Six-part drama Father’s Day is breaking new ground in Bulgaria. Producer Martichka Bozhilova and director Pavel Vesnakov tell DQ how they brought this story of a child caught between separating parents to the screen.
There are two reasons why Father’s Day, a six-part Bulgarian drama about a warring couple and the impact of their separation on their child, stands out.
One is that “it’s the first show of its kind” in the country, according to producer Martichka Bozhilova. “So far in the market, there are just crime, comedy and medical genres. For the first time, Bulgarian National Television has decided to take the risk and propose something completely different – a real drama.”
It’s also unusual in that the show won’t return season after season like many others in Bulgaria. Instead, this is a closed-ended story that will wrap up in a single season. “This is something totally new for our market and it follows the best examples worldwide,” Bozhilova adds.
Father’s Day’s origins can be traced back to 2015, when writers Teodora Markova, Georgi Ivanov and Nevera Kertova pitched the idea to production company Agitprop, with Bozhilova joining the team to develop the scripts. The series subsequently won backing from Bulgarian National Television, but had to wait until the end of 2017 to get the green light. So began a race to get the series into production and delivered on time for an expected autumn 2018 launch.
Inspired by the stories of fathers who fight to remain in their children’s lives following a divorce, the series introduces Dimo and his wife Kalina, whose separation seems amicable at first. However, while Dimo starts a new life, Kalina is still hurt by their split and turns their son Bobby against him, causing Dimo to begin a desperate battle for access to his child. Bobby, meanwhile, develops parental alienation syndrome and begins acting out against both Dimo and Kalina. The two parents reconcile – but what long-term damage has been done to their young child?
Zahari Baharov and Vesela Babinov star as the central couple, with nine-year-old Patrick Sean Hessen playing their son. The series also features Alexander Sano (Kiko) and Gloria Petkova (Milena) as Dimon and Kalina’s best friends, who inject some much-needed humour and lightness to the otherwise troubling proceedings.
Both Bozhilova and director Pavel Vesnakov point to the significant divorce rate across Europe as evidence of the timeliness of Father’s Day, which they say highlights issues that affect everyone – from children experiencing the divorce of their parents to anyone who has been part of a failing relationship.
“Sometimes you are doing things in your life and you don’t realise how they affect the people around you, especially children. This is something very common not only in Bulgaria but across the world,” Vesnakov says.
In terms of how this relates to Father’s Day, he adds: “Everything is happening very fast and the relationship between the main characters is falling apart, but the child becomes a witness to everything, without the parents realising it. In the end, they realise what they are doing but the series says maybe the boy will be marked for the rest of his life by what has happened. That doesn’t mean he can’t overcome it, but it will leave a stamp on him forever.”
Filming took place in Sofia across 42 days at the beginning of this year, when the Bulgarian capital exhibited the wintry conditions that the creative team wanted for the show’s backdrop. They also drew inspiration from Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films when it came to the look and style of the drama, which Vesnakov describes as “very realistic, but told in a poetic way, with lots of close-ups.”
Vesnakov, who directed all six episodes, says the production schedule allowed one week to shoot each episode, the longest amount of time he had ever been afforded on a television shoot. If that was a luxury, however, one of his biggest challenges was working with child actor Hessen, who faced some emotionally demanding scenes.
“You can imagine it’s very difficult to keep his attention for a very long time, to make him repeat the same actions 20 times in a row, so we had to be very open to the unexpected situations that can occur,” Vesnakov explains. “It was very interesting and challenging to work with a child as a main actor in a drama series. It’s not a children’s series. His role is like a part for an adult actor, but he’s only nine. He was put in tough situations and it was very interesting for me.”
On set, Vesnakov spent time with the actors during rehearsals, which he also made a point of filming. “The most interesting things sometimes only happen in the first take and then everything after that is fabricated or manipulated. The first take is always the most fascinating one, or the most unexpected one,” he explains.
For Bozhilova, “everything was challenging” due to how alien the show was compared with the usual Bulgarian fare. But there were some bonuses to this new way of working, such as the extended time available to edit the series before delivery.
Casting was also crucial. “We were casting for months and we were very lucky to get the best actors in Bulgaria – it’s a really top cast. I’m really lucky and happy they agreed and wanted to be a part of it,” says Bozhilova, who spotted the previously unknown Hessen while walking in the street.
Vesnakov says making Father’s Day was similar to working on a feature film in terms of the process, although the show’s length meant it was like filming three features in a row. “I don’t see any difference between directing a movie and a TV series right now,” he says, noting the blurring boundaries between the two mediums over the past decade.
The fact Vesnakov was in charge of every episode also meant the production could be shot out of sequence, depending on the schedule. “It was an interesting learning process, particularly in how to deal with the arcs of the characters and how to direct them,” he says. “From a directing point of view, this was the most challenging part.”
Both Vesnakov and Bozhilova are now keen for Bulgarian television to produce further limited series. “For our industry, I hope we can stimulate the public to find interest in such TV series,” Vesnakov adds. “It’s not about the professionals; we can shoot these kinds of stories. [But there has to be public desire for] stories told in this kind of cinematic way, where you could have two or three minutes without dialogue, for example. This is something not common here – everyone is talking all the time.
“If this happens in Bulgaria, I would be very happy. It would be a big achievement.”
Jordi Frades, director of Spanish period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), tells DQ about filming the epic series and why he wanted to stay true to its source material.
Four months after its debut on Spain’s Antena 3, period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea) is now available worldwide on Netflix.
Set in Barcelona during the 14th century, the series uses the construction of the real-life church of Santa María del Mar as its backdrop. It focuses on a servant who, after escaping his father’s abuse, harbours ambitions to secure wealth and freedom – much to the disdain of the noble class and the suspicion of the Inquisition.
The large ensemble cast is led by Aitor Luna (Arnau) and Daniel Grao (Bernat), who share the screen with 2,500 extras. It is based on the book of the same name by Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones.
The eight-part drama is produced by Diagonal TV and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Here, director Jordi Frades tells DQ about the origins of the series, the challenges of production, filming epic battle scenes and why its intimate style means it shouldn’t be labelled Spain’s Game of Thrones.
How would you describe the story of La Catedral del Mar?
It is the story of how a child becomes a man and how a servant becomes a free man while Santa María del Mar is built in Barcelona during the 14th century. It is a story of pain, love and guilt – guilt as heavy as the stones that Arnau carries for the construction of the cathedral.
What was the origin of the series and how did you become involved?
When the novel was published in 2006, my father told me about it, saying there was a great movie or series in it. I read it and it impassioned me. But I found it impossible to produce for the screen because of the high budget that would be needed.
At that time, there was no tradition of period drama series in Spain. Years passed and I began to direct some period series: La Bella Otero, La Señora and República… Suddenly, the production company I was working for, Diagonal TV, told me to make a first document about the possible adaptation of La Catedral del Mar, to license the rights. So I made that document and they gave us the rights.
At that moment, the script process began. Rodolf Sirera, Antonio Onetti and Sergio Barrejón were going to be the writers who would adapt the novel. Meanwhile, I directed the three seasons of historical series Isabel and a film called The Broken Crown. Then the long process of pre-production for La Catedral del Mar began.
What was the appeal of directing this series?
I was passionate about recreating something that had touched me so much – a truly powerful story with great characters and emotional moments. I wanted to have the chance to show what life was like in Barcelona during those times, and at the same time it was the biggest production I had ever faced. It would have been a great challenge for any director.
How did you work with the writers during the script stage?
We had a great relationship because we agreed on almost everything. They made the great decisions on how to take the novel to script. They wrote a first draft with absolute freedom, and from there we worked together. I believed the adaptation should be totally faithful to the novel so the readers wouldn’t be disappointed. We incorporated some parts that had disappeared and that I wished to keep. We also changed the number of episodes from six to eight to find the right pace for the story.
The writers worked with humility, respecting the original author’s work. As we were having difficulties fully financing the series, shooting was delayed. That inconvenience, paradoxically, gave us the opportunity to improve the script in new versions.
How was the series developed with Antena 3?
We had the chance to work creatively with total freedom. As is often the case, they gave us some notes on the first versions of the script. At no time did I have the feeling that they intruded; they supported us completely and made the series better. In fact, I have always been lucky enough to work with total freedom.
Are there many parallels to contemporary Spain or does this series serve only as a historical story?
Class struggle is something timeless and universal. The same goes for feelings: love, pain, guilt…
How much did you use the original novel by Ildefonso Falcones as a guide to creating the show’s visual style?
I tried to shoot the scenes the way I imagined them when I read the novel. I went back to the novel to remember the feelings I had when I read it for the first time. I also delved into the atmospheric descriptions in the novel. Many of them gave me the right pacing and breakdown I was looking for.
Tell us about production – how did you approach filming this series?
It was very complex, because although the money needed to shoot the series had been collected, it was a very tight budget. That forced us to cut some scenes, which was very painful. I worked hand-in-hand with the production manager and assistant director to adjust the shooting days, locations, CGI and so on according to the budget. But I was sure that I wanted to tell the story in an intimate way and not try to emulate series like Game of Thrones or do things we did not have enough budget for.
Most of the series is shot on location – where did you film and how do you authentically recreate 14th century Spain in the modern day?
We shot in many parts of Spain: Cáceres, Madrid, Segovia, Sos del Rey Católico and Barcelona. The sum of all those locations was going to give us the feeling of period that we needed. We also had a lot of sets on a soundstage.
What was the biggest challenge during filming?
The most important thing was that the audience recognised the novel in the series and did not feel frustrated. So all decisions were made with this in mind. Regarding the production, the castle assault and the sea battle were the most difficult scenes. We were short of money, time and extras, and the CGI budget was also tight. In addition, I didn’t have much experience with those kinds of scenes. The stunt crew saved my life.
The construction of the cathedral was a great challenge as well. Marcelo Pacheco, the production designer, did great work by building the exterior cathedral set over a real cathedral in Cáceres.
What scene stands out as being particularly difficult with the number of extras, and how did you film this?
Without any doubt, the castle assault was the most difficult. We had to make 200 extras seem like more than a thousand people. The three armies involved in the battle were played by the same extras. First we shot one army, then we changed clothes and we shot the other army and so on. It was complex because we only had two days to shoot the entire battle.
Why does Spain continue to be fascinated by period dramas? Will this trend continue?
The historical genre exploded in Spain because of the success of Isabel. So far we have had a lot of period dramas, but not historical. I think period works so well because the audience is moved away from reality in all senses. The music, performances, costume and sets are far from our daily life. It gives the story a unique and poetic point of view.
Of course, it is also a matter of trends. Our market is now in a new cycle where everything is a thriller, but there is always a period series in development or production.
Is your role as a director changing?
I have always worked in the same way; there is nothing I do now that I did not do before. What has changed is technique. Before, almost every series was shot with multiple cameras on a set. Now they are shot in real locations with one or two cameras, like movies.
Is there a second season planned? What are you working on next?
La Catedral del Mar has a second part written: Heirs of the Earth, and we already have an adaptation proposal, but I guess it is still early days given the series is still airing on TV Cataluña and has just launched on Netflix. Now we are about to premiere Matadero, a very Spanish black comedy thriller, for Antena 3 and Amazon Prime Video.
Australian miniseries On the Ropes packs a punch with its story of a female boxing trainer striving for equality and a chance to succeed in the sport she loves. DQ speaks to stars Nicole Chamoun and Keisha Castle-Hughes plus producer Courtney Wise about the SBS show.
Preparing for an audition might typically involve researching the series, learning some scenes and, if possible, reading the entire script. But for her latest role, Nicole Chamoun didn’t just want to speak the part, she wanted to look the part too.
This didn’t simply mean a change of outfit, however, as Chamoun was putting herself forward to play an aspiring boxing trainer in Australian network SBS’s four-part miniseries On the Ropes.
“I wanted it so much and I just wanted to do as much as I could to embody the character prior to the audition. So about a month before, I started training maybe once or twice a week,” she explains.
Her audition and her commitment impressed the show’s producers and she won the role. “Then once I was cast, I was doing boxing and weight training five days a week,” she continues. “And because I play a trainer, it was a whole other skill set to train and do pad work, learn the technique and the language, as well as learning how to throw a punch and to feel what it’s like to be hit. It was a lot but it’s awesome.”
On the Ropes — described as a “sexy, gritty drama that is fast-paced and full of heart” — stars Chamoun as Amirah Al-Amir, a wannabe trainer who has idolised her world-champion father Sami (Igal Naor) her entire life.
Working in the family gym in Sydney’s western suburbs alongside her two brothers, she negotiates a professional debut match for her hardnosed fighter Jess O’Connor (Keisha Castle-Hughes) with Sami’s long-time promoter Strick (Jack Thompson). But when her furious father threatens to cut her off, Amirah must choose whether to chase her dream or choose her family.
Chamoun says the eight-week production — two weeks of prep and six of filming — was a “really special experience” and she fell in love with the sport.
“Boxing was all new to me,” she admits. “It was my first time experiencing a character from the physicality aspect of it, which was really interesting. The physical stuff of the boxing world was so important to who she was as a person and it coloured so much of her identity that we did a lot of the character work simply by turning up to boxing training. So that was cool, and watching my body transform and seeing myself get stronger and picking up a new skill set, it was great. I loved it.”
Producer Courtney Wise says she was sold on Chamoun from her first audition, impressed that she had nailed the character of Amirah. “But when we realised she’d gotten into boxing, that was a bonus that we discovered later. Seeing all these Instagram pictures of her boxing was exciting but we didn’t know that straightaway.”
Amirah grows to love boxing after being brought up in that world, but finds it’s only when she wants to step out on her own that she is confronted by opposition, most notably from her father.
“I think if Amirah were born a boy, it would have been a different situation,” says Wise. “She’s really talented in terms of boxing and would have been a natural heir but, because she’s not a boy, it’s that much harder for her. Sami’s responsible for nurturing her in this world but when it comes to making it her career, that’s where it becomes not for him because he does have that deeply entrenched, patriarchal view of the sport.
“When she decides to go pro, that’s when he and his wife start to panic and draw those lines in the sand. She knew he wouldn’t approve, but not how much it would tear the whole family apart.”
Chamoun says Amirah challenges traditional representations of men and women, in a story that tackles themes of gender inequality, multi-generational conflicts and the difficulties facing immigrant families. “The only reason she can challenge her family the way she does is because she knows they love her unconditionally. It’s not like he’s the big bad father who doesn’t respect women’s place in the world. She’s questioning all the things he’s grown up to know and believe in the boxing world and in the community. That’s where it’s coming from. He’s protecting her.
“But she’s a strong-ass woman. She knows what she wants and has the courage to fight for it. And they could be from any background – this story just happens to have an Iraqi-Australian family.”
Like Chamoun, Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones, Whale Rider) went through a demanding regime to play boxer Jess, training for up to five hours a day for eight weeks before shooting began. “In boxing, you don’t have anywhere to hide. There’s nowhere to go,” the Oscar-nominated actor says. “You can build your strength up and get as strong as you can, but it really comes down to mental endurance.”
Castle-Hughes admits she often felt “broken” on set, such was the demanding nature of the role and the fight sequences she had to perform. Body doubles were used, but the actors did the vast majority of the physical work themselves. “But I felt really supported,” she says. “Nicole and I had such a special relationship — it was very easy for us to be the trainer and the fighter.
“Jess and Amirah are closer than anyone else, especially when training. There’s a level of deep respect that was required. You see their relationship and they learn so much from each other.”
The idea for On the Ropes came from Wise, a self-proclaimed boxing fan, who wanted to set a drama in the world of sport. She devised the characters and the story before writing a series outline, bringing in writers including Tamara Asmar (Doctor Doctor), Adam Todd (Wentworth) and Ian Meadows (House Husbands).
Boxers such as Australian pro Bianca Elmir were also on hand to bring authenticity to the series, with Elmir also helping with the fight choreography. The series isn’t filled with boxing sequences, however, as Wise was keen to ensure viewers didn’t suffer from “fight fatigue.” When such scenes do appear, though, she says they are narratively driven and reflect the emotional relationships of the characters.
Barring a car-park brawl, Chamoun was largely on the sidelines for the fight sequences, as the trainer watching from behind the ropes, but she did climb into the ring for sparring scenes with Castle-Hughes and fellow actor Louis Hunter.
“Both Keisha and Louis worked so hard and it was so incredible. I have so much admiration for them,” Chamoun says. “I don’t even know how they did that as well as the acting and the character work on top of it. Also, I’m very clumsy so I feel like it wouldn’t have been good for anyone if I were in the ring. It’s best to have me on the sidelines — using my voice is my strength.”
Behind the camera is Shannon Murphy (Offspring), who directed all four episodes of the miniseries, produced for SBS by Lingo Pictures and distributed worldwide by DCD Rights. Wise says Murphy succeeded in getting grounded, authentic performances and a unique visual style that matches the unfamiliar setting for the story.
“When I took Shannon to one of her first fight nights, she instantly fell in love with it and then took all those visual elements and pushed it to a whole new level,” Wise explains. “She did that across the series and, when you look at it, it’s very visually distinct and that’s all credit to her embracing that and really giving it a push.”
Chamoun says the series pays respect to boxing, with many from the sport playing a part in the development and production of the drama. “I feel like that world’s going to be surprised about how authentically we have delivered it,” she says. “I’m just really honoured to have been part of a project where we’re putting on screen Arab-Australian characters that are not the victims or the terrorists. I hope there are women who see themselves in me being represented on screen.”
Having appeared recently in both Romper Stomper and Safe Harbour, the actor says she has enjoyed some “really beautiful, heartfelt, juicy roles and stories,” with On the Ropes following that same vein. It is due to air later this year.
“I just want to play bold, strong, powerful women,” she adds. “I feel like I’ve only had the opportunity to play Arab women so far, so I do think it’s important that we challenge that part of things. It would be nice to play some roles that are not based on my ethnic background, but then again it’s all about the story and the character. And if they’re strong women with something to say, I hope I have an opportunity to play them.”
A new daily drama aims to paint a portrait of modern France. DQ speaks to producer Toma de Matteis about France 2’s scripted series Un si Grand Soleil (Chronicles of the Sun), which has an initial commission of 235 episodes.
The lives of more than 50 characters collide in a new daily drama launched by French broadcast network France 2.
Un si Grand Soleil (Chronicles of the Sun) begins as Claire travels back to the seaside city of Montpellier with her teenage son Theo after a 17-year absence. Her return from Africa is motivated by her need to reveal the existence of a family to Theo, and to enrol him in high school.
Most importantly, she has a meeting with a childhood friend who has information regarding her sister’s disappearance. But when Claire finds this friend murdered, she is taken into custody and accused of the crime.
The series, which launched last month, interweaves tales of family, love, drama and everyday life in the south of France.
With a directing team led by Benoît d’Aubert and Chris Nahon, the large ensemble cast is headed by Mélanie Maudran as Claire, plus Moïse Santamaria (Manu), Jérémy Banster (Julien), Emma Colberti, Gary Guénaire (Theo) and Gabrielle Lazure (Marie).
The drama is produced by France TV Studio and Epeios Productions, with France TV Distribution handling overseas sales.
Here, producer Toma de Matteis tells DQ about the opportunities and challenges of producing a daily drama, with France 2 initially committing to 235 episodes.
How would you describe Chronicles of the Sun?
Chronicles of the Sun is a daily serial drama of 22-minute episodes aimed at a broad audience. It portrays today’s France: modern, multiple, diverse, innovative and aspirational. Against a thriller background, the first season presents the heartbreaks, moral dilemmas, love affairs, dreams, mysteries and fits of anger and laughter that shape the daily lives of the people of the Southern French city of Montpellier and its surrounding area.
What did France 2 want in terms of a new daily drama and how did you develop the series with the network?
France 2 wanted to have its own daily serial produced in-house by the France Télévisions group and its France TV Studio production subsidiary. The channel felt it was important for the daily series to reflect contemporary France and embody its values: multiplicity, diversity and innovation. France 2 participated in all stages of the series’ development, which lasted nearly a year-and-a-half from the first auditions to the writing and choice of locations. Ultimately, this show is the fruit of a totally symbiotic collaboration between the producer on the one hand and the broadcaster on the other.
What advantages does this continuous format have over a normal episodic series?
The advantage of a daily serial is definitely the opportunity it provides to explore the lives and emotions of the characters in great depth; to spend time with them and so create a fresco of today’s France that is much less simplistic than would be the case for a more traditional series format.
Featuring a very wide range of characters is a specific characteristic of this type of daily format, making it possible to develop a broader spectrum of genuine social viewpoints and to analyse them in a much subtler way. In short, the everyday format provides a rich, fascinating reflection of French society.
How would you describe the writing process – how do you plot storylines for up to 50 characters?
The process is highly structured. Twenty-five writers take their turn in a number of workshops directed by a ‘conductor,’ Olivier Szulzynger, who is the coordinator of the large team.
What is the look or style of the drama and how did you achieve this?
The idea is to stick as closely as possible to the zeitgeist and those things that shape modern Franc – its diversity, dynamic nature, aspirations and actual optimism!
This intention shapes the series’ look and style, which are modern, lively and dynamic, the fruit of meticulous teamwork bringing together the showrunner, the artistic director, the channel’s editorial head and the producer.
Tell us about the team making the series. Will it remain the same group, or will you have new people joining at different times?
Naturally, there’s a core team behind the writing, look and style, music and so on. But obviously new talent will be joining the venture. That’s important because it brings in fresh ideas and new blood, and regeneration is an essential issue when working on this type of format.
Is the series realistic?
Yes, Chronicles of the Sun is generally rooted in a form of reality. The problems encountered, the everyday lives of the characters – all those things closely reflect real life. However, it doesn’t drift into ultra-reality or some form of ‘reporting.’ It is very much fictional. It takes our viewers into an ‘improved’ everyday world.
What stories do you hope to tell about modern France and why is this format the best way to do it?
The daily format and the range of characters the series requires enable us to present viewers with an array of viewpoints, examining a wide diversity of social problems without acting as a censor or judge. Each viewer can come to their own conclusions. Our role, our public service broadcasting mission in this daily serial for the general public, is to encourage and facilitate social debate.
What are the biggest challenges in making a continuing drama like Chronicles of the Sun?
The greatest challenge is to make it last! And to update the format while maintaining the quality, enthusiasm and freshness that have allowed Chronicles of the Sun to get off to such a good start on France 2.
How long could the series continue for?
For decades! In any case, that’s what we’re hoping, and the whole team will be working to achieve that.
Writer-director Thomas Cailley introduces DQ to Ad Vitam, a French sci-fi thriller in which two detectives are tasked to investigate a mass suicide in a futuristic world in which death has been ‘cured.’
Described as a mix between Korean crime film Memories of Murder, seminal sci-fi movie Blade Runner and iconic TV drama The X-Files, French thriller Ad Vitam is set in a futuristic world where everyone believes death has been ‘cured.’ But what happens when the bodies of seven youngsters are discovered – apparently the participants of a mass suicide.
The story sees Darius (played by Yvan Attal), a 120-year-old cop, tasked with investigating alongside his rebellious partner Christa (Garance Marillier). The cast also includes Niels Schneider, Rod Paradot, Hanna Schygulla, Anne Azoulay, Ariane Labed, Victor Assié and Anthony Bajon, with music composed by Parisian collective HiTnRuN.
Produced by Kelija for French-German network Arte, the six-part series is distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution. Ad Vitam screened earlier this year at Séries Mania in Lille, France, and today it will be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.
Here, director and co-writer Thomas Cailley (Les Combattants, Trepalium) tells DQ more about the series.
How would you describe the story of Ad Vitam?
In a world where death is thought to have been conquered, young people are finding it harder to find their place. Darius, a 120-year-old cop, is investigating the collective suicide of a group of minors. Was it a death pact, a political act, a cry for help from a desperate generation? Darius heads up the investigation and takes Christa, a suicidal young rebel, along for the ride on this voyage of initiation to the depths of a world drifting toward eternity – or oblivion.
What are the origins of the series?
Today, life expectancy in France is 82, well beyond the biological barrier we thought was unsurpassable only decades ago. Co-author Sébastien Mounier and I became interested in this desire for life extension, the far-fetched promises that come with it, and frightening transhumanist prophecies that consider death an anomaly, a disease that can be cured. Family, work and relationships would all be redefined. Among the countless questions raised by the promise of immortality, one seemed crucial to us: what place do young generations inhabit in a world where people don’t die? Can a civilisation survive without renewing itself, without evolving? It was this mind-boggling, existential malaise that we chose to explore.
How did you blend elements of science fiction with the hard-boiled crime genre?
We wanted to situate Ad Vitam at the crossroads of several genres, blending crime thriller, sci-fi, fantasy and occasionally comedy. The advantage of the crime thriller, and of hard-boiled crime in particular, is its porous nature. It’s a very ‘impure’ genre that allows for lots of things: to question and critique social order, develop complex characters and combine action with a kind of reflection, of poetry. The sci-fi setting as a backdrop makes the story stronger and the metaphor clearer. It allows for more candid questions about youth, death and passing down between generations.
What type of world did you want to create? What rules did you put in place for the characters and society at large?
We wanted it to be a world that was democratic and full of life – in other words, a world that asked itself questions. It is not a pure dystopia where an overpowering authority lays down the rules of the game, in the process confining the characters and reducing the metaphor to a societal game. We took this simple question as a starting point: if tomorrow we found a way to defy death, and it was sold at the local drugstore, who would we be to reject it? We wanted the regeneration to be a free and personal choice. In other words, a moral choice, accompanied by mind-blowing questions like is a person who doesn’t grow old still a person? Does eternal life still have meaning? Does death define one’s humanity?
How was the story developed with Arte?
We sent Arte a 30-page concept pitch, with elements of the synopsis, character backgrounds and a rough idea of its visual and stylistic world. Arte encouraged us to continue. When we sent them the pilot script, that’s when they decided to get on board. After that, we started a series of regular exchanges with them, about the drama and plot as well as our vision of the central themes of the series (the question of death and youth). It took a year-and-a-half to develop it.
How would you describe the writing process?
As organic as possible. Here again, we took the characters as the starting point. Who is Darius? What does it mean to be 120 years old? What does he need from Christa? What does their encounter stir up in them? How do their visions of the world differ? Do they still have anything to transmit to each other, in a world where there is nothing to transmit? And so on. The criminal intrigue followed, twisting its way around their personal journeys. Sébastien and I agreed we didn’t want to impose a preordained structure or story on the characters. Instead, we let the characters guide our writing, without planning ahead what would happen, which is why the ‘codes’ of this new world are not all set out from the start in the pilot. We learn how the society works as the story progresses. We wanted the adventure to be immersive, for their world to be revealed in depth, layer by layer. Evil does lurk in the shadows of this world, but it takes time to show its true face.
What style or tone were you aiming for and how did you achieve this?
We wanted to have the investigation unfold like a journey; a journey of initiation and of the senses. It is experienced by the characters and, I hope, by the viewers as something physical and philosophical, but also like a trip. To sum up, I’d say Ad Vitam is a cross between Memories of Murder, Blade Runner and The X-Files.
How was music from HiTnRuN used to enhance the drama?
I had already worked with HiTnRuN on my first feature, Les Combattants. I had really liked their sound and their approach, which combines electronic and analog music in a very natural way. Electronic music can often sound cold and automatic; this isn’t the case with their music.
Generally, we agreed never to have atmospheric music. Music is either there or it isn’t, but when it’s there, you can hear it. It doesn’t hide and it’s never used to fill a silence.
What were the biggest challenges on the series?
Apart from two sequences, the entire show was filmed in real locations. That’s about 100 different sets for the six episodes. We tried to limit our use of green screens as much as possible. It was a necessary choice to make the story and its world as real as possible. The special effects naturally served to enhance the whole. But in terms odf creating worlds and decors in the abstract, we had neither the means nor the desire to do so. It’s something you can always sense in the end; it derealises the action and saps the emotion. I think to create and develop a complex, living world, you need to start with complex, living matter.
How does Ad Vitam stand out from other dramas in France?
Yvan Attal and Garance Marillier! In their first series, Yvan brings to Darius all his charisma, intelligence and a strength that the camera immediately latches on to. Garance brings to Christa her intensity, instinct and stunning determination. Yvan and Garance together form a character and actor duo that is unexpected yet utterly evident. And we are lucky that they are surrounded by a great many talented actors: Niels Schneider, Ariane Labed, Rod Paradot, Hanna Schygulla, Anthony Bajon, Vassili Schneider…
How does the series appeal to an international audience?
Sci-fi and genre fiction in general allows for the development of powerful metaphors, and the building of an imaginary world that surpasses local particularities. I hope our series has all these strengths. Ad Vitam is French in its cast and language but universal in its themes and their portrayal.
How is French drama opening up to new genres and stories such as Ad Vitam?
It’s been a few years since a wave of freedom hit French television, and the boundary between film and TV has become blurred. Actors, directors and writers easily switch from one to the other now because they understand that television offers a creative space for truly exceptional projects, stories with very bold creative choices. There’s a real hunger for this genre in France, from both creators and viewers.
In the age of binge-watching, what makes a compelling drama that demands viewers watch the next episode immediately? DQ speaks to a host of writers to find out how they keep audiences hooked to the very end.
By now, the effects of the television streaming revolution are well known: there are more shows than ever, in more genres – and without the confines of a weekly schedule, viewers can and do binge multiple episodes in one sitting.
But what has been the effect of this changing landscape on writers in the business? Have they changed their approach to storytelling accordingly, knowing viewers may watch weekly or binge an entire season at once?
One of the best recent examples of a drama series that unashamedly draws viewers in with a plot full of twists and turns and demands watching more than a single episode in one go is Safe, the eight-part Netflix series starring Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a father searching for his missing daughter. During the course of the story, Hall’s Tom discovers revelations that turn the local community upside down as the truth behind a decades-old scandal is uncovered.
It’s exactly the kind of show you would expect from creator Harlan Coben, the bestselling US novelist known for writing fast-paced, gripping thrillers. He has since applied the same formula to the small screen, first in Sky1 drama The Five and more recently with Safe, which landed on Netflix in May.
On both series, Coben has worked alongside British writer Danny Brocklehurst and Red Production Company to craft the closed-ended stories, with Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Come Home) then leading the scriptwriting process.
“For me, it’s always about the human angle. That’s the only thing I can ever really connect with,” Brocklehurst says when asked what makes compelling drama. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to make my stuff have an emotional core. Even with the stuff I do with Harlan, although it’s quite fast-paced and hooky and we’re looking for those twists all the time, I do try to get the audience invested in the characters.
“There can be a really good mystery at the heart of something, there can be a whodunnit or whatever that keeps people watching, but in the end, what people really like are the characters and the world, and that’s what you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about up front.”
A show like Safe is markedly different from Come Home, an emotional, character-led three-parter that explores the impact of a mother’s decision to leave her family. From the outset, Safe was designed to be binge-watched, the TV equivalent of one of Coben’s novels.
“The only problem with that is people expect that pace all the time,” Brocklehurst admits. “For example, in another series you might think about whether an episode could be a little slower or you might go off on a tangent for a bit, but what you’ve got to do is keep moving forward and servicing the plot. You want people to invest in the characters, but once you’ve set yourself up as a thriller that will have lots of twists and is going to keep surprising and wrong-footing the audience, you’ve got to keep that going as well.
“It’s like running a very elaborate relay race – you just keep passing the baton from episode to episode, hoping that people are compelled by the mystery, like the characters and want to get to the end.”
Like Coben, Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger also comes from a book-writing background and she agrees that propulsive storytelling – the ‘bingeability’ factor – is very novelistic. “Harlan’s books are definitely like that and I think we aim for that with this kind of television,” Winger says. “It is a different way to write. You’re not writing something that’s going to end easily. You need to load the gun at the beginning of a series – you get into the mindset of really pushing it and it’s exciting.”
Winger, who is putting the finishing touches to Cold War drama Deutschland 83’s sequel Deutschland 86 ahead of its debut this autumn, says some of her favourite shows, such as The Wire and Friday Night Lights, blend soap opera elements with societal themes and issues. “That multi-layered storytelling is what I’m most interested in. Friday Night Lights is officially about American football but it’s about everything in society, from race and class to health insurance,” she explains. “That’s something I try to do in Deutschland – to give it two levels at the same time. For people who are interested in history and politics, it’s all there but it’s also just a great adventure story about these characters.
“Then there are shows like Doctor Foster that take place out of time and place. It had no location. It strips away all of that – no history, no politics, no location. It’s all about the intense experience of this character, and it’s so propulsive. I watched the whole thing at once.”
Daragh Carville, the writer of forthcoming ITV crime drama The Bay, shares Winger’s affinity for shows that mix genre and family drama. “Something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos where it’s both a crime drama and a family drama, that’s the sweet spot I really respond to,” he says. “It needs to have a narrative drive that comes from a combination of character and genre. Tone is really important. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of the impact of tonality where something is terrifying and funny at the same time. Something can be edge-of-your-seat exhilarating but also deeper, emotional and truthful.”
A show like Danish/Swedish crime drama Broen/Bron (The Bridge) epitomises the fine balance between character and plot, presenting characters that viewers want to watch and a storyline that compels them to get to the end of each of its four seasons.
“It’s important that the characters are affected by what’s happening around them, that you can draw in personal stories sometimes,” explains Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of the Scandinavian hit. “I also think The Bridge is like a whodunnit: we have red herrings and the audience has to work out who the murderer is and you’re trying to surprise them. It’s a balance you have to work with. In the fourth season there were such strong personal stories for [lead characters] Saga and Henrik, so we could spend a little more time with them and not only the case.”
Except in the case of shows specifically made for bingeing, like Safe, Ahlgren says writers never consider whether viewers will watch episodes weekly or in one go. “We don’t even think the whole world is going to watch,” she jokes. “We try to find stories we like and find interesting. The Bridge is sometimes over the top or larger than life as well, so we try to do things we haven’t seen before or try to surprise the audience – in a good way.
“Often when I enjoy something, it’s the characters I’m looking for. I like Happy Valley very much; there are strong characters and it’s realistic. Shows like Killing Eve are something new, showing a different way of telling a story, with strong women and humour in it. I like the characters. That’s important for me.”
David Nicholls, the author and screenwriter behind Sky Atlantic drama Patrick Melrose, says all of the really compelling TV dramas come down to difficult characters – “characters who are complicated and not always likeable and are often quite wicked, insensitive, immoral and unpleasant,” he says. “I think I find that much more compelling than a hero’s recurring adventures. I like things to be gritty, tricky and painful.”
Nicholls confesses he’s “not a big binge-watcher,” and says he has rarely completed a series that runs to as many as seven seasons. “To me, often it’s like not finishing a novel,” he explains. “You get a little bit bored towards the end, episodes seem repetitive and you know the ending’s going to be anti-climactic and disappointing, so I’m constantly bailing on TV shows. The ones I’ve stuck with often have tricky characters with virtuoso performances at their centre.”
The one exception, Nicholls admits, is Breaking Bad, which did grip him like a great novel. “So many other long-running series I’ve just bailed quite quickly because they get repetitive. But Breaking Bad I didn’t really feel that, I just sucked it up. Game of Thrones is my other great vice. Those are the two that keep me occupied.”
For Chris Lang, creator and writer of ITV historic crime drama Unforgotten (pictured top), the key to a compelling drama can be found at a more emotional level. “Truthfulness is what I seek in TV,” he says. “I’m looking for a truthfulness, honesty and insight into the human condition that surprises you. I’m also looking for believability, but not always. I want to be transported and heightened.”
Lang picks out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a series that is “constantly surprising and absolutely compelling.” He also highlights Billions, which he describes as “heightened but with brilliant dialogue and challenging,” while Happy Valley and Broken are both populated with “superb characters, all characterised by honesty.”
Echoing Lang, Keeping Faith creator and writer Matthew Hall believes compelling drama comes down to the emotional conflict inside the central characters. The more lead characters can be pulled in different directions and the more impossible choices they are confronted with, the more interesting they are, he says, adding: “That’s just a fundamental rule of drama.”
Hall says his two favourite drama series are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, which he describes as “domestic dramas about people who ultimately just want their family to be happy and provided for. But life has conspired to make them do outrageous and impossible things to maintain that domestic stability. All the most successful TV dramas are about family in one way or another because that’s our universal experience.
“We love each other and hate each other with extreme passion, often at the same time. That’s what I wanted to inject into Keeping Faith, so Faith [who is searching for her missing husband and played by Eve Myles] married into this extended family and they both love her and hate her. The process of dramatisation is your central characters all have to have something huge at stake in the central narrative.”
Plot is also key, of course. Each season of Unforgotten opens with the discovery of a body and two detectives tasked with bringing the culprits to book. There are also a handful of seemingly unrelated characters who, through the course of the story, are each revealed to have been connected with the victim, with Lang expertly building the tension until the reveal at the season’s end.
“The plot is the device to open the story, and you have to get it right,” the writer says. “It’s one of the things that pulls people through. But I don’t use it to hang the characters on. Instead, I use it to explore interesting dynamics within families. There are endlessly interesting stories to tell in a dysfunctional family.”
Describing the process of piecing together a story as “Darwinian,” Lang continues: “It’s a to and fro relationship between character and narrative – it evolves, it’s not created. The characters and the plot emerge slowly. You go back to one or the other and keep doing that until you’re working through the episodes.”
Hall, meanwhile, compares the construction of a story to chiselling out a statue. “There’s a finished work in there somewhere, you’ve just got to discover it,” he says.
There remains a debate, however, over the extent to which a drama should rely on plot devices like cliffhangers or red herrings to keep audiences gripped as the show carries them along to its conclusion. “If you’re making something for Netflix or Amazon, the ‘bingeability’ factor is significant,” Winger says. “In the past there were cliffhangers that made you come back the next week, but it’s not quite the same as that. It’s almost as if you have the luxury to write a whole story, a really long movie, because you know your audience will keep watching it, while we didn’t have that opportunity before.”
Carville says cliffhangers are needed but stresses that an “organic” structure is key to any successful drama. “Really what we want is to tell human stories and explore character,” he says. “They way you do that is through structure and a kind of narrative that has forward dynamics to it. Cliffhangers are really just turning points in the story and they always have to be emotional.”
Plot devices are “absolutely invaluable,” according to Hall, “but the point is they’re of secondary significance. If you just manufacture them, they’re not powerful, but if they’re motivated through the story, they work and become powerful.”
Brocklehurst, however, warns against the use of endings that cheat viewers in some way. “You’re always trying to play fair with the story you’re telling and not just suddenly creating a massive cheating hook just because you need something to make people watch the next one,” he notes.
Ultimately, the trick for writers is to “write something you want to watch,” Winger sums up. “The most important thing as a writer is that you want to write the next episode. You want to know what happens next and to just go down a rabbit hole with these stories.”
And if the writer wants to know what happens next, there’s a good chance viewers will too. How they watch it, however, is up to them.
Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of The Bridge, opens up about the hit Swedish/Danish crime drama and reveals some of the secrets behind making the series.
After seven years and four seasons, Swedish/Danish drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) came to an end earlier this year. The impact of the series on international television cannot be overstated, with the show arguably becoming the biggest Scandinavian hit of the last decade – a time when Nordic noir became a global phenomenon on the back of scripted series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen, Below the Surface and The Legacy.
The Bridge hasn’t disappeared from screens entirely, however, with both a German/Austrian version and a Malaysian/Singaporean remake in the works, following in the footsteps of The Bridge US, a Russian/Estonian effort and The Tunnel, set between the UK and France.
But Camilla Ahlgren, the head writer of the original series, is in no doubt that it was the right time to say goodbye to Swedish detective Saga Noren and her Danish counterpart Henrik Sabroe, with the series running one season longer than is usually the case for even the most successful Scandi shows.
“Of course, you’re a little bit sad to leave these great characters, but it’s also a relief,” she says. “It’s good to stop if we are on top of things. With other series, I get a little bit bored after the fifth season; I don’t think it’s going to get better. It was not an easy decision but we all agreed on it – producers and actors – and we had one story for Saga to tell and also to continue the story of Henrik and his family. We are quite happy we stopped and it’s good for us because we knew when we started [the fourth season] that this was going to be the end, so we could make the story the last thing we will see with Saga.”
Ahlgren says the success of The Bridge, which was created by Hans Rosenfeldt, comes down to its mix of plot, often rooted in real-life political and social issues, and its characters – most notably the now iconic Saga and her partners during the series, Martin Rohde and Henrik.
But despite the importance of Saga, played by Sofia Helin to much acclaim, it was actually the character of Martin (Kim Bodnia) that was the starting point for the series, with the creative team having Bodnia in mind for the role from the off. The Danish half of the central partnership, he was pitched as a likeable family man with children. “And then what is the opposite of Martin?” Ahlgren asks. “They created Saga.”
“In the beginning, it was difficult to like her and we didn’t explain why she behaved like she did. But she was a very good cop. That’s also something good about the show – we don’t explain everything. The audience has to learn more and more about her during the season. At the end of the day, they started to love her. She’s also a character who can say everything. She speaks out loud what she thinks.”
Through the four seasons, the dark secrets and personal stories of the central characters were slowly revealed, to the point that they became just as important as the main case in the final season. Ahlgren says it was important the detectives were affected by the crimes they were investigating, often finding links and parallels to situations in their private lives.
Saga is a particular case in point, with not much being known about the detective at the outset, despite her obvious social anxieties. But that allowed the writers to shape her character in response to the various crimes she investigated as the series progressed.
“At the beginning of the first season, if you looked at Saga’s character description, you wouldn’t know much about her. She was very lonely and had no parents. Suddenly, in the first season, it was the producer who asked if Saga could become affected by the case in some way, where we had a young girl shot in a garage. We thought maybe if Saga had a sister who committed suicide, this could remind her of her sister. So we created a scene at the graveyard, and it’s the one and only scene where we have snow, because we shot it later on.”
This plot point was carried into the second season with the revelation that Saga’s sister committed suicide after being mistreated by their parents. “So we constructed Saga’s personal story along the way,” Ahlgren continues. “It’s also good not to write a thick character bible in the beginning because you never know how the process will develop. Then you can do something that you have created. We were lucky because Saga never said, ‘My parents are dead,’ so then her parents came up in the third season. It’s a very interesting way to work, and the process suddenly creates a story you didn’t know in the beginning.”
For every action, there is a reaction – and The Bridge’s writing team made sure they discussed in depth how characters would react to events as they unfolded. One of the biggest decisions they made early on was to kill off Martin’s son in season one. “We discussed that a lot,” Ahlgren says. “For every decision, you have to know how you do it, why and how it will affect the characters. That’s the most important thing, and then we can tell stories like Martin’s son and how he can relate to this, and also with Henrik.” Following Bodnia’s decision to leave the series, season three introduced Henrik as Saga’s new partner, a man still grieving the loss of his two daughters after they disappeared several years earlier, though that mystery was wrapped up by the series finale.
“I also liked very much taking in a new main character. We had prepared for Martin for the third season and suddenly Kim didn’t want to do it. Then we had to create a totally new character and new stories. It was a challenge but it also brought new energy in the third season. That’s difficult when you do season after season – it’s difficult not to repeat yourself.”
The often harsh landscapes and bleak production design certainly give The Bridge a unique look that has added to the series’ appeal for international viewers. But Ahlgren points another, more subtle, difference between Scandinavian series and others around the world that has made the series stand out from the crowd, namely the way the dialogue is written and delivered.
“There is a difference in dialogue because the emotion in the scene is often between the lines,” she says. “We talk less, or explain less, because we think you can see it in the actor. We don’t talk about [emotions] either in our culture. Maybe we have less emotional dialogue. We also like to watch new faces, new characters, new actors. It’s something new when you watch our series.”
Ahlgren is currently developing new shows of her own, but taking up most of her time is upcoming Netflix drama Quicksand, the streamer’s first Swedish original. Based on Malin Persson Giolito’s novel Störst av Allt (Quicksand) and produced by FLX (Bonusfamiljen/The Bonus Family), it sees high-school student Maja Norberg put on trial for murder following a mass shooting at a prep school in a Stockholm suburb. And when the events of that tragic day are revealed, so too are the private details about her relationship with Sebastian Fagerman and his dysfunctional family.
“I’m the head writer and we are in the middle of the writing process. We start filming this autumn,” says Ahlgren, adding: “It’s a new experience for me to work with Netflix. Right now it’s quite similar in the script process, but sometimes you have to explain emotions. Then we’ll see how it ends. It’s quite similar so so far, so good.”
Wendell Pierce and Dina Shihabi, two stars of Amazon Prime Video action drama Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, tell DQ about how the series stands out for its blend of action and characterisation and for its representation of characters from an Arab background.
HBO drama The Wire, which is regularly hailed as one of the best series of all time, was among a handful of shows to air around the millennium that broke new ground by delving deeper into character and placing less focus on procedural storytelling.
Now 16 years after the first of its five seasons launched on the iconic US cable channel, one of the show’s stars can see the similarities between The Wire and his latest project, Amazon Prime Video action thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
“What has changed [since The Wire] is now people see they can do more in-depth work and they don’t have to reduce every episode to a beginning, middle and end. So there are more anthology series on television, which lend themselves to more involved and complex storylines. It challenges you as an actor a little bit more,” admits Wendell Pierce, who starred as Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland in The Wire and is now playing CIA boss James Greer in Jack Ryan.
“There’s more interesting work being done on television almost every year because the bar is being set higher and higher. Work that you normally got to do on film, you get to do on television. That’s the change, and I’m very proud to have been a part of the wave that changed television.”
Jack Ryan centres on the titular up-and-coming CIA analyst as he is thrust into a dangerous field assignment for the first time. Pierce’s hot-headed Greer teams up with Ryan (John Krasinski) to identify a potential terrorist described as the next Osama Bin Laden.
The series was created by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, who executive produce with Krasinski, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Lindsey Springer, Mace Neufeld, Vince Calandra, Andrew Bernstein, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross. It is produced by Paramount Television, Genre Arts, Platinum Dunes and Skydance Television.
Pierce says he was drawn to the series by Clancy’s iconic characters – made famous by the author’s books and their numerous film adaptations – plus its great writing and the chance to work alongside Krasinski (The Office, A Quiet Place), Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) and Roland (Prison Break).
“I also got a chance to work with actors from all around the world, and the material itself lends itself to a multitude of possibilities. So I knew it was going to be interesting and eclectic,” he says. “They were trying to do something original and not just a television version of the books. All of that was appealing to me – and then to do that while travelling around the world and acting with people from around the world, it’s very exciting.”
Pierce was also enticed by the fact all eight episodes of the show were made available to watch in more than 240 countries around the world on the same day as the premiere in LA. “In one moment in time, everyone can see it. That’s pretty amazing,” he enthuses.
Playing a CIA officer was also a new experience for the actor, whose credits also include Suits, Treme and Ray Donovan. But to prepare for the role, he did a lot of research, meeting current and former CIA officers. “They are multi-dimensional and complex people, but they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he says. “I got to understand how that work affects their personal life because you find out things during the course of the show that affect James Greer’s personal life. They were a great resource.”
The first season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – season two has already been confirmed – begins with Greer despondent as he faces the end of his career after being bumped down to a desk job. But right at the moment when he thinks his best days are behind him, he’s rejuvenated by Ryan, a young analyst who reminds him of all the reasons he became a CIA officer in the first place.
The opening episode sees Greer and Ryan head to the Middle East to interrogate suspected terrorists, before a massive firefight erupts inside a desert compound. But while there’s plenty of action, Greer says this is finely balanced with quieter moments as the characters and their relationships are explored.
“With the action, it’s not arbitrary sensational acting,” he continues. “Everything is very specific, so the action and thriller part of the investigation are even-handed and you find an element of both in each, so that’s what I like about the way it’s come together.
“I enjoyed the action stuff, being on helicopters and all that. But also doing the research and putting that together, I really enjoyed that part of it too. Then the locations and working with actors from different parts of the world. You don’t realise what we have in common and how expressive and inventive people can be. It puts you on your toes and you appreciate being in the moment because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Among the actors sharing the screen with Pierce is Dina Shihabi, who plays Hanin Suleiman, the wife of the man being hunted by Ryan and Greer. When she first appears, she’s shown with her three kids playing football, before a band of suspicious people turn up at her house. But while not much more is revealed in those initial scenes, it’s clear she will have an integral role in the events that play out during the season.
The series marks Shihabi’s first major television role, and the actor says she was thrilled to be playing a “strong, intelligent, brave woman,” particularly one from an Arab background. “She felt like the women I knew and grew up with, and I don’t see that portrayed in Western TV,” she explains. “Usually when you see Arab women on screen, they’re victimised or aren’t given a voice, so they’re an ‘other’ – they look different, dress different and sound different. So I’m especially proud, as an Arab woman, that that’s what I’m putting out into the world, because I think we need more Arab women on screen who are smart and powerful.”
The actor, who grew up in Dubai and now splits her time between New York and LA, believes unfair portrayals of Arabs on screen “rob” viewers in the West of learning about a culture they might be unfamiliar with. “Then for the Arab world, it’s important to see positive portrayals of them in the Western media. If all you’re seeing is a terrorist, that’s how you feel the rest of the world thinks about you.”
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan goes so far as to show the events that motivate Hanin’s husband, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), to wage war against the West. “He believes he’s fighting for his people; he believes he’s protecting his family,” Shihabi says. “Everyone has these deep and strong motivations and they don’t all line up, and that’s a very complex, human, riveting story.”
There is no doubt Mousa bin Suleiman is a bad person, but it’s also important that viewers understand he wasn’t always like that, Shihabi argues. “What this series does is shows you how he becomes that person and it shows you what that person’s family is like. Then you get to spend an extremely intimate amount of time with that person’s wife and you get to know her not just as his wife but as a person in the world. I just find that so powerful, and those are the stories we have to tell.”
The fact Hanin plays a pivotal role in the series was particularly exciting for the actor, who reveals she hardly sleep for two weeks after learning she had won the part. “I was so excited because my character has a complete storyline, I’m a key player in what drives this show,” she adds. “So for a powerful Arab, Muslim woman to be a key player in a huge Amazon TV show called Jack Ryan, that’s badass. That’s so cool, and I hope more characters like this are portrayed on screen. I hope this opens a lot of doors.”
Michaela Coel stars in Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s long-awaited follow-up to his award-winning drama The Honourable Woman. The actor and Blick discuss this international thriller with a unique mother-daughter relationship at its heart.
Four years have passed since the UK’s BBC2 and SundanceTV in the US first aired The Honourable Woman, the award-winning political drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal that explored the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
During the intervening years, writer, director and producer Hugo Blick’s appetite for personal stories told within a global setting appears to have gone unabated, as he is now returning to screens with the long-awaited Black Earth Rising, an eight-part international thriller that looks at the prosecution of war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa.
But while The Honourable Woman saw one woman struggle to right her father’s wrongs, this time it’s a mother-daughter dynamic at the centre of proceedings. Set across the UK, Europe, Africa and the US, the fictional series centres on legal investigator Kate Ashby (played by Michaela Coel, pictured above), who was rescued as a young child during the Rwandan genocide and adopted by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), a world-class prosecutor in international criminal law. Both work in the legal chambers of Michael Ennis (John Goodman).
When Eve takes on a new case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecuting an African militia leader, the story sends Michael and Kate on a journey that will change their lives forever. The series, produced by Forgiving Earth (a partnership between Eight Rooks and Drama Republic), is once again written, produced and directed by Blick.
From the start of the first episode, Black Earth Rising is an intelligent and absorbing series, beginning with a dramatic animation of the Rwandan genocide that leads into the first scene, in which Walter’s Eve Ashby is forced to defend her role and that of the ICC. It’s an exchange that’s echoed at the end of the first hour, too, when Eve again defends her work to daughter Kate, who is angry that her mother has agreed bring a prosecution against a militia leader hailed as a hero for his involvement in bringing an end to the near-decade-long genocide.
This plot came straight from Blick’s research for the series, which followed on from similar work he had done for The Honourable Woman. Interested in trauma and its aftermath and looking at the subject of war crimes, he began studying the ICC, which was formed in 2000, after the genocide. In particular, he was surprised to discover a large number of ICC indictments for war crimes are against Africans, notably black Africans. That in turn led to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a large number of the indictments originated.
His research found that while the ICC was seeking war crime prosecutions of people from the DRC who had participated in the Rwandan genocide (the court cannot take retrospective legal action against crimes that took place before it was ratified or before a country signs up to it), it was also chasing people who had brought the genocide to an end, again for war crimes.
“For a dramatist, this is fascinating because both villains and heroes were being pursued by the same institution and I couldn’t understand why,” Blick says. “So I was really interested to work that out and obviously draw that back down the line to what I do, which is to try to find geopolitical issues as in The Honourable Woman but personify it in the world of our lead character.
“So Michaela plays a woman who was taken out of the aftermath of the genocide, and events conspire to throw our character into our relationship with the West and Africa today. It’s a kind of platform for asking what our relationship with modern Africa is, but it’s an absolute story about one woman’s search for identity and the reconciliation with her hidden past.”
Blick, whose other credits include The Shadow Line, spent six months researching the basis of the series, says the final story was not what he set out to write. “Sometimes when you write a project of this size, you absolutely know the destination – that’s where you’re going to hit. On this occasion, I found the destination changed due to both the experience of research, writing and filming and the surprises along the way,” he says, noting that the story will be resolved in Africa, rather than by Western influences.
“It takes away this idea that we’re there to instruct what’s already an incredibly contentious issue, just on a massive political scale. They don’t need to be instructed in the way we think they do, so that’s one of the destinations of the story that surprised.”
At the heart of Black Earth Rising is the relationship between high-flying barrister Eve and her adopted daughter Kate, who is forced to confront her past across the eight-episode series.
Coel, the Bafta-winning writer and actor behind Channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum, says she was initially “perplexed” at her lack of knowledge about the Rwandan genocide. “Then as I sat down trying to find some kind of redemption for my ignorance, I tried to meet this character who had so much going on, and I was a world away from her. That’s what attracted me to it.
“Every character I play, a little bit stays with me like residue, and I think Kate is one I’m determined to keep. Her resilience, her defiance… she is the strongest person I know – I do know she’s not real – and her pursuit of the truth is unique and she should be praised and comforted for that. I think I’m a bit stronger, I think I’m a more defiant and I’m a bit more curious.”
Blick says he often casts actors with a comedic sensibility for dramatic series, describing them as “jazz players” who bring a looseness to their performances. This approach goes all the way back to comic Rob Brydon’s role in Blick’s BBC2 mockumentary Marion & Geoff, and also saw Coel and Hollywood star Goodman brought on board as central characters in Black Earth Rising.
“We had struggled to cast Kate, it’s quite a dextrous role,” Blick recalls. “Then Michaela was at the Baftas. I’d seen her in Chewing Gum so hadn’t been thinking of her much for this role. But she is a woman of agency and certainty. Some aspects of the character of Kate struck me as a total fit for the way Michaela presents herself and character.
“John brings his wonderful New Orleans-inflective voice. He’s such a professional performer. He’s playing a barrister and has a lot of words to say. But what’s very impressive about him is when you get into the edit and you’ve got eight hours to put together, he’s got a singular line of character going all the way through, right to the last scene.”
In production, Ghana doubled for both Rwanda and the DRC to give the series an authentic feel that might have been lost had it instead used somewhere like South Africa, for example. Filming also took place in Switzerland, France, Paris and the UK.
Drama Republic executive producer Greg Brenman says that with any new drama from Blick, there’s “excitement that it’s going to be unusual, different, extraordinary and challenging. It will always be super stimulating.”
It will also be very much Blick’s own vision, with his fingerprints over every part of the story. “The brilliant thing about him writing and directing is that, in order to move from writing to directing, he’s written all the scripts. From a practical point of view, it’s fantastic because you see the entire work,” Brenman says.
“He’s also one of those writers who totally understands what he’s going to do and how he’s going to write it and achieve it. He’s quite private when he’s writing a script because he also needs to find it from moment to moment for himself, while he has a complete, firm understanding of where it’s going and how it’s going to end. So he likes to present and see what everyone thinks, rather than discuss, chew it over and then do something that is a consensus piece.”
Blick agrees that, in a very crowded market, he gives his shows an individual voice. “It’s not a voice for everybody, but both the BBC and Netflix know they’re getting a distinct point of view because it’s coming from one person. It’s like a Tiffany jewel in the department store – it is what it is, no one else makes it and you may not like it, but it’s there and it helps the department store say who it is.”
A coproduction between the BBC and Netflix, Black Earth Rising will premiere on BBC2 in the UK on September 10, with the streamer offering it to its users everywhere else.
Blick ultimately believes the strength of the show – and the greatest challenge it faces – is viewers’ unfamiliarity with the story and modern Africa, adding that the series explores both the lack of engagement and responsibility when it comes to the continent but also the failings of African life and governments.
“It’s that two-way street of engagement,” he says. “This is a story that’s a thriller, it’s built to be a compulsive thriller, but it’s asking some difficult questions. And that’s what I hope the audience will engage with too.”
Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp talks to DQ about filming the final season of period drama A Place to Call Home, her returning roles in crime thriller Jack Irish and courtroom drama Janet King, and why she’s drawn to family dramas with a twist.
With a screen career spanning more than 25 years, Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp is one of the country’s biggest stars. Yet she recently said goodbye to one of her most iconic roles, with Foxtel series A Place to Call Home entering its final season.
Having starred as Sarah Adams in the 1950s-set period drama since it first aired in 2013, Dusseldorp and the show bow out with the sixth run, which began in Australia earlier this month and lands in the US on streamer Acorn TV tomorrow.
Created by Bevan Lee, A Place to Call Home is a sweeping romantic drama set in rural Australia, dealing with important social issues of the time: homosexuality, single motherhood, racism and the lingering effects of war. The final chapter of the saga brings love and healing to the central Bligh family as each member finds their true meaning in life.
“I have completely walked, lived and breathed this show for so long that Sarah and her journey is now a part of me,” Dusseldorp says. “When I first met her, she walked alone. She was a survivor of the Holocaust – that really defined her – and she was a nurse. Putting the two together meant she had no need for herself, she had abandoned that idea, and was purely into being able to help ease the suffering of others, bear witness to the people who had died and live an honourable life.
“Then throughout the series, she learned to love and lose and fight, and she became a mum and started being defined by people around her. When we met her, she was her own solo satellite – a moon – and she’s part of the solar system by the end. She’s actually totally intertwined and happily integrated into a family-type scenario. It was deeply satisfying to play.”
Dusseldorp recalls Lee revealing his vision for the show’s final scene back during season one, and describes the end of the series as being driven by both creative and commercial considerations.
“It was a conscious uncoupling. Evan felt it was finished creatively and Foxtel were so excited and happy with the way it had been. We lose a production offset after a certain number of hours, so the show suddenly becomes much more expensive, so it’s a business decision to finish as well. But, overwhelmingly, it was a creative decision. Bevan got to tell it completely as he saw it,” Dusseldorp explains.
“And I think it’s important, like a really good book, for it to end so you can finally put it down. You have to make room for other stories. It’s a wrench in the sense that I’m going to miss everyone and I’m going to miss going to work in the late 1950s, but it was right. And when you know it’s right, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
Touted as Australia’s best-loved drama, A Place to Call Home is produced by Seven Network (which aired the first two seasons before it moved to Foxtel) and has been sold around the world by Endemol Shine International. Dusseldorp says the show’s high production standards, coupled with its period setting, have made it irresistible to viewers.
“Even though we have a 10th of a US show’s budget, we manage to punch above our weight quite a bit. The heads of department go out of their way to make it look a million bucks, even though it costs half that,” she explains. “But I also think it’s not a negative show, it’s a positive show. It talks about hard issues but also has a joy and frivolity we all need. And the fact it’s resonated internationally is also really satisfying for everyone.
“Period drama helps you see how much you’ve changed and whether you need to change more. We’ve just gone through a referendum for allowing same-sex marriages. [Sexuality] was a massive part of A Place to Call Home, and we were making the show while it was happening. It was really exciting to be able to reflect that we had changed and people had fought and earned the right to love freely. It was like really being in the moment, which is awesome.”
Also an acclaimed theatre actor, Dusseldorp is currently treading the boards in A Doll’s House, Part 2 in Melbourne. And while she concedes it’s a “completely different” world from TV drama, Dusseldorp says she’s enjoying the chance to do something different after finishing A Place to Call Home and reprising two other long-running TV roles, as journalist Linda Hillier in noir thriller Jack Irish and the title character in legal drama Janet King.
“I just look for good writing, that’s pretty much it, and a clear vision because I am a storyteller,” she says when asked how she chooses her parts. “I’m kind of up for anything if I believe it, and part of my job is to make it believable. I’m also a big believer in the team, because I don’t want to ever walk in blind, thinking, ‘I hope this works.’ There has to be a creative conversation so it can be a collaboration.”
Based on the crime novels by Peter Temple, Jack Irish began life as a trio of TV movies on Australian public broadcaster the ABC, before two full seasons were commissioned. The most recent episodes launched on the pubcaster in July and will roll out on Acorn TV on September 10.
Guy Pearce (Memento, LA Confidential) plays Irish, a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator, with Dusseldorp as reporter Linda, who becomes embroiled in the lead character’s investigations following an on-off romance between the pair.
Though the characters have less to do with each other as the series continues, Dusseldorp says she has loved working with Pearce. “We had such great chemistry and he taught me a lot,” she says. The actor also has praise for one of the show’s writers, Andrew Knight (Rake, Hacksaw Ridge), who she describes as a “genius.” She continues: “His work is funny, silly, empathetic, non-sentimental – just thrilling and not what you would expect. So I go back to Jack to have those scenes because he always throws me to India or Manila. It’s a little bit crazy. I also try to test out a bit of my non-comic timing – I’m not very funny – because when it comes to Jack Irish, I take bigger risks because I know they’ll cut away from me if I’m terrible.”
Meanwhile, the most recent season of Janet King, itself a spin-off from 2011 legal drama Crownies, aired on the ABC in 2017. It sees Dusseldorp play a senior crown prosecutor, and has run to three seasons so far. The actor says she doesn’t feel “either way” about immediately returning to the drama, but says she would like to echo the Prime Suspect model that saw Helen Mirren reprise her role as police detective Jane Tennison in the British series sporadically across 15 years.
“I’m so happy to get old with Janet, and certainly that’s what I propose to do when it fits and it’s right,” she says. “When people are ready, I’m ready. But I am really looking forward to being in a space of nothing right now and seeing what happens. That includes working overseas. I’ve never done it; I really would love to stretch out. We’ll see.”
Reports down under had linked Dusseldorp with the leading role in a TV biopic of Catherine McGregor, a transgender campaigner, cricket commentator and former military officer. However, the actor reveals: “For whatever reason, that’s not going ahead.”
But having played three leading women in Sarah, Linda and Janet, Dusseldorp says she is fascinated to see what new shows come up, where they place women and in what age group: “I feel like I’m in the middle of that conversation [about strong female characters]. We can’t go backwards; it’s not going to happen.”
Now watching Amazon series Transparent for the first time and a self-proclaimed fan of US drama This Is Us, Dusseldorp says she loves family dramas with a particular twist, noting the latter is full of the “really intricate, delicate loopholes we go down as families that make us who we are.”
She adds: “I’m fascinated by that genre, and I’m also fascinated by the law, because of Janet. I’m very connected to justice and I’m really interested in domestic violence and why it’s this taboo no one talks about. A lot of it is very dark, but I just feel like if we don’t pull it up and put it in people’s faces, it’s quite easy to say that’s happening ‘over there.’
“There’s something in climate and what we’re doing to the earth that should be explored as well. I’m like a truffle pig, looking for the right story and trying to get people excited about that.”
Journalists from two competing newspapers go head-to-head in Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett’s latest BBC1 drama, Press. DQ went on set to speak to the writer, executive producer Faith Penhale and the cast about this examination of the fourth estate.
Unusually for a national tabloid newspaper, the floor of The Post is quiet and still. Computer screens are turned off and chairs sit empty beneath large signs displaying the publication’s bright red masthead.
In the next room, however, dozens of extras are lining up, ready to take their places on the set of Mike Bartlett’s new drama, Press. Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, the series aims to explore the personal lives and constant professional dilemmas facing journalists as they attempt to balance work and play amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.
On one side are the employees of The Post, a traditional tabloid newspaper known for entertainment and scandal, while on the other are those working for The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet. When The Post moves into new offices directly opposite The Herald, these two groups of journalists and the newspapers they represent are thrown into direct conflict.
The six-part series is produced by Lookout Point, BBC Studios and Deep Indigo for BBC1, and coproduced with PBS strand Masterpiece in the US. BBC Studios is handling international distribution.
Bartlett, best known for BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, says he had wanted to write about newspapers and the press for a long time, describing the newsroom as “the ideal place for a drama.” He reveals he first pitched the idea 10 years ago, but since then the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry in the UK have brought the operations of newspapers and journalists into sharper focus. And in the age of Donald Trump and so-called ‘fake news,’ the press is arguably under greater scrutiny than ever.
It was a meeting four years ago with executive producer Faith Penhale, joint CEO and creative director of Lookout Point, that finally put Press into development.
“What is interesting about that is the show was initially about a quite stable industry but, over the course of researching and writing this, it became a story about an industry that is changing rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen to it,” Bartlett explains, seated one floor above the set built inside a former office block on a north London industrial estate. “As a dramatist, it’s a wonderful world for drama because you have got new people coming in, new ways of doing things, and you have got older people who have been there a long time and are worried about losing a sense of what it used to be.”
During his research, Bartlett visited the offices of UK publications The Guardian, The Sun, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, which he says both matched and confounded his expectations. He then sat down to write.
“I got a real sense of vocation from most people I spoke to, even if it was buried underneath a load of having a hard day and being really busy,” he says. “People on all different desks in the newsroom had a real belief in what it was doing, whether it was for entertainment or revolution and political change. So the show, on one hand, is a workplace drama where people sleep together and fall out and make friends and do all the things you would expect, but I also said from the start that the stories have to come from the world of journalism. If could you tell the same story in a world set in a hairdressers then it wasn’t the right story.”
Bartlett and Penhale go to great lengths to stress that Press is an entirely fictional drama, despite the echoes of real-life publications – The Post could easily be The Sun, while The Herald surely doubles for The Guardian – and say the show doesn’t put their own personal views on the screen, despite Bartlett admitting he’s a “leftie, Guardian-reading writer.”
“We’re telling stories in this world and hopefully showing all the highs and lows and everyday dilemmas and huge, life-changing dilemmas. It’s got everything in there but it’s entirely created,” Penhale says. “We certainly don’t shy away from the emotional drama within the stories and within the characters as they face certain challenges. Emotions run high and things can get quite punchy as a result.”
Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard) plays Duncan Allen, the charismatic editor of The Post. “It was a fun role,” Chaplin says when he’s asked what attracted him to the part. “He’s a little bit amoral, which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me. He’s very persistent, he never gives up – like he’s an irresistible force.”
That means Duncan isn’t afraid of employing some “pretty shocking” tactics to get the story he wants. “I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all actually,” Chaplin says, referring to the ‘dark arts’ used by journalists in search of a scoop.
But to the actor, the vibe of a newsroom is rather like being in a theatre company: “There’s this camaraderie but there’s healthy competition as well. It reminded me a little bit of being shipmates, like you’re on the same ship.”
Duncan also comes under pressure to increase readership – and revenue – from The Post’s owner, George Emmerson, played by Poirot star David Suchet.
Having played a real-life newspaper proprietor before in Maxwell, a 2007 biopic about the late media magnate Robert Maxwell, Suchet was keen to avoid any links to real-life figures this time. “When I was offered the role, I said, ‘I don’t want to play [The Sun owner Rupert] Murdoch, I just want to play the character that is in the script,’ and Mike has trodden a very good line. You are not supposed to link him at all. It doesn’t feel thinly veiled and I was very keen to not put on any accents or anything.”
In the wake of recent movies such as Spotlight and The Post, Suchet believes now is a good time for TV to tackle the newspaper world. “It’s like courtroom drama,” he notes. “There have been great films in Hollywood about the press and journalism; it’s great drama and there are great characters.”
In the hands of Bartlett, that meant Press was a series Suchet couldn’t turn down: “He is the only writer, and Doctor Who [2017 episode Knock Knock, written by Bartlett] was the only programme, I have ever said yes to without reading the script. Mike’s scripts are possibly the finest scripts in media today, whether on television or film.
“When I got this script to do, it was just so good, and the relationship between my character and Duncan is really clever. It’s good dialogue. It’s really zingy. There’s nothing cliched about his writing at all. It’s very good. I think it’s going to be a very classy piece of television.”
On another day, DQ is at Three Mills Studios in east London, home to the set of The Herald, where Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, Close to the Enemy) plays the broadsheet’s deputy news editor Holly Evans. Principled and passionate, she’s dedicated to journalism and it’s through her that viewers will see the personal cost of working in the industry.
“Her career has come at the expense of her personal life. She’s pretty lonely,” Riley says. “She has colleagues that she gets on well with. But the loneliness she experiences is outside the office. She lives to work – being in the office brings her to life. It’s her raison d’être. It’s quite sad that as soon as she walks through those doors, she breathes again. Being on her own she has to deal with her demons.
“What attracted me to the role is that she’s fast-thinking but the cogs turn very slowly emotionally. It’s a very detailed emotional arc for her. That was nice to play – it’s not driven by falling in love.”
Riley previously worked with Bartlett on King Charles III, the writer’s BBC2 adaptation of his successful stage play. “Coming from a theatre background, Mike and I have weekly conversations about the things we’re shooting and what’s coming up,” she admits. “It’s wonderful to have access like that to discuss every character and what’s going on and why.
“Shooting TV these days is so quick; you don’t get to be as immersed as you’d like. For most actors, mainly your training is theatre. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of,” Riley adds. “I just really like his work, the way he writes. His characters are great.”
Ahead of the finale of the fourth season of US drama Hit the Floor, showrunner James LaRosa discusses the show’s move from VH1 to BET, why sports are perfect for TV dramas and his unconventional journey to running a series.
For a series entering its fourth season, Hit the Floor should have been well into its stride. Yet when it returned, it was on a new network, with some cast members deciding not to return.
It could have been a bumpy ride for showrunner James LaRosa, but the writer, who also created the sports drama, is relaxed when he looks back at the changes that afforded him some elements of creative renewal.
First airing in 2013, Hit the Floor explores fame, money, power and sex in professional basketball through the eyes of the fictional LA Devils and its dance team, the Devil Girls. The show launched on VH1, where it aired for three seasons before moving during its most recent off-season to fellow Viacom-owned cable network BET, where the on- and off-court drama of the most recent eight-episode season culminates in tonight’s finale.
The hiatus between the end of season three and the start of season four – amounting to more than two years between March 2016 and July this year – meant some of the original cast members opted not to return, most notably Taylour Paige (who played Devil Girls star Ahsha Hayes) and Adam Senn (basketball player Zero). Returning actors included Kimberly Elise, Dean Cain, McKinley Freeman, Katherine Bailess, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe and Brent Antonello, alongside new signing Teyana Taylor.
Despite the potential behind-the-scenes difficulties season four posed, LaRosa praises BET for allowing the show to continue as it was at its former home. “Every network has its own personality but, coming from VH1 to BET, the only thing they asked of us is that we didn’t try to be anything different,” he recalls. “Fans obviously love the show for what it is, so they just told us to keep the show the same. So in general, the show is the same in terms of the feel and the pace of story and the kind of dialogue and tone we have. But having new characters definitely gives it a creative jolt.”
While the influx of new characters presented Hit the Floor’s writers with plenty of new storylines to explore, arguably their biggest challenge was writing out those who failed to reappear at the start of season four – particularly as both Ahsha and Zero were in romantic relationships. “It has partially been about picking up the pieces with those characters who aren’t in those relationships anymore and why and what those new relationships look like,” LaRosa says. “It’s not like one of those Happy Days things when a character goes into the attic and then we never hear from them again.”
Hit the Floor first took shape in 2010 when former MTV and VH1 head of scripted Maggie Malina approached long-time friend LaRosa about a soap-like drama set in the world of professional basketball. “Being a soap, it would be through the eyes of the female characters, and that has always been my bread and butter,” he says. “So Maggie called me and that’s how the show came to be.”
LaRosa then pitched the series – originally called Bounce – to VH1, with the show revolving around the basketball side’s dance team and filled with romance, intrigue, sex and murder. Notably, individual scenes rarely stray more than two pages of the script, giving the show a snappy pace.
While Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), which centres on a high-school American football team, is perhaps the undisputed champion of television sports dramas, basketball-based series aren’t without precedent, with One Tree Hill, Survivor’s Remorse and The White Shadow all centring on the game to varying degrees.
But why choose sport as a backdrop for drama in the first place? “Winning or losing is always great stakes,” La Rosa says. “The money that goes into professional sports is insane in terms of endorsement deals, contracts, salaries and all that stuff, so there’s always a lot on the line, and it’s great for our show because it’s a sport in which there are wealthy African Americans with power. And you really get to see ‘players’ in every sense of the word.
“They’re very active, their lives are very glossy and high-end and wonderful. When we first started, there was none of that. We came before Empire, Star and How to Get Away with Murder. There weren’t a lot of places where you could see affluent black characters, so that gave us an opportunity. Now there are more, it’s amazing.”
As well as featuring a diverse cast, Hit the Floor also tackles themes including race, gender and sexuality. LaRosa says he wants to make the kind of show he would want to watch, adding that any viewers who have yet to see a character in the show to which they can relate can expect one at some point.
“We have characters with many different types of faces, characters with different sexualities and economic situations. What I like to do is throw everybody in the soup but not point out that everyone is different,” he says. “This isn’t a political show. We’re not pitting people against each other in any other way except for real basic human stuff.
“The captain and star of the team is black, the owner of the team is gay, the sideline reporter is a gay man, the head of the sports network is female. I just don’t want to see the same shit on TV all the time. I want to mix it up and see what happens. So the kind of storylines we have as a result vary wildly.”
Furthermore, the showrunner says sports setting allows him to tell stories in a slightly different way. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, the owner of the team is gay. Here’s a storyline about how crazy that is.’ It’s just normalised,” he explains. “One of my highlights is being able to tell stories about gay and lesbian characters or people who don’t label themselves, who are in these types of relationships, because then you can just focus on the relationships.”
LaRosa adds that the show puts its money into the whole cast, whether spending big on set pieces including a Malibu wedding for two black characters or bringing in the rain machines for a kiss scene between two men. “That’s the kind of stuff that we have on the show that I love. They’re not just supporting characters who are happy to be there, they are central lead characters who we get to see things play out for in a way that we would traditionally see played out for other types of people – white people or straight people,” he continues. “We had an episode with a whole kiss-cam storyline where every couple on the kiss cam, I made them all interracial couples because I could – and why not? Welcome to the world.”
LaRosa moved to Hollywood in 1997, landing his first job two years later on DC, a drama about young interns in the US capital that briefly aired on now-defunct US network The WB in 2000.
The writer had expected to rise up through the writers room hierarchy, from staff writer up to story editor and producer and eventually executive producer, but things didn’t quite work out that way.
“I found it difficult because I was impatient. I was doing TV movies and I was writing pilots; I was going from project to project. It wasn’t like I just hopped on Desperate Housewives and worked my way to the top. I knew the show I would be excited to write would be one I had created, so I focused on that and sold Hit the Floor,” LaRosa says.
But despite lacking the “battle scars” earned by years working in writers rooms, he admits he is perfectly suited to the multi-faceted role. “If being a showrunner requires 37 skills, I seem to have them. I can’t do anything else. I might be terrible at every other thing in life but somehow being the mother, being the father, being the psychologist, having the energy, dealing with the political side, all that seems to add up to something.”
The unconventional way LaRosa came up the ranks is mirrored in the way he tackles the top job, with every episode written before production begins so he doesn’t have to split his time between the writers room and the set. Filming is also wrapped on a season before post-production begins.
“I don’t run a room in a way that is traditional. In my room, nobody’s higher than anybody else,” he notes. “If you have an idea and it’s a good idea, everybody listens to it. I’m very sensitive to how people are feeling, so I refuse to be in a situation where I see someone getting ganged up on or ignored or dismissed. You’re here to work hard but this isn’t going to be one of your traumatising jobs. I don’t have battle scars and I don’t take out those wounds on anyone who works for me.”
Though a fifth season of Hit the Floor has yet to be confirmed, LaRosa says he already knows where the show is heading – and he vows that viewers won’t have to wait another two years if the show is recommissioned. “We’re a show that is built by the fans and the fans are so patient and amazing with us,” he adds. “That is what keeps us coming back.”
William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel Vanity Fair has been adapted for UK broadcaster ITV and streamer Amazon. DQ speaks to the writer and some of the key creative talent behind the camera to find out how this strikingly contemporary series was made.
Ten years ago, Gwyneth Hughes began writing an adaptation of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th century novel long considered a classic of English literature. Her modern update of the story never made it to screen, however, and her work was left unfinished.
Fast-forward a decade and Hughes (Dark Angel, Remember Me) has penned a new version, this time keeping its period setting, which will premiere in the UK on ITV on September 2 and on Amazon Prime Video in the US later this year.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the story follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society.
Hughes describes the source material as “an absolute romp” that bounces between extremes, from light comedy to terrible tragedy. She has sought to keep that variation in her adaptation, but says large parts of the second half of the book have been trimmed, when the pace of events becomes decidedly slower. As a result, the Battle of Waterloo, which happens halfway through Thackeray’s tome, takes place in episode five of the seven-part series.
In relation to the story’s heroine, “all the other characters have money, they’ve all got family and middle-class incomes, but she’s alone in the world,” the writer says. “She thinks she deserves better, and her sense of entitlement that drives her all the way through the story is a really modern theme, in bad ways as well as good. In the end, you love her without liking her because she behaves so badly at times – but that also makes her extremely relatable.”
Despite making some cuts, the production sought to be as faithful to the source material as possible. On set, producer Julia Stannard would carry copies of Thackeray’s novel as well as Hughes’ scripts so the subtext of the author’s work was never lost in adaptation.
“With seven hours of drama, you’re asking people to make a big investment in terms of their time to keep coming back and watching, so you have to care about the characters,” Stannard says. “That is a big challenge for Vanity Fair because it is a world inhabited by flawed characters. So how do you make it emotionally engaging without dumbing it down or changing the original text? Thackeray cared a lot about these characters and I think we’ve created a world in which our audience will care about those characters too.”
After working on several contemporary series such as Broadchurch and Liar, director James Strong found the new challenge he was looking for in Vanity Fair, revealing that he was drawn towards the variety and scale of the story as well as the team he would be working with. The series comes from Mammoth Screen and is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“Gwyneth had done an amazing adaptation; she distilled the essence of the book into the story so, for me, it was about finding a visual language that made it feel relevant, exciting and interesting,” Strong says of his approach behind the camera. “Some period dramas can be quite reverential and respectful. This one I wanted to feel very much like it was a period drama shot in a contemporary manner.”
In practice, Strong used zooms, steadicam and handheld cameras to shoot the series, mixed with wide-angle lenses that could convey huge scale. “Then you’re up close with the characters in an intimate and personal way, always with Becky at the heart of it,” he explains. “Her vision, her perspective of the world around her, also dictates the camera pattern and style, so we look at it though her eyes quite literally in many ways.”
Becky is played by up-and-coming actor Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel), who heads a cast that also includes Johnny Flynn as Dobbin, Martin Clunes (Sir Pitt Crawley), Frances de La Tour (Miss Matilda Crawley) and Suranne Jones (Miss Pinkerton), while Michael Palin appears as Thackeray himself. The series also features Claudia Jessie as Becky’s confidante, Amelia Sedley, plus Simon Russell Beale and Claire Skinner as Amelia’s parents and David Fynn as her brother, Joss.
By the time Vanity Fair airs, Cooke will be a huge Hollywood star, thanks to her role in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic nostalgia trip Ready Player One. “Our little Olivia is going to be Steven Spielberg’s latest heroine and then she’s going to pop up as Becky Sharp. It’s great,” muses Hughes. “She’s very talented; she’s going to go far. We were very lucky to catch her on the way up.”
Stannard picks up: “We wanted to put together a cast that felt surprising, so Olivia was not a TV name, she’s a movie star. Martin Clunes is in his first big period drama, Frances de La Tour is a national treasure. And our young cast, I can guarantee, will be household names in a couple of years. Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Tom Bateman, Claudia Jessie, they’re all incredibly talented young actors.”
Shooting began in September 2017 and finished at the beginning of February, with most filming taking place in London. The crew also spent time in Budapest, which doubled for scenes set in Brussels and Pumpernickel, a small Germany principality featured in the novel.
“A lot of them have to be period-correct so it was a big challenge to find the right locations,” Strong says. “A lot of settings [such as characters’ houses] are composites so we do the drawing room and the bedrooms in one place, then you do the exterior in one place and the kitchen or the garden somewhere else.”
All in all, Vanity Fair was shot on 120 sets across 12 weeks. And while the series was filmed entirely on location, visual effects played their part in bringing the sets to life.
“The job has definitely changed over the years and I’m embracing it because we can’t physically do everything,” says production designer Anna Pritchard (Broadchurch, Top Boy). “The time pressure of building streets and covering roads, especially when you go back in time and do 1815, there might be one Georgian building but it’s changed so many times… You could build from scratch but you know you’re spending thousands and thousands of pounds and it doesn’t ever look 100%. So what VFX can do for us is absolutely amazing.
“It was such a beautiful project to work on because it was so varied – we got to build streets and all the characters’ houses. I loved every single one of them. Even going to Budapest was fantastic. We made good use of their period architecture.”
With location logistics and actor availability complicating proceedings, the production schedule was akin to a military exercise – quite literally when it came to filming sequences recreating the Battle of Waterloo, the centrepiece of the show. “We had 300 men playing Napoleonic soldiers living in camp. We had 50 horses, plus armourers, explosions. We had VFX, drones and sometimes two or three shooting crews, costume and make-up,” reveals Strong. “All of that is a massive undertaking and, at the centre of it, you’ve got to keep the vision going and deal with the weather and whatever it throws at you.”
Strong is no stranger to televisual set pieces, having assassinated JFK in Hulu drama 11.22.63 and overseen multiple alien invasions in Doctor Who. But he hadn’t orchestrated a Napoleonic battle before. Likewise, Hughes had previously never written a war scene.
“There’s actually more of it [in the script] than Thackeray wrote in the book,” she says. “And never in my whole writing life have I been asked to write a scene that began ‘Ext – Battlefield – Day.’ You write that and then think, ‘Now what?’ I learned to write a battle, so that was fun.”
“Day one and, oh my gosh, it’s war – and how are we going to do it?” says Pritchard, recalling the first time she read the script. “It’s all about the cavalry, the horses, the cannons and the weapons, the artillery and the armoury. But the wonderful thing about battles is it’s all set in a field. So for me, it’s not so much about what I’m going to build but the art of war and how we make it look good. A lot of fine detail and research went into that.”
Stannard, however, is well versed in battle scenes, having previously produced War & Peace for the BBC. So when she joined Vanity Fair early in its development, she was quick to call in military adviser Paul Biddiss and horsemasters The Devil’s Horsemen, having worked with both on the Tolstoy adaptation.
“Thackeray doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about the battle but what was important was these are very privileged young men and they have never really faced any challenges in life,” she says. “Suddenly they’re thrown onto a battlefield, young men in their early 20s, and they literally don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s about the shock and the contrast between their very privileged lives in London and the reality of suddenly becoming soldiers. That felt like a massive journey for those characters and it felt like it would be a cheat if we didn’t show the audience that and let them share that experience.”
Hughes has form when it comes to television adaptations, having penned a version of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She also wrote the biographical Miss Austen Regrets, based on the life of novelist Jane Austen, known for works such as Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
“You don’t have to read Vanity Fair. It’s alright, I read it for you,” Hughes says, echoing the words of fellow writer Andrew Davies when he spoke about adapting Tolstoy’s War & Peace in 2016. “So for people who never pick up a book, they can still enjoy this wonderful story. We always come back to these stories because they are the best stories ever written. That’s why they’ve lasted.”
That timelessness is also why Stannard believes classic works of literature continue to be remade for the small screen. “I’m not really interested in making drama that just feels locked in that time,” she says. “What I’m interested in is looking at the key themes of the book and what’s happening for those characters and relating it to the here and now.
“It’s a great challenge to adapt a book that’s been adapted before. The biggest challenge for us was probably making it feel fresh and different. I hope and believe we’ve done that.”
Young love meets the supernatural in Netflix’s original UK drama The Innocents. DQ chats to creators and writers Hania Elkington and Simon Duric about making their first television drama, Norse mythology and shape-shifting.
As breaks go, it doesn’t get much bigger than landing an eight-part series on Netflix. Yet that’s the route Hania Elkington and Simon Duric have taken into television, securing their first ever show with the global streaming platform.
The programme in question is The Innocents, an atmospheric, often dreamy and ethereal drama that plays out across contrasting backdrops – chaotic urban England and peaceful, secluded Norway.
Teenagers June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) run away together to escape their repressive families, only to discover June has the ability to shape-shift – the power, or curse, to adopt the image of anyone she touches. As the pair struggle to control June’s new power, a mysterious professor living in an isolated commune reveals she’s not alone.
The show was created and written by Elkington and Duric, who executive produce with Elaine Pyke, Charlie Pattinson and Willow Grylls of New Pictures and Farren Blackburn, who directed six of the eight episodes.
The writers first met when Elkington, a former agent, signed artist and filmmaker Duric to United Agents. They would often talk about projects, scripts and films they’d seen, and continued their friendship when Elkington left to become a full-time writer.
At that point, Duric was working on a story about a brother and sister pair who could turn into animals, while Elkington was developing a story about young love, featuring a female lead and a family full of secrets and lies. “So over several beers and several meetings, the ideas conjoined into one hybrid and we ended up co-creating the series,” Elkington says.
Rather than The Innocents being a purely supernatural show, however, the duo were always adamant that Harry and June’s budding romance should be at the heart of the story. Her ability to shape-shift would then be used to magnify the emotional stakes.
“We also felt shape-shifting really spoke to a young female lead, particularly in terms of transformation and questions like ‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I belong?’” Elkington says. “It also spoke to a bit of a fear about society at the minute, because we’re trying to tell a story about empathy and seeing the world literally through someone else’s eyes, breaking down boundaries, overcoming fear. All of those things felt like they could marry very well between the supernatural element and the family and emotional elements.”
The shape-shifting component was introduced after the writers uncovered information about the Bezerkers, a group of ‘bear warriors’ from Norse mythology who were said to transform themselves in the fury of battle. “We thought, ‘What if we allow that dormant DNA to resurge only in women and tell a modern, emotional, empathetic story with it and really turn that on its head?’” Elkington says. “A few elements really came together in an interesting way.”
Duric and Elkington spent six months developing the show themselves before they took it to market, working on the premise of a series with teen leads and a multi-generational cast around them. “We wanted to really nail down the world of the series and have a first script that felt in good shape before we went out, just so it didn’t get messed around too much,” Elkington says.
New Pictures wasted little time in snapping up the project, something Duric admits was incredibly bold of the company, which is best known for fellow UK dramas The Missing, Rellik, Indian Summers and Requiem.
“To make a show like this in this country, we don’t do it very often,” he notes. “I can’t think of anything past [Jack Thorne’s 2011 series] The Fades, really.”
Netflix – which has built its own roster of original genre series with shows including The OA, Dark, Stranger Things and The Rain – then picked up the series, which debuts tomorrow. “They facilitated us in terms of story to make the best version of the show we wanted to make,” Elkington says of working with the streamer, recalling a five-hour phone conversation with Netflix executives before they greenlit the show. “They were not at all interfering but they were very attentive and they really invested. They were encyclopaedic about it. They knew every character inside out, every plot twist we’d put into it, and they really collaborated with us on it.”
Duric calls Elkington a “kindred spirit,” though the pair don’t consider themselves co-writers in the traditional sense. Once the story and episode details were set in a writers room that also included Kim Varvell, head of development at New Pictures, and script editor Imogen O’Sullivan, they would write scripts individually. “We wouldn’t necessarily consider ourselves a writing team in general but it’s been an amazing collaboration working on this and we hope there’s a chance to do further series,” Elkington says. “Our two brains are so different and our tastes and inspirations are so different that we’ve created quite an unusual mix, an unusual tone.”
Two other writers were also involved, with Stacey Gregg co-writing episode five and Corinna Faith penning episode six.
In the show, June and Harry’s journey takes them from their Yorkshire home to London. The story is also interspersed with scenes from a picturesque Norwegian location that is home to Sanctum, the collective run by Halvorson (Guy Pearce), a mysterious doctor studying other shape-shifters like June. The locations and camera work from lead director Blackburn and DOP David Procter are enhanced by Carly Paradis’s enchanting soundtrack, which helps to create the fragile, otherworldly tone of the series.
Duric describes the Norway-set scenes as being like a “Scandi western,” with a slightly vintage design and wide open spaces. There are also echoes of Nordic noir, although there’s nothing nearly as dark as the sinister skylines on show in Forbrydelsen (The Killing) or Bron/Broen (The Bridge).
“The greatest inspiration we took from Nordic noir was the gallows humour of Steiner [Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson] and Alf [Trond Fausa], our bounty hunters and mindless thugs who actually have this quite ‘odd couple’ relationship, with moments of humour and moments of real humanity,” Elkington says. “That’s something that owes a debt to Scandi drama. Otherwise, we were very lucky to be in those locations but we did want to do something different and not just give the audience something they had previously enjoyed.”
Duric and Elkington enjoyed the collaboration with Blackburn, Procter, fellow director Jamie Donnaughue and producer Chris Croucher, and were particularly involved in the casting, location scouting and editing.
Casting involved watching tapes of up to 500 Junes and 500 Harrys, whittled down from the thousands of auditions by casting director Daniel Edwards. “It was exhausting at times, but always thrilling and exciting,” Duric admits. “There are so many good young actors out there that it’s insane, but you just watch them and hope to get that feeling in your stomach – the feeling Hania and I had when we started to create the characters. And with Sorcha and Percelle, it came quickly.”
Elkington adds: “Sometimes the way they played it surprised us, and that was amazing. They really got their teeth into the roles on the page and really elevated them with their performance.”
While “biblical” rain that turned Sanctum into a Norse version of the traditionally soggy Glastonbury Festival posed difficulties during filming, the biggest challenge from a writing perspective was keeping Harry and June’s story at the front of the drama from script to production – particularly with June spending large portions of several episodes in someone else’s body.
To enhance the emotional storyline, they decided that June’s reflection would still show her true identity after shape-shifting, with Harry continuing to hear her real voice. Elkington admits that took some orchestration during production, but it’s a concept that provides a haunting, ghostly element throughout.
VFX studios Lexhag and Jellyfish were also on hand to blend the performances of two actors portraying a shift – June adopting the other person’s body while the original character lays rigid on the floor, eyes wide open and rolling in their sockets, as if their soul is being sucked out.
“We talked to Chris and Farren about how we imagined it feeling and the emotional triggers, the shaking, the eyes and the sudden muscle spasms. But in terms of the mechanics of the shifting itself, it’s a hard one to explain until you get into that process,” Duric notes. “There’s a lot of to and fro but, ultimately, we got what we wanted, which was a very physical, real emotional experience as opposed to anything too body-horror or ghastly.”
The series’ transformation theme is present on multiple levels, from Harry and June’s romance and their relationship with those around them, to June’s physical being. But it’s the love story that comes first. “Those themes of love are hopefully universal, and I think we take genre and have tried to naturalise it into an epic family drama. We’re hoping the two can exist side by side without seeing the join – and if that can work for an audience, it will take them to a space they haven’t been in many times before,” Elkington concludes, promising a “gut punch” at the end for viewers who watch all eight episodes.
“That’s my hope, and it will leave them clamouring for more. I think it’s the kind of show where the more you watch, the more it rewards. I hope people stick with it.”
Writer Daragh Carville tells DQ about creating ITV crime drama The Bay, which was born out of his ambition to put a new twist on a familiar genre.
With filming now underway on six-part crime drama The Bay, don’t be surprised to see writer Daragh Carville hanging around the set. But rather than keeping an eye on how his scripts are being transformed for the cameras, he’ll be there just to admire how a television drama is actually made.
“I do like being involved in that side of things. I’m enough of a fanboy to find the nuts and bolts of what directors and actors do and the whole production process fascinating,” he says. “But, realistically, my priority has to be the scripts.”
Co-created with Richard Clark, The Bay follows DS Lisa Armstrong, a fierce and hardworking family liaison officer who is assigned to a missing persons case, supporting the family through a terrible ordeal while also helping the police investigation. But when she realises she is personally connected to the case, she discovers fighting for justice comes at a cost.
Ordeal by Innocence and The A Word star Morven Christie (pictured top) plays Lisa, with Jonas Armstrong, Tracie Bennett, Lindsey Coulson and Chanel Cresswell also among the cast. The series, due to air in 2019, is produced by Tall Story Pictures for UK broadcaster ITV, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment distributing worldwide.
Carville’s career has spanned theatre, film and television, with small-screen credits including supernatural drama Being Human, student-focused 6 Degrees and firefighter series The Smoke. While he still considers himself as a playwright, moving between the stage and screen, he believes there’s something particularly exciting happening currently in TV drama.
“It’s to do with the canvas we’ve got, which makes it very different from a theatre piece. Theatre is extraordinary – each new play has its own set of rules. It’s a wonderful place for metaphor and poetry,” he says. “But the opportunity to tell a story of multiple episodes over many years feels like an extraordinary thing. It makes it very different from the stage or movies. It’s its own unique art form.”
Key to any good drama is character, Carville continues. “The shows I respond to most have got really complex and detailed characters at their heart,” he says, highlighting series such as Breaking Bad. “Characters like Walter White, Jesse and Hank are just engines of story. They generate so much drama because of who they are. They’re people living with secrets and complications; characters that are driven. We understand why someone is doing something, even if what they are doing is mad, wrong, risky or dangerous.”
Genre is also important, with Carville revealing it’s often the topic of the first conversation you have in television. But the writer says a straightforward police procedural isn’t enough for him anymore, either as a writer or a viewer.
“I want to go home with those cops. I want to understand their families and lives and the impact of this crime on the community. I want to feel,” he says. “I don’t want to solve a puzzle as if doing a crossword. What I want is drama and to be moved and taken on a journey.”
Subsequently, The Bay was born out of Carville’s desire to put a new spin on the crime genre and take viewers on a new journey through the experience of a family liaison officer – a character often seen in the background but rarely heard in television dramas.
The spark came from a radio news item about the aftermath of a murder trial, in which the family of the victim made a statement outside the courthouse and specifically thanked the officer who provided them with support throughout their ordeal. It gave Carville the idea to write a crime drama with family firmly at its centre.
“That officer is at the cross point of a crime and family drama. Someone who, after the crime has affected the family, goes in and works with those people potentially day and night at the most emotional and traumatic time of their lives,” he says. “So there’s a multitude of stories there. But that’s just a job – I had to find out who she was. I just started to do the kind of work that writers do, sketching ideas and working out who that person could be and gradually discovering this character, Lisa Armstrong.”
The drama is made more personal to Carville by its setting in the northern English coastal town of Morecambe, with the series now in production there and in nearby Manchester. The writer lives in Lancaster, adjacent to Morecambe, and has long wanted to write something set in this place that is literally on the edge, a classic seaside town that has lost its identity as UK residents increasingly go abroad for their holidays.
“In reality, there’s a lot of poverty and deprivation, and yet it’s a very beautiful place. There are a lot of contrasts and contradictions at work,” he says. “There’s never been a show set in Morecambe; it’s unexplored territory for a TV drama. I wanted to write something set in the community I live in. So all of those things came together to generate this show.”
There’s also the sense that Carville wanted to firmly root his drama in reality, akin to shows from writers he admires such as Russel T Davies, Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright or Lucy Kirkwood.
“Even in a genre series, what I’m interested in is not what a person would do in a cop show but what is happening to them in real life. You’re constantly measuring the story against lived experience. That’s true of language as well – it’s important to have dialogue that has a music to it, that rhythmic and is fun to say and listen to so that it feels real.”
That drama is currently enjoying a new golden age is not in doubt, with the likes of HBO, AMC and other US networks bringing some all-time-great series to the screen over the past few years. But Carville is also keen to recognise the outstanding work being done in the UK.
“Not enough people also acknowledge that there is brilliant work happening in British TV,” he says. “I would say Happy Valley and Line of Duty are the equal of any of those great HBO shows in terms of their narrative drive, their richness and complexity of character. They’re right up there, they’re absolutely brilliant, and those are just two examples. A Very English Scandal was an absolutely brilliant piece that couldn’t exist anywhere else.”
Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio mixes politics and action in Bodyguard, a six-part thriller starring Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes. The showrunner and executive producer Simon Heath invite DQ to the set.
With the long-awaited fifth season of crime drama Line of Duty not due to air on BBC1 until 2019, two years after the fourth run, fans of the series could be forgiven for getting slightly impatient over the return of what has become one of Britain’s biggest dramas. To whet their appetite, however, series creator and showrunner Jed Mercurio will be back on the same channel this Sunday with a brand new series.
A six-part political thriller set within the corridors of power, Bodyguard tells the fictional story of David Budd, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, a heroic but volatile war veteran now working as an officer of the Royalty and Specialist Protection Branch (RaSP) of London’s Metropolitan Police.
When he is assigned to protect the ambitious and powerful home secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), whose politics stand for everything he despises, Budd finds himself torn between his duty and his beliefs. Responsible for her safety, is he actually her biggest threat?
Produced by Line of Duty’s World Productions and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, Bodyguard also stars Gina McKee, Vincent Franklin, Paul Ready, Sophie Rundle, Ash Tandon, Nicholas Gleaves, Nina Toussaint-White, Pippa Haywood and Stuart Bowman.
Thomas Vincent directed block one of the production, while John Strickland took charge of block two, with Priscilla Parish producing.
It’s a gloomy January evening when DQ pitches up at an opulent apartment block overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London, in the shadow of the former power station currently undergoing an extensive redevelopment as it prepares to house Apple’s UK HQ. A luxury flat on the first floor is home to Hawes’ high-flying politician and, inside, Mercurio is sitting on a sofa in the living room, watching filming on a monitor while safely out of shot.
The cameras are focused on Madden as he climbs the staircase and lets himself into the pitch-black apartment, before making his way towards the bedrooms, clearly looking for someone or something. Owing to the fact this is a scene from episode five, DQ is left in the dark over any further plot details.
Tracing the origins of the series, Mercurio goes back to 2014, when Line of Duty aired its second season, then on BBC2. “We started having a conversation with the BBC about developing a thriller to work on BBC1,” he recalls. “That was the genesis of it, wanting to set something within the world of the police but within an area we hadn’t seen much of recently and possibly also combining it with a political thriller. So those were the initial thoughts. Then development took place on and off while Line of Duty continued. Then it was before season four of Line of Duty went out that this was greenlit into production – the plan was always to do this after season four.”
In the kitchen of the apartment are photos of Hawes’ character next to former British prime minister David Cameron. But with Cameron now out of office for more than two years, Mercurio notes that Bodyguard isn’t aiming to reflect contemporary headlines.
“I don’t think you can make something topical when you’re making a drama that’s not going to go out for six months after the last script is written,” he says. “There are certain things we know will be in place, like our system of government, so you can work around that. But it’s not meant to be topical about anything that’s happening on a week-by-week basis. Some of the themes in the show about a terrorist threat, our foreign policy and the relationship between politicians and how that threat is managed seem to have been present in our political system for a decade or more, so I think we’re on pretty safe ground in terms of it still feeling timely.”
Bodyguard, which packs each episode with stunts and action set pieces, reunites Mercurio with both Madden and Hawes, with whom he previously worked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Line of Duty respectively. Madden’s character David is an armed forces veteran turned police protection officer who is still struggling with the burden of his experiences, while Hawes’ Montague is a security-focused politician attempting to push through a bill to beef up security services’ powers to monitor communications.
“She’s a tough, kind of hawkish home secretary,” Mercurio explains. “The basic point of contention between them is he’s got experience of our foreign wars and she’s someone who has supported those ventures politically. His experience has been that those things have had a negative impact on our society.”
Hawes was one of the first names suggested to play the home secretary, according to executive producer Simon Heath, CEO and creative director of World Productions. “Richard I hadn’t worked with before, but Jed had, and I’d seen how good he was. It felt like a good thing to go for a younger actor in that role and create that interesting dynamic with Keeley. I think we’re fortunate to get them both.”
While Line of Duty now has continuing storylines to pick up, Bodyguard afforded Mercurio the chance to start a new story from scratch. “It involves more work in setting up the characters and the world, but it’s completely serial – six hours with a definite conclusion at the end of the six episodes.”
Mercurio was also able to continue the showrunner role he has carved out for himself, a position still rarely seen in British television. “I’m very fortunate to be able to do that,” he admits.
Heath picks up: “I think it is still rare but Jed does it really well and really thoroughly. What it means is if you get locked into directing something you’ve written, it’s very hard to stand back and get an overview. But the position Jed takes is that he gets a fantastic overview of the whole thing taking the scripts to screen. That works brilliantly for Line of Duty and has worked brilliantly for this as well.”
Filming Bodyguard across London has posed the familiar challenges faced by dramas shooting in the English capital. Heath says it’s “not a particularly film-friendly city, in truth,” adding that Wales, Scotland, Birmingham and Belfast – where Line of Duty is made – offer an ease of production not available in London.
“It’s basic things like getting permissions to close roads to do stunts or trying to get access to locations or unit bases,” he explains. “For the general public, it’s dull stuff, but it’s absolutely essential in terms of servicing a production and it does make it incredibly challenging. We’ve been in the very centre of London and did big stunts round the back of Holborn. It looks fantastic on screen but it’s tough because we haven’t got unlimited resources. We haven’t got Hollywood budgets and we have to box clever to get this stuff in the can.”
Mercurio adds: “It’s easy to form the view that if a Hollywood production has got Tom Cruise running around then various London boroughs will roll over and give them the facilities they want, but if the national broadcaster is trying to make something here, it’s a bit harder.”
With the global trend for big-budget coproductions, Bodyguard stands out for using the traditional model of broadcaster, producer and distributor to build its budget. But as Heath admits, Bodyguard is at the “outer reaches” of that model in terms of financing a show with the scale of the BBC1 series.
“But it’s been a good thing because we haven’t had any other voices telling us what the show should be,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of support from the BBC but we’ve been allowed to get on with it. I like to think that model is still viable. Not everything has to be a huge coproduction.”
“We’ve just been really grateful for the BBC support on this,” Mercurio adds. “There’s no need to involve another broadcaster because they’ve backed us to the hilt. I’m not saying anything negative about other broadcasters, but if you’re in the position where you have one broadcaster, you’re delivering to one organisation, one channel, with one ambition in terms of what they want for their audience, it does make it a little bit easier editorially.”
If Bodyguard finds an audience, Mercurio says he would definitely like to return to the series. Until then, he is back in charge of Line of Duty, with season five set to begin production this autumn.
As Mr Mercedes returns for a second season, showrunner Jack Bender tells DQ about adapting Stephen King’s crime novel for the small screen and the importance of character in TV drama.
While Stephen King is well known for stories with elements of fantasy, science-fiction and the supernatural, Mr Mercedes arguably ranks among the most conventional novels he’s ever written.
Strictly a cat-and-mouse crime thriller between a retired cop still trying to solve the case that got away and a psychotic serial killer plotting one final rampage, it was adapted for television by AT&T’s Audience Network, which launched the show last year.
The first 10-part season saw former detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) go head-to-head with Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), the man known as Mr Mercedes after driving a car into a crowd, killing several people in the opening minutes of the show.
So far, so traditional cop drama. Yet season two, which debuts in the US on August 22, goes “a little more into ‘Stephen Kingdom,’” director and showrunner Jack Bender tells DQ.
Merging story elements from King novels Finders Keepers and End of Watch, the second and third instalments of the Mercedes trilogy, season two is set a year after the events of season one. Hodges has set up a private investigation firm while Hartsfield is in a coma, on life support and in a vegetative state. But when unexplainable occurrences begin to affect hospital staff members attending to Hartsfield, Hodges is haunted by the feeling that the comatose killer is somehow responsible. Watching the opening two episodes, it certainly feels like the show is shifting towards traditional King territory.
“The big issue was where we left Brady at the end of season one, with his head bashed in. What were we going to do with the storytelling? So we followed the breadcrumbs Stephen had laid out to work out how we give Harry room to act and move and not just have him in a hospital bed with a voiceover,” says Bender. The answer was to dramatise Hartsfield’s inner thoughts, with Treadaway occupying a dark basement filled with computer screens that serves as his eyes out to the world.
“So Hodges is our everyman and the show remains character-driven, but we definitely had to go out on the tightrope and push the envelope. That was my most challenging task this year, aside from keeping the show as wonderful as it was. The task was to walk that tightrope in terms of both the scripts and storytelling and the performances so the show remained believable.”
Bender first worked with King on the first two seasons of Under the Dome, the CBS series based on the author’s book about the residents of a town inexplicably trapped under a giant dome. They had become friends when Bender had earlier worked on ABC’s mystery drama Lost and, after Under the Dome, sought to partner on a new project.
“Then one day I got this crazy-big package in the mail – he didn’t tell me it was coming – and it was proofs for his new book, Mr Mercedes. Needless to say, I was very excited. I read it and immediately wanted to do it for a couple of reasons,” Bender recalls. “One, Stephen King had really never tackled the detective genre before. And the plot was very much the retired detective and the serial killer from the horrible crime he could never solve.”
King had initially suggested his book be turned into a movie, but Bender recognised the opportunity to take more time to delve into Hartsfield’s childhood and his abusive relationship with his mother, perhaps even to illicit some understanding from the audience as to what drove him to commit such an atrocity. But it was the fact that King had written about the monsters inside his characters, rather than those on the outside, that appealed to him most.
“My focus is to tell good stories on whatever platform,” says Bender, a former actor who has also directed episodes of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and Lost. “Marty Bowen, the exec producer, really planted a seed in my head that this could be a really classy series – meaning cable, which allows you able to make episodes without commercials and that aren’t restricted to 43 minutes and 10 seconds.
“I had some episodes of The Sopranos that were 60 minutes and some that were 47 minutes. [The Sopranos creator] David Chase would cut the show, with HBO’s support, to whatever length he wanted it to be. It allowed you the flexibility to make each episode a movie in of itself that builds the bigger story. I just think it’s an exceptional time for storytellers.”
Bender admits he’s not a big fan of the title ‘showrunner,’ but that’s the role he took up on season one and carries into season two. “I oversee everything. I edit, dub, I do everything,” he admits. “I guess at the end of the day, on Mr Mercedes that’s my job.”
He has also directed 16 of the show’s 20 episodes – eight in each 10-part season – and praises the “brilliant” team assembled around him, in particular the cast led by Gleeson and Treadaway. David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) is the lead writer on the series, which is available outside the US on Starzplay via Amazon Prime Video Channels.
“You might be directing a scene that is a massacre or the finale of season one, which has more production jazz going on, or a scene with Holland Taylor [who plays Hodges’ neighbour Ida] and Brendan Gleeson sitting at a table on her porch playing eight pages of a brilliantly written scene by David Kelley talking about his sex life. But every day you have to keep your eye on the prize and guide it and be open to the creativity around you,” Bender says. “I am surrounded by great technicians and great creative people. I guess the biggest task is to stay open; to trust my instincts but listen to everyone around me and make the 100 decisions you have to make every day.”
Bender took particular care in creating the contrasting worlds of Hodges and Hartsfield, using different camera lenses and lighting styles, or putting the camera closer to or higher above one character than the other. “Yet I never wanted the show to go too far and be self-conscious,” he adds. “I didn’t want anything that takes away from the characters and what they’re up to, and the tension that surrounds them in a particular scene. So I attempted to establish that style and adhere to it with the other directors coming in and still allowing them to be creative.”
King based the massacre at the start of the story, in which Brady mows down dozens of people queuing for a jobs fair, on a real-life incident that took pace several years before cars became the weapon of choice for a spate of terrorist attacks – as London witnessed again this week. So during the planning phase of the series, which is produced by Sonar Entertainment and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Bender was clear that he didn’t want to embellish or exploit this tragedy for the cameras.
“I didn’t want to do gorgeous, graphic slow-motion of bodies and limbs flying through the air and blood splattering and action music,” he explains. “I wanted this show to be unembellished and raw.”
That decision also led him to refuse a soundtrack for the series, instead introducing music through Hodges’ extensive vinyl collection that he keeps in his house. “It’s the only thing in his life, except for his tortoise Fred, that he takes care of. He plays the songs and we could have that be part of the show,” Bender says. Hartsfield also listens to music, including Ramones track Pet Sematary – just one of several nods to King’s other novels during the series (Brady also wears a clown mask during the massacre, which the book describes as looking eerily like a certain Pennywise the Clown).
“It’s a fine line but I tried to go raw and real and with the rest of the show, I was just thinking back on John Cassavetes’ movies and those extraordinary performances where the camera just sat on some people for a while. That also dictated some of what I wanted to do with the show.”
Plans are already underway for a third season that could combine further elements of King’s novels, perhaps with original storylines too. But will the writers find a way to keep Hartsfield alive for a third run? Bender – who is already working on another King adaptation, The Outsider – teases: “You know, one never knows.”
Following its debut in Finland, crime noir drama Karppi (Deadwind) is rolling out worldwide on Netflix. DQ speaks to co-writer and director Rike Jokela about introducing a new female detective into the Scandinavian crime genre and the birth of ‘Helsinki noir.’
Finnish crime drama Karppi (Deadwind) is set to become the latest Scandinavian detective series to reach worldwide audiences.
Launching around the globe on Netflix on August 23, the series introduces Sofia Karppi (played by Pihla Viitala), a detective who returns to work following the sudden death of her husband, leaving her with two children to raise alone.
The 12-part drama, co-written by director Rike Jokela with Jari Olavi Rantala and Kirsi Porkka, is produced by Dionysos Films and H&V Production and distributed by About Premium Content. It first debuted on Finnish pubcaster YLE in March this year.
Here, Jokela tells DQ about the origins of the story, why the title character stands out from other television detectives and how the extremely inhospitable conditions during filming were incorporated into the story.
How would you describe the show?
Deadwind is a mystery crime story that reflects the seasonal depression of Finns living in the dark and cold north during a period of climate change. We consider Deadwind to be ‘Helsinki noir,’ the weird cousin of Nordic noir, similarly to how Finland is sometimes considered to be the weird country among the Scandinavian territories.
What are the origins of the series?
Ten years ago, I did a crime show called Virta (River), which centred on a female cop in her 30s. She was a complex individual, but good at her job, and I started to imagine how she would be 10 years later – if she hadn’t got fired.
Why were you interested to tell the story of Sofia Karppi and how does she differ from other detectives?
Equality is one of the key themes in the show. From the outset, we decided that Sofia must not differ from any male detective characters just because she is a woman. Sofia does things we are used to seeing men doing in this genre. It reflected the equality of women in Finland compared with countries that suffer from gender inequality.
Sofia is a good cop but over-confident, which gets her into trouble a lot of the time. One of her biggest weaknesses is that she doesn’t want to ask for help, and in season one she struggles with this as she deals with the loss of her husband while also being a mother of two kids. She doesn’t care what people think about her and doesn’t bother to comb her hair, which even her 10-year-old son points out, but she is empathic and she cares about victims of crimes, which may make her special within her profession but also creates a great deal of issues.
How was the show first developed for YLE?
Kirsi Porkka, Jari Olavi Rantala and I introduced to YLE the idea of a female detective, a mother in her 40s, who is a single parent after the loss of her husband. We also wanted to focus on one specific crime, and its ramifications on many people’s lives, as well as the social and environmental impact.
Tell us about your writing process.
We created the concept together, which took a year. Everything started from the main character. We discussed who she is, what she wants, what her weaknesses are, where she lives, her kids, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend – we spent a long time asking these questions before starting to think about any plot. By the way, Karppi means carp – a koi fish – and she has a black koi fish tattoo.
When it comes to our process, first of all we try to develop the basic idea of a crime story and we think about the theme, which frames the whole series.
We collect lots of items and images on the wall of our writers’ basement, visualising ideas we’d like to put in our story. Then we try to figure out who the villain is. We can then begin to form and outline the mystery, one of the most important elements of our plot.
In concept, there are three main plots and all of them have a main character. These three key plotlines are the most important, and we play with them and finesse them a lot, envisioning different scenarios of how characters could meet and how their paths cross. Then we start to connect everything together, first on a large scale and then gradually focusing on the details, which is the most rewarding part.
When the plot is beginning to form, we shift our focus to the inner life of the characters and begin to discuss them in a lot more depth. This is the final step, and by this point in the process I try to already have cast the show and to have an idea of who will be in each role. We also find it really beneficial at this final stage to meet the actor and further develop their character collaboratively.
Do you have a particular directing style? If so, how did this influence your work on Karppi?
I believe I do have a particular directing style. As I already work with the writing team, my directing style influences, and is already embedded within, the writing. My colleagues know my style and can write to the way I direct. It is a very natural process because we know each other well. In season two, we have brought on a fourth writer in Harri Virtanen, who is a very experienced and highly regarded professional. His impact has pushed us further, which is great.
Why did you cast Pihla Viitala in the lead role? What does she bring to the character?
I have worked with Pihla before and I think she is one of the top actors in Finland. She is very dedicated but also charming and very easy to get along with. She socialises with the crew and this inclusive, grounded attitude means she is loved by everyone involved in the show.
Pihla brings to the character the honesty, brutality and sensitivity that is needed to play a complex person. She is also fearless and ready to challenge herself – though sometimes so much that she reminds me of Karppi herself. We wrote the character knowing that Pihla would play her, so we reflected some of her own features and mannerisms in the character.
Tell us about the production process. What were the biggest challenges you faced on set?
One of the biggest challenges we faced on set was the cold weather, due to us shooting mainly on location. In the footage you could see the characters feeling cold, so we chose to incorporate that into the story. The cold weather of Helsinki almost became a character itself.
The inconsistency of the weather affected the continuity of what we were shooting. But instead of fighting back, we decided to use the weather to show emotions, in the same way that light and shadow is normally used. This gave us another dimension to emphasise emotion.
How do you think Karppi stands out from Nordic noir?
The people and culture across the Scandinavian countries are very much alike, with the exception of Finland, and the Scandi languages are very similar, again except Finnish. I believe it’s our mix of eastern and western roots that make us different. The characters in Deadwind are harsher, more introvert, and complex in the way they hide emotion. But when something shakes them enough, they begin to unravel.
Humour is also different in Finland. I found very little humour embedded in Danish or Swedish crime shows; we have this constant presence of black humour.
We also have smaller budgets, which forces us to make up new ways to do the complex scenes. In season one, we have about 700 hidden digital effects that we use to achieve things that countries would be able to film for real. Luckily, the budgets for Finnish productions are getting better.
What can you tell us about season two?
We are finishing developing storylines for eight episodes, as season two and three will both have eight episodes each. This process has taken eight months. The next stage of development will be the writers starting to write scripts, which, due to the attention to detail so far, will be a much quicker part of the process. The twin cities of Helsinki and [Estonia capital] Tallinn, including the plan to link them by a tunnel under the Baltic Sea, are at the centre of the story, with politics and a very different murder case also key.
How is Finnish drama evolving and what new storytelling opportunities are there?
Finnish drama is becoming more international and budgets are slowly increasing, which is essential if we wish to compete in this international market. Some shows try very much to be ‘international,’ but this becomes problematic as the originality of these stories comes from them being and telling Finnish stories.
One problem with Finnish drama is that as traditional TV channels and on-demand services want to take more control of the content, the writer’s vision is not being trusted. I hope that, in the future, people start to take more risks and push back against this.
We are lucky to have a great producer in Riina Hyytiä, who understands and champions us to have creative freedom with little external interference, and fantastic distribution partners APC who are very supportive and understand the international appeal of the show. This is very important – constructive feedback is always welcome, but if you are not free to write what you really want, there will not be any soul in the story.
As reality TV-focused drama UnReal ends after four seasons, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser reflects on the show’s controversial storylines and the rise of female anti-heroes.
UnReal, the US drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a reality dating competition, went out with a bang when its fourth and final season landed on SVoD platform Hulu last month.
The exploits of Quinn King, Rachel Goldberg and the team behind fictional matchmaking series Everlasting have served to both shock and amaze audiences since the series launched on US cable network Lifetime in 2015, going on to win a Peabody Award for its first season.
That it was based on the real inner workings of reality shows like the one at its centre has only increased the attention paid to UnReal. It was inspired by co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, itself a behind-the-scenes look at a reality TV show, with Shapiro also once a producer on real-life dating series The Bachelor.
“We hear a lot in the reality TV industry about how real [UnReal] is,” reveals Stacy Rukeyser, a writer on UnReal since season one and showrunner on the final two seasons. “We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Oh they should call it Real, not UnReal.’ That was always terrifying to me because we showed these terrible, terrible things.”
From the beginning, UnReal has pulled back the curtain on the way reality television works, highlighting the ways producers (in the show’s case, Rachel, steered by Everlasting executive producer Quinn) manipulate the contestants in the quest for high ratings. As Rachel says in season one: “Producers produce things. I create conditions for things to happen.”
Season four of UnReal follows Rachel and Quinn as they return to the set of Everlasting for an ‘All Stars’ season, with former contestants and a new format that means the show-within-a-show is poised to be even more dramatic than ever.
UnReal also offers commentary on society’s relationship with reality television, and this season confronts the ‘hate watching’ phenomenon around the genre, with viewers tuning in not to enjoy the show but to snipe about the contestants.
In addition, it draws on a real-life scandal that engulfed ABC reality series Bachelor in Paradise. That show shut down production last year following allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the contestants, though an investigation later found no evidence of wrongdoing. In UnReal, producer Jay makes a complaint that Rachel twists into a publicity stunt.
“We have been looking at how dangerous these shows are for our culture because they’re perpetuating these myths about relationships, and women in particular – that we should look great in a bikini, sit in the hot tub and be really interested in the guy,” Rukeyser says. “And in exchange, he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner, and that’s what a relationship looks like. That’s really dangerous.”
Rukeyser joined UnReal, which is produced by A+E Studios, in season one as a writer and to also step in for then-showrunner Marti Noxon when she was working on her other series at the time, Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.
“When we were writing the first season, I really had no idea that the show was going to be a buzzy, critical hit,” she admits. What she did know, however, was that UnReal would be about flawed women and would be full of risk-taking storylines. One Everlasting contestant commits suicide in the sixth episode, for example.
Season one sparked conversations around the emergence of female anti-heroes, feminism and female relationships, as drawn through the pairing of Quinn and Rachel. “I really had no idea it was going to have such an effect. When people were saying, ‘It’s the female Breaking Bad,’ I never stopped to think, ‘It’s a female protagonist who’s flawed and evil,’ and I certainly never stopped to think we had not just one but two female protagonists,” the showrunner says. “It just felt like these were women I’d recognise.
“The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is really the love story of the series, even though it’s not a romantic love story, and to have that much focus on female relationships, which are so central for us and, I believe, can withstand awful behaviour and [allow us to] understand each other and support each other, that’s been really exciting too.”
The strength of the relationship between Rachel and Quinn also comes down to the partnership between the actors who play them, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, respectively. Both have also directed episodes of UnReal, with Appleby helming the series finale.
“There’s so much of what Shiri does as Rachel that is non-verbal. If she is expressing so much of who that person is and what she is experiencing just through her face and eyes, there’s been an inherent vulnerability and likability in her that has made her root for Rachel and want her to get out [of Everlasting] by the end of the series,” Rukeyser says. “But it’s been incredible to be able to write in a more spare kind of way because you can trust she’s going to tell the rest of the story in a non-verbal way.”
As for Quinn, Rukeyser sees her as “one of the great characters in TV history,” explaining: “It would be very easy for the Quinn character to turn into an evil bitch, but it was never that way with her. Constance adds so many layers to her performance. It’s magic when you find two actresses who are not only spectacular individually but spectacular in the way they interact with each other. And it has really been such a privilege to write for them.”
Having previously worked on series including One Tree Hill, Crash and The Lying Game, Rukeyser has been writing and rewriting scripts on UnReal since the beginning. It proved to be a good training ground for the transition she made to become showrunner at the beginning of season three. “I knew I could do the job, so that was reassuring. But also, the show means so much to so many people who make it, so what’s been a really gratifying part of my job is, if I’m doing my job right, there are 200 people who feel responsible for the success of the show. It’s been great to be running a show that is about something, that sparks conversations and also means so much to the people making it.”
Beyond the issues it raises and the show-in-a-show format it has so successfully created, it’s the characters at the heart of UnReal that Rukeyser believes will be its legacy.
“We’re part of this groundswell of ‘unlikeable female protagonists’ you see more and more on television. We’re seeing a lot more of them and I hope we continue to see a lot more of them because they feel like complicated, flawed women who I recognise,” she says.
“In terms of the comment on reality television, I don’t think that conversation is done. I don’t even think that conversation is really happening. We have so many fans to who tell us, ‘I love your show and I watch The Bachelor all the time’ – I sometimes cannot understand how that’s possible. There is something deeply embedded in our society – that princess fantasy that some man will come along and sweep me off my feet is still so desirable to so many women, unfortunately. So I would love for someone else to take that conversation on, because the conversation for sure is not done.”
But with the fourth season moving from Lifetime to Hulu, is there no way back for the show and a potential fifth season? “I don’t think so,” says Rukeyser, who has a pilot with Lifetime among other new projects in development. “I think this is it.”
Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh tackle complicated matters of the heart in Wanderlust, a bold, stylistically fresh and funny six-part drama for BBC1 and Netflix. The stars, writer Nick Payne and director Luke Snellin reveal why this series stands apart from anything else on TV.
From the start of episode one, there’s something different about Wanderlust. Whether it’s the naturalistic dialogue, offbeat soundtrack, title design or the extremely unsexy sex scene that plays out in the opening few minutes, it has all the hallmarks of a quirky indie movie – not a six-part series commissioned by BBC1.
“It really is a special thing,” says Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama commissioning, of the funny and extremely honest portrayal of one multi-generational family’s attitude to love, sex and relationships. Wenger adds that he’s “proud – and slightly terrified – to say we’ve never seen anything like it before on BBC1.”
Award-winning playwright Nick Payne’s first television series, Wanderlust follows Joy Richards (Toni Collette), a therapist struggling to keep the spark in her marriage to teacher Alan (Steven Mackintosh). As the story progresses, it looks at how people build and maintain relationships and asks whether lifelong monogamy is possible, or even desirable, with Joy and Alan reassessing their relationship amid stories of love, lust and forbidden desire.
“It’s real people grappling with real stuff,” says Mackintosh, noting the show’s lack of heroes or villains. “There’s no high concept here, it’s not heightened in any way. This is an ordinary household, a loving couple who love each other and are grappling with where to go from here. It’s life. For me, it’s completely real.”
Collette agrees Wanderlust is extremely lifelike and reflective of the situation in which many couples find themselves after several years of happy marriage. “But nobody really talks about it,” she continues. “All of the characters are so real and so complex and so warm and likeable, even when they’re messing things up – maybe even more so.”
The Australian actor, best known for film roles including Little Miss Sunshine and recent horror hit Hereditary, says she knew she wanted to play Joy after “devouring” the scripts. “This was like, I will die if I don’t do it,” she recalls. “The writing is so beautiful and it has so many layers and says so much in a very subtle manner. There were a lot of lovely things to play with. I knew I wanted to do it straightaway.”
Having starred in her first television series, Showtime’s United States of Tara, in 2009, Collette says she is excited by the characters now being written for the small screen and praises Payne’s scripts and the distinctive voice he lends to the drama. “This is pretty much the best writing I’ve ever worked with and one of the best jobs of my entire career,” she says. “I’m a 45-year-old woman and I’m a pig in shit. Even through the rain in Manchester [the city in the North West of England where Wanderlust was filmed] through the winter, it’s still a highlight.”
Mackintosh was no less enthused by the prospect of starring the series, calling the decision a “no-brainer” and revealing that every pause, ‘um’ and ‘err’ on screen were written into the script, rather than being improvisation.
“The humour is fantastic in it, and with Nick’s writing you instantly feel how a scene should be, you feel a sense of the pace,” he says. “I love the meandering sentences that end up gently funny and awkward. That’s what feels completely real and wonderful about the whole thing. It’s incredibly poignant; it’s moving but the humour is always bubbling right below the surface.”
And despite some initial nervousness, neither Mackintosh nor Collette had any reservations about the sex scenes called for in the script. “I think I got quite used to it,” Collette says. “You can’t half-heartedly act that. You have to make it feel real. So I was nervous at first but the more steeped I was in the story, the easier it became.”
Mackintosh (Kiri, The Halcyon) adds: “Often with sex on television, when I watch something, I’m taken out of the story and feel like I’m suddenly watching two actors in a specific scene, rather than two characters. But with this it’s so intrinsically part of it. And the way Nick writes – the awkwardness, the fumbling and the bits in between – it’s really rooted in these people trying to figure things out, and that just feels completely real to me.”
Produced by the team behind Doctor Foster, Wanderlust comes from Drama Republic and is executive produced by Roanna Benn, Jude Liknaitzky and Lucy Richer. Kate Crowther is the producer. BBC Studios is the international distributor, with coproducer Netflix airing the series worldwide outside of the UK.
The show emerged from a play Payne wrote in 2009, which was performed the following year at the Royal Court. He then met Benn and Liknaitzky, who were on the lookout for a TV drama about sex and relationships and enquired whether he would like to adapt his play.
In the transition from stage to screen, Joy became a therapist, a decision that opened the door for the show’s honest portrayal of sex – something that will certainly become a talking point as the series progresses.
Payne met lots of therapists during his research for the show and says they spoke pretty frankly about the subject. “I just thought, ‘Why don’t I give it a go and see if we can do it like that?’” he says. Romantic dramas don’t often dramatise sex, preferring to focus on the build-up and then skipping to the following morning. “I guess I’ve always wondered what happens if you make the sex the driver of the story, so you explore all these romantic lives through all the shagging,” the writer adds.
Like being in therapy, though, this series doesn’t offer all the answers at the beginning. “Joy says at the start [when meeting a new client for the first time], ‘This is going to take years, there are no quick fixes,’” Payne adds. “I’m trying to say to the audience this isn’t going to be a story-of-the-week, it’s going to traverse the whole six hours. I tried to be truthful to the act of therapy but, at the same time, you have to cheat to make a story.”
Behind the camera is director Luke Snellin (The A Word, Our Girl), who matches Payne’s rhythmic dialogue with his own visual style composed of lingering wide shots and extreme close-ups of the actors.
“We set out to do something that felt very different and not for any other reason than the writing felt so unique and interesting, so we just felt we were trying to service that the whole time,” he says. “We’re so used to TV tropes and ways of being given information or ways of consuming stories that it felt like we should try to make a break from that and explore things from a different point of view visually.”
Echoing Mackintosh, Snellin says the pace of the series was inherent in Payne’s scripts. “I read it on my own in my house and I read both episodes in one sitting without stopping. That’s a good sign,” he says. “In TV there are so often moments where characters stop and think about things that don’t feel very real. It’s a show totally rooted in naturalism.”
If there’s one line that could sum up the series, it’s something Joy says in episode one: “We’re very bad at talking about our private lives in public.” It goes someway to explain the awkward situations and meandering sentences Mackintosh acknowledges, and Payne says the line is a direct quote from someone he spoke to during his research.
“For some reason, we struggle. We have a similar struggle with death and grief, I think, to find a language for it, to feel safe and supported with the people close to us to discuss it,” he says. “It’s a shame we struggle but it’s obviously useful for me dramatically because then we get a whole show out of people being repressed.”