Tag Archives: Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity

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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A journey through ShondaLand

How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis
How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis, who spoke on the panel in Cannes

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is something of a surprise package. While it’s aimed primarily at executives in the advertising business, its conference programme attracts some of the biggest names in film, TV and music.

This year, for example, it managed to reel in the likes of Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Marilyn Manson, Richard Curtis, Kenneth Branagh, Freida Pinto, Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.

From a Writers Room perspective, one of the most interesting conference sessions was hosted by McCann Worldgroup and the Paley Centre for Media. Under the heading ‘Is creativity the only way to survive and thrive today?’ they brought together three top talents closely associated with ShondaLand, the Shonda Rhimes-led production company that makes hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) – all for US network ABC.

It was also behind Private Practice, a Grey’s spin-off that ran for six years.

One of the three contributors was producer Betsy Beers, who has been on board the ShondaLand express train since its early days. Beers, who has exec produced all of the above shows, recalled how, back in the middle of the last decade, both she and Rhimes were in the movie business.

“When we met, we had never made TV,” she said. “Shonda was a successful movie writer but I sucked at making movies. Everything I did bombed. So when we started talking about making TV, I was really excited. I’d always been a closet TV fan, which was not something you could admit around movie people.”

Grey's Anatomy is poised for a 12th season
Grey’s Anatomy is poised for a 12th season

Finding they shared a similar sensibility, Rhimes and Beers decided to make a show about female war correspondents. “We created a pilot, but were thinking in movie budget terms,” said Beers. “So we came up with something that would have had a US$30m budget. Of course, that didn’t work out. But we still wanted to work together so we hit on the idea of a medical drama.”

‘Medical drama’ hardly sounds like the most original of premises, but in the hands of creative powerhouse Rhimes it became Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most travelled shows in the world.

Beers continued: “Back then, a lot of the female characters on TV didn’t look or sound like us. So what we set out to do was make a show about messy, confused, twisty women. In its first year it was the last show to get picked up as a pilot. And then it was the last show to go to series. But the audience liked the show so we survived.”

Beers said ABC became increasingly supportive of the show, which has now run for 11 seasons (with a 12th on the way). She admitted there were some people in the business that found it sexually aggressive and, therefore, offensive “but our response was ‘this is what the show is, so live with it.’”

ShondaLand’s shows all have the ballsy quality displayed by Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Nowalk, the creator of HTGAWM, came into the company as a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. Also at the Cannes Lions session with Beers, he said: “You can’t be generic anymore. There are so many TV shows out there that you have to really raise your game. With my work, I’m always looking at how to put ordinary people in extreme situations.”

Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice
Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice

While this approach has built a big fanbase, it inevitably exposes ShondaLand shows to the risk of criticism. Nowalk, who has grown up in ShondaLand, working on Grey’s, Scandal and HTGAWM, said his way of dealing with this is to write “in a bubble. Constructive criticism makes you better and smarter, I think. But when I’m writing new episodes I keep it small — just me and my computer.”

Beers said her ability to cope with adverse criticism is helped by the fact “that I border on being a luddite. But we’ve also created a safe environment at work, where we can express our fears and passions. I also think you need to really love what you are doing (to deal with criticism). We really love the shows we make.”

One of the big successes of HTGAWM (which debuted in 2014 to strong audiences and positive reviews) was the casting of actress Viola Davis in the lead role as Annalise Keating. Nowalk recalled applauding Davis at the first read-through of his script “because Viola really brought my words to life.”

Davis, who was the third participant in the Cannes Lions session, talked about the importance of authenticity in the way she handles the part. She said: “The role called for a messy, mysterious, sexy woman. I said ‘yes,’ then thought to myself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ But I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. So what if I didn’t fit the mould? I just dared to be a woman who fit those adjectives and in doing so was able to release my creativity. Typecasting is kryptonite to actors, so all I want to do is offer my interpretation of a real woman.”

Davis’s approach has helped make HTGAWM stand out. There was one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode of season one where it was revealed that her character Annalise was wearing a wig and eyelash extensions.

Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand
Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand

By removing them on screen, Davis made a statement about how women are represented on TV. She said: “I’ve never seen a woman like me on TV. It’s important to bring that up. You have to give yourself permission to have a voice.”

Beers said this gradual revelation of the vulnerabilitiesand contradictions of character is one of the beauties of working in serialised TV: “You have time to roll a character out.”

To take advantage, however, you need to keep pushing at the uncomfortable boundaries of the character, added Davis. “For actors, TV’s trap is that you can create a personality, not a person. The pursuit of likeability can be dangerous because you end up looking for gimmicks. You need to keep characters complex.”

Nowalk said this is what he tries to do from a writing perspective, by making sure characters don’t always follow the expected path, because it is the contradictions that come closest to truth.

All three panellists were asked what they feared most. Davis admitted to being “terrified not to have the courage to be authentic,” while Nowalk said: “I’m always terrified by the next episode – right now, the debut episode of season two.”

As for Beers, it was “the fear that I will stop growing, that I will start repeating myself. You have to learn, listen and be curious if you want to keep growing.”

Right now, it seems the ShondaLand team is doing a good job of staying curious.

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