From writing and directing feature films, Kari Skogland has become one of the most sought-after television directors in the US, with credits including Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, The Americans, House of Cards, Vikings and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Speaking to DQ, Skogland reveals a passion for history that led to working on shows such as The Borgias and History miniseries Sons of Liberty.
With a penchant for action, stunts and explosions, she describes her desire for scale and scope when choosing her next project and her directing process when she joins or sets up a new show.
Skogland also shares her thoughts on the trend for feature directors moving to television.
They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”
He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.
To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.
More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.
Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.
The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.
Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.
“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”
The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?
Game of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.
Hannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.
Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”
American Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.
Vikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.
The Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.
Daredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”
Boardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”
The Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.
Oz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”
The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…
Sky Drama senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach says the satcaster needs to provide content different to that of its terrestrial rivals, rather than try to compete, and is eyeing crime, relationship series and coproductions to meet the challenge.
The four broad entertainment channels headlining the subscription offer from UK satcaster Sky have become home to some of the country’s most talked-about drama series of late.
Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire on Sky Atlantic, Scandal and Elementary on Sky Living – the hits are stacking up. The problem is, they’re mostly acquired from the US.
Under the guidance of entertainment channels director Stuart Murphy, Sky has committed to spending £600m a year on original content. It has already coproduced The Tunnel, an Anglo-French remake of the Swedish-Danish noir The Bridge, with Canal+ and Penny Dreadful with Showtime in the US.
Solo, it has commissioned shows such as The Smoke and Charlie Brooker’s crime spoof A Touch of Cloth for Sky1, while medical drama Critical is in the works.
But it’s with these originals, often critically acclaimed, that Sky is struggling to cut through against the terrestrials – and senior commissioning editor Cameron Roach believes the broadcaster has to change tack and offer an alternative to BBC, ITV and Channel 4, rather than trying to compete with them directly.
“The Tunnel was an impeccable piece announcing our ambitions for Sky Atlantic, taking an existing brand and doing something different,” Roach says, pointing to the two International Emmy nominations the series received.
“We need to show our subscribers we are offering them fantastic drama on our channels. Unfortunately, some of the subscribers are still unaware we create original content in drama, and the offering from BBC and ITV is so brilliant that we need to see ourselves not as competition, but as complementing what is there. That’s the mission statement.
“What we need to work hard on for the Sky brand is people knowing that it’s ‘Sky drama’ and attributing it to a channel. Too often when we have a successful show, people attribute it elsewhere because they don’t think we make shows.”
To that end, Sky is looking for its own take on the crime genre following the unrivalled success of ITV’s Broadchurch, while also aiming to take advantage of market gaps left by the sudden rush towards crime commissions.
“We know our audience loves crime. It’s done brilliantly on BBC1 and ITV – how can we do it differently? It’s no good for us to just do another crime show when crime is so available to the terrestrial audience,” Roach says.
“Crime has been so prevalent that the relationship shows have been forgotten, and that’s a really interesting thing. Ten years ago there were significant relationship shows on the terrestrials and that’s not happening now. That feels like an opportunity to me.”
Roach knows all about the challenges posed by the terrestrial channels, having been part of ITV2’s launch team and a producer on long-running ITV prison drama Bad Girls. He also worked on BBC’s smash hit Life on Mars while at Kudos Productions, as well as the corporation’s Waterloo Road series. He joined Sky’s drama department as a senior commissioning editor in 2013.
He believes it’s important producers start thinking about new places to uncover writing talent. In this vein, Sky is working with online drama producer PurpleGeko to produce a TV version of its Venus vs Mars drama, two seasons of which have aired online. Roach hopes to create a UK version of the HBO hit Girls with the show, and says the online world is an untapped resource in the drama space.
“The message to the production community is ‘seek more diverse talent.’ It’s an industry responsibility – it’s not about me and (drama head) Anne Mensah ticking diversity boxes. If you look at the hits YouTube channels are getting, it’s phenomenal. Producers can be too narrow. The top writers are so oversubscribed – we need ideas to come from other areas as well. We’re always excited when producers have different ways into subject matters.”
Sky, more than any other broadcaster in the UK, is known for its On Demand and catch-up services either through the Sky Plus DVR recorder or Sky Player online. Roach says viewers tend to watch Sky1 as a linear channel, while the series on Sky Atlantic are more binge-viewed as box sets – but he’s still sure Sky can create “event television” like the Broadchurch finale and is eyeing a Sky Living commission starring Timothy Spall – The Enfield Haunting – as a test case.
“I’m excited by how Line of Duty became an event for BBC2 and the Broadchurch finale became an event for ITV,” he says. “It shows we can have that emotional investment from the audience. We’d be naive to think it’s just in the on-demand space.
“When The Enfield Haunting happens as a three-parter on Sky Living in May, we’re looking at how we can use social media to make it an event. People will want to watch that live.”
Sky’s drama team is working hard on clear branding and distinct direction for the four channels under its control – Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living and Sky Arts.
Controller Adam MacDonald has spoken about Sky1 being more “life affirming,” coining “enjoy the ride” as a mission statement. “It can go to dark, difficult places like The Smoke and Critical, but ultimately the lead characters are heroic,” says Roach.
“Pushing forward, we want a place that has more humour and comedy within content. We will do emotional, challenging pieces but we will enjoy the ride a bit more.”
Sky Living remains female-skewing but has undergone a rebrand, with its pink colour scheme swapped for a silver look to help change audience perception.
Sky Atlantic, which recently came under the control of former BBC3 controller Zai Bennett, premiered Fortitude January and was previously the home of The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful. It’s also where Sky’s HBO acquisitions sit.
“We want to be ambitious with our pieces there,” Roach says. “We want them to be talk-about TV. We want the Sky subscriber to have absolute value in that channel.”
Sky Arts, meanwhile, is viewed as “more of a playground.” Roach explains: “We’re saying to the creative community ‘we enjoy working with you, come and have a play and we’ll see what happens.’”
While The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful have been successful, headline-grabbing coproductions, Roach says Sky thinks very carefully about when and where to get involved in such arrangements, preferring to fully fund where possible.
“What we like to do is fully fund our developments, working closely with indies in the UK, Europe, the US or Australia,” he says. “We want to work with creative teams to understand the idea, take it to a pilot script stage before we start talking to too many partners. What’s important to us is a singular vision that makes drama stand out; involving too many partners early on can harm that.
“Another track we can take is where partner broadcasters have developed pieces and we see an absolute appeal for our subscribers within them – with Dracula and Penny Dreadful, they were Showtime shows and we were minority partners. Penny Dreadful had a largely British cast, it was shot in Dublin and it was set in London. For our subscriber it felt like their show, not an acquisition, and therefore it’s a relevant coproduction for us.
“Those are the questions we’ll always ask when a coproduction opportunity comes to us. Is it right? Can we claim ownership in the UK and Ireland? If we can, we’re likely to go for it. If we can’t but we like the content, we’ll work closely with our acquisitions team and advise them of our enthusiasm for it.”
Sky will be hoping its slight change of strategy, and considerable ongoing investment, can bring it results throughout the rest of the year.
With Sky’s merger with Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, creating a pan-European pay TV brand, now completed – producing a commissioner on a colossal scale – this could be a formidable drama player in years to come.