Espionage thriller Summer of Rockets is the first screen work from acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff to draw on his own life, set in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. He and executive producer Helen Flint talk to DQ about merging fact and fiction.
As a writer and director for the screen over the past four decades, Stephen Poliakoff has been behind work that has amassed numerous Bafta, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards. The playwright, who learned his craft in the theatre, counts series and films such as Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince, Friends & Crocodiles, Gideon’s Daughter, Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, as well as recent dramas Dancing on the Edge and Close to the Enemy, among his extensive credits.
Yet for all his fascination with the past – among many examples, Dancing on the Edge trails a black jazz group in 1930s London and Close to the Enemy is set in the aftermath of the Second World War – his latest series is the first to draw on his own family and life experiences.
Written and directed by Poliakoff, Summer of Rockets is a semi-autobiographical drama set during 1958, a year that marked the height of the Cold War as fear and suspicion clashed with the start of the mobile revolution and the Space Race. It was also the last time debutants were presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the year of the Notting Hill riots in West London.
Poliakoff says the fact it is partly based on his own life marks Summer of Rockets out as “significantly different” from anything he’s done for the screen before.
“My first real memories are from this time – I was five in 1958 – so I could feel, even as a small child, the apprehension in the air, the feel of nuclear war,” he says. “The Russians were the enemy and yet I was half-Russian, so that made me feel an extraordinary sense isolation as a child. I was also sent to boarding school, as we see in the story, and was the only Jewish boy there. That was why I was drawn to this time.
“There’s a lot of resonance for us now, as Russia again seems to be our enemy and there is also unfortunately, tragically, anti-Semitism in Europe and it’s coming back to the UK. Well, it never goes away. But above all, it was a sense of the absolute epicentre of the Cold War; the fact nobody could be trusted, especially if they were foreigners.”
Another parallel between that period and today, he notes, is the “humiliation” of the Suez Crisis in 1958, which left Britain “a laughing stock” on the world stage. “Things have happened since I’ve written the piece and we’ve become a laughing stock for very different reasons, with people harking back to a sense of our past glories, which also plays a part in the story,” Poliakoff says. “This is not a story about Brexit or a metaphor for it, but nevertheless there are resonances in the piece.”
Toby Stephens (Black Sails) stars as Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian Jewish émigré modelled on Poliakoff’s father Alexander, an inventor and designer of hearing aids, whose clients include former UK prime minister Winston Churchill. The series also focuses on Samuel’s wife, Miriam (Lucy Cohu), and their children, Hannah (Lily Sacofsky) and Sasha (Toby Woolf). In the show, having developed a new paging system for hospitals, Samuel is is approached by the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 to demonstrate his work.
However, it’s not his inventions the agency (led by Mark Bonnar’s mysterious Field) is interested in but his fledging friendship with MP Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and his wife Kathleen (Keeley Hawes), who also introduce him to Lord Arthur Wellington (Timothy Spall). As Samuel’s life becomes intertwined with his mission, he is left to question how far he is willing to let things unravel for his cause and who he can trust.
It was Poliakoff’s discovery that his father had been suspected of bugging Churchill’s hearing aid, a revelation he first heard when a journalist contacted him about newly released government papers in 2007, that sparked the story behind Summer of Rockets,
“It took me a long time to think about writing it because it meant revisiting my youth and a very traumatic time at boarding school,” he says. “I also tend to write slightly away from my immediate family experience because I find it easier to invent like that. But, after quite a considerable while, because the story kept haunting me, I broached it to the BBC.”
His father’s work, he explains, is truthfully reflected in the story by his hearing aids business, the deaf workers he employs in the factory and his invention of the paging system, which he created for St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
“But I always saw that as a jumping-off point for Keeley’s side of the story,” Poliakoff continues. “My father was besotted with everything English; he was a real anglophile. He was a Russian Jew but he wanted to be an English gentleman, so there’s the story of him being involved in this English upper-class family who have their own darkness and trauma hidden away in a magnificent house. They have charm and grace, they entertain people, but this covers a deep unhappiness.
“My father would have loved to have been entertained in such a house, so that was what led me from that jumping-off point for the fictitious side of the story, but it’s based on the sort of things my father loved and was attracted to by English life and aspired to. The story curve shows Samuel learning that he doesn’t want to be the perfect English gentleman.”
Through the first episode, the story is laid bare against the backdrop of rockets being launched and rising anxiety over what might lie ahead, coupled with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that stem from the still-raw fallout of the Second World War. Samuel’s technological achievements also shine a light on how industry was set to move forward rapidly over the next decade.
“When you have six hours of television drama, it’s a big canvas. The joy of longform is that you can build a complex world and you can delve deeper into character than you can in a two-hour movie,” Poliakoff says. “It’s great to try to be ambitious when you’re given that length of screen time.”
Helen Flint, MD of Little Island Productions and Poliakoff’s long-time producing partner, admits the writer’s outlines need very little development as they are often fully formed, “very detailed and very ambitious” by the time she becomes involved.
“The thing is to identify where and how you’re actually going to make it happen,” she says. “Both of us have been around far too long. Therefore, between us and the heads of department, we can work out how to put this on the screen, which is our craft.”
With all of Poliakoff’s work filmed on location, the first task on Summer of Rockets was to find the house belonging to Richard and Kathleen Shaw, which is a constant presence during all six episodes. They eventually settled on Benington Lordship, a grand setting close to Stevenage, 35 miles north of London, which is notable for the Norman keep adjoining the 17th century house and expansive gardens.
“The other important thing was when to film it, because getting lucky with sunshine in this country is not a given – so the schedule is everything,” Flint says.
Finding London streets that could double for the time period also proved problematic, with the slums of Notting Hill in 1958 far removed from the affluent neighbourhood it is today. Another set piece saw a queue of 1950s cars lined up along The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace, which was filmed early in the morning to avoid the crowds of tourists usually occupying the area.
“It takes a huge amount of work, more work than anybody would imagine, weeks and weeks, and then huge amounts in post-production just to paint out silly lines and stuff like that,” Flint says of filming in London. “After that, it’s all of the countryside, the driving [scenes] and the minutiae. But because we’ve got a cast that is working all the time, we have to try to jigsaw them all in, which is very complicated at certain points. Once you have those actors, the schedule is dictated by that. Then other problems come to the fore because if they’re not available, you can’t do the locations. London exteriors are the hardest, and then piecing it together is a massive jigsaw.”
In some cases, however, the reality on which some of the series is based was too extreme to be dramatised. Poliakoff decided to tone down scenes where Sasha is at boarding school, as his own experiences at school were too “draconian” to be depicted exactly as he remembered.
“When I started writing it, I realised it had to be more interesting and more inventive than the actual thing I experienced, which in reality was relentlessly grim,” he says. “A little bit of that was fine, but I didn’t think an audience would stand for that being repeated in each scene. So, oddly enough, the bit that was closest to reality was the most difficult to write.”
The series sees Poliakoff reunited with Stephens, who starred in his 2001 family reunion drama Perfect Strangers, while this was his first time working with Hawes despite having known her since she was just 19. “She starred in my wife Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend 20 years ago,” he recalls of the actor, who has recently starred in Line of Duty, The Durrells and Bodyguard. “I’ve known her for some time and we’ve always wanted to work together. She’s phenomenal in her role, which is a really very juicy role, so I’m thrilled. I think she gives one of her greatest performances.”
Following Summer of Rockets’ launch on UK pubcaster BBC2 tomorrow, all six episodes will be made available on the pubcaster’s VoD platform iPlayer. The drama is distributed internationally by BBC Studios. “‘Bingeable’ is not the prettiest word but, actually, I think my work was born to be binged,” Poliakoff notes. “People over the years have always told me they’ve sat down to watch something like Perfect Strangers, which is only four hours long. They tend to watch the first part and then they’re there four hours later.
“So I very much hope the story has that effect. It does have quite a powerful story that gathers and evolves and changes. It’s great for people to watch it in a linear way or in an immersive way. Either way, I hope people will really get into it.”
Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.
The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.
Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.
It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.
The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.
Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.
However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.
On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.
The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.
The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.
“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”
The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.
“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.
“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”
Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.
The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.
Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.
“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”
Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”
Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.
For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.
“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”
Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.
“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”
Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.
Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”
The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.
“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”
But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”
Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.
“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”
Killing Eve and Patrick Melrose claimed the major drama prizes at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019. DQ was backstage to hear from the winners.
Once the ceremony had concluded and the final prizes of the night had been handed out, the winners of the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 – or Baftas, as they are better known – returned to the stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a final group photograph.
As they huddled together, each clutching their own gleaming statuette, all eyes were on the two actors standing at the front of the crowd. For Benedict Cumberbatch, his triumph in the Leading Actor category for his role in Patrick Melrose marked his first win in eight Bafta nominations across film and television.
Standing next to him was Jodie Comer, winning at the second opportunity for her standout role as assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve, having seen off competition from co-star Sandra Oh, who was nominated in the same category. Oh won a Golden Globe earlier this year for her performance as Eve Polastri, the intelligence agent simultaneously on the hunt for and infatuated with Villanelle.
Killing Eve proved to be the big winner of the evening, taking home two more awards on top of Comer’s gong: best supporting actress for Fiona Shaw, who plays MI6 bigwig Carolyn Martens, and best drama series, arguably the night’s most prestigious accolade.
Similarly, Patrick Melrose’s recognition extended beyond its star, with the fiver-parter kicking off the annual ceremony, which recognised programmes that aired in 2018, by claiming best miniseries.
The Sky Atlantic and Showtime drama is based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn that chart upper-class Melrose’s attempts to overcome his addictions and demons, which are rooted in a childhood overshadowed by an abusive father and negligent mother.
“You win when you get to work on a project like this. You win when you get to work with the people you get to work with and the TV family we created. This is just an embarrassment of riches but it’s elating, it’s fantastic,” said Cumberbatch after claiming his award (pictured top).
Describing his time playing Melrose as “a proper experience and one that I will take with me for the rest of my life,” he added: “It’s something that touched on a lot of incredibly powerful themes. It asks a lot of you as an actor. That’s a great thing. But my chiefest joy, as well as the family I made on the project, is the friendship I’ve made with the man who lived it [St Aubyn].
“He’s an incredible man who, under the pressure cooker of trauma, managed to create this jewel of art in these amazing series of novels that are painfully, brilliantly, funnily, wittily, rawly close to his life and look at what damage, self-abuse, abuse and salvation – in the end, because that is what it ends on – can be. He’s a survivor. That’s my greatest reward.”
The actor went on to describe director Edward Berger (The Terror, Deutschland 83) as “a genius,” noting that everyone on the production team – Cumberbatch was an exec producer – was keen to do justice to St Auybyn’s acclaimed novels. “We thought, ‘We cannot fuck this up. This has to be good.’ You want to do your best.”
After winning the Best Director: Drama award for his work on A Very English Scandal at the Bafta Television Craft Awards a fortnight ago, Stephen Frears was back on stage to collect the award for supporting actor on behalf of Ben Whishaw. In the series, Hugh Grant plays disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, who in 1979 was tried but acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (Whishaw).
“I’m sorry I’m not Ben,” the director quipped, revealing the actor’s commitments on Broadway prevented him from attending. “He’s a very, very good actor and it was a pleasure and an honour to direct him.”
In a year when Netflix series Black Mirror broke new ground with its interactive episode Bandersnatch, it was the dramatisation of a real-life story that took the Single Drama award. Killed By My Debt, produced by BBC Studios for BBC3, told how 20-year-old motorcycle courier Jerome Rogers took his own life in 2017 when he was unable to pay traffic fines worth £130 (US$167), which spiralled to more than £1,000 with interest. His family have since been campaigning for greater regulation against the bailiff industry in the UK.
Writer Tahsin Guner admitted he found it very difficult to pen the script. “When I first heard what had happened with the news articles, it made me really angry and really upset,” he said. “I knew that was how I wanted the audience to feel. From the feedback I’ve had, it’s a devastating experience to watch, and it was upsetting watching it and making it and writing it.”
Rather than being a complete dramatisation, Killed By My Debt is very much focused on the facts surrounding Jerome’s death. Lines of dialogue were based on his work contract or taken verbatim from a bailiff’s body cam. “You don’t really have to fictionalise anything. Everything you see that happens in the drama happened. Really, nothing is fictionalised,” Guner said. “We had access to phone calls, we had access to all of his payslips. So we really constructed the story from all of those things, from all those factual documentary elements.”
Fiona Shaw, who is best known for her role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, was already a familiar face before Killing Eve launched last year. But she revealed her life has dramatically changed since the BBC America spy saga, which airs on BBC1 in the UK, rolled out to critical and popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Often people come up to me and talk about Harry Potter or [1990 comedy] Three Men & a Little Lady or something from the theatre,” she said. “But people came to stop bicycles for Killing Eve. Floods of bicycles going to work would just stop. That’s unusual. That’s never happened before.”
Shaw first read the Killing Eve script while in bed one morning with a cup of tea. As she turned each page, “I wasn’t sure if it was something that might be amazing under the radar, and like five people in London would enjoy it, or whether it was really funny. But I was laughing and I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Then I said, ‘I’m not doing this unless I have lunch with [creator and season one head writer] Phoebe Waller-Bridge,’ and I had the most delightful lunch with her. I’d never met her, but of course I knew [writer and star Waller-Bridge’s BBC3 stage play-turned BBC3 comedy] Fleabag. At the end, I was hers for life and still am.”
Shaw went on to make a cameo in season two of Fleabag, playing a therapist, although she initially rejected the opportunity. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve got time, I’m doing so much Killing Eve.’ But [filming on] Fleabag ran on a bit later than they thought and Phoebe asked me to play this psychotherapist,” the actor recalls. “So we just did it one morning and she was spinning plates in that she was rewriting it, I was relearning it; she was just changing things and acting in it. It was an astonishing morning for this tiny sequence.”
As the event headed towards its conclusion, Cumberbatch was back on stage to accept the leading actor award for Patrick Melrose, before stating backstage that he had never been prouder of a piece of work for which he had been nominated. “To win for this really means the most. It’s a dream come true. I’m very happy,” he said, admitting that he thought Hugh Grant would win for his A Very English Scandal performance.
To play a drug addict, Cumberbatch sought advice from people who were familiar with the substances that appear in the show about how to accurately portray their physical and mental impact. “So whether it was depression in the aftermath or getting high on shooting cocaine or being doped on quaaludes or just being a little bit drunk, I sought out the expert help of people who educate people within institutions, within the entertainment industry, within all forms and walks of life about the perils of drug abuse and the powers of addiction, what addiction really is and that anyone can be an addict. They were very helpful and gave me a lot of thumbs ups and also corrected me. That’s how I got there.”
Melrose’s journey across the miniseries runs from drug addict to sobriety and midlife crisis to a confrontation with his mother about the abuse he suffered during his childhood. Cumberbatch said there was constant support on set from director Berger and director of photography James Friend. David Nicholls, he noted, wasn’t precious about his award-winning scripts either.
“It was an amazing experience to work with them,” Cumberbatch continued. “They were great friends and easy and fun, and it had to be fun because of how dark it got and how demanding. Best of all was Edward St Aubyn coming on set and seeing me in some spiral of madness after injecting cocaine. He was incredibly generous and sincere about what I needed to consider to get there and about sharing the truth of his life. I couldn’t think of better people to work with.”
The final award of the night went to a tearful Comer, coming after Killing Eve had also bee named best drama series.
“It’s the best,” the actor said of the series’ impact. “You can’t anticipate how something’s going to go down with an audience, and to see it grow and grow each week and for us to be able to bask in it and celebrate it has been really special. I’ve never had this before, definitely, so it’s been really wonderful.”
Waller-Bridge revealed the anxiousness of writers at the outset of a project when she spoke of asking people to join her on the series when it was still in its infancy. “When you start with something, it always feels like such a big deal to ask people to come on board something that isn’t in existence yet. There’s so much trust and risk and to get this amazing team together; it just feels like the biggest journey. I’m so proud of everyone. I feel so, so lucky.”
The Fleabag star stepped away from writing duties on Killing Eve’s second season, with Emerald Fennell, who stars as Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix period drama The Crown, taking over as lead writer. And Waller-Bridge believes the change has been “a wonderful thing.”
“Emerald is such a bad ass,” she laughed. “It was painful and hard because I’m moving away from a family and a project, but I’m still there and around [as an exec producer], and seeing Emerald take it and run with it was cool. It’s cool to hand things on and have other people’s input. It can only make things grow.
“I have [watched it]. It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s so brilliant because Emerald’s voice is so unique. There was no sense in getting her to do what we’d done before. There was a real sense, from the whole company, of ‘come and bring your talent to it.’ It really does have her voice, which is very evident in it and does give it this amazing energy, and then [the cast] bring the same kind of glory as they did before.”
With a third season of Killing Eve already confirmed, Waller-Bridge also teased a potential cameo, having not yet appeared on screen in the series. “I would loved to be murdered by Jodie,” she added.
Long before Kristofer Hivju starred in Game of Thrones, he was developing an identity-switch drama with writer and director Kristoffer Metcalfe, a long-time friend. The pair tell DQ about bringing Norwegian series Twin to the screen.
For the past six years, Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju has been better known as Tormund Giantsbane, the formidable Wildling warrior who becomes a key ally of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
Following the climax of the HBO fantasy epic, which concludes after eight seasons this weekend, fans of the series will get to see much more of Hivju – twice as much, in fact – in his next show, identity-switch drama Twin.
The story follows Erik and Adam, a pair of identical twins, both played by Hivju, who live completely different lives. When surf bum Erik falls into money trouble and becomes homeless, he seeks out his brother for the first time in 15 years, leading to a row that ends when Adam’s wife, Ingrid (Rebekka Nystabakk), accidentally kills her husband.
To avoid a murder investigation, Erik takes on Adam’s identity, embedding himself with his brother’s family and their successful business. But he soon finds pretending to be someone else is more difficult than he first thought.
The series has been created by Hivju and lead writer/director Kristoffer Metcalfe, who have known each other since they lived together in Oslo in their early 20s. Four years ago, discussions between them about their own lives, their identities and the choices they have made prompted the idea behind the story.
“Ingrid is the one who is responsible for the death of her husband. Instead of Erik wanting to do the identity switch, she forces him to do it,” Metcalfe explains. “It was more interesting to work with these two people who have done a very bad thing but are now doing this to be good. Erik has to play his brother and clear up his old life because he now has an opportunity for a new start. But Ingrid can also find herself and reflect on the life she has been living, and understand that the marriage was horrible and Adam had a lot of secrets.”
Events in the series play out across just one week, heightening the intensity of the situation in which Erik and Ingrid find themselves. And while one might expect a police investigation to be the biggest obstacle the duo face, it turns out that relationships within the family pose the main threat to their plot.
“The more people care about them, the more challenging it gets, because what you really want when you’re hiding something is people staying away,” Metcalfe says. “Where you get a lot of the comedy is from really small tasks, like Erik taking his son to Kindergarten. That’s half of episode five. Or dealing with your daughter who is struggling at school and suddenly you’re meeting the school principal who is a bitch. Erik is discovering all these everyday things that almost everyone else has in their lives.”
The story also focuses on why Erik and Adam came to blows, and the love triangle involving the brothers and Ingrid that led to the twins’ estrangement. “When you have this very strong premise, you can be quite subtle in the way you deal with the backstory,” Metcalfe continues. “You don’t have to be too explicit about it, and you can actually have it feed into the story. The answers are not always clear when it comes to what really happened.”
Hivju says the idea of a twin brother replacing his sibling was something that “haunted” the pair until they decided to commit the time they needed to develop the story.
“We fell in love with Erik and this guy who hasn’t taken responsibility for anything in his whole life and lives day to day,” the actor says. “He’s a lovely guy but it’s like somehow he’s a child. Adam is appears as a straight businessman, but he has his own secrets. It just felt nice to take him out and put the other guy in and see the drama it created.
“Often, as an actor, you get an offer to play a role, you play the role and you don’t know about the four or five years that have happened before to create everything, pitch it and fund it. It has been a new thing for me to be part of that process and, in some way, it’s the best way to prepare. On my first day of shooting, I had been preparing for five years. So it was fantastic. It was like when Sylvester Stallone did Rocky – he had created his own role and he just did it.”
HBO supported Twin’s development before Norwegian pubcaster NRK picked it up two years ago. The series is due to air this autumn, having had its world premiere at Series Mania in France in March. It is also being screened at the Cannes Film Festival this Saturday.
Metcalfe wrote the show alongside Anne Elvedal and Vegard Steiro Amundsen, who joined him to work out the story beats and structure. Co-director Erica Calmeyer also joined the project early on to complete episode rewrites and ensure the two directors were working from the same page.
The process wasn’t quite as smooth as Metcalfe had planned, however, with production having to be pushed back due to Hivju’s commitments on Game of Thrones.
“For a long time, he died,” Metcalfe recalls of the plan for Hivju’s character in the HBO mega hit. “We started pre-production, then he called me and said, ‘I didn’t die,’ and we had to postpone everything. It was quite nice moment when we could cut his beard.
“He flew straight from Belfast, where he had a million zombies around him all the time, and came to the studio and the first assistant director said, ‘OK, Hivju’s on set for his first day.’ He comes in and looks around at the whole crew, looked at me and said, ‘Is this everybody?’ I said, ‘Yes, welcome home!’ We’re a small crew but it’s very specific. People have one job and they are doing it extremely well. In some of the locations in the north of Norway with tiny roads, you wouldn’t be able to have an American crew in those areas. You need a small, flexible but very competent gang. It’s important that my role is also creating a sense of being in a band on tour for nine months.”
Filming took place in an area of northern Norway called Lufoten, an archipelago that stretches out from the mainland into the Norwegian Sea. Its history as a fishing area, coupled with its popularity as a tourist destination that blends dramatic mountains, hidden beaches and jagged coastlines, meant it offered the perfect visual background for the series, which hails from Nordisk Film Production in coproduction with Storyline Nor. International sales are handled by TrustNordisk.
“We have an extremely spectacular location, with very dramatic mountains and ocean, but early on I said there would be no [filming with] drones,” Metcalfe says. “We’re not showing nature, we’re using it as a dramatic emphasiser surrounding the characters and building the universe from there. Because of the urgency of the story, we tried to transport that into the visuals, so it was important to have energy in the visual style. When the camera relaxes, there’s a reason for it. The camera should be as stressed and high-paced as the two characters dealing with this crisis.”
For scenes featuring both of the twins, the crew decided not to use complicated (and expensive) visual effects to have Hivju sharing the screen with himself. Instead, they filmed using a picture double, who would stand with his back to camera while Hivju jumped in and out of different costumes depending on which twin he was playing. An earpiece would also relay to him previously recorded dialogue so he could act against the rhythm of the words when he switched roles.
“It was confusing, I can’t say otherwise,” the actor laughs.
The crew also opted to shoot fast and flexibly using handheld cameras. “We didn’t want any fancy camera movements,” Hivju says. “We just wanted to have a documentary style so we could improvise and be free to explore the scenes while we were shooting. We changed the script all the time and tried different stuff. We wanted the creative freedom to do whatever we wanted and do it fast. Compared with other big productions I’ve done, it was very nice to have that freedom. If something went wrong, we could just reshoot it.”
Metcalfe praises NRK for its current approach to drama, citing Twin and off-beat crime drama Magnus as examples of how it is willing to take creative risks.
“My experience with the Scandinavian TV market is series where you have a crime and a young girl is found dead in a lake somewhere in the north. You have two depressed detectives – one is an alcoholic, the other is a woman with a father complex – and they start to investigate. This has become our identity in TV. But in the last five years, there has been a bolder approach.”
With Game of Thrones now coming to a close, Hivju says he keen to do more writing, which is what gave him a route into acting in the first place. “When I understood the nature of writing, it gave me the possibility to improve the project I’m working on,” he says. “That didn’t happen on Game of Thrones – I didn’t change a comma on that. But very often it’s nice to have the ability to write your own lines or be a good dramatist so you can understand that you’re telling a story, not just saying your lines. You try to make the whole work.
“I’ll continue to write and look for great parts. Twin has been a new perspective for me because we’ve been working on it for so long and I really wanted to do it. It was a purely dramatic role and a lead so for me, I’m very happy.”
Director Julien Trousselier tells DQ how he added a splash of realism to French sirens-focused drama Une Île (Apnea), the latest in a slew of shows about the mythological beings.
In Greek mythology, sirens would use their enchanting singing to lure sailors to their doom. Today, it would appear the creatures have also placed a spell on TV execs, based on the number of series now with sirens at their centre.
Italy’s Naples-set Sirene (Sirens), US cable channel Freeform’s Siren and, most recently, Netflix’s first Australian original series Tidelands have each reimagined the legend in their own way. But none has taken a more “realistic” approach than French drama Une Île, according to its creators.
The series, known internationally as Apnea, is described as a disturbing and sensual thriller in which an idyllic Mediterranean island is hit by a fishing shortage. A series of suspicious deaths then occur in tandem with the arrival of Théa (played by Laetitia Casta, pictured above), a beautiful but strange woman rescued at sea, who hopes to reveal the true origins of an islander called Chloé (Noée Abita), someone who isn’t sure where she’s from or what she is. With Théa’s help, she will slowly discover herself.
Meanwhile, a cop called Bruno (Sergio Lopez) has been tracking Théa, following a trail of murders committed by someone who seemingly kills not for fun, but for survival.
Written by Aurélien Molas and Gaia Guasti, based on an idea by Simon Moutaïrou in partnership with Marica Romano, the series is produced by Image et Companie for French network Arte. Lagardere Studios Distribution is handling international sales, while the €6.2m (US$7m) series has also been backed by Amazon Prime Video, which has picked up rights for French-speaking Europe.
Producer Nicole Collet has been working on the project for the past two years, with director Julien Trousselier (Crime Time) joining 12 months ago in preparation for a 70-day shoot that took place on the island of Corsica between August and November last year. “It’s been a bit of a marathon in sprint mode, but luckily that was a very enriching experience,” says Trousselier, who directs all six episodes. “I’ve been learning a lot in the process about me and directing. The subject is a real challenge financially, creatively, for the crew and for everyone. These are big setups.”
Crime Time, the director’s first TV series, followed a small-time cop who becomes the host of the titular television series, in which crime scenes are broadcast every night, leading him to push the boundaries until he ends up creating crime scenes himself. Apnea, Trousselier says, couldn’t be more different.
“For me, this show was a big challenge because it was very much based on the characters,” he explains. “I was more into genre, but this was very authored, based on emotions and relationships and human drama, as well as an investigation. There’s this guy arriving on the island, trying to find this mysterious girl he’s been tracking for a long time. It’s an ecological fresco, an impossible love story between two kinds, and it’s about an awakening.
“The stories of sirens are all invented by men who were afraid of falling for women’s seduction. That’s why they kill them. It talks about how men are afraid of what is beautiful and want to destroy it because they’re not in control. So the show talks a lot about that, and there’s a big ecological twist as well.”
Trousselier believes the rise of siren series is down to a domino effect, with the launch of one building momentum for a genre many broadcasters would have been unlikely to dip their toes into just a few years ago. “Beyond the myth, the main appeal of this project was to treat this story and this subject very differently. We don’t have any fishtails – it’s a more realistic, character-driven series about what it is to be different in a human environment,” he says.
“It also comes back to the real myth of the sirens and having powers of seduction; the relationship between men and women; the impossible love between two kinds; and what would happen when a man meets a mermaid, leading to this impossible love affair. That was more the humanistic approach to it. Of course, there is a big scale to it – it’s not just above the water, it’s underwater too. We wanted to treat it very differently. There are no magical powers or anything like that. It’s a much more realistic approach.”
With that in mind, the director says it was important not to become sucked into the genre, keeping the series grounded in reality and following Chloé’s coming-of-age journey. “If we stick to those emotions and psychologies, you don’t get into the genre and then the genre is underground and somehow dissolves everywhere and triggers the narrative drive,” he continues. “It gives a good pace to the story.”
Trousselier, Collet and the production team also held lengthy discussions about how to avoid Apnea becoming too “cheesy” or falling into genre clichés. The director adopted a naturalistic approach, turning the tale into a story about a village under attack and bringing roughness and realism to the production.
Meanwhile, the filming location surprised Trousselier with its variety of landscapes, from idyllic sandy beaches to rough, rugged terrain. “When I arrived in the north of Corsica, it felt like I was in New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth. It’s oppressive like Brittany, Cornwall or Scotland somehow,” he says. “You have a lot of variety. I really wanted to get away from this sunny Mediterranean look and make it dark, very antagonistic, natural and beautiful with a lot of scope and scale. Corsica gave me that. I managed to lose the viewer and create an unknown place. It’s not Corsica; it could be any beautiful island.”
The challenges of shooting both on and below the water led to some difficult decisions in pre-production, with Trousselier adamant he wanted to film in the ocean to give water-based scenes an immersive feel. At the end of production, a handful of days were spent picking up additional shots in a swimming pool, because shooting in open water can be prohibitively difficult and expensive when it comes to insurance. “But we did it and we split it with body doubles,” he says of the underwater scenes. “We took the girls and some of the boys underwater but did some extra shoots in the swimming pool. I wanted to do as little as possible in the pool to get the authentic environment. Everybody had training for diving, so it was a big setup.
“Every day’s a challenge when you’re filming such a series. You’re shooting five to six sequences a day. It’s written like a feature film, so the expectation is everything is a climax, and working with the actors is very intense. It’s a very ambitious show with a lot of stunts, talent and special effects, and 70 days to make it up in a tight budget is quite a big challenge. It was a major challenge in every aspect.”
It is Apnea’s approach both to storytelling and to filmmaking, however, that Trousselier believes will make it stand out from other series featuring sirens. “It’s unique in the sense you never see the story treated this way,” he adds. “It’s a deeper approach to that legend – it’s very realistic, mixed with a bit of the fantastic. The cop story also makes it unique. It’s not a teenage drama, it’s a grown-up show. There are a lot of young people in it, but the whole idea behind it is very new and refreshing.”
After its record-breaking first season, Welsh drama Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) is set to return. Director Pip Broughton and Gwawr Martha Lloyd, broadcaster S4C’s drama commissioner, talk about its success and what’s in store for season two.
It was a show-stopping cliffhanger that left viewers desperately wanting to know more. After eight episodes of Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) that had seen Faith Howells desperately searching for her missing husband, Evan, becoming involved with gangsters and losing custody of her children along the way, season one closed with the strong and resourceful lawyer embracing another man – only for Evan to suddenly reappear.
The series first aired on Welsh-language channel S4C in 2017, before it ran on BBC1 Wales, where it broke channel records with almost 300,000 viewers.
Keeping Faith also proved enormously popular on OTT platform BBC iPlayer, with more than 17 million requests to watch the series.
A second season, then, was perhaps an easy decision for co-commissioners S4C and BBC Wales, with new episodes beginning this Sunday on S4C (complete with English subtitles) before making the jump straight to BBC1 this summer. But rather than pick up exactly where season one finished, the new season jumps forward 18 months, with Faith (the returning Eve Myles) running around her kitchen with her three children watching on.
The story sees Faith attempt to pick up the pieces of her life and marriage, dealing with the return of Evan (played by Myles’ real-life husband Bradley Freegard) and a love triangle while also becoming embroiled in a murder trial. What’s clear is that while Faith’s iconic yellow raincoat is back, the woman viewers left in season one isn’t the same person we meet now.
“What we were interested in were the scars that you carry and how we’re all changed by lies and deceit – and how it changed Faith as a person, a woman, a wife, a mother and a lawyer,” says director, writer and producer Pip Broughton. “How had season one affected her moral centre and her domestic choices? What’s interesting is you see some things that are the same and some things that are shockingly different. It becomes more about survival, endurance and love.
“Because the key quality that I set out to achieve with the series was intimacy, we feel as though we are part of that family, part of this woman’s inner and private life. Making a series about intimacy for a second time is very liberating because everyone knows each other so well. All of them are fundamentally and permanently changed by the lies and the crisis of season one.”
Broughton, who produces the series under her Vox label, directed six of the first season’s eight episodes. She returns behind the camera for four of the second season’s six parts, two of which she also wrote, with creator and lead writer Matthew Hall penning the other four instalments.
Broughton and Hall first partnered with the ambition to create a drama with intimacy, a universal story and a strong female character at its centre – “Erin Brockovich in Wales.” They were also committed to setting it in Wales, where they both live and have raised their families. That close partnership has continued into season two, with the duo sharing story development and writing duties owing to the shorter 12-month timeframe they were given to get season two on air. By comparison, they spent five years working on season one.
“We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve got most of the crew back because we shoot it quite fast and we’ve got a particular way of working on the floor, which has been very influenced by my theatre background,” Broughton says. “It’s a very performance-based show; we don’t rehearse, so I’m shaping the performances on camera. I’ve lived with this series for so long that I feel very free to work in the moment with the actors, and the actors find it so liberating and empowering because we do it all in the moment.
“People say it has a freshness, a distinctiveness and a realness that viewers fell in love with, so we’re humbly doing another season and not changing anything and keeping the spirit of the first season.”
Central to the success of season one was Myles’ raw, powerful and emotion-filled performance as Faith. Broughton and Myles (Victoria, Broadchurch) were friends before the series and had sought a project to do together. The fact that project ended up being Keeping Faith meant Myles had to learn Welsh, with the show filmed back-to-back in Welsh and English to produce bilingual versions that are sold internationally by APC Studios.
“There’s nothing I cannot throw at her,” Broughton says of working with the actor, whose performance she describes as magnetic, riveting and brave. “She’s courageous; she’s genuinely fearless. When you find a creative colleague with the same sensibility, you get a special magic on set and it rubs off on everybody else. She’s not afraid of looking ugly or of finding the darkness within herself. It’s a joy working together, it’s not a job.”
Season two will bear a dramatically different visual style, however, not just because of the wounds being carried by many of the characters but also because it was filmed last winter, in contrast to the summer shoot for the first season.
“It really was dark and cold,” Broughton says. “I loved the blue skies and the light of season one, but we accepted the circumstances and tried to make it an advantage. We used the bare trees and brooding skies because it’s quite a spontaneous way of working, going with what you’ve got. And if there’s rain, you put the characters in the car and it’s all about claustrophobia, so there’s a lot of spontaneity on the day.”
For S4C, Keeping Faith was notable for being a crime drama that wasn’t overly dark or mysterious and which had a warm, loving lead character who wasn’t afraid to express herself.
“It was really successful for us and the audience really responded to it,” says the broadcaster’s drama commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd. “It stood out in our schedule as something that was different but super compelling – that ‘what if’ scenario really appealed. And for the Welsh audience, it’s set in an area we don’t often go to, which is Carmarthenshire, so it also looked very different and the colours and the way it was shot were very different from other shows. There was a certain warmth to the series that appealed.”
Season two, she says, does feel different, as Faith comes to terms with the effects of events so far in the series and faces up to a host of new challenges.
“She is having to juggle a lot of different things at the moment – her family, the aftermath of all the things with the gangsters and the main thing, which is the return of Evan, plus a murder case,” Lloyd explains. “She’s got a lot going on and she’s battling on and being really strong, but she’s very different from the person she was in the first season. The way they filmed it and the visual language really helps deliver that message. The most important thing is that when you had a cliffhanger like you had in season one, you deliver on that in season two, and I think they really have.”
The popularity of the series ahead of its return to S4C means talk has already turned to a potential third season. “These characters can run and run,” Broughton adds. “With season two, we found, strangely, that there’s more story than we expected. You could take Faith anywhere and it would be interesting.”
Alessandro Nivola talks to DQ about his starring role in Channel 4 political drama Chimerica, making the leap from film to television and his commitment to working with only the best directors.
It has been more than 20 years since Alessandro Nivola scored his big-screen break, starring opposite Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in director John Woo’s epic, balletic action movie Face/Off. In the intervening years, he has mostly focused on features, save for roles in Cold War miniseries The Company, comedy Doll & Em and HBO telemovie The Wizard of Lies.
But as talent in front of and behind the camera has migrated from film to television, particularly over the last five years, Nivola has started to shift too. First, he set up King Bee, the production company he founded with his wife, British actor Emily Mortimer (the Em in Doll & Em). Then he took the lead in Channel 4’s four-part miniseries Chimerica, which concludes in the UK this evening. The full series, produced by Playground (Wolf Hall) and distributed by All3Media International, is available on the broadcaster’s All4 catch-up service.
“When I was starting out as an actor and starting on movies, to do a TV show meant capitulation,” Nivola says bluntly. “That was your career done; you gave up the fight for having the most prestigious career you could have and you were just trying to pay the bills. Obviously that has completely changed.
“For people like me, just given how that had been drilled into me growing up in terms of what my ambitions were, I guess I’ve been slow on the draw in terms of being aware of how that playing field has changed. But I’ve definitely embraced it. That’s only going to continue.”
When he received the offer to join Chimerica, “it just seemed totally obvious it was a job I should do,” the actor says, describing the “incredible” role of Lee Berger, the topical subject matter at the heart of the story and the “great dialogue” written by Lucy Kirkwood, who has adapted and updated her 2013 stage play of the same name for television.
The story opens in Beijing in 1989, where photographer Berger captures an image of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, when a man carrying two shopping bags stood in front of a line of tanks during protests in the Chinese capital.
The series then moves to New York in 2016. Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming US president, while Berger’s career is in jeopardy when rumours swirl that he faked an award-winning image of a Syrian war victim. To salvage his reputation, he decides to find Tank Man.
The opportunity to star in the series “dropped into my lap,” Nivola recalls, with his agent sending him the script while he was on a ski trip. “When you get a straight offer that requires you not to do anything at all to get the job, it’s usually a piece of shit,” he says. “So it was kind of a shock it was as good as it was. I jumped in immediately.”
The actor describes his character as a “radical idealist” who feels passionately about injustices suffered by underprivileged people. But he’s so zealous that it leads him to make poor decisions, such as doctoring the photo – an act he carries out to bring more attention to the suffering of those in Syria but one that only ends up bringing himself under the spotlight.
“It really becomes a story about the complete disintegration of his reputation and sense of himself and how he tries to restore that,” Nivola says. “This obsession that grows in him, about trying to find that man whose picture he took 30 years ago, becomes a monomaniacal hunt that destroys a lot of people’s lives in its wake. One of the things I found interesting about the character was this is a man whose good intentions end up wreaking all kinds of havoc on the lives of the people who he cares about most.”
Nivola was hooked by the “nervous energy” of Kirkwood’s scripts, which chart Lee’s descent into madness as he tries to save himself — a journey hampered by his exacting and emotionally draining experiences as a war photographer.
“The personalities and people who are drawn to that line of work, there’s a real restlessness about them,” the actor observes. “They don’t have a lot tying them down and there’s an addictive quality to going back repeatedly into those danger zones. Of course, there are all different types of people who do that kind of journalism, and it’s so important that there are people who are willing to put themselves into that kind of situation. It definitely requires a certain personality and, from the people I spoke to, it does alter you in the same way that being a soldier does.”
As the son of a political science university professor, Nivola grew up discussing politics and surrounded by people in government. So he is also uniquely placed to recognise the political ramifications of Lee’s actions, taking place in Kirkwood’s updated storyline at a time when Trump is rallying against ‘fake news’ on his way to the White House.
“There’s real pressure on liberal America to be squeaky clean. Anybody who is guilty of this kind of move would have to be sacrificed by a newspaper like The New York Times because they can’t be seen to have a double standard, even if his intentions were pure,” he explains. “Photography in particular is something that is going to become more difficult to monitor because of the veracity of images and because digital doctoring is becoming so ubiquitous. It won’t be long before they can put my head on anybody’s body and put out a sex tape or who knows what. In the digital world of photojournalism, the rules are unbelievably strict in order to stave off that moment where there’s no way of telling. In these times where photojournalists have been caught out in this lie, the community really closes ranks on them because they don’t want to be associated with them.”
King Bee, and by extension Nivola, looks to make television that is driven by directors. Series, he notes, have always been writer-led, as it’s difficult for a director to make every episode of the type of open-ended series still being commissioned by US networks. With miniseries and limited series, which are now becoming more prominent stateside, single directors are able to work across every episode and ensure continuity of visual style.
“That can allow for a more cinematic style to be imposed on the TV format,” he says. “That’s been our big goal with the company, and I feel the same way as an actor. I made a decision about six years ago that that was my main priority with choosing jobs – just following directors. It’s really changed my career. For a while, I was taking small roles just to work with directors. Even those more supporting performances got more attention than some of the stuff I’d done before, just because I was working with the top guys.”
In that time, Nivola has worked with directors including David O Russell (American Hustle), Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa), Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive), Barry Levinson (The Wizard of Lies), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and Ava DuVernay (Selma).
“I realised at this late date that movies and television really belong to directors, and I’ve relinquished any kind of control over it as an actor and just given myself over to directors in a way I hadn’t as a young actor,” he continues. “That’s why this changing format is so good for television, because it’s attracting [Boardwalk Empire’s Martin] Scorsese or whoever to be directing television.”
On Chimerica, Nivola worked alongside director Michael Keillor, whose credits include Critical, Line of Duty and Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling.
“Some of the people I’ve worked with early on may have been bright and good guys but just lacked something really particular or eccentric about them that made their style and vision original. Michael really has that,” the actor says. “He’s not like anybody else, and I felt that from the first time I met him. All of his inspiration for the show [came from the] kinds of movies that I have loved in the political thriller canon, so I totally put my trust in him.”
Shooting took place in the UK, which doubled for New York, and Bulgaria’s Sofia, which stood in for China. Nivola was joined on set by a cast including F Murray Abraham, who plays Frank Sams, and Cherry Jones as Mel Kincaid – both longtime friends of Nivola, having appeared on Broadway at the same time he was acting in his first play.
The scripts called for Nivola, as Lee, to be run over by a car and thrown to the ground in a pile of rubble when a bomb explodes in a Syrian market. “Those were fun,” he jokes, praising the Bulgarian stunt team who were willing to put themselves on the line to get the shots required.
But while the series begins with a bang, it grows increasingly taut across its four episodes, with tension and mystery building to the final instalment. “The idea is that he’s brought so low by this whole event, and all of his closest relationships he slowly destroys,” the actor says of Berger. “He’s left a solitary figure by the end but is also redeemed in some way by the experience. There is a great final twist in the story that will have a profound effect on him.”
Away from producing duties, Nivola was free to focus on his character and performance to help Keillor tell the story the way he wanted. And now that he’s crossed the boundary between television and film, he says he wants to continue hunting down those opportunities to work with the best of the best behind the camera, no matter how big the role and regardless of the format the project takes.
“More and more, the best actors are working in both media and I certainly think there are great opportunities in both television and films,” he concludes. “Now there’s all these movies being made for Netflix, so the lines are completely blurred. For me, it’s all about directors.”
Crime and religion clash in Finnish drama Kaikki Synnit (All the Sins), the first scripted television project for award-winning writers Merja Aakko and Mika Ronkainen. DQ finds out how they pulled it off.
As the winners of the Nordisk Film & TV Fond prize, which recognises outstanding writing of a Nordic drama series, Merja Aakko and Mika Ronkainen are in good company.
Herrens veje (Ride Upon the Storm)’s Adam Price (2018) and Nobel duo Mette M Bølstad and Stephen Uhlander (2017) are the previous recipients of the award, which is now in its third year and is presented annually at the Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event.
It’s a significant achievement for Aakko and Ronkainen, not least because of the competition they were up against – other nominees included the writers of Denmark’s Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses), Iceland’s Flateyjargátan (The Flatey Enigma) and Bølstad again for Norwegian period drama Lykkeland (The State of Happiness) – but also the fact that their collaboration marks both writers’ first venture into drama. Aakko is a journalist by trade, while Ronkainen is best known as a documentary filmmaker.
The series in question, Kaikki Synnit (All the Sins), takes the pair back to their homeland in Northern Finland, with a crime story that unfolds in a deeply religious community. After a 10-year absence, Detective Lauri Räiha (Johannes Holopainen) is sent to investigate the murders of two men in the small town of Varjacka, where he grew up. Lauri, working alongside fellow officer Sanna Tervo (Maria Sid), seeks answers to the case only to discover other truths about himself and his home town, leading to questions over whether one has the power to forgive all sins.
Ronkainen and Aakko have been friends since they were 11 years old, and first began working together on a feature adaptation of a novel Aakko had written. After they were unable to secure financing for that project, they turned their attention to All the Sins, which they had already begun developing.
“It started from the notion that the only way to make internationally relevant TV drama is to tell your local stories,” Ronkainen says. “I’ve always had this feeling that usually Finns try to copy what everybody else is doing, so they’re lacking their own voice a bit. Then we thought, ‘What could be the thing that’s very unique to our region?’ We both live in Northern Finland and a story involving Laestadianism [a Lutheran revival movement] was the immediate idea because it’s something very particular to the Bible Belt where we live. The idea was to combine a strong local story with the theme of religion and a crime story.”
“The world of fiction is quite new for both of us,” Aakko continues. “We have been taking these steps together; it’s a safe environment when we’re hand in hand. It’s funny that we know each other so well – if one of us refers to old neighbours, teachers or stories from our home village, the other gets the idea very quickly. It helps a lot.”
Blending crime with psychological drama and some supernatural elements – “It’s ‘Finnish weird,’” according to Aakko – the key to the series is its characters, rather than the murders in which they are caught up. “For me, the crime story is the glue that holds the thing together,” Ronkainen says. “At best, when the crime story is connected to the themes and stories of the main characters, you have something strong in your hands, and that’s what’s happened here.”
The character of Lauri was born into a very religious family, which turned its back on him when he came out as gay, forcing him to leave his hometown. Events in the series force him to return for the first time in a decade, leading him to work with Sanna, who Ronkainen says has no difficulties with her sexuality. “She practices whenever she can and jumps into bed anytime there is a possibility. As you can imagine, it leads her to some problems during the series,” he notes.
As All the Sins draws on a real religious movement, the co-writers were careful to respect reality. Everything that happens, they explain, is based on or inspired by truth – apart from the murders – an approach that is rooted in their journalistic backgrounds. “I want to use reality as the tools for my art,” Ronkainen says. “The same goes for Merja because she has worked as a journalist, so it’s natural for her to use reality the same way I do. Then, of course, we wanted to make great characters that are real, that you recognise from real life and not from television. That was our guideline. We didn’t want to copy what other people have done on television; we wanted to copy real life.”
The duo used a wall of Post-it Notes to build out the show’s central structure, before sitting down to write the scenes together, adding to and editing the same script documents at once. “I’m not as good with structure as Mika. I’m more used to the psychology of the characters and emotion,” Aakko says. Ronkainen, who also directed the six-part drama, adds: “We were working as one writer but with two brains.”
Production took place over 45 days between May and August last year, during which Ronkainen used a variety of filming styles to create a cinematic look, all the time focusing on the emotion or tension of the scene. The luscious landscape also provides an enchanting backdrop to the series.
“The area where we live, it’s pretty flat. There are no mountains and we think the flatness of the surroundings somehow affects the mindset of the people as well,” Ronkainen says. “The only things that stick out from the scenery are the church towers. Those are the only high buildings we have here. So the landscape is also a very important part of our story.
“It’s something people have not seen from Finland, not even Finnish people. There have been quite a lot of movies filmed in the city of Oulu, around which we were shooting. This sect is quite big in all those small villages around the city, so we wanted to create this imaginary town called Varjaka, which could be any of those little towns but it’s more like a combination of them.”
All the Sins is produced by MRP Matila Röhr Productions for Finnish streaming platform Elisa Viihde and distributed by Sky Vision. While it doesn’t launch locally until April this year, a second season is already in development, although it will head in a new direction and feature different characters.
“I hope we are bringing something new,” Aakko says. “It’s not a proper crime story but there’s love and hope in the end, and a feeling that things will get better for the community. It’s not very dark, it’s actually quite cheerful and light. It’s unique.”
Meanwhile, Ronkainen says he is now entirely focused on the small screen. “You can tell very long stories within a series. At the moment I’m not so into making a feature-length film, because with TV you can tell much longer and complicated stories.”
He adds that Finnish drama is now catching up with the rest of Scandinavia in terms of storytelling and production quality. “There are some really good series being made in the next few years. I hope Finns dare to tell Finnish stories and not copy from elsewhere. That’s the key to success – to be yourself. You can’t be anyone else.”
A Very English Scandal, Patrick Melrose and Killing Eve were among the shows that won at the British Academy Television Craft Awards 2019. DQ went backstage to speak to some of the winners in the drama categories.
As the celebration of skill and creativity in television began, British Academy chair Dame Pippa Harris told the seated guests: “Your work made such an impact on viewers in 2018 and proved that, at its very best, television has the power to change the way people think, feel or behave.”
Those words set the tone for Bafta’s Television Craft Awards 2019, which, within the intimate surroundings of central London’s The Brewery, proved to be an evening full of camaraderie and solidarity as winners, nominees and others from the industry paid tribute to some of the extraordinary work produced last year.
Following an introductory film featuring actor and host Stephen Mangan in a parody of Killing Eve (see below), complete with pink tulle dress, the awards were duly presented. In the drama categories, Pia Di Ciaula won best editing for BBC political drama A Very English Scandal; Adam McInnes, John Smith and Kevin Horsewood claimed the honours for special, visual and graphic effects for their work on Troy: Fall of a City; and Suzanne Cave picked up another award for A Very English Scandal for costume design.
Big cheers from across the room greeted Cave’s win, proving the non-partisan credentials of an event filled with people who had previously worked with one another – or are likely to in the future. Cave, whose credits also include The Hour, London Spy and the Strike series, praised her “fairy godmother” Ruth Kenley-Letts (The Hour, Strike, Mrs Wilson) for getting her into the industry.
Backstage, where rows of glistening Bafta statuettes stood in line on a side table, waiting to be handed out during the evening, David Nicholls was visibly struck at the significance of being named best drama writer for penning Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose.
The five-part series, based on the books by Edward St Aubyn and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, skewered upper-class circles as it followed Melrose’s journey from traumatic childhood to adult substance abuse and recovery.
Speaking to DQ moments after stepping away from the stage, award in hand, Nicholls recalled: “I read the first book in 1992 before I’d even thought about becoming a writer. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I might one day adapt them. I loved them and it was always my dream project. It was always the one I wanted to do and I lived with them for five or six years, reading them over and over again, trying to work out a way to dramatise them.
“It’s been my dream job, an absolute highlight. It was incredibly hard work – frustrating at times, constantly rewriting this thing and trying to get it right. But I’m very proud of the work.”
Embracing the books, rather than seeing them as an obstacle or hindrance to overcome, proved to be the key to unlocking the adaptation. “You had to be truthful, make the changes that were necessary but try to convey what is wonderful and powerful about the books on screen. That was the intention,” Nicholls said.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to collaborate with such a brilliant production team, designers and extraordinary and incredibly committed actors. I’m a novelist as well, so I spend a lot of time by myself, and sometimes when you go for a meeting, it’s tough. You have to thrash things out, you have to argue over them to find the best way to do something. But if you’re with great people who are committed to the show, it’s an incredible experience.”
In other categories, Vanity Fair’s Vickie Lang won for make-up and hair design; Woo Hyung Kim picked up the prize for photography and lighting: John Le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl took the fiction prize; Charlie Cooper and Daisy May Cooper repeated last year’s success for comedy writing; and Killing Eve won the sound category for fiction.
Patrick Melrose produced another winner in the shape of Tom Burton, who triumphed in the production design section. “When I got asked about it originally, we had the scripts and I thought they were the best scripts I’d ever read,” Burton said, noting that he signed on to the production before director Edward Berger. “We had five episodes and five very different looks. The first one was really gritty, with Patrick smacked out of his head in his hotel room, and then the second was back to his childhood, set at this lyrical, very beautiful French chateau. Then it carries on.
“The overarching ideas were to start dark and heavy and as he gradually comes out of his fog; to go from darkness into more clarity and simpler sets. Me and Ed and James Fleet, the DOP, just worked at it constantly, trying to create really strong, different looks for each episode and choosing colours and camera lenses so we had a really strong plan. Instead of having a look that runs through the whole show, we wanted to make five quite different-looking episodes.”
During the production, the cast and crew spent nine weeks shooting in the south of France, while Glasgow doubled for 1980s New York. “It worked incredibly well. We could never afford to shoot in New York, but the fact Glasgow has very straight streets means you can look down them and you get the idea of New York avenues. Then at Wimbledon Studios, there was [Patrick’s] hotel room and the really scuzzy drug den he goes to, so those were two sets we built for the first episode. We turned Senate House into the hotel lobby and then we built the corridor, lift and the hotel suite. No hotel is going to let somebody trash a room, which is what he does. So it made sense to build it as a set.”
While television dramas have become more ambitious in scope and scale, Burton said the demands of his job haven’t changed too much, but noted that VFX supervisors are becoming increasingly key collaborators. “I do get employed earlier than I used to,” he said. “The dynamics of television are changing – if you’ve got a big show, finding a production designer to start it off is almost what producers begin with, in conjunction with finding directors. Production designers have longer run-ups to the show. What’s happening now, as shows get bigger, is you get more time.”
Killing Eve scooped its second award of the night for original music, with David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia (pictured left and right respectively at the top of this page) collecting the gong. With the pair full of smiles, it was no surprise to hear Holmes say that on every project, “we just have a laugh.”
“We’re all going die one day and we try to work on projects we like,” he said. “We do it with a great sense of honour, integrity and love of what we do. It’s actually that simple. I have no aspirations other than to do my best. The best award you can get is just being busy, and that’s what we try to do.”
The show’s producers, Sid Gentle Films, gave the composers “a blank canvas” and they got to work after reading the scripts and speaking to season one showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the team.
“When you go into these shows, you should never try to create something that’s been done before,” Holmes continued. “You have to focus on what the show is, and what we tried to do from the beginning was create the soundtrack of Killing Eve. It was meant to be. The stars aligned.”
Ciancia added: “Most of the humour and drama was already there [in the script], so our work is either enhancement or thematic music, or sounds that are coming from the characters’ heads. And because it was set in different countries and different settings, that allowed us to use a range of instruments . It’s more about the spirit, and that’s unique to this show.”
Meanwhile, A Very English Scandal proved to be the big winner of the night with three awards overall – the third being Stephen Frears’ win in the fiction director category.
“It was very, very good fun. It was an easy job. It was very well written, with very good actors,” Frears said when asked what he most fondly remembered about the project.
A Very English Scandal scribe Russell T Davies lost out to Nicholls in the drama writer category, but Frears was full of praise for his collaborator: “He’s a wonderful writer, very funny, and he’s very cheeky and naughty and moving. It was great, terrific.”
The award becomes Frears’ fifth Bafta in a collection that celebrates his five decades as a director. His advice for any newcomers? “Courage – and hope you’re as lucky as I am and get good material.”
The biggest applause of the night was reserved for script supervisor Emma Thomas, who received the event’s Special Award in recognition of the impact of her 30-year career on the industry and her contribution to more than 50 films and television series. With credits on titles such as Guerrilla, Luther, Critical, Benidorm and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Thomas is also a board member of Women in Film and Television and actively mentors young women in industry.
“I’ve had the privilege to work with a number of talented professionals, to work on a huge variety of programmes and films throughout my career, and I’ve been at the forefront of this ever-changing industry,” Thomas said. “It’s a privilege to have been awarded the prestigious British Academy Television Craft Special Award in a year where so many women have been recognised by Bafta both in front of and behind the screen.”
The award and the room’s recognition of Thomas summed up the supportive atmosphere of the event, where the biggest dramas of 2018 all received plaudits. Next up, the teams behind A Very English Scandal, Killing Eve and Patrick Melrose will be hoping for success at sister event the Bafta Television Awards on May 12.
As British thriller Liar enters production on its second season, DQ hears how the creative team behind the Italian adaptation of the drama, Non Mentire, tailored their version of the show for a local audience.
For six weeks in autumn 2017, British viewers were hooked on ITV thriller Liar. The series became the network’s highest-rated new drama that year, pulling in an average audience of 8.3 million, while more than nine million tuned in for the finale.
The show follows teacher Laura Nielsen and doctor Andrew Earlham, who share a seemingly enjoyable evening together. The next morning, however, while Andrew is looking forward to seeing her again, Laura claims he raped her. As the series unfolded on ITV, audiences found themselves split over who was telling the truth and who was the titular liar.
The drama, starring Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) and Ioan Gruffudd (Harrow), is now in production on its second season, with Cheat’s Katherine Kelly joining the cast. It has again been written by Harry and Jack Williams and produced by Two Brothers Pictures in partnership with SundanceTV in the US. All3Media International handles distribution.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, an Italian adaptation – Non Mentire – launched on Mediaset’s Canale 5. Adapted by Lisa Nur Sultan and directed by Gianluca Maria Tavarelli (Non Prendere Impegni Stasera), the series was relocated to Turin, with Greta Scarano starring as Laura Nardini and Alessandro Preziosi playing the accused, Andrea Molinari.
The remake came from Indigo Films, which is best known as a feature film producer but is starting to push into television series for the first time. “Channels have expressed interest in working with us,” says Indigo producer Carlotta Calori. “Mediaset wanted to work with us because cinema producers have great access to talent and can provide a different product. The idea of doing Liar came from them; they had seen the original and liked it and wanted to do it, so they asked us to adapt it. Luckily, they could get Gianluca – it’s our first time working with him – and Lisa did a great job adapting it.”
Having enjoyed the original series enormously, Nur Sultan says she had no intention of changing the plot. “However, I wanted to find ways of making it connect to the Italian audience as much as possible,” she adds. “The first job was with the dialogue, making it as local as possible to make it as authentic as possible, so I was very careful to rewrite the dialogue in that way.”
The writer also made some of the characters “more Italian.” A stay-at-home dad in the original works from home in Non Mentire, while Laura’s sister, who is cheating on her husband in Liar, is more focused on her family in the adaptation. “We also made the male protagonist a little bit more sure of himself,” she says.
Aspects of the Italian legal system were also included, while Nur Sultan says one of her favourite scenes – and one which isn’t in the original – introduced a new perspective. When Laura posts a message on social media that accuses Andrea of rape, the headteacher at the school where she works warns her to think about the consequences of her actions, including the implications for Andrea’s son, a student at the school.
“It was important to include because a headmistress would never allow a Facebook post like that,” Nur Sultan notes. “We also felt a lot of the things the headmistress says had to be shown.”
Tavarelli watched the original series shortly after signing on to the project, but then did his best to cast it from his mind to ensure it didn’t affect his decisions during filming. “I didn’t want to copy the style; I wanted to start from the scripts and do my own work,” he explains. “It’s better not to see it. If you see it, you might be much more influenced by it.”
He adopted a ‘natural’ style of camerawork in an attempt to give the audience the viewpoint of a fly on a wall that follows the movements of the characters. “I’d just come from a lot of period pieces, so doing a contemporary piece was actually easier,” he says. “I tried to push the thriller aspects and the suspense so it was a relatively straightforward shoot.”
Non Mentire was produced in less than a year, from the start of writing the scripts in April 2018 to the show’s launch in February. Shooting took place in Turin and Rome across 11 weeks last summer.
Despite the boom in original content on established channels and fledging streaming platforms, Calori believes there’s still a place for adaptations.
“It’s a bit like a book. Even though you’ve read the book, you will go and see the film,” she argues. “A lot of people won’t have seen the original series in Italy, but our version stands up in its own right. It’s for an Italian audience, we have Italian actors in it. There are four or five versions of The Great Gatsby and everyone knows how it will end.
“The original Liar wasn’t a big success here. Maybe if it had been a huge success, we would have thought twice about it. So far I think it has enough to stand up on its own. It’s a show in its own right.”
But while scripted formats might still be in demand, it’s original series like My Brilliant Friend, Suburra, Gomorrah and Inspector Montalbano that mean Italian drama itself is very much in vogue.
“It’s a bit like what happened in Scandinavia. It started out with mafia dramas but it’s not just about those shows anymore,” Calori adds. “Gianluca’s shows like Maltese and The Young Montalbano have travelled a lot abroad. Montalbano is a huge success. We’ve noticed we’re up there now; there’s a lot of interest from international companies to work with Italians. It’s a nice moment for Italian drama. The fact that a show like My Brilliant Friend was commissioned in the US has shown that if it’s a good story, it will travel.”
Dan Sefton, creator and writer of BBC miniseries Trust Me, talks about the show’s evolution into an anthology after losing its star and explains how the second season has been inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
When Jodie Whittaker was unveiled as Doctor Who’s first female lead in July 2017, it proved to be a huge boon for the team behind another BBC series starring the actor, which happened to be launching just a couple of weeks after the announcement.
Trust Me went on to draw a consolidated average of six million viewers over its four-episode run, with writer Dan Sefton’s thriller following Whittaker as a nurse who, after losing her job, steals a doctor friend’s identity to start a new life in Edinburgh.
But while Whittaker was swept up in a wave of Whovian anticipation, Sefton was left to work out how a second season of Trust Me might shape up without its lead.
“It’s one of those things that happened,” he says stoically. “Jodie was the standout in the whole of the first season. She’s a brilliant actress. We had ideas of how we could carry it on, but when it was announced she would be playing the Doctor, we realised that would be almost impossible.
“But the BBC were very keen to keep the conversation going because it had been such a big hit. So we pitched them something brand new and, luckily, they thought it was a good idea – and here we are. If this one is popular, we can keep going and dig into the dark side of medicine in lots of different ways.”
That idea of shining a light on medicine’s dark side has become a key building block for the series. Season one saw Whittaker’s Cath work in a hospital, treating patients and performing operations, having presented herself as a different – and more qualified – medic. Season two, which debuted on BBC1 this month, moves to a Glasgow hospital, where Corporal Jamie McCain (played by Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch) is recovering from a spinal injury that has left him paralysed. When patients on the ward begin to die suddenly, Jamie believes a killer is striking in the hospital – but his injuries make his investigation dangerous and difficult. John Hannah, Ashley Jensen and Richard Rankin also head the cast.
When he looked back at season one to identify a DNA or formula that he could extract and apply to season two, former doctor Sefton says he was drawn to the things people fear in hospitals.
“The whole point is these storylines are edgy and tense and you can’t believe they would actually happen,” he explains. “Season one was the story of an imposter treating you in a hospital, and some people really found it unpleasant. The idea that a healthcare professional could be a murderer and people could be killed in hospital is also a horrible idea, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. It does happen; it’s not common, but it does happen. So that was the common thread we picked up on.”
With that in mind, the story quickly became a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window transplanted to a hospital, with an immobile patient trying to snare a suspected killer. John Alexander directs the season, which is again produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal.
“I’ve always said it’s two stories at the same time, kind of like two movies,” Sefton continues. “You’ve got the thriller movie of somebody up to no good in this hospital, somebody murdering patients, and the question of who is it and can they be stopped. Then you’ve got a movie about somebody whose life has completely changed after a spinal injury. How are they going to cope, and what challenges do they face psychologically?
“It’s a tricky form because, on the one hand, a thriller is always pushing you to go to the next thing as quickly as possible. That’s a balance you have to try to strike in these shows, because you don’t want the audience to be bored. With four hours, you want to really dig into the character and work out what makes them tick. Through the whole process of writing and editing, you’re trying to keep the pace up and also to have enough time to get into his background and why he is where he is.”
The Hitchcock influence goes beyond just the story, also permeating the gothic set design –Jamie is on the James Stewart wing of the hospital, which shares its name with the frequent Hitchcock collaborator who starred in Rear Window. It can be heard, too, via the use of strings in the music. The drama also bears a touch of horror, with Sefton, who admits he’s a “massive fan” of the seminal British director, hoping to keep viewers feeling uncomfortable throughout the drama.
“Everybody doing it has just paid a little homage to him in the writing, the directing and the music, but hopefully not to the point where it’s a pastiche but an acknowledgement that Rear Window was there and this idea of somebody stuck trying to remotely sort something out is interesting,” he notes.
The fact that lead character Jamie is either in bed or largely immobile for much of the four-hour running time made the writing process tough for Sefton. Jamie’s journey to recovery is slightly accelerated to make the drama work, but the Sefton was keen to realistically depict the difficulty of overcoming a spinal injury.
“The first episode is [almost entirely] in that hospital room and we found it quite challenging because you’ve got to keep giving him interesting things to do – the idea that just reaching over and getting a glass of water is a massive challenge for someone who’s hardly moved in five or six weeks. If people buy into that small challenge being massive for this character, hopefully you’ve got an interesting thriller set up where crawling across the floor is like walking across a bridge for somebody else, or scaling a mountain. That was the idea, but it was tricky.”
In fact, Sefton highlights one such scene as a standout from the entire show. It takes place towards the end of episode one, when Jamie is forced to crawl across the floor in a desperate attempt to retrieve evidence he thinks could point to the killer.
“I think it works really well,” Sefton asserts. “It’s a combination of it being written that way, John directing it brilliantly and Alfie performing it, and then the music has the ‘Hitchcock strings.’ That’s the time I got a tingle – you felt it was playing out like one of those classic thrillers where you’ve got the building crescendo of the music. And even though he’s just crawling across the floor to grab this iPad, it’s the biggest thing. I really like that.”
Sefton says the scene works because of the combination of his script and the vision of Alexander, who directed all four episodes of this season having helmed two for the first run. But he doesn’t think the visual style of a series, which airs episode three tomorrow and is available on BBC iPlayer, is entirely down to the director, believing writers should also be encouraged to think visually.
“That’s the biggest misconception of screenwriting – that you just write the dialogue and the director does everything else,” he adds. “That’s absolutely not true. Screenwriting is all about what happens. It’s about actions, what people are doing – what they’re saying is actually quite peripheral.”
Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill star Uma Thurman makes her Netflix bow in psychological horror series Chambers. The actor talks to DQ about the appeal of the drama, working with a young cast and why film is still her first love.
Uma Thurman’s career has been defined by her big-screen partnership with director Quentin Tarantino that has seen her star in seminal movies such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
However, the actor is no stranger to television, having appeared in Broadway-inspired Smash, the US adaptation of Australian series The Slap and Bravo dark comedy Imposters – and now Thurman has become the latest Hollywood star to link up with Netflix, making her debut on the global streaming platform in psychological horror Chambers.
The series stars Sivan Alyra Rose as Sasha Yazzie, a 17-year-old heart attack survivor who becomes consumed by the mystery surrounding the heart that saved her life. The closer she gets to the truth about the death of her donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), the more Sasha seems to be taking on the personality of the dead woman, including the most sinister aspects.
Thurman plays Becky’s mother, Nancy, who forges a hesitant relationship with Sasha – only to find out her daughter might not be as dead as she thought. Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn is Becky’s father, Ben.
The 10-part drama, which launches worldwide tomorrow, received its international premiere last month at Series Mania in France, where Thurman revealed that a meeting with creator Leah Rachel led her to join the show.
“I met Leah, I read the pilot and I thought it was really beautiful,” the actor says. “We just hit it off. I thought she had something really special to offer and I took the great leap of faith.
“I was grabbed by the metaphor of the heart and the fact there’s a strong female energy, and the drama and the tragedy of the parent I was playing, and the relationship between her and this young woman who is struggling with her identity in a very hardcore way.”
Rachel says Chambers became a psychological horror because that was what the plot demanded. This style and tone is laid out in the trailer, which maximises those genre themes with some intense music and quick cutaways that reveal a creepy dimension to the drama.
“[The genre] is found through the story; the story requires it,” says Rachel, who wrote the series with Akela Cooper. “Dealing with the loss of a child, dealing with the loss of a sister, to me that feels like a psychological horror already. So it definitely leant itself to this in the story. It can be an extension of human behaviour and emotion, in the same way that dance and music can.”
Executive producer Jennifer Yale picks up: “With psychological horror, we were always trying to play the metaphor first and foremost – the teenage girl and how she feels somewhat out of control with her body. And in our show, she literally is out of control.
“We also wanted to play with the other characters and what they’re going through. Nancy struggling with the loss of her child, only to meet this young woman who has a piece of her child in her and then to start to see pieces of her child somewhat slip out or come through; that psychological trauma that plays with Nancy and her thinking, ‘Is this just me? Am I going crazy? Or is this actually real?’ That’s very much how we were trying to play with the horror element, through the characters.”
As a mother of three, Thurman says there is no greater fear for a parent than losing a child. “That was very compelling to me about the character,” she says of Nancy. “She’s a woman being completely tormented by grief and is also experiencing the sense of haunting. You have a stay-at-home mother who identified with herself only really as a mother and, in fact, she really didn’t know either of her children. She’s truly haunted.”
With a screen career spanning more than 30 years, Thurman says she is “excited” about the current creative explosion TV drama is enjoying, but adds: “I love film – let me not mess around! I’ve really started to nurture my own theatre career because that really is the actor’s medium, but I’m really excited about the freedom, the space to breathe and the exploration of doing television. It’s a very democratic art form; it’s available to people. But I quite desperately am first and foremost loyal to film.”
Best known for her work with auteur filmmakers, Tarantino among them, Thurman says her decision to accept parts is more often based on who the director is than the role itself. “But as far as this baptism of fire, this new medium, for me, Jennifer has more experience in television compared to us,” she says. “We really didn’t know what we were doing and had to figure it out. Jennifer is much more versed [in television].”
Yale, whose credits include Legion and Outlander, also praises Thurman’s behind-the-scenes involvement. “We were very lucky to be able to have Uma come and work on this show and bring her expertise and also her wealth of knowledge,” she says. “We had a pretty inexperienced cast and we really rose to her level because she came prepared every day. She was the best ‘first person on the call sheet’ on any show I’ve ever worked on. I cannot say enough how lucky we were to have her on the show.”
Thurman responds: “When you’re working with young people, the first thing you do is, when they call you to set, you go immediately. You get there before they do, which is basic professionalism and discipline. It’s a privilege to get to do creative narrative storytelling work of any kind. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to get to live a creative life, and I think you pay back your team with professionalism and passion.”
But as a movie star now appearing in a Netflix series, what does Thurman think of the streaming platform’s fight for recognition for its feature-length output? “We’re in such a rapidly changing technology [landscape] that this thing is going to not even be a debate soon,” she responds. “It’s very expensive to buy a ticket and go to a movie theatre so, as much as I’d like someone to [go to the cinema], I wouldn’t want them not to experience the communication that people can have on any device. It’s pure snobbery. But I do love film so I can say people should enjoy the communication of sharing stories together in any way they can possibly achieve it.”
Rachel agrees, adding: “It’s great that art in many forms is becoming more accessible to people. Storytelling is changing and stories are being told from perspectives that are different, and I think it’s really important for everybody to be able to digest cinema. The meaning of the word ‘cinema’ might change behind it, but art is art.”
Writers Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and actor Birgitte Hjort Sørensen made their names on Danish political drama Borgen. Michael Pickard finds out what they’ve been up to since and how the series shaped their careers.
When Borgen first aired in 2010, the idea that a television drama focusing on the complexities of Danish coalition politics might travel around the world must have seemed optimistic at best.
Even local pubcaster DR, which commissioned the show, wasn’t convinced it would have an international future. “The head of drama then, Ingolf Gabald, said from very early on, ‘Guys, don’t ever think this show will travel because it will not,’” remembers series creator Adam Price (pictured top centre with members of the Borgen cast). “It’s funny now. Of course, you can say in hindsight he missed that one because then it was sold to almost 100 countries.”
Gabold can be forgiven for his caution. But buoyed by the international success of Scandinavian exports such as Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), the Millennium film trilogy and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen was swept up in the wave of demand for series coming out of the region.
In the near-decade since Borgen made its debut, its stars – including Sidse Babett Knudsen (who played prime minister Birgitte Nyborg), Pilou Asbæk (her advisor Kasper Juul) and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (journalist Katrine Fønsmark) – and those behind the camera have gone on to make series that have kept Danish drama in the global spotlight.
Price most recently wrapped on another DR series, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), a two-season, 20-episode drama about a family of priests who each choose their own path to a meaningful life. It stars Lars Mikkelsen and is produced by Sam Productions, with StudioCanal distributing.
“I really wanted to try to understand religion,” Price says. “Religion is one of the most important and essential topics to choose when we’re talking big drama, and it’s a source of worry for so many people. It’s almost as if the debate about religion itself has become radicalised. It’s as if there’s no limit to what we are able to say to each other. I really wanted us to discuss and debate religion because, if we talk about religion, we might not kill each other.”
The writer says that although he is a fan of Nordic noir, he was keen to ensure Borgen’s successor didn’t follow the path of a “dark, gritty crime story, typically with dead people in forests and lonely, socially awkward police officers who have to solve the cases.” Instead, Price decided to explore a new genre, Nordic magical realism, with a story about spirituality and faith. “It’s incredibly important not to keep moving along the same alleyways. Even the Brits are now producing Nordic noir and have been for several years. It’s not a speciality of the Nordic countries anymore,” he says.
Ride Upon the Storm launched in the UK on streaming platform Walter Presents in January this year, the same month that Greyzone, which stars Borgen alumna Sørensen, also debuted on the Channel 4-backed service.
The 10-part series, produced by Cosmo Films for TV2 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, follows the events that lead up to a planned terror attack in Scandinavia, centring on brilliant drone engineer Victoria Rahbek (Sørensen), who is taken hostage.
Her captor is part of the terror cell planning the attack, with Victoria chosen so the group can acquire the components it needs from her company. Victoria must risk everything to steal the equipment while also working as a double agent for the police, who will do anything to prevent the attack.
“I could sense there was a high level of ambition from the people who created it,” the actor says of the show, which is written by Morten Dragster and Oskar Söderlund. “Greyzone is the term we have in Danish for ‘grey area’ – all the things that aren’t black and white, which is life. Often in fiction, there’s a given right or wrong because it reads well and you know who to root for, but in real life that’s hardly ever the case. So it really interested me that they wanted to dive into this complex world.
“It’s easy to write off terrorists as madmen or psychopaths. In our case, Victoria is forced to look behind the cold, brutal man she meets to try to understand how he became like this.”
At first, Greyzone appears to be a typical crime show or thriller, Sørensen says, before it reveals the internal psychological drama between Victoria and her captor, Iyad (Ardalan Esmaili). “It almost becomes like a play because we’re confined in this small space, her apartment. He intrudes into her world and then they have to live together in this odd way. All of the action takes place between them, at least in that part of the storyline.”
After her breakout role in Borgen, Sørensen landed parts in British dramas Marple and Midsomer Murders, starred in feature Pitch Perfect 2 and also appeared in HBO series Game of Thrones and Vinyl. What she enjoys about acting, she explains, is the opportunity to dive into different worlds, genres and characters, particularly when this gives her the chance to learn something new.
“I had a lot of great adventures abroad. The thing about working overseas is the budgets are usually bigger, so the toys are usually bigger – I would never get to do something like Game of Thrones in Denmark because we couldn’t afford it,” she continues. “It’s been so adventurous, but also, because it is a much bigger pond, I naturally become a smaller fish. I haven’t said I’ll never work abroad again, but there were a lot of days where I just sat on my own and I missed my family, so I made a conscious choice to move back home and be here and work here, and I’m really happy.
“Because Denmark is such a small country, it’s so familiar so it’s a very safe and comfortable way of working. Sometimes the sense of hierarchy is so strong in the UK and US, you feel like you’re just doing a job, whereas I feel more like part of the process in Denmark.”
One of Price’s Borgen co-writers, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, followed up the political drama with a series of his own creation, Bedrag (Follow the Money). The show, again for DR, explored the world of financial crime over three seasons, the last of which aired earlier this year and focused specifically on money laundering.
“After doing the second season, I felt we had spent so much time in expensive boardrooms and with CEOs that we’d told most of the stories I wanted to tell in that arena,” Gram says. “Piv Bernth, then head of DR drama [and Gabold’s successor], was very open to us pursuing a completely new direction. I came up with the idea of doing something about the laundering of drug money, which has always fascinated me as I live in a neighbourhood where there’s a lot of gang activity. I absolutely still love the first two seasons, but feeling completely free to change as much as we needed was a great starting point for fresh storytelling. DR is a place where they care a lot about the writer’s vision. They allowed us to do that even though it’s quite a big risk for the broadcaster.”
That kind of freedom is rare in television, particularly from a free-to-air public broadcaster. Gram admits it was both refreshing and daunting, but with Follow the Money’s third run earning rave reviews, “DR’s wonderful gamble in the form of maximum trust in the writer luckily paid off, and the freedom of creativity has been a true pleasure,” he says.
“I’m very proud of the third season and the way we’ve done it, especially where we have been brave and taken risks and chances because that’s really what makes interesting series at the moment. There are so many series being made right now and it’s the ones that take risks that stand out. Of course, some won’t work, but that’s part of taking risks.”
Price remembers being afforded the same freedom when he, Gram and Tobias Lindholm were writing Borgen. Of course, at that time, there were no expectations placed on them, either in Denmark or internationally. “We had a great cast, we had a reasonably good budget and all the freedom in the world, which was amazing,” he says. “We could just write the show we really wanted to write. We could basically lean back and try to make the best show, in Danish terms, we could possibly make. That very local nerve in the show made it very global. That freedom meant so much to us.”
Borgen’s success has also launched many careers, he adds. “All of a sudden – and this was the case with Ride Upon the Storm – we could finance a Danish show with money from several European broadcasters because we were known names for them and they really wanted the next shows.
“Birgitte, Pilou (Game of Thrones) and Sidse (Westworld) have also had amazing international careers that began with the Borgen years. The freedom and lack of expectation at the time we were doing it was tremendously important.”
On Borgen, “it was the fact we always had so much fun,” Gram says. “We never argued. We could disagree on something but we would always look for something even better because we trusted each other’s instincts. That’s something I remember well. It was very playful and ambitious in the way we were searching for ideas.”
Sørensen was only two years out of drama school when she landed her part in Borgen, which she credits with making her a household name in Denmark and thus providing her ticket to working abroad.
“I’m immensely proud of it, I loved doing it. I feel like I got an extra education, not just working with cameras, which you don’t really learn in drama school, but also it was an introduction for me to take an interest in politics and the world, so I feel like I grew up on that show. It’s very dear to me.”
Price is now heading into production on his next series, Ragnarok, a six-part drama for Netflix. The Norwegian-language show unfolds in the fictional small town of Edda in the middle of the Norwegian countryside and is described as a modern-day coming-of-age drama rooted in Norse mythology.
“It is a story about climate change,” Price explains of the high-school set series. “We’re asking the question, ‘Is the world coming to an end?’ I have done politics, I have done religion – now we are coming to the end of the world.”
But it is something he learned on Borgen that Price keeps with him long after that show ended, and will prove particularly useful now he is working on a series that will roll out simultaneously in more than 190 countries worldwide.
“You have to write a story that means something to you,” he says. “You cannot have all kinds of thoughts about how someone will react to it in South America. You cannot let thoughts like that disturb you too much, because you will end up confused in your choices. You have to focus on your story. If I believe it and feel it and make other people feel it, then it stands a chance of working internationally as well.”
Let the Danes begin
Four new dramas hailing from Denmark were showcased during Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event in February. DQ rounds up the selection.
Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles, pictured)
A terrorist attack at a Copenhagen restaurant is dramatised in terrifyingly vivid fashion in the latest drama from pubcaster DR, created by Dicte’s Ida Maria Rydén and Dorte W Høgh. Yet rather than dwell on the incident itself, the 10-part limited series is a character-driven piece that focuses on a group of people both before and after the attack and examines how their lives are interwoven. It is produced by Stinna Lassen (The Team) and DR Drama and is being sold internationally by DR Sales. When the Dust Settles is slated to air locally in January 2020.
Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses)
Following the success of the first season last autumn, The New Nurses is returning for a second six-part run, continuing the 1950s-set story about the first intake of male nurses in post-war Denmark. It is produced by SF Studios and Senia Dremstrup for TV 2, with REinvent Studios distributing.
Den Som Dræber – Fanget af Mørket (Darkness – Those Who Kill)
A reboot of 2011’s Those Who Kill, this eight-part serialised crime thriller asks not whodunnit but ‘whydunnit’ when a profiler is called in to help save two kidnapped girls from a murderer. Commissioned by Nordic streaming service Viaplay, it is produced by Miso Film and written by Ina Bruhn. Fremantle is handing worldwide sales.
The Rebels from No 69
Based on the true story of radicalised white youths who started riots when they were evicted from a shared house in Copenhagen, The Rebels from No 69 is described as a coming-of-age series that follows 20-year-old Camilla, who leaves her parents’ home under the pretence of living with her older brother but ends up moving into the house. When the council sells the property to a church, its inhabitants barricade themselves inside, leading the army to storm the premises. Currently in pre-production, it is produced by Made in Copenhagen for TV2 and distributed by REinvent Studios
It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.
Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.
In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.
Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?
Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.
With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.
That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.
Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.
“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”
Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.
“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”
Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.
“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”
Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.
“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.
“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”
When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.
In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.
“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”
On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.
Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.
“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”
Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.
Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.
“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”
By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.
“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”
The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”
Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.
“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.
“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”
Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.
“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”
Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”
Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”
Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.
Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”
But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.
Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.
“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”
Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.
In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.
“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.
Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.
“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”
Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”
The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”
Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.
Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.
“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”
Creator and writer Rob Williams, executive producer Sarah Brown and star James Harkness talk to DQ about making BBC four-parter The Victim, a thriller that aims to make its viewers ask themselves difficult questions.
“Just remember who the victim is,” John Hannah’s dour Detective Inspector Steven Grover calls out across a quiet police office. It’s a throwaway line, the final sentence in a row between two colleagues. Yet it sums up the riddle at the heart of four-part BBC drama The Victim – just who should have our sympathies?
Should viewers stand by Anna Dean (played by Kelly Macdonald) – a mother who, still grieving the loss of her son who was brutally murdered 15 years ago, stands accused of posting an image and the address of his alleged killer online – or Craig Myers (James Harkness), who is left for dead by a masked attacker after being identified as notorious child murderer Eddie J Turner.
The story plays out in the present as Anna stands trial for incitement to murder, while flashbacks recall the aftermath of the attack and how the lives of Craig and his wife Rebecca (Karla Crome) are turned upside down by gossip and rumour, with Anna attempting to prove Craig is not who he says he is.
The drama, which is inspired by real-life cases but is not based on any in particular, comes from creator and writer Rob Williams and is produced by STV Productions. It’s a series that proves to be compelling and thought-provoking in equal measure. While viewers will want to know whether Craig really is Eddie, the bigger question is does that really matter? At every stage, the drama comes back to the question posed by DI Grover. Just who is the victim here?
“The Victim has the potential to be a really talked-about show because of the subject matter and the way Rob has told the story from two points of view,” says exec producer Sarah Brown, STV’s head of drama. “Hopefully, it’s not black and white and there’s a lot of grey in there. It has the potential to get people discussing not just the genre questions – Is Craig really Eddie? – but also the bigger moral questions.”
Williams picks up: “The kind of dramas I love are the ones where I don’t know where I stand and I’ve got to ask questions of myself. That was definitely where I felt we were on to something, because I don’t quite know who I stand with.”
However, Williams says he always knew how the story would conclude. “I was very up for changing it if the characters and the story demanded it, but it does feel like the only ending for me, which is a really nice place to be. There’s a courtroom verdict, but is that enough? That’s very much part of the question. Hopefully the last episode delivers a series of verdicts but in different ways.”
Williams, whose credits include Killing Eve and The Man in the High Castle, had been talking to Brown about working together when they struck on the idea of how people can become polarised over an issue despite being presented with the same evidence. The writer was also intrigued by a documentary about the Scottish court system, which was presented as a less stuffy, more informal environment than its English counterpart.
“The idea that you could tell a story in a courtroom but, instead of seeing the evidence presented by lawyers, you could actually see what happened and then twist people’s sympathy for the plaintiff and the accused – that was the beginning,” he recalls. The case at the heart of The Victim then emerged through real-life examples of people being accused of something on social media. “It’s just a fascinating area that the law is struggling to keep up with,” Williams adds. “But this is entirely fictional. There’s any number of cases where people could find parallels with different aspects of the drama, but it’s not based on any one case. It has to be [this way] really, otherwise your characters don’t have freedom to do and say things they need to.”
Williams says it is integral to the show that viewers are able to put themselves in the shoes of both Anna and Craig and imagine what they would do if they were in the same position.
However, the intention was never to make a traditional courtroom drama, with scenes in front of the judge only serving to provide a spine to the series. Over the four episodes, the flashbacks slowly catch up to the present, meaning every strand of the story comes together by the end.
“In the editing process, we stripped away quite a lot of procedure because we felt it became too procedural,” Brown reveals. “What we really wanted the audience to be interested in was the human interactions and the stakes for each character.”
When it came to casting, Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) was first through the door, followed by Hannah (Spartacus, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). But for Craig, the production team decided someone relatively unknown would be best. Harkness (Macbeth, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) auditioned and landed the part.
“I’m in awe of them, particularly James and Kelly,” Williams says. “They have to play these characters with the sense they could be lying. We don’t know. But they play it with such integrity – they’re not moustache-twirling at any point.”
On casting Harkness, Brown notes: “We saw quite a few people but there was something about him. I just find his performance so raw and real. He’s quite extraordinary. He really held his end up, particularly when you see the latter episodes and the two-handers with him and Kelly.
“You want the audience to believe he’s capable of being Eddie J Turner but equally capable of not being him because you don’t want the audience to know the answer until the end. That’s quite a tricky balance.”
For Harkness himself, he describes his first leading role as an “amazing, brilliant learning experience.” As a young father, he says he feels very lucky to be involved in a drama about such a sensitive subject, noting that the theme of whether people should be given a second chance even caused him to stop and think about what he would do in a similar situation.
“It’s definitely a subject that should be talked about, so hopefully people do talk about it,” he says. “It can be a very stigmatised subject. I don’t just mean in a court of law – everybody’s got a past. You’re not defined by who you were, you’re defined by who you are, and you get to decide who you get to be. It’s not for everybody else to define you.”
Revealing that many of the plot twists were kept under wraps before filming began, Harkness continues: “For me, it didn’t matter if Craig was Eddie or not. I was just looking to tell this story of a hard-working guy who’s a family man. That’s what I want to be, a hard-working family man. That’s the story I was interested in, rather than the reveal and the drama of it.
“I’d love people to pay attention and try to look at it as a whole and make a judgement at the end, rather than jump straight into a judgement we all make automatically, very easily and very quickly. Give yourself a second chance while watching it.”
Striking the right balance with the series, which is sold internationally by Sky Vision, proved to be the biggest challenge, with Brown and Williams adamant that the story should never be manipulative in any way. In essence, the show had to hold up to repeated viewings, where the audience wouldn’t feel cheated at any point even after they knew the conclusion.
“Everything you’ve witnessed when you look back was true in its moment,” Brown says. “That was a real challenge. There were a couple of scenes in the early drafts that felt like brilliant genre moments but we ended up taking them out because they felt like we were leaning on genre rather than the truth of the characters. There was one cliffhanger in particular we held on to until the bitter end. In the end, we just thought be brave and believe we’re sufficiently invested in these characters now that we want to know what happens to them. That was an interesting process, getting the balance between the genre storytelling and character storytelling. It was a very fine balance all the way through.”
Snowstorms in Scotland last March hampered location scouting during pre-production, while the biggest practical challenge came in finding a courtroom. The crew ended up building one that mimicked the size and style of Edinburgh High Court, an old building filled with modern trappings. Shooting also took place on location in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Port Glasgow and Gourock.
Brown says she’s proud of the fact the drama features so many young Scottish actors alongside the well-established Macdonald and Hannah. “You don’t see many dramas with an almost entirely Scottish cast. That showcases what amazing talent we have in Scotland.”
Meanwhile, Brown and Williams both believe they have achieved their ambition of creating an entertaining piece of television that will also cause viewers to stop and think about the events that play out on screen.
“We have delivered something that works as a piece of drama that you want to come back for, and characters you empathise with and want to find out what happens to them, but hopefully, at the end, it’s done more than just fill your time. There is something to chew on,” Williams says. “I’m grateful to have worked with the people I’ve worked with. You write a character on a page called Anna Dean but it’s only when somebody like Kelly comes and inhabits it that you just think, ‘Wow.’”
Their attention is now turning to a potential second season of The Victim. “The plan is for more,” Brown adds. “We’re already thinking about season two. What was designed into the format was the court case and the shape and structure of the storytelling. What I hope the next season would do would be a new cast of characters and a new story but told in the same format and, hopefully, with an equally contemporary, thought-provoking subject.”
Executive producer Fiona Eagger lifts the lid on Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from Australian period crime drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries set during the 1960s and starring Geraldine Hakewill.
It’s been four years since the third and final season of Australian period crime drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The series, based on the books by Kerry Greenwood, followed the personal and professional life of the Phryne Fisher, a glamorous private detective solving cases in 1920s Melbourne.
Since then, a standalone movie that picks up at the end of season three, Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, has been filmed, with Essie Davis (The Babadook) reprising her role as the lead character.
But the end of the main series has also led to a fresh spin-off, Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in the 1960s. It introduces Phryne’s niece, the “glamorously reckless” Peregrine Fisher, who inherits a fortune when the famous aunt she never knew goes missing over the highlands of New Guinea.
That leads Peregrine, played by Geraldine Hakewill, to become a private detective in her own right, supported by the guidance of a group of exceptional women that make up The Adventuresses’ Club, of which Phryne was also a member.
The series has been created by Every Cloud Productions’ Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, who were behind the ABC original. This time, however, four telemovies have been commissioned by Australia’s Seven Network. The films – written by Cox, Samantha Winston, Chelsea Cassio and Jo Martino – first aired down under in February and, like their predecessor, have gone on to find international audiences, with buyers including UKTV’s Alibi and US streamer Acorn TV picking up the spin-off from distributor All3Media International.
Speaking to DQ from the Moroccan set of Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, Eagger says the production team had considered making a prequel to the original series, featuring a younger Phryne and learning how she fled her British boarding school to come to Australia.
“What we realised is our audience doesn’t necessarily want a younger woman,” she explains. “They’re happy to have a woman who’s a bit older – Geraldine is in her 30s – and then the Adventuresses’ Club. That’s what they don’t get enough of on screen. We’re happy to do that.
“Deb and I are interested in stories that relate probably more to where we are in our own lives. [ABC legal drama] Newton’s Law was a story about a female protagonist balancing work and family. It’s just what we do, but we like to have a bit of fun and we like the murder-mystery genre. There’s a murder at the beginning and it’s going to be solved by the end, so that really helps your story structure. You can also dress up issues in a genre. If you look at Miss Fisher, there’s illegal abortion, there’s the slave trade, there are a lot of social justice issues to do with women that underpin the stories. We just dress them up.
“So with this one, again we take on a world that suits the time, so there’s a fashion parade. We’re doing one about UFOs and space, the Russia-US factor, one set in a cooking school and one in a TV studio. But, of course, somebody’s murdered in every opening act. It’s a murder-of-the-week series and we hope we’re setting up a new franchise to go for many seasons.”
While the original series was based, at least initially, on Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher Mystery books, there is no literary basis for Modern Murder Mysteries. The first series went away from the books in the second season anyway, Eagger points out, noting that not all of the novels could be adapted, either because they perhaps weren’t as glamorous as the style of the series or their settings didn’t lend themselves to television. One story is set in a cave, for example. “So we’ve been off-book for some time,” Eagger says. “This time, it’s a slightly different murder mystery as it’s about Peregrine discovering how to be a detective, whereas Phryne was pretty fully formed.”
Meanwhile, the decision to set the story in the 1960s was due to the producer’s desire to place Peregrine in another important era for women. “It’s another really strong decade for women, coming out of the 50s and suddenly there’s the pill, women working and coming out of the kitchen,” Eagger explains. “Like the 20s, the 60s is also a great decade for women, with a sense of independence and freedom. Whether that’s with the music or the fashion, there’s just a liberation that’s going on.”
In the title role is Hakewill, best known for her part in Seven Network thriller Wanted. Eagger describes the actor as “like Audrey Hepburn. She’s just brilliant and the 60s really suit her.”
On Peregrine, she continues: “She’s a bit different from Phryne. She’s more naive, she hasn’t got Phryne’s street smarts or wealth. She starts learning and we see her becoming a private detective as it progresses.”
Phryne had a flirtatious relationship with police officer Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) in the original series, and this element is replicated in Peregrine’s partnership with detective James Steed, played by Joel Jackson (Safe Harbour). “They’re both fantastic,” Eagger says of the leading duo. “The show has got that fun, cheeky element, even though it’s set in 1964. There’s the interplay between the two with the budding romance, but their dynamic’s quite different to Phryne and Jack. It’s the first time anyone has taken Peregrine quite seriously and she can actually come into her own. He’s quite ambitious too. Their relationship is of equals flirting but both don’t want to compromise where they want to be.”
With Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries going on to win fans around the world, it’s clear the spin-off is sticking to a winning formula. “It has the same flavours of fun and character and solving murders but it’s slightly different from Miss Fisher,” Eagger adds. “It’s a new cast and they take it on and create something that’s a new series in its own right – and Geraldine is absolutely a star.”
Award-winning playwright Tim Crouch has teamed up with actor and longtime friend Toby Jones to write Don’t Forget the Driver, a dark comedy-drama starring Jones as a coach driver whose mundane life is thrown into chaos.
While the future of the traditional British booze cruise – day trips from Dover to Calais in France to pick up alcohol and cigarettes – may be uncertain as Brexit negotiations continue, it’s a trip across the English Channel that provides the narrative spark for dark comedy-drama Don’t Forget the Driver.
Toby Jones (Detectorists, Marvellous) plays Peter Green, a single father and a coach driver struggling to find meaning in life while coping with his disaffected daughter Kayla and caring for his mum Audrey.
Yet the discovery of a dead body on the beach at Bognor Regis in episode one, coupled with finding a stowaway onboard his coach as he returns from a Calais trip in episode one, spins Peter’s world out of control.
The six-part BBC2 series comes from producer Sister Pictures (Chernobyl, The Split) and distributor BBC Studios. Crouch created and co-wrote the series with longtime friend Jones, marking the award-winning playwright’s first TV project.
“I think I’ve had a lucky, charmed journey into it. The idea has been around with me for a while and then with Toby, but I’ve known colleagues who’ve been knocking on the door of TV for a long, long time so I feel pretty charmed by the experience,” Crouch says.
Living in Brighton, a stone’s throw from Bognor on England’s south coast, he had been thinking of a story involving coach drivers for several years, having watched them pick up and drop off passengers in the popular tourist city. “You see them just hanging out, cleaning their vehicles, reading the papers. I always got imaginatively involved in their lives and it started to develop,” he says.
Crouch then took some coach trips himself, purely in the name of research, visiting a donkey sanctuary and Dover Castle as well as heading to France, taking notes of his experiences and observations. The subject then arose in a meeting with Sister Pictures exec producer Naomi De Pear, before Jones joined the project.
“We wrote very long treatments – four to six pages for six episodes – not really knowing how the industry standard is, but it enabled us to write the story,” Crouch remembers of the project’s early development. “Much of it still stands from that document and much has changed. But from that document we wrote the first episode for Sister. And with that script and document, that’s when the BBC came on board.”
The writing process saw Crouch sitting in front of a laptop while Jones “strode around the room and improvised.” They would discuss characters and storylines through a shared humour and a sense of Englishness – something that would come to define a drama in which the main character is looking for a sense of identity at a time when the UK is questioning its place in the world. However, it’s purely coincidence that a series four years in the making is coming to air when the country is in the grip of uncertainty surrounding its exit from the European Union.
“We started writing this before Brexit but, inevitably, if you place any story anywhere at the moment, the influence of what’s happening currently will be felt,” Crouch notes. “You could talk about what a character like that means in the contemporary climate, but we haven’t set out to write a political drama. We’ve written a drama about a man stuck in a world, and that world is connecting with the wider world. It happens with great force when, at the end of episode one, he realises he’s been involved in bringing someone into the country. At the beginning of episode two, he kind of involuntarily commits an act of kindness and the rest of the series is him dealing with the consequences of that act of care. That was our focus, always.”
Crouch is known in the theatre world as someone who is not afraid to play with structure or form, an approach that also applied to Don’t Forget the Driver, though it was more through inexperience than design. “We didn’t have a predetermined idea of how TV is written, so there are aspects of this series that are fresh and unusual,” he explains. “That’s not because we set out to break or reinvent it. As we have gone along, we’ve discovered what we can do. And now, having written the series, we feel we know a lot more about the medium from the writer’s point of view. We intend to write together again because it was such an enjoyable experience.”
Appearing alongside coach driver Peter are a band of regular characters, including Peter’s identical twin from Australia, also played by Jones. The actor was always in line to play the lead character, and even learned to drive a coach for the part.
“He’s an incredible actor,” says Crouch, who first met Jones in theatre 20 years ago. “But there’s just something that is both funny and heartbreaking about Toby’s work. There’s something quite innately English – a little lost, perhaps – in the characters he plays. Toby is the least lost person I know but he has a brilliant facility to play those kinds of characters.”
Meetings and conversations are already underway about a potential second season, though Crouch admits an impending stage play is currently his priority. “My theatre career will not end; it’s not like I’ve dumped theatre to join TV, even though in TV they buy you lunch!” he jokes. “In theatre you make your own sandwiches. Theatre is the root of where I come from but I’ve really enjoyed this experience and would love to do more of it.”
Crouch is just latest example of the continuing trend of theatre writers moving across to TV. He remembers seeing the stage version of Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival years before creator, writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought it to the small screen.
“She’s come from a different medium and is now totally rocking TV,” he says. “The theatre writers I know who do work in TV don’t do it exclusively – they try to balance two things. The live form is very different from the recorded form and they both have their strengths. The ideal is to combine both those things. It’s different writing for telly compared with theatre, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring what those differences might be. I’m no expert – it’s the beginning of a journey for me.”
German actor Jonas Nay and director Uli Edel sing the praises of their collaboration on The Master Butchers Singing Club, which tells the story of a family who move from Germany to the US in the wake of the First World War.
“I don’t know how it is that I’m always doing period dramas,” Jonas Nay jokes. “It’s not a career plan!”
Whether by accident or design, it’s a path that’s working pretty well so far for the German actor, who has appeared in Tannbach (Line of Separation), set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and then became the breakout star of Cold War-era drama Deutschland 83 and its recent sequel, Deutschland 86.
“It’s such a gift to play a new role and get an emotional connection to a time I don’t know,” Nay says. “I was really bad in history lessons, not because I wasn’t interested but because I couldn’t really ‘feel’ another time. I was kind of lost. In period dramas, you have a chance to get a feel for the character and the time as well. As an actor, I like that very much. It’s like time travelling.”
For his next role, Nay has travelled back further in time than ever before. He stars in The Master Butcher Singing Club, a four-part miniseries based on the novel by US author Louise Erdrich and adapted by Doris Dörrie and Ruth Stadler.
The story begins in Germany in 1920. After his return from the First World War, young master butcher Fidelis (Nay) marries Eva (Leonie Benesch), the pregnant fiancée of his fallen friend. But since his family’s butchery can’t provide for all of them, Fidelis soon decides to emigrate to America.
In Argus, a small town in North Dakota, he builds up his own business and a home for his new family. And while Fidelis starts a German singing club to fight his homesickness, Eva finds a piece of home in Delphine, a young circus acrobat who is stranded at a nearby farm with her father Robert, a clown and alcoholic. But when Eva falls sick, the future of the entire family is at stake.
Nay describes Fidelis as a man who is never happy to settle and is always striving for more – an attitude that leads him to move his family halfway around the world after returning from war and finding there wasn’t a place for him.
Its then in North Dakota that the drama’s themes of identity and home are established, as Fidelis brings together a disparate group of characters all longing to build a bridge between their new home and their old one.
“It’s a family tradition he comes from and when he goes to the US, he finds a lot of people who left their home also have this desire to have this tradition again,” the actor says. “It’s not a choir, more like guys getting together and singing and celebrating that they have a new home somewhere. It sounds romantic; it is in a way, but it’s not cheesy. It’s not about the music and more about doing something that gives them the feeling of home.”
With these themes, Nay believes viewers around the world will relate to the show. “It’s about building a new life, going somewhere you don’t even speak the language and having to start again,” he continues. “That’s a big topic we’re dealing with right now because of the refugee crisis and globalisation, with people starting lives somewhere else.”
He also points to the German notion of Heimat, which means home or homeland but more specifically relates to a person’s relationship with a place. There is no English equivalent. “The place I was born and the place I live are two different concepts, and I think the emotional gap between those two ideas is what we’re dealing with. It’s about asking can you start again or are you bound to where you come from. That’s what we’re dealing with and it’s something a lot of people can empathise with.”
Still living in his home town of Lubeck, in the north of Germany, Nay used a dialect coach to help him adopt Fidelis’s accent, with the character hailing from the Black Forest region in the south-west. But he didn’t need any help when it came to the singing scenes, as Nay is an accomplished singer and musician who also composes scores for film and television.
Some songs were initially recorded in a studio so they could be played back to the cast while they filmed the scenes, but director Uli Edel eventually took the decision to allow the cast to sing ‘live.’
“I liked the challenge because it’s more charming if we really sing,” Nay says. “I like the spirit of the whole thing; it’s rough and very authentic. I really loved it.”
Edel says he wasn’t looking to hire singers but rather cast the best actors possible. So when Nay revealed during his audition that he was in a band, it was a welcome moment of serendipity.
“Jonas was the perfect lead,” the director says. “Not only is he a great actor, he also turned out to have a great singing voice. He has his own band, so I offered him to score the entire movie. That doesn’t happen too often.”
As for the singing, Edel admits The Master Butchers Singing Club is a “much more poetic piece,” compared to the fast-paced Baader Meinhof Complex, his 2008 feature film about the early years of a West German terrorist group in the 1960s and 1970s.
“These German immigrants try to overcome their homesickness by singing old folk songs. While selecting them, I rediscovered these beautiful German country songs for myself,” he says. “They often deal with the loss of the beloved homeland and family. Some of these songs had lost their innocence during the Third Reich when they were associated with political implications of the Nazi ideology. But I tried to use them as they originally were intended and didn’t shy away from their sometimes obvious sentimentality. First and foremost, I wanted to tell a story dealing with emotions.”
The Master Butchers Singing Club is produced by Moovie in coproduction with ARD Degeto and SWR. Global Screen is the international distributor. Having grown up in the Black Forest region, Edel says he felt very close to the show’s main character and its premise, having also left Germany for the US 28 years ago. “I could relate to these characters John Steinbeck called ‘the salt of the earth,’ and their sentiments, on many levels, and I tried to give them the respect they deserve,” he says.
The director had hoped to shoot the Dakota sections of the series in Canada, but budget restrictions forced the production team to scour Europe for an alternative to the US state’s panoramic landscapes. The decision was then made to build the set on location in Croatia, where the environment was comparable to the US Midwest.
“Twice, nasty storms nearly destroyed our set,” Edel recalls. “One morning we found our Main Street had turned into a river. Big bulldozers had to dig dams to redirect the water so it wouldn’t level our town. Fortunately, we still were able to finish the movie on time, even a day earlier.”
Nay describes Edel as a “visionary” who has a clear idea of the way he wants to capture individual scenes and how they make up the drama as a whole. “It’s really rare that a director has one whole series in his mind,” the actor says. “He always stuck to it. He worked on it until he got there. Now I’ve seen it, he’s a genius. It works in every moment.
“To work with Uli was really intense and very inspiring. It’s so nice to work with somebody who knows what they want to do. It was a great experience for me as a young actor. I’ve worked with a lot of debut directors and that’s always a really big challenge as well. It’s a very different spirit from working with Uli. He must have eaten the script! It’s been so him.”
The Master Butchers Singing Club is set to debut in June at the Munich Film Festival. Meanwhile, Nay is now back in the music studio before production begins on Deutschland 89, the third and final part of the Cold War trilogy.
German period drama Bauhaus – Die neue Zeit (A New Era) tells a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the eponymous revolutionary art school that was established in 1919. Director Lars Kraume and producer Thomas Kufus paint a picture for DQ.
Established in the aftermath of the First World War, the legacy of the Bauhaus can still be felt today. Described as a revolutionary school of art, architecture and design, it was opened by Walter Gropius in 1919 in the German city of Weimar, which would become the seat of the German government at the end of the four-year conflict.
At the heart of the school was the idea of a community of artists working together, rather than the traditional teacher-pupil relationships that had come before it. And they weren’t just confined to the boundaries of fine art – the Bauhaus bridged the gap between artist and craftsman, with pupils learning pottery, printmaking and carpentry, among other skills.
It’s within this fledgling community that German period drama Bauhaus – Die neue Zeit (A New Era) is set. The series, which has its world premiere during Canneseries on Monday, came from producer Thomas Kufus’s interest in the movement. He then asked director Lars Kraume to develop a drama set in this world.
“He asked me if he could think of a story I could tell, and then I asked my wife, who’s an artist, and she said one of the most interesting things would be to show that world through the eyes of a female protagonist, because women had a huge struggle at that time,” Kraume recalls. “The Bauhaus was very progressive in the beginning but then they got in trouble because of the culture that was going on within Weimar and the whole republic, and Walter was forced to put the women all in one class.”
The drama revolves around the real-life figure of a young woman named Doerte Helm, (played by Anna Maria Muehe), who enrolled at the Bahaus. “She was the most gregarious. She wanted to open the class and said, ‘That’s not fair, we want to be treated equally,’” Kraume continues. “She was fighting for her emancipation, and that was the dramatic arc of this first season – it’s the fight of Doerte Helm against Gropius, who is under pressure form the cultural commission and the atmosphere and the upcoming right-wing conservatives who put pressure on these avant-garde people to respect certain rules of the time.”
Season one takes place across five years, up to the point at which the school moved to Dessau in 1925. Much of the story is rooted in history, which Kufus says complicated the scriptwriting process somewhat, owing to the huge cast of characters that feature. “There were the teachers and, on the student side, some of them became very popular [artists], so we have some very interesting figures and we tried to tell it alongside the real story. It took a lot of research,” he says.
“It’s very authentic,” Kraume continues, though he reveals there is one entirely fictional aspect of the drama – a love affair between Helm and Gropius. “They were suspected of having a love affair, which was of course forbidden because he was the director and she was a student. There was no evidence of an affair. But this was where we developed our own story so they do indeed have a strong relationship that at some point turns into an affair. Other than that, everything is true.”
The creative team felt it was important to be as authentic as possible, with the Bauhaus still seen as an incredibly influential movement that helped to shape the 20th century. “If you show a drama series about the Bauhaus to a modern audience, you want it to have an entertaining, gripping story and you want them to learn something about the time as well. We don’t want to be criticised by art historians.”
When he began writing the scripts with Judith Angerbauer, Kraume first created a fictional character he could twist and turn as he wished. But when his research uncovered Doerte Helm – a woman who comes from the old world and suddenly finds herself confronted by modern ideas and thinking at the Bauhaus – he decided to rewrite the whole story with her at the centre. “Thomas was very supportive,” he says of Kufus. “A different producer would have said, ‘Are you nuts?’”
Then in directing, he drew on the wild atmosphere of the school so the visual style wasn’t too conventional. “We shot it all handheld with a zoom and we were always looking for staging that would make it possible to shoot every scene without a cut,” he explains. “We did block it and do other shots, but this kind of staging gives the whole thing a lot of movement and wildness. The actors didn’t have to play for the camera. That makes them very free. My last two historical movies were very classically photographed, but on this we thought it needed to be a bit wilder.”
The six-hour series is produced by Zero One Film in coproduction Constantin Television and Nadcon Film, with Beta Film distributing internationally. Kraume admits it isn’t easy to recreate 1919 Germany, with filming taking place on a lot at Babelsberg Studio on the outskirts of Berlin, as well as in Cologne and Weimar itself.
“Shooting in the first few weeks, we were very unsure about the style and the aesthetics of the film so Lars asked me to be closer and watch the rushes,” Kufus notes. “Lars is one of the few directors I have worked with who makes decisions very quickly. He’s very clear; the actors might offer something and he’ll correct it once or twice, and then it’s clear – and sometimes its only one or two takes. For the producer, but also the entire team, this is a very interesting and convenient way to work because there is somebody who is very clear. He gives very clear answers and directions, so it’s fun to work with him.”
The series is set to debut on ZDF in Germany and French broadcaster Arte later this year, and Kraume and Kufus both see a three-season arc for Bauhaus, with the second run set in Dessau following the school’s move from Weimar, featuring a cast of different teachers and students. With the growing threat of the Nazi Party as its backdrop, season three would see the Bauhaus relocated again, this time in Berlin, as the story confronts the impending Second World War, post-war modernism and its influence in America.
Season one will come with a clear conclusion at the end of six hours, however, as each episode follows the shy, insecure Helm as she grows in stature. “She becomes politically radical and more confident as an artist and woman, and later as a lover. She develops in every episode,” Kraume adds.
“From the art historical side, the role Bauhaus plays today is one aspect of interest; but for modern audiences, you need to add something that is universal. It’s the rise of a young generation against ideas about how life should be created, designed and organised at that time. It’s a rebellion. It’s the story of emancipation of a woman and a tragic love story. After the #MeToo movement, it’s a very interesting look back 100 years ago when women’s liberation started and how it worked. There are various aspects for a modern audience to inform themselves and get an idea of the time.”
Based on the bestselling novel, Störst av Allt (Quicksand) sees a teenager put on trial for murder in the wake of a high-school shooting. DQ hears from the creative team behind Netflix’s first original Swedish drama.
The opening moments of Swedish drama Störst av Allt (Quicksand) are nothing less than chilling. From a black screen, the sound of half-a-dozen shots ring out, before the camera hovers over the bloodied bodies of the victims of a school shooting. When it comes to rest, with screams still ringing in the background, it is on Maja Norberg, sitting frozen in a chair, blood staining her jumper, a discarded rifle at her feet.
Apparently the only survivor of the horror, Maja is swiftly taken away by police, cleaned up and charged with murder. But what really happened in that room – and what was the role played by her boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman?
Over six episodes, the drama jumps back and forth between Maja’s police interrogation in the present and a past exploration of her relationship with Sebastian – how he swept her off her feet before she was seemingly corrupted by his dysfunctional lifestyle and family – until it is revealed whether she is in fact guilty of the shocking crime.
Notably, Quicksand is Netflix’s first Swedish original series, with producer FLX bagging the rights to Malin Persson Giolito’s bestselling novel amid fierce competition.
“There’s a first time for everything, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you work with a company like Netflix for the first time,” says producer Fatima Varhos (Sanctuary, Trespassing Bergman). “I was a bit worried in the beginning, because you don’t know how it could turn out, but Netflix came into Sweden and could easily see we didn’t do high-end drama with young adults in the lead. I’m sure other channels in Sweden would be delighted to show this series, but I’m not sure they would have had the courage to commission it. They wouldn’t have put as much money or trust into this as Netflix.”
Fellow producer Frida Asp (Bonusfamiljen, The Simple Heist) says Netflix recognised the need to make everything “bigger” when it came to sets, the number of extras and key scenes. “Had we made it with a Swedish broadcaster, there might have been a different way of doing it,” she continues. “This series could be broadcast on Swedish television but the method of making it would have been different. I really think it was a perfect series for Netflix and that’s why it was quite easy to work with them.”
The book attracted huge international acclaim due to its young female perspective, with the story told entirely from Maja’s point of view and carried to its conclusion with increasing tension – elements the producers wanted to keep in the series. Asp and Varhos worked with head writer Camilla Ahlgren and lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to bring the novel to the screen, while Lisa Farzaneh (Arne Dahl, Det Som Göms i Snö) also directs. “It’s very close to the book, and that was important to us,” Asp says. “It is a true gift to be able to make it into a series.”
FLX had approached Ahlgren about other projects, but the writer had been busy overseeing Swedish-Danish crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). However, when she was sent the novel, “I knew I wanted to adapt it into a TV series,” she recalls. “From the first page, I thought it was something special. I had pictures in my head and I was so grabbed by the main character. I couldn’t stop reading the book. I had an idea of how I wanted to do it, from Maja’s point of view. This is her story and I wanted to keep it that way.”
Ahlgren opened a writers room with Veronica Zacco and Alex Haridi to work on the scripts, based on the “clear idea” she had for the series. Giolito, a lawyer, was also involved, offering greater insight into the ideas and themes of the book and helping to read drafts.
But working with Netflix was no different from her experience with Swedish pubcaster SVT on The Bridge, she says. “The only difference is we had a lot of Skype meetings,” she jokes. “We had discussions but they trusted me. I also like to work with producers because they help me in my work and add things to my story and help me to do it better. It’s teamwork, and that worked very well.”
Central to the series is the love story between Maja (Hanna Ardéhn) and Sebastian (Felix Sandman), whose increasing influence over his girlfriend as their relationship develops is explored through flashbacks. “Maja is very controlled and the good girl at school,” Ahlgren says. “Suddenly, she’s with someone who can break the rules and is exciting. I can imagine her feeling that she’s now in another world. He also really needs her; she’s the only one he can rely on. One of the themes is about absent parents and dysfunctional families. That psychology is very interesting. It’s a very strong love story but there are a lot of different things in it.”
Director Sørensen was one of the producers’ first choices to steer the series, owing to his reputation for suspense dramas, and he too had read and loved the book. “It was a perfect match,” Asp says. “He has a certain method of working with actors. That made it great for both the amateurs and the experienced actors. He had a way of making it feel authentic, real and alive. He’s a brilliant director.”
Ahead of Sørensen’s appointment, just three months before production began, several key decisions had already been made. The producers decided Quicksand would be shot in the affluent Stockholm suburb of Djursholm, where the novel is set. Casting also began early: by the time Sørensen arrived, “we had seen 1,000 Majas,” Asp reveals. “When he joined, we said, ‘Here are 20 we think have potential.’ So we didn’t lose too much time because he was late joining. We had huge time pressure, but I feel we have been in control of the situation the entire time. It’s a huge project but we did the things in the right order and always felt confident in our decisions.”
Despite the number of hopefuls, only one truly stood out for the role of Maja. “Hanna has this face and with it she can express so many different kinds of emotions,” Varhos says. “We needed somebody who could do all of these faces – from so happy to extremely dark and sad – and also carry the part. She’s been in the picture every day of the shoot. She’s done an incredible job. She has incredible strength and she’s a great actor.”
Complications on set included finding a yacht that appears in episode one and filming spectacular party scenes that take place in Sebastian’s luxurious family home.
“Making parties in a way that feels real in a movie or series is really difficult,” Varhos explains. “We wanted to get the tone right, we wanted it to be realistic. Happily, the parties in the series came out great.”
Though the ending of the book stands strong in the series, which is exec produced by Pontus Edgren and Martina Håkansson, Ahlgren says it was important to keep viewers guessing over Maja’s guilt right up to the conclusion. How to achieve that was a discussion that kept the producers and writers engaged throughout the drama’s development and even during the editing process. Netflix also brought in an additional exec producer who hadn’t read the book or seen any of the scripts to cast a fresh eye over the drama.
Most importantly, however, Ahlgren believes the series will capture audiences around the world when it launches in April, with a story rooted in Swedish culture. “It has been very intense. We worked very fast but everyone was in it,” she adds. “The most exciting challenge was making the first show for Netflix. I’m proud it’s their first original Swedish series.”
While on the surface Störst av Allt (Quicksand) appears to be the cut-and-dried story of whether a high-school teenager is guilty of carrying out a killing spree, the series is far more complicated than that.
It’s that underlying complexity that drew lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to the project. “It’s a story about murder; there’s an investigation going on; it’s a heavy love story; it’s a drama about growing up; it’s a court drama; it’s a political comment on a segregated Sweden,” he explains. “But in all this, we portray a young woman pushed to take impossible choices in her young life. Finding a storytelling balance in all this is fascinating work.”
Sørensen worked closely with head writer Camilla Ahlgren to ensure that by the time he was on set, “her intentions for the story and every single scene are in my DNA.” She was also just a phone call away should he need her advice, with the script still open for rewrites deep into filming.
The director says the show presented him with a unique challenge due to the fact the novel is written like a long monologue purely from the perspective of Maja, the accused at the heart of the story. Early on, he ruled out using voiceovers to convey her inner thoughts, instead using close-ups to reveal the facial expressions that betray Maja’s true emotions.
“We wanted the camera to be as close to her, to her eyes, to her smile, to her thoughts as possible,” he says. “Maja is the focal point of our storytelling and we did not walk away from this at all. Maja is at the centre of every scene. The young actor, Hanna Ardéhn, gave an out-of-this-world performance. I am forever grateful for her courage, generosity and talent.”
Scenes were shot with two or three cameras at once, with long takes that allowed the actors an unusual amount of freedom. “The actors acted in super-realistic surroundings and were always ‘on’ camera. They should never find the camera; the camera should find them. And my DOP, Ulf Brantås, was not interested in perfect framing. He and I were interested in framing the situation.”
Sørensen’s earlier series, including Nobel and Kampen om opTungtvannet (The Heavy Water War, aka The Saboteurs) are also available on Netflix. The director says making Quicksand directly with the streamer was a “great experience,” adding: “The Netflix producers and their team were extremely well prepared. They gave excellent feedback, we had good and meaningful discussions along the way, and I really felt the series we locked was a director’s cut.”