All posts by Clive Whittingham

Changing for the Bitter

Showrunners Burak Sağyaşar and Timur Savcı tell DQ how they aimed to break the Turkish drama mould with their series Bitter Lands for ATV, and talk about the challenges that come with the rapid growth of a local scripted industry.

Ultra-long series runs, melodramatic romantic storylines and high production values have made Turkish drama a sought-after product across MENA, Latin America and parts of Europe in recent times. But Bitter Lands, a project for local broadcaster ATV, was created with a desire to turn the wheel rather than produce more of the same for the local market.

Burak Sağyaşar, from the show’s prodco Tims&B Productions, tells DQ: “It was a period where mainly action and cold, dark stories were being told on screen. Then our writer, Ayfer Tunç, told us a story we just loved – pure yet daring and grandiose at the same time. The structure was made up of a great love story at the core, along with appetising character stories. We were sure it would resonate with audiences.”

The story begins with seamstress Zuleyha (Hilal Altınbilek), madly in love with mechanic Yilmaz (Uğur Güneş) and preparing to be married, only for her cruel step brother to lose a big poker hand and sell her to mafiosa man Demir (Murat Ünalmış) to pay his debt. In an attempt to rescue her, Yilmaz kills his love rival and the pair have to flee.

Burak Sağyaşar (left) and Timur Savcı

The series was shot on location in the Çukurova region of southern Turkey, with many of the same team from Star TV’s similarly ambitious Magnificent Century involved in a lengthy set construction process to build the ranch and mansion where the plot unfolds.

Sağyaşar’s fellow producer Timur Savcı says: “We decided to design the story on the scale of a literary novel with a high level of production. Casting went on for months, and hundreds of actors were auditioned before the final selection. And after eight months of construction, the mansion and ranch that you see emerged.

“We are aware that every broadcaster has its own colour and audience following. Bitter Lands fitted ATV perfectly and instantly connected with its audience, so we met with the network and quickly came to an agreement. Usually we sit down with only one broadcaster, depending on the kind of series we are making. And most of the time, we reach an agreement without any second-guessing. We don’t shop our projects around. There are those who prefer that, but we do not find it right.”

Novelist Tunç was attached as screenwriter following her success on series including 1001 Nights, Love & Punishment and Broken Pieces. Faruk Teber directed the first two episodes, with Murat Saraçoğlu (Black Rose) taking over for the remainder. Inter Medya started shopping the project internationally at Mipcom in October.

Bitter Lands was filmed in the Çukurova region of southern Turkey

Bitter Lands’ record-breaking start to life in Turkey justifies Tims&B’s approach not to follow the crowd in a congested market. “Although the marketplace looks crowded, there are not many premium works out there,” Sağyaşar says.

“We always aim high but we do that by concentrating only on our projects. We do not make plans to destroy rival companies; we continue on our own path and aim to produce the most successful projects.

“We find that the key to cut through so many series is by producing content that can bring something different to the table or that discovers an innovation within a cliché. We currently have on air an action drama called The Oath, a period drama in Bitter Lands and a drama based on today’s conception of motherhood and family, Gülperi.”

But as the drama boom continues in Turkey, there are increasing challenges facing the local scripted market, according to Savcı. “The biggest challenge is unfortunately the long hours of labour and having to produce series with very long durations,” he says.

“This is entirely due to the irregular economic structure between the broadcaster and the advertiser. Some of the major advertising brands underestimate the significance of television. Since the low-budget commercials that the brands want to advertise do not financially satisfy the broadcaster, we all end up having to cater to the system where long-duration series and lots of commercials are broadcast in a slot. The conditions greatly strain everybody in front of and behind the camera.”

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Fear factor

Jami O’Brien has moved from Fear The Walking Dead and Hell On Wheels to AMC’s supernatural frightener NOS4A2. But as she tells DQ, she never intended to become ‘that horror writer.’

The first thing to say about AMC’s supernatural horror series NOS4A2 is it’s called NOS4A2, which looks like a car number plate but is pronounced ‘Nose-feratu’ or ‘Nosferatu,’ depending who you believe on set.

“Joe Hill pronounces it ‘Nosferatu’ so I’m trying to train myself to pronounce it that way,” executive producer and showrunner Jami O’Brien says of the author of the book on which the series is based.

NOS4A2’s plot revolves around Charlie Manx, a seductive immortal who feeds off the souls of children, then deposits what remains of them into Christmasland – an icy, twisted Christmas village of Manx’s imagination where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law. Manx finds his whole world threatened when young working-class woman Vic McQueen discovers she has a gift to track him, defeat him and rescue his victims.

While that all sounds a little ‘out there,’ it was the everyday background to the McQueen character that drew O’Brien to the project, with the showrunner having previously worked on AMC’s western drama Hell On Wheels. “I had a relationship with the creative execs here at AMC and Emma Miller [VP of scripted development and programming] asked me if I’d ever read this book, which at the time I hadn’t, though I’d been a big fan of Locke & Key, which is also one of Joe’s,” O’Brien says.

“Emma said they’d acquired the rights and wanted me to take a look, so I picked it up on a Friday and read the whole thing over the weekend. I was shocked to discover that Vic McQueen, the main character, is from a town called Haverhill, Massachusetts, which is about 15 miles from where I grew up. I immediately thought ‘I know this kid, I know these people, I know this world, I get it.’

NOS4A2 showrunner Jami O’Brien (right) with director Kari Skogland

“My way into it was through the real world, and then there’s this whole other world in the novel inhabited by Charlie Manx, who is a really interesting character. I knew who Vic was; I wanted to find out more about who Charlie was. I pitched a season’s worth of stories about them to AMC and they jumped on board.”

Prior to Hell On Wheels, O’Brien worked on Fear The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror drama in the same way NOS4A2 is ostensibly a supernatural thriller. But it’s the human relationships that draw O’Brien to projects, rather than a desire to always be working with zombies, monsters and their ilk.

“I never intended to be the genre writer, it just kind of happens,” she says. “I like to work on great character dramas. I worked on Big Love for HBO early in my career, which I loved and had amazing characters. I came to Hell On Wheels because I love westerns and, at the time, you didn’t often get the chance to do a western on TV. But, again, it was also the main character, Cullen Bohannon, who was an interesting guy I wanted to write about.

“When I first met showrunner Dave Erickson to talk about Fear The Walking Dead, he said to me it was a family drama set on the border, but there are zombies. The zombies are great, fun and part of the candy of the show, but season three of that show was about the relationship between Madison and Nick.

“I always gravitate to things where I feel I can grab on to the characters, and somehow now I’m the horror writer – which is great. I don’t know what’s next; I’m so excited about this at the moment that I can’t imagine anything afterwards, but I guess we’ll see.”

Ashleigh Cummings as ‘badass biker chick’ Vic

The first challenge with NOS4A2 was to adapt the source material for the screen, a task O’Brien approached with advice from fellow AMC showrunner Marti Noxon (Dietland) in mind. “Marti is a fantastic television writer who had previously adapted a book for AMC and she once said the TV show and the books were sisters, not twins. That’s a perfect way to describe it,” the showrunner says.

Changes were made at the initial script stage, making McQueen 18 years old when viewers first meet her rather than eight, as in the book, and reducing the time that elapses between certain characters meeting. “The changes I made throughout were in keeping with the spirit of the book and honouring the characters, but making little adjustments to give us more time with them so we can have 10 episodes of television with them and, hopefully, in success, many more beyond,” O’Brien explains.

Those changes were made without a meeting with Hill, who then spoke with O’Brien after AMC had decided to go ahead with the project. As is becoming the norm in the US drama business now, a writers room of six, including O’Brien, worked on scripts, character development and narrative arcs for 16 weeks before the network greenlit the show straight to series, rather than the traditional model of producing a pilot episode.

“I got a call from Joe, who was lovely, once AMC had decided to move forward with it and he was fully on board,” O’Brien says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his book, so hopefully everything is done out of respect and love for the source material. He has been very supportive of everything. I don’t know what we would have done if he wasn’t, but he’s been very supportive.”

A 10-episode first run was greenlit, produced by AMC Studios and Tornante Television – AMC Studios is also distributing – with filming in Rhode Island and a premiere date set for later in 2019. All well and good, but had the greenlight not come then that 16-week writers room stint would have gone to waste. So does O’Brien prefer this new straight-to-series model, or the older pilot method?

“I’ve never had a pilot made before; this is the only one I know. There are pluses and minuses,” she says. “You become really invested in the material because you work on it for a long time. If it hadn’t gone to series, it would have been heart-breaking for me, but people feel that way about pouring their heart and soul into producing a pilot. It’s your baby whether it’s a pile of scripts or a pilot episode.”

Zachary Quinto plays the immortal Charlie Manx

When it came to casting, striking the right balance of vulnerability and strength for McQueen was key. “What was tough about casting Vic is by the time she is confronting Charlie, she is a badass biker chick, tough as nails and able to go toe-to-toe with a 135-year-old supernatural villain; but when we meet her, she’s going through her senior year of high school, she has problems in her home life and she’s really unsure of herself. That’s a tall order,” O’Brien says. The gig went to Ashleigh Cummings (The Goldfinch, Hounds of Love), with whom O’Brien wasn’t familiar until the actor “absolutely nailed” her audition.

Getting Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, American Horror Story) to play Charlie was a more straightforward task once it turned out he was available and keen. “Zach was a tip from my casting agent. It never occurred to me he would be available to do a TV drama,” O’Brien says.

“When she told me he might be available and interested I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was super stoked. We spoke over Skype, he met with the director, Kari Skogland [The Handmaid’s Tale, Sons of Liberty], and he was really interested in the huge physical element to the role, playing somebody from their 30s right up to their 130s. Between him and make-up artist Joel Harlow, who’s phenomenal, they’ve brought to life this really interesting, scary and kind of funny and charming character.”

The cast also includes Olafur Darri Olafsson (Lady Dynamite) as Bing Partridge, Virginia Kull (The Looming Tower) as Linda McQueen, Ebon Moss-Bachrach (The Punisher) as Chris McQueen and Jahkara Smith (aka Sailor J) as Maggie Leigh.

When it came to showrunning on set, O’Brien took the communication lessons she’d learned from Erickson on Fear The Walking Dead and showrunner John Wirth on Hell On Wheels before that. “I’ve been lucky to work with a bunch of great showrunners in Fear and Hell On Wheels, and what they tell you becomes true in a deeper and deeper way as time goes by,” O’Brien says.

Quinto spent plenty of time in make-up

“It’s all about communication. When I say to a room of 20 people, ‘We need a magical bridge that’s encased in static – go make that happen,’ what I’ve come to realise is that 20 different people will have 20 different ideas on what exactly that’s going to look like. It’s my job to say what I think the show is and the tone of the show over and over and over again.

“I communicate what I’m excited about, what I see, and then ride the wave of collaboration. You get so many folks who come on board with so much talent and so many ideas that you want to make room for, but you also want everybody moving in the same direction towards one kind of bridge with one kind of static.”

Static bridges notwithstanding, the heart of the story remains Vic McQueen, and that’s what O’Brien has been striving for all the way through. “In the book and the show, there is a balance between the supernatural and the real world, but the heart of the story is a coming-of-age tale about this kid from Haverhill who lives in difficult circumstances,” she says.

“The show works best when Vic’s real-world story is thematically linked with what’s happening in the supernatural world and vice versa. She’s a bridge between both worlds and, as she gains strength fighting Charlie and the supernatural world, it gives her strength to confront her parents in the real world and vice versa.

“People will tune in for the horror candy of the show, which is Charlie’s world, and that’s really exciting, but this is a real-world drama.”

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By the book

With UFO sightings and ‘fake news’ dominating the US news agenda once more, History’s latest scripted commission Project Blue Book couldn’t be better timed, according to writers David O’Leary and Sean Jablonski.

The idea that ‘fake news’ was invented by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon is, well, fake news.

From 1952 to 1970, the US Air Force operated Project Blue Book, a secretive investigation into the UFO phenomenon, looking into sightings and also launching an information war to convince people what they’d seen wasn’t actually what they’d seen at all. Now, with impeccable timing, Project Blue Book is coming to A+E Networks’ History channel in the US, dramatising some of the 700 unexplained cases out of the 12,000 investigated.

For creator, writer and co-executive producer David O’Leary, the project is the culmination of a lifelong fascination with the subject. “I was always reading books on alien abduction and scaring myself as a kid,” O’Leary says. “In my 20s, I started to get interested in America’s strange history with the subject matter.

“There was a great documentary from the late journalist Peter Jennings back in 2005 about America’s history with UFOs and the work of Dr J Allen Hynek, a civilian astrophysicist recruited by the Air Force to explain what people were seeing in the skies. By the end of his tenure with the programme, he had completely shifted sides and become a believer. That was a fascinating story to me and I thought maybe there was a TV show in it.”

Aidan Gillen leads the Project Blue Book cast as Dr Hynek

O’Leary’s experience to this point had been as a development executive on movies. But like so many in that industry, he was eyeing the opportunities presented by the golden age of TV drama. He wrote a pilot episode, presented it to his feature agents and soon the project was being shopped around.

They got a bite. A big bite. ImageMovers, the independent studio belonging to Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis was also eyeing TV projects, and the subject matter was a perfect fit. ImageMovers, in turn, took the project to History and producer A+E Studios. Sean Jablonski, an experienced TV writer with credits on the likes of Nip/Tuck and Suits, came on board as co-writer and exec producer, while A+E Networks is the distributor.

“The whole team came together at the same time. It was a great fit,” O’Leary says. “I put together a script and a bible, we developed it for about 10 months and the network started to get really serious about making the show. History has a straight-to-series model, so when they decide to do something, they go ahead and do it. We didn’t shoot a pilot and we were fortunate enough to get a 10-episode order.”

Jablonski, who led a small writers room of five, shared O’Leary’s love of the subject matter, which made a month of solid research less of a chore as they sifted through the cases and picked out the ones that could drive the narrative.

“It’s been a passion of mine for most of my life, so the good thing about the partnership is we spoke the same language and understood the same cases and people,” Jablonski says. “When we would look at Hynek’s books and the cases, it became evident which were right for the first season. We wanted to start with an unreliable witness to something, which could then build over the course of the season into more reliable witnesses, multiple witnesses, credible witnesses. It felt like it had an arc to it.

Desperate Housewives’ Neal McDonough is among the cast

“The job I had, working with somebody like David, was just to be curious. It was David’s idea; he came to the table with a vision. My job was to be curious and say, ‘What do you think of this? What are you thinking here? What attracted you to that?’ It’s about being able to apply the craft I’ve done working on shows over 20 years and take the ideas and bring them to fruition.”

The end product has been described as Mad Men meets The X-Files, but making drama for a primarily factual cablenet like History comes with an added challenge. The network does have dramas (Vikings, Six, Knightfall) but how much dramatic licence do you get? “Making a compelling, dramatic and engaging TV show demands that you find the cracks in the details of the cases so you can embellish them a little bit,” Jablonski says.

“The great thing about this show is there is a case file we can refer to that spells out the details of the cases we use in the first season. There are more than 700 unexplained cases, each with very detailed accounts, and there’s a lot more research you can do on top. Being writers and researching those stories, you want to find the dramatic moments. The real stories give you the building blocks, but we always remain true to the essence of the original story.”

The next challenge is cutting through a crowded market. There are up to 600 new dramas launching into the market every year, with some colossal budgets on offer at the likes of HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Showtime. How does a project on History get noticed?

“History’s model is they want to be in that top-shelf storytelling space,” Jablonski says. “We approached it in the same way we would if we were at HBO, Showtime or AMC. As partners, they are encouraging us to take a risk, swing big and tell the most compelling stories. I’ve been really impressed with their model and how they approach it.”

Project Blue Book launches on January 8

Casting is key to this. Aidan Gillen has been secured to play the central Dr Hynek character, fresh from a six-year stint as Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish on Game of Thrones. Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries) is also on board.

But then there’s also the happy, or perhaps unhappy, coincidence of how the news agenda seems to have come full circle. First of all, UFO sightings are back in the public consciousness following March’s breaking CNN story showing video of an object in the sky over San Diego, shot by cameras on board a US Navy jet.

But more importantly, as a wider point, there is the ongoing debate around so-called ‘fake news’ in the US. “Truth isn’t truth. That was a big piece for Hynek,” O’Leary says. “This was misinformation used to control the public perception, hide the truth about UFOs and explain away what people were seeing in the sky. He was a pure scientist who was always after the truth. It was a theme we felt was topical and timely. UFOs being back in the news as well as the story about misinformation has been great. There are so many parallels between the 1950s and now, unfortunately.”

“The fake news angle to the series is 100% deliberate,” Jablonski says. “We talked about it early on. This was the original fake news story in many ways. The government made a diligent attempt at creating a misinformation campaign to tell people what they saw did not exist. We’re hearing that every day on news in this country.

“Back in the 1950s, we had a fear of Russia, we felt like it was invading our political system and our households. There was a fear of war, a sense of paranoia. It’s very easy to want to use this to comment directly on what’s happening today, but the truth is we don’t have to try very hard, it’s just history repeating itself.”

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Waiting in the wings

The Fall scribe Allan Cubitt and Imaginarium Studios co-founder Jonathan Cavendish have teamed up for the BBC’s latest period drama, Death & Nightingales – a project a long time in the making, they tell DQ.

Movies and TV dramas almost always take a long time to make it from conception to premiere, but few projects can hold a candle to the BBC’s forthcoming period drama Death & Nightingales in that regard. Producer Jonathan Cavendish first optioned the 1992 novel of the same name by Eugene McCabe 20 years ago and is only now getting close to realising his ambition of seeing the book on screen.

“For a long time, I wanted to make it as a movie and had various film directors involved,” Cavendish says. “You never think it won’t happen as a producer. I’ve had things that have taken 10 or 15 years, and although this is probably the longest I always feel there’s a right time for everything.”

One of the problems of adapting the book for the big screen was that it is split into three parts, set over a 24-hour period in 1885 in which a Northern Irish woman decides to use her 23rd birthday to escape her difficult relationship with a landowning stepfather with the aid of a charming suitor. A discussion with writer and director Allan Cubitt (The Fall, The Hound of the Baskervilles) helped break the deadlock. “Allan had previously worked on an adaptation of it as a movie and we thought it would work well as a three-part television series with him adapting and directing and all the feature-film qualities of shooting, art direction and performance,” Cavendish says.

Jamie Dornan and Ann Skelly in Death & Nightingales

The tense, emotional, family drama – produced by Imaginarium and Soho Moon for BBC2 and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International – is something of a departure for Cubitt following his work on RTÉ and BBC2 crime thriller The Fall. But with a love of the source material and a lifelong keenness to work on as broad a range of projects as possible, it proved a good fit. “Post The Fall, when the BBC asked what I wanted to do next, I thought maybe a three-part TV adaptation would be a good way of tackling the book,” Cubitt says. “I would always look to do something very different rather than more of the same. I’ve never been particularly easy to pigeonhole; I want to vary the kind of material I produce.”

But there was some continuity from Cubitt’s last drama, most notably in the location (Northern Ireland) and the return of Jamie Dornan, who played serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall and now stars as Liam Ward, the man looking to help Ann Skelly’s Beth escape from her stepfather, Billy (Matthew Rhys).

“Jamie was always on the cards. It was a question of whether he could do it,” Cubitt says. “Casting is always critical, but it’s particularly vital when you’re attempting to bring a book to the screen that the casting feels right for not only the screenplay but also the novel. Jamie is great to work with, he’s easy to have around on set. The more I developed the character and slightly changed it from the source material, the more it became a part that Jamie could do brilliantly.

“I’ve always admired Matthew as an actor. He’s not from Northern Ireland but he has a great ear for different accents. He’s the sort of actor that wouldn’t say yes to a part if he didn’t think he could pull it off, and he’s been brilliant.

“Ann was different; she was somebody I wasn’t familiar with and Jamie mentioned her to me. She self-taped [her audition] at first and had a brilliant quality about her. She’s not unknown, but lots of people won’t know her and I think she’s exceptional. I’m incredibly excited about her and her performance.”


Above: Producer Jonathan Cavendish (left) and writer Allan Cubitt on location

Competition is fierce in scripted, with star names from the film world and big budgets from the streamers abounding. Casting can be key to cutting through, particularly with someone like Dornan – best known for starring in the 50 Shades of Grey movies – but that’s easier said than done.

“There’s so much stuff that’s really good that there’s no point trying to do something unless you’re thrilled with it. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of so-so television being made and now there’s much less,” says Cavendish. “When you make these shorter-length shows, the problem is getting the actors. We were very lucky to get Matt and Jamie, because people of that calibre are often tied into very long shows.

“But I love television, and three or four parts is a very good format because companies like the BBC can really compete at that length. They struggle to do so over eight or 10 hours, where the streamer budgets are so gigantic. The BBC can really excel with pieces like this and we’re thrilled to be working with them on it.”

Cubitt says his usual writing process is “quite complex,” starting with an area of interest and then a prolonged “laborious, meticulous” period of reading and researching around the subject and note-taking with an eye on potential scenes, characters and narrative arcs. A detailed treatment will follow, with input from producers and experts to refine plot and character. “I don’t really script until I’ve got that in place – the actual scripting will go quite quickly and be a pleasure compared with the development process, if the treatment holds up,” he says.

But how does this change when it’s an adaptation of an existing work like Death & Nightingales? “The process is different because although I can research and investigate the materials, my starting point is Eugene’s novel,” Cubitt says. “In a sense, I’m cutting into the research that he’s done and making use of that. Eugene’s a dramatist so his dialogue has great quality. His idiom in Death & Nightingales is fantastic, so a lot of the time it’s about staying faithful to what he has created, but not in a slavish way.

Matthew Rhys, star of The Americans, also features in the drama

“There is a complex process of transformation that goes on, and any adaptation involves a reinterpretation and recreation of material. You tend to end up concentrating more tightly on central characters when you come to filmmaking as opposed to the novel, where you might take a digression with a secondary or peripheral character.

“There is a kind of pressure. When I was adapting Tolstoy, that was real pressure. Can I really create scenes for Tolstoy?” Cubitt continues, referring to his 2000 miniseries version of Anna Karenina. “You have to find a way of capturing it and putting it on film. I’ve used different techniques to achieve that – we have some voiceover, but there’s something close to a soliloquy going on in the piece, which I think worked really well. I work on the basis that I’m not violating the text; the text remains and hopefully it will give the text a second life, a second audience.”

The challenges of production ranged from the unusual to the all too common. A particularly warm summer made sunstroke a problem, for Dornan in particular, during filming – not an issue one would expect to encounter filming outside Belfast. Finding a suitable location for Billy Winter’s home also posed a challenge, before the National Trust’s Spring Hill house came to the rescue. “The difficult thing is finding beautiful, unspoilt houses. Mainly they’ve been bought by people and modernised,” Cavendish says. “It was no coincidence the main location was a National Trust place that has been lovingly conserved and restored.”

For Cavendish, it’s been worth the wait. And with the current ongoing political debate about the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the production has actually turned out to be quite timely.

“It’s an amazing book with an extraordinary device of action over a 24-hour period,” he says. “It is also the best examination of the origin story of modern Ireland that I know. Viewers will understand how modern Northern Ireland became what it is without it being a history lesson. It’s an extraordinary character study in a tribal, political environment so it’s absolutely nicely timed.”

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Homeland’s Chip Johannessen: Stories from the writers room

US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.

Millennium/The X-Files
Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.

Millennium (left) and The X-Files

Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.

By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.

But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.

Chip Johannessen
Chip Johannessen

Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.

Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.

I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.

Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.


24
Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).

24-s8-ep1-1

The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.

What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.

The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.

This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.

We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.

The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”

“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”


Homeland
Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.

Homeland-s3-4

With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.

The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.

To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.

Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.

We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.

So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.

But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.

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Daring to be different

Sky Drama senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach says the satcaster needs to provide content different to that of its terrestrial rivals, rather than try to compete, and is eyeing crime, relationship series and coproductions to meet the challenge.

The four broad entertainment channels headlining the subscription offer from UK satcaster Sky have become home to some of the country’s most talked-about drama series of late.

Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire on Sky Atlantic, Scandal and Elementary on Sky Living – the hits are stacking up. The problem is, they’re mostly acquired from the US.

Under the guidance of entertainment channels director Stuart Murphy, Sky has committed to spending £600m a year on original content. It has already coproduced The Tunnel, an Anglo-French remake of the Swedish-Danish noir The Bridge, with Canal+ and Penny Dreadful with Showtime in the US.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire

Solo, it has commissioned shows such as The Smoke and Charlie Brooker’s crime spoof A Touch of Cloth for Sky1, while medical drama Critical is in the works.

But it’s with these originals, often critically acclaimed, that Sky is struggling to cut through against the terrestrials – and senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach believes the broadcaster has to change tack and offer an alternative to BBC, ITV and Channel 4, rather than trying to compete with them directly.

“The Tunnel was an impeccable piece announcing our ambitions for Sky Atlantic, taking an existing brand and doing something different,” Roach says, pointing to the two International Emmy nominations the series received.

“We need to show our subscribers we are offering them fantastic drama on our channels. Unfortunately, some of the subscribers are still unaware we create original content in drama, and the offering from BBC and ITV is so brilliant that we need to see ourselves not as competition, but as complementing what is there. That’s the mission statement.

“What we need to work hard on for the Sky brand is people knowing that it’s ‘Sky drama’ and attributing it to a channel. Too often when we have a successful show, people attribute it elsewhere because they don’t think we make shows.”

To that end, Sky is looking for its own take on the crime genre following the unrivalled success of ITV’s Broadchurch, while also aiming to take advantage of market gaps left by the sudden rush towards crime commissions.

“We know our audience loves crime. It’s done brilliantly on BBC1 and ITV – how can we do it differently? It’s no good for us to just do another crime show when crime is so available to the terrestrial audience,” Roach says.

“Crime has been so prevalent that the relationship shows have been forgotten, and that’s a really interesting thing. Ten years ago there were significant relationship shows on the terrestrials and that’s not happening now. That feels like an opportunity to me.”

Roach knows all about the challenges posed by the terrestrial channels, having been part of ITV2’s launch team and a producer on long-running ITV prison drama Bad Girls. He also worked on BBC’s smash hit Life on Mars while at Kudos Productions, as well as the corporation’s Waterloo Road series. He joined Sky’s drama department as a senior commissioning editor in 2013.

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful

He believes it’s important producers start thinking about new places to uncover writing talent. In this vein, Sky is working with online drama producer PurpleGeko to produce a TV version of its Venus vs Mars drama, two seasons of which have aired online. Roach hopes to create a UK version of the HBO hit Girls with the show, and says the online world is an untapped resource in the drama space.

“The message to the production community is ‘seek more diverse talent.’ It’s an industry responsibility – it’s not about me and (drama head) Anne Mensah ticking diversity boxes. If you look at the hits YouTube channels are getting, it’s phenomenal. Producers can be too narrow. The top writers are so oversubscribed – we need ideas to come from other areas as well. We’re always excited when producers have different ways into subject matters.”

Sky, more than any other broadcaster in the UK, is known for its On Demand and catch-up services either through the Sky Plus DVR recorder or Sky Player online. Roach says viewers tend to watch Sky1 as a linear channel, while the series on Sky Atlantic are more binge-viewed as box sets – but he’s still sure Sky can create “event television” like the Broadchurch finale and is eyeing a Sky Living commission starring Timothy Spall – The Enfield Haunting – as a test case.

“I’m excited by how Line of Duty became an event for BBC2 and the Broadchurch finale became an event for ITV,” he says. “It shows we can have that emotional investment from the audience. We’d be naive to think it’s just in the on-demand space.

“When The Enfield Haunting happens as a three-parter on Sky Living in May, we’re looking at how we can use social media to make it an event. People will want to watch that live.”

Sky’s drama team is working hard on clear branding and distinct direction for the four channels under its control – Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living and Sky Arts.

Controller Adam MacDonald has spoken about Sky1 being more “life affirming,” coining “enjoy the ride” as a mission statement. “It can go to dark, difficult places like The Smoke and Critical, but ultimately the lead characters are heroic,” says Roach.

“Pushing forward, we want a place that has more humour and comedy within content. We will do emotional, challenging pieces but we will enjoy the ride a bit more.”

Sky Living remains female-skewing but has undergone a rebrand, with its pink colour scheme swapped for a silver look to help change audience perception.

Sky Atlantic, which recently came under the control of former BBC3 controller Zai Bennett, premiered Fortitude January and was previously the home of The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful. It’s also where Sky’s HBO acquisitions sit.

“We want to be ambitious with our pieces there,” Roach says. “We want them to be talk-about TV. We want the Sky subscriber to have absolute value in that channel.”

Sky Arts, meanwhile, is viewed as “more of a playground.” Roach explains: “We’re saying to the creative community ‘we enjoy working with you, come and have a play and we’ll see what happens.’”

The Tunnel
The Tunnel

While The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful have been successful, headline-grabbing coproductions, Roach says Sky thinks very carefully about when and where to get involved in such arrangements, preferring to fully fund where possible.

“What we like to do is fully fund our developments, working closely with indies in the UK, Europe, the US or Australia,” he says. “We want to work with creative teams to understand the idea, take it to a pilot script stage before we start talking to too many partners. What’s important to us is a singular vision that makes drama stand out; involving too many partners early on can harm that.

“Another track we can take is where partner broadcasters have developed pieces and we see an absolute appeal for our subscribers within them – with Dracula and Penny Dreadful, they were Showtime shows and we were minority partners. Penny Dreadful had a largely British cast, it was shot in Dublin and it was set in London. For our subscriber it felt like their show, not an acquisition, and therefore it’s a relevant coproduction for us.

“Those are the questions we’ll always ask when a coproduction opportunity comes to us. Is it right? Can we claim ownership in the UK and Ireland? If we can, we’re likely to go for it. If we can’t but we like the content, we’ll work closely with our acquisitions team and advise them of our enthusiasm for it.”

Sky will be hoping its slight change of strategy, and considerable ongoing investment, can bring it results throughout the rest of the year.

With Sky’s merger with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, creating a pan-European pay TV brand, now completed – producing a commissioner on a colossal scale – this could be a formidable drama player in years to come.

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