Tag Archives: Beau Willimon

Shooting for Mars

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon joins the space race with Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction The First, but as DQ discovers, this eight-part drama keeps its feet firmly on the ground.

Mars has fascinated writers of fiction for more than a century, from the outlandish late Victoriana of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac to the recent CGI extravaganzas of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Julien Lacombe’s French series Missions and Ron Howard’s blend of documentary and drama for National Geographic, Mars.

The most ambitious of them all, however, is also the one most grounded in realism and minutiae. The First – co-financed by Channel 4 in the UK, US streamer Hulu, IMG and AG Studios and created by House of Cards nabob Beau Willimon – barely leaves the planet for its first eight-episode season, set in 2031, with Willimon determined to honour both the efforts that go into making any space mission a success and the human costs.

“We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of the crew, the ground team and the aerospace moguls to see what their motivations were for embarking on this journey and the sacrifices required,” says Willimon. “Our focus is how hard it is to get to the starting line. When you talk to people in NASA or the private sector, who devote a decade of their lives just to getting a rover to Mars, it would be irresponsible not to explore that side.”

The First stars Sean Penn, who accepted the role at the second time of asking

The series was, in a sense, decades in the making. Willimon was inspired by his father’s years as chief engineer on US navy submarines: the space-age technology of subs, his father’s necessarily lengthy absences on tour and the concept of epic journeys all fed into The First. “I see this as an ancient story that happens to be set in the near future, rooted in a little kid fascinated by his dad working on a submarine,” he says.

Willimon recalls how, ater a snatched coffee at a Tribeca bistro with C4’s now-outgoing head of international drama, Simon Maxwell, three years ago “I said, ‘how do you feel about a show about a mission to Mars?’ and luckily he leaned forward rather than said, ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.’”

The scripts began to take shape and the cast was assembled, headed up by Sean Penn in his first TV role, playing rugged but troubled Mars mission leader Tom Hagerty, and Natascha McElhone as distant, cerebral aerospace CEO Laz Ingram.

McElhone signed up after an eight-hour coffee meeting with Willimon (“For all future actors I may work with, they need not worry, it’s not a requirement!”); Penn took a little longer, Willimon explains. “His rep said he was unavailable, but I’ve been around long enough to know you should always ask at least twice. We got the scripts to him and he responded well, so I flew to Dallas to discuss the story and character, and eventually he came on board. Actors who take their careers and craft seriously take the time to be sure this is where they want to invest their talent. It’s why they have the careers they have – they’re rigorous.”

Underpinning the series is research perhaps even more rigorous than Penn’s quality control. Not every show, for example, features ‘futurist’ among its credits  for helping to make tangible and feasible the technology on display.

Natasha McElhone plays the CEO of an aerospace company

“The difficult thing about the near future us that it’s near,” laughs Willimon. “If you were setting something 100 years from now, you could have warp speed or teleporting and the audience will accept as a given that these things will be figured out between now and then.”

The solution came from looking back, explains The First executive producer Jordan Tappis, documentary-maker and co-founder with Willimon of Westward Productions; The First is the company’s debut drama series. IMG is handling worldwide distribution of the series, which launched in Hulu in September and comes to C4 on November 1.

“Step one was going backwards into what the world looked like 15 years ago, before trying to predict what happens 15 years from now,” says Tappis. “We focused on communications and cars, two areas where the eye can see the evolution of technology. The big prediction we made is that people could use smart technology built into earbuds and glasses. We effectively took the same idea that Google Glass represented, but made it cool and integrated. The aesthetic was, in some ways, as important as the technology itself.”

The space travel elements needed to look absolutely accurate to the people whose job it is to do it for real. NASA was “extraordinarily forthcoming,” says Tappis, as were the veteran astronauts and representatives from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who were consulted.

“From the jargon to the designs, you won’t find many liberties taken with tech and science,” says Tappis. “But when we’ve had to make a narrative choice that doesn’t chime exactly with the research, it’s never by accident. For example, the rocket used is an original design, but derivative of the SLS rocket that NASA will likely use for their first manned missions. The capsules are technically accurate, but we also needed bigger cameras so we changed the dimensions a little bit.”

The eight-episode series is set in 2031

Ditto the presence of Laz Ingram, a female leader in an industry many might assume to be male-dominated. “There are loads of women in senior positions in aerospace,” says McElhone. “Julie van Kleeck is a VP at Aerojet, Gwynne Shotwell runs SpaceX, Leanne Caret is CEO at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. I’m sure the ladder isn’t straightforward, but we did a screening at JPL and every gender and ethnicity was represented. The show reflects that rather than altering reality.”

Even the selection of New Orleans as the centre for the launch was carefully thought through, with NASA having built a manufacturing facility there. Aesthetic and financial incentives also played a part, of course.

“New Orleans is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city,” says Tappis, “which makes a nice contrast to the surface of Mars. It’s also custom-built for the film community. There are incredible tax incentives, the state rallies behind productions and there are wonderful crews. The only challenging aspect is the unpredictable weather, but the looming danger of a hurricane or rainstorm is thrilling and in line with some of the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

In short, the psychological and physical peril of such a mission is placed front and centre, yet Tappis is convinced the appeal of the red planet will endure. “Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why did ancient humans see birds flying over the horizon, seemingly towards nothing, and decide to paddle in that direction? Mars is the great unknown, the ultimate antagonist. It’s staring at us, daring us to give it a shot, and I guess that’s what we’ve done with The First.”

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The politics of TV writing

To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.

westwingThe West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)

veepVeep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.

“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-netflixHouse of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

scandalScandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.

“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)

madamsecretaryMadam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.

“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)

commander-in-chief-geena-davis-32520947-2291-1527Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.

“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).

desingatedDesignated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).

“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)

cbs_good_wife_702_clean_image_thumb_masterThe Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.

“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

jack-bobbyJack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.

“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)

boss-kelsey-grammerBoss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).

“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)

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Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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X-Files hits the spot for Fox

The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes
The X-Files revival comprises just six episodes

Fox’s reboot of The X-Files has, as expected, delivered superb ratings. The first episode of the show, which aired after an important NFL game last Sunday, attracted a massive 16.2 million viewers. Episode two, on Monday, fell to 9.2 million. But this is still a strong result that put CBS rival Supergirl in the shade.

In addition to its own high ratings, The X-Files also provided a great launchpad for Lucifer, a brand new Fox show that aired straight afterwards on Monday. Based on the somewhat bizarre notion that the Devil comes up from hell to help LA cops solve crimes, Lucifer attracted a healthy 7.15 million viewers and also achieved a pretty impressive 8.7 rating on IMDb.

With critics reporting that the next few episodes of The X-Files are strong, the show is likely to hold its ratings pretty well. However, the big issue with the show is that there are only six episodes.

Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox
Lucifer benefited from airing immediately after The X-Files on Fox

Reports suggest that, having seen the early ratings, Fox would like to renew the show. Whether that happens will depend on the schedules of stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. However, it’s hard to believe they won’t squeeze in six more if Fox opens its chequebook wide enough.

Aside from its importance on home turf, the show is also a key asset for the Fox family internationally. It was aired day-and-date across 60 territories on Fox platforms and was also picked up by Channel 5 in the UK and Network Ten in Australia – all of which is another good reason for Fox to pull out all the stops to secure a second season.

Still in the US, episode two of Showtime’s Billions dropped about 30% compared with its debut episode, down from 1.44 million to 950,000 (overnights). That still compares pretty favourably with other Showtime titles and was enough to convince the network to renew the show. It’s part of a portfolio of scripted series that also includes Homeland, The Affair and Ray Donovan.

As we’ve mentioned in previous columns, lack of ratings data means it’s pretty hard to know whether a Netflix show is a hit or a miss until it’s cancelled or renewed. However, the fact that Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards has just been renewed for a fifth season, before the fourth has even begun, means it’s obviously working pretty well for the SVoD platform.

House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix
House of Cards is seeking a new showrunner for its fifth season on Netflix

That said, it is moving into more challenging territory. There was a feeling among critics that season three suffered from story fatigue. With Spacey’s character Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife Claire (played by the excellent Robin Wright) having achieved their goals, this line of argument concluded that the concept had gone about as far as it could go.

This may explain why the renewal announcement was accompanied by the news that House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon will not return for season five.

There’s no questioning the superb job Willimon has done so far, but in terms of keeping up the show’s (and his own) creative energy, it’s probably a smart move. Willimon appeared to acknowledge this when he said: “After five years, it’s time for me to move on to new endeavours, but I’m supremely proud of what we’ve built together, wish the show much continued success and leave it in the hands of a very capable team.”

Of course, the question now is who will pick up the showrunner mantle – and whether they will be able to sustain the high standards Willimon has established during his tenure. Season four of House of Cards debuts on March 4.

The Magicians opened well on Syfy
The Magicians opened well on Syfy

There is so much noise around the closing stages of the NFL season at the start of the year in the US that it is easy to overlook some of the new show debuts on cable. But a bit of digging around shows that Syfy channel has had a pretty good start with its fantasy series The Magicians, based on the book by Lev Grossman.

The first episode aired just before Christmas and achieved a decent 920,000-strong audience. Then the second episode, aired this Monday, posted a healthy 21% rise to 1.11 million. The critical response has been muted, but those figures mean The Magicians is the channel’s highest-rating show, and – barring some kind of calamity – a pretty strong contender for renewal.

MTV’s fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles is hitting similar numbers. Although it had one under-performing episode in mid-January, it’s generally pulling in just over one million viewers per episode. This isn’t as good as long-running stalwart Teen Wolf but it is better than the recent revival of Scream, which has already been renewed. Again, this points towards renewal.

Finally, there’s a lot of talk in the market at the moment about the lack of drama procedurals. But one that has been doing great business for most of this decade is CBS police series Blue Bloods. For the first five seasons (2010-2014), the show regularly pulled in 12.5-13 million viewers.

Police procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS
Procedural Blue Bloods is still going strong on CBS

It’s a bit down this year but it’s still doing a good job anchoring CBS’s schedule. It’s also a decent performer internationally. In January, it returned to Sky Atlantic in the UK, where it is rock solid at around the 375,000 mark. By contrast, Scandi-based drama 100 Code debuted on the same channel to 315,000 viewers, but dropped to 184,000 for episode two.

More worrying for CBS is slippage on its new show Limitless, based on the film of the same name. After the series started with around 9.8 million viewers, episode 13 hit a season low of 6.3 million, with the all-important 18-49 demo also in decline. There are nine more episodes in season one, so CBS will want to see a bit of a pickup in performance before it is tempted to renew the show.

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