Tag Archives: Agent Carter

Building Legion

A Clockwork Orange provided some of the inspiration behind the look of FX’s latest original series, Legion. Production designer Michael Wylie tells DQ how he created this unique world.

Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film A Clockwork Orange, the 1970s and the brutalist architecture movement of the mid-20th century might not appear to have much in common, but blend them together for a television show and you might come close to creating something that looks like Legion.

Michael Wylie

The new drama from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, it is based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and is the first TV drama with a connection to the world of X-Men.

The story follows David, a schizophrenic whose strict daily routine inside a psychiatric hospital is upended by the arrival of a new patient, Syd, after which he begins to confront the possibility that the voices in his head and his visions might actually be real.

The cast is led by British actor Dan Stevens as David – the actor is unrecognisable from his stint as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey – with Rachel Keller (Syd), Aubrey Plaza (Lenny) and Jean Smart (Melanie Bird).

But while the show stands out for its take on mental illness and its comic book origins, it is the look and design that really demand attention.

From the retro costumes, the futuristic, space-age sets, psychedelic lighting and its disorientating soundtrack, Legion is a work of art.

Much of that success is down to the efforts of production designer Michael Wylie, who has previously worked on Grimm, Masters of Sex and another Marvel property, Agent Carter.

“We had a blast doing it because it’s just fun,” he tells DQ. “When you get to do weird stuff, it can either be really hard or really fun, and thankfully it was really fun!”

Rachel Keller and friend in Legion

Wylie interviewed for the job in November 2015 and just weeks later, in January 2016, he was in Vancouver preparing the pilot, in which almost everything on screen was built by Wylie and his team.

He recalls that first meeting, sitting down with exec producers Hawley, John Cameron and Lauren Shuler Donner. Hawley, who is meticulous in his preparation, had already compiled and printed a book of images that conveyed the feeling he wanted for the show, which is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

Wylie had prepared something similar, and he was pleased to find that they had both picked out several of the same images.

A Clockwork Orange’s brutalist architecture directly inspired Wylie and Hawley

“Noah’s book was 20 pages of really cool imagery – a lot of 70s stuff, a lot of stills from A Clockwork Orange and there were a lot of interiors of brutalist buildings around the US and the really cool one in A Clockwork Orange,” Wylie recalls. “I had pulled a bunch of images I’d put on my iPad and I think we had four of the same exact pictures. It was a match made in heaven, I guess.”

Wylie had specifically avoided any of the comic book artwork or anything related to the established X-Men universe to ensure his own vision wasn’t contaminated by existing works. Instead, he took Hawley’s detailed pilot script and ran with it.

“It’s all in the script really,” he said of his starting point for the show. “It talks about an odd-looking psychiatric hospital and talks about brutalist buildings. But at that time, no-one knew Noah was shooting in Vancouver and the city has a ton of brutalist buildings.

“He just thought instead of trying to hide them, let’s try to embrace them. It’s kinda like you’re shooting LA for Boston and you run around trying to not shoot palm trees all day long. At the end of the day it would have been cheaper to film in Boston. So we decided to embrace it all.”

That the pilot’s 70s vibe – which largely comes from the colour and design of the psychiatric hospital and the characters’ clothing – has been such a talking point since its launch on FX in February was a surprise to Wylie, who admits the whole show has been designed to keep viewers off-balance, as though they are seeing events unfold through David’s eyes.

“We started to use a lot of colour that happened to give that feeling,” he explains. “There is a lot of yellow and it seems to be a hip colour, but the last time it was a hip colour was exactly in 1973. I think that’s why it feels kind of 70s, and I know some of the costumes are kind of 70s.

“That was all by design with Noah and [costume designer] Carol Case. They really wanted to confound the viewer as to where they are. Our ideal is to make the viewer feel as crazy as David feels. Things shouldn’t match and things shouldn’t be anything that a viewer could really look at as a point of reference. You always want the viewer to feel like they don’t know where they are; they shouldn’t recognise these rooms with big round windows, or that have giant goats in the middle of them. It’s all meant to keep the viewer on the back foot so they can have a subjective experience, just like David is.”

Dan Stevens moves away from his Downton image

In particular, the use of new technology was key to creating this environment. The whole appearance of the hospital set could be changed by manipulating the LED lighting on set, so every scene feels slightly different.

“It’s almost imperceptible how much you feel disorientated by a lot of things in the show, especially the soundtrack. You hear voices, there’s banging and there’s things to distract you that you would never normally do in a TV show,” Wylie notes. “You want to hear what the people are saying and you notice in the sound editing of the show, they just keep making loud noises. Normally a writer would be really precious about making sure you don’t do that so you can hear every word they’re saying, but I don’t think Noah wants you to hear every single word, or at least he wants you to be confused or hit your rewind button on your DVR a bunch of times.”

The hospital sets were also used to bewilder viewers. The pilot includes several long takes that follow characters around the facility, but in practice the set wasn’t that large. According to Wylie, “there’s some camera trickery there because the room is an octagon, so although the actors change direction, you feel as a viewer like they’re still walking in the same direction.

“We had limited space and limited time to build stuff so I worked really closely with Noah to achieve what he wanted. In the pilot there’s tons of overhead shots, so that’s a special kind of build and when you’re doing lots of overheads you really have to concentrate on the floors in places where normally you don’t care too much about. So during the [Bollywood-inspired] dance number in the day room at the psychiatric facility, that floor was specially made for the overhead shot of people dancing.”

Wylie recalls that in the past, huge sets would have been constructed, lit with dozens of lights above removable ceiling panels. However, sets today are much more like real locations. “They have ceilings, floors and windows and a lot of times they get lit through the windows we provide,” he says.

The architecture of Legion lends much to the show’s 70s vibe

“The big challenge for the art department now is we’re designing a lot of lighting because they can be part of the set. Everything’s gotten a lot simpler.”

World building isn’t anything new for a production designer; indeed, every new series begins life as a couple of sketches or models. But few dramas are as all-encompassing as Legion.

“I did a show called Pushing Daisies [Bryan Fuller’s quirky comedy drama for ABC in 2007], where we created a whole world for them to inhabit,” Wylie recalls. “So I’ve done these kinds of things before. A couple of years ago I did another Marvel show called Agent Carter, where we did 1940s New York City. I get to do a lot of shows where we create a lot and we’re not just shooting on location or turning the camera on to something that’s already existing.”

And with the increasing popularity of sci-fi/fantasy dramas that require their sets to have an other-worldly quality, Wylie believes this trend is pushing production design further into the spotlight than ever before.

“If you get 10 or 12 hours to tell a story on TV as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes in a movie theatre, so you’ve got to make it great and make a splash,” he continues. “I always say people sometimes disregard art direction as background, but when you’re telling stories like this, you can’t disregard the background because it’s part of the story.

“I don’t think people tune into TV to see what they see in everyday life, they tune in to see something much different from their real lives. I’m a big fan of going over the top, even when it’s not called for!”

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Speaking with Conviction

Conviction star Hayley Atwell tells Michael Pickard why she was drawn to the US drama after saying goodbye to Marvel’s Agent Carter.

With a career spanning stage and screen, it is within the Marvel universe that Hayley Atwell has made her name.

Starring as wartime spy Peggy Carter, she first appeared on the big screen in Captain America: The First Avenger and had roles in subsequent films Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War.

More prominently, she made several appearances in Marvel’s Agents of Shield and then took the lead in fellow ABC drama Agent Carter. Running for two seasons between 2015 and this year, it followed Carter as she balanced her life as a secret agent with being a single woman in 1940s America.

But following Agent Carter’s cancellation earlier this year, Atwell can now be found on the small screen in ABC’s new legal drama Conviction (pictured above).

Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC
Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC

The London-born actor stars as Hayes Morrison, a lawyer and former First Daughter who is blackmailed into heading up a new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in exchange for avoiding prison. At the CIU, she and her team investigate suspected wrongful convictions as she attempts to regain the trust of her high-powered family.

The cast also includes Eddie Cahill, Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, Manny Montana and Daniel di Tomasso. Produced by The Mark Gordon Company and ABC Studios, the show’s co-creator/writer Liz Friedman and co-creator/director Liz Friedlander executive produce with Mark Gordon and Nick Pepper.

“You have this backdrop of great tension and drama as any legal procedural would be, but then you put in a character like Hayes – she’s a bit of a Tasmanian devil,” Atwell says of her character.

“She’s a former First Daughter and a brilliant lawyer but it’s almost like she has her finger on a self-destruct button. And I think a life in public scrutiny as the First Daughter, the way that’s manifested itself is quite rebellious. She’s decided to live her life on her own terms and be allowed to make all the mistakes 20-year-olds make but unfortunately we’re a decade on and she’s just stayed at the party a little too long.”

Morrison’s life takes a turn for the worse as she’s arrested for cocaine possession and, facing a spell behind bars, agrees to run the CIU – based on real-life units in operation across the US.

“They’re either going to bury her with this or she comes and works for the CIU,” continues Atwell, whose other TV credits include The Pillars of the Earth, Restless and Black Mirror. “So she’s very resistant at first and we discover throughout the pilot that she’s going to find a way of navigating this new job on her terms. She’s going to fight the system from within. So she has a lot of fun doing that.”

Atwell played the lead in Marvel's Agent Carter for two seasons
Atwell played the lead in Marvel’s Agent Carter for two seasons

Currently halfway through its 13-episode freshman season – episode seven aired in the US on Monday this week – Conviction marks a change of direction for Atwell after Agent Carter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one she has happily embraced.

“It was such a fresh and exciting challenge and opportunity [after Agent Carter] and, having spoken to Mark Gordon and Liz Friedlander, specifically about their vision of the show and their vision of who Hayes was, it was just this dream character – someone who is complex and multi-layered and yet you’re still rooting for her,” she reveals.

“The audience has still got to warm to her and want her to succeed and want to be concerned for her and the choices she makes and the mistakes she seems to be repeating and the difficult situation she’s in with her family. There’s a lot of empathy for her, and all of that meant that, for me as an actor, to explore little ways of expressing those different sides of her so it doesn’t just become she’s in this corporate world, this legal world, and she’s doing good. It’s not as straightforward as that because it’s much more relatable and much more human to see someone struggling with a lot of pressures from every aspect of her life.”

Distributor Entertainment One has already sold Conviction to broadcasters around the world, including Sky Living in the UK, TF1 in France and Fox Networks Group Latin America.

And Gordon, best known for producing series including Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds, says it is the conflicted Morrison that gives the drama a particularly interesting premise.

“Procedurals have this stigma and what we were trying very hard to accomplish – and I think we’ve done so with Hayley – was something of a hybrid where we’re interested in her life and the other characters’ lives and, at the same time, we’re solving a case of the week,” he says. “I think the balance is working really nicely.”

Restless
Atwell in miniseries Restless, which aired on BBC1 in 2012

As Atwell recalls, Agent Carter was her first experience working on a show where scripts were still being written as filming began, which gave her little time to analyse scenes in the way she would when treading the boards in London’s West End or on Broadway.

“I found that quite thrilling because it means you just have to instinctively make choices and just commit to them,” she says. “So I feel it’s given me insight into the stamina it takes to keep that going. It means I get to have fun in the moment and that’s quite exciting because it keep you very present as an actor and wanting to play with your co-workers and finding little comic moments or moments that are not necessarily obvious in the script. It keeps you going but it does take a kind of stamina and you’ve got to keep physically fit for it.”

Gordon admits it’s “very, very hard” for Atwell and every lead actor in a network drama as they face long, gruelling hours on set.

“It’s 12- to 14-hour days, every day, five days a week for nine months,” he says. “It’s really tough. And we as producers have to protect the actors, because fast is not necessarily good. We try to do these shows as quickly as we can but, at the same time, to allow Hayley and the cast the time to do their best work.

“A show like this is deceptively tough because although we’re not blowing things up on a regular basis and there are no car chases, what we do have is a large cast and that cast is together a lot. So it takes time to photograph and film multiple angles of all these people. It’s not just shooting here, here and here, it’s across this one to talk to this actor and across Hayley to look at the other actor.

“I’ve been doing this for quite some time and once when I asked why it was taking so long, it was because we had six or seven actors and you’ve got to cover them all when they’re in the room. That just takes time.”

Atwell adds: “It just means you have to be really prepared before you go in, do the homework but also have excellent time management of just knowing how much you have to get through and creating an atmosphere where you can do your best work and not panicking or rushing through something.

“That’s something we’re always playing with really, and half the work is making it efficient but making sure those time limits aren’t compromising the quality of your work.”

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Disney’s Marvel-lous investment

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has been airing on ABC since 2013

Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it some obvious assets such as The Avengers and Iron Man. But the real genius of the partnership is the way Disney has managed to mine Marvel’s wider universe, which extends to 5,000 characters.

The success of the deal is especially evident in the movie business, where the Avengers franchise has performed beyond all expectations under Disney’s stewardship.

No less impressive has been the way Disney has developed hit movies out of thin air – examples being Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. The company also benefits financially from the success of franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four, which, although Marvel-created, are controlled in the film sector by Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the latter two). Add all the above together and the total Marvel box office take since Disney took over easily tops US$10bn.

Disney being Disney, the deal was never just about film, of course. With the world’s best IP exploitation infrastructure already in place, the company has also managed to squeeze value out of its Marvel assets across video games, theme parks, TV and more.

As with film, Disney is using TV to unleash an ever-expanding array of characters onto the market. However, there are a few notable differences in approach. One is that TV seems to be a more tolerant environment for female superheroes, making it easier to set up shows with women as central characters rather than sidekicks. The same is true in terms of diversity, with TV more inclined to showcase non-white and LGBT characters.

Agent Carter ran for two seasons
Agent Carter ran for two seasons

Another is that TV can take more risks with character selections and stories. Marvel characters that could never support a movie franchise are more than capable of attracting one million-plus viewers on cable TV in the US.

There’s also more of a narrative drama feel to Marvel on TV. In part this is because TV can’t compete with the movies in terms of special effects. But it’s also because TV needs to develop characters fully to sustain them over several seasons.

Disney’s biggest Marvel TV excursion to date is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was launched to huge fanfare in 2013 on Disney’s flagship free-to-air channel ABC. Created by Joss Whedon, the show is based around an ensemble cast of characters, some of which have appeared in the modern Marvel movie franchise and others from the comic book canon. Testament to the strength of the Marvel universe is that the central character in the show (Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) was killed off in one of the films but has now bounced back to lead the show for (a minimum) four seasons.

The show started very strongly – trading on the Marvel name – but has settled into a kind of solid mid-table performance, averaging around 3.4 million viewers for its 2015 third season. Despite this, it has a value to Disney that goes beyond the headline audience. One is that it does well among younger viewers. Another is that it has sold to around 135 countries worldwide. And finally it has also proved useful for Disney in terms of trying out new TV ideas.

Daredevil has met critical acclaim
Daredevil has met critical acclaim

For example, it provided the platform for ABC to launch Marvel’s Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Avengers franchise that lasted two seasons. It also spawned a spin-off called Marvel’s Most Wanted, which featured the characters Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse from S.H.IE.L.D. Although this didn’t get further than pilot phase, it’s an indication of how Disney can work its Marvel assets through ABC.

It’s not just ABC that’s benefiting from Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. In April, Disney-owned cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family) announced it had greenlit a straight-to-series order for Cloak and Dagger. Based on Marvel comic book characters, the show will tell the story of an interracial superhero couple – underlining the freedom that TV allows to break down barriers.

There are also important relationships beyond the bounds of the Disney empire. The most significant to date is Disney’s multi-series pact with Netflix, which has had a storming start. The first show from the partnership was Daredevil (2015), a critically acclaimed series that has just been renewed for a third season.

This was followed by Jessica Jones, another well-received show that has recently been renewed for a second season. Starring Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Jessica Jones completely encapsulates the points made above – namely a female lead and tough storylines that deal with topics such as rape, assault and PTSD.

Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel's big-screen outings
Jessica Jones deals with topics that might be considered too difficult for Marvel’s big-screen outings

Coming up next are series based around Marvel characters Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Then, in true Marvel fashion, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the latter two will be bundled together for a series called The Defenders. Given that Marvel’s comic book iteration of The Defenders also includes Doctor Strange, there’s also a neat cross-over with the forthcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

On top of all this, Netflix is working with Marvel on a series based around its anti-hero The Punisher – a decision perhaps made easier by the massive success of the Deadpool movie, which also has an anti-hero at its core.

Alongside its in-house activities and the Netflix partnership, Disney’s Marvel TV division, which is headed by Jeph Loeb, is also building up a warmer relationship with Fox and FX. In past years, the two companies have not got on that well because Fox controls the movie rights to X-Men and Fantastic Four and has no intention of relinquishing them back into the Marvel fold.

However, this summer it was announced that Marvel and Fox are collaborating on as as-yet-untitled X-Men-themed series starring two parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. They are then forced to go on the run from a hostile government and join up with a group of mutants in order to survive.

Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line
Luke Cage is next off the Marvel TV production line

In parallel, Marvel and FX are working on an eight-part series called Legion, another X-Men spin-off. Written by Noah Hawley (Fargo), this show follows a schizophrenic who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after an encounter with a fellow patient, he realises the voices and visions is his head may be real. Significantly for this show, it has also been picked up by Fox’s international channels, meaning approximately 125 countries, including the UK, will air it day-and-date with the US.

For Disney, the possibilities of the Marvel universe don’t end here. US streaming service Hulu, for example, is planning a series based on the Marvel comic book Runaways, about six diverse teenagers who can barely stand each other but must unite against a common foe – their parents. And there are also reports that Disney XD is planning an animated spin-off based on Guardians of the Galaxy.

All in all, then, that looks like US$4bn well spent.

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The fem factor

marvels-agent-carter-copy
ABC has confirmed the return of Agent Carter

The US is the centre of attention again this week, with scripted shows being launched, renewed or cancelled on a daily basis.

If there’s one interesting trend emerging it’s the desire among US networks to find a kickass female lead – someone who can combine the allure of Xena: Warrior Princess with the moral rectitude of Wonder Woman and the brainpower of Borgen.

CBS, for example, has given the go-ahead for Supergirl, a new series from Warner Brothers TV to be executive produced by Greg Berlanti. Starring Melissa Benoist (Glee), it tells the story of Superman’s cousin and her decision to embrace her superpowers (which unfortunately don’t extend to enhanced fashion sense). Clearly intended to attract a female audience, it is also part of the network’s strategy to reach out to much younger viewers.

Over at ABC, meanwhile, the decision has just been taken to give a second season to Agent Carter, a spin-off from the Captain America movie franchise that centres on formidable female agent Peggy Carter. There were serious doubts about whether the show would be renewed due to its modest ratings, high cost (it’s a period drama) and the fact that sister series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming back after a season’s break. However, the fact that Agent Carter has received a positive critical response, coupled with the fem factor, has proved decisive.

mysteries-of-laura-2-us-version
The Mysteries of Laura has been renewed despite poor critical reception

ABC Family has another female-centred fantasy coming through in the shape of Shadowhunters, based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Vaguely reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shadowhunters follows 18-year-old Clary Fray, a human-angel hybrid who hunts down demons. This week, ABC announced that the lead will be played by Katherine McNamara (New Year’s Eve).

The emphasis on female-led shows isn’t only evident in the realm of fantasy. An NBC renewal attracting attention this year is The Mysteries of Laura, a police procedural comedy drama in which a female detective attempts to juggle her day job with single motherhood. The first series was panned by critics but rated well enough during 2014/2015 to secure a 13-episode renewal.

Leaving the female-led issue to one side, there are a number of interesting aspects to Laura’s renewal. Firstly, it is based on a Spanish show, proving that foreign formats can work on US network TV. Secondly, it was the only one of NBC’s 2014/2015 drama launches that got renewed, underlining what a ruthless market the US is (and how off the mark NBC was with its commissions last year).

It’s also interesting to note that two of the show’s executive producers are Greg Berlanti and Aaron Kaplan. Why does this matter? Because Berlanti will have six shows on TV next season and Kaplan seven. The clear message is that both know what it takes to make network drama tick.

The-Mindy-Project
The Mindy Project has been ditched by Fox but rumours suggest it could be revived on Hulu

After the recent revival of interest in sci-fi visionary Philip K Dick (The Man in the High Castle. Minority Report and much more), it’s the turn of Aldous Huxley’s iconic novel Brave New World to be dusted down and reimagined for the TV screen. Set in a world where mind-altering drugs, free sex and rampant consumerism are the order of the day (no, not 21st century LA), and people are genetically engineered in hatcheries, the TV version of the book will be produced by Syfy and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television.

Announcing the project, Dave Howe, president of Syfy & Chiller, said: “Brave New World is one of the most influential genre classics of all time. Its provocative vision of a future gone awry remains as powerful and as timeless as ever.” Les Bohem (Dante’s Peak) will write the screenplay and executive produce.

Sci-fi fans will also be delirious to learn that BBC America and Canadian network Space have renewed Orphan Black for a fourth season. Produced by Temple Street Productions, the show stars Tatiana Maslany as a woman with several cloned identities. The show has proved to be something of a cult hit, generating high levels of social engagement and time-shifted viewing. With a total of 40 episodes (including the new run), it’s also becoming a key property for BBC Worldwide’s international distribution efforts.

In terms of the new dynamics of the TV business, there’s a lot of interest this week in the fate of The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy that has aired for three seasons on Fox in the US. Fox cancelled the show on May 6, but there are reports that Hulu is interested in reviving it with a two-season order from coproducers Universal Television and 3 Arts Entertainment. Reminiscent of the Amazon deal that saved Ripper Street, it’s an indication of the growing significance of SVoD platforms.

orphan-black
Orphan Black will come back for a fourth season

There are also a few indications that channel chiefs are seeking to manage the cost of drama more carefully. A+E’s decision to simulcast Roots and War & Peace across three of its networks is an example of this. So is Discovery’s desire to spread the cost of drama across its global family of channels. We’re also seeing more mid-sized US cable channels jumping on board European dramas as partners, rather than taking a commissioning position.

Sundance, for example, picked up Deutschland 1983, while Pivot took a position in Fortitude. This week, building on this point, Esquire US acquired Tandem Productions’ thriller Spotless (an English-language series that has aired in France on Canal+).

Esquire is calling the Spotless acquisition an original series, adopting a form of language Netflix has been using to great effect. This is a model we’re likely to see more of as broadcasters try to make sense of the high cost of marquee scripted programming.

In a week dominated by the US, one international story stands out – the BBC’s decision to cancel Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. Commenting, the BBC said: “There are no current plans for Banished to return. We are very proud of the series and hugely grateful to all those who worked so hard on it. However, the BBC2 drama budget only allows for a limited number of returning dramas a year, which means we have to make hard choices.”

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