Melanie Stokes, from Kindle Entertainment, and Balloon Entertainment’s Bryan Elsley offer six points of interest about Kiss Me First, a drama series set in both the real and virtual-reality worlds coming to Channel 4 in the UK and Netflix.
1. Kiss Me First tells the story of Leila, a lonely 17-year-old girl who is addicted to a fictional online gaming site. While playing the game, Leila meets Tess, a cool and confident party girl who harbours a dark secret. The pair become friends in the real world, but after Tess disappears, Leila decides to assume her friend’s identity and is quickly drawn into the mystery behind her disappearance.
2. Melanie Stokes: The show is a thriller, a coming-of-age story. It’s full of intrigue but essentially it’s about female friendship, set in the real world and the virtual reality (VR) world. It’s based on a book by Lottie Moggach, which I read at manuscript stage about four years ago.
I wanted to do something that looked at the impact of the digital world on young people, how it’s changed the way they identify and communicate, and how they can hide in the internet in a way we just don’t understand. So when I read the book, it felt absolutely ripe for adaptation. Bryan wrote Skins so I sent him the book and, luckily, he liked it. The biggest challenge was that, in the book, it’s set in chat rooms and it didn’t particularly lend itself to dramatisation so we were really struggling to represent that on screen. Then Bryan had the idea we should make it a VR world so when she comes into the internet, she becomes an avatar. That was the breakthrough idea.
3. Bryan Elsley: Combining live action and animation wasn’t easy to start with because we didn’t know anything about animation. Four years later, we know a little bit more. We were lucky that we found a fantastic studio, Axis Animation in Glasgow, and just sat with them for a year working out how to put live action and CGI animation together. It was a long process. It’s a very new kind of project, so there was skepticism from all sides – could we actually do it? We just had to pretend we did know how to do it for quite a long time.
4. Elsley: Our main concern was working out how to tell a coherent story set in two different worlds. My main inspiration for the way we’ve approached the show is Mary Poppins, which made a huge impression on me when I saw it at the age of six. I just wanted to go through that pavement like the kids in Mary Poppins.
The idea of escaping to another place where you can be different is at the heart of the story. The jury’s out on what will happen with VR and how it will be utilised in future. I’m sure many exciting things are going to happen, but our main priority was to tell an arresting story about young characters. There is already a prototype VR experience that goes with this show.
5. Elsley: The principal element of the animation is motion capture, so the actors’ performances were captured and then we proceeded to animation. I thought that would be quite easy, but it was the beginning of a very long road of experimentation. We placed a lot of focus on getting nuance and believability into the animated characters’ faces, which is a difficult task. If you do it in too much detail, they cease to become believable or relatable, so you have to tactically limit the facial expressions. Stokes: If you map the face and do an absolute replica, the likeness becomes uncanny so the animator wanted to create a more idealised avatar to give a sense of it being painted, which gives them more soul and brings them closer to the emotion of the original actor.
6. Stokes: The show was originally put into development by Channel 4, which was very supportive from the get go. Then Bryan spoke to Netflix, which already plays Skins in the US, and they were keen on the combination of C4 and Bryan, so it was that alchemy that came together. Elsley: We’re in conversations about season two. We’re hopeful. We like the show and we think it’s come out quite well.
Kiss Me First debuts on Channel 4 on April 2 and Netflix later this year.
This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.
In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.
It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).
Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).
The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.
E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.
Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.
Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.
“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”
Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.
It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).
It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.
Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.
With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”
Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.
With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.
Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.
Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin). “Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk,” says the pre-production blurb.
Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”
Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.
Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.
DQ hears from the writers behind several UK dramas about the differences between US and UK writing and production methods, and how the UK could improve its practices.
If you want to explain the fundamental difference between US and UK dramas, you might need to point no further the credits.
For while long-running American series, with up to around 22 episodes a year, have a team of writers piecing together plot lines in a writers room, British shows commonly have a single author telling their own story across a range of formats – from TV movies and two-parters to six-episode miniseries.
This difference in writing and production methods was the subject of debate at this year’s Royal Television Society (RTS) Cambridge Convention, in a session entitled The Single Voice and the Showrunner.
As described by writer Bryan Elsley, the role of showrunner emerged through the highly seasonal nature of the US production cycle where a pilot season leads into a number of commissions placed in May, with shows expected to be on air that fall.
It’s a “mass production model to produce large volumes of television,” Elsley explains, where the showrunner sits at the top of a hierarchy of staff to ensure scripts are written and produced.
“The showrunner role is not just to do with the writing room. The showrunner is effectively the producer, is responsible for all aspects of production and post-production and delivery of the show, and is in charge of those processes. That high level of organisation is a big feature of the American model.”
Elsley is best known for creating E4’s controversial teen drama Skins, which he later adapted for US cable network MTV in 2011. However, the US version was cancelled after one season following falling ratings and a number of off-screen problems.
“I’d been learning some showrunning skills on season four of Skins, as I was in charge of the writers room and was effectively in charge of production,” he says. “When I got to the States and was handed a US$16m budget and told to start, I was literally given a room in Manhattan with some desks in it and told when they wanted the show.
“At that moment I realised I was lacking in some of the basic skills. It was a very chastening experience. Much has been said about my difficult relationship with MTV. I was having real problems. I wasn’t absolutely clear how to do things and I struggled with phone calls on which there would be 15 executives, none of whom were in the same city as me.
“Then we ran into editorial problems with lawsuits and right-wing pressure groups, and all of those things put us into the ground. It was quite tough. But I did think as I walked away – and Armando Iannucci (Veep) has proven this is possible – it must be possible for British writers to exist in that mania and not sink. In an environment where big US productions are coming to our country and hiring in, we need to be skilled in order for them to have confidence for us to be in some of the primary positions in those shows.”
Tahsin Guner’s credits include long-running UK dramas Doctors, Holby City, Casualty and EastEnders. More recently he developed BBC1’s Father Brown, based on the novels by GK Chesterton and starring Mark Williams as a crime-solving priest.
Guner says his experiences have differed across the shows on which he has worked. These range from times he has felt supported and has received constructive feedback, to others when notes hindered the writing process and each new script draft felt like a first draft.
“It’s not a great position to be in because you don’t feel like you’re doing your best work,” he says. “Sometimes it’s for logistic reasons or because an actor can’t make it, but other times it feels like you’re being given notes on a whim and being asked to change the script and they’ll shoot whatever’s left at the end of the process.”
In particular, Guner says writers on continuing dramas, who often only gather once every few months at “story conferences,” should be brought more into the production.
“One thing that doesn’t happen but should is for the writer to meet with the director before the shoot,” he argues. “It’s absurd to me that that doesn’t happen as standard practice. The week before it shoots, the writer should have a meeting with the director just so you can clarify your thoughts on particular scenes and they can point things out in the script. It would save a lot of heartache because you do rewrite after rewrite. You get notes from the director via the script editor and you’re kept as far away from production as possible. It seems a case of picking your battles. You don’t want to be too difficult but you want to be a bit difficult.”
However, Guner is clear that continuing dramas provide great training for upcoming writers, who get to see a script they have written on air within months.
“They’re machines,” he says. “You constantly have to pull the rabbit out of the hat very quickly, and the deadlines are ridiculous. I’ve never worked so hard. Just from that process, you develop tools and tricks and you really do improve your writing. Doing somebody else’s show, you still need to put your stamp on it. You want to feel like it’s your episode.
“There’s more flexibility with Holby and Casualty because you have to create your guest stories that integrate with your serial. But even with something like EastEnders, if you get five or six writers to do that same episode from the same storybook, you’ll get five or six different episodes. They’ll be tonally different; their focus will be different. You learn a hell of a lot working on continuing drama.”
If there’s one way to maintain a single voice throughout a television drama, it’s for the writer to also produce and direct the series. That’s the case for Hugo Blick, who performed all three roles on The Honourable Woman and The Shadow Line (both BBC2). But it takes a unique filmmaker to make this approach work.
“I have a compartmentalised personality,” Blick says. “If, as a producer, I have a problem where a sequence goes to four or five takes, I’m starting to think it’s the script. Most writers wouldn’t, they’d say it’s everybody else. So my producer is saying it’s the script, let’s move this on. And whatever it’s moved on to is usually better than the script was. That compartmentalisation is a little unique but it helps with the efficiency of telling what is hopefully a distinct, bespoke, authored Tiffany jewel for BBC2.”
But surely that production model can only work on short-run dramas where one person can oversee all three areas? Blick agrees it would be very different on a multi-season drama.
“If you were making an authored piece, it has to go top down from writers,” he explains. “It can’t go from the execs. All I’m trying to do is say, ‘I’ve got a thing of wonder that I think you should be a part of.’ That clarity is so important. The Honourable Woman was looking for reconciliation on the world stage because she couldn’t find it in herself – that’s it. Then I’m going to put on top of it the most irreconcilable conflict you can think of – Israel and Palestine.
“The other thing is that there are 300 people who come with you on the journey, but there are 13 heads of department you have to work with. To get this to function efficiently, I always say that there’s a nail in the middle of the desert – the nail is my vision and everybody’s got to gather around it. And we all have to strike it, crucially at the same time. But they have to strike it for themselves. Once I’ve given the vision, what the designer does to this vision is up to them. On The Honourable Woman, I only saw the designer on the last day of a 100-day shoot, because he was entrusted to do exactly what he thought supported that vision.”
Regina Moriarty came to TV through Sammy’s War, part of Channel 4’s Coming Up strand for new writers, and BBC3 TV movie Murdered by my Boyfriend – the story of a 17-year-old victim of domestic abuse that won the RTS award for Best Single Drama in 2014 and the Best Leading Actress Bafta for star Georgina Campbell earlier this year.
“To have two single dramas to start off with is quite unusual because other writers I know haven’t been as lucky,” Moriarty says. “For me it was a great experience and very nurturing. I was really helped along and it was a hugely positive experience in both cases. But for a lot of people I know, their first jobs are in continuing drama and it’s a tough way in and quite demanding. It’s also a fantastic learning experience, but perhaps not quite so nurturing as the experience I had.
“Schemes like Coming Up don’t mean anything’s going to be made but they’re a fantastic point of entry and there probably aren’t enough of them. It is really competitive but if you can get one thing into that scheme, it can set you up.”
Elsley, who also wrote Channel 4 drama Dates, says there’s a lot that’s great with the way British drama is made: “It’s an environment where someone like Hugo Blick can emerge quickly, resolutely and fully supported.”
But the key thing, he says, is to have a needs-based approach, where the industry remains flexible to the requirements of different productions.
“You need to look at what your show is, how many episodes there are and who the central creative forces behind it are – they might be writers or something else – and properly organise around that,” Elsley explains. “We need to step towards properly focused, budgeted, processed drama production that can happen on a tiny scale, and this has to happen on a massive scale.”