All posts by Karolina Kaminska

Life through a lens

After working on a pair of adaptations, writer Daisy Coulam is bringing an original story to television in the shape of Deadwater Fell. She tells DQ how a love of true crime shows and the power of social media inspired the series.

Screenwriter Daisy Coulam is perhaps best known as the head writer on ITV detective drama Grantchester, as well as being part of the writing team for Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans. But while Grantchester is based on James Runcie’s short stories and Humans was adapted from Swedish drama Real Humans, Coulam is now stepping out with her own original project – four-part crime drama Deadwater Fell.

Daisy Coulam

Set in the small fictional town of Kirkdarroch in Scotland, the Channel 4 miniseries follows two very different families in the aftermath of a horrific crime. First, there’s the Kendricks, a seemingly perfect and happy family comprising husband Tom, played by David Tennant (Good Omens), wife Kate (Anna Madeley, Patrick Melrose) and their three children.

Then there’s the Campbells, a more dysfunctional family made up of husband Steve (Matthew McNulty, Versailles), wife Jess (Cush Jumbo, The Good Fight) and Steve’s two sons from a previous marriage.

One night, the Kendricks’ house goes up in flames. Kate and the children are found dead, while Tom survives – and it’s soon revealed that Kate and the children weren’t killed in the fire but rather by a terrible crime.

According to Coulam, the series aims to explore the modern-day, social media-inspired desire for the perfect life. “It’s an exploration of the way the world is now that we all seem to be living these perfect, Instagram-type lives. It’s seeing behind that veneer,” she says. “Tom Kendrick is a doctor and Kate is a teacher; they have the lovely house and all the trappings of a perfect life. But we quickly realise that, behind closed doors, things aren’t what they seem.”

It also examines the reasons why people commit certain crimes, through a “forensic examination seen through the eyes of the two couples,” making it more of a ‘whydunnit’ than a ‘whodunnit.’

The idea for the series came from an “obsession” with true crime, reveals Coulam, who admits she and exec producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd are both addicted to murder documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Staircase. “It started from a love of true crime,” she says. “We wanted to tell a story in that very slow, forensic, visual style, and that’s where the idea originated from. Then we wanted to do something that exploded a community, that was quite big and dramatic and dark.”

David Tennant and Anna Madeley in Deadwater Fell

To find the perfect crime, Coulam talked to criminal psychologists and people working in Scottish law and eventually found something that provided the themes she wanted to explore, namely toxic masculinity, relationships and coercive control.

Writing Deadwater Fell, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, has been very different to writing Grantchester, Coulam says, not just because she now has a writing team alongside her for the latter but also because her latest series takes “a much more cinematic approach.”

“I try to think much more visually and to be much sparser with dialogue [on Deadwater Fell],” she says. “Funnily enough, Grantchester has quite similar themes in that it’s a ‘whydunnit’ and an exploration of what makes people do heinous things, but it’s a different approach. Grantchester is much more traditional and procedural, and we didn’t want to be police-heavy or procedural [in Deadwater Fell]. We wanted to explore it from the side of the community, friends and family.

“We see the crime in the present and we also see it in a flashback, so what we needed to do across the four episodes was storyline the whole thing and then piece it together. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle and each piece we’re laying out for the audience to see if they can piece it all together. There are two different timelines, so it was quite a different process [from writing for Grantchester]. We wanted to peel away the layers of the characters to really look at their motives and what triggers them to do what they do.

The series also stars Matthew McNulty (left) and Cush Jumbo (centre)

Coulam was also interested in how criminals and murderers are thought of as ‘monsters,’ whereas “actually, statistically, they’re [more likely to be] within a family or a community

and are somebody you know. So, another element of interest is that evil isn’t ‘something else,’ but human.”

When it comes to her writing process, Coulam sees advantages in working both alone and via a writers room, but admits writing Deadwater Fell on her own has had its difficult moments. “Writing solo, you can go crazy. I’ll sit here banging my head against the wall, but I am lucky that I’ve got Danny [West], the script editor, who I can phone up and rant at,” she says.

“I work very closely with Emma [Kingsman-Lloyd] and Danny. We have this understanding and can quite quickly piece together a story. So, we do work together, although this was purely my project. Writers rooms, by their nature, are much more collaborative. This is the first time I’ve really got to do my own project and that’s felt quite scary but also exciting.”

Coulam wrote the first season of Grantchester on her own, but for the past three seasons, plus the upcoming fifth season, she has had a team of writers alongside her, which she says provides a whole new dimension to the writing experience.

“With Grantchester, there’s a different kind of pleasure, which is that you’re part of a team. We’re really part of a family at Grantchester; we’ve been together so long now. So it’s fun in different ways.”

Deadwater Fell launches on Channel 4 this Friday

Coulam broke into screenwriting on continuing dramas such as the BBC’s EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty and also had a stint as a story/script editor on ITV’s The Bill. She believes these long-running shows provide excellent experience for budding writers, as well as those looking to work in producing or editing. “Continuing dramas are the best training grounds. A lot of people I work with now, including script editors and producers, have come up through that system. The turnaround is so quick, so you need to think on your feet and keep up the quality without slowing the pace. You also get to make mistakes and watch it back, so you can see your work, critique it and then learn from it,” she says.

Coulam made her way into the continuing drama space after earning a place on BBC training course the Writers’ Academy, which she credits for changing her life. The original programme ran from 2005 until 2013 and launched the careers of screenwriters including Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner, the creators of crime drama Father Brown.

After a six-year hiatus, the scheme relaunched this year as the BBC Studios Writers’ Academy. Through the programme, eight successful applicants were picked to receive one year’s paid training with guaranteed commissions on major BBC shows, including Doctors and EastEnders.

“I’m really pleased the Writers’ Academy has come back,” Coulam says. “I did it around 11 years ago and, without a doubt, it changed my life. This year they’ve got seven women writers, which is really exciting. The Royal Court theatre in [London’s] Sloane Square also has some amazing schemes – the more of those, the better,” she adds, pointing out the opportunities they can also offer to budding writers from working-class backgrounds “who otherwise might get overlooked.”

So what advice does Coulam have for budding writers? “Watch other people’s telly,” she says. “There’s a good quote along the lines of, ‘If you don’t know what a good cake looks and tastes like, how do you know how to cook one?’ Watch other telly and think about why it’s good, but don’t compare yourself to others because somebody will always be doing better than you. Comparison is the thief of joy.”

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Bringing up Baby

Italian director Andrea De Sica has achieved global success with Netflix teen drama series Baby. He talks to DQ about the joys of working with a young creative team, what it’s like directing for Netflix and why he thinks the controversial series has been successful.

Set in Rome, Netflix’s Italian teen drama Baby tells the story of two teenage girls who lead double lives. By day, they are students at an elite high school; by night, they engage in prostitution. Premiering in November 2018, the show returned for a quick-turnaround second season last month.

Andrea De Sica

For director Andrea de Sica, Baby represents his first directing role on a drama series, following his directorial debut on 2016 film Children of the Night.

As well as featuring a young cast, much of Baby’s creative team and crew are also made up of young talent. The series was created by a collective of Italian screenwriters in their mid-20s, known as The Grams, and produced by brothers Marco and Nicola de Angelis.

Working with a largely young team proved useful for 37-year-old De Sica, who points out that his colleagues’ youthfulness meant they didn’t approach the series with a “typical Italian paternalistic approach.”

“There was no ‘Come on, I’ll show you the way.’ We were all in it together trying to figure it out,” he says, adding that even the composer behind the soundtrack was just 23.

“It was hard because it was my first series, but maybe that was a good thing because I didn’t have any orthodox methods. I did it my way. Everything was new and unexpected, and that was the best part about it. It was a totally spontaneous process of writing, directing and editing.”

Taking a new approach to directing was important for De Sica who, coming from an established family in the film industry, was determined not to be too heavily influenced by his roots and to make his work completely his own.

“I wanted to forget all the cinema references and directors in my life, which were very present in my first feature, and make Baby as fresh and direct as I could,” he says.

Baby focuses on a pair of high-school girls who engage in prostitution

But directing Baby was not a project De Sica could conquer alone, he adds, pointing out that the show’s themes also required a female voice to share directorial duties. This posed difficulties, however, as the controversial nature of the series made it hard to find someone willing to take it on.

“I couldn’t be the only director to do it, because Baby needed a woman too. It was impossible to direct it all by myself, but nobody else wanted to direct it. Everybody was saying, ‘You’re crazy!’ It was hard to find other directors, but at last we found one,” he says, referring to Anna Negri.

Netflix also provided the creative freedom De Sica desired for the project, which he says gave him a favourable working relationship with the streamer.

“I liked it a lot. First of all, the average age of the executives at Netflix is the same age as me, so we are at the same point in our lives. The second thing is the executives really know where they want to go, but at the same time know they should give you some freedom,” he says.

“They don’t interfere much, so we had our own rules and methods. They let us build this huge experiment, which was very risky but gave us much more freedom.”

De Sica on set with Baby leads Benedetta Porcaroli (left) and Alice Pagani

Although the show explores controversial and sensitive themes, De Sica praises it for giving a voice to women in a way that hasn’t been done before, which he believes is one of the reasons for its success.

“We speak about female teenagers differently from [how they’ve been spoken about] before in films and television. Females were often seduced and seen as objects; now they’re becoming active. They are proper protagonists of the story and have power in the environment that oppressed them. So it’s a sense of relief, I think, for the young female audiences that they finally they have their character, their heroine. And they are not necessarily good or bad, but something in between,” he says.

While De Sica says Italian audiences were very sceptical of Baby to begin with, he believes now is a good time to be working in TV in the country given the evolution the industry is currently experiencing, particularly with regard to the rise of SVoD services.

“It is a very good moment now in Italy because of this opening by the [SVoD] platforms for a younger generation of authors, screenwriters, directors and actors, while it is easier to make shows that do not normally feature in traditional Italian television,” he says.

“What I was pitching five years ago made people look at me like I was a Martian. Now, the industry is moving and we can build a new wave of films and series. I’m very optimistic about the next 10 years for me; I see lots of things that are possible to do.

“Other productions made by Netflix and similar platforms are also run by 30-something directors. There’s no longer the usual boundary that you have to be 50 to run a TV show, as there was 10 years ago in Italy. But it’s not just about age, it’s about the quality and themes that the projects are bringing up. We can do more experiments; we can go deeper and make shows that describe realities that maybe are very local but can travel the world, like Baby.”

So what’s next on the agenda for De Sica? Just ahead of the season two launch of Baby last month, the director announced plans to make a film based on Chiara Palazzolo’s Gothic novel Non Mi Uccidere, which translates as Don’t Kill Me.

Aimed at the same young audience as Baby, Non Mi Uccidere follows the story of 19-year-old Mirta who, along with her lover, dies from a drug overdose. Mirta is resurrected alone and learns that she must eat human beings in order to continue living.

De Sica is working alongside Baby creators The Grams on the project, with writer and producer Gianni Romoli, who acquired the rights to the book, also part of the writing team. Rome-based indie Vivo Film is producing.

But first, he is returning for the third and final season of Baby, which Netflix announced earlier this month with the promise that every secret in the series will be revealed.

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