.

Nevertheless, Sorry for Your Loss – with its dark themes, complex characters and an A-list star in Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Infinity War, Wind River) – clearly stands out as a bold and unusual tentpole property, marking a major turning point for the Menlo Park-headquartered tech firm as it muscles into the territory traditionally dominated by the likes of HBO, Showtime and Starz.

The series centres on recently widowed writer Leigh Shaw (Olsen) and her immediate family, including her sister (Kelly Marie Tran), mother (Janet McTeer) and brother-in-law (Jovan Adepo), who are all grieving the loss of Shaw’s husband Matt (played in flashbacks by Mamoudou Athie).

“I’ve heard it called a ‘sad comedy,’ a ‘traumedy’ and a ‘half-hour to ease the pain,’” showrunner Kit Steinkellner tells DQ. “There just wasn’t much in the landscape like it. So it was by no means a slam dunk or an easy sell, but I knew it was a show and I knew it was mine to tell. I didn’t know if it would be possible to make it, but I knew it was worth trying.”

Steinkellner had previously worked as a writer on Amazon Studios’ cancelled-after-one-season Zelda Fitzgerald period drama Z: The Beginning of Everything, and earlier worked as a playwright, but Sorry for Your Loss marked her first time as showrunner.

“I don’t think anything really prepares you for this job,” she says. “Michael Schur [creator of The Good Place] has this quote that ‘being a showrunner is three full-time jobs plus problems.’ That’s a very good way of summing it up.”

As a writer, she was inspired to pen the series after a year in which several people in her life passed away. “Death felt like this ever-present spectre and I just felt very vulnerable and unsafe in the world,” she recalls. “I was really wrestling with that. So I started dreaming up this story about this young woman who could really survive this impossible thing, and I grew to love this character and the people in her life.”

After meeting with a variety of producers, Steinkellner describes the “magical moment” she crossed paths with Robin Schwartz, head of the TV division at Big Beach.

“I just knew we were supposed to work on this thing together: she loved it as much as I did, she was going to advocate for it like no one else I had met with, and so it made a lot of sense to work together.” It was Schwartz who delivered the pilot script to Olsen, who in turn responded favourably to the material.

Nevertheless, Sorry for Your Loss was not always destined for the world’s most populated social network. Before Facebook picked up the show, US cablenet Showtime acquired the property and took it through a development cycle.

Sorry for Your Loss creator Kit Steinkellner with James Ponsoldt, who directed four episodes of the series (photo: Presley Ann, WireImageGetty for TIFF)

“It was a really positive experience,” Steinkellner recalls, “but ultimately they were just not able to commit to moving forward on the timeline we were on, so we ended up taking it back.

“We gave them a date when we needed to move forward and I think they were very passionate about the show, but we weren’t able to come to an agreement. It was going to be a protracted process, and we knew the show was vital and essential; we really wanted to take a chance and try to figure out if there was a partner who was able to move more quickly on it.”

After parting ways with Showtime, Steinkellner and Schwartz took the series back out to market, shopping it to buyers that had initially been interested prior to the cable platform’s involvement. Most notably, in the time since they were first under option, Facebook had launched its Watch platform in the spring of 2017.

“The minute we heard their doors were open, I was so excited by the opportunity,” Steinkellner says. “There are new buyers springing up all the time, but not something like Facebook, which is a household name.

“Being able to be a show on a platform with 2.5 billion subscribers, to be able to have that kind of reach and to have no paywall or barrier, and have it really be a show that could be watched and consumed by anybody with a Facebook account… that was really exciting to me.”

Sorry for Your Loss stars Elizabeth Olsen as recently widowed writer Leigh Shaw

Despite Facebook’s outlier status in the global content industry, Steinkellner says the show’s production process was, in many respects, very typical for a half-hour drama.

“In terms of the [writers] room, the production, the post, we made this like a traditional cable-streaming series. It’s interesting; I say ‘traditional’ streaming series, but how long has streaming been traditional for?” she laughs. “But we made this like we would make a Showtime or HBO show, or like you would make a Netflix or Hulu show.

“The actual construction of the individual stories and the season as a whole was pretty standard. We just tried to make the best TV show possible.”

Where the show was able to cater to Facebook specifically was in its ancillary content, Steinkellner adds.

“Knowing that there’s going to be a comments section below every story, knowing that it’s going to be dropping into people’s newsfeeds, knowing that it obviously deals with some sensitive topics and that we’re going to have immediate clickable resources right there on the same page that you’re watching the show… I would say we made the show pretty traditionally, but in terms of all the extras, that’s where things start to get pretty interesting and cool.”

Nevertheless, the show’s writing team did have to deal with the elephant in the room – namely references to Facebook itself. As Steinkellner recalls: “We had a Facebook reference on the first page of the pilot. When Leigh’s talking about infographics, the original script reads, ‘I was on Facebook the other day, and I saw this infographic,’ and we actually took out that reference because it just felt so gratuitous… in the first minute into the show, we didn’t want it to feel like a plug.”

But by the show’s fourth episode, a character makes reference to a group for lost dogs on the social media platform. “Facebook is a part of people’s lives, that’s actually what they would say in real life, so it felt like we didn’t want to be gratuitous but we also didn’t want to be inauthentic; we want the characters to say what they actually would say. This is a tool you use for so many things, and these characters aren’t luddites – they’re all on Facebook.”

Sorry for Your Loss on Facebook Watch

Steinkellner adds that, despite the wealth of user information available to the social media platform, she has had no conversations with execs yet regarding data, analytics or metrics for success.

“All our conversations, with Mina [Lefevre, head of development], with Facebook, regarding the creative of the show have been strictly creative,” she says. “It’s all been about finding a way to make a story sing, finding a way to clarify a plot point… it’s all been strictly creative. We’ve never had any kind of conversation about metrics or data with regards to the actual storytelling.”

And while Steinkellner won’t get into the “nitty gritty” of how much the show cost to make, she says “we are absolutely on par with a traditional cable or streaming half-hour.”

In releasing the show, Facebook opted for a sort of semi-binge model that mixed the immediacy of Netflix with the slow release of traditional TV. After Sorry for Your Loss had its world premiere at Canada’s prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, the social media platform dropped the first four episodes of the show all at once on September 18, with two episodes a week then following until all 10 episodes were public.

“I love the era we live in, where there is the binge model and the weekly model, but exploring the ‘semi-binge model’ is exciting to me. I think it’s going to play well over the course of a month.”

No decision has been made as to whether the show will return for a second season, but a renewal seems likely. Facebook won’t release viewing figures for the drama, but it has met with widespread critical acclaim, being described as “terrific” by Vox, “gorgeous and poignant” by The Atlantic and “revelatory” by Vanity Fair.

“My job was to make one great season of television and I feel like I did that, with a lot of help,” Steinkellner reflects. “I feel we made a wonderful season of television. But the door’s absolutely open – if we have the opportunity – to make more of the story; I have so much more story to tell.

“But for now I feel great about the story we did get to make. It’s its own novel, and if we get to write a sequel, that would be great too.”

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Returning to Gilead

In the first instalment of a two-part feature, the cast of acclaimed dystopian epic The Handmaid’s Tale reflect on the challenges in store for the Hulu series’ hotly anticipated second season.

Praise be! The television breakout of 2017, Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, returns to US screens next week for its second season.

Set in a post-apocalyptic US that has been violently commandeered by religious zealots, the MGM Studios-made show centres on the life of Offred (Elisabeth Moss, pictured above), a woman forced into sexual slavery as a child-bearing ‘Handmaid’ in the nightmarish society of Gilead, serving the corrupt Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

In spite of – or perhaps because of – its bleak tone, the show became an unexpected cultural reference point during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, with protesters across the country donning the show’s signature red robes to protest over women’s rights issues throughout the calendar year. Publications ranging from Time and The Nation to The New York Times and The Atlantic fell over themselves to write think pieces about the show’s relevancy and urgency.

The first season went on to sweep the board come awards season, winning eight Emmys, a trio of Critics Choice Awards and two Golden Globes, including the outstanding drama series prize at all three ceremonies. Adapted from the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale depleted most of the book’s source material in its first season, leaving showrunner Bruce Miller free to chart an original course for the sophomore outing, which lands on Hulu next Wednesday.

In the show, Offred seeks to flee the ruins of the US for refugee safe haven of Canada, which – perhaps fittingly or perhaps ironically – is where the American series is filmed.

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale moves beyond the events of Margaret Atwood’s book

On a cold and rainy day in late February, DQ travelled an hour or so from Toronto to the town of Hamilton, Ontario, to observe filming of the ninth and 10th episodes of the second season’s 13-episode run. “We have shot outside in the winter and I look at the Canadians, who look as if it is a spring day; they never look cold and they never complain about the weather,” says actor Ann Dowd. “Meanwhile, the Americans are huddled in a corner, begging for their lives.”

Dowd won an Emmy and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as the villainous Aunt Lydia in the drama’s first season. Commuting from her home in New York for the eight-month Ontario shoot, she jokes that she finds the Canadians’ imperviousness to cold weather “deeply annoying.”

In returning to a character as cruel as Aunt Lydia, who is in charge of the Handmaids, Dowd notes that “you have to step away from judgement” and embrace the role in full. “To come to know a character well is like a friendship or a relationship,” she says. “If there is judgement, there is only so far you are going to get.

“I can understand from the outside that Lydia could be called an evil character, certainly a dark character, but I think from her perspective – and, therefore, from my perspective – she believes she is doing the only thing that will keep those girls alive in this world. As far as Lydia is concerned, I don’t think she sees any other way to get it through to them. She is a big believer in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’”

Dowd acknowledges the show returns to screens with a weight of hype and anticipation that wasn’t present when it launched. The success of season one has been transformative for Hulu, demonstrating that it can compete as a premium drama network in much the same way that Mad Men did for AMC, or House of Cards for Netflix.

Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes as the Waterfords

“What a wonderful problem to have,” she reflects. “The great thing about the work in this business is that they are 15-hour days. I say great, even if it brings me to my knees, because the chatter, the publicity, the awards, the award shows… all of that falls away when you are doing the work.

“Plus, I am 62 now. Can I just say that age is underrated? Because after a while, all of that chatter falls away and you realise you don’t have to pay attention to anything at all except what is in front of you today, and today I am going to tackle a scene which is very challenging.”

During DQ’s visit, the cast and crew are filming at a beautiful, ivy-coated, three-storey heritage building in rural Hamilton. Familiar to viewers as the home of the Waterfords, the Bankier House – which dates back to 1893 and takes its name from its original owner, lawyer Patrick Bankier – is doubling for a fictitious residence in Boston.

Returning from a disastrous trip, the episode sees Commander Waterford and Serena Joy, portrayed by Fiennes and Strahovski respectively, ascending a staircase and wearily retiring to their separate bedrooms. It’s 18.30 as the first take starts, and filming will continue until midnight.

During a break from shooting, Strahovski tells DQ that her character’s relationship with Moss’s Offred “ebbs and flows in more dramatic ways” and “has become even more complicated” in the second season.

Viewers can expect an even more cinematic experience in the second run

Despite their adversarial positions, “there is closeness that is found between us, because of certain circumstances that arise in the household. Negotiating that, given the circumstances that already exist, is very complex.

“It just seems to be a bit of a rollercoaster journey in that particular relationship, which is so interesting for me because it was already so heavy and guarded, and there was so much envy and frustration and anger towards her,” she says of her character’s feelings about Offred.

During the first season, critics were quick to draw comparisons between the powerful Joy and some of the most prominent women in the Trump administration, such as Melania and Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway.

“A lot of people saw parallels, and I don’t blame them at all,” Strahovski says. “Our show is incredibly relatable and potent right now because of Trump’s America and everything that’s going on with women’s rights, all the new stuff that’s arising. But we became accidentally aligned with that, because we started shooting the show well before the presidential election.

“As with any character, I approached this one the same way, in that I stripped away all the judgements you can place on Serena. Having read the book, I see she is bitchy, but once you strip all of that away and realise she is a woman who doesn’t have any trust or faith in her husband anymore, in her marriage, she doesn’t have any intimacy with her husband, those raw emotions were my springboard into shaping her further… connecting with her emotionally and finding that humanity in her.”

Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen toils in the ‘colonies’

The Australian-born Strahovski adds: “I don’t think anyone, ultimately, thought this was going to have such a massive impact, and that this show was going to become a show of resistance, particularly the ‘Handmaid’ red outfit. It’s incredible to be part of this positive movement where we are getting to talk more freely and more openly about women’s issues.”

British actor Max Minghella, who plays the shadowy Nick, the Waterfords’ driver and Offred’s love interest, echoes her sentiment. Having initially signed on for just a minor part in the show’s pilot, Minghella takes on a significantly expanded role in season two.

“It’s been a fascinating thing to be a part of something that actually has become relevant in a way none of us anticipated, predicated or necessarily intended,” he says. “The fact that we have become a part of a bigger conversation is kind of remarkable.”

In returning to the show, “I was nervous there might be some kind of shift in tonality on the set,” he says, “but there isn’t at all; everyone’s very work-focused. It’s an ambitious thing to try to continue the story beyond Margaret’s book, which is astonishing, but to have her hand in it – to have her blessing – I think gives us the confidence to keep telling the story.

“And certainly, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, I think it is stronger than last year. It feels more cinematic to me, it feels richer. There is an artistry to it which I think we are all craving more and more in this media.”

The red robes worn by Handmaids have become a symbol of women’s rights protests

Indeed, the cinematic quality has been a source of recurring praise for the US streaming service’s breakout hit, offering further evidence of the oft-discussed crumbling barrier between television and cinema.

“The whole of television, the whole platform has shifted into new, exciting territory with budget, talent and production value, and with writers that have come from cinema,” says Fiennes, who earned a Bafta nomination earlier in his career for his role in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. “I think this is the television golden age and you really feel that in this production.”

Reflecting on his character, Commander Fred Waterford, Fiennes says that “like many men in positions of great power, who believe they are untouchable and who think they can get away with things, he breaks the rules. And I think this is something we see all the time in that area of authority; it’s very human.”

He also acknowledges that his role has taken on a particular resonance in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, with his character standing in for the many men who use their powerful positions to abuse women.

“Before Harvey Weinstein there was Roger Ailes at the Fox News network, and there are many white men in big positions of power,” Fiennes reflects. “We see it. It’s right the way through history, and when the book [The Handmaid’s Tale] was conceived and written, it was happening then.

“Every day you are reminded of regimes, theocracies and patriarchal rulers, that is what is really startling to me. And they are all human, they are all fallible. I think a lot of it is to do with repression; you give a person with deep repression great power and you are in danger of creating someone like Fred,” he adds. “That is maybe a simplistic breakdown, but I am fascinated by that. There is a benign ineptitude that he is aware of, but he has been given a desk and he’s been given a power position.”

As for the show’s storyline now that the events of the book have been expended and the story is heading off-piste, Fiennes offers enthusiasm. The second season promises to expand upon the world established in the first, showing life in the toxic ‘colonies,’ the free country of Canada and using a flashbacks to explain how Gilead came to be.

“It’s rather like doing a great classical play, where someone in the front row has got the book and is muttering the soliloquies along with you,” he remarks. “Now they can’t. They are forced to enjoy a new narrative, so there is a departure. I think it is 100% authentic to the book and to the first season – darker and creepier in many respects, but still authentic.

“It liberates everyone to a point of just enjoying the narrative for the first time; that’s what is really special.”

Stay tuned for the second part of this feature, which will include interviews with showrunner Bruce Miller, director Jeremy Podeswa and DOP Colin Watkinson.

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Quebert in Quebec

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud takes the reins and actor Patrick Dempsey returns to the small screen in The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a 10-part murder-mystery series from Epix, MGM and TF1. DQ visits the set.

But for the sign that reads ‘Maine State Police Station’ and the fact the road has been closed off by police, there’s little to suggest anything is amiss on a quiet street in Quebec’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

Situated about 40 kilometres south-east of Montreal and not far from the border with Vermont, the scene is set for a police press conference. Outside an inconspicuous office building, imitation news cameras and news vans blend in with actual film equipment and transport vans, blurring the lines between the stage and the outside world. To most passers-by, it probably looks like an actual press conference is taking place.

It’s late November 2017 and the final stretch of principal photography on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, an ambitious 10-part miniseries being made by MGM Television, Barbary Films and Eagle Pictures, is under way. Based on the acclaimed second novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker, the adaptation is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy), Ben Schnetzer (Snowden), Damon Wayans Jr (Singularity) and Virginia Madsen (Sideways).

The show is set to open France’s inaugural Canneseries TV festival, screening out of competition on April 7, before airing on Epix in the US and TF1 in France. MGM will be selling rights for other territories at MipTV, shortly after the Canneseries premiere.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair director Jean-Jacques Annaud (left) with Joel Dicker (the author of the book)

The murder mystery sees Schnetzer playing Marcus Goldman, a young novelist seeking inspiration for his next book. As he arrives in New Hampshire to stay with his college professor, the titular Harry Quebert (Dempsey), the body of a teenager who disappeared more than three decades ago is discovered, implicating Quebert.

The show marks Annaud’s first foray into directing for TV. Having won an Oscar with his 1976 debut La Victoire en Chantant, he’s best known for helming a string of Hollywood features including 1986’s The Name of the Rose, 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet and 2001’s Enemy at the Gates.

Nevertheless, he has spent recent years contemplating a move to the small screen. “I saw that television was taking the lead in terms of storytelling and more mature material,” he says during a break on set. Having read Dicker’s novel two years ago, Annaud was initially offered it as a film, “but as I was turning the pages, there were so many interesting characters and so many twists in the story that I said, ‘This is the perfect moment for me to say yes to television, for a 10-episode miniseries.’

“There were also other factors: I’ve been used to rather large movies with long setups, and the idea of moving quicker is something that appeals to me.”

Annaud’s idea of “quicker” appears to be an understatement. On set, crew remark that most day’s shoots are remarkably tight and rarely go into the night. “We’re moving fast, therefore we’re moving with energy, keeping in mind that we have to tell the grand story and not worry so much about the little details, reflections in mirrors, things like that,” the director explains. “And I must say I enjoy the process immensely.

Annaud preparing for a scene with Kristine Froseth (Nola) and Patrick Dempsey (Harry Quebert)

“I was not too sure if I was going to direct all 10 episodes, but MGM insisted. And, as a matter of fact, I like being in control. I don’t know how several directors could have adjusted to know the intimacy of each character, the complexity.”

Annaud’s approach to the series has been to shoot it “like a 10-hour movie in segments.” As such, the team are block-shooting on location, rather than filming episodically. “It’s good for the budget, it’s good for the energy and it’s very efficient,” he notes.

In shooting at speed, he is reverting to a technique that he developed nearly four decades ago, while filming Paleolithic period drama Quest for Fire, which won an Oscar for best make-up. While making the 1981 film, “I could not do many shots because the make-up would be ruined, so I was shooting three cameras all the time,” he explains. “But it was three cameras with very different angles, which allows great coverage and also puts the actors in a situation where they know that if it’s good, then take one, without rehearsal, is going to be the take.

“If camera A is not good, it’s usually good on camera B or C. And that gives them great energy on the set, it’s terrific,” he adds. “[Seven Samurai director Akira] Kurosawa used to do that.”

By 10.00, the crew are keen to proceed with the day’s filming, but the weather is proving problematic. It’s supposed to be autumn in New England, so they use leaf blowers and shovels to clear snow from the set. But it is falling as fast as they can remove it. For now, they will have to wait.

Patrick Dempsey is best known for starring in Grey’s Anatomy

In the first of two scenes, Schnetzer arrives at the police station and exits a taxi, walking briskly inside while talking on his phone. The second sees him and Wayans Jr departing the station together, walking and talking as they head to the latter’s police cruiser.

“I kind of play the audience’s role within the series, so my character sees the twists to the story at the same time the audience sees them,” Schnetzer explains. “Because we’ve shot the series as a movie, it hasn’t been shot episodically, it’s almost like shooting a 500-page film. I’ve had to do a lot more work chronologically, figuring out where in the story we are now – that’s definitely been an undertaking.”

Nevertheless, the actor notes that the line between film and TV “has become much more blurred” over the past five years, “particularly with a limited series or a 10-episode miniseries, which is a great medium to adapt a novel because you don’t have to be as ruthless in what you cut.”

With Quebec doubling for New England, today’s shoot takes place in the series’ near-present-day timeline of 2008. More challenging, however, have been Harry Quebert’s 1975 flashbacks, which have required a completely different look, comprising set design, VFX and hair and make-up.

Among those adopting a period look for the series is Tessa Mossey, an emerging actor originally from Canada’s Prince Edward Island. The teenager plays young prom queen and love interest-of-sorts Jenny Quinn in the show’s flashbacks, with Victoria Clark as the present-day version of the character.

“There’s a whole other level of preparation when it comes to entering a different time period,” Mossey offers between takes. “I find, especially with a character like Jenny, that the people who were popular at that time, the music that was popular, all of that plays a such big part of her identity.

“She wants her hair to look like Farrah Fawcett’s, she wants her eyelashes to look like Twiggy’s… she has all of these people she really looks up to and whom influence her identity, which she thinks is so important to how people view her. So the time period is very influential in creating that aesthetic.”

In addition, the series employs considerable hair and make-up to age its characters. In the case of lead actor Dempsey, who is returning to television following 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, this has involved making him look both older and younger for the show’s 30-year time leaps.

“With ageing him down, what we can do is kind of limited,” explains series make-up designer Émilie Gauthier. “It’s pretty much beauty make-up and we’re going to do a little bit of VFX in post.”

Adding extra years to Dempsey has been considerably more work, however. “We understand that he’s about 35 in 1975, so he now has to be about 68,” Gauthier says. That entails about three-and-a-half hours’ worth of make-up each day. “He has one big neck piece, three other pieces on the jaw and near the nose, and then we work by hand around the eyes, with a process we call stippling.”

Beyond the hair and make-up, director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou – a frequent collaborator with Annaud – has been the one charged with creating instantly identifiable, unique visuals for the series’ time periods. “The main requirement from Jean-Jacques was to set up, visually, the two time periods straight away,” says Dreujou.

“It was most important that the viewer could see immediately what period it was, because the series is complicated as far as the flashbacks – and the flashbacks within the flashbacks – are concerned. It’s essential to know exactly where you are as soon as you see the picture, between 1975 and the other years in the film.”

Both the DoP and the director express their love for shooting in Canada, which they have now done on multiple occasions, and cite the talent and professionalism of Canuck crews in addition to the country’s generous system of tax credits.

After lunch, the temperature on set drops from -4°C (25°F) to -8°C. Schnetzer and Wayans Jr, dressed in light, autumnal jackets, thrust their hands in their pockets between takes, hopping from foot to foot in a bid to stay warm.

At least the brisk pace of filming offers some respite from the biting cold. Annaud “really knows what he wants and he gets what he wants; you just have to be prepared to do one or two takes,” remarks Wayans Jr, who plays the show’s lead investigator, Sgt Gahalowood.

“You’re always on your toes because he’s gonna move quick, he’s moving on,” he adds. “I’ve honestly never been on anything that goes this fast, but it’s a fun exercise, I like it. You don’t really have the chance to ramp up into a scene; you have to make sure that you’re there already, as much as possible.”

Annaud grins in agreement. “They feel the energy, they feel the story,” the director says, preparing for another scene. “Everybody knows they have to be good first take; the focus pullers, the actors… they know that if they don’t know their lines, they’ll look stupid, so it’s internal competition for everyone.”

Our conversation is interrupted as an out-of-breath crewman runs up to inform that it’s time to shoot. “I’m sorry,” the runner interjects, “but before it snows again, we need to get this right now.”

And with that, Annaud’s headphones slip over his ears, cameras slide into position and the director is back behind a monitor for another rapid take.

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Dark days

The showrunners behind Netflix’s first original German production, supernatural thriller Dark, tell DQ why auteur filmmakers are migrating from big screen to small.

When Netflix commissioners were looking for creatives to helm what would become the global streaming giant’s first original German series production, they turned to the film festival circuit.

As with previous Netflix shows such as The OA and Dear White People, which came from the minds of Britt Marling and Justin Simian respectively, the subscription service sought out indie auteur filmmakers – specifically, the director-writer duo of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese.

The husband-and-wife pair had scored a hit at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with their hacker thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, and Netflix approached them to see if they would be keen to adapt the movie into a series. “We said no,” Odar recalls, “because we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We get bored easily and we like to live in a world for a couple of months and then leave it and go into another world.”

Nevertheless, he and Friese had other ideas in mind, including a missing-teen thriller that blended elements of Nordic noir (think shows such as The Killing and Trapped) with a supernatural twist (à la Stranger Things and Les Revenants).

L-R: Dark creators and showrunners Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Netflix’s Eric Barmack, and exec producers Quirin Berg and Justyna Muesch

“Dark was an idea we’d had for a very long time, in different forms,” Odar says. “The title always stayed the same, like a good band, but the music changed. It was once a feature film, which was more like a Stephen King, It kind of story and then it morphed into a very typical crime story for the UK market.”

After shelving the idea for a period and later returning to it, the pair finally decided “to combine it with another idea we had, which was a supernatural twist idea, and all of a sudden a new world opened up for us,” Odar explains. “That’s what we pitched Netflix and they immediately loved the idea – that combination of family drama TV show meets supernatural phenomena.”

Dark takes place in a small German town that’s living in the shadow of a soon-to-close nuclear power plant. The disappearance of a teenage boy marks the start of a series of eerie events, putting the show’s large cast (consisting of some 72 characters) increasingly on edge.

“We both come from a small town and we’ve always been interested in the secrets and sins of people living in small towns,” says Friese, the show’s writer and co-creator. “What really happens with your neighbours and what dark avarices can you find behind their front door?”

After previewing Dark’s first two episodes at TIFF in September, Netflix launched the 10-part German-language series globally in December. The show was produced by German indie Wiedemann & Berg Film (Who Am I, Welcome to Germany), with Justyna Muesch, Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann as executive producers alongside Friese and Odar. Amanda Krentzman, Netflix senior manager for international originals, is the exec producer for the streamer.

The series centres on the disappearance of a teenage boy

Friese says making the move from the world of feature films to TV was a liberating experience “because basically you have someone who says, ‘OK, this is your idea, this is how you want to make it, go ahead and make it.’ And then you just start right into it.”

She adds: “In Germany, you have so many people who have their own agenda, and when they put money into a project you get lots of notes; you kind of lose your train of thought with what you wanted to do. But it was very different with Netflix.”

Netflix’s first German series commission marks just one of a series of international initiatives to be unveiled by the streaming giant in recent months. The company made headlines in September when it unveiled a controversial, five-year original production strategy in Canada, worth some C$500m (US$398.85m). The move, announced in partnership with the Canadian government, represents Netflix’s first commissioning hub outside the US and will result in original titles in both English and French.

The same month, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Spoor, Europa Europa) signed up to direct the SVoD service’s first original Polish series. The as-yet-untitled, eight-episode show will be a Cold War spy thriller, shot in cities in Poland. Written and created by Joshua Long, it promises to deliver an alternative reality in which the Iron Curtain never fell.

And a month later, Netflix detailed its first Middle Eastern production: a comedy special starring Lebanese comedian and actor Adel Karam, which is expected to launch this year.

Dark landed on Netflix around the world in December

Despite Dark being touted as Netflix’s flagship German production, with a second season recently confirmed, Odar and Friese say they did not set out to create a particularly German-feeling show. “We always try to create stories that work internationally because we watch movies and series from all over the world and want the same with our stories,” Odar explains. “We like genre mixes. We’re influenced a lot by South Korean movies, which do that a lot, such as Bong Joon-Ho’s movies like The Host or Mother. He always combines comedy with horror, or comedy with crime, and we like that. For us, a typical thriller gets pretty boring.

“So we didn’t approach this project trying to make just a German show or just an international show; it should be for everyone.”

As for Dark’s distinct visual style, Friese says the team worked with director of photography Nikolaus Summerer to craft an offbeat suburban landscape that was partly inspired by the work of New York-based photographer Gregory Crewdson.

“He does this photography of suburbia where you have these really wide shots where, for example, you have a person standing naked with a suitcase, and you have no idea what’s happening. It’s like mystery photography. It creates this suspense. That was actually a starting point to find the look we were searching for.”

Odar adds that the creative freedom afforded by Netflix, combined with the flexibility to create something of scale and scope, came in stark contrast to the typical constraints of feature cinema. “Most filmmakers right now feel that creating a series, or a limited series, is much more intriguing or interesting, because you actually tell stories that studios don’t tell anymore on the big screen,” he says. “Nowadays it’s all superheroes, sequels, reboots and stuff like that, and that’s pretty boring for a filmmaker.

“We like some of the Marvel movies, but you can’t just wash away the market with superhero movies. It’s very boring. A cheeseburger is great, especially when you have a hangover, but you can’t have a cheeseburger every day.

“That’s the new future for filmmakers right now,” Odar adds, “something like Netflix or Amazon, where you can actually go and tell a drama. No one is making drama for the [movie] theatre anymore, or, if they are, it’s so small and low budget that no one watches it, which is also very frustrating for a filmmaker.”

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Handmaid to measure

Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield discusses the success of The Handmaid’s Tale and the lessons he learnt making the leap from broadcaster to producer. 

With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (above) scoring 13 Primetime Emmy nominations and FX’s Fargo earning six, Warren Littlefield has a hand in two of the biggest shows on TV right now.

Warren Littlefield

But it is with the The Handmaid’s Tale, a gritty adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 novel, that the former NBC Entertainment president – who serves as an executive producer on both aforementioned series – has found a cultural phenomenon.

The 10-part drama, which airs on Hulu in the US, Channel 4 in the UK and Bravo in Canada, has found a dark mirror in current affairs. Across the US, protesters have taken to wearing red robes and white bonnets – the attire of the titular handmaids in Attwood’s dystopia – to raise awareness of hot-button political issues such as Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.

The show has a “grotesque timeliness” in the age of Trump, according to The New Yorker, and as the series finale wrapped in the UK at the end of July, “No television event has hit such a nerve,” proclaimed The Guardian.

The maelstrom of contemporary resonance is not lost on Littlefield. “Margaret’s work has been relevant since the time she published it and any time within the last 32 years would have been a perfectly good time to adapt her book,” he tells DQ. “We felt that relevancy rising, and then we were in the middle of production – deep in the middle of shooting the series – when Trump won the election. And that became a new level of ‘we better not fuck this up.’

“When the development process was going on, we were in a Barack Obama world, but clearly there was a sense that Brexit was a loud, loud alarm that went off,” he adds. “You could see it and you could feel it, throughout the globe, that rise of the right and the alt-right. We were a country that was becoming more and more divided.”

Though Hulu renewed the show for a second season in May, The Handmaid’s Tale began its journey to the small screen with MGM and exec producer Ilene Chaiken originally developing it for Showtime. When the US cablenet passed on the project, streaming service Hulu saw a chance and moved in.

Billy Bob Thornton in the first season of FX’s Fargo

“Hulu said, ‘We really like the idea of doing this as a series; our choice would be to start with another writer.’ Ilene had gone off and done Empire [on Fox] and they said, ‘Let’s do two scripts and begin again,’” Littlefield explains.

“That was acceptable to MGM, so Hulu and MGM interviewed a lot of writers. Ultimately, [showrunner] Bruce Miller came in and said, ‘OK, I know I’m not a woman, and if I were you I would hire a woman to develop this property. But, since I’m here in the room and you’ve granted me this meeting, this is my take on how I would do it.’ And they said, ‘Wow, he gets it.’”

WME, which represents both Littlefield and The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss, approached the exec to see if he was interested in coming aboard. At the time, Littlefield was exec producing FX’s anthology crime dramedy Fargo, which had just won him a Primetime Emmy.

“I read it and said, ‘This is incredible material,’” Littlefield recalls. “I was ramping up to do Fargo [season] three, so on a practical level this made no sense, but I just said to Lizzie [Moss], ‘I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk away from this opportunity.’”

While showrunner Miller was acute enough to realise that a show centred on female repression would take flack for not being helmed by a woman, he and Littlefield preempted some criticism by filling the crew with female talent, including most prominently in the writing and directing departments.

Littlefield worked on influential sitcom Seinfeld during his time at NBC Entertainment

Of the hires, the biggest bet the team took was in hiring acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano to direct the show’s first three episodes.

“She had very little directing experience,” Littlefield recalls. “She didn’t have an Oscar, she had never done a pilot. She was an award-winning DP, but had almost no experience as a director, and yet we felt that she was the right person, that she understood what to do with this material.

“If I were at a traditional network, a) they wouldn’t have done the show, but b) they never would have signed off on Reed Morano. And we hired her for the first hour and then I said, ‘I’m looking at the schedule, and I think she’s going to do all three. That’s what I want to do.’”

In many ways, making a dystopian SVoD drama is a step far removed from the 24-episode realm of broadcast sitcoms where Littlefield cut his teeth.

As a protégé of the late Brandon Tartikoff, he climbed the ranks, serving as senior and then exec VP at NBC Entertainment, before rising to the role of president – a post he held from 1993 to 1998. During that time, he oversaw a primetime line-up that included Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, ER, Cheers and Frasier.

Nevertheless, he says lessons learned from his broadcast days are still applicable today.

“There was a philosophy that the late and wonderful [former NBC chairman and CEO] Grant Tinker helped instil in us, when we were young programmers and broadcasters, and that is: respect the audience,” Littlefield says. “We tried to aim high in my NBC years, and audiences rewarded us for that.

“That was a great lesson to learn as you’re growing up in the broadcast business. The world has changed, however. We’re in this age of peak TV – I think of it as platinum TV – where audiences reward you for outstanding work. The difference now is the quality; as much as I’m proud of what we put on the air when I was at the network, the level of quality that goes on the screen now is unlike anything that’s ever been done before.

“It doesn’t matter if an actor or director has an Oscar, they want to go where the most complex narratives, and the most complex, sophisticated characters can be found,” he adds. “And, for the most part, that’s television.”

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Rising Son

James Bond movie star Pierce Brosnan discusses his much-anticipated return to television in AMC oil drama The Son.

Thirty years after calling it quits on NBC detective drama Remington Steele, Pierce Brosnan is making his return to television.

The James Bond star headlines AMC’s 10-part oil drama The Son, which premiered at SXSW in Texas and will launch on the US cablenet on April 8.

“I’d been looking at TV,” Brosnan says. “There are a lot of great actors working there and I wanted to be part of that.”

Brosnan took over the lead role from Jurassic Park star Sam Neill, who left the project due to personal reasons last summer. The move marks a return to television for Brosnan, who starred in the aforementioned NBC series from 1982 to 1987.

“I came in at the 11th hour so it really was a baptism by fire,” Brosnan explains, adding that the timing was fortuitous: he was set to shoot a movie in Russia that fell apart. “I read the script on a particular weekend and I just connected to the work, it was a great read.”

The series – based on Philipp Meyer’s book of the same name — is a multigenerational epic told over many decades. Brosnan plays Eli McCullough, a ruthless Texas oil man raised by the Comanche.

The Son is based on Philipp Meyer’s book of the same name

“All the ingredients, the whole tapestry, just felt good to me,” Brosnan says. “I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, I know about the loss of life, I know about being an immigrant and moving to a new land.

“It was the writing, the lyricism of it, the humanity of it, the brutality of it. That, and desiring some need to come back to TV. It’s just all sensing and intuition at the end of the day.”

Showrunner Kevin Murphy says the series will be “a very evenhanded exploration of cultural collisions.”

Being a divided nation, he adds, “is not a new thing. If we can get people talking about, historically, the Comanche versus whites, about Mexicans versus Texans, if you understand that the gulf is there, then you can start the conversation about how you build bridges to get over it.”

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End Game

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss discussed on-set disasters, character deaths, celeb cameos and plans for life after the fantasy series during a keynote chat in Austin.

Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss set the scene for one of the most anticipated series finales in TV history during a discussion at the South by Southwest festival.

The duo filled to capacity the Austin Convention Center’s 2,400-person main ballroom for a Q&A, moderated by GoT stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (who play Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, respectively, in the show), that was for the most part loose and playful.

Nevertheless, the talk revealed a few news items for hardcore fans – notably that GoT’s final season will consist of just six episodes, and that the forthcoming seventh season will see musician Ed Sheeran make a cameo appearance.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark alongside Kit Harington as Jon Snow

Topics ran the gamut from Benioff and Weiss’s favourite on-screen deaths to tales of on-set disasters. Discussing the show’s controversial portrayal of women, Weiss said the writers had been drawn to the strong and complex portrayal of female characters in George RR Martin’s books, the source material for the series, from the start.

“We realised it’s an awful world this story takes place in, but there were more compelling female characters in the books who had agency, who were out there,” Weiss said. “They weren’t secondary to anybody – they weren’t anybody’s women or wives. They had their own storylines in this world. It seemed like a very actress-centric show from the source material.”

Elsewhere, Benioff expressed exasperation at the prospect of trying to stop spoilers leaking out each season, given the show’s huge cast and crew. “Even the CIA can’t keep information private, so how can we do it?” he joked, adding that, ultimately, it is up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to spoil the show’s revelations. “I’m not someone who reads the last page of a book first,” he said.

Maisie Williams plays Arya Stark

The showrunners also revealed that GoT’s four writers had argued over who would get to write what for the drama’s final season. “We have two of the writers on the staff, and the four of us get together in a room and break down [the story],” Weiss said. “Usually it takes two minutes to decide. This time it took 18 emails back and forth, because we realised it was the last time we’d be doing the show.”

He added that Dave Hill, who began writing for the show on season five, would pen the final season’s premiere.

Benioff said the aim for the drama – which returns to HBO for season seven on July 16 – from the beginning had been essentially “to tell a 70-hour movie.” He added that he was “relatively happy that we’ve managed to keep everyone together and tell it the way we want to.”

As for the post-GoT future, Weiss said his focus was entirely on finishing the series. “We’ve discussed things but, honestly, this show is a 24/7 thing,” he said, adding jokingly that his only real plan was “sitting in a cool, dark room for two months” once the show wrapped.

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The immigration game

At the world premiere of Starz drama American Gods, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green spoke of the challenges of telling ‘immigrant stories’ in the current political climate. Adam Benzine reports.

US network Starz previewed its forthcoming fantasy drama American Gods to a rapturous audience at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival on Saturday,  followed by a forthright Q&A with the show’s creators.

The series, based on author Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name, focuses on a conflict across America between a variety of ‘old gods’ – including Odin, Loki and Bilquis – and new deities, such as the personifications of media, technology and celebrity.

Mixing the violence of past Starz series such as Spartacus with a broad palette of surreal and dreamlike imagery, as well as an often-humorous script, the pilot also features a bizarre sex scene that is sure to be one of the water-cooler moments of the year. The first episode focuses on recently released convict Shadow Moon (The 100 star Ricky Whittle), who crosses paths with the mysterious Mr Wednesday (Deadwood star Ian McShane).

Ricky Whittle and Emily Browning in American Gods

Speaking after the premiere, showrunner Bryan Fuller said the tone of the show changed notably following November’s election of Donald Trump as US president.

“It’s definitely a different show than we set out to make, because the political climate in America, well, shat its pants,” Fuller told the crowd at SXSW in Austin, Texas. “We are now telling immigrant stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants.

“As Americans, we are under a radical political climate that tends to lean cruel as opposed to compassionate. So we are excited to tell compassionate immigration stories, not only as a statement but as part of the ongoing narrative of our series.”

He added that when the team approached Gaiman’s book, as showrunners, “our first task was to make the show we wanted to see as an audience member – we needed to put on screen what was in our heads when we read the book.

“One of the things that was exciting for us in casting the show was that so much of the book is based in other cultures and other ethnicities,” he explained. “It gave us the opportunity to not be colour-blind but to be very colour-focused.”

The series debuts on Starz on April 30

Fellow showrunner Michael Green, meanwhile, added that Gaiman’s book “is very joyful, it celebrates a lot of things that we really love about America.”

However, the team worked to significantly expand several of the female roles featured in the book, since the novel “can be a bit of a sausage party.”

“We knew going in we needed to have many more female characters,” he explained, noting that Emily Browning (Laura Moon) and Yetide Badaki (Bilquis) were among the actors whose storylines had been significantly expanded.

At the preview ahead of the drama’s April 30 debut on Starz, the showrunners were joined by a large portion of the pilot’s cast, including Whittle, McShane, Browning, Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Betty Gilpin, Crispin Glover and Bruce Langley (top image).

Offering his take on the pilot, the typically outspoken McShane told the crowd: “I thought it was fucking amazing,” to laughter. “That’s the first frame I’ve ever seen of it; I’d never seen any of the show before… I was riveted, I’ve seen nothing like it.

“I just had a fucking good time. It’s not a bad opening episode, y’know?”

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Sheen’s Green dream

Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning actor Martin Sheen talks to Adam Benzine about his role in the remake of Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables, and looks back on his career.

Having played a president, a police chief and a federal judge, acclaimed actor Martin Sheen has taken on a different kind of authority figure in TV special Anne of Green Gables (pictured above), which premiered yesterday.

Sheen plays Matthew Cuthbert, who – along with his sister Marilla – adopts the titular orphan Anne Shirley in the classic 1908 novel, from author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In Canada, the book was most notably adapted into an iconic two-part miniseries in 1985, starring Megan Follows. The production garnered huge ratings for pubcaster the CBC and swept the board at the 1986 Gemini Awards.

“I didn’t know quite how iconic it was until I got to Canada and started working,” Sheen recalls with a laugh, talking to DQ by phone. “It’s a remarkable chronicle of a character and a reflection of rural people in rural Canada.”

The new version of the story was made by Breakthrough Entertainment and Corus Entertainment for youth-skewing Canadian network YTV.

It features “a different kind of energy” from the 1985 production, the actor says. “I hate to make comparisons and I don’t think it’s really fair, but the story resonates in the same way.”

The original miniseries, he notes, “was an iconic production, and was lauded everywhere for its humanity and humour and all. But I think what we managed to do, without changing the century or the story, was accent the dangers of living in an isolated community, on an island.”

Sheen adds that the special has gained a contemporary resonance by way of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. “It has a very intriguing kind of energy that resonates today – particularly when you think of all of the horrors that immigrants are facing trying to get into Western Europe from the Middle East, how many hundreds of thousands are coming. Our hearts go out to them; we’re made aware of the plight of these people who, through no fault of their own, are sent out there to try to make it in the world.”

Sheen is best known for playing the US president in The West Wing
Sheen is best known for playing the US president in The West Wing

The role of guardian seems a natural fit for Sheen, who is best known for portraying President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet in acclaimed White House drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons on NBC from 1999 to 2006. The performance earned him six Primetime Emmy Award nominations across the show’s 156 episodes, which marked his longest TV commitment to date.

And while he has taken on shorter projects since, Sheen says he wouldn’t rule out another long-term commitment, although he notes that such a project “would be very hard to come by in the first place, because there are very few Aaron Sorkins out there,” referring to the drama’s creator and lead writer.

“I was once asked if I’d have done The West Wing if Bartlet had been a Republican, and I said, ‘If Aaron Sorkin wrote it, of course I would.’ Because I knew that he would be honest,” he reflects. “Anyway, I doubt that anything like that is forthcoming for me. But if it were, well, I make decisions based on the material and the offer, you know?”

One recent offer that appealed to Sheen was the chance to star opposite Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston in Netflix’s original comedy series Grace and Frankie. The show launched its first season in May last year and has been renewed by the SVoD giant for second and third runs.

“It’s become a very unexpected hit,” Sheen says. “My commitment is for another five years, so I’m in for the long haul. It’s a very special project that came to me from Marta Kauffman, who created Friends, so the pedigree surrounding this – besides Jane, Lily and Sam, who all are old friends – is immense.

“This was an ideal project because it was only 13 episodes a season and I would be free to do other things in the off-season, so we only work from July to November. The series, thankfully, is going very well.”

Pressed on roles that might appeal to him in the future, the actor offers a desire to play characters “that are closer to myself, that reflect a measure of my own personal life,” Sheen explains, “my involvement in social justice issues, per se.”

One such project he is currently eyeing is a new adaptation of Inherit the Wind, the 1955 play based upon an infamous 1925 court case that saw a high-school teacher put on trial for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, contrary to a Tennessee state law. The play has been adapted for the screen numerous times in the past, with productions starring actors such as Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly and Jack Lemmon.

“I presented a possible production to Netflix of Inherit the Wind, starring Sam Waterston and I,” Sheen explains, offering that Creationism “is still an issue in our country – people are still undecided in a large part of our country about the origin of the species. So, something like that… and some iconic theatrical characters still appeal to me. If I could do a character that is involved with social justice that would be very, very appealing.”

That said, he offers, half jokingly, that “the time has passed for Hamlet or Mr D’Arcy, I think… although I would never rule out a play.”

Sheen (right) also stars in Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie
Sheen (right) also stars in Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie

Stage acting, after all, served as the backbone of Sheen’s career early on, preparing him well for his work on camera. “I played Hamlet when I was much younger at the New York Shakespeare Festival,” he recalls. “All the theatre experience that I had, back in the sixties, stood me well for the rest of my career.

“I built a foundation in the New York theatre scene for 10 years, from 1959 to 1969, and I worked at some of the iconic venues, including The Living Theatre. I played on- and off-Broadway, and had a great learning experience all that time, which stood me well for the rest of my life. So I appreciate theatrical literature and I always look forward to that kind of a challenge.”

Certainly, Sheen’s acting pedigree made him a natural choice for Breakthrough, which produced Green Gables. The Toronto-based company has been aggressively pushing the 90-minute special to international buyers at recent markets such as AFM and Mipcom.

“When we began the thought process regarding Matthew’s casting, we wanted to make sure he exuded huge warmth, safety and security,” says Joan Lambur, the production company’s exec VP of family entertainment. “Martin came up right away because he has this very quiet and nuanced style – one that an audience immediately trusts.

“Because you have an 11-year-old girl capturing the heart of this older man, it’s important he emanates a sense of immediate grandfatherly love.”

In addition to his small-screen work, the now 75-year-old Sheen also continues to work on Hollywood features, having taken supporting roles in recent years on films such as Selma, The Departed and The Amazing Spider-Man.

But after playing central roles in two critically acclaimed films early in his career – Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now – Sheen is somewhat downbeat about his future as a lead actor on the big screen.

“The reality is that I don’t have that kind of high profile that you need to get into projects that are widely seen, big-budget movies and such,” he reflects. “I’ve been confined mostly to television, which is fine. And every now and then I will play or get an offer for a small or medium role in a major film, which is rare these days for anyone my age, and that’s fine.

“But I do still continue to get significant roles in television across the board, and that’s a big surprise to me, frankly,” he says, modest to a fault. “I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to still work at my age, and to still have credibility.”

And despite the challenge in finding roles that appeal, Sheen says he has no plans to retire. “I’m still in very good health, thank God, and I love what I’m doing. I’m lucky enough to still be working at my age and to be working on projects that I truly enjoy.

“I’ve always loved being an actor, and I love it now more than ever. I guess that’s as good a sign as you can accept that I made the right choice for a career.”

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