All posts by Michael Pickard

Crossing over

After spending eight years playing detective Saga Norén in The Bridge, Swedish actor Sofia Helin’s next screen role will see her portray a princess fighting for her country during the Second World War. She tells DQ about finding her voice and playing a royal in Atlantic Crossing.

With the recent centenary of the armistice that brought an end to the First World War and the #MeToo campaign that is giving a voice to women around the world, there could not be a more pertinent time to tell the story of Atlantic Crossing.

The eight-part drama, based on a true story, charts Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha’s efforts to support her country during the Second World War. In April 1940, when Norway finds itself under attack from the Nazis, Märtha and her husband Olav are forced to separate. He flees to England with his father, the king, while Märtha and their three children, unable to return to Sweden, the place of her birth, undertake the hazardous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to seek refuge in the US at the invitation of President Franklin D Roosevelt (played by Twin Peaks star Kyle Maclachlan).

Märtha soon realises the president is in love with her, sparking gossip on both sides of the sea. But at a time when the US is unwilling to join the war, she uses her position to influence Roosevelt and enter the political scene.

Meanwhile, the drama also follows Olav, terrified of a Nazi conspiracy against his family and concerned by rumours of an affair between his wife and the US president. Will Märtha fight for her country or her marriage?

Sofia Helin’s next drama is Atlantic Crossing, being made for Norway’s NRK

The NRK series, produced by Cinenord Drama and distributed by Beta Film, sees Märtha played by Sofia Helin, the Swedish actor who earned plaudits around the world for starring as Saga Norén in all four seasons of iconic Swedish/Danish crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). With rehearsals taking place in Oslo, filming for Atlantic Crossing began in Prague last December.

Speaking to DQ from her home in Stockholm, Helin says the drama is “a very important story about a forgotten female hero,” whose role in the war effort was far greater than first thought.

“It’s also a story about a person who finds her own voice,” she continues, noting the drama’s similarities to her own life over the past 18 months as she has taken a leading role in Sweden’s MeToo movement, #tystnadtagning. In November 2017, more than 700 actors signed a manifesto calling for a change in the behaviour within the country’s film and television business, with similar protests springing up around other industries, including the legal, medical and journalism sectors.

“With Saga I’ve been very much in the spotlight when it comes to different issues, and I’ve always tried to talk about politics and my opinions. But this year has been crazy for me and many actors because of the MeToo movement,” Helin explains. “It’s been a different movement than in the rest of the world that I’m very proud of because it’s showed much more of a structure than just pointing a finger at one man at a time. I’ve been working very much with that. I had to raise my voice in a completely new way because of that, so it’s funny that I’m now going to do a story about a woman who has the same journey but in terms of politics, the war and nations. It’s also a drama and a romance, but the important thing for me is to tell the story of a woman who really did something for her country and for peace.”

Helin has been involved in the series for more than two years, working alongside executive producer Silje Hopland Eik and showrunner-director Alexander Eik to develop the previously untold story of Märtha’s bid to help her country through her relationship with Roosevelt. She was even by his side during his famous Look to Norway speech in September 1942, which is said to have inspired the Norwegian resistance against the German occupation and turned the tide of US public opinion regarding the war in Europe.

The real Crown Princess Martha pictured alongside Franklin D Roosevelt

Meanwhile, Märtha’s own struggle sees her go from royal princess to refugee as she flees her adopted country and heads to America. “She didn’t know if she would see her husband again. He was in London, being bombed by the Germans. Going to the US wasn’t a little thing. It’s quite far away. Then she develops into an active person who fights for her country. That’s quite a journey,” Helin says of her character.

After playing Saga in The Bridge, the actor is relishing the opportunity to take on new roles and not be tied to a single production. She was originally set to star in Heder (Honour), a Swedish drama she co-created with fellow actors Alexandra Rapaport, Julia Dufvenius and Anja Lundqvist, but a scheduling clash meant she opted to stick with Atlantic Crossing, though she remains an executive producer on Heder.

“The hard thing has been to choose what to do,” Helin says of the new opportunities coming her way. “I have several different projects going on that I’m developing, and I can’t star in everything. There’s only a certain amount of time. But it’s been a very intense and fun time, and there’s also a sense of freedom to not be tied to a production. After eight years [working on The Bridge], it’s about time.

“The TV market has become something else since we started eight years ago – it’s exploded. There’s so much more to watch now than there was then. It’s opened so many doors, so I feel privileged and I have a lot of inspiration to do different projects. I’m going more and more into that world of developing things, and only starring in a few things.”

Helin believes producers now have a greater understanding of what actors can bring to a project, meaning on-screen personalities are increasingly creating their own series and playing a bigger role in development, rather than simply signing on several weeks before the start of filming.

Helin as Saga Norén in The Bridge (left) and Lauren Faber in German miniseries The Same Sky

Her extended involvement in Atlantic Crossing has also given her the chance to thoroughly research the period of history being dramatised – “I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to this now,” she jokes – while also facing the challenge of playing a princess. “I have to speak Norwegian, Swedish and English,” she reveals. “I’ve also been to a royal castle and have been rehearsing eating properly. I’m just a girl from the countryside, I can’t do anything like that! So I’ve been rehearsing how to eat, how to sit, how to speak, how to behave. It’s very challenging for me and the complete opposite of what I did with Saga.”

A fan of Netlix drama The Crown, Helin is relishing the chance to play royalty but doesn’t forget the importance of the message the drama is trying to send to viewers.

“She sacrificed something for her country,” the actor says of Märtha. “She fought for her country, for freedom, for democracy, for her family and she did something. Not to be greedy as a woman, but it’s so typical that all the men get the medals, the fame and the honour but the women get forgotten. It’s about time we start to tell the stories of women who did something in history.

“It’s also important that this story is about finding your voice,” Helin adds. “I have two older brothers so, as a little sister, it took time for me to find my own voice and to dare to speak out the way I do now. I think it’s something all women should do.”

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Appy days

There’s more drama than ever – but small-screen storytelling is not just being confined to television. DQ speaks to some of those involved in changing the way drama is made and watched.

This might be the golden age of television drama, but it’s not just the black mirror in the corner of your living room that’s getting in on the act. And while services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have changed the game in terms of the quality and quantity of drama series being produced, they’re no longer at the forefront of the digital age when it comes to storytelling.

Apps and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are now also bringing stories to viewers in ways that open up new avenues for creative talent to thrive while further eroding memories of communal viewing and watercooler moments.

Social media giant Facebook went global last summer with its video service Watch, a year after it launched the platform in the US. It has steadily been building up its slate of programmes, produced in-house and from third parties, with half-hour drama Sorry for Your Loss arguably the biggest success so far among its 2.2 billion worldwide users. It has been renewed for a second season.

Skam Austin is an English-language remake of Norwegian teen series Skam

But its drama slate was originally led by Skam Austin, an English-language remake of the hit Norwegian teen series that featured characters posting short videos on Facebook as if in real time. Other dramas include Chicago-set teen series Five Points, book adaptation Sacred Lies and high school-set Turnt.

“Our approach is built on a goal to drive meaningful conversations and community, which plays to our strengths,” says Facebook head of global creative strategy Ricky Van Veen. “When it comes to any of our programming, it isn’t about strictly the talent or storyline; the driving principle is ‘what will engage our audience, create a community and inspire conversation?’”

To that end, Facebook’s goal is to create immersive experiences unique to the platform. “We have developed shows that aim to bring people together within the show pages, groups and other interactive elements,” Van Veen adds. “Advancing a show’s storyline through social posts, texts and teaser drops like with Skam Austin is not standard practice, and the fans absolutely love it.”

The original Skam’s approach of adding video clips throughout the day made it a natural fit for Mark Zuckerberg’s company, with the story also integrating with characters’ profile pages on Facebook-owned Instagram.

“Our criteria is simply ‘is this better because it is on Facebook?’” Van Veen says of the types of stories he is seeking. “The content must pass this litmus test of being exponentially better and different because of us. We strive to have shows with community potential as we aim to create new viewer experiences built on our technology and social fabric.


“With specific formats as well as tools only available on our platform, we’re seeing engagement evolve and changing the current state of content consumption. Fans have the ability to interact with the show, commenting on the episodes and telling their story, so it’s a different way of engaging.”

With a second season of Skam Austin confirmed last summer, producer XIX Entertainment’s founder Simon Fuller says he knew the series would be “perfect” for Facebook, admitting Watch was “my first call and my only call.” Since then, every part of the series has been tailor-made for Facebook.

“The main creative challenge was trying to resist changing the pace and atmosphere of a dramatic moment, even though you only have a few minutes to capture the attention of a viewer,” he explains. “We wanted to challenge the viewer to go deeper than most programme makers on other social media platforms. It was important to push the boundaries with Skam Austin. I am delighted with the results. Julie Andem, the creator, is a real genius and has an inate understanding of her audience.

“New platforms like Facebook offer many alternative ways of making shows and telling stories. It has been fascinating experimenting with shortform content and it forces you to rethink how a viewer might best engage with content in this ever-changing world.”

Photo-sharing platform Instagram launched its own video service, IGTV, in June this year. But producers are also using the app to create dramas around character profiles, uploading videos and images and utilising its ‘Stories’ feature. The most recent example was Buzzfeed’s Romeo Likes Juliet (see below). Another example is Karma (pictured top), from Finnish public broadcaster YLE.

(click to enlarge)

YLE has a history with new forms of storytelling, experimenting with transmedia formats on its own streaming platform, Areena. In Karma, it created a story about three young women living together and sharing their lives and their secrets via Instagram. Using only mobile phones, shooting was completed in just three days. This resulted in a trio of episodes ranging from five to 15 minutes long, all broadcast via Stories, which allow users to upload multiple video clips and images that then disappear after 24 hours.

“The content was 100% mobile, both done by mobile and used by mobile. The nature of the media itself was interactive and the content was easy to share. It was an event,” says executive producer Hyppe Salmi. “On the other hand, we had to deal with the vertical picture and quite a small screen, while the content was available only for 24 hours, so we had to reach the audience very fast. Maybe the most important thing is there was no kind of post production.”

Salmi is now working on new Instagram dramas Goals, about eight young people connected by a swimming team, and Nofilter, about the secret lives of several social media influencers.

“New forms of drama and platforms will not override but enrich the traditional drama,” she adds. “You have more freedom with online content that is not restricted by channels, slots or even the length of the story. The production is faster, more flexible and less expensive. The audience is hard to find but the audience is out there in the online world. You just have to combine the right pieces: the storytelling, the platform and the target audience.”

Meanwhile, in October, multimedia messaging app Snapchat announced Snap Originals and the debut of serialised dramas on the service. They include crime drama Class of Lies, supernatural soap The Dead Girls Detective Agency and horror anthology V/H/S.

Pineapple, an Adaptative Studios series for streamer Blackpills

Before then, mobile-first content studio Vertical Networks produced murder-mystery drama Solve. Each episode is based on a true crime case, with viewers adopting the role of the detective tasked with reviewing the evidence and solving the murder.

“We believe in a movement towards context-aware programming, where stories are shaped in relation to the platforms on which they sit and the content, behaviours and windows of time they sit alongside,” says Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright. “Catching somebody’s attention has never been easier, but turning this casual curiosity into deep and committed engagement has never been harder.

He says if producers want to engage with Gen Z or millennial audiences, Snapchat “is currently the only relevant platform for serving short- and mid-form premium content to audiences who care.”

But the rise of app dramas doesn’t mean the end of another often-overlooked medium – shortform web series. With former DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s latest venture, NewTV, attracting more than US$1bn in its initial funding round earlier this year, it’s an original drama space that looks set to grow and grow.

Adaptive Studios has produced several series for streaming service Blackpills, including crime drama Pineapple, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Simi Valley, about a high-school student who starts a drug courier business.

“It’s a very exciting and invigorating time creatively because there are no rules to follow and you’re really going with great story, great vision and the creative experimentation of trying to do something that’s never been done before,” says Adaptive co-founder and CEO Perrin Chiles.

Homecoming Queens is set to launch in April

Fellow co-founder TJ Barrack likens the business to what Miramax (Reservoir Dogs, Clerks) was doing in the film industry in the 1990s when it experimented with a group of young directors. “It’s very difficult for a young director or writer to piece together a couple of million dollars to go try to do something,” he says. “In shortform, you can do it for a lot less and we’ve found that creators are really energised.”

With Netflix releasing an interactive episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror at the end of last year, this type of choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is also an area of evolution that also excites Adaptive, having previously produced projects for augmented-reality platform Eko. “It’s still early days in terms of people’s comfort level from an executive side of things, but we love the idea of multiple narratives,” Perrin says. “Anything that’s world-building, we absolutely love. We’re certainly developing a few of our own series with that multiple-narrative opportunity in mind.”

Elsewhere, launching in April last year, shortform drama Homecoming Queens was the first commission for Australia’s SBS On Demand. Produced by Generator Pictures, the seven-episode series stars Michelle Law as a fictionalised version of herself who returns to her home town after being diagnosed with alopecia. Her best friend, played by Liv Hewson, is recovering from breast cancer and is determined to make up for lost time. Law co-created and co-wrote the series alongside Chloë Reeson, with Corrie Chen as director.

“I feel like we were all really reaching for something better than everyone thinks a web series can be,” says Generator producer Katia Nizic. “We thought the advantage of shortform would be less control from a broadcaster, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all – they were very interested in making this the best it could be. That focuses you into the constraints of what you can do in the time you have and really makes sure everything you put in is essential to the story.”

Having enjoyed the creative opportunities afforded to Homecoming Queens, Nizic says this is the type of television she wants to make in the future. “It’s got very little to do with length; it’s got to do with the creative risks. Whether that’s a 30-second, 10-part series or not, it just depends on what you’re trying to say with it,” she says. “I really think that’s where TV is going – not something that’s scheduled at all. When’s the last time you sat down to watch something at the time it was premiering?”

Australian shortform period drama Wrong Kind of Black

Melbourne-based Princess Pictures is behind another Australian shortform series, Wrong Kind of Black, a period drama retelling the real-life story of Boori Monty Pryor and his brother Paul and the struggle facing Aboriginal culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The four-part series is available on ABC iview.

“We gravitate to projects that do or see things differently and that seek to connect with both the hearts and minds of the audience,” says producer Andrea Denholm. “We aspire to be entertaining, thought-provoking and to make people feel something. We are constantly looking for stories that reflect social diversity and support social inclusion, and we champion diversity on and off screen.”

Production of the period drama involved marrying a low budget with high ambitions, as well as filming in two locations and depicting two time periods. “Fortunately, the project attracted an incredibly talented and enthusiastic cast and crew who went way beyond the call of duty because they cared deeply about the project and knew this was an important story,” says Princess commercial director Emma Fitzsimons. “Working out the best way to do justice to Boori’s story and to capture his unique perspective took a great deal hard work, collaboration and goodwill from everyone involved. It highlighted the importance of development funding and the benefits of supportive partners and creative flexibility.”

Denholm says that in an era when time is at a premium and content is accessible anywhere, shortform drama is “creating its own special place in the fabric of society. Platforms that highlight shortform, such as ABC iview, are increasing in relevance.” However, she adds: “It remains to be seen whether shortform drama will break into the mainstream, but it naturally lends itself to being watched on mobile devices in short bursts. So if the content is engaging, there should be opportunities to grow the audience.”

It all means that while writers and directors are moving beyond television to bring their stories to the screen, the death of traditional TV schedules and overnight ratings just moved one step closer.

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Speaking for the dead

Morwyn Brebner, showrunner of CBC series Coroner, tells DQ about making the Canadian drama – from adapting Matthew Hall’s series of novels and casting Serinda Swan in the lead role to the collaborative nature of making television.

In the competitive field of crime dramas, it can be difficult for a new show to stand out from the crowd. But from the titular job performed by protagonist Dr Jenny Cooper and the show’s blend of episodic and serialised storytelling to its mix of crime, family, romance and even supernatural genres, Canadian series Coroner aims to break away from its contemporaries.

For showrunner Morwyn Brebner, Coroner also stands out due to its humane perspective, its warmth and its unique energy. “I don’t think it is like anything else,” she tells DQ during post-production on the eight-part series. “The hardest thing in the world is for a show not to feel like something you’ve seen before. This show does feel like something we haven’t seen before, and I feel very proud of that. There’s something about it that feels new; the cast is incredibly fresh and I feel that, if people watch it, they will feel the same.”

Inspired by the book series by Matthew Hall, the author and screenwriter behind breakout Welsh drama Keeping Faith, the show follows Jenny (played by Serinda Swan, pictured above), a recently widowed coroner who investigates suspicious, unnatural and sudden deaths in Toronto.

Morwyn Brebner

She solves cases with the help of detective Donovan McAvoy (Roger Cross), pathologist Dr Dwayne Allen (Lovell Adams-Gary) and his assistant River Baitz (Kiley May), and her own assistant Alison Trent (Tamara Podemski), all while dealing with her clinical anxiety during therapy sessions, a teenage son (Ehren Kassam) and the prospect of starting a new relationship with the enigmatic Liam (Éric Bruneau).

It was Coroner’s lead director and executive producer Adrienne Mitchell and her Back Alley Films producing partner Janice Lundman who first picked up Hall’s books and sought a writer to take them on. Brebner had previously been a writer on Back Alley mystery crime series Bellevue, and though she wasn’t looking for a specific project, she read the books and was immediately drawn to Jenny.

“I couldn’t get her out of my mind because she seems so much like a real woman to me. I recognise both her ferocity and her anxiety as qualities that were so compelling because I feel like in the books, and I hope in the show, the spirit of that character is just incredible and she’s so unapologetically herself,” Brebner explains, pointing to Jenny’s ability to persevere despite her sometimes overwhelming anxiety and fear. “Bravery is overcoming fear, not a lack of fear. So there was something about the character I just responded to and I felt like I should do this.”

The writer drew from elements across several of Hall’s books to build the series, transmuting characters and stories but all the time ensuring Jenny’s sense of humour and tone of character remained central to the series, which is produced by Back Alley, Muse Entertainment and Cineflix Studios. The latter also holds worldwide distribution rights.

One of the most notable changes was the decision to kill off Jenny’s husband, who is still alive in the books. Brebner made the call after being unable to figure out a satisfactory way to include him throughout the series – and subsequently found that the move created more space for Jenny’s own adventures. “It was a bit like a Disney story where the parents die so people can go off and have an adventure,” she explains.

The series diverges from its source material by killing off lead character Jenny Cooper’s husband

Jenny is also finely balanced between the important dual roles in her life, being both a coroner and a single mother to a teenage son. “She’s a coroner dealing with death, but being a mother is such a profound relationship with life and gives you a real sense of mortality,” Brebner continues. “She’s also embarking on a new romance with a mysterious dude, and I love that character. He’s got a different name and is a little bit different in our show [from the books] but that romance is so fascinating to me because she’s someone who’s been married for a long time and then is newly unleashed to the world. So we’re really watching her find her own incredible sensuality and trying to figure out how to deal with that.”

The fact that the drama centres on a coroner rather than another cop or lawyer also adds an extra level of intrigue, introducing a less familiar participant in the crime-solving process. “They have their own vibe,” Brebner says of coroners in general and those she has worked with on the show in particular. “They’re not like doctors, they’re not like cops. It’s a really heroic calling because they are speaking for the dead. When a patient dies and you’re a doctor, that’s a failure. But as a coroner, when someone dies, that’s the beginning of your job. I feel like it’s a pretty noble calling and it’s a perspective on death that’s very humane. There’s a humanity to that perspective on death and a crime story that’s very different.”

Jenny is played by Marvel’s Inhumans star Swan, whom Brebner describes as “just the most marvellous actor there is.” Having previously auditioned for Bellevue, Swan was already on Brebner’s radar. Then, when she came in to read for the part, “I couldn’t pick anyone else because she’s really powerful,” the showrunner says. “No one else could feel that unpredictable, that vulnerable and that strong at the same time, so we feel really lucky that she’s playing Jenny.”

Roger Cross and Alli Chung as detectives ‘Mac’ McAvoy and Taylor Chung

Coroner is set and filmed in and around Toronto, utilising the city’s vibrant and distinctive districts as well as the nearby countryside. Mitchell steered the first four episodes on set, block-shooting them at the same time, which meant Swan had to keep a binder containing notes on which scene was from which episode as well as her character’s emotional state in each.

Meanwhile, Brebner split her time between the writers room, pre-production on future episodes and on set, juggling the numerous roles that make up a showrunner’s brief. “It’s definitely the show I wanted to make and I made it in concert with a lot of other people, with an incredible director,” she says, though she is keen to stress the collaboration that goes into making a TV series. “I started my career in theatre, where you really have to recognise the mastery and expertise of other people. I feel in television it’s the same. We have to give credit and recognise that it takes a lot of people to make a TV show.”

That collaboration also stretched into the writers room, where Brebner wrote the pilot and co-wrote two other episodes, giving other writers the opportunity to fill the gaps. Each episode was broken down in the room before being assigned to a writer. Brebner would then take a pass on each script. “We had really different writers from different backgrounds and so we were able to feel there’s a vibrancy to the characters in the script that comes from the voices in the room. I wouldn’t be able to do that by myself.”

Those classic television production challenges – time and money – once again proved to be the biggest obstacles facing Brebner, particularly with little more than a year between getting the go-ahead and the show’s launch in Canada tonight.

Michael Healey plays head pathologist Dr Ian Peterson

“We got the green light in December 2017. I was going to take another job and then I got the call we were being picked up and I was so surprised but so happy,” the showrunner remembers. “We hired writers, we convened a room and then we had to work incredibly quickly to be ready. It’s almost a year door to door and it’s an exciting way to work. You can’t second-guess yourself.”

Brebner is also known for co-creating both medical drama Saving Hope, on which she was showrunner for the first three seasons, and police procedural Rookie Blue, and also worked on recent series such as Mary Kills People. In fact, many of the series on her CV are evidence of Canadian drama’s growing international presence, being played on screens around the world – something she says is down to Canada’s increasingly brave storytelling.

“I feel like there’s more range in the kind of stories we’re telling, tonally, and we’re doing different kinds of shows,” Brebner adds. “I think it’s a good time to be a creator because the world of television is much broader than it was 10 years ago in terms of what’s acceptable as a network show or a cable show; everything’s mixing up. There’s so much TV now, the hardest thing is to keep afloat and to feel like you can tell a story that won’t just be swallowed by the tide of other stories. That’s the hardest thing for anybody and in Canada. We’re working to live in that place.”

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Keeping it clean

Cleaning Up stars Sheridan Smith as an office cleaner who attempts to clear her gambling debts by entering the murky world of insider trading. Smith, her fellow cast members, writer Mark Marlow and executive producer Jane Featherstone discuss making the six-part ITV drama.

During a screen career spanning more than 20 years, Sheridan Smith has won acclaim for her portrayal of real people in biopics such as The Moorside, Mrs Biggs, The C Word and Cilla. So it’s surprising to hear her reveal that the most stressful part of appearing in ITV drama Cleaning Up was playing Sam, the fictional lead character.

“My own thing is losing myself in Cilla or Mrs Biggs. You have so much research and you focus on their mannerisms. But you hide behind it in a weird way and it’s like, I didn’t know what to do with Sam really,” the actor admits. “That was the most challenging thing for me. You do end up getting angsty with it, because Sam’s living on her nerves. But I have learned to leave it there now and not take it home, if I can. I still go to my own personal stuff to get that emotion, so it’s always going to be hard to switch that on and off.”

In the six-part series, created and written by first-time writer Mark Marlow, Sam is part of an invisible army of minimum-wage cleaners who sweep, polish and dust the offices of a financial firm whose offices look out across London from the city’s towering Canary Wharf district. But struggling with an online gambling addiction and drowning in debt, the mother-of-two begins to use valuable inside information to bet big on the stock market in the hope of changing her fortunes.

After taking some time out of the limelight, stage and screen actor and singer Smith returned with an album last year and an acclaimed performance in BBC one-off drama Care, in which she plays a struggling single mum who finds herself having to care for her elderly mother when the local health authorities refuse to take responsibility.

Cleaning Up sees Sheridan Smith’s Sam enter the world of insider trading

“She is very vulnerable. I do love playing characters like that,” Smith says of playing Sam. “I also love that she’s such a good mum. [Having children] is something I haven’t done yet, or might not do, but at the heart of it she hasn’t had opportunities that maybe other people got. So I love that she’s got that fire in her belly. Also, the scripts were kind of written on the go because we did it in two blocks. So I didn’t even know what was coming later, which was kind of fun as well because when I was finding stuff out, it was like, ‘Oooh.’ I’ve never had that before. That was quite fun. It has been the longest job I’ve ever done, filming-wise. It was a long shoot, but it’s been fun.”

Cleaning Up completed filming a year ago but the timing of the six-part drama couldn’t be more topical, with gambling and, in particular, mobile gambling apps, being key to the story. It also highlights the plight of the thousands of office cleaners on controversial zero-hour contracts whose work often goes unrecognised or unnoticed.

Smith and co-stars Jade Anouka (Jess) and Branka Katic (Mina) went on a cleaning course to ensure their on-screen performances met the standard of real-life workers, while Smith says she also learned about the stock market and insider trading in a similar fashion to her character, who at one point reads a book called Investing in Shares for Dummies.

“It was confusing to me and completely went over my head when I first started reading about it all. But the great thing is it’s new to Sam as well, so it makes it easier to play because she’s figuring it out as well,” Smith says. “It’s fascinating to learn about it all. I didn’t know anything about that world.”

As Sam’s best friend and fellow cleaner, Jess also becomes drawn into her money-making scheme, hoping to provide a cash injection to her family’s struggling cafe. Anouka, whose previous credits include ITV thriller Trauma, says all the characters are relatable. “I can see people I know who could easily be in these situations. What drew me was these are real people, these are real situations – ordinary people getting themselves into extraordinary situations.”

Jade Anouka (left) plays Sam’s friend and fellow cleaner Jess

But while Sam’s cleaning job means no one would suspect her involvement in illicit economic activity, financial trader Blake (Ben Bailey Smith), who unwittingly becomes Sam’s initial source of information, doesn’t quite have the same protection as he picks up stocks for a mysterious buyer whose identity remains a secret through the first episode.

“Blake is playing with high stakes. That’s not lost on him. But to counteract that, there’s also a disturbing sense of nonchalance about what he’s doing, which should tell the audience he’s done it many times,” Bailey Smith says. “If you keep the amount small and the number of times you do it disparate, it will probably fall by the wayside rather than go under the microscope. Blake in that first episode is worried about the microscope, and what’s fascinating about Sam is she feels she’s so far away from that microscope, so why not do it? So I guess you’re seeing, in a funny way, where you can be in terms of tension, panic, worry, concern and fear deeper into the game in Blake, but you’re also seeing what it’s like to start [in Sam].”

Cleaning Up was created by Marlow, who teamed up with lead director Lewis Arnold and prodco Sister Pictures to bring the series to ITV after conceiving the story while watching big-screen blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. A former video editor, Marlow had been “trying to be a writer” for five years until Arnold introduced him to Sister founder Jane Featherstone (Broadchurch, Humans).

Jane Featherstone

“Lewis and Mark sent me the first draft and I read it and loved it. I was like, ‘But you’re a brand new writer, so this is great but can you do a rewrite?’” Featherstone recalls. “I said, ‘Here are my thoughts on it, if you can do a rewrite, I’ll take it on, because if you can’t there’s no point in being a TV writer.’ That’s the process of scriptwriting, that’s normal. We do that on every single script, but I didn’t know if Mark could do that – and it turned out he could. So I took it on and we did 15 more drafts and then took it to ITV when it was this very beautiful thing Mark had really honed. They greenlit it within about a week.”

Marlow then faced the “daunting” challenge of writing the remaining five episodes, having only ever written a handful of pilot spec scripts. Thankfully, he had an idea of how episode two might begin and that kickstarted the process, which he describes as a huge learning curve.

Key to the script was getting the character of Sam right – an exercise the writer completed with the help of input from Arnold. “I knew the idea of the show was big but it would fall down if you didn’t believe the character would do something,” Marlow explains. “So I spent many weeks talking to Lewis about what we needed to get Sam correct, particularly in the first half of the first episode, so when we see her going down this criminal path, you totally buy that this person is going to do this. Lewis was helpful in getting that right. Then, once we were happy we had a character that worked, that was the version Jane saw.”

Filming was largely split between London’s iconic Canary Wharf district and a housing estate in the shadow of tower blocks, where Sam lives with her two daughters. A suitable home was found on the Isle of Dogs, with Featherstone admitting it was important to get the location right.

“I’m really fussy about that sort of thing and getting it right, so we built the interior of the house in a studio and used the exterior on the Isle of Dogs,” she says, revealing that cameras weren’t allowed to film on land owned by the Canary Wharf management company due to the subject of the drama. “But there’s a patch of land in front of Canary Wharf Tube station, not owned by Canary Wharf, so all the scenes in Canary Wharf have to be there, all on private land.

The ITV drama is set in London’s financial district

“All the banks also said no to filming but there’s a floor owned by an office rental company in one of those very tall buildings and we rented that, so we were there.”

While broadcasters can be nervous about commissioning scripts from fresh writers, Sister Pictures’ involvement put ITV at ease, giving Marlow the space and support he needed to write the drama, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Featherstone says the story was “irresistible” to her, though the fact it isn’t strictly a ‘genre’ piece was one of the most difficult elements of the project.

“Everyone’s desperate for stories but it’s difficult to make things that don’t have a genre underpinning them,” she explains. “It’s the hardest thing of all, because there’s no body. What we did have was a criminal element in terms of the jeopardy, and the stakes are there because of what Sam’s getting involved with. But really it’s a family drama.”

Featherstone and Marlow have discussed storylines for possible second and third seasons, though they admit Cleaning Up’s future rests with viewers and whether they follow Sam’s morally dubious journey into the murky world of insider trading.

For her part, Smith says she would also be keen to come back to the show, which begins on ITV on January 9. And as a keen observer of the creative process through production, she is now developing plans to set up her own prodco and build a future off-screen.

“There are a lot of exciting things [I’d like to produce],” she says. “There are lots of things I’m planning to do this year, a lot of great acting roles, so I’ve still got that. But, going forward, that’s the next dream – being creatively involved and maybe doing some more behind the scenes. Who knows, I might direct; I don’t know. That might be 20 years down the line. I’m just exploring the whole thing of being able to develop things with people and have much more say in it all.”

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Money maker

Bedrag (Follow the Money) III is the next chapter of the acclaimed TV series from prolific Danish broadcaster DR, set in the world of organised crime and money laundering. Creator and showrunner Jeppe Gjervig Gram (Borgen) explains how this new season, due to air this month, attempted to stay ahead of the headlines.

Over the past two seasons of Bedrag (Follow the Money), we have been chasing crooked CEOs in the corridors of power and lavish executive offices. Ever since the first season, however, I’ve dreamt of exploring a different world of financial crinminality: the money of organised crime.

Jeppe Gjervig Gram

Drug trafficking is a major global industry; a market that doesn’t go away, no matter how many laws the politicians pass or how hard the police crack down on pushers. As long as there are buyers, there’s money to be made. And since the market is illegal, all the money goes straight into the pockets of drug lords – criminal heavyweights who run a business where violence and murder are an everyday part of the equation.

Cannabis accounts for a huge part of the industry. Danish drug lords alone are estimated to generate yearly profits of more than a billion kroner (US$151.6m) from the drug. This lucrative market could not exist without widespread money laundering; without it, criminals would be unable to spend their dizzying profits. To this end, they are aided and abetted by an army of morally suspect accountants, attorneys, bankers, foreign-exchange companies and nominees who launder the money – from miserably paid Eastern European straw men right up to the heavyweights of the financial world.

The inspiration for the third season of Follow the Money came from the huge money-laundering scandal surrounding one of the world’s largest banks, HSBC, when it was discovered that the bank had failed to prevent the systematic laundering of billions of dollars of Mexican and Colombian drug cartel funds – and escaped with a fine that was essentially peanuts. But when we started meticulously exploring the Danish money-laundering cases back home, we realised the Danish banks had to be playing a far greater role than the public was aware of.

A little less than a year later, the news hit: the number-one Danish bank was being exposed as complicit in international money laundering – and we felt we were very much on the right track.

Then followed a string of police cases against foreign-exchange agencies. Accusations of money laundering were raised against another major Danish bank. And confrontations between armed gangs over drug territories erupted in a central Copenhagen district. The past six months’ writing has been a race against real-life events.

Follow the Money’s third season was inspired by a real-life money-laundering scandal

The new season of Follow the Money is both a continuation and something entirely new. We invite viewers into a whole new world, following the cannabis money trail through the city and out of the country. This means a more vibrant urban scene and fewer glamorous executive offices; more raw, urban districts and fewer well-to-do suburbs. The different environment sparked new energy – a vitality that we chose to incorporate in the visual style and narrative flow. If you want to follow street money, you have to follow the beat of the street.

As we embarked on our journey into this new world, we also realised we would have to be brave and let go of some of our beloved main characters, Mads (played by Thomas Bo Larsen) and Claudia (Natalie Madueño), simply because we felt their stories had reached their proper ending.

However, there were two other characters I felt we were far from done with: Nicky (Esben Smed) and Alf (Thomas Hwan). On the contrary, the third season is very much shaped by a strong desire to pit the two men against each other. The story about what happened to Nicky after he turned his back on his family, what happened to Alf after he was shot, and what happens when the friendless gangster and the insomniac policeman find themselves on a collision course in the midst of urban gang warfare.

In this next season, the two men are joined by a new female protagonist whose part has been a sheer delight to write. Conscientious and upstanding bank assistant Anna feels neglected both at work and at home but discovers a whole new side of herself when she starts money laundering for some of the city’s leading gangsters.

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Easy as ABC

The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.

Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.

Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.

Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.

Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.

The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.

L-R: James Prichard, Sarah Phelps and Damien Timmer at Content London

Meet Poirot

James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.

Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.

Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.

Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.

Hollywood heavyweight John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot

Playing detective

Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.

Meet Poirot

Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.

Harry Potter star Rupert Grint plays Inspector Crome

Changing Christie

Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.

Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.

Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?

On location

Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.

Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.

Brazilian director Alex Gabassi (centre) pictured during filming

Building the cast

Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’

Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.

Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.

Behind the camera

Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.

Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.

Reinventing Christie

Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.

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Radical thinking

Two friends cause a stir in a small community where global protest movements have barely touched the surface in Systrar 1968 (Sisters 1968). Writer Martina Bigert and producer Emma Åkesdotter Ronge tell DQ about the period drama.

At a time when protest movements led by gilets jaune (yellow jacket) demonstrators have led to unrest in Paris, a Swedish period drama harks back 50 years to a period when the French capital was also struck by civil unrest.

Systrar 1968 (Sisters 1968), a three-part miniseries commissioned by SVT, tells the story of politically minded journalist Karin who is unable to land her dream job at a big Stockholm newspaper and instead lands a job at a small-town title. Armed with her typewriter and joined by rebellious artist friend Lottie, they each rent a room at the home of newspaper owner Georg – and within days they have caused a stir in the small community that is seemingly untouched by events in Paris that same year or similar protest movements in the US.

The origins of the project, produced by Anagram, lie in Group 8, a feminist organisation founded by eight women in Stockholm in 1968. They highlighted issues such as childcare and equal pay, and the group quickly spread across the country.

“I wrote this with my co-writer Maria Thulin because of them,” explains screenwriter Martina Bigert. “They did so much for Swedish women so I wanted to celebrate them, because some of them are now around 70 to 75 years old and some are no longer with us. We have had drama like this before but not from the female eye.

“This is really a fantasy about these women. I focus on two or three of them and have created my own story about them with Maria.”

Systrar 1968 is inspired by the feminist organisation Group 8

Karin, played by Mikaela Knapp, is quite radical. After searching endlessly for a job in Stockholm, she finds herself in a small village with her friend Lottie (Maja Rung) and her boyfriend, who is a member of the Communist group NFL, where they begin to spread their message and cause upheaval.

“This group of women, Group 8, was the inspiration for the story, but the show is totally fictitious and it’s really these young female characters that drive the story,” explains producer Emma Åkesdotter Ronge, speaking with Bigert to DQ at Série Series earlier this year. “Two of them come from Stockholm to this small village in the south of Sweden. They are intellectual and radical and they know how to grab things by the horns.  In the house where they live, there is a girl who is the same age, in her early 20s, and they start to influence her and also her mother, a housewife.”

Bigert reveals she has been working on the project since 2011, but notes its timeliness in the age of #MeToo and heightened awareness of sexual harassment. “In Sweden when I talked to the younger generation, I found out they don’t know so much about these women,” she says.

Ronge picks up: “It’s definitely a relevant topic and I think it’s good that we’re reminded that others fought for the rights that we might now take for granted.”

Setting the drama largely within the confines of a family environment also draws the themes and issues of the story into sharper focus. “Everything is so small, it’s not a big drama,” Bigert notes. “But from a female perspective, it is a big drama. So if you put it in the right setting, you can make a big drama from just the small details and I find that interesting. They don’t have to kill each other.”

The series will air on public broadcasters throughout Scandinavia

The three-part miniseries debuts on SVT on Christmas Day and will also air across Scandinavia on YLE (Finland), NRK (Norway), DR (Denmark) and RUV (Iceland). “We really want to reach young girls because they’re the ones who are driving the story and they can watch it together with their mothers, fathers and brothers as well,” Ronge adds.

Bigert and Thulin had previously written together on Swedish drama Gynekologen i Askim, which won the Kristallen award for best drama in 2008. In developing Systrar 1968, they collaborated extensively to construct the storyline. And with Bigert based in Paris and Thulin in New York, they were able to write around the clock thanks to the fact they were based in different timezones. “I wrote one day and she wrote the next, so in the end we don’t know who has written what. It’s a really good way to work,” Bigert says.

The project came to Anagram in spring 2017, and director Kristina Hulme (Before We Die) came on board and collaborated on the script before shooting began on location in southern Sweden.

“It’s a challenge to do a period drama. We’re shooting everything on location,” says Ronge. “We have a fantastic art department that dresses all the sets on location but it’s been a challenge to find the settings and make them look right. The local authority has taken down signs and everything.

“Costumes are a very big thing because we have 200 or 300 extras and all of them have to come in for costume and make-up. We have a big room just filled with costumes and wigs.

The creative team already know where they want to go with a second season

“In a lot of period dramas, you have this gritty, brown, smoky feel. But one of the things that made me want to produce this was that the visuals would be light and airy and would have the feel of summertime.” The series was previously titled Summer of 68.

Bigert and Ronge are now imagining a second season that follows Karin into the 1980s, where she might rise into a management role, leading to an exploration of being a female boss during that decade.

“What would be interesting would be to follow the main character, Karin, and how she develops in her work at the newspaper because she becomes a boss in that period,” Bigert says. “It would also be interesting to see what happens to these people when they are young and radical and then some of them change because of money.”

Regardless of whether that next season emerges, Systrar 1968 is latest drama to tap into a trend across Europe that sees countries look back on their own history, such as fellow SVT series Vår tid är nu, known internationally as The Restaurant. It’s proof that as we move forward, there is still much to learn from the past.

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Down the rabbit hole

Launching this Christmas on BBC1 in the UK and worldwide on Netflix, the new version of Watership Down is touted as the first primetime animated drama. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss how the series originated and the challenges they faced along the way.

Watership Down is a beloved 1972 novel by Richard Adams that was first translated for the screen six years later as an iconic animated movie famed for the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes and with a reputation for terrifying younger viewers.

Now, 40 years after the film was first released, a new adaptation has gone back to Adams’ original text to retell the story for a new generation across four hours of television – one that promises to be much less scary.

Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they face the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stout-hearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a better society.

Stars such as James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Gemma Arterton (Clover) and Olivia Colman (Strawberry) have leant their voices to the project, which is written by Tom Bidwell, directed by Noam Murro and co-directed by Alan Short and Seamus Malone for BBC1 in the UK and Netflix worldwide. The producers are 42 and Biscuit Entertainment.

Watership Down was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Murro, Bidwell, executive producer Rory Aitken, former BBC commissioning editor Matthew Read and Larry Tanz, VP of global originals at Netflix, discussed the making of the series.

The new version of Watership Down takes its lead from the original book

In the beginning…

Noam Murro, director: I wasn’t one of those kids who read it when I was young. I grew up in Israel and got it fairly late in life. My friend suggested I read it, and I fell in love with it. That started a quest to get the rights for it, and at the start I thought of doing it as a feature. But bringing it to 42, we decided to do it as a four-part series, as the book can be served much better. The idea wasn’t to remake the film but reimagine the book. That’s really what this was all about.

Rory Aitken, executive producer, 42: It’s been a long process, it hasn’t been easy and we ended up pioneering something because it’s the first animated primetime hour-long drama series ever made, which we didn’t know at the time. It was the most extraordinary experience because of the sheer quality [of partners], the brand and the love for the book – and everybody said yes. We rang up Matthew [Read] at the BBC and said, ‘Watership Down.’ I think he just said one word, which was ‘yes.’ We talked about writers and our first choice was Tom [Bidwell]. He said it was one of his favourite books of all time and, further down the process, it was the same with the actors. Everybody just responded like that, which was extraordinary. If it wasn’t Watership Down, it might have been almost impossible to make.

Matthew Read, former BBC drama commissioning editor: When I was a kid, everyone was into Star Wars, but Watership Down was like Star Wars to me. I went to see it at the cinema 12 times and I was really obsessed with the film. I didn’t see it as a kids’ film, I saw it as an action movie. Years later, I read the book and realised there was a very different version of Watership Down. I love the film and still do, but the book is much more about nature and solidarity. Were the BBC sitting around waiting for a big animated show? Definitely not – but the idea was if you have something good enough, we’d figure out a way. I had a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and just tried to back them in whatever shape or form I could.

Larry Tanz, VP of global originals, Netflix: It was a bit of a leap for us as well. The project came to us in early 2015 and Noam had designs and storyboards and Rory came in with the script. But Netflix had just launched in Germany and France, and was not yet in Italy, Spain, India or the rest of Asia. It was a very different time in the company. We had never engaged in an animation project of this scope but we were thinking, ‘In a year from now, we hope to be global so what opportunities are there for global brands?’ This book is beloved not just in the UK but all over the world. I read it with my kids and, if you can execute it well, it has huge potential. The creative team, partnering with the BBC and knowing there probably would be no better place to see this show developed than at the BBC gave us confidence to go in on this multi-year journey so we have a show that will work for the service we hope to be when it comes out.

Tom Bidwell, writer: It’s one of my favourite books and favourite worlds. There’s a discrepancy between Watership Down the film and Watership Down the book, and my job is the book. It’s Richard Adams – one of the great world-builders along with JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. My work was focused on how to build the myth of this world and really embrace the story, the narrative and the characters. When they offered me the project and I knew who was attached, it was an honour to work on it. It really pushes and challenges you.

The voice cast includes Star Wars actor John Boyega

Adapting the novel…

Bidwell: The structures are already evident in the novel. It’s broken into four distinct chapters, so we used those as the basis of our four episodes [screened in two parts on the BBC on December 22 and 23]. We did make a few changes: we reduced the number of characters for clarity and added more female characters [Strawberry was changed from a buck to a doe]. If I added something to the script that wasn’t in the novels and people think they remember that from the book, that’s the win of adaptation for me.

Aitken: We were making television drama and also making animation. They’re two completely distinct worlds and being television drama, there was a huge focus on getting the script absolutely right before we started anything. On an animated movie, you’d have the beginnings of the script and then you’d start on the visuals. Although we talk about how long it’s taken, including two-and-a-half years in production, people in animation would be amazed how quick that is. We’re looking at it through the prism of TV drama and there’s a completely different prism to look at it through, which is animation. They can’t believe how quickly and cheaply we did it, but in TV, everyone’s like, ‘That took a long time and was expensive.’ We sat on the divide but it served us well.

Read: I don’t know if it’s a general trend in drama or television that if you find something specific and brilliant, an audience really wants that. Ten years ago, everyone was trying to think about what the audience wants and give them something for everyone. Now, because of the way we can reach audiences, if you give people a specific version of something, they’ll come to that. We all felt we had to make the best possible version and that people would respond to that. That’s good for the book and hopefully good for the audience.

The show took two-and-a-half years to make

Pioneering ‘animated drama’…

Murro: None of us approached it, oddly, as animation. That’s the most important part. Yes, there’s a huge difference in the process but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of entertainment. Part of watching the series is you forget these are bunnies very quickly and it becomes like any other movie. You sit on the edge of your seat or you cry.

Aitken: Having made films and now TV, it’s basically the opposite way round. You edit first and shoot later. It’s so expensive – any second you have of animation on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. So we’ve delivered four 50-minute episodes and there’s not one second on the floor. Every tiny thing has to be created from scratch, so there’s a vast amount of work initially to decide on the universe you’re building – what is the tone, the fear, the look – and hundreds of people then have to build that in all different ways, from production design to lighting. Essentially, you get to the point where you’re two years in and you can’t see the show but you feel the drama’s working and you say ‘go’ on the animation. Then every week you get two more scenes and you probably get to change one or two things in each of them.

Murro: Part of what made this possible is we had an unbelievable cast. We had arguably the greatest of English actors, and it makes life a lot easier when you have that talent. If it wasn’t at that level, I don’t think we’d have got this far or this deep.

Much thought went into how the rabbits would be differentiated

Creating the world – and the rabbits…

Murro: We felt there’s a huge canvas that’s been untouched between Pixar and DreamWorks and the [Japanese director Hayao] Miyazaki and the Watership Down film itself. There were two things: one was to block it as if I was shooting in live action – the lenses and camera were very specific – but the overall look is like a diorama. You have an animal that is 3D and real in the front but, as it goes back, it becomes more painted. That, for me, was a clear direction. I don’t remember seeing it done that way.

Aitken: Animation costs are coming down and TV budgets are going up, so we caught ourselves on the nexus of the two. But we realised we couldn’t create a Pixar world because we didn’t have the money. So all of the deep backgrounds are paintings. That worked really well because we’re set in the British countryside, so a painted sky and backdrop works really well for it. We have about seven rabbits; normally in animation, you make one pink and blue and viewers know which one is which. If you want to make it realistic, the danger is you don’t know which one is which. Noam and the team did a great job because it’s just on the line. They’re such strong characters, the voices are different and they’re sufficiently different visually that you just pick them up without having to resort to making them different colours. Also, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, and if you bring them too far to the front, they start to look like dogs or weird animals. In drama, you find emotion in characters mostly through the eyes, but rabbits’ real eyes are completely black. They don’t have pupils, so in almost any animation with animals, you get human eyes because that’s how we understand eye line and emotion.

Gemma Arterton voices Clover

The music of Watership Down…

Murro: It’s huge, it’s everything. Federico Jusid, who wrote the music for this, is a genius. [He completed the music] with very little time, about three months. This is a 1,000-page score! It really is a supportive emotional base and I feel incredibly fortunate to have him and this music. What we tried to do with this series is make it timeless.

Tanz: It’s also an important through line for us because a lot of people will watch the show in different languages – probably 10 different dubbed languages. One of the fun things for me on the project was localising the title and the artwork for all these different places. It’s a reminder that we have this incredible cast and a lot of people will watch that show with that cast, but a lot of people will watch in Italian or Spanish. The score is the spine that is consistent throughout that. The score is the audio layer everybody will experience around the world.

The  show sparking a new trend for animated drama…

Aitken: I genuinely think it could be. Animation costs are coming down, TV budgets have gone up. I feel like we maybe accidentally pioneered something and now we’ve made all the mistakes, it would be nice to do it where we know what we’re doing!

Tanz: I would love to do more projects like this. For us, it fits in the category of it’s not a kids’ show, it’s about families watching it together and having truly a global property that already has fans around the world. The storytelling will allow millions of people to access it for the first time.

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Life of crime

Idris Elba returns as iconic detective Luther for a fifth season of BBC1’s flagship crime drama. DQ visits the set to meet the cast and discover what new horrors writer Neil Cross has in store.

With so much of Luther set in and filmed around east London, the BBC1 crime drama has left an indelible mark on me. Not least because season two, first screened in the UK in 2011, saw a psychotic serial killer select his targets at random, leading to a particularly barbaric sequence involving multiple deaths in and around Liverpool Street train station and a final showdown in nearby Appold Street – my exact commute to the office. Walking to work has never been the same since.

Seven years later – and eight since Luther first aired – I’m standing on the office floor of the Metropolitan Police’s serious and serial crime unit where DCI John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and his team are getting their heads around another series of grisly murders.

Bafta-winning Wunmi Mosaku (Damilola, Our Loved Boy), who has joined the cast as Luther’s new partner DS Catherine Halliday, is standing in front of some large boards covered with maps and photos of locations, bloodied bodies and mugshots. Desks and computers fill the office, a drab space complemented by dark blue walls and matching carpet – standard police station decor.

Across the room, Dermot Crowley’s DSU Martin Shenk is watching her before approaching. “Isn’t it time you went home, Catherine?” he asks. Something’s not right, she says, and they leave together to see Luther.

“Cut,” calls director Jamie Payne, seated in front of a monitor around a corner from where the actors are stood. He resets the shot and, after another rehearsal, the scene is recorded to film. The cameras are then shifted, this time close up on Mosaku, and Payne is nodding his head along to the dialogue. When he’s happy, Payne shouts, “That’s the one.”

It’s a grey March day at a former telephone exchange in Watford, on the outskirts of north-west London, where the team behind Luther is hitting the final stretch of production on the series’ fifth season – a single story playing out across four episodes that will run on consecutive nights on BBC1 between January 1 and 4, 2019.

Luther creator and writer Neil Cross (left) on set with star Idris Elba

If viewers have come to expect anything from Luther, it’s a good fright, with notable scenes from previous seasons including a killer hiding under a bed. “I’m having nightmares,” admits Mosaku, with this season set to bring new horrors to the London night-bus experience. “There have been some dark scenes. There is one scene in episode one that gave me absolute chills reading it, so having to be on set with the aftermath, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I imagined and it’s just as harrowing.’”

Fast-tracked through the police, Halliday arrives as Luther’s latest partner. Mosaku says there’s warmth in their relationship, with some added spice to keep her on her toes.

“She trusts him. She looks up to him and thinks he’s brilliant,” says the actor, who first auditioned for the show way back in season one. “She will say, ‘Is this ethically correct?’ and he’ll say, ‘It’s legal.’ So she knows there’s a difference between their ethics. She does trust him, but she’s wary of the fact this isn’t necessarily what she would do or Schenk would do.”

This isn’t the first time Mosaku has portrayed a police officer, and being a fan of Luther and of writer Neil Cross meant she was keen to return to the beat to play Halliday. “She is sweet. She’s just not your typical cop. She’s smart and she’s good but there’s a lightness to her, and I feel like that’s a character I’ve not played much,” the actor explains. “Luther is a tough show but Halliday has a bounce in her step and everything she’s seeing is affecting her for the first time.”

But why does Luther, produced and distributed by BBC Studios, stand out among the crowd of crime dramas? “Number one, there’s a black British African man as the lead. When it first came out, I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. So when season one came out, that’s why I was watching it and I loved it,” Mosaku explains.

One character who has featured in every season since the beginning, playing an increasingly important role, is Benny Silver, Luther’s loyal, go-to computer mastermind, played by Michael Smiley.

Joining the cast for season five is Wunmi Mosaku as Luther’s partner, DS Catherine Halliday

“I love the fact Benny has, in increments, come more into the drama and storylines,” the actor says. “He was just a one-off character in a couple of scenes in the first season and was Luther’s hacker. Now he’s in the bullpen, he’s one of the main characters and in this season he features quite heavily, so it’s really exciting.”

Smiley describes Elba and Cross’s relationship as a “perfect storm” of brilliant acting and superb writing, and says Luther wouldn’t be the same show without its gruesome deaths and shocking scares. He promises more of the same in season five, likening the show to a gothic fable, but says it isn’t quite the same on set.

“When you’re on the inside, you don’t really see the scary parts,” he says. “What you see is the fake blood and you get to see how the art department works, which is really fantastic. I really enjoy watching people bring their A-game, because Luther’s one of the top British dramas and certainly a flagship drama for BBC1. The people who are on it are there because they’re the best in their trade, so watching those people is great.”

Back on set, the office is now busy with extras sitting at their desks. Two cast members walk out through double doors and in comes Luther, wearing his trademark coat, grey shirt and red tie, to meet Halliday and Schenk. Only it’s not Elba, it’s his body double.

A couple of weeks later, Elba himself joins us at the Langham Hotel, opposite BBC Broadcasting House in central London. And while much of the season’s plot is under wraps, what has been revealed is that, as a series of monstrous killings becomes increasingly audacious, Luther and Halliday are confounded by a tangle of leads and misdirection that seems designed to protect an unspeakable horror.

But as the case brings him closer than ever to the nature of true evil, a reluctant Luther must also face the ghosts of his own past.

DQ visited the Luther set ahead of the new season

Following the success of previous seasons, Elba says the challenge this time around is not to beat previous efforts but match the things the audience find compelling and then make them more complex.

“The comforting thing about Luther from season one to season two is the DNA doesn’t change,” he says. “You see the murder, you even know who it is or you see the clues, and then you watch John go for it – and I don’t think we’ve ever tried to deviate from that. But each time, we’ve made it slightly more complex, which means we start to dissect his timelines.

“This one is the most complex; there are so many things going on. And the great thing about Neil is he’s a great writer. Of course, we want complex storylines, but how does it make it still compelling? How do we fit it into an hour? How do we do it over four episodes and not exhaust the audience? That’s what I think Neil has done a really incredible job of this year.”

The actor admits to going to great lengths to make Luther compelling and dark. “That means for us as a film crew, we film at night, we spend lots of time in the cold, we kill a lot of people and we all watch that and all go, ‘Jesus Christ, what are we doing?’ Then we go home, we dream about it and come back the next day,” he says. “In my first season, I used to spend a lot of time in the bars, straightaway after work, me and the cast, and now I don’t do that. I’ve grown older but I do have to have some sort of therapeutic outlet, which tends to be music for me – making music. When you do Luther in the winter months for 10 or 12 weeks, it’s a dark time.”

Elba is also heavily involved off screen, having first been an associate producer to ensure he had a voice behind the scenes. “We were quite heavily criticised in the early stages that female characters were always the first to go. Having a voice under a producer’s title allowed me to implement some thoughts and bring in teams that helped change some things a little bit,” he says.

Now an executive producer, he was part of the early team that met Payne and consulted with Cross and the department heads about the direction of this season. “This one’s very particular because I think it’s one of our last TV instalments – I shouldn’t say that as a matter of fact, but it was designed in the sense that Neil’s and my ambition is to take it to a larger screen,” he reveals. “We paid attention to what we were writing in this show. If we are to make a movie, this show is essentially a segue to that.”

Idris Elba receives a touch-up between takes on location in London

For now, season five boasts a new character in Halliday, who challenges Luther more than most of his other partners. “He has a sense of protection [over her] because she’s a black female detective and he wants her to climb [up the ranks],” he adds. “But of course things happen within the show. It’s quite a compelling storyline.”

Elba likens Luther’s London to Batman’s Gotham City, a place where societal issues can be transposed onto a unique setting. Crowley, as Luther’s boss Schenk, agrees that the location is another character in the drama, adding to the foreboding and uneasy atmosphere that runs through the series.

“It’s a very frightening programme to be in,” he says. “It feels uber-real when you’re making it because I suppose it has to. This is definitely the scariest yet.”

Since the start of the show, Schenk has evolved from essentially Luther’s bureaucratic nemesis to a character who admires the detective and is equally willing to play with morality and the law to get the job done.

“He always acts with an admiration for Luther because he thinks he’s an extraordinary copper and he does things where Schenk doesn’t himself have that particular skill or facility,” Crowley says. “But at the same time, I think Schenk is very puritanical about himself and the police and morality generally. He always gives Luther enough leeway to act but, at the same time, in an almost paternal way, he keeps an eye on him as well.”

The Irish actor praises Cross’s scripts as being “raw, exciting. His use of language is excellent.” He continues: “When you get a Neil script, the words come off the page. They always sound like you’re saying them for the first time, which is the secret of good writing. They don’t sound stagey.

“He’s got great balls as a writer. He’s not afraid to suddenly give an actor an aria, a 10-page speech, and there’s always something underneath it that pushes the story forward.”

With all the excitement surrounding the return of Luther, plus its international popularity thanks to its availability on Netflix, a big-screen outing seems inevitable for Elba and this larger-than-life character. One can only imagine what horrors he and Cross will dream up next.

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Skating royalty

A feature-length drama explores how British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean overcame humble beginnings to win gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics. DQ speaks to writer William Ivory and skating consultants Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes about making the ITV film.

Such is the fame and unrivalled legacy of British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean that few who watch a new ITV film based on their rise to fame will not know the result of the 1984 Winter Olympics that saw them perform their iconic Bolero routine in Sarajevo.

Yet it’s a sign of the emotional tension in Torvill & Dean that you’re still willing them to grab first place as if you were watching the real thing for the first time.

Torvill & Dean stars Poppy Lee Friar (Ackley Bridge) and Will Tudor (Game of Thrones) in the respective lead roles as writer William Ivory (Made in Dagenham) charts the pair’s early years, from the first time they ventured onto the ice to those final moments that saw them clinch Olympic gold.

The Darlow Smithson production’s cast also includes Anita Dobson, Stephen Tomkinson, Jo Hartley, Dean Andrews, Christine Bottomley, Jaime Winston and Susan Earl. The executive producers are Ivory and Emily Dalton, the producer is Emma Burge and the director is Gillies MacKinnon. International distribution is handled by Endemol Shine International.

The biopic, which is described as a fictionalised account of true events, opens in Nottingham in 1968 with Jayne and Chris as children in their family homes. Jayne is introduced to skating on a school trip, while Chris, following his parents’ separation, is given a pair of skates by his new stepmother.

Poppy Lee Friar stars as Jayne Torvill, while Christopher Dean is played by Will Tudor

Both begin to train with different partners, before they are brought together and are soon taking part in competitions. But with both having full-time jobs and commitments beyond the rink, they face an uphill battle to achieve their dreams.

Ivory has form as a screenwriter of one-off biopics, penning 2012’s rowing-focused Bert & Dickie to tie in with that year’s London Olympics. He also wrote Burton & Taylor, about the relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the following year.

“I’m a bit down on so many shows that are either procedurals or there are dead bodies lying around. It gets harder and harder to write dramas that aren’t like that, truthfully,” he says of the appeal of Torvill & Dean. “So to be able to write something that is an exploration of two people and how they came to be the successes they were is wonderful.”

The writer says he approaches all fact-based dramas in the same way – by finding a personal connection to the material. When he was first approached to write Torvill & Dean four years ago, he turned the project down because he didn’t think he could add any value to their story. Then he met exec producer Dalton, and the figure skaters themselves, and became interested in their creative process and how they work together as artists.

Torvill and Dean read various drafts of the script and gave notes, but all the time understood Ivory was keen to get under their skin and explore certain themes and moments in their lives that they may not have considered significant. Some lines were cut, other bits were kept in, while some scenes were transplanted from one location or time to another to meet the practicalities of the script.

Stephen Tomkinson features as Torvill’s father George

As a result, “I believe this film is part of their iconography now,” Ivory says. “It might sound ridiculously overblown but I think they’ve been doing something really interesting right through their careers and they are still exploring something, they are trying to push themselves creatively all the time and I admire that.

“There’s one bit in the film that’s a denouement and is a speech I’d entirely made up, but Chris read it and said, ‘That’s me.’ That’s really gratifying. It’s hard because you don’t want to mess up somebody’s life.”

In the film, the contrasting personalities of Torvill and Dean become clear, with the latter more abrasive and abrupt while Torvill appears gentler and more accommodating.

“Sometimes I think with Chris it’s almost like he can’t articulate what he’s feeling, yet he’s feeling it with such great passion and force and sometimes that can be quite frustrating for him. And Jayne has just got this incredible ability to take that raw, unfettered emotion and kind of convert it into movement and dance on the ice,” Ivory explains. “At times, she had to be the more accommodating to achieve what they wanted, otherwise they could have combusted. I think they were just incredible.”

With biopics often focusing on one particular event, it’s interesting that Ivory chose to write a broad take on Torvill and Dean, from their childhood to the Bolero in 1984. When he wrote Bert & Dickie, he recalls, he cut the first 90 pages of the script, as it was all backstory, to give the show a singular focus on Dickie Burnell and Bert Bushnell’s bid for gold at the 1948 Olympics.

Torvill and Dean won gold in 1984

In this case, Ivory was keen to show where Torvill and Dean had come from and, in particular, the fact that they didn’t receive any help on their journey to becoming world-class skaters. Dean, in particular, had an unsettled childhood, which features in the film, and the writer believes this informed his demand for precision and the stories in their dances, which were often about love or unrequited love.

And though Ivory was given a lot of creative freedom – he relocated one skating competition from Bristol to Sheffield – there is only one character he made up, Mark Benton’s ice rink worker Ted. “Bizarrely, that was the one I had the most problems with because we had to make sure there was nobody around at the time who could be mistaken for that character, because I made it all up about him and his role,” he says. “He’s this anchor to the world they came from and to which they never quite left. He also represents the pride Nottingham has for Jayne and Chris – we take great joy and reflected glory in their success.”

Unsurprisingly, the challenges of making Torvill & Dean centred on scenes filmed on the ice, which Ivory describes as a “very hostile environment” for a film crew. Not only was it tough to light correctly, but recreating the skaters’ extremely difficult routines also proved tricky.

That was where Nick Buckland and Penny Coomes, five-time British ice skating champions and three-time Olympians, came in, acting as consultants, skating doubles and mentors on the drama. The couple also trained in Nottingham, with Dean among their coaching team, and cited Torvill and Dean as their main inspirations.

Filming took place in Belfast, where they felt “huge” responsibility to ensure the skating was accurate and authentic.

“Our world is a funny one because you just get to see the end product – you get to see the sparkles, the make-up, the music, the lights. And you don’t really get to see what it takes to get to that point,” Coomes explains. “I for one have been through more than my fair share of injuries, and you see that [in the film] too. It’s nice to give our sport this exposure to show that, yes, it’s an amazing thing to be an athlete, but it’s hard too. I think it’s honest and real; that’s what I love about it.”

The actors were aided by pro skaters Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland (photo: Team GB)

Leading actors Friar and Tudor didn’t get too much time to train before the shoot, but Buckland and Coomes say they both fell in love with skating. “They wanted to do as much as they could possibly do within the movie, so it was great to work with people who were enthusiastic and wanted to get it right and take the time,” Coomes says. “It’s hard because they had such a tall order to skate and be Jayne and Chris. It was something that was quite daunting for us but they definitely did well.”

Buckland reveals they started a WhatsApp group where they would share pictures of movements and poses they wanted the actors to learn, communicating with them around the clock.

Then on the ice, Friar and Tudor would skate together, and for any complex moves, Buckland and Coomes would step onto the rink. Sometimes Tudor would dance with Coomes, and Friar with Buckland, depending on the shot required by the director.

“They were very clever in the way they filmed it,” Buckland says. “We got a variety of all sorts of different routines Torvill and Dean did the whole way through. But it’s about the story, really, and the story is about them and their relationship on and off the ice. The skating is just one part of their journey.”

“The challenge was mainly having enough time to give each scene everything and making sure we went through everything properly,” Coomes adds. “It did add a different dynamic to what the film crew and the director were used to. It took some time to get things going, and certain scenes took longer than others. Like anything, you always wish you had a little more time.”

With Torvill & Dean airing as the centrepiece of ITV’s Christmas Day schedule, Ivory hopes viewers will be left with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices the duo made to reach the top.

“I think they made sacrifices for their art, rather than their sport. For me, that’s an even more noble thing to do,” he says. “We see where they come from and we see their circumstances. They had no money, no help. They came from really simple backgrounds, and to achieve what they did, I think it’s really worth celebrating. We’re not great at celebrating our heroes in this country, and we should do with them.”

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Long lost history

The Long Song, based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, brings a untold period of British history to the small screen. Screenwriter Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo reflect on the story’s contemporary relevance and how the series blends tragedy and humour within a distorted narrative.

There’s something quite different about The Long Song – this isn’t your typical historical drama. In the opening seconds of episode one, the narrator explains as much, disrupting this story of a “crafty girl” working as a lady’s maid during the final days of the slave trade in 19th century Jamaica, under a false name.

Before the story has a chance to settle, the narrator sends us back to “the beginning,” with the camera panning across vast swathes of cane fields where black slaves are working tirelessly under the threat of their white master’s whip.

It’s a sign of how the three-part BBC1 drama, based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel, will play out in the hands of screenwriter Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo, with all the drama and humour of the source material blending with dynamic camera movements, dual timelines and the vivid backdrop of the Dominican Republic, where the miniseries was filmed.

The plot follows a strong-willed young slave called July (played by Tamara Lawrance) who lives on a plantation owned by her odious mistress Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). When a charming new arrival to the island, Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), becomes the new overseer, July and Caroline are intrigued by his seemingly revolutionary determination to improve the plantation for the slaves and mistress alike.

It’s a story that has huge contemporary relevance for writer Williams, who says it highlights a period of British history that has been “glossed over.”

“When we think of slaves, we normally think of American slaves, or slaves in America and only think of the abolition of slavery, in which Britain led the world,” she says. “Just giving those people a voice and taking us to that dark corner of British history, you find it’s very complicated. It’s not so straightforward. I think there’s a good deal to be learned from the story as the same time as it’s really entertaining and packing a punch.”

It was producer Heyday Television that approached Williams about adapting The Long Song, with the writer having previously adapted Levy’s novel Small Islands for the BBC in 2009. The pair forged a “really good creative relationship,” with Levy offering notes at every draft stage. “I see my job as bringing her vision to the screen,” the screenwriter explains. “The dialogue we have is crucial.”

That has particularly been the case on this project, owing to the fact The Long Song is an “epic” book that has thrown up lots of questions over how to trim the story to just three hours of screen time and where the adaptation’s focus should lie.

Williams notes that Levy writes “very dramatic and funny things that, in their entirety almost, you can lift and put on the page.” That must be a boon for an adaptor, though in this case, matters were somewhat complicated by the fact the novel plays out across two timeframes. “So quite often it’s structurally complex to unpick, but the emotional strength and that bittersweet tragicomedic tone she has, it’s my favourite kind of thing,” Williams continues.

The Long Song focuses on the life of July, played by Tamara Lawrance

“It would have been hard for me to adapt a book on slavery that was unremittingly harrowing. I would have found it a hard watch, never mind a hard write. For me, what she manages to do is to take you on a very emotional road that has pain but also laughter. That’s why I respond to it so strongly. There are some very funny moments but it’s never trivialising the subject matter.”

The writer says the biggest challenge on The Long Song was to condense the timeline that spans July’s life, but notes that when she’s penning an adaptation, her job is to be as invisible as possible. Her role, she explains, “is to get Andrea’s vision onto the screen without interfering. When you’re dealing with a really good book, like this one, my note to myself is invent as little as possible and try to present the story as authentically as possible. Keep as close to the book as you can.”

That might be an approach that is at odds with many other adaptors, who may seek to reinvent or install some dramatic changes to the source material.

Williams would agree, were she adapting Pride & Prejudice, for example, as it’s been done many times before. “But I didn’t feel my take on this book was as important as this book. For me, that’s been the priority. Other people might read the script and think, ‘Oh, Sarah, you’re all over this.’ But I don’t think so. People make a lot of fuss about adapting books and all you want is all the best bits of the book in one place and put into a screenplay structure, which I think we all know by now.

“It’s about finding a beginning, a middle and an end, and however many acts you think it is. You’re guided by your instincts.”

The writer admits she had to make some tough decisions about what to keep or cut from the novel, but says the spirit of the book and its characters are alive and well. That was particularly important in terms of the slaves, who “weren’t just a collection of faceless suffering humans. They were individuals with charisma and humour; they were honourable and dishonourable”

Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell as Caroline Mortimer

Williams continues: “What Andrea wanted to make clear was they didn’t see themselves as victims, and they had a huge amount of spirit. That’s what we’ve also tried to do in the screen version – to show the variety and the spirit of the characters in the book. They’re not all, as is sometimes portrayed, noble and wonderful people. They’re just as flawed as the rest of us, so that was a great pull for me. There’s a great complexity and nuance to the way she draws her characters. So everyone is flawed in the book, including the heroine.”

Williams says she couldn’t have asked for a better director than Belo, whom she believes has an “amazing visual style.” The writer adds: “She’s a really strong director and I think she’s really one to watch. She’s going to have a fantastically bright future.”

Belo came to the attention of The Long Song’s producers after Ellen, her acclaimed 2016 one-off drama for Channel 4, led to her winning a Bafta award for breakthrough talent the following year. Belo was sent Levy’s novel by exec producer Rosie Alison, though she subsequently made six-part BBC drama Requiem and had been planning a feature project when The Long Song came around again. “This narrative, this story, I couldn’t not do it,” she says. “Andrea seemed to want me to do it as well, and this story really needed to be told. That feeling was overwhelming and it’s scary because it’s so important.”

Like Williams, the director knew about slavery mainly from lessons about US history and not about the British involvement. She also finds the story relevant today, particularly following the Windrush scandal that saw many people – members of the ‘Windrush generation’ who arrived in the country from Caribbean countries more than 50 years ago – wrongly deported from Britain.

Mahalia Belo

“It’s relevant and I think it’s scary. This story should have been told a long time ago,” Belo says. “It should be in everybody’s consciousness. Britain’s wonderful and brilliant but it’s done some atrocious things, and those things can be healed if they’re talked about.”

She says The Long Song’s non-linear format makes the drama stand out, while Williams’ scripts presented a different way of telling a story, “which is quite exciting for me to get my teeth into.”

On set, Belo reunited with long-time DOP Chloë Thomson (Requiem, Ellen), with whom she came through film school. The pair have established a shorthand in terms of looking at the perspective of a scene, its tone and how to capture characters and their emotional state.

That The Long Song was also her first period drama presented some new challenges for Belo, not least working with horses. “I was always waiting a long time for a horse,” she jokes. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s get on the horse and go.’ Two hours later, ‘We’ve got the horse.’”

Time was spent ensuring historical accuracy with costumes as well as finding period buildings and the right locations, while the setting of the drama also informed Belo’s filming style. “There’s a formality that can be quite fun for a period piece because, if you upend it every now and again, you actually really feel it, which I found quite fun,” she says. “You can find something a bit more modern within a period drama and pay your respects to period drama.”

The Long Song, which is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, was shot over seven weeks on location in the Dominican Republic, which Belo describes as both “difficult and brilliant.” She found support from a willing crew that was heavily invested in the project, working in an environment that boasted vast cane fields, forests and tropical landscapes, as well as an assortment of wildlife.

The Long Song will launch on BBC1 on December 18

“One thing I would have liked would have been to be able to get a bit more of an architectural sense of Jamaica. We struggled to find that where we were because it has a more Hispanic and Spanish-speaking influence,” Belo says. “In terms of what else we had to offer, it was really exciting and there was a lot of goodwill all round.”

Belo also praises the ensemble cast – led by Lawrance, Atwell, Lowden and Sir Lenny Henry, who plays Godfrey – noting that they all took a deep interest in the subject matter and embedded themselves in this world and what it would have been like for the characters they play.

“One of the best scenes was when I had most of the house slaves around a table and the white plantation owners eating this Christmas dinner and suddenly realising the point of view is not at the table where it would normally be from, it’s from the edges,” Belo says. “Everybody around this table can hear exactly what’s going on, and this would have happened. There were people with opinions and points of view who have been completely erased from history and I get to recreate it. That was really exciting. It felt good.”

Belo hopes the drama, launching on BBC1 on December 18, leaves people thinking about history’s impact on today’s culture and looking at the world slightly differently. “By looking at the past, we can make quite a lot of sense of the present and of racism, and racism we don’t even recognise,” she adds. “Maybe people might be a little more wised-up to that. That would be great. I feel quite deeply about it all.”

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Less is more

The rampant demand for long-running series is seemingly unstoppable, yet TV movies and one-off dramas are becoming a powerful tool in addressing single issues or themes. They’re also evidence that not every story needs to run to multiple episodes and seasons.

TV movies come in many forms, whether they’re single dramas with a feature-length running time or topical one-offs that dramatise a contemporary or historical theme or event. And while it might seem logical that the current demand for binge-worthy series would temper the desire for small-screen movies, in truth they are as sought-after as ever as viewers seek a quick storytelling fix before starting the next must-watch 10- or 13-episode show.

“They have their place, for sure,” says Ian Whitehead, a producer at Canada’s Incendo Films. “But subscription-based firms are always looking for newness. Yes, they might have Breaking Bad to attract viewers, but they’re trying to broaden out and have something new.”

Europe has long been keen on TV movies, with schedules built around 90-minute dramas. This remains the case in Germany, where Rowboat Film und Fernsehproduktion is behind Die Toten vom Bodensee (Murder by the Lake), a series of small-screen movies produced twice a year, following two cops as they investigate murders at a lake that borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Distributor Beta Film has sold the series, produced for Germany’s ZDF and Austria’s ORF, into more than 50 territories.

Brain Power Studio’s After the Storm

“Every market’s different but Germany somehow kept the 90-minute timeslots in abundance,” says Rowboat producer Sam Davis. “We produce two or three a year with the same cops and the audience responds to it because it’s a cinematic experience in a serial context. We find there’s still a big audience for that.

“We can’t ignore the fact the audience has become more serialised. And because they’ve become more serialised, we’ve adapted to more serialised TV movies, as we know the audience can keep a lot of subplots and complex characters in the air at the same time.”

Ontario-based Brain Power Studio has a slate of family movies, Christmas-themed films and romantic comedies, and also has a deal with Harlequin Books to adapt some of its novels for television. Titles include After the Storm and Christmas With a Prince, while My Perfect Romance, Christmas Wedding Planner and Christmas With a View have all been sold to Netflix.

“As well as higher expectations from viewers, there is also greater sophistication to those films than there was in the past,” says Beth Stevenson, Brain Power founder and executive producer. “There are great concepts you can do with standalone films, and when you adapt a novel, there’s a whole backstory that’s been created within that book that you can actually utilise during the storytelling. That makes a really big difference. It may not attract the same audience that’s watching complicated and complex dramas, but those viewers still have very high expectations of not only being entertained but also being carried along with the story.”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter (pictured top) tells the story of O-Ei, who lived in the shadow of her father, celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai, before creating a name for herself with her own style of painting. The film emerged when Taku Kato, a senior producer in Japanese pubcaster NHK’s drama production department, sought a local story that would create interest abroad. A Hokusai exhibit at the British Museum coincided with his discovery of a book about Kurara, leading him to believe the story would appeal to viewers at home and around the world.

Christmas with a Prince, one of a number of Christmas-focused films on Brain Power’s slate

The decision to make a TV movie, as opposed to a series, came from Kato’s preference to focus on the core theme of the story. “In real life, Hokusai and O-Ei had debt problems and a complicated relationship. By making a one-off drama, I was able to focus on their affection for each other in the context of art,” he says. However, this approach was not without its challenges. “Summarising the life of a great artist in a single story is difficult because diverse elements of the circumstances, motivations and processes behind the artworks are interwoven in complex ways,” Kato adds.

The power of TV movies to shine a spotlight on topical or weighty subjects is one of the best uses of the format, with the BBC a particular champion of this type of TV drama. Films such as Murdered by my Boyfriend, Murdered by my Father and Killed by my Debt have told fact-based stories via dramatic reconstructions, while others have dramatised sensitive and often invisible issues.

Upcoming BBC single Care stars Sheridan Smith as Jenny, a single mum-of-two whose world comes crashing down when her beloved mother Mary (Alison Steadman) suffers a devastating stroke, leading to dementia. Written by Jimmy McGovern (Broken, The Accused) and Gillian Juckes, it is produced by LA Productions and distributed by Kew Media Distribution.

Producer Colin McKeown says the story, based on Juckes’ real-life experiences, was always destined to be a single drama. “It had a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “To me, a series is designed as a series. It’s about knowing when to stop and also what animal you’ve got. If it’s a single one-off, it shouts at you and says, ‘This is more poignant if you treat it not as some sort of commercial exercise but as a piece of storytelling that’s got maximum impact by being what it is in the first place – a unique story.’”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

LA Productions has good form with singles, having produced Common, another McGovern film, which explored the UK’s Joint Enterprise law when a young man gives friends an impromptu lift to a pizza parlour and ends up being charged with murder. The film helped change British law. “We’re very proud of what it achieved. Would it have achieved that if it was a series? I don’t think so,” McKeown says. “What Care will achieve in flagging up the problems that families are subjected to when a member of the family unfortunately contracts Alzheimer’s will be that much more rewarding because it’s a single film. It’s always the films that touch people’s hearts a lot more and have a bigger impact.”

Dementia is also key to another upcoming BBC feature-length drama, an adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing, about a woman struggling with the illness as she sets out to discover the truth about her friend’s disappearance. Shooting is set to begin in March 2019.

“It deals with an incredibly current and relevant issue to a lot of people but did it in such a fresh and accessible way,” producer Sarah Brown, head of drama at STV Productions, says of the source material. “There hadn’t been many dramas about dementia and it is such a huge issue of our time. We were very keen it should be on a mainstream channel for a mainstream audience because it’s an issue that touches so many people’s lives.”

The book’s unique viewpoint – the story is told from the perspective of someone with dementia – meant Elizabeth is Missing suited a 90-minute format, rather than the three-parter that was originally discussed. “There was no agenda, we just all felt creatively and editorially that a single was the best form for this story,” Brown says. “Some stories are designed and meant to be told as a multi-part show, and we all love those long-running stories that unfold slowly. But not every story is suited to that format, and we felt this story was best told in a single immersive experience.”

Sheridan Smith in BBC one-off drama Care

Whitehead says that, like serialised dramas, TV movies are introducing more flawed characters and complex situations. “In our movies, we go in different areas and have villains we enjoy as much as the heroes. Some broadcasters invest because the film is about a controversial subject or it’s a historical piece. We try to have interesting characters, and don’t believe we have to go big budget or big name. What I hope to do is more a mix of characters and languages. People are more open to that, so I hope it translates with movies.”

TV movies also allow stories to be told more directly, without becoming consumed by the side plots and peripheral characters needed to flesh out multi-episode series.

“Movies allow you to tell a story in a very condensed way. As you have only about 90 minutes of runtime, you can’t allow yourself to explore too many facets of a character’s life – even if it would be interesting,” says Caroline Labrèche, the director of Incendo thriller Second Opinion and the forthcoming Thicker than Water. “So everything in the film, be it story beats or character beats, needs to be very precise. You need to watch a scene and know exactly why you’ve just watched it. It can’t be too vague or subtle. There’s just no time for that, especially in plot-heavy thrillers. But that’s the challenge.”

Brown laments the way quieter single stories have been squeezed out in favour of multi-part dramas. “So the ones that tend to be commissioned are either big, topical, campaigning issue pieces or based on a really big well-loved book or with a bit of talent attached,” she notes. “In our case, it’s a combination of the subject matter and the book. Hopefully the way we make that and cast it will further enhance its visibility.”

With the trend for serialised stories showing no signs of stopping, TV movies can offer themselves up as a bitesized drama that can be watched in the time it takes to watch two episodes of a series. Meanwhile, investments in the genre made by Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms continue to blur the boundaries between TV movies and feature films on TV.

Incendo thriller Second Opinion

NHK’s Kato believes that as creators cross the boundaries between film and television, stories will too. “Given that TV movies allow suppliers and buyers to have informed negotiations after watching the programmes in their entirety and are generally cheaper than drama series, I believe there will be further growth in the market,” he says. “So it’s very likely I will stay involved.”

Stevenson adds that in the current political climate, feel-good TV movies that offer viewers something wholesome and heartwarming can be a tasty antidote to the turbulent and tempestuous news cycle.

“For anybody who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, that was a time of a lot of political upheaval. So Happy Days and The Waltons started, and that’s when television movies really took hold,” she says. “It feels like viewers are seeking out TV movies right now to be able to take a break and enjoy a beautiful Christmas story or be wrapped up in a cosy mystery or suspense tale that’s not as awful as the news coming into everybody’s house every day. That’s what’s making the difference. It feels like there’s a little resurgence of the television movie genre.”

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Happy holidays?

Blumhouse Television is blurring the lines between TV and film with Hulu’s holiday-themed anthology series Into the Dark. DQ finds out more from producer Alexa Faigen.

There’s a scene in Halloween, the latest instalment in the horror franchise kick-started by John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 movie of the same name, where resident bogeyman Michael Myers is walking along a tree-lined suburban street wearing his iconic mask and carrying a very large kitchen knife.

On any other night, he would stand out like a tiger in an antelope enclosure, but not here, because it’s Halloween night and he is surrounded by dozens of children, teenagers and adults all wearing their own costumes. Tonight, he’s just another masked face in the crowd.

The scene is also notable because it echoes the premise of the first episode in a new television anthology series produced by Blumhouse Television, one of the studios involved in the latest Halloween movie. Into the Dark comprises 12 episodes that are released on streaming service Hulu once a month and tell a story specifically about or relating to a US holiday taking place that month.

The series launched in October with Halloween-themed The Body, in which a sophisticated hitman with a cynical view of modern society finds his work made more difficult when he has to transport a body on Halloween night, but everyone is enamoured by what they think is his killer costume. Ring any bells?

Into the Dark’s Halloween episode The Body

November’s offering, Flesh & Blood, takes place on Thanksgiving, while episode three (December) will be set at Christmas and episode four (January) at New Year. Other holidays to feature in the year-round event series, distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television, include Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day.

With Blumhouse making a name for itself both in TV (Amazon’s The Purge) and feature films such as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Whiplash and Get Out, Into the Dark manages to balance elements of the big and small screens.

“At its conception it was really a complete hybrid, so we toggle between saying episode or film for each episode because it really does straddle the line. We use different principles from different sides of the business to help us with our decision-making along the way,” explains producer Alexa Faigen, who has overseen the first, third and fourth episodes of this “unique” project. “Obviously it’s made for streaming on Hulu but the ambition is incredibly cinematic and, for the most part, we’ve enlisted filmmakers with feature backgrounds. That has been part of the approach for the entire time.”

That approach has been aided by the “tremendous amount of energy and optimism” afforded by Blumhouse through the development and production phases, according to Faigen. “I love that they try to do things that are challenging, both from a process standpoint and a content standpoint. They often make the impossible possible and I love being part of that,” she continues. “On one hand, they are very hands-on; and on the other, they are very freeing to the creative process. So it’s a very happy relationship. They’ve really figured out how to straddle the line between studio and producer and gave a lot of freedom and flexibility within the series to the creative while also keeping the objective in mind. It’s definitely a series with an idea behind it and an audience we’re trying to get, and they always keep that front of mind.”

Dermot Mulroney in Thanksgiving-set instalment Flesh & Blood

Episode one, set during Halloween, was written by Paul Fisher and Paul Davis, and episode two, in which an agoraphobic teenager begins to suspect she is in danger on Thanksgiving, was written by Louis Ackerman and directed by Patrick Lussier. While a holiday is firmly baked into each episode, it may or may not have a direct influence on the story that plays out. Each part may also appeal to a different audience, meaning Into the Dark does not adhere to one particular genre or theme – horror, for example – throughout its entire run, echoing Blumhouse activity on the film side, where it has produced in a range of genres.

“The Halloween episode is a horror comedy about how a hitman wisely uses Halloween to cover his job,” Faigen reveals. “On Halloween, no one suspects a killer actually killing someone. It’s a really funny episode that has a really odd, idiosyncratic love story at the centre. We think it’s a great launch for the series.”

Christmas-themed episode three is written by Gerald Olsen and directed by a Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, who Faigen describes as “a tremendous talent who really brought such a unique vision to this piece. It’s a very unique and noisy episode.”

In contrast, episode four is an all-women episode directed by Sophia Takal. “It’s a completely different look from any of the others that will have come before it,” Faigen says of the New Year special. “Sophia did a tremendous job with the look, tone, message and themes in a very purposeful way. I think it will grab people.

“The organising idea is really Blumhouse and the holidays but, beyond that, each episode has a unique look, tone and purpose that is very filmmaker-specific. It’s a really exciting way to approach an anthology series that really has a filmic quality to it.”

Flesh & Blood also stars Dana Silver

Episodes are being filmed back-to-back, with some occasional overlap, while everything is filmed in LA, whether the City of Angels is the setting of a particular story or doubles for another location. Some pillars of the production team also provide some continuity, though each episode brings in a whole new cast, writers and directors.

“It was wild,” Faigen says of production, which saw episodes filmed in just 15 to 18 days. “July was a very challenging month in my life but it is for Blumhouse as well. Although different producers will come in and do different episodes, they shoulder all of it. They’re just going in all phases at all times. From my point of view, it was a wild summer but it’s exciting.”

While the pace may have been slightly frenetic, working on multiple episodes at once afforded Faigen a far-sighted view of the series, which meant they would try to avoid repeating elements from one episode in another and could experiment with different techniques. “But the real heroes are the crews, the production designer who cohesively moves from episode to episode, the stunt coordinators, the effects team and also the editorial team. The crew and the people we’ve been fortunate enough to work with are really heroes to keep it running. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the motivation, tenacity and artistry of all of them. I think it’s also very exciting for them because every time a new director comes in, it’s a new energy. They’re not continuing a look and a tone for an entire series. They’re getting challenged from a creative standpoint every time out. So although it’s incredibly taxing, it’s also very invigorating and fun.”

Had it not been for the recent trend for anthology series that has continued to blossom since the debut of American Horror Story back in 2011, Into the Dark may not have found a platform. Faigen says the ongoing popularity of anthology series is a sign the television business is responding to viewers’ ‘consume anywhere’ approach to the medium, which demands varying episodes and running times.

“Things that were out of fashion or impossible before are now things people are taking new bets on, and that’s really exciting,” she adds.

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Slick production

Writer Adriana Lunardi and director Afonso Poyart discuss making Brazilian drama Isla de Hierro (Iron Island), which follows the rising tensions among workers confined together aboard an oil rig.

An oil rig is the unusual setting for Brazilian drama Isla de Hierro (Iron Island), which explores the complicated lives of the people who work on the platform as they split their time between their workforce family and those they leave behind on the mainland.

The increasing tension aboard the rig leads to clashes of egos as the workers live double lives, united only by their confinement together on the high seas. In particular, the 12-part series distributed by broadcaster Globo follows Dante (Cauã Reymond), the platform’s production coordinator, who finds himself facing devastating personal dilemmas while he is working away from home. Life is further complicated when his bid for promotion is upset by new arrival Julia (Maria Casadevall).

With season two already in production, writer Adriana Lunardi and director Alfonso Poyart tell DQ about the real-life events that inspired the series, the challenges they faced during filming and how the show was completed following the death of Lunardi’s husband and writing partner Max Mallmann.

Adriana Lunardi

What are the origins of Iron Island?
Lunardi: Huge oil deposits were discovered off the Brazilian coast in 2007 and we were really impressed by those who set out to work on the high seas extracting oil. We couldn’t help but wonder what the daily routine of these men and women was like, confined for two weeks, 200 miles from home, on a metal island that could blow up at any moment.
In 2008, Max outlined a story that had a comedy feel to it, kind of a western, in which a group of adventurers explore new frontiers of wealth on the high seas. Years later, when Globo decided to go ahead and develop the series, things had changed in Brazil. Scandals linked to the oil industry affected the country’s economic and political structure. So Max and I developed a story that would embrace this new reality, mixing drama, adventure and action.

How would you describe your writing partnership?
Lunardi: Our writing careers developed inseparably from our marriage. We were each other’s first readers and we were intimately familiar with each other’s creative path. We wrote Iron Island in all-nighters, in walks around Lagoa, where we lived, in cafés in Paris and in hospital rooms. The series is interwoven with our life story. Working with Max was very easy. He knew exactly what he wanted from Iron Island and we knew how we wanted it to end from the start.

Why is an oil rig a good setting for a drama?
Lunardi: Working in confined spaces intensifies conflicts between bosses and subordinates and also among colleagues, who are forced to work closely together, sharing meals and even cabins for two weeks straight. But what appealed to us most was the possibility of creating stories that would not fit into everyday environments. The platform encompasses both the adventurous spirit of classic travel narratives, with eerie situations happening on board, and the dystopian situations that might take place in a starship.
So the enemy may be a force of nature, such as the wind or the sea, but also a faulty sensor or a malfunctioning gas valve, all of which are life-threatening. The platform also becomes a component of identity. The main characters have their personality shaped by their work environment; just like the platform, these characters are explosive.

What writing techniques do you use to build the tension?
Lunardi: First of all, dialogue is short and the characters never completely reveal what they’re thinking or feeling, or what they intend to do. Most of the lines have an aggressive undertone – sometimes raw, sometimes subtle, often converted into sarcasm and dry humour and at other times repressed into grudges or melancholy.
Establishing shots are all the pause for reflection you get. Even ‘breathing’ scenes following a heavy or packed sequence initiate or prepare another action moment. In constructing the characters, we erased certain gender differences. The women are just as active as the men. Julia, our main character, is physically powerful. If necessary, she could kick pretty much any man’s ass.

Cauã Reymond and Maria Casadevall star as Dante and Julia

How did you work with director Afonso Poyart on the series?
Lunardi: When Poyart was hired to direct Iron Island, the scripts had already been written. He requested minor changes, mostly linked to production, such as replacing a pelican with an owl. When shooting began, I wrote him a letter wishing him good luck, and we met when I visited the set. We talked briefly about the finished episodes in the editing room. He definitely packed the series with all the action it needed, which was a concern that Max and I shared as we wrote. Beyond that, Poyart created a sophisticated visual expression of the scripts we’d written.

What was the biggest challenge you faced to tell this story?
Lunardi: The biggest challenge was to tell the whole story. I loved writing Iron Island with Max and there came a time when I had to maintain my creative integrity and make sure that the ending would be the one we had imagined. Max died after finishing episode eight. As soon as I was capable, I sat at a table and jotted down the ideas we had for the final episodes, to the best of my ability. I was terrified that my memory might betray me or, even worse, that I would betray Max’s memory.
Afonso Poyart: The biggest challenges were the setting itself and the scale of the action. It was virtually impossible to stop an offshore rig to shoot the series, and even renting a portion of an off-duty rig proved very difficult. We managed to do so, but only with a few crew and cast members for just a handful of days.
We also have many action pieces throughout the show including fights, water action, high-altitude action and helicopter stunts. I had an elaborate pre-production process for the special effects and visual effects teams. It demanded lots of planning and testing to get to the final result. I wanted to make it very raw and real, so we had to make the cast rehearse and train hard. It was a big challenge for the actors and stunt professionals.

Afonso Poyart

Where was the series filmed and how were the shots at sea recorded?
Poyart: We shot the majority of the scenes on sets that we constructed at Estúdios Globo. It was a huge set that included a helipad and many common spaces that simulate an offshore rig realistically. We also shot in many different locations, including a docked oil rig that was under repair. An old shipyard was used as a set in which our criminal had their headquarters.
We shot all we could of the real sea but we also used CGI water. The VFX team at Globo researched ways to create a realistic ocean, and you cannot tell what is CGI and what is real. It worked very well in all lighting scenarios and all sea states, from calm to stormy.

How did you approach the series as a director?
Poyart: Although I had two other great directors that did an amazing job, I ended up directing close to 90% of the scenes in the show. This was my first episodic project. Ultimately, all I want is a great scene, and sometimes we need to put some energy into the rehearsal process and in the blocking to achieve that.
Our DOP Carlos Zalazic and our A camera operator Anderson Accioly did amazing cinematography and camera work respectively. After getting the blocking right, I like to spend time finding ways to shoot the scene in a unique and creative way and, they did a great job helping us achieve that.

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African ambition

Three producers from across Africa tell DQ about their upcoming television drama plans, the stories they want to tell and the challenges they face bringing them to the screen.

Part crime procedural, part supernatural drama, Sakho et Mangane (Sakho & Mangane) draws on myths and legends in a series showrunner Jean Luc Herbulot describes as a mix between US dramas Miami Vice and Fringe.

The show, set in Dakar, comes from Senegal’s Keewu Production and Canal+ International and is produced for Canal+ Africa. It is due to air at the end of 2018.

“It’s about two cops investigating different cases, and the more cases they investigate, the more it becomes supernatural,” Herbulot tells DQ during Série Series in Fontainebleau, France. “You start the first episode and it’s a procedural. But as it goes on, it becomes more weird.”

At first, the project was “very local, very African,” the showrunner says. But after Herbulot came on board, he sought to turn the show into something that reflected Africa but would also play around the world.

Sakho et Mangane (Sakho & Mangane) is set in Dakar

“The challenge was first of all to shoot it and then convince people this is a local project done to speak to the Senegalese but also to speak to the entire world and bring a new standard for African series, which was my main battle,” explains Herbulot, who has directed episodes of French series Falco and Moroccan drama Ghoul. “With all the TV series around the world, you cannot say we have an African series. We are doing something new and it has to look as Western as it can in terms of standards. After that, it has to be special enough to show what an African series about cops is, because no one has done that yet at that level.”

Herbulot took inspiration from the Korean movie business, which he says has taken Western filmmaking standards and combined them with local themes. “I said to our producer that this was exactly what we should do. The form should look like any US or European series but inside it must be African,” he continues. “When you have, for example, a manager and his employee, the manager can slap the other one. That’s in the culture because there is a respect. Between two cops, especially since one is older and the other is young, you can also have this energy and interaction that you don’t have in Europe. You would never see an old cop in Europe slapping someone else and saying, ‘Do your job.’ These kinds of details, you only know when you live in Africa.”

Congo-born Herbulot says the African content industry is currently in the midst of a “creative gold rush,” where viewers are watching content from around the world and wanting to see their own lives and stories on screen.

“You can do whatever you want – the only limit is the people you work with and the people paying for it,” he explains. “But since they don’t know yet what African audiences want, we can try whatever we want. This is a police procedural, but we could do sci-fi. I’ve been working in France and the US; I know these markets and there are other great things we can do there, but there is nothing like Africa as a writer, director or showrunner.”

In the last five years, EbonyLife has established itself as a major player among African broadcasters, with services ranging from linear channel EbonyLife TV and movie division EbonyLife Films to its pan-Africa VoD service EbonyLife ON, which launched earlier this year.

In July, the company also unveiled what it says is Africa’s first legal drama, Castle & Castle, which stars Dakore Egbuson-Akande and Richard Mofe-Damijo as married lawyers Remi and Tega Castle, who run a successful practice in Nigerian city Lagos. The show sees their relationship put to the test as family issues clash with their working life, leading to questions over their future together.

Castle & Castle is the latest original drama from EbonyLife, following in the footsteps of political series The Governor (pictured top) and Sons of the Caliphate; Dowry, about feuding families; and Fifty, which is based on the EbonyLife original movie of the same name and continues the story of four women facing mid-life changes.

That leads to EbonyLife Studios, one of the biggest sections of the company, which in March announced a scripted television development deal with Sony Pictures Television. The agreement will see them co-develop three new dramas, with the first inspired by the real-life all-female military regiment known as the Dahomey Warriors. The action series is based on events that took place in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey and will tell the story of the women who came together to protect and honour their people.

Fifty is based on EbonyLife’s movie of the same name

Mo Abudu, EbonyLife’s founder, CEO and executive producer, says the Dahomey Warriors project is her company’s biggest to date, with plans to use it as a calling card for the types of stories and big-scale productions she wants to build.

“People look at our content and say, ‘Is it really made in Nigeria?’ Good content can come out of Nigeria and we are evidence and proof that it can,” Abudu asserts. “We believe we have a treasure trove of stories that have never been told. The Dahomey Warriors story is one of so many.”

Abudu says EbonyLife has taken the time to research and develop a slate of drama series, which means the network is “a little ahead of the curve.” She continues: “This market is wide open. Africa is very talented and I keep saying to anyone who cares to listen, whether a writer or producer from Nigeria or the rest of Africa, that this is our time – but we have to put the work in. We have to do the research. We have to make sure we write well so our stories can travel and can be easily shared and understood by a global audience.”

The box office success of Marvel blockbuster Black Panther has certainly increased the focus on drama coming out of Africa. Indeed, many comparisons were made between that film and the Dahomey Warriors project when the latter was first announced. Abudu says this is just a coincidence, however, with the series having been in development for more than three years.

“It’s the world obviously saying it is time for these authentic African stories,” she says. “Sometimes you find the black stories that come out of America, outside of Black Panther, tend to focus a lot on the slave trade. But there’s more to Africa than the fact Africans were taken as slaves. I’m not saying it’s not a big part of our history, but we experience the same everyday realities as the rest of the world. When we create a piece of content like [movie] The Wedding Party, it’s just about someone getting married. We want to make authentic, historical, high-concept stories. But that’s not to say we can’t also do [shows about] the mundane things in our lives.”

Abudu adds that she wants to develop series in a range of genres, including one she calls ‘Afro-futurism.’ One project on EbonyLife’s slate is a sci-fi series called Nigeria 2099. “We’re open for business,” she adds. “We’ve done the research, done the writing, done the development, and this is really a call to the big studios to say if you want an African partner, we’re right here. We’re ready to be your partner.”

South Africa
Johannesburg-based prodco The Bomb Shelter currently has two daily dramas on MNet’s Mzansi Magic channel. Isibaya follows the violent clashes between different factions of the taxi industry in rural KwaZulu-Natal, while Isithembiso is a coming-of-age drama about new university students leaving home for the first time, finding love and confronting the obstacles of growing up.

The company also recently finished a further pair of 13-part dramas for MNet. Nkululeko is a story about three boys and their dreams of escaping poverty in Cape Town and Ayeye! is described as ‘Entourage in Johannesburg,’ following three men working in the advertising industry.

The Bomb Shelter was formed 21 years ago, when filmmakers Desiree Markgraaff, Angus Gibson and Teboho Mahlatsi came together to tell authentic South African stories that had not appeared on mainstream TV before.

“Television in South Africa had been apartheid-dominated, so the kind of TV that was made for black people was incredibly censored and sanitised,” Markgraaff explains. “We were keen to tell stories that felt authentic and started to tell the real stories of South Africans. The first show we did was Yizo Yizo for SABC, which was set in a school and tackled the challenges facing education in the post-apartheid era. It was iconic because it was the first time you saw young black South Africans in a meaningful story on television that was really reflecting their lives.”

Yizo Yizo, The Bomb Shelter’s first show

Pan-African series Jacob’s Cross, meanwhile, ran for eight seasons, looking at the relationship between South Africa and the rest of the continent. It epitomised The Bomb Shelter’s aspirations to shift the focus of Africa away from “despots, corruption, children with flies around their nose, HIV or AIDS” and tell the story of the people fighting to rebuild the region. “Of course, there are issues of poverty, war and corruption. These are massive issues. But when you live here, there are many other things too, and they don’t get the same amount of screen time,” Markgraaff says. “For people living away from home, their memories are not what they see in Western media, so we were trying to find those things you long for.”

The Bomb Shelter focuses on family dramas over genres such as horror or comedy. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o’s first lead role was in a series produced by the company for MTV Networks Africa called Sugah, a youth drama set in Nairobi.

The prodco is now developing what Mastgraaff says is its most ambitious project to date. Shaka will retell the story of the eponymous Zulu warrior who built what became known as the Zulu nation and amassed an army of more than 70,000 fighters. A multi-season series is in development, with The Bomb Shelter likening it to Vikings or Game of Thrones, though with fewer fantasy elements. MNet is onboard as a partner broadcaster.

“There hasn’t been anything like this made ever, so this really is the beginning of a slate we want to do called ‘When We Were Kings.’ We’re looking to tell stories of kings, queens and communities that existed before colonisation. So much of our history is framed in the context of colonisation – we’re interested in telling stories that predate that,” Markgraaff says. Pre-production is expected to start in early 2019, with shooting later next year and the series on air in 2020.

“There are great stories in Africa and while in the past there was a resistance to African content, things are changing. One can’t ignore the Wakanda effect,” Markgraaff adds, referring to the futuristic city depicted in Marvel’s Black Panther. “We’re excited to see whether that will translate into the television landscape and make the same epic series people want to watch that are being made elsewhere.”

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Aiming high

A walk in the desert marked a turning point for Vertigo Films as it turned its attention to television. DQ hears how the company plans to follow its initial success with historical drama Britannia and buddy cop thriller Bulletproof.

James Richardson

At first glance, there’s little to compare British dramas Britannia (pictured above) and Bulletproof. The first is an anarchic historical drama pitting a Roman army against unruly bands of warriors and druids, while the other is a high-octane, action-filled buddy cop thriller.

Yet both series share the same basic DNA, comprising a bold idea, passionate creators and, in Vertigo Films, a production company that wants to make series that challenge the status quo and break the mould of contemporary storytelling.

“I don’t think we would do traditional British shows,” says Vertigo co-founder James Richardson. “I look at The Crown and I think it’s a masterpiece – absolute dramatic perfection. But I don’t think we’d ever make it. I look at Broadchurch and Line of Duty; they’re brilliant, genius pieces of TV, but I don’t think we’d ever make them.

“What Bulletproof and Britannia share is a slightly rebellious quality. Bulletproof is a cop show with lots of humour and two black leads, which had never been done in Britain, bizarrely, while Britannia is a totally crazy, non-historical historical show, which again has a rebellious spirit built into it.”

Both have also been renewed for second seasons – and it’s easy to see why. Britannia debuted to 1.88 million viewers this January, making it the biggest Sky original production launch on Sky Atlantic since Fortitude in 2015, while Bulletproof became the biggest Sky1 series of the year when its first episode pulled in 1.59 million viewers in May. Both series are distributed by Sky Vision.

It’s been a long road to this point. Vertigo was established in 2002 and the film producer/distributor has backed more than 30 features, including The Football Factory, It’s All Gone Pete Tong and Streetdance 3D. But four years ago, Richardson and fellow co-founder Allan Niblo abruptly cancelled their meetings at an LA film market and drove into the Californian desert, where they picked over the bones of the declining movie business.

Having identified the value of DVD sales to the film business, they similarly recognised the evolution happening in the television industry through the emergence of platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and started discussing how to target the small screen.

Allan Niblo

“Because our success in the beginning was primarily in the DVD market, not the box office, we witnessed the snobbery of something that would have a seismic change years later,” Niblo says. “So when Netflix and Amazon came along and did pick up our films and paid a lot of money, every single filmmaker was snobby about them. But we saw that there was a massive audience there. If people are watching your material, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the cinema or on DVD. We predicted a few years ago this would all change and everybody would be clamouring to get on Netflix.”

Richardson compares the current television landscape to the Wild West. “Our greatest disadvantage is we have no idea how the TV world works, but that’s also our greatest advantage,” he says. “We’re not really interested. What we’re interested in is can we make some exciting, international, cinematic shows? We’re starting to work with some really exciting people, quality filmmakers and writers, and we don’t have any paymasters or anyone telling us what to do, which is an amazing luxury.”

Britannia came from an idea by Richardson, who then took the series to Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and Tom Butterworth, with the brothers writing it together. Bulletproof, meanwhile, came to Vertigo from co-stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters. They subsequently partnered with Vertigo’s Nick Love (The Football Factory) to develop the series.

“When you’re working with someone like Jez Butterworth, you let them do what they want to do,” Richardson notes. “It’s the same with Noel and Ashley. What show do you want to make? We’ll back that and support it. I like to think we’re quite empowering. We might have ideas from the beginning but Jez, Noel and Ashley then made them their own, which we totally celebrate.”

Vertigo’s 2010 film Monsters is also getting the television treatment, with Ronan Bennett (Top Boy) leading the adaptation, which is in development at Channel 4.

“What’s crucial for us is to make it its own thing,” Richardson says, noting that the series will steer away from Gareth Edwards’ feature film about a photojournalist who must escort his employer’s daughter back to the US through an ‘infected zone’ full of creatures in Mexico. “Ronan wants to make something that’s unique in its own world, but we’re also being respectful of its origins and making sure the stuff we loved about it in terms of atmosphere and tone comes to the TV show. It’s an opportunity to explore a world we felt we only just touched on and to do something unique.”

The TV space allows Vertigo to experiment with more “tweener” ideas – their word to describe projects that sit in-between genres – which are always the most difficult to get away but often have the most interesting results. So for a show like Monsters, “we’re going to have some [monsters] and the fanboys and girls will see the show they’re excited to see,” Richardson explains. “In the same breath, we want to undercut it and do something a bit different. It’s the same with history like Britannia, and Bulletproof also played with genre. We get excited about that because it’s an area where perhaps some viewers feel they aren’t being catered to. There’s not enough things like that coming out of the UK.”

Vertigo will certainly be looking to scale further up the TV industry, with Richardson and Niblo admitting their focus going forward will remain firmly on the small screen. “Because we’ve done 35 movies, we feel we’ve done a lot of the 90-minute format, and this is a whole new world,” Richardson concludes. “None of us are feeling excited about doing a film, because we’ve got an opportunity to explore this brave new world.”

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Shooting Bullets

Alan Sim, executive producer of Bullets, explains why this Finnish series is an example of a high-end show that isn’t afraid to take risks to deliver a drama blending political themes, a complex storyline, flawed characters and shocking twists.

From the team behind The Bridge, The Killing and the Millennium trilogy that introduced Lisbeth Salander to the screen comes Bullets.

Described as a powerful, character-driven international thriller, the story plays out against the backdrop of Helsinki, Belgium’s criminal underworld and the troubled streets of Georgia.

Alan Sim

The story centres on Mari, an intelligence officer who goes undercover to befriend an asylum seeker who has arrived in Finland and is of interest to the authorities, owing to the fact she is Madina Taburova, a former recruiter of suicide bombers and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, who was previously assumed to be dead.

In the 10-episode series, Mari sets out to win Madin’s trust in a mission to find out why she has returned from the grave and uncover her intentions.

Starring Krista Kosonen (Putous), Sibel Kekilli (Game of Thrones) and Tommi Korpela (Eternal Road), Bullets was created by Minna Virtanen (Underworld) and Antti Pesonen (Bordertown), who writes alongside Matti Laine (Bordertown) and Kirsi Vikman (Mother of Mine). The coproducers are Peter Nadermann (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing), Thomas Disch (Modus, Greyzone) and Jan De Clercq (The Team, Hassel, Occupied 2), with Virtanen producing and Pete Riski (Dark Floors) directing.

Produced by Vertigo and coproduced with Lumière and Nadcon, it launched earlier this year on Finnish OTT platform Elisa Viidhe. Sky Vision distributes the series.

Here, Elisa executive producer Alan Sim tells DQ about developing the series, the writing and directing process and why it might appeal to international audiences.

What are the origins of Bullets?
Bullets was co-created by producer Minna Virtanen and writer Antti Pesonen. We started discussions with the producer about four years ago, and we thought it was a unique story that had to be told.

How did Elisa become involved? What was the appeal of the show?
Elisa became aware of the story through the producer, Vertigo. We knew Nadcon was also the coproducing partner from Germany and that the experience of Peter Nadermann, who was behind The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, was going to be a great asset. We thought the story was topical, modern and had real edge.

How did you develop the series with the producers?
We believed in the writing, so we were keen to support the creative process from the writing through to the financing of the second window and distribution. We played a key role in finding the majority of the money for the series.

How does the series mix elements of crime, espionage and political drama?
The story is quite subtle. It draws you in, making you think you’re watching one thing, and then it pulls you deeper and deeper into a much bigger story. In many ways, it plays on our own beliefs and prejudices to make assumptions about the plot, which are constantly challenged. Our key characters wear many hats, so the lines of good and bad, right and wrong are blurred.

Bullets stars Krista Kosonen as undercover intelligence officer Mari

How does the show balance characterisation against a twist-laden plot?
The characterisation is key. All of our central characters have lost or are losing someone in their lives, and this theme is key to their drive and process. We unravel their personal stories delicately throughout the series and this blends perfectly with the plot.

What was the writing process like?
Actually very smooth. Finnish writer Antti Pesonen is actually based in the UK, so had written the treatments and scripts in English. So for myself, a Brit, and our American script editor, it was a fairly simple process.

What do stars Krista Kosonen (Mari) and Sibel Kekilli (Medina) bring to their roles?
They are both incredibly talented actors. What they do so well is in the small detail. They manage to pack such punch into small bites of dialogue, making scenes feel taut, tense and engaging. In this sense it feels very much like a Finnish series. They are not showy or flashy – all the emotions are bubbling just under the surface.

How would you describe the style and tone of the series?
It’s very stripped back. It’s bold without being over the top, and stylish without trying too hard. It’s without gimmicks.

How has director Pete Riski filmed the series?
He has kept it very clean, efficient and dry. Again, it’s not showy – it’s not saying ‘look at me.’ It’s very Finnish. It’s real, it’s believable. He’s done a great job of taking a tricky story and peeling back the layers episode after episode.

What locations appear in the series and how are they used?
We filmed mainly in and around Helsinki, but we also used Brussels as a backdrop. We shot some of the Russian scenes there and also travelled to Georgia, which doubled for Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Game of Thrones’ Sibel Kekilli plays Madina, a former terrorist to whom Mari is trying to get close

What was the biggest challenge making the series and how was this overcome?
That’s a big question. With every production, there are challenges at every level, from delivery of the scripts to financing through to production issues and then a very tight delivery schedule. I think the answer to all of these is seeking compromises and finding solutions at every turn to keep the production on track.

Why does Bullets stand out among the huge number of series being produced?
We have seen very little of Finnish series internationally, so this is one of the first big series out of the blocks. People are waiting to see what’s new from the Nordics, and the Finns are producing some great work. It’s also a really challenging story and does a very difficult job of humanising a woman who is a terrorist. We see her as a three-dimensional character, not the two-dimensional depiction you get in the news. That makes the story unique and challenging.

Why would it appeal to international viewers?
People love crime drama and particularly crime drama from the Nordics. We have already seen a lot from Denmark and Sweden, so putting Finland on the map is interesting for International viewers. They are seeking out quality drama from new territories, and Bullets delivers this. Many of the viewers will also recognise Sibel Kekilli, aka Shae from Game of Thrones, so she is a big draw. This, coupled with having the team behind The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, makes it internationally exciting.

How is Bullets an example of the stories Elisa wants to tell?
Elisa Viihde has a unique voice. We are looking for interesting, challenging stories that are compelling to watch, and we are not afraid to take risks to cover difficult and complex subjects. Bullets is a great example of this, combined with the highest possible production values, great casting and a fantastic script.

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Raisin’ the dead

With cancelled comedy-drama Agatha Raisin set to be brought back to life on US streamer Acorn TV, star Ashley Jensen discusses what makes the show special.

By her own admission, Ashley Jensen was “extremely surprised, extremely despondent and dismayed” when comedy-drama Agatha Raisin was cancelled by UK network Sky1 after a TV movie and a single eight-part series in 2016. So she was equally thrilled and delighted when US streamer Acorn TV brought the show back to life by commissioning a second season of three new stories (6×45’ or 3×90’). They are due to launch this fall.

The new films pick up just three weeks after the previous season’s conclusion, with Jensen’s Raisin, who lives in an idyllic English country village, finding herself drawn into solving a series of mysterious murders, often in entirely unorthodox ways. The stories are once again inspired by the novels written by Marion Chesney under the pseudonym MC Beaton, with episode one, Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, premiering today.

“To me, it’s got everything,” Jensen says of the series. “It’s good, fun, family viewing, it’s got a cast of eclectic characters set across the bucolic English countryside and stories that are already formed within the wonderful books Marion has written. Everybody likes a detective story but I think what we have that sets us apart is that it’s slightly camp, it’s kind of whimsical but there’s a good detective story in the middle of all that.

Ashley Jensen believes Agatha Raisin has ‘got everything’

“And although it’s a comedy, it’s dealing with murder so there’s always a victim, always someone who’s bereaved, so you’re able to tap into proper emotion as well. So one moment I’m throwing myself over a wall in four-inch stilettos and the next minute I’m having a conversation about someone who’s potentially been murdered.”

Acorn Media Enterprises has partnered with [email protected] and Company Pictures to coproduce the new season. Acorn Media International is distributing in all English-speaking territories, while All3Media International is distributing in the rest of the world.

Extras and Catastrophe star Jensen spent six years living in the US while working on series including ABC drama Ugly Betty, so she is well placed to understand why Acorn decided to pick up more episodes of Agatha Raisin. “A lot of Americans enjoy our eccentricities and our beautiful landscapes and countryside,” she says. “It’s very much set in a chocolate-box England. To an American, it’s almost a whimsical, unreal world, if you’re living in New York, Ohio or Texas.”

The actor says part of the series’ charm is it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while a lot of the characters and storylines are particularly heightened. “Sometimes I think it’s almost cartoony, and even the way it’s been designed is very much in technicolour,” she explains. “People would say Scandi noir is very much in vogue at the moment; we call ourselves ‘Cotswold technicolour,’ even down to the costumes, my lipstick, my shoes and handbags – everything just looks like the colour has been turned up on it.”

The drama originally aired on Sky1 in the UK

Having recently starred in Kay Mellor’s BBC1 drama Love, Lies & Records, the actor enjoys the privilege of jumping between drama and comedy. She has since reunited with Extras co-star Ricky Gervais for his forthcoming Netflix series After Life, with a fourth season of Channel 4’s Catastrophe also on the way. “It was interesting working on three different comedies simultaneously – I was literally bouncing from Agatha, then at the weekend I’d go and do Catastrophe and then I had a couple of days with Ricky. It was bouncing between three quite different styles and three very different characters as well, which was great for me to do.

“Ricky and I have a laugh about the fact every character he plays is from Reading and every character I play is from Scotland. Even though they’re all Scottish accents, I had different hairstyles for them all! But they are all different, nuanced characters. Agatha is probably more heightened and then Catastrophe is not as heightened, and Ricky is very real. So there are degrees of darkness to them all.”

Jensen now has aspirations to write her own material, having been encouraged by friend and Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan. “Maybe the time has come,” she says, adding that shifts in the industry mean she is more likely to be heard now than 10 years ago. “Women have so many stories to tell that have not yet been told. The weight still needs to shift a little bit more in our favour, but that only comes with people in positions of power being able to make those decisions. But it is shifting a little bit.”

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Nothing but the truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director Saverio Costanzo pictured with young actor Ludovica Nasti during filming

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

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

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

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

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

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of an epic friendship

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

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

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

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

Margherita Mazzucco as the teenage version of Elena

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

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

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

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

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

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