All posts by Michael Pickard

Out of this world

US cable channel TNT turned to Caleb Carr’s arresting novel The Alienist as the premise of its biggest ever drama series. The creative team behind the series, alongside star Luke Evans, discuss bringing the period piece from page to screen.

Adapted from military historian Caleb Carr’s first novel, The Alienist is set in the Gilded Age of New York City in 1896. When a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes grips the city, newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt calls upon criminal psychologist (aka alienist) Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct the investigation in secret.
They are aided by a makeshift crew of singular characters, among them the intrepid Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a young secretary on Roosevelt’s staff who is determined to become the first female police detective in the Big Apple. Here, the team behind the series – coproduced for TNT by Paramount Television and Studio T and debuting on January 22 – give DQ the inside track…

Rosalie Swedlin, producer, Anonymous Content: What made the book such a huge bestseller was the richness of the detail. It was set in such an extraordinary time and had similarities with the world we’re living in today. It never got made by Paramount as a feature film; I believe they had several screenplays and directors, but the project got put on the shelf.
Years later, when Paramount Features opted to start a television division, they decided it was time to maximise the assets of the Paramount feature library. This was the same time as Anonymous Content had just done True Detective. We were approached to do a first-look TV deal with Paramount and I asked if anyone had claimed The Alienist because I’d read the book and loved it.

Luke Evans plays reporter John Moore

Writer Hossein Amini (McMafia) was the first person on board and wrote the opening episode and series bible, before TNT picked up the project blind…
Swedlin: Then we had to find a place to shoot the series, which turned out to be a huge challenge because New York today looks nothing like New York in 1896. Just the complications of bringing carriages into New York streets and blocking them off to traffic proved extremely difficult, even though we scouted New York three times.
We scouted Montreal twice and various other places, before finally it was suggested we go to Budapest. Then we needed to find the director who would give shape and vision to the show, and all of us had seen London Spy and The Fall and absolutely loved Jakob Verbruggen’s work. After we all met, it was clear he was the right director for the series.
Jakob Verbruggen, lead director: The appeal of the series was the possibility to create a visual roller coaster, because that’s what the book is. I’ve done The Fall, so there was a connection with serial killers, but what made this series stand out was the unique setting. New York is a city in transformation. This is a world 100 years ago that is quite similar to ours – immigration, depression, how to we treat the weak, rich
and poor.
The series also has an unlikely group of heroes that guides us through this process, and having them come together to catch the greatest evil known to humankind – a serial killer or predator – was quite fascinating.
It’s called The Alienist and it’s about psychiatry, so of course all these guys have inner demons – and to come clean with themselves, to solve the quest, they have to confront their demons. All of the main characters, episode by episode, we peel off their layers and that was an interesting challenge.
Something else that stood out from the book and is very atypical was the killer’s victims – boy prostitutes. It allowed the series to say something about child trafficking and
child abuse.

To tell this story, Verbruggen wanted to cast “the finest of actors,” but he was also looking for some new faces unfamiliar on television…
Verbruggen: Kreizler is somebody who lives on the edge of the spectrum but he’s also a master puppeteer. He’s a foreigner in an America that is finding itself at the time, so [German actor] Daniel Brühl brings that strength and foreign flavour.
For Dakota Fanning’s character, we looked for someone with an enigmatic but strong gaze that carries a secret, which I think she does so well. For Moore, the book is written from his point of view and it’s a very dark world, but Luke Evans brings charm, wit and warmth to the character and he’s the one that takes the audience by the hand and helps them during this journey.
Luke Evans: I’d read the first five episodes but it was very difficult for me because I’d never done [a television series]. So I knew if I did it, it would have to completely pull me in – and it does within the first few pages of the
first episode.
Moore is a very complex character, much more than in the book. He’s massively flawed in so many aspects of his life and personality, but there’s something heartwarming about his struggle. He finds it very hard to hide his feelings and that’s why he’s very relatable for the audience.
Kreizler can be very cerebral, methodical and detached from human emotion because he’s not feeling it, he’s observing it and trying to work out why. Yet Moore is totally drawn into it. I just thought this was a very interesting journey, and the one magical gift television gives you is 10 hours’ worth of story.
I’d never experienced that, I’d only experienced two [on TV], or three in a movie. So it was a challenge to stay in a character and keep the character fresh for six months of shooting but also to go on this journey and see how he develops and changes, and how the people around him see him. It’s a big journey, so it was a wonderful gift. It was a no-brainer for me.

Daniel Brühl is the eponymous ‘alienist,’ another term for criminal psychologist

The biggest challenge on the series was to recreate 1896 New York, with settings ranging from Lower East Side tenements to the Gilded Age interiors, as well as populating one of the most crowded places in the world…
Chris Symes, executive producer and line producer: We wanted to tell these stories in a place you could smell and taste; where you could feel the grime, the texture and the overcrowding. As it happens, Budapest turned out to be pretty perfect for our needs: it’s a Gilded Age city built more or less in the same period.
There were one or two streets we could use, not as many as we would have liked, which meant we had to build six blocks of the Lower East Side. It was a huge undertaking throughout the middle of a Hungarian winter, but we ended up with a spectacular set we could redress and turn into different neighbourhoods. We also built it full height – it’s an 18 metre-high set – because extending it digitally would have been such a huge operation in terms of post-production and the VFX budget that it was deemed worth building it top to bottom, which of course gave us complete freedom to put the camera anywhere.
Evans: I’ve been very lucky in my career to work on some incredible sets, and The Hobbit was closest in size and detail to this. It was
like time-travelling every day. You couldn’t often see the ends of the streets. You were immersed, completely, which as an actor only benefits your ability to forget where you are and be present in the time period. Then you add the extras and the smell and the smoke – it was breathtaking.
Verbruggen: We were a bunch of lunatics and detail-obsessed madmen. We weren’t just building the streets but also putting dirt everywhere. If there was a market, there were real meats and the smells were terrible. There were horses everywhere, horse shit everywhere. The research we did was very detailed.

The production faced the major task of recreating 1890s New York City, eventually settling on Budapest as the filming location

With five directors working across the 10-part series, continuity between the cast and crew was imperative to ensure the style of the show carried across every episode…
Jamie Payne, producing director who helmed the final two episodes: It’s such a detail-rich world in terms of character, emotion, spectacle and scale that there needed to be a constant presence.
We had some of the best talent in the world so, beyond the first three episodes Jakob directed, there were lots of questions about episodes coming up. I was able to look ahead at the scripts so that when the directors came on board, there was already a toolkit for them to understand the style of the show. There was a very clear aesthetic but every director contributed something. You’re also there to give the cast constant support should they need it. They’re literally on set all day, every day and at some point we had two units going.
At one time they were jumping between storylines from five episodes. It helped that Luke, Daniel and Dakota were so close that, during a 10-hour story, they were able to support each other.

The Alienist was originally envisioned as a limited series, so the production decided not to go down the showrunner-led route…
Swedlin: We just chose brilliant individual writers – Hoss [Amini], E Max Frye [Band of Brothers], Gina Gionfriddo [Boardwalk Empire] and John Sayles. We had a very unconventional writers room. They assembled in New York, Hoss assigned the episodes and they wrote them.
When the time came to make the show, McMafia was happening so Hoss wasn’t available, and we didn’t have that creative voice we would have got had we hired a showrunner. Jamie played a significant role in providing an overview, story continuity, character content, and continuity for the aesthetics, so he was critical to making sure the whole show has a coherence.

With Netflix picking up rest-of-the-world rights, talks are already underway about a potential follow-up…
Swedlin: We’ve had early discussions about a second season and whether it would be based on Angel of Darkness, the follow-up novel, or whether we would take the characters on a completely original journey. It’s still to be determined.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Hometown girl

Swedish actor Ida Engvoll is on a roll, having appeared in hit series The Bridge, The Restaurant and Bonus Family. As UK streaming service Walter Presents premieres her crime thriller Rebecka Martinsson, the star talks about avoiding typecasting and working with mosquitos.

If you follow Swedish drama, there’s a fair chance you will have come across Ida Engvoll. The actor has steadily built her career on appearances in some of the country’s biggest series that, thanks to the global interest in Scandinavian fiction, mean she has been on screen around the world.

Roles in Beck, Arne Dahl and Fjällbackamorden (The Fjällbacka Murders) charted her early life on television before she took roles in pan-European crime drama The Team and the third season of Broen (The Bridge).

Engvoll has become much more recognisable, however, since starring in 2015 award-winning feature En man som heter Ove (A Man Called Ove). More recently, she has starred in TV4 crime thriller Rebecka Martinsson, period drama Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant) and comedy-drama Bonusfamiljen (Bonus Family), both of which have been renewed for third seasons by SVT.

It’s her versatility that makes her screen credits stand out, switching between genres with ease – a trend that isn’t entirely accidental.

“I always look for good parts and projects that are attractive but we have a lot of crime series in Sweden,” the actor explains. “It’s not easy to avoid doing crime series but it’s always about the character and the genre and the director as well. I try to not get stuck [in one show].

Ida Engvol plays the titular character in Rebecka Martinsson

“When you’re in a successful show, especially in Sweden because we’re such a small country, people can’t tell the difference between you and the characters so I always try to be in flow between things so people can’t judge me.”

Engvoll is speaking to DQ ahead of the UK launch of Rebecka Martinsson, which has been picked up by Channel 4-owned streaming service Walter Presents. The first episode will debut on More4 this Friday before the box-set becomes available online.

The eight-part series, produced by Yellow Bird and distributed by Banijay Rights, is based on the novels by Åsa Larsson, telling four stories each set over two episodes. The first instalment sees high-flying lawyer Martinsson (Engvoll) return to her hometown of Kiruna, in the northern most part of Sweden within the Arctic Circle, following news of her friend’s death. But when what appears to have been an accident turns out to be murder, she becomes embroiled in the investigation while also facing up to the terrible trauma that forced her to leave her childhood home behind.

“The script did stand out, especially after the first movie,” Engvolll says of the series, which first aired on Sweden’s TV4 in spring 2017. “After episode one and two, the adventure for her really starts. The ending of the first story opens her trauma and who she is and why she’s there and why she can’t go back to Stockholm. So after the first one, I was really intrigued by the character.”

The actor describes Martinsson as a character of many faces, but one who is very much grounded in reality.

The series gets its UK debut on All4 tomorrow

“For me, it was really important to make her true and not just a character,” she says of the lawyer who never seems at ease, unsure whether she belongs in the Stockholm metropolis or the isolated community in which she grew up. “It’s not easy to say she’s this or that. She’s very believable. She’s very alive. She’s not just one face, she’s really vulnerable and very tough in her own way, but she’s also very scared, even at the beginning when the series starts and she’s on top of her career and everything’s going her way. Inside she’s still scared and hasn’t found herself yet. She’s not your stereotypical crime character. You can’t pin her down. She’s complex.”

In the case that unfolds across the first two episodes, the murder victim is known to Martinsson, leading her to return home. She quickly forges a friendship with a local police officer, through which she ingratiates herself in solving the case. “But in the story she’s always on her own, she has her own way of doing things,” Ingvoll explains, describing this most flawed of criminal investigators. “She really makes some bad judgements, with her relationships and friendships and the way to do things right, she’s always doing things wrong and that’s a fun thing about her too. The drama is really in her personal life. It’s her personal life and her relationships that make you want to see more.”

Viewers may recognise Kiruna, the show’s Arctic setting, from 2016’s French-Swedish coproduction Midnight Sun, which saw a French cop head north to investigate the murder of a French politician. During the summer months, there is near 24-hour sunlight, a scenario of which that show took advantage to heighten its fish-out-of-water premise.

The midnight sun is also present in Rebecka Martinsson, though it serves simply as the background of the story rather than a driver of it. In any case, the environment proved no less challenging to film in.

The show sees Engvol’s character, a lawyer, become embroiled in a murder investigation

“There are many challenges working there – there’s no food and lots of mosquitos and you can’t really go everywhere by car,” Ingvoll says. “But it’s also very nice being there. That’s one of the reasons why I want to do a second season because I want to spend as much time there as possible. It kind of feels homely, even though I haven’t spent much time there. I really like it. Something happens to your body – it’s the midnight sun. Those long days never end and the sun never sets. I was really in love with the landscape.

“The mosquitos were the biggest challenge but the locals we had on the set were like, ‘Just let them eat you,’ because they’re immune to them now. After a while you get used to it.”

With the temperatures dropping to -17C, one scene called for Ingvoll to swim in a frozen lake. “That was some experience. I’m quite hardcore but that was really cold,” the actor admits. “Your body stops working and my Finnish colleague actor had to swim with his head down. We also shot underwater but that was in warmer water. I have done it before but the air was so cold, the acting was really tough.”

With all four Rebecka Martinsson novels adapted in the first season, the character would have to appear in some original stories should the series return for a second run. Until then, Ingvoll is keeping busy with turns in hit series The Restaurant and Bonus Family.

“For some reason I’ve been picking the projects that have become really successful,” the actor jokes. “They have been breaking viewing records in Sweden so that’s really good for me.”

Engvol’s other credits include such shows as A Man Called Ove

Ingvoll notes the irony, however, that she is most recognised for roles in which she plays ‘the wife’ or ‘the girlfriend,’ as in A Man Called Ove and Bonus Family, instead of more substantial parts such as in Rebecka Martinsson or The Restaurant, in which she says her character Ester will come to the fore in season two, airing later this year. “It’s really strange because I’m working on more interesting characters so it’s weird people recognise you from something that’s not your favourite moment.”

Crime series remain a staple of television in Sweden, across Europe and around the world. It means producers and broadcasters are continually trying to find ways to invigorate the genre and keep up with the demand, particularly in Scandinavia where the Nordic noir boom has seen global audiences drawn to its gripping plots and dark and moody landscapes.

That many series coming out of the region are backed by European funding presents a problem for Ingvoll. “We could never produce the amount of series that we do without the financial support from Germany or other European countries, but with that money also comes demands,” she notes. “The Germans want 90-minute films and this country wants 10 one-hour-episode seasons. There are so many layers, even when you haven’t really written the dialogue yet, the setting has already a shaped so it’s quite hard. There’s less room for the genius of writing or storytelling.

“If someone would let us do our own thing 100%, it would let us raise the bar even higher. Money talks, even down to the lines of the script. Bonus Family and The Restaurant, it’s SVT so they’re the richest channel [in Sweden]. The more money you can buy yourself freedom from, the better the quality because the idea will get stronger.”

Ingvoll first became aware of the Nordic noir trend when she starred in 2015’s The Team, cast alongside Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens in the story of a team of police officers brought together across Europe to solve a series of cross-border murders.

“I realised on that show that we had a genre [in Scandinavia] that was so specific. My co-stars from Germany and Belgium were asking, ‘How do you do this genre?’ We were like, we don’t do the genre, it’s just a show. That’s when I realised we had created a style, a way of doing things.

“It’s not really a conscious decision,” the actor adds. “We’re not really aware that we created a strong style of what a Scandi noir is. I think we were the last to find out what a Scandi noir was.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

Lights, camera, action

DQ enjoys a behind-the-scenes tour at the normally-closed-to-the-public Fox Studios in LA, which has been home to hits including The X-Files, NYPD Blue and House.

While visitors to LA can enjoy tours around the backlots of Warner Bros, Universal, Sony and Paramount, one US studio keeps its doors closed to the public. Yet it’s on a typically sunny May day that DQ has talked its way into a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most prolific film and television production companies in the world.

The origins of 20th Century Fox, as it is known today, can be traced back to the Fox Film Corporation, founded by William Fox in 1915. Originally based in Hollywood, Fox began construction of a sprawling studio lot in west LA in 1927, and today Fox Studios is known as the home of classic television series including The X-Files, Bones, House, LA Law, M*A*S*H and many more shows and films.

The wardrobe department is headed up by Vicki Snow

Our tour begins on the fifth floor of building 99, where boxes of clothes labelled AHS6 (American Horror Story season six) give a clue as to what goes on here. A side room displays Rose’s costume from Titanic, Edward Scissorhands’ iconic black suit and Mrs Doubtfire’s cardigan.

This is the wardrobe department, where clothing rails three rows high to the ceiling fill every available inch of floor space, jam-packed with items categorised by genre, colour and size, all with neatly labelled brown tags. There are countless boxes of hats and shoes, with more hats on the walls. One rack is full of 1980s fashion clearly reserved for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which is currently in production on the lot.

“Once you see the department, it’s pretty impressive,” says wardrobe department head Vicki Snow. “We have about six miles of pipe with clothing on it, all organised by category, size and colour. It’s kind of like a library. The shows come in, they see what they want, they pull it, we write it up and they take it out. At the end, they bring it back, we check it in, we put it back on the pipe. So it’s a constant turnover.”

One of the buildings on New York Street

Things are especially busy at this time of year, as recently cancelled series (including Rosewood and Scream Queens) are returning items, while new shows recently ordered to series prepare to begin shooting. “There isn’t a hiatus season any more, we’re shooting shows all year long,” Snow notes. “It used to be that May and June were our catch-up time, so now we just sneak in and catch up whenever we can. But we’re going to be busy just with processing for the next six weeks easily.”

Not all studios have on-site costume departments – Fox even closed its own unit down in the late 1970s before reopening it – so it’s a particular advantage for the individual series’ costume designers and supervisors as shows enter production.

“Once they determine the kind of look they’re going for – Are there a lot of courtroom scenes? Do they need a lot of suits? Are there ballroom scenes? – they will come in and pull each category of clothing for the background [actors],” says Snow, who has worked on classic films Grease, Airplane and the Die Hard series. “Usually they’ll go out and shop for the principal actors – shop or make it [the department has its own workroom]. But if you want John Travolta to have a really cool, aged jean jacket, you’d come in here and see what kind of jean jackets we have because then you don’t have to go through the hassle of buying it and trying to make it look old, because we already have it, probably.”

Outside of the costume department and touring the lot in a golf cart, Hollywood history is everywhere you look as we speed along the myriad avenues (named A-G) and streets (one to 10). There are gold plaques outside each sound stage along with signs listing notable productions filmed there, while other buildings include writers offices and those that were once dressing rooms for Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe (now used by the domestic distribution team). Murals depicting classic movies such as Young Frankenstein, The Seven Year Itch and Star Wars are painted on the sides of the huge sound stages around the lot.

Fox Studios’ Spanish-style Hall of Music

“A long time ago, this used to be 264 acres; we’re now only 52,” says stage manager Debbie Stone. “They started selling off parcels of land to fund different projects, one of them being Cleopatra, because it went so way over-budget. Then they built up Century City [the area of LA surrounding the studio].”

Traversing the lot, Stone points out where Shirley Temple went to school (building 80). The magnificent Avenue of the Palms has immaculate palm trees standing shoulder to shoulder on both sides of this main thoroughfare, while another notable landmark is a reflecting pond, once belonging to legendary producer Darryl Zanuck but only recently rediscovered when, eight years ago, a trailer was removed and the pond was found below.

Fox Executive Building (from Avenue of the Palms)

Compared with other film studios, Fox’s backlot is relatively small but no less astonishing. The facades that make up New York Street were originally built for Hello, Dolly! and were later redecorated for NYPD Blue, which contracted the sets for 12 years. More recently it was used for Fox series Bones and FX’s Feud: Betty & Joan.

“Almost every single place on this lot has been used for some kind of exterior shot,” adds Stone. “Every building has been used for some interior somewhere.”

On the south-eastern side of the studio lot, building 103 is home to many of the executives who work for 20th Century Fox Television. Among them is Mike Posey, VP of production, who this season is overseeing Star season two, new X-Men drama The Gifted and pilot The Passage, which was filmed in June.

He’s one of four production executives who handle up to 30 network series, taking them from development through to the pilot stage and into full production, mapping out the budget and considerations such as filming locations. Bar the cast and directors, they also hire everyone working on the show, from the line producer and department heads to costume and production designers. “Every day there’s a million fires that happen, there’s some issue with the budget or location, so we’re dealing with that stuff on a daily basis,” he says.

Part of the problem is the fervent competition among US broadcast networks to bag the best talent for their new pilots each spring, and though more shows are now being developed off-cycle or going straight-to-series, Posey doesn’t see the annual race to the Upfronts – when the networks unveil their new schedules to advertisers each May – changing any time soon.

An aerial view of the Fox lot taken south of Pico

“The way that pilot season is set up means everyone is competing for the same people at the same time,” he explains. “You’ve got a window of three or four months when 100 pilots are being produced at any given point and they’re all trying to be done at the same time. So how do you get the best crew, the best cast, the best directors and the best writers when everybody’s going at the same time? These shows are also getting bigger and bigger. They’re not getting smaller. So you have these huge visual effects, high-concept shows that have less and less time [to be made]. But that’s just the way the business is. Everybody would like to have more time.”

So would DQ, as our tour comes to an end back where we started, in the shadow of the nearby Fox Plaza, the 35-storey tower that doubled for Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. There’s always a special atmosphere on the ground at a film and television studio, particularly one with such a storied history as Fox. But while one would love to look behind every door, sometimes it’s better to leave some screen secrets left unknown.

Stills of the Twentieth Century Fox Studio Lot courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Taken by Stephaine Boltjes, Rich Greene and Victor Villegas. All rights reserved.

tagged in: , , ,

Tribes and tribulations

Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.

When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.

In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.

But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.

“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.

Britannia stars David Morrissey as Aulus

“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”

In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.

The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.

All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.

With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.

It took over three hours to complete Mackenzie Crook’s look, which included hooks in his nails

“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”

That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.

“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”

Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and  several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.

“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.

“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”

At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.

“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”

Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.

“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”

The show debuts on Sky Atlantic this Thursday

Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”

Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”

With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.

“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.

“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”

Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.

“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Speak of the Devil

Tuvalu Entertainment and ZDF Enterprises this week announced they had joined forces for supernatural thriller One Bad Apple, in which the Devil seeks to return to Earth and reunite with his teenage daughter. DQ spoke to the creative team behind the series about their ambitions for this female-led drama.

Gripping action and daring adventure will meet supernatural thrills and teen drama in a new female-led series currently in development.

One Bad Apple takes inspiration from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, Riverdale, The Omen and Indiana Jones to tell the story of a teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her own identity and the truth behind her parentage, all while she navigates the corridors of an elite school.

The series comes from a partnership between UK producer Tuvalu Entertainment and distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE), with father-daughter writing team Gavin and Rebecca Scott also on board.

Broadcasters are now being sounded out to join the production, following a private screening held by ZDFE for potential buyers at Content London in November 2017.

Gavin Scott

The story centres on Mercy Emerson, the spoilt teenage daughter of world-famous lifestyle guru Gwyneth Emerson. But unknown to everyone except her mother, Mercy’s father happens to be the Devil.

After enrolling at a respectable boarding school set in the southern England countryside, Mercy begins to take control of the school and the nearby town. The school’s location is also significant, being close to the burial site of the Holy Grail, a powerful artefact hidden long ago after Satan’s last defeat and preventing him from returning to Earth. Mercy must find it and destroy it so her father can regain his power.

“We created the idea for One Bad Apple after we thought it would be a good to have a strong British female drama,” says Tuvalu executive producer Paul Johnson, who compares Mercy to a female Darth Vader. “I loved the feeling of her coming to terms with being a woman while comprehending how to control the minds of other people and control the world.”

German distributor ZDFE is well known for its slate of compelling crime drama, including Scandinavian series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing) that kick-started the boom for Nordic fiction a decade ago. And now head of drama Robert Franke has identified a gap in the market that One Bad Apple can fill.

“What’s an underserved genre? Something made for the female audience,” he says. “We wanted to find a project that could take this on. Paul had this and I knew it was something special. It was perfect for what we were trying to do as a distributor. We took it from there, we funded development and then Paul found Gavin and Rebecca.”

Johnson looked at 30 different writers and interviewed 10 before the Scotts signed up. “Their ideas, chemistry and eye for captivating story ideas came out and I was hooked,” he explains. “Then I went out to LA in March last year and brainstormed with them and a story editor. We put together the story arc and episode structure and began the narrative journey.”

A month later, Gavin and Rebecca landed in the UK to explore the Sussex countryside, castles, mysterious grounds and ancient churches and take in the spirit of One Bad Apple’s setting. Two episodes have now been written, with storylines for 18 episodes also completed.

Gavin Scott was one of the writers of 1998 movie Small Soldiers

“It’s a universal process about discovering who you really are,” Gavin Scott says of the show’s central premise. “That’s what the two female protagonists are doing in the most special way. Mercy has discovered she’s the devil’s daughter, it’s quite a big deal. That’s a parallel for the process of self-discovery. Lydia, the antagonist, has to prevent the devil from coming back. She’s also in the process of finding who she is and how to fulfil that role.

“Paul came up with a brilliant concept but I like to know the complete logic behind it. Something in the cosmos wants to come back to Earth, but something is preventing it and the daughter is the means to do it – that was something we had to brainstorm. We worked it out together.”

Rebecca Scott picks up: “We just took Paul’s great concept and, being father and daughter, having that relationship already, we jumped on it. We got to create our own world. It was limitless and fun and we just bounced ideas. It came really quickly.”

Speaking about the pair’s writing process, Rebecca says it was a case of building a partnership as the project grew. “The first episode we wrote entirely together,” she says. “For the second episode, we wrote different acts and then swapped them. We created everything together and then physically swapped our work in progress.

Gavin, who has worked on series The Young Indiana Chronicles and hit movie Small Soldiers, continues: “This is not just two writers coming together, it’s two generations. It’s a fantastic resource to draw on. I’ve been watching TV since the 1950s, while Rebecca is of the generation that’s making content right now. When we’re brainstorming, having two generations gives us an enormous amount of richness.”

Rebecca Scott

The announcement of One Bad Apple also comes in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal engulfing Hollywood, and the subsequent Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns. Rebecca, whose writing, directing and production design credits include Blood Relatives and Murder Among Friends, says she has seen manifold changes across the business in the past year.

“I’ve been a writer-director under the radar,” she explains. “I’ve had to knock on some doors myself but no one was giving me a chance. Now I’ve been working on Goliath, 911 and Scandal. I directed 10 hours last year. I don’t think I would have been able to say that a year ago. Things are changing in the most wonderful way. It’s reflected in projects like this.”

Johnson picks up: “It feels like the timing could not be better for a drama just like One Bad Apple. We certainly weren’t thinking about [the current industry climate] at the genesis of the project but we are happy that women in the entertainment industry [are being heard] and their time has come.

“We have strong female leads and characters throughout. We also have an incredibly talented female writer-director in Rebecca and we think One Bad Apple is a very good example of drama empowering women all over the world.”

With the search for a broadcast partner well underway, Johnson is optimistic that production could begin as early as this autumn, with One Bad Apple debuting at some point in 2019. A few roles have already been cast, with Johnson revealing some are “household names in the UK.” Other parts will be open to non-British actors, owing to the international mix of students and teachers at Mercy’s boarding school.

“We want to make a thrilling drama,” Gavin concludes. “Hopefully this is a thrilling and exciting, eye-opening drama. Once we set it in the English countryside, there’s also a thought there should be an element of wry humour. That shouldn’t be the heart of it. It’s a supernatural psychological thriller.”

Johnson concludes: “Mercy controls people’s minds, which doesn’t require too many special effects. This story is real life, looking at everyday people. There are not a lot of explosions – it’s a grounded drama that’s supernatural in theme but not in nature.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Screen magic

Ambitious Brazilian telenovela Deus Salve o Rei (God Save the King) goes big on visual effects in a bid to recreate its medieval setting.

Sometimes finding the right location to stage a scene or recreate a particular era can prove impossible. So for its latest telenovela, the historical Deus Salve o Rei (God Save the King), Brazilian broadcaster Globo bet heavily on visual effects.

The series, which launched yesterday, is being filmed in a town that has been built inside a studio, made to look like an outdoor setting. The scale of visual effects used exceed that on any other Globo production.

Set in medieval times, the telenovela, which blends drama and comedy, uses state-of-the art technology, scenography and costumes to recreate the two fictional kingdoms at the heart of the story. The plot concerns two princely brothers who do not want to succeed to the throne: one is afraid of becoming king and the other abdicates because of his love for a civilian.

The cast includes Marina Ruy Barbosa (Total Dreamer), Bruna Marquezine (Helena’s Shadow), Caio Blat (Empire), Ricardo Pereira (Precious Pearl) and Johnny Massaro (Fight or Love?), plus Tatá Werneck and Rosamaria Murtinho (both from Trail of Lies).

To bring to life the castles, mountainous landscapes, vast plains and royal settings, as well as two medieval kingdoms, Deus Salve o Rei is being shot at Globo Studios in Rio de Janeiro, inside two warehouses with more than 2,000 square metres of floor space.

One houses the Kingdom of Montemor, with a castle and town, while the second warehouse is home to the Kingdom of Artena. It also holds a large area for scenes involving visual effects, forests, landscapes and battle sequences.

“Shooting in a town built in an indoor studio gives us total control over lighting at all times, as well as a space that can be transformed for multiple uses,” says artistic director Fabrício Mamberti. “In the creation of the two kingdoms, we mixed various references and European styles to reach the final visual results with the castles, villages, hamlets, taverns, shops and the houses of some of the characters.”

With up to eight times as many visual effects as the average Globo production, almost every scene of Deus Salve o Rei will have some form of digital implant. These include, in particular, the battle scenes and virtual forests, which are created and inserted into scenes shot on camera.

Artistic director Fabrício Mamberti poses between two actors on set

“The actors will be interacting most of the time with real sets,” Mamberti continues. “They will be exposed to the virtual environment but with the inclusion of real-life objects and also references of real locations, especially in the forest scenes.”

Techniques such as motion capture, using more than 50 cameras, are also in play, giving more agility and precision to the animations, while computerised camera cranes are able to reproduce repetitive movements with high precision.

The Globo team has also developed a face-scanning system that enabled them to capture the faces of the real actors to create high-resolution models that can be incorporated into the real-life scenes of a production with more than 100 episodes, airing six days a week.

To create the background scenery, real-world images were captured from eight countries: Spain, France, New Zealand, England, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. A small crew spent 32 days travelling to capture 4,000 images, which are being used for stock shots and 3D implementation.

Deus Salve o Rei airs six days a week on Globo

“We are making use of some of the most advanced visual computing technologies in this production and all of the solutions are developed internally,” says Paulo Rabello, director of entertainment technology at Globo. “The great challenge in a telenovela is that we have to finalise complex scenes from a technological standpoint in a few days. But we have invested heavily in innovation and training for the professionals in charge of creating such impactful special effects.”

Meanwhile, the art department has been on hand to supply the set with items such as carriages, ceramics, cutlery, food and books.

Weapons including swords, axes, bows and arrows have been sourced and bought in Spain and Portugal or crafted in Rio de Janeiro, while great feasts featured in the show have required props such as glasses, cups, plates and dishes made from materials including clay, wood, tin, soapstone and bone. Flags, maps, manuscripts, pictures and paintings have also been added to background sets.

It all adds up to a visual feast for Globo viewers, and offers a new insight into the way television productions are creating new and old worlds for stories to live.

For a video illustrating how visual effects are used in Deus Salve o Rei, click here.

tagged in: , , ,

Best friends forever

Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker star as lifelong friends in Girlfriends, Kay Mellor’s long-time passion project about “women of a certain age.” The trio and Mellor reveal the origins of the series and discuss the changing attitudes toward older actors.

Ageism and the lack of roles for older women has long been a concern for actresses in Hollywood and around the world. Then when they do land a part on screen, they often find themselves cast as wives, mothers or grandmothers.

But a new six-part television drama from the pen of Kay Mellor is set to put “women of a certain age” front and centre. Girlfriends, which launches tonight on ITV in the UK, tells the story of friends Linda, Sue and Gail as they struggle with the responsibilities and inevitable changes that come with growing older, bound together by the same friendship they have shared throughout their lives.

“I wanted to put women centre stage,” recalls Mellor, speaking on the set of the series in Leeds, West Yorkshire in August last year. “I went to a seminar at the West Yorkshire Playhouse many years ago where a lot of women were saying they only ever play the nana or the mum and no one speaks for them. There was a need to give women a voice and women of a certain age a voice. I have written Band of Gold and Playing the Field that have put women centre stage before, but women of a certain age and looking at the complexities of their life and what they juggle. They are a sandwich generation looking after kids, kids’ kids and their mothers. We all know what that is like juggling things.”

Mellor is on a hot streak at present, having last year written Love, Lies & Records for BBC1 and executive produced Overshawdowed for digital network BBC3. She also wrote and directed a musical based on her award-winning ITV television series Fat Friends, which is now touring the UK.

Downton Abbey star Phyllis Logan plays Linda

ITV also embraced Girlfriends, something Mellor admits surprised her, explaining that she was gearing up for a battle to get this story of women “past their middle-50s” on air. The writer even expected the broadcaster to request the characters be aged down into their 40s, but that note never arrived.

“I really thought I was going to have fight for this one but it wasn’t that hard a fight,” says Mellor, who is also lead director on the show. “It’s been coming along at the same time as  In the Club and The Syndicate [Mellor’s BBC1 shows, debuting in 2014 and 2012 respectively]. They were always moving forward but this is my passion project. I sit and watch these guys and have a little weep and I have a little laugh. And I am thinking that if I am doing that as the director then I think, dare I say it, it’s going to be good.”

Girlfriends sits particularly close to Mellor as the characters and relationships at the heart of the story are based on her own friendships, with Linda in particular based on the woman who has been the writer’s best friend since she was three years old.

“We used to live over the road from each other, she is the most wonderful person,” Mellor explains. “I don’t think I would be the writer I am if it hadn’t been for her. She supports me in everything I do. She is a very special, lovely woman. She lightens up a room when she walks in it and she certainly lightens up my life.”

On screen, Linda is played by Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), with her childhood friends Sue and Gail portrayed by Miranda Richardson (Mapp & Lucia) and Zoë Wanamaker (Mr Selfridge) respectively.

Girlfriends is the latest drama from prolific writer Kay Mellow

The story begins in the aftermath of the apparent death of Linda’s husband Micky, as the three friends find themselves back together and facing their own problems, from money troubles, a looming divorce and the loss of a high-powered job from age discrimination, to juggling the responsibilities of caring for their grandchildren and ageing mothers.

“It’s unusual because usually you are tagged on as someone else’s appendage, whether it’s a mother, an auntie or a wife in the background. So it’s nice to be right at the forefront of it all and the men are the add-ons, as it were,” Logan says of her part in the show. “It’s lovely to have three women as protagonists.

“It was so exciting to read it, as it’s very much women of a certain age and it’s all about them and their struggles and their highs and lows, but at the root of it is their friendship that binds them together. They come to each other’s aid, they really do.”

Looking back on a career that has spanned roles in Downton, The Good Karma Hospital, Lovejoy and Silent Witness, Logan says Girlfriends is a refreshing change from the way television dramas are usually cast.

“It was always that men get cast and their wives are 15 years younger, and that’s still there, but it’s nice in ours because it’s the other way around. There is slightly more [opportunity now] for women over 50. People have discovered that women of a certain age are quite interesting and they still have a viability, a sexuality and an attractiveness about them. Maybe people are beginning to cotton on to that – let’s hope.”

Miranda Richardson as successful and intelligent Sue

It was also a relief for Logan not to have to wear a corset or any other period costumes after six seasons playing Mrs Hughes in Downton.

“Period drama is a different thing altogether,” she says. “It has a much more leisurely pace but to a stultifying point. This is fast, and it is fantastic working with Kay. I loved the script, and when she said she was directing, I thought it was fantastic because what better person is there than the person with the vision of what she wants it to look like? It’s brilliant, it’s great fun.”

Playing the highly successful and fiercely intelligent Sue is Richardson, who was keen to work with Mellor. “She has such a fabulous record in writing for women,” the actor observes. “She is humane, so everyone is a hugely rounded character, but she likes to see everything from the women’s point of view. She’s always cooking – she has about five things on the go at the same time.”

During the series, which is produced by Rollem Productions and distributed by All3Media International, viewers will see Sue face challenges both at work and in her private life, seemingly unaware of the life-changing events looming ahead. And the fact that her story and the events and characters in the series are all mash-ups of real-life people and stories adds to the appeal for Richardson.

“They are all amalgams of people,” she says. “I thought of someone the other day who made me think of Sue. There is high drama in the way she operates with groups of people. She is always on show but all of these people have vulnerabilities and they mask their vulnerabilities but you know they are there in different ways.”

Zoë Wanamaker completes the leading trio as Gail

Meanwhile, Gail deals with a mother suffering from the early stages of dementia, a jailbird son who moves in with her and her husband, and a child from an old relationship. But she is able to juggle her responsibilities with the support of her friends.

“Very early on, we make relationships with people in our lives so even if you don’t see them for a long time you pick up where you left off,” says Wanamaker. “If you have that kind of connection, it really goes on. You accept them for what you had together and what you carry on in life, and that way they support each other.”

While she admits hers is a part she wouldn’t normally have done, Wanamaker says she was sold on the project after reading the first three scripts, noting that the opportunity to work with Mellor and play a role not often seen on television was too good to turn down.

“Have you seen how many women are on television now?” she adds. “The last 10 years have been incredible; the American stuff has been all women and very beautifully written and there’s more in this country too, at last. Open the doors. I think it’s a very optimistic time for women.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

State secrets

Mark Strong’s veteran spy comes out of retirement in Deep State, a globetrotting espionage thriller that marks the first original commission for Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa. DQ visited the set.

While comedians and satirists currently find themselves swimming in fresh material as Donald Trump’s presidency and the ongoing Brexit negotiations lurch from crisis to crisis, what’s a drama screenwriter to do when real-world events threaten to overtake and overshadow their next storyline?

That was the dilemma facing showrunner Matthew Parkhill and the producers of Deep State, the first original series commissioned by Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa. “When we were in the writers room, we were constantly talking about what was in the news – the new administration in the US, stories coming out of the UK – and we felt it was very important to reflect that,” producer Tom Nash explains.

“But in drama, we try to stay away from the absolute front line of politics. We were a little more interested with what was going on behind the curtain, so obviously that’s not necessarily as well documented, which I think is actually helpful because events can’t overtake you as much.”

Set in the UK, the US, Iran, Lebanon and France, Deep State is a globetrotting thriller that tackles the world of espionage. Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Zero Dark Thirty) plays ex-spy Max Easton, who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, Harry (Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie), only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East.

Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie as Harry Clark

Running parallel to the espionage storyline is a domestic plot that sees Max’s wife (Lyne Renée) discover he is a spy with an ex-wife and a son from a previous marriage.

It’s day 71 of production, in sunny mid-August, when DQ arrives on the London set to see filming of the eighth and final episode. A branch of US steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky is being prepared for shooting as, suitably, the restaurant is doubling for an establishment in Washington DC. American flags have been placed on the bar between table lamps, while a large model of the Statue of Liberty is standing in front of a wall mirror.

When the cameras start rolling, extras seated at tables are served plates of fruit and pastries and glasses of orange juice as Strong’s Max (pictured top) strides into the venue and sits down opposite a US senator before presenting him with a video containing evidence that lays out the show’s central conspiracy. Between takes, Strong hovers by his starting point, fixing his jacket as he waits for Parkhill, who is directing this final episode, to call action once again.

In a later scene, two cars pull up in the middle of a road, again set in Washington but in reality only a stone’s throw from the River Thames. Max is with fellow spy Leila (Karima McAdams) and one of their American fixers, an old friend who helps them during their covert trip to the US.

As befits a series set around the world, the production spent 10 weeks filming in Morocco, which doubled as Beirut, Tehran and the Pyrenees, before switching to London for another 10 weeks to complete scenes set in the UK and US capitals.

Creator and showrunner Parkhill, who directs the final four episodes, says he was inspired to write the series after reading an article about a construction company that made US$39.5bn from the Iraq war.

Karima Adams also stars

“It got me thinking, ‘That’s a lot of money. How do you try to engineer the continuation of those good profits?’” he says. “There’s that line from the Sex Pistols about cash from chaos, so that was one of the inspirations.”

Originally called The Nine, the show was renamed Deep State when Parkhill traced the origins of the term to the attempted assassination of a Turkish politician in the 1990s, believed to have been orchestrated by a group of high-level elements within the intelligence and defence services.

“When it became Deep State, it opened the show up a lot for me politically and it has become more interesting because of what we’re living through at the moment,” he explains. “Then, personally, it was always about the idea of whether you can start again. Can you make up for your mistakes in the past? That’s Max’s story. What I think is fascinating about the show is the juxtaposition of the thriller and the political elements with the domestic storyline, and they’re both as compelling as each other. You’ve got your action sequences, car chases and explosions but then it’s a show that’s not afraid to breathe and stop and exhale and be with the characters.”

Morocco was identified as a potential filming location quite early in the 16-week pre-production process, presenting the production team with the challenge of plotting shooting schedules in Casablanca and London while also determining when directors Parkhill and Robert Connolly would be in each location.

“A big question for us was where we were going to use for France when we were shooting in Morocco and the UK,” producer Nash says. “Nothing really doubles with France, but there was this village in the Moroccan mountains that had been built by the Swiss in the 1920s, and it looked like a Pyrenean town – we couldn’t believe it. So we were also able to shoot all of our French section in Morocco. That was a big factor in making our choice.”

Series creator Matthew Parkhill on set with Lyne Renée

The producer recalls one particular day on set when the crew were tasked with filming the detonation of a car bomb. Located in the Iranian capital of Tehran, the set piece was actually filmed on a roundabout on the outskirts of Casablanca. “The locals were just so excited by the prospect of filming that we had hundreds of people surrounding us and cheering,” Nash says. “The roundabout was built up with flats all around it and we asked people to come down, but some of them locked themselves in and said they wanted to stay to get the best view of it.”

Hilary Bevan Jones, co-founder of producer Endor Productions, continues: “They’re cheering, banging metal and whooping and we’re trying to concentrate on the absolute split-second precision timing of blowing up a car, with a motorbike in shot, stunt riders falling out, people riding into shot. It has to be done to the millisecond. I spent a lot of time in Morocco with fingers in my ears because we were blowing up cars or having gun fights, but it worked really well.”

Fox boarded Deep State after being swayed by its mix of action and espionage. The show marks the first regional drama commission for the network and is due to air in 50 countries across Europe and Africa early this year. Fox Networks Group Content Distribution is selling the series worldwide.

“It’s a perfect fit for our channel,” says Jeff Ford, FNG’s outgoing UK MD and senior VP for original content, Europe and Africa, who is retiring at the end of this year. “It has that edginess and emotion – it is quite an emotional story but it’s also intelligent. It satisfies on so many levels and I don’t think anybody who’s looking for an emotional response, or just a visceral response or an intellectual response, will be disappointed. It delivers equally in all those areas and it will absolutely be a joy to watch.”

Sara Johnson, FNG’s VP of scripted development, adds: “What makes it a great, globally appealing show is that there are human beings at the heart of the story – there’s a beautiful emotional aspect that lies beneath an absolutely thrilling and quite exhausting story. It’s really pacey and exciting and we’re telling a great story.”


Strong man
If Mark Strong and the character he plays in Deep State have one thing in common, it’s that they’re both back doing jobs they’ve not done for a while. So while Max Easton returns to his former life as a spy, the series marks the actor’s return to television.

Strong alongside Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane

Strong’s last small-screen series was 2013’s Low Winter Sun, AMC’s crime drama based on the British miniseries of the same name. Since then, he’s appeared in movies such as Before I Go to Sleep, The Imitation Game and Miss Sloane.

“We’re all beginning to realise that television gives you the opportunity to tell stories in a much more interesting and complicated way than you can achieve on film,” he says during a break from filming Deep State’s final episode. “That’s not to say film doesn’t have its own merits but, over an eight- or 10-hour period, you can really explore character; you can take a narrative wherever you want to take it and open people’s imaginations to much more complicated stories.”

Strong is also no stranger to spy stories, having appeared in Zero Dark Thirty, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Grimsby and Kingsman: The Secret Service. A sequel to the latter, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, was released last September.

Low Winter Sun

“A lot of spy stuff gets written because the arena is perfect for drama,” the actor notes. “It’s got everything – betrayal, trust, danger, secrets. It’s the stuff of drama. It’s complicated enough and intriguing enough to have lots of different strands that make it very watchable.”

So what was it about Deep State that called him back to television? “There’s a school of thought that says you embark on a script and if by page 20 it hasn’t grabbed you, the chances are it won’t,” Strong says. “That’s a massive generalisation, but I can honestly say the thing about Matthew [Parkhill]’s script that I thought was amazing was the scope of it. You’re dealing with two time frames in the first episode straight away, you’re dealing with four different locations – Tehran, Beirut, London and France. French scenes are played in French with subtitles, Arabic scenes are played in Arabic with subtitles.

“There’s a real exotic flavour to it and, more than anything, I really wanted to read it and I didn’t feel like I was being spoon-fed the traditional TV fare,” the actor adds. “I felt like it was an attempt to make something really engaging. If it plays as well as it reads, we’re going to do well.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

In plain sight

Dark and broody drama Craith (Hidden) looks set to keep the international spotlight firmly on Welsh drama. Co-creator Ed Talfan discusses making the bilingual crime series, which goes against the grain by revealing its villain from the beginning.

The landscapes in North Wales are breathtaking. With lush green hills and mountains standing on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, overlooking the Menai Strait, a stretch of water that separates the mainland and the island of Anglesey, the region must be a director’s dream.

Point the camera in any direction and the scale and atmosphere of the environment surely fills the lens. At least it would if you could see it. On the wintry November day DQ travels to Anglesey to visit the set of S4C drama Craith (known as Hidden in English), the weather is biblical. Rain and gale-force winds are lashing down on anyone that dares to stray outside, turning roads into rivers and largely hiding the towering peaks from view.

Unperturbed, the cast and crew soldier on, seemingly unaware of the conditions surrounding them. The day’s filming is taking place at the Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) Garage, which offers passing motorists the chance to refuel and pick up supplies from the small shop adjacent to the forecourt, found a short drive from the village of Dwyran.

When the cameras start rolling, a small blue van pulls up in front of the shop. Inside sit a man and a young girl, Dylan Harris and his daughter Nia. After a short conversation, Dylan gets out of the van and comes into the shop, its shelves stocked with a range of household items and an array of Welsh flags adorning all corners of the single room.

Craith stars Siân Reese-Williams as DCI Cadi John

It’s a small but important scene, providing a window into the home life of Dylan, who, in contravention of typical murder-mystery rules, is revealed at the start to be the show’s villain.

The story juxtaposes the viewpoint of Dylan, played by Rhodri Meilir, with that of DCI Cadi John (Siân Reese-Williams), a police officer drawn back to her childhood home due to her father’s ill health. But after the body of a local woman is found in a remote mountain river, her world – and the world of those around her – is changed forever when it transpires there may have been more than one abduction.

Produced by Severn Screen for S4C and BBC Wales, the gritty crime drama is executive produced by co-creators Mark Andrew and Ed Talfan. The producer is Hannah Thomas and the series is distributed globally by All3Media International.

“Dylan’s a guy who’s had a terrible lot in life,” explains Talfan. “He’s had a very difficult domestic situation and comes from a family that’s toxic. The series doesn’t seek to use that as an excuse for what he does; he pays the price for what he does. Hopefully across the series we see a portrait of somebody who is in his own agony and inflicting that agony on others.

“There are moments, particularly in the first half of the series, where what comes across is a vulnerability and, within that, there is a flicker of likability, which is uncomfortable – it should be uncomfortable – but in the same way the best baddies always have their own charisma about them. We spend a lot of time investing in him and the world he inhabits because often these characters are people at the fringes of the drama. We just wanted to go on a journey with him.”

Co-creator Ed Talfan (left) with Rhodri Meilir, who plays Dylan Harris

In contrast, Talfan describes former army officer DCI John as a straight-talking detective who’s comfortable in her own skin and extremely good at her job.

“There’s a version of the crime genre where detectives have super powers, these magic moments where they’re better than everybody else,” Talfan continues. “Cadi is someone who’s bloody good at her job, is really hardworking and does the hard yards. All the police you talk to, it’s not about eureka moments. It’s about putting the work in and actually visiting the evidence, revisiting it and being like a dog with a bone. There’s a tenacity in her that’s real, rather than a Captain Underpants flies in and says, ‘I know what the problem is here.’ For me, that’s reductive and a bit tedious.”

The creative approach to the series is a far cry from 2013 Welsh drama Y Gwyll (Hinterland), which has gone on to become a global success. Many of the crew who worked on that show have now reunited for Craith, which dispels Hinterland’s case-of-the-week format.

Talfan, who also co-created Hinterland, says it was clear from the outset that they didn’t want to conceal the killer in Craith. “That’s not the game we’re playing,” he explains. “We’re up front very early on about who the abductor is and the question is getting to understand that character because he’s not just a two-dimensional evil-doer. We get to understand his world and see how he works and how he lives alongside his mother and his daughter, and the dynamic that unfolds when he loses a girl [who becomes the first victim], which is what kicks the series off, and then abducts a new victim. It’s a portrait of an unfolding crime from the point of view of the police and the criminal.”

Part of the reason behind following this format was a desire to do something completely different to Hinterland, in a way that allowed the creators to delve deeper into the cast of characters than is usually possible in a single 90-minute procedural.

DQ visited the Craith set on a grey day for a scene set at a petrol station

“It was great to be able to get a really good ensemble and know that all of those characters were going to travel across eight hours,” Talfan says. “It made it more fun to write, more fun for the actors to play and more satisfying for the directors as well, because they sometimes find it frustrating when they’ve got a visiting actor who’s got two days on set in which to film four scenes.”

While the story format differs between Craith and Hinterland, the two dramas are united by the way they are shot, with filming taking place back-to-back in Welsh and English. The Welsh version will debut on S4C on January 7, 2018, before a bilingual version airs later in the year on BBC Wales. BBC4, which previously acquired Hinterland, has already snapped up rights to Craith and will also air the bilingual version in 2018.

Quite simply, each shot is filmed in Welsh and then, if required, it is immediately repeated in English. “It’s an organic process that comes from the creators,” Talfan says, noting that there are no stipulations requiring a certain amount of the bilingual version should be in English.

“Actually, certain characters in the story world will speak Welsh and some won’t. So you might have an episode that balances 60/40 English but then you might have one episode that is considerably more Welsh, just because that’s where the story is at. It’s true bilingualism, rather than a country where some people speak English and some people speak Welsh.”

Notably, some scenes play out with no dialogue at all, but that wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid reshoots, Talfan insists. “It’s genuinely the kind of drama Mark and myself and director Gareth [Bryn] love, so those elements are shot once. For me personally, because my experience of being Welsh is bilingual, if you were making a single version it would possibly be the bilingual version because that’s reflective of how I live in the country. But there are people in Wales who speak Welsh pretty much all the time and you may find some programme makers would love to make solely Welsh programming.”

Meilir’s Dylan is revealed as the show’s antagonist from the offset

Development began in December 2015, with Andrew leading a scriptwriting team that includes award-winning Welsh novelist Caryl Lewis and Bafta Cymru-winning writer Jeff Murphy. Treatments and a script bible were completed in 2016, with all eight scripts finished by early 2017.

“It’s been quite intense,” Talfan admits, though he describes shooting in North Wales as a joy, despite the changeable weather. “We shot some of the series in South Wales for practical cost reasons and then some of it in North Wales, so those are the logistical challenges. Then because it’s a bilingual show, you need a bilingual cast and we’re always trying to bring in new faces. You’ve got no baggage with them [from previous roles] so you surrender to the characters. Celebrity casting applies to a lot of high-end drama. I understand why it happens, and there are very good reasons for it, but there’s a lovely sense of quality between the ensemble and the fact the audience don’t know them.”

Since its launch in 2013, Hinterland has certainly helped to put Welsh drama on the map, drawing comparisons to the wave of Nordic noir crime dramas over the last decade. But beyond the creative or production process, Talfan says the biggest game-changer for Welsh drama in the post-Hinterland landscape has been a psychological one.

“If we wanted to do something with a certain level of ambition, which requires a certain level of budget, we would always go to London and ask a broadcaster for their support and the green light,” he explains. “If for any reason they passed, usually you would get back on the train to Cardiff and think the project was dead in the water. But on Hinterland, the thing that changed everything was the back-to-back production that had first been done in the early 90s and doing it in tandem with a partner like All3, because they could see the show would sell and they believed in how we would deliver it.

“It’s completely changed how we approach projects now. If you get a ‘no’ from one organisation, you don’t think all your work’s in the bin; you think there is a way of financing this, you just need to be internationally minded and look at where those partnerships are. So for people working in the regions, it’s been hugely important because it used to feel like you could only get a ‘yes’ out of London. It doesn’t feel like that anymore.”

A seriously dark, broody and compelling drama, Craith is well placed to repeat Hinterland’s international success and, together with other recent S4C dramas such as Bang and Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith), ensure the international spotlight continues to shine on Welsh drama, whatever the weather.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

Small world

Jessie Burton’s award-winning novel The Miniaturist has been adapted into a two-part drama for BBC1. Executive producer Kate Sinclair reveals how this story, set in 17th century Amsterdam, was brought to the small screen.

So fierce now is the battle to secure the rights to novels that the fight to option them plays out before they have even been published, such is the demand to find the next literary success that could be ripe for a small-screen adaptation.

That was the case with Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which has sold more than a million copies and won numerous awards since its publication in 2014. Kate Sinclair had, however, read the story – which centres on an 18-year-old country girl who comes to Amsterdam as the wife of a wealthy merchant – a year-and-a-half earlier when it was still at the manuscript stage.

Sinclair, an executive producer at UK prodco The Forge (National Treasure), knew instantly that she wanted to secure the rights, but was also aware that The Miniaturist was in huge demand. A bidding war broke out among 11 publishers to bring the book to market, which meant it was a further year before she was able to make her pitch for an adaptation. The week after Sinclair closed the deal, The Miniaturist was named Waterstones Book of the Year.

Set in Amsterdam in 1686, the story follows Nella Oortman as she begins a new life as the wife of Johannes Brandt. But instead of meeting her husband at her grand new home, she’s met by his cold sister, Marin, and quickly realises that nothing is as it seems in the Brandt household.

The Miniaturist stars Hollywood actor Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch)

When Johannes finally appears, returning home after failing to sell a shipment of sugar, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a doll’s house replica of their home, furnished by an elusive miniaturist whose tiny creations mirror what is happening within the house and predict the future with unsettling accuracy.

With the rights secured and Jon Brownlow (Fleming) attached to write the scripts, Sinclair pitched The Miniaturist to the BBC and the two-part drama is now central to the broadcaster’s Christmas schedule, airing back to back on BBC1 on December 26 and 27. Masterpiece is a coproducer for US pubcaster PBS, and the show is sold globally by All3Media International.

“I started reading it and that was it – it was so dramatic, I couldn’t predict where the story was going,” Sinclair says of what first drew her to Burton’s story. “I kept thinking one thing was being set up and I knew what was happening, but because it’s a thriller, it would just shift in a completely different direction than you imagined.

“There are lots of very clever red herrings in the plot and also I found the characters interesting. They all have really interesting journeys and they’re very rich. That’s quite unusual. Plus it’s a period we haven’t seen on television for 30 years, which is also something unusual about it.”

The importance of casting is never knowingly understated, while it’s often noted that 90% of directing is the casting. It’s a sentiment Sinclair agrees with too, pointing to her time spent as a theatre director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Young Vic and the National Theatre in Poland. But for The Miniaturist, she felt strongly that the cast should largely comprisex newcomers to television, meaning most have come from film and the stage.

Emily Berrington plays the titular miniaturist

Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch) stars as Nella, with Romala Garai (The Hour, Atonement) as the frosty Marin and Alex Hassell (Suburbicon, Anonymous) as Johannes. Paapa Essiedu (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) and Emily Berrington (Humans) complete the main cast as servants Otto and Cornelia and the mysterious miniaturist respectively.

“She was perfect not only because she’s a fantastic actress but she looks perfect because she’s the right age,” Sinclair says of casting Taylor-Joy. “We didn’t want a Nella who’s 28 because this whole story is predicated on the fact that she’s 18, she’s coming with no knowledge of anything. She’s come from the countryside into this very new world and she’s got that kind of face that mirrors anything. She became 21 during our shoot. She just felt like a really fresh face, plus she’s technically brilliant. She’s a massive talent.

“Romola is obviously fantastic, she’s brilliant with what is a massive journey – of all the characters, hers probably has the biggest journey. For Johannes, we always wanted somebody who looked 15 years older than Nella but didn’t look like her father. It had to be somebody she’d fancy, a real man of the world. You have to believe he’s sailed the seas and lived a life, which you do with Alex. We have some different faces from the regular ones you see and I think that’s quite nice in a story that’s relatively unusual.”

Sinclair worked with Canada-based screenwriter Brownlow over Skype, sharing their thoughts on the “fantastic book” but also identifying areas that needed some help in an adaptation. These included the fact that Nella sees but never meets the miniaturist in Burton’s novel, which Sinclair says would have left the audience feeling cheated.

Alex Hassell plays Johannes Brant, husband to Taylor-Joy’s Nella

“That’s the one thing you’re yearning for to happen,” she explains. “The other thing was the sugar and why Johannes didn’t sell it wasn’t really clear, so we tried to cut through that journey. Those were the two changes. Jessie completely agreed with them. Once we had our discussion, we went on Skype and some of the things [Brownlow] was suggesting, she was like, ‘That was in draft 15. I just edited it out again.’ So she was really happy with it. Then he and I just worked on the first draft initially and then we put it into the BBC and I think we got a greenlight in July 2016.”

In the hands of director Guillem Morales, filming took place earlier this year, including a spell on location in the Netherlands, principally in the city of Leiden, south-west of Amsterdam. Shooting took place along the main canal, featuring townhouses along the waterfront, though the front of the main Brandt house was built for the show, having been modelled on Dutch townhouses from the period.

“There are no perfect townhouses and the ones on the Golden Bend [Gouden Bocht, the most prestigious section of the Herengract canal in Amsterdam] have had all their windows changed, so it’s quite difficult to find [authentic versions], even in Holland,” Sinclair says. “Leiden was perfect. The architect who built most of the Golden Bend houses lived in Leiden and built the houses there first, so it looks like a more authentic version of Amsterdam.

“The church there was also perfect because the Oude Church in Amsterdam is in the middle of the red-light district and you can’t get any trucks or anything in there, so there’s nowhere to put the unit base. Secondly, if you look out of the window, you’ve got a naked lady in the window outside. So we couldn’t really have that there.”

From the opening scene introducing the imposing townhouses on the canalside, the production and costume design is lavish and opulent, as befitting a wealthy family living in the Dutch golden age. Most elaborate of all, however, are the miniatures themselves, which come to populate the doll’s house given to Nella. Though their origins and creator are shrouded in mystery, the small dolls come to foretell events that will change the future for Nella and the rest of her new family.

The Miniaturist will air on consecutive nights this Christmas

At a cost of £30,000, the collection of dolls and furniture were crafted by Mulvany & Rogers, known for making one-12th scale bespoke miniature houses. “We had to have a doll made for every actor in a period way,” Sinclair reveals. “Their faces were made in ceramic and painted to look like the actor. Then we had a costume trainee who made all the costumes to match the costumes, which took weeks and weeks. She was incredible at that. She guarded the dolls with her life.”

Credited with finding the books behind feature films Slumdog Millionaire and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen while working for Film4, Sinclair specialises in sourcing and developing projects primarily, but not exclusively, from books. Her slate at The Forge also includes The Three, based on the trilogy of novels by Sarah Lotz and adapted by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) for the BBC.

On The Miniaturist, she adds: “For me, the adaptation was absolutely wonderful. Jon did an amazing job and the cast were exactly what I’d imagined in my head, even though I didn’t have those specific actors in mind. The look of the cast and how they perform is great and things like the costumes look amazing.”

tagged in: , , , ,

By hook or Kreuk

A year after Beauty & the Beast came to an end, star Kristin Kreuk is heading back to the small screen in Canadian drama Burden of Truth. The actor tells DQ about the attraction of this small-town legal drama with social justice at its core – and her role in bringing the series to air.

It’s been 17 years since Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich valiantly fought for a small community in the face of big business, earning the actor an Oscar for her portrayal of the real-life heroine. And now a legal drama in production in Canada is drawing parallels with that story with its own young woman fighting for justice.

Burden of Truth stars Kristin Kreuk as Joanna Hanley, a big-city lawyer who returns to her home town to take on what she thinks is a simple case, only to find herself in a battle to protect a group of sick girls. Running alongside the legal story is a mystery involving Hanley, who left the town in unexplained circumstances as a teenager and begins searching for the truth upon her return.

“The dailies look gorgeous and I feel like we’re doing something different, taking a few risks,” says Kreuk, who is best known for long-running roles in Smallville and Beauty & the Beast. “I’m excited about that. For me, it’s new and also, for a Canadian show, it goes at a slower pace. It’s a serialised drama that looks at things that are pretty topical, from environmental issues through to abuses of power and abuse within families and communities, and also through female empowerment and success. So we’re really looking at topical issues in a slow, emotional way that I feel isn’t common in
legal dramas.”

The Vancouver native, who is also an executive producer on the 10-part show, first became involved in Burden of Truth when she was pitched several ideas for series by producer and distributor Entertainment One (eOne). Burden of Truth stood out, she says, because of the complexity of the lead character, whose seemingly idyllic life begins to unravel when she returns to her home town.

Burden of Truth stars Kristin Kreuk as lawyer Joanna Hanley

After finishing on The CW’s Beauty, which ran for four seasons until 2016, Kreuk sought a project where she could be involved as much in the storytelling process as she is on screen. So when eOne came to her with Burden of Truth, she was keen to be in the development room and to speak to the writers.

“While we were in the build up to the show, I was involved very creatively, more than anything else,” she says, speaking to DQ midway through production on location in Winnipeg. “A lot of my notes would focus on Joanna herself, so I’ve built this character. [Creator] Brad Simpson and I met very early on and just talked about who she was. We created her together instead of there being someone on the page already.”

Simpson, who is a lawyer, has based Burden of Truth on his own courtroom experiences, says Kreuk, while the actor looked to her friends in the legal business and high-profile Canadian criminal lawyer Marie Henein as the inspiration for Joanna.

“She’s interesting; she’s very much a legal person,” she says of her character. “She doesn’t see herself as a people person. So when confronted with emotional interaction, she really does struggle. It’s not like she has a facade, but I find her human. She’s struggling and you can see that struggle very clearly, even through her hiding in the job, the law and
her work.”

When it comes to choosing her roles, Kreuk says her decision is often based on her reaction to a script, while Burden of Truth represents the first time she has proactively shaped her character from the very beginning of the creative process. It also marks a departure from the supernatural and superhero series for which she has become known.

The series launches on CBC in Canada next month

“I realise I play a lot of characters who have really complicated family histories and who really struggle with the relationship dynamics with their parents in some way, which offers a lot of juice for a character and for a series,” she admits. “But this show is by far the best opportunity I’ve had to explore that. This is not a sci-fi show, we’re not dealing with supernatural beings or creatures. The stakes are more present, pressing and realistic, which I think allows for a different exploration of character.”

That character is now set to join the swathe of strong females leading drama series in 2017, following in the footsteps of The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Doctor Foster and Feud.

“It’s the time of the woman; it’s been a long time coming,” the actor notes. “A lot of people want something other than the shows they’re being presented with. And as women, we want to see female stories and we just haven’t seen them. Simultaneously, opening up positions for women in producing, directing and writing allows for these stories to be told. The fact they’ve done so well and they’re dynamic and interesting has encouraged the creation of more.”

Joining Kreuk among the executive ranks is Ilana Frank, a prolific producer known for series such as Saving Hope and Rookie Blue. Burden of Truth is one of two new shows she is backing for Canadian broadcaster CBC, with pacey detective series The Detail also in production.

“I wasn’t all that interested in doing a legal procedural show but I liked the idea of a show that had the law as the basis for the premise,” Frank says. “I do very character-driven things mostly, or I try to, even if it has a procedural element. So that’s how I looked at this too. It’s about characters and place – the town and the countryside really play an important part.”

Once Kreuk and eOne began developing the series, Frank’s IFC Films came on board before CBC placed a series order based on Simpson’s pilot script and series outline. Eagle Vision also coproduces the show, which premieres on January 10.

“What appealed to me was the idea of it being an Erin Brockovich show, a woman with a mission,” Frank says. “I liked that juxtaposition of what she was and what she’s going to become. It was an interesting journey. I worked with Bradley and brought in Adam [Pettle, showrunner], who I’ve worked with for about 15 years. He and Bradley worked together on Rookie Blue so they knew each other quite well. Kristin was great and she was very much involved in the evolution of it.”

Burden of Truth is shot entirely on location, another first for Frank, who says she is delighted with the results despite admitting to being anxious over the location shoot. “I just love the look of the show and the feel of it,” she adds. “The first season of production [on any show] is always challenging. It’s a bit on the fly. You’re always trying to make adjustments to something because it’s not 100% in place, but the show is going along pretty well. I’m pretty happy with the production of it.”

It is Frank’s theatre background that fuels her attraction to character-building, with the aforementioned medical drama Saving Hope and cop series Rookie Blue more serialised in their approach than traditional procedurals.

“So for me, it’s about actors, character and development. That’s what I love,” she says, noting the importance of casting in any successful series. “Once you give that part to somebody, it takes on a life of its own. That’s really important and my work in the theatre has helped me a tremendous amount in terms of casting, because scripts and casting, that’s all there is. If you have good scripts and good casting, you can make a good show. There’s the formula.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Space odyssey

Since beginning his television career on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Naren Shankar has worked across the spectrum of science-fiction drama. Now helming Syfy’s The Expanse, he discusses adapting the source novels and the increasing demands of being a showrunner.

For most aspiring writers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, landing a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation must have seemed light years away. Yet that’s exactly where Naren Shankar got his big break in Hollywood at the start of a career that – eight years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation apart – has been dominated by science fiction.

Shankar has also written episodes of other Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and has worked on SeaQuest 2032 and The Outer Limits. Stints on Farscape and Almost Human came later, while he has also worked on fantasy series Grimm.

Shankar is now showrunner of Syfy space opera The Expanse, which has returned both the showrunner and the network to their respective space travel roots. Season one opens two hundred years in the future, when the case of a missing young woman brings a hardened detective (played by Thomas Jane) and a rogue ship’s captain (Steven Strait) together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

Naren Shankar

The series, produced and distributed by Alcon Television Group, is based on a collection of books with the same name, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James SA Corey).

The books were acquired by Alcon and executive producer Sharon Hall, who developed The Expanse for a straight-to-series pickup with the Sean Daniel Company. Writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who both worked Children of Men and Iron Man) were brought in to write the pilot, which was then picked up by Syfy for a 10-episode first season debuting in 2015. That’s when Shankar comes in.

“Alcon had never done a television show before, neither had Mark or Hawk and neither had Sean Daniel Company,” he explains. “Sharon and I had worked together through the years so she reached out to me, and that’s how I got involved in the project. I met with the team and just hit it off.

“This was everybody’s first experience of television except for me, and going from the feature world to television is not necessarily an easy transition. That’s how it all started and it’s been a great experience.”

Joining Shankar in the writers room from the start have been the original novel writers Franck and Abraham – and though that could have been a difficult partnership, the showrunner says the pair have been very open to adapting their books for television.

“Ty had worked with George RR Martin when Game of Thrones was getting set up so he had a front-row seat to the process, and with Mark and Hawk from the feature side, me from television, Ty and Daniel from novels, I think we’ve actually been able to get a little of each world into the show,” Shankar explains. “It’s just been a really enjoyable experience and here we are in season three.”

The Expanse is adapted from books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck

Much has changed in sci-fi, both on and off screen, since Shankar first started work on The Next Generation. He recalls the genre was “a little bit of a ghetto” with very niche storytelling that many people didn’t think translated into broad, mainstream entertainment.

Now, however, elements of sci-fi are littered across the TV landscape, from The X-Files and Black Mirror to Stranger Things, Orphan Black and, of course, Star Trek: Discovery.

After spending the first 10 years of his career working in the genre, culminating in Farscape, Shankar transitioned to cop shows, admitting he no longer found much to interest him in the genre.

“I hadn’t really liked what Syfy was putting on the air and, for a long time, they kind of lost their way in terms of programming,” he says. “They weren’t quite sure what it was and I think the network in some ways missed the boat. There’s no reason The Walking Dead couldn’t have been on Syfy. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and then there was a big regime change there. Bill McGoldrick from USA Network was brought in and The Expanse was the first major project he brought to the network with the express purpose to restore science fiction to Syfy. He said to us, ‘Well, you’re either going to get me fired or get me promoted.’ He got promoted!”

Picking up The Expanse novels, Shankar found there was a lot of story condensed into each novel and that events moved quickly. So one of the first things he changed from the pilot when he joined the production was to shift the focus to character and give the show room to breathe. As a result, some elements cut from the original pilot eventually made their way to screen in episode four.

Shankar’s first major writing job was on Star Trek: The Next Generation

Novellas and short stories that Franck and Abraham had written to accompany the main books also serve to flesh out the show’s main characters. “It opened up this whole extra world of material and the show has become kind of a hybrid of the novels and novellas with additional material that we’ve created, so it’s very much its own thing,” Shankar says. “But what I’m finding from people who know the novels and watch the show is it’s very true to the spirit of the books, and that’s the key.”

Where The Expanse differs from other space-set dramas is in its dedication to physics, preferring to indulge the science part of science fiction that some titles in the genre have ignored.

“Star Trek had very little to do with science,” Shankar observes. “For the most part, and this is a broad generalisation, Star Trek was essentially a social allegorical kind of a show. There were problems of the day transposed to aliens and different races and how we deal with them. It was very much about ideas. The ‘technology’ was about the same as magic – faster-than-light travel, tractor beams, phaser beams and all this kind of stuff that just isn’t real. And spaceships moved like airplanes.”

The Expanse, however, is firmly rooted in science reality, with the writing team tasked with considering issues such as the state of gravity. “If a ship’s not under thrust then the people inside have to be weightless, because that’s just how space works,” the showrunner says, offering one example.

Dominique Tipper is among the show’s leading cast members

“Most television shows just ignore it [science], even Battlestar Galactica,” Shankar says, highlighting the space opera that ran on Syfy in the early 2000s. “It’s a war movie. The original series was about Pearl Harbor. Ron Moore turned it into a 9/11 allegory but in terms of the fighter battles, it is the Second World War in the Pacific. That isn’t how we do things on The Expanse. Battles are different but they’re much more about how, if you had these things happen in space, this is how they would be. Rockets only go in one direction, there are no brakes. The only way to turn around in space is to flip around and push the rocket the other way. The joke in our series pilot was the big action scene was a gigantic truck changing direction. That’s all it is. It feels very dramatic because of the aesthetic approach was to say living in space is hard, it’s difficult to do, it’s risky.

“When The Expanse was brought to me, I thought it was an opportunity to make space a character in the show in a way I had not seen done before on television, and we’ve really persisted in that. That’s very much baked into how we work.”

As a showrunner, Shankar says his method comes from his early Star Trek days, where the staff for the last two seasons included the aforementioned Ronald D Moore plus Brannon Braga and René Echevarria, with consultant producer Joe Menosky, showrunner Jeri Taylor and former showrunner Michael Piller.

“The room was very egalitarian,” Shankar recalls. “It was the old adage of the best idea wins. There was very little hierarchy, everybody could argue, nobody was afraid of fighting with the boss or saying what was on their mind in a really healthy way. That’s how we broke stories and that’s how I like rooms.

The third season of The Expanse will air next year

“The rooms I’ve found most problematic and least interesting to be around are ones where everyone’s worried about if the boss is going to like it or what does he think he wants or what does she think she wants. When you take that out of it, you get what’s in somebody’s head and if you really listen to them, it’s the best way to go about making shows.”

Having been a showrunner on CSI and now three seasons into The Expanse in the same position, Shankar describes showrunning as an “evolving” role, and considers television to be tipping into an auteur-based model often associated with cinema. “But I don’t know how great that is, necessarily,” he admits. “When I was starting out as a baby writer on Star Trek, the showrunner responsibilities were very much confined to the show. As the business has grown and as connections with the fans have grown, the portfolio for a showrunner has gotten much broader,” he explains, noting his responsibility in areas such as marketing and brand awareness, helping the show to break through the noise of more than 500 other scripted series in the US alone.

Shankar also sees a place in television for shows that are essentially “very long movies” such as Big Little Lies, which HBO has now confirmed will return for a second season. “They’re beautifully done, beautifully realised, beautifully acted… it was like a seven-episode movie,” he says of the Nicole Kidman- and Reese Witherspoon-starring show. “That’s one way of doing television, but I don’t know how that’s going to work if you’re going season after season after season. That felt to me like one story that you’re telling.”

That’s not the case with The Expanse, however, with the sixth novel in the series published earlier this month, season three of the show due in 2018 and the promise of more to come. “One of the great joys of television is when you put the right bunch of people together and let them take some creative ownership of material as a group,” Shankar concludes. “You can really do some amazing things. I think The Expanse is a show that could go to seven seasons, easily.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Back to the 1980s

As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.

It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.

Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.

The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.

Netflix hit Stranger Things has been at the forefront of the 80s trend

“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”

But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.

“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”

As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.

Female wrestling drama GLOW is also on Netflix

“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”

In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”

Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”

When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.

Weissensee, which highlights a less colourful side of the decade than many other series

“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”

It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”

Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”

“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”

To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”

LA crack cocaine drama Snowfall

That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”

“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”

With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.

One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”

US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.

“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”

So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Disappearing act

German film prodco 23/5 Filmproduktion is moving into TV for the first time with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), in which a woman searching for the truth behind her daughter’s disappearance uncovers more than she bargained for.

Since Generation War burst onto the scene in 2013, the international reputation of German drama has been surging on the back of shows such as Deutschland 83, Der Gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), 4 Blocks and Ku’Damm 56. Upcoming projects including Das Boot and Babylon Berlin are likely to ensure German scripted series remain a talking point for some time to come.

It’s no surprise, then, to see filmmakers from all corners of the country now moving into television, further proving that the film-to-TV trend isn’t just reserved for Hollywood. Among German producers now targeting the small screen is 23/5 Filmproduktion, which is finding its way in this new world with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), its first TV drama.

Building on another current trend – stories with a disappearance at their heart (see also The Missing, The Five, El Regreso de Lucas) – The Vanishing centres on the search for 20-year-old Janine Grabowski, played by Elisa Schlott, who goes missing from a small Bavarian town near the Czech border.

The Vanishing stars Julia Jentsch and Elisa Schlott

While all the evidence suggests Janine wanted to leave her rural life behind, her mother Michelle (Julia Jentsch) takes up the investigation herself and quickly finds that the more she looks for answers, the more she discovers about her daughter and the company she kept. She then begins to question whether Janine even wants to be found – and her own role in the disappearance.

The eight-part series, distributed by Beta Film, was created by writers Bernd Lange and Hans-Christian Schmid, who also directs. With five or six stories in development, they were discussing which film to shoot next when they turned to The Vanishing, a story they determined was too complex and had too many characters to squeeze into a 90-minute feature.

“While there’s this story on the surface – this woman looking for her grown-up daughter – we’re also trying to create a portrait of a small town,” Schmid tells DQ at 23/5’s Berlin office. “Then we were curious to see if we could manage an eight-hour series.”

The series is based on a true story, and Schmid says he was keen to explore why young people have such a hard time with their parents. “Nowadays in this area, there are a lot of drug issues. Crystal meth is produced along the Bavaria-Czech border and it’s transferred to these small towns where you can buy it for €10 [US$12],” he continues.

Producers Hans-Christian Schmid and Britta Knöller

“So they have a problem with this. The other thing I wanted to find out about was what happens to you if you’re looking for your daughter, even if she’s grown up. What do you find out about her? Does the daughter even want to be found? I would call it a mother-daughter story, or a generational story. These are just questions we hopefully put in the audience’s mind so maybe they talk about it afterwards.”

After getting the green light from public broadcaster Das Erste, the immediate challenge facing Schmid and producing partner Britta Knöller was raising the budget by navigating the German regional broadcasting system. The series is coproduced with Mia Film and ARD Degeto, BR, NDR and SWR. Support also came from funding bodies FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the Czech State Fund for Cinematography.

“There’s no opportunity for independent producers like us to get a coproduction development for a TV series without losing all the rights,” Knöller explains. “If you’ve been developing for two-and-a-half years on your own, you don’t just give it up in the last five or six months, which is hard on the financial side but we managed.”

On the creative side, coming from a cinema background meant Lange and Schmid had to come to terms with a new story structure featuring enough material to fill eight hours of television. “It was just so hard to treat all the characters well and keep all the storylines up and to not just include something just to keep the story going on. It was quite challenging,” Schmid recalls.

Sebastian Blomberg takes a call

“The structure is different; we’re used to the three-act structure and we’re both pupils of classical storytelling, but here you have seven cliffhangers so we had to create those without betraying the characters. Trying to make it look realistic and natural was tough, and if you read the third draft of the script, there’s not much left from the first treatment. It was a long, ongoing process.”

Production was completed in December last year following a 90-day shooting period for a show whose story progresses over eight days.

“Because we had one director [Schmid], we shot all the scenes at one location and then moved on to the next, so the actors were really hopping between these eight episodes, which probably isn’t the nicest thing for either the director or them,” Knöller admits.

“And, of course, you need team members who will be available for such a long journey. We shot the border scenes at the beginning and then moved up to Berlin because we had funding from the city and because it was turning to winter, so we did most of the interior shots there, such as the police station.”

Johanna Ingelfinger hides from Andreas Bichler

Schmid worked with the production designer and cinematographer to create a show that he believes “doesn’t look like TV,” taking some inspiration from the naturalistic approach of French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned). “It’s really hard to do to German suburbia and to try to make it look like something you want to watch,” he admits.

“I liked the look of Les Revenants and the simplicity of the shots. It’s a mountain village, which is the same in our show, and there was always a lot of fog. We were there [on location] for half a year and found out how quickly the weather changes, and there was fog coming up from the forest. But you see that so often that we didn’t put much emphasis on it. Often we would just have two people talking. You don’t have to shoot every angle.”

With The Vanishing set to debut in Germany this fall, 23/5 is now working on its next feature. And while the company hasn’t ruled out another move into television, it won’t embark on another small-screen series just because it’s the fashionable thing to do.

“It’s good if you’re really well organised with the schedule,” Schmid says. “You have to be prepared to shoot four minutes [of screen time] a day. In cinema it’s usually three or two-and-a-half, and that makes a big difference. You hardly ever have the chance to step back from what you’re doing, see the rushes and dailies and do something again. But you can get used to it. I’m afraid to get used to it!”

“Producing series just to be part of the series hype is kind of foolish,” Knöller notes, adding that new financial mechanisms are required to support independent producers. She says 23/5 will observe whether broadcasters’ current demand for series holds up and, reflecting the US industry, leads to television replacing mid-budget feature films, which now struggle to get made.

“Funding institutions have already shifted some of their money for cinema to series. I don’t know how that will impact the quality of cinema, but since we are still mainly a cinema production company, I would be wary of shifting everything to TV now.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

Creative focus

As Content London 2017 comes to an end, it’s clear that talent is now in greater demand than ever. But while a host of A-list names attended the three-day event, delegates also learned about a community of new writers with stories ripe for adaptation.

In its fifth year, C21Media’s Content London this week was bigger than ever before, bringing together more than 1,500 people from across the scripted television business for the International Drama Summit.

Panel sessions covered every corner of the industry, from the challenges facing distributors and how drama producers are changing, to ever-evolving market forces, uncovering new sources of financing and the secret to working with SVoD players.

Speakers were drawn from every major company in the sector, including FremantleMedia, Banijay, Endemol Shine and ITV Studios. Commissioner panels featured the BBC, Channel 4, SVT, DR, YLE, Starz, AMC, HBO, Epix, YouTube and Netflix.

The Alienist star Luke Evans discusses the TNT show

Executives hailing from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia also took to the stage to discuss their domestic markets and their strategy on the international scene.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws at the three-day event, which finished today, was Swedish actor Sofia Helin, who discussed her career, the legacy of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and new projects including Heder (Honour).

Helin’s appearance capped a line-up that focused heavily on the creative side of making television drama – and with good reason. As more and more money is made available to producers – through coproductions, SVoD players with money to burn and new funding companies ready to invest – financing is available to meet the high-end budgets dramas now demand. The talent attached to a project is now paramount, with the number of shows in development and production meaning actors, writers, directors and other key creatives are more in-demand than ever.

At Content London, Agyness Deyn, discussing her first television role, Jim Sturgess and Nikki Amuka Bird spoke about starring in six-part drama Hard Sun. Adrian Lester joined delegates to watch the world premiere of new ITV drama Trauma (pictured top), which is written by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett.

Wattpad Studios’ Aron Levitz takes to the stage

David Morrissey showcased BBC2’s The City & The City, Kim Rossi Stuart talked Italian hit Maltese Luke Evans joined a case study of The Alienist, which examined US cablenet TNT’s forthcoming period drama.

Writers and directors also taking part included Neil Cross (Hard Sun), Hossein Amini and James Watkins (McMafia), Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), Marc Evans (Trauma), Harry and Jack Williams (Liar, The Missing), Jakob Verbruggen (The Alienist), Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper), Tony Grisoni (The City & The City, Electric Dreams), David Farr (Electric Dreams) and Jon Cassar (Medici).

In a separate session, Helin was also joined by fellow actors Alexandra Rapaport and Julia Dufvenius to talk about Heder (Honour), which they have created and executive produced together with Anja Lundqvist, another actor.

The focus on creative talent inevitably led to the subjects of packaging and when to attach talent to projects, with ‘the sooner the better’ emerging as the general consensus.

Netflix’s Elizabeth Bradley (right) with Jane Featherstone of Sister Pictures

Euston Films MD Kate Harwood revealed how the BBC snapped up Hard Sun before star names such as Deyn, Sturgess and Amuka Bird were cast in the lead roles, though commissioning the next series from Luther creator Cross was unlikely to be a difficult decision.

In such a congested market, talent is the quickest way for a show to make some noise. For most, however, there just isn’t enough to go around. That’s why it was encouraging to hear the Williams brothers discussing their forthcoming slate, which features series White Dragon and Cheat, both for UK broadcaster ITV and both coming from first-time writers.

With more than 10 years in the business, and being responsible for some of the most talked-about and compelling series of recent time, Harry and Jack Williams are now using their experience in the business to bring forward new voices – something broadcasters always say they are keen to do but rarely act upon.

In their bid to nurture new TV talent, commissioners and producers could also do a lot worse than sign up for a Wattpad account. The social media storytelling platform has a community of 60 million writers and readers, and the company is drawing data down to find the biggest hit stories and working with their creators and partners including NBCUniversal and Universal Cable Productions to bring them stories to screen. With more than 400 million stories uploaded every month in more than 50 languages, Wattpad looks set to become the next major player in the content revolution.

As Netflix warned that its seemingly limitless pot of money might not be enough to lure some series from emerging competitors such as Apple, Facebook and YouTube, talent will be more coveted than ever. In the words of Artists Studio co-founder Justin Thomson Glover: “You don’t know how exciting a project is until a script comes in and you have the talent and director.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Simply Magnificent

Lorenzo the Magnificent takes centre stage in the second chapter of Renaissance drama Medici: Masters of Florence. As filming continues apace in Tuscany, DQ speaks to the star and producers of the Rai series, which has built a worldwide audience on Netflix.

The life of Lorenzo de Medici is widely associated with the golden age of the Renaissance. Politician, diplomat, magnate, he was also a patron of scholars, artists and poets. Who better, then, than Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known, to be at the centre of the next season of Medici: Masters of Florence.

The series – Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent to give it its full title – begins in Florence in 1469, when an attempt on Piero de Medici’s life forces his son, Lorenzo, to assume leadership of the family-run bank.

Once in power, young Lorenzo resolves to do things differently. With his brother Giuliano and young artist Sandro Botticelli at his side he abandons the cynical politics of the past to usher in a new era of creative and political revolution. This sparks conflict with the head of Florence’s other powerful banking family, Jacopo Pazzi, leading to one of the most notorious political intrigues in history: the infamous Pazzi conspiracy.

Actor Daniel Sharman: “I just had to research that time and my job was to do it justice”

The Magnificent follows the first chapter of the anthology series, which focused on Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo (played by Richard Madden) and great grandfather Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman).

“Lorenzo the Magnificent is considered the greatest Medici of all,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz of the Italian banking family and political dynasty. “He’s a remarkable guy who changed the course of history. It just so happens he was also the victim of one of the greatest conspiracies of all time. The drama is just irresistible. Assassins set upon Lorenzo and his brother in church during mass – you don’t have to make it up, you just have to try to do it justice. It’s an incredibly obvious, juicy target for a series. Why hasn’t anybody done this before?”

Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions coproduces the English-language series for Italian broadcaster Rai with Lux Vide, whose CEO, Luca Bernabei, also an executive producer, is quick to point out the differences between the first Medici series and this forthcoming show.

“This is a completely different; it’s not even season one and season two,” he asserts. “Every actor changes because we’re now in the middle of the Renaissance, so there’s more colour, more light, the costumes have more colour. And because we were surprised by the presence of a young audience who watched the first season, we are looking to this audience even more on this season because this story is really about a young group of people getting the power from the old nobles.”

To build on the young following of the show, the Medici producers also sought a young actor to play the role of Lorenzo, who was just 16 when he entered political life and assumed power four years later on his father’s death, in 1469. He went on to rule Florence until he died in 1492.

The new season is described by Bernabei as “completely different” from Medici: Masters of Florence

They found Lorenzo in the shape of London-born actor Daniel Sharman, who has played roles in Teen Wolf, The Originals and, most notably, Fear the Walking Dead. His co-stars include Bradley James, Sean Bean and Sarah Parish.

“It’s quite nice to have a basis for a show like a period of time that was obviously fascinating,” Sharman says. “The obvious way would be to do this story first, but it’s quite nice that there’s this precursor season because there’s a foundation there for what happens this season. This world is just incredibly dramatic and we’re dealing with the beginning of the Renaissance.

“You have geniuses being born within 30 or 40 years of each other, where all these influences were within this tiny geographical point. This series is dealing with that moment, that incredible alchemy. I didn’t have to be pitched it, I just had to research that time and my job was just to do it justice. You get out of the way of making it more dramatic than it already is.”

Sharman researched the period before the scripts — a move that he says paid off, because otherwise, “I never would have believed it was true,” he says. “Then I went down the rabbit hole of wanting to know everything about this family and about everything that influenced it and what it influenced.

“You get Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo Di Vinci – these are heavyweights of the world, and it’s all in the script because it’s a truly glorious time. I was working in Mexico at the time [he got the role] and was listening to a lot of audiobooks and reading and then I was in Africa reading this biography of Lorenzo. I’ll never forget being in the back of a truck in Uganda just becoming overwhelmed by this amazing period.”

Fans of Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, however, should be aware there won’t be too many similarities between Lorenzo and Troy Otto, the character Sharman plays in the AMC zombie drama.

Sharman’s new role follows his part in Fear the Walking Dead

“I don’t think I could imagine a more different part if I’d tried,” he adds. “An American prepper on the border with Mexico to Lorenzo the Magnificent was definitely a big jump, but that’s the joy in what you do. It’s a different rhythm, a different posture. That’s the lovely part about inhabiting someone else.”

From the outset, Spotnitz and Bernabei agreed that if they were going to do The Magnificent, it had to be better than the first Medici season, which drew record ratings in Italy as 7.5 million viewers watched the first episode in October last year.

“We wrote and wrote and wrote – it was quite a process,” says the former X-Files showrunner. “It took longer than we thought it would take because we’ve already done a Medici series, but this is completely different. The characters are different, the ideas were different and we under-estimated how hard it was going to be to get to the bottom of that. But to our credit, we didn’t give up until we thought we actually had it.”

Bernabei also teases a more action-packed series, with directors Jon Cassar (24, The Kennedys: After Camelot) and Jan Michelini (Don Matteo) behind the camera.

“The way he shoots, whether with a steadicam or a handicam, it’s fast,” he says of Cassar. “But he always pays attention to the heart of the scene. The actors are always moving on the sets and he’s always moving the camera, so actor and camera are always moving together.

“The first season was a bit more stagey. It is completely different visually. It appears the same but the way we are lighting it is very different. It’s going to be interesting. It’s still Medici but completely different. In the first season, there was less light, so you couldn’t see the backgrounds. But we have been studying a lot to achieve it. Even the costumes are much more modern.”

Sharman agrees that there’s a modernity and freshness to this period drama that will make it stand out from its stuffier peers.

“It’s all very well being historical accurate but if that’s all you are, then you’re missing something when these were times when people were pushing the boundaries of art and fashion,” the actor explains. “So in order to do that, you have to make costumes that suggest a period but have a modern influence, because then it feels energetic and new.

“Sometimes when you do a period piece you are almost a museum piece – you’re recreating a perfect sense of what it was back then. That misses the point, and if you’re doing something in the Renaissance, it has to have an energy and artistic flair people haven’t seen before.”

Filming is currently continuing across Tuscany, with the crew returning to locations such as Pienza and Montepulciano and adding new backdrops such as Mantua. Bernabei has been particularly instrumental in securing access to the real locations to ensure this second chapter, distributed by Beta Film, is as authentic as possible.

“It’s something we’re really taking care of,” he notes, adding that he didn’t want the scenes to be recreated on a studio backlot. “We have a special deal with the Italian ministry of culture because they consider these locations national property. Because our series is conveying images of Italy, they’ve given us the opportunity to film in places they wouldn’t normally allow. We have to be really careful not to use certain lights, but it was more difficult using film because you need more light. Now, with digital, you can almost use natural light. It’s less complicated.”

Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent is due to air on Rai next year, with Netflix also carrying the series around the world. A third season is already in the works, adds Spotnitz, who teases: “The saga continues.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Hard work

Luther creator Neil Cross begins the countdown to the end of the world in Hard Sun, starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn. DQ joins the cast and crew on set to find two detectives fighting crime as society threatens to descend into chaos.

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing // News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in // News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying // Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.

The unrivalled legacy of the late David Bowie reaches far and wide, with musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers alike finding inspiration in his flamboyant use of make-up and costumes and his groundbreaking musical flair.

In television, Bowie’s music has been used as title tracks for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and The Last Panthers, and is said to have inspired Fox network drama Lucifer. Now, his song Five Years – the opening track on his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – serves as the loose inspiration behind the new series from Luther creator Neil Cross.

Hard Sun marks a first TV role for model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn

Described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London, Hard Sun follows detectives Robert Hicks and Elaine Renko as they discover the end of the world is nigh. With five years until annihilation, they face the prospect of maintaining justice as Armageddon looms. But how do you leave your family behind each morning and put your life at risk? And what criminal would fear a prison sentence in a world on the brink of extinction?

It’s a suitably sunny day when DQ joins the cast and crew on set during filming of scenes for the climactic sixth and final episode. The vast number of buildings and grounds that make up a former HSBC training site, located on the outskirts of north-west London, have provided many of the interior and exterior locations for the series.

A stairway and some double doors inside one building lead to the set of the police station. Here, a dimly lit observation room is filled with CCTV monitors while a central room is full of desks, with one wall covered with photographs of victims, crime scenes and evidence. The walls are painted metallic grey throughout as flashing lights from a bank of computer servers break the darkness.

It’s inside interrogation room FR7 that DQ meets executive producer Kate Harwood, MD of producer Euston Films. The sterile room contains a single steel desk with a recorder on the table. There are grey tile walls and a green lino floor, with CCTV cameras in every corner. Light shines through barred windows.

Shooting a fight scene on the banks of the River Thames

Hard Sun represents the first commission for Euston Films since Harwood rebooted the FremantleMedia label in 2014. The former head of drama for the BBC’s in-house production unit, she was at the channel when Cross first introduced tough-talking detective John Luther, brought to formidable life by Idris Elba.

BBC1 commissioned Hard Sun on the strength of one episode, so after getting the commission, Cross spent the next 18 months writing scripts. Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) joined as lead director, with Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech) as production designer and “rising star” Nick Rowlands (Ripper Street) as second-block director.

“It’s a crime show with a science-fiction premise,” Harwood says. “It’s as procedural as you can be when the cops are carrying around the secret that the world is going to end. So it’s part cop show, part sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller. But we’ve called it a pre-apocalyptic crime show set in contemporary London.”

Amid a lot of interest in the US, streaming service Hulu quickly boarded the series, while distributor FremantleMedia International beefed up its budget. Tax breaks have also been used to maximise the show’s finances.

The show is a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London

On screen, Jim Sturgess and model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn (in her first TV role) play Hicks and Renko respectively, distrustful partners who seek to enforce the law and protect their families as destruction edges ever closer. Nicki Amuka-Bird plays an MI5 government official, a mysterious character who is part of the establishment and trying to suppress the information.

“Neil always says Hicks is the sun and Renko is the moon,” Harwood explains. “There’s a polarity about them. They circle each other. Sometimes they’re partners, sometimes they’re opposites. It’s a distrustful, must-trust relationship. That tension between them is absolutely essential. Hicks is explosive and external and bright and Renko is more watchful, more secretive, more held back and it’s a lovely duality between them. Agyness has never done TV. She seemed really excited by the material as soon as we met her. She’s like a duck to water and she’s so hard-working, focused and punctilious.”

Back on set and with the cameras rolling, Sturgess and Deyn find themselves in the lobby of a grand house, the air thick with smoke as an elaborate chandelier hangs above. One side room appears to be a surgery, with a lobotomy chair in the middle. Other rooms appear to be bedrooms, with TVs screening static fuzz in the gloom.

As Renko and Hicks, they enter the room from a dark corridor, torches raised to find a lady in a medical gown. Slowly, others emerge from the darkness to surround them in what promises to be an extremely creepy climax to the sixth episode.

“It starts off as a procedural show with Hicks and Renko investigating a particular crime – a man who’s apparently fallen off a balcony and is found dead in a tree,” explains producer Hugh Warren, who also reveals the Bowie link to the series. “But what unravels is that his stolen flash drive contains this Hard Sun dossier that, internationally, is being suppressed by government forces because they’ve learnt that an extinction-level event is coming. So by the end [of episode one], Hicks and Renko know there’s five years left for the planet and that’s the new world they’re in.”

Filming locations took in areas of London including Shepherd’s Bush, Shoreditch and Oxford Circus. Naturally, the logistics and cost of moving the production around the city caused headaches for Warren and his team. The scripts also called for numerous night shoots, which became increasingly difficult as the production, which began shooting at the end of January, entered spring and early summer.

“It’s also very action-heavy for British television so there are a lot of stunts, a lot of complicated stuff to shoot. The normal amount you would expect to shoot on an average day for a TV drama, we can’t achieve,” he admits. “We’re shooting for many more days per hour than you would expect. That’s a real challenge in terms of time because we’ve only got the actors for a finite period.”

But what will fans of Luther, which is returning to the BBC for a fifth season, make of Cross’s latest series? “I think it will surprise people,” says Warren, adding that celebrity cosmologist Brian Cox has been on hand to help the creator root his end of-the-world theory in fact.

“What it has in common with Luther is the darkness – there are some very dark stories in there but also real humanity. We’re telling a huge cosmic story about the end of the planet but what’s interesting is it comes down to really common human experiences. They’re very everyday stories set against this massive global catastrophe.”


Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn

Too good to turn down

Having only just appeared in a BBC drama – Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy – Jim Sturgess wasn’t planning on signing up for another one. Instead, he was pondering a break from acting to focus on his music career. So it’s testament to Neil Cross’s script that the actor immediately signed up to play detective Robert Hicks in Hard Sun.

“I was almost cursing Neil for writing something so good,” Sturgess reveals, adding that he was attracted by the combination of “messed up, flawed characters” and the overall concept for the series.

“What’s great about this, and why I’m really excited about it, is it’s a pre-apocalyptic story that doesn’t need to rush,” he says, citing movies such as Armageddon that cram an extinction-level event into 120 minutes. “I hadn’t seen this before, where something’s looming but you can really spend time looking at what that’s going to do to individuals and society as a whole. TV works for a project like this because you can really take your time with it.”

Cross travelled from his New Zealand home for rehearsals alongside Sturgess, co-star Agyness Deyn and lead director Brian Kirk. It was there that the two leads cemented their partnership, both on and off screen.

“Our relationship on screen is incredibly intricate and at times complicated and strategic,” Sturgess says. “Off-screen It’s great to have a partner in crime on set who you really trust, has a very similar work ethic and cares about it as much as I do. She brings everything she has to it and we get on really well. We’re both pretty chilled out.”

Sturgess, whose film credits include 21 and Cloud Atlas, last year starred as a chef in AMC’s 2016 series Feed the Beast, an adaptation of Danish drama Bankerot. He’s also played criminals, drug addicts and a stoner musician, but has never played a detective before – “and I’ve never really wanted to,” he admits, “until I read this particular detective.”

“He’s not squeaky clean at all,” Sturgess adds. “He’s not James Bond. He makes some very tricky decisions that have a difficult impact on his life later on. But he considers himself to be a good family man, and that becomes an important part of the story because it’s his family he’s trying to save.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Timeless tale

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star in a feature-length adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel The Child in Time that very nearly didn’t get made. DQ chats to the stars and screenwriter Stephen Butchard about the film’s journey to the screen.

When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch describes a script as “brilliant,” the chances are it’s in production somewhere. But until recently, that wasn’t the case for The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel.

Butchard had written it “some time ago” as a one-off TV film but the clamour for serials and returning series meant his script couldn’t find the backing it needed to enter production. However, once Cumberbatch signed on to star and executive produce through his fledgling SunnyMarch TV label, doors unsurprisingly opened to the project.

The Child in Time, directed by Julian Farino (Marvellous, Entourage), was subsequently picked up by UK pubcaster BBC1 and Masterpiece for US network PBS and is distributed worldwide by StudioCanal. Pinewood Television is a coproducer.

Benedict Cumberbatch is both star and executive producer of The Child in Time

Cumberbatch plays Stephen, a children’s author who is still grieving the loss of his daughter two years after she disappeared while they were on a shopping trip together. His wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), has left him and best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside to battle demons of their own.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says of the first McEwan novel to be adapted for television. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts, encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor notes that Stephen is a million miles from his previous television roles – “particularly the more famous one” – and admits that was part of the attraction. “That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned,” he says, adding that it was a coincidence he took on the role just as he became a father for the second time. “The extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it.”

Cumberbatch describes Stephen as “an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” which also presented him with the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ person. “There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude, mindset, skill set or cultural background or all of those things. I brought more of myself – as I sound and as I move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times, but it was also great because of that.”

Kelly Macdonald was cast after her performance in Trainspotting 2

The dystopian novel, which has bold political themes running through it, has largely been stripped back in Butchard’s adaptation, which instead focuses on the characters at the centre of the story.

“It’s the type of book that stays with you,” says the writer, who is also in charge of BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, itself adapted from historical novels by Bernard Cornwell. “It doesn’t stay with you because of plot or anything like that; it stays with you because of its atmosphere and tone, and that was the thing I wanted to concentrate on.

“I also knew I didn’t want to start with the abduction of the child because for me, although that’s at the core of it, that’s not what the film’s about. It’s about people dealing with that and finding their own way forward in life, having to carry that burden.”

Part of the challenge of bringing McEwan’s story to the small screen was broadening the scope of the novel, which is read entirely from Stephen’s perspective. “So you have to build them as individual characters in their own right, not wholly through the prism of Stephen,” Butchard notes. “That’s a departure [from the novel], but that always happens in any adaptation. As far as the plot goes, it follows the same stepping stones in terms of how the relationships go, but then it’s about how you visualise what is internalised in the book. What scenes can you bring into it or what dilemmas can you bring into it? People will easily recognise the book and its themes, but there are things that you kind of invent and bring in to help you move forward and put it on the screen.”

Macdonald was cast after Butchard watched the Scottish actor in Trainspotting 2, in which she reprised her role as Diane from the original 1996 film. “We thought she would be great and together [with Cumberbatch] it works really well,” he says.

The Child in Time premiered on BBC1 at the end of September

Macdonald picks up: “What appealed to me when I read the script was it felt honest in its portrayal of love and loss. It’s a very emotional story but it’s not depressing. It hasn’t gone down that route. Julian’s got such a gentle touch and the way he directed it was he very much wanted an almost positive tale of love coming from loss, and I think he has managed to do that.”

The actor also praises Farino for creating a protective atmosphere on set, as the cast were often required to play out intensely emotional scenes.

“You have to do them or there’s no point in telling this story,” she says, “but it was a very safe environment with Julian at the helm. Everybody was so enthusiastic and wanted to do a great job, so it wasn’t draining. It was enjoyable, strangely, despite the subject matter. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was just a great creative place to be.”

Since her screen debut in Trainspotting, Macdonald has enjoyed a varied career across film and television, notably preferring single films to long-running series. The exception to the rule is her five-season stint on HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, which she admits was too good to refuse.

“Boardwalk ran for the perfect amount of time for that show and I’m enjoying getting different work now,” she adds. “TV series are great and it’s as close to a nine-to-five job as you can get for an actor, but not knowing what I’m going to do next does appeal and you get to have some variation there.”

In his role as an executive producer on The Child in Time, Cumberbatch talked over the script with Butchard and was also involved in hiring director Farino. “I’ve never been involved at that stage of things before so it’s intriguing,” he admits of his off-screen role. “But it’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, when it’s in a very raw state and you give feedback as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance.”

But with the book now 30 years old, is the story still relevant? “I think it’s absolutely timeless, I really do,” Butchard concludes. “It’s a story of the strength of the ordinary man and woman and how we actually deal and cope with events in our lives. We still find strength from somewhere, be it the love of another person or faith. For me it is a story of love and courage, and that’s why it’s timeless and why it’s still relevant.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Bigger, badder, bolder

British gangster drama Peaky Blinders is back for a fourth season, with some new faces and enough action and tension to leave even the most placid viewer a nervous wreck. DQ hears from the cast and creative team about what to expect next from the BBC2 series.

Like a fine wine, Peaky Blinders is getting better with age. But that’s not just my view – it’s one shared by its creator, Steven Knight.

Steven Knight

Confident, self-assured and with its own unique swagger, Peaky returns to BBC2 in the UK this week running at full throttle, bypassing any gentle reintroduction to 1920s Birmingham and instead opening as the fates of the series’ heroes (or should that be villains?) are hanging in the balance, the executioner standing close by.

What follows is a spell-binding, bloody and savage hour of drama that sees Tommy, Aunt Polly, Arthur and the rest of the Shelby family estranged, apparently split with no sign of repair, until a new threat – one more determined and sophisticated than they have ever faced – looms large on the horizon. If they are to survive, they must put their differences aside and reunite.

It’s the start of what promises to be another mind-blowing season of an award-wining series that has only grown in critical and popular acclaim since its terrestrial debut in 2013. New fans are arriving every day by catching up with previous seasons on Netflix, with seven million reportedly watching the trailer for season four online.

“As it progresses, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be running out of steam,” Knight says. “It seems to be getting faster and better and bigger in terms of audience and all that stuff. With the confidence of knowing the actors, the characters and the environment, it makes it a lot easier to be quite bold and confident. Each season gets better and I think this is by far the best.”

Part of that success is down to Knight’s writing, the production design, the music and the star-filled cast it is able to attract. This season sees ever-present Cillian Murphy (Tommy), Helen McCrory (Polly) and Paul Anderson (Arthur) joined by new faces including Adrien Brody (Luca Changretta) and Aidan Gillen (Aberama Gold), while Charlotte Riley (May Carleton) and Tom Hardy (Alfie Solomans) will return.

“It’s odd because we get incoming from the most amazing actors who want to be in it,” Knight reveals about the show, produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It’s very tempting [to cast them all] but what we don’t want to do is turn it into this celebrity show. Most of them are American so it’s difficult to get them in, but with Adrien, he’s a brilliant actor and he was right for that role so it was good to get him in.”

Charlie Murphy (Happy Valley) also joins the cast as Jessie Eden, based on the real-life women’s rights campaigner of the same name.

“She has an amazing line to introduce the character,” Charlie Murphy says of Jessie’s first appearance, which takes place in the men’s toilet at Tommy’s factory. “It sums her up completely, being in that man’s world, being in the gents’ toilets, having to push forward and make a difference. She is an extraordinary woman.

Oscar winner Adrien Brody is among the additions to Peaky Blinders’ S4 cast

“It’s strange there is not a lot online to investigate [about her], but the stuff I found… you can imagine what her life was like back then. She brought 10,000 people out on strike for equal pay in her late 20s. That alone today is extraordinary, to have that voice and strength, but back then it would have been phenomenal. She’s a very brave and powerful person to play. That’s so much fun.”

Those sentiments are shared by fellow cast members Cillian Murphy and Anderson. “This part is a gift,” says the former of playing Tommy Shelby. “For any actor to be given a part like this with the excellent calibre of writing and then to be told you can play a character like that for five years, it’s an absolute total privilege. He is quite exhausting, he’s quite demanding. He is really not like me – the furthest away from my personality. But I love him and it’s a privilege.”

Anderson picks up: “Steven writes these interesting, great characters and I have a lot of fun playing Arthur even at his worst, his lowest. It is a lot of joy. It’s really good to do it for such a long time. It’s my first experience of playing a character with this much depth.”

Helming every episode of season four is Irish director David Caffrey, who is finally getting the chance to join Peaky Blinders after missing out on season two due to conflicting schedules. He describes the show as one that “punches above its weight,” owing to its big set pieces, thriller elements and the fact it’s a costume drama despite having a relatively modest budget compared with similar US series.

Cillian Murphy continues to lead the ensemble as Tommy Shelby

“Because of the size of the show, you’re standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before you, all the creative time, directors and production designers,” he explains, adding that the brief coming into a returning series is “always to be bigger, badder, bolder but with the same amount of money.”

“So it’s a question of getting myself, the cameraman, the designers, everybody to just look at what’s in the script and try to build on what’s come before us,” he continues. “I feel quietly confident we’ve done that this season.”

With an established series now fully in its stride, one of the challenges facing a new director can be to lead a team that knows more about the show than they do. But Caffrey (Love/Hate) says he enjoyed learning from the cast and helping them to push their characters forward.

“When you’ve got stars like Paul, Helen and Cillian, they still come to you and are very open about what you want but, in a way, they’re custodians of their characters and how they behave and what situations they find themselves in,” he says. “I learn from them and then I try to give them notes on where we think characters are going. Like anything, when you have a short amount of time, they’ve got to bring their own gift to the party, which they do in abundance.”

Tom Hardy is back as Alfie Solomons

According to executive producer Jamie Glazebrook, every season of Peaky Blinders leans on a different genre. So while season one was a western, season two was a gangster movie and the third run drew parallels to a Hitchcockian drama. Back on the streets of the Small Heath slums in season four, which begins tomorrow, viewers can look forward to an action drama that also draws influences from 1952 feature film High Noon, in which an embattled sheriff must face a gang of killers alone.

“They’re under siege so they have to man up and actually get back into the driving seat and away from the country house world and back onto the streets to physically contend with quite a dangerous enemy,” says Glazebrook of the dilemma facing the Shelby family.

Filming took place in Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, though the return to Small Heath meant the production team faced a dilemma of their own, as many of the locations used in season one have since been developed, forcing them to find alternatives for the location-based shoot.

“The scale of Steve’s writing against our budget and schedule has also been a challenge everyone’s risen to,” Glazebook notes. “We’ve also had to keep it fresh. We’ve seen a lot of shows set in the 1920s so, for example, costume designer Alison McCosh really went out there looking for 1920s dresses that hadn’t been seen before. She went to Rome and found dresses that almost needed to be put back together again because they were rotting away somewhere. Everyone’s really dedicated to making sure the show isn’t like anything else set in the 20s – it’s seen through a particular filter and it’s got that certain magic.”

Helen McCrory in season four of the gangster drama, which launches tomorrow

Speaking to DQ ahead of the season three premiere in May 2016, Knight admitted his first love would always be film. But have those feelings since changed, with the continued success of Peaky and another project, Taboo, heading into a second season?

“The world has changed,” he responds. “I got lucky to get in early with Peaky. Priorities in Hollywood now, everything is changing by the day. The television phenomenon is now of equal importance to writers more than anyone, because writers have the power in TV, whereas they don’t in film. I’ve just finished a film – that’s great, and I love the 90-minute or two-hour length as a piece of work – but there are certain ideas you want 24 hours for, and that’s what television is great for. At the moment, there is an equal weight to both. Part of it is screens. Twenty years ago when people were watching television on those little things, what was the point? Now everybody’s got their big screens, there’s something about the whole thing that’s better.”

Knight has written every episode of Peaky, admitting that the show is so personal, he could never hand it over to someone else. And having won a double commission for seasons four and five, the screenwriter found himself in the rare position of being able to pen the upcoming six new episodes knowing there was still more to come. However, that fifth season, which is likely to begin filming in late 2018 for a debut the following year, looks set to be its last, if the writer’s plans hold firm.

“I know what direction it’s going in and what it’s going to be about,” he reveals. “I’ve always had the same destination in mind. It will be sad to stop and, if five has the same momentum that four has got, or more, maybe you do carry on. But at the moment that’s the plan, to finish at the end of five.

“I know when I want to end it [with the first air raid siren in Birmingham at the start of the Second World War] but that doesn’t necessarily mean that season five will take place in or around that year. I’m thinking there is a way to resolve the story in a certain year and then fast-forward to where it’s going to be.”

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

A slice of the action

Rock star Meat Loaf does battle with his demons as he continues to build his extensive acting career with a starring role in paranormal drama Ghost Wars.

For a man known best for his operatic rock star persona, Meat Loaf has amassed an impressive array of film and TV credits since he made his screen debut in the 1960s. David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club stands out, of course, though roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Wayne’s World, Nash Bridges, House, Glee and Elementary are all evidence that the singer has long established a parallel career as an actor.

He’s now starring in Ghost Wars, a supernatural thriller airing on US cable channel Syfy and worldwide on Netflix. Set in an Alaskan town overrun by paranormal forces, it principally follows Roman Mercer (played by Avan Jogia), who must harness his repressed psychic powers and save everyone from the mass haunting that’s threatening to destroy them all.

Meat Loaf plays Doug Rennie (pictured in character above), a bully and a tyrannous handyman who makes it his mission to torment Mercer. When the town descends into chaos, he charges to the front of the lynch mob, ready to point fingers.

Singer/actor Meat Loaf performs on stage

Speaking to DQ from Ghost Wars’ Vancouver set, Meat Loaf comes across as a very considered, hard-working and thoughtful actor, who admits he is constantly striving to improve his screen performances having started acting on the stage.

“People tell me, ‘You’re really good,’ but I just say I’m not good enough,” the star says. “The minute you think you’re good, you’re no longer good. So all I do as a human being is continue to work and continue to be better, in every shot. It’s not as difficult physically [as singing] but mentally I’m in the middle of the sun. I really attack the scene. I put so much effort into it. I’ve never been complacent.”

The effort to avoid complacency means his fans have never seen the real Meat Loaf on screen, as the star refuses to accept cameos where he is asked to play himself. Instead, he prefers to adopt a new character each time he is on screen, much like the way he embodies a different character for each of his songs when he performs on stage.

Ghost Wars also stars Avan Jogia

“If I get a script and I know how to play a part, I will turn it down,” he reveals. “If I get a script and think, ‘How am I going to pull that off?’ that’s the one I take. You should never know exactly how to do the part. You should have to work for it. It should be a challenge.”

When asked if he sees his future in music or acting, Meat Loaf is clear about the direction of his career. “I have no music plans whatsoever,” he says bluntly. “The music industry is completely insane. Radio completely ignores my songs because I’m not 16 or 21. If that’s the way it is, so be it.” That being said, he sees lots of similarities between the two branches of show business.

Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“At my concerts, I perform every song like it’s a different character,” he says. “They have very different hand movements and the physicality is different. So I always work on the physicality of a character before reading the script.”

On Ghost Wars, a 13-part series produced and distributed by Nomadic Pictures, Meat Loaf was also keen to see his fellow cast members in action so he could build his character around them. “Even on days when I wasn’t working, I knew there were characters I would meet so I went to see who they were,” says the actor, who enjoys binge-watching series including The 100.

“I watched them working to see who these characters were. This show is not about ghosts but more about the people and personalities in the show and how they are related to each other. Doug is very angry at himself. He projects that anger only at other people.”

Looking ahead to the next stage of his acting career, Meat Loaf vows to keep pushing himself further in future roles. “If you don’t challenge yourself in life, you will never challenge yourself in anything,” he adds. “If you challenge yourself, you will be happy.”

tagged in: , , ,