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A cautionary tale

Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.

When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.

While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”

Peter Kosminsky

From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.

But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.

Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.

“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.

“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”

The State follows four characters who head for Syria for different reasons

Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.

Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.

Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.

Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”

“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.

Peter Kosminsky hopes the series will serve as a cautionary tale

“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”

As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.

“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.

Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.

“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”

Extensive research was involved in developing the characters and their motivations

The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.

Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.

“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”

The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).

Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”

Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.

“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”

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What lies beneath

The cast and crew of Riviera return to the South of France for the world premiere of Sky Atlantic’s compelling crime drama. Michael Pickard spoke to the production team about creating a dark, corrupt world below the surface of this playground for the super-rich.

The story of Riviera plays out entirely on location across the south of France, capturing every aspect of this impossibly glamorous and wealthy part of the world to tell a story that uncovers a layer of darkness and corruption beneath the glossy exterior.

So it’s only fitting that the cast and crew of the 10-part series are in Cannes today to attend the series’ world premiere at MipTV.

Liza Marshall

It’s a quick return to the French Riviera for the team behind the Sky Atlantic drama, which is produced by Archery Pictures and Primo Productions, having only completed production earlier this year. The finishing touches to the show, distributed by Sky Vision, are now being put together ahead of its debut this summer.

Julia Stiles (pictured top) stars as Georgina, a Midwestern US girl turned smart, resourceful wife of the billionaire Constantine Clios. But after just a year of marriage, her immaculate new life is blown apart, literally, when her art collector husband Constantine is killed in an explosion aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch and arms dealer.

Believing there to be more to the tragedy, she sets out to uncover what happened. Dark truths about Constantine’s dealings emerge and, as she begins to realise who she was really married to, Georgina enters a spiral of moral descent as she becomes immersed in a world of lies, double-dealing and criminality.

Lena Olin co-stars as Irina, the first wife of Constantine, Adrian Lester as Georgina’s friend and art dealer Robert Carver; Iwan Rheon and Dimitri Leonidas as Constantine’s sons Adam and Christos; Roxane Duran as Adriana; and Phil Davis as Jukes, the art fraud investigator trying to get to the truth.

The idea for a series set on the French Riviera was sparked by Paul McGuinness, the former manager of Irish rock band U2 who owned a house in the region for many years. After discussing the idea with Archery Pictures execs Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier, McGuiness pitched the project to Oscar-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Borgias), who came on board as series creator, writer and exec producer.

“Paul and Neil have been friends for years, so Neil came on board and wrote the pilot script and the bible,” Marshall recalls. “Sky were very excited and greenlit the show on that and then we were off.”

Thykier says the idea began life as a film but over the course of the 18-month development period, it took shape as a television series.

He continues: “It felt fresh, exciting and entertaining. Although Riviera is about darkness and corruption that sits underneath the surface of this particular world, there was something about it that was also bright, colourful and glamorous. So the combination of complexity of character and that Neil Jordan tone, matched with one of the great locations of the world, caught everyone’s attention.

Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon is among the main cast

“Neil wrote the first two scripts with John Banville and then brought on some new young writers. Julia Stiles came on board to play our heroine Georgina. It sounds so easy but there were various steps along the way. In some respects, that initial creative vision that Neil provided set the blueprint for the show and we started shooting last summer until the beginning of this year.”

Marshall says that with Jordan’s list of credits, the story was always going to be about a dynastic family.

“Having done The Borgias, he was attracted to that kind of subject matter but quite quickly we realised we wanted to tell the story of one woman, Georgina Clios, who is at the heart of it,” the exec producer says. “She’s our eyes into this world. She wasn’t born into it, she climbed up. She recently married her husband Constantine so they’re madly in love at the start of the show. Then he’s killed in a giant yacht explosion.”

A grand villa in Villefranche doubles as the Clios family home, while locations along the coast were used to bring Riviera to life. As Marshall notes, “it’s set where it’s shot.”

“We began in August [last year], which was a pretty tough time to be shooting in the south of France because it’s the height of the season, so it was very expensive,” she says. “We were based in some old film studios in Nice, so everything was relatively close. It was very expensive shooting there and they have labour laws that are quite different to ours [in the UK]. There’s a limit to how long you can shoot per day, and it’s five-day weeks, which is unusual, not 11-day fortnights. But it was so worth it because you get so much value on screen. Every time we could point to the sea or some scenery, you could see they were living this opulent lifestyle, which people do down there on the Riviera.”

Kris Thykier

Thykier picks up: “It’s a cliche when people say the location is one of the characters, but bizarrely on this, it really is, I promise. We had one returning set which was the villa but, apart from that, we shot the shit out of the south of France and hopefully you’ll see it on screen. We never limited our ambitions in terms of this world because ultimately it’s the world of the 1%. It is yachts, helicopters, cars, grand hotels and grand promenades. So it was fantastic.”

The start of production was complicated, however, by tragic circumstances as shooting began three days after a truck careered into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing more than 80 people.

“A lot of our crew were from Nice and the environs so that was obviously tragic and tough,” Thykier reflects. “Any big show of that scale over that time period will have some production ups and downs but to be honest, we rather loved the crew there. In a way, the awful events meant the town was very keen to welcome to us. They wanted to show they were open for business and weren’t going to be cowed. There was a solidarity to the city and they were incredibly welcoming so we were able to access great locations.”

Behind the camera, Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War) came in as lead director, helming the first two episodes and laying the blueprints for the four directors who followed him. He worked alongside director of photography Laurie Rose and costume designer Emma Fryer to create the look and style of the series, which, as viewers might expect, drips with opulence. In particular, inspiration was taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie Le Mépris, which starred Brigitte Bardot.

“When you see Georgina and Irina, they just look completely fabulous,” says Marshall. “Irina’s wearing a selection of great dresses, trouser suits and high heels and that was really important to the look of the show as well. We wanted it to be beautiful and glamorous.”

When it came to casting the series, Stiles was first choice to play the central role. Thykier describes the actor as bright and brilliant, with an innate integrity and honesty that was necessary to lead an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom are described as morally bankrupt.

Hustle star Adrian Lester has a part in the show

“She’s always been an incredibly attractive actor in that regard both for men and women and we needed someone to be the emotional heart of the show,” he says. “She was always our dream casting. We’re very fortunate we have a rather brilliant cast of actors around her – Lena, Adrian, Iwan – so it was good. One of the things we’re proudest of is that it’s a cast of very talented actors.”

Running the production on the ground was series producer Foz Allan, who had recently finished ITV’s supernatural drama Jekyll & Hyde when Marshall approached him about joining Riviera.

“Liza gave me a call, she asked me if I wanted to do it and you just go, ‘Yeah.’ What’s not to like?” he admits. “Neil Jordan, Sky – it was all good, and you get to live in Nice for a year!”

Having previously worked in Hungary, Kenya, Sweden and Australia, setting up in France proved to be no problem for Allan, utilising support from local producer Peninsula Films to bring together the local crew.

“Part of the treat of Riviera is lifting a curtain on a world that most of us don’t see” Allan says. “Going back and forth to Heathrow, I was finding myself more often in the expensive-watch section and I’m looking at £5,000 watches, thinking, ‘that’s quite reasonable actually’ – and the only way I’m thinking that is because I’ve been in a world where everything starts at £5,000 and then moves up. It was very exciting. Julia Stiles was genuinely a breathtaking performer. She was always on the money. Lena Olin’s mesmeric. The whole cast was great. It was long and complex but, actually, it was brilliant fun and they’re great performers. The scripts got stronger and stronger.”

Coming from CGI-heavy Jekyll & Hyde, Allan reveals that Riviera also had touches of computer wizardry. He explains: “The brand ‘Riviera’ has blue skies, right? So how often do you actually get blue skies out there? The truth is quite often but not every time you’re shooting. So you’ve got to deliver the brand in the same way. [Creator] Charlie Higson’s warped imagination for Jekyll & Hyde was as complex to make happen as Neil Jordan’s lyrical imagination for Riviera. The job is just to make sure you capture these imaginations and get them out to a wider audience.”

Lena Olin co-stars as Irina

But that wasn’t the biggest challenge facing Allan on location. “We had to blow up a US$25m yacht, so first we had to get a US$25m yacht and then get the man who owns it not to mind that it will appear to have been blown up,” the producer says. “That was quite a complex journey.”

It was also a journey for Thykier, whose background had been entirely in the film business, compared to his former Archery Pictures partner Marshall, who has worked on Taboo and the Red Riding trilogy and has now set up on her own at Hera Pictures. Thykier describes Riviera as a “big learning curve,” in terms of both working with multiple directors and dealing with an ever-evolving script.

“I used a lot of muscles I hadn’t used before,” he admits. “We were originally going to kill a certain character at a certain point in the series, but after about two weeks shooting, they were fantastic and we found a way to keep them in. So it was that wonderful thing of being able to adapt the series to the talent we had. That was really exciting and different. But it’s long and hard. I have newfound respect for the people at the top of their game in this business because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

“I’ve been friends with [The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures’ CEO] Andy Harries for many years and always respected him and thought he was brilliant. I now think he’s a genius! Once you’ve been through one of these big shows, you recognise it’s hard work and the people at the top of that game are really very brilliant.”

With Riviera designed with the potential to become a returning series, the cast and crew could find themselves back in the south of France not long after attending the world premiere at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.

But Marshall says it’s testament to Sky’s ambition to create British drama that stands alongside the HBO and Showtime series that also air on Sky Atlantic which has given birth to a big-budget, 10-part series like Riviera.

“Nobody else is doing that yet in the UK but Sky are because they’ve got big ambitions for their drama,” she concludes. “What’s interesting when you come to a project like this is it’s very different to making a film. There’s so much more story, it’s all about the writers, it’s very episodic. In film, the director is in charge; in television, it’s much more the writers medium. What’s exciting is it’s just all about content. People just want to make good stuff and there’s lots of opportunity at the moment which is great.”

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