All posts by Michael Pickard

Legion’s latest recruit

Mr Robot star Stephanie Corneliussen joins the cast for the third and final season of X-Men drama Legion. She talks to DQ about Noah Hawley’s psychedelic FX series, its treatment of mental illness and her extensive preparation for playing Gabrielle Haller.

When the news came, it arrived via Twitter. “Noah Hawley is pleased to announce two guest castings for the final year of #LegionFX,” the message on FX drama Legion’s official account read. “Stephanie Corneliussen will play David Haller’s mother, Gabrielle, and Harry Lloyd will play his father, Professor X.”

Corneliussen enjoyed the chance to play a character with “real issues”

You can imagine why fans of the series went crazy. The show is based on the X-Men comics and characters that have spawned a number of action-packed feature films, with Professor X (Charles Xavier) – played invariably by Sir Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy – among the ensemble cast of characters brought together on the big screen. In the movies and the original comics, he is an extremely powerful telepath and the founder and leader of the X-Men, a band of humans born with mutant powers in a world rife with anti-mutant sentiment.

In the comics, he falls in love with Gabrielle Haller but they later separate without him knowing she is pregnant with his son, David, who becomes the mutant Legion, suffering from schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and powers similar to his father’s.

For two seasons, Legion followed David’s struggle to understand his abilities as viewers followed his story through the character’s own distorted perspective, set in a hallucinogenic world created by showrunner Noah Hawley (Fargo) and taking its vibe from the 1960s and 1970s.

From childhood, David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) shuffled from one psychiatric institution to the next until, in his early 30s, he met and fell in love with a beautiful and troubled fellow patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). After Syd and David shared a startling encounter, he was forced to confront the shocking reality that the voices he hears and the visions he sees are actually real.

With the help of Syd and a team of specialists who also possess extraordinary gifts, he unlocked a deeply suppressed truth: he had been haunted his entire life by a malevolent creature known as The Shadow King, who appeared in the form of David’s friend Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), but was actually an ancient being named Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban).

David’s friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) was not all she seemed

During an epic showdown, David managed to push Farouk out of his body and gain control of his mind. But with Farouk on the loose, the team formed an unlikely alliance with their former enemy, Clark DeBussy (Hamish Linklater), and his well-funded government organisation, Division 3. Unfortunately, the hunt for Farouk reawakened the dark voices in David’s head, and within them, a lust for power.

At odds with everyone he once considered a friend, and Syd tasked with bringing him down before he destroys the world, the third and final season sees David enlist the help of a young mutant named Switch (Lauren Tsai), whose secret ability is key to his plans to repair the damaged he caused.

That’s where Professor X and Gabrielle come in, as David meets them in some time-travelling twists that are entirely suited to the show’s mind-bending, distorted structure.

“There was a lot of excitement when Legion had found its Professor X, because he’s such a prominent character in the comic books. Gabrielle perhaps didn’t attract the same attention – but she will,” Corneliussen tells DQ. “Noah really did something quite amazing with this character. We had a lot of talks about her and how to shape her.”

Hawley has spoken in the past about how Legion is a study of mental illness, as David recovers from being at his lowest ebb, only to spiral into darkness once again. Season three will complete his story, which is one Gabrielle can also relate to as the character also suffers from mental health issues.

As an actor, Corneliussen has embraced the role of Gabrielle and put particular emphasis in her preparation on how her character is affected by her health.

“All roles deserve serious preparation but when you prepare for a role that has to do with a sensitive subject like this, it really deserves a certain level of respect,” she says. “It deserves due diligence and proper research, and because I am so fascinated by that within humans, our mind, I like portraying these characters to end the stigma around mental illness.”

Rachel Keller plays David’s troubled fellow patient Syd Barrett

The subject is a familiar one for the actor. In USA Network drama Mr Robot, Corneliussen played Joanna Wellick, a character who also had mental health issues.

“She had an anti-social personality and was living in this very controlled mania where she thought she could control people with taunts and that ultimately became her demise,” she says of the character, who she played across three seasons of the series. “She was living in a very happy symbiosis with her diagnosis, whereas Gabrielle is living in a very different reality and with a different relationship with her own mental struggles, in the form of depression, anxiety and trauma.

“It’s something I thought was very relevant, not only to what is going on in the world but also to myself in my late 20s, early 30s, when I started experiencing depression and anxiety. We just don’t talk about [our mental health] so it’s important to have shows like Legion that shine a focus on it.”

Corneliussen also relishes the opportunity to play a character with “real issues.” So often, “having real issues on TV is, ‘I don’t know how to pay the rent’ or ‘I don’t know how to get a boyfriend,’” she says. “You know what? That’s not society. That’s a bubble. It’s far more complex than that.”

In particular, the actor says Gabrielle is still affected by postpartum issues that stem back to David’s birth. As she’s not a mother herself, Corneliussen spoke online with people who had first-hand experience of similar problems to round out her understanding of the character and her performance on screen.

David (Dan Stevens) undergoes some time-travelling twists

Corneliussen is reluctant to say too much about Gabrielle’s arc in the series, only that she does appear in sequences that result from David playing with time. “My family were very confused when I said I was playing Dan Stevens’ mother,” she jokes. “We do travel back in time and there are a lot of things that Noah tapped into that are integral to the comic book story of Gabrielle.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who has lived their life without regret, and it’s OK to regret choices that you’ve made. But it’s an issue when you start criminalising past choices and start beating yourself up about it. That’s when you can’t move on. But imagine having the opportunity to change it. That’s as vague as I can be!”

Corneliussen had the chance to audition for Legion when her manager spotted a casting call for a guest spot on the series, which comes from FX Productions and Marvel Television and is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. The Danish actor and model was in Copenhagen at the time, so she filmed an audition on her iPhone and sent it off.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to go to work than I have been on Legion,” she admits. “The crew were fantastic but with the cast in particular, who have been together for these years, I’ve never felt more welcome or more as an equal. Lauren Tsai, who joins in season three as well, and I were both newcomers, but we were so welcomed and there was no difference in how people were relating to us. We were invited to join and partake in everything. It was pretty beautiful. Amber Midthunder and Rachel Keller, in particular, were just really wonderful. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Season three was filmed on stage at Paramount Studios and on location around LA. Corneliussen says she was surprised how much the series relied on physical effects and an exemplary team of stunt performers, rather than the use of green screen. But she faced a tough time on set owing to the death of her grandmother just a month before shooting began, playing a character who is going through her own emotional turmoil.

“Having to turn it [my emotions] on because of what had just happened in my personal life was not difficult at all. However, having to turn it off again and going to a scene that has a lighter touch was a challenge,” the actor admits. “I haven’t had the experience of having had something very tumultuous going on in my personal life while working before.”

Legion exists in an hallucinogenic world within the X-Men universe

But having had the chance to work with showrunners such as Hawley and Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail, who are both the singular creative architects of their series, has been a boon for Corneliussen in her fledgling acting career, which also includes appearances in superhero drama DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and crime-mystery Deception.

“They really are frontrunners in what’s going on right now in TV,” she says, describing her experiences with them as akin to painting alongside Monet. “Both of them are very open to giving their actors creative freedom because they trust their actors and they allow us to take the material to places we would like to go. They’re always open to suggestions.

“But it’s a fine balance,” the actor adds. “You’re working with two geniuses and you want to respect that they have put a lot of thought and effort and their own creativity into what they’ve done. So I like to stay in my lane when I’m an actor. I write myself and I would like to be a director too one day. But right here and now, I’m booked as an actor and that is what I like to do. That’s my job title and that’s what I should stick to.”

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According to Ann

An Emmy winner for her performance as the ferocious Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, Ann Dowd’s latest role takes her to the edge of the world for Australian miniseries Lambs of God.

Ann Dowd admits she is drawn to certain types of characters – solitary figures who live on the outskirts, loners, people who are a little off. She won widespread acclaim for playing cult leader Patti in HBO’s The Leftovers for three seasons from 2014, before scoring a Primetime Emmy in 2017 for her portrayal of brutal enforcer Aunt Lydia in Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale.

“I feel extremely fortunate to be working at a time when there are more roles for women and they’re not the mother, the mistress or the grandmother,” says Dowd, speaking on the phone from Toronto where she is filming the third season of the Hulu hit. “It’s been wonderful. I love Patti, and trying to figure out what’s happening with Aunt Lydia – or what happened. Right now we’re actually filming her backstory, which has been fantastic and is written very well, realising why she is the woman she is. I couldn’t be more grateful for them.”

In her next series, Lambs of God, Dowd’s character is similarly reclusive. Forgotten by the Catholic Church, the Sisters of St Agnes – Margarita (Dowd), Iphigenia (Essie Davis) and Carla (Jessica Barden) – live in a self-imposed exile on a remote and rugged island until an ambitious young priest, Father Ignatius (Sam Reid), accidentally stumbles across them as he arrives on a mission from the church to sell their crumbling monastery, forcing them to defend their lives and their beliefs.

Produced by Lingo Pictures for Foxtel’s Showcase and distributed by Sky Vision, the Australian series is based on the novel by Marele Day. It has been written by Sarah Lambert (Love Child), with Jeffrey Walker (Jack Irish) directing.

Ann Dowd (second from left) in Foxt Showcase drama Lambs of God

“I’ll never forget it for as long as I live. It was quite an extraordinary experience,” Dowd says of filming the four-parter. “It’s such an unusual story. Sarah Lambert did a beautiful job adapting it. I was hesitant – it’s so far away [filming in Australia] – but the whole experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done.”

Offering extensive background on their characters, Lambert told the main actors the nuns were part of an order driven from the male-led church that wanted to wipe out women’s voices. “It’s a story as old as time, the silencing of women’s voices,” says Dowd, who was educated by nuns, raised within the church and has two aunts who were Catholic sisters.

“These sisters are very aware of the male hierarchy and what that all means. They choose to live apart from it. In times of prayer and service to God, that is the way they express their devotion. The beauty of this story is they are able to confront what has held them captive emotionally for so many years.”

What unfolds, the actor says, is how each of the sisters face barriers being broken down and find the strength to face their fears. “The story has so many layers and I loved it,” she adds.

Dowd was taken aback by the extent to which she was transformed by the role, for which she had to learn to knit and use a spinning wheel. “Lydia is a costume but I look in the mirror and I recognise myself. With this nun, there’s mud on her face, she’s kind of sunburned, we had long, grey wigs. I would look in the mirror and have no idea who I was looking at. This was such a departure.”

The series is based on Marele Day’s novel of the same name

Although set off the English coast, filming for the monastery took place on a remote Tasman island. The shoot also visited Fox Studios Australia, the Blue Mountains and across New South Wales.

Dowd also confronted her own fears during production, when the cast were shooting on a clifftop in Kiama, near Sydney. They were on their way back down when, suddenly, “I’m completely gripped by panic,” she recalls. “At the same time, I realise this is the landscape of my nightmares – trying to get down from a mountain and not being able to do so, being rooted in panic, and that’s what happened.

“It brought up something I didn’t even realise I was afraid of. Once you do that, you realise you’re in the right place. I’m going to trust this entire experience and to come to get to know a character who is not easy to know because she’s shut down in so many ways.”

Lingo Pictures producer Jason Stephens admits “it’s difficult not to gush when talking about Ann.”

“She’s like this gorgeous Earth Mother to have around and she’s very interested in other people lives and stories, which I suspect has a lot to do with why she excels at her craft,” he says. “We were blessed to have her spend an extended time in Australia, which is testament to the strength of the script that attracted her down here. Ann, Essie, Jess and Sam gelled brilliantly from the day they met, and the results of that collaboration delivers an ensemble performance that is very exciting.”

With the series in competition at Series Mania in Lille, Stephens adds: “We can’t wait to show it to the rest of the world.”

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Pol position

As Poldark returns for its fifth and final season, series creator and writer Debbie Horsfield tells DQ how the period drama departs from its source material and outlines her approach to bringing the saga to a close.

It’s the last season of a costume drama, based on a series of popular novels, where the writer has left behind the source material to round out the story. But while Poldark may not generate the same number of furious Tweets as Game of Thrones’ finale, surely one of the most polarising in television history, creator and writer Debbie Horsfield is looking forward to the inevitable discussion that will surround her show’s conclusion.

“What’s not to like about robust and hearty debate?” Horsfield tells DQ. “There are always going to be people attached to certain versions of the books. I’m personally attached to a certain version of my script and I often lament the fact the scripts don’t make it in their entirety to the screen, for all kinds of reasons. We all have an attachment to our own personal version of something because we all view things through our own personal perspective. That’s just part and parcel of doing an adaptation.”

Debbie Horsfield

The writer believes there is less pressure on the conclusion to a piece of original drama, as viewers and fans will have no pre-existing expectations of what may or may not happen, unlike with an adaptation of a popular set of novels. “But even then,” she continues, “once you get to the second season of something, people have a set idea of how they want it to go, but that’s the deal. You write something, you put it out there and you expect people to have an opinion about it. You at least want them to watch and have a debate.”

As Poldark returns for a fifth and final eight-part run, it’s very much business as usual, with a new story unfolding and characters old and new uniting at the turn of a new century.

In terms of the production, everything is as it should be, from the magnificent, sprawling Cornish landscapes to the fast-paced scenes and quick cuts that propel the story forward and ensure the main characters are all serviced during the hour-long opening episode, setting them on the path that will lead to the series’ conclusion.

Season four ended in 1799, at the end of Winston Graham’s seventh Poldark book The Angry Tide. But in a departure for the series, Horsfield has set this new season in 1800, filling the time jump before the eighth novel, The Stranger from the Sea, which opens in 1810.

Episode one begins with Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) determined to spend more time with his family following the death of Elizabeth Warleggan (Heida Reed). But when Ross’s former army colonel Ned Despard (Vincent Regan) and his wife Kitty (Kerri McLean) ask for his help, he is compelled to challenge the establishment and question his loyalty to king and country.

Meanwhile, as Dwight and Caroline Enys (Luke Norris and Gabrielle Wilde) join the cause, Ross’s wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) must contend with dangers closer to home, while George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), deep in grief over Elizabeth’s death, courts corrupt powers whose influence spans the British Empire.

Aidan Turner in Poldark, which will conclude with its fifth season

At first, Horsfield adapted two of Graham’s books per season. Then, as the novels grew longer, the adaptation slowed down to one-and-a-half books for each of the most recent two seasons due to the amount of material the show needed to cover. Season four concluded at the end of book seven, but owing to the fact book eight takes place after a 10-year time jump, Horsfield decided season five would bridge that gap, taking place between 1800 and 1802, immediately after season four.

“I hadn’t done an adaptation before Poldark so normally I just make stuff up, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that,” Horsfield says about her approach to the new season. “We wanted to preserve the integrity of the later books. There are five more books and we didn’t want to do anything in this season that was going to go against anything that happened in the later books. Also, in book eight, there are a lot of details and references to things that happened in that intervening decade, so I used that as a basis for a lot of the storylines.”

Season four and book seven end with Poldark as a mine owner and a rather frustrated politician, unable to effect change in the way he had hoped. Book eight then picks up with him on a secret mission in Portugal as a government agent.

“There’s very little in the books about what led him to that, so basically season five imagines what circumstances might have conspired to put Ross on that journey,” Horsfield explains. “Then my path was to look at what was happening historically in the period 1800 to 1802. Was there even a secret service in existence at that point? It turned out there absolutely was. There was a very active spy network in London because it was a time of fear of there being an English revolution following the American and French ones.

“So what I discovered in the research was the context was very much there for Ross to become an agent of the government, but it was just tracing those steps one by one to see how he gets there.

Set in the 18th century, Poldark is based on the books by Winston Graham

“We did work very closely with Andrew Graham [Winston Graham’s son and series consultant for his estate] and put all the storylines to him. He was very much in agreement that the methodology we were going with was what his father would have done. It was great to have that support.”

Horsfield admits the production team never knew from season to season whether the series would return, while the “best case scenario” was always that it would last for five seasons – the length of the stars’ contracts. The series is produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

As a result, she says writing this season’s finale – the show’s ultimate conclusion – was no different to penning the final episode of previous seasons. “You always want your final episode to be very climactic but leaving the audience wanting more,” she says. “It’s always nice to quit while you’re ahead and leave the audience wanting more, so that was in my mind as I was writing that finale.”

But with other Poldark books yet to be adapted, is this really the end for the show? “You can never say never,” Horsfield responds, though there is certainly no immediate plan to return to Cornwall.

“Who knows where everybody’s going to be in 10 years’ time and whether there will be an interest from anyone, the public included. I know most of the cast and crew, and certainly myself, are on other projects, so a lot of people are busy for quite some time. Obviously there are five more books, so one can never predict what will happen.”

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Getting the Lowe-down

Rob Lowe, the US actor best known for turns in The West Wing and Parks & Recreation, discusses his move to the UK to lead the cast of crime drama Wild Bill, his role as an executive producer and his passion for directing.

Writers often have their ideal star in mind when putting the finishing touches to their latest screenplay. In many cases, this is simply a pipe dream – but when Wild Bill co-creators and scribes Jim Keeble and Dudi Appleton say they wrote the lead role specifically for US actor Rob Lowe, it was more than just fantasy.

“Wild Bill gives us a chance to write about modern Britain and modern crime through unique eyes,” they say. “We wrote this for Rob, for his smart-talking, anarchic, soulful voice. Displacing Rob in Britain and specifically in Boston, Lincolnshire allows us to tell stories that are left-field and unexpected. We wanted to write something that couldn’t take place anywhere else, or at any other time.”

It was fortuitous then that Lowe, best known for starring in Aaron Sorkin’s political classic The West Wing, was looking for a project set outside of the US.

“I just needed a break from network television,” admits Lowe, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “I’ve had a show on the schedule every year since 1999. I’m really proud of that. I don’t know if any other actor has ever done that. But I wanted to do [the type of] storytelling you just can’t do on a traditional American network. The pace is different, the stories are different, how it’s shot is different. I wanted a geographical change and, as I was looking for that, Wild Bill came to me. The character was undeniable.”

The ITV drama, produced by 42, MultiStory Media and Anonymous Content, sees Lowe play high-flying US cop Bill Hixon, who is parachuted into the UK as the new chief constable of the East Lincolnshire Police Force, with a targeted brief to tackle rising crime figures while making budget cuts.

Rob Lowe as Bill Hixon in Wild Bill

Initially derided by his new colleagues as a clueless fish-out-of-water, he comes armed with a range of statistics and algorithms he hopes will help him finish the job and return to the US as quickly as possible. However, he soon finds the locals are just as smart-mouthed and cynical as they are back home, while a return to frontline policing makes him question whether Boston needs him or he needs Boston.

Executive producer Rory Aitken describes the series as “Happy Valley with a touch of Fargo,” while the Lincolnshire countryside provides a refreshing alternative to the cityscapes more commonly associated with crime dramas. It is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

Lowe is quick to agree that there’s also a touch of Moneyball about the series, a reference to the book of the same name about the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s attempt to build a competitive team using analytics and statistics. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction work was later turned into a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt.

“That’s exactly what I thought of when I read it,” he says. “Analytics have taken over the world, they really and truly have. They’ve changed everything and they really, truly have changed law enforcement. It makes perfect sense. You have X number of men or women on the force; run it through a computer and the computer will tell you where they need to be. It’s not up to their intuition. It actually makes more sense for law enforcement than it does for sports. But I’ve never really seen that [in television], so it was nice. It’s the perfect way to come into an old, traditional doing-it-the-same-way-for-decades-and-decades story, and then throwing a character in like Bill is a brilliant, original concept.”

Lowe heads a cast that also includes Bronwyn James as DC Yeardsley, an eager detective who proves to be an early ally for Bill; Tony Pitts, whose chief commissioner Keith Metcalfe has hidden reasons for bringing Bill from the US; and Aloreia Spencer, who as Bill’s 14-year-old daughter Kelsey shares his grief at the sudden loss of his wife and her mother.

Wild Bill is set in the Lincolnshire town of Boston

The cast is rounded out by Anjli Mohindra, Rachael Stirling, Anthony Flanagan, Angela Griffin, Aleksander Jovanovic, Divian Ladwa and Vicki Pepperdine.

Lowe’s role on Wild Bill isn’t confined to the screen, however, as he also takes up an executive producer position behind the scenes alongside Aitken, Eleanor Moran and Tim Carter. He says he was on board the project a year-and-a-half before filming began, offering notes during the scriptwriting stage and becoming an integral part of the casting process.

“The EP job as an actor/star is different on different shows,” he says. “When I go from this to work with Ryan Murphy on 911: Lone Star, my job there will be, ‘Good idea, Ryan!’ That’s my job. Here, it’s more of an unknown for me. I didn’t know a lot of the players involved, so it’s kind of like a quality-control position where I step in when needed. I’ll give notes on scripts. Jim and Dudi are English, so their notion of how an American speaks sometimes needed some help to make sense, so I’m there to do that. But now the show is up and running, if we were ever to do a second season of it, I kind of feel like my work is done.”

It’s his experience across a screen career spanning four decades that means at this stage, Lowe feels he has to be involved beyond just saying his lines. “You’ve got to,” he adds. “At this point, I’m usually by far the most experienced person involved in anything, anywhere, so you want to bring what you’ve learned to bear and bring what you can.”

The part of Hixon was written specifically for Lowe

Appearing in Wild Bill still offered Lowe a chance to find new experiences on set, not least in the more relaxed working conditions on a UK set compared to those in the US. “Oh my God, it’s so different,” he exclaims, recalling his time on CBS medical drama Code Black as an example.

“We would close down an eight-lane freeway, have a fiery tanker inferno and a multi-car pile-up. Then there would be a helicopter rescue and back at the hospital there would be 700 extras and a blackout or 14 multiple storylines – and we’d shoot that in eight days. Wild Bill is me running around in a car in the countryside in 17 days. So there’s definitely not a sense of urgency making TV in Britain!”

On the set of Wild Bill, Lowe recalls the emotional demands of playing Bill in a cold and often wet location on the English east coast. “But that’s what I signed up for,” he says stoically. “That’s what you want. Why go to Boston, Lincolnshire if you don’t want that? So every day where I was cold and wet and lonely, I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s all going to be on screen.’ What you don’t want to be is cold, wet and miserable and have none of that on screen. That’s a nightmare. So I knew what it was.”

Beyond its Hollywood star lead and unfamiliar setting, Wild Bill is also notable for its shift in tone away from the fast-paced nature of many other crime dramas. It is filled with human drama and emotion, with episode one focusing on the effort to solve the murder of a woman who disappeared many years earlier, while fans of Lowe’s turn in off-beat comedy Parks & Recreation will be pleased to find the show also has touches of humour.

The actor says the Wild Bill’s mash-up of genres isn’t something you see on television very often, and while some reviews have been critical of Wild Bill’s uneven tone, the actor says that’s exactly what they were trying to do.

Lowe directed and starred in Lifetime movie The Bad Seed

“I happen to be really down with the mash-up,” he says. “But here’s the thing that made me laugh too – the thing about the internet, Twitter and social media is the noisy five people can make it seem like everyone feels a certain way. I’ve seen people really upset about the lack of authentic accents in the show. As an American, I can’t tell the difference anyway! But I love that we’re watching Chernobyl and falling all over ourselves, even though it’s in Ukraine and everyone has a British accent, and nobody says one fucking word about it.”

For his next project, Lowe will return to US network television to lead Fox crime drama 911: Lone Star. The actor says that while much of the plot is still in the minds of creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Tim Minear (American Horror Story), he does know he will play a fire chief with a grown-up son, living in Austin, Texas.

“He comes to deal with this firehouse that has had a tragedy and there’s a very specific reason why he’s there to deal with it,” he reveals. “Above and beyond that, honestly I don’t know! It airs after the NFC Championship Game [in January 2020], which is a big deal, and we start shooting right after Labor Day, so we’re literally in the process of writing.”

Beyond acting, Lowe has uncovered a passion for directing. After helming a short story two decades ago, his first experiencing directing a major project came last year in the shape of Lifetime movie The Bad Seed, in which he also starred. A remake of the 1956 thriller movie of the same name, it saw Lowe play a widowed father who, after helping his daughter cope with the tragic drowning of one of her classmates, begins to suspect she might have been involved.

“I love directing. It’s the most fulfilling thing I can do,” he says, adding that he prefers it to acting, performing his one-man show and writing books because “I get to use every club in my bag and I love it.”

Lowe (bottom left) as Sam Seaborn In White House-set drama The West Wing

The problem, he notes, is that he’s attracted to a very specific type of material. “It’s elevated genre pieces,” he continues. “I did The Bad Seed, which is a homage to The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. But it just took so much time and I literally don’t have the time.

“The other thing is, like everything else, to be a movie director today means something different than it did when I was a kid. There are very few Quentin Tarantinos [Pulp Fiction], Paul Thomas Andersons [There Will Be Blood], Steve McQueens [12 Years A Slave] or Damien Chazelles [La La Land]. Those are my heroes. But now it’s tough even for them. The notion of a writer/director/auteur, that’s not the era we’re living in right now. Those types of people are now the David Simons [The Wire], the David Milches [Deadwood] and the Aaron Sorkins. They’re all creating television, which is a whole other thing.”

To many viewers, however, Lowe will always be Sam Seaborn, the intelligent and charming White House deputy communications director in Sorkin’s The West Wing. In today’s divisive and polarised political climate, particularly in the US, it’s unsurprising that the series’ idealistic liberalism under Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet continues to be a touchstone for fans of the actor and the series alike.

Lowe agrees that the show is “more valuable than ever. I just know because of the people who come up to me all the time,” he says. “It used to be, ‘I love The West Wing’ or ‘I still love The West Wing.’ Now, honestly, it’s ‘My husband and I are working our way through the series for the fifth time.’ It’s unreal. It is more relevant – people are more into it today than they were when it was out. It’s crazy.”

If an often-mooted West Wing reunion or reboot ever comes to fruition, Lowe might yet find himself back in the White House. But whether he’s in front of or behind the camera, he’s set to remain a fixture in the television world for some time to come.

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Colourful language

Between Issa Rae Productions and Color Creative, producer Deniese Davis is backing a diverse slate of series while championing underrepresented writers. She tells DQ about her approach to finding new talent in a business that she compares to the Wild West.

The explosion of television drama and the demand for fresh ideas and exciting new voices means Deniese Davis is extremely busy. Not only is she a producer for Issa Rae Productions, with shows such as HBO’s Insecure on its books, but Davis is also chief operating officer at Color Creative, a firm set up with Rae to promote female and minority writers.

“I go back and forth,” she says of working for the two companies. “We have had so much business with Color Creative in the last year that it took up 70% of my time. That involves everything from the projects on our plate and shows we’re taking out to pitch to ideas we’ve sold and furthering different initiatives and partnerships that we have around town with other studios and production companies.

“I feel like I’m running a start-up in the way we operate, but it’s great. We’ve been able to do a lot. We’re not a traditional production company where all we do is call our agents, get a writer, hear a pitch and sell it. We really do a lot of the legwork and try to identify new voices who are exciting to us and either bring them onto our shows or sell or develop their shows.”

Deniese Davis

At Issa Rae Productions, Davis has worked on web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and The Choir, as well as three seasons of Peabody Award winner Insecure, which stars Rae as a woman struggling to manage her professional and personal lives in LA.

In April the company entered production on fellow HBO programme A Black Lady Sketch Show, which stars and is exec produced by Robin Thede, while it’s also working with the premium cabler on miniseries The Dolls. Starring Rae and Laura Dern (Big Little Lies), the drama is inspired by the 1983 Christmas riots sparked by the demand for Cabbage Patch Dolls in two Arkansas towns.

Meanwhile, Color Creative aspires to uncover emerging talent through various events, workshops and contests, supporting underrepresented creators through development and production.

One example is the Script to Screen competition in partnership with US cable channel BET, which received more than 2,000 submissions. BET agreed to a put-pilot deal – a commitment to producing a pilot – with the winner, April Blair’s Curves. The story follows three African Americans struggling to navigate life and the dating scene as plus-sized women living in Memphis. Davis is now looking for a showrunner to take the project forward.

“If we execute it and it goes to series, we’re excited to be able to prove this model can work, where you can find a faster and lower-cost way to test new projects from new writers,” she says. “If nothing else, even if it doesn’t sell, that writer has had the experience from start to finish to get them one step ahead from where they were. Anyone can develop a script, but most writers have never been through the process and never seen their project get made.”

Color Creative also partnered with Talos Films and UK distributor Sky Vision for the FreshWave contest, which sought pitches in the young-adult space. The winner was Katelyn Howes with Awoken. Set in the year 2123, the story centres on a woman who is resurrected by cryogenic preservation and must fight for the rights of others like her. A teaser trailer was subsequently produced.

Issa Rae Productions’ Insecure airs on HBO

A third competition, The New Normal contest, saw the winning entry turned into six 10-minute episodes. Workplace comedy Minimum Wage received backing from Color Creative and Project Greenlight Digital Studios, with the finished series licensed by Urban Movie Channel.

Davis believes the industry is now more receptive to bringing in new writers than it was when Color Creative was first established five years ago, with networks across the broadcast and streaming spectrum keen to get involved with the boldest and edgiest new dramas in development.

“A lot of the traditional places are changing up their programming strategy in terms of multicultural storytelling and they want to bring in projects that traditionally their network isn’t known for,” the producer says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations and they all want their own Insecure, which we’re very flattered about, but I think Insecure’s such a special, one-of-a-kind show that we’re like, ‘Let’s talk about why it’s done so well and find that type of show for your network.’

“There is also a push to invest in a really great project, regardless of the writer or their background levels. The only challenge has been being able to pair a young writer or a new writer with a more experienced showrunner, because we’re dealing with the limitations of how many experienced showrunners are available. They’re either in an overall deal at a particular network or studio already, or they’re already working. They just need someone to help usher them in, in the same way someone like Prentice Penny did with Issa on Insecure, or Larry Wilmore before him. It’s really important to give that newer writer someone who can fully support them.”

When it comes to picking up new projects, both Issa Rae Productions and Color Creative are “story first,” but Davis notes that sometimes a writer’s reasons for wanting to tell a story are even more important than the story itself. “Even if it’s entertaining and we know there’s a hook, we still ask ourselves, ‘What’s the why?’ Why are we even interested in making this, beyond the fact it sounds like fun or it could make a lot of money? Intention in storytelling is more important than ever. Stories have to be as specific as possible yet, when you understand what those themes are, they become universally relatable regardless of the culture of the audience it’s intended for.”

Issa Rae and Deniese Davis set up Color Creative together

The writer should also be the only person able to tell that particular story. “Having something to say usually comes from a personal place where they are really connected to the story for one reason or another,” Davis says. “When we see that passion and connection come through, it’s a better project, a better script. People are tired of seeing the same thing.”

Davis says the most exciting thing about the television business right now is the fact that white men are no longer the sole gatekeepers when it comes to stories getting told. “People want to see more perspectives and different voices,” she explains. “There’s more opportunity for success. That’s what I’m looking forward to as a company – trying to capitalise on the fact there are more options for content.”

However, although more projects are being picked up at the development stage, Davis hasn’t seen an increase in the number of shows being programmed – aside from the steady flow of content making it onto Netflix. “It does feel like it’s still the Wild West, where you really hope they make it,” she notes. “Netflix is probably the only place grinding out content, because they have a mandate to up their programming, whereas everyone else is slowly figuring it out. It’s great to sell a show, but the other side is wondering, ‘When are we going to make it?’”

Asked what advice she would offer aspiring writers, Davis says they should find their voice by writing as much as possible. “The second thing,” she continues, “is because of the time we’re living in, there are so many people who want to create their own content but still come to us and think they need us to create it for them. They just need to find other creatives who are as passionate about their project and make it together.

“Sometimes the great stories are told because they’re so organic and they’re told outside the Hollywood system,” she adds. “Usually, Hollywood then recognises [the writer] and brings them in to do more of it.”

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Blick magic

Hugo Blick, the writer, director and producer of dramas including The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising, reveals his motivation to tell stories and his approach to his craft.

A satchel given to Hugo Blick by one of his children has a name label bearing the words “Auteur (TV).” In the so-called golden age of TV, as the barriers between film and television have become so eroded as to barely exist anymore, it’s apt that a storyteller who writes, directs and produces all of his own work should be given a title more associated with the feature film world.

It’s the label Blick identifies with more readily than that of ‘showrunner’ when DQ asks him what he prefers to be called during a keynote session at Lille event Series Mania earlier this year. “I suppose that’s kind of it,” he says, “because I singularly write and singularly direct. I don’t know many others who do it. I’m just a portrait artist, and I’m the only one who’s got the paints.”

Blick has been a TV auteur since as far back as his cult BBC mockumentary comedy series Marion & Geoff, which stars Rob Brydon as Keith, a naive taxi driver who monologues to camera about the fallout of his divorce with Marion, while failing to recognise the cause of it – her affair with Geoff.

“The very first thing I wanted to make, nobody else wanted to make,” he recalls of the show, which debuted in 2000. “I got lucky with a little bit of money from a production I’d just shared an experience with, and I kept that back and made it for nothing. No one wanted it even after we made it. Then it went on to do really well and, after that, I was always a writer/director/producer.”

Hugo Blick: an auteur, not a showunner

A showrunner, he argues, is a very different role – “and possibly much harder” – as they often oversee long-running series with no end in sight. “My real luck is that I spend a lot of time constructing an idea, researching it and then I’m only close to beginning the writing when I have the last line of the whole story in my head. That is my loadstone; it’s the summit of a mountain range. It’s finite. I’m going to get there in eight hours and it will be over. It’s a relief that I don’t have to come back to it. I just have that one destination to approach.”

Blick believes his authorship of a series also helps sell the project in the first place, with broadcaster, production and creative partners able to buy into his singular vision. His often complex and intricate drama series – The Shadow Line, The Honourable Woman (pictured top) and Black Earth Rising – can also be threaded together through a single theme, the possession of secrets, and how that concept is explored.

“In my earlier work, the secrets were personal and intimate and had little impact on the wider world. The conspiracy in The Shadow Line actually turned out to be about pension protection,” he laughs. “I didn’t sell it like that. It’s pretty obscure stuff. That was about the morality of the holding of these secrets.

“The Honourable Woman was about how secrets possess you. They’re not about things you hold; they hold you and you have to release yourself as an intimate individual. I suppose in the journey towards Black Earth Rising, I became more aware of the possession of secrets at a societal level. It was a development of themes of secrecy and the maintenance and possession of it.”

The latter, Blick’s most recent series, aired on BBC2 and Netflix last year. An eight-part international thriller, it looks at the prosecution of war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa. Michaela Coel stars as legal investigator Kate Ashby, who was rescued from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide as a child but finds the shadow of her tragic past impossible to escape.

Michaela Coel in Black Earth Rising, Blick’s most recent series

When writing a drama, Blick says a story needs to have a central character who is fundamentally flawed. The interest then lies in why they are flawed and how they can resolve it.

“It was through Michaela’s character that this story was distilled,” he says of Black Earth Rising. “She does not know the secret [of her past] and she has to pursue it. It’s important also to flag up that the story was always about the West’s response to those issues, and whether we have the right and responsibility to engage in them, rather than [setting the series] from the African perspective looking back. The West was accused of blindness towards the terror of the genocide, and it could also be accused of blindness in the aftermath of the genocide in the 25 years since. On a big scale, these themes fitted into the sorts of themes I was exploring in The Honourable Woman and The Shadow Line.”

The Honourable Woman was led by an award-winning performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose character Nessa Stein struggles to right her father’s wrongs in a world of conspiracy and espionage, set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Meanwhile, The Shadow Line follows a murder and its investigation by both the police and criminals and how they try to solve it, with national secrets at risk of being exposed.

Blick believes writing is not so much a profession but a condition – one that comes with being angry. “There’s a lot to get angry about but there’s also a lot to cohere and resolve,” he says. “I get to the end of one project but then I sit there and think, ‘What’s the next one I want to do?’ and then it pops into my head. Usually I’m really angry about it – a secret no one knows about – and we need to discuss it and explore it, so that’s the motivation.”

That’s when he begins his research process. Black Earth Rising took six months of research and two years of writing to bring to the screen, with whiteboards around Blick’s office carrying the entire story from start to finish.

The Honourable Woman saw Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character attempt to right her father’s wrongs

Knowing the story so well, directing is the natural next step for Blick, who says working behind the camera can be a very liberating experience if you know the DNA of a project. Things can go wrong, he notes, if directors focus on elements of a script that they like but are actually just window dressing and don’t relate to the heart of a story.

“You’ve got to get right inside it, which is why I’m yet to direct a project I haven’t written myself. I know it from the inside, and coming from the outside you can make huge mistakes,” he explains. “Then, as a director, I’ve got this vision, which is what you communicate to all your heads of departments. It’s the essential purpose of the story. If we share the vision, that’s it. With the designer, for example, once we have that intuit of vision, I don’t want to know what he’s doing. I’ll rock up on set and whatever he’s done is fine because I believe and trust his relationship with the vision. It’s the same for everyone, from the composer to the editor to everybody else.”

The approach is also true of the acting. Blick will meet all of those playing significant roles and, once they have a connection over what the project is, he leaves them to freely contribute their own ideas to their performance.

“When I walk on set, I never have an idea of how I’ll do a day. But I trust everybody,” he says. “I only do about three takes. I rehearse a little bit, but I’m there to witness. If everybody’s done their job because they want to do that job because they share that vision, I’ll know where to put the camera, because it’s in the best place to witness that psychological exchange the actor is facilitating.

“If it goes beyond four takes, there’s something wrong with the writing, so you’ll reconstruct it so it feels smooth and fluid. A small lesson to younger directors is you have to have courage to do the difficult thing first thing in the morning. Don’t delay the thing that frightens you because what you’ll do, if it’s a Napoleonic ballroom scene, your principals will be dancing in the middle but the inexperienced will stay away from them because they’re frightened by them.

Blick’s earlier TV works were comedy shows, such as Marion & Geoff

“Then, by the time they get to that scene, which is what the audience wants to see, either you’ll run out of time or your actors will want to kill you because they’ve been acting their arses off for three hours while you’ve been in the circumference, shooting great stuff in wides, but you haven’t got to the meat of it. All you’ve got to do as a director is get to the truth of the scene as quickly as possible, and that’s what I do. Once it’s done, don’t hang around. Get out.”

Before he moved into drama with The Shadow Line in 2011, Blick worked on comedies such as Marion & Geoff, Joanna Lumley-fronted Sensitive Skin and Operation Good Guys, a police mockumentary series in which he was also part of the ensemble cast. It’s his training as an actor, plus other on-screen roles – including a cameo in Black Earth Rising – that has led him to believe that acting is a good way to begin if you want to become a storyteller.

“You know how incredibly vulnerable they feel,” he says. “It’s a metaphorical but truthful thing that all actors feel. It doesn’t matter who you are, all actors feel this on day one. You’ve just got to allow them to understand that your presence protects them and this space in which they are allowed to create, to play and to be this other person.”

Taking a break after Black Earth Rising, Blick hints that his next project will be set in the past, while ideas he had about a series exploring Russia were dampened by BBC and AMC drama McMafia. Nevertheless, he will continue to investigate his “natural suspicion of an absolute truth.”

“I want to look at the other side,” he concludes. “Truths are very flexible and they move between those who possess it and control it. You get closer to a sense of harmony by looking at one thing and then the other, and then exploring in drama the thing that emerges in the middle part. That’s the nuance and that’s the character. I’m just pulling against two polarities and trying to find the middle line.”

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Eco trip

Greenpeace, WWF and the UN are among the supporters of Brazilian drama Aruanas, which charts the work of environmental activists who investigate the suspicious activities of a mining company in the Amazon rainforest. DQ meets creator, writer and director Estela Renner.

When Brazilian drama Aruanas launches worldwide today, it won’t be found on any of the major global streaming giants. Instead, it will be available on a standalone platform for anyone around the globe to download – because the subject matter demands this story not be restricted to viewers with the right kind of subscription. It’s too important.

That’s certainly the view of the makers and producers of the 10-part Portuguese-language thriller, which is backed by more than 20 international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including WWF Brazil, Amnesty International, Global Witness, UN Environment, UN Women, Oxfam Brazil and the Rainforest Foundation. Greenpeace is a technical collaborator on the show.

Aruanas comes from a partnership between prodco Maria Farinha Films and Brazil’s Globo TV, which have created the fictional story about three idealistic women who set up an NGO to investigate the suspicious activities of a mining company operating in the Amazon.

Bypassing traditional broadcast partners by making the series available at aruanas.tv – in more than 150 countries and 11 different languages – also means 50% of the download fee will go to initiatives designed to protect the Amazon rainforest. In Brazil, Globo will air the first episode on its domestic and international channels, which reach more than 100 million people, with the series then being made available on SVoD service Globoplay.

Aruanas creator, writer and director Estela Renner on location

Sustainability is not just a theme of the series but was also at the heart of the production. Marina Farinha Films reduced the size of the crew and equipment, reused and recycled costumes and hired climate change specialist ZCO2 to ensure the production was carbon-neutral. Of the crew and leading actors, 47% were women, while a third of the cast were from the region of the Amazon where the series was filmed.

For the last 10 years, Maria Farinha Films has been built on producing documentaries and TV series focusing on social and environmental issues, tackling subjects including childhood obesity, refugees and LGBT rights. Climate change has been a cause long on its agenda but, as the company’s founder Estela Renner explains, the subject needed to be treated in a different way, which led the company to jump into fiction for the first time.

“We wanted to do something long term, something that could stay for seasons,” she tells DQ following the London premiere of Aruanas. “There are so many seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and ER and you learn so much about hospitals and the dynamics that are involved. How about making a TV series that takes place in an environmental NGO? What better way to talk about the drama and activists and all issues there are to address – the oceans, oil, soil, air. That’s why we decided to jump into fiction.”

Renner wrote the series with her business partner Marcos Nisti, in collaboration with Pedro de Barros, and developed it alongside Globo. The story introduces Aruana, an NGO that receives an anonymous complaint about a mining company working deep in the Amazon rainforest. When the NGO’s contact is killed and the incriminating dossier is destroyed, its staff become determined to uncover what is going on.

“Mining is a huge environmental issue,” Renner says of the story’s key focus. “We also talk about illegal gold mining, which puts so much mercury into the rivers and everything becomes sick – the rivers, the soil and the people.”

The series hired many actors from the area of the Amazon where the show was filmed

After getting the green light in 2017, there was a year-long writing process that also included support from “script doctor” Lawrence Konner (The Sopranos). The writers began by outlining the key characters and their relationships in the story. Luiza (Leandra Leal, Empire) has difficulty balancing her work as an activist – often undercover miles from home – with motherhood. Verônica (Taís Araújo, Shades of Sin) is a lawyer, while Natalie (Débora Falabella, Brazil Avenue) is a journalist. The group is completed by Clara (Thainá Duarte, If I Close My Eyes Now), an intern who faces up to the flaws and challenges of an NGO as the audience follows and learns through her experiences.

“We made a huge map with the relationships and what’s going to happen to them,” Renner explains. “Their challenges, their fears, their secrets; what they want and what they fear. On top of that, we do the procedural, the investigation itself – the cliffhangers, the ticking clock, the villains, the tensions and the obstacles.

“The first thing is the relationships, then the procedural on top. It’s like a puzzle. We have all the pieces and then we have to make them a perfect picture.”

That’s not to say the series is a lecture about climate change, nor does it present an unwaveringly positive representation of an NGO or condemn mining outright. “It’s not propaganda. You can see the activists doing stuff you wouldn’t recommend doing,” Renner says. “We found a way to build the layers of the series so we can see why mining can be important, because it develops a country, it creates jobs and it brings development sometimes.

“Even when Natalie interviews our villain, they have a battle where, for a while, you don’t know which side to take because both sides are right. But at the end of the season, we see this type of mining is wrong. You cannot mine and pollute the rivers, the soil, the air and people. You have to do it the right way.”

The team behind the show worked with ZCO2 to ensure a carbon-neutral production

Renner also states that her NGO partners, which contributed no money to the production, were clear this would be a non-factual drama from the outset: “They were with us from the beginning but they also understood this is fiction. You have to put some salt and pepper in to make it interesting and edgy. All the organisations understood that and were happy. Because it’s  fiction, they knew they didn’t have to correct us. It’s important it’s fiction; it’s not a documentary.”

Filming took place across four months, with the cast and 190-strong crew travelling back and forth between the south-west city of São Paulo and the Amazon, where filming took place in Manacapuru, in the northern state of Amazonas in the centre of the rainforest.

Renner shared directing duties with Carlos Manga Jr, with the visual style of Aruanas inspired by films such as Babel and Beasts of No Nation. One rule was that the camera should never impose itself on the story or the characters.

“Everything we did in the Amazon was handheld and everything in São Paulo was on a tripod or dolly, while we only shot in locations. We didn’t shoot in a studio at all,” Renner reveals. “We had a code so in São Paulo; there was a colour, a language and a style. In the Amazon, things get a little crazy – the explosion of colours and handheld and lots of steadicam.”

More than 200 extras were brought in from Manacapuru and the surrounding area, while Renner also enjoyed some rehearsal time with the leads. However, the falling river levels when filming began last August meant there was a race to complete all the rainforest sequences as quickly as possible.

Aruanas launches today

“We had 10 episodes and filmed them as a big movie,” Renner recalls. “We shot by location, so each day we were filming scenes from different episodes. The river level was going to go down, so we had to start with everything in the rainforest, which ended up being great because then the crew were able to bond together without cell phones, as they didn’t have any signal!”

The decision to set the drama within an NGO and the world of its activists doubles as a mechanism for the organisation, in future seasons, to explore other aspects of climate change, looking at the oil industry and the oceans. Work is already progressing on a second season, which will explore a different type of environmental crime.

But Renner says that despite Aruanas’ representation of the work of NGOs and their fight for a more equitable and sustainable world, her main priority is to entertain viewers with this high-stakes thriller.

“Chernobyl would be the perfect example because it’s super well done, super entertaining and when you finish watching it, it makes you think this power of destruction we have now is bad,” she says, referring to HBO and Sky Atlantic’s recent miniseries about the 1980s nuclear disaster.

“Maybe people can connect with NGOs and see what they’re doing. We didn’t want this to be too on the nose. We want to stay for several seasons through the characters and their lives, and it does have a happy ending. There are so many series with a dystopian future; dreaming collectively of a good future is important because it has power.”

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Doing more with Les

Australian literary hero Les Norton comes to television in an adaptation of the cult books by Robert G Barrett. DQ hears how the source material has been updated for modern audiences while recreating the style and character of 1980s Sydney.

While the 1980s might not seem that long ago to some, seeing the decade recreated on the small screen for upcoming Australian drama Les Norton makes it clear just how different things were back then.

Whether it’s the music, the hairstyles, the fashion or the bold neon lighting, the era is recreated perfectly for this 10-part series. For younger viewers, it’s a period drama, but to everyone else, it’s a nostalgic look back on an era that serves as the backdrop for an adaptation of Robert G Barrett’s novels.

Morgan O’Neill on set

National broadcaster the ABC, producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment have partnered on the series, which introduces fish-out-of-water ‘country bloke’ Les Norton to Sydney’s Kings Cross district in 1985. On the run from a troubled past, he lands a job as a bouncer and fixer at a notorious illegal casino, becoming seduced by the city’s illicit charms and dragged into a web of underground criminality.

Alexander Bertrand (Australian Gangster) takes the title role in this “irreverent love letter to Sydney and the mid-80s,” while Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) and David Wenham (Romper Stomper) go head-to-head in a battle for control of the city as brothel queen Doreen Bognor and gentleman criminal Price Galese.

The Les Norton books have been wildly popular in Australia since the first novel, You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, which lends its name to the pilot episode, was published in 1985. In fact, they are described as the most read books in the Australian Defence Force and the most borrowed books in the New South Wales prison system.

When DQ speaks to creator Morgan O’Neill and producer John Edwards, the series is halfway through its 10-week production, with a view to a launching down under later this year. O’Neill reveals that three units have been filming simultaneously – one fishing off Sydney’s Manly Point, another “pulling up lobsters and cocaine” off the Bondi Beach peninsular and third unit body-surfing into the Bondi sands.

“We’ve got bits outstanding because, for economic reasons, we have to shoot Rebel’s scenes all together and David’s all together,” Edwards explains. “It’s been a little tricky but we’re ploughing ahead now. We’re having a pretty great time. We’re really enjoying it a lot. It’s a great, fun show.”

Edwards describes redheaded Les as “a bit like a Crocodile Dundee,” the laid back, charming hero of the eponymous 1986 movie. “He was a smart character who was an innocent in a dirty world. That’s what we’ve got,” he notes. “A lot of it is metaphorical but it’s a great deal of fun and, hopefully, it’s going to translate more broadly, just as Crocodile Dundee did at that time.”

O’Neill, who has written six of the 10 episodes, is the creative force behind the adaptation, describing Barrett’s books as iconic “pub literature.” He had read them many years ago and, together with producer John Schwarz, decided to develop them for television.

Alexander Bertrand (left) plays the titular character in Les Norton

Based in LA, O’Neill brought Sonar on board before taking the project to the ABC, where head of drama Sally Riley is a fan of the novels. Roadshow Rough Diamond then joined as the producer.

In line with the novels, early footage of the series doesn’t hold back, with language as colourful as many of the costumes. But O’Neill admits some of the source material doesn’t stand up to contemporary scrutiny, so he had to find a way to balance the virtues of the author’s work with contemporary society.

“The show is set in 1985 and that was a very different time in Australia,” O’Neill says. “It was a time where there was a sense of irreverence Australians have become renowned for – a laconic sense of humour and social mores. As the years have gone on, Australia has shifted a bit from that. We’ve become a little more brittle and a little more quick to find offence. One of the endearing charms of the source material is it harkens back to a time when we weren’t so quick to be offended and we felt there was social value in treating people fairly but treating them in a way that wasn’t self-serious.”

Barrett, he continues, described himself as an “equal opportunities shit-stirrer. No one escaped his wrath. If you’re up for ridicule, he would gently ridicule you in a way that was part of the charm of Australia in a bygone era. But I’m not talking about racism, homophobia or sexism. In the source material, there was some of that and we’ve worked very hard to make sure our retelling of these stories is absent of anything that is egregious in that regard.”

John Edwards

Part of that approach was to introduce a narrator to the series. But rather than simply describing events or driving them forward, it comes from the perspective of someone today looking back on events as they happened.

“Morgan has really lifted and elevated the material in lots of ways,” Edwards says. “There’s a real fondness for the 80s but there’s a real commentary on the 80s as well. It’s a really interesting show to work on. It’s great fun and you get to look at a period of recent history, a bit like Life on Mars did and have a licence to play with some of the social changes. It really is a great joy to be doing.”

The series also introduces more women in leading roles than the books offered, creating new characters and switching the gender of others. As an example, Les’s flatmate Wozza has become Lozza (played by Kate Box), who is just as voracious, carnal, debauched and foulmouthed as the original character. “Kate’s absolutely made it her own and I look at it now and think, ‘How could you ever imagine that character not as a woman?’ She brings a sense of sexual politics into it that a male flatmate couldn’t,” O’Neill says.

The series echoes the structure of Barrett’s novels, which were largely made up of short stories. Episodes are self-contained, though O’Neill has introduced some “collective tissue” to string them all together. That meant creating an antagonist in the form of Wilson’s character. “The material lends itself to adaptation but it’s required a lot of original material to stitch it together into compelling episodic TV,” he says.

O’Neill had already written two episodes by the time the writers room was opened, providing a blueprint for the show’s style and tone that could be used in addition to the source material. The writers ranged in age and gender, providing a useful means of ensuring Barrett’s novels could be held up for critique as well as inspiration.

“What I love is the slightly different tonal interpretations of the other writers’ episodes,” he says. “They definitely don’t feel like my episodes, in a good way. There are elements where you have to make sure the tone has an overall consistency, but the mistake in those situations is to assume they all need to sound the same. Because they’re capers and because they’re almost standalone, they’re allowed to feel different and, hopefully, that will be part of the thrill of the show.”

The series also stars Pitch Perfect’s Rebel Wilson (right)

O’Neill (Drift, Solo) is also on directing duties, taking on the fourth block behind lead director Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), David Caesar (Dead Lucky) and Fadia Abboud (Australian Gangster). He says a lot of the style behind Les Norton is inspired by early Guy Ritchie films such as Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, with a love of vernacular and the quirky relationships between offbeat men.

On set, O’Neill remains amazed by the number of people who stop to take in the 1980s dressing around Sydney, with old phone boxes and cars turning up in streets across the city. “There are certain things – objects, sounds and songs – that are provocative of a different period, and it’s a really powerful medium to play in. I wanted to make sure we leant into that but, at the same time, we were conscious of producing something that wasn’t a pastiche of 1985,” he says. “It’s merely the context, it’s not the joke. There’s hopefully enough humour in the show to go around. I didn’t want it to be a show about endless mullets and Hypercolor T-shirts.”

As well as selling the series overseas, Sonar was heavily involved in casting Les Norton, bringing together international names in Wilson and Wenham and pairing them with new talent. Bertrand, says president of global distribution and coproduction David Ellender, is a rising star, while the show also boasts Pallavi Sharda, already a big name in India and Australia, who starred in US network ABC’s recent drama pilot Triangle. She plays Georgie Burman, the whip-smart casino manager who was George in the novels.

“Being in LA, you’re very aware of the Australian and New Zealand talent both in front and behind the camera, either in TV or film,” Ellender says. “When you’re doing 10 episodes or fewer, movie stars like Rebel or David can’t attach themselves to a series as they do on network TV, with 22 episodes for five, six or seven years. No theatrical actor would do those sorts of deals. But today, if it’s between six and 10 episodes, maybe for two or three seasons, then people are very open to doing it, particularly if they can go home. Rebel lives in LA but wants to go back to Australia when she can. It’s a great opportunity for actors to do something back at home.”

David Ellender

Sonar’s recent projects include Tom Hardy’s Taboo and German wartime drama Das Boot, both of which are returning for second seasons. Like those series, Les Norton stands out from the plethora of other television series for its style and originality, according to Ellender.

“I was very intrigued by this character going to the big city and falling in with the wrong crowd,” he says. “It was the way Morgan pitched it to me, and I thought the character was one we’ve not really seen for quite some time out of Australia. It seemed to be a really fun crime drama.

“Maybe three or five years ago, Les Norton wouldn’t have been made. But because the way we’re viewing programming today, people are able to make things like this today.”

More than 30 years since Les Norton landed in print, O’Neill says this fish-out-of-water story still resonates, and he’s confident the series can entertain a broad audience.

“There’s a lack of self-seriousness about our show, which I think is going to be a breath of fresh air. That’s certainly our intention,” he says. “We take what we do incredibly seriously, but the tone of the show is quite the opposite. It’s light-hearted and irreverent, and hopefully incredibly cheeky and very funny. For my reading of the way Australians are viewed around the world, that’s partly what we’re known for. I hope there’s an appetite for that.”

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Knight to remember

Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight looks back on his career and discusses how he became a screenwriter, working in Hollywood and why television is the place to be.

From author to one of the most in-demand film and television screenwriters, Steven Knight has been behind hits such as Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises.

With season five of the BBC’s Birmingham-set period gangster series Peaky due to air this year, Knight is also working on Apple TV sci-fi drama See and a new series of Charles Dickens adaptations for the BBC, with his take of A Christmas Carol currently in production and set to air later in 2019.

As part of this year’s Canneseries event, Knight took part in a masterclass session where he discussed his entry into screenwriting, creating Peaky Blinders, his partnerships with actors including Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and how he sees the differences between film and television.

Steven Knight

Knight was a novelist and one of the co-creators of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when he decided to turn his fourth book, Dirty Pretty Things, into a screenplay…
Knight: I think I got about 60 pages in and, because I was writing scripts anyway, I thought, ‘This would be better as a film script.’ I submitted it to the BBC film unit and it found its way to [Dangerous Liaisons director] Stephen Frears. We had the first script meeting where I was lulled into a false sense of what the film industry would be like. I met Stephen in a bar and he said, ‘I really like this. Can you make the ending better?’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’

Dirty Pretty Things was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 for best original screenplay, which helped Knight break into Hollywood…
You hear stories about Hollywood. I’ve had bad experiences but mostly good experiences where people, even when they’re making something that’s mass market, they want to win the approval of their peers and try to do something good.
[When you have your own idea] like Eastern Promises, you want to make it and that’s your film and you feel really protective of it. You also get commissions from Hollywood where they’ll give you a book, a franchise or a magazine article and say adapt this as a film, like The Hundred-Foot Journey. That experience was fantastic because it went straight through.
Equally, you can do work that is sometimes credited, sometimes not, such as Wrath of the Titans, where you get brought on to a big Hollywood franchise, you do your bit and then the script is passed on to someone else who does their bit.
So it’s a bit of a factory but, in my opinion, that’s the two different sides of writing scripts in Hollywood. You do the commissioned stuff, usually for really good money, and you do the stuff you really love, and that’s when you want to try to keep control of the script and the content.

Peaky Blinders is based on a real gang and the stories Knight’s parents told him about Small Heath, Birmingham in the 1920s and 30s…
At the age of eight, my mum was a bookie’s runner. It was illegal then to bet on horses, so bookmakers would use children to walk down the street with a basket of washing, and people walking in the other direction would drop a coin in with the name of the horse and their codename. She’d take it to the bookie and he would take the bet.
My dad’s uncles were bookmakers and they were called the Sheridans. I changed the name to Shelby, but the stories he and my mum told me about these people made me want to tell a story for years.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Knight initially pitched Peaky Blinders many years ago, but it wasn’t picked up…
I first went to Channel 4 25 years ago and they were really interested, but it didn’t happen – and I’m so glad it didn’t happen then. In those days, people watched on little screens and there would be no point making it look beautiful. The CGI wouldn’t have been available, so you wouldn’t have been able to do some of the effects we do and we wouldn’t have had the actors.

The series stands out as a period drama rooted in the working class, rather than being another series about the British aristocracy…
Especially in Britain, there is a thing where any period drama is about aristocracy or wealthy people. It’s very popular, it sells well all over the world and there’s a certain ‘buttoned-up-ness’ about it; everything’s very pronounced. I just felt there was a more interesting story to be told about the same period involving people I’d heard stories about.
The tradition in Britain is, if you do anything about working-class people, either they’re scary or funny or we must feel sorry for them. The experiences I had of working-class life was of people enjoying it, having a laugh, having fun. I wanted to reflect that so you had a working-class environment where these people had an aristocracy in a way within their own community.
The seven seasons that will be written – and I’m writing season six at the moment – will tell a different story where Tommy Shelby [Cillian Murphy], who begins as this nihilistic person, looking out only for his family, will be redeemed and he will become good. I want to take him on that journey from the person we’ve seen to the person he will become in 1939.

PJ Harvey, The White Stripes and Nick Cave have all provided music for the show’s soundtrack, with artists now approaching Knight for the privilege of appearing in the series…
The most astonishing one for me was in season three. Cillian had been in New York and had met David Bowie. He’d said what a big fan he was of Peaky, so Cillian gave him the cap he wore in season one, and Bowie sent back a picture of himself with razor blades sewn into this cap.
We got contacted asking if we wanted to use some of his new album – of course we did. But there seemed to be quite an urgency about it, which I didn’t understand. In the week between Christmas and New Year, his European manager came to my house because it was the new song, Lazarus, and they couldn’t send it electronically because of security, so they came to my house and played it to me on the laptop. It was fantastic. I foolishly said if he wants to come to the set, it’s fine. Then on the Tuesday following, I heard on the radio he’d died. It was unbelievable. But obviously we used the music.

Tom Hardy in Taboo

Knight first met Murphy during casting for his movie Hummingbird, whose lead role eventually went to Jason Statham. But the Inception star was the only actor considered for Peaky Blinders lead Tommy Shelby…
He’s just got that thing. The character is closed down emotionally, especially at the beginning. When he comes back from the war, it’s got to be someone who’s seen so many dreadful things and seen so many people blown up into their component parts. The way I imagined it, is after the war, Tommy Shelby put a gun to his head and thought, ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ But he thought he would carry on. Cillian’s got that face where you think you can get in there, get behind the eyes, but you never quite can, and that’s exactly what’s required of that actor.

During a meeting with Tom Hardy about Taboo, his series about an adventurer who returns from Africa to 1814 London, Knight did a deal where he agreed to write the show if the actor would star in his movie Locke…
Originally, the idea was about someone returning to London in the 1890s, a Jack the Ripper thing. Then when I was talking about it, I said I was interested in the era around 1812/13 in London, which is a really interesting time historically and socially, and suggested moving it to there.
The way I normally do it is to have the basic idea and then write two episodes and see what happens with them, because normally things change radically in the process of writing and stuff comes along as you’re at the keyboard, which I always think is better than anything you could plan for. So the first two episodes I wrote and then we used that to take it on.

Hardy then joined the cast of Peaky Blinders in season two…
Two things happened at the same time. I was writing Alfie Solomons [Hardy’s character] just as we had the first meeting and, as you’re writing, you start to think, ‘Who could play this?’ I thought, well, since we’re having a conversation anyway, maybe Tom could play this. As soon as you think it might be him, you can relax in that you can go quite far with a character and I knew he would throw everything into it. He loves Alfie.

Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol stars Guy Pearce

Knight also has high hopes for his Apple TV drama See, set in a world where humans have lost the sense of sight, until a set of twins with sight are born…
It’s set in the future and is quite odd. Jason Momoa [who stars] is amazing; we’ve got a fantastic cast. Francis Lawrence [The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Constantine] is directing. I’ve seen the first six and, in my opinion, it’s completely astonishing. I’ve got high hopes for it.

The boom in television is great for writers, who can have much more control over the final product than they can in film…
The real difference is, when you’re making television, you haven’t got to make the money back on the opening weekend. You’ve got years to make that happen. People are still finding Peaky now, saying they’ve just started watching it.
If Peaky had been a film, perhaps on that first weekend, because the reviews at first were mixed, people would maybe not have gone to see it. But because it’s out there, people can still go and see it. In that sense, it’s great for writers to experiment and do stuff audiences are able to find and come across.
When Apple launched their new platform, it was a statement that things have changed. Television now, money’s in it and it’s a more stable a business because you know it’s going to go out there. There’s a sea change in storytelling and television, if you’re a writer, it’s the way to go.

There is one basic rule about writing…
If you have a project, finish it. Then you’ve got a thing, an object. The thing is to write something that is well engineered, but is different and quite shocking, coming at something from a different angle. If I were a French writer, I would write the story of the Apache gangsters of Paris in the 1880/90s. It’s an amazing story. They were like Peaky Blinders in Paris – they dressed in a particular way and they had their own dance that they used to fight. It’s a really great story – somebody should write it.

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Mysterious Girl

The creative team behind The Girl from St Agnes take DQ inside the making of the eight-part murder mystery, the first original drama from South African streamer Showmax.

From the overhead shots of foreboding forests to the large metal gates masked by fog, an unsettling, eerie feeling is established from the start. These stirring visuals don’t emerge from the latest Nordic noir series however, but the opening moments of murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes, the first original drama from South African streaming platform Showmax.

At St Agnes, a prestigious all-girls boarding school, police record the death of popular student Lexi Summerveld (Jane de Wet) as a tragic accident. However, drama teacher Kate Ballard (Nina Milner) is unconvinced by the official verdict and decides to start her own investigation. Discovering that she didn’t really know Lexi or the school at all, Kate attempts to put together a puzzle that threatens to unravel a myriad of secrets.

The eight-part series broke records on its release in January, with Showmax quick to announce it had drawn more unique viewers to the service in its first 24 hours than the previous record holder, its original comedy Tali’s Wedding Diary. The Girl from St Agnes’s debut also achieved more than double the views racked up by that of its most popular US series, though specific figures were not revealed.

The ratings provided evidence of the value of local content and showed that African productions can compete with the best in the US, Europe and around the world, said Showmax head of content Candice Fangueiro.

The Girl from St Agnes centres on the death of Lexi Summerveld (played by Jane de Wet)

For the makers of The Girl from St Agnes, which is produced by Quizzical Pictures and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, the intention from the outset was to make a series that reached the standards of the best global drama available on Showmax.

The drama is based on an idea Quizzical MD and producer Harriet Gayshon had been kicking around for a while. After inviting the company to pitch, Showmax bought it in the room.

Gayshon went to a private school similar to St Agnes, which she describes as a “pocket of England” in South Africa. “A good deal of them are Church of England-based and, because we’re an ex-colony, they feel like real English institutions,” she says. “So it just felt like a great premise to tell a story that’s authentic in South Africa but that other people could relate to.”

“It started with one line: A girl gets murdered in a private school in Pietermaritzburg,” head writer Gillian Breslin recalls. “And Harriet handed that off to me and let me run with it. With my team of writers, Sean Steinberg and Zoë Laband, we spent two months in the workshop figuring out the characters, the plot, did some research with kids who are currently in school and beat it out in the room. It’s very much Harriet’s baby. We started with a line and took it from there.”

Taking inspiration from international hits such as Top of the Lake and Broadchurch, co-producer Nimrod Geva says Showmax was keen to create something edgy that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. “So in terms of the sex, language and some of the issues we’ve dealt with that are very much hard-hitting and relevant in the #MeToo era, they wanted something that would go as far as it needed to in terms of story and tone and themes.”

Nina Milner as teacher Kate Ballard, who takes it upon herself to investigate Lexi’s death

Notably, Gayshon says one of the most unusual things about the series is that, coming from a country with 11 official languages, it’s filmed in English. That decision informed the setting for the drama, as it needed to be somewhere English was spoken naturally.

Beyond that, the creative team were keen to highlight the difference between the school’s prestigious facade and what was really going on behind the gates, while also contrasting tradition with sex and drugs.

The location was also key to the storytelling, placing St Agnes in a part of South Africa that Geva says isn’t often seen on television. “It’s this beautiful, rolling, misty countryside and it encompassed the intensity of this world, with this exclusive bubble dropped into this beautiful landscape. The place itself felt cinematically very attractive, and the misty hills resonate with a murder mystery.”

The drama was filmed in northern Kwazulu-Natal, a province on South Africa’s east coast, in a town called Ixopo. Breslin spent a few days there researching scenes and building characters, while focus groups of high-school teenagers were used to build authenticity and ensure the script captured the real world.

Gayshon says: “It was one of those charmed projects where it started to gel very quickly, because everyone was very passionate about it and saw it as something quite new and a new opportunity. We had a mad deadline, but the writers did it. Then we had a very quick production and editing process to get it up and running. Everyone was so invested and passionate about it. It felt like a huge departure from everything else we see on our screens.”

The series was filmed in northern Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

One early challenge was finding the young English-speaking cast, with Geva praising casting director Moonyeenn Lee (Hotel Rwanda, Mandela: Long Road to Freedom) for piecing together a group that includes young unknowns like de Wet, Paige Bonnin (as Megan Clayton) and Shamilla Miller (Jenna Galloway) alongside established English-language veterans such as Robert Hobbs (Gary Clayton) and Graham Hopkins (Chris Whittaker).

The other dilemma was ensuring The Girl from St Agnes was modern enough for its younger-skewing target audience. “There’s something a little fusty about some of the English-language content that does exist here,” Geva notes. “But it felt like it really captured themes that were incredibly relevant about privilege, whiteness, race and gender relations. It captures where South Africa is, especially some of the more privileged members of society, trying to retreat into a world that is removed from the real South Africa and showing that, no matter how high your walls are, the dangers of human nature and lust and violence are always present.”

Behind the camera, it’s notable that the series has a largely female creative team, led by Gayshon, head writer Breslin and directors Catharine Cooke and Cindy Lee. Aluta Mlisana, Marcelle Mouton, Natalie Varoy, Melanie Jankes Golden and Mmapula Letsoalo were five of its six editors.

Geva says: “It was a really female-driven process and that infused the story with energy, passion and excitement. It’s a story of what happens to young girls in that pressure cooker, so it felt like women would get it and be able to draw those scenes out. I think it did very well.

“We were very lucky in our choice of directors. They were both women and both had incredible can-do attitudes, even though we were shooting very fast and often under uneasy conditions. They were quite remarkable in holding on to the vision but moving very fast and practically through it.”

Catharine Cooke

Cooke directed five episodes, while Lee helmed three. They would often be on the phone to Breslin to ask questions of her characters and work out how best to bring the writer’s vision to life. Their close collaboration also enabled them to tie up any loose ends, in an age when viewers unpick every little detail to find clues to the killer’s identity in murder-mystery shows.

“Writers have a tough time in this genre because more and more people are starting to enjoy murder mysteries,” Cooke says. “They expect a very high standard of mystery from you. For writers, it’s very difficult to get it right because there are lots of audience members who love that genre and want to be part of it. They want to figure it out.”

Breslin picks up: “I don’t think we were ever going to reinvent the wheel [in this genre]. What I was most influenced by in terms of the characters and the world was Broadchurch, particularly the first season. I won’t lie, I also watch Pretty Little Liars and grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But we knew what we were trying to do was something different, something I haven’t seen on South African television for an English audience. The world and the characters in Broadchurch were just fascinating; they were immersive, and that was something I really wanted to do with our world as well.”

Like Breslin, Lee went to a private boarding school and used her own experiences to shape the story treatment with Cooke. “Once we had that together, Catherine and I worked very closely,” she recalls. “We sat down together from the beginning and conceptualised and wrote the treatment and put it together. We did all our visual references together.

“What we wanted to try to do was create an undercurrent of unease, of something that wasn’t quite right. So the idea was to make it look pretty on the surface and have everyone look pretty and shoot it pretty but, because we shot handheld, there was this sense of unease and disquiet happening all the time. The handheld also gave it a sense of being quite loose in the way we shot it, with lots of close-ups and the camera moving around the actors a lot.”

Before shooting, Cooke and Lee would group together different actors so they could familiarise themselves with their characters and flesh out some of the dynamics. This also ensured they wouldn’t be strangers when it came to filming,

That established a shorthand between the actors that helped the production stay on schedule, with up to 12 script pages being filmed on some days during the 10-week shoot. Filming out of sequence across all eight episodes, with scenes scheduled by location, was complicated further by the numerous flashbacks that feature in the show, meaning the cast and directors were constantly having to adjust between scenes.

The Girl from St Agnes broke records for Showmax

Quizzical also had to bring in new infrastructure to improve communications on site, while many of the cast and crew had to stay an hour away from the set because of a lack of accommodation. In practice, the school was a composite of various locations, including schools across Johannesburg, though the main base was a former Trappist monastery. Blue-screen technology was used to tie everything together.

Cooke is buoyant about the shockwaves the series is sending through the industry. “It has proven to most of the broadcasters that South Africa can make fantastic things of international standard and people want to watch it,” she asserts. “With this show, it has proven there is a demand for [the genre] and people like it. South African audiences want to see themselves and want to watch some good stuff.”

While international productions have largely used South Africa for its service industry, with Black Sails and Troy: Fall of a City among the dramas filmed in the country, Breslin hopes that The Girl from St Agnes will mean “people will start to look to South Africa as more than an industry service centre,” adding: “Our crew get a lot of experience, but until now there haven’t been a lot of avenues for South African creators.”

With The Girl from St Agnes winning international backing and Netflix’s pushing into original South African content with upcoming secret agent series Queen Sono and teen drama Blood & Water, those roads are now opening up as creators find a way to bring their stories to viewers around the world.

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Hair to die for

Killing Eve’s hair and make-up designer Lucy Cain provides insights into her role on the award-winning series and the practical challenges she faced along the way.

While Killing Eve has rightly been lauded for its razor-sharp dialogue, iconic costumes and award-winning performances, the contribution of the hair and make-up design to the overall storytelling should not be overlooked.

Lucy Cain

Although it might be more subtle than in a period drama, science-fiction series or blood-filled crime procedural, hair and make-up in a contemporary series can contain significant signposts to a character’s mood or arc through a story.

That was certainly the case for the BBC America series, which has become a global hit thanks to the chemistry between leading actors Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer and the work of its creator and season one head writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who handed over writing duties to Emerald Fennell for season two.

But before the stars had been cast, hair and make-up designer Lucy Cain – who has worked on both seasons – was already formulating ideas and concepts for both MI5 officer Eve Polastri (Oh) and globetrotting assassin Villanelle (Comer).

Eve, she thought, would have a style that suggests she has just rushed out of the door, while make-up wouldn’t be a high priority for the wannabe secret agent.

“Another thing I felt with Eve was even though she’s in a happy marriage, it’s probably a bit safe and easy,” Cain tells DQ. “There’s no effort there. With Eve, I always wanted her to have that look.” But as her relationship with – and fixation on – Villanelle develops through season one, her increasing consideration of her appearance and her experimental approach to trying on make-up or wearing her hair up or down would highlight her changing perception of herself.

Cain decided Sandra Oh should have a ‘just rushed out of the door’ look as Eve

On the other hand, “Villanelle was completely different. She’s a true chameleon,” Cain admits. “She has to blend into any environment or culture she’s placed in. I wanted from the very beginning of season one for the audience to not really know who she was. That’s why in the very opening scene, when we’re in Vienna, she’s got a dark wig on. Then the next time we see her, she’s on the train and she’s in the same clothes but she’s got her real blonde hair.

“That opening scene [pictured top] where she pushes the ice cream into the girl’s lap, smiles and leaves – of course you know it’s Villanelle, that’s our introduction to her. That was a really nice way of kicking off the difference between them.”

Villanelle’s unpredictability gave Cain lots of freedom to play with the character’s appearance, particularly when it came to the disguises she uses when the hired killer is targeting her next victim.

“Whenever you see her in a wig, it suggests to the audience there’s about to be a heinous murder,” she explains. “The wigs really helped in that respect. For me, I wanted all of those looks to be believable. Even if we know she’s wearing a wig, I want you to say she looks great and not that she’s wearing a wig.”

To create the wigs, Cain used ready-made, untouched hairpieces that the designer could then cut into a particular style, while Comer was in the make-up chair wearing them.

“Every wig I cut on her head,” she says. “That way it’s quicker. Sometimes when you’re getting a wig made from scratch, there’s a much longer process. But it was fun to do as well.”

In one scene from episode one, Villanelle kills her mark by stabbing him in the eye with a hairpin. It was an accessory that prompted much debate between Caine, costume designer Phoebe De Gaye, production designer Kristian Milsted, director Harry Bradbeer, executive producers Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris, and producer Colin Wratten.

Was it going to be small, like a hair grip? But then it needed to be a certain size for Comer to hold in her hands. In the end, one pin was made for the kill, with a small tube of ‘poison’ seen to be released once it had been thrust into the victim. A smaller version was also created for when it could be seen in Comer’s hair.

The choice of jacket in this S1 scene prompted Cain to change Comer’s hair style

Another challenge came when Villanelle, pretending to be a waitress, was called upon to kill a businesswoman with some perfume. “She’s just supposed to look like an ordinary girl that nobody would remember, so you try to think about what that would look like,” Cain says. “If you had to describe the girl, did she have brown hair? Did she have blonde hair? Did she have a fringe? There’s nothing about it that was particularly stylish or stood out.”

Unlike working on a genre series, where the hair and make-up styles come with parameters that limit designers to the style of a particular time or theme, a contemporary drama means “everyone has an opinion,” Cain jokes, adding that she always wants her work to enhance everything in the scene.

Working with De Gaye on season one meant the choice of costume would always inform the hair style. One example in episode three is when Villanelle is in Berlin, watching agents Eve and Bill (David Haig) arrive at the scene of her latest murder.

“Villanelle’s got a lovely high-necked top on, so I would chat with Phoebe about what she’s wearing and then say to my assistant that she needs her hair up because we don’t want to be fighting with the collar,” Cain says. “It’s a beautiful costume so we want to see that. When she’s in Bulgaria and she kills a guy in an office, she’s got a bomber jacket on and it’s like she’s gone on a mission, so we’re like, ‘Get the hair back’ and put it in a tight plait.”

Comer’s ‘androgynous’ look again informed her hair style in the Berlin sequence

Villanelle’s appearance in Berlin was also informed by a later action sequence in which she would ultimately kill Bill. “She wore a suit that was really androgynous. It had a really good shoulder structure and we’re in Germany, so we ended up just doing a plait that came right round the side of the head.

“It worked brilliantly with the suit. It had that Germanic feel, but also it worked because I knew later on she was going into a nightclub and there was going to be this frenzied kill with all these people around and we need to see her face. If she’s got her hair down, there’s a good chance when she’s jumping up and down, that hair’s going to cover her face and that could potentially ruin that shot. Maybe Jodie will also start thinking, ‘OK my hair’s going all over my face, maybe I shouldn’t move my head so much.’ So there’s lots of elements that go into a decision when you’re doing a look. That’s an example where it all worked perfectly – she’s in Germany, it’s an androgynous look, she’s wearing a suit, and she’s jumped in and she’s killing someone frenzied in a nightclub. There were ticks all the way down for that.”

Later in the season, Cain also had to turn Comer into a beaten and bruised Villanelle after a vicious bust-up with her handler Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), but the nature of the out-of-sequence filming schedule meant she had to have the injuries before the fight took place.

“Phoebe Waller-Bridge really wanted Villanelle to be absolutely battered by the end,” Cain reveals. “So I had to create the look, then show the stunt coordinator what I’d done so they could match the stunts with the look we’d established.

“It’s hard when you do make-up like that because you know it will run for two episodes and sometimes you wonder whether people forget why they’ve got those marks on their faces. Season two also starts 30 seconds after the end of season one, so she starts season two with those marks again!”

Oh and Comer weren’t the only cast members to spend an extensive amount of time in the make-up chair, with Owen McDonnell (playing Eve’s husband Niko) requiring a new moustache to be applied every shooting day. Instead of using a pre-made one, Cain took the decision to lay it on instead, applying glue to his lip and then pushing on a handful of hair, a blend of five different colours. She would then use scissors and tongs to shape the hair correctly.

Cain developed Fiona Shaw’s make-up as her character travelled to Moscow

“Phoebe really wanted Niko to have this big moustache and I think Owen looks brilliant with it. It really suits him,” Cain says. “When he was on set, it would be a super early call. We’d go in and listen to the farming news and be in on our own for about an hour before anyone else arrived. But it was definitely worth it for the overall look. He could just move normally, it never hinders his performance and I don’t have to touch it all day. Then he’d go off and I’d do Sandra and he’d come back in an hour once it’s settled and I’d brush it a bit more. It was a bit of a double process but it worked for us.”

Another character whose make-up tells a story through the series is Carolyn Martens, played by Bafta winner Fiona Shaw. At the start, she didn’t wear much make-up, but that changed when the story took the MI6 boss to Russia and the character started to put more on.

“When I watched the show, I really liked the way she looked at the end of season one, so at the beginning of season two in pre-prep, I’d meet up with all the female characters and we’d do some shopping and look for products and see what worked last year,” Cain reveals. “I was with Fiona and I said we should continue in that vein for season two and she was really receptive to it and it really works. She looks amazing in season two.”

Season two, which launched recently on BBC1 in the UK, sees Cain working alongside new costume designer Charlotte Mitchell and production designer Laurence Dorman, as well as writer Fennell. However, many of the challenges facing her remained, such as filming abroad and the logistics of travelling with huge amounts of kit – and hoping it arrives on time.

Cain also had to consider the role of prosthetics in the series, which comes from producer Sid Gentle Films and distributor Endeavor Content. When Eve stabs Villanelle at the climax of season one, the designer had a stab wound made, which she would then stitch up when it was applied to Comer. She also had the foresight to order a scar as well, which could be used as the wound heals.

Owen McDonnell plays Eve’s husband Niko with a hand-built moustache

“It’s not scripted that you see the scar but you have to be prepared, so if costume decide to put Jodie in something that shows it, or if she’s getting dressed,” Cain says. “So I got a scar made just because I thought we’d need it, and we did later on.”

Cain started her career in comedy, working on series such as The Office, The Kumars at No 42, Sensitive Skin and Friday Night Dinner. More recently, she contributed to dramas including The Passing Bells, Grantchester, Snatch and Fortitude.

But while the ambition for a series can often be greater than its budget, Cain notes that her beginnings in comedy taught her to work with fewer resources. “The bigger the drama, obviously the bigger the budget and the easier it is,” she says. “I did a lot of comedy when I was coming up and that’s when you get to make something out of nothing. You have to be very creative, you have to think on your feet and you just get used to working that way. It hones your skills.

“Now, on Killing Eve, if you need something and it’s going to enhance the show, I have never had a problem getting it.”

While Cain has decided not to return to Killing Eve for the already commissioned third season, she is now working on Us, the BBC adaptation of David Nicholl’s novel. The story follows a couple who go on a European tour in the hope of repairing their marriage.

“What’s lovely about Killing Eve is it’s a dream job, because there is a really creative side to it,” she adds. “It’s challenging but also you have some days that are really laid back and calm. There’s just the right balance. On some jobs, there is something to be anxious about every day and it’s not necessarily something creative. With Killing Eve it was the perfect job for all of those reasons.”

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On the ward

Danish drama Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses) revisits a period of history when men were trained to be nurses for the first time, following the Second World War. DQ speaks to SF Studios producer Senia Dremstrup about making the 1950s-set drama.

Danish broadcaster TV2 has found success looking to the past. In 2013 it launched Badehotellet, a drama series set in the 1920s that explores the lives of the guests and staff of a seaside hotel. The sixth season of the show aired this year.

In 2017, meanwhile, Mercur (Something’s Rockin’) debuted on sister channel TV2 Charlie, dramatising the real-life highs and lows of Radio Mercur, which became the first offshore commercial radio station in Europe when it launched from a ship in 1958 to bring rock ’n’ roll to young music fans.

Senia Dremstrup

Following in the tradition laid down by those series – one of light drama and touches of humour – is Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses), which returns to the 1950s to tell the little-known story of the first men to be trained as nurses in the wake of the Second World War.

Following the conflict, Denmark found itself with a shortage of nurses, leading to an experiment that saw men admitted to nursing school for the first time in history.

The series follows Erik (Morten Hee Andersen) and Anna (Molly Egelind), who both enrol in the school for very different reasons. Erik comes from the military and dreams of making a difference after his experiences during the war, while Anna comes from a wealthy family and wants to prove she is more than her status.

Together with fellow students Susanne (Asta Kamma August), Bjørn (Jesper Groth) and Peter (Mikkel Hilgart), they try to succeed despite their lives being made difficult by chief physician Bent Neergaard (Jens Jørn Spottag) and department nurse Miss Madsen (Anette Støvelbæk).

The New Nurses launched its first six-episode season on TV2 Charlie in October last year, quickly followed by a further half-dozen instalments in March.

The drama hails from writers Claudia Boderke and Lars Mering, who partnered with SF Studios and producer Senia Dremstrup with the aim of developing another 1950s-set drama for the channel. Their research saw them discover the true story that underpins the series, with the admission of male nursing students to Rigshospitalet’s nursing school in 1951.

“I’d never heard that and thought it was such a great story, especially in these times when there’s all this focus on gender. So we took it from there,” Dremstrup tells DQ. “Pretty soon, we realised taking in six men who were too perfect would mess with the story – we needed some drama. So we invented this character, Erik, as someone who has a background in the military and wants to get out of that.

“Of course, he doesn’t believe in authority or norms, so there are a lot of problems with him and he almost gets kicked out of the school many times. It’s been fun to look into the 50s because there were a lot of things they did differently. They didn’t actually talk with the patients, who had no idea what was going on. It’s so strange, and those contrasts with today have been fun to dive into.”

The New Nurses director Roni Ezra (centre) on set with Mikkel Hilgart (left) and Jakob Åkerlind

Once the greenlight was given and the first six parts were written, director Roni Ezra (Below The Surface) was brought on board. Episodes mix patients-of-the-week medical cases, where the students can practice their new skills, with longer character arcs that develop the relationships, often romantically, between the trainee nurses.

Episodes were filmed out of sequence, meaning the actors were often jumping between scripts to suit locations or scheduling. Dremstrup describes the series as “quite low-budget,” creating a significant challenge in finding the right place to film it. The production team subsequently discovered a disused hospital on the outskirts of Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, where they were able to dress the rooms for the period.

“We made a rule that every scene had to take place at this hospital, so we can never leave,” Dremstrup says. “At that time, the nurses lived at the hospital and had small dorm rooms so we built those as well so we could have the hospital location and the bedrooms. Sometimes we would go out for a picnic or to meet a tram, but mostly it was all set at the hospital.”

Beyond the setting, authenticity in the medical conditions afflicting the patients and the way the nurses treat them was key. Though the nursing experiment took place in 1951, the series was set 12 months later to utilise a real-life polio epidemic that struck in 1952. At that time, the Korean War was also underway and Denmark participated by sending a hospital ship to Korea. Both storylines were then able to be included in the series.

“It’s fun because some of my friends in the television business have been very surprised that the show is so light and bright because they’re used to Danish drama being heavy and dark and rainy,” Dremstrup says. “This show is sunshine nearly all the time, partly because when we were filming season one, we had the best summer ever. It started the day we began shooting and it just went on for ages. But it’s summer, it’s light. There is drama and conflict but it’s a feel-good show.

The show’s second season hit screens just five months after its first

“Our heroes are not real nurses yet in the first season. You have to be on trial for four months before you are accepted as a real nurse. This means they have these young people going into this hospital and they don’t know anything. They can’t operate. They can take temperature and measure blood pressure but, really, they have no medical skills. Lars and Claudia did a very nice job by finding ways they could be faced with different illnesses.”

Dremstrup says the team researched lots of other medical dramas during development, but adds that The New Nurses operates at a different pace to its genre stablemates, particularly those known for chaotic waiting rooms and graphic depictions of surgery in sterile operating theatres.

In contrast, “this is so fresh,” she continues. “In Denmark we have a very famous medical drama called Riget [The Kingdom] by Lars Van Trier. I know TV2 has tried to make a medical drama for many years because the hospital is a very good arena for storytelling. You can always put in a new patient to the story or something. But we’ve been the first to crack it. And on top of that, it’s set in the 50s.”

TV2 went on to commission season two after seeing just a rough cut of the first batch of episodes. With an airdate set less than five months after the first season’s conclusion, the producers had a quick turnaround to get back into production. Both seasons are distributed by REinvent Studios.

“They really wanted us to do another season and very fast,” Dremstrup recalls. “We would have loved to have had more time, of course, but it was nice to do it so soon and it was nice to know this was actually going to be aired.

“When you’re developing something, people have to look at what you’re writing and maybe they like it or maybe not. But we knew we were going to air and we had a lot of things in place like the hospital, the costumes and our great crew. For the scriptwriters, the process was a little bit stressful. But I have to say, I don’t think the viewers will see that we did it so fast. I really believe it has the same quality and I know the stories are very good.”

The New Nurses has now been confirmed for third and fourth runs

The only problem with jumping straight back into production was the fact that shooting the second season took place over winter, with filming beginning in November and ending in February.

“Luckily for us, it wasn’t a snowy winter, though we had to work with the light, as the sun goes down at 16.00,” Dremstrup notes. “It meant we could have real nights because, when you shoot in summertime, you still have bright light very late. But we tried to keep it warm and cosy. When they go outside, they’re in short sleeves so you don’t see it’s cold, but it is because there are no leaves on the trees.”

The producer, whose other credits include Norskov and Advokaten (The Lawyer), says she enjoys the show’s mixture of episodic and serialised storylines, which mean viewers get a satisfying conclusion with each instalment but also tune into the next episode to see what lies in store for the characters.

“People don’t watch television like they used to. You need the long season arc,” she says. “We have two patients in each episode. They can vary, and we don’t stick to that rule, and then we see how much we can get from the other characters. Some of the characters who were in the background in season one, suddenly you can lift them up in season two and ask ‘Why is she like that?’”

Earlier this year, writers Boderke and Mering were nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize, which recognises outstanding writing of a Nordic drama series at the Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Vision event. The New Nurses has subsequently been proclaimed as TV2 Charlie’s most popular series ever, leading it to be recommissioned for third and fourth seasons. Work in the writers room is already underway, with production scheduled to begin in 2020.

Meanwhile, Dremstrup is developing a crime noir thriller called The Oxen, based on the book trilogy by Jens Henrik Jensen. Consisting of Hangdogs, The Dark Men and The Frozen Flames, the novels feature war veteran and elite soldier Niels Oxen, brought back from retirement to investigate a series of mysterious murders, with sidekick agent Margrethe Franck in tow.

The trilogy will be turned into two seasons of eight episodes, penned by writing couple Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe (Modus, The Team, The Eagle) and distributed by REinvent Studios.

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Moving into Beecham

After starring in Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature film, Viveik Kalra reunites with the writer/director for her new TV series, Beecham House. He tells DQ about the upstairs-downstairs drama, set in India in 1795.

In Blinded by the Light, the latest movie from Gurinder Chadha, Viveik Kalra plays a British Pakistani teenager whose life is uniquely inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Kalra’s star turn in the coming-of-age film led him to immediately reunite with the acclaimed writer/director on her next project, Beecham House, which also marks her return to TV drama.

“We did the film a couple of months into 2018,” the actor recalls. “I’d auditioned two or three times for it, got it and then filmed it for eight weeks. Then, right near the end, she went, ‘I think you’d be right for a part in this show I’m doing.’

“I forgot about it but she came back in, which was rather exciting. It was good because I guess, in some ways, because I’d just led a film of hers, she knew she could rely on me in that part, which is lovely.”

Viveik Kalra (right) alongside Tom Bateman in Beecham House

Kalra describes Beecham House as a “very special project,” owing to the fact it takes place in India in 1795. “It’s not a time period you usually see, it’s just amazing,” he says. “It’s an incredible time period, very culturally uplifting, at a time when the British and French are visitors and aren’t ruling over Indian people, so you have a lovely view of India untouched and untainted.”

The six-part ITV series sees John Beecham, a former soldier in the East India Company, arrive in Delhi determined to leave his past behind him and start a new life as an independent trader, taking up residence in the titular mansion. However, the staff soon harbour questions over their secretive new master, who arrives with his infant son August.

One of the first people he meets at his new home is Kalra’s Baadal, the head of the property’s staff, who helps John (Tom Bateman) settle into his new life. It’s this dynamic in the home that has seen Beecham House dubbed ‘Delhi Downton,’ drawing comparisons with ITV mega-hit Downton Abbey, which charted the fortunes of the aristocratic members of the Grantham family and their servants.

“Baadal is the initial link to John when he comes to the palace for the first time,” Kalra explains. “It was an interesting character for me to look at because it’s this upstairs-downstairs drama and I’m the link between the upstairs and downstairs, so it was a great opportunity.

“Due to the nature of the character and the family who stay in the house, it’s uplifting for the servants because they can do things in the house that typically weren’t allowed. When someone enables you and uplifts you, you can be more of a person with them rather than just a servant, so I think that makes the dynamic of Beecham very interesting.”

The show’s upstairs-downstairs setup has seen it compared to Downton Abbey

Baadal’s loyalty to his job and his master is challenged, however, when he falls for Chanchal (Shriya Pilgaonkar), which puts him at odds with Daniel Beecham (Leo Suter) and Ram Lal (Amer Chadha-Patel), forcing him to choose between duty and passion.

“It’s a catch-22 because when the Beecham family comes, they enable the servants to relax and not be on edge,” he adds. “Baadal has time to think about other things in his life, so it’s interesting to see whether he follows his head or his heart.”

Kalra says his relationship with Chadha while filming Beecham House was different from that during Blinded by the Light. On the feature film, as the lead actor, he kept his head down and got on with the job. But on Beecham House, he felt less of a burden, with the weight of the series placed on Vanity Fair star Bateman.

“I was able to relax a bit more. I was chilling out on set, which was amazing,” he says. “But although I had a smaller part, it didn’t feel like a smaller part, which I think is quite a lovely thing about a director and how they make you feel. Gurinder talks to everyone with the same sort of vibe and decency, regardless of whether they are an SA [supporting artist] on set or whether they’re the lead actor. I found that throughout the movie and throughout Beecham.”

Describing writer, director and producer Chadha as “a force of nature” on set, Kalra continues: “She will always have more energy than you, no matter how young you are. I’m 20 years old – every day she would have more energy than me! She’d be singing, dancing, she’d be the life of the party. She’s one of those people who knows what she wants, which is lovely, and she’s not afraid to say it. If you’re doing something she doesn’t like, she just says, ‘Don’t do that, do this.’ Then when you do do it, you take the note and she’s lovely and warm and sees that you’ve done something right.”

The ITV drama comes from Bend It Like Beckham writer and director Gurinder Chadha

Interior scenes for Beecham House, produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, were shot at Ealing Studios in London, while the exteriors and landscapes were filmed on location across the Indian state of Rajasthan.

“It’s crazy because if you saw the set in Ealing, it didn’t feel fake at all,” Kalra says. “You’re standing there and thinking it doesn’t look completely real to the eye but then you look at it on camera and it looks exactly like the real thing, which is a credit to everyone who worked on it. Then when you start filming in India, it is totally different in terms of the number of people on set, the talent. It was amazing to be able to film there. We were there for a good two months and a lot of the cast hadn’t been to India before.”

Filming in old palaces and then staying in them as well meant Kalra began to feel like his moustached character. But by the end, “I was very pleased to shave my face,” he jokes. “It wasn’t quite as good as another actor called Amer’s. His moustache was amazing and he could curl it up. Mine wasn’t quite at that level.”

British television dramas to have explored India before or during the time known as the British Raj include The Jewel in the Crown, set during and after the Second World War, and Indian Summers, which follows members of the British government and trading community in 1932. But Kalra believes it’s more than just the fact Beecham House is set over a century earlier than these two shows that sets it apart from similar dramas.

“Just the dynamic between the characters is something that won’t have been seen before,” he says. “John is an uplifting character as opposed to one who is downbeat with the servants around him. He’s a mysterious character at the beginning. When it gets down to it, it’s incredibly interesting to see how someone uplifting and incredibly warm deals with pricklier situations in which people are slightly evil and conniving. It’s exciting to see a nice person get around those things, someone nice and human, and how they battle those circumstances as opposed to someone who is mean and evil trying to battle evil.”

Beecham House, Kalra adds, is “a very human story within that world. It’s a period piece, so it would be very easy to act to the period, but a wonderful cast has been assembled with some fantastic Indian actors, some from India, some from the UK. With that wonderful cast, it’s amazing to see people in the time period as opposed to them playing up to it.”

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Direct action

DQ speaks to a number of television directors about their latest work and how their role behind the camera is evolving, from working closely with writers to penning and even acting in the shows themselves.

While film is the director’s medium, television has always been writer-led. But times are changing – and in today’s booming drama landscape, the role of the director is evolving far beyond the hired gun that was once brought in to helm single or multiple episodes of a series.

The rise of serialised drama, in particular, has had an effect on those behind the camera, and many directors now equate making such shows to completing an eight- or 10-part movie in a single stint, with one person at the helm throughout.

In many cases, drama directors also have a hand in creating, writing and producing shows, with involvement stretching from the initial conception of a story until the final episode has been locked and delivered to a network.

“The role of directors in television is changing like it is across the board, probably for everybody,” says Jeffrey Walker, who steered four-part Australian miniseries Lambs of God. “At the heart of it, it’s just because television is getting better and better. I can do episodic television shows where you might be given episode 213 and it’s good luck and there you are. Then on this one, I was on it for a year. They’re both television, but Lambs of God is at the highest end being made in Australia in terms of budget and ambition.

Jeffrey Walker (left) on location for Lambs of God

“The greater involvement means it’s a nicer journey to go on, because you’re seeing this thing go from our first chats about what it is to the sounding and the grade. Going on that journey certainly gives you more ownership, but it also [means the project] has to speak to you a lot more as a director than if you were the gun for hire.”

Lambs of God, produced by Lingo Pictures for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision, is described as a gothic and gripping tale about a trio of nuns living on an isolated island. But the three Sisters of St Agnes – played by Ann Dowd, Essie Davis and Jessica Barden – must defend their very existence when a young priest with a hidden agenda arrives at their dilapidated monastery.

Walker spent a few days with writer Sarah Lambert going through her scripts, which are based on the book by Marele Day. “The scripts are beautiful, as good as reading any great literature, and that was the great appeal of doing it, before thinking about the visuals and how on Earth were we going to achieve them,” he says.

“By the time I signed on, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to achieve it. But the first job was philosophically getting in step with Sarah. Production is like a crazy, wild beast that takes over. But certainly the biggest part, and one of the most enjoyable parts, was sitting down and hearing what was a very personal story told by Sarah, even though it was an adaptation. It was very much from the heart, and I could just ask her everything about it.”

Lambs of God focuses on a trio of nuns living on an isolated island

Walker’s biggest challenge on the series was bringing the world of the Sisters of St Agnes to life alongside production designer Chris Kennedy (Lion) and cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet). But once that was settled, “we could turn up in this place and then completely dismiss the beautiful production design and all the work that had gone into it to fully focus on what was at the heart of the scene and those characters at that time,” the director says.

“Being in the heads of the characters, which came from our early discussions, dictated where our camera needed to be. We wanted to be right in that world with them. It has a traditional cinematic approach; it’s not handheld or gritty. It was all lit with candles, with extremely fast lenses and cameras. The actors found it more intimate and real.”

On the other side of the world, British director Gurinder Chadha made her name with films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Viceroy’s House. She has now co-created, written and directed Beecham House, a six-part drama for ITV set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century.

Gurinder Chadha

“I wouldn’t say TV is any less a director’s voice than film, particularly these days,” she says. “What I’ve ended up doing is shooting six one-hour movies, because that’s what I’m used to; I’m used to shooting movies. So in each episode, it has great scale. It feels like a movie. I’ve scored it like a movie and the questions it asks are big. You are getting the movie experience over six hours on TV.”

Produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, Beecham House stars Tom Bateman as John Beecham, a former soldier who buys the eponymous property to start a new life with his family. Though haunted by his past, he is inspired to become an honourable member of the region’s trading community.

“I’ve made nine movies and this was my first longform series. It’s a beast,” Chadha says. “It was hard to keep all those storylines and performances in my head, and to keep the continuity for all those actors in my head. I found it quite hard and unruly.

“Having said that, I ended up having to do very little ADR [automated dialog replacement] or reworking, so I was obviously doing something right. What I found hardest was making sure every character’s story was compelling enough to warrant a space – because when you read them in the script, it’s one thing, but when you shoot them, it’s another.”

It was only through “distilling, cutting and shredding” during the editing process that Chadha found the heart of the series, which she admits ended up being slightly different from what she had initially imagined. “It’s very moving in places, very touching in places, and there it is,” she adds. “People who have seen it have cried. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so profound, so I’m delighted.”

Period drama Beecham House is set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century

Moving away from English-language drama, Dejate Llevar (Perfect Life) marks the first television series written and directed by Spanish actor Leticia Dolera. She has previously written comedy Bloguera en Construcción and starred in a number of film and TV shows such as Bajo Sospecha (Under Suspicion) and Mad Dogs.

Perfect Life follows three women – María, Cris and Esther – who are each looking to achieve their dream existence but find that things don’t always go according to plan. The show, from Movistar+ and distributed by Beta Film, debuted at French event Canneseries in April, where it was named best series and also received the special performance prize.

“I just wanted to write and talk about what matters to me and the women around me, the issues that concern us,” Dolera says. “Perfection for women, especially, is very stressful. It’s an ideal that’s very hard to maintain. Through the show, I explore different aspects of that supposed perfection – the superwoman role model, a woman who’s a great mum, wife, lover and friend.

“I talk about how stressful that can be and how sometimes, even if you are that superwoman, something can be missing – that’s Cris. Then, through Esther, I wanted to talk about what success is and how hard it can be to accept you cannot be successful. Maria, who I play, is a control freak. She’s obsessed with the idea of the family. She has to confront this need to control, because you cannot control life. She has to understand new models of family.”

Leticia Dolera’s Perfect Life

Dolera admits writing, directing and acting in the same project is “very intense,” but she believes each discipline is part of the same process – telling the story. “You can tell the story from the script, from directing or by giving a real voice to the characters,” she says. “I find it natural because I’ve been acting for 15 years and had the need to tell my own stories. Finally, I’m talking about things I know – I talk about women my age.”

In practical terms on set, Dolera would use a stand-in actor to prepare a scene before taking her place in front of the camera once the setup was complete. “Sometimes I would go to check what I’d recorded, but not often because the time it takes to check a take is the time it takes to do another take,” she says. “So sometimes I prefer to do another take rather than check it.”

In Israeli drama Asylum City, meanwhile, a violent attack on an activist supporting asylum seekers’ rights has far-reaching consequences, with the series focusing on clandestine migrants in Tel Aviv and those who help them.

Director Eitan Tzur co-created the show with writer Uzi Weil and author Liad Shoham, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. “I was influenced very much by [seminal HBO drama] The Wire to do a cop show or a thriller that deals with political and social issues,” he explains.

Eitan Tzur on the Asylum City set

“Then, when [Shoham] came to the offices of our production company July August, he invited us to make a series. We started to develop it and it took between four and six years for us to find a broadcaster and widen the plot.”

That broadcaster was Yes TV, whose sales arm Yes Studios distributes the drama worldwide. Asylum City marked the first time Tzur had been involved in creating a series, and he was adamant that the show pushed beyond the book’s thriller style to focus more on the political story at its heart.

“Here, the most important thing was realism. Even though it’s a thriller, I tried not to use scary music too much and the shooting was not suspenseful. It’s basic, clear, realistic,” the director says.

“Sometimes I wanted a documentary feel, because the series features a lot of places in south Tel Aviv where normal people live. I wanted to show the difference between the background of where they live and where lawyers live in the north of the city in nice apartments, to show the differences in environment and locations.”

Swedish-French coproduction Midnight Sun

Acknowledging that Israeli drama budgets are small compared with those of other major drama hotspots, Tzur says careful planing in the pre-production period is crucial to make the most of the available funds.

“As a director, I’m usually much more interested in working with actors and having a good cameraman who will allow me to concentrate on directing,” he adds. “Especially in TV, it’s much more important to concentrate on directing and having time with the actors. I’m less concerned with the shooting after I’ve decided on the general look of the scene.”

Måns Mårlind

Over in Sweden, Måns Mårlind is well established as both a writer and a director, having worked on local dramas such as Sjätte Dagen, Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and Midnight Sun, a copro between Sweden’s SVT and Canal+ in France. His latest series, Shadowplay, is a Berlin-set historical thriller in which an American cop arrives in Germany to help set up a police force in the aftermath of the Second World War. The cast includes Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), Michael C Hall (Dexter) and Logan Marshall-Green (Quarry). The show is produced by Tandem Productions and Bron Studios for Viaplay and ZDF, and distributed by StudioCanal.

“As a writer-director, I divide being both people in one body,” Mårlind says. “Directing is a healthy and good continuation of the writing process; when I write, I try to be as specific in direction as I can. I’m not writing ‘close-up’ and stuff like that, but I want the actor – because I always write for one person – to understand what I’m doing.

“As a writer, the big plus when you direct a scene that doesn’t work is that the actors can look at you and say, ‘This doesn’t work.’ Then you can throw them a new line, remove four lines or decide to have no dialogue at all.”

Echoing Tzur, Mårlind focuses on the actors. “They are everything. If you don’t connect with the actors, you have nothing,” he says. Once the plot is laid out and the characters are fully formed, he says his key responsibility is to “help the actors all the time to go where, hopefully, they have a problem reaching, pushing them all the way.”

Beecham House’s Chadha is already planning further seasons of the series, and the appeal of tackling other long, more detailed stories on television, as opposed to 90-minute films, has led her to enter development on other dramas.

“I think in today’s world, we all enjoy longform TV. I certainly do,” she concludes. “We’re all binge-viewing, watching drama like we did movies. So for me, it was a great experience making this.”

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Stana’s starring roles

Stana Katic, the star and executive producer of Absentia, talks to DQ about returning for the thriller’s second season and why she’s the type of actor who goes beyond just appearing on screen.

“I think there are two different types of actors,” says Stana Katic. “Some actors truly are actors and they enjoy focusing on that and that’s good, that’s enough. Then there are other actors who are more storytellers, those who love to get into the actual overarching feel of the story and to be a part of the voice and direction of it.”

Speaking to the star and executive producer of thriller Absentia, it’s immediately clear which category she falls into. Having made her name appearing alongside Nathan Fillion in ABC’s crime comedy-drama Castle for its entire eight-season run, Katic has been keen to learn about every aspect of the mechanics of television throughout her 20-year career, which has included appearances in series such as The Shield, ER, 24 and Heroes.

“I was always more of a storyteller and on all of the stuff I’ve been on, I would always sit with the camera operators and ask questions and just engage with the directors, producers, showrunners and writers, looking into their process and trying to understand it better, from the very top of the storytelling team to the crew, the gaffer and costume designers and so on,” she explains. “I was always interested in all of the elements that make up filmmaking, but for me it’s a very natural progression and it just feels normal to be a part of that end of it and be engaged in that side of the storytelling.

Katic jokes that she’s received some “accidental free university” education over the years. “And because in some cases I’ve done 17 hours a day, nine months a year, for six or seven years on a set, I’ve absorbed a lot of information. There are some actors who, because they’ve just spent that much time on set telling stories, can contribute in a way that can be really helpful to story, and I feel like that information served me well for the collaboration of our team and the development of our story.”

In Absentia, Stana Katic plays FBI agent Emily Byrne

Absentia, which is produced by Masha Productions and distributor Sony Pictures Television, sees Katic play FBI agent Emily Byrne, who suddenly disappears without trace and is declared dead. Season one takes place six years later, when she is found in a deserted cabin, barely alive and with no memory of her ordeal. Returning home to Boston to find her husband (Patrick Heusinger) has remarried and her son (Patrick McAuley) is being raised by another woman (Cara Theobold), she is implicated in a series of murders.

Having cleared her name in the first run, season two sees Emily attempting to return to some semblance of a normal life as she continues to try to understand what happened to her while she was in captivity. But when Boston is struck by a homegrown terrorist attack, the FBI’s investigation collides with Emily’s own hunt for a serial killer who strikes close to home, sparking a chain of events that leads her back to her own fractured family.

Katic says she was excited to return to the role for a second season, even more so as she was part of the conversation about what fate might befall her character across the next 10 episodes. The new season, which has already launched on Sony’s AXN in Iberia, Central Europe and Latin America, on Sony Sci-Fi in Russia and on Showcase in Canada, comes to Amazon Prime Video in the US, UK, Germany, Australia, Austria, India, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea and other territories this Friday.

Oded Ruskin (False Flag) shares directing duties with Kasia Adamik and Adam Sanderson this time out, having helmed the entire first season himself. New writers have also been brought in to pick up scriptwriting duties.

Described as a “wonderful” director by Katic, Adamik (The Border) comes from a family of Polish filmmakers, while Sanderson is a “phenomenal visual storyteller” best known for Israeli mystery supernatural drama Betoolot (Mermaids). Katic has her own directorial ambitions too, and has already picked up some experience leading some second unit pick-ups.

The show’s second season is coming to Amazon around the world this Friday

“That was a lot of fun,” she recalls. “We had an absolute hoot. There’s no story requirement, meaning no actor had to do a serious scene. It was more about just getting inserts and added coverage. It was quick, it was fun and we had a laugh. I thought, ‘Wow, this could be a lot of fun to do with these people.’”

A greater challenge was returning to the role of Emily, a character still haunted by her troubled past and facing up to new threats on the horizon. The opening episodes of season two see her attempt to build bridges with her son as well as her ex-husband and his wife, while also continuing to search for clues that could unlock the gaps in her memory.

Katic is full of praise for the support she received from the directing team, while the multi-stranded nature of the story and ensemble cast means the series doesn’t rest solely on her shoulders. She also picks out new cast member Matthew Le Nevez, who plays Emily’s new FBI partner Cal Isaac, as a “fantastic collaborator,” adding that his understanding of the overall story has helped inform and enhance individual scenes.

“He has that sort of eye so it was a gift to partner with him this season,” she says. “However, it’s also nice to go home at night and sometimes have a glass of wine or go for a really long hike and decompress after stories like this.”

On set, Katic is always keen to perform her own stunts and this season offered her no end of opportunities to learn choreography for action-packed scenes. “I love it. I really get a kick out of it,” she admits. “I did as much as I could. There were some things they snuck in that the studio refused to let me do, but I tried to do as much as I could. And the things I couldn’t do, I had a lovely stunt partner who did all of those. We had a really good team.”

Katic is an exec producer on Absentia

The actor adds that while stunts, fights and sex scenes can sometimes occupy a solitary line in the script, it’s important they aren’t glossed over in production in favour of more dialogue-driven moments. “Those moments need to participate in telling the story. They have to propel the story forward,” she says. “We can’t just have a scene where it’s ‘punch, punch, punch, kick’ and then somebody goes down. It has to add value in informing the audience in some way about our story, so that was something we focused on.”

As an example, Katic refers to a character that has a “really disgusting fight” with another person – a battle for survival that’s integral to that character’s development. “We needed to see his capacity for violence and we needed [viewers] to understand that this character has a certain type of beastliness in him, a ruthlessness. Through the style of fighting, through the moves he makes and through his interaction with the other characters, we were able to convey that,” she continues. “It was about adding value to what that character meant to the whole trajectory of the story. These things are carefully considered, and luckily we had partnerships we worked with who were focusing on that.”

Writers are already talking about what a potential third season might look like, with season two resolving the numerous puzzles in play but ending on a note that could suggest this story isn’t over yet.

Katic says the highlight of making Absentia so far has been the opportunity to work on a series that has been made in the style of an independent film, using a shooting process that has given cast and crew the freedom to collaborate on set without the pressure of a traditional production hierarchy. Executive producing alongside the actor are Ruskin, Matt Cirulnick, Julie Glucksman and Maria Feldman.

“It was a space where everyone has a voice in our storytelling and, because of that, they all feel very proud of the project, ultimately,” she says. “We set up a tradition on our set where the best idea wins [as opposed to the director having] all the answers, and that’s a really lovely way to commit to filmmaking. We look for the intelligence and contribution from our fellow filmmakers on set, from our actors, from our costumers, from our crew. That kind of setting is really exciting for me and I think it creates the best work out there.”

As for Emily, the actor says she has enjoyed portraying someone she describes as an anti-hero. “It’s really exciting to play a character who isn’t perfect and whose moral compass isn’t always black and white.

“What am I looking for next? I want to do a comedy,” she says, laughing. “I’ve got to get a comedy. I need fancy clothes! That’s where it’s at for me right now.”

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Marriage of con-venience

Danish writers Thor Bjørn Krebs and Mikkel Serup talk to DQ about the making of their crime drama Pros & Cons, in which a couple seek to spice up their lacklustre marriage by returning to their former lives as con artists.

Of all the ways to breathe new life into a marriage that has lost its spark, starting a life of crime might not be the first thought that comes to mind. But for Nina and Erik, the protagonists of Danish drama Pros & Cons, it is simply a return to old habits.

Twenty years ago, the couple were brilliant con artists and since then have been trying to hide their criminal past. However, the reappearance of a former conspirator with a new idea for a money-making scam proves to be the perfect way to inject some excitement into their peaceful – but lacklustre – family life.

It’s this idea of escaping from the chains of domestic duties that gives the series its Danish title, Friheden (Freedom), which is also the real name of a train station close to the homes of series co-creators and writers Thor Bjørn Krebs and Mikkel Serup on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

“We both live in this neighbourhood, close to this train station,” Krebs says. “We both have wives and children and dysfunctional marriages and mortgages and all that nice stuff, so [the show is] born out of a necessity to do something and not grow stale in relationships and everyday life, with malfunctioning dishwashers and stuff like that.”

Thor Bjõrn Krebs (left) and MIkkel Serup at Friheden station, which lends its name to Pros & Cons’ Danish title

With the series mixing elements of real life with heightened crime drama, Krebs and Serup say they spent 90% of the development period talking about mixing genres and figuring out how they could put a fresh spin on the relationships at the heart of feature films such Bonnie & Clyde and Mr & Mrs Smith.

“You never see those characters go to the bathroom, needing a snack or raising the children or telling their son he spends too much time on his iPad,” Serup jokes. “All those are very relatable, real-life scenarios. We hadn’t seen that in a crime drama before. We do have scenes where they are breaking into a pharmaceutical company and put up surveillance cameras, but they’re always contrasted with cooking dinner for the kids or picking them up from sports or whatever.”

The pharmaceutical company is at the heart of the plot, with the characters justifying their efforts to steal from it by likening themselves to Robin Hood, taking wealth back from greedy corporate giants.

The growth of fraud in Denmark over the last few years provided one of the starting points for series, as did the observation that low-level thieves appear to be dealt harsher punishments than “the real con artists who wear a suit and tie,” says Krebs. “We follow the rules, we pay our taxes, we try to bring up our kids – but those who make the rules, they don’t follow them. They make their own rules, they don’t pay taxes. That’s a strange world.”

Serup picks up: “We needed something that would allow the audience to root for the criminals, so they don’t steal money from a group like Médecins Sans Frontières [medical charity Doctors Without Borders]. That would be questionable. But it’s OK that they steal money from a pharmaceutical company that uses their size to set their own prices for their products. It’s OK to take from them.”

Pros & Cons stars  Lars Ranthe and Lene Maria Christensen as Erik and Nina

It’s not just the news that has informed the series, but the writers’ own lives too, drawing on their domestic experiences to dramatise Nina (Lene Maria Christensen, The Legacy) and Erik (Lars Ranthe, Badehotellet)’s frustrations. One scene was based on Krebs discovering that the basement of his recently bought house was filled with water, while the characters’ material desires – a bigger house, a new car, a working washing machine, a dry basement – are all easily relatable.

The pair came together to work on Pros & Cons, living just 200 metres apart and sharing stories of their similar lives in similar houses. Their children also go to the same school.

Krebs had the initial idea to turn the story into a film 10 years ago, but five years ago he and Serup began talking about it together and developed the outline for a television series over coffee in one of their kitchens.

That move into television wasn’t a result of the story, however, but “from the changing times and the way TV shows and streaming services have grown over the last five years so there are more opportunities,” Krebs explains. “The broadcasters of TV series are more daring and it gave us the opportunity to be with this couple for a longer time, to move into their lives and follow this rom-com.”

The writers worked on the first two episodes together for more than two years, honing the style and tone of the scripts over that time and then using them to build financing for the show, which enjoyed its international premiere at Series Mania earlier this year. It is produced by Sam Productions and distributed by StudioCanal, and will air on broadcasters including NENT Group’s Nordic streaming platform Viaplay, its sister network TV3 and France’s Canal+.

The couple at the heart of the story turn to crime to revive their marriage

With Pros & Cons commissioned in November 2017, Serup left the writing room to direct the first two episodes, while Krebs remained at the typewriter, working with a number of episode writers to complete all 10 instalments.

“Hopefully in a partnership like this, with Thor Bjørn as the main writer and me being the co-writer and director, we can blend talents so we always have an eye on how it will be solved in the end and how is it possible,” Serup says.

As the lead director, Serup says he only storyboards action sequences and montages, relying on loose-fitting shot lists for the rest of the production – leaving room for new ideas and inspiration to strike. “Plus it’s handheld, most of it,” he says, “so we like to be able to move around and stuff like that. When it’s the scenes at home, we like to work handheld because we’re able to move with the characters all the time – especially when you have kids, as they don’t always hit their mark. So we follow them. But when we do the car bits and the larger action setups, we always storyboard it.”

Within that approach, they sought a sense of scale and suspense commonly found in movies – an ambition further fuelled by the decision to use anamorphic lenses to film the Cophenhagen-shot series in 2.35:1 widescreen. “It might be an odd choice for something that is family-friendly, but that puts the family into a very cinematic frame,” argues Serup, who shares directing duties with Tilde Harkamp and Mogens Hagedorn. “The show’s not just about packing the lunches for the kids. It’s framed in a special way.”

The most challenging aspect of the series, Krebs and Serup agree, was finding the balance between comedy and drama – something that was particularly profound for the actors, who had to make the characters real and believable while always trying to prevent the series from becoming too dark or heavy.

Pros & Cons made its international premiere at this year’s Series Mania

To this end, Serup orchestrated numerous readthroughs of the scripts, in lieu of any time to rehearse before the cameras rolled. “We know both actors. I’ve worked with them before, so we had a good rapport with them already, which helped a lot,” he says. “They’re very generous in that they come with lots of suggestions for themselves. It was a very fluid and smooth shoot. They’re very sweet, talented and generous people. That made it easy. There were no divas.”

Krebs says: “The main cast really got the balance. Lene really wanted to play that angry, uptight wife but also to be a superhero who puts on a cape and sneaks through a window. She liked both. Lars was more in doubt because he was driving a Maserati to begin with, feeling like a superhero and speaking like a con artist, and then he had to get on a rusty bike and go back to reality.”

Though it may seem unlikely at the initial suggestion, there is a lot of truth to Krebs’ claim that, in the end, Pros & Cons is a love story about two people trying to keep their romance alive, only by illegal means.

“How do you keep love alive? For them, it’s conning. We hope people can relate to that,” he says.

On the world stage, Denmark has become synonymous with flawed police detectives and broody, sullen landscapes, but Serup hopes his series can show a lighter side of Nordic crime drama.

“We haven’t really seen comedy travel yet, but this is a shallow mix of comedy and drama,” he says. “Borgen, The Killing and Bedrag all travel abroad because it’s universally accepted that crime is bad and guns are dangerous. But we hope that humour will travel as well. We’re anxious to see if our show will ride on the coattails of previous shows’ success.”

The director concludes: “I think there is a shift away from Nordic noir. You’ve got to be careful it doesn’t become a pastiche, so we have to keep renewing it. With our show, we’d like to not just redo conventional Scandi noir but infuse it with a little bit of curveball humour.”

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King of the Hill

Veteran showrunner Tom Fontana tells DQ how his latest series, Showtime’s City on a Hill, tackles uncomfortable issues and explains why the 1990s-set show speaks to the present day.

For more than three decades, Tom Fontana has been associated with some of the most iconic series in US television. From medical drama St Elsewhere to The Wire precursor Homicide: Life on the Street and groundbreaking HBO prison drama Oz, he has scored multiple award wins and nominations while building a reputation as an international showrunner on historical drama Borgia.

“I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for 30 years,” he says. “Technology continues just to evolve and become more and more awesome. You can do things you couldn’t do years ago. But in terms of storytelling, the inherent conflicts and the inherent character flaws of the people we’re writing, when you’re writing human beings, they’ve been doing it the same way since Zebedee.”

Tom Fontana

In every storied career, no matter how long, there’s always time for new experiences and that’s exactly what Fontana has found with his latest project, showrunning Showtime’s crime drama City On A Hill.

Created by Chuck MacLean and based on an idea by Ben Affleck, who exec produces with Matt Damon, the series marks the first time Fontana has run a series he wasn’t attached to from the outset.

“Even with Homicide, on which Paul Attanasio wrote the initial script, I was involved from the very beginning in terms of casting and the whole evolution of the concept,” he explains. “With this, there was a pilot that was finished [when I joined]. We did go back and do some reshoots and reorganisation of it, but the cast was set and the heart of the series was set because Chuck is a brilliant writer. He has a very specific ear for what is Boston, so what I’ve tried to do, because he’s never done a television show before, is to be more like an Obi-Wan Kenobi on this and not change his concept. I’ve tried to enhance it.”

The 10-episode series is set in early 1990s Boston, a city rife with violent criminals emboldened by local law enforcement agencies among which corruption and racism was the norm. Described as a fictional story set during this period, the show sees assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) arrive from Brooklyn and form an unlikely alliance with corrupt yet venerated FBI veteran Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon). Together, they take on a family of armoured car robbers from Charlestown in a case that grows to involve, and ultimately subvert, the entire criminal justice system of Boston.

Produced by Showtime and distributed by CBS Studios International, the series has been selected as the closing-night premiere at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas, tomorrow, ahead of its US launch on June 16. Alongside Fontana, Affleck and Damon, the executive producers include Jennifer Todd, Michael Cuesta, James Mangold and Barry Levinson. Bacon is a co-executive producer.

“I think [the series appealed] because I like to do shows that are troubling and deal with issues people maybe aren’t comfortable dealing with,” Fontana tells DQ on the phone from New York City, while filming is continuing on episode nine and he is editing episode eight. “I felt in this world we live in, and specifically in America in 2019, what was going on in Boston in the 1990s was incredibly on point as to what’s going on in America right now. So for me, the idea was that while we could be in the haze of doing a ‘period piece,’ we could deal with a lot of questions and confusion that exist in our lives today.”

Kevin Bacon (left) and Aldis Hodge in City on a Hill

While the idea of a period drama set in the 1990s might seem troubling to those who feel like they were only recently living in that decade, at the heart of City on a Hill is a question that remains as relevant today as it did then and even decades earlier: what is justice? The show aims to interrogate that topic not just on a legal level but also by examining how people are treated either justly or unjustly and how this is affected by wealth, race or sexuality.

“So from what Chuck created and the characters he created, we sat down and we talked about real events that happened in Boston in this period and how they might ignite these characters into the journey they’re individually going to take during the course of the season.”

This isn’t Fontana’s first time in Boston, with St Elsewhere also set in the Massachusetts city. But he says that the city serves the same purpose as Baltimore did in Homicide, being specific to its location but universal in the way it captures an American city metropolis.

“Boston is unique unto itself because it’s the birthplace of the Revolutionary War [which led to American independence from British rule], but also because, over time, it has remained both a small town and a large city,” he says. “It suffers and celebrates both those elements. It’s a small town in the sense that people are very tied to their neighbourhoods, tied to their beliefs and tied to their prejudices, but it’s also a city that is the centre of a lot of medical research and the Harvard Kennedy School of political science. It has big stakes as well as little stakes.”

The pilot was filmed in Boston and the crew will return there for the season finale, with other locations sought further down the Eastern Seaboard in the New York State areas of Staten Island, Yonkers and White Plains. Interior scenes were filmed on sound stages.

Bacon plays FBI veteran Jackie Rohr

“Like Mad Men, the show is 90% interiors. So whether we were shooting it in a sound stage in Brooklyn or a sound stage in Boston, it really didn’t matter,” Fontana notes. “And a lot of Boston in 1992, specifically the neighbourhoods we’re dealing with, don’t exist anymore in the sense that they have been gentrified, so we have managed to find places that look like Boston in 1992.”

Fontana’s experience on crime dramas in particular has seen him work on series such as Homicide, which was based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon and ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999. The book would also later inspire Simon to create HBO’s seminal drama The Wire.

Fontana also created Copper, a police procedural set in 1860s New York that would become BBC America’s first original drama when it debuted in 2012, and short-lived drama The Beat, while he has also explored the criminal justice system in Oz and courtroom-based The Jury.

City on a Hill moves away from the typical police procedural format, telling stories not just from the perspective of the cops of Boston Police Department but also the FBI, the county sheriff, state troopers, the district attorney’s office and a group of criminals hellbent on targeting cash-carrying armoured vans. Other cast members include Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Jill Hennessy, Lauren E Banks, Amanda Clayton, Kevin Chapman and Jere Shea.

“I don’t like to write bad guys or good guys,” Fontana explains. “I like to write people, and so what we’ve worked very hard to do is make everybody incredibly human, both positively and negatively.”

Hodge as assistant DA Decourcy Ward, who arrives in Boston from Brookyln

It’s Jackie Rohr, played by Bacon, who immediately raises eyebrows with his foul-mouthed attitude and willingness to bend the rules to get what he wants. “I hope the audience will root for all the characters, but with Jackie specifically, he is so unabashedly who he is,” the showrunner says. “I think he articulates things that other people wish they could say and he behaves in a way other people wish they could behave. That’s not to justify anything he does but, on the same side, I think what’s wonderful about what Kevin is doing with the part is there is a crack in Jackie’s sense of self in that he’s clearly coming to understand he is an anachronism, that his time is passed.

“Yet he is fighting like a tiger to maintain a sense of himself and also gain the respect of the people around him. On the surface, he’s just an asshole. But the character is so multi-faceted that I think not only will the audience enjoy him but I think they will come to understand him because he’s a lost soul in a way.”

Rohr immediately ruffles the feathers of Hodge’s principled Decourcy Ward but, by the end of episode one, it seems they might already by finding some common ground in and out of the courtroom.

“The relationship between the two of them is never settled. There are weeks when Decourcy wins and weeks when Jackie wins, and weeks when they both win and weeks when they both lose,” Fontana says. “But their relationship is a rollercoaster ride because they have to trust each other and they’re basically using each other to get what they individually want to accomplish. I think it’s a really enjoyable ride on a week-to-week basis seeing them connect and disconnect and the reasons why they do that.”

In writing the series, “I don’t really do a writers room, per se. I find them wildly unproductive,” he says, laughing. “What happens is everyone gets together and the first thing you do is talk about what you did last night and what the kids are up to, and then someone comes in and says it’s time to order lunch and everybody orders lunch, then the whole day goes by and no actual writing happens.”

City on a Hill launches on Showtime this month

Instead, once the basic story has been outlined, the writers will each go off and explore their assigned episode individually. Fontana continues: “I believe each writer needs to be able to use his or her voice fully. Then I get the script and I give them suggestions, they do another draft and then I give them maybe more suggestions or do a final pass to get it ready for production. To me, writing by committee is not writing; I think writing has to be a very personal experience. I try to maintain that on all the shows I do.”

But like many series on television today, City on a Hill goes far beyond the initial crime – the “underbelly” of the story – and instead focuses on the ensemble of characters involved, which Fontana says he hopes will draw viewers into their world.

“I hope the characters are engaging enough and original enough, which I believe they are, that the audience will want to know what’s going to happen to them,” he adds. “We not only have some great male characters, we have four really powerful women characters, because it’s not just a procedural cop show. It’s about these men and women and what they’re going through during the course of their lives that has nothing to do with the crime that’s out there.”

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Grace period

Co-showrunners Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris tell DQ how they plan to disrupt the traditions of crime noir in Perpetual Grace, Ltd, a 10-part series from US cable network Epix and MGM Television.

At first glance, Amazon Prime Video series Patriot has all the traditional hallmarks of a spy drama, and yet it’s so much more than that. Darkly comic, dreamy and melancholic, with more than a splash of folk music, it stands out by the way it stretches the conventions of the genre.

Steve Conrad

Now showrunner Steve Conrad is taking the same approach to crime noir with his new series Perpetual Grace, Ltd. Created with co-showrunner Bruce Terris, who also worked on Patriot, it’s a show that promises a big personality, from the themes at the heart of the story to the vivid characters and even the western aesthetics of its shooting location in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“If you picture what we do on Patriot, which is take the infrastructure of the spy genre and ask it to hold up a bunch of different fascinations, we do that with Perpetual Grace with noir,” Conrad says. “The characters are never one-dimensional. They want the pot of gold at the end of this thing, but they also desperately want the same thing as everybody else on Earth, which is peace and dignity. That’s just as important to the appetite of our characters as ill-gotten gains.

“So there will be those similarities with Patriot where the world is wide and we try to be splendid and to make a show that you’ll watch and like, but that’s not simple-minded.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd (formerly called Our Lady, Ltd) tells the story of James, a young grifter who attempts to prey upon Pastor Byron Brown, who turns out to be far more dangerous than he anticipated.

James, a disgraced firefighter played by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson, seizes a chance to reverse his life’s worsening course. But when his plan veers dangerously off track, James must call on strength and fortitude he did not know he possessed in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Pastor Byron (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) and his wife Lilian (Jacki Weaver), known to their parishioners as Ma and Pa, have used religion to bilk hundreds of innocent men and women out of their life savings. Ma, who appears at first glance to be a modest, dutiful church lady, is Pa’s willing accomplice and his counterpart in regard to potency and cruelty.

Commissioned by US premium cable channel Epix and produced by MGM Television, the series launched on Sunday. MGM is also distributing internationally.

Patriot and Perpetual Grace, Ltd both originated around the same time. Terris had been an assistant director, then a producer and a writer on Patriot and during some down time while they were trying to get that show off the ground, Terris brought the idea of Perpetual Grace, Ltd to Conrad.

Perpetual Grace, Ltd pits Jimmi Simpson (right) against Ben Kingsley

The roots of the series can be found in Terris’s desire to write a drama about identity, but not just a thriller about a case of stolen identity. “The central tension of those dramas is almost always really good surface tension but I thought that a deeper tension might be what’s underneath,” he explains. “In that way, it’s this idea that if James is someone who tries to escape problems by assuming the identity of someone else, you better make sure that person is not in worse trouble than you are. That’s the central hub of the idea that I brought to Steve. Then we just took it from there.”

James is a character who has had a run of bad luck and made some bad decisions, but still clings to the hope that he can turn his life around. But he then makes another bad decision in an attempt to fix things.

“We’re studying how out of desperation, and only facing the most desperate odds, you can actually hope to save yourself. It might become survival,” Conrad explains. “So James finds himself outmatched by the power of a man he thought was powerless, and he made a terrible mistake when he picked Byron Brown to prey on. Now he finds himself in the middle of a heavyweight fight he hadn’t prepared for, but he can’t leave the ring.

“Jimmi Simpson is just a guy with that light in his eye that I’ve been hoping to work with for a long time. The way he delivers human beings, they’re complicated but they have a simple-mindedness of purpose which is to get over and find safety somehow. He’s instantly likeable but also somehow a tremendously nuanced actor. He’s going to fit right into the way Bruce and I convey this fictional world.”

Opposite Simpson is Kingsley, who has played Ghandi, ferocious Sexy Beast gangster Don Logan and every character in between during his storied screen career. “There’s no safer bet than Sir Ben in terms of the way we are going to throw everything that humans are capable of into the course of this guy’s story,” Conrad continues. “He’s going to say and do almost everything humans say and do when they’re desperate.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd also follows Patriot’s lead in its use of supporting characters. “Everyone gets heavy lifting in this show and they’re all material to the unravelling of the plot,” Conrad notes. “These characters find themselves having to depend on each other just to survive.”

The show launched on Epix at the weekend

Terris continues: “Coming up as a writer, Steve really mentored me, and one of the things I noticed in all of his scripts was there truly were no throwaway characters. That waiter or waitress had a story. The finest drama you can construct is one where you explore all their stories and you learn about everyone. The person you think is going to be an ‘extra’ becomes a fully fledged participant in the drama that unfolds.”

Conrad and Terris opened their writing room by first figuring out how they wanted the story to end. Once that was decided, they simply watched movies for a couple of months, making a staff writer position on the show the latest entrant for ‘best job in the world.’

“The first week is fun and then you get to the second week and you think, ‘Are we really just wasting time?’” Conrad admits. “But then we open the room and we have four writers and an assistant, and all we do is sit in a room and talk about how to most intricately and expertly convey this story in relation to films that have done this before.”

For example, Conrad talks about the moment in Al Pacino’s 1975 bank heist film Dog Day Afternoon where viewers know the robbery is going to fail, but what makes them continue to watch? Similarly, what makes viewers sit up and pay attention during high-stakes moments in 1998 crime thriller A Simple Plan?

“That sounds boring but we did this theoretical engineering of plot for months and months,” he continues. “Then we’re left with very little time to write the scripts because it’s time to turn them in, so we just write all day and night.”

Even at the moment DQ speaks to Conrad and Terris last October [2018], they are spending their days location scouting in Santa Fe before returning to their rental house to continue writing. Despite having a writers room, only they have written the scripts. “But the story’s figured out. You don’t have the blank page and you don’t bang your head on the desk,” he adds. “You just have to write it.”

L-R: Ben Kingsley as Pastor Byron Brown, Jackie Weaver as Lillian and Jimmi Simpson as James

As showrunning partners, Conrad and Terris will each write pages and then swap them for revisions, ensuring responsibilities are split equally. Terris has been on location scouts, while Conrad also picks up directing duties, helming six of the 10 episodes.

“We’re blessed in the sense that I was Steve’s first AD for many years so we had a long working relationship before we started writing together,” Terris says. “That really helps. It wasn’t like two guys who didn’t know each other very well being thrust together in this situation. We actually know each other very well.”

It’s more common for writers to become directors, rather than the other way around. Terris has found himself having to stop worrying about budgets and deadlines in order to focus on the story. “So I will instantly think, ‘You can’t write a scene on a train because nobody will let you shoot on a train.’ And Steve will have to remind me that I’m not the AD, I’m a writer – and if a scene demands that it’s set on a train, you write it,” he says. “And then later on you might have to cancel it. So it’s been hard to drop the baggage from the other side of production and let my creativity flow.”

Behind the camera, Conrad must balance the demands of multiple genres, blending camera angles that create suspense with sweeping vistas associated with westerns and the show’s Santa Fe setting.

“The challenge is making something that can cast a spell on an audience,” Terris says. “That’s just a function of making all the right decisions. You have to pick the right locations, you have to pick the right cast, then you have to work too hard and then you have to cross your fingers in editing that it all comes together.”

Then there’s the fact that Perpetual Grace, Ltd will arrive in a television landscape filled with more than 500 series in the US alone. But Conrad is unconcerned by the competition. “We’re going to try to make something very, very good. If you can accomplish that goal then there is something distinctive about that show,” he says.

Terris, in his first showrunning role, is “totally psyched” about the job. “This is a thrill for me,” he adds. “When you’re in the 11th hour or 12th hour of shooting and you’ve got one more scene and you’re exhausted, the trick is you must gather the energy to go and be excellent, and not just throw that last scene together. Demand excellence. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Feig state

Paul Feig, the director of movies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, talks to DQ about life behind the camera, why history is the best critic and his efforts to back new voices for the screen.

As a writer, director, producer and actor across television and film, Paul Feig (pictured above) is better placed than most to judge the current blurring of the lines between the two mediums.

“We’re in a really interesting place right now, in a good way,” he tells DQ during a break from post-production on his upcoming holiday-themed feature Last Christmas. “TV’s in a great place, better than it’s been in a long time. Movies are playing catch-up a little bit sometimes but there’s still a lot of great movies.

“For me it’s just trying to figure out what is new for an audience, what’s going to surprise an audience, what will they be excited to see, what are they tired of, what don’t they want to see – it’s a never-ending question. It will never be answered by anybody that accurately. If it were, every movie that came out would be a giant hit.”

Feig jokes that he’s old enough to remember when Star Wars was an original movie, and says that despite the crowd of superheroes dominating the box office, he is always looking for the next big thing that doesn’t come from existing IP or a known franchise. “That’s what I get most excited about and I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out. What are the new ideas?”

Feig is speaking to DQ ahead of his appearance at the 2019 Banff World Media Festival in Canada, where he will give a Summit Series Keynote and be presented with the event’s Award of Excellence.

Paul Feig’s hit 2011 comedy movie Bridesmaids

It’s that attitude to original material that has served Feig well across his career, which has seen him work on major movie titles including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy plus TV hits such as Freaks & Geeks, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men, 30 Rock, the US version of The Office and Weeds.

Among his recent major directorial projects is 2016’s female-fronted reboot of classic 1980s blockbuster Ghostbusters – and taking a fresh approach to the existing and much-loved property certainly represented a bold move for the filmmaker.

Feig says the offer to reboot Ghostbusters excited him because he thought it would be fun to put a new spin on it for today’s generation, more than 30 years after Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first battled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in New York City.

In the run-up to its release, the new film was dogged by criticism, largely relating to either its departure from and lack of relationship to the existing films or its women-led cast, leading the trailer to become the “most disliked film trailer” on YouTube.

But despite the controversy, Feig says: “I’m very proud of it. It didn’t do what we hoped it would do [at the box office] but I’m very proud of it. It keeps finding a fanbase – it’s a pretty rabid fanbase. That’s the great thing about what we do; it exists for ever. I did a bunch of movies and when they first came out, they weren’t well reviewed or well thought of and didn’t do that well, but suddenly they’ve taken on a life of their own because they eventually just get judged on their own merits. That’s why I’m always drawn to ‘recorded’ media because it just exists. You get it right once, hopefully, and there it is for people to consume.

The female-fronted Ghostbusters remake was directed by Feig

“I am annoyed [Ghostbusters] became such a lightning rod [for criticism] but I had a ton of fun making it. That’s all that matters to me. I still like it. I don’t turn it on and go, ‘Oh, this thing.’ I run across it on TV or sometimes on a plane and watch a scene. It’s one of my babies as much as one of my other movies.”

Feig might hope history will be kinder to Ghostbusters in much the same way it has been to his early television series Freaks & Geeks, which he created, wrote and directed for US network NBC in 1999. Though 18 episodes were produced in its first season, the series was abruptly cancelled after only 12 had been shown, drawing fewer than seven million viewers.

Twenty years on, however, the story of two siblings navigating high school is regularly cited as one of the best series ever made, making it into Time magazine’s 100 Greatest Shows of All Time. It also launched the careers of actors such as Linda Cardellini (ER), James Franco (127 Hours), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother).

“You do something, you make it the best you can and the one thing you can’t control is the culture around you at that moment; you can’t control what the audience is consuming,” Feig explains. “Freaks & Geeks came out at a time when the viewing public mainly were really into watching gameshows and really into Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and all that. So I can’t control that. I don’t make gameshows, so all I can do is make the best show I can.”

He puts a lot of the Freaks & Geeks’ success down to the decision to release the show and its soundtrack on DVD and CD. “Because of that, it’s found a whole life of its own – between that and starting to show up on various second-run networks. It’s a testament to making it and getting it right. Eventually, it will either find an audience or it won’t. If time rejects it, that’s a fairer assessment of what you did then, as opposed to what the critics, audience and competition you were surrounded by dictate at that moment. If something is right and enough people think it’s good, it keeps going, and that’s good.”

Freaks & Geeks launched the careers of several Hollywood stars

For a time, Freaks & Geeks was available in the US and UK, among other territories, on Netflix, which is also home to one of Feig’s most recent projects. He is an executive producer on the streamer’s original film Someone Great, written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, in which Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays a music journalist who sets off for one last adventure with her friends following a break-up.

Though he says his main focus for his movies is the cinema – “I love the theatrical experience and it’s exciting to have a movie in the cinema and that will always be what I’m shooting for” – Feig says he is excited about the number of opportunities to find an outlet for all levels of projects these days, whatever the budget and regardless of who is behind the camera.

“When we look at Someone Great, here’s a small script that was great with a first-time director who most studios would not take a chance on,” he says. “We went to Netflix and they took the chance, they saw the potential. That’s where having Netflix is great. They’re bringing back the romantic comedy, whereas a lot of theatrical studios have stepped away from it, while ensuring anything that needs to be made gets made while opening up opportunities for new filmmakers. That’s all that really matters.

“[If a movie can’t get made] because it’s too small or the person who wants to make it doesn’t have the reputation for the studio to take a chance on them, that’s bad. The only things that shouldn’t get made are things that aren’t good enough to get made.”

But whether he’s behind the camera, in the writing room or a producer, either in television or film, Feig says his approach to picking up new projects is always the same. He asks himself a simple question: does anybody want to see this?

Feig is an exec producer on Netflix original movie Someone Great

“When you’re looking at different projects, whether it’s something I’m going to write or it’s a script that’s brought to me, the first thing is, is it any good? And if it’s great, is this something people will want to see or is it something we can motivate them to see?”

That’s the difference between making a movie for Netflix or the cinema, he notes. Filmmakers have to draw people out of their home to see a film on the big screen, while viewers only have to turn on their television or mobile device to see what’s streaming. “That’s why picking projects is just the hardest thing in the world, and then making sure the script is great is the big thing. Beyond that, it becomes all production and casting. But it’s always about the story. If the script’s not good, all the other stuff is window dressing.”

When it comes to TV, directors such as Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) have been at the forefront of the role’s evolution, helming every episode of a serialised drama. But Feig believes that, beyond series that are often described as eight or 10-hour movies, the small screen is still a world of multiple directors.

“You just have to do it that way,” he argues. “One of the greatest moments of my career was when I did the second season of Nurse Jackie. For whatever reason, I ended up doing like eight out of 12 episodes. TV’s not supposed to do that. You don’t have time to prep. So that’s why you do it with multiple directors.”

Even so, television “is the greatest school a director can go to,” he continues. “To anybody who’s starting directing, or even a working director, do some TV, because you can experiment with different genres. That’s why, now I’m a movie director, I’m so addicted to trying different genres every time I do a movie – because I really had fun as a TV director challenging myself that way.”

Feig directed eight of the 12 episodes that made up Nurse Jackie’s second season

Despite his multitude of roles on any given film or series, Feig says he still considers himself a director first, though he adds that whatever his title, he uses every skill he has learned along the way. Producing, he remarks, is all about finding the right people and letting them “do their thing,” with support from him, his producing partner Jessie Henderson and Dan Magnante, VP of Feig’s production company Feigco Entertainment.

It’s through Feigco and fledgling digital company Powderkeg that Feig is now using his profile to champion new voices, particularly those of female, LGBTQ and diverse filmmakers, offering support to those who have a hard time getting their stories told. He is also an ambassador for ReFrame, which promotes inclusion in Hollywood, and supports the 4% Challenge to increase the number of women directing studio movies. The initiative takes its name from the fact that just 4% of the 1,200 top-earning films released between 2007-2018 were directed by women.

“They need to be supported by those of us in the industry who have worked hard enough and been lucky enough to be able to get things made,” Feig says. “I just don’t think you can just tent yourself in. I get excited every time I see something from a new voice or from a person or group that doesn’t necessarily get to tell their stories all the time. I’ve found it so invigorating. I’m tired of my own voice in movies; I love doing it, but that’s why I’ve been doing other people’s scripts [Last Christmas comes from writers Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson while Jessica Sharzer penned 2018’s A Simple Favor].

“And then, through our company, we can empower all these other writers and directors and people to do their thing.”

Feig’s latest projects include re-teaming with A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick for WarnerMedia anthology series Love Life and musical drama Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which NBC has recently picked up to series. But he says he is particularly proud of Powderkeg six-part webseries East of La Brea, which tells the stories of two Muslim-American women living in LA.

“I want to be surprised by stuff. I want people to be able to tell their stories, because there’s such an audience out there for these stories that aren’t being told,” he adds. “East of La Brea is the type of story that need to be told, to help bring us all closer.”

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Fair game

American Princess showrunner Jamie Denbo tells DQ how her own life inspired the Lifetime drama, which follows a woman who finds support among an eclectic cast of characters at a Renaissance fair after running away from her wedding.

There is an episode of The Simpsons, season six effort Lisa’s Wedding, that flashes forward to tell the story of the family’s eldest daughter finding love with a wealthy English aristocrat.

The episode went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 1995. Yet what makes the story so memorable is not its tale of love but how Lisa comes to hear of it, stumbling upon the resident fortune teller at a Renaissance fair.

Other attractions at the historical event include Friar Wiggum’s Fantastical Beastarium, where the creatures on show include an Esquilax, “a horse with the head of a rabbit and the body of… a rabbit,” while Homer and Lunchlady Doris – “Sweet maiden of the spit” – engage in a conversation using only old English.

“Every show that’s been running for a long time has their Renaissance festival episode,” says actor, writer and producer Jamie Denbo. “They all have one that takes place there, but this show aims to get inside the world a little bit more. The Renaissance fair is a very American phenomenon – it’s part hippy commune, part circus, part historical re-enactment – and it always has been.”

Showrunner Jamie Denbo (centre) poses with the American Princess cast

The show in question is American Princess, a 10-part series commissioned by Lifetime that has been inspired by showrunner Denbo’s own experiences. The story centres on Amanda (Georgia Flood), an Upper East Side socialite who flees her own dream wedding.

When she stumbles upon a Renaissance fair, she experiences an unexpected awakening, leading her to leave behind everything she thought she cared about. Amanda quickly develops new friendships and rivalries, and begins a romance that opens her eyes to new beginnings.

The story is partly based on Denbo’s life – “not the wedding part, that’s all Amanda,” she points out. Before she established herself in film and television 20 years ago, Denbo graduated college and decided to join a summer theatre company that turned out to be a Renaissance fair.

“When I got there, I realised this is an entire world full of adults who live in this nomadic way and have these unusual skills and a very communal way of living, and I was both completely repelled and attracted at the same time,” says Denbo, who grew up near Boston. “I didn’t understand this was a life option for people – I thought either you’re someone who has a job in the world or you are dysfunctional in society.

“So when I saw people living a life full of freedom and weirdness and colour and playing, I realised there’s another way to live. I ended up staying for a while, much to the confusion of my family and friends. I lived there for a long time and I still communicate with that community. So the show is a love letter to them.”

In American Princess’s debut season, the story follows Amanda’s introduction into this new world as culture shock makes way for personal growth. Despite her family’s best attempts to intervene, Amanda begins to relish living in a world where she can act without fear of being judged by those around her, with an extensive cast of supporting characters who all come with their own backstories.

American Princess stars Georgia Flood as Amanda

“What’s really fun about promoting the Renaissance fair is that, as we’re such a tech-centric society now, it’s lovely to be in a place where you don’t feel you have to have your phone all the time and you don’t want to,” Denbo says. “There’s so much human interaction. I wanted to put in every aspect of that.

“Entertainment is not just the stage, it’s all around you and it’s up close. It’s really lovely. I wanted to put a lot of the drinking in, because there’s lots of drinking. I wanted to put in the feeling of freedom you get there, to be what you’d like to be, to play. There’s just a lot of authenticity.”

Denbo describes her own experience as “Private Benjamin at the Renaissance festival,” adding that she has wanted to tell this story for 25 years. “I have a one-woman show about it, I have the 155-page mockumentary script in a drawer somewhere,” she says. “I have always wanted to tell this story because I love the world that opened my heart and I think it’s always been a wonderful story. This is the best version of this story and I’m very excited to tell it.”

To bring American Princess to the screen, Denbo partnered with the executive producers of Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan, Tara Herrmann and Mark A Burley. She first met Orange showrunner Kohan 10 years ago when Denbo was making a pilot for her alternative comedy act, Rhonna & Beverly. Showtime passed on the pilot, though Sky Atlantic in the UK later commissioned a six-part series that aired in 2012.

Kohan and Denbo struck up a friendship that continued after the original pilot failed to take off, leading to Denbo taking her idea of a Renaissance fair-set series to Kohan. The latter then invited Denbo to join her at a meeting with US cable channel History, where she pitched the idea that would become American Princess. A+E Networks-owned History turned it down, but when the network executive who heard the pitch moved to sister channel Lifetime, it was deemed to be the perfect fit for a network known for scripted series such as UnREAL and Devious Maids. Produced by A+E Studios, the show debuts in the US on June 2, with A+E Networks also handling international distribution.

The fact Denbo became the showrunner at all might have happened by accident, she jokes. “I feel like I kept saying, ‘And I’m the showrunner, right?’ Conversations happened and then I would quietly add it at the end. Somehow I tricked them all and I became the showrunner, and I loved it.

“The beauty of being a journeyman in this business is yes, I had written and done some pilots, but I had mostly been a career guest star and an improviser,” she says. Denbo has appeared in TV series including Orange is the New Black and Weeds – both created by Kohan – and films such as Melissa McCarthy duo Spy and The Heat.

The series sees Amanda abandon her wedding and end up spending time at a Renaissance fair

As a showrunner, she has found the golden rules of comedy improv – give and take, and listen – also apply to one of the most demanding roles in television. “The truth is those were so applicable in this, it made my experience incredibly copacetic, dealing with lots and lots of people who really need to be heard and who need to have their ideas validated and exchanged,” Denbo explains.

“So it was a really incredible process. The other thing that was great for me, coming from the acting world, is if you’ve been on a hundred sets, which I have, you do have an understanding of how the set works and how to talk to actors. Everyone thinks you’re one of them, which is actually a huge advantage.

“I think sometimes it gets a little murky for people who are just career writers because they don’t have a comfort with actors on the set. It would appear there are a lot of productions where there’s a real separation, and I wanted everybody to feel like everybody was part of everything. It was a great experience.”

Denbo says she took a lot of guidance from Kohan, Herrmann and Burley, all of whom helped her run the American Princess writers room. “The other trick of showrunning,” she adds, “is to not get bogged down. You don’t need two hours to make a decision on whether it’s a blue jacket, a green jacket or a red jacket. Maybe that’s the improviser in me, but it’s the joke that matters, not the colour of the jacket. Make a decision quickly and move on.

“To me, having done it, I feel that every showrunner should probably be a woman. Across the spectrum, I have a lot of showrunner friends and acquaintances who I’ve spoken to. For the most part, the men are very beaten down by the process and the women are like, ‘Yes, we make decisions like I do in my house.’ You multi-task. It’s a great job for a woman because there’s a lot of quick decision making and a lot of multi-tasking, and that seems to be – not to be completely gender obnoxious – a really good match for the way women live their lives.”

Denbo says she has plenty of ideas for further seasons of American Princess

American Princess was filmed in Simi Valley on the outskirts of LA, where the production team built a Renaissance festival from scratch. “They made the desert bloom. We were in 115-degree heat on some days with actors in velvet Renaissance festival costumes, and they look and sound and feel incredible,” Denbo says. “It was a very joyful, happy, silly set.”

With a cast of characters as eclectic as those introduced in season one, it’s no surprise to hear Denbo reveal she has lots of ideas about how to take the series forward, should it be renewed. Future seasons would always have Amanda at their centre, however, as a grounding point for viewers to relate to this fish-out-of-water scenario.

“We’re lucky we found Georgia because she’s so charming and lovely that you actually believe this is the journey she’s on. It takes a very special actress to not be a complete bitch [in the depiction of Amanda]. She’s a shining star,” Denbo says of leading actor Flood. “She really proved herself as a joy to follow and reflect the world through. You’ll also fall in love with the characters around her. People are going to want to see more of them and get more of their story as we go along. In the first season, we wound up giving romantic stories to characters who you really want to see what happens with them. We hit the jackpot in casting.”

Denbo now sees her future behind the camera, rather than in front of it. She continues to do voice work on Netflix series F is for Family and has a podcast called Beverly in LA, based on the Rhonna & Beverly characters. But, she adds starkly, “no more acting. I don’t want to sit in a make-up chair for two hours. I have developments but I’m preparing to put my heart and soul into this project because I feel the world should be ready for some comedy and some kindness. That’s what we’re trying to bring.”

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