All posts by John Elmes

Cheat thrills

Katherine Kelly and Molly Windsor star in a ‘cat and cat’ struggle triggered when a lecturer suspects a student of cheating. The actors, director Louise Hooper and writer Gaby Hull reveal how they keep viewers on edge in this four-part thriller.

In the opening scenes of ITV’s new thriller Cheat, sociology lecturer Dr Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly) is giving a definition of power, power dynamics and coercion from the pre-eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. Apart from setting up one of the central themes of the ensuing drama, it remains one of the only things that is definitive in the rest of the episode.

Cheat twists and turns and jumps around in time from the opening minute and doesn’t ever really allow the audience to settle. Light relief and levity is in short supply, and when it does come, it is quickly supplanted by more tension.

Louise Hooper

Ostensibly, the four-part series is about an open-and-shut case of academic deception. Average university student Rose Vaughan, played by Three Girls’ Bafta-winning star Molly Windsor, pops up with a first-class dissertation, setting off alarm bells in the head of academic integrity advocate Leah. While department head Harriet (Neve McIntosh) is won over by Rose’s charm and plea of innocence, Leah is spurred on to expose her as a cheat, setting off a malevolent competition for supremacy between the pair. Meanwhile, Leah seems to be caught in a loveless marriage with her academic husband Adam (Tom Goodman-Hill) who is desperate for a baby and has also been won over by Rose.

Cutting to the present, Adam’s cold and lifeless body is lying on the pathologist’s table while Rose and Leah face off either side of the partition glass in a police visitor room. Detectives are seen questioning whether they have apprehended the real killer, while the audience is left thinking, ‘What the hell has gone on here?’

It comes as no surprise that Cheat is the product of fraternal writing and producing duo Jack and Harry Williams and their prodco Two Brothers Pictures, with distribution handled by All3Media International. Fresh off the back of relationship/crime thriller Liar, also for ITV, and time-shifting Rellik for the BBC, Cheat has all the hallmarks of a tension-filled Two Brothers romp, with many questions unanswered as the audience struggles to work out who to trust. That’s just episode one.

“We’ve left it purposefully open. It’s not the on-the-nose show where you are told where your sympathies should lie,” Kelly (Strike Back) tells DQ after a press screening of the first episode. “Especially by this stage in watching and in lesser hands and with safer choices, you would think your sympathies would lie with me. And the fact they don’t is testament to how hard we worked at that. We were brave enough for the audience to not like us. I don’t want to watch dull certainty, I want to feel an emotion. I want a bit of the audience’s soul, whether it’s with utter detestation and repulsion or total affection and understanding.”

Three Girls star Molly Windsor plays student Rose Vaughan

Director Louise Hooper (Vera, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) says the creative team was intent on making Cheat stand out from other crime dramas with its dichotomies and layers. “We didn’t want to put our flag in the sand and say, ‘It’s this.’ It should be mercurial. It shifts, it pulls and it shifts again, and that’s how it should be,” she explains. The whole point is you don’t know what it is. You’re thinking, ‘Is Rose being a sarcastic bitch or is she being genuine?’

“It’s about all the dark, slippery and wrong emotions that you pretend you don’t have, but everyone does, and they’re the ones that get you into trouble. It’s not a normal thriller/cop show where police cars come in and there’s a dead body; it’s about normal people in this rarefied world of academia and all those feelings about not quite fitting in, feeling jealous, frustrated, and they start to build and build.

“I like that idea of being slightly counter-intuitive with thriller. It feels hot and hazy [at the start], but the underbelly of it is dark and dangerous with all those horrible emotions bubbling.”

The duel between Leah and Rose is chivvied along by an impressive performance from Goodman-Hill as the supercilious, fractious, exasperated and occasionally caring Adam. And in keeping with Cheat’s plan to confound viewer loyalties, you don’t feel the utmost sympathy for the character when you see his corpse lying in the morgue. Peter Firth (Spooks) and Lorraine Ashbourne (Jericho) add to the ensemble with typically divergent parental advice as Leah’s academic mum and dad.

Katherine Kelly is Rose’s adversary, university lecturer Dr Leah Dale

However, it is Kelly and Windsor who are the focal points, their characters’ interactions laced with menace and throwing up signals of sexual allure, obsession, jealousy and certainly some mutual respect.

According to Hooper, director of photography Ed Rutherford wanted to make sure it was a real “cat and cat” relationship, rather than cat and mouse, pitching the main actors against each other, with both “tough as nails, like two boxers in the ring.” Windsor says her portrayal of Rose, therefore, had to be instinctive in places to feel as authentic as possible.

“People are so complex. You have to go into their thoughts and beliefs, because as humans we have thoughts and opinions about everything. So the research never really ends. In terms of doing the job and shooting it, you have to learn your lines. They’re a bit like bullets in a gun that you can’t fire until you’re doing the scene, and you don’t know if that’s going to work or it’s going to misfire. Going in with good writing, directing and great actors, it’s more fun to stay open-minded and work with each other than to work with a set ‘this is what I’m doing.’”

Kelly agrees, adding: “You can’t really go into this with a mindset of how it’s going to play out because both characters are challenged in every single scene. All I did was do my homework in terms of I didn’t go to university, I just wanted to check in – not just with that world, but what that world’s like now – and make sure she looks right and her home feels real and feels authentic.”

Tom Goodman-Hill also stars in the drama, which launches next week

Dramas set in the world of academia often find themselves facing criticism, with scholars quick to take to social media to vocalise any unrealistic televisual portrayals. That Leah does not have a permanent role at her university but lives in a palatial detached house will likely raise a few eyebrows, as might Adam’s casual attitude towards a multimillion-pound research grant proposal. Hooper acknowledges she wanted to make Cheat feel “slick and cinematic” but also to maintain as many true-to-life elements as possible.

“When we shot it, I wanted something that felt heightened. It’s a bit wanky, but I love it. [However], it was really important to me that everything felt authentic. I’m not a big fan of things like house porn – ‘oh look, there’s beautiful flowers’ – I’m always breaking things and putting a bit of pollen on the floor. In the house of Adam and Leah, we wanted loads of washing, and piles of stuff, and in Rose’s room there’s eyedrops, so it looks real.”

Additionally, the inspiration for the story sprung from a similar case of real-life cheating brought to writer Gaby Hull (Benidorm) by an academic acquaintance. Although this was originally used as a guiding light for the series, Hull says it became more of a springboard into interpersonal relationships.

“Originally the script was based in academia and university politics, but we pulled back on that because we wanted to up the personal/thriller genres. The themes on the surface are of integrity and standing up for what you believe in, but there’s lovelessness and the destructive power of it. No one wants to hear four hours about an essay,” he jokes. “But I didn’t consider the academics. Hopefully there aren’t enough of them to cause a real fuss!”

As Hull indicates, academia is a handy launchpad for the twists that follow in Cheat, which was screened at Berlinale last month ahead of its ITV launch next Monday. By the time episode one ends, audiences quickly realise that the answers they’re seeking can’t be found in a textbook.

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New Dae

Lost and Hawaii Five-0 star Daniel Dae Kim tells DQ that while times are changing for non-white actors as TV dramas around the globe become increasingly diverse, there’s still work to be done.

Daniel Dae Kim is extremely comfortable in his own skin. As he takes to the ‘stage’ (some stools) for an ‘In conversation with…’ event during his role as a juror at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival, he radiates a serene authority.

It shouldn’t be surprising from a veteran actor and star of two of the US’s most recognisable multi-season network shows, Lost and Hawaii Five-0. But considering the barriers he has encountered – and continues to encounter – in his career, about which he talks candidly, no one could blame him if he did doubt himself.

By the time he joined the cast of Lost, as South Korean fisherman Jin-Soo Kwon, he was used to being on casts that were nearly all white, because it was the norm. And when actors from ethnic minority backgrounds were cast in major US productions, they were often tangential characters, a foil for the white, male lead.

Daniel Dae Kim (centre) as Jin-Soo Kwon in Lost

“Things are different now, thankfully, and we’re finally seeing roles where it’s not so understood who’s the lead of the show,” he says. “And if you have a horror movie and you have one black character and one Asian character, you’re not sure that the Asian character and the black character are going to die first.”

Jin, who featured in all six seasons of Lost, remains Kim’s toughest role to date. Despite his Korean heritage, Kim was brought up in the US from the age of one, and did not speak his birth nation’s language. On top of having to speak Korean, a little-known fact is that Jin was supposed to have been killed off in Lost’s first season, highlighting how competitive the business is.

“You’re always auditioning even when you have a job,” he tells DQ, noting that acting in another language presented a host of new challenges. “It tripled my workload because I was learning a lot of translations. Speaking a second language is different from acting in a second language. The fact I stayed around for as long as I did, I feel very fortunate. It made the extra work I put in worth it.”

With a strong work ethic and a 121-episode broadcast network smash under his belt – along with numerous roles across television and film – Kim might have expected leading roles to be forthcoming. A part in CBS’s reimagining of classic police procedural Hawaii Five-0 duly emerged, but Kim says his race again proved an issue.

Kim also starred in CBS’s Hawaii-0

“When I first met on Hawaii Five-0, I asked the lead producer if I could maybe be [leads] Danno or McGarrett, and he said, ‘Well, we’re just not going that way.’ It’s a simple answer, but it has such big consequences when they don’t consider that’s even a possibility. I had to be content with whatever I could get.”

Kim, along with co-star Grace Park (who played Kono Kalakaua), left Hawaii Five-0 after season seven, reportedly due to a pay dispute. He then took a break from acting – while still managing to shoot two films – to concentrate on producing through his label, 3AD. However, his desire to act has not diminished, and Kim is eager to “do something onscreen, hopefully soon.”

In a nod, perhaps, to the barriers he has experienced, he tells actors to “not apologise for yourself,” adding: “Don’t hide, don’t be underprepared. You can see apology on an actor’s face when they’re performing. Don’t let that be you.”

Kim clearly has a deep respect for his profession, and while he acknowledges increasing diversity, he demands more and is shouldering responsibility himself to a degree through 3AD. The shingle successfully transported South Korean medical format The Good Doctor to the US, where it has become a major show on ABC, though only after it was rejected by CBS.

Kim’s 3AT prodco is behind the US version of The Good Doctor, starring Freddie Highmore (right)

The actor is now set to step in front of the camera with a recurring role in the drama’s ongoing second season as Dr Jackson Han, the brash new chief of surgery at St Bonaventure Hospital, where the story takes place, with the character set to put Dr Sean Murphy (Freddie Highmore)’s career in danger.

“This seemed ready-made to bring to America because it was a relationship story with a hero we hadn’t seen before,” he says of lead character Murphy, who is autistic. “Sometimes it’s not just about race, it’s about whatever your challenges are in life. I thought that was universal.”

Kim says producing allows him to channel his frustration of “only being able to go out for the roles that are offered” as an actor, adding: “If you want a Mexican-American as one of your leads, you can make that. If you want three Asian-Americans as regulars, you can have that.”

Now with projects in the works at ABC and other cablenets, it seems his work ethic is paying off. And that’s a lesson worth remembering.

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Reinventing Javert

An upcoming adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel Les Misérables will be the most satisfying version yet, says star David Oyelowo, as he explains why taking the character of Javert beyond his portrayal as a one-one-dimensional villain was his most challenging role to date.

“If there’s something I’ve learned, it is you can never predict how anything you do is going to be received, as Victor Hugo will attest to,” David Oyelowo says with a smile. “But the thing I do know we’ve achieved is filling in a lot of the blanks that inevitably exist because you are trying to boil down a huge novel.”

Oyelowo is deconstructing his latest television role, which will see him tackle Javert, the police inspector and primary antagonist in Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic novel Les Misérables, in the forthcoming adaptation for UK public broadcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US.

The miniseries has been authored by period adaptation maven Andrew Davies (War & Peace, Pride & Prejudice) and sees Oyelowo face off against Dominic West’s protagonist Jean Valjean (pictured top alongside Oyelowo).

The subject of numerous recreations, the novel’s most recognisable reinventions are the long-running musical, which has now been a fixture on London’s West End for 33 years, and the 2012 Hollywood film helmed by The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper.

Oyelowo points out, however, that rather than treading the same ground, Davies’ six-hour series can go deeper into the book. “If it’s a film or a musical you’re distilling it down to, it’s too thin to be as satisfying as the book allows,” he says. “Six hours of television in the hands of Andrew Davies is a far more satisfying way to explore that story and understand these characters who intersect in ways that are genuinely universal – in terms of how we exist in the world now.

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

“What I love about the book is that at any given time I can identify with Javert, I can identify with Jean Valjean, I can identify with Fantine; and that needs time to not reduce them to archetypes. My hope is that people who see this version are really going to have a far greater context for what this story actually is.”

This is no more relevant than to his character, Javert. Oyelowo says the inspector is often portrayed as a “one-dimensional” villain with the sole function of hunting down the misdirected but ultimately good-at-heart Valjean.

“It became clear to me that there was so much more there than people may recognise from knowing the musical. Let’s face it, not enough people have read the book. That became the challenge and it was basically to understand why he pursues him,” he adds.

“What became apparent is that, at the time in which this thing is set, there’s a lot of friction between the classes, between people on the basis of socioeconomics, politics… and so that time required – and I’m not saying he is in any way what the world needs now – someone who operated in moral absolutes in order to bring any kind of order to that chaos. He’s a by-product of the time he was in. Therefore, hopefully, you don’t necessarily condone his actions but you understand them.”

The contradictions that exist in Javert are such that Oyelowo, who has depicted Martin Luther King Jr (Selma) and former Botswanan president Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama (A United Kingdom) on the big screen, feels the role has proved “one of the most challenging” in his career, due to “the perception people have going in.”

“By and large, people have an opinion [of the character] – even people who haven’t seen the musical, read the book or know much about it. They have a sense, whether it’s a portrayal they’ve seen in a trailer, or a poster they’ve seen, so it’s a little bit like the challenge you have when you’re playing a historical figure. You know that what you have to do in order to do a portrayal that’s satisfying is to bring something revelatory, something that people didn’t know. If you’re just giving them what they already knew, it’s redundant. That was the challenge.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Oyelowo is changing perceptions, and breaking new ground, from a different standpoint too. In casting him as Javert, the BBC is thought to be the first broadcaster to have selected a non-white actor in the joint-lead role. After the backlash Jodie Whittaker received from some quarters after becoming the first female lead in Doctor Who, does Oyelowo wonder if there will be similar grumblings from people who believe Javert should only ever be a white man?

“In my opinion, we take a far greater licence by taking French history and transposing it onto British history than we do by suggesting that people of colour were integral to European life in the 19th century,” he says. “We have transposed this onto English society in order for it to be understood by a broader audience beyond French people.

“And so if we want to make something that is relevant to the world that we actually live in, we should be reflecting that in every sense, not just the actual language we’re translating the show into but the people who get to portray the characters as well.”

And in casting the actor who has played spies, corrupt detectives and a chess coach in his career so far, director Tom Shankland believes Javert has been given new depth. Speaking to DQ earlier this year, Shankland said Oyelowo had done such an effective job of layering the character and providing a perfect foil for Dominic West’s Valjean that “by the end, I’m almost in tears for Javert.”

“David kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert,” Shankland said. “In my wildest dreams I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep, but all the time he’s scary and driven and the person we hope will never succeed.”

Lily Collins as Fantine

Oyelowo himself says he had conversations with Shankland to discuss how best to portray Javert. While the character has previously been played by esteemed actors including Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush, Oyelowo says he did not draw on past interpretations because of the very fact the character has been cast as merely the villain of the piece. Moreover, Javert has often been deemed “quite posh” compared with Valjean, something Oyelowo believes is at odds with Hugo’s work.

“This book is about the underclass, and my character was born in a prison to criminal parents. The portrayals I’ve seen thus far I don’t feel suggest that. In many ways, Jean Valjean and Javert are mirror images of each other; they’re both coming from criminality as opposed to what I’ve seen in the past, which is Javert seeming to be quite posh in relation to Valjean, who’s the criminal,” he explains.

“One of the reasons Javert has this inexorable obsession with hunting down Jean Valjean is that he represents what Javert could have been, under different circumstances, and what he hates in terms of his own upbringing, what lies in his own familial past – that his own parents were in exactly the same situation that Jean Valjean finds himself in for having stolen a loaf of bread.

“His hatred of his parents and upbringing is partly why he hates Jean Valjean. I haven’t seen that before. In talking to Tom, it was very clear we were trying to do something quite different and, hopefully without sounding conceited, something far more real in terms of the novel.”

That said, Oyelowo isn’t completely averse to past interpretations of the novel, and laughs when asked if he’s pleased there will be no singing involved in Davies’ adaptation, which comes from producer Lookout Point and BBC Studios, with the later also distributing. “I like singing; I personally enjoyed the musical film,” he concludes. “But if you’re going to tell this story, you don’t want to literally be doing a version of what we’ve seen quite recently. What we’ve set out to do is something quite different, even though it does have that iconic title.”

Though they may not be accompanied by a tune, it is likely Oyelowo will make Hugo’s words sing when Javert returns to the small screen next year.

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No singing allowed

Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables might be best known for its musical adaptations, but a new small-screen adaptation produced for the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS feels more like a western, as exec producer Bethan Jones and director Tom Shankland explain.

Tom Shankland

When Victor Hugo sat down to write his epic 19th century novel Les Misérables, including in it a searing indictment of the divide between rich and poor and the travails of revolutionary political movements, he was probably considering a more distinguished legacy than an often-derided musical in London’s West End.

For when one thinks about Les Misérables, it is the bathetic tones of I Dreamed a Dream and carefully choreographed dance-acting that spring to mind. And although Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed… in the 2012 Hollywood film did give a sense of the pain and despair her character Fantine was supposed to be feeling, the fact remains that this ambitious novel is often reduced to a collection of show tunes and the diminutive appellation ‘Les Mis.’

This is one of the reasons adaptation supremo Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch) has taken on the project for UK pubcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US, alongside producers Lookout Point and BBC Studios, which is also distributing. When discussing the adaptation a few years back at the Hay Festival, Davies called the musical a “shoddy farrago” of Hugo’s original work, adding that he hoped his take would champion the book for its depth.

“Andrew loves being contentious, that’s his thing,” says Bethan Jones, exec producer on the series for BBC Studios. “For me, you take a big book like this and you adapt it to the form you are servicing. Inevitably, the musical has to have its baddies, its goodies, its romantic interests – it has to follow that journey. It has a certain amount of hours to fill and you have to tell a musical story. A film adaptation will be a very different thing again. What we’ve got in six hours is the opportunity to dig down a little bit more into those characters than potentially shorter adaptations have time to do; to explore the relationships and themes between the characters and their particular journeys.”

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

Part of this sharper focus on the source material is a strict ‘no singing’ policy, with Davies pointedly declaring at Hay that his cast would not “yell great things like they do in the musical.” Jones diplomatically says the musical and the BBC series – which lands on screens in early 2019 – are “two very different, but equally valid” ways of representing the book.

Pared down, Les Misérables tells the story of prisoner Jean Valjean and his continuous battle with police inspector Javert following his release from prison for stealing bread. After further run-ins with the law, Valjean attempts to change his ways and live life as a decent man. Interspersed with his long road to redemption are stories of family, love, rebellion and commentary on the social and political class system of post-revolutionary France. Its intricate plot has spawned – beyond the aforementioned takes – more than 60 adaptations across film and television, which raises another question about the BBC’s forthcoming production – do we need another?

Bethan Jones

Jones reiterates Davies’ desire to go back to Hugo’s original text and “draw out more of the real stories, themes and characters” and the book’s timelessness as justification. “We also felt it was timely in as much as while there is still poverty, hardship and degradation in the world, books like this will still be relevant. It feels timely to be looking at a classic text that deals with a complicated period and the division of rich and poor but through the eyes of brilliant characters.”

Director Tom Shankland (The City & The City, The Missing, Ripper Street) admits he hadn’t seen a single adaptation of the book before he took the helm, and thus hopes his is a fresh perspective. “For me, it felt like an epic western,” he says. “I’ve always loved westerns. There are all these fantastic characters – the bad sheriff, the wanted man, the hunted fugitive. It was everything I loved about that genre – the adventure and emotion of that.”
Simply being thrilled by the plot isn’t enough to hook a director completely, Shankland points out, but he was snagged “emotionally and thematically” by Valjean’s quest for redemption and a “simple desire to be good in a bad world.”

The BBC has assembled a premium cast for the series, with The Affair star Dominic West taking on Valjean, Selma’s David Oyelowo playing Javert, Lily Collins as destitute young mother Fantine and Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman as petty criminals the Thénardiers.
“David absolutely felt there was something around Javert’s role as a bit of a thwarted outsider with frustrations and drive to move up in the world, as well as being this person with a real ideological commitment to the belief that people are either born wicked or good,” Shankland says. “He kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert. By the end, I’m almost in tears for him. In my wildest dreams, I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep.

Dominic West (The Affair) as Jean Valjean

“When I watch what Dominic does to take Valjean to this unbelievably brutalised place, which is almost a wordless, inhuman place, to where he ends, he makes me believe every part of that journey.”

Davies has a knack of turning a classic literary work into a TV drama that resonates cinematically and does not seem anachronistic. In 2016, he received universal acclaim for his BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel War & Peace, in which he successfully brought chaotic battle scenes, aristocratic opulence and sweeping landscapes of 19th century Russia to the small screen. Furthermore, within that epic scope, Jones says Davies has a rare ability to portray relatable characters that “speak to” a contemporary audience.

“Andrew’s scripts made these characters feel modern. That was nothing to do with having them speak in a very modern way or changing their behaviour, he just found the humanity and earthiness of it,” Shankland says, recalling a scene in which Fantine and her companions urinate in a Paris park. “I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re going to pee in Les Misérables, that’s exciting.’ It was these little things that Andrew did to make these people feel real and have an immediate presence that made me think that it wouldn’t be like doing a conventional, polite period piece. We’d be doing something that had a real connection with today.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Filming has taken the production to far-flung areas of the French-speaking parts of Europe, from southern Belgium to Sedan in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France. In Sedan, Shankland says, they found back streets acutely reminiscent of the period Hugo was writing about. Jones and Shankland both note that the filming of key scenes, such as the political uprising, where students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris, were inspired by contemporary riots such as those that took place in London in 2011 and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1960s.

“I wanted the images to resonate with the audience, so they’d be thinking, ‘Oh hang about, that doesn’t feel like [post-revolutionary France] even if they might have guns that are somewhat 19th century,’” Shankland says. “Actually, what happened in a street battle – the energy, fear and chaos of that – is very modern. I tried to let modern events into the imagery. In some ways, we never thought of it as a period piece.”

“It does speak to that modern world. It’s not the French revolution; it’s a small, failed skirmish. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s a group of people desperately trying to assert themselves in a situation where the state is so much bigger than them. That’s still very relevant,” Jones adds.

Considering Les Misérables’ hard-hitting topics, one might expect the series to comprise six hours of unremitting tension and misery. But Shankland is quick to reassure this isn’t the case. “For all that the story is full of these epic, intense themes, there’s so much humour in it, and not in a way that I felt was ever crowbarred in. However dark times are, there’s always room for lightness and romance. It’s just a beautifully textured piece.”
And all without a songbook in sight.

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Back in the game

Get Shorty showrunner Davey Holmes and director Adam Arkin welcome DQ to the set of the second season of the drama, in which Chris O’Dowd’s mobster continues his assault on the Hollywood film business.

We’re often told that Hollywood appreciates a story about itself. The meta appeal of doing a film or a TV programme based on characters involved in an audiovisual production themselves would surely get the critics chattering.

Get Shorty, US premium cablenet Epix’s mob-movie caper that returns for a second season this Sunday, is designed to both embody and pastiche this.

Davey Holmes

Season one of the comedy-drama follows the story of Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd), who serves as muscle for a ruthless Nevada crime syndicate led by the fearsome Amara De Escalones (Lidia Porto). To do right by his daughter and his estranged wife, Miles moves to LA to become a movie producer – with his friend and mob colleague Louis (Sean Bridgers) in tow – laundering money through a Hollywood film. But problems arise again when Amara and her associates take an active role in proceedings. Season two sees Miles battle to realise his ambitions as a filmmaker and responsible father despite his adroitness as a criminal.

Based on Elmore Leonard’s book of the same name, Get Shorty has been adapted for TV by Shameless US scribe Davey Holmes. The show is produced by MGM Television, which also distributes, and Holmes Quality Yarns.

Along with O’Dowd, Porto and Bridgers, the cast features Ray Romano, Sarah Stiles, Megan Stevenson, Goya Robles and Carolyn Dodd. Off the back of season one’s success, Felicity Huffman and Steven Weber have been added.

Filming is well into the second half of season two when DQ visits the set at Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Director Adam Arkin has just called ‘cut’ on an umpteenth take of Louis eating cereal while talking to Miles over the phone about a YouTube self-help beauty video.

“I thought about asking for Captain Crunch, but it fucks up the roof of your mouth,” Bridgers can be heard telling the crew.

The off-camera humour is a moment of light relief in proceedings, but Bridgers’ aside is an exemplar of the tone of Get Shorty and how it sets itself out as a drama. Though both seasons are peppered with witty lines, they are subtle, with the drama ensuring audiences are captivated as much as amused.

The massacre of a rival cartel in season one is brutal, bloody and shocking, while the scenes involving Hollywood studios, distributors, producers and on- and off-screen talent often seem funny but will likely have industry viewers shifting uncomfortably in their seats in recognition of the realistic depiction of the conversations and decision-making – which is as cutthroat as the violent actions of the gangsters on show.

Arkin says the show explores the “terrain that hovers between extreme comedy and drama” like that of FX’s hit crime drama Fargo – another series that was inspired by a film but, like Get Shorty, does not simply transplant the same characters and story to the small screen. This is doubly important for Get Shorty, given that a 1995 film version starring John Travolta was also based on Leonard’s original book.

Get Shorty stars The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd as mob enforcer Miles Daly

However, the Epix series is less a mob or crime caper and more a story of reinvention, told through the prism of a criminal father.

“Stories about people who are striving for art can be quite boring, but there’s something about the soul of an artist in the body of a thug that’s interesting to me,” creator, showrunner and exec producer Holmes tells DQ during a break in rehearsal. “I love being able to explore big, tough guys who aren’t necessarily well versed at looking at and processing their own emotions and yet have vulnerabilities, human foibles and weaknesses. Instead of playing tough guys who are just tough, you play tough guys who are frail inside. Elmore Leonard’s all about that.”

This is not exclusive to Miles either. Bridgers says his character, Louis – a trigger-happy Mormon mobster – is undergoing a metamorphosis. The series, too, either by design or coincidence, is a metaphor for today’s US, which is going through a cultural and political transition, often bearing the hallmarks of a Hollywood movie.

“Louis has been operating, like we all do a bit, on autopilot. He’s stuck in this very small world with a somewhat limited world view and Miles is the one who breaks out of it,” Bridgers says. “He’s a ball of contradictions. That is American culture in a nutshell. Louis is a very American character.

“He’s very religious but he picks and chooses which tenets of that faith he’s going to adhere to – very American, that – and he’s also prone to violence: he shoots first and asks questions later. I try not to think about it too much because that analytical part of my brain will try to make sense of certain things, and I can’t. But that frees it up; anything’s possible with Louis.”

The scenes Bridgers has been filming during DQ’s visit (the second of which involves a big spoiler) have typified the duality of characters and the series’ dramatic and comedic interplay. Arkin says the reason he kept coming back to the scene of Louis munching cereal was a desire to respect Holmes’ approach to the material, and not just because he wants to “see Sean Bridgers eat five bowls of Fruit Loops before the day is up.”

Everybody Loves Raymond star Ray Romano plays film producer Rick Moreweather

“There are countless processes that everybody goes through [to translate the vision on screen]. I try to stay very attuned to the material; that’s obviously the first clue as to what direction everything wants to be going in,” he says.

“The biggest problem was finding that sweet spot, stylistically, between the comedy and the drama, knowing that both of them have to live in a consistent atmosphere. You can’t go too far, too recklessly in one direction or another.”

Holmes picks up: “The look of the show is an interesting and complicated discussion. We try to find a combination of a cinematic approach and veering away from what we think of as network TV in as many ways as possible. And yet, not jazzing up a scene visually, not drawing attention to the camera work, not a whole lot of jiggly handheld or trick shots – just trying to find that line where it’s cinematic without detracting from the scene itself.”

While stylistic fine-tuning can be arduous, it is exacerbated by the physical demands placed on cast and crew. In season one, shooting was divided between Hollywood and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a tragicomical example of art imitating life imitating art, the crew sometimes felt like their fictional counterparts – who intermittently struggle with sandstorms, fires and gunfire.

“We went back and forth about four or five times. Just handling that and the logistics of what we were shooting and where, it did at times lead to a certain amount of vertigo as to where we were in the process,” Arkin recalls.

“In episode five of season two, about 75% takes place in one location, which was very challenging to shoot in. We’re underground, we were pumping a lot of atmospheric smoke into the location; everyone was running around in coveralls and hard hats, respirator masks.

Lidia Porto is Amara De Escalones, the fearsome boss of a crime syndicate

“It was physically very demanding. It ended up being a wonderful episode, but it came at a cost. It put the crew and cast through their paces in terms of endurance.”

Sarah Stiles, who plays Gladys, the secretary to Romano’s film producer boss Rick Moreweather, illuminates the cast’s intensity.

“We’re all a little ‘method’ on this show. But nobody’s killed anybody yet… that I know of,” she jokes. “Ray Romano is a genius at that [intense] stuff – him orbiting around the steadiness of Gladys is just delicious to play against. He cares about the project, so he stays in Rick’s neurotic voice and asks, ‘Was that ok, did this work?’ Yeah, you’re fucking awesome, get it under control Ray Romano!”

Stevenson, who plays April Quinn, a film executive and professional antagonist to Moreweather, says it is “scary how much everyone enjoys each other.”

“We were in New Mexico for the majority of the time for the new season. That was like summer camp; we were just forced to get to know each other, because none of us are from there. On the weekends, we’d go hiking together, and every night after shooting we went in the jacuzzi together. That is so beneficial for a show. If you’re not forced to get to know each other, you just go home to your life.”

Both Stiles and Stevenson concur that what attracted them to the project was the writing, and that TV is going through its golden age in terms of attracting the best on- and off-camera talent to projects. Holmes also sees the benefits of working for a cablenet rather than a US broadcast network.

“When I first got into TV, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV that I was excited about. Now there’s a lot,” he says. “It’s also lovely because there’s a very good chance you’re going to get to do the whole season, if not two seasons, while they evaluate what the audience is.

“For networks, they really appraise you week by week. I’ve been on plenty of interesting shows that did four episodes or six episodes and then they’re gone, before you’ve really even started telling the story. This show seems to be catching on… that alone is a game-changer creatively.”

As the cast settles in for another take, it feels as though Get Shorty has only just begun.

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Scandiniavia Lawyers up

Scandinavian thriller The Lawyer may bear many of the hallmarks of Nordic noir, but this brighter series adds a new dimension to the ever-popular genre.

Despite the opening scene involving the brutal death of two people in a car bomb, it is difficult not to observe the warmth of Scandinavian drama The Lawyer.

Paradoxical though this may sound, it’s what gives the SF Studios-produced legal thriller a different feel to the long list of Nordic noir series of recent times.

The Lawyer centres on Frank Nordling, a young and promising defence lawyer who, along with his sister Sara, witnessed his parents’ death – the victims of the aforementioned car bomb – as a child. When he finds out who was responsible, he feels compelled to seek revenge.

So far so Scandi, but unlike its predecessors, The Lawyer’s action is not perpetually set in half-lit offices or dark, dank landscapes where the protagonists’ faces are obscured by shadow or washed out in monochrome. From the locations appearing in the first episode – a modern courtroom, a legal office in the centre of town, a nouveau riche mansion complete with pillars and swimming pool – you might think you are watching a daytime soap instead of a revenge thriller involving Stockholm’s criminal underworld. Even a murder on a boat is set in a prettily lit marina with a backdrop of distant, colourful fireworks.

Producer Nicklas Wikstrom Nicastro says this is no coincidence but, instead, part of the creative team’s desire to “add something to that [canon of] Scandinavian noir.”

Part of the show’s look can be attributed to Geir Henning Hopland, who directed the first five episodes. “He really has a sense of visuals,” says Nicastro. “We didn’t want to follow; we can use colour, we’re not all about everything [being in] different shades of grey, you know? We’ve found something here that has its place, it has an edge, even though it’s in the same camp of Scandinavian noir.”

The Lawyer, which airs on Viaplay and TV3, stars Alexander Karim (right)

Yet the series, produced for Viaplay and TV3 (Sweden and Denmark respectively) and distributed by StudioCanal, bears the hallmarks you would expect of the genre: corrupt police, psychologically damaged lead characters, murder and drugs. It’s clear the creators have gone to great lengths to depict the tension and intrigue Scandi noir commands, but the audience will feel it is still rooted in real life rather than the cinematic world of shows like The Killing. And this is not solely achieved by the lighting.

Jens Lapidus, internationally bestselling Nordic noir author and one of the people behind the concept for the series, believes a show must respect art and reality.

“There’s always this balance between real-life authenticity and dramaturgical effect,” he notes. “So, are you talking here about a documentary or some sort of reportage [style] or full-scale SFX, fantasy science-fiction stuff? You always have to land somewhere in between if you’re describing a real city, a real crime case or real human beings.

“So, in certain parts it’s not what would happen in the real world working as a police officer or a lawyer. Sometimes that’s itching to me, because I’m from the real world and I’m thinking, ‘No, this is not how it would work.’”

Part of this obsession over authenticity comes from Lapidus’s other career as a criminal defence lawyer, a position he has held for more than 15 years. As such, the environment of The Lawyer has been his “playground.” Lapidus says that, after seeing the input from the real courtrooms and underworld of Stockholm, and watching the finished product, “there’s so much in there that happened in real life.”

Lapidus’s attention to detail did not simply benefit the writers and the production team. Alexander Karim, who plays Nordling, says having the series based on real life was rewarding for the actors, allowing them to immerse themselves in the world their characters inhabit.

“I could move into the courthouse in Stockholm and just stay there – I was there for three months and I saw everything, every single case,” he says. “You have a lot of different sources to get your inspiration from. A small detail, for instance: Frank is supposed to be clean-shaven, and then I met with [bearded] Jens and I thought, ‘I want to look like that.’

The drama is distributed by StudioCanal

“I want to base Frank on Jens. When I went into the fitting, they said you’re supposed to be clean-shaven, you’re supposed to be this young lawyer. But I’d been watching these defence attorneys in real life and none of them are clean-shaven, especially the young ones – they grow beards. The older they get, the more clean-shaven they get. It’s all about respect in the courtroom; it’s about not looking like a little kid, because no one’s going to believe you.”

Of course, this is still a piece of drama and Nicastro notes the setting for the series changed during the script development, with Viaplay wanting the show to be “bigger, greater.” It started out as a Stockholm-based programme, but with Sweden and Denmark so close, it became a Copenhagen- and Malmo-set series.

So where does The Lawyer sit in the pantheon of Scandi noir? Nicastro thinks it has evolved the genre through its modern take on the classic revenge tale.

“It has so many angles,” he enthuses. “Besides being a well-built thriller, we had this character Frank, all the rows, conflicts he has; he needs courage. This character is in an extreme situation seeking revenge.

“The story of revenge is so simple, but if the protagonists have moral issues, it adds a dimension. Take Hamlet – the great stories of revenge have these. We renew ourselves all the time. If you look at Scandinavian noir 10 to 15 years ago, we had all those police officers in trench coats solving crimes and everything.

“And if you compare that to The Lawyer, it’s still Scandi noir, the arena people know – the psychology, the inner demons – but we needed a new way to express it [and I think we’ve done that].”

Karim agrees that by making Frank a lawyer, it bucks the convention of the genre, which tends to focus on police officers.

“We’ve chosen another setting – we’re going into the courtroom. Courtroom dramas there are plenty of, but this is a courtroom thriller with elements of the police force, brothers and sisters, the family, so what makes it stand out is the setting.

“Law, and what it is in its essence, is such a beautiful way of telling a story of revenge. I went back to the movies of the 50 and 60s and watched every single lawyer movie there was before we did this. The one that falls closest to this is The Firm [the 1993 film starring Tom Cruise], that sort of infiltrating place where you have no friends and you have to get in there and find your way out, the good guy turns bad. Putting a lawyer in a morally ambiguous place is very interesting.”

Lapidus says The Lawyer twists the conventions of legal practice as much as it twists the genre. As a criminal defence lawyer, he adds, you have a set of rules to follow, set out by the Bar Association, the foremost of which is “loyalty to the client.”

“Not loyalty with the court, nor the police force; it’s not loyalty to society, or the truth,” he continues. “Now what happens if you take that rule and you twist it 180 degrees.”

In the series, which debuted last month on Viaplay, Frank’s faithfulness to this mantra is tested “in every scene,” Lapidus adds.

Despite The Lawyer’s creators believing they have added something different to the Nordic noir canon, some in the wider industry speculate the genre has had its day and the drama world has moved on.

Understandably, the team behind The Lawyer disagree, but Lapidus concedes that the unstable world we live in could be the reason for opinions changing.

“Why do you have the great interest still? Why don’t you see French, German stuff coming out the way you see [Scandinavian noir]?” he asks. “The reason the world has been so interested in Scandi noir in all its forms is because Scandinavia is probably one of the safest places on Earth, and out of that comes the most stories about killing and crime.

“I think that paradox has played very well because that makes people interested. I wonder whether that’s going to change, because we live in very insecure times. Now things [like murder and terrorism] do happen in Scandinavia because we don’t belong in secure times anymore.”

As such, people are looking for different kinds of drama, and Lapidus suggests that perhaps in a few years we might see the Scandinavian version of The Wire – gritty social realism that reflects today’s society.

If that is to be the next iteration of the genre, you can be sure it will extend the Scandi noir shelf-life, akin to the length of a Stockholm winter night.

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Keep dreaming

The creative team behind Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams discuss the origins of the ambitious sci-fi anthology series and reveal how they brought together a host of A-list actors, writers and directors for the show.

To say Philip K Dick adaptations are a fixture on screen at the moment is akin to saying the sky is blue. The late sci-fi writer’s work is hot property.

The Hood Maker, the first episode in the series, featured Noma Dumezweni and Richard Madden

The trend was set two years ago with global giant Amazon launching original series The Man in the High Castle. Based on Dick’s novel of the same name, a third season of the show was greenlit earlier this year. Looming large on the horizon too is Blade Runner 2049, the much-anticipated follow-up to the revered 1982 movie Blade Runner, also based on a Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

And now Channel 4 has jumped on the bandwagon with Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series of 10 hour-long episodes, drawn from a selection from the 120-plus short stories the author penned during his life.

The genesis of the Sony Pictures Television coproduction came five years ago when Michael Dinner, writer and series executive producer, was approached by US prodco Anonymous Content and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett with the idea of doing a series based on one of the short stories. Two weeks later, at a screening of episodes The Hood Maker and Crazy Diamond, Dinner recalls: “I had the nerve to call and say, ‘How about all of them?’”

The Hood Maker, the season premiere, debuted on September 17 to broadly positive reviews. In the pantheon of stars on board the show, Holliday Grainger (who also stars in BBC1’s Strike, the adaptation of JK Rowling’s three crime novels written under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym) is not perhaps the biggest name; but her turn as telepath Honor is balanced and full of range for a character essentially supposed to be a dispassionate drone. Her rapport with co-star Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) is full of feeling and has depth, which is impressive since the episode unfolds at 100 miles per hour.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston (right) stars in Human Is

The acting line-ups for the nine other episodes are star-studded. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Timothy Spall (Mr Turner), Anna Paquin (True Blood), Terrence Howard (Empire), and Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) are but a few of the recognisable faces on screen.

Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld, Borgen), who stars alongside Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) in Crazy Diamond, says the adaptability of the sci-fi genre allowed the actors to bring individuality to their roles and not feel restricted by the character in the original script.

“It’s a strange read, the script; I couldn’t explain it, but I liked it,” she says. “The whole thing is very odd – we’re odd, and the style is odd, but it’s exceptionally playful.

“What this genre allows is that nobody can come and say, ‘That’s not really believable,’ because what is believable? You can always insist on things being the way they are – this is the way we choose to interact and have emotions.”

Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter & the Cursed Child), who features in The Hood Maker, says the stellar casts caught her eye, and that this unique quality, along with the individuality of each episode, is the series’ strength.

“Just watching these two episodes, I can’t wait to see the others because they’re so fucking individual,” she says. “For me, there is no meaning; Electric Dreams is the thing that’s holding this all together. I want to see what each director’s done with their vision.”

Steve Buscemi alongside Julia Davis in Crazy Diamond

It’s not just in front of the camera where there is variety. Electric Dreams is made up of five UK and five US productions, has 10 different writers, 10 different directors and multiple executive producers. It is unsurprising, then, that Dinner calls the episodes “little movies.”

“I had this crazy notion of doing an anthology show, but one that encompassed 10 different unique points of view, not done like traditional American television,” he says. “So, then I solicited friends [to help].”

Dinner turned to veteran sci-fi producer and screenwriter Ronald D Moore – the “resident sci-fi geek” at Sony’s studio lot – before bringing on board Cranston, who happened to be moving into an office below Dinner’s, and who too is an avid Dick fan.

“We went after writers whose work we really liked. Some of them brought with them the stories that were favourites of theirs, and we also curated stories and sent them to writers. We put this all-star team together,” says Dinner.

“[We had a vision that] each show would have a diversity of viewpoint and we’d really give artists who came and joined us the opportunity to bring their own vision and interpretation to it,” Moore adds.

Along with Moore and Dinner, Maril Davis (Tall Ship Productions) exec produces. Cranston, who stars in episode Human Is, is also exec producing on behalf of Moon Shot Entertainment, along with James Degus. Isa Dick Hackett, Kalen Egan and Christopher Tricarico of Electric Shepherd Productions and Anonymous Content’s David Kanter and Matt DeRoss also have executive producer credits.

Impossible Planet deals with space tourism

So was having so many bodies on each show – literally thousands of miles apart from each other at any given stage – a challenge for the producers? Though he is satisfied with the outcomes of each individual project, Dinner says it was tricky at times.

“We were crazy because we were shooting on two continents, almost simultaneously,” he says. “We started shooting in Great Britain about five weeks earlier than the US. There were a lot of producers, so people would come and go to [and from] Great Britain.”

Moore jokes that they undertook such an extravagant project “because we’re insane,” but concedes the complexity of the series was tough.

“It’s a lot of ground to cover and I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it is to produce a show like this,” he says. “Every episode is a new cast, new locations, new costumes, new sets, everything. It’s hard to produce. It’s unique, I’ve never done anything like it. I suspect none of us have.”

It seems like a bit of a departure for C4 too. Electric Dreams was commissioned by outgoing chief creative officer Jay Hunt, Piers Wenger (who is now at the BBC) and Simon Maxwell, head of international drama. Earlier this year, Maxwell said the budget for Electric Dreams was “significant” and that the show would have been unaffordable without forming a coproduction. Amazon Prime has the US rights.

It is not solely monetary success C4 needs. There is perhaps some pride to salvage owing to the big hole in the channel’s scheduling left by fellow sci-fi show Black Mirror, which moved to streaming giant Netflix last year. However, there is confidence among Dinner and Moore their show can emulate the dramatic success of its predecessor. Indeed, the former believes they have brought a cinematic experience to linear television.

“With each one as we finish it up, it’s thrilling. I’m as excited about the other directors’, the other writers’ [episodes] as I am about the one I did,” he says. “It’s fun to work with the talent and work with people we really admire, [bringing together] directors with writers and writers with directors.

“We get to make 10 movies in a season. The ability to 10 stories and do 10 movies is awesome.”

Given the series is only a 12th of Dick’s short story output, do the producers have hopes they could be future Electric Dreams series?

“Five years ago, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to invite people to play in our sandbox?,’” Dinner adds. “We wondered if people would come and they did. If it’s a success, more people will come to the sandbox.”

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