All posts by Richard Middleton

Trying on a different hat

Actor Natalie Dormer explains how working on an independent feature film and Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock encouraged her to take more control behind the camera.

Natalie Dormer’s career to date might be noted for her on-screen appearances in Game of Thrones and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but she’s also had a long-standing if less noted interest off-screen too.

It was back in 2009 that the UK actor started co-writing indie feature In Darkness with her then other half Anthony Byrne, when by her own admission she was going through “a moment of frustration” with her career over the roles she was being offered.

Fast-forward a decade or so and Dormer now has a production deal with global giant Fremantle designed to allow her to fulfil her ambitions behind the camera but also steer her career in front of it too.

“I want to push myself as a storyteller, both as an actor and behind the camera,” she says. “But as an actor I feel the only way to not be offered the same role I’ve done before is to grab the reins myself a little bit. Then once you’ve shown people you have that skill, it begets itself and hopefully the snowball starts going down the hill.”

Natalie Dormer in Foxtel and Amazon period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock

While working on thriller In Darkness, which took six years “to draft, re-draft, finance and produce,” Dormer was also acting in shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, and CBS’s Elementary, plus movie The Professor & the Madman. And it was during this period that she had the “privilege of standing next to ‘monitor village’ and working closely with directors and producers.”

“There were five or six years where I really started to think about storytelling beyond the acting talent remit and my appetite got whetted, I got a taste for it and the team camaraderie,” she says.

“I learned so much in the years of development [on In Darkness] and then the post-production process and the promotion of that,” Dormer continues, adding that the lower budget nature of the show also meant she gained experience of attracting off-screen talent without the ability to pay top dollar.

“Everyone is on a job like that out of a passion to make a statement for themselves of some sort in terms of their creative discipline.

“I learned so much that it made me hungry to continue the process. I felt part of the team, and it was really invigorating being part of that core of producers, directors and lead writers. It’s addictive – how can we improve this story?”

Dormer as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones

It has also made Dormer a much better actor, she says, because she was privy to conversations that are normally kept from on-screen ears. “I went to dinners not with actors but with editors and producers so I was surreptitiously amassing an entire skill set without even realising it.”

Dormer, who most recently starred in Foxtel and Amazon drama Picnic at Hanging Rock, adds that “without sounding wanky” she has “a natural instinct for storytelling” that also propelled her career in its current direction.

“I realised that as well as wanting to hold the harness over my own career because of the frustration with the roles I was being offered, I also got a real kick out of finding stories, pitching them, finding colleagues – and that brings me up to where I am.”

Precisely, that is a first-look production deal with Fremantle to create a slate of projects, with Dormer already working with the prodco on Vivling, a series based on the life of Gone with the Wind star Vivien Leigh.

“At a basic level I have a first-look deal with Fremantle but they also give me financial support and an infrastructure to feel supported as I develop my slate,” she says, adding that the relationship developed during filming for the prodco’s drama Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“We shot In Darkness in 2016 and I had a producer credit on that, and I had this ground-shifting experience of shooting my own indie film. Quickly after that I went onto set [on The Professor & the Madman] with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and they’d both directed so I spoke to them. Then I went to do Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia and hung out with a lot of people who were doing it and had done it – I was trying to find my centre and confidence.”

CBS’s Elementary saw Dormer as a female version of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty

Dormer admits to experiencing “some teething problems” on the Aussie show, partly because “it was such an ambitious and wonderful project” but the experience drew her together with Fremantle’s exec VP, creative director of global drama Christian Vesper.

“The amazing Christian Vesper came out to Australia to speak to me and [showrunner/director] Larysa Kondracki to help smooth out those early teething problems,” she explains. “Through him and I having conversations, we realised we were simpatico. The Fremantle ethos at the moment is being a place where talent has a home. They’re nurturing those talent deals in a way that America is more used to than we are on this side of the pond, although we are going that way.

“Fremantle has a strong desire to nurture those creative relationships,” she adds, with this ultimately leading to the deal revealed late in 2018. Dormer was already working with Fremantle on Vivling, which also has UK production company Mainstreet Pictures attached. The story will explore Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier and her Academy Award-winning performances in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, plus themes of equality, abuses of power and mental health.

Acclaimed screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Maigret, Churchill’s Secret) is on board and reportedly has access to a wealth of archive material alongside Kendra Bean’s book Vivien Leigh – An Intimate Portrait. Fremantle will hold the global distribution rights to the series, with Dormer serving as producer as well as starring.

So will Dormer’s Fremantle deal enable her to pick and choose which roles she would like to play? “Some stories might have a nice small cameo role I could play,” she explains, “and Viv is specifically a vehicle to show an acting range. On a few of the other projects, I don’t know yet. Possibly no – I’m hoping to be so busy that it won’t be possible to do them all.”

Dormer alongside Ed Skrein in feature film In Darkness

What’s clearer is that Vivling will join the growing number of shows with a strong female protagonist, a trend that is finally now making its mark. “When you turn on the TV, there are all these female-protagonist shows. It is the golden era of TV and we’re on the crest of a wave with the three-dimensional female protagonist upon us. It’s long overdue.”

Inclusivity across the board is improving, she adds, but there remains a long way to go. The hope for Dormer is that she can attract some of that talent – both known and yet to be discovered – to develop projects that reflect the passion of those working on them.

“We all like money,” she jokes, “but what I can bring to this Fremantle situation is that I know what can attract creatives to a project, and that isn’t necessarily anything to do with a bank balance.

“People have points to make about what they can do, and it’s not just actors. Across the board, directors, producers and writers get pigeon-holed just as much as acting talent.”

With almost a decade of experience both in front of and behind the camera, Dormer is now looking to use her first-hand experience to change that.

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Power struggle

Richard Gere returns to TV for the first time in 30 years to star alongside Helen McCrory and Billy Howle in BBC drama MotherFatherSon. DQ finds out how this story of an international businessman and his newspaper empire goes beyond the boardroom to examine a family in crisis.

MotherFatherSon’s story about an international businessman and his newspaper empire might bring a certain media mogul to mind, but this Richard Gere-starring BBC drama is not quite as it seems.

Written by Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) and produced and distributed by BBC Studios, the show centres on Gere’s Max, a largely self-made US businessman who acquires a UK newspaper and finds himself connected with the most powerful politicians in the land.

The show beings Gere back to the small screen for the first time in 30 years, but for the Hollywood star, MotherFatherSon doesn’t feel like TV. “To me, this is one eight-hour movie,” he says, speaking prior to the show’s international launch at Mipcom in Cannes last year. “It’s a novel, eight hours of telling a very deep, dense story. The world is so turned upside down in terms of movies right now; TV is where the most interesting stuff is being done for an actor. And there is no stigma with that all.”

MotherFatherSon stars Richard Gere as a newspaper owner

Despite the newspaper and political spheres in which it is set, the drama is family-oriented and explores the difficult relationship between Max and his heir and son Caden, who has been estranged from his mother and Max’s former wife, Kathryn (Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory), for much of his childhood.

When Caden’s self-destructive lifestyle spirals out of control, the devastating consequences threaten the future of the family, their empire and a country on the brink of change.

“He’s been brought up by his father in his father’s image and we notice very early on that’s not a great fit,” exec producer Hilary Salmon says of Caden. “He’s not really the young man who was built to be the editor of one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, and the cracks are starting to show even before the episodes start.”

For Billy Howle, who plays Caden, the relationship provides a deep seam to explore as the son and his father realise their differences.

“There is a whole process through Caden’s formative years where he’s not just brought up by his father but moulded in his image,” he explains. “Sometimes Caden breaks the mould and that is both a good and bad thing, seemingly. It’s not exactly what Max wants – he wants his son to be able to do what he has done and run his empire and continue to do that. But, at the same time, he doesn’t necessarily listen to Caden’s emotional needs as a father should.

The drama centres on the relationship between Gere’s Max and his son Caden (Billy Howle)

“They are not separate factions because they are tied by blood. But they are at loggerheads in terms of the difference in their outlook and belief systems. In a sense, our belief systems are innate and you can’t force them on another person. You can try, but they tend to bend and eventually break, as Caden does.”

While Max’s character might seem familiar, Smith says viewers will dispense of any preconceptions the minute they start watching the show. “The truth is, as soon as you watch this, that question will disappear. Max is Richard’s Max. It is very much his own creation; he comes from a world that I don’t think is a reference to anyone else.

“His father ran a steel factory, he grew up with the factory workers and had an extraordinary upbringing and then decides to switch to news. I don’t think that’s the same for [any real-life figures].”

Smith came up with the idea for the show after witnessing the impact one of his friend’s health problems had on his family. “The difference is that, with my friend, when the capillaries burst in his head, it upended his family, not the country,” the show’s creator continues. From there, Smith explores all manner of subjects but in a thematic manner, avoiding specific mentions of politicians or countries, for example. The result, he adds, is that the show can explore broad topics such as populism.

Helen McCrory as Caden’s mother and Max’s ex-wife Kathryn

Certainly MotherFatherSon taps into real-world issues, and Gere argues that drama’s role is becoming increasingly important as true-life events begin to reflect some of the more outlandish storylines in scripted series. “The reality-show president [Donald Trump] we have highlights the real stuff even more,” Gere explains of drama’s place in the entertainment ecosystem. “When we see something that’s true and honest and heartfelt, we will not become accustomed to something that is false and lies and all artifice.

“So when you do something that is actually coming from an honest place, a generous place, wanting to somehow explain the world as it is and with a motivation of making it better of understanding, it comes out even more. It highlights it more, not as entertainment but as the truth.”

Howle adds: “People turn to drama for the purposes of entertainment and escapism, but it also acts as an exploration and antidote to what is happening.”

However, Gere also admits that producing drama that cuts through reality has become trickier “because you can’t compete with how crazy someone like Trump is and many of these right-wing nationalist tribalisms on the planet.”

While storylines in the real world might continue to astound, MotherFatherSon currently looks set to be limited to just the eight hours ordered by BBC2. Smith says the series, which begins in the UK tonight, has a “great ending,” although Salmon refuses to completely rule out further episodes. “It is probably a miniseries but there is a way of bringing it back,” she says. “It’s up to Tom if he wants to continue the story. We’ll have to see how the audience responds.”

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Welcome to Hackerville

The cast and crew behind HBO Europe’s first international coproduction, Hackerville, explain why the drama is as much about relationships and culture as computers.

Outside, it’s a bright, early summer’s afternoon in the Romanian town of Timisoara, the setting for HBO Europe’s first international coproduction. Behind the tinted windows of the gaming café location of today’s shoot, however, it’s an altogether darker, stuffier atmosphere as computer fans whir and teenagers fidget impatiently.

Hackerville is the latest venture into Romanian drama for HBO Europe after the likes of gangster series Umbre. While it might not be tackling an entirely new subject matter – ostensibly police searching for computer hackers – the rich framework on which the story is laid down allows the plot to foray into the cultures and histories of two different countries.

On the surface, that story follows two police investigators who are tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of a hacking attack on a German bank. Delve a little deeper, however, and this seems to be as much an exploration of the differing cultures of Romania and Germany as it is about the havoc that can be wreaked by talented hackers.

Reflecting this wider premise, HBO Europe has German cablenet TNT Serie on board to coproduce – and the cross-country relationships don’t end there. The story itself comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin for UFA Fiction, while Tudor Reu and Cristian Mungiu produce through Romania’s Mobra Films.

The series will air on HBO Europe across Central Europe, Scandinavia and Spain, and on TNT Serie in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and launches this Sunday, November 4. Turner International is handling sales outside the HBO Europe, TNT Serie and US territories.

Anna Schumacher, who was born in Bucharest before moving to Germany after the Romanian revolution in 1989, leads the cast as Lisa, alongside Romania’s Andi Vasluianu, who plays Adam. Voicu Dumitras (pictured above) is Cipi, the young boy seemingly at the centre of the story.

Hackerville stars Anna Schumacher and Voicu Dumitras

The roots of the show lie in an article from tech magazine Wired about the global exploits of a group of hackers. “Ralf approached me with this story he had read about the real ‘Hackerville’ in Romania,” Winger explains. “He told me he had been thinking about new ideas and I said to go check it out, so he spent five days there and came back with a whole lot of stories.

“We thought it was so fascinating. All this hacking was coming from a town in Romania – not even the capital, but a rather small city, yet they could be so effective in their actions globally. This type of story is right up my alley. I’m really interested in international collaboration and exploring new territories and cultures, so we started to develop it.”

It helped that HBO had just aired a documentary exploring the mass migration of Romanians into Germany following the 1989 revolution. And when Antony Root, HBO Europe’s exec VP of original programming, suggested that rather than having an FBI chief flying to Romania, it should be a German, a rounded vision for the show came together.

Winger admits he did not have great knowledge of Romania, so local writers were drafted in to help pen the script. “We then had a lot of discussions about Romania, Germany, Romanians in Germany, Europe. I always think these discussions that can be controversial are great food for the scripts.”

Unlike dramas driven by a single showrunner or creative lead, numerous voices had their say on the Hackerville scripts and, indeed, the production as a whole. They delivered what HBO Europe VP of original programming and production Johnathan Young describes as a “layered cake” approach to production, allowing the show to make the most of local expertise in both Romania and Germany and adding to its authenticity.

It’s a point neatly highlighted by Anca Miruna Lazarescu, from Germany but born in Romania, who directs alongside Romania’s Igor Cobileanski (Shadows). “We had to decide about Lisa’s watch, for example,” she says. “We were on the same page with the big decisions – the cast, locations – but this fucking watch kept coming up week after week.

Actor Andi Vasluianu receives instruction from co-director Anca Miruna Lăzărescu

“Lisa was supposed to wear a Casio. It was a bit of a vintage, old-fashioned digital thing. But when Igor saw it, he took one look and said, ‘This is not hip, this is not hip at all, you can get it for like 10 leu [US$2.50] at the piazza.’ I thought it was totally hip. These things are great in Berlin. It’s über hip.

“You’ll see what happens in the end, but things like this tell you so much about what is hip there and what’s cool here, and what could be boring here and what could be boring there. Things I think could be so Romanian, he’ll say, ‘No, it’s not Romanian at all, it’s a cliché about Romania.’ And I have to realise that I left 20 years ago so perhaps it’s not real and it is clichéd.”

Having been born in Romania herself, Schumacher also had some knowledge of the country, and took her experiences into the show. “Lisa speaks two languages – Romanian and German – and funnily enough it is kind of my life story too, because I was born in Romania but have lived in Germany for 28 years now,” explains the actor, who also has scenes with her actor father, Ovidiu Schumacher, in Hackerville.

“It’s amazing to balance German and Romanian cultures and languages, and a nice part of it all is that what my character is experiencing, I too am experiencing myself,” Schumacher adds.

The premise, the actor explains, is that a German bank’s IT systems have been attacked by someone based in Romania, with her character then sent to Timisoara to sort out the problem. The town of just over 300,000 people, tucked to the south of Hungary and to the East of Serbia, offers both stunning Gothic architecture and more brutal Communist-era constructions and is, as Young puts it, “very colourful with layers of history.”

“We’ve been shooting since the beginning of March, going from winter to summer in about two weeks,” he jokes, with scenes being filmed “more or less” chronologically.

“Lisa is the right person to do the job, as she speaks both languages and cyber crime is her specialism,” Schumacher says of her character. “She comes here and finds herself having more challenges than just doing her job, particularly having challenges with the culture that she’d left behind that was still inside of her.

Schumacher on set with co-director Igor Cobileanski (centre)

“She’s trying to find new ways to adapt to the person she really is,” she continues, “and maybe who she forgot she was when she was in Germany. She finds her roots and where she really comes from, she finds out things she didn’t know about herself. That changes her.”

For Young, Hackerville is “both about homecoming and a culture clash story.” It also allows Schumacher to tap into her real-life experiences – Vasluianu, who plays her male counterpart in Romania, says that when they started shooting in Romania, certain smells would evoke childhood memories for the female lead.

For the young Dumitras, who plays Cipi, these are the scents of home. Although shooting has taken in locations in Bucharest and Frankfurt, it is Timisoara – Dumitras’s home town – that has been the main hub for the production. He describes his character as a boy “with a good heart but like the genius who does stuff and doesn’t realise it has consequences.”

“He spends most of his time playing and hacking, but not many people know about the hacking. He kind of loses track of the world. He’s just playing with his games and doesn’t realise his actions may lead to unexpected effects.”

The show also explores the non-existent boundaries of being online, both in terms of hacking and playing games against others regardless of their actual location. A first-person computer game has already been created – set in Timisoara – that features in the show, and the story delves deeper into this theme of freedom.

“The juxtaposition of what you see on the ground and where you can be in the online space is really interesting,” says Young. “You can be in a basement on a computer, but in your head you could be anywhere in the world. That is a big part of the hacking and gaming story.”

Hackerville comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin of UFA Fiction

But the show, set for a November launch on both HBO Europe and TNT Serie, also includes elements of comedy and humour that differentiate it from other hacking-focused programmes.

“We started with a fear of being another hacking show; fear because they tend to centre on doomsday scenarios involving bringing down a satellite or blowing up a nuclear power station. I won’t tell you where Hackerville goes, but it doesn’t go there,” Young says.

“We wanted to make it much more of a human story, and we’ve achieved that. Part of why we’ve been able to do so is because the gaming strand parallels the hacking strand.” Both activities involve similar mindsets, he adds, offering an element of “play fun alongside the more serious undercurrent of the real world.”

The show has been largely edited alongside filming, with musical elements being added concurrently. This has meant everyone is involved in the process together at the same time, according to Young. “It’s part of this layered cake process and that is making it a very rich, collaborative experience.

“We’re very much brought up on this notion of a showrunner and writers division, and actually this is something we believe in and that we are developing in almost every other instance. But this show has evolved in a very different way. There was the idea from Ralf and Joerg, and then we had Romanian writer input.

“It wasn’t immediately apparent where the overlaps between cultures came, and it took a little bit of time to find common ground, which is why I think of it as a layer cake. We had Joerg and Ralf come in, then the Romanians and we kept building it up like that. But then when you slice through it, you have a coherent show.”

What makes it coherent, Young adds, is Schumacher, who is “an absolutely authentic German-Romanian lead who is fascinating to watch. She flips from speaking German to Romanian, and I find that magic. It’s unfakeable.”

Such authenticity underlines HBO Europe’s wider remit, according to Root, who says the company “defines itself by its localism.” Certainly, emerging from that dingy internet café in Timisoara and back onto the breezy streets after the shoot, the world of internet gaming and hacking seems a million miles away. And perhaps that’s the point.

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Riding high

Wes Bentley and Gil Birmingham talk horse riding, family rivalries and Native Americans in Paramount Network’s recently renewed drama Yellowstone.

Place Kevin Costner into a drama about a cattle ranch dispute and set it against the backdrop of some epic Utah and Montana scenery, and on one level Yellowstone delivers what you might expect.

But scratch under the surface of Paramount Network’s latest original and this Taylor Sheridan-written show offers a multifaceted take on a part of the US that has been little-used in TV dramas of late.

The series tells the story of the Dutton family and, in particular, Costner’s John Dutton as he juggles illness and family bereavement while attempting to ensure his huge US ranch maintains its borders and deters encroachment.

Sheridan, the man behind movies including Hell or High Water and Sicario, created the show alongside John Linson, with both exec producing, while Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Gil Birmingham are among those in front of the camera. And it’s that combination that has helped the show secure an extended 10-part second season with the first run still airing.

Gil Birmingham as Chief Thomas Rainwater

For Bentley and Birmingham, the key to the show’s success has been Sheridan and his carefully crafted script. Bentley’s Jamie Dutton might be part of the family but working for the ranch as a lawyer has distanced him from his father, while Chief Thomas Rainwater, played by Birmingham, heads up a nearby Native American reservation that borders the ranch.

Both actors say Sheridan – himself a former actor with major roles in the likes of Sons of Anarchy – is also a “hands-off” director who allows the cast to play their roles to their fullest.

“There’s sometimes a synchronisation that happens with creative people and you develop a shorthand of understanding, and he was a real hands-off kind of guy,” Birmingham says, speaking at SeriesFest in Denver in June. “He just knows who to cast for the roles he has and then you just get out of the way and let the story tell itself.”

“And you can trust that hands-off approach because he does step in when there’s something really specific that he wants you or someone else to do,” Bentley adds. “That gives you a lot of confidence.”

Given the show’s setting, there are inevitably stunning sweeps of the Montana and Utah landscapes, and Bentley says the production teams, which include Linson Entertainment and Costner’s Treehouse Films, were keen to reflect movie-sized ambitions. But it’s when they talk about the script that the duo really light up.

The Hunger Games star Wes Bentley plays Jamie Dutton

Birmingham says Sheridan is “totally open to collaboration” when interpreting the script but adds that “because his writing is so precise, you don’t really want to touch anything or change it because you’re not likely to come up with anything better.”

Birmingham’s Rainwater represents his reservation and fights for those who live on it – including one of John Dutton’s own children – but arguably in a different way to how Native Americans are normally portrayed on screen. “Initially Rainwater is almost assertive because Native Americans have had to come from a hole to get any recognition or power,” Birmingham says of his character.

“I can’t remember the last Native character in contemporary times who was given the kind of power Rainwater has, and the way he was able to do that was learning how to play the white man’s game. So he has the opportunity to retrieve and reclaim the resources beyond a casino – there are so many layers.”

Clearly this is a story with deep roots in the past – John Dutton is part of the sixth generation to farm his family’s land – but there are also numerous strands within the characters’ arcs that allow the exploration of different contemporary topics.

Birmingham notes the issues  Native American tribes face in terms of corporations taking their resources, often without assurances or permission, and says Sheridan’s script also highlights the bigger picture. An initial dispute sees cattle straying from John Dutton’s ranch onto Native land, with the ensuing issue of ownership causing a surge in hostilities involving Rainwater’s tribe.

Kevin Costner takes the lead in Yellowstone, which airs on Paramount Network

It helps to provide an opportunity to explore who’s fighting for what, Birmingham explains. “Rainwater informs [Dutton] of how small his picture is – my picture is much bigger than what he thinks we’re fighting about. I love the way Taylor structures that.”

So, it turns out, do the viewers. The show has become a breakout hit for Paramount, with its third episode becoming the second most watched cable drama of 2018, beaten only by The Walking Dead.

While part of Yellowstone’s allure is surely its picturesque setting, neither Bentley nor Birmingham spent huge amounts of time on location, though the latter did make it onto a horse.

“One of my favourite scenes was with Kevin Costner and the buffalo hunt – that was my only outdoor scene on a horse. I said I didn’t ride horses and they said, ‘OK, you’re the guy who’s gonna ride out of the scene then.’ All the people there, including my Native brothers, were all major horse people and they were just watching me. I mean, I ride horses but nothing like these guys.”

Bentley, meanwhile, was one of a number of actors taken out with real-life cowboys to give them a taste of that lifestyle, although he had previously owned a ranch and horses.

As it turned out, Jamie Dutton spends more time in suits than spurs, but Bentley was keen to get to the core of what his character was about. “We talked a lot about Jamie. I wanted to be really specific about what kind of law he went into and if he wanted to go into law, which is something we still discuss,” he says.

There is also uncertainty over Jamie’s sexuality, which Bentley argues plays into his character’s persona. “I don’t think there’s a decision on that and I think that’s great. I like not knowing as far as Wes is concerned, but also not knowing as far as Jamie is concerned. Given that Jamie has given his life to his job and his work and his family, I’m not sure if he even knows yet. That’s something I think has been really interesting.”

At its core, perhaps, the show is attempting to explore what it means to be good, something Birmingham suggests emerges through the multi-layered script penned by Sheridan.

“That’s the brilliance of Taylor’s writing, it’s so layered,” he says. “The reveals of a lot of the backstories for the characters come down the line – I saw it in Hell or High Water too – and I’m totally in a trusting place and excited about it because you don’t really know how things will be revealed.

“That’s what draws the audience in. And it feels more satisfying to me, because you have to watch a Taylor film or series a couple of times to really get the whole picture, to see what you’ve missed that might have been integral to the story.”

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Death in Paradise’s Robert Thorogood on writing for a global audience

Not long ago, Robert Thorogood couldn’t get his foot in a production exec’s door. Now, the Death in Paradise creator is writing a series that caters for audiences in more than 200 countries. He gives DQ the inside track on his journey and how he makes the show work.

Robert Thorogood’s life has to some extent been a story of all-or-nothings. Five years ago, he was one of the thousands looking to make his first mark on the TV industry, having already spent years trailing from one production boss to another looking for someone to take his scripts.

Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions' Tony Jordan
Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions’ Tony Jordan

His latest idea – a drama about an expat policeman working in St Lucia – was, as he readily admits, a tricky sell. Shooting in the Caribbean for five months straight was hardly going to make for a cheap show, and producers just weren’t interested in such an ambitious concept from a first-time writer.

Thorogood’s pedigree was solid enough, though. Having spent 15 years as a script reader, he had also sold a number of treatments to production firms across the UK and been commissioned to write three original scripts for the BBC and ITV. But by 2010, the only show to have been penned by Thorogood and produced was an afternoon play called From Abstraction, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Despite his ambition and confidence, the affable and remarkably honest Thorogood admits that, as he approached 40, he began to consider careers away from writing. It was only after an encounter with Tony Jordan at London-based Red Planet Productions that Thorogood finally got the break that would ultimately enable his Death in Paradise concept to become one of the most widely sold shows in the world.

Thorogood met Jordan after the producer set up a competition for ‘new’ writers. And although his ‘policeman in St Lucia’ idea did not claim the top prize, it was a finalist and, most importantly, caught Jordan’s eye – laying the groundwork for the two to work closer together. “He ignored the problems of making an expensive show in the Caribbean and decided to do it anyway,” Thorogood says of the Red Planet MD.

It turned out to be a pretty good call. The show was championed by Jordan, whose track record with such series as BBC1’s Life on Mars and Hustle saw him welcomed into the offices of TV commissioning execs across the UK’s capital. BBC eventually greenlit the show, and Death in Paradise – via the broadcaster’s commercial arm – has gone on to become a global juggernaut, airing in more than 200 countries. It’s now set for a fifth season on the UK pubcaster’s flagship channel next year.

The show has faced down its fair share of troubles, however – not least in getting around the financing issue. The solution was to create a coproduction between the BBC, its commercial arm BBC Worldwide and France Télévisions, with Red Planet and France’s Atlantique Productions at the coalface out in Guadeloupe making the show. The setup got Death in Paradise off the ground but it also meant there were regular competing interests that demanded subtle – and not so subtle – changes to the scripts.

“There are always an infinite number of challenges and an infinite number of ways of being miserable on a TV show,” Thorogood says, “but the cultural differences between working in the UK and in France were definitely noticeable.”

Such contrasts were magnified on subjects like physical humour – something the French were keen on but that the British disliked – and it was up to Thorogood and his creative team to devise a script that pleased both parties, conceding just enough on all sides to please everyone involved.

In a similar vein, British Primeval actor Ben Miller was cast as the lead detective, while French film star Sara Martins was brought in following roles in Little White Lies and Tell No One.

Lost in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries
Death in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries

The balancing act continues today, but Thorogood now has the ominous task of pleasing viewers across the world. He admits characters are now developed at the start of a series with hundreds of potential buyers in mind, meaning the show’s scope has become much more global. “At a strategic level, when we create the characters we absolutely have that international outlook,” he says. “When we replaced Ben Miller, who was playing an uptight Brit in a suit, we wanted another archetypal Englishman, a Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral figure – someone a bit posh, lanky and middle class, because that plays around the world.”

The answer to that particular conundrum came in the form of Kris Marshall, of Love Actually fame, whose arrival in the third season had the desired effect. The show was able to continue where it had left off, playing to some of the stereotypes attached to an Englishman living a tropical country.

Commercial needs have also shaped the format of Death in Paradise, which consists of self-contained episodes that “reset” at the end. It’s a key facet of the show’s “ongoing financial health,” Thorogood says, and is one of the reasons why the series can, to an extent, be shown in any order, anywhere in the world.

Thorogood admits the show has had to deal with “revolving doors with actors,” but insists the changes have injected a freshness into the whodunit, which is now 32 episodes old and counting. The forthcoming exit of another (currently unnamed) star, however, is leading Thorogood to adapt the show’s structure, with a focus on producing episodes that are even more “standalone” in nature, centring on one main character each week. “It’s the sort of challenge I hope will make it a richer and more rewarding experience,” he says.

Despite the show’s global success, its creator – like many creatives – remains cautious about the long term and eager to work out where he’s going next. There haven’t been any huge dips in ratings from viewers, and BBC Worldwide, which sells the show abroad, has found buyers ranging from PBS in the US to AXN Mystery in Japan.

But much of Thorogood’s wariness is born from the same sort of concerns held by the production companies that repeatedly shut the door on him five years or so ago. And that’s led to a “mad bollock, kick, scramble,” he admits, as he ensures that once the boat sails away from Death in Paradise for the last time, he’s not left alone on the island. “As far as I’m concerned, the financing of the shoot – which takes place in Guadeloupe – makes it inherently unstable. We have to sell in those 200 countries because we have to earn so much money to break even,” he says.

“So when the show was greenlit and it became successful, I got a publishing deal to write a Death in Paradise novel. I love the murder mystery genre and I was aware that one day the show will be cancelled – not because it gets bad but because it’ll just become too expensive to make.”

The show’s success made last year one of the busiest of Thorogood’s life, as he juggled writing the novel with his existing responsibilities on the TV show that made him. “If you’re a writer, or any sort of creative, you really need to keep moving forward. So I’m also doing what I’ve always done: I come up with ideas and pitch them, but now I’m lucky enough to have some production companies coming to pitch ideas.”

Several of his projects are already placed at the BBC and ITV in the UK, and he is currently waiting for their notes and decisions. Other than that, it’s “hustle, hustle, hustle,” he says, with future ideas being noted, developed and ultimately pitched.

“I don’t actively have any other shows that have been greenlit,” he adds, providing an insight into the temporary world that a TV writer inhabits.

“We greenlight very few new shows here in the UK each year because, luckily, the schedules are filled up with returning series like mine. Trying to get the next thing off the ground is still just as hard as getting that first thing of the ground.”

The difference this time, though, will be that Thorogood has that all-important first credit to his name to not only open doors out but also attract producers and broadcasters alike.

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