All posts by Michael Pickard

Case study

Tobias Lindholm, writer and director of Danish real-life drama Efterforskningen (The Investigation), reveals why he wanted to tell the story of the people working to solve the 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall.

In August 2017, Swedish journalist Kim Wall boarded a submarine to interview its owner, Danish entrepreneur and engineer Peter Madsen. When she was later reported missing after the submarine failed to return, the vessel was discovered to have sunk. Madsen was rescued at sea, but Wall was nowhere to be found.

Over the next 160 days, investigators tirelessly searched for answers to what had happened to her as the story gripped the local and international media. Wall’s torso subsequently washed up on a beach, while divers later found her head, legs, arms and clothes in a stretch of water between Danish capital Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö.

Madsen changed his account of what happened numerous times, at first claiming he had dropped Wall off on land before later stating that he dumped her body at sea after she died accidentally. He also claimed she died after hitting her head on the submarine hatch. But in January 2018, he was charged with murder, and in April that year he was sentenced to life in prison.

Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm had watched the case unfold but had no interest in dramatising it for television. “I didn’t want to be part of that story and I didn’t really see the relevance of a fictionalised version,” he says. His thoughts changed, however, when he met Jens Møller, the head of homicide at Copenhagen Police who had overseen the inquiry into Wall’s murder.

Writer and director Tobias Lindholm pictured during filming

“I’ve been doing material about real events and real people since I began making movies and I knew that I would like to pick his brain,” Lindholm tells DQ. “We ended up having a coffee and he said a couple of things that got me interested. First of all, he talked about his work as a murder investigator and that a human being could die in four different ways: natural causes, accident, suicide and homicide. The idea of being able to talk about death in such a calculated way reminded me of Sherlock Holmes.

“Then he described to me an investigator’s world that didn’t remind me of [US crime procedural] CSI. I realised I had no idea how this guy worked. I had no idea what price they paid and I had no idea how hard they work and how complicated it all was. Later, he told me a bit about this case and his friendship with Kim’s parents. Those two elements started to boil in my brain.”

Møller also spoke about the other officers involved in the case, the numerous police divers who scanned the seabed for clues and the Swedish police dogs, trained to smell human remains underwater, that were brought in to assist the human investigators.

“Suddenly from being a terrible, brutal case that I forced myself to look away from, it became a story about companionship, friendship, love and standing together. That fascinated me,” Lindholm says. “I realised I could tell a story about a case that was already known to the world but from a new angle that would be humanising and warm, and in some way would give hope from darkness. That intrigued me.”

The result is six-part drama Efterforskningen (The Investigation). Played by Søren Malling (A Hijacking, Borgen), Møller is at the show’s centre, leading viewers through the complex jigsaw he and his team must piece together to provide prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk) with the evidence he needs to secure a guilty verdict against the murder suspect.

Soren Malling leads The Investigation’s cast as real-life investigator Jens Møller

It’s not just Møller’s professional life that is put under scrutiny, however, but his personal life too, as his relationships with his wife and his daughter are impacted by his career.

“He was brave,” Lindholm says of Møller. “I promised him to be as objective and precise as possible. Normally the cliché is we have a chief investigator who’s already darkened by all the crime and all the brutality he has witnessed throughout his career and has been dehumanised by that – he is not able to maintain a marriage, he is not able to maintain friendships, he’s drinking too much and, in so many ways, is a damaged human being.

“What is brilliant about Jens and what makes him a great investigator is his humanity. The way he offered friendship and passion towards Kim’s parents was just inspiring because it gave me an insight into people who found each other in the darkness and walked towards the light. If I needed anything at the time, and still do, it’s stories about hope that remind us of how important we are to each other. Jens was a perfect ambassador for that. I don’t remember ever seeing a chief investigator of homicide being this human and being this normal.”

Also integral to the story are Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall, played by Pernilla August (Star Wars) and Rolf Lassgård (The Hunters). It was after Lindholm was first introduced to them by Møller and he heard how Joachim became involved in the investigation himself that he decided to pursue his idea for the series.

“It seems like you would always feel the relatives would be some sort of obstacle for the investigators to get by. But in this case, they were actually part of the investigation and they’ve been very close to this production,” Lindholm says. “For me, it’s a story about three people. It’s about Ingrid, Joachim and Jens and how they found each other.”

Pilou Asbæk, known for playing Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, is Jakob Buch-Jepsen

Adding a further layer of authenticity is the fact that many of the people – including divers, sailors and scientists – who featured in the real case also play either themselves or background characters, while real Swedish police dogs also appear.

“It’s a story that shows their heroic work more than anything,” Lindholm says. “I wanted them to be to be part of it and, luckily, a lot of them wanted to be part of it.”

In contrast, Lindholm completely cuts out the accused, who is never mentioned by name, while Kim Wall is only portrayed on screen through the words of her parents.

“Nobody knows what happened [on the submarine] and I didn’t want to guess, so I decided to make it a story about Jens Møller and his investigation, which is why it’s called The Investigation. The case opens when it lands on Jens’ desk and it ends when he passes the case to the prosecutor. The perpetrator had been mentioned enough already. I had nothing to add. And I don’t think a story about heroes and a story about hope needed him. I needed all of those who had not been spoken about.

“When we meet other people, they needed to have some sort of effect on the investigation and on Jens’ work. I did not want to add things from the outside that didn’t have a direct effect on the investigation, and therefore we ended up leaving the perpetrator outside and only giving insight to Kim when it came from her parents.”

With the series entirely based on facts surrounding the case, Lindholm avoided using creative licence in any area outside of Møller’s family life, where events and timelines have sometimes been moved or condensed. He spent hours talking to Møller and the Walls, before locking himself away for six months to write the scripts. Occasionally, he would allow producers from Fremantle-owned Danish production company Miso Film to see what he was working on.

Rolf Lassgård and Pernilla August play the parents of murder victim Kim Wall

“I decided to just sit down and write it myself. And then afterwards I would hire researchers that would double-check facts so that I wouldn’t have anything in this story that we couldn’t find in two other places, like in a radio show and a newspaper,” he explains. “The most important part was I didn’t want to make true crime. I was not fascinated with the crime. This is true investigation. Step by step, we follow the investigation.”

Borgen writer Lindholm has worked with Malling for more than 10 years, and says the actor – who he describes as one of Denmark’s finest – was the natural choice to play Møller. “I know with him I don’t get a well-trained circus animal. I get a live human being,” he says. “He will offer emotion, realism and naturalism that I know the camera will love. It was easy to call him and ask him, and luckily he said yes. He and Jens spent a lot of time together. They both have had jobs that demand a lot from them and they could connect to each other from a private point of view, being fathers and husbands and knowing the price of long, rough careers.”

Behind the camera, Lindholm is known for the handheld style he has used in films including The Hijacking and A War to bring an immediacy to proceedings. But after working with David Fincher on Netflix FBI thriller Mindhunter, an experience he describes as a “very privileged film school,” Lindholm developed new ways of directing to underline the psychology and emotional power of a scene, which he then employed in The Investigation.

“With my DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, who has shot everything I’ve directed except Mindhunter, we decided to work more stylistically, allowing ourselves to relax and just be in the moment and be present in the settings instead of constantly hunting action with a handheld camera.”

Malling also contributed to Møller’s portrayal on camera, asking Lindholm to allow his character to disappear into his thoughts from time to time. So in episode one, the camera flits back and forth between Møller and other characters as they talk to each other. But as the series progresses, the camera has more patience with the lead investigator as the camera anticipates his next move.

The drama is produced by Denmark’s Miso Film

“We have more patience with him at the end, more than we had in the beginning, which was, of course, the plan,” Lindholm says. “The idea was that we would get to know him [through the series], as would the audience.”

Filming scenes on the open water, Lindholm also chose to keep the camera above the surface, rather than showing the divers underwater, so viewers must wait for answers alongside Møller and his team on the boat.

“Anybody who knows Denmark would know that the weather changes five times a day, so the idea that we could plan any sort of shooting on water was just crazy,” the director says. “Then we added Swedish dogs to the boats, which didn’t make it easier. But the biggest gifts came with that. The fact that we had the real divers with us, the real dogs, the real scientists, I felt a responsibility I haven’t felt before in terms of making sure I told the truth about these police officers, first responders, divers and everybody who was involved with the case.

“I felt the case itself had been covered enough, so the hard part was to constantly focus on what the interesting part of the investigation was. That’s where the big battle was won for me. Then, of course, we could not be seduced into the grief and into the fascination of the darkness. I had to constantly remind myself this is a story about hope, love and compassion.”

Ahead of the launch of Efterforskningen on Denmark’s TV2 on September 28, Madsen is back in the news after admitting to the murder in a new documentary. “It’s not new. He admitted to this a long time ago,” Lindholm says. “From the perspective of her parents, that he comes with a new explanation is not a surprise. The truth is that he’s been convicted with the highest imprisonment in Danish law so, for them, that’s enough.”

Believing people are too attracted by tales of darkness, Lindholm hopes Efterforskningen will show how this particular story is also one about hard work, sacrifice and people helping each other. Distributed by Fremantle, Miso Film produce the series in cooperation with Outline Film with Sweden’s SVT and Nordic Entertainment Group’s Viaplay, with the BBC in the UK and Germany’s RTL also picking up the series.

“Even though they were caught in the darkest hours, these people, the parents and the investigators, they found each other and, against all odds, they found a way towards the light,” Lindholm says. “That itself is inspiring and a story worth telling.”

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Rebuilding Utopia

Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn is bringing her take on British conspiracy thriller Utopia to Amazon Prime Video. The showrunner and executive producer Sharon Levy tell DQ about why the series is more important – and prescient – than ever.

If it has been more than seven years since British conspiracy thriller Utopia first aired on Channel 4, Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn has been working on a US adaptation for almost as long.

“It’s funny because when I first started writing the show, I immediately got pregnant with my daughter,” Flynn tells DQ. “I can look at her and literally look at the chronology of the show. [When she was a baby, I was thinking] ‘The show’ll probably get made next year.’ And then she’s a toddler and now she’s starting first grade. There’s a walking human to mark how long a road it’s been.”

Flynn had initially set up the series at HBO with director David Fincher (House of Cards). But in 2015, before a pilot was filmed, the premium cablenet pulled out of the project.

Gillian Flynn

Five years later, Flynn’s eight-part Utopia is set to debut on Amazon Prime Video. Inspired by Dennis Kelly’s original series, it centres on a group of comic fans who meet online and bond over their obsession with a seemingly fictional comic called Utopia. Together, Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) unearth hidden meanings cloaked within its pages that predict threats to humanity. And they soon realise these are not just the makings of a conspiracy – they are very real dangers coming alive in their world.

The group then embarks on a high-stakes adventure, bringing them face-to-face with the comic’s famed central character, Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), who joins them on their mission to save the world while harbouring secrets of her own.

The series also stars John Cusack in his first series-regular role for television as Dr Kevin Christie. The Office star Rainn Wilson plays Dr Michael Stearns, while Farrah Mackenzie is Alice, Christopher Denham is Arby and Cory Michael Smith is Thomas Christie.

“I just got so attached to it and it got so close to being made [at HBO] but then fell apart, as these things sometimes to do,” Flynn says. “At some point, it’s turned into pure stubbornness and I felt I just had to get this goddamn thing made. I spent a couple of years of my creative life working on it. I had these characters that I loved and I felt like I had just abandoned them. They’ve become so real to me. It was like, ‘I can’t leave Wilson Wilson.’”

Flynn says she became hooked on two elements of the original series. One was the idea of what the very existence of humans is doing to the world – a concept represented on screen by Cusack’s Dr Christie.

“He has a litany where he says [to his family before dinner], ‘What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?’ And to me, when I figured out that line, a lot of what interested me so much in Dennis’s work really came to the forefront,” she says. “It’s that idea of what is your purpose? What are you doing? Are you justifying the space that you’re taking? Because the world is very crowded and we all need to be contributing something at this point. I like the idea of taking that to the extreme.”

Utopia is based on the British series that originally aired on Channel 4

The second attraction for Flynn was the fact Utopia is “a really juicy conspiracy thriller,” which she believes chimes with aspects of contemporary society where the idea of truth is growing increasingly murky.

“Everyone’s definition of what is true can be changed. Even science is becoming politicised,” she notes. “The longer this cursed thing took to get made, the more truthful that became. Trump becomes president and we hear lines like ‘alternative truths.’ It just felt like right now we’re very ripe for a conspiracy thriller.

“I love Dennis’s version and he was such a gent for letting me stomp around in his world. He was much more gracious than I would be if someone had taken my stuff and just played around with it. He always kept saying, ‘Well, why bother doing a remake unless you’re really remaking it?’ He was always so encouraging and lovely, and that gave me that room to really feel like I could take his beautiful DNA and make this for a new generation.”

But while Kelly took his cues from the world of graphic novels, Flynn looked to 1970s conspiracy thrillers set post-Watergate for her own inspiration.

“I was looking at The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. When I was pitching it after it fell apart at HBO, I was calling it ‘The Goonies meets Marathon Man,’” she says. “I wanted it to feel very grounded, so that’s where that idea started from. Trump became president and truth became even more debatable. And now we’re in this world of QAnon and all these different conspiracies, and it just felt like the right time for a good, juicy conspiracy thriller.”

The drama’s cast includes John Cusack in his first series-regular role

Then, of course, there’s the discovery of a new virus predicted in the pages of Utopia that will make Flynn’s version even more timely when it launches this Friday on Amazon in the US, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, India and Japan. Dubbed foreign-language versions will launch later this autumn, when the series will also roll out in other territories.

“Dennis is Nostradamus,” Flynn jokes. “It was funny because, when I was pitching it, one of the big questions was, ‘Will people really buy that a big bug is coming? Will people really go along with us?’ I was like, ‘That’s the one element that’s a little sci fi, but we’ll get there.’ We had finished filming [by the time Covid-19 emerged at the start of this year] and I was editing, doing a lot of it on my laptop. I would look at my scene and it was the hot zone, viruses and vaccines, and then I would look up at the TV news and it was the hot zone, viruses and vaccines. It was very strange.”

The showrunner says she hopes there is a “nice balance” between the original Utopia and her series, which builds on “brilliant” elements of the funny, heartwarming and sometimes violent British drama but adds new characters, twists and plotlines. For fans of Kelly’s series, there are also a couple of Easter Eggs to discover, such as a handwritten note that says ‘Call Dennis K’ while Wilson has a photo on his wall of the original Wilson, played by Adeel Akhtar.

“It’s not a slavish remake at all,” Flynn says. “I’ve never loved movie adaptations of books that are so precious that they haven’t really made it a movie, they’ve just put the book onto film. I watched Dennis’s show and made notes and then never looked at it again, because that’s a dangerous way to try to do a remake. I took two lines of dialogue and all the rest is just me just writing.

“I loved the dynamics of who I called the ‘nerds’ – Becky, Ian, Samantha and Wilson Wilson.  And I created the John Cusack character because it felt like anything to do with pandemics and pharmaceuticals should have an Elon Musk-type of philanthropist. Those are our new superstars right now; they’re almost like athletes. They have such followings.”

Ashleigh LaThrop (left) as Becky alongside Sasha Lane as Jessica Hyde

Kelly is an executive producer alongside Flynn’s Sharp Objects collaborator Jessica Rhoades, Sharon Levy, Sharon Hall, Toby Haynes and Karen Wilson. The series is a coproduction between Endemol Shine North America (ESNA), Kudos and Amazon Studios.

Levy came to the project when she joined ESNA as president of scripted and unscripted television in August 2017, by which point Flynn had written all eight scripts.

“This is definitely her vision. This is her baby,” Levy says of showrunner Flynn. “If you’re a fan of her books and [HBO’s 2018 adaptation of Flynn’s novel] Sharp Objects, you feel her humour. She has a great sense of dark humour that really flows through the whole series. This is a much more grounded version. This is a whole new thing.

“Gillian, myself, Sharon Hall and Karen Wilson – the ladies headed out and pitched it and Amazon just really understood Gillian’s vision for it and jumped at it. And here we are. We added another lady, Jessica Rhoades, and then we all set out to champion Gillian and make a great show.”

Sharon Levy

Filming took place in and around Chicago, with Flynn overseeing every element of the production. “Gillian’s stamp is on every detail,” Levy says. “For me, it’s all about making things that feel really unique, that have a specific storyteller at the helm and that have a style. We [at ESNA] don’t take out tons of stuff. It goes back to wanting to make things that we feel are unique, different, culturally impactful and have something to say about the world we live in. It’s about quality, not quantity, and the right storytellers.”

What also stands out for Levy is the number of women working on the show behind the scenes. “It’s interesting that at the core of the show is a comic book,” she notes. “I have a 13-year-old and we’ve been going to Comic-Con for years as a mum-son outing, so it’s kind of fun for me to get to make something that gives credit to that world.

“I love the idea of this group of nerds, as we refer to them lovingly. It’s almost like, ‘What makes a family?’ It’s not necessarily who you’re born into. It’s what you connect over, and the idea that a group of unlikely heroes get to be part of something so big and so scary and fail and succeed is what makes it unique and exciting. It’s just not a typical story. Nothing Gillian does is ever typical. That’s really what makes it so special.”

As well as writing books including Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, former journalist Flynn wrote on the HBO adaptation of Sharp Objects and penned the screenplays for the 2014 film version of Gone Girl and 2018 heist thriller movie Widows, which she co-wrote with director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Flynn believes writing Widows provided a “great training ground” for Utopia, as it too was based on a British TV series, created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).

“I was working on that while I was doing Utopia and I did that same sort of thing: you get to watch it once, you get to take your notes and get that gut reaction of the different plot twists and character turns and moments that you absolutely have to have and that you love,” she says. “But we have a bad habit in the US of loving UK TV and not quite figuring out how to adapt it. You’re either changing it too much or you’re just like, ‘But it’s America,’ and then it’s like, ‘You didn’t make that worth us rewatching it.’”

Desmin Borges plays Wilson Wilson

Flynn was also intrigued by Utopia’s mysterious antagonist, Mr Rabbit, and his origins and ambitions. “I didn’t want a bad guy or a bad girl who was obviously bad. I love messing with people’s feelings,” Flynn admits. “I did write Gone Girl, and it’s the same thing with Silence of the Lambs, where you find yourself completely charmed by Hannibal Lecter, who is a cannibal.

“I wanted to get a little bit more into the philosophy of why Mr Rabbit is doing what he’s doing. It was fun to make up this whole background that we get into a little bit. Very few villains think they’re villains in real life. At that moment of the reveal, when you find out who Mr Rabbit is and what Mr Rabbit wants, I want half the audience to be arms crossed and be like, ‘It’s horrible, it’s disgraceful,’ and the other half to be like, ‘I kind of see the point here,’ and to have that divided loyalty.”

Although Flynn published short story The Grownup in 2015, it has been almost 10 years since the release of Gone Girl, her last full novel. The writer says she is now finishing her eagerly anticipated fourth novel, which she “kept kicking down the road when I got so entranced by writing for film.” But her love of film and television – her father was a film professor – means she also intends to continue writing for the screen .

“I really love the world of Utopia and I love the experience of being a showrunner,” she says. “For me, it was like being a novelist, realising that you can use everything on screen to tell a story, from what kind of belt a character wears to whether they have family photos or no family photos.

“It was so much fun to play in that world, so I’m excited to get back in there. I definitely know where I want everyone to go. I’m already thinking about them. That’s a good sign.”

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Unhappy holidays

Us director Geoffrey Sax tells DQ how the BBC drama was filmed across Europe to tell the story of a family on the verge of splitting up as they embark on one final holiday together.

While four-part miniseries Us takes viewers on a journey across Europe, filming the BBC drama was anything but a holiday for director Geoffrey Sax.

Based on the novel by David Nicholls, who has adapted his own story for the screen, Us introduces Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander), who is blindsided when his wife Connie (Saskia Reeves) tells him their marriage is over. But with a grand tour of Europe planned before their son Albie (Tom Taylor) heads to university, they agree to still go on the family holiday, while Douglas vows to win back the love of his wife and repair his troubled relationship with his son.

While Douglas has mapped out their trip to take in 12 cities in four countries over three weeks, the production team had just 12 weeks to film the series, recording scenes in and around London, Amsterdam, Paris, Venice and Barcelona.

“They decide to go to France, Spain, Italy and Holland, so all in all we shot in five countries, including the UK,” says Sax. “Douglas says on the train to Paris that they’re a bit like U2 going to all these countries, and we felt a bit like that too. We were constantly travelling to all these different cities.”

The director compares planning the tight shooting schedule to a military operation, with producer Hannah Pescod, line producer Pat Lees and first assistant director Matt Jennings plotting every stop and linking up with local production companies and location managers along the way. Drama Republic produces the show, with BBC Studios distributing.

Us director Geoffrey Sax (centre, holding monitor) on location next to script supervisor Lindsay Grant

“We were on a very tight schedule. It was very ambitious because it was a BBC budget, it wasn’t a Netflix budget, so we had to do it in a certain timeframe over 12 weeks in these five countries, and that included travel and everything else,” Sax says. “There was very little room for anything to go wrong. Fortunately, the weather was for us. We only had one day of rain in the whole three months, on our last day in Barcelona. It was just an extraordinary logistical operation.”

The production train started out in London before heading to Paris, then Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona, where filming also took place in nearby Vic and Sitges. With limited time in each location, Sax was intent on recording as much of the spirit of each city as possible, without the series ever turning into a tourism film.

“In Paris we went out on the streets wherever we could. We filmed at the Louvre, which is closed on Tuesdays so we had the place to ourselves. We did a load of exterior hotel stuff,” he says, before revealing some of the location tricks that appear throughout the series. “We did the interior of the Paris hotel in Croydon, in south London, while the breakfast room was in Harefield [in north-west London]. In Amsterdam, we filmed at the central station, got as many canals as we could and filmed at the Rijksmuseum. But the hotel stairwell in Amsterdam was shot in Paris.”

The Amsterdam hotel bedroom was set up at Twickenham Film Studios and the breakfast room was in Croydon, while various bars set in the Dutch city were actually dressed in London.

“We filmed in Venice at the end of the schedule but we only had a day-and-a-half, so it was incredibly tight,” Sax continues. “We just got as much as we could of Venice, with Douglas arriving on the Grand Canal. We went to the fish market and whipped around everywhere by boat. The organisation was incredible. We ended up at the Santa Maria della Salute, so we got a lot of bang for our buck there.

“Venice spans two episodes, so we did a lot of it not in Venice. The exterior of the hotel was filmed in the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, the bedroom was done here [in the UK], the reception was in Barcelona. There’s a tourist shop that was in Vic. A lot of the walk-and-talks Douglas has with Freya [The Killing star Sophie Gråbøl] were done in and around Vic, which is a lovely city outside Barcelona. We didn’t go to Sienna [in Italy] so most of the shots there were done in Vic.

The BBC drama stars Saskia Reeves and Tom Hollander

“Then in Barcelona, we tried to get as much as we could of Las Ramblas, tapas bars and the markets and churros bars. We went to the Miró Museum, and filmed the hotel reception at the Sheraton Skyline in Heathrow. The bedroom was the Holiday Inn in Barnet. We did go to Sitges, where we shot on the beach and the hotel exterior. The Barcelona hospital was done in Ely, near Cambridge, so the whole thing was a massive cheat. We needed to spend a little time in each country but, when we were there, because it’s so expensive, we wanted to get as much of a feel of those countries as possible and experience the grand tour with them.”

Victoria and Agatha Raisin director Sax says he didn’t want the camera to be noticeable in Us, preferring a classical visual style to tell an intimate character story that is filled with Nicholls’ trademark humour and heartbreak.

“It’s all about emotion, so I was using lots of close-ups but keeping it simple. I didn’t see it as a hugely handheld show,” he says. “There are different styles for different shows. The camera work is quite fluid, but I didn’t want it to be whipping from one character to another – what we call a nervous camera. I thought that would be distracting. I saw this as a Roman Holiday-type film. We used different colour palettes for each country and it got more colourful.”

The shoot was complicated further by flashback scenes that take the story into two different periods that recall how Douglas and Connie first met and how their relationship developed.

“We tended to be a little bit more fluid and handheld because they were younger and more exuberant and had their lives ahead of them,” Sax says of filming the flashbacks. “We didn’t go into black and white or do echoes or wobbles to get into the flashbacks. We tried to keep it as natural and unnoticeable as possible. Our production designer, Claire Kenny, had a lot of fun furnishing the house where young Douglas’s sister has a dinner party, and that’s where young Douglas meets young Connie 24 years ago. That was great to do, using music of the period and props.”

These significantly younger versions of Douglas and Connie are played by Iain De Caestecker and Gina Bramhill respectively. But for scenes set just 10 years ago, make-up designer Lucy Cain turned Hollander and Reeves into their younger selves.

Us was filmed in and around London, Amsterdam, Paris, Venice and Barcelona

“Lucy had a real job on her hands because also there’s a time in it in Sitges where Douglas gets sunburned and half of his face is bright red and she had to plot when that faded,” Sax says. “He couldn’t look like that for the rest of the story, so all that had to be really intricately planned. The whole thing was a huge exercise in figuring it out. It’s usually like a jigsaw puzzle anyway and this one was a giant one.”

Hollander describes the Petersens’ trip as the “holiday from hell.” It’s also a romcom in reverse, he says, as the break-up of Douglas and Connie’s marriage plays out in the present while the story of how they got to that point is slowly revealed.

“You see the distance between them and the things they don’t share in common, and then you see them in the past and how, when they were young, those things attracted them to each other but now they’re just irritating to each other, and they’re very poignant,” says the actor, who also exec produces through Bandstand Productions, the production company he runs with Pescod.

“The main energy of the story is Douglas trying to save his marriage and save his relationship with his son. It’s a tragicomic tale of someone trying to do that, with very witty dialogue from David Nicholls.”

Reeves believes many viewers will relate to the scenario facing the couple at the heart of the series: “There’s a lot of humour in the way [Nicholls] observes people. He’s an incredible observer of character, yet it’s also very painful because you see these people you grow to like who can’t somehow be happy together. You want them to be, but then you think, ‘Maybe they’re not really made for each other.’”

Sax expects the audience will be rooting for all three of the main characters to find their happiness, even if it means they won’t be reunited by the end of the story.

“Tom Hollander is such an extraordinary actor that, even when you know Douglas is being stupid, you’re always rooting for him and feeling empathy towards him,” the director says. “He does get himself into a hell of a mess. Connie ends up wanting to stop the holiday completely and everything falls apart but all the way, you’re rooting for him. You’re actually rooting for her as well. You always see both sides, and that’s the genius of David Nicholls’ writing.

“There’s certainly a lot of beautiful scenery to see. It’s so rare you pick up a script and think, ‘I really want to do this one.’ It’s so beautifully written. The whole thing was very well planned out at script stage. Adapting a book is always a huge thing. There was a lot of script development and they just got it right.”

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Science future

German writer and director Christian Ditter tells DQ about making his showrunning debut with Biohackers, a Netflix original series dealing with love, revenge and revolutionary scientific technology.

Since moving to LA, German writer and director Christian Ditter has helmed movies including How to Be Single, starring Leslie Mann and Rebel Wilson, and the Lily Collins-led Love, Rosie. He was also a producing director on Netflix original series Girlboss, which led him to pitch the streamer an idea for a thriller about biohacking.

Ditter grew up as a fan of Jurassic Park and Westworld creator Michael Crichton’s books and movies, as well as films from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, the company behind titles such as ET and Gremlins. They informed his first movies in Germany, which he describes as kids’ adventures like cult classic The Goonies.

But it was after talking to some scientist friends that he struck on the idea behind six-part Netflix series Biohackers.

Christian Ditter

“I asked them, ‘What is it that keeps you awake at night? Is it is it artificial intelligence taking over the world?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s long gone. Synthetic biology is the next big thing that’s really interesting.’ And I had no idea what that was,” Ditter tells DQ.

“I knew the term, but I didn’t know what it was or what you could do with it. I wasn’t even looking for a topic for a film or show, it was just out of pure interest. Then I found it stayed with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I came from the theme of synthetic biology to biohacking because that’s a really fascinating aspect of it. Stuff that, 10 years ago, you could only do in super-high-security labs 10 stories underground, people can do now at the kitchen table if they have the knowledge. I thought this was fascinating and scary at the same time.”

Marking Ditter’s showrunning debut, Biohackers mixes themes of friendship, love and revenge, asking what would happen if students were secretly experimenting with biohacking technologies that could change humanity.

At the centre of the story is the rivalry between two women: Mia (Luna Wedler) is a medicine student, while Professor Tanja Lorenz (Jessica Schwarz) is a famous bio-scientist and lecturer.

College freshman Mia enrols at Freiburg University’s prestigious medical school, but her interest in revolutionary biohacking – where people implant computer chips, sensors and other tech into their bodies – is not just academic. Her goal is to gain the trust of star lecturer Lorenz, knowing they are connected by a dark secret.

To shed light on the mysterious death of her brother, Mia enters a dangerous world of illegal genetic experiences. When she meets genius biologist Jasper and his brooding roommate Niklas, she is forced to decide between her principles and her feelings, between avenging her family and protecting her new friends.

“I wanted to have a character with a strong agenda and a strong personal agenda,” Ditter says of Mia. “I wanted a main character who takes things into her own hands. She needed a strong motivation. I wanted her to be like the Terminator: she never stops, no matter what gets thrown in her way.

Biohackers stars Luna Wedler as student Mia

“I also wanted her to go up against a big opponent, somebody very powerful who is hard to reach. Mia has a strong personal agenda to go up against this professor and we ultimately have two characters following their goals. But at a certain point, there comes a threshold for Mia where she has to decide, ‘Is this next step really worth it to follow my goals, or do I back off in order to do the right thing?’ The two characters have different answers to that question. The interesting parts happen when one of the characters makes a move the other one – and the audience – didn’t anticipate. That’s where a lot of the fun comes from.”

After Ditter finished working on Girlboss, Netflix asked him what he wanted to do next. The streamer was in the market for more German-language series, or shows set in Germany, following the success of sci-fi series Dark, and executives there picked up on Ditter’s interest in biohacking. They commissioned a pilot script and a series bible, and then set up a writers room with Nikolaus Schulz-Dornburg, Tanja Bubbel and Johanna Thalmann, who wrote episodes four, five and six. Ditter penned the first three.

He says there’s very little dramatic licence in the series when it comes to the science featured, with everything in the show either being done in labs already or being developed. “The only thing we did take creative licence with is a timeline, because if you do synthetic biology, it takes years and years of failure until you succeed,” Ditter notes. “But content-wise, we had a lot of scientific advisers on board all the time. What’s so interesting about the subject matter is nobody knows about it.”

Ditter took his showrunning cues from Girlboss creator Kay Cannon, describing his experience leading Biohackers as a “jump into the deep end of a swimming pool.” But having written movies on his own, he was buoyed by the collaborative nature of the writers room that allowed him to throw ideas around. The challenge came when pre-production began with only two scripts written, meaning he had to juggle running the room and his directing duties. He helms the first three episodes, with Tim Trachte shooting episodes four to six.

Jessica Schwarz plays Professor Tanja Lorenz

“Some of the things you run into during prep, like locations, also inspire the writing,” he says. “For example, some of the more crazy biohacks like the bioano, a plant-based bio piano, we saw on location recces when we were visiting the labs of real biohackers. I could integrate that into the writing because I just was standing in rooms like that while I was prepping.

“My life is easier when I have somebody like Kay who was great and writes things you can just take and direct. But since Biohackers was my own show, I had a very strong idea of how it should feel and look. I liked the fluidness of the situation, that you could take ideas from location recces and casting and bring them into the writing.”

Ditter admits he often imagines particular actors in roles as he’s writing them, and it just so happened that his preferred options for both Mia and Lorentz ended up joining the show, which is produced by Claussen+Putz Filmproduktion.

“I had seen Luna, who plays Mia, in a movie the year before and thought she was fantastic. I didn’t say, ‘OK, she has to play it or nobody else can,’ but it was always in the back of my head that it would be great if she did,” he says. “Then we offered her the part and she wanted to play it.

“For Professor Lorentz, we had different versions of her in writing. When I started to think about casting, I know Jessica as a music television anchor years and years ago. I started to think she would be really interesting for the part, and that informed the writing. It was a little bit more targeted towards her. We offered her the part and she took it immediately.”

Netflix has already greenlit a second season

Most of the production took place in Munich, where Ditter lives when he’s not in LA. Mia’s apartment was built on the backlot at Bavaria Film Studios so the exteriors could be shot without the use of backdrops. The cast and crew also spent a week in Freiburg to capture exterior scenes around the university that serves as the setting for much of the drama.

Following the launch of Biohackers last month, Ditter says it has been interesting to watch how different people respond to the story. “Different people watch it differently, and everybody sees what they have inside themselves, which I find fascinating,” he says. “The best thing I could ask for is if people ask themselves, ‘How would I have handled this situation? What is the choice I would have made?’ What I find interesting is if it gets people thinking. That’s all I can ask for.”

Despite viewing figures being a closely guarded secret at Netflix, enough people have already watched Biohackers for the show to earn a second season, with filming beginning on another six episodes last Wednesday. Fans will be particularly pleased at the news, given how Ditter openly admits he chose to end season one on a “big cliffhanger” without any confirmation whether he would be allowed to finish the story.

“We didn’t know that we would get renewed. It was just a shot in the dark,” he says. “It would have been very frustrating for audiences if we didn’t get renewed, so we are very thankful Netflix pulled the trigger. We had some ideas for where season two might go when we were writing season one, but season one was our focus and we have a massive question mark at the end, which we will answer now in season two.

“If not enough people are watching the show, then it doesn’t really matter if it ends in a frustrating way. And if enough people see the show, which is happily the case now, then that means enough people wanted to see what goes on and then they’ll find out anyway. But it was a risk, absolutely.”

Amid the Covid filming restrictions put in place by the production team, Casarotto Ramsay-repped Ditter says season two will be a more intimate story, with the scripts also avoiding scenes featuring large crowds, such as those shot inside packed lecture theatres or at student parties.

“I find that [approach] interesting creatively, but it also helps the production environment, obviously,” he says. “Let’s see how it goes.”

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Murder in suburbia

The cast and creative team behind ITV true crime drama Des discuss their approach to portraying Dennis Nilsen, who murdered 15 people over five years in one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history.

While David Tennant was on the hunt for a killer, he also began talks about playing one. The former Doctor Who star was on the set of hit crime drama Broadchurch, in which he played a detective investigating a murder in a small town, when he started discussing a project that aimed to dramatise one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history.

Known as the ‘Kindly Killer,’ Dennis Nilsen murdered a number of boys and young men between 1978 and 1983. He would meet and befriend his victims, who were often homeless or living in poverty, before inviting them back to his North London flat.

‘He looks a bit like you’ – David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen

When he was caught on February 9, 1983, he admitted 15 murders, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer at the time. But frustrating the police and the investigating detectives, he said he couldn’t remember his victims’ names. With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police started one of the country’s biggest ever manhunts – not for the murderer but the murdered.

Tennant, who plays Nilsen in the three-part drama called Des, met director Lewis Arnold on the set of Broadchurch and discussed the project, which Arnold had been developing with writer Luke Neal based on Nilsen biographer Brian Masters’ book Killing for Company.

“I’d read Killing for Company many years before, partly because I lived just down the road from Cranley Gardens [where Nilsen lived], so it felt like a bit of local history,” Tennant says. “And also because here was this bloke who, a couple of people had said, ‘He looks a bit like you.’ As an actor you think, ‘Does he?’ Then you start investigating this story and it’s unfathomable. What is the psychology that allows someone to have this extraordinary double life that he was leading?

“I read a very early draft Luke had written. It absolutely found the right way to tell this story. It wasn’t sensationalist, it wasn’t celebrating the violence. It was memorialising the victims, if it was doing anything. This is a story we should tell. I was 12 when he was arrested so it was a name I was aware of. He was a boogey man in the national conscience. It’s taken about five years from when we first started talking about it to getting it on screen. With these stories, it’s tricky to get the balance right because you want to tell it with appropriateness, you want to tell it with a sensitivity. You don’t want to slip into sensationalism, which would be too easy to do and would not serve the victims of this.”

Told from the perspectives of three men, the story opens when Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) is called to a flat in Cranley Gardens following the discovery of a drain clogged with rotting flesh and bones. When Nilsen (Tennant) returns home to find the police waiting for him, he freely admits to killing “15 or 16, I think.” As DCI Jay attempts to secure a conviction and identify the victims, biographer Masters (Jason Watkins) attempts to find out why he did it.

But what is unusual about this crime drama is that viewers don’t witness any of Nilsen’s crimes, only meeting him as he is arrested and begins his startling confession.

“Very early on we knew we didn’t want to show any of the crimes, simply because in our view the only thing those poor men did was go home with someone they met in the pub for a few more drinks,” Neal says. “They didn’t deserve to be gratuitously shown in a TV drama in the moment of their death. We wanted to tell another story, which is the human cost of Dennis Nilsen – what comes after he’s caught and the people who have to investigate what had happened for five years.”

Nilsen freely admitted to the murders after his arrest

Arnold says another reason to avoid showing his crimes is that Nilsen was the only person who could have given an account of them. “You can’t really focus on the crimes themselves because the details of those crimes come from the person we’re trying to interrogate and question in terms of what he’s saying, who he is and what he’s done,” the director says. “You can’t quite trust the events themselves anyway. We knew it was not a thing we could do.”

But one thing they did want to do was shine a light on the victims and correct some of the “misinformation and mistruths” about them. “Those prejudices meant this narrative had been skewed somewhat for the last 35 years,” Neal says. “It became quite a duty of ours, in developing the script, that we righted some wrongs and corrected mistruths people had had for so long.”

Relatives of the victims were approached before filming began, with some willing to speak to the production team and others not wanting to be involved.

“This is incredibly raw for a lot of people. This is a real tragedy and there are real victims at the heart of the drama,” says producer Kim Varvell. “It’s about approaching things with empathy and sensitivity, whether people didn’t want to be involved or did. We had a lot of interaction with Brian Masters. Peter Jay had passed away but we spoke to police officers so we could get as much of an understanding of the people who were involved and had interaction with Nilsen.”

Mays met Jay’s widow and son, who gave the actor a “blueprint” with which to portray the “diligent, hard-working, experienced” policeman leading the investigation, which the actor describes as a “murder case in reverse.”

“As soon as they arrested him and interrogated him, he didn’t stop talking,” Mays says of Nilsen. “Nilsen said himself it was like he was unburdening himself. He named 15 victims but because he disposed of the bodies in the way he did, there was hardly any evidence. Peter wanted to get closure for the families. It’s very telling that two years after the Nilsen case he left the police force. He was absolutely bruised by it. It was draining for him. For whatever reason, he decided he’d had enough and stepped away from it.”

Jason Watkins (right) plays Nilsen biographer Brian Masters

Watkins had previously won a Bafta for his real-life portrayal of the title character in another ITV miniseries, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries. For Des, he met with “eloquent” Masters, who he says was appalled at how the media at the time had “inferred the disfunctionality of a murderer is somehow akin to the perceived disfunctionality of being homosexual.”

Masters, Watkins says, “was amazed at the way this person could do such things and the growing horror as it appeared on television.”

To play Nilsen, Tennant studied footage of him, as well as reading about him and speaking to those who knew him. But he says he was keen to avoid doing an impersonation of a figure many viewers might remember.

“What’s important is you’re trying to get to the truth of something, something you can recognise as a human being, especially someone who is not like so many of us,” he explains. “I did spend quite a lot of time studying him, listening to his voice, trying to think yourself into that space. It’s hard to break down. It’s a cocktail of things you do. He was an expert in self-justification and retrospectively he wrote and wrote – he’s written an autobiography and endless prison jotters full of explanation and self-righteous indignation and talked about how guilty he feels at times. But there’s no consistency to it. The only consistency you can find is possibly narcissism. He had a strong sense of his own righteousness, which was quite useful to key into.”

The actor adds he had no reservations about playing Nilsen, “not with the scripts we had.” He continues: “From an acting point of view, these are the psychologies you are fascinated by. It doesn’t mean you agree with them or commend them. Trying to unpick what went on in the mind of someone like that, it’s horrifying and it’s fascinating.”

Daniel Mays as Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay

Filming took place in London towards the end of 2019 and into January this year, with the biggest challenge being recreating 1983. A set was built for the interior of Nilsen’s Cranley Gardens flat, while prison scenes were shot largely at HMP Holloway, a women’s prison Nilsen would never have visited. But while the production did film across North London, none of the real locations were used.

“Being able to build the interior of Cranley Gardens was brilliant for us logistically and also for the period design,” says Varvell. “Anna Higginson, our designer, did such an amazing job. It was really eerie and was an exact replica. So having a set build and being able to do that as the interior was really beneficial.”

Produced by New Pictures and distributed by All3Media International, the series takes its name from the nickname Nilsen called himself and that people where he worked knew him by. He was also head of a union, “the champion of the downtrodden and someone who was nice to people who needed an ear or a pint in the pub,” Arnold says. But in reality it was all an act to get people back to his flat.

“‘Des’ to me is a fallacy that allowed Nilsen to control his own narrative,” the director says. “The job of Brian and Peter in the series is to get past Des and see the real person that’s behind it.”

Tennant notes: “One of the things Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with was ‘The Legend of Des.’ Even when he slipped out of public consciousness, there was a sense he wanted to get back into it, which is why I’m very relieved [he died in 2018]. When we started developing this, he was still alive and I’m very relieved he’s not because I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in a cell somewhere imagining we were in any way glorifying him. It’s right and proper this is transmitting after he’s gone.”

The drama throws up the question of why Nilsen committed those murders, and Tennant believes not even Nilsen himself knew why. “There were moments of blind rage that had no premeditation to them. There were also elements of preparation where he clearly went to great lengths to get ready for luring people back to his flat with the intention they might never leave,” the actor says. “We’ll never know for certain. I continue to change my mind about what his motivation was and what kind of individual he was. He remains an enigma. All we can do is tell these stories to try and make sense of how people end up in the place Dennis Nilsen ended up.”

With the use of documentary footage firmly setting the background to Nilsen’s killings, Neal and Arnold also want Des to inform more people about what actually happened and why he possibly managed to get away with it for so long.

“There are so many similarities to 1983 in 2020 that I hope people watch this and think we need to make sure someone like him is never allowed to get away with it again,” Arnold says. “There are certain steps we and the government can do for people on the streets who find themselves victims of poverty, to ensure they are given the help and humanisation they need, which means they cannot go missing without anyone knowing.”

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Building Rome

Marco Chimenz, co-CEO of Italian producer Cattleya, introduces DQ to Romulus, an ambitious 10-part series that retells the founding of Rome, all in ancient Latin.

In his 2019 film The First King: Birth of an Empire, Italian filmmaker Matteo Rovere retold the myth of twins Romulus and Remus and the birth of the city of Rome, set in the eighth century BC and with dialogue in archaic Latin.

Marco Chimenz

A precursor to that story now comes to TV in Romulus, a 10-part series created and directed by Rovere in his first work for the small screen. Also told in Latin, it is described as a hyper-realistic and ambitious drama that recalls the genesis of Rome, seen through the eyes of three people marked by death, loneliness and violence in a world where one’s fate is determined by the power of nature and the gods.

As these men and women learn how to shape their own destinies instead of passively suffering the whims of fate, a ferocious and protective female figure leads the formation of a new society, laying the foundations for one of the greatest empires ever.

“This is a story about tribes,” explains executive producer Marco Chimenz, co-CEO of producer Cattleya (Gommorah, Suburra). “We don’t actually get to see Rome in season one. What we see are these almost primitive men and women, terrorised by nature and gods. We follow the stories of three or four characters, all outcasts for one reason or another, and how they survive and take their destinies into their own hands.”

Early footage of the series – which was ordered by Sky Italia and will have its world premiere on Monday on C21 Digital Screenings – is filled with action. One riverbed fight is particularly impressive, while other scenes demonstrate themes of brotherhood between characters and their otherworldly meetings with ethereal spiritual, mystical and religious figures.

Rovere directs alongside Michele Alhaique (Thou Shalt Not Kill) and Enrico Maria Artale (Sanctuary), and writes with Filippo Gravino (Gomorrah), Guido Iuculano (Alaska) and Francesca Manieri (The Miracle).

Romulus will premiere on C21 Digital Screenings on Monday

“Superstition and religion are very much parts of the story,” Chimenz says. “They were very much part of the lives of these men and . We are not actually narrating the legend of the she-wolf that saves the twins [the then-infant Romulus and Remus, whose story led to Romulus founding Rome].

“We do have a she-wolf but she’s a guerrilla leader, a woman who leads a group of outcasts to fight against the established power. She already has an idea of Rome, which is an idealised place that can free men and women from fear of nature, of gods and constant oppression and slavery. It’s a very modern ideology.”

Brotherhood, and the idea that bonds of friendship are sometimes stronger than those between blood relatives, is a theme that had played out in other Cattleya series, such as crime dramas Romanzo Criminale and Naples-set Gomorrah.

“We have a lot of the ingredients we have already used in other series, but in a universe that was never known,” Chimenz says. “This is done with a realistic ambition to do something that is powerful narratively but has a very realistic approach to the storytelling.”

The series looks at the birth of Rome through the eyes of three characters

The series, coproduced by Groenlandia and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, is based on historical and archeological research, while constructing the sets for the ancient city of Alba Longa took six months. Filming lasted for over 30 weeks and hundreds of extras were trained for the intense battle sequences that involved hundreds of stunt performers and horses.

That Romulus plays out in Latin also makes the series stand out from other ‘swords and sandals’ dramas, with the scripts written first in Italian and then translated into Latin and corrected by scholars. “We have all seen a lot of films and TV series about ancient Rome and they are spoken in English, very often British English, which has become the language for this kind of storytelling,” Chimenz says.

“Doing this series in English was not realistic, but doing it in Italian was not realistic either, so we decided to recreate this language. The actors had to learn all the lines and dialogue by heart, which prevented them from improvising – which is actually a good thing sometimes.”

It’s not the first time Cattleya has produced a series in a distinct language – Gommorah’s Neapolitan dialect forced even Italian audiences to switch on subtitles. “Sometimes we joke and say this is a prequel to Gomorrah,” Chimenz adds. “That’s a bit of a stretch, but there are elements there.”

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Trust no one

In the age of fake news, a trend for unreliable characters is fuelling some of TV’s biggest thrillers. DQ speaks to a group of writers to find out how they keep viewers hooked.

At a time when people are conditioned to question everything they read and hear, from news stories to politicians’ speeches, it might seem logical to look to TV drama for an element of escapism from everyday life. However, the current popularity of series driven by unreliable characters has turned even this on its head, with viewers increasingly being left wondering who to believe.

Take Netflix teen drama hit 13 Reasons Why, for example. It follows high-school student Clay Jensen as he investigates the suicide of classmate Hannah Baker, whose death came after bullying, sexual assault and lack of support from her friends, family and the school. But the story is presented from Hannah’s perspective, via a series of cassette tapes she used to record her account before she died – and many characters implicated in her death claim Hannah is lying. Who should we believe?

In both Legion and Mr Robot, meanwhile, the lead characters suffer from mental health problems. The former introduces David, a mutant who apparently suffers from schizophrenia, while Mr Robot’s Elliot struggles with paranoia, depression and delusion, and talks to himself. As viewers follow these characters through the story, how do they know what, or who, to trust?

Other recent examples include True Detective, The Replacement, Trust Me, Westworld, Marcella, The Affair, Hannibal and Safe, all of which make viewers see events from multiple perspectives or have them follow characters undermined by personal characteristics or a chain of events, leaving them to question who is telling the truth and quite what to believe.

Jacquelin Perske

Characters are unreliable because “they can’t see the whole story and are usually compromised in some way – traditionally psychologically,” says screenwriter Jacquelin Perske. Writers might use this technique “to create mystery, suspense and intrigue,” she notes, “and it is an interesting way to tell a story. Usually, it is explained or made clear to an audience early on that the narrator is unreliable, such as in Forrest Gump, but sometimes not, like in The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense.”

Part of the appeal is that viewers are left somewhat in the dark when it comes to an element of the plot, a character’s motive or both.

“It can also place the audience in a more insecure position not knowing the full story and having to guess at what might be coming or happening around the protagonist,” Perske says. “An unreliable narrator can also lie to both themselves and other characters and, therefore, the audience, misdirecting them. Once an audience is aware of this, you really must be on your toes!”

The Cry, Perske’s four-part miniseries based on Helen FitzGerald’s book, stars Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie as Joanna and Alistair, a pair of young parents who move from Scotland to Australia with their baby. But when the infant mysteriously disappears, their relationship collapses under public scrutiny and police interrogation, leaving grief-stricken Joanna broken.

In the drama, produced by Synchronicity Films and distributed by DRG, viewers follow Joanna and Alistair’s story in the present as they search for baby Noah, while flashbacks reveal the origins of their relationship and fan the flames of Joanna’s increasing instability.

“It was a puzzle that had to be held together very carefully,” Perske says. “We never wanted an audience to feel manipulated, so the revelations of what was really happening had to feel surprising and exciting, and that required the tension in the narrative to be strong enough to hold attention.”

Jenna Coleman as Joanna in The Cry, which centres on a couple and their missing child

Perske says it was always her intention to play with viewer expectations and assumptions. “In the novel, everything is laid out for the reader in the first chapter. I thought that, for this to be an enjoyable journey on the screen, there had to be real tension, mystery and unease about what this couple had or had not done.”

The writer notes that the key to the award-winning show’s success was ensuring the story and the timeline were watertight, leaving no shortcuts that might make viewers feel cheated. “Everything must make sense,” she adds. “It is a great structure for a thriller, or any story that needs tension. Offering an audience a way into a characters’ mind and motivations is very hard in a screenplay – this does offer that.”

BBC1 single drama Elizabeth is Missing (pictured top), based on Emma Healey’s novel, stars Glenda Jackson as Maud, an elderly woman with dementia who struggles against her increasingly debilitating memory loss while attempting to solve two mysteries – one set in the present and one from her childhood. That the story is told from the perspective of someone with memory loss is what makes the series, produced by STV Productions, immediately captivating, much like its source material, as Maud relies on a series of baffling notes to help her get through the day. If Maud cannot rely on her own memory, how can viewers?

“The ambiguity of it is what audiences love,” says Andrea Gibb, the show’s writer. “They love that thing about ‘is she telling the truth or isn’t she?’ What something like that allows is for the audience to control their own viewing – they are in the story then. I love it when little reveals happen and sometimes you don’t realise what’s really going on until you get to the end. So with an unreliable narrator, you never really know quite where you are, and audiences really like that. But it makes it very hard for the dramatist, because you’ve got to be very careful what you’re revealing and when you reveal it, as you can give it away too soon.”

Marnie Dickens

Maud is “certainly up there” among the most unreliable of narrators, Gibb acknowledges, citing the character’s inability to keep thoughts in her head. “That adds to Maud’s own sense of unease. If you’ve got an unreliable narrator who is deliberately telling lies to have a certain effect, that’s completely different from Maud, because hers is inadvertent. She can’t keep hold of the moments because her short-term memory is going.

“One of the things I love about this story as a story about dementia is, in the present day, Maud’s memory is short, which is why she uses notes as reminders and prompts because she can’t keep hold of what is happening in the here and now. Eventually, she’s not going to be able to remember anything about what’s happening around her. But she can go back into her past, and things she had forgotten or suppressed all squirm to the surface. So in trying to solve a mystery in the present, which is difficult for her, she manages somehow to solve the mystery of the past. That’s what’s really beautiful about this story.”

With two BBC dramas to her name, Marnie Dickens has a budding reputation for unreliable characters. In Thirteen, Ivy Moxam (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer) escapes from a cellar where she has been imprisoned for 13 years, while Gold Digger focuses on the relationship between a wealthy older woman and a younger man whose intentions may not be entirely romantic.

“In my mind, every character I write is an unreliable narrator, because we’re all presenting whatever version of ourselves we want to in that moment,” Dickens says. “How can you ever get a full sense of a person? You’re getting what they’ve chosen to say. That’s where I really went down the rabbit hole with Gold Digger, in that you follow these different perspectives, because how can we trust one person about anything?”

In Thirteen, Ivy was “really hard to read,” Dickens continues, “partly because Jodie’s performance was so fantastic – you’re spending your whole time looking at her and wondering what happened in that cellar and what role she has in the police investigation. When you do find out the reality, I hope what happens is it makes sense to people and they understand the way she’s been acting. It’s the same with [young love interest] Ben in Gold Digger. Various traumas have happened to that character that shape his behaviour. And when you know the truth, you understand why he’s been the way he has.”

Thirteen starred Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer (centre)

In developing Thirteen, Dickens plotted Ivy’s back story and the truth behind what happened in the cellar so she could work out what information the character would want to keep secret, before asking herself what truth she would present in each scene.

“But it relies so much on a good actor because, particularly with Thirteen, the stage directions were really long. Ivy was presenting so many different selves, and modelling her behaviour on the female detective and trying to find an identity that was socially acceptable. None of that was in the dialogue; Jodie just did it all – and more.”

Acting was also key to the ambiguity of Gold Digger, with Ben Barnes, who plays Benjamin opposite Julia Ormond’s Julia, offering two performances of each scene so Dickens and the creative team could then decide in the edit how sinister or genuine he might be at each moment, until the finale where viewers discover Ben’s true intentions towards Julia.

“What you never want to happen is you get to the end, the truth is revealed and the audience feel they’ve spent six episodes investing in a fraud. It’s a very fine line to tread when you put an unreliable narrator at the heart of the piece.

“You make a perspective choice. With Thirteen, we’re on Ivy’s shoulder a lot. So as she enters the world for the first time in 13 years, we’re with her. Then we also make the choice at other times to be distant from her, so we’re observing her. Especially in the later police scenes, you see her through the glass and you are putting the audience in the position of judging whether what she’s saying is the truth or a lie.”

Julia Ormond and Ben Barnes in Gold Digger, about a woman’s relationship with a much younger man

Putting a further twist on unreliable characters is Sanctuary, a suspenseful psychological thriller in which twin sisters Siri and Helena are separated as children. Years later, when Helena receives an invite to visit Siri at the Himmelstal sanatorium, her stay turns into a nightmare when Siri disappears and Helena discovers the resort is actually a treatment centre for psychopaths. As the staff believe Helena to be the manipulative, violent Siri, she must change to survive.

The show, based on Marie Hermanson’s novel The Devil’s Sanctuary, stars Josefin Asplund and Matthew Modine. Written by Charlie Fletcher (Wire in the Blood) and Rachel Flowerday (EastEnders), it was developed by Sweden’s Yellow Bird and TMG for C More and TV4, with distributor StudioCanal sending it to StarzPlay in the UK.

“It’s a dramatic high wire but it’s a story that builds slowly,” Fletcher says. “That’s always a dangerous thing, but we wanted it to be a slow build so the horror would gradually reveal itself to Helena and the audience more or less at the same time, which meant that as the difficulty of that situation becomes more and more apparent to her, the audience are discovering that too. We never wanted [viewers] to get too far ahead of her, but we also wanted to keep alive a little sense that everything with her might not be quite as it is.”

As a character, Helena is accused of hiding away from life, working an all-night job in a “grey cubicle farm” answering the phone and avoiding social contact. But once she becomes trapped in her sister’s place, survival becomes more important than escape – and it’s through this process that viewers soon find themselves unsure whether to trust her words or her actions.

Psychological thriller Sanctuary centres on twin sisters separated during childhood

“The premise of the book is the bad twin swaps places with the good twin, who is stuck inside the psychiatric facility,” Fletcher explains. “Nobody believes she is who she is. Of course, all the things she does to try to persuade them she is the good sister, they are able to put down to her being a psychopath. Every time she says, ‘I’m not a psychopath,’ they say that’s exactly what a psychopath would say. That enabled us to develop her from a passive to an active character.”

Fletcher and Flowerday mapped out each episode before they started work on the scripts, ensuring they knew all the pieces of the puzzle. “As with all films or series that involve a degree of mystery, the things that are the hardest to track are what your lead character knows and what your audience knows,” Fletcher says. “At what point do you want the audience to be ahead of your lead character, which creates one kind of tension, and at what point do you want your lead character to be ahead of your audience, which produces satisfying surprises when something is revealed? We always wanted to make her a strong, active character, so it’s about keeping that balance.”

In these unreliable times, perhaps it’s no surprise that viewers are enjoying watching unreliable characters, in shows that are forming an intriguing sub-genre of standard mystery thrillers.

“Viewers enjoy trying to be ahead of the character. They also enjoy being surprised. It keeps heightened engagement with drama,” Fletcher adds. “We’re living in interesting times and all bets seem to be off. There seems to be a sense the world is becoming less stable and that we can trust our media and our leaders much less than we thought we could. When everything [in the real world] is slightly mercurial and untrustworthy, it’s no accident there’s a rise in interest in dystopian dramas and stories where characters are not who they seem to be.”

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Making peace

Johanna Enäsuo and Marko Röhr from Finland’s Matila Röhr Productions speak to DQ about the making of political thriller Peacemaker, in which a negotiator is pulled into an escalating international conflict.

When Ann-Mari Sundell becomes involved in a human rights scandal, UN secretary general Theo Slobo offers her a way to rescue her career: by cooling tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds and overseeing peace negotiations. But 10-part political thriller Peacemaker takes viewers further into the complicated web of international diplomacy, as Ann-Mari finds herself in a deadly power struggle involving terrorists, the illegal arms trade and the global oil industry that stretches from New York to Saudi Arabia.

The series, commissioned by Finland’s YLE, comes from Matila Röhr Productions (MRP) and stars Irina Björklund as Ann-Mari, with Richard Sammel as Theo and a cast that also includes Mikko Nousiainen as security guard Tom Virra alongside Louise Peterhoff (Emilia Engblom) and Kardo Razzazi (Diyar Amed) as members of Ann-Mari’s team.

But though the story is fictional, producers Johanna Enäsuo and Marko Röhr were heavily inspired by real life while developing the series, not least in the form of former Finland president Martti Ahtisaari, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who also worked as a UN diplomat and was recognised for his role in resolving conflicts in Namibia, Indonesia, Kosovo and Iraq.

“There are so many drama series about wars and conflicts but no one has actually done anything about peacemaking and what the process is like,” Enäsuo tells DQ in Berlin, where Peacemaker had its international debut at Berlinale earlier this year.

“What does it mean for those extraordinary people in extreme conditions? Usually, their normal life is unbalanced as well. So as a drama, it’s a really interesting world because Peacemaker is a really character-driven story. It takes place in one of the worst conflict zones in the world, a crisis between Turkey and the Kurds, but it tells a story about people.”

Irina Björklund as Ann-Mari in Peacemaker

As you might expect for a story set in this complicated world, the producers built an “amazing network” of political advisors and people with experience in peace negotiations to support the development of the series, which is written by Eriikka Etholén-Paju and directed by AJ Annila.

“We met hundreds of people and did the research over so many years with the scriptwriter. It’s an interesting world and, during the writing process, the world around us changed so rapidly that the real world is stranger than fiction,” Enäsuo says. “The political plays of superpowers and their leaders are so unpredictable. We felt we needed to add more in the script because the world around us has become crazier than five years ago.”

“It’s a multi-layered story. It’s like an onion,” continues Röhr, CEO of MRP. “The starting point is the negotiator, who is dealing with the crisis with Turkey and the Kurds. We also have the illegal arms trade, we have the superpowers. All of a sudden, we realise it’s actually the oil industry that’s mixed in as well. It evolves into a huge crisis and they’re negotiating with people who have other issues and they have to try and solve the problem. To me, it’s more of a thriller.”

At the centre of the action is Ann-Mari, who seemingly always finds herself in the crossfire of two opposing sides, whether in a gunfight or at the negotiating table.

“She’s the leading soul,” says Enäsuo. “Most of the series is about people who are working in extreme conditions. It’s really challenging how your whole identity is found in the evil of the world. It has been interesting. We have spent so many hours with peacemakers and people who have been working in these zones to find out what life is like for them and how it becomes unbalanced so easily.”

The Strain star Richard Sammel plays UN secretary general Theo Slobo

Enäsuo stresses that everything in Peacemaker – which came with a budget of €7.7m (US$9.10m) – is based on factual research, although the series was overtaken by real events when Turkey and neighbouring Kurdish forces clashed towards the end of last year and again this year.

“It feels like we have been following the headlines but we did the research for many years,” she says. “When Turkey actually attacked Syria and the Kurds last fall, real life changed so rapidly. We still had some shooting days left, so we were able to adapt our story to what is happening now. Even if it’s fictional, we wanted it to feel truthful to what is happening in the world and in politics. We were able to still react.

“We had some really important scenes left about the peace negotiators, the closing scenes, and when Turkey actually attacked, the news looked like it was straight from our script. It was a little bit scary but, at the same time, we were able to adapt. Nobody knows what is happening in the world with these leaders. It’s quite crazy, but we wanted to do everything we could and I think we succeeded with the story. It’s an important story to tell.”

The series, which debuted in Finland on Friday and will also air on public broadcasters across Scandinavia, is described as a very global story, but one that has taken its lead from the Nordic region, particularly when it came to creating the show’s protagonist.

“In the real world, Finland has the most diplomats and ambassadors in the world who are women, working in countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, so we have met them and they have shown us how they have handled their work in real life,” Enäsuo reveals.

Mikko Nousiainen as security guard Tom Virra

“They need to work hard and show the really male-dominated societies they know what they’re doing, so the influence [on our show] is from there. For us, it was obvious the leading role had to be a woman. Even though the story takes place in Turkey, Syria and southern Spain, it’s really important that it has Nordic DNA in its values. It has that identity. You can see it’s a Nordic series through the content, but its playground is the whole world.”

Distributed by Reinvent Studios, Peacemaker was shot over four-and-a-half months primarily on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, with additional filming in Sevilla, Spain. A second unit also captured footage in New York, Berlin and Istanbul.

“During the scriptwriting process, at times Johanna would come to my office and say, ‘We’re now going here and here,’” Röhr recalls of the multi-location story. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find a solution.’ It’s easier to find a way [to film these scenes] if you have a good story. There’s always a way to do it.”

“When you have a good creative team around you – the production designers, DOP, director – and they see the world in the same way, magic happens,” Enäsuo says. “We were really lucky in the Canary Islands that they have the variety of landscapes we needed. It was amazing.”

Despite the show’s high-stakes plot, which plays out in English, Finnish, Turkish, Kurdish and Swedish, both Enäsuo and Röhr come back to the characters at the centre of the story, who face numerous challenges through the series.

“Our wish is that even those people who aren’t interested in world politics will also watch the series,” Enäsuo says. “They need to relate to those people, and their own personal crises have to be recognisable.”

“There are so many thrilling elements they have to face, going into places where there is a threat to your life all the time, when you have to negotiate face-to-face with someone who is considered a terrorist,” Röhr adds. “We have a character, Ann-Mari, who is morally so strong that she takes decisions knowing they could end her career but decides to take a risk. I really admire people like that on this planet. It’s a great character.”

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Life story

Norwegian crime drama For Life seeks to upend the traditional police procedural formula with time jumps and different genre styles for each episode, as creator and writer Gjermund S Eriksen and producer Håkon Briseid explain.

There aren’t many television dramas that would cite US animated comedy Family Guy and long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother as inspirations. But for the team behind Norwegian crime drama Livstid (For Life), those shows provided the perfect blueprint for their ambitions to reinvent the traditional police procedural.

When viewers first meet Victoria Woll, she is in prison. But as events unfold in the present day across the eight-part series, we also follow her 15 years earlier as a police investigator.  In each episode, she solves a unique crime that reveals a piece of the puzzle about her past and how she ended up behind bars.

Mixing crime and entertainment to create “happy noir,” the NRK drama comes from creator Gjermund S Eriksen (Mammon) and production company Monster Scripted, which is led by CEO Håkon Briseid. NENT Studios UK has already sold the series to SBS in Australia, Canal+ in France and Slovenia’s Pro Plus ahead of its debut on the Norwegian pubcaster this Sunday.

Gjermund S Eriksen

“The Killing, The Bridge and other Nordic noirs are massively entertaining but they’re also dark. The world always goes to hell,” Eriksen tells DQ in Berlin, where For Life was screened at Berlinale earlier this year. “When we had our first discussions, we were working on another show, a non-procedural. But the broadcaster wanted a procedural. We were saying, ‘Why?’”

But it was while watching CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, in which the narrator recounts how he met his children’s mother, that Eriksen struck an idea of how a procedural could be reshaped in a more entertaining form.

“They always start by saying, ‘This happened just before I met your mother.’ That’s when we thought, ‘OK, we could make How I Met Your Murderer,’” Eriksen continues. “We changed up the story perspective so we could tell many different crime stories within different sub-genres. We do not resemble How I Met Your Mother at all, but that’s where the idea came from to have some part of the story placed in the future.

“Making the series was a puzzle because each episode has to be entertaining. It has to be a well-told crime story, have some relationship to the main character and become another piece of the puzzle that’s happening in the future. The best show that started to experiment with flashing forward is [Glenn Close thriller] Damages. They reinvented how you use that not for annoying exposition but where you’re hooking the audience on character dilemmas in the future and you’re constantly changing and shifting character perspectives in each episode.”

Briseid points to the popularity of US procedurals in Norway and the fact that the country hasn’t produced a “traditional” procedural for at least 10 years, preferring the serialised storytelling that has become synonymous with binge-watching on streaming platforms.

For Life stars Tone Mostraum (left) as police investigator Victoria Woll

“We’re really going against the grain,” the producer says. “We wanted to make something you appreciate like sitcoms or watching an episode of Family Guy. You don’t have to remember the last episode or the next one. It’s always entertaining. That’s why we studied the mechanisms of what makes sitcoms entertaining – we have to take out the comedy and people are dying instead – and found it’s about the creativity of storytelling.

“There are some procedurals that follow the recipe. Each time on the minute, that happens and that happens. That’s not very creative, and then you only attract the standard procedural viewer. If we can entertain more and bring nuance to how we tell crime stories, we think we can be bigger than traditional procedural.”

Part of the creative flair of For Life lies in the sub-genres of each episode. Episode one, for example, is akin to a classic conspiracy thriller, episode two is a political thriller, episode four is a psychological thriller set in a mental health hospital and episode six is set against the backdrop of a reality TV show. Eriksen pitches the latter as Knives Out meets Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Håkon Briseid

“We tried to be playful with the show,” Briseid says. “We used the potential in every setting and let that play out in that individual episode. Then you use the tools of that genre in the directing as well and the lighting – but no so much that it will take over.”

“If you see the emotions involved in a classic Nordic noir, you have fear and disgust. All the emotions are dark ones,” says Eriksen. “If you add joy in some sense, you get a richer TV viewing experience emotionally. You have some warmth, some smiles. We’re not doing a feel-good, blue-sky series, but there is some warmth to it, and there are very few warm moments for Sara Lund [in The Killing] or Saga Norén [in The Bridge].

“We wanted to have a show that says human life is richer and crime storytelling can have fun. We saw in Killing Eve how that kind of tone brings a new approach. It’s made with a love of crime stories; we love crime stories. We’re not saying all procedurals are bad, but we haven’t seen that many with uplifting moods.”

A student of American television, Eriksen also looked at hit medical series House and its main character, Dr Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie), when it came to creating For Life protagonist Victoria. In particular, he noted the baggage Dr House carries with him and how his backstory is slowly revealed through each episode. “We wanted to create that kind of character who has had some classic background, so she lost her parents to an unsolvable crime,” he says. “Yes, it’s been done before, but it’s easier to relate to a crime fighter who has lost their parents.

“Her backstory is always relevant to the crime story and that gives her new dimensions. It’s also a feminist project in the sense that, in the first season, I don’t think a man saves her at any time. We thought it was time we didn’t have these sulky female characters who doubt themselves all the time. We wanted a woman who knows more than men and then she poses a threat to her police, judicial and media environment.

The series unravels how Woll goes from investigator to convicted criminal

“The secret of House is he knows more, most of the time, but he’s not that talented in explaining it. Victoria doesn’t have a super power. She’s not like Sherlock Holmes when he’s deducing mysteries. But she’s way above-average smart. That gives the drama tension because no one likes that. She has had tons of bullshit in her life. She doesn’t have time for it.”

The series was filmed in and around Norway capital Oslo for 80 days between January and August last year, but not before Eriksen had overseen the scriptwriting process with a writers room.

“We structured it in different phases, cracking the big arcs and then diving in episode by episode, always with three or four writers cracking the episode outline and then one writer going to write it,” he explains. “It was really based on the American model where you work for three weeks on the structure of the episode and then send the episode writer out. That was extremely rewarding. I top-wrote on everything and am involved in every episode. I will describe myself as a showrunner, but not in an American way. It’s a writer-producer in the Scandinavian model, so we are showrunners with the producers but it’s not theocratic.”

Briseid admits the pair made life tricky for themselves with the extra elements they implanted in the show’s structure, though they retained a deep respect for the procedural format at all times.

“There are many choices in every episode that have been made,” Eriksen says. “Are you going to be an open-ended thriller? Or are you going to be closed? When are we going to know who the murderer is? Is it a crime story that tells a story about the murder, or the investigator? That creates some friction. Either you make a show about the detective or the murderer.

The drama debuts on Norwegian pubcaster NRK this Sunday

“Mostly the show has to find a rhythm of its own, and our show is not about the killer. It’s about the murder, not the murderer, and how you find him or her. We have 45 to 50 minutes per episode, and in the US you have to do it in 42 minutes. That gives us way more space. I have tremendous respect for people who have to do it in 42. The natural way of experiencing murder-mystery is in 70 to 90 minutes, so to get it down to 50 or 45, there are a lot of choices you have to make. You have to trust those choices and make it fun.”

For Life isn’t alone in mixing up style and structure, with other Norwegian shows such as Norsemen, Witch Hunt, Beforeigners, State of Happiness and Twin also pushing the boundaries of TV drama and ensuring Norwegian content has plenty to offer viewers around the world. But what they have in common is that they seek to tell local stories with global appeal.

“The competition from other [international] storytellers is massive and either you produce Norwegian content that can compete or you die,” Eriksen notes. “NRK, [Norwegian terrestrial channel] TV2 and [Scandi streamer] Viaplay know if they’re going to survive, they have to make their own content.

“A big factor in the way public broadcasters will survive the next 15 years is drama. That’s not my words, that’s the public broadcaster. If you look at 22 July, Nobel, Shame, Acquitted and Witch Hunt, they’re pushing quality in the right direction.”

“Every European country is feeling the heat,” Briseid adds. “Everybody has the pressure of Netflix and Disney, so local broadcasters are thinking about their local-language originals. It’s just that it started earlier with us. I’m curious to see where the next wave will come from. I’m hoping it stays with Norway and the Nordics, but I’m curious to see which European country will start breaking out.

“Look at the potential of a country like Italy, France or Germany. We are going into production with a German partner, and that didn’t happen five years ago. It’s great to see how the audience internationally is getting used to watching things that are subtitled, and I’m wondering where the next great shows will come from, because they can come from anywhere. There are endless stories out there.”

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Away days

The Path creator Jessica Goldberg tells DQ about her latest mission, showrunning Netflix space drama Away, in which Hilary Swank juggles work and family while on a rocket heading to Mars.

With filming wrapped before the end of February, Netflix drama Away passed through post-production relatively smoothly, considering work was completed remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. If only the crew of the Atlas-1 could enjoy as smooth a journey on their way to Mars.

The 10-part series, which debuts on the streamer tomorrow, stars two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby) as American astronaut Emma Green, who must leave her husband and teenage daughter behind to command an international space crew embarking upon a treacherous three-year mission to the red planet.

Josh Charles (The Good Wife) plays her husband and NASA engineer Matt Logan, while Talitha Bateman (Love Simon) is their daughter Alexis. Joining Emma on the ship’s crew are Ato Essandoh (Altered Carbon) as Kwesi, a British-Ghanaian botanist and the mission’s only rookie astronaut; Mark Ivanir (Homeland) as Misha, a veteran Russian cosmonaut and the ship’s engineer; Ray Panthaki (Gangs of London) as Ram, an Indian astronaut and the crew’s medic, co-pilot and second-in-command; and Vivian Wu (Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs) as Lu, a taikonaut and the crew’s geologist and chemist.

Unfolding both on earth and in space, the story sees the crew members face personal and professional challenges as they battle against conflict, rebellion and a virus outbreak to keep their voyage on track, while Matt, Talitha and the staff of Mission Control in Houston face their own problems at home.

Created by Andrew Hinderaker, the series is loosely inspired by the Esquire article written by Chris Jones, who reported on astronaut Scott Kelly and a Russian cosmonaut as they prepared to spend an uninterrupted year aboard the International Space Station.

Away stars Hilary Swank as Emma Green, commander of the Atlas-1

“I wasn’t interested in space but when I read the first version of Andrew’s pilot, there were two things about it that meant I knew I had to work on it,” showrunner Jessica Goldberg tells DQ. “We were already in a divisive time in the world but the show has this idea that the world came together [to support the mission to Mars]. This audacity of hope just made me feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to work on something that talks about the world coming together, that isn’t dystopian and that dares to dream of what could happen if we all got together for a common goal.’

“The second reason I fell in love with the show was I really felt like it was the ‘working mother’ show. I had never seen a woman who loved her job and loved her family but where it wasn’t really the issue portrayed [in the story]. I just hadn’t seen that story articulated in that way and it really excited me to be a part of it. Then later I fell in love with space.”

Goldberg agrees that the space setting of Away serves as a starry backdrop to the very human problems facing the characters, as each member of the crew struggles with the relationships they have left back on earth. “That’s how I definitely felt with my entry point,” she says. “Now I sit down to dinner and people are shocked by my nerdiness [about space]. For me, it was about those two other things and this idea that, gosh, if we can get to Mars, the larger possibilities for science and exploration [are enormous].”

Goldberg came to the series as showrunner, writer and executive producer to work alongside creator and writer Hinderaker. The pair had previously worked together on Goldberg’s Hulu drama The Path, about members of a fictional religion, which ran for three seasons until 2018.

Their existing relationship meant that when it came to Away, “from the beginning, it was like we shared a hive mind,” Goldberg says. “We had a moment later where the astronauts have to write something to [the people on the] ground and, at the same time, we both said exactly what they would say. It’s an interesting process. When I read his original script, I thought, ‘I want to be a part of this and help tell this vision if he’ll have me.’ We both approach stories the same way. We came from character, a more philosophical way of thinking about storytelling, so it worked really well.”

Showrunner Jessica Goldberg (second from left) on set

Being a showrunner on any series, not least a Netflix drama set in outer space, is a huge job. But Goldberg says one of the first things she learned was how “vital” the writers are to the person in that top role. “I learned how much you need these other points of view,” she says. “You need the ways into the story that other writers can give you. I feel like it was a very inclusive writers room. Andrew and I tag-teamed everything so it allowed us freedom. I’ve never shared all those responsibilities, so that was kind of wonderful. For me, it’s about what other people can bring. Especially in a show that’s so international, you need the insight of other writers.”

The international make-up of the Atlas crew was established in Hinderaker’s first drafts, with Goldberg adding a British immigrant to the group of American, Russian, Chinese and Indian characters.

“It felt audacious to put a Chinese person and an American on the same ship. And also on the International Space Station, there are Russians and Americans. What’s so beautiful about the space station is none of the problems of earth exist up there,” Goldberg says. “You have a common goal in the space station, whether it’s going out to fix a telescope or taking pictures of the cosmos. It’s the idea that the earth is one planet and those lines of division, when you’re out there, don’t really hold the same weight.”

Away certainly uses some creative licence, seemingly set in the present day but in a world where a space station has been established on the moon. Goldberg says some elements have been heightened, but what was most important to her was that the story was grounded in reality. Real-life astronauts Mike Massimino and Don Pettit served as consultants and would help with ideas that felt too outlandish.

“Luckily Mike understood drama,” the showrunner says. “He would say, ‘That’s a little sporty,’ and that meant it would never happen [in real life]. It’s not an alien show. We wanted to start with anything grounded that could really happen on that journey to Mars. Of course, no one’s ever been that far so, as we go along, we take some creative licence.”

The Netflix series centres on a mission to Mars

As the commander of the Atlas, Emma must face up to the challenge of managing the harmony aboard the ship, which is challenged by a near-catastrophic incident in the first episode, while also dealing with the battles facing her husband and teenage daughter at home. Goldberg says Swank was one of the first actors she and Hinderaker thought of after meeting several female astronauts during development of the show.

“We discussed the kind of strength, not only physically but also emotionally, that it takes to become an astronaut. And with Hilary, you believe she could be an astronaut,” she says of the actor, who is also an executive producer on the series. “When she came in, it turned out she had dreamed as a kid to be an astronaut. One of her early presents she remembers getting was a telescope, so that was super exciting for us. During the process, you can just tell she is a such a smart actor and really works hard on each script. She would come to us with really well-thought-out notes and ideas. As the show went on, it became more and more of a collaboration with her character in particular. What a gift it is to work with an actor like that.”

Making the series – which is produced by Universal Television, True Jack Productions and 6th & Idaho – tasked Goldberg to bring together a show that felt epic and beautiful, particularly during the few times the characters venture into space, but all within the confines of the budget. “I had always done shows that were very characterful, with people in a room, so this was a huge challenge to feel confident with all the special effects,” she says. “But I realise part of being a showrunner now is getting all the best people who know the most, and know what you don’t know, and putting all those people together, learning as you go and not being afraid that people know way more than you about the thing they’re experts in.”

A spacewalk in episode two is particularly dramatic, as Emma and Misha partner to fix solar panels that will prove vital to ensuring they can get to Mars. But ultimately, Goldberg says Away focuses on “intimate stories of the human condition” and how people from different cultures, classes and countries can find common ground and work together. “What moves me so much about this show is, if we could be doing that in our own lives, it would be such a powerful thing.”

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The Young one

DQ heads to Lithuania to meet the cast and crew behind Netflix’s Young Wallander, which introduces the police officer who will become the iconic Swedish detective created by Henning Mankell.

On the streets of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, it’s a bitterly cold evening as pedestrians walk around – and sometimes through – the television crew filling up the pavement beside a news kiosk.

On one side is the camera team, resetting for another take. Nearby is a small tent that houses monitors relaying the footage. In the middle are actors Adam Pålsson and Ellise Chappell, wrapped up against the wind until preparations are completed to shoot the penultimate scene of six-part crime drama Young Wallander.

Based on the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell that have led to both Swedish and British adaptations, this Netflix series is a modern reimagining of the iconic detective as he faces his first major case. When he is unable to save a teenager from a gruesome attack, Wallander must learn to cope with his guilt in order to solve the crime while navigating the increasingly violent environment of present-day Sweden.

Swedish actor Pålsson (Before We Die, Moscow Noir) takes the lead role in a series populated by a largely British cast, with British heads of department and a Lithuanian crew. The series is produced by Yellow Bird UK, the London-based outpost of the Swedish company behind the original Wallander films that starred Krister Henriksson and the film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Vilnius is doubling for Malmö, the Swedish city where Wallander lives on the Rosengård estate as a beat cop for the local police force until he is promoted to detective to help solve a murder investigation. On set in November last year, two weeks away from the end of shooting, Pålsson and Chappell stand together beside a Pressbyrån news kiosk before heading down a path bordered by tower blocks, signposted ‘Rosengård Centrum.’

Pre-production began at the end of 2018, meaning it was a quick turnaround to get the show into production, and filming wrapped just a year later. For Yellow Bird UK, the project has provided perfect symmetry. Yellow Bird Sweden was established in 2003 with Wallander, the Henriksson-starring film series that preceded the British films, which starred Kenneth Branagh. And when the company was looking to expand three years ago, creative director Berna Levin oversaw the opening of Yellow Bird UK in London with plans to launch with a new Wallander project.

Adam Pålsson as Kurt Wallander in Netflix’s Young Wallander

“We had talked with Henning about a prequel and he was really interested in that,” Levin tells DQ. “We had started developing that, but then he was sick and we waited. Sadly he passed away [in 2015] so when we started Yellow Bird UK, I felt it was not going to happen. But never say never.”

Enter Netflix, which Levin says was “very respective but very persistent” in making its admiration of the character known. When Yellow Bird UK launched, the conversation progressed rapidly until the series was commissioned.

Mankell’s Wallander novels don’t just tell a crime story, however, but also talk about particular political and social issues. By setting Young Wallander in the present, Levin says she wanted to tap into current issues in Sweden – such as immigration, trafficking and gang violence – that also reflected the challenges facing the country at the time Mankell first wrote his novels.

“Because of the character’s legacy and all the films, it’s been a constant puzzle,” Levin says. “We had to create something that feels new and fresh, but there’s a constant nod to what has happened before. When you meet Wallander in the books, he’s already a detective, an alcoholic, divorced and very depressed. You can’t start him off like that in his youth, but you need to show the audience that all of that is already here. It’s a big challenge.

“For the people who have never seen Wallander, this is about a cop who’s going to become a detective and about the personal journey. This is where we start, and they will see what happens to get him to where he needs to be – everything that happens that will form him as a detective and as a person.”

Writer Ben Harris (Devils, Dark Heart) was developing another project with Yellow Bird UK when he was offered the chance to create Young Wallander. He went straight to Malmö for a research trip, aware a date had already been set to begin shooting.

Most of the series was filmed in Lithuania capital Vilnius, doubling for Sweden’s Malmö

“I wanted to take it away from what everyone knows about Wallander, while still retaining the core tentpoles of the brand,” he says. “People who love all the versions will see what we’ve done. It feels very different but it’s still the same, so we weren’t betraying any of the canon. One of the main things was to put it in a city, a very urban environment, claustrophobic, edgy and intense, rather than wide open spaces.

“When I started to research Malmö, mad things are happening there. In the two weeks after I said yes, there were three explosions there. There’s a really interesting immigration situation going on there. If you’re going to do a story about this place, it has to have immigration as a central theme and the gang problem it’s created, but it’s more complex than that. The immigration problem is used by more powerful entities for their own ends. I got offered it and as soon as I started researching it, I thought it was very fertile territory.”

The serialised story takes very little from Mankell’s books, save for the character traits that Wallander fans will find familiar. “He’s quite a socially conscious guy and that’s his superpower, but also his greatest weakness. He cares too much about the cases,” Harris explains. “Then there’s how he drinks too much. What I’m trying to do is set the building blocks of how he became the guy he’s going to become, while telling the story in a way that’s completely non-derivative.”

With time to compete the scripts at a premium, Harris ran a writers room in three blocks, one per two episodes, and brought in Anoo Bhagavan, Jessica Ruston and Ben Schiffer to pen the middle episodes. The difficult part, he says, was developing the series while writing it: “I was finding the voice for the show and writing it the same time, which is a tricky beast. I am a big writers room guy, but for most of this show I was in my office writing it myself with steam coming out of my ears.”

Block two director Jens Jonsson (Blinded), who helmed the final three episodes, was familiar with Wallander and also with Mankell, having met the writer at a dinner. Joining Young Wallander, he was interested in how societal issues Mankell wrote about 20 years ago have resurfaced.

“The first episode is quite big because it’s set in Malmö during a riot. These are very up-to-date situations, as there were bombs in Malmö as we were shooting this. These things are going on for real. I thought it was exciting that it was set in the present day and Rosengård was a big part of the story.”

The cast is largely British, including such actors as Richard Dillane

Following lead director Ole Endresen (Bulletproof), he continued the show’s singular focus on Wallander, shooting from the protagonist’s perspective. “It’s so focused around Kurt Wallander; it’s a brave choice,” he says. “There are no parallel stories. What Kurt knows is also what the audience knows about the case. It demands a lot from the storytelling so you’re engaged both in the case and in his private life as a young cop.

“I was very happy to find there was a love story in episode four with Kurt and Mona. These are my favourite scenes, when people are in love. There are also some action scenes, which are also fun to do, and we had a grandiose climax, but I personally love to do these more intimate, character-driven scenes.”

Behind the camera, DOP Gaute Gunnari (Thin Ice) took a naturalistic approach to the series. Notably, Pålsson’s Wallander is always shot ‘clean’ – clearly in shot, unblocked and in focus – while other actors are very often ‘dirty,’ where they might be partially covered or out of focus.

“It’s very simple but that will enforce the feeling of just being with him all the time,” Gunnari says. “We were also trying to portray him in different ways across the six episodes. Otherwise the audience might get tired of his pretty face.

“Lithuania is a great country to shoot in and the crew is excellent. But some of it is challenging. We’ve had a lot of night scenes.”

Production designer Malin Lindholm (Deep Water) found Vilnius to be a convincing replica of Malmö, but also wanted to ensure the production made the most of the “gritty” Lithuanian capital.

Charles Mnene as Bash, a gang leader on the Rosengård estate

“We really pushed on this young Wallander idea. We looked at all sorts of references like HBO’s Euphoria, which is very young, very cool,” she says. “There are definitely elements we took inspiration from, but we had to stay with the nature of the series. You can’t turn Young Wallander into an American high-school teen series.”

The show is filmed entirely on location, save for a police station set that was constructed. Around two days were shot in Malmö, with the rest filmed in Vilnius. But it was the search for a venue that could double as a nightclub called The Cube that threw up one of the most interesting locations.

“We were looking at nightclubs and bars here and it was difficult to find something with an edge,” Lindholm says. “At the same time, we needed a custody corridor so we were looking at prisons. A location manager showed me pictures of an old Russian prison. He was thinking of the custody corridor but I looked at the pictures and said, ‘This is the club.’ It just looks spectacular. We turned that into a hardcore nightclub and brought in 380 extras. That was fun because it was really playful and we could create anything we wanted.”

A stone’s throw from where Pålsson and Chappell are filming, a car park has been transformed into the unit base with tents and trailers. In one trailer lined with clothes rails is costume designer Howard Burden, who has worked alongside assistant costume designer Linda Haysman to source and fit clothes for every cast member and extra.

Wallander is initially seen in a police uniform, before he dons plain clothes once he’s promoted to detective. “He has a very practical, subtle look, nothing that stands out or is fashionable,” Burden says. “He’s working every day, he’s an ordinary guy in his 20s. He has lots of T-shirts and muted colours. They’re the kind of clothes you disappear in – greys, navy, khaki greens and black.

“For Mona, we wanted to make her grungy with pops of colour. The young actors who play kids on the estate also helped with ideas for their costumes. Every single member of the cast has just been lovely. The crew are nice. That’s made it a real pleasure.”

Young Wallander reflects many of the themes examined in Henning Mankell’s books

Meanwhile, in another trailer where one wall is covered in mirrors, hair and make-up designer Renata Gilbert stands beside a pin board displaying pictures of Wallander’s various injuries and bruises, as well as a breakdown of injuries other characters suffer in the series.

“It’s about keeping it real,” she says of working on the contemporary drama. “It’s easy as a make-up artist to complicate matters and make things look too perfect. You can focus on tiny details and then sometimes lose the reality behind it. It’s not fantastical or stylised; it’s real life. I’m just trying to keep each character believable.”

Pålsson is a busy man on set, as Wallander is involved in every scene. But the actor is extremely humble, describing the role as a “great opportunity” that he feels “privileged” to have received. It’s as if he was made for the role, with several personal links to the character: his father’s name is Kurt and his mother’s family lived in Ystad in the south of Sweden, where the character later resides, meaning he’s in familiar territory with the show’s environmental and emotional landscape. Pålsson also says he hasn’t seen the original series, admitting he would rather read Mankell’s novels, which means imitating Henriksson or Branagh was never an option.

“He’s a sensitive guy; he’s soulful. He has a great big emotional capacity, maybe too big for being a cop,” Pålsson says, noting Wallander’s habit of becoming personally involved in his cases. “I haven’t had a chance to read all the books yet but, so far, in every Wallander novel, he considers quitting and working in something else because he’s not cut out for being a cop. Maybe that’s what makes him a good cop.”

Pålsson honed his English working on Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy series Avenue 5 in London last summer and prepared for Young Wallander with a little rehearsal, but says he has been afforded time on his own to find the character for himself.

“For me as an actor, the work is to adapt to the script,” he says. “It’s a negotiation all the time. I need to find platforms or tune into the frequency where my thoughts and my imagination of this story and this character meets the director’s and the script and everyone finds a way to connect. Then suddenly the director says, ‘There he is.’

The series debuts on Netflix tomorrow

“I started acting when I was 13 and I’m 32 now, so I’ve been doing this a while. This is my life. I love it. I’m living my dream. I don’t feel a great responsibility, I feel a great pleasure. I’m just enjoying it.”

Meanwhile, Pålsson’s character’s potential romance with Mona gets off to an inauspicious start. Episode one sees Kurt among the police officers escorting anti-immigration marchers through the streets of Malmö when a young woman in the crowd calls him a “fascist pig.” As we soon learn, this is Mona – and as Wallander aficionados will know, she later marries him, only for them to divorce in the future.

“Joining the prequel means you know what happens in the end, so it’s really interesting to have that in mind,” says Ellise Chappell (Poldark), who plays Mona. “The first impression you get of her is someone quite forthright with her opinions. She’s very strong-minded, she’s not afraid to say what she thinks. She’s passionate and can come across maybe quite hard. But as we get to know her through the series, she’s actually got a very big heart.”

Charles Mnene plays Bash, a gang leader on the Rosengård estate who forms a unique relationship with Kurt once he discovers there is a police officer living close by. Originally from East Africa, Bash has found a new home in Sweden and, through the attack on the estate, he forms a bond with Wallander.

“He’s a very interesting character,” says Mnene (The State). “He’s got a good heart but gets caught up in things that definitely challenge his moral compass. He’s found a place that’s home and he’s managed to integrate himself very well, but he could lose everything in a blink of an eye and he’s just trying to hold it all together.”

Similarly, Ibra’s life revolves around Rosengård but his footballing talent means he has been offered the chance of a better life for him and his mum, who came to Sweden before her son was born. But as one of Bash’s proteges, Ibra – who takes his nickname from Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic – is suddenly pulled into Wallander’s murder investigation.

“Kurt knows Ibra and knows he’s a kid who might get out of the estate, but very quickly he gets pulled into the case,” explains Jordan Adene, who plays the character. “Ibra’s this young boy coming from the neglected areas, surrounded by gang violence and drug-dealing. He’s basically seen in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.”

Adene (Wanderlust, Heirs of the Night) says he loves the show’s take on the titular detective. “The Kurt Wallander we all know today is this experienced policeman with years of training, but this is his younger years. This is his journey to becoming that,” he says. “It’s all about the journey. This Kurt doesn’t have all that experience and training. That’s what makes the show so authentic and will give the audience a real insight into the character’s journey to becoming this iconic detective.”

While the original Wallander films paved the way for Nordic noir to become popular around the world, Young Wallander, which debuts tomorrow, is set to bring the character full circle.

“If you’re a fan of Wallander, it’s a great show to watch to see how it all started and how different but the same he was at the beginning,” Levin says. “If you have no idea who Wallander is, you can see a police officer becoming a detective at great personal cost and what it means to believe in something so much that you’re willing to make sacrifices. You fall in love with Kurt Wallander. Then you’ll want to see what comes next.”

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Series to Watch: September 2020

DQ checks out the upcoming schedules to pick out 10 new dramas to watch this September, from prequels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next and Wallander to a Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller and the return of Fargo.

Young Wallander
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Adam Pålsson, Richard Dillane, Leanne Best, Ellise Chappell, Yasen Atour, Charles Mnene, Jacob Collins-Levy, Alan Emrys, Kiza Deen
Air date: September 3
Based on the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, this English-language series featuring an English and Swedish cast is a modern reimagining of the legendary detective early in his career as he navigates the increasingly violent environment of present-day Sweden. When he is unable to save a teenager from a gruesome attack, Wallander (Pålsson) must learn to cope with his guilt in order to solve the crime. The story focuses on the formative experiences – professional and personal – Wallander faces as a recently graduated police officer in his early 20s.

Raised by Wolves
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO Max
Starring: Amanda Collin, Abubakar Salim, Winta McGrath, Niamh Algar, Jordan Liughran, Matias Varela, Felix Jamieson, Ethan Hazzard, Aasiya Shah, Ivy Wong, Travis Fimmel
Air date: September 3
From executive producer Ridley Scott, who directs the first two episodes, this sci-fi series (also pictured top) centres on two androids tasked with raising human children on a mysterious virgin planet. As the burgeoning colony of humans threatens to be torn apart by religious differences, the androids learn that controlling the beliefs of humans is a treacherous and difficult task.

For Life
From: Norway
Original broadcaster: NRK
Starring: Tone Mostraum, Iselin Shumba, Ingar Helge Gimle, Judy Karanja, Mattis Herman Nyquist
Air date: September 6
Pitched as ‘happy noir,’ this procedural crime drama follows investigator Victoria Woll (Mostraum) and her colleagues. The series opens with an older Woll in her 60s serving a long prison sentence, with each episode then following Woll in the past as her team solves a crime, slowly revealing how she ended up behind bars. The series comes from Mammon creator Gjermund S Eriksen.

The Third Day
From: UK
Original broadcasters: HBO, Sky
Starring: Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Katherine Waterston, Emily Watson, Paddy Considine
Air date: September 14 in the US, September 15 in the UK
Created by Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly, the show’s six episodes are split into two groups, titled Summer and Winter. Summer stars Law as Sam, a man who is drawn to a mysterious island off the British coast where he encounters a group of islanders set on preserving their traditions at any cost. The secretive rituals of the inhabitants bring him to grapple with experiences of loss and trauma hidden in his past. And as boundaries between fantasy and reality fragment, his quest to unlock the truth leads the islanders to reveal a shocking secret. Winter, meanwhile, stars Harris as Helen, a strong-willed outsider who comes to the island seeking answers, but whose arrival precipitates a fractious battle to decide its fate as the lines between fantasy and fact are distorted.

We Are Who We Are
From: Italy
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Jack Dylan Grazer, Alice Braga, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight, Tom Mercier, Sebastiano Pigazzi
Air date: September 14
Oscar-dominated director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) comes to television with an eight-episode series about two American kids who live on a US military base in Italy, exploring friendship, first loves, identity and the messy exhilaration and anguish of being a teenager in this little slice of America in Italy.

Ratched
From: US
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davis, Sharon Stone, Jon Jon Briones, Finn Wittrock, Charlie Carver, Alice Englert, Amanda Plummer, Corey Stoll, Sophie Okonedo, Vincent D’Onofrio
Air date: September 18
From Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, this suspenseful drama tells the origin story of asylum nurse Mildred Ratched, as featured in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Oscar-winning 1975 film of the same name. In 1947, Mildred (Paulson) arrives in Northern California to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital where new and unsettling experiments have begun on the human mind. On a clandestine mission, Mildred presents herself as the perfect image of what a dedicated nurse should be, but the wheels are always turning – and as she begins to infiltrate the mental health care system and those within it, Mildred’s stylish exterior belies a growing darkness that has long been smouldering within, revealing that true monsters are made, not born.

Ráðherrann (The Minister)
From: Iceland
Original broadcaster: RUV
Starring: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Aníta Briem, Þuríði Blæru Jóhannsdóttur, Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson, Oddur Júlíusson, Jóhann Sigurðsson, Jóel Sæmundsson, Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir
Air date: September 20
This political drama sees Ólafsson play Benedikt Rikhardsson, whose unorthodox approach to politics leads him to become the country’s next prime minister. But Benedict suffers from bipolar disorder – and as his health deteriorates, some help him hide the illness, while others seek to abuse it.

Patria
From: Spain
Original broadcaster: HBO Europe
Starring: Elena Irureta, José Ramón Soroiz, Ane Gabarain, Susana Abaitua, Iñigo Arambarri
Air date: September 27
Based on Fernando Aramburu’s novel, the series is set in Spanish Basque Country and takes place over 30 years during the separatist terrorism of ETA, telling a story through the eyes of two families divided by the violent conflict. The lives of Bittori and her family implode the day ETA kills her husband, Txato, on his doorstep. Her relationship with her close friend Miren, whose son belongs to an ETA command, also comes to an end. Both families must deal with grief and moral contradictions while life goes on. Will they be able to someday forgive, erase their differences and move forward?

The Comey Rule
From: US
Original broadcaster: Showtime
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Brendan Gleeson
Air date: September 27
Brought forward from its original November launch date that would have seen it air after the upcoming US presidential election, this four-hour event series sees Daniels play former FBI director James Comey and Gleeson portray current president Donald Trump in a behind-the-scenes account of events surrounding the 2016 election and its aftermath. Based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty and additional interviews, it is the story of two powerful figures whose strikingly different personalities, ethics and loyalties put them on a collision course.

Fargo (season four)
From: US
Original broadcasters: FX, FX on Hulu
Starring: Chris Rock, Rodney Jones, Tommaso Ragno, Jameson Braccioforte, Jason Schwartzman, Salvatore Esposito, Gaetano Bruno, Sean Fortunato, Ben Whishaw, Glynn Turman, Jeremie Harris, Corey Hendrix, James Vincent Meredith, E’myri Crutchfield, Andrew Bird, Anji White, Timothy Olyphant, Jack Huston, Jessie Buckley
Air date: September 27
More than three years after the last instalment of Noah Hawley’s darkly comedic crime anthology, based on the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo returns for its eagerly anticipated fourth season. Set in 1950s Kansas City, it follows two criminal syndicates fighting for a piece of the American dream. To cement their truce, Loy Cannon (Rock), head of the African American crime family, trades youngest sons with his enemy, Donatella Fadda (Ragno), the head of the Italian mafia. But when Fadda dies following routine surgery, the tenuous truce comes under threat from inside and outside forces.

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Love Hate

Succession writer and award-winning playwright Lucy Prebble tells DQ about reuniting with best friend and actor Billie Piper for Sky’s provocative and stylistically ambitious eight-part drama I Hate Suzie.

Award-winning British playwright Lucy Prebble made her television debut in 2007 with Secret Diary of a Call Girl, ITV2’s series based on the blog by a London call girl using the pseudonym Belle de Jour. It also marked the start of her partnership – on screen and off – with the show’s lead, Billie Piper, who rose to fame as a teenage pop star before transitioning to acting and appearing in Doctor Who when the show regenerated for a new audience in 2005.

The pair worked together again in 2012, this time on stage at the National Theatre in London’s West End, when Piper starred in Prebble’s play The Effect, about two people who volunteer for a drug trial but throw proceedings off course when they fall in love.

Now, “best friends” Prebble and Piper have reunited once again, this time as the creators of eight-part Sky Atlantic drama I Hate Suzie. Piper plays the titular Suzie, a faded star whose life is upended when pictures of her emerge in an extremely compromising position after a hacking.

Visually and stylistically ambitious from the outset, the series is both intimate character drama and expansive ensemble piece, following Suzie through a different emotional state in each episode – shock, denial, fear, shame, bargaining, guilt, anger and acceptance – as she faces up to her mistakes and leans on manager Naomi (Leila Farzad) to help her hold her life, career and marriage to Cob (Daniel Ings) together.

I Hate Suzie is the result of five years of discussions between Prebble and Piper about their next collaboration, with the pair keen to make the type of drama they would both want to watch – and to do so without compromise.

I Hate Suzie showrunner Lucy Prebble

“That was very appealing because 15 years ago, when we made Call Girl, it just wasn’t the way television worked,” Prebble tells DQ. “You went in as an employee of a production company and tried to make the show they wanted. A lot of good television is made that way but, because there is so much television now, stuff really needs to stand out, so creatives are being offered a little more leeway or creative control.”

The duo developed the show together, with Prebble writing the first episode and a series outline before they shopped it to prospective partners. Bad Wolf, the company behind fantasy series His Dark Materials, eventually came on board to produce, while Sky signed up as the broadcaster. NBCUniversal International Television Distribution sells the series worldwide.

“It was a bit of a risk because, ultimately, you don’t know if anyone is actually going to want it. But we were fortunate that Sky expressed interest, and we then started talking about the rest of the show and I started writing the rest of the episodes,” explains Prebble, who penned all eight episodes.

“It was difficult to find the initial idea. I did quite a lot of rewriting on the first episode. There were at least 30 drafts that were all really quite different from each other until we found what it was. Then the other episodes came much more easily. Two years ago, when it started to get really serious, we were like, ‘Oh gosh, someone’s really going to make this. We better make it good.’”

Although the plot appears to lean on singer-turned-actor Piper’s own life – the show opens with Suzie as a young girl taking part in a TV singing competition before she later appears at a comic book convention to talk about her acting role in a classic sci-fi series – Prebble says it was actually her idea to tell a story about a woman who was famous when she was younger.

The series stars Billie Piper, a close friend of Prebble who helped develop the show

“Billie’s one of my best friends. She’s had quite an interesting life,” she says. “We created this show together but, as a writer, I was looking to use things the British public would recognise. Billie’s life is not as exciting as I have written Suzie’s life. None of the things that happen in the show have happened to Billie. But I was talking about what Billie represents in British culture, which I do think is very interesting and specifically British.

“We also talked about people like [pop stars] Charlotte Church, Lily Allen and Britney Spears. It’s like a metaphor for women generally. You reach a certain age and the world starts paying attention to you in quite an aggressive way. Then, at a certain point, the world decides you’re not interesting or worth anything anymore. You’re good for a while and then you’re not so much. It was slightly a metaphor for woman-ness and being in your 30s, which Billie and I both are, and what that does to your life.”

I Hate Suzie also takes its cue from other series that see a well-known star play a heightened or nightmarish version of themselves, but one that is still recognisable in many ways. “Audiences understand what that means,” Prebble says. “They know it’s not literal, they know it’s not true. But they are aware you’re drawing on things in a way to get to a point faster. There’s as much if not more of me in Suzie than there is of Billie. All writing is finding different voices within yourself that you then want to cut everything else away from around.

“Writing is always finding something within yourself that you want to express. You absolutely just get rid of everything else in that moment and just express that one thing. That’s another way of looking at it. It’s an honest way of saying we’re not talking about ourselves literally but we are telling the truth about something emotional and using things you will understand from life.”

The series is directed by Georgi Banks-Davies, who worked with Prebble and Piper to achieve a different look for each episode that plays into the central emotion – and episode title. But in a nod to her theatre background, Prebble also wrote a lot of stage directions into the script to give a sense of how each episode might stand out visually or in terms of Piper’s performance.

Prebble (left) on set with director Georgi Banks-Davies

“What hopefully works about the show is it’s all tied together with a very strong spine, which is the character of Suzie, but Billie’s performance, particularly,” she says. “She’s playing the same person throughout but it’s much more like eight little films that follow this woman after this thing has happened to her. That was much more exciting for me to write, to be honest, than a traditional slightly more plotted, plodding show.”

Prebble describes her friendship with Piper as “the most important element” of the show, as it meant they were already familiar with each other’s work ethic. “I know what I want; I’m quite controlling as a writer and creator, and Billie knows me as a friend and a person first so she knows all that stuff about me,” she says, revealing that any conflict is easily extinguished by humour. “When she becomes a diva, I’m very quick to point that out. And if I get overly controlling and a bit monstrous, she’s the first person to say, ‘You’re expressing yourself a lot through anger at the moment, Lucy.’ We keep an eye on each other but with a lot of love.”

Years of discussions through their development of the show meant they also had a shorthand when it came to filming the series, with Prebble on set throughout production as showrunner. Piper was also “brilliant” at working on the scripts, Prebble notes. “She’s co-created it, so a lot of the stuff we came up with together. And when she reads it, she’s got an absolute eye for emotional honesty. Whenever there’s a moment she feels like there’s truth being told, she will praise it to the skies; and whenever she spots a moment where there’s something dishonest going on in the writing, she’s there immediately and she’s alway right.

“We just know each other really well. There’s very little that can shock or hurt you when you’re working with a very good friend. I was worried about working together – I thought it could be a nightmare – but I’m amazed at how strong our friendship has been through this and quite touched by that as well.”

As a writer and producer on HBO’s acclaimed drama Succession, Prebble is well versed in how the showrunner role works across the Atlantic, having worked alongside creator Jesse Armstrong for two seasons. They are currently plotting the upcoming third instalment. Translating the showrunner title to British television “is a tricky one,” Prebble says, though UK drama is undoubtedly becoming more writer-led.

The series debuts tomorrow on Sky Atlantic and Now TV

“The way I interpret it is I’m in charge of the show as a whole as an executive producer along with the other EPs, but it’s my responsibility to make sure everything makes sense and is achieving its artistic goals,” she says. “That’s everything from the scripts to the choice of directors, the casting, the choice of location and also down to how people are on set and how people are relating to each other and the technical stuff as well as emotional stuff. You’re basically in charge of the show.

“In Britain, everything has traditionally gone through a pure producer model, so this is more of an American thing we’re starting to do. When I started out in television in Britain, the writer would very rarely come to the set. If you did, you were put in a room and brought tea and biscuits. They would get you out when there wasn’t much work going on to show you the set and then you’d be sent home. It was a very strange, in a ‘your job is now done’ sense. That’s not the case anymore.”

Shooting had wrapped before the coronavirus pandemic took hold around the world, forcing countless productions to shut down. But Prebble and the team behind I Hate Suzie still had to navigate post-production remotely, which she says was “very strange, difficult, weird and slow.” Particularly challenging was recording the actors’ ADR (additional dialogue replacement) from their own homes, rather than in a studio.

“We had to send equipment to actors’ houses and ask them, without necessarily being able to see the video properly, to redo a line,” Prebble says. “They’re in their own homes so there might be the sounds of birds singing if they’re in the country, and your scene is inside a restaurant. It’s just an absolute nightmare. As with everybody in every area of life, it really makes you appreciate the things you took for granted. People who work in that industry, they don’t get a lot of credit but actually they should do. Fitting dialogue to an actor’s mouth after you’ve shot something is an incredibly difficult skill to get right and for it not to be noticeable.”

I Hate Suzie, which launches on Sky Atlantic and Now TV tomorrow, will explore how the people around Suzie are also affected by the devastating impact of the hack. But at the heart of the series is the title character, who has spent her life playing different versions of herself and must now piece together her fragmented identity.

“She’s slightly lost sense of who she is, which is quite a dangerous place to be psychologically,” Prebble says. “This terrible thing happens to her and it forces her to look at the truth about herself and bring the shattered parts of herself together. Suzie’s never quite worked out who she is because she’s public property, but now she finally has to discover who she is.”

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Stirring up Hate

Executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Andrea Dewsbery and director Georgi Banks-Davies take DQ inside the making of Sky original drama I Hate Suzie, about a faded star who becomes embroiled in a hacking scandal.

When she first learned that Succession writer and playwright Lucy Prebble and actor Billie Piper were pitching an idea for a new TV series, Bad Wolf co-founder Julie Gardner was on a state of high alert. “I would want to work on anything by Lucy and Billie,” she tells DQ. “They could adapt the phone book and I would be standing there.”

Prebble and Piper had first worked together on 2007 series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, while Piper later starred in Prebble’s 2012 stage play The Effect, about two people who volunteer for a drug trial and end up falling in love. Before then, however, Gardner had been the executive producer of the Doctor Who revival in 2005 that saw Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor pair up with new assistant Rose Tyler, played by Piper.

Julie Gardner

“I love Billie but I hadn’t worked with her since Doctor Who,” Gardner says. “I had never worked with Lucy but watched her shows. I knew her theatre writing well and the idea of the two of them together was irresistible.”

The show in question is I Hate Suzie, an eight-part drama written by Prebble that sees Piper play the titular Suzie, a faded star whose life is upended when pictures of her in an extremely compromising position emerge after a hacking. The series shows her unravelling as, episode by episode, Suzie navigates the stages of shock, denial, fear, shame, bargaining, guilt, anger and acceptance, while her best friend and manager, Naomi (Leila Farzad), tries to hold her life, career and marriage to Cob (Daniel Ings) together.

“We’re all presented with so many scripts, so you’re looking for two things,” Gardner explains. “One is do you want to turn the pages? Are you on a journey? Is it an exciting read? Are you desperate to get to the end and desperate to know more? That was absolutely the case with this script. The second thing you’re looking for is quality of writing, which can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What you could feel from the very first page was there was a truth to the writing. There was a point of view. There was an authorship, which might be a strange word to use, but there was a real specificity to the work.

“In the current climate, what you’re really looking for is something that stands out. That doesn’t mean the piece has to be big and high-concept and singing and dancing. You might be looking for something that might be very quiet. In some ways, this piece feels almost like a chamber piece but it has some big ideas and it has real heart and humour. You just really wanted to read it.”

Since it was established by Gardner and co-founder Jane Tranter in 2015, Bad Wolf has built a reputation for producing high-end dramas such as His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches. Gardner says the quieter, character-led I Hate Suzie gave the company a chance to back an authored piece of work and support the writer’s vision.

Billie Piper plays the titular character in Sky’s I Hate Suzie

“When you get a piece like this that has an immediate quality in the work, the creation and the writing, it immediately fits,” she says. “That project would fit on any serious producer’s slate. It’s lovely to be doing big visual effects and big world-building in something like His Dark Materials, but the world-building on every project is important. It sits very organically as a Bad Wolf project where we’re backing the writers and what the creators want to say.”

Producer Andrea Dewsbery (The Spanish Princess) was equally drawn in by Prebble and Piper’s ambition to push into the dark corners of life and emotions. “The scripts made me laugh right up until the point something so horrendously truthful happens I feel a bit sick, and that is what they did for me the whole way through,” she says. “You read so many scripts and then you read one that sings in that way to you. You can’t really resist it. The chance to work with Billie and Lucy was the big pull really.”

The collaboration between Prebble and Piper is at the heart of the series, the pair having created the series together before exec producing it. Showrunner Prebble was also on set every day.

Andrea Dewsbery

“They say they’re control freaks, but I find them joyously collaborative,” Dewsbery says. “As the producer on the ground, it was amazing to have them both there all the time. It’s a real gift to have that sort of access to the creators of the show and always feel like you’re discussing things and making sure it’s all moving in the right direction. Lucy’s brilliant when posed with a challenge. She’ll figure something out in terms of lines of dialogue or what happens that just feels like they’re very complementary. We got stronger as we kept going.”

Behind the camera on her first television series is director Georgi Banks-Davies, who is known as a commercials director but came to Prebble and Piper’s attention after her short film Garfield played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.

“What I thought was so brilliant about I Hate Suzie was it was just stopping me in my tracks constantly,” the director says. “It’s so multi-layered in what the characters were going through. I was instantly taken by it. I knew what their creative ambition for the show was and I knew Lucy and Billie wanted to break all the rules. I like to think they brought me on board because I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know how to make television. There were no barriers in my way, and the production supported that.”

Banks-Davies worked closely with the creators to give each episode a distinct visual and performance style that chimed with the central emotion highlighted by each stage of trauma Suzie passes through. Episode one, Shock, was designed almost like a French farce, she says, where the camera feels as though it is on a continuous journey with numerous close-ups of Suzie as she comes to terms with what is happening to her. In contrast, episode six, Guilt, is a social realism drama where the camera sits back and observes the performances as they play out.

“They really wanted to do something brave with the filmmaking, which didn’t follow any of the conventions we’re used to seeing,” Banks-Davies says. “When I read the episodes, I couldn’t imagine creating a standard style and putting it across the whole series. It just felt wrong. The filmmaking and the performances around it allow you to submerge yourself in the world and the feeling and emotion Lucy so brilliantly cultivates in her writing.”

Piper on set with director Georgi Banks-Davies

Working on set with Piper, who knew her character better than anyone, was the “great gift” of the project for the director, who describes the show’s star as the “perfect actor” to work with. “I push actors to be brave, trusting and to forget about the constraints of filmmaking. I don’t want them to remember what they did in the last take. Billie really loved that too,” she says. “I was there to keep her on the right trajectory in how the character would navigate the series, the storylines and the themes. My job was to give her that security, space and freedom to really realise the character.”

While time and budget constraints are challenges faced by every production, filming on I Hate Suzie was complicated further by the decision to shoot entirely on location in and around London. Suzie’s house was discovered in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, while filming for episode two also took place at London Comic-Con, where Suzie appears on stage to talk about an old TV series in which she used to star.

“We kept returning to Suzie and Cob’s house but, beyond that, every episode was really new,” Gardner says. “The location count was very high. The guest character count was very high. The scene count was quite high. It was a strange one in some ways, being a small, quite intimate, quite domestic show. But within that, it was also quite a weirdly big show. We were a show entirely funded by Sky and the UK tax break. We haven’t sold abroad upfront, so that dictates how you position the piece and what you can do [with the budget]. We had to be quite inventive. That was mostly a good thing – it found its spirit in that way.”

The “hero house” was Banks-Davies’ choice. Despite being told she was “completely insane” for choosing a beautiful house in the countryside that came with tight spaces and low ceilings, the director says the property fit her impression of where Suzie might live.

“I had it in my mind from the script stage that the house Suzie lived in shouldn’t be Beckingham Palace, it should be real,” she says, referring to the nickname for the palatial mansion once owned by superstar couple David and Victoria Beckham. “She’s a star but they don’t live in a £100m house. There was a realism I wanted to make sure came across, which was that they bought a dream but it wasn’t as idyllic as you think.”

The series also stars Daniel Ings as Suzie’s husband, Cob

Banks-Davies also wanted Suzie to live in a house where the character seemed constantly exposed, with every door leading to another space. “She’s never truly comfortable anywhere. When every room has two doors on either side, there’s no escaping,” she says. “There’s no privacy. There’s no freedom. I knew I wanted a house like that, and you can feel it in episode one as you’re continually going around and around. The character is constantly unnerved and on the back foot, so the location becomes really important for that.

“As difficult as it is to work in, you can’t substitute that realism on screen. And as soon as you take actors into that space, they feel it. I constantly try to strip away the mechanics of filmmaking to create realism for the actors. That’s the heart and essence of where I start with everything. But it makes it really difficult.”

A further challenge was still ahead, however, as the coronavirus-enforced lockdown in the UK earlier this year meant post-production had to take place remotely ahead of the show’s launch in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV on August 27. NBCUniversal International Television Distribution is selling the series overseas.

The picture edit had been completed on five episodes by the time lockdown came into effect, with Gardner describing the ensuing process as an “emotional rollercoaster.” She continues: “It was all very doable because we had a great post team and Lucy and Billie have an incredible work ethic and are very reliable. They can work to deadlines. Picture post was easier, but sound post is incredibly challenging because everyone’s listening to a mix on a different device at different volume at different level. Just getting ADR [additional dialogue replacement] done when you’ve got actors scattered across the UK with varying degrees of WiFi capacity was hard, but very possible.”

“Sometimes it felt like we got through it through the sheer force of everyone’s determination and spirit,” Dewsbery adds. “The director’s brilliant, Lucy and Billie were brilliant. Everyone pulled together and our post-production team was fantastic. We got through it.”

With the door left open for a potential second season of I Hate Suzie, Gardner hopes the series will provoke a national discussion about what people would do if they found themselves in a similar situation to the main character.

“There’s a debate to be had about a woman in society today under an extraordinary exposing spotlight,” she says. “This is fundamentally a character piece. Who is Suzie Pickles at this moment of extremity and extreme stress and collapse? Who is this woman and what do we learn about her family, her life, her career and her attitudes at a moment of real unmasking? That top note is the central character, and the hacking story is an engine to allow you to peel away at the character.”

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Summoning daemons

Russell Dodgson, VFX supervisor on BBC and HBO fantasy drama His Dark Materials, discusses his team’s Bafta-winning work to create a world filled with dozens of fantastical animals.

As an award-winning creator of film and television visual effects, Framestore has been involved in bringing to life characters such as Harry Potter’s Dobby, Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy, ‘Smart Hulk’ from Avengers: Endgame and Paddington. Recent television work includes Netflix’s The Witcher, HBO’s Watchmen, the BBC’s A Christmas Carol and Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters.

The company has also won Oscars for The Golden Compass (2007), Gravity (2013) and Blade Runner 2049 (2018), while also receiving Baftas for those three titles and television series SSGB (2018). And it has now added another Bafta to its trophy cabinet after picking up this year’s award for special, visual and graphic effects for its work on the first season of BBC and HBO fantasy drama His Dark Materials.

Russell Dodgson

Based on Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels, the story about a child with a great destiny takes place in a world controlled by the all-powerful Magisterium, filled with witches and giant polar bears. Every human soul also takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon.

The show has been two-and-a-half years of work for Russell Dodgson, the show’s VFX supervisor and Framestore’s creative director of television. While television’s investment in VFX has expanded exponentially in recent years though series such as Game of Thrones, Dodgson is excited by the move from using visual effects just for “that big bit in episode eight” to storytelling purposes. That switch is no more apparent than in the making of His Dark Materials.

“The show itself is pretty unique,” Dodgson tells DQ. “I don’t think there’s any show that has such a high demand for visual effects constantly at a character level. Other shows have got [computer generated] environments all the way through and that’s heavy. But to have to create both the environments and then really characterful performances from furry creatures that have to play alongside really killer actors all the time and not mess up their performance, that’s a real challenge.”

Framestore came to the project rather late, with around six weeks of preparation time before filming was due to begin. But production designer Joel Collins and his design studio Painting Practice had already been working on the show for six months, so by the time Dodgson joined, a lot of work had already been completed to create the world of the series.

“When we turned up, the world was there,” Dodgson says. “That meant I could focus on the daemons. They’d also already made the early decision to have puppeteering [on set with the actors]. They had a master puppeteer called William Todd-Jones [The NeverEnding Story] who had already started thinking about how the puppeteering might work. So my main thing was how we were going to cast our animals – choosing a type of animal for each human.”

Clarke Peters as The Master with his daemon, which takes the form of a raven

Dodgson felt that the relationship between the human actors and their VFX daemons would make or break the show. “If they don’t feel like they’re emoting or connecting to them, we’re screwed,” he says. His team also had to think about what the creatures would look like, particularly considering these were not normal animals.

“I was very keen, and so were the showrunners, to keep them very natural because, as Philip Pullman says, it’s not a book for kids. It’s a book for adults that kids should read. You don’t want it to be silly. They’re not caricatures. They’re just animals that represent your soul and can talk to you in a meaningful way. We had to find the things that make them animal and take away the things that aren’t relevant in our world, like the need to mate, sniffing around for food and going into the toilet. Then you replace that with a human focus that allows them to feel like they’re on the human side of consciousness.

“I worked with William to make sure we had an array of puppets that would have enough of a neutral expression that you could play sad, happy or whatever with the same puppet. We also had loads of photographic references for our artists to work from. By the time we’d done all of that, we’d already started shooting.”

In Pullman’s novels, every human has a daemon. But when the series launched, there was notable social media chatter about that fact that not everyone on screen had an animal by their side at all times. As Dodgson explains, it wasn’t just a budgetary consideration that meant some characters weren’t shown with their daemons.

His Dark Materials relies heavily on VFX for its depiction of fantastical creatures

“It’s a story about people; it’s not a story about daemons,” he says. “They are just one of the many ways that Philip Pullman represents the connection a person has with their soul. So it’s not the be-all and end-all. And we definitely didn’t want to make Doctor Doolittle as well. If you block a scene and it’s Lord Asriel [played James McAvoy] talking with a bunch of scholars and you’ve got to give them all daemons, there’s no room for them all because the framing’s ugly. It becomes very distracting very quickly. So we also found it isn’t just about money, it’s actually just taste.

“We just tried to have enough daemons to make sure we kept the spirit of them alive so that we could put all of our money and time into telling the story when it mattered with them, rather than having to spread the butter too thinly over the toast and not really taste it.”

Turning the computer-generated daemons into fully formed characters was another big talking point behind the scenes and Dodgson says he felt a duty of care to the actors’ performances.

“If you take Ruth Wilson playing Mrs Coulter and she’s giving a really emotional, narrative-driving performance, and then you have to be the guy that sticks a golden monkey [the form of Mrs Coulter’s daemon] in the shot with her, it can go south really quickly and you have to find a way through that problem. A lot of good visual effects is an exercise in restraint. It’s about stripping away things rather than adding things, and knowing when it’s your job to take centre stage and when it’s your job to pretty much shut up and just be there.”

On set, Wilson (pictured top) formed a strong partnership with her puppeteer, and the two of them would talk with Dodgson and his team about different scenes and how the daemon might be portrayed. The actor also visited Framestore, where she discussed Mrs Coulter’s backstory and relationship with her daemon to better inform the animators.

His Dark Materials’ armoured polar bear character Iorek Byrnison

“It worked really well because the animators really embraced that. At the beginning, I’d give more notes and, by the end, they were just giving me things that I hadn’t even asked for,” Dodgson says. “It’s hard. You have to do your homework. You have to understand the characters. You have to really understand what the actors are doing in the scenes and what the subtext of that scene is. And then you have to make the people performing the characters in CG understand that as well.”

Alongside VFX partners Painting Practice and Real SFX, Framestore is now working on season two of His Dark Materials, which opens up a new world for its characters and challenged the designers to create new sets and landscapes, though there is less digital snow required than in season one. New creatures appearing in season two include soul-eating Spectres.

“What’s great and what I love about this show is the visual effects are at the core of the emotional story,” Dodgson says. “We don’t make creatures, we make characters. You can make a creature that runs around and chases people for 20 shots. It can be amazing and you can do a really good job. It could be the best work in the world. But to take a monkey and make it seem like a third or half of a person across eight hours of TV, and now add on another whole season and let that character have an arc, is like a gift for an animator and a visual effects supervisor. It’s beautiful to do.

“Carrying on their stories is really the thing that I love. I really hope that we end up doing a third season because those stories go mental in the next book.”

Work has been continuing remotely during the coronavirus lockdown in the UK and around the world, with Framestore having other offices in Canada, India and the US. Although drama production is restarting slowly, Dodgson believes there will be an explosion of demand for digital environments as people decide not to travel abroad for location shoots. He believes virtual production, where VFX studios are an integral part of a show’s development from the outset, is also going to increase.

“Historically, people used to think of visual effects as picture post-production. It’s like, ‘We shoot the thing and you do the thing after.’ But actually we can help from day one, whether it’s through concept design, pre-visualisation or storyboarding,” he notes.

“We have to work with costume, makeup, stunts, special effects and props. The list just keeps going. It’s amazing how connected we are. And the earlier in the production visual effects can be involved, the more beneficial. There’ll be a huge increase in virtual production, a huge increase in LED wall shooting and there’ll probably be a period where suddenly there are too many visual effects in TV shows and suddenly it all gets a bit silly and then everybody then pares it all back down again. That is probably what you’ll see.”

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Reinventing soap

Fresh from the UK soap’s Bafta success, Emmerdale executive producer Jane Hudson tells DQ how the show is pushing innovative storytelling and leading the return to production following the coronavirus shutdown.

When Emmerdale was named the winner of the continuing drama category at last month’s socially distanced Bafta Television Awards, executive producer Jane Hudson was surprised and delighted as she joined the post-event press conference. A week later as she speaks to DQ from the show’s Yorkshire studio, she’s still “chuffed to bits.”

But this year of all years, as soaps were the first television series in the UK to resume production amid the pandemic, Hudson firmly believes Emmerdale and its traditional rivals – Coronation Street, EastEnders and others – all deserve a share of the limelight.

“It is fantastic to win it, I just think all of us deserve an award,” she says. “The soaps were the first to return to shooting. We never get recognition. We’re always the poor relation of drama in other people’s eyes. We’ve just shown that we’re not. We know what we’re doing. We can produce really great drama under really difficult circumstances. All the dramas should have got a big fat award just for working.”

Jane Hudson

Originally known as Emmerdale Farm, the soap has been a fixture of ITV’s evening schedules since 1972, steadily growing from two episodes a week to six. Set in a fictional village in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, it follows the joys and heartbreaks of the families living in a tight-knit community. Some of its most notable characters include the Dingles, Tates and Sudgens, who are all regulars at the Woolpack pub.

Hudson joined the series as executive producer in June 2018, having worked as an ITV commissioner for its soaps until summer 2017. The Bafta win recognises Emmerdale’s performance in 2019, during which Hudson oversaw the show’s Big Night Out storyline. Several characters went on a group night out that went horribly wrong, leaving many questions unanswered until a fortnight later when three flashback episodes revealed what really happened.

“One thing we try to do is be innovative with what we’re doing but always remember what the essence of soap is and what our genre is,” she explains. “You can take the viewers so far but, if you try something too extreme, you’re trying to be a nine o’clock drama. We’re not, we’re a soap and you’ve got to remember that.

“Our Big Night Out week was a really interesting way to tease the audience, to let them know something had happened and then to reveal what happened but keeping within the truth of our soap. We didn’t try to become something different.

“We also submitted [to Bafta] our Nate/Cain/Moira boat explosion. It’s not just a great big stunt, it was also these three characters finding out this massive secret that not only has Moira been sleeping with Nate, but he is her husband’s son. It’s a huge thing to get your head around. We showed not only can we do stunts, we can be creative with our storytelling and do what is at the heart of soap: characters finding things out.”

Emmerdale has put measures in place to ensure social distancing during production

Soaps should mirror viewers’ lives, Hudson says, only in a very exaggerated way as their characters deal with everyday events including affairs, babies being born, death, illness, arguments, secrets and lies. Viewers also grow to love the characters, often seeing more of them than their own family.

“You’ve got to take them on a journey. And when we get our characters to quite heightened states, we lead our audience there,” she continues. “We’ve got longevity too. We’re not just on for six episodes; we’re on, hopefully, forever so you’ve got to keep some truth to those characters and keep your audience with you. We’re pre-watershed as well, so we have to be really careful at telling big, emotional, impactful stories while keeping within the pre-watershed rules.”

The 40-strong band of writers and executives who collaborate on the show’s storylines “argue, fight, laugh and joke” as they come up with ideas they hope will get the nation talking, ensuring viewers are fully invested in characters and their relationships before dropping nerve-shattering revelations or pulling them into emotional, hard-hitting events.

“Sometimes there’s an urge to plough through stories and it all becomes very heightened. But we’re always looking to make sure, tonally, we have some big things happening – we’ve got some comedy, there’s a more schlocky story happening and then a really serious, heart-and-soul issue story,” Hudson explains. “We’re always looking for that balance so that it feels like a very colourful world, which is what most people’s worlds are like.”

The series has remained on air throughout the pandemic, having switched to fewer weekly episodes earlier in the crisis

Reflecting real life has never been more important than it is today, as soaps look for a way to reflect how people are living with Covid-19 while also trying to offer them a form of escapism. Filming on Emmerdale and its ITV Studios cousin Coronation Street was suspended on March 23, with Emmerdale’s weekly six-episode broadcast schedule reduced to three at the end of that month.

However, cast and crew returned to work on May 20, initially to film six special lockdown episodes featuring six different groups of characters. These were broadcast two per week through June, before the regular series returned to three weekly episodes in July. The reduced transmission and the ability to resume filming so quickly meant Emmerdale avoided running out of episodes and has continued to air throughout the pandemic. Back on set, Hudson is facing up to the realities of filming in a post-Covid world and how that is reflected by the characters on screen.

“What all the soaps are trying to do at the moment is find that happy medium, which shows we’re acknowledging the world as it is now and we’re acknowledging coronavirus, but also we’re taking a bit of dramatic licence and saying, ‘Look, if we’ve got a police interview scene and it’s emotional, do our viewers really want to see our characters sat in masks?’

“We’ve got to remember we are a form of escapism as well, as much as we reflect real life. The pub and the café are takeaway venues at the moment and now we’re just debating whether they can be eat-in venues and, if they are, do we have to wear masks? Honestly, I’d like to say it’s not a daily conversation, but it is.

Emmerdale normally airs six episodes per week

“We’re trying not to look like we’re ignoring coronavirus but we’re trying not to let it take over our show. It’s taken over enough of our lives as it is without interfering with our beloved characters too much. If you’ve got somebody finding out somebody’s had an affair, in all likelihood your first thought isn’t going to be, ‘I need to put my mask on to confront them.’ It’s going to be, ‘I’m going to rip their bloody beak off.’ We’ve got to have a bit of reality where putting a mask on might not always be your first thought.”

Hudson recalls her surprise at how coronavirus rapidly moved from being the final item on the evening news to suddenly affecting everyone’s lives, leading to production being suspended in March and people being stuck at home in lockdown. She admits her biggest fear was running out of episodes, but her priority now is ensuring the cast and crew are kept safe.

“Nothing comes before our safety,” she says. “We’re so strict. I never thought I would be such a headmistress about safety in my life.” She has spoken to her counterparts at Corrie, as well people working on BBC soap EastEnders, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, Australia’s Neighbours and New Zealand’s Shortland Street. Hudson and Emmerdale’s senior production manager, Nader Mabadi, have also discussed new filming practices with independent production companies more used to making high-end dramas.

“It’s been a real marker of how small our industry is and how, when we need to work together, it’s like, forget the ratings battle for a moment and take the gloves off. We can help each other and, when we’re back up and running, we can put the gloves back on and have a fair fight. But right now, let’s just get each other working. Most of my friends are in this industry and they’re just out of work. It’s heartbreaking.”

Everyone working on Emmerdale now has a coloured lanyard denoting which area of the studios they are allowed to enter. People allocated to different areas can meet in the car park for socially distanced chats. Filming resumed with a very light schedule, with fewer actors and scenes in each episode. This meant cast members suddenly had to learn eight-page two-handers, rather than four-page six-handers. But as production slowly increases, the show is on track to resume its original six-episode weekly broadcast patten as part of ITV’s autumn schedule next month.

The soap has been on air since 1972

Hudson says the key to filming in the post-coronavirus world is to work within health and safety rules, rather than try to get around them. “As soon as you get into your head that this is how it is and we have to accept we have to do all these things, you find a way to work,” she says.

“Our two-metre social distancing pole is basically a bit of painted wood. It’s the cheapest bit of kit ever and now we physically hold a pole between people. We have markings around the whole building, like in shops. You can’t move for hand sanitiser, it’s everywhere. We have temperature checking when we come in. We have a medic with us all the time. If anybody wants to see what health and safety is, just come to our building. It’s crazy.”

As a former soaps commissioner for ITV, Hudson says she has always loved Emmerdale. Hailing from Yorkshire herself, Hudson admits “I’m going to be biased anyway,” but says the show’s Bafta win is recognition for the soap’s ambition and innovation.

“We try to find a new way to tell a story but one that makes you feel like you’re still watching Emmerdale,” she says. “You’ve not suddenly jumped into [BBC crime thriller] Line of Duty. You are true to your genre, you know exactly where you are but you’re being surprised by the storytelling in a way you enjoy.

“That’s what worked for us this time. It’s a very lovely place to work, and that’s been shown by our return to filming. The commitment, loyalty and enthusiasm from our cast and crew and our different teams has been phenomenal. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

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Playing the Part

Actor Fares Fares tells DQ how returning home to Sweden for his latest project, crime thriller Partisan, gave him the opportunity to work in front of and behind the camera.

In the past decade, actor Fares Fares has become an international star thanks in part to film roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Star Wars spin-off Rogue One and US TV series such as Tyrant and Westworld. He also appeared in Emmy and Bafta winner Chernobyl as a Russian soldier given orders to shoot all the pets left roaming the area surrounding the nuclear reactor following its explosion.

But having made a name for himself in Sweden in crime series Maria Wern and the Snabba Cash film franchise, Fares was always looking for the right project to bring him home. Viewers across Scandinavia will now see him headline a series for the first time since his Hollywood breakthrough in streamer Viaplay’s latest original drama, Swedish crime thriller Partisan, in which the setting is as mysterious as its characters.

Fares Fares as Johnny in Partisan, which he developed alongside director Amir Chamdin

Fares plays Johnny, a truck driver who escorts two young girls to beautiful, idyllic Jordnära, a gated community that runs a successful organic farm distributing vegetables. A new employee within the community, Johnny spends time getting to know Nicole (Sofia Karemyr) and Maria (Ylvali Rurling), who are being fostered there during the summer months. But almost immediately, Johnny senses all is not well within Jordnära. And as he seeks to discover the truth, it seems Johnny has secrets of his own.

“I’d been thinking I really wanted to do something in Swedish and it just happened that I’d never really found a project I liked and wanted to do,” Fares tells DQ on the phone from Stockholm. “Then this one came up. My girlfriend was pregnant at the time and we had to stay in Stockholm last summer anyway. Because of that, it was perfect timing.”

Lebanon-born Fares isn’t just the leading actor in the series, however. He is also the creative producer, having developed the show with director Amir Chamdin.

Fares is tight-lipped over Partisan’s plot

“We had been talking about working together for a while and some projects came up but I didn’t really like them. We didn’t find anything we could agree to work on,” Fares says. “He came in with Partisan and I could see something in it. I said, ‘If you want, we can start from scratch and I could come in as a creative producer and a writer of the show, and that would be interesting to me.’

“Warner Bros agreed to it, so I sat down with Amir and we literally scrapped everything and started from scratch, and together we came up with what Partisan is today. I came to this project not as an actor but as a creative producer.”

At the centre of the story is Jordnära itself, which is as much of a character as Johnny, and equally mysterious. Fares says the gated community is a metaphor for modern society and the way extreme politics is becoming normalised. “Before the coronavirus, things were happening in Europe and around the world where certain people had thoughts and ideas and people were getting used to them,” he says.

“For me, the idea was to create a world where you could criticise society, but not shove it in the face of people. We could create a world that, on the surface, is the most perfect place you can imagine – and then you sneak in those dark secrets.”

Having loved his first experience writing for the screen, Fares says he is keen to continue in that creative role. However, he’s also sure that he doesn’t want to combine on- and off-camera work again. “It takes a lot of energy. It’s like doing two things at the same time,” he explains. “It worked here, but next time I want to separate the two. I want to keep on doing the creative producing and writing parts, and hopefully also do some directing, but keep the acting separate.

“I couldn’t just leave the writing. When I went to set, I put on my costume and became Johnny when the camera was rolling and between takes. When I wasn’t shooting anything, I was sitting with Amir behind the monitor and producing. We also had to write some scenes we didn’t have. Sometimes, when you start filming, you notice that maybe an extra scene would be good, so I’d write that at the same time. It took a lot of energy.

“Normally when I play a character, I do a lot of preparation, get into the world and try to learn as much as possible about him and the world around him. I was a little bit afraid this time that the acting part was going to suffer a bit because I didn’t have as much time. But I actually realised when I was on set that I knew the world more than anyone else. The hard part was trying to relax between takes and whenever I wasn’t shooting. Physically and mentally, it’s hard to do both things at the same time.”

Fares is reluctant to talk more about Johnny and what happens in the series, owing to the numerous twists and turns the Warner Bros-produced series takes over its five episodes. That has also proven to be a hurdle in trying to promote the show to potential viewers ahead of its debut on Viaplay this Sunday.

The series debuts on Viaplay this Sunday

“When we wrote it, we wanted to make a series where we could surprise the audience as much as possible to keep it interesting,” he says. “Then we realised trying to sell it [to the audience] was really hard because we wanted to keep as many secrets as possible. It’s really hard to talk about Johnny because the story unfolds with him. He’s a very sad man. He’s got this tragic event that happened in his life that he can’t get rid of. To me, he doesn’t really live anymore. He’s stuck. He’s definitely not living for himself anymore; he’s on a mission for someone else. That’s him.”

Distributed internationally by Federation Entertainment, the series also sees Johnny fear not just for his own safety, but also that of Nicole and Maria as he begins to feel increasingly protective of the two girls he brought to Jordnära.

“As he was the one who brought them there, he feels more guilty,” Fares adds. “When he first enters Jordnära, he doesn’t really know what’s going on. For him, bringing the girls wasn’t a big deal at the beginning, and then he realises he brought them into a very dark place and that it’s his fault. And because the tragic events from his life have to do with a daughter of his, he meets these two girls and feels more and more protective over them.”

While gated communities appear to shield those within from the outside world, the steel gates and barbed wire that surround Jordnära would appear to suggest something more dangerous lies within, as Johnny is set to discover.

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Alfa male

Two brothers begin a journey of self-discovery in Alfa, a multi-stranded Danish series that blends thriller and character drama. DQ speaks to writer and director Milad Avaz about his first television project.

As a writer, Denmark’s Milad Avaz has two feature film credits to his name: drama Mens vi lever (While We Live, 2017) and thriller Kollision (Collision, 2019). The launch of Alfa this Sunday marks not only his television debut but also the first time he has directed, helming all eight episodes of the TV2 series.

Produced by SF Studios Productions and Rocket Road Pictures, the eight-part story sets up the opposing worlds of estranged brothers Adam (Andreas Jessen) and Jakob (Andreas’ real-life brother Sebastian). When newly graduated stockbroker Adam discovers his father is dead, he leaves his stressful life to return to his roots and take on his father’s position as the leader of a biker community. Reunited with childhood friends Simon (Besir Zeciri) and Oliver (Ari Alexander), he follows personal ambitions and a hunger for power that see him clash with immigrant gangs, bikers and the police.

Meanwhile, Jakob has broken free from his past to join the police, being recruited to the anti-drug unit. But an inner struggle forces him to look for what he truly wants in life – and sets up a clash with his own brother.

Milad Avaz

With a four-season arc planned for the show, Avaz took on both writing and directing duties himself. Avaz’s brothers Misam and Mehdi produce the series, whose origins date back to 2009, when Avaz was a university student and he and a friend were looking to buy some marijuana in Christiania, an international commune in the heart of Copenhagen. Finding themselves surprised by the “bad service,” later on at home, over a few beers, they applied business studies strategies to drug dealing.

“The story’s facade is about Adam trying to reinvent the drug market,” Avaz explains. “But the deeper story is about the existential dread that exists because my generation is not living in wartime or coming off a huge stagnation in the economy. We grew up with our parents telling us life is going to be fucking great if you do everything right. You grow up with this thought that there’s something to the world you haven’t seen yet, or there’s a role for you that you haven’t found. Then you come out there and it’s like, ‘Not really.’

“No one really cares that you came into the world and you have your degrees and have done everything right. It’s kind of meaningless. That was the thing that happened to me, and I thought a lot of other people were feeling this way as well. I tried to fit that whole problem into the world of the drug market. What is it like moving from within to outside the structured world and vice versa? What are the limits to our society?”

Adam is the focus of season one. He has done everything right on paper, distancing himself from his family and his past, but he suffers from anxiety attacks and fears for his life, even though there is no actual threat against him.

“Then he starts re-engaging with his childhood friends and his dad’s old world that has been a recipe for disaster,” Avaz continues. “On the other side, Jakob is the first born. He’s like the classic Greek tragedy – he’s promised the kingdom but rejects it. He comes from an unstructured background and moves into the structured world, trying to find a new family that will provide him safety and the opposite of the life he has had. So we have these two brothers moving in opposite directions and seeing what that does to their mentality.”

Andreas Jessen plays Adam, one of two brothers at the centre of Alfa’s story

Adam and Jakob’s stories won’t be fully told in season one, however, with Avaz intent on playing the long game with his characters. The opening season doesn’t focus specifically on their relationship but merely establishes them and their worlds.

“On the surface, season one is about Adam breaking with his mundane job and chasing adrenaline and fast money by trying to sell some weed he finds in his dad’s old belongings,” says Avaz, who concedes he is a bit like Adam, having struggled with anxiety and depression while working at an investment firm before moving to LA to start writing. “His drug world is my movie-making world,” Avaz adds.

TV2 had called Avaz in for a meeting after seeing While We Live, and he pitched them the four-season arc while openly admitting that answers to the questions raised by the series would not be immediately forthcoming. “They were OK with that, so the experiment was always about what it would be like if we made a four-season movie,” he says. “I’ve tried, with season one, to play on your expectations of the genre. It all seems very familiar because you are in a world you understand. From there, we can create something that completely shatters those expectations.”

Avaz says working in TV, rather than film, has given him the running time he needs to subvert expectations. He also trusts viewers to stick with a show that isn’t afraid to insert a third storyline set in Colombia that seemingly doesn’t have anything to do with Adam or Jakob. “I found that quite enticing,” he says. “It’s like making a short film within the series and letting people hang in there. It doesn’t fall into place until the last minute at the end of the season. There’s also a whole episode dedicated to the main antagonist.”

The other brother, Jakob, is played by Andreas Jessen’s real-life sibling Sebastian

The writer-director says he never starts writing the scripts until he has completed the full outline for the series. Then, once he sits in front of his computer, he knows exactly what he’s going to write. “The main thing when you’re writing is you have to have enticing dialogue, with whole dynamics between characters and stuff. You can’t be thinking about where the scene needs to go,” he says. “You can’t be discovering all this other stuff because you need to have your attention on how this person acts in the moment. I spend most of my time finding out what the big scenes are and working from there.”

When the series moved into pre-production, he turned from writer to director, but one who felt at liberty to play with the material he had written. “If an actor asks something, I feel like a director owes it to the writer to stay true to their intentions, whereas I have the freedom to say, ‘Let’s go with something else.’ If I want to rewrite a whole page at lunch, I can do it because it’s my script. It offers a lot of freedom. I would really suggest all directors start writing their scripts.

“Maj-Britt Landin, the executive producer at TV2, has become one of my very close friends and she was the one I would feed off. We’d go for walks and we’d discuss my scenes. She wouldn’t force things upon me but she would bounce off me in a way that just made it right, and she was the only one who read the scripts.”

Filming took place across Copenhagen, with rural scenes shot close to Avaz’s hometown of Helsinge. He also travelled to the US to shoot scenes set in Colombia in New Mexico. Throughout, he employed a “David Fincher-esque” camera style that used minimal movement but also sought to break the conventions of traditional filming techniques. The style also shifts with the characters. “We spent a lot of time on the visual side. It’s not just point and shoot,” he says. “There were so many moments we were behind schedule, but we couldn’t just skip the ambition. We had to stay two hours extra just to commit to our visual style, which is sometimes really hard to say to people on a small budget.”

Ride Upon the Storm’s Lars Mikkelsen also features among the cast

Alongside his writing and directing roles, Avaz was also constantly thinking about how best to use the DK28m (US$4.5m) budget. “That’s what kills you,” he says, “going to bed at night knowing you burned X amount of budget and, at the end of it, it’s my money taken out of my pocket if I make a choice that’s financially bad. That’s really hard sometimes.”

Alfa – which is distributed by ZDF Enterprises under the English title Grow – is about the power people have to change their lives if they’re unhappy. And if you can predict what’s going to happen at the end, “you may be the smartest person on Earth,” Avaz says.

“Further seasons are going to twist and turn in ways that haven’t been seen before. The idea for this season is to create a safe environment so that when the next season comes, you’re going to be like, ‘What the fuck?’ What you think is going on is not the main story.”

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Deception point

Chloë Thomas, the director of psychological thriller The Deceived, tells DQ about filming the four-part drama, channelling Alfred Hitchcock and burning down the set.

While many dramas would spend more time focusing on the blossoming but illicit relationship between an English student and her charming-but-married lecturer, four-part miniseries The Deceived is barely out of first gear before its central characters have finished flirting and started a full-blown love affair.

Viewers shouldn’t feel deceived, however, as the psychological drama – which aired last week on Channel 5 in the UK and Virgin Media Television in Ireland – quickly reveals its true intentions. When Dr Michael Callaghan (Emmett J Scanlan) suddenly disappears, the now-pregnant Ophelia (Emily Reid) tracks him down to his marital home. But a sudden death leads her to become trapped in a haunting world where she can no longer trust her own mind.

Chloë Thomas

Set between Cambridge and Northern Ireland, the series comes from husband-and-wife writing team Lisa McGee (Derry Girls) and Tobias Beer, who wanted to create a contemporary yet otherworldly drama that takes inspiration from traditional Irish ghost stories and adds a layer of manipulation.

“When they sent me the first script, my first question was, ‘Can I read the next episode?’” director Chloë Thomas tells DQ. “I just wanted to know what would happen because I loved the line it takes between whether it is supernatural or is it not. I love that ambiguity in it and I love the crazy-intricate plotting.

“There was a real desire to get to Ireland because that’s where the main story begins,” she says of the fast-paced opening. “I like the fact you think it’s going to be about an affair, and we have had a few dramas like that recently, but suddenly he disappears and then she’s in Ireland and she’s pregnant. There were multiple rugs being pulled [out from under the audience].

“It is crazy fast and you have to go with it. But nothing is what you think it is. It puts you in the position of Ophelia, who’s fallen [in love] very hard and fast and then she rocks up in a place where everyone knows each other and it’s really foreign to her.”

Thomas came to the project inspired by movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), mystery thrillers Stoker (2013) and Personal Shopper (2016), and haunting Nicole Kidman drama The Others (2001).

“Me and the DP, Donna Wade, were thinking of Hitchcock and this sense of, ‘Is this real? What is going on?’ It’s not necessarily dark all the time. Modern gothic doesn’t have to be dark,” the director says. “Sometimes it’s quite bright, but it’s very uneasy. It’s on the edge of melodrama, which I really liked. Things were heightened but just about believable. You have to think you would go with Michael. You know it’s not a good idea, but sometimes people do things that are a bad idea, like having an affair with a married man.

Thomas on set with The Deceived star Emmett J Scanlan

“I was also thinking about modern ghosts. I’m not a horror genre nut, but I like things that are presented as totally real and you just have to go with it. In the look book, there were lots of creepy stairs and creepy doors, so locations are very important. I was interested in being still in the house and thinking, ‘What can I hear? Who’s that person?’ and us feeling the space, like you’re too small in a big room.”

An 18th century house on the outskirts of Belfast was used for the Callaghan home. It came complete with the desired wide corridors and large staircase. “It was just as I imagined it,” Thomas says. “We changed the outside of it in terms of the greenery. We took the leaves off [the trees], which made it 10 times spookier. The designer, David Craig ,understood those little things that added the spookiness to it.”

Establishing shots of Cambridge were also filmed around the English city to capture sights such as the Bridge of Sighs, though Queen’s University in Belfast doubled for Cambridge University on screen.

The director describes the ensemble cast as “really amazing,” with Scanlan (Gangs of London) and Reid (Belgravia) joined by Catherine Walker (Shetland) as Michael’s wife Roisin, Eleanor Methven (Little Women) as Roisin’s mother Mary, Ian McElhinney (Game of Thrones) as Michael’s father Hugh, Shelley Conn (Liar) as Rosin’s friend Ruth and Paul Mescal as Sean, a local builder who becomes Ophelia’s confidant.

The Deceived marks Mescal’s second ever screen role, after making his debut earlier this year in acclaimed BBC3 series Normal People, which is based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel. He joined the show two days after filming on Normal People wrapped.

The series stars Emily Reid as Ophelia, who has an affair with her university lecturer

“As soon as I saw his audition tape, I thought he was brilliant. I knew he had to do the part,” Thomas says. “He’s so good at being ‘normal’ but epic. He’s such a good actor. He was really attracted by the Irish story and Lisa and Toby. We were really lucky. He’s such a lovely and talented person. It was a great ensemble feeling and he fitted right in. But nobody knew how big Normal People would be.”

Thomas looks back on the final day of shooting as one of the most difficult, as it involved staging a devastating fire at the Callaghan house. “I couldn’t believe we got to do it,” she says. “It was unbelievable.” The stunt came at the end of a packed day of filming, which included shooting on the house set, some green-screen work, filming on another set and then returning to the house to capture it going up in flames.

“It was like being at Cape Canaveral and setting fire to a rocket,” she says. “We were outside under a gazebo. Donna was looking the most stressed I’ve seen her – she had three cameras in there. The amazing thing about filming in Northern Ireland is Game of Thrones has created a generation of amazing technicians and filmmakers. They’ve set fire to so much shit on Game of Thrones, so they just know how to do it so well. Then when the special effects guys put the fire out, I had the idea to get them in costume so we might get [footage of] someone that looks like a fireman. It sounds crazy, but it’s a bit of extra value from what they had to do anyway.

“For me it was weird because I couldn’t do anything. I literally just watched and it was like watching a rocket. There was nothing I could do. It was one shot. It was pretty amazing and it delivered real flames. To do that was amazing.”

Without an intimacy coordinator on set, Thomas also led the creative discussions with Wade and producer Imogen O’Sullivan around the show’s sex scenes. “We had a very strong feeling of what we wanted to see and how we wanted to make the crew, actress and actor feel, so we didn’t have an intimacy coordinator. But the actors freed me up,” she says.

Normal People’s Paul Mescal is also among the cast

“I would talk and they would say, ‘Tell me. Let’s be open. Let’s try stuff.’ Catherine Walker was amazing because there’s a sex scene that’s disturbing, because Michael is a coercive character. Something about it doesn’t feel right. We did all the normal protocols: most people were off the floor, monitors were restricted and we had a brilliant first AD [assistant director] who was understanding and sensitive. Emmett is amazing as well. I’m really interested in how you direct sex scenes, who’s pleasure it is and what you’re looking at. I’m actually hoping I get to do a lot more.”

Thomas wants viewers to follow Ophelia through the story, though that doesn’t mean they should trust her. “Ophelia is the heart of it and we should feel like we’re being gaslighted. Are there any good guys? What even is it that’s happened?” she says. “But really, it’s about Michael and his damaged personality, his narcissism and his need to be loved. I love the gaslighting and the psychological aspect, but there’s no plot breakdown, Agatha Christie style. You do find out what’s happening, but it’s complicated.”

Produced by New Pictures and distributed by All3Media International, The Deceived isn’t the only thing Thomas has on TV right now. Having previously worked on ITV’s royal series Victoria, the director also helmed three episodes of costume drama Harlots third run. The BBC recently acquired all three seasons and launched the show on BBC2 earlier this month.

She admits she was “daunted” to join a show full of “female titans” such as Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville, who both play brothel owners in 18th century London. But she says Harlots has a very different tone from other period dramas.

“They are always put in a box and actually they shouldn’t be. They’re about people with the same feelings and same jealousies,” she says. “They all end up sleeping with the wrong people. But Harlots is really interesting because no one sits around the corner stewing. If they’ve got a beef, they just storm up to them, bang on the door and say it to their face. I just love that. It’s really about money and power, and the power the women have is their sex and that’s what they sell. That’s how they manage to buy property.

“I loved the ambition of the show and what the creators and producers were trying to do with it. And it was actually very interesting working on a show with all female directors. I’d never worked on a show like that before, which is weird because it shouldn’t be a thing but it is.”

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Return to Paradise

Crime drama Death in Paradise is back in production, celebrating its 10th anniversary while becoming one of the first British series to start filming after the coronavirus-enforced shutdown. Red Planet Pictures’ Tim Key and Alex Jones tell DQ how they have done it.

Death in Paradise began with a competition. Series creator Robert Thorogood entered his idea for a series about a ‘Copper in the Caribbean’ into the Red Planet Prize, a contest set up by UK prodco Red Planet Pictures in 2007 to unearth new writing talent. Thorogood was a finalist in 2008, but his pitch was subsequently picked up to series by BBC1 and France Télévisions, with the show launching in 2011.

Now celebrating a decade on screen, Death in Paradise has begun filming its 10th season on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. But the fact the cameras are rolling at all is also a notable achievement, with the show being one of the first British series to begin production following the coronavirus-enforced shutdown in March.

Inspired by the real-life story of a British police officer who went to the Caribbean to investigate a suspected murder during the Cricket World Cup, the series sets up a fish-out-of-water tale about a quintessential English cop who is posted to the fictional island of Saint Marie, and discovers it is his idea of hell.

Ben Miller led the series for two seasons, playing Detective Inspector Richard Poole, before he was replaced by Kris Marshall’s London detective Humphrey Goodman. Ardal O’Hanlon’s DI Jack Mooney took the lead midway through season six, before Ralf Little, playing DI Neville Parker, joined in the middle of season nine. This 10th run marks Little’s first full season fronting the show.

Tim Key (left) and Alex Jones on set

From a modest opening in its first season, Death in Paradise has grown to become one of the BBC’s biggest returning dramas, with viewers drawn to the classic murder-mystery plots and the stunning locations that provide the perfect escapism during its regular January and February timeslot. BBC Studios distributes the series worldwide.

“It means everything to us to be back. We never take anything for granted,” Red Planet’s executive producer Tim Key tells DQ on location in Guadeloupe. “Every year, you look at the ratings when they come in and we’re always delighted, but we never think, ‘We’ll be fine.’

“Given that it’s a show with a formula and a format and it has a number of boxes to tick, we have to make sure, creatively, we’re challenging ourselves and trying to keep the show fresh as well. We do that sometimes in quite small ways that the average viewer might not notice, and other times in more profound ways, with two-parters or different kinds of puzzles and guest casting.”

Season 10 brings Little’s DI Parker together with DS Florence Cassell (Joséphine Jobert, pictured top alongside Little), who appeared in five seasons before taking a break in season nine. The producers also tease that they have plans to surprise viewers who have stuck by the show for the past decade, and have kept to those plans despite the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Death in Paradise’s latest lead, former Royle Family star Ralf Little

“We’ve stuck to our guns creatively,” Key says. “We’ve made very little concession to Covid, and the concessions we have made are ones I don’t think the audience would spot. We are a show that knows what its audience wants, and escapism is one of those things. Tuning in to Death in Paradise, hopefully at the beginning of next year, the last thing people want to see are masks and social distancing. It’s not playing to our universe on screen, but obviously it plays into it profoundly off screen.”

Red Planet was five weeks into pre-production when the UK went into lockdown and filming plans were suspended. Several crew members who were already in Guadeloupe had to return home quickly, before the production team could take stock of events going on around them.

“At the beginning, in those slightly bleaker moments, we were thinking it just wasn’t going to be possible [to start filming],” admits Red Planet’s joint MD Alex Jones. “The advantage we had on our side is that we have a great insurance policy that has a producers indemnity aspect to it, which has gotten us out of a pickle on a number of occasions and covers us against hurricanes and things like that, which traditional cover doesn’t do. Our Covid remounts fell into that. We were pretty unique and lucky that we were covered as soon as they were able to give us the nod to go.”

Rhe production team felt confident they could make the show while adhering to Guadeloupe’s one-metre physical distancing rule. “The type of show Death in Paradise is also leans very much towards a Covid-friendly world,” Jones continues. “We don’t have huge amounts of intimacy, we don’t have huge amounts of stunts or physical action. We film a lot outdoors because we’re in the Caribbean so we want to see the Caribbean. We had a lot of things working to our advantage. That with the fact we were really fortunate with the type of insurance cover we had, it started to feel like it was coming together.”

The biggest issue was gaining access to Guadeloupe, which was closed to non-essential business. But having worked closely with the region during the making of the series, the production was allowed to return as long as appropriate health and safety measures were firmly in place. “They saw us as an essential part of their economy and they supported us in returning,” Jones says. “They gave us an exemption, which meant we could start bringing our crew back. At that point, when all those things came together, we were like, ‘Right, let’s do this.’ We fired the starting gun.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, however, and the decision to push ahead came at the very last moment that it was possible to send generators and lighting equipment on a four-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Guadeloupe. Key remembers speaking to Jones on a Friday, when they made the decision to “push the button,” and on the following Monday the equipment was being loaded onto the ships.

“When it happened, it happened very quickly. For the months before it, it was really stressful, like it was for everyone in every industry,” Key says. “You’re dealing with lockdown on a personal level and you’re dealing with it on a professional level, trying to get used to that new normal of working from home and sharing your home with your work colleagues on Zoom. At the same time, you’re trying to think if this show can be made. Suddenly it happened, and now we’re doing it. It’s so surreal, it’s really weird in a brilliant way but it’s ever so strange.”

Ben Miller (second from right) originally starred in the show

The production has put in place a health and safety protocol for all cast and crew to follow, while a Covid supervisor is also on set, meaning everyone has been happy to get back to work while wearing masks – and visors in some cases – when not on camera, as well as physically distancing at all times. Everyone was tested for Covid-19 before they left the UK, when they arrived in Guadeloupe and again before filming began. They also have to fill out a ‘fit to work’ survey every morning and record their temperature.

“They are doing everything we’re asking them to do as an automatic thing, not because we’ve enforced it. I’ve found it quite moving,” Key says. “They’re doing it in a very real and genuine way because they know what’s at stake in terms of the industry, their livelihoods and also their health. It’s very hard to put a set of guidelines in place that apply to every show, because every show’s different – and even for every location, because every location is different.

“It’s just empowering everybody to be responsible and training the crew to work in a slightly different way and making sure the whole thing doesn’t rest on the shoulders of one person alone. It’s a shared responsibility to deliver that.”

Filming began on Thursday July 23, with a three-day run to get the production underway before a day off on the Sunday to “let everybody catch their breath,” Key says. Production then returned to its usual weekly five-day filming routine. “So far we have been achieving our days. We even wrapped early once, which is quite unusual on this show. It’s because everyone’s on it – everyone’s prepped, they’re ready to go. It’s early days, but what we’ve learned is that the stuff we’ve put in place works. It’s doing what it needed to do.”

Kris Marshall led the cast from seasons three to six

Jones adds: “It’s about having a set of rules that work and are enforceable, rather than doing it as a box-ticking exercise, because the bottom line is we want to get to the end of this production without anyone contracting the virus so we can make it and deliver it on schedule. That’s our big thing and that’s what we drilled into people. If everyone does their bit, we should be able to keep the production running.”

Key believes Death in Paradise’s success is down to several factors: its winter scheduling on BBC1, the blend of detective and murder-mystery genres, and the fact that it’s family-friendly.

“You know exactly what you’re going to get and that, ultimately, is the thing it does,” he notes. “It delivers the hit you expect. We work really hard to make sure every episode gives you everything you expect. It is a crowdpleaser and we’re proud of that. We have done backstories that are slightly more hard-hitting than you might expect and we have also played with genre. Ardal O’Hanlon’s last episode was actually quite a dark story. I’m proud of that because it takes the audience by surprise a little bit and shows we can do things you weren’t expecting. But it was also sweet and funny.”

The Doctor Who-esque way in which the show regenerates every few years with a new leading detective and other new characters also helps keep things fresh.

“It’s the show you get no sympathy for doing,” Key admits, alluding to the production’s envy-inducing setting. “But it is a tough gig. You’re away from home for a long time and for our main cast in particular, to ask them to give up five or six months of the year to film abroad, it asks an enormous amount. We’ve been very lucky that with all of our leads, we’ve had a very collaborative discussion about how and when [they leave], so these things aren’t forced on us.

Marshall was succeeded by Ardal O’Hanlon

“Kris Marshall’s son was about to go to school and he said he thought this needed to be his last season. We said OK and we planned something. It’s a way for the show to reinvent itself, refresh itself and twist itself into a slightly new direction. Each time it happens, especially after the first [handover] from Ben to Kris, the audience see it as part of the story. They know the ingredients they love will always be there, even if the personalities involved will be slightly different.”

As for season 10, Little’s DI Parker will have to work out whether island life is really for him, having swapped Manchester for Saint Marie. Other returning cast members include Don Warrington as Commissioner Selwyn Patterson, Tobi Bakare as DS JP Hooper and Elizabeth Bourgine as Mayor Catherine Bordey, while newcomer Tahj Miles plays 18-year-old petty criminal Marlon Pryce. Filming is due to wrap on December 18.

“Florence has returned and she finds herself confronted by this new detective who she just can’t fathom out, and it allows us to play with some interesting tensions,” Key adds. “We’ve got some pretty big surprises lined up that I am ridiculously excited about. It’s going to be a good one.”

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