Michael Connelly, author of the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer book series, tells DQ about how the dramas based on both have affected by the coronavirus outbreak and his hopes for the final season of Bosch.
As one of Amazon Prime Video’s first original series, detective drama Bosch laid the foundations for the retail giant’s streaming service when it first launched in 2014. Now, six years later, work is underway to bring the show to an end after it was renewed for a seventh and final season.
For Michael Connelly, the author of the book series on which the series is based, it’s a bittersweet moment. Because just as Bosch comes to an end, he is also collaborating on a new series based on another of his book series, The Lincoln Lawyer.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the world, however, both shows are now on hold.
“On Bosch, we had been meeting daily [to discuss season seven]. Just a couple of weeks ago, we reached this point where everyone had to start writing the first set of episodes,” Connelly tells DQ from his home in LA. “Meetings together in the writing room had just started to taper off and we were having one meeting a week when all this came down. Writers were already writing their episodes and separating themselves, so it was quite easy to say, ‘Let’s work from home and communicate electronically,’ mostly by emails.
“So it hasn’t been a huge disruption on Bosch, yet. Our goal was to get the episodes written by the end of May, and that could still happen. Then we’ll have these scripts and not know when we can shoot them. The production wasn’t scheduled until the end of July, so hopefully things work out. But as with anyone in any job anywhere, it’s a waiting game to see what happens.”
Season seven will continue the story of LA detective Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver and drawing on novels The Concrete Blonde and The Burning Room, as Bosch and Jerry Edgar (The Wire’s Jamie Hector) pursue two separate perilous investigations that take them to the highest echelons of white-collar crime and the deadly depths of the street-level drug trade. Season six, once again produced by Fabrik Entertainment and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, launches on April 17.
Meanwhile, the pilot for legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer had been due to begin shooting on March 16, but was pulled due to safety concerns. Coming nine years after a film adaptation of Connelly’s book of the same name fronted by Matthew McConaughey, the series is about Mickey Haller, an iconoclastic idealist who runs his law practice from the back of his Lincoln Town Car as he takes on cases big and small across LA.
“I’ve been spending most of the start of this year in two writing rooms, going to Bosch in the morning and Lincoln Lawyer in the afternoon, and both are now shut down,” Connelly says. “Hopefully, when the world gets well and we get past this, we’ll start again. Right now, nothing’s happening there. Probably in two or three weeks, we’ll reconstitute that writing room unless things go wrong in the world. But still, it’s a TV show. There are levels of seriousness you have to think about. I’m not sure what will happen, but that’s where it was left.”
Connelly describes LA as a microcosm of the world, with all variety of viewpoints about the pandemic. “Some people think it’s not as bad as it seems to be in the media. Others think we should be doing more and sheltering at home. It’s all over the place and it just adds up to a lot of apprehension about what our world’s going to be like in a week, a month, a year,” he says.
“That makes it tough to even concentrate. We’re writing entertainment. How serious should we be about it? That affects me as a writer. Should we be incorporating what’s going on into the show or into my books? I’m constantly thinking about that. There’s a lot of intrusion of seriousness into this life of fiction.”
Regardless, work is still progressing on the final season of Bosch, with Connelly exchanging scripts and notes with the other writers over email, which means it can be hard to replicate the openness of a writers room where they will be spitballing ideas. “You get excited about some stuff, less so about other things. It’s very hard to boil that down to an email,” he says. “Something is lost, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re back working together in person.”
But with the end of Bosch on the horizon, Connelly is relaxed about the show concluding. “Obviously it would be wonderful for it to go on for 25 years, both for creative and financial reasons. At the same time, I’m still writing about Bosch in the books, so I have not brought his story to a conclusion on the page. But I’m excited about the idea of writing a season that has a clear ending to the series,” he says.
“It’s going to be eight episodes that will sit on a streaming platform, hopefully forever, and I like the idea it’s not abruptly cut off. We will have written an ending, shot an ending and it will feel complete. There’s something good about that.”
Despite his recent moves into television, Connelly still considers himself a novelist first, with more than 20 Bosch books and five Haller novels published since 1992, as well as many others featuring different main characters. A new Haller novel is also in the works to coincide with the launch of The Lincoln Lawyer on TV.
His day job – and his prolific output – means he has been able to come and go from Bosch as he pleases, but says he has been involved as much as he can be. “I really enjoy it on all levels, particularly the creative camaraderie in the writers room,” he says. “We don’t lose many of our writers; most people have been there the whole time, so it’s a family situation and that expands to the crew and the actors. This will make it bittersweet when it’s all over, but it’s also made it a great ride for seven years. I have only good feelings about it and it resulted in some good TV being made.
“It’s a really good show; it’s a very good account of that kind of work, what it does to you and what you get out of it. These goals, I had for my books all along. And when I went into TV, I didn’t want to sacrifice those – and I don’t think we have at all. From my point of view, we’ve accomplished exactly what I hope would happen, so it’s a rare experience and I’m very thankful for it.”
The plan to adapt The Lincoln Lawyer came after Connelly heard of acclaimed showrunner David E Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Eyes)’s interest in bringing the character to television, with 2008 novel The Brass Verdict set to form the basis for season one. Ted Humphrey (Wisdom of the Crowd) will showrun the series.
Haller is based on several lawyers Connelly has known since his days as a crime reporter, first in Florida and then for the LA Times. But the fact The Lincoln Lawyer will air on CBS, a broadcast network, rather than a streaming service such as Amazon won’t make any difference to the storytelling, he adds, pointing to CBS’s ambition to create a serialised story as opposed to having Haller solve a new case each week.
“We’re taking the book and doing very much what we do with Bosch – expanding the world over multiple episodes. In that regard, it’s very similar,” he explains. “We were just gearing up in the last month to start shooting, but the studio postponed everything. It’s very nascent in the arc compared to Bosch, so it’s hard to compare, but if you want to compare writing rooms, it’s very similar, with a goal of the accuracy that’s in the books and bringing that to the TV show. That’s a priority in the writing room and the scripts and outlines that have been produced so far.
“The books are entertainment but they also tell it like it is – the wobbly justice system they have here that has a lot of cracks. The stories get to those. It’s a very important series to me. On an authorial level, it’s amazing to me that the books have been successful, a successful movie and now, hopefully, we’ll get a successful TV series out of it. I constantly shake my head and think how lucky I am that I sat in a room for a year and wrote this book and all this has come from it.”
With the pilot now on hold amid the global shutdown over the coronavirus pandemic, the start of production on the full series in July also seems likely to be delayed. But with many people now on lockdown in their own homes, the need for new content has never been greater.
“What’s weird is right now, people need content as they’re in self-isolation,” Connelly concludes. “I have friends say all the time, ‘What is there to watch?’ Bosch is about to drop, it’s a great season. It will entertain people and keep their minds off what is going on in the world a little.
“After this is over, there might be the opposite effect because, when we get the all-clear, people will go outside and won’t be watching their TVs. There are a lot of questions, the main one is when we will be able to proceed with normal life again, and there’s no answer to that right now.”
Al Pacino’s first role in a serialised drama sees him play the leader of a gang of Nazi hunters and underlines just how far TV series have come in a relatively short space of time.
With more and more Hollywood heavyweights migrating from cinema to high-end television in the past few years, it’s no longer such a surprise to see a legend of the silver screen pop up in a new show.
But there are Hollywood stars and then there’s Al Pacino, whose IMDb list contains arguably the highest number of stone-cold-classic films of living actor (we’ll forget about duds like Righteous Kill or 88 Minutes).
The Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, The Godfather, Heat and Glengarry Glen Ross star’s latest performance is in Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters, which launches worldwide this Friday and marks the Academy Award winner’s first role in a serialised drama.
It demonstrates just how far TV – once seen as cinema’s inferior relation – has come in recent years, thanks in huge part to the millions of dollars invested by companies such as Amazon that have allowed the scale and ambition of high-end TV to go stratospheric.
Executive produced by another Academy Award winner in Jordon Peele (Get Out, Us), the 10-part series is set in New York follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters living in 1977 New York City.
Pacino compares doing his first high-end TV series to experimental theatre and working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, and says it’s a refreshing departure from shooting movies.
Discussing the differences between working on a series and a feature, Pacino says he enjoyed the room to experiment and rehearse in the five months it took to film Hunters.
“In today’s world, we don’t have the opportunity to rehearse for film as much as we used to. Rehearsals are gone, whereas in the old days, working with Coppola, we rehearsed for weeks. You had a chance to understand the role in another way, to go further and take more chances. And on Hunters, we’d sit around talking about a scene for hours,” Pacino says.
In the series, Pacino stars as Meyer Offerman, the leader of a group that has discovered that hundreds of high-ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the US.
The series also stars Logan Lerman as Nazi-hunting protégé Jonah Heidelbaum, who is taken under Offerman’s wing after a family tragedy.
Pacino and Lerman are joined by an ensemble cast that includes Jerrika Hinton, Josh Radnor, Kate Mulvany, Tiffany Boone, Greg Austin, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Carol Kane, Saul Rubinek, Dylan Baker and Lena Olin.
The series is incredibly cinematic and looked very at home on the big screen of London cinema Curzon, where the feature-length first episode was shown at an exclusive screening and Q&A in London earlier this month.
Alongside Pacino, the event was also attended by Lerman, Hinton, Boone and Austin as well as creators and co-showrunners David Weil and Nikki Toscano. The series comes from Amazon Studios, Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Sonar Entertainment.
Weil, whose grandmother Sarah’s experience as a Holocaust survivor informed much of the series’ origins, says the show came from his desire to write the equivalent to a comic book with a Jewish superhero as the main character.
“With so many survivors no longer with us, the onus falls on the next generation to tell this story in certain ways,” says Weil. The story itself draws inspiration from a variety of different Nazi hunters to have emerged since the end of the Second World War.
As a result, Hunters deals with incredibly serious subject matter and the showrunners were careful to be as respectful as possible.
For example, during the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Weil points out the tattoos of the survivors shown in the series were all above the last recorded number given to a real victim.
“We wanted to treat all the victims of the Holocaust with great respect and not represent the tattoo of a person who actually existed and suffered in the Holocaust,” says Weil.
However, the opening episode is also huge fun, with characters such as Jerrika Hinton’s
brilliant FBI agent and devout Catholic Millie Malone, as well as Greg Austin’s neo-Nazi Travis Leich, providing plenty of memorable moments.
“I love trailblazing women and people who have a very clear point of view, who know what their background is and don’t waver from it. That’s Millie Malone to a T,” says Hinton
Austin, meanwhile, admits to having mixed feelings about his casting as Leich: “I never know if it’s a compliment or not to be cast as a neo-Nazi. But he was frankly the most fun I’ve ever had on set playing a character. He’s insane and psychotic and I love it,” says the British actor.
Pacino, who was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix feature The Irishman at the recent Oscars, describes Hunters as a “12-hour film.”
Toscano emphasises the desire to create something that felt cinematic and says Amazon was a supportive creative partner as the team sought to work with directors who would “would embrace their individuality.”
Pacino welcomed working with different directors on the series, in what represented another departure from shooting movies, which tend to be helmed by a single director.
“I’m very pleased with it, every episode clicks. I love the freedom of it and the fact it is so eccentric and eclectic and unpredictable. It reminds me of the old days – although everything reminds me of the old days – when you had the Living Theatre in New York City and you were seeing things for the first time and trying different things. I’m partial to it for that reason.”
If Hunters is good enough for Pacino, it’s probably good enough for us too.
Once cancelled, The Expanse is the latest US series to have been be revived by a streamer. Star Shohreh Aghdashloo tells DQ why the space drama is out of this world.
For a few weeks in 2019, The Expanse was cancelled. Arguably the most popular space drama of recent years, thanks in part to its international syndication on Netflix, the show was inexplicably dumped by US cablenet Syfy after three seasons in May. Its fans were stunned.
But in the modern TV age, what is dead can be resurrected. No sooner had #SaveTheExpanse begun trending on social media than Amazon Prime Video stepped in to pick up the show for a fourth season, while also plundering the first three seasons for its subscribers.
For the cast of the show, rumours of the show’s return had swirled around aimlessly like a balloon in a storm, and with nothing to ground them, they remained only fragments of online gossip. “I remember, when I was told that it was cancelled, my first reaction was ‘C’est la vie,’” recalls Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala in the series. “And for me, life is a journey from chapter to chapter. When one chapter ends, another opens. There is no need for me to get worried. I just go with the flow.
“But my colleagues, they were not happy. They were like, ‘Surely there must be something we can do.’ I kept saying, ‘It is what it is.’ Then, a couple of days later, I saw a picture of a blimp carrying a message, ‘Save The Expanse.’ The fans had put their pennies and dollars together to send a plane with a banner to go around the Amazon building, where [Amazon owner and The Expanse fan] Jeff Bezos was in his office. And when he saw the balloon, he said, ‘What, this show’s going to be cancelled? I want to see the rest of the show,’ and picked up the phone.”
Fans have a lot to answer for these days, with their online devotion and creative stunts previously saving numerous other shows from the scrapheap, not least Lucifer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Designated Survivor. That they would go so far to save The Expanse was not surprising to Aghdashloo.
“From the very beginning, we knew it was very much a fan-based show,” she says. “They did lots of fan art that I’m collecting, they send gifts to us. One year, we started having hardcore fans visit the set and one of them made a bracelet for me with stars, the moon and the sun. Another one bought me a nice brooch. We were bombarded with gifts, and that has never happened to me before. You cannot believe a show can have such an impact on people.”
A star of film and television, with appearances in series such as 24 and Grey’s Anatomy and films The Lake House and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2, Aghdashloo had plenty to keep her busy while a deal for The Expanse’s return was put in place. She had just filmed two movies, Run Sweetheart Run and The Cuban, while also producing 2018 feature Simple Wedding.
“It’s a very different kind of role,” she says of producing in comparison to acting. “Now I understand why Robert De Niro says he’d rather act than direct or produce, because you get involved with other stuff that you usually don’t if you’re just acting. I still prefer acting but, when it comes to making the projects I am in love with and would like to do, I have to produce or they won’t get made.”
Returning to The Expanse, Aghdashloo says the show’s move from Syfy to Amazon had little impact on the cast. “It was just like we were picking up from where we left off,” she says. “There was no difference at all. I’m so happy for my colleagues, these young people who spend six months of a year in the cold in Canada to bring the story to light. We were in the dark before Amazon, now we’re in the light. So it makes such a difference.”
Part of the appeal of science fiction is the chance to talk about contemporary issues in a heightened setting, with modern-day themes played out in stories featuring groups of aliens or humans living in different worlds. It’s that approach to storytelling in The Expanse that most impresses Aghdashloo, who says that while the show may be deemed sci fi, “it’s not fiction to me. It’s just a symbolic way of talking about today’s world.”
Describing The Expanse as “relevant” and “timely,” she continues: “This is how the writers envision the future, in which women can work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and they can hold key positions and roles in society. For my part, it’s geopolitical science fiction with a dash of Shakespearean drama. All the ingredients of Shakespeare are there – jealously, rivalry, confusion.”
A series regular from the beginning, Aghdashloo plays Avasarala, an Earth-bound politician working to prevent war from breaking out between Earth and Mars. “I adore her. I love her. I am in awe of her, for her perseverance and the fact she calls herself a public servant,” says the Iran-born actor, who joyfully recalls some of her favourite lines from previous seasons, such as her season two diatribe when Avasarala discovers Secretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is betraying her by working with Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) and his family.
In the episode, titled Paradigm Shift, Avasarala tells Errinwright: “I will freeze their assets, cancel their contracts, cripple their business. And I have the power to do it, because I am the fucking hero who helped save Mother Earth from the cataclysm that Jules-Pierre Mao unleashed. Tell his children the government is more powerful than any corporation, and the only reason they think it feels the other way is because we poor public servants are always looking for some fat private sector’s payoff down the road. And I’m not looking. And by the time they can pull the strings to force me out, it will be too late. Their family will be ruined. Their mother, their children, their children! All of them: pariahs! Outlaws! Hunted and on the run for the rest of their days, until we find them, and nail each and every last one to the wall. Make sure you tell them that.”
Aghdashloo explains: “When I read the line, I couldn’t wait to run it [on set] because, in real life, I agree with her so much. Whatever we’re suffering from comes from rotten, corrupt politicians. It’s because of their deeds, their acts, that millions of people have been misplaced and displaced, and it keeps happening. So when I read the line, I can’t even tell you how happy it made me.
“That night, I was learning it until I went to sleep. I told the writers I wished it was a daily show so we could watch it that evening, because it’s so timely and relevant. But then I had to wait another year for it to come out.”
With The Expanse now in season four, the story is naturally far removed from its initial premise. Based on the books by James SA Corey, it opened hundreds of years in the future in a colonised Solar System when the case of a missing girl brings together Avasarala, hardened police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) and rogue ship captain James Holden (Steven Strait), first of the Canterbury and later the Rocinante, to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
In the latest run, with the ‘Ring Gates’ having opened up access to thousands of new planets, a blood-soaked gold rush begins, igniting new conflicts between Earth, Mars and those from within the asteroid belt. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante are caught up in a violent clash between an Earth mining corporation and desperate ‘Belter’ settlers.
Aghdashloo says appearing in the series is “beyond my wildest imagination,” adding: “This little girl from the Middle East is portraying a powerful female role in a US TV series, and now global TV series. It’s amazing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming – I have to pinch myself and think, ‘Am I really doing this?’ I love it because of the fact that when girls like myself in the Middle East or elsewhere see me, they think, ‘So there is a hope. If she did it, I can do it too.’
“I keep telling them all they need is courage, perseverance and love. Put it into a pot and you will be successful.”
In the future, Aghdashloo would love to play Indian stateswoman Indira Ghandi or Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. But for now, whether it’s film or television, she’s just happy to be in front of the camera. “When I was seven years old, my family would get together and, after lunch, they would say, ‘Bring Shohreh in so she can entertain us.’ And then I would start mocking every member of the family, singing and dancing.
“So that tells me that I was born an actor. I don’t act for the medium, be it TV, or cinema or theatre. At the end of the day, I think I’m a stage actress. Because even when I am on a set working for the camera, I get my energy from people on the set and thinking, ‘They’re watching.’
With Amazon Prime Video airing The Expanse around the world, there won’t be a shortage of people tuning in to find out what happens in season four, while the streamer has already ordered a fifth season of the space saga.
“Thank God for the game-changers – Amazon, Netflix, Hulu,” Aghdashloo adds. “We’re not only going global but our hands are free to go further and further [with the story]. There are always restrictions, but not as much. We get to tell the story the way it is. People keep asking me, ‘Now you’re on Amazon, can you swear more?’ Of course I can swear more, we’re global now!’”
Amazon Prime Video’s animated drama Undone elevates its storytelling with a unique visual style. Femke Wolting, co-founder and MD of producer Submarine, reflects on the creative process behind the series.
Undone is an intimate examination of a young woman’s personal traumas and possible mental illness, as well as a wild science-fiction story exploring the elastic nature of reality through its central character, Alma (Rosa Salazar), a 28-year-old girl living in San Antonio, Texas.
After a near-fatal car accident, Alma eventually wakes up from a coma to discover that she can manipulate time and use her ability to uncover the truth about the death of her father (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk).
My business partner Bruno Felix and I both immediately loved the project when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s company Tornante introduced us to Undone. At Submarine, we always like mixing genres, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and using new techniques to tell stories in exciting ways.
The series is written by two amazing showrunners, Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creators of Netflix comedy BoJack Horseman, which is also produced by Tornante. The writing is pure and original, emotional and intellectually challenging at the same time.
Submarine co-financed and produced the series together with Tornante and executive producer Tommy Pallotta (producer of A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life). The director is Dutch talent Hisko Hulsing (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Junkyard). Pallotta, Hulsing and I had previously worked together on the Emmy-winning Last Hijack, a mixed-media animation/live-action feature about the pirates of Somalia.
Undone is a hybrid between live film and animation; a mixture of oil painting, 2D and 3D animation and special effects. The writers wanted the series, commissioned by Amazon Prime Video, to be a real situational dramedy that was grounded in reality, so that when the characters move between different realities it would feel cohesive.
The unique animation style allowed us to seamlessly transition between alternate realities in a believable way, while sustaining our main character’s emotional and physical journey through space and time. The rotoscoped animation has the quality of animated film but, at the same time, allows the real expressions and emotions of the actors to come through. The result is both stylised and realistic.
A huge chunk of the animation production for Undone was done in our studio in Amsterdam, including storyboarding, set and character designs, animation and compositing. The unique visual style of Undone was directed by Hulsing in close collaboration with executive producer Pallotta.
Hisko Hulsing is an incredible painter and for Undone he oversaw a team of oil painters. He has a great sense of light and depth, which gives the series a very cinematic feel. Pallotta developed the rotoscope technique during his collaborations with Richard Linklater, including A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, each of which he produced.
For Undone, Tommy brought together a team of rotoscope artists in Austin, Texas, to rotoscope the video footage. In the film A Scanner Darkly, everything in the image was rotoscoped – the characters, sets, props. In Undone, only the actors were rotoscoped and the rest of the image is pure animation.
Almost 1,000 actual oil paintings on canvas were produced for the series and served as the backgrounds for the scenes. In the fall of 2017, we did an initial animation test in Amsterdam before the production started. Based on that, we thought we knew how we would produce the animation for the series. But when we started production, it quickly became clear it would have taken a year longer to make the entire show like that.
It was a huge undertaking; we were basically doing the equivalent of two animated feature films in 18 months. We had to rethink the method to make sure we could maintain the look and creative vision, almost on the level of every single shot, but still be time-efficient. So we had to come up with solutions and new techniques. We were all open to experimenting and to disrupting regular ways of producing animation.
The project was a real creative collaboration between Amsterdam, LA and Austin. We would receive the scripts from LA, then we would start with storyboarding and designing the location and characters and making the oil paintings in Amsterdam.
Following that, the live-action shoot would take place in Amsterdam, rotoscoping started in Austin and then we would get the rotoscoped video back from Austin and start the animation process. It was a real back and forth. It was sometimes tricky to nail cultural details in the designs.
For example, the placement of traffic lights is different in the US compared with the Netherlands. Undone is set in Texas, which is also where our rotoscope team was based. Our concept design team was based in Amsterdam, and as a result we had no frame of reference when designing streets and buildings.
During many Skype calls, our trusty rotoscope team took us out on the streets of Austin with their cell phones and showed us around town.
The Undone theme of jumping through time was very appropriate for our teams in three different parts of the world – sometimes it made us all feel that perhaps we were in our own time warp along with Alma. The upside, of course, is that the whole team essentially worked around the clock, so the sense of progress and momentum every day was a strong motivator.
Although Undone has the distinction of being the first rotoscoped series produced for television, it is also notable for its mature themes. The style we created for Undone had to blend seamlessly with the story. The ‘uncanniness’ of rotoscope and the world built up with oil paintings and 3D animation had to work in concert to put you in the subjective point of view of the protagonist played brilliantly by Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel).
With fantastic writing, amazing acting from the entire cast and our unique animated world, we are very proud that Undone is unlike anything else made for television.
As Carnival Row premieres on Amazon Prime Video, stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne discuss the importance of the noir fantasy thriller’s message and unravel their characters’ complexities.
With a hefty budget and established stars like Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne topping the bill, Carnival Row would have fit the criteria for a blockbuster Hollywood hit had it been released five years ago. So the fact that it’s actually the latest original series from Amazon once again highlights streamers’ increasingly tight grip over the content industry.
Nonetheless, the show’s London premiere this week was a relatively discreet affair, hidden away at the Ham Yard Hotel on the edge of London’s Piccadilly Circus, with just a poster of the show propped up beside a stairwell next to the reception letting any passers-by know what was taking place. Diners sitting at the hotel’s adjoining restaurant wouldn’t be to blame if they were unaware the show’s high-profile cast would be enjoying champagne downstairs later in the evening.
For Carnival Row, Amazon Prime has teamed up with Legendary Studios to bring to life a story written 20 years ago by creator Travis Beacham. The show presents the audience with a bleak Victorian fantasy world that resembles a steampunk mash-up of Oliver Twist and Warner Bros’ recent Sherlock Holmes film franchise.
The drama explores a world in which humans and mythical creatures coexist, yet with a palpable level of racism and division that bares striking similarities to issues apparent in contemporary society. Years of war have displaced many Fae (fairies) and Pucks – Minotaur-type hoofed creatures – and sent them seeking refuge in predominantly human-inhabited territories. In turn, this has led to a recurring series of targeted Fae murders and landed Bloom’s character, troubled detective Rycroft Philostrate, with the job of catching the killer. Delevingne portrays his former lover, a fairy called Vignette Stonemoss.
“I think people are scared to have this conversation because people want to be ignorant about how many people are struggling in this world right now,” Delevingne (Suicide Squad) says, highlighting the importance of themes touched on in the series. “I’m actually so glad that [the show] is episodic because I think with something that is this important, especially with the social commentary, the love story and the crime aspect, it’s a lot to digest. After each episode ends, you can have a conversation about it.”
The series is set in the bustling port town of Burgue and revolves around what takes place on one of the city’s busiest streets. Picture the famous Harry Potter side street Diagon Alley, add a Waterloo Station rush-hour crowd, toss in a number of top hats and mythical creatures and blanket it all in a cloud of smog. The result is Carnival Row, part red-light district, part flea market.
“It smelt just like it looked, there was so much detail,” Bloom says. “That’s the kind of level of detail you want as an actor.”
For her role as Vignette, a refugee fairy-turned-housemaid, Delevingne adopts an Irish accent, which she believes came naturally to the flying character. “I think just making her Irish made it more fun. Well, I don’t know – it just made sense to me,” she says. “The way Irish people speak is so beautiful and lyrical; it seemed to go so well with that type of character.”
Beyond the accent, Delevingne says the script appealed to her because “there was more depth and more emotion than I’ve ever seen out of any character I’ve ever read. I was so in fear of it but also so fascinated by that character and I knew if I hadn’t got it [the part], I would have been thinking about it probably until this day.”
Meanwhile, Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) does away with his natural Received Pronunciation English and dons a husky Danny Dyer-like cockney accent, perhaps in hope of giving his character – known as Philo – the necessary street cred to survive the Row and earn the fear and respect of its locals and frequenters. Like Delevingne, Bloom was drawn to the depth of his character.
“I was intrigued by Philo, this man who was born an orphan, raised in an orphanage, then served in the military and went on to be a police detective. I thought about being raised in institutions and what that would do to the psyche of a man,” he explains.
“He has this secret and I think it is something that gives him a super power, which is that he is empathetic and a man who is trying to do the right thing. You know, in this day and age, actually just doing the right thing is heroic enough.”
Carnival Row was shot on location in Prague, which Delevingne describes as “a brilliant place” to recreate the show’s fantasy world. The cast ventured into the Czech mountains as well as a 600-year-old church for additional shooting.
In addition to tackling themes of racism and societal division, Delevingne says the series also offers valuable parallels between the Fae’s struggles and those of women today.
“The part that really spoke to me a lot was when the fairies had their wings strapped down, because that’s kind of how women were treated for so long,” she says. “Because you’re told you can’t move your body in so many ways, it’s a complete restriction. So that commentary on women and being the second-class citizen for so long was also really beautiful and clever.”
Though reviews series of the series have been lukewarm, Amazon has already commissioned a second season of Carnival Row, with the production returning to Prague to begin filming next month.
Bloom seems excited at the prospect: “I think the world-building is just growing and getting better, and honestly I think the first season is always going to be finding its feet. From what I’ve read for season two, it’s really exciting, and we’ve got an amazing cast of actors.”
Delevingne puts it more plainly: “Something about it sparked a fire inside of me, I suppose.”
The cast and production team behind Carnival Row will be crossing their fingers that the show causes the same instant reaction within viewers as it did with Delevingne, with the bizarre creatures of this noir world promising to take viewers deeper into the Row in season two.
It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.
Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.
In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.
Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?
Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.
With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.
That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.
Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.
“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”
Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.
“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”
Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.
“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”
Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.
“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.
“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”
When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.
In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.
“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”
On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.
Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.
“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”
Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.
Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.
“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”
By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.
“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”
The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”
Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.
“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.
“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”
Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.
“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”
Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”
Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”
Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.
Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”
But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.
Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.
“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”
Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.
In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.
“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.
Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.
“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”
Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”
The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”
Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.
Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.
“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”
Stars Esme Miles-Creed, Rhianne Barreto and Mireille Enos reflect on making Amazon Prime drama Hanna, based on the 2011 film of the same name.
Joe Wright’s 2011 film Hanna told the story of a young girl been raised in isolation and trained to become the perfect assassin. With ruthless agents on her trail, Hanna had to evade capture while striving to complete the mission set down by her father.
“It was a big fairytale, with big archetypes,” says David Farr, who wrote the film’s script. “Marissa [one of the agents] was the Wicked Witch of the West and Hanna was the Dorothy figure, heading her way through the strange landscape.”
What the movie didn’t do, says Farr, was address the coming-of-age journey he had originally envisioned. “It doesn’t want to, it’s a different movie,” the writer continues. “[Wright] didn’t end the movie in the way the screenplay ended it, and we had a very honest conversation about that, where Hanna really goes back to where she came from. So for me, there was literally unfinished business.”
Eight years later, Hanna has been reimagined as an eight-part television series for Amazon Prime Video, as the titular character goes on a journey across Europe, meeting new friends and enemies along the way.
“The series is very different and the balance we have between political thriller and psychological coming-of-age story is quite special,” Farr explains. “That’s what I held on to, and Sarah Adina Smith, as lead director of the first two episodes, really set that tone. It’s a very different tone in every way from the stridency of the movie. I feel we own our space.”
The series again follows Hanna, here played by Esme Creed-Miles after Saoirse Ronan brought her to life in the film, as she evades the relentless pursuit of off-book CIA agent Marissa.
Played by Mireille Enos, Marissa is described as an efficient and ruthless agent, while Joel Kinnaman (Altered Carbon) is Hanna’s father Erik, a hardened, intuitive and uncompromising soldier and mercenary who has raised his daughter in the remote forests of northern Poland for 15 years.
The series, which comes from Working Title Television and NBCUniversal International Studios, received its world premiere at Berlinale last month ahead of its launch on Amazon around the world today.
Hanna marks a breakthrough role for Creed-Miles, described by Farr as “miraculous” in her portrayal of a young girl searching for her identity in a series that juggles traditional thriller sequences and moments of contemplation.
“She allows that purity to sit in her but then suddenly she can explode into what you’d call conventional action,” says the writer, speaking at the series’ launch in Berlin. “But it comes from a space that is mysterious and interesting, rather than the action heroine ready to do her martial arts.
“We’ve seen a lot of Hanna copies in the last five or six years and if I had a nervousness going back to it, it’s the fact there have been a lot of slightly more conventional strong females bashing the hell out of people. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about something that’s hopefully a lot more complex than that.”
Creed-Miles says she relished the chance to play Hanna as a character who knows nothing but isolation. “She’s a girl who’s grown up completely untouched by the male gaze, which is something that I feel I’m a product of as a young woman and something I found really difficult to navigate with my mental health,” she says. “It was a case of having an opportunity for 13 hours a day to be completely unabashed and completely raw.
“She’s ungendered. There’s such a conversation about gender at the moment and I think the concepts of gender are the most binding contracts that we have existing within our society. It’s so remarkable to play someone who provides us with a vicarious lens to the world we can see through, and also to experience the contrast between her and Marissa’s character and the other young women who I think give us a taste of what it’s like to be conditioned by your society.”
Along her journey, Hanna meets Sophie, who becomes the one person she can turn to when she arrives in the UK. Rhianne Barreto, who plays Sophie, draws an interesting parallel between her character, whom she likens to being raised in captivity, and Hanna, who was raised in the wild. “As we go on, I want Sophie to learn from Hanna and wear less make-up, be a bit more impulsive, follow her instinct, say what she wants and be less aware of the male gaze. That’s something you can learn from someone who hasn’t been conditioned to be what men want them to be. It was just fun.”
Barreto, who has previously appeared in British dramas Little Boy Blue and Strike Back, says she wanted to create a character she hadn’t seen before, “who my sisters would watch and go, ‘That’s me.’ I’m sweaty and grim, I swear, I’m funny, I eat food and I probably fart, and I’d never seen a girl like that. That’s what my teenage years were like. I wanted to make someone messy.
“I had so much fun with Sophie because you only really see that with male characters, if you think of The Goonies or Stranger Things. They’re all boys, but girls can be just as funny and just as gross. It was really fun to play.”
Creed-Miles says she had a “great working rapport” with Barreto on set. “It’s so great to work with actors where you can just react to what they’re doing. You don’t have to try very hard .I could do that with Rhianne because she’s very impulsive. She improvised everything, which was really annoying for me, actually, because where did the scripts go with my scenes with her? They went in the bin! I could just be Hanna in those moments and witness this freak of nature.”
Sophie proves to be more than just a friend to Hanna, with Creed-Miles noting her character’s reliance on Barreto’s. “She is so overwhelmed and is being bombarded with different stimuli and new experiences throughout the show – I think she learns everything from Sophie,” she says. “Sophie is her gateway to the modern world. It’s hard to be specific because Sophie is all-encompassing and she is changing a lot, but she provides a confidante and an opportunity for trust and friendship that Hanna’s never had.”
That friendship and trust is put to the test with Marissa tracking Hanna across Europe. But Enos believes her character is more than just an antagonist. “As the show goes on, because David’s writing is so layered and delicate, many things are revealed about Marissa. Of course, all of us are complex and have reasons to justify the things we do, the good or bad choices we make.”
Marissa has made a habit of concealing many of the dark secrets from her past, Enos adds, until Hanna resurfaces. “Marissa has a lot to fear but she’s also extremely capable. She’s a kind of animal being too, she’s just learned to dress really well. As the show continues, we see her moving back towards her animal self to deal with this situation.”
Hanna is a show with female characters at its core, but when it comes to other projects that put women front and centre, Creed-Miles believes there is a contradiction between the drive for greater diversity on screen and terms such as ‘the strong woman’ or ‘the complex woman.’
“As a woman, it’s slightly patronising,” she says. “It’s almost as though to assume masculine attributes makes us equal to the male or the male ideal. Actually, strength, violence, they’re brilliant in the service of thrill and story, but what this show does really well is it deals with violence in a way that provides us with moral recompense. In terms of character, Hanna is complex in a way that doesn’t patronise the female condition, because her vulnerability is what makes her very interesting as well.
The actor adds: “Hanna is a very vulnerable character and it’s important that when we have representations of women, [we create] empathy. When you see portrayals of homosexuality or whatever it is on screen and you can relate to that and you’re seeing things that are real to you, it’s like you’re less lonely in this world. Hanna is more relatable for young girls, apart from her physical stuff. It’s really important to celebrate the fact that she’s vulnerable, because so many girls really are.”
Three years after German breakout drama Deutschland 83 travelled around the world, Deutschland 86 continues the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch. DQ visits the set to find out why this spy thriller is more than a history lesson.
Deutschland 83, from American writer Anna Winger and her German husband Joerg, aired in 110 territories, winning an International Emmy for telling a relatively untold story through the prism of a spy thriller, with all the trappings of the era – from the music to the fashion – present and correct. It also launched Channel 4’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents, and became the UK’s highest-rating subtitled drama when it aired on its parent broadcaster in 2016.
Three years have passed since then, both in the real world and in that of the series. Deutschland 86 picks up the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) in the unlikely environs of an Angolan orphanage. It feels like scant reward for saving the world from nuclear disaster in 1983, but he has been banished there, far from his girlfriend and infant son, for the crime of blowing his cover. When his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), herself tainted by his perceived blunder, arrives in West Africa to send him back into the field, he consents on the understanding that he can return home when he completes his mission.
“A lot of people are interested in Martin,” says Anna Winger. “His legend from 1983 has travelled, then people meet him and no one believes it’s him. He’s asking himself what kind of life he wants to live now that he can try to take control of his own destiny. He has to decide whether to live up to that reputation or escape it.”
“Falling in love, killing a man, being separated from his family for three years… These experiences have changed Martin a lot,” says Nay. “His motivation for the whole season is to get back home, meet his three-year-old son and start a new life.”
This is easier said than done, of course, when his assignment includes running with Libyan insurgents, terrorists in Paris and journeying to Cape Town, another divided city also caught between global superpowers. The fall of the Berlin Wall all but coincided with the collapse of Apartheid, the Wingers noted. Was there a connection?
It turned out that there was. East Germany supported Nelson Mandela and the ANC as fellow socialists, training the latter’s militant wing, the MK. West Germany, meanwhile, observed the UN boycott on trading with South Africa while trading arms with the Apartheid regime on the side. The ‘good guys’ were, it seems, on the wrong side of history.
Most peculiar of all was the prospect of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), increasingly distant from Moscow and running out of money, propping up an ailing regime by engaging in criminal capitalism. This need for hard currency, and a growing sense of panic, brought them into the world of illicit arms dealing, running drug trials for Western Big Pharma, even selling dissidents to and borrowing huge sums from West Germany.
“The theme of the season is that it all comes down to money,” says Anna. “The wall came down because they ran out of cash and Apartheid failed for the same reason. 1986 was getting darker in the GDR – the iceberg is on the horizon. There was an exhaustion setting in about the Cold War. People were done, they didn’t want it any more, and the same was true of Apartheid.”
D86 also tracks the green movement, given a huge if unfortunate boost by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the growing AIDS crisis, while the so-called Summer of Anxiety, when terrorist attacks blighted Europe, unavoidably invokes present-day concerns over terrorism, albeit religiously rather than politically motivated these days.
Lest that all sounds a little heavy, the Wingers are keen to reiterate that D86 is above all a spy yarn. “Like D83, we built a timeline of events, created a backdrop of real history then set our characters free across it,” says Anna. “It’s an adventure, a spy story and coming-of-age story rather than a history lesson.”
Which makes it a little ironic that DQ is sitting in a room that feels a little like a lecture theatre. We’re in the former Stasi HQ in Berlin – now the Stasi Museum, a grey memorial to an unloved regime but doubling as GDR offices for the series. It’s the final week of a 100-day shoot split between Cape Town and Berlin, and the cast are demob happy in defiance of the oppressively brown surroundings, yet conscious of the legacy contained in the walls of the building.
“The power of this building…” muses Schrader. “You can recreate something on a soundstage but I think people felt the authenticity and attention to detail in the first season. I’m from the West, and this is a loaded place. Knowing what some of my colleagues went through, it was very different for them, but when I entered the building it took a lot of energy.”
Cape Town, meanwhile, proved the perfect location, with its abundance of mid-80s architecture and a surfeit of spectacular scenery allowing it to double for other settings including Johannesburg and Tripoli.
“There’s a huge variety of landscapes and possibilities here,” says Joerg, “although to our chagrin it’s become much more expensive because of all these productions, which is great for the local economy but annoying for us!”
Filming in South Africa was an eye-opening experience for some of the cast, who discovered alarming evidence of Apartheid’s baleful legacy. “People would call it economic problems,” says Schrader, grimacing. “But the economic war is a racist war in South Africa. It’s normal in a restaurant that all the guests are white and the staff are black.”
The new locations also created openings for new characters, many of them women, most notably Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) and Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson). It all makes for a breath of fresh air after D83’s predominance of middle-aged white men in cheap suits.
“Brigitte is a symbol for all the Western 80s decadence you can imagine,” says Wilson, a German resident despite the name. “She’s the wife of a German diplomat in Cape Town and her official job is a dentist, then one day Martin shows up at her clinic… She has another job, of course – she’s an undercover agent for West Germany, a player with lots of attitude and a really good liar, which I am definitely not. She’s full of surprises.”
“Rose grew up with a mother working in a German Jewish household,” Kasumaba, who played an ally of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, explains. “She’s a secret agent for the MK who has had to leave her family and country in the past because of her total commitment to the cause. Somewhere along there, she met Lenora and they became a team: they fight together, and Rose needs Lenora’s contacts.”
Nay is thrilled to be back in a series that paved the way for Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s Dark and the rebooted Das Boot in a genuine renaissance for German television.
“Everybody’s excited,” he grins. “We’re telling the stories we want to tell. We’re late starters in Germany in getting series sold abroad, but we have high-end drama coming now. We were good at art-house cinema, sometimes a miniseries or TV film, but now doors are opening for serials.”
Back in 2015, the Wingers spoke of their concern that D83 would prove an unorthodox fit for RTL, the German broadcaster and coproducer better known for procedurals and gameshows. Domestic viewing figures were indeed disappointing, and so an amicable parting of the ways became almost inevitable. “We were given freedom to make the show we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the right show for them or their audience. There’s no animosity there,” Anna says.
RTL parent company Fremantle and coproducer UFA Fiction took the show to Amazon Prime, which, attracted by the drama’s international performance and binge-worthy qualities, provided a budget boost to reflect the story’s global remit and extended length, running as it does at 10 rather than eight episodes. Amazon has also committed to a third season, making the Wingers’ dream of completing the trilogy in 1989 a reality.
D86 launches in the UK tonight on More4, with the whole season available on Walter Presents after transmission of the first episode.
“Viewers now don’t care so much about where a series is from,” says Joerg, considering the show’s international success. “They want to be surprised; they’re looking for original material. We’re telling our story in a familiar way for international audiences. The whole grammar and dramaturgy of the show is in line with that. We didn’t strategically plan an international hit. Our goal from the very beginning was to make a show we would love, and if you’re really interested in something, that enthusiasm communicates somehow.”
Said enthusiasm is expressed most effectively, once again, through the diligent, affectionate recreation of the era. “Our make-up artists always said we tell the main story with the characters and we tell the 80s with the extras, who get the big hair and crazy stuff,” laughs Wilson.
Alongside the story, D83 stood out most for its use of music. This year there will be songs from everyone from metal legends Megadeth to synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and, perhaps inevitably for a show set in part in Apartheid South Africa, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Nay confides, laughing, that he has once again been lobbying for the inclusion his favourite band, The Police, whose final studio album was released back in 1983. But while he was disappointed at this omission, his passion for the new season is undiminished.
“Having two more episodes than for D83 means more characters and more layers,” he says. “Season one was following Martin; now it’s more an ensemble thing. We had to make up a vision for the first one. Now it feels bigger, and the more I saw, the more interested I got, which I think will be the same for the viewer.”
Eight years after the movie of the same name, Hanna reimagines the story of a young girl, raised in isolation by her mercenary father, who goes on the run from the agents attempting to take her down. DQ visits the set to see how this globe-trotting thriller came together for Amazon Prime Video.
In 2011, an all-star cast of Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana appeared in action-adventure thriller movie Hanna.With Ronan as the titular character, it centred on a girl raised in isolation by her father, who moulds her into the perfect assassin, leading her to be hunted down by a ruthless operative.
Eight years later, Hanna is returning to the screen. But rather than a blockbuster sequel or remake heading to cinemas, the story has been reimagined and expanded across eight hours of television as an original series for global streaming platform Amazon Prime Video, where it will launch on March 29.
Raised in total seclusion in remote Eastern European woodland, Hanna (played by newcomer Esme Creed-Miles) has spent all of her young life training to fight those who hunt her and her mercenary father, Erik Heller (Joel Kinnaman, Altered Carbon).
The series sees Hanna’s skills being put to the test when she and Erik are separated after being discovered by rogue CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos, Good Omens) and her team of agents. Now Hanna has no choice but to embark on a perilous journey alone across Europe as she seeks to reunite with her father and evade the dangerous agents who target them, while also confronting the physical and emotional consequences of her isolated upbringing.
From the start, Hanna – which had its world premiere at Berlinale earlier this week – is pitched very much as an origin story, as well as a partial retread of the feature film. The first episode opens 15 years in the past as Erik is seen snatching a baby from a hospital, with Marissa leading the charge for his capture. The story then picks up with Hanna as a teenager.
Naturally, the starting point for the project was the original film, which series creator and writer David Farr co-wrote with Seth Lochhead. But Farr admits he had never thought about adapting it for television until NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) executives Tom Coan and JoAnn Alfano approached him with the idea.
“It was a new thing then, this ‘television,’” he jokes. “But as soon as they said it, it was a great idea. The film didn’t end up covering something that was actually in the screenplay – and in my head – which was the whole idea of where Hanna had come from, who she was and what was behind her situation. In the end, the film was almost a fantasy about female revenge and empowerment of this young girl taking on this evil woman. It was hugely stylish, and Saoirse was amazing. But I could see a very different telling.”
As Farr explains, episode one charts a similar course to the film. But by episode two, Hanna enters fresh territory, and a whole new narrative is underway by the third instalment. “There’s an exploration of identity where you have a young woman who suddenly realises she doesn’t know who she is. You have this strong thriller narrative of people hunting her and trying to kill her, and this evokes the question of why – who am I and am I being told the truth? That can then evolve into an emotional and existential search for identity.”
The series also explores the emergence of a very odd nuclear family, comprising Hanna, Erik and Marissa, as they play out familiar family tensions inside a thriller where they all want to kill each other. “It’s that central idea of a girl trying to find out where her real family is, who she is, and that is a beautifully vulnerable and lovely story – and then you get an actress like Esme who is wonderful at playing vulnerability,” Farr notes. “It’s so captivating to watch someone genuinely not know who they are, someone who is lost. All teenagers are lost anyway. It reflects a universal experience, just in a very heightened way.”
While film remakes continue to be a big part of the television landscape, the Hanna movie presented the team at NBCUIS with an opportunity to take an existing property inside the Comcast-owned company’s vast library (the film was distributed by Comcast’s Focus Features) in a new direction. Notably, Coan felt that the fact the story takes place across multiple countries was reflective of the company itself, making him keen to push forward with the idea. Then when Farr came on board, “that’s when the project came alive,” Coan says. “It’s a great piece of IP, a wonderful concept, and then we got an amazing creator and visionary storyteller who was able to make it happen.”
Though the film was a wonderful starting point, “it wasn’t something we ever wanted to be entirely married to,” continues Coan, an executive producer on the series. “We’re not doing a strict remake of the film, we’re using it as inspiration. We’re using it as a foundation for telling our own story. IP is just an easy way to start the conversation.”
Farr and Coan are speaking to DQ in August during a break in filming as the production lands in the UK and enters its final fortnight. At this point, in scenes being filmed for episodes five and six, Hanna has broken free from her father’s grasp and made her way to England, where she is staying with Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), a friend she met in an earlier episode.
On this bright and sunny summer’s day, the crew has taken over a beautiful home in Bushey, on the outskirts of north-west London, which has been turned into Sophie’s home. Cameras, lights, monitors and dozens of rolls of cable fill the downstairs rooms while filming is taking place in the garden, where Sophie is discussing the mysterious Hanna with her friend Dan (Leo Flanagan).
In another scene filmed later on, Sophie is seemingly hesitant to let Hanna leave her house with a woman who claims she is Hanna’s mother, but the fact she is played by Enos suggests Marissa may have finally caught up with her target.
Farr says he wasn’t keen to remake the film as a series, or even write a sequel to the film, which can be “quite tricky.” But what did excite him was the opportunity to explore a new way of telling the story, with more time to dig into the characters and their backstories, though still confined within the idea of a girl coming out of a forest and not knowing who she is.
However, having adapted John le Carré novel The Night Manager for UK pubcaster the BBC and AMC in the US, the writer says reworking Hanna was “a very different experience.” He continues: “There’s way more invention in this. There was invention in The Night Manager – the second half was very different from the book – but somehow, because the characters were all there [for The Night Manager], this felt a lot more original.”
Coan describes Farr as a very fast writer, and while the latter concurs, he adds that there’s more to his process than just getting the words down. “I don’t write until I feel like I can write it really fast,” he explains. “For me, that’s the way to do it. I literally keep it in my head. I don’t tend to write down that many outlines. I hate writing beat sheets – to me they’re just deadening, awful things because once you’ve got them, you can’t get out of them, and then you’re just writing to them and it’s impossible. So what you have to have is enough in your head that you can feel it to the end. You have to know where the end is, otherwise you’re totally a mess, and that’s how you do it. And then I can write quite fast, which is really weird.”
The challenge, he says, is maintaining the tension that makes viewers watch to the end. And while Farr admits he “loathes” whodunnits, he also admires them for the way they keep viewers hooked until they discover the perpetrator of the crime. “I love thrillers because they have a little bit of that, there’s something we’re trying to find out, but the journey is an exploration of character as you do that, and that balance is the key,” he adds.
During writing, Farr held a weeklong story conference with Mika Watkins and Ingeborg Topsøe, where the story was broken and episode outlines were penned. Topsøe wrote episode five, while Watkins had also been in line to write scripts until she became showrunner of her own series, YouTube’s space horror Origin. That meant Farr ended up writing the other seven.
“One of the things we wanted to do, which we also did with directors and DOPs, was bring many more women into the world. So we had two female directors and we were going to have two female writers,” Farr says. “Once Mika had done the conference, it felt weird to bring someone else in, so in the end we decided to keep it simple.”
Overseen by lead director Sarah Adina Smith (Legion, Room 104), who helmed episodes one and two, others behind the camera include Anders Engström, Jon Jones and Amy Neil, who were able to inject their own style into their particular episodes owing to the fact they were largely filming in different locations from one another. And while Hanna the movie is heightened and even surreal in parts, the series is a more realistic and grounded thriller, according to producer Hugh Warren (Hard Sun, Thirteen). That in part is down to Smith, whose independent filmmaking background has helped shape the show’s style and tone.
Filming locations have included Morocco, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary and the UK, while Hungary also doubled for scenes set in Poland and Romania. Some small sets were built, including the cave that Hanna initially calls home, while one scene involved filming inside a lively souk in north Morocco. “That was quite hairy. We had to go guerrilla style to film,” Warren jokes.
“The story moves around. That would have been very difficult to do in the old world, and it’s still a challenge. It becomes a more complex machine and becomes about making maximum use of the budget, with decisions about production often made on that basis. One of the reasons we were in Budapest for so long is there are great tax breaks there. It’s great for us as there are areas that double for Berlin, Paris, Romania. We shot a lot of different countries in Budapest and the surrounding countryside.”
Thunderstorms in Hungary, heatwaves in Morocco and sub-zero temperatures in Slovakia meant filming conditions were rarely comfortable, while technical challenges included a hefty amount of stunt work. The script placed Creed-Miles in a number of action and fight sequences, requiring the young actor to complete a pre-shoot training programme to convincingly pull off Hanna’s moves. “She really wanted to do a lot herself,” Warren says of the show’s star. “There were days when I went to set and assumed it was the double doing these runs, and then saw it was Esme.”
As well as reuniting The Killing stars Enos and Kinnaman, the casting process saw more than 500 candidates audition for the lead role, including actors from the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. But once London-born Miles-Creed had stepped up, “there was no second choice,” says executive producer Andrew Woodhead, MD of Working Title Television, which is producing with NBCUIS. “She’s a star. She’s just got that thing.”
Coan recalls: “In the audition, we gave them two scenes to read and they got to choose the third scene. The third scene Esme chose was from the first episode, where Hanna is at the dining table with Erik and he’s drilling her on different languages. It’s not an easy scene, involving German, French and Russian, but she delivered it perfectly. Then she would go back into this entirely concocted accent she created on her own. She is this character, she’s able to fully embrace this character.”
Though Hanna’s growth and the thrilling chase led by the CIA to capture her are at the centre of the plot, themes of family run strong. It’s “not just a thriller, there’s a metaphor for family life and her coming of age,” says Warren. “I did a show called Thirteen [a BBC kidnap drama] and this reminded me of that in that she’s effectively being held captive all her life in the woods with no experience of the world. This follows that journey of her discovering the world and other people, finding herself as a teenager. So there’s a whole coming-of-age and family side you wouldn’t find in most thrillers.”
One point the executives repeat several times is the scope and breadth stories can now have on television, particularly with a partner like Amazon on board. While films may only present a snapshot of a particular issue, this can be expanded several times on the small screen.
Coan says that what makes Hanna work as a multi-territory production for a worldwide streaming service is that its story lends itself to such global ambitions. “Because the story moves between all these different places and lives in Europe, it isn’t one thing. It’s not a British show, an American show or a German show, it’s a global show,” he concludes.
“All those different points of view and ways of thinking were valid. It’s a global narrative produced in a global way. If you were trying to tell a specific story and had input from afar, it might not be as well received or there might be more conflict. But there was a wonderful synergy of everyone coming together.”
Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman and Esme Creed-Miles star in Hanna, Amazon Prime Video’s original series based on the 2011 feature film of the same name. The show follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, Hanna (Creed-Miles), as she evades the relentless pursuit of an off-book CIA agent and tries to unearth the truth behind who she is.
Kinnaman plays Hanna’s father Erik, described as a hardened, intuitive and uncompromising soldier and mercenary who has raised his daughter in the remote forests of Northern Poland for the last 15 years. Enos plays Marissa, an efficient and ruthless CIA agent hunting them down.
The series has its worldwide premiere this week at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event.
In this DQTV interview, creator and writer David Farr recalls the conversation that kickstarted this television reimagining of Joe Wright’s 2011 film, which Farr co-wrote, and explains why the series will take viewers on an emotional journey as Hanna searches for the truth behind her own identity.
Lead director Sarah Adina Smith talks about why she was drawn to the characters in the series, her collaboration with Farr and her approach to building the world of Hanna, which was filmed across Hungary, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.
Hanna is produced by Working Title Television and NBCUniversal International Studios for Amazon Prime Video.
For years, Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s cult novel Good Omens was deemed unfilmmable – until now. Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon tell DQ how they turned this funny and fantastical story of the end of the world into a six-part TV spectacle.
When Jon Hamm signed up for a miniseries version of Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, the Mad Men star joined a team taking on what many had deemed an impossible task. “I thought it was one of the funniest, coolest books I’d ever read,” he says. “It was also, obviously, unfilmmable.”
For a long time, Gaiman would have been excused for thinking so too. He wrote the book with late fantasy author Pratchett in 1989 and it was published the following year, quickly winning a cult following.
Then came many years of failed attempts to bring about a movie adaptation, either because it was too weird, there were too many characters, or both. But in the summer of 2014, with Pratchett suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he wrote to Gaiman asking him to make Good Omens himself because he wanted to see it before he died. Sadly, it was a dream he never realised, passing away in March 2015. Gaiman knew then he had to fulfil his dear friend’s last request.
“I feel a little bit like one of those people who manages to do something completely impossible because nobody mentions to me that it’s impossible,” showrunner Gaiman tells DQ. “I should have had a clue in retrospect, because we went to half-a-dozen of the best writers in the world over a period of a few years and asked them to do the adaptation of Good Omens and they all explained that it was probably impossible to do.
“But then Terry asked me if I would do the adaptation. Up until that point, the deal Terry and I had was that we would do something together on Good Omens or not do it at all. Here we were with Terry actually saying, ‘I can’t do it so you have to because I want to see it before I die.’ Then he died – which left me with Good Omens as a thing to see through, and I couldn’t let myself believe at that point that it would be impossible or unfilmmable because I had to give this to Terry. I was fortunate in that, at the end of writing the script, people liked it.”
Gaiman spent 18 months writing six scripts, reinventing the story for television and injecting extra excitement and surprises while trying to stay loyal to the original material – the story of a friendship between an angel and a demon who have been on Earth for too long and now want to stop the apocalypse.
Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) and David Tennant (Doctor Who, Marvel’s Jessica Jones) star as fussy angel and rare-book dealer Aziraphale and fast-living demon Crowley, respectively, who have lived on Earth since The Beginning and have become fond of the lifestyle and each other. So it’s terrible news for them when they discover that if Heaven and Hell have their way, the world will end next Saturday. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan, until it’s discovered that someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…
The series was commissioned by Amazon Prime Video and UK pubcaster BBC2, with Amazon set to premiere the six-part fantasy drama this spring before it launches on the BBC. The show is produced by Narrativia, The Blank Corporation and BBC Studios, which also distributes.
“When people are making films, there’s a lot of time spent worrying about things like tone and consistency and telling one story clearly, whereas what Good Omens does is tell multiple stories with multiple characters, albeit with Aziraphale and Crowley at the heart of it all,” explains director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon. “It wanders off into many different paths and thoroughfares, and yet the main theme – good against evil – glues it together. When I read the script, I felt it wasn’t impossible, just quite a big challenge.”
When it comes to adapting one of his own books for the screen, Gaiman jokes that his writing process is to say, “No, get somebody else to do it.” American Gods and Lucifer are two other series currently on air that are based on Gaiman creations. But with Good Omens, he no longer had the option to pass it on, owing to his promise to Pratchett.
With six episodes to write, he took the novel, cut it into six parts and began to explore what that might look like. Quickly, however, he found if he did it that way, neither Crowley nor Aziraphale would appear in episode three, so he ended up writing additional material featuring them both to insert into the original story. “But actually that wound up becoming incredibly important to what we were doing and encapsulated a lot of the themes and made them feel even more prevalent than they were for the rest of the series,” he says.
Gaiman admits some of his favourite bits in the book didn’t make it into the script because, ultimately, they were unfilmmable. Sequences taking place in people’s heads or conversations between a group of helmet-wearing bikers riding with the roar of their engines, for example. Other bits, however, were added in, such as a role for Mad Men star Jon Hamm as Archangel Gabriel.
“The angels were characters Terry and I had talked about, planned out and thought about a lot after we wrote the book – and had we ever done a sequel, they would have been in that more,” Gaiman says. “So I got to go and steal from the work we did back then and create four angels who aren’t anywhere in the book: Gabriel, played by Jon; Michael, played by Doon Mackichan; Paul Chahidi plays Sandalphon and Gloria Obianyo plays Uriel, and they’re wonderful – these incredible angels in very sharp suits.”
Mackinnon, whose directing credits include Sherlock, Doctor Who and Line of Duty, says working on Good Omens has been a complete collaboration with Gaiman, who has been on set for large parts of the shoot, was involved in casting and choosing every costume and, more recently, has been in the cutting room every day. He didn’t want to impose a particular style on the show, however. Anyone who’s read the book will know it has a unique tone of its own, and it was the script that subsequently informed Mackinnon’s decisions. He would also carry a copy of the book around with him during production.
“I did one or two episodes of Line of Duty and it’s a very different show, and the style presented itself for that,” he says. “This has a much more epic, cinematic feel that the storytelling in the script deserves.”
But it was the scale of the production on a daily basis that proved to be the biggest challenge for the director. “We’d seldom stay in one location for one or two days,” he says, with filming taking place in London, Oxford and South Africa over 93 days. “We had to come away with all the material each time. With 200 speaking parts, just casting that and organising it has been a massive task, and that’s been the challenge. But it’s been a wonderful challenge, really exciting and a brilliant one as well.”
Gaiman describes Good Omens as a “mammoth, gargantuan project,” but says he loved the fact that no reshoots were needed. “We went in, we got what we needed, we came away and that was amazing,” he adds.
But showrunning won’t be a role he’s likely to repeat in a hurry, if at all. “I’m very much looking forward to becoming a retired showrunner,” he quips, revealing his ambitions to create and write more television, novels, children’s books and poetry. “By the time this goes out, I will have given four years of my life to it and there are lots of other things out there that I want to do. I’ve learned so much from Douglas and from working with everybody about the minutiae of making a show like this. I think I will be much more useful in the future, as I will be able to create things and communicate to showrunners much more successfully.”
Gaiman says that, at its core, Good Omens is a book about humanity and friendship. But what he’s proudest of is that the show doesn’t feel like anything else on television, which is quite a feat considering the 500-plus dramas now on air.
“Normally, if you’re trying to describe something, you do it by comparing it to other things. You’re like, ‘Well, it’s Casablanca in space,’ or whatever,” he says. “With this, it’s not like anything else. It’s Good Omens – and when people see it, that’s what they compare it to. It is the only thing like it, for good or for evil, for success or failure. I don’t care. What I do care about is we’ve made something that feels unique, feels special and, at least to me and Douglas, feels absolutely magical.”
Assembling an ensemble
When it comes to casting, there can be few better ensembles on screen than that collated for Good Omens. With Michael Sheen and David Tennant leading off as angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, the supporting cast includes Jon Hamm (Archangel Gabriel), Miranda Richardson (Madame Tracy), Mireille Enos (War), Mark Gatiss (Harmony), Derek Jacobi (Metatron), Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub), Daniel Mays (Arthur Young), Sian Brooke (Deirdre Young), Adria Arjonoa (Anathema Device), Nina Sosanya (Sister Mary Loquacious) and David Morrissey (Captain Vincent), as well as many other notable names.
Tennant and Sheen had known each other for a while and had even appeared in a film together, 2003’s Bright Young Things, though they never acted together. But playing a pair of unlikely best friends meant they too became extremely close, sharing most of their screen time throughout the long shoot.
“We spent a lot of time sitting on park benches discussing the end of the world, what restaurant we were going to go to next or what else we’ve done that’s just fucked things up even more,” Tennant jokes, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “We did know each other but we’d never worked together and you think, ‘This could be awful. What if we rub up against each other the wrong way?’ But mercifully I think we found a rhythm very quickly. If you’ve got two characters that feel completely new and instantly recognisable, that comes from the writing. You know what this really unique, odd, peculiar world is straightaway, the minute you start playing it. It was a joy.”
Sheen continues: “Whenever I think about playing the character, and this is not true of any other part I play, I only think of it in terms of me and David. I don’t think of it as just an individual character, I think of him as ‘us.’”
Richardson plays Madame Tracy, a psychic and part-time courtesan who provides a helping hand to Aziraphale and Crowley as they try to save the world from Armageddon. “Physically embodying her with all the help that any of us always gets on a production in terms of hair and make-up and costume was a lot of fun, but also because it is a performance for her. It’s huge fun and a great thing to do.”
Hamm, best known for playing Mad Men’s Don Draper for seven seasons, had read the book some time ago and was a fan of Gaiman. So when the writer emailed him about playing a character that didn’t exist in the book, he admits “it was a very easy ‘yes.’”
“I knew that whatever direction it was going to take, it was going to be excellent,” Hamm explains. “Then I saw who else was in it and I thought it was going to be fun, too. I love working over here [in the UK]. I got the chance to be over here for five or six weeks and really just play at this exciting, fun job. So it was a no-brainer for me. I was just happy to be asked.”
But how does he respond when people ask him what Good Omens is about? “I say it’s a comedy about the Apocalypse,” he adds. “That usually gets a little head cock and demands further explanation, and that’s the best way in.”
The world of organised crime plays out against the pulsating backdrop of Berlin’s club scene in Beat, the fifth German original series from Amazon Prime Video. Creator and director Marco Kreuzpaintner reveals how he meshed his love of the city with the real-life issue of organ trafficking.
Right from the beginning of its startling, fractured and kaleidoscopic title sequence and its opening scenes, which include a tracking shot that introduces viewers to the characters that populate Club Sonar, German drama Beat draws you into the Berlin party scene with its hypnotic soundtrack and the charisma of its drug-addled title character.
This might be a crime thriller but, from those initial moments, creator and director Marco Kreuzpaintner sets up a world that is rarely seen on television. Then, through the opening episode, he places it squarely at odds with another subject – the underground industry of illegal organ trafficking.
Beat is the story of Robert Schlag (Jannis Niewöhner, Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne) – otherwise known as Beat. The club promoter pushes life to the limits as he enjoys all the perks and opportunities of being one of the most popular and well-connected people in Berlin. But all around him, organised crime has a hand in everything that makes money: drugs, humans, weapons and organs.
When they have nothing left to lose, state agencies turn to the unconventional methods for which Beat is best known. No matter what you need or whom you’re searching for, Beat knows the right people to ask. But when he’s brought in to find the string-pullers within a corrupt system, Beat finds his past soon catches up with him.
Beat marks the fifth German original series for Amazon Prime Video, following You Are Wanted, comedies Pastewka and Der Lack ist ab and the recently launched Deutschland 86. It is produced by Hellinger/Doll Filmproduktion, Warner Bros Film Productions Germany and Pantaleon Films in co-operation with Amazon Studios.
Kreuzpaintner had spent 15 years living in Berlin and knew the city’s vibrant nightlife, but was moving back to the Bavarian countryside when Warner Bros approached him about making a new series. Wanting to do something he felt a personal connection with, he drew on the German capital’s club culture – “the best in the world, actually” – and paired it with a story about organ trafficking.
“I was reading an article about a thing that not many people are aware of, that some refugees on their way from Africa and other countries into Europe are disappearing, not only by the danger of the journey but by a calculated, ongoing mafia that is taking advantage of people who are not missed immediately by trading off their organs,” he explains, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “I thought that was quite horrendous. I brought two subject matters that are so far away from each other together and I thought they made a great conflict with each other.”
Kreuzpainter says he was naturally drawn to turning the story into a television series because of the variety of topics you can address in an episodic format. Also, “I’m a little bit bored of the classical three-act structure right now,” he says of the movie industry, “so that’s why I feel like making series. You can take detours and dive into characters’ absurd existences. You don’t have to push plots in a certain direction, so that’s what I really like about it. New platforms and series and the competition they have created have given a really big advantage to filmmakers nowadays.”
Described as a partygoer par excellence, Beat is always awake, always high and simultaneously always broken and traumatised. When he was six, his parents suddenly disappeared and now he can’t remember them and doesn’t even know if they are still alive.
He is recruited by European Secret Service agents Christian Berkel (Richard Diemer) and Emilia (Karoline Herfurth) to help crack Philipp Vossberg (Alexander Fehling)’s organ-trafficking operation, which orchestrates the kidnapping of refugees and sells their organs to the right people with the right bank balances.
Other characters include Jasper (Kostja Ullmann), Beat’s childhood friend, and Paul (Hanno Koffler), the owner of Club Sonar who brings Vossberg in as a new investor. But when Paul’s son needs a new heart, Vossberg has Paul under his control.
Vossberg, a director at a logistics company, is a man who has everything and can do anything he wants but only feels alive when he crosses that last border, destroying existences, owning people and controlling their fate.
“The most interesting thing about this character is that you can’t really grasp him, so it’s very difficult to say who he is,” Fehling says. “I do think he’s some kind of analogy for something that is in us, that has always been in us and always will be. For example, greed and the wish to do anything you want and the urge to expand beyond limits, and his drive for power. But on the other hand, he wants to understand. That’s pretty interesting.”
The actor says Vossberg is only interested in playing a high-stakes game, one in which the players must face losing everything in order to win. “I was particularly interested to explore this part because everything he says has a deeper truth,” Fehling continues. “He’s a very talkative guy, as opposed to Lina. So I was fascinated by the fact that Vossberg, who’s admittedly one of the cruellest figures in this piece, speaks about so many subject matters that actually make a lot of sense. There’s a strange honesty about him. It’s just a question of perspective, like always, so exploring the part was really finding out about Vossberg’s perspective on things.”
Lina, played by Anna Berderke, is Vossberg’s right-hand woman, taking care of the operative side of the business. She follows her orders with a cool and scrupulous nature, and always without conscience.
“Emotions are not really useful for such a job as Lina has,” Berderke says. “She really tries not letting emotions or personal relationships interfere with what has to be done. So she would also not let people get to know her. She’s more of an observer and a listener. She’s super fun to play.
“I would not describe her as a funny person but it was fun in a way. I had not done anything before like that, so it was pretty interesting because she doesn’t really use a lot of words, but that’s a lot of what you do when you act, right? You have certain actions, so that was interesting.”
Fehling previously starred in season five of Homeland, and despite the different production approaches between the US thriller and Beat, he says choosing a role comes down to the people and the material you work with.
“When I signed up for this part, I knew the entire script, all of the seven episodes, which wasn’t the case with Homeland, where we would get the script for the next episode every two or three weeks. Plus there was almost always another director for the next episode, so that was really an exercise of letting go of control, even in regard of your own character,” he explains. “There’s always another approach for everything you do, and you need to see it as an opportunity. So I think you can do things without knowing the arc that you can’t while you know the arc. You’ve got to find the richness in the limitation.”
Beat marks Sommersturm director Kreuzpaintner’s first television series, and he admits he was curious about moving into the medium when the opportunity to make the show first arose. Amazon, he says, has given him lots of control over creative choices, and that’s why Kreuzpaintner believes the quality of scripted series is better on streaming platforms.
“People believe in talent and they should believe in talent,” he says of those working at SVoD giants. “There’s a reason why we do our job. I don’t tell marketing people or producers how to do theirs. Please stay away from me and let me do my job.”
The added bonus is that when Beat drops this Friday, it will be instantly available in Amazon markets around the world. “That’s exciting, especially for a local product shot in the German language. It’s such a beautiful language, but obviously not everybody understands it and that’s why our market possibilities are quite limited normally,” the director notes. “Now, knowing that this is going to be available in more than 230 countries and it’s dubbed in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese, you can reach target audiences all over the world – in the US but also in markets like Australia and Japan. It’s great for filmmakers to show there are great local products.”
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s latest project has arrived on Amazon Prime Video, but The Romanoffs swims against the tide of contemporary television drama, as DQ discovers.
It’s often said that people who work in television don’t actually watch much of it. So when Mad Men completed its seven-season run on AMC in 2015, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner decided to catch up on some of the shows he’d missed.
But after taking part in the modern phenomenon of binge-watching that matured while his 1960s-set period drama was still on air, Weiner decided that for his next series, he would write a show completely at odds with the current demand for serialised storytelling and create something that didn’t require viewers follow a long story through multiple episodes.
As a result, The Romanoffs is a globe-trotting anthology series featuring eight separate stories about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal family.
Set in seven countries around the world, filming took place on three continents, involving local producers and talent across Europe, the Americas and the Far East. Each feature-length episode is set in a different location with a new cast, and is released weekly in more than 200 countries on Amazon Prime Video. The first two instalments launched on October 12.
Episode one, The Violet Hour, is set in Paris where an ancestral home holds the key to a family’s future. Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Inès Melab and Louise Bourgoin star.
Other episodes include House of Special Purpose, in which a movie star and a director go head-to-head in a battle over what is real; Bright & High Circle, about a tight-knit community where loyalties are tested; End of the Line, which sees a couple face destruction as they pursue their legacy; and The Royal We (pictured top), about a couple who pursue their temptations after their marriage gets into a rut.
The series is completed by Expectation, told over a single day in New York City when a woman is confronted with every lie she ever told; Panorama, set in Mexico City where an idealistic reporter falls in love with his mysterious subject; and The One that Holds Everything, in which a man tries to escape a family curse.
The ensemble cast includes Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Diane Lane, Ron Livingston, Kathryn Hahn, Corey Still, Kerry Bishé, Janet Montgomery, Noah Wyle, Amanda Peet, John Slattery, Juan Pablo Castañeda, Radha Mitchell, Hugh Skinner and Adèle Anderson.
“Part of it was really about doing a show that’s really set around the world with a connection — is it genetic? Is it cultural? Is it nature? Is it nurture? Who we say we are versus who we really are,” Weiner says of creating the show. “I was lucky enough to come to Amazon and shoot the show in different countries and different languages and really show what people have in common but also to do a different story every week. And we’re lucky enough to go on once a week so people will get a chance to have a conversation about it, hopefully.”
The nine-time Emmy winner, who is the creator, writer, director and an executive producer on the series, says the Romanoffs, whose ruling members were assassinated by Bolshevik troops in 1918, have always fascinated him. “It’s got this great true-crime factor to it of people who were murdered,” he explains. “Obviously they’re an autocratic family. I don’t have to tell you how people respond to royalty. And then, years later, who are you? You can say what you are and it’s impressive, but who are you?”
In The Violet Hour, Keller plays Anushka, an ageing French doyenne whose nephew Greg (Eckhart) is waiting for her to die so he can inherit her fortune. Bourgoin plays Sophie, Greg’s girlfriend, with Melab as Hajar, an agency carer sent to look after Anushka.
“The reason why I loved the part so much is it’s exactly the opposite of what I did before. She’s so mean. She’s so rascist. She’s so bourgeoise. She’s so French. And she’s so over the top,” Keller says. “When I finished shooting, it was like I had to detox because all the toxins came out and I felt like I wanted to be a good girl again. So it was an adventure for me to do that.”
The actor also praises Weiner’s script: “It’s so well written; it was like music. Everything is about the right thing – of course it’s the directing, the casting. It was like music. It was the pacing, the writing, so then it’s not very difficult to play, even if it’s something far away from who you are. But that’s why we do our job.”
In contrast to Anushka is Hajar, who Melab describes as strong and compassionate. “For me it was just amazing to play this character and work with Matthew, Marthe, Aaron and Louise. I loved playing this character because she’s strong but fragile. I loved this image of a strong woman, and she’s very patient. She’s just doing her job. Even if Marthe’s character is a little bit mean sometimes, she doesn’t see her through what she does.”
Weiner says The Violet Hour is a type of fairytale, likening Hajar to a princess and Marthe to an “evil witch queen.” He continues: “Their relationship, even though it has this tone to it, it’s very realistic, but it’s really about two different legacies and passing on what belongs to you. Right now I don’t know if people want to see stories about money necessarily on TV, but to me it was interesting. It becomes a symbol of what you have and how you try to hold on to it and who’s going to get it. Is it the person who loves you the most? So they’re really two different sides to the same coin to me, where Marthe is forceful and harsh and angry and, as she says, bourgeois and a racist. And Ines is very strong but also very tender and scared inside.”
Their relationship also adheres to the theme of family that runs through the series, with Weiner observing that family is an issue for everyone in society right now. “The world is so divisive and we become more and more isolated and we cling to those aspects of our life that are our identity,” he explains.
Appearing in the final episode, The One that Holds Everything, is Skinner (Harlots, Poldark) as Simon Burrows. The actor describes the episode, which has a non-linear structure, as a family saga that circles the globe, but doesn’t reveal much more, apart from the fact that it was partly filmed in Hong Kong.
“As with Mad Men and stuff, Matthew’s got this extraordinary ability to create a very full world and then the tone of it is very different to anything I’ve ever seen before. [Filming in Hong Kong] was fantastic,” he says.
Weiner, whose credits also include The Sopranos, jokes that he set the story in Hong Kong simply to give him a reason to visit a place he’d never seen before. “Some of this was an excuse to work in exotic places like Toronto and Pasadena but also Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s funny because the story Hugh is in is like a Hitchcock story.”
Viewers will see Skinner’s character at various stages of his life in a story that is told out of order. “The premise of the show basically is two people sit down next to each other on a train and a story is told and you flash back,” Weiner reveals. “Hugh is the star of that story. You see his life but you don’t see it in order, ever. ”
The showrunner says his preference for an anthology format with standalone episodes was about entertaining viewers, while offering them a conclusion at the end of 80 minutes.
“You get a chance from the writing point of view, the directing point of view and from the audience point of view to have a story that commits to a resolution,” he adds. “Even movies today are sort of sequalised, so when you commit to a story, the stakes become higher immediately; you don’t know what’s going to happen. In series television, [Mad Men main character] Don Draper probably won’t actually get fired even if someone comes in and goes up against him, because he needs to be there next week.
“In this storytelling, there is a climax and a resolution and it’s perfect. And because you’re asking actors to come in for one episode instead of six years, look at the people who show up to be in it.”
Wendell Pierce and Dina Shihabi, two stars of Amazon Prime Video action drama Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, tell DQ about how the series stands out for its blend of action and characterisation and for its representation of characters from an Arab background.
HBO drama The Wire, which is regularly hailed as one of the best series of all time, was among a handful of shows to air around the millennium that broke new ground by delving deeper into character and placing less focus on procedural storytelling.
Now 16 years after the first of its five seasons launched on the iconic US cable channel, one of the show’s stars can see the similarities between The Wire and his latest project, Amazon Prime Video action thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
“What has changed [since The Wire] is now people see they can do more in-depth work and they don’t have to reduce every episode to a beginning, middle and end. So there are more anthology series on television, which lend themselves to more involved and complex storylines. It challenges you as an actor a little bit more,” admits Wendell Pierce, who starred as Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland in The Wire and is now playing CIA boss James Greer in Jack Ryan.
“There’s more interesting work being done on television almost every year because the bar is being set higher and higher. Work that you normally got to do on film, you get to do on television. That’s the change, and I’m very proud to have been a part of the wave that changed television.”
Jack Ryan centres on the titular up-and-coming CIA analyst as he is thrust into a dangerous field assignment for the first time. Pierce’s hot-headed Greer teams up with Ryan (John Krasinski) to identify a potential terrorist described as the next Osama Bin Laden.
The series was created by co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, who executive produce with Krasinski, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Lindsey Springer, Mace Neufeld, Vince Calandra, Andrew Bernstein, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross. It is produced by Paramount Television, Genre Arts, Platinum Dunes and Skydance Television.
Pierce says he was drawn to the series by Clancy’s iconic characters – made famous by the author’s books and their numerous film adaptations – plus its great writing and the chance to work alongside Krasinski (The Office, A Quiet Place), Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) and Roland (Prison Break).
“I also got a chance to work with actors from all around the world, and the material itself lends itself to a multitude of possibilities. So I knew it was going to be interesting and eclectic,” he says. “They were trying to do something original and not just a television version of the books. All of that was appealing to me – and then to do that while travelling around the world and acting with people from around the world, it’s very exciting.”
Pierce was also enticed by the fact all eight episodes of the show were made available to watch in more than 240 countries around the world on the same day as the premiere in LA. “In one moment in time, everyone can see it. That’s pretty amazing,” he enthuses.
Playing a CIA officer was also a new experience for the actor, whose credits also include Suits, Treme and Ray Donovan. But to prepare for the role, he did a lot of research, meeting current and former CIA officers. “They are multi-dimensional and complex people, but they’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he says. “I got to understand how that work affects their personal life because you find out things during the course of the show that affect James Greer’s personal life. They were a great resource.”
The first season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – season two has already been confirmed – begins with Greer despondent as he faces the end of his career after being bumped down to a desk job. But right at the moment when he thinks his best days are behind him, he’s rejuvenated by Ryan, a young analyst who reminds him of all the reasons he became a CIA officer in the first place.
The opening episode sees Greer and Ryan head to the Middle East to interrogate suspected terrorists, before a massive firefight erupts inside a desert compound. But while there’s plenty of action, Greer says this is finely balanced with quieter moments as the characters and their relationships are explored.
“With the action, it’s not arbitrary sensational acting,” he continues. “Everything is very specific, so the action and thriller part of the investigation are even-handed and you find an element of both in each, so that’s what I like about the way it’s come together.
“I enjoyed the action stuff, being on helicopters and all that. But also doing the research and putting that together, I really enjoyed that part of it too. Then the locations and working with actors from different parts of the world. You don’t realise what we have in common and how expressive and inventive people can be. It puts you on your toes and you appreciate being in the moment because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Among the actors sharing the screen with Pierce is Dina Shihabi, who plays Hanin Suleiman, the wife of the man being hunted by Ryan and Greer. When she first appears, she’s shown with her three kids playing football, before a band of suspicious people turn up at her house. But while not much more is revealed in those initial scenes, it’s clear she will have an integral role in the events that play out during the season.
The series marks Shihabi’s first major television role, and the actor says she was thrilled to be playing a “strong, intelligent, brave woman,” particularly one from an Arab background. “She felt like the women I knew and grew up with, and I don’t see that portrayed in Western TV,” she explains. “Usually when you see Arab women on screen, they’re victimised or aren’t given a voice, so they’re an ‘other’ – they look different, dress different and sound different. So I’m especially proud, as an Arab woman, that that’s what I’m putting out into the world, because I think we need more Arab women on screen who are smart and powerful.”
The actor, who grew up in Dubai and now splits her time between New York and LA, believes unfair portrayals of Arabs on screen “rob” viewers in the West of learning about a culture they might be unfamiliar with. “Then for the Arab world, it’s important to see positive portrayals of them in the Western media. If all you’re seeing is a terrorist, that’s how you feel the rest of the world thinks about you.”
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan goes so far as to show the events that motivate Hanin’s husband, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), to wage war against the West. “He believes he’s fighting for his people; he believes he’s protecting his family,” Shihabi says. “Everyone has these deep and strong motivations and they don’t all line up, and that’s a very complex, human, riveting story.”
There is no doubt Mousa bin Suleiman is a bad person, but it’s also important that viewers understand he wasn’t always like that, Shihabi argues. “What this series does is shows you how he becomes that person and it shows you what that person’s family is like. Then you get to spend an extremely intimate amount of time with that person’s wife and you get to know her not just as his wife but as a person in the world. I just find that so powerful, and those are the stories we have to tell.”
The fact Hanin plays a pivotal role in the series was particularly exciting for the actor, who reveals she hardly sleep for two weeks after learning she had won the part. “I was so excited because my character has a complete storyline, I’m a key player in what drives this show,” she adds. “So for a powerful Arab, Muslim woman to be a key player in a huge Amazon TV show called Jack Ryan, that’s badass. That’s so cool, and I hope more characters like this are portrayed on screen. I hope this opens a lot of doors.”
William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel Vanity Fair has been adapted for UK broadcaster ITV and streamer Amazon. DQ speaks to the writer and some of the key creative talent behind the camera to find out how this strikingly contemporary series was made.
Ten years ago, Gwyneth Hughes began writing an adaptation of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th century novel long considered a classic of English literature. Her modern update of the story never made it to screen, however, and her work was left unfinished.
Fast-forward a decade and Hughes (Dark Angel, Remember Me) has penned a new version, this time keeping its period setting, which will premiere in the UK on ITV on September 2 and on Amazon Prime Video in the US later this year.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the story follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society.
Hughes describes the source material as “an absolute romp” that bounces between extremes, from light comedy to terrible tragedy. She has sought to keep that variation in her adaptation, but says large parts of the second half of the book have been trimmed, when the pace of events becomes decidedly slower. As a result, the Battle of Waterloo, which happens halfway through Thackeray’s tome, takes place in episode five of the seven-part series.
In relation to the story’s heroine, “all the other characters have money, they’ve all got family and middle-class incomes, but she’s alone in the world,” the writer says. “She thinks she deserves better, and her sense of entitlement that drives her all the way through the story is a really modern theme, in bad ways as well as good. In the end, you love her without liking her because she behaves so badly at times – but that also makes her extremely relatable.”
Despite making some cuts, the production sought to be as faithful to the source material as possible. On set, producer Julia Stannard would carry copies of Thackeray’s novel as well as Hughes’ scripts so the subtext of the author’s work was never lost in adaptation.
“With seven hours of drama, you’re asking people to make a big investment in terms of their time to keep coming back and watching, so you have to care about the characters,” Stannard says. “That is a big challenge for Vanity Fair because it is a world inhabited by flawed characters. So how do you make it emotionally engaging without dumbing it down or changing the original text? Thackeray cared a lot about these characters and I think we’ve created a world in which our audience will care about those characters too.”
After working on several contemporary series such as Broadchurch and Liar, director James Strong found the new challenge he was looking for in Vanity Fair, revealing that he was drawn towards the variety and scale of the story as well as the team he would be working with. The series comes from Mammoth Screen and is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“Gwyneth had done an amazing adaptation; she distilled the essence of the book into the story so, for me, it was about finding a visual language that made it feel relevant, exciting and interesting,” Strong says of his approach behind the camera. “Some period dramas can be quite reverential and respectful. This one I wanted to feel very much like it was a period drama shot in a contemporary manner.”
In practice, Strong used zooms, steadicam and handheld cameras to shoot the series, mixed with wide-angle lenses that could convey huge scale. “Then you’re up close with the characters in an intimate and personal way, always with Becky at the heart of it,” he explains. “Her vision, her perspective of the world around her, also dictates the camera pattern and style, so we look at it though her eyes quite literally in many ways.”
Becky is played by up-and-coming actor Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel), who heads a cast that also includes Johnny Flynn as Dobbin, Martin Clunes (Sir Pitt Crawley), Frances de La Tour (Miss Matilda Crawley) and Suranne Jones (Miss Pinkerton), while Michael Palin appears as Thackeray himself. The series also features Claudia Jessie as Becky’s confidante, Amelia Sedley, plus Simon Russell Beale and Claire Skinner as Amelia’s parents and David Fynn as her brother, Joss.
By the time Vanity Fair airs, Cooke will be a huge Hollywood star, thanks to her role in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic nostalgia trip Ready Player One. “Our little Olivia is going to be Steven Spielberg’s latest heroine and then she’s going to pop up as Becky Sharp. It’s great,” muses Hughes. “She’s very talented; she’s going to go far. We were very lucky to catch her on the way up.”
Stannard picks up: “We wanted to put together a cast that felt surprising, so Olivia was not a TV name, she’s a movie star. Martin Clunes is in his first big period drama, Frances de La Tour is a national treasure. And our young cast, I can guarantee, will be household names in a couple of years. Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Tom Bateman, Claudia Jessie, they’re all incredibly talented young actors.”
Shooting began in September 2017 and finished at the beginning of February, with most filming taking place in London. The crew also spent time in Budapest, which doubled for scenes set in Brussels and Pumpernickel, a small Germany principality featured in the novel.
“A lot of them have to be period-correct so it was a big challenge to find the right locations,” Strong says. “A lot of settings [such as characters’ houses] are composites so we do the drawing room and the bedrooms in one place, then you do the exterior in one place and the kitchen or the garden somewhere else.”
All in all, Vanity Fair was shot on 120 sets across 12 weeks. And while the series was filmed entirely on location, visual effects played their part in bringing the sets to life.
“The job has definitely changed over the years and I’m embracing it because we can’t physically do everything,” says production designer Anna Pritchard (Broadchurch, Top Boy). “The time pressure of building streets and covering roads, especially when you go back in time and do 1815, there might be one Georgian building but it’s changed so many times… You could build from scratch but you know you’re spending thousands and thousands of pounds and it doesn’t ever look 100%. So what VFX can do for us is absolutely amazing.
“It was such a beautiful project to work on because it was so varied – we got to build streets and all the characters’ houses. I loved every single one of them. Even going to Budapest was fantastic. We made good use of their period architecture.”
With location logistics and actor availability complicating proceedings, the production schedule was akin to a military exercise – quite literally when it came to filming sequences recreating the Battle of Waterloo, the centrepiece of the show. “We had 300 men playing Napoleonic soldiers living in camp. We had 50 horses, plus armourers, explosions. We had VFX, drones and sometimes two or three shooting crews, costume and make-up,” reveals Strong. “All of that is a massive undertaking and, at the centre of it, you’ve got to keep the vision going and deal with the weather and whatever it throws at you.”
Strong is no stranger to televisual set pieces, having assassinated JFK in Hulu drama 11.22.63 and overseen multiple alien invasions in Doctor Who. But he hadn’t orchestrated a Napoleonic battle before. Likewise, Hughes had previously never written a war scene.
“There’s actually more of it [in the script] than Thackeray wrote in the book,” she says. “And never in my whole writing life have I been asked to write a scene that began ‘Ext – Battlefield – Day.’ You write that and then think, ‘Now what?’ I learned to write a battle, so that was fun.”
“Day one and, oh my gosh, it’s war – and how are we going to do it?” says Pritchard, recalling the first time she read the script. “It’s all about the cavalry, the horses, the cannons and the weapons, the artillery and the armoury. But the wonderful thing about battles is it’s all set in a field. So for me, it’s not so much about what I’m going to build but the art of war and how we make it look good. A lot of fine detail and research went into that.”
Stannard, however, is well versed in battle scenes, having previously produced War & Peace for the BBC. So when she joined Vanity Fair early in its development, she was quick to call in military adviser Paul Biddiss and horsemasters The Devil’s Horsemen, having worked with both on the Tolstoy adaptation.
“Thackeray doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about the battle but what was important was these are very privileged young men and they have never really faced any challenges in life,” she says. “Suddenly they’re thrown onto a battlefield, young men in their early 20s, and they literally don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s about the shock and the contrast between their very privileged lives in London and the reality of suddenly becoming soldiers. That felt like a massive journey for those characters and it felt like it would be a cheat if we didn’t show the audience that and let them share that experience.”
Hughes has form when it comes to television adaptations, having penned a version of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She also wrote the biographical Miss Austen Regrets, based on the life of novelist Jane Austen, known for works such as Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
“You don’t have to read Vanity Fair. It’s alright, I read it for you,” Hughes says, echoing the words of fellow writer Andrew Davies when he spoke about adapting Tolstoy’s War & Peace in 2016. “So for people who never pick up a book, they can still enjoy this wonderful story. We always come back to these stories because they are the best stories ever written. That’s why they’ve lasted.”
That timelessness is also why Stannard believes classic works of literature continue to be remade for the small screen. “I’m not really interested in making drama that just feels locked in that time,” she says. “What I’m interested in is looking at the key themes of the book and what’s happening for those characters and relating it to the here and now.
“It’s a great challenge to adapt a book that’s been adapted before. The biggest challenge for us was probably making it feel fresh and different. I hope and believe we’ve done that.”
Tom Clancy’s literary hero Jack Ryan has been seen on screen before, notably in movies, with Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine all having portrayed the character.
Now, Ryan is set for television for the first time – in a 10-part series for Amazon Prime Video.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan sees John Krasinski (The Office, A Quiet Place) step into the title role as a desk-bound CIA analyst who is on the trail of a terrorist network, only to find himself thrown into the field for the first time.
In this DQTV interview, co-showrunners Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) and Graham Roland (Lost) talk about why the novels lend themselves more to television than cinema and how they brought together several story strands into one 10-part series.
They also talk about casting Krasinski as Ryan and how they strived to bring authenticity to the series.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which has already been renewed for a second season ahead of its August 31 launch in more than 200 countries, is produced by Paramount Television, Cuse’s Genre Arts, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes and David Ellison’s Skydance Television.
Former EastEnders showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins talks to DQ about bringing together Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw for A Very English Scandal, the first production from Blueprint Television.
If there’s such a thing as an easy commission, A Very English Scandal might be it. Take a previously untold story based on a bestselling book and add writer Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Cucumber), throw in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and add Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Love Actually) in the lead role and it’s little wonder the BBC quickly commissioned the three-part drama.
The person who pulled the project together is Dominic Treadwell-Collins, best known as a two-time showrunner on EastEnders. Treadwell-Collins left the British soap in 2016 to set up Blueprint Television, the small-screen arm of film producer Blueprint Pictures, which was recently behind Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
“It’s nice that this is the first thing for me after EastEnders,” Treadwell-Collins says, joking that he was “broken” by the time he left the show. “I just needed to get into a bit of development and pause a bit. Even then, we got this greenlit within nine months. What I set up to do with A Very English Scandal was mix someone like Russell – an amazing TV writer – with Stephen Frears, an amazing film director, because that’s the way a lot of TV is going at the moment. It feels like we’ve achieved that.”
A Very English Scandal, which is coproduced with Amazon Prime Video in the US, tells the shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. In his first television role since the 1990s, Grant plays disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, who in 1979 was tried but acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw).
The drama begins in the late 1960s when homosexuality had recently been decriminalised. Thorpe, leader of the Liberal party, fears his career is at risk as long as former lover Scott is around. Thorpe schemes and deceives – until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good. Thorpe’s trial changed society forever, illuminating the darkest secrets of the establishment.
Blueprint had picked up the rights to Preston’s novel before Treadwell-Collins joined the company, so he had some reading material to hand during his three-week break between leaving EastEnders and joining the fledgling production company, which is backed by Sony Pictures Television, the distributor of the miniseries. But what he expected be a “dry political scandal” surprised him with its funny and farcical tone, its unbelievable-but-true plotlines and the human relationship at its core.
Working with a public broadcaster, in this case the BBC, meant every detail in the script had to be scrutinised and backed up by three different sources. But that hasn’t stopped the series attracting as many headlines now as the scandal did 40 years ago, with some claiming the show represents certain characters unfairly. Police have also reopened the case of the failed assassination after discovering a key suspect, previously thought to have died, is still alive.
“That’s always part and parcel of doing factual drama,” Treadwell-Collins notes of the controversy surrounding the way some real-life figures have been portrayed. “That’s always going to happen. The thing we’ve been very firm about from the beginning was it’s A Very English Scandal based on the book by John Preston. That is our primary source material and, because his book has been out there in the public domain, we haven’t deviated from that.”
But it remains the case that factual drama is riding the crest of a popularity wave on television, with recent hits including American Crime Story’s focus on the OJ Simpson trial and then the assassination of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, British crime drama Little Boy Blue and Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country.
“There’s something quite nice about having the authenticity and also truth being stranger than fiction,” Treadwell-Collins says. “They just bring you in and there’s a huge appetite for stories but particularly true stories that people don’t know about. That’s what’s exciting.”
Within a large ensemble cast that also features Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Monica Dolan, Adrian Scarborough and Jason Watkins, it is Grant and Whishaw’s partnership that carries the drama through Thorpe and Scott’s relationship, from early infatuation to bitter conclusion, while the tone rises and falls between humour and farce and tender emotional moments.
That balancing act could only have been managed by one writer, says Treadwell-Collins, who immediately took the project to Davies. “He was the first person I went to, the only person I went to, because Russell has that tone of jauntiness and then can punch you in the stomach with emotion, and that’s what it needed,” he explains, adding that the writer initially turned the project down. “He’d heard of the Jeremy Thorpe story but said he was too busy. I sent him the book anyway and he emailed me two days later and I’d got him. He’d read the first few pages and thought, ‘I’ve got to do this. I don’t want anyone else to do this story.’
“Russell got that balance just right and putting him with Stephen, he’s such a human director. He’s added these private moments of Jeremy, such as when he’s looking in the mirror before he goes to face a hoard of journalists, and he really made you feel Norman and Jeremy’s story all the way through. That’s what has chimed with the audience.”
Frears, who would give notes on each script, spent lots of time with Davies talking over the central relationship between Thorpe and Scott, speaking to people whose lives were affected by the story. The production team also met relatives of the characters in an effort to present fully rounded portraits of the characters on screen.
Grant and Whishaw also did their own research and spent time rehearsing with Frears before committing their performances to camera. Grant even learned to play the violin for a scene in episode one in which Thorpe performs for Scott alongside Thorpe’s mother (Hodge) on the piano. The actor shared the view of Treadwell-Collins, Davies and Frears that his performance should not be an imitation of Thorpe, and that he should instead try to embody the real-life politician.
Filming took place around the UK, from Wales and Devon to London and the Home Counties surrounding the capital. The interiors of the Houses of Parliament were recreated at Manchester Town Hall, while a Devon beach doubled for California.
For Treadwell-Collins, making the series was a far cry from his experience on EastEnders. The long-running soap airs four times a week, has a cast of more than 40 actors and employs hundreds of crew, with Treadwell-Collins on call 24/7 in case any problems arose.
“It was insane, I loved it, but you’ve got to love a show like that to run it properly,” he recalls, adding that he is now enjoying building his own slate of dramas. These include “other scandals,” an adaptation of chatshow host Graham Norton’s novel Holding and an adaptation of Israeli drama Fauda, to which Blueprint has secured the remake rights.
The producer has also teamed up with Grantchester writer Daisy Coulam for what he describes as “a period female Bond series with a bit of Hollywood sparkle,” while he also plans to reinvent the British period drama for the 21st century.
A Very English Scandal, which is available on BBC iPlayer and launches on Amazon in the US on June 29, could be a tough act to follow, however, both in terms of its A-list creative talent and the five-star reviews it has received. But Treadwell-Collins remains undaunted.
“What’s been nice for our first Blueprint Television production is it’s Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant,” he concludes. “We’re putting our flag in and saying this is the mark of quality we will keep to.
“We’re not just going to make something for the sake of making television or just looking at it as the fact we’re making money. Everything we believe in and we love. That’s the way Blueprint make their films and the way we’re making television. It’s a really exciting place to be.”
The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.
All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.
One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.
Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).
All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.
In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).
In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).
Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.
It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.
Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.
On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.
Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.
Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.
This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.
The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.
The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.
Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.
On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’
Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).
On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”
Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”
Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.
One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.
FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).
Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.
And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.
Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’
But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.
The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.
Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.
Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.
The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.
Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard and Tahar Rahim star in political thriller The Looming Tower, which puts the spotlight on the rivalry between the CIA and FBI and how it may have led to 9/11. The stars and showrunner Dan Futterman tell DQ about making the 10-part series.
When it comes to dramas based on real events, it’s often not the story that holds any surprise but the previously unknown details, which can help bring a show to life. The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story retells the story of one of the biggest criminal trials in US history, while Waco focuses on the infamous siege at the titular Texan town in 1993. Similarly, royal dramas such as The Crown and Victoria dramatise the lives of some of Britain’s most famous monarchs.
In the case of US drama The Looming Tower, the 10-part drama tells the story of the terrorist attacks that took place in the US on September 11, 2001. But rather than focusing on that single day, it explores the timeline that led up to the attack and, in particular, the role of US intelligence agencies.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA during that time may have set a course for tragedy. It is produced and distributed by Legendary Television.
Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, the chief of the FBI’s I-48 Squad, who is convinced the US has been targeted by Al-Qaeda. But he and his protégé, Muslim-American FBI agent Ali Soufran (Tahar Rahim), face insufficient cooperation from other government organisations, specifically the CIA, led by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard). Schmidt and his CIA colleagues subsequently decide to horde information under the notion the CIA is the only government agency equipped to battle potential terror threats from abroad.
Personal and professional rivalries come to a head when Al-Qaeda operatives in the US, known about by the CIA, begin to put their plan into action.
Like many of the viewers who will tune in to watch the series, the show’s leading actors were largely unaware of the events described in Wright’s book. Wright is an executive producer on the series alongside showrunner Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, Craig Zisk and Adam Rapp.
“You read the book and hear about John O’Neill and think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Daniels says. “So I have a feeling, 17 years removed, a lot of America is as unaware of John and the book as I was and I think that’s a great reason why this will be almost new information, especially for all those people who think they know what 9/11 was about.”
Rahim picks up: “I was totally unaware of what happened before and I was really surprised by this true event. So when I talked to Dan and Alex, I wanted to know more about it. I was surprised to see there were Muslim-American heroes, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
By a matter of chance, Skarsgard read The Looming Tower when it was first published. He believes this is a story people should have known about in 2008, rather than 2018.
“The number of people who bought this book was [high] but did everyone really read it? Because I really felt like it should be an important part of the discussion,” says the actor, whose character Schmidt is a composite of real people, unlike the other leading figures. “It took me a while to come around to understanding how to play this guy, understanding how to be in this world. One of the things that really attracted me about this part is I think the fundamental job of being a CIA analyst is being a storyteller – you’re putting together a narrative based on sometimes scant information to try to predict what’s going to happen in the future. And if you look at it that way as an actor, it starts to become appealing.”
Futterman says that while adapting the book, which won the Pulitzer in 2007, it was clear the TV drama – which launches today in the US on Hulu and then worldwide on Amazon on March 1 in English-speaking territories and on March 9 in non-English speaking territories – should be based around O’Neill, who Daniels describes as a complex character.
“That’s one of the great things about Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and all these [types of companies] is that they encourage writers like Dan and Alex to chase complexity, and for actors to get to play that is a great challenge but also a great opportunity,” he says. “I looked at O’Neill and said, ‘I don’t know how to do this but I’d like to figure out how and risk failure.’ That’s what keeps us going, the challenge of it.
“He was a mess personally. Professionally he was brilliant and would go to the mat for the men and women of the FBI, but also for the hunch that Bin Laden was someone we needed to pay more attention to, and he seemed to be screaming into the wind. He started turning over tables and clearing people’s desks and screaming at them. So the way he went about it didn’t work but what he was saying was, in the end, right.”
Sarsgaard notes that his character values an American life more than a foreign one, so he goes all out to protect Americans at any cost. “You can look back and say there should have been more sharing of information but, ultimately, what took their eye off the ball was not the lack of cooperation between FBI and CIA, but that American people were chasing other things – Monica Lewinsky and all of that. When I first moved to New York, it was the year of the first World Trade Center bombing [in 1997] and then the embassy attacks [in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998]. It never really became something we fixated on until 9/11 and, of course, then with a vengeance. But I think this is something we all participated in. We all, in some way, claim some responsibility as a culture, and we can prevent it from happening again.”
Futterman (Capote, Foxcatcher) says there were two things he wanted the show to accomplish in the scripts. First, through Rahim’s character Ali Soufran, he wanted to show a Muslim-American immigrant from Lebanon as a deeply patriotic American who also understands Islam, as he is in real life.
“When Ali talks about ‘my country did this, my country will do that,’ he’s talking about America, not Lebanon,” the showrunner says. “We wanted to show this guy knows what Islam is about, this guy knows was patriotism is about. The other thing was we wanted to try to provoke was some answers. The 9/11 families and friends of the victims have been asking questions for 17 years now and have got very few answers, so we try to answer some of those questions. And when we didn’t know the answers, we tried to ask those questions again and again and louder than before.”
Like his FBI mentor, Soufran is a hugely complex character, caught between two cultures, though it is the seriousness with how he treats Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda that makes O’Neill sit up and take notice.
“What motivates the character are his values – freedom and respect for life and people,” says Rahim, a French actor who also starred in The Last Panthers. “I don’t think he can bear that these people are hijacking his religion. I got to meet him just to know more about him and it was great to meet an agent like him. There are two ways to portray someone who exists – you can just be like him and imitate him, but people don’t know how he walks and talks so my point was to know him as a soul, a man in his private life and the relationship he had with John O’Neill.”
Will Soufran’s role in the story have any effect beyond the series? “I don’t know what it will be but I hope it’s going to make people understand more about what Islam is and the difference between what is a real Muslim and a terrorist,” the actor adds. “It’s important to tell that piece of history about what happened because it’s not only American history, it’s world history.”
Daniels, last seen on television in Netflix miniseries Godless and before that in HBO’s The Newsroom, says he’s curious to know whether the FBI and CIA are now working together. “You’d like to think with the circus that’s going on inside the White House, the intelligence community is at least sharing intelligence and communicating better,” he says.
Sarsgaard agrees that “daily distractions” mean the country appears to be chasing its tail somewhat. “You see breaking news on television and you know it’s not going to have anything to do with anything that is really about personal threats or about the possibility for bettering the country,” he adds.
Behind the scenes, Futterman says he made the decision to allow each episode to have a different tone of voice – utilising fellow writers Bathsheba Doran, Adam Rapp, Ali Selim and Shannon Houston – rather than rewriting each script “so it sounds like it’s coming out of the same typewriter.” He continues: “People approach the job differently. It also made for less work for me that I didn’t have to rewrite the scripts. The biggest job as a showrunner is are you hiring the right people and these guys I hired, with the DOPs, the directors and the rest of the cast… it becomes an easier job if you get the right people.”
Futterman says television seemed like the right medium rather than condensing this huge story into a two-hour feature film, a point with which Daniels agrees. “We’re shooting a novel. In our head, it’s a 10-hour movie,” Daniels concludes. “There are more details and more colours, it’s really great.”
Set in 43AD, anarchic drama Britannia follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
David Morrissey stars as Roman general Aulus, alongside Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid and Mackenzie Crook.
In this DQTV interview, Morrissey reveals what drew him to the unusual role and how he was captivated by the show’s stunning set design.
The actor and executive producer James Richardson also discuss working with co-creator Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright behind Jerusalem and The Ferryman, and explain why this isn’t just another historical drama.
Britannia is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video in the US. Sky Vision is the distributor.