All posts by Michael Pickard

Nothing but the truth

Channel 4’s factual one-off The Interrogation of Tony Martin is a groundbreaking film billed as the first verbatim drama. Writer/director David Nath reveals how it was pulled together from real police interview transcripts.

Tony Martin is a hard man to find. The subject of a new Channel 4 factual drama, he lives a remote existence and rarely answers his mobile phone. Even his friends might not hear from him for weeks at a time.

So it’s easy to see why making The Interrogation of Tony Martin took up to two years, with the producers often resorting to staking out his home or other locations he was known to frequent in the hope of simply bumping into him.

If his name rings a bell, it’s because he was turned into a British cause celebré after tragedy struck one night in August 1999. The farmer from Norfolk became headline news when he shot dead 16-year-old burglar Fred Barras, who had broken into his home. At his trial, he argued he used reasonable force to defend himself and his property, and his subsequent murder conviction provoked national outcry.

After a successful appeal, his conviction was reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and he was released from prison after three years behind bars. Almost 20 years later, his case is still recalled every time a similar incident occurs and the debate over the right to protect your home resurfaces.

Martin has told his story before in numerous documentaries and interviews, but Channel 4 factual drama The Interrogation of Tony Martin goes one step further, using the transcripts of his police interviews conducted over three days following his arrest. In fact, the script is an entirely verbatim account of what happened between Martin and the two policemen who questioned him, all within the confines of a featureless and unremarkable concrete grey room.

Steve Pemberton was sought for the part after exec producer Peter Beard saw him in an episode of his dark comedy series Inside No. 9

Steve Pemberton (Inside No. 9, The League of Gentlemen, Benidorm) stars as Martin, with Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Stuart Graham (The Fall) playing the police officers and Tristan Sturrock as Martin’s solicitor. The drama is written and directed by David Nath (Unspeakable, The Murder Detectives) for Story Films.

The film originated as a verbatim drama first, before focus turned to Martin’s story. Nath recalls the broadcaster wanted a subject “that had a high profile, was quite iconic and one that had a societal reach and issues beyond the crime itself.” Martin’s case was a perfect fit.

“The thing that makes this case really interesting and why the content of the transcripts works well for drama is it’s quite layered,” Nath says. “You get a biographical sense of Tony Martin as well as what happened that night and the background about a unique set of circumstances around this case.”

After getting in touch with one of Martin’s friends, the film’s producer made contact with the former farmer and proposed the idea of the film, to which he responded positively owing to the fact it would use entirely his own words.

“The other thing is that Tony believes he was right to do what he did. He believed that then and believes that now,” Nath continues. “He still wants to tell people that as well. He was interested to collaborate.”

The production team met with Martin over a dozen times in the following 18 months, keeping him informed of the film’s progress, showing him the footage and also filming the real Martin himself for scenes that make up a post-script to the drama.

Story Films’ David Nath (left), who wrote and directed the one-off, and Peter Beard

“He found it quite emotional, quite overwhelming,” Nath says. “It’s part of his life that has informed his whole identity for the last 20 years. This story had a massive impact on his life. It’s difficult to put that behind you. When he watched Steve Pemberton walk into the police interview room for the first time, it put him back there in that room. He’s listening to his own words. Even with the passing of 19 years, those worlds will be familiar because they are the words he spoke. It’s got a more visceral impact to him than if we wrote the script from scratch.”

In fact, Nath reveals there was no scriptwriting involved at all, with every word coming from four hours of taped police interviews that were boiled down to a 45-minute drama. By omitting parts of the conversation that head off on a tangent or that repeat previous statements, Nath crafted a narrative that remained authentic to the real conversations. The drama is supplemented by further verbatim transcripts that are used in the form of voiceovers, taken from statements provided by witnesses, Tony’s mother and his neighbour, while real news footage is also used to relay the court’s verdict.

With the action largely confined to the dour interrogation room, direction provided a greater challenge to Nath, who utilises a range of camera movements to keep viewers engaged, from straight-on shots of the two policeman and Martin and his solicitor, side profiles of the characters and an overhead shot looking down on the four men and the dark table that separates them. Cutaways include images of the tape deck whirring around as it records the interviews.

With four actors and one static set built inside a Bristol studio, “it’s a play; there are no gimmicks,” Nath says of the six-day shoot. “It’s all about the actors’ performance.” Minor scenes in a prison cell and a police station corridor were shot at a real station in nearby Weston-super-Mare. But by rarely leaving the interview room, the filmmaker was also faced with a sound problem — one that he overcame by introducing sound effects as Martin or the police officers describe the events that led to Martin’s arrest.

“The camera has got to do a lot of work for you. It’s very easy in one location for the viewer to get bored, so it’s important for the camera to show different points of view,” says Nath, who “heavily” storyboarded the drama before filming began. “What you don’t want is the camera starting to have a life of its own, so the camera movement has to be informed by our story.”

Starring opposite Pemberton are Daniel Mays and Stuart Graham as a pair of police officers

Pemberton might seem an unusual casting choice as Martin, given his reputation for comedy. But the actor gives a toughened, forceful performance as the accused, portraying a man set in his ways and wondering why he is being questioned at all when he was the one put in a “regrettable” position.

Executive producer Peter Beard had sought out Pemberton for the role after watching an episode of Inside No. 9 called Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, in which the actor played an ageing comedy performer who had an uncanny resemblance to Martin. The dark comedy is co-written by Pemberton, who co-created the series alongside his League of Gentlemen collaborator Reece Shearsmith.

Nath recalls: “I rang Steve and mentioned it on the phone quite tentatively. He became curious and I sent him the script. He read it that night and again the next morning and said he wanted to do it.”

The role didn’t require an imitation of Martin, however, but an interpretation of him, and Pemberton opted not to meet the real man in order to avoid a mimicry. Then, with 50 pages of verbatim dialogue to learn, there was no let-up during the shoot, which took place after a week of rehearsals. “It’s an incredibly demanding role,” Nath says, revealing Pemberton also spent time with a voice coach to perfect Martin’s Norfolk accent. “In some ways, it’s a perfect stage for an actor to show everything they’ve got. But it’s unforgiving as well. It’s not easy to play, but it’s an interesting, powerful character. You have to learn every word as well as deliver the performance.”

No matter how well known his story may be, The Interrogation of Tony Martin promises to show a new angle never seen before.

“We could have told Tony Martin’s story in several ways, but one thing about this is in criminal cases you hear about the crime that’s reported and the trial that’s reported. But the police interview is largely hidden from public view,” Nath surmises. “It’s part of the story you never get to see. There’s a lot of detail that unfolds about the case that will give you a much greater understanding of it – and when someone is questioned for murder, the stakes are huge.”

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Making Friend

L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) is one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year. Director Saverio Costanzo tells DQ how he steered the ambitious period drama, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel, for Italian broadcaster Rai and US cable network HBO.

Since the project was first announced in February 2016, anticipation has been building for L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend). Not only does it mark the continuance of Italian broadcaster Rai’s expansive drama ambitions, it is also a rare example of a foreign-language series commissioned by US cable network HBO. Then there’s the fact it is based on the bestselling novel by Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian novelist operating under a pseudonym.

Interestingly, Ferrante has been a key member of the development team behind the series, corresponding with director Saverio Costanzo by email. She is also listed as a writer on the first four episodes, alongside Costanzo, Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci.

Based on the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quadrilogy, the story opens with Elena Greco (aka Lenù) who, after discovering her long-time best friend has disappeared without a trace, starts to write the story of their friendship. From her first meeting with Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, at school in 1950, she goes on to cover more than 60 years of their lives, describing Lila as both her best friend and worst enemy.

Set in Naples, the Italian-language series stars Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as the young versions of Lenù and Lila, while Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play teenage the pair in their teens.

My Brilliant Friend is an HBO-Rai Fiction and TimVision series, produced by Wildside and Fandango. The producers are Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside and Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in coproduction with Umedia. Fremantle is the distributor.

The series launches on HBO this Sunday and on Italian streamer TimVision on November 27.

Here, Costanzo, director of all eight episodes, tells DQ how the series came together and discusses the challenges of casting more than 150 actors and 5,000 extras and filming across southern Italy on vast sets totalling 215,000 sq ft.

Director Saverio Costanzo pictured with young actor Ludovica Nasti during filming

How did you first join the project?
I was contacted by the publishing house because, among other suggestions, Elena Ferrante mentioned my name. I didn’t search out this beautiful story; it was looking for me. I feel very fortunate.

What was the appeal of directing the series?
Ferrante’s story possesses the fundamental features for a film narrated in episodes: great characters who are facing a deep and exciting dramatic reality; plot twists that are never announced, but almost invisible, which film enlarges like a magnifying glass, building the tale of a life piece by piece; and a perfect synthesis of the epic and the tragic.

What are your thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s novel? What were the core elements needed in the series?
The real challenge was to succeed in narrating the epic story of a friendship. Friendship is an exchange of love where the boundaries between rights and duties are much more blurred compared with the love between a couple or the love of one’s children. It’s a free exchange and a much more lively one, where roles are mixed together and overlapping. The friendship between Lila and Lenù is a romantic dance that occasionally takes on the form of a very violent struggle. It’s two bodies chasing each other and overlapping, but stubbornly following the same rhythm, with the shared purpose of becoming complete persons, one by means of the other.

How involved were you in the adaptation process?
I wrote the first three episodes in one go, following the narration of the original text. Then, following a blueprint that the author agreed with and accepted, we wrote the rest of the scripts together with the screenwriters.

What was your experience working with Ferrante and having the original author so involved in the adaptation?
She supported and helped us whenever the turns the screenplays were taking didn’t agree with the book. Every so often, she worked on some original dialogue in an extraordinarily convincing way. She has an impressive talent for cinematic writing, a sense of scene that is not self-evident for someone writing literature.

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of an epic friendship

What is your directing style? How did you bring that to this production?
Provided that my approach [as a director] remains the same, I adapt my style each time to the story of the film I am making, to the needs of the story I am telling. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, I was thinking of a classical story where the camera would be almost invisible. The director’s ego, or the director’s character, should never make an appearance in the scene, but rather should let the narration of the story be as fluid as possible. This act of mimesis was the most difficult to achieve.

How did you use the book to inform your direction?
I let myself be inspired by the literary weight of the original text. I concentrated on setting up the scenes, on the nuances of the acting and on the picture, so that every shot could include the same tension and fullness that makes the pages of the book come alive.

How did you work with the cast, both before and during production? What kind of performances did you look for?
I’m always looking for authenticity, depth and gravitas. The greatest risk was to become generic and focused on motives. We engaged in a long period of rehearsals with the little girls in order to give them a strong awareness of the story and characters. We tried and retried until, once they arrived on the set, they could enjoy the adventure of the story with a strong awareness of who Lila and Elena are. We managed to do an even more specific job with the teenage girls. For six months, they were working every day in a workshop where all of the cast rehearsed the scenes. In this way, they learned to use their voices, bodies and emotions, while at the same time we built a strong and consistent working team. I’m very proud of all of them.

Tell us about casting the lead actors.
We held open casting sessions; thousands of children came. We tried out more than 9,000 people to find the four protagonists. We were helped by the city of Naples, which is like an open-air theatre: everyone is capable of playing a part there, everyone is a great actor. But we were lucky to have such developed characters that were well described by the author. For this reason, once we found ourselves in front of the protagonists, we understood immediately that they were the ones for us. When what you’re looking for is clear to you, it’s much easier to find it.

Margherita Mazzucco as the teenage version of Elena

What kind of Naples is presented in the series? Where did you film and how did you use real locations and studio sets?
Most of the locations were reconstructed in the studio. It was impossible to film in Naples at the real sites, because the city has changed too much since the 1950s. We reconstructed the neighbourhood 20km away from Naples, basing it on a community in the outskirts that the author started from in order to imagine her neighbourhood. We never tried to be only literal, though. We started out from a real piece of data and adapted it to our dramatic needs. Reconstruction added great value: in cinema, a cardboard wall is often more real than a cement one – an imagined city, rather than a real one.

How did you balance working for Rai, TimVision and HBO? Did they have specific demands or needs for their audiences?
Miraculously, all the networks involved in the production had a strong artistic vision. Nowadays, television series are showing they can elevate their discourse to the same level as film. To give you an example, in our first meeting with the team from HBO, the very first question that they asked me was whether the series would be performed in Neapolitan dialect. I said yes, but I asked why on Earth this was so important to them, since their audience would have to read the subtitles anyway, and they answered that it was because they wanted an authentic piece of work. From that point on, it was a wonderfully shared job with the same artistic purpose.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, either in development or production?
When you’re directing a series, it takes many weeks of work. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, there were 29 of them, and the hardest part was staying concentrated and focused for that long. Furthermore, our backdrop had to seem ‘lived in’ each time, and even a simple dialogue scene with two people involved at least 200 extras. Keeping the magnitude and the ambition of the project under control was important.

How does the series stand out against the huge number of series being made around the world?
I wouldn’t know. I tried to maintain a classic linear form of narration. Maybe My Brilliant Friend is simpler than other series that try out more original forms of narration, but maybe it’s exactly this timeless aspect that makes it distinct and, hopefully, attractive.

What are your plans for making a second season based on the next Ferrante novel?
If I don’t get fired, I’ll be happy to finish the entire tetralogy.

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Long haul

International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.

The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.

But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?

Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.

The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.

“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”

Behind the scenes of HBO Asia anthology series Folklore

Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.

Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.

That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.

“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).

“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”

Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.

Straight Forward was filmed in Denmark and New Zealand

“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”

Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.

Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.

Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”

Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.

Jenna Coleman in The Cry, which was shot in Scotland and Australia

“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”

Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.

When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”

Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”

Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.

Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.

Sweden’s Anagram headed to Germany for spy drama West of Liberty

Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”

The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”

Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.

Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.

The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.

Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.

Invisible Heroes, a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile

“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.

“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”

Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”

Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”

Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”

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Crime drama remixed

The world of organised crime plays out against the pulsating backdrop of Berlin’s club scene in Beat, the fifth German original series from Amazon Prime Video. Creator and director Marco Kreuzpaintner reveals how he meshed his love of the city with the real-life issue of organ trafficking.

Right from the beginning of its startling, fractured and kaleidoscopic title sequence and its opening scenes, which include a tracking shot that introduces viewers to the characters that populate Club Sonar, German drama Beat draws you into the Berlin party scene with its hypnotic soundtrack and the charisma of its drug-addled title character.

This might be a crime thriller but, from those initial moments, creator and director Marco Kreuzpaintner sets up a world that is rarely seen on television. Then, through the opening episode, he places it squarely at odds with another subject – the underground industry of illegal organ trafficking.

Beat is the story of Robert Schlag (Jannis Niewöhner, Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne) – otherwise known as Beat. The club promoter pushes life to the limits as he enjoys all the perks and opportunities of being one of the most popular and well-connected people in Berlin. But all around him, organised crime has a hand in everything that makes money: drugs, humans, weapons and organs.

When they have nothing left to lose, state agencies turn to the unconventional methods for which Beat is best known. No matter what you need or whom you’re searching for, Beat knows the right people to ask. But when he’s brought in to find the string-pullers within a corrupt system, Beat finds his past soon catches up with him.

Beat star Jannis Niewöhner with Karoline Herfurth as Emilia

Beat marks the fifth German original series for Amazon Prime Video, following You Are Wanted, comedies Pastewka and Der Lack ist ab and the recently launched Deutschland 86. It is produced by Hellinger/Doll Filmproduktion, Warner Bros Film Productions Germany and Pantaleon Films in co-operation with Amazon Studios.

Kreuzpaintner had spent 15 years living in Berlin and knew the city’s vibrant nightlife, but was moving back to the Bavarian countryside when Warner Bros approached him about making a new series. Wanting to do something he felt a personal connection with, he drew on the German capital’s club culture – “the best in the world, actually” – and paired it with a story about organ trafficking.

“I was reading an article about a thing that not many people are aware of, that some refugees on their way from Africa and other countries into Europe are disappearing, not only by the danger of the journey but by a calculated, ongoing mafia that is taking advantage of people who are not missed immediately by trading off their organs,” he explains, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “I thought that was quite horrendous. I brought two subject matters that are so far away from each other together and I thought they made a great conflict with each other.”

Kreuzpainter says he was naturally drawn to turning the story into a television series because of the variety of topics you can address in an episodic format. Also, “I’m a little bit bored of the classical three-act structure right now,” he says of the movie industry, “so that’s why I feel like making series. You can take detours and dive into characters’ absurd existences. You don’t have to push plots in a certain direction, so that’s what I really like about it. New platforms and series and the competition they have created have given a really big advantage to filmmakers nowadays.”

Marco Kreuzpaintner, the show’s creator and director

Described as a partygoer par excellence, Beat is always awake, always high and simultaneously always broken and traumatised. When he was six, his parents suddenly disappeared and now he can’t remember them and doesn’t even know if they are still alive.

He is recruited by European Secret Service agents Christian Berkel (Richard Diemer) and Emilia (Karoline Herfurth) to help crack Philipp Vossberg (Alexander Fehling)’s organ-trafficking operation, which orchestrates the kidnapping of refugees and sells their organs to the right people with the right bank balances.

Other characters include Jasper (Kostja Ullmann), Beat’s childhood friend, and Paul (Hanno Koffler), the owner of Club Sonar who brings Vossberg in as a new investor. But when Paul’s son needs a new heart, Vossberg has Paul under his control.

Vossberg, a director at a logistics company, is a man who has everything and can do anything he wants but only feels alive when he crosses that last border, destroying existences, owning people and controlling their fate.

“The most interesting thing about this character is that you can’t really grasp him, so it’s very difficult to say who he is,” Fehling says. “I do think he’s some kind of analogy for something that is in us, that has always been in us and always will be. For example, greed and the wish to do anything you want and the urge to expand beyond limits, and his drive for power. But on the other hand, he wants to understand. That’s pretty interesting.”

Berlin’s celebrated club scene forms Beat’s backdrop

The actor says Vossberg is only interested in playing a high-stakes game, one in which the players must face losing everything in order to win. “I was particularly interested to explore this part because everything he says has a deeper truth,” Fehling continues. “He’s a very talkative guy, as opposed to Lina. So I was fascinated by the fact that Vossberg, who’s admittedly one of the cruellest figures in this piece, speaks about so many subject matters that actually make a lot of sense. There’s a strange honesty about him. It’s just a question of perspective, like always, so exploring the part was really finding out about Vossberg’s perspective on things.”

Lina, played by Anna Berderke, is Vossberg’s right-hand woman, taking care of the operative side of the business. She follows her orders with a cool and scrupulous nature, and always without conscience.

“Emotions are not really useful for such a job as Lina has,” Berderke says. “She really tries not letting emotions or personal relationships interfere with what has to be done. So she would also not let people get to know her. She’s more of an observer and a listener. She’s super fun to play.

“I would not describe her as a funny person but it was fun in a way. I had not done anything before like that, so it was pretty interesting because she doesn’t really use a lot of words, but that’s a lot of what you do when you act, right? You have certain actions, so that was interesting.”

Fehling previously starred in season five of Homeland, and despite the different production approaches between the US thriller and Beat, he says choosing a role comes down to the people and the material you work with.

Alexander Fehling as organ trafficker Philipp Vossberg

“When I signed up for this part, I knew the entire script, all of the seven episodes, which wasn’t the case with Homeland, where we would get the script for the next episode every two or three weeks. Plus there was almost always another director for the next episode, so that was really an exercise of letting go of control, even in regard of your own character,” he explains. “There’s always another approach for everything you do, and you need to see it as an opportunity. So I think you can do things without knowing the arc that you can’t while you know the arc. You’ve got to find the richness in the limitation.”

Beat marks Sommersturm director Kreuzpaintner’s first television series, and he admits he was curious about moving into the medium when the opportunity to make the show first arose. Amazon, he says, has given him lots of control over creative choices, and that’s why Kreuzpaintner believes the quality of scripted series is better on streaming platforms.

“People believe in talent and they should believe in talent,” he says of those working at SVoD giants. “There’s a reason why we do our job. I don’t tell marketing people or producers how to do theirs. Please stay away from me and let me do my job.”

The added bonus is that when Beat drops this Friday, it will be instantly available in Amazon markets around the world. “That’s exciting, especially for a local product shot in the German language. It’s such a beautiful language, but obviously not everybody understands it and that’s why our market possibilities are quite limited normally,” the director notes. “Now, knowing that this is going to be available in more than 230 countries and it’s dubbed in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese, you can reach target audiences all over the world – in the US but also in markets like Australia and Japan. It’s great for filmmakers to show there are great local products.”

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Homecoming queen

Award-winning actor Julia Roberts makes her television debut in Homecoming, Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail’s mind-bending psychological thriller. DQ hears how they transformed an award-winning podcast into Amazon Prime Video’s latest original series.

If the knowledge that Amazon Prime Video’s latest original drama comes from the creator of Mr Robot and is based on an award-winning podcast wasn’t already enough of a reason to tune in, add into the mix the fact it is also Oscar-winner Julia Roberts’ first foray into television and Homecoming becomes the latest must-watch series.

Described as a mind-bending psychological thriller, Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Centre, which helps soldiers transition back into civilian life. It’s there that she meets Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a soldier eager to begin the next phase of his life, while overseeing Heidi and the facility is Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), an ambitious company man with questionable motives.

Julia Roberts and Homecoming director Sam Esmail

Four years later, Heidi has started a new life, living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and working as a small-town waitress, when a Department of Defense auditor (Shea Whigham) visits with questions about why she left the Homecoming facility. Heidi soon realises there’s a different story to the one she’s been telling herself.

The series is based on the podcast of the same name created by writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and is rolling out in more than 200 territories on Prime Video tomorrow. Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail is the director and executive producer and the cast includes Jeremy Allen White, Alex Karpovsky and Dermot Mulroney.

Esmail admits he is used to listening to non-fiction podcasts and documentary series, but fell in love with Homecoming’s radio play style. “It was scripted, it had actors and it was great. It was like this throwback to an old-school thriller that was steeped in characters, as opposed to the action-thrillers of nowadays,” he says, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London. “I binged it in one sitting and then I binged it again and I thought there was something here to really do something special as a TV show.”

But adapting an audio drama into a television drama meant Esmail had to find a reason why it now demanded to be a visual experience too. He explains that while the podcast looks back on events in the past, the series is able to be with the characters in those moments, where “the suspense and the tension could be really amped up.” He also found inspiration in the visual dynamics of “old-school throwback thrillers” that he loved to watch growing up, citing “the old masters” such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Alan Pakula, who Roberts worked with on 1993’s The Pelican Brief. “The [visual] language was already there, so it was really exciting,” he says.

Similarly, Roberts liked the way the podcast harked back to a time when families would sit and listen to a story together, whether it was a book being read out loud or a radio play, forcing the listeners to use their imagination to build the world being described to them.

Roberts plays two versions of the character Heidi in different time periods

“I think that’s where inspiration as artists starts – imagining what it would look like and what it would sound like if you were doing it,” the actor says. “So I was really attracted to that. When Sam called me, we seem like different people, we’re kind of the same but my hair is much longer! Instantly we were like 20-year friends and so it seemed really clear that this was going to be a match and it was going to work bringing it to television, because TV is not for the faint of heart, for sure.

“Workload wise, we were very efficient, we were very aligned with our cast mates and crew and it made the days so the page count was very high. The days were very efficient and we had a great momentum all the time.”

In Homecoming, Roberts says she plays two characters – two versions of Heidi in different time periods that are signified by different frame ratios – which she says was a “great, fun challenge” for her. “There was some organisational stuff that I’m not used to,” she says of jumping between the two during filming. “Sam kept me on track with a map of, ‘Here’s what we know has happened and here’s what we don’t know has happened and here’s what we think might have happen later.’ So there was a little bit of that.”

Both Esmail and Roberts praise their fellow cast and crew, with both picking out production designer Anastasia White in particular for the way she physically built the world of Homecoming. She had previously worked with Esmail on Mr Robot.

“The one thing I wanted was to build the set. I didn’t want to go out and find the location because of the camera movements. I really wanted as much control as possible,” Esmail says. “I think we shot like 70% of the show on that set, so it was really critical. We sat down and talked about it and, honestly, it was one of those things where I told her the tone, the theme of what we’re going for in the story and she took it and ran with it.”

Sissy Spacek, an old friend of Roberts, plays Heidi’s mother

Roberts recalls one rehearsal where, surrounded by plywood, tape and chalk marks on the floor, she had to pretend to walk down some stairs and through a room that hadn’t been built yet. “I thought, ‘How will this ever work in a week?’ And then we walked into this facility. It was breathtaking, truly.”

About her co-stars, Roberts says James is “just terrific. The highest compliment I can pay as a person is he’s always on time and the highest compliment I can pay as an actor is he is incredibly prepared. When you are those things, that leaves space to be creative and have fun, and that’s what Sam really encouraged and nourished in all of us – to fill the space the way we felt confident about. The space that he made was so unique and present, we felt like we lived in this special land – Sam Land.”

The actor, whose storied film career includes Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich and Notting Hill, reveals she prepared for her role as Heidi with numerous wig fittings and trying to understand the character’s strength and vulnerability. “I absolutely adored the relationship with Heidi and her mother, maybe because I’m in love with Sissy Spacek,” she continues. “I have known her since I was 13 years old so she might as well be my mother! But nothing makes it easy to act with Sissy Spacek. On the first day, everyone was like, ‘It’s Sissy!’ ‘Yeah I know, she’s right next to me, keep your voice down.’”

“We were all having a moment,” jokes Esmail, adding that he didn’t hire a composer for the series because he wanted to keep the music authentic to the visual style. “All the music is from the old classics and a lot is Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s composer. We used one of the big scores from Carrie in the show, which Sissy’s also in. It’s very meta.”

Homecoming also sees Roberts reunite with her My Best Friend’s Wedding co-star Mulroney. “This was Sam’s dream to bring us back together. He gets all the credit,” she says. “I’m a huge My Best Friend’s Wedding fan, it’s one of my favourite romantic comedies. It’s very deliberate.”

Bobby Cannavale plays the head of the Homecoming facility

Homecoming premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, when Roberts sat down to watch the first four episodes and discovered Whigham “steals” the show. “I realise if I hadn’t been working so hard as an actor, I would have been paying a lot more attention as a producer and done something about that,” she jokes. “But since I didn’t, he’s so fantastic in this and it just speaks to the brilliance of Sam that he cast each part so perfectly, so specifically. Bobby is so terrific but Shea, this funny little investigator person, he just is magnificent. It makes the show such a fully realised universe of people. It’s incredible.”

With her first role on television, Roberts says she can’t say she’s worked in the medium, thanks to Esmail’s efforts to shoot the 10-episode series as a movie. “A lot of our crew I know from movies and the way we filmed it, we didn’t film it one episode at a time, we filmed it in blocks and in locations, so it was very much like a movie,” she adds.

Esmail is now working on the fourth and final season of Mr Robot, which is due to debut in 2019, but he hints that a second season of Homecoming is also in the works. Following in the footsteps of dozens of Hollywood stars now regularly appearing on television, perhaps Roberts will now make her home on the small screen too.

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Watch this Space

As London faces increasing demand for studio space, DQ visits Manchester to find out how the UK city and Space Studios are proving to be an attractive filming proposition for high-end television drama productions.

For many television makers and watchers, Manchester will always be known as the home of ITV’s iconic soap Coronation Street. The long-running series, its former home at Granada Studios and its move to MediaCityUK, where the BBC can also now be found, have certainly helped to put the north-west English city on the map when it comes to TV production.

Sky1’s Curfew, starring Sean Bean, involved racing scenes shot on the streets of Manchester

But with the demand for studio space in London at an increasing premium, coupled with the requirement of UK broadcasters to see dramas created and set outside the capital, Manchester is now becoming an attractive destination for high-end drama producers through Space Studios and its partnership with Screen Manchester.

Located on the outskirts of the city centre, Space Studios still looks box fresh, with an array of towering sound stages, workshops, business units and car park space that doubles as room for unit bases. Equipment companies including Panavision and Provision are among those on site.

It was here that upcoming Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew took over three stages for six months of filming, while walking down the numerous corridors reveals that offices have been allocated to ITV crime drama The Bay’s costume department, BBC period series World on Fire’s art department and Amazon and Liberty Global’s psychological drama The Feed’s art department and production office.

Other recent dramas to have been filmed there include Cold Feet and The A Word.

Space Studios offers six sound stages after a £14m expansion

Built on the site of the former West Gorton housing estate, which became synonymous with Channel 4 drama Shameless, Space Studios opened in May 2014 as a purpose-built facility for high-end TV, film and commercial production. Six sound stages offer more than 85,000 sq ft, with the imposing stage six, which opened in February this year as part of a £14m (US$17.9m) expansion, offering 30,000 sq ft alone, with adjacent room for props, set builds and dressing rooms.

The Space project was originally devised by Sue Woodward, a former MD of ITV Granada, founding director of social enterprise Sharp Futures and founder of The Sharp Project, a hub that is home to more than 60 entrepreneurs in the city specialising in digital content production, digital media and film and TV production. Both Space Studios and The Sharp Project are managed by Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA), which was set up by Manchester City Council to oversee the city’s digital, production and creative sectors.

Colin Johnson

The Sharp Project was opened on the site of a former Sharp electronics distribution warehouse, which was bought by the city after the company vacated the premises. Series such as comedies Fresh Meat and Mount Pleasant have been filmed there and the success of the venture led to the decision to create a dedicated production facility on the site of a former Fujitsu electronics factory.

Colin Johnson, director of screens and facilities at Space Studios, recalls: “We knew that we could make television in the city because we’d done it at The Sharp Project, and we could tell there was going to be a big uplift in demand [for production space] because of OTT and SVoD platforms commissioning drama, tax breaks and people being displaced from London.”

Phase one was completed in 2014 and since then, “we’ve been pretty full ever since,” Johnson adds.

The land where stage six was built was a former Victorian pump factory, which was adopted by Space Studios once it became clear there was sufficient demand for a larger sound stage. Further space on an adjacent site has recently been cleared, with the potential to expand further.

Throughout its development, and beyond, it has also sought to be an anchor in the local community, working with Sharp Futures to offer apprenticeship schemes and keen to plug into the surrounding talent pool through job opportunities and skills days.

Rob Page

“London’s full and we’re here. It’s as simple as that,” Johnson says of Space Studios’ success. “We’ll show producers the space before they get the job and then they pick up the phone to us and say, ‘Have you got availability?’ We’re getting those calls because of the ground work we’ve put in early on. Some of the people bringing jobs in we showed round when stage six wasn’t there or showed round when we were a building site. We’re here – and London seems to be full.”

Rob Page, commercial director of MCDA, continues: “The ecology’s here as well, most importantly, in Manchester, whether it be crews or Screen Manchester assisting you while you’re on location. We’re not just another warehouse in the middle of nowhere without an ecosystem surrounding you.”

Much has been made of new studios planned for London, in particular a £100m proposal to build 12 sound stages as part of a complex in Dagenham, east London. Approval for the plans was received in February this year. But Johnson and Page stress that, in contrast, Space Studios is ready now. “We’re really well placed in that we have the skills, we’re in the centre of the country, we have the stages and these facilities,” Johnson adds.

Beyond Space Studios, Manchester has been home to location shoots for series including Age Before Beauty, No Offence, Our Girl, Snatch and Scott & Bailey. Castles and coastlines are also within reach of the city centre.

Manchester-shot Age Before Beauty

But until Screen Manchester launched in July 2017, the city didn’t have a formal film office. Since then, development manager Bobby Cochrane says Sky1’s Curfew has become the biggest drama Manchester has done to date. The office facilitated racing scenes by closing Mancunian Way, an elevated highway linking the east and west of the city.

Streets around Manchester’s viaducts, Northern Quarter and Spring Gardens areas can also double for London and New York, while Hugh Grant’s BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal also spent several days filming inside Manchester Town Hall, which shares similar interior architecture to the Houses of Parliament.

Working in partnership with Space Studios, the aim is to become a one-stop shop where producers can find studio space, locations and seek permissions such as road closures under one roof.

Cochrane adds: “Manchester has got a central hub where everything you can do in the city is under one umbrella. We want it to be a global film-friendly city.”

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Heart of darkness

Following a feature-length pilot in 2016, Tom Riley returns as a tortured detective in a full season of ITV drama Dark Heart. The actor tells DQ about reprising the role of DI Will Wagstaffe, playing a cop and filming in London’s Soho.

When DQ picked up the phone to Tom Riley, the British actor is holed up in LA where he is deep in post-production on The Toll Road, a short film he has directed and produced featuring a cast led by Masters of Sex star – and his wife – Lizzy Caplan.

“It’s more work than I’ve ever done in my life for something so small,” he jokes about the project, in which an eccentric couple face adversity on the eve of their ninth wedding anniversary.

But the Californian sunshine is a world away from where Riley spent several months earlier this year, on the mean streets of a gritty and roughed-up London where he reprised his role as DI Will Wagstaffe in ITV’s moody crime drama Dark Heart.

Dark Heart cop Wagstaffe (Tom Riley) has an on-off relationship with Sylvie (Miranda Raison)

Wagstaffe – Staffe to his friends – is a man devoted to his work while battling personal demons as he is haunted by the unresolved murder of his parents when he was 16 years old. It’s a weight on his shoulders that affects his on-off romance with Sylvie (Miranda Raison) and his relationship with his sister Juliette (Charlotte Riley) and her son Harry. But although he is an exceptionally good police officer, leading a team including DC Josie Chancellor (Anjli Mohindra), he continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

The six-part series, which debuts on Wednesday, tells three stories across two episodes each. The first sees Staffe investigate the murder of a man found tied to his bed, choked and severely mutilated, the victim of a possible revenge attack after previously being arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting two young girls.

The second story sees Staffe and his team examine the mysterious death of a young nurse on the London Underground, where DNA is found matching that belonging to a teenage boy who went missing and has been presumed dead for seven years. The final story involves an online porn star found murdered in a church.

The return of Dark Heart comes two years after a feature-length pilot, which makes up the first two episodes of this full season, first aired on ITV’s now defunct pay TV channel ITV Encore. But it was successful enough for the broadcaster to commission two new stories that will continue to see Staffe struggle to balance his personal and professional lives.

When viewers first meet Staffe, “he’s tortured, he’s not in the best state. He doesn’t behave in the best way to the people around him.” explains Riley, whose previous credits include Da Vinci’s Demons and The Collection. But while police procedurals can be difficult to reinvent, with cops always able to get the job done despite their personal flaws, the actor says Staffe stands out because his personal demons don’t help him do his job but rather stop him doing it better.

Police officer DC Josie Chancellor (Anjli Mohindra)

“With this character, what was interesting was this stuff is kind of an obstacle to him,” he says. “It isn’t necessarily the stuff that makes him a good cop. It’s the stuff that stops him being the best cop and stops him being the best family member. So rather than a guy who’s like, ‘Well he’s got a temper but my God when he gets mad at the villains they’re going to give it all up,’ it’s like, no, he needs to mature slightly. I think he’s in a state of arrested development from this tragedy in his past and he can’t quite get past it.”

It’s also one of those examples where actors have to stop trying to find any similarities to the character they’re playing and just play them as they are on the page. “It’s funny really because you want to find the place where you meet the character. You don’t want to be putting it on too much and find bits that are like you,” Riley says. “I guess elements of perfectionism and wanting to get everything right are the stuff I connected with. Everything else was just, ‘Oh ok, I get to act out, that’s fun.’”

The 11-week shoot played out across London, with many long days to incorporate the high number of night sequences required by the script. The English capital’s lack of space meant finding a unit base close to locations also proved tricky, with Riley recalling having to change costumes in pub toilets and in a strip club basement. But, he says, “the most challenging thing is shooting in Soho on a Friday night, with a bunch of people who have had their full working week and you’re in the middle of your working day and they’re out and wasted and want to look into camera and tell you you’re not famous and who are you and why are you here? That stuff was really encouraging!”

Inspired by the characters created by novelist Adam Creed, the series comes from writer Chris Lang and Silverprint Pictures, in association with US SVOD platform Britbox. Lang wrote the first and third stories, with Ben Harris (Marcella) penning the second story.

Six-part series Dark Heart tells three stories across two episodes each

Lang is also responsible for historic crime drama Unforgotten, which recently aired its third season, and miniseries Innocent. Riley says it’s his deep understanding of criminal cases and his methodical research process that make his scripts stand out — but also his keenness to listen to ideas from the rest of the production team, Riley included.

Lang is also an executive producer alongside Kate Bartlett (Vera, Shetland) and Michael Dawson (Vera, Holby City).  The producer is Letitia Knight (Vera) and the director is Colin Teague (Jekyll & Hyde, Da Vinci’s Demons). ITV Studios Global Entertainment will distribute Dark Heart internationally.

“Whilst obviously being a Bafta-winning brilliant writer, he’s also very open to collaborative ideas. In the early script stages when we were coming back in, he was very open to hearing, ‘What do you think this needs, why does this work, why doesn’t this work?’ I think it’s rare for someone who has his level of success to still be able to say, ‘Yes, but what else can the people I’m around bring to this and how can they potentially sculpt and shape the story?’”

In particular, it’s the fine line between Staffe’s personal and professional life that Riley thinks Lang walks so well. “The heavy plotting is what drives it and the plotting of the crimes in each episode but that’s nothing without understanding who these people are and why they act in the way they do,” the actor continues. “Seeing where he comes from and what drives him is just as important and makes it more relatable. Not everyone can relate to a paedophile revenge case as much as they can dealing with normal human family drama.”

Charlotte Riley plays Wagstaffe’s sister Juliette

But unable to resolve the mystery behind his parents’ murder, Staffe is pushed to solve other crimes. “He can have as much control over his department in the police headquarters and he can have as much control over each case and the people that are in the interrogation rooms with him but that doesn’t mean he necessarily has control over the overarching arc of his life and that’s what drives him, I think — that desire to find out what happened, who did it and in the absence of being able to work that out, he’s funnelling that energy into solving other crimes,” Riley says.

The actor notes that these six episodes end in a way “that will intrigue people to know more,” but hints that Staffe is likely to be the only police officer he will play for a while, with or without a second season.

“I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to play a really wide variety of different characters, different status characters and different intelligence characters,” he adds. “But because of that, the only thing that really keeps it interesting for me is being able to say, ‘Oh I haven’t done this before’ or ‘Today was really challenging’ or ‘I don’t know if I can do tomorrow.’ That’s the kind of stuff that really keeps it interesting. Otherwise I do have a terrible tendency to get bored.”

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Blast off

First-time showrunner Mika Watkins tells DQ about building Origin, a 10-part space thriller commissioned by YouTube Premium that mixes sci-fi and horror to tell the story of a group of people dreaming of redemption but left fighting for survival.

From script editor to showrunner in just two years, Mika Watkins’ ascent has been rapid.

In 2016, she was an aspiring screenwriter working for The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures when she was offered the chance to join the writing teams for BBC1/Netflix epic Troy: Fall of a City and Sky1 fantasy drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.

And now Watkins is the showrunner of Origin, a 10-part original series launching on November 14 on YouTube Premium, the web video giant’s subscription service. A sci-fi thriller tinged with horror, it opens as a group of strangers find themselves stranded on a spacecraft bound for a distant planet. The abandoned passengers must work together to survive, but quickly realise that one of them is far from who they claim to be.

“It’s quite a strange one because it’s the first script I ever got paid to write,” Watkins says of Origin. “I knew I wanted to write a show set on a spaceship but, rather than it being Star Wars or Star Trek, a space adventure, I wanted it to be about people who are the opposite of astronauts and scientists and are trapped in this dark place beyond our solar system, and how that would feel, and to pull all the horror elements out of that.”

Mika Watkins

The passengers on the ship are all looking forward to starting a new life, their previous indiscretions wiped away in return for their labour to help build mankind’s second home. Of course, their pasts will soon come back to haunt them. Each episode contains a serialised story following their journey through space, while also pausing to dip into the backstory of an individual character. That structure opens the doors to bring other settings into play, with storylines including a Mafia tale in Tokyo, a German spy noir and a VR love story.

“Early on, I knew I wanted it to be lots of different things. I wouldn’t write a show that’s just a spaceship horror for 10 hours. I think I’d find it a little restrictive as a writer, so I knew I wanted to find a way of breaking away from that,” Watkins says of her show, which also plays out in multiple languages, depending on the nationality of the character speaking.

The central theme at the heart of the series remains the question of whether a person can ever leave their past behind. “That’s the heart of the show and the heart of every episode,” Watkins says. All the other elements have been built on that, whether it’s the spaceship itself or the lives of the crew before they set off on the ill-fated voyage. “I knew I wanted to go to Japan – that was the anchor of my show because I’m half-Japanese. I really wanted to get into that world and I knew I wanted to do a bunch of different stories,” the writer continues. “When [lead director] Paul WS Anderson came on, he wanted to do one that was a bit more action- and military-based, so we did something like that with very cool fight sequences. The story just sort of developed and changed as we went.”

YouTube loved Watkins’ pitch – she laid out the first three seasons of the series – and greenlit the show a couple of months later. The video platform has been slow to enter the subscription space, with established SVoD players such as Netflix and Amazon well ahead following their voluminous assault on the television market. But Watkins says she was thrilled by the opportunity to create what will be one of the service’s defining series.

YouTube’s Origin is a sci-fi thriller with horror elements

“I found that a really exciting proposition,” she says. “They threw so much money at the show, which, for a first time showrunner like me, is a really big deal. They just said run with it, but then they gave really good and detailed script notes, so they’ve been amazing to work with. They were committed from the beginning.”

Having just completed production on a 10-hour premium drama and now well advanced in post-production, Watkins seems entirely unfazed and incredibly upbeat about her role as showrunner – a position many claim is too much work for two people, never mind one individual on their first original series.

But Watkins says transitioning into the role – which is commonplace in the US industry but has yet to be so keenly adopted elsewhere – felt effortless. “I’ve had so many people around me, I’ve got such a good script team and amazing execs at Left Bank and, with YouTube’s support, it felt like I was really empowered to step into that role,” she explains. “I am probably a bit of a control freak, so being across everything, whether it’s casting, costume or music, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to have a vision and to be able to shape it as completely as I can. It was definitely the best experience of my life and I feel really lucky to have been given that opportunity so early.”

Watkins is also an executive producer of Origin alongside Andy Harries, Suzanne Mackie and Rob Bullock from Left Bank Pictures; Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg from Midnight Radio; and director Anderson. The series is a Left Bank and CiTVC coproduction in association with Sony Pictures Television.

When Watkins says she was across everything, she means everything. A typical day would involve being on set with the director, leaving to write or polish a script, returning to meet with the costume team and then heading home to watch the latest edit. “It was 24 hours a day, but if it’s something you love, it doesn’t feel like work in the way anything else would,” she adds.

The cast includes Harry Potter alum Tom Felton

If there was any moment Watkins felt under pressure, it was arguably during casting when she sought the perfect actor to play Shun, the half-Japanese main character who speaks fluent Japanese and English. “I don’t even know how many auditions we saw but I wasn’t ever going to budge on who that character was,” she says. “That’s my anchor into the show, and in the end we managed to find someone incredible.”

That person was Australian newcomer Sen Mitsuji, whose agent sent an audition tape that led to an invite to LA to read with Anderson and then a chemistry read with co-star Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter). “I had a very distinct idea of who I wanted and when I saw actors’ auditions or their reels; I knew if they were the one,” Watkins explains. “That wasn’t always the same as what YouTube imagined, but they were really supportive. If there’s one thing we really nailed, it’s the casting.”

Tena plays Lana, while fellow Harry Potter alum Tom Felton also features in the main cast as Logan. The regular series cast is rounded out by Nora Arnezeder, Fraser James, Philipp Christopher, Madalyn Horcher and Siobhán Cullen.

During the writing process, Watkins led a writers room that comprised a script team and several additional writers. But the series is undoubtedly her own vision, owing to the fact she wrote six scripts herself and co-authored the other four. “Tonally, the show is quite distinct and it also rockets along,” she says. “It was probably quite difficult for other people to come in and capture that so quickly because our schedule was so demanding. So it was just good to have one voice across all 10.”

With the green light coming in July 2017, filming began in February and wrapped this July. Production took place in Cape Town, South Africa, where most of the sets were fully built and decorated, with Watkins noting there was very little use of green screen. Part of the scale of the build was down to Anderson, who the showrunner suggested for Origin after catching a late-night airing of his 2002 video game-based blockbuster Resident Evil. Anderson came on to helm the first two episodes, with four more directors also shooting two episodes each.

Newcomer Sen Mitsuji stars as Shun

“The ship I’d envisaged at the beginning was much smaller and more underwhelming. He just made it really cool and brought loads of ideas. The ship doesn’t look like any other spaceship I’ve ever seen,” Watkins reveals. “He really liked the scripts, and we clicked instantly. I’ve never had such a good relationship with a director.”

Origin will go into orbit surrounded by a plethora of other space shows, including Star Trek: Discovery, The Orville, Lost in Space and The Expanse. Watkins believes the setting affords writers the chance to bring a disparate group of people together, but that’s just where Origin begins, with the show featuring horror, aliens and monsters and themes of mistrust and savagery reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.

“The series just gets better and better as it goes along,” the writer enthuses. “What’s exciting for me is the first three or four episodes are very genre-based, set in the present day, so it’s a lot about space and horror and monsters. Then from that point, there’s a shift and it becomes more about the fact these people are all together and they can’t trust each other, but they rely on each other to survive.”

The granddaughter of a poet, Watkins grew up with ambitions to become a writer, penning her own poetry and “terrible” teen novels. She wrote her first screenplay at university and later sold a comedy script to Objective Fiction (Fresh Meat, Peep Show). It was then while working for Left Bank as a script editor that the company got wind of Origin. She now has several series in development, including a female-led ninja series with Sister Pictures (The Split) and projects at US cablenet FX and UK pubcaster the BBC.

“As a young woman who didn’t have any contacts in the industry, it can be very difficult to get your stuff read. I think that’s something we need to improve and something I want to help do,” Watkins adds. “But things are improving. Five years ago, would I have got a 10-hour series commission? I don’t think so. I do think people are aware of it and they’re trying to change it. But there’s definitely a long road to go to support new writers.”

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Starting over

Castle star Nathan Fillion and showrunner Alexi Hawley reunite in ABC drama The Rookie. They tell DQ about creating a series that aims to break the formula of network cop series.

After playing the starring role in crime drama Castle for eight years, Nathan Fillion could have been forgiven for hesitating before signing up for another potentially long-running procedural.

Yet the actor had no second thoughts when he was offered the chance to reunite with former Castle showrunner Alexi Hawley and the ABC network on The Rookie. So sure was he that this show had all the elements of a hit series that, for the first time ever, he signed up before a script had been written.

“I’m an actor, I want to tell stories. And I’m in a really fortunate position where I can tell stories to millions of people, potentially internationally,” the actor says. “I’ve worked with Alexi before and I absolutely adore this guy. He tells great stories. I love the way he handles himself, I love his work ethic and I love the workplace environment he creates. So it was a no-brainer.

“We pitched the idea of this show and the elements to a number of networks, but ABC jumped on it. The odd part was there was no script. Now the scripts are here and we can watch it evolve. These characters have faces and voices. It’s been a fascinating process.”

The premise sees John Nolan (Fillion) pursue his dream of being an LAPD officer. But as the force’s oldest rookie, he’s met with scepticism from some higher-ups as he faces the challenge of keeping up with both the young cops and the criminals. The series also stars Alyssa Diaz, Richard T Jones, Titus Makin, Mercedes Mason, Melissa O’Neil, Afton Williamson and Eric Winter.

The Rookie stars Nathan Fillion as a middle-aged new recruit to the LAPD

Hawley executive produces with Fillion, Mark Gordon, Michelle Chapman and Jon Steinberg. The series is coproduced by Entertainment One (eOne) and ABC Studios for ABC, with eOne also handling international distribution. The series has already been sold into more than 160 countries.

The Rookie, which debuted last week, is based on the true story of a real-life LA cop who joined the force when he was 42. Fillion says that’s where the series stops borrowing from reality, but as we see in the pilot, it’s not hard to imagine the disdain and mocking Nolan faces taking place in the real world.

“Rookies get hazed, they kick you around a bit to toughen you up,” Fillion says, foreshadowing some of the scrapes in which Nolan will find himself after starting to patrol the LA streets. “I don’t think it’s born out of, ‘I want you to suffer,’ it’s born out of, ‘You have to be tough for this job.’ They’re not there to make it easy on you. They’re there to make sure if this is your calling, being hazed won’t stop you.”

Meanwhile, the very nature of crime series means viewers can expect The Rookie to be inherently dramatic, with the pilot featuring a bank robbery, a wild shootout and scenes of domestic violence. “You only call the police when something has gone terribly wrong,” Fillion points out, “so it’s not an easy job. As a matter of fact, I think it’s probably terrifying.”

But anyone tuning in expecting to see Castle 2.0 is set to be disappointed, as John Nolan is a very different character from author-turned-sleuth Richard Castle. Most obviously, The Rookie is far more grounded in reality, though both series do share elements of humour and comedy.

The show has already been picked up by more than 160 broadcasters around the world

“The Rookie has far more that people can actually relate to – family, trying something new and failing, not being in charge,” Fillion says. “Castle was in charge. Nobody told him what to do; he did what he wanted. There’s a unique freedom in fantasising about that, but John Nolan is not in charge. He’s the bottom. He’s not only a rookie, he’s the oldest rookie.”

The show went straight-to-series at ABC, though like fellow eOne drama Designated Survivor it still passed through the traditional pilot process, with Liz Friedlander directing that initial episode.

As well as Castle, Hawley also has credits from shows including The Following, Body of Proof and State of Affairs. The showrunner says The Rookie stands out, however, because the show is back on the beat of the traditional network cop show, alongside series such as Southland and Blue Bloods.

“To be able to tell stories about Nathan’s character as the oldest rookie, it puts him in a unique position as a character that opens a lot of opportunities storytelling-wise,” Hawley says. “And Nathan is the perfect actor for this. He’s so funny but he’s an everyman in the best possible way. You totally identify with him as someone who realises they’re not going down the path in life they want to be on. It takes a lot of bravery because the risk of failing is high yet the consequences are also high, which makes for great television.

“Sometimes detective shows are called laundry shows because you can do your laundry while you’re watching them – they tell you what’s happening, they show you what’s happening and then they tell you again, so you don’t have to pay attention as much. We really want to be a show you have to pay attention to.”

Hawley admits he likes all parts of a showrunner’s lengthy list of responsibilities, although he concedes there are days when the role can be “overwhelming,” managing both the creative and production sides of the show.

“It’s a challenge every day but, at the same time, I just like it,” says the brother of Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley. “I come from the feature world, writing movies, where you have no power, no control. On the show, writers produce their own episodes. They’re there for prep, production and are involved in post, so it makes you much more invested in your story. As a showrunner, you’re just invested in all of the stories. It rests on your shoulders but, at the same time, there’s plenty of work to go around and you’re a fool if you don’t trust the people you hire to elevate everything and make it better.”

The biggest challenge on The Rookie, he says, was maintaining the standards and scale set out in the pilot. “Often you do a pilot that’s too big or you just can’t replicate it every week but it’s also really important for me to create an ensemble around Nathan that could really support him.”

He adds: “You just have to set yourself up for success because once prep starts the week before shooting, every eight business days you start a new episode. You have to have scripts coming constantly, you have to be creating constantly. You’re editing as fast as you can. You have to set yourself up storytelling-wise. The process is never easy but that’s the challenge.”


Too good to turn down
From a pre-credits bank robbery and a secretive love affair to speeding police cars and a back-alley gun fight, director Liz Friedlander was faced with packing a lot of story into the pilot episode of The Rookie.

Liz Friedlander (left) with Afton Williams and Eric Winter on location

That she did so with buckets of visual flair, including one quick-cut sequence that sets the rookies up for their first day on patrol, is all the more impressive considering she hadn’t planned to helm a new series during the last pilot season.

But a longstanding friendship with showrunner Alexi Hawley – the pair had worked together on Fox cult drama The Following – and credits working for executive producer Mark Gordon meant she was instantly intrigued by the project. “I didn’t want to do a pilot last season, I absolutely wasn’t going to, and then they said, ‘Please read it,’ and the script was great,” Friedlander recalls. “There was a lot of opportunity to build a world that was fun, and between the script, Alexi, Nathan [Fillion] and Mark, the thing I was absolutely not going to do became irresistible.”

Friedlander loved the show’s central theme of starting over, with John Nolan changing direction later in life. She also wanted to make a love letter to LA, the city that serves as her home and the setting for the series, which she describes as a coming-of-age story for rookies facing new experiences for the first time.

The director quickly identified a visual style for the drama, one that mixes iconic and unfamiliar LA locations and makes good use of the body cameras worn by the LAPD officer to give viewers a first-person perspective of the action as it unfolds. Dollies or steadicams were used inside the police station where events are controlled; then in the field with the rookies, handheld cameras were used to reflect the unpredictable nature of life patrolling the streets.

The biggest set piece of the pilot takes place on a gridlocked Hollywood Boulevard, where Nolan confronts a baseball bat-wielding man. Permission was needed to shut the street – often closed to traffic for film premieres and award ceremonies – as well as to use a drone camera, while hundreds of extras were brought in.

“We had five cameras that were constantly rolling. We had maybe 500 extras but by the end of the day, a crowd of tourists had gathered so then we had this amazing free background,” she says. “It just made it look even better. It was exhilarating.”

Friedlander, who returned to The Rookie to shoot a car chase for episode five, is now working on new material, with no plans to do another network pilot in 2019. That is, “until there’s a script, a cast and a showrunner I can’t say no to,” she jokes.

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Handling business

Six-part thriller Informer explores the relationship between informant and handler against the backdrop of an unfamiliar London. DQ visits the set of the BBC and Amazon series.

Several storeys above the hustle and bustle of Watney Market, one of east London’s biggest and most popular street markets, producer Julian Stevens invites DQ into “the world’s smallest flat.”

With views overlooking the market on one side and vistas across Canary Wharf and the City of London on the other, many of the crew are forced to stand on the walkway outside the front door, unable to all fit inside while filming is taking place for six-part thriller Informer.

It’s a striking location for the series, which tells the story of Raza (played by newcomer Nabhaan Rizwan, pictured above), a second-generation British Pakistani man who is coerced by counter-terrorism officer Gabe (Paddy Considine) to go undercover and inform for him. This is Raza’s family home, where he lives with his mother, father and brother. But it’s a place from which he becomes increasingly distant as the pressures of his new role start to affect his family.

The series, produced by Neal Street Productions (Call the Midwife) for BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video in the US, comes from writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani and is directed by Jonny Campbell (The Last Post, Westworld). All3Media International is handling distribution.

Episode one sees Raza come into contact with police on a night out, suddenly being brought to the attention of Gabe and his new partner Holly (Bel Powley). They pressure him into working for them, pushing him into a world of criminal activity – and possibly terrorist activity. From a night out at a local takeaway to staring down the barrel of an AK-47, Raza finds himself getting into darker and deeper situations as the story progresses.

Dead Man’s Shoes star Paddy Considine plays a counter-terrorism officer in Informer

The series, which launched last week, originated from LA-based Haines and Noshirvani’s desire to tell a story about the relationship between handler and informant, one they felt had yet to be explored well on film or television. They also wanted to write about the War on Terror, but avoiding Homeland’s more direct style.

“So Informer is a combination of those two things and of them writing a story from the street and about what happens at that level,” Neal Street executive producer Nicholas Brown says. “What made this so appealing is they approach it through a family and the repercussions for them and their relationships, and also, through Holly and Gabe, the impact of doing those jobs on those people. It felt fresh, relevant and different.”

Behind the camera, Campbell reunited with director of photography Tony Slater Ling and production designer Sami Khan, having worked with both previously on shows including The Casual Vacancy. Campbell wanted to do all six episodes, a move that paid dividends in terms of storytelling and visual continuity. Notably, editors Fiona Colbeck and Gareth Scales also cut each episode together, rather than separately, and have each turned their hand at directing the second unit when pick-ups or new shots are needed to fill the holes in the edits they are piecing together.

But beyond the story, what stands out about Informer is its visual identity. Production on the drama started and ended with filming at the flat, with DQ joining the production team for the penultimate day of shooting. The location is typical of those used throughout the show in that it is recognisably London, with red buses and telephone boxes, as well as some iconic landmarks, visible in the background. However, it’s also a London that will be unfamiliar to many viewers, exemplifying the kind of series director Campbell and his team wanted to make.

“The best dramas have a strong sense of place and this drama has done a really good job of taking on London, which can be quite familiar,” Stevens says. “It’s not grey. Shows set on council estates can have a colourless world, but this is full of life and looks so fresh and new.”

Brown continues: “We talked about that a lot at the start, myself, Julian and Jonny, about where it should be set and the world we wanted to create. You know you’re in London. You never lose that sense, whether it’s Canary Wharf in the background, you’re right by the Thames or it’s way out east. They’re just places you don’t see much.”

Bel Powley is Holly, partner to Considine’s Gabe

The exec describes the series location as “DLR land,” referring to the raised Docklands Light Railway that weaves its way through much of east London. “That’s a motif for the show, the DLR winding though these amazing areas that are relatively undiscovered. From the DLR’s raised tracks, you get to see incredible vistas and contradictory images of glass and steel towers and scrap yards, the river, estates, town blocks and all sorts. It’s a really great world.”

It’s the sort of visual landscape that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, Stevens argues. “You think, ‘Could we do something like this in Birmingham – shoot there for six weeks and then come back and do exteriors?’ But you don’t get that texture; it’s never the same. You can’t fake it.” Filming elsewhere would have meant the production team wouldn’t have stumbled across Watney Market. They initially though it would be too challenging to film there, with

the hubbub of the shoppers and stalls below, but the location team were able to secure the use of one of the flats overlooking the site.

Location manager Peter-Frank Dewulf (Detectorists, Loaded) says his brief was “very London,” but without the ultra-recognisable landmarks like Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge. He subsequently embraced the “urban jungle” of east London and its mixture of diverse communities and old and new buildings.

Some practical challenges did emerge – not everyone wants to be associated with a show about terrorism – so instead of filming entirely on one estate, they used several to create their own setting. Two other key locations were a fast-food outlet and a cafe. The chicken shop was identified on Peckham High Street in South London, an unfamiliar location that dazzled at night under the shops’ neon bulbs and the adjacent streetlights.

The cafe was trickier to find, due to the fact that it would be the setting for a terrorist attack – one that doesn’t define the show but from which we see the fallout that affects Raza and his family. “No Starbucks would allow a terrorist attack or any attack in one of their cafes, they don’t even want to be in the background of anything like that,” Dewulf says. “So we had to find somewhere that would allow us to film that scene in a place we could control, not just inside but outside as well, and where the shops around us would agree to us filming that scene.”

The final location was found on a mini high street full of independent shops on a university campus in north-west London, where the owners were amenable to the production’s needs and, outside of term time, producers were able to control the environment with their own supporting artists and traffic flow.

“That and the chicken shop are chalk and cheese,” Stevens says. “The chicken shop was right on Peckham High Street, where we didn’t have any control over the road outside or people passing by, but it was the right location. We saw a lot of chicken shops and sampled a lot of chicken in the process!”

The show was almost entirely filmed on location, save for scenes at a police station and inside a nightclub, where the camera crew mingled with 2,500 ravers enjoying a night out.

“I hope the aesthetic is something people take away from it,” Stevens adds. “It is a beautiful-looking show. Tony did both the lighting and camera work and it does give a version of London that’s original. Rory and Sohrab, two non-Londoners, managed to write a piece about London that’s so authentic and real. Everyone was buoyed by the chance to live up to that script and find the take on London that showed the life and heart as well as the odd battle scar here and there – and that’s the story of London.”


Rizwan learns the ropes
Informer marks the TV debut of actor Nabhaan Rizwan, who as Raza is drawn into a world of espionage, with damaging results for himself and his family.

Nabhaan Rizwan as Raza, the titular informer

Speaking to DQ inside his trailer, Rizwan describes Raza as “very charismatic and quite outspoken” but a man on the edge, too old to feel he belongs at home but not yet sure of the path ahead. “A lot of young Londoners can relate to that. He has a lot of sides to him and that contributes well to the turn the show takes. He’s very well suited to that,” the actor says.

Rizwan was drawn to the role as he could relate to many of Raza’s qualities but then once he landed the part, he faced a crash course in television production.

He was helped in particular by director Jonny Campbell, who arranged a pre-shoot day to walk around east London’s Brick Lane area to ease him into the mood and atmosphere of the show. “I really appreciated that,” Rizwan says. “Just to work with him, he has everything mapped out in his head, even as far as thinking about the edit and how he’s going to put that together. So he’s always a few steps ahead and he knows the script inside and out. He’s really great to work with.”

Despite the show’s serious subject, Rizwan says it’s a disservice to dismiss Informer as simply a thriller or a drama. “This is where the writers have done really well,” he explains. “It reflects life quite well. Life is funny, and not everything that’s funny is light. Serious stuff happens but in that there’s a few moments of humour, and that’s explored really nicely in the script. It’s a show that reflects the nuances of life in London.”

And though the series isn’t action-heavy, Rizwan had to ready himself to master one new skill – motorbike riding. “I had to learn for this and I fell once. I was probably doing 10 miles per hour but it didn’t feel like that,” he says. “There’s not been a single shot that I’ve been on the bike and thought, ‘Yeah, this is easy,’ especially after the fall. It’s tough.”

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Renaissance man

The cast and crew of Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent reunited in Florence for the launch of this luxurious historical drama. DQ travelled to Italy to hear more about the series.

In the heart of the historic city of Florence, tourists and sightseers fill the walkways and pavements along Via Camillo Cavour, a bustling street that begins next to the Piazza San Marco and the grand church that overlooks the square.

There is particular excitement outside Cinema La Compagnia, where a black minibus has just pulled up. As the doors open, screams can be heard and flashbulbs pop as the stars of Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent climb out and make their way into the venue for the official launch of the series.

Produced by Lux Vide in partnership with Italian broadcaster Rai, Big Light Productions and Altice Group, this is the second instalment in the Medici television series, following 2016’s Medici: Masters of Florence.

That first season ended with the birth of Lorenzo and now 20 years later, in 1469, the young man played by Daniel Sharman (Fear the Walking Dead) is obliged to take charge of the family’s powerful banking empire. Under his leadership, his family’s power in Florence increases while his enlightened views lead him to support artists such as Botticelli and Poliziano – putting him at odds with hated rivals the Pazzi family and even Pope Sixtus IV. Season two climaxes with the famous Pazzi conspiracy, in which Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano are the targets of an assassination attempt.

The series is directed by Jon Cassar (24) and Jan Maria Michelini, based on scripts by Frank Spotnitz, Alex von Tunzelmann, James Dormer, Mark Denton, Jonny Stockwood, Francesco Arlanch, Lulu Raczka and John Fay. Spotnitz and Lux Vide’s Luca Bernabei are the producers.

L-R: Eleonora Andreatta, Daniel Sharman, Frank Spotnitz and Luca Bernabei at the launch of Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent

Filming took place in 30 locations across Tuscany, Lazio and Lombardy, including Volterra, the cathedral and the Palazzo Contucci in Montepulciano, and the cathedral and the Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza. The costumes were once again designed by Alessandro Lai, who has created vibrant outfits that matched those of the Renaissance but did not restrict the performances of the actors wearing them. Around 5,000 items were made especially for the drama, with designers including Antonio Riva, Fendi, Rubelli and Tirelli also providing dresses, materials and clothing.

Along with the upcoming HBO coproduction My Brilliant Friend and other projects, Medici is at the heart of Rai’s focus on high-end English-language dramas that tell Italian stories for a worldwide audience.

With a third season of Medici already in production, focusing on the second half of Lorenzo’s life, Rai Fiction director Eleonora Andreatta says her intention is to showcase Italian history and culture on a global scale, with Medici imagined in the same way as a great historical novel.

“In the Medici production we see the best of what an international perspective can offer with unique Italian talents,” Andreatta says. “The Magnificent is Lorenzo, a young man who makes a great cultural and political revolution in his time, and that is the very embodiment of the Renaissance. Our narrative challenge was to tell this story through contemporary audience sensibility.

“This series is part of the mission of Rai as a big European public broadcasting service, a project of strong Italian identity and, at the same time, international. Frank, with Lux Vide, gave a fundamental contribution in creating a project in which each artistic choice – from the director to the cast, from the editing to the soundtrack – is of an international standing.”

The second instalment of the Medici series focuses on Lorenzo, played by Daniel Sharman (right)

For his part, former The X-Files showrunner Spotnitz says he’s “so proud of it. I would put it up against anything being made anywhere in the world. This is a story about the Renaissance but it’s being made for a modern audience. So one of our first challenges was to ask ourselves why a modern audience cares about a story about 15th century bankers.”

The story of Lorenzo reveals a young man born in privilege who determines that, given the advantages with which he was raised, he can make a better world, Spotnitz explains. “So he’s enormously intelligent, enormously capable and very idealistic. It’s the young generation seeking to change the established order, which is not easy.”

Standing in Lorenzo’s way is Jacopo Pazzi, played by Sean Bean, who represents the established order – one that is determined to crush Lorenzo’s idealism. “That was a story we felt had resonance for a modern audience,” Spotnitz continues. “You can look at the story of Lorenzo as we’ve told it in two chapters: this first season is the first chapter, ending in the Pazzi conspiracy, which is a searing defeat for Lorenzo; then the second season is about how Lorenzo recovers and goes on now that his idealism has been destroyed. So we felt it’s a very moving and meaningful story about the 15th century but also about today.”

The cast also includes Bradley James as Lorenzo’s playboy brother Giuliano, Julian Sands and Sarah Parish as their parents Piero and Lucrezia, Synnøve Karslen as Lorenzo’s wife Clarice Orsini and Matilda Lutz as Simonetta Vespucci, a married woman who begins a passionate affair with Giuliano.

“It wasn’t hard to be a mother to these two beautiful boys,” says Parish of working with Sharman and James. “It was a real honour to play Lucrezia because really, from my point of view, she was a feminist in a way – one of the first feminists in Renaissance times. She wrote poetry and plays, she was an amazing artist. To have all those talents in that day and age was quite incredible for a woman, so it was a real honour to play the part.”

Sarah Parish as Lucrezia, Lorenzo’s mother

The female characters play a hugely important role in the series, which shows the power they wield through their relationships with the male characters.

Karslen notes that Clarice comes into Lorenzo’s life and becomes the matriarch of the family, with Lucrezia still a driving force behind the scenes. “Jon said to me when we first started, ‘These men would be nothing without the women they have.’ Lucrezia is the brains behind so much of it, but the person who can act on it is Lorenzo,” she says. “That’s not just because he’s a man but because Lorenzo was extremely capable and talented. That’s what this series does really well. It brings the importance of these women and those relationships to the front of the show.”

Before shooting began last year, Sharman had asked the producers if he could arrive two weeks early. He used the time to lose himself in Tuscany, exploring the places where the real Lorenzo lived and worked.

“It’s something I wanted to do because the work that everybody has put in on this is incredibly detailed. It’s actually a pleasure to come to work because the actors you get to act with on this, the production, the costumes, the level of detail that’s gone into it is truly astounding. You want to do justice to this piece,” Sharman says. “But at some point you have to throw that all away and find the very human element in it that I can relate to, which is that this is a person who’s been groomed for power, who isn’t sure if he’s even good enough, who isn’t sure if he understands enough, which I relate to very much in terms of growing up as an actor. You’re always concerned with whether you’re good enough or whether something works.

“So, weirdly, the character and you kind of align in saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this character or this person justice,’ just as Lorenzo doesn’t know if he can take on something as daunting as lifting Florence out of an extremely difficult situation. Then you just rely on people around you – the amazing directors we have had, the actors you get to work with – and it’s really your job to let it go and let your vulnerabilities show.”

Sean Bean plays antagonist Jacopo Pazzi

Streaming platform Rai Play launched the series on October 16, with its debut on Rai Uno set for October 23. Netflix is expected to roll out the series in English-speaking territories in early January. Distributor Beta Film also screened the first episode to international buyers this week at Mipcom in Cannes.

Meanwhile, the success of Medici season one, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden, has also seen Rai partner with Lux Vide to produce more series about the Renaissance.

Following the official launch, the cast and crew gathered further along Via Camillo Camour at Palazzo Medici Riccardo, an ornate 15th century palace designed for the Medici family. On the first floor, overlooking a grand courtyard, costumes from the series are displayed in rooms covered with numerous works of art.

It’s here that British actor Bean, who won a Bafta earlier this year for his role in BBC drama Broken, says it was “refreshing” to appear in the historical drama, noting his own interest in the Renaissance period. “It wasn’t like working in that sense because it was actually a hugely enjoyable experience,” he says. “I didn’t really know a lot [about the Medicis]. I did read quite a lot about the family ties and lineage but, after that, it’s a matter of getting on set and saying the lines.”

Rather than playing real-life characters in a docudrama or biopic, Bean says he was given room to invent the character of Jacopo, admitting he had a lot of fun playing someone who was amused by creating chaos and then exploiting it for his own opportunism.

“It’s like Lord of the Rings,” recalls the actor, who played Boromir in Peter Jackson’s big-screen trilogy. “There was hardly any character description in Lord of the Rings, least of all Boromir. It just said he wears this crimson top and a blue thing and I thought, ‘Fuck, is that it?’ You do as much as you want really for this and it’s exciting. If it’s a drudge, it’s pointless. It’s like when you’re at school doing history; it was a drudge because you couldn’t picture anything and it didn’t make much sense. Something like this brings the characters to life.”

Jacopo relishes his position as a bad guy, Bean adds. “But first and foremost he’s pragmatic, realistic. He’s very black and white but, on his journey to achieve power, there’s a lot of fun and games to be had on the way.”

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Meet The Romanoffs

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s latest project has arrived on Amazon Prime Video, but The Romanoffs swims against the tide of contemporary television drama, as DQ discovers.

It’s often said that people who work in television don’t actually watch much of it. So when Mad Men completed its seven-season run on AMC in 2015, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner decided to catch up on some of the shows he’d missed.

But after taking part in the modern phenomenon of binge-watching that matured while his 1960s-set period drama was still on air, Weiner decided that for his next series, he would write a show completely at odds with the current demand for serialised storytelling and create something that didn’t require viewers follow a long story through multiple episodes.

Matthew Weiner

As a result, The Romanoffs is a globe-trotting anthology series featuring eight separate stories about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal family.

Set in seven countries around the world, filming took place on three continents, involving local producers and talent across Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Each feature-length episode is set in a different location with a new cast, and is released weekly in more than 200 countries on Amazon Prime Video. The first two instalments launched on October 12.

Episode one, The Violet Hour, is set in Paris where an ancestral home holds the key to a family’s future. Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Inès Melab and Louise Bourgoin star.

Other episodes include House of Special Purpose, in which a movie star and a director go head-to-head in a battle over what is real; Bright & High Circle, about a tight-knit community where loyalties are tested; End of the Line, which sees a couple face destruction as they pursue their legacy; and The Royal We (pictured top), about a couple who pursue their temptations after their marriage gets into a rut.

The series is completed by Expectation, told over a single day in New York City when a woman is confronted with every lie she ever told; Panorama, set in Mexico City where an idealistic reporter falls in love with his mysterious subject; and The One that Holds Everything, in which a man tries to escape a family curse.

The ensemble cast includes Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Diane Lane, Ron Livingston, Kathryn Hahn, Corey Still, Kerry Bishé, Janet Montgomery, Noah Wyle, Amanda Peet, John Slattery, Juan Pablo Castañeda, Radha Mitchell, Hugh Skinner and Adèle Anderson.

“Part of it was really about doing a show that’s really set around the world with a connection — is it genetic? Is it cultural? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Who we say we are versus who we really are,” Weiner says of creating the show. “I was lucky enough to come to Amazon and shoot the show in different countries and different languages and really show what people have in common but also to do a different story every week. And we’re lucky enough to go on once a week so people will get a chance to have a conversation about it, hopefully.”

The nine-time Emmy winner,  who is the creator, writer, director and an executive producer on the series, says the Romanoffs, whose ruling members were assassinated by Bolshevik troops in 1918, have always fascinated him. “It’s got this great true-crime factor to it of people who were murdered,” he explains. “Obviously they’re an autocratic family. I don’t have to tell you how people respond to royalty. And then, years later, who are you? You can say what you are and it’s impressive, but who are you?”

In The Violet Hour, Keller plays Anushka, an ageing French doyenne whose nephew Greg (Eckhart) is waiting for her to die so he can inherit her fortune. Bourgoin plays Sophie, Greg’s girlfriend, with Melab as Hajar, an agency carer sent to look after Anushka.

“The reason why I loved the part so much is it’s exactly the opposite of what I did before. She’s so mean. She’s so rascist. She’s so bourgeoise. She’s so French. And she’s so over the top,” Keller says. “When I finished shooting, it was like I had to detox because all the toxins came out and I felt like I wanted to be a good girl again. So it was an adventure for me to do that.”

Ron Livingston and Diane Lane in Bright & High Circle, the fifth episode of The Romanoffs

The actor also praises Weiner’s script: “It’s so well written; it was like music. Everything is about the right thing – of course it’s the directing, the casting. It was like music. It was the pacing, the writing, so then it’s not very difficult to play, even if it’s something far away from who you are. But that’s why we do our job.”

In contrast to Anushka is Hajar, who Melab describes as strong and compassionate. “For me it was just amazing to play this character and work with Matthew, Marthe, Aaron and Louise. I loved playing this character because she’s strong but fragile. I loved this image of a strong woman, and she’s very patient. She’s just doing her job. Even if Marthe’s character is a little bit mean sometimes, she doesn’t see her through what she does.”

Weiner says The Violet Hour is a type of fairytale, likening Hajar to a princess and Marthe to an “evil witch queen.” He continues: “Their relationship, even though it has this tone to it, it’s very realistic, but it’s really about two different legacies and passing on what belongs to you. Right now I don’t know if people want to see stories about money necessarily on TV, but to me it was interesting. It becomes a symbol of what you have and how you try to hold on to it and who’s going to get it. Is it the person who loves you the most? So they’re really two different sides to the same coin to me, where Marthe is forceful and harsh and angry and, as she says, bourgeois and a racist. And Ines is very strong but also very tender and scared inside.”

Their relationship also adheres to the theme of family that runs through the series, with Weiner observing that family is an issue for everyone in society right now. “The world is so divisive and we become more and more isolated and we cling to those aspects of our life that are our identity,” he explains.

The Violet Hour stars Aaron Eckhart and Marthe Keller

Appearing in the final episode, The One that Holds Everything, is Skinner (Harlots, Poldark) as Simon Burrows. The actor describes the episode, which has a non-linear structure, as a family saga that circles the globe, but doesn’t reveal much more, apart from the fact that it was partly filmed in Hong Kong.

“As with Mad Men and stuff, Matthew’s got this extraordinary ability to create a very full world and then the tone of it is very different to anything I’ve ever seen before. [Filming in Hong Kong] was fantastic,” he says.

Weiner, whose credits also include The Sopranos, jokes that he set the story in Hong Kong simply to give him a reason to visit a place he’d never seen before. “Some of this was an excuse to work in exotic places like Toronto and Pasadena but also Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s funny because the story Hugh is in is like a Hitchcock story.”

Viewers will see Skinner’s character at various stages of his life in a story that is told out of order. “The premise of the show basically is two people sit down next to each other on a train and a story is told and you flash back,” Weiner reveals. “Hugh is the star of that story. You see his life but you don’t see it in order, ever. ”

Expectation is told over a single day in New York City

The showrunner says his preference for an anthology format with standalone episodes was about entertaining viewers, while offering them a conclusion at the end of 80 minutes.

“You get a chance from the writing point of view, the directing point of view and from the audience point of view to have a story that commits to a resolution,” he adds. “Even movies today are sort of sequalised, so when you commit to a story, the stakes become higher immediately; you don’t know what’s going to happen. In series television, [Mad Men main character] Don Draper probably won’t actually get fired even if someone comes in and goes up against him, because he needs to be there next week.

“In this storytelling, there is a climax and a resolution and it’s perfect. And because you’re asking actors to come in for one episode instead of six years, look at the people who show up to be in it.”

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So Kawaii

The Japanese phenomenon of ‘kawaii’ comes to television in Nippon TV’s 10-part drama Way Too Kawaii, starring Yudai Chiba. Producer Arisa Mori tells DQ about this millennial craze and how it was used as the backdrop for this fish-out-of-water story.

In 2014, four new words were added to the Collins English Dictionary. Four years on, ‘photobomb,’ ‘selfie’ and ‘onesie’ have become widespread in their use within everyday language.

But the fourth, ‘kawaii,’ remains relatively unknown outside of Japan and fans of Japanese culture. Officially, it is defined as a “Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasises the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance.”

The phenomenon, which has become synonymous with Tokyo’s Harajuku district, is now the subject of a 10-part drama called Way Too Kawaii, which comes from Japan’s Nippon TV. The series, aimed at millennials, follows Nankichi (played by Yudai Chiba), a book editor at a major publishing company who suddenly finds himself transferred to a teen fashion magazine.

He struggles to find his way in this new world dominated by strong-willed women. But he gradually becomes inspired by his new job as he learns to love kawaii.

Based on Kozue Osaki’s novel Pretty Ga Osugiru, Way Too Kawaii is written by Shuko Arai and Mako Watanabe, directed by Mitsuru Kubota and produced by Arisa Mori for Nippon TV, which is also distributing the series internationally.

Filming finished in the spring, and the show is scheduled to air this month in Japan in Nippon TV’s weekly Thursday night drama slot, as well as on Hulu Japan, the most popular SVoD platform in the country

Here, producer Mori tells DQ more about kawaii and how she brought this vivid world to life.

How would you describe the story?
This is a career drama series that showcases the hard-working people who create kawaii. A young and elite editor who works for a publishing company was the star of the literary editing department until he finds himself unwillingly transferred to a teen fashion magazine. He works resentfully, butting heads with colleagues where kawaii reigns supreme. As he struggles along his way, he witnesses the professionalism behind it all and sees there is a passionate spirit beneath the glitz and glamour – and romance blossoms.

When did you fist consider adapting the novel and why?
Our goal was to produce a drama for international viewers right from the beginning stages of planning. To make the most of the project, I thought it would be best to feature a concept that is proudly Japanese, and we decided on an original work about the kawaii culture and the people who work at a young and trendy fashion magazine. Also, I found the original title Pretty Ga Osugiru (There’s Pretty Everywhere) to be so catchy that it left an indelible impression on me and became a factor in considering the work.

Arisa Mori

What attracted you to the story?
There are a lot of people like the main character who are feeling torn because of failing to land their dream job. But a job is not about doing only what you love – I believe people grow through their profession when they experience different kinds of struggles. One of the attractions of this story is its depiction of the pervasive theme in many people’s lives: what makes a job satisfying? Set in the editing department of this trendy fashion magazine, the workplace seems glamorous on the surface, but the people are actually also doing humbling tasks day after day. That contrast is something I find very appealing.

How was the series developed with Nippon TV and Hulu Japan?
Nippon TV is in charge of singlehandedly producing and broadcasting Way Too Kawaii. Hulu Japan, a subsidiary of ours, is not involved in the production. However, we have planned for Hulu to stream the series one hour before our broadcast. We also want to bring the show to the attention of digital-conscious viewers.

How would you describe the adaptation and writing process with Shuko Arai and Mako Watanabe?
The first two episodes were penned by Arai and episodes three to 10 by Watanabe. Before the writing process began, they interviewed people working in the editing departments of Harajuku fashion magazines, as well as models. Arai also went to Harajuku and gathered ideas by talking to people who run clothes shops that are popular among young people. Watanabe worked at a publishing company as a magazine editor until recently and was able to tap into her personal experience. None of us, including the producers, directors, and screenwriters, were experts in Harajuku’s fashion culture so we all learned an incredible amount and were fascinated during the pre-production research and interviews.

Yudai Chiba plays an editor who finds himself working on a trendy fashion magazine

How would you describe the look and design of the series, inspired by Kawaii?
Harajuku’s kawaii culture is uniquely pop and colourful. Not simply cute and adorable, it is at times crazy, toxic and original. In order to visually express this, we set incredibly high standards in creating the set for the editing department of the fashion magazine, as well as the clothes and make-up of the models. We even asked some of the actors to dye their hair in flashy colours, wear multicoloured wigs and put other fun things on their heads. It was important for us to show as much of Harajuku’s street fashion as possible, so we also asked real-life fashion stylists for Harajuku fashion magazines to select clothes and accessories for us. As for styling, we put together different patterns to come up with diverse ensembles and made sure the motifs were as colourful as they could be in order to depict a Harajuku world though Way Too Kawaii.

How did you cast Yudai Chiba in the lead role?
I decided to cast him for the main role because one of the producers on this project, Reina Oda (Your Home is My Business, Pretty Proofreader), had worked with Chiba numerous times and she continues to be impressed by his unmistakable acting talent and professionalism. Chiba has a cute look and has starred in many works that portray him as kawaii, so I thought it would be great to have him do something different by playing a stiff editor who hates kawaii. There was a part of me that wanted to see him enter a new frontier in his acting, and it worked out perfectly.

Way Too Much Kawaii is set in Tokyo’s Harajuku district

Why do you think this series will appeal to millennial viewers?
We millennials have a very open mind when enjoying content; I don’t think about where it was produced or what nationality the star is, as long as it is entertaining. Moreover, Japanese content has so much potential. This series has an amazing story that viewers of the same age as the lead actor can deeply relate to. What’s more, it is filmed in the holy land of Japanese kawaii culture, Harajuku.
It is home to many shops that sell unconventional fashion, as well as ‘Instragrammable’ and photogenic sweets. The unique Harajuku culture transcends borders and has the power to captivate young people across the world. Each episode of Way Too Kawaii is fast-paced and unfolds in 30 minutes, making it suitable to enjoy on smartphones and other portable devices.

What were the biggest challenges in production?
In Japan, the filming and editing of drama series typically happens in parallel. But because Way Too Kawaii was intended for international viewers from the get-go, we wanted to finish filming four months before broadcast and complete the editing three months before its debut. In so doing, we were able to focus our efforts on the international roll-out from a very early stage and, thankfully, we have already sold the title in nine countries and regions in Asia, where it will be broadcast and streamed virtually at the same time as Japan. We began preparing early for the Asian world premiere in the hope that its international premiere today at Mipcom will pique the interest of viewers in Europe, the US and all other territories. Our aim is to continue with more projects like Way Too Kawaii and develop Nippon TV content for the enjoyment of the global audience.
But all things considered, filming in Harajuku was quite the challenge. Regardless of the day, the streets are packed and bustling with young people and tourists, which at times made it difficult for us to continue shooting. We overcame these hurdles by making adjustments such as minimising the number of filming crew and using compact equipment so that we could shoot and be done speedily. It was challenging but it created quite a unique series, so it was very rewarding.

Why might Way Too Kawaii appeal to international audiences?
With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, we are experiencing a huge rise in tourism to Japan. Harajuku is visited by tourists from all over the world. To say that ‘kawaii’ can be heard here more than any other place on the planet may not be an exaggeration. I hope that through Way Too Kawaii, people will feel the energy that Harajuku radiates and see how it is the epicentre of all things trendy among the younger generations. Perhaps we can even expect travel channels to get interested in this drama series.
Moreover, this story is not simply about being catchy and unique. As the main character struggles in a new position that feels completely foreign to him, Way Too Kawaii depicts the challenges and joys of work and has all the makings to be a frontrunner in the work-focused drama genre. People across all generations will find something they can relate to in this programme.

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The royal treatment

Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham explore the early life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in historical drama The Spanish Princess. They reveal how the future queen caused a stir in Tudor England and the drama’s parallels with Breaking Bad.

Hot on the heels of The White Queen and The White Princess, US premium cable network Starz is continuing its dynastic saga of Tudor England with eight-part drama The Spanish Princess.

Like both of its predecessors, this new series recalls history from the perspective of its female characters and is based on historical novels by author Philippa Gregory, this time The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. But while the story ostensibly focuses on Catherine of Aragon’s arrival from Spain with dreams of becoming queen – an ambition she achieved by marrying the future Henry VIII – it stands apart from previous instalments through its perspective of an outsider causing a stir in the Royal Court, themes of immigration and its focus on people of colour living in 16th century London.

Under the leadership of co-showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, the series will reveal how Catherine left a Spain ruled by her fearsome mother, Isabella of Castile, and came to England, where she experienced a huge culture shock in a land that was comparatively old fashioned and male dominated.

Emma Frost

“She really causes gigantic ripples in this old-fashioned, rather fusty male Tudor world,” Frost explains. “As history goes on to tell us, her daughter Mary [with Henry VIII] becomes the first queen in her own right, Mary I.”

But there’s another reason that Frost and Graham believe The Spanish Princess promises to be the most exciting chapter yet. Beginning their research during production of The White Princess, they were keen to understand the place of people of colour in 16th century London. Historical advisers suggested diverse characters would have been an anachronism for the period, which Frost admits “really pissed me off,” as she already knew that wasn’t true.

“What we discovered without breaking too much of a sweat is that Catherine of Aragon came to England with an incredibly diverse entourage of people, notably including an African Iberian lady-in-waiting called Catalina de Cardones, who we call Lina in the show,” reveals Frost, who was also the showrunner of The White Queen and The White Princess.

“This woman exists as a footnote in history but no one has ever bothered to dramatise her or acknowledge she was there. What we know is Lina married another African in London, Oviedo, and it was very unusual in this period for people of colour to marry each other. So this is a really extraordinary story of these two African people in early Tudor England marrying each other and being very much part of the world of the court. So there is a whole new massive piece of this story that is reappropriating history for people of colour as well as for women by telling this story of these two people who really did exist.”

Graham says The Spanish Princess also looks at issues of class and social mobility in a way the previous versions weren’t able to. “The White Queen and The White Princess were both very much about the Yorks and Lancasters and all of it was at that level. Now we can tell stories that take place in the taverns, the streets and the way their love story unfolds,” he says. “The other thing you get a chance to do is tell what could not be a more pertinent story about immigration. There was cultural wariness of people who came from a different country. Frankly, though, in Tudor London you were wary of people who came from Wales. It wasn’t the colour of the skin that was the issue, so that’s quite nice – here we are with two black people in the middle of Tudor England and we don’t tell a story about racism.”

The Spanish Princess comes from the same team as The White Queen (pictured) and The White Princess

Like The White Queen and The White Princess, every scene in The Spanish Princess is from one of the leading female characters’ points of view, with Catherine and Lina joined as the main protagonists by another Iberian lady-in-waiting, Rosa, and Maggie Pole, who also featured in The White Princess. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, is still very much a key player and antagonist-in-chief, Frost says. “There are various very strong conflicting female points of view that interweave or fall in behind Catherine. She’s the main character but we always have these other incredible strong women in the show.”

Frost argues Catherine is much maligned by history, overshadowed by Henry VIII’s later wives, particularly those who lost their heads in the process. “She’s characterised as this unwanted old bag, but it’s a phenomenal story that’s very pertinent to the 21st century,” she adds.

Catherine’s arrival from Spain is used to great visual effect in the series, contrasting the bright sunshine and rich colours of her homeland against the dark, gloominess of England – a place of shadows and people whispering in corridors.

“She’s a breath of fresh air but she’s also not to be trusted. She brings her own culture,” Graham says of Catherine. Frost notes that the character’s arrival in the country allows the show to observe Tudor England from an outsider’s perspective, something not possible in the previous iterations.

“That’s a really exciting point of view shift because now the Tudor world is the ‘other’ to the world of our heroine,” she says. “That allows for all sorts of other conflicts. There’s also an incredibly exciting theme running through the show about faith, because the Inquisition is beginning in Spain under Isabella, Catherine’s mother, and several of her entourage are Muslim, so they have to deal with their feelings about what’s happening in Spain and what Catherine’s real allegiances are. There is a world where the Catholic faith is no longer the only gig in town for a lot of characters who have always peopled the show. So we’re able to explore lots of thorny issues around conflicting ideas about faith, God, forgiveness and redemption.”

The Duke of Kent tours The Spanish Princess set at The Bottle Yard Studios

Leading the drama as Catherine is Charlotte Hope (pictured top), who was cast following an international search across Europe and North America. Frost and Graham were looking for someone who could embody the strength and vulnerability of the princess. That Hope (Game of Thrones) looks eerily like Catherine was a bonus.

“Charlotte just looks like her,” says Frost. “She has this strength, this fragility, and she’s just grown into the role. It was very hard casting a lead because there are so many factors to consider, but she is the most talented, hard-working, wonderful actress. We just love her.”

Ruairi O’Connor plays Henry, with Stephanie Levi-John as Lina de Cardonnes, Aaron Cobham as Oviedo, Nadia Parkes as Rosa, Harriet Walter as Margaret Beaufort and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Maggie Pole.

Graham was watching from the sidelines while his real-life partner Frost ran The White Princess, living and breathing Tudor England through her work. So when she suggested they do the next one together, he jumped at the opportunity to work alongside her and share the endless responsibilities of a showrunner – a role they had both previously performed separately. They say every TV show they both work on in future, they will do together.

Frost also welcomed the introduction of a male viewpoint behind the scenes. “Even though the show is told from the point of view of women, the male characters really matter, and trying to write a young Henry VIII – a complex, mercurial, intelligent, likeable, flawed and dangerous man – it’s been fantastic to have Matthew’s voice coming into that as well.

“Every single TV show we are working on now we do together, so we’re showrunning everything we do in TV. We break the stories together, we write the pilot together and then, moving forward, we write episodes separately and give each other notes. Then Matthew’s brilliant at all the bits in production that I’m hopeless at.”

The White Princess aired on Starz last year

Behind the camera, Birgitte Stærmose (Norskov) directs the first two episodes and Maya Zamodia is the DOP. Graham also got to try his hand at directing, picking up some battle sequences and palace-set scenes in Spain. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones (The Alienist) and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye (Killing Eve) return from The White Princess. Composer Samuel Sim is adding the music to the production, which Graham says won’t feel like “your grandmother’s period drama.”

“It’s got to have a buoyancy and momentum to it that feels fresh and cinematic and youthful,” he adds. “That’s one of the big things in production we’ve gone for.”

Frost picks up: “It’s a tremendously ambitious show. For the budget, what we’ve achieved is extraordinary. We’ve all had to be really inventive about how we cut our cloth and how we make the show.”

Distributed internationally by Lionsgate, the series is produced by New Pictures and Playground and is due to debut early next year. Frost and Graham, however, are already working on a second season of The Spanish Princess, which will continue the story of Catherine of Aragon – one Frost likens to Walter White’s journey from idealism into darkness in Breaking Bad.

“This doesn’t have the same darkness but it does arguably have more tragedy. Ultimately, it’s the story about the lie,” she adds, referring to Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated before his death, thus leaving her free to wed Henry and become queen.

“Our whole exploration really is an exploration of that decision she makes and whether she’s lying or telling the truth and the consequences of those actions. It’s a really strong female story of a woman trying to define her place in the world. It’s very familiar [to modern audiences] in that regard.”

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The talking dead

French crime procedural Balthazar introduces a forensic pathologist with an unusual talent. DQ hears more about the six-part drama from producer Stephane Marsil and co-writer Clothilde Jamin.

With audiences still keen to play detective and broadcasters eager for original procedurals that don’t require viewers to follow a single story over multiple episodes, French crime drama Balthazar promises a fresh take on a well-worn genre.

Described as charming, handsome and intelligent, forensic pathologist Raphaël Balthazar is both fascinating and furious in his desire to live life to the full, often in defiance of norms and conventions. This proves to be a major challenge for police commander Hélène Bach, a mother and the newest member of the Criminal Brigade who partners with Balthazar to solve some of the most complex murders they have ever faced.

Tomer Sisley (Eyewitness) and Hélène de Fougerolles (Le secret d’Elise) lead the cast as Balthazar and Bach respectively, in a series directed by Frédéric Berthe, Vincent Jamain and Jeremy Minui and written by Clothilde Jamin and Clélia Constantine. The six-part drama, due to air by the end of this year, is produced by Beaubourg Stories for France’s TF1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE).

Stephane Marsil

Beaubourg Stories sets itself apart from other production companies in France by employing full-time writers who also produce the series they have created, using many characteristics of the US showrunning model. The model was inspired by French cinema’s auteur system, with Beaubourg MD and Balthazar producer Stephane Marsil keen to utilise the creative benefits that come with writers producing their own work. Balthazar is the latest series to emerge from this model, following previous series Falco and Profilage.

“I’m not sure it’s for everyone but, for me, it’s the best way to work,” says co-writer Jamin. “You can follow every discussion and be part of the casting. That’s how you write well when you’re part of the show from the beginning. I love to work with Stephane. It’s a very good idea he had.”

Jamin and Constantine were keen to collaborate on a series about people who work daily with something most people would rather forget or ignore – death – and how that affects them. “Death is the only thing we don’t control,” says Jamin. “We really wanted to go deeper and deeper on this character. He’s a charming and mysterious coroner, working with death every day. He loves the job more than his wife. He’s a sexy, funny man and he teams up with a cop, so every episode they have a case they have to solve together. It’s all about these two very different people trying to work together.”

Though they initially clash over their opposing lifestyles – one enjoying life too much and the other having forgotten how to live – Jamin says the two main characters actually have a lot in common. Their contrasting worlds are explored each week as they take on a new case that puts them in challenging situations.

The co-writers spent a lot of time talking over the characters and the plotlines, and shared the desire for Sisley to play the lead role as Balthazar took shape on the page. “Now seeing him play for us is great. We were very excited,” Jamin says.

Tomer Sisley as Balthazar, a coroner who imagines talking to the dead to solve cases

Marsil continues: “Tomer liked the project, the character, everything. He read the scripts of the first two episodes and directly said he wanted to do it. It was very quick. He was the first choice. It was amazing.”

But Balthazar isn’t just any coroner. What sets him apart from other investigators is his ability to talk to the dead. While examining a body laid out in front of him on the mortuary table, he is able to conjure the image of that person beside him, talking through the case with the deceased in an effort to help him understand what has happened and who might have been behind it.

Clothilde Jamin

It’s a device that is used to both humanise the deceased characters, who are presented as ‘normal’ rather than in a ghostly or blood-stained fashion, and reveal more about Balthazar himself. Little is initially revealed about the lead character, except that he lives alone after the death of his wife and shares little about his life. But his conversations with the dead slowly reveal more about his own life and the way his mind works to solve cases.

“They are not ghosts. He imagines that people on his table talk to him,” Jamin says. “We wanted to find out how to humanise the people he works on. So he speaks to his dead wife; you see her on the table or at the window. We see them somewhere in the room. But the body is also still on the table.”

Beubourg operates studios on the outskirts of Paris, near Orly, where 50% of its series are filmed. Remaining scenes are filmed in and around the French capital. In this regard, Balthazar follows the same production process as other dramas from the company.

On this show in particular, the studio was used to film Balthazar’s apartment and the hospital. The big question, however, was whether to build the mortuary where he works. They could not use the one in Paris, so they either had to construct their own set or find another location out of town. Eventually, Marsil took the decision to build it. “It was very expensive but, because we have studios, we can do that. TF1 was very happy,” he adds.

Marsil and Jamin are now collaborating on eight new episodes for season two, with shooting expected to begin in February next year. And while TF1 is clearly pleased with the series, international audiences also stand to be “pleasantly surprised” by this crime procedural, says Julie Meldal-Johnsen, exec VP of global content at ITVSGE. “They will be seduced by the charm and mischievousness of Raphaël, who really makes the series unique.”

A second season of eight episodes is set to begin production in February

Meldal-Johnsen also believes the series “reinvigorates” the procedural genre with a modern touch that aims to appeal to a broad audience. “The writers have found a very clever way to share Balthazar’s thoughts with viewers [via his discussions with the dead],” she notes. “The technique used is wonderfully executed and works amazingly on screen. It opens the door to his concerns, his desires and his weaknesses, and helps the viewers understand him and his past better.”

Crime stories continue to appeal to viewers the world over, containing some or all of the elements traditionally associated with the genre: whodunnit mysteries, good versus evil, jeopardy, suspense, high stakes and the satisfaction of seeing justice done or the guilty pleasure of someone getting away with it.

As a result, “finding new and engaging ways of telling crime stories is getting harder, but it is very rewarding dramatically and commercially too,” Meldal-Johsen says. “Audiences love getting a chance to dive into the the different worlds these shows create, which can vary hugely from garden crime to organised crime, as well as in tone from Nordic noir to lighter comedy.

“As a distributor, finding the right story or concept takes forging relationships with producers who understand the craft of storytelling required to keep it fresh,” she adds. “Episodic procedurals are especially tough to crack and need very talented writers and producers. We are lucky enough to work with Stephane and his team at Beaubourg, who have proven to be adept at contemporary crime – and Balthazar is a fine example of their skill.”

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The Verge of success

Three friends find their lives are moving backwards in Women on the Verge, a comedy-drama based on Lorna Martin’s bestselling autobiography. DQ speaks to Martin and producer Gavin O’Grady about making the six-part series for UKTV’s W and RTÉ in Ireland.

To say Women on the Verge has been a long time in the making might be something of an understatement. Executive producer Sharon Horgan admits as much.

The actor, writer and producer best known for Catastrophe had received a copy of Lorna Martin’s autobiographical book Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but, like many parcels delivered to her home, it lay unopened for some time.

“I’m not very good at opening parcels,” Horgan says, “so it sat down by my front door for a while and then I opened the parcel and I added it to the pile of books I always keep on my bedside table.”

When she finally read it, while on holiday about a year later, she loved it and immediately partnered with the author to develop a television adaptation of the memoir, which itself is based on Martin’s magazine column Conversations With My Therapist.

L-R: Women on the Verge stars Eileen Walsh, Kerry Condon and Nina Sosanya

That was in 2011. Since then, Horgan and Martin wrote the first episode together, before Martin took on the remaining five – her first time writing for television.

“She’s such a legend,” Horgan says of Martin. “She stayed with it and stayed enthused and only wanted to walk off once or twice maybe. Once was a week before production, so that made us a bit nervous, but it was all about finding the right home for it.”

The right network proved to be UKTV’s W, with RTÉ in Ireland also partnering on the Dublin-set series that is coproduced by Horgan’s Merman and House Productions.

Equal parts funny, frank and shocking, the dark half-hour drama follows three friends struggling to survive their 30s. Laura (played by Kerry Condon), a journalist sleeping with her boss, is persuaded by Katie (Nina Sosanya) to seek professional help to deal with her many issues and begins sessions with the enigmatic Dr F (Horgan).

Meanwhile, divorced and single Katie is hoping to ‘complete’ her family without a man and have a sibling for daughter Ella through IVF treatment, while Alison (Eileen Walsh) finds herself back with her uninspiring ex-boyfriend.

Martin says it was a “lovely surprise” when she received that first email from Horgan – pre-Catastrophe, post-Pulling – enquiring about her book. She hadn’t previously considered adapting it for the screen, so happy had she been to see the back of it once it was published.

Sharon Horgan’s ‘Dr F’ plays therapist to Condon’s Laura

“It felt like there were such mixed and complicated reasons for writing it,” she explains. “It had been a dream to write a book but, once it was out there, I had mixed feelings about it – why would you put your very flawed life out there? Although there are some virtuous and altruistic reasons that you hope it will resonate and give people a laugh at the same time, it was painful and you are exploiting yourself for other people’s entertainment.”

Very quickly it became clear that the only way Glaswegian Martin could dramatise her life was to put as much distance between her and the characters as possible. That the story was moved to Dublin helped to give the show a life of its own and not have it just reflect “the mess and car crash I was” during a period of her life. “It does make it feel like it’s not a documentary,” she adds.

With Martin taking control of the remainder of the series after writing the opening episode alongside Horgan, she admits she found episode two “unbelievably difficult” to write, with no deadline or full series commission at that point. “A bit of me thought it wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “I found that really difficult – partly the fear of can I do this myself? It was just the fear of writing.”

The arrival of producer Gavin O’Grady in March this year helped Martin to focus the story, as the writer admits she had tried to be funny, apparently without much success. After submitting a draft of episode four, “Sharon called me and said, very diplomatically, ‘This needs a lot of work,’” Martin recalls. “She said to me the best advice is to stop trying to be funny and to be truthful, and that funny would come. It’s a fine line to get right.

Sosanya is Katie, a divorced woman hoping for another child through IVF treatment

“It was a big learning thing for me. I’m not a stand-up or gag writer. It was on episode four where I tried to write a sitcom and it was ripped up. A lot of it went. It just had to be believable.”

The writer describes watching the first cuts of the series as “the strangest thing I have ever seen,” a version of her life crossed with something she had written. “I cannot describe how weird that was. I had to watch it four times before I was watching a show,” she adds. “By episode three, I was getting used to it having a life of its own and not seeing it as my life.”

When O’Grady joined the production, there was no episode five or six, with only a very early draft of episode four written. Two months later, shooting was due to begin, with W announcing the series in June.

Alongside Martin, they worked out where they wanted the characters to land at the end of episode six, which meant some rewriting of earlier episodes was needed. He also jumped straight into casting, with the series requiring an ensemble of predominantly Irish actors.

With Condon based in LA, the leading trio weren’t able to test together before production ramped up. But O’Grady says all three bring different things to the series: “They look brilliant together and all represent what feels like very different ideas of being women and being on edge. With the casting, the biggest thing was what the tone of the show would be. For us, it had to be believable, and those three actors are very good at doing drama and comedy in a way that feels real and natural. You still want it to be funny, but what comedy does is push the realms of believability and reality to get those laughs, whereas we couldn’t do that. We had to work a bit harder to make things funny and not compromise the credibility of the characters for a gag.”

Walsh as Eileen, who finds herself back with her uninspiring ex-boyfriend

Filming took place across six weeks from the end of May, with interiors filmed in London for four weeks before production moved across the Irish Sea to spend two weeks filming on location. O’Grady says the biggest challenge on the show was the split shoot, which required several planning trips during pre-production before a new crew was brought in for the Dublin-set scenes. “We took essential department heads out but everyone else was replaced,” he says. “We wrapped London and three days later we were filming in Dublin with all new props people, production design and assistants, all while trying to keep that momentum and those lines of communication open.”

The future looks bleak for Laura, Katie and Eileen, however, with O’Grady hinting that the characters all find themselves worse off by the season’s end. Though she is seeking therapy, Laura in particular begins to self-destruct, her affair with her boss bringing her to the edge of breaking point.

Despite comparisons to other female-led series, the producer says Women on the Verge stands out for its naturalistic and believable style. “It’s being compared to Sex & the City, which is understandable,” he notes, “but their lives always looked so great, even when they weren’t wearing amazing clothes, going to amazing bars or living in amazing apartments. Whereas we’ve not done that. We don’t glamorise it. It’s a lot more real.”

Season two may be some way off, especially if it follows the lead of the first season, which launches on W in the UK tomorrow. Martin and O’Grady are, however, already talking about where they might like to take the characters next, particularly now they have seen how the actors have embodied them.

“Now we can play to their strengths,” O’Grady adds. “We’re bouncing ideas around of what we could do, where we could go and the kinds of things we could throw at them.”

With Women on the Verge finding humour in the depths of despair, it looks set to follow the path of other successful comedy-dramas like Catastrophe, Fleabag and, more recently, Karl Pilkington’s Sick of It.

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Going Straight

A mother attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to the other side of the world in eight-part drama Straight Forward. But was this Denmark-New Zealand copro as simple as its title? Executive producer Philly de Lacey and director Charlie Haskell explain.

When it comes to language, culture and distance, the countries of Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart. But that was exactly what executive producer Philly de Lacey was looking for when she was developing eight-part drama Straight Forward.

She admits the series was a “crazy idea,” with a story that sees a mother attempt to escape her criminal past by moving to the other side of the world. But 18 months later, the experience of working with partners thousands of miles away has meant de Lacey is already plotting her next global coproduction.

Screentime NZ was developing the idea for the series, created by writer John Banas, based on the premise that if someone wanted to go into hiding, New Zealand was as far away from anywhere else as possible. But that raised the question of where this person was running from.

Philly de Lacey

A drama conference for members of Screentime parent Banijay’s production group held the answer, with Denmark’s Mastiff jumping on the idea straight away.

“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you are dealing with two different languages. But the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it works perfectly.

“They are worlds apart, and that’s what really appealed to Denmark being our partner. It’s a complete contradiction to what we see in New Zealand. Copenhagen is a beautiful city with a massive history while New Zealand has a different language, landscapes and a young history. We couldn’t get more polar opposite and that’s part of the beauty of it. Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.”

Filming took place for more than four months, mostly in New Zealand, with studio space in Auckland and location shooting in Queenstown, where the story is set. A second unit later travelled to Copenhagen to pick up establishing scenes and exterior shots of the Danish capital.

De Lacey admits it’s impossible to know what lies ahead when you’re planning a TV production, never mind one that tells a story spanning thousands of miles around the world. But despite the complications of nine partners, including the Copenhagen Film Fund and New Zealand Film Commission, she says the willingness of everyone to work together made the process easier than expected.

Screentime and Mastiff split casting duties, with each forwarding tapes of prospective actors to the other. But the key to the partnership was simply knowing what the show was going to be. From the opening pitch, Mastiff and Screentime collaborated on the scripts and ideas to develop the characters, while the Danish cast in particular was hugely influential.

Straight Forward stars Cecilie Stenspil as a woman who leaves Denmark for New Zealand

“We really needed their input into the Danish scenes,” de Lacey reveals. “We had translators on set and our directors could judge the performances, but we needed to rely on our Danish cast a lot for their input, particularly into Danish culture and the way things would be represented. It was critical for us that when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements.”

Nordic streamer Viaplay will carry the series, alongside New Zealand’s TVNZ in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights holds international distribution rights (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).

The story starts in Denmark and follows fraudster Silvia Petersen (Cecilie Stenspil) as she flees her home, leaving her mother (Vibeke Hastrup) and daughter (Marie Boda) behind. Landing in Queenstown under the alias Robyn Ford, Silvia discovers her family are also in danger in Copenhagen. Dual timelines are used to show Silvia trying to hide her identity in her new home while people are trying to track her down in Denmark.

Not everything set in Denmark was shot in Copenhagen, however, with interiors and some exteriors filmed at the series’ Auckland studio. One subsequent challenge came when trying to replicate a Danish road in New Zealand, where cars drive on the left side of the road in right-hand-drive cars – the opposite to Denmark.

Filming for the series took place in both countries

To overcome this hurdle, the production team decided that everything in these shots needed to be symmetrical so when the shot was flipped, everything would look authentic. Number plates were also printed backwards.

Three directors helmed the series across four filming blocks, with Charlie Haskell taking charge on episodes three and four as well as leading the second unit in Copenhagen. Riccardo Pellizzeri led off with blocks one and four, while Peter Burger picked up block three.

Filming in Copenhagen saw Haskell fulfil a checklist of required shots: exteriors of buildings where interiors were filmed in New Zealand, atmospheric clips of the Danish city and pick-ups that would link scenes taking place in both countries, such as a phone call between two characters. He also oversaw a day and a night filming Copenhagen from above using a drone.

The director praises the attitude of the Danish cast, whom he says brought a truthfulness to their roles and ensured every scene in which they featured made sense emotionally. That was important, as Haskell couldn’t understand their Danish dialogue, and thus could judge them only on their performances.

Straight Forward is set to hit screens in 2019

“It was like putting your fingers in your ears and just watching the emotion of the performance, not what’s being said,” he explains. “They were very worried about us not knowing the language and not knowing how to direct those scenes. That was fair, but part of it was we could really see what they were doing emotionally, and that was really important. We had an interpreter on set so she could still tell us if they were saying the right lines. There was also a certain element of going up to them after a take and saying, ‘How was that, guys?’ which is very unusual.”

Haskell also highlights the way Danish, and more widely Scandinavian, dramas put performance at the centre of the series, rather than simply feeding the production “machine.”

“It feels like in New Zealand we work as a real machine; it’s fast and efficient,” he says. “Maybe it’s more based on the US model. That threw them a little bit. Just watching the crews in Copenhagen, it’s very casual. You don’t turn up at 08.00 and, bang, you’re into work mode. There’s a casual flow that is pretty unusual to watch. So they were a bit thrown by the fact we were such a relentless machine that wanted to keep working all the time. They would put the brakes on if needs be to make sure we did know what we were talking about.”

With Straight Forward due to premiere in 2019, de Lacey is already developing another coproduction, this time in Germany, and says she is putting into practice the lessons she has learned from working on this series.

“While we hope there’s a season two of Straight Forward, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” she notes. “You can’t translate the English script directly into Danish because Danes don’t speak the same way – direct translations don’t work. So a Danish writer has to translate the scene, not the words, and make sure the dialogue works for the character. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”

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Back on the Block

As German gangster drama 4 Blocks returns for a second season, DQ visits the Neukolln district of Berlin, where the series is set, to met the cast and creative team behind the show.

Overlooking Berlin’s grand Neukolln Schifffahrtskanal, behind the towering Hotel Estrel, a group of industrial buildings has become home to the cast and crew of German gangster drama 4 Blocks.

Inside one of the studios, lead actor Kida Khodr Ramadan (pictured above) is reprising his role as Toni Hamady, the leader of the Hamady clan who finds himself in a bleak and desperate position. After the events of season one, which saw Toni break his own code by killing someone, he is a lost soul. In the episode-one scene being filmed when DQ visits the set during production of the second season earlier this year, he is losing himself to gambling.

“At the end of season one, we see Toni killing a guy, but at the beginning of the first season, he said, ‘We will never kill someone. That’s a line we won’t push.’ He certainly crossed that line,” Ramadan explains. “That does something to his character, I can assure you. We will see a slightly different Toni who’s haunted by that. It’s putting some pressure on him. It will be thrilling to see him, a character we love, struggle to cope with what happened, coping with new challenges coming from new enemies and taking the show to a whole new level.”

Set one year after the climactic showdown, season two of the TNT Serie drama sees a new enemy, the al-Saafis, enter the fray. Described as an upper-class clan, they export art and have connections to high society – but that doesn’t mean they’re any less criminal. It’s another issue for Toni to deal with as he continues to operate without the support of his brother Abbas, who is toiling away behind bars as he awaits trial for murder.

4 Blocks focuses on the Hamady clan’s criminal activities

“He goes to jail and just feels left alone. He realises this beloved brother of his is not present and his hatred for him just grows because of that,” Veysel Gelin, who plays Abbas, says of his character. “His imagination runs wild. Then there’s a scene with a cop who says, ‘Well, where was your brother these past eight months?’ For him, that is like a volcano erupting, and he realises, ‘Yes, the little wanker, where was he?’ But they always try to make sure they stick to the family, no matter how much they may hate each other in that moment. No one really wants anything bad to happen to the other one. They stick to the family rules but, at the same time, Abbas also wants to show that he is also suited to be the boss now.”

Charting Toni’s rise from immigrant to clan boss, the series has been praised for its authenticity, both in terms of character and its setting, using the Berlin district of Neukölln as the home of the Hamady family. “I think you find people like Tony not just here in Germany but in Scandinavia and Africa,” Ramadan says. “We chose to shoot in Neukölln, where you find more of these people, but the research and background is absolutely solid and there are actually people in Neukölln who now call themselves Toni. It’s not a Mickey Mouse imitation. They say this is the real deal and that’s what they like about it.”

Inspired by a newspaper article about the challenges police face in certain areas of the German capital, notably Neukölln, 4 Blocks was developed by producer Wiedemann & Berg Television, TNT Serie, Kren and writing trio Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf. With all three writers returning for season two, they found their research process, which has proven key to the show’s grounding in reality, was much easier thanks to the success of season one, which also aired in more than 200 countries on Amazon Prime Video. The series is distributed by TNT Serie owner Turner.

They utilised a “slow and steady approach” ahead of the first season, speaking to journalists, police, politicians and people in the community. That was helped by Ramadan, who was raised in Neukölln and was able to introduce the writers to people living there.

“We had a three-year period of research ahead of season one because we had to do it very slowly and gain people’s confidence,” he says. “Now it’s an instant OK. ‘You’re from 4 Blocks? What can I tell you?’ It’s very easy now.”

The TNT Serie drama had a budget of more than €5.5m for its second season

Behind the camera, Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and Özgür Yildirim take over directing duties from season one’s Marvin Kren, who remains an executive producer. Together they have sought to echo Kren’s style, but the new run has also meant taking charge of more violent and action-heavy scenes. “The season is pretty much about getting close to the dark souls of these guys, and to their hearts as well – the good aspects and the evil aspects,” Hirschbiegel says. “It’s a good means to make the audience conspire with the naughty things these guys do.

“When it comes to the look and the feel, I think we’re on target to being pretty similar to what you saw in the first season.”

Yildirim says he and Hirschbiegel both took seriously the responsibility that came with inheriting the series from Kren. “But this is not about individual vanities, this is not about realising your own full potential,” he explains, noting similarities between 4 Blocks and his feature films Chiko and Only God Can Judge Me. “We don’t have to forcefully try to deliver some kind of highly stylised craftsmanship, but rather we should try to continue the work that was done in the first season.”

That work helped to cement a gangster series in Germany’s television schedules, with Yildirim claiming 4 Blocks is the country’s first drama to establish itself in the genre. This was achieved by treating the criminals as the protagonists rather than the antagonists.

“It was always odd for me to see that in Germany and, to an extent, the Scandinavian countries, crime drama was always told from the perspective of the police,” says executive producer Quirin Berg. “It was never from the perspective of the gangsters. The perception of the audience was that the police is always able to cope with things – ‘It’s Germany, hey, we have clean streets!’ – which, as we all know, is not the reality.”

Female characters have a more prominent role in season two

Berg accepts season two, which has a budget north of €5.5m (US$6.3m), pushes its real-world grounding, but says genre series are able to stretch the boundaries of traditional dramas. “There is a lot of room for more to come, that’s for certain,” he adds.

Hirschbiegel picks up: “The thing with criminals is they step over lines and the more they do this, they don’t know the word ‘no,’ meaning they have to move on. It’s not easy to be a gangster. You live above the law. You live a free life but you pay a high price for that as well. It’s tough to be the head of a crime organisation, and part of that you will see in this new season as well.”

The focus on family as much as criminality has also given rise to a number of female characters, who are notable not just for their relationships to the men in the series but because of their own values, beliefs and backgrounds.

“If you look at Kalila [Maryam Zaree, Toni’s wife], she’s tough and confronts him. They’re really equal, while Amara [Almila Bagriacik, Toni’s sister] and Latif [Wasiem Taha] have a more conservative relationship,” executive producer Anke Greifeneder says. “Of course, the main thing is the male perspective but we fight a lot for the women’s scenes as well because they make it whole.”

Fellow exec producer Hannes Heyelmann says the varied characters are representative of modern-day Berlin, with none of them playing on stereotypes of Arab women. “Some have been here for a long time, some speak German at home, some speak Arabic, so it varies a lot and that’s what we try to show in the series – that the characters are different, just like they are different in Berlin today or in Germany in general.”

Hackfort says season two sought to challenge the different types of relationships between men and women in the series, with more female characters playing a part in the follow-up run. The writer adds: “It was the biggest challenge to deliver 4 Blocks 2.0, the next step, while keeping the DNA. That was a struggle and it was a long, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful but very intense process. But I think we managed.”

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Coming up roses

Lost and Person of Interest star Michael Emerson swaps science fiction for the Middle Ages with a starring role in The Name of the Rose. He tells DQ why the part was a dream come true.

After starring in science-fiction series such as Lost and Person of Interest, a murder mystery set in a remote Italian monastery in the 1300s represents a change of pace for Michael Emerson.

But having grown up fascinated by history and the Middle Ages, and naming Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose among his favourite books, it’s no surprise that he jumped at the chance to star in a new television adaptation of the 1980 novel.

“It’s a fabulous, dreamy project for an actor like me, who grew up reading too many books,” Emerson tells DQ on the phone from his home in New York City. “I’m keen on history, and the Middle Ages has always had great appeal to me, so it couldn’t have been better. I thought it was a treat.”

Emerson’s interest in the book, which he “devoured” when it was first published, was reignited when he discovered that John Turturro (The Night Of) had signed up to star in a small-screen remake that comes more than 30 years after Sean Connery and Christian Slater led the cast in a 1986 movie version.

Michael Emmerson plays The Abbot in The Name of the Rose

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m so jealous,’” Emerson recalls. He got in touch with his agent, who happened to know Turturro. Both actors were also familiar, having performed in the theatre together. “He apparently put in a good word for me and, lo and behold, my pipe dream came true. So then I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m really going to have to do this – and in Italy of all places.’”

Italian producers 11 Marzo Film and Palomar have partnered with Tele München Group and broadcaster Rai for the eight-hour event series, which is due to air next spring. Director Giacomo Battiato co-wrote the show alongside Andrea Porporati and Nigel Williams, with TMG’s sales arm TM International distributing the historical drama around the world.

Set in Italy in 1327, The Name of the Rose follows Franciscan monk William of Baskerville (Turturro) and his apprentice Adso of Melk (Damien Hardung) as they arrive at a secluded monastery in the Alps, where they witness a series of murders. While Baskerville and Adso are searching for the killer, the Pope orders merciless inquisitor Bernard Gui (Rupert Everett) to destroy the Order of St Francis – with Baskerville on his list.

Emerson plays The Abbot, an “anxious and secretive” man who is tasked with holding the monastery together while the search for the murderer gets underway, all while keeping the lid on simmering tensions between the leadership of the Franciscans and a papal delegation.

“He seems agitated but he knows more than he’s saying about the series of murders that are happening at the abbey,” Emerson teases. “In the end, we find out his secrets will be his own undoing.

Adapted from Umberto Eco’s novel, the series was filmed in Italy

“He’s a churchman but, like many aristocrats of that day and age, if they weren’t born to be warriors, they might often choose a career in the holy orders. So he’s a man of worldly tastes. He likes good food and precious stones and ceremonies – maybe at some cost to his soul.”

The actor describes The Abbot as a “challenging role,” noting that he could have been played as a stiff bureaucrat. Instead, Emerson decided to have a bit more fun with the character. “I thought there might be some extremes of personality or comportment that might be entertaining, adding to that air of this being somewhere else in time and space,” he says. “I tried to look for some kind of voice that served at least a sense or a hint of period and a life doing the ecclesiastical liturgies.”

The length of this television adaptation, four times that of Connery’s movie, means it is able to be more faithful to the source material, including the discussions about the clash of religious powers that feature in Eco’s novel. Emerson did some research into the abbots, priests and churchmen of the period, but says he needed help with a Latin High Mass he has to perform.

“I grew up as a Catholic schoolboy in the 1950s, so I had been to Latin masses, but the memorisation of it was tricky,” he says. “Even though you know what you’re saying, it’s such a tricky set of vowels and intonations, and then you add to that this droning musicality of a churchman who says that mass every day. There’s some challenge to find that voice and that way of singing the mass.”

Technical advisors were also on hand to help him correctly handle the props and the way he addressed the chalice. “Part of the appeal is it’s just so damned educational,” he says of taking on the role. “You get to feel and immerse yourself in some other time period in a way most people get from reading books, but it’s something else to put on the clothes and be in a church like the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, where we shot some of the liturgical scenes. To be in a church that pre-dates the time of the story, it’s spooky and it gets under your skin a little bit. It was a wonderful experience.”

Emerson played Harold Finch in all five seasons of CBS drama Person of Interest

During filming earlier this year, Emerson spent three months in Italy, shooting most of his scenes at the historic Cinecittà film studios on the outskirts of Rome. It was there that he performed against a mixture of exquisitely recreated sets and towering green screens, which were used in post-production to create the scale of the monastery, and in particular an octagon-shaped tower that will rise eight stories into the air.

The actor was also impressed by the camaraderie among the international cast, with Sebastian Koch, James Cosmo, Richard Sammel, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Greta Scarano, Stefano Fresi, Tcheky Karyo and Piotr Adamczyk on the roster. “I just thought everybody was so damned good,” he says. “They clearly all had stage backgrounds and knew how to dig into a character and knew what to do with the language. I was in a state of admiration of everybody’s work because the characters are extreme or very grotesque or very lyrical. Nobody seemed to have any trouble with reaching those levels. I made so many dear friends.”

With actors from across Europe and the US, assistant directors called scenes twice, in Italian and English, meaning Emerson immersed himself in a bilingual experience and even began to pick up a bit of the local language.

“After days of work it just becomes second nature to you, which I thought was useful and became one of the blessings of the project. And it was just fun to trade stories,” he explains. “The life of an actor is so different in European countries than it is in America, and their relish of the work and the process itself would put to shame a lot of the actors I know stateside. I can’t say enough good about the company of this show.”

Emerson describes one of his most memorable scenes as “a passionate moment with a holy statue. I won’t say more than that. It’s part of his private life. He’s a man of worldly passions but can never betray them to anyone else, so he has private ceremonies in his quarters sometimes.”

But despite his eccentricities, The Abbot is a “wonderfully flawed kind of character,” the actor adds. “Although he seems kind of harmless and occasionally even silly, he’s really very dangerous. Maybe that’s just me – I always look for the danger in a character.”

Having become famous around the world for his roles in US network series Lost and Person of Interest, Emerson says he enjoyed finishing a 12-week shoot knowing the project was complete and is now embracing the opportunity to “bounce around” the industry. “I honestly don’t know if I could do an American network series again,” he admits. “It’s a murderous schedule. You find after a decade [across both Lost and Person of Interest], there’s a long list of events of importance to family and loved ones that you have missed or postponed. I’m happy to be able to catch up on my real life a little bit.”

Watch the video below for a first look at the new series:

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Ready to Rook

The supernatural and spy genres fuse together in The Rook, an adaptation of Daniel O’Malley’s novel about a shadowy London agency and a woman suffering total amnesia, set in a world where people have peculiar abilities. Executive producer Stephen Garrett reveals all.

With series such as Stranger Things, A Discovery of Witches and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on screen, supernatural television dramas are a hot topic. But according to executive producer Stephen Garrett, nothing in the genre is quite like forthcoming Starz show The Rook.

Pairing the paranormal with the hallmarks of the spy genre, the eight-part series tells the story of a woman who wakes up in London with no memory of who she is and no way to explain the circle of dead bodies around her. When she discovers she’s a high-ranking official in the Checquy, Britain’s secret service for people with paranormal abilities, she’ll have to navigate the dangerous and complex world of the agency to uncover who wiped her memory and why she’s a target.

Produced by Lionsgate and Liberty Global, the series will air on Starz in the US in 2019, with Liberty Global subsequently rolling it out on its channels in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, including Virgin Media in the UK. Lionsgate is distributing worldwide.

Based on the book by Daniel O’Malley, the series has been three years in the making. US production giant Lionsgate had snared the rights to the novel and then approached Garrett (The Night Manager, Hunted) about overseeing the series, believing it made sense for a “very British story” to be led by a British producer. The story fuses one genre Garrett knows very well and another he was keen to dabble with. “Since Spooks, spy shows have been an important part of my life,” he notes. “This was a very compelling combination.”

Stephen Garrett

British playwrights Sam Holcroft and Al Muriel were brought in to adapt O’Malley’s 2012 book. At that point, they had no screen credits, but they did possess a passion for spies and the supernatural, and had both already read the novel. “We don’t really have a strong tradition of supernatural in mainstream British TV and there are not that many writers who have a track record in it or much interest, so that was an omen,” Garrett says. “I brought them to Lionsgate and thought they would be put into touch, but Lionsgate loved them too.”

Since then, The Rook has become akin to a supernatural shapeshifter, changing form and structure several times – once when the drama was initially picked up by US streamer Hulu, and then again when Lionsgate subsequently placed the show at Starz, following its buyout of the premium cable channel. Two showrunners, Lisa Zwerling (Betrayal) and Karyn Usher (Bones) were then brought in to steer the series through production, a move that coincided with the departure of original executive producer Stephanie Meyer (Twilight).

Zwerling (Betrayal, FlashForward) and Usher (Bones, Prison Break) executive producer via their Carpool Entertainment production company, alongside Garrett under his Character 7 banner.

“The series was developed for Lionsgate and Hulu, but once Starz came on board, we came through a course correction that made the show more interesting,” Garrett explains. “You can go very high concept with supernatural and the danger with that is there’s less of an emotional connection with the central characters. With Starz, that sensibility was realigned to make this feel real.”

To that end, the superpowers featured in the series do not include flying, invisibility or anything that would usually be contained in the pages of a comic book or in a Marvel movie.

“The idea is that all superpowers we see have that origin in nature and the biological world,” Garrett continues, teasing that some may be able to run extremely fast or adopt the shocking qualities of an electric eel. “When you do that, they look like you and me. They’re ordinary and vulnerable and feel like human beings; you care about them. When the central character wakes up with her memory wiped, you imagine what it’s like to be that person. It’s moving and intense.”

Olivia Munn (pictured in X-Men: Apocalypse) plays intelligence officer Monica Reed

The series stars Emma Greenwell (pictured top) as lead character Myfanwy Thomas, with the ensemble cast also including Adrian Lester (Trauma), Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) and Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck). Munn plays Monica Reed, a bold American intelligence officer with subtle supernatural powers who becomes embroiled in the Checquy investigation into her lover’s death, while Richardson is Lady Farrier, the Checquy leader who is also Myfanwy’s mentor.

Lester is Conrad Grantchester, Farrier’s deputy, while Ronan Rafferty (Fantastic Beasts), Catherine Steadman (Downton Abbey) and Jon Fletcher (Genius) play the Gestalt siblings Robert, Eliza and twins Teddy and Alex, respectively.

With the production based at 3 Mills Studios in east London, the English capital city has also become one of the main characters in the series. Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale) directs the premiere.

“It’s recognisably London but what I like about this show and others I have done is that it’s an international eye on London,” Garrett says. “Kari knows London but she looks at it differently from the way we Londoners do. She’s reimagined London. You genuinely see it through a different lens.”

Garrett is no stranger to bringing books to the screen, having partnered with The Ink Factory on John le Carré adaptations The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl, which is coming to the BBC later this year. And while he concedes that the things that make a book popular are not always transferrable to the screen – meaning TV versions often have to be reimaginings rather than dedicated remakes – he says “we have kept much of” The Rook. “Some of my favourite characters are the four Gestalt siblings, who share a hive mind – four distinct individuals but they share one brain. If you make love to one of them, you make love to all of them. It’s possible you might see that acted out on screen,” he jokes.

Adrian Lester, pictured here in Trauma, also stars

“As often happens with beloved novels have been transplanted to the screen, [fans of the book will] recognise the world completely. I think they will love what we have done.”

For a supernatural series, however, it’s notable that Garrett admits to leaving a lot of his CGI budget unspent. This was a deliberate move, he says, as using in-camera effects or avoiding the need for them in the first place makes the drama “more interesting and distinctive.”

“It’s subtle,” he continues. “There’s stuff in-camera but a lot of it is to do with psychology and emotion. Hopefully it’s intelligent drama and allows viewers to join the dots. We’re not dependent on flashes and bangs. It’s a world viewers won’t have seen before.”

That’s just one of the reasons Garrett believes The Rook will stand out among the hundreds of other series that will air in the US next year, not to mention hundreds more around the world.

“If this were just a supernatural show or just a spy show, it would perhaps be fighting for a place in the world, but this fusion of very distinct genres in genuinely unusual,” the exec says. “We absolutely stand out from the crowd. In a world where we have more than 500 distinct dramas on US screens, we have got to be different. This makes it an extraordinary, exciting and challenging time to be a producer, writer or broadcaster.”

The need to stand out also means “ideas that could get you arrested five or seven years ago have suddenly become ideas that will define networks,” he adds. “I grew up with an era of TV that was essentially cop, doc and lawyer shows. If you try and make one of those now, you fall by the wayside because that’s not interesting enough on its own. Ideas that broadcasters feel will help position themselves against their rivals have got a chance of being heard.”

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