In the early 1980s, AIDS emerged and quickly became an epidemic. Those responsible for public safety failed, leading to thousands of deaths and the spread of a second virus, hepatitis C, which infected tens of thousands more.
Limited series Unspeakable is told from the perspective of two families caught in a tragedy that gripped a nation, as well as the doctors, nurses, corporations and bureaucracy responsible for the subsequent cover-up and scandal. The series follows the decades-long saga as people struggled to survive, change the system and battle for compensation for those who desperately needed it.
In this DQTV interview, star Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) and creator, writer and executive producer Robert C Cooper (Stargate SG-1) talk about how the series explores the effects of this tragedy across a lifetime, starting from the beginning in 1982 as it follows the fight for justice, compensation and the truth.
As a victim of the scandal himself, Cooper talks about researching the project and bringing this story to the screen, while Callies, who plays Margaret, reveals why she didn’t speak to the real people involved for fear of her performance becoming an impression of them.
Unspeakable is produced by Mezo Entertainment for CBC in Canada and SundanceTV in the US. It is distributed by AMC Studios outside of Canada.
Morwyn Brebner, showrunner of CBC series Coroner, tells DQ about making the Canadian drama – from adapting Matthew Hall’s series of novels and casting Serinda Swan in the lead role to the collaborative nature of making television.
In the competitive field of crime dramas, it can be difficult for a new show to stand out from the crowd. But from the titular job performed by protagonist Dr Jenny Cooper and the show’s blend of episodic and serialised storytelling to its mix of crime, family, romance and even supernatural genres, Canadian series Coroner aims to break away from its contemporaries.
For showrunner Morwyn Brebner, Coroner also stands out due to its humane perspective, its warmth and its unique energy. “I don’t think it is like anything else,” she tells DQ during post-production on the eight-part series. “The hardest thing in the world is for a show not to feel like something you’ve seen before. This show does feel like something we haven’t seen before, and I feel very proud of that. There’s something about it that feels new; the cast is incredibly fresh and I feel that, if people watch it, they will feel the same.”
Inspired by the book series by Matthew Hall, the author and screenwriter behind breakout Welsh drama Keeping Faith, the show follows Jenny (played by Serinda Swan, pictured above), a recently widowed coroner who investigates suspicious, unnatural and sudden deaths in Toronto.
She solves cases with the help of detective Donovan McAvoy (Roger Cross), pathologist Dr Dwayne Allen (Lovell Adams-Gary) and his assistant River Baitz (Kiley May), and her own assistant Alison Trent (Tamara Podemski), all while dealing with her clinical anxiety during therapy sessions, a teenage son (Ehren Kassam) and the prospect of starting a new relationship with the enigmatic Liam (Éric Bruneau).
It was Coroner’s lead director and executive producer Adrienne Mitchell and her Back Alley Films producing partner Janice Lundman who first picked up Hall’s books and sought a writer to take them on. Brebner had previously been a writer on Back Alley mystery crime series Bellevue, and though she wasn’t looking for a specific project, she read the books and was immediately drawn to Jenny.
“I couldn’t get her out of my mind because she seems so much like a real woman to me. I recognise both her ferocity and her anxiety as qualities that were so compelling because I feel like in the books, and I hope in the show, the spirit of that character is just incredible and she’s so unapologetically herself,” Brebner explains, pointing to Jenny’s ability to persevere despite her sometimes overwhelming anxiety and fear. “Bravery is overcoming fear, not a lack of fear. So there was something about the character I just responded to and I felt like I should do this.”
The writer drew from elements across several of Hall’s books to build the series, transmuting characters and stories but all the time ensuring Jenny’s sense of humour and tone of character remained central to the series, which is produced by Back Alley, Muse Entertainment and Cineflix Studios. The latter also holds worldwide distribution rights.
One of the most notable changes was the decision to kill off Jenny’s husband, who is still alive in the books. Brebner made the call after being unable to figure out a satisfactory way to include him throughout the series – and subsequently found that the move created more space for Jenny’s own adventures. “It was a bit like a Disney story where the parents die so people can go off and have an adventure,” she explains.
Jenny is also finely balanced between the important dual roles in her life, being both a coroner and a single mother to a teenage son. “She’s a coroner dealing with death, but being a mother is such a profound relationship with life and gives you a real sense of mortality,” Brebner continues. “She’s also embarking on a new romance with a mysterious dude, and I love that character. He’s got a different name and is a little bit different in our show [from the books] but that romance is so fascinating to me because she’s someone who’s been married for a long time and then is newly unleashed to the world. So we’re really watching her find her own incredible sensuality and trying to figure out how to deal with that.”
The fact that the drama centres on a coroner rather than another cop or lawyer also adds an extra level of intrigue, introducing a less familiar participant in the crime-solving process. “They have their own vibe,” Brebner says of coroners in general and those she has worked with on the show in particular. “They’re not like doctors, they’re not like cops. It’s a really heroic calling because they are speaking for the dead. When a patient dies and you’re a doctor, that’s a failure. But as a coroner, when someone dies, that’s the beginning of your job. I feel like it’s a pretty noble calling and it’s a perspective on death that’s very humane. There’s a humanity to that perspective on death and a crime story that’s very different.”
Jenny is played by Marvel’s Inhumans star Swan, whom Brebner describes as “just the most marvellous actor there is.” Having previously auditioned for Bellevue, Swan was already on Brebner’s radar. Then, when she came in to read for the part, “I couldn’t pick anyone else because she’s really powerful,” the showrunner says. “No one else could feel that unpredictable, that vulnerable and that strong at the same time, so we feel really lucky that she’s playing Jenny.”
Coroner is set and filmed in and around Toronto, utilising the city’s vibrant and distinctive districts as well as the nearby countryside. Mitchell steered the first four episodes on set, block-shooting them at the same time, which meant Swan had to keep a binder containing notes on which scene was from which episode as well as her character’s emotional state in each.
Meanwhile, Brebner split her time between the writers room, pre-production on future episodes and on set, juggling the numerous roles that make up a showrunner’s brief. “It’s definitely the show I wanted to make and I made it in concert with a lot of other people, with an incredible director,” she says, though she is keen to stress the collaboration that goes into making a TV series. “I started my career in theatre, where you really have to recognise the mastery and expertise of other people. I feel in television it’s the same. We have to give credit and recognise that it takes a lot of people to make a TV show.”
That collaboration also stretched into the writers room, where Brebner wrote the pilot and co-wrote two other episodes, giving other writers the opportunity to fill the gaps. Each episode was broken down in the room before being assigned to a writer. Brebner would then take a pass on each script. “We had really different writers from different backgrounds and so we were able to feel there’s a vibrancy to the characters in the script that comes from the voices in the room. I wouldn’t be able to do that by myself.”
Those classic television production challenges – time and money – once again proved to be the biggest obstacles facing Brebner, particularly with little more than a year between getting the go-ahead and the show’s launch in Canada tonight.
“We got the green light in December 2017. I was going to take another job and then I got the call we were being picked up and I was so surprised but so happy,” the showrunner remembers. “We hired writers, we convened a room and then we had to work incredibly quickly to be ready. It’s almost a year door to door and it’s an exciting way to work. You can’t second-guess yourself.”
Brebner is also known for co-creating both medical drama Saving Hope, on which she was showrunner for the first three seasons, and police procedural Rookie Blue, and also worked on recent series such as Mary Kills People. In fact, many of the series on her CV are evidence of Canadian drama’s growing international presence, being played on screens around the world – something she says is down to Canada’s increasingly brave storytelling.
“I feel like there’s more range in the kind of stories we’re telling, tonally, and we’re doing different kinds of shows,” Brebner adds. “I think it’s a good time to be a creator because the world of television is much broader than it was 10 years ago in terms of what’s acceptable as a network show or a cable show; everything’s mixing up. There’s so much TV now, the hardest thing is to keep afloat and to feel like you can tell a story that won’t just be swallowed by the tide of other stories. That’s the hardest thing for anybody and in Canada. We’re working to live in that place.”
Canadian period drama Frankie Drake Mysteries sees Lauren Lee Smith star as the titular Frankie, who sets up a detective agency with her friend Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley). The show follows the city’s only female private detectives as they take on the cases the police don’t want to touch.
In this DQTV interview, Smith (This Life, The Listener) reveals how she accepted the role of Frankie after reading just five pages of the script and why she was drawn to starring in a show that is female-led both in front of and behind the camera.
She discusses how becoming a mother has changed her tastes in television and why she was looking to play a part in a more light-hearted and fun series when Frankie Drake Mysteries came along.
The actor also talks about how the role brought her out of her comfort zone, from learning to ride a motorbike to taking up boxing training, and why the series appeals to international audiences.
Frankie Drake Mysteries is produced by Shaftesbury in association with CBC and UKTV, and distributed by Kew Media Distribution.
A year after Beauty & the Beast came to an end, star Kristin Kreuk is heading back to the small screen in Canadian drama Burden of Truth. The actor tells DQ about the attraction of this small-town legal drama with social justice at its core – and her role in bringing the series to air.
It’s been 17 years since Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich valiantly fought for a small community in the face of big business, earning the actor an Oscar for her portrayal of the real-life heroine. And now a legal drama in production in Canada is drawing parallels with that story with its own young woman fighting for justice.
Burden of Truth stars Kristin Kreuk as Joanna Hanley, a big-city lawyer who returns to her home town to take on what she thinks is a simple case, only to find herself in a battle to protect a group of sick girls. Running alongside the legal story is a mystery involving Hanley, who left the town in unexplained circumstances as a teenager and begins searching for the truth upon her return.
“The dailies look gorgeous and I feel like we’re doing something different, taking a few risks,” says Kreuk, who is best known for long-running roles in Smallville and Beauty & the Beast. “I’m excited about that. For me, it’s new and also, for a Canadian show, it goes at a slower pace. It’s a serialised drama that looks at things that are pretty topical, from environmental issues through to abuses of power and abuse within families and communities, and also through female empowerment and success. So we’re really looking at topical issues in a slow, emotional way that I feel isn’t common in
The Vancouver native, who is also an executive producer on the 10-part show, first became involved in Burden of Truth when she was pitched several ideas for series by producer and distributor Entertainment One (eOne). Burden of Truth stood out, she says, because of the complexity of the lead character, whose seemingly idyllic life begins to unravel when she returns to her home town.
After finishing on The CW’s Beauty, which ran for four seasons until 2016, Kreuk sought a project where she could be involved as much in the storytelling process as she is on screen. So when eOne came to her with Burden of Truth, she was keen to be in the development room and to speak to the writers.
“While we were in the build up to the show, I was involved very creatively, more than anything else,” she says, speaking to DQ midway through production on location in Winnipeg. “A lot of my notes would focus on Joanna herself, so I’ve built this character. [Creator] Brad Simpson and I met very early on and just talked about who she was. We created her together instead of there being someone on the page already.”
Simpson, who is a lawyer, has based Burden of Truth on his own courtroom experiences, says Kreuk, while the actor looked to her friends in the legal business and high-profile Canadian criminal lawyer Marie Henein as the inspiration for Joanna.
“She’s interesting; she’s very much a legal person,” she says of her character. “She doesn’t see herself as a people person. So when confronted with emotional interaction, she really does struggle. It’s not like she has a facade, but I find her human. She’s struggling and you can see that struggle very clearly, even through her hiding in the job, the law and
When it comes to choosing her roles, Kreuk says her decision is often based on her reaction to a script, while Burden of Truth represents the first time she has proactively shaped her character from the very beginning of the creative process. It also marks a departure from the supernatural and superhero series for which she has become known.
“I realise I play a lot of characters who have really complicated family histories and who really struggle with the relationship dynamics with their parents in some way, which offers a lot of juice for a character and for a series,” she admits. “But this show is by far the best opportunity I’ve had to explore that. This is not a sci-fi show, we’re not dealing with supernatural beings or creatures. The stakes are more present, pressing and realistic, which I think allows for a different exploration of character.”
That character is now set to join the swathe of strong females leading drama series in 2017, following in the footsteps of The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Doctor Foster and Feud.
“It’s the time of the woman; it’s been a long time coming,” the actor notes. “A lot of people want something other than the shows they’re being presented with. And as women, we want to see female stories and we just haven’t seen them. Simultaneously, opening up positions for women in producing, directing and writing allows for these stories to be told. The fact they’ve done so well and they’re dynamic and interesting has encouraged the creation of more.”
Joining Kreuk among the executive ranks is Ilana Frank, a prolific producer known for series such as Saving Hope and Rookie Blue. Burden of Truth is one of two new shows she is backing for Canadian broadcaster CBC, with pacey detective series The Detail also in production.
“I wasn’t all that interested in doing a legal procedural show but I liked the idea of a show that had the law as the basis for the premise,” Frank says. “I do very character-driven things mostly, or I try to, even if it has a procedural element. So that’s how I looked at this too. It’s about characters and place – the town and the countryside really play an important part.”
Once Kreuk and eOne began developing the series, Frank’s IFC Films came on board before CBC placed a series order based on Simpson’s pilot script and series outline. Eagle Vision also coproduces the show, which premieres on January 10.
“What appealed to me was the idea of it being an Erin Brockovich show, a woman with a mission,” Frank says. “I liked that juxtaposition of what she was and what she’s going to become. It was an interesting journey. I worked with Bradley and brought in Adam [Pettle, showrunner], who I’ve worked with for about 15 years. He and Bradley worked together on Rookie Blue so they knew each other quite well. Kristin was great and she was very much involved in the evolution of it.”
Burden of Truth is shot entirely on location, another first for Frank, who says she is delighted with the results despite admitting to being anxious over the location shoot. “I just love the look of the show and the feel of it,” she adds. “The first season of production [on any show] is always challenging. It’s a bit on the fly. You’re always trying to make adjustments to something because it’s not 100% in place, but the show is going along pretty well. I’m pretty happy with the production of it.”
It is Frank’s theatre background that fuels her attraction to character-building, with the aforementioned medical drama Saving Hope and cop series Rookie Blue more serialised in their approach than traditional procedurals.
“So for me, it’s about actors, character and development. That’s what I love,” she says, noting the importance of casting in any successful series. “Once you give that part to somebody, it takes on a life of its own. That’s really important and my work in the theatre has helped me a tremendous amount in terms of casting, because scripts and casting, that’s all there is. If you have good scripts and good casting, you can make a good show. There’s the formula.”
With more than 200 hours of television drama in the can, Canadian director Don McCutcheon tells DQ about working on Murdoch Mysteries, the changing role of directors and why he thinks his best work is yet to come.
When director Don McCutcheon signs up for a new project, he always does his homework. “When I was hired to do an episode of The CW drama Beauty & the Beast, it was season four and I watched every episode of the first three seasons,” the Canadian director reveals. “I wanted to see the evolution of the series and how it grew and matured. I wanted to know where it came from to understand where I was when I stepped on the floor.”
Given that approach, McCutcheon (pictured above) might be best avoiding long-running series such as NCIS, heading into season 15, or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which returns this fall for season 19. But in fact it’s another long-running crime show for which he is best known, having helmed more than a dozen episodes of CBC drama Murdoch Mysteries.
McCutcheon first joined the period murder mystery series for season three, back in 2010, and most recently completed episodes one and two of the forthcoming 11th season, which is due to begin airing in October.
“It’s like putting on comfortable slippers,” he says of returning to the series, which stars Yannick Bisson as William Murdoch, a detective working in Toronto around the turn of the 20th century. “Murdoch is an interesting show because although there’s a formula behind every episode, it never rests on that formula. It has always embraced the period, and the writers bring history, science and invention into the show. It was an amazing time and a period of invention – everything from the electric light bulb and the telephone to motorised vehicles and flight – so they’re able to use those things very cleverly within the formula of a murder mystery.
“It also changes its tone every week, so viewers aren’t entirely sure whether they’ll see a dark drama, a lighter drama, a comedy-drama or a comedy. I’ve done them all. Over 15 episodes, not one has been the same.”
From a career spanning more than 32 years in the director’s chair, McCutcheon has worked on shows including Good Witch, The Listener, Relic Hunter and Goosebumps, though it’s a mid-1990s series called Forever Knight that he believes was truly ahead of its time.
The show followed a centuries-old vampire living in modern-day Toronto and working as a homicide detective, naturally working a lot of nights. “This was long before the whole vampire thing, way before Twilight took off,” the director recalls. “Creatively, it was an amazing show because within the context of every episode, something in the present would cause him to look back at his life. So within a contemporary cop show, we were doing period flashbacks.”
In pre-production, McCutcheon describes himself as a sponge, soaking up the creative ideas of the showrunner, writers, producers and others before setting out his plans for a particular episode.
“I leave all of my creative decisions open,” he explains. “I don’t lock myself to anything early on because I want to engage the other creators I’m working with and I want them to feel free to bring their ideas and vision too.
“That goes for casting, too. I always ask my casting directors to surprise me, to think outside the box. Maybe a role is written for a man and we decide to cast a woman. And it’s the same with my locations and designers – I want them to show me what they’ve got. Then slowly, as it comes closer to production, I take everything and mould it to what I think works and what’s best for the show and I take it to the floor.”
Once the cameras are rolling, you’ll most likely find McCutcheon close to his actors and the action, instead of sitting behind a distant monitor. “There’s an intimacy there; that’s where my actors are, they’re right there a few feet from me so when I cut, the discussion starts right away,” he says. “I’ve seen directors yelling from the monitor and it’s an impersonal way to do it. I’m literally standing beside my camera operators and it’s just a more intimate, collaborative way to work. Producers know that of me, that I like to work intimately with my colleagues, and I hope what I try to do is show a great deal of respect for what everyone around me does.”
The emergence of a ‘directing producer,’ often taking on some of the showrunner’s production duties, is just one of the ways McCutcheon has seen the television business change during his career. He points to one example working on Beauty & The Beast where the showrunner would be based in the writers room in LA while the directing producer, who had responsibility for the visual elements of the series, could often be found on set in Toronto.
“The directing producer handled all the day-to-day production elements of the show, and we’re finding a bit more of that these days,” he says. “Even if there isn’t a directing producer, the director is quite often left alone. There’s not necessarily a producer on set looking over their shoulder. You work closely with the writers during pre-production, sit down for a tone meeting and, at that point, the showrunner gets very explicit as to their intent on a scene-to-scene basis regarding how the show will be shot. But usually, after that, they send you off with their blessing and you’re making all the decisions.
“A director brings a lot, even to the most formulaic episodic television, and that’s what producers and writers are looking for. They want someone to bring in some special nuance here and there but to keep within the style and format of the show. It sounds like the director doesn’t have a lot of freedom, but a good showrunner sets up the parameters and lets the director go off and create.”
It’s not just taking charge of a TV series that keeps McCutcheon on his toes, but, in the case of Murdoch Mysteries, the complexity of block-shooting an elaborate murder mystery means he must also juggle multiple red herrings, dead ends and shifting suspects on two different episodes simultaneously. “But it’s particularly interesting and is part of the challenge,” he notes. “The writers want to throw the audience off, so you’re constantly shifting gear. You have to keep your wits about you.”
Behind the camera, McCutcheon is keen to share his expertise with the next generation of directors, particularly women, who can struggle to find opportunities to work on a TV series and are often thrown in at the deep end without any support when they do.
“If you put someone in a position they’re not ready for, the pace and rigours of episodic television can be daunting,” he says. “If you’re not ready for it, it’s very difficult to succeed. So I want to be in a position to mentor and share my experience so they’re shadowing different shows and have the chance to watch a director at work.
“I’ve had people help me along the way and, in this industry particularly, everybody needs a helping hand. I’m at a stage at my career now where I’m always willing to give someone an opportunity because I was given them along the way. It’s really hard in this industry and you need someone to help out.”
It’s at this moment that McCutcheon also says he feels more confident and energised than ever, predicting that his best work could be yet to come. “That’s just because of where I come from, the mistakes I’ve made, what I’ve learned along the way,” he adds.
“I’m in my stride now and there’s a confidence there that permeates to the people I’m working with. I still make mistakes but I’m making fewer of them, I hope. It’s an exciting time for me right now.”
Soccer consultant Philippe Fallu tells DQ about creating match sequences for Canadian broadcaster CBC’s football-themed series 21 Thunder, which follows the drama surrounding the young players of the fictional Montreal Thunder on and off the pitch.
It was an amazing experience for me. I’ve been coaching for more than 20 years and building soccer scenes for 22 players at the same time was a big challenge.
It wasn’t always easy; it was very stressful sometimes but it went pretty well and I was lucky to work with some amazing people.
The TV show was like preparing and coaching four movies. I had two great assistants working with me and I was helped a lot by the directors, especially Jim Donovan, the first director I worked with. All the crew were amazing.
I got the scripts for the first three episodes and three days later I met with the production team to do extra casting. I also had meetings with the writers and directors, where we started to build the scenes. I would draw up some ideas and, at the meeting, I would propose everything and talk with the directors, producers and writers and we would decide if it would work. There was also a camera coordinator there who would give their view on where to put different kinds of cameras. So we had a lot of meetings about the way it would work and who was going to do what.
It was a big challenge because while most of the actors were good soccer players, some of them were not that experienced, so we had to manage that. But they were all pretty good athletes, especially the goalkeeper, played by Andres Joseph. He had no soccer background but we would work in a park for hours doing goalkeeping drills. It was pretty impressive to work with them all.
The speed was a big issue [during rehearsals] because as a coach, you always want to protect your players and avoid any injuries but with this kind of work you can’t even have one injury. If you get one of your actors injured, the show can’t go on. So it was very important to do the rehearsals at 50% or 60% speed and then to slowly increase the pace. We also had to control the intensity because some of the extras who, naturally, wanted to show they were good players sometimes went in [for tackles] too hard or too fast.
It was tough to recreate the sequences but it went surprisingly well. When I was sitting in meetings and drawing up certain scenes, I remember Jim would ask me, “Is this going to work?” But it went pretty well. I took all my inspiration from the soccer I watch on TV, from Serie A (Italy) and La Liga (Spain) to the Premier League (UK). You always want to include something exciting because it’s a TV show, but we had to keep in mind that on shooting days, we had to make it happen.
The first episode sees Thunder’s new signing, Junior Lolo (played by Emmanuel Kabongo), score a last-minute goal from 45 yards to win their first game. That was an exciting and difficult action scene to practice and shoot. That day we had the wind in our face in the direction we wanted to score the goal. The ball went over the goal and beside it. The actor tried to make the right shot as many times as he could, maybe for two hours. Eventually Jim asked me if I thought the actor could make it, and I said I didn’t think so, so we used a throwing machine.
You want to keep it realistic – you don’t want it to be too amazing. As I was told by the directors, it’s a TV show so the bottom line is you’re going to have real soccer fans knowing what it should look like. The principal thing was to make sure we didn’t repeat the same kind of actions. It was a big puzzle but there was great teamwork and I’d do it again any time.
Canadian drama 21 Thunder charts the fortunes of the players and staff at a Montreal football team, both on and off the pitch. DQ chats to co-creator and writer Riley Adams about tackling a sports drama.
Sports dramas have had a chequered history on the small screen, from the success of acclaimed series Friday Night Lights and recent Netflix arrival GLOW to one-and-done entries including baseball series Pitch and horse racing-focused Luck.
Yet of all the sports to have been dramatised for a scripted series, it seems soccer, in particular, has had more ups and downs than an average penalty shootout. British series over the years have included Playing the Field, Dream Team and, perhaps with more attention paid off the pitch than on it, Footballers’ Wives.
Netflix recently entered the field with Mexican drama Club de Cuervos, about a brother and sister who battle high expectations and each other after they inherit a football club.
Now Canada has joined the fray with 21 Thunder, which follows the fortunes of the players and coaches of an under-21s soccer team, one step away from the pros.
The project, from PMA Productions and Generic Productions, was conceived more than three years ago when co-creator Riley Adams (Flashpoint, Crossing the Rubicon) was pitched the idea for the series by fellow executive producers Kenneth Hirsch and Adrian Wills. Broadcaster CBC was already on board.
“I loved the idea of that kind of sports show with a tougher edge and kids who hadn’t quite got there yet,” Adams says of the Montreal-set drama, which is distributed internationally by Content Media. “They could be the next Ronaldo, but what kind of pressure does that bring from agents, family members and coaches, and how do they deal with that when they’re still children in many ways?
“I also liked the idea of the whole world coming to Montreal, telling an outward-looking story. Maybe some sports dramas in the past have been insular, about smaller communities, which is fascinating in its own right, but I liked the idea of a show where you have kids from all over the world coming to one place and having to figure that place out and be in competition with each other. But they also have to come together as a family to survive in this place with all its temptations, dangers and pleasures.”
Episode one, which debuted on Monday, opens at the beginning of a new season. New coaches Christy Cook, played by Stephanie Bennett, and former soccer superstar (ex-Scottish professional Ryan Pierce) are introduced to the squad, while brilliant Ivory Coast signing Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo) joins his teammates, including star striker and former gang member Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh) and goalkeeper and captain Alex el Haddadi (Andres Joseph).
Working with Hirsch and Wills, Adams was brought in to help draw the characters and develop storylines that could be woven through the first season, with individual episodes also featuring segments of match action as the team progresses through their fixture list.
For one story, Adams took inspiration from a real-life match-fixing case in Quebec in 2012. “The guys who play at this level are also much more susceptible to bribery because they’re not making much money yet,” he explains. “We’ve woven that together with a story based on another trust story about a young basketball star from Toronto who got this wonderful academic scholarship to a big college in the US. But when he came back to visit, he went out with his friends and they got into it with some rivals in their neighbourhood and someone got killed.
“This young star player ended up in the getaway car and being arrested a few blocks from this murder. His whole life was gone in the blink of an eye. That was an interesting way to explore how these kids who carry their pasts wherever they go and sometimes they rear up and try to pull them back into whatever place they managed to get out of.”
The creative team, which also includes showrunner Malcolm MacRury, leaned on former professional players for help with their research, while Adams was able to recall the time he spent some of his 20s living in Barcelona and becoming a “fanatical convert” to the sport. “I didn’t have a soccer outlet back in North America so it was a real treat to delve into that world and my own passion for the game and try to bring that to the show,” he says.
Casting proved to be one of 21 Thunder’s biggest challenges, as actors also had to be adequately skilled at playing football to ensure the show looked authentic and the producers could avoid using doubles as much as possible. Often, Riley says, they would find a good actor but would then await the “moment of truth” when they saw the auditionee’s soccer tape.
“When the tape came through and they could play, there was high-fiving and cheering in the producers’ room because we knew it was going to help make the show so much better if our stars could really pass a ball around, shoot and run,” Adams reveals. “Emmanuel, who plays Junior, is a wonderful soccer player. RJ is fantastic on the ball too. Andres, the goalie, is good, and we had Ryan Pierce, who is a former Scottish pro soccer player we found who turned out to be a huge boon. He became an unofficial consultant to the show, whenever we had soccer problems. He was very generous and excited about helping.”
Inevitably, much of the discussion turned to how the show would look once the action transferred to the pitch, with coaches including former player Philippe Fallu helping to choreograph Adams’ scripts.
“He would help us break it down into beats and then we’d sit down with the director and cinematographer, Jim Donovan and Mario Janelle [respectively], and they would try to figure out how we shoot it,” Adams explains. “Hopefully people who are longtime soccer lovers will see what we’ve done and appreciate that. It looks good on the field, which was important for us. It took some practice to figure out how to do it the most efficient way possible and, as the season evolves, that stuff also works better and better on camera on the field.”
The city of Montreal features heavily throughout the series, with filming taking place at locations including Saputo Stadium, home of MLS side Montreal Impact. “It becomes a symbol of what these kids are aiming for, so we needed a few shots of the big house to understand what the objective of these young guys was,” Adams says. “We also wanted to feature Montreal as the wonderful, sexy and exciting place it is. It was more complicated sometimes to get into all the neighbourhoods and be on location all the time but I think it really paid off on the show. It feels real and, like the soccer, we wanted people to come away with the feeling they were watching something real.”
Ultimately, Adams says viewers shouldn’t be turned off by its soccer setting, as the club, its players and coaching staff set up storylines about family, crime and a mystery strand involving the team’s new star signing.
“I think people are really going to be taken by the characters and you don’t have to be a soccer fan to enjoy this,” he concludes. “There’s going to be storylines for everyone.”
The scripted TV business received another boost this week with the news that YouTube has moved into original scripted programming for the first time.
Unveiling a slate of six shows across a range of genres, it revealed that its paid-for service YouTube Red has ordered a TV adaptation of Step Up, the popular street dance movie franchise that featured Channing Tatum.
The series, to be made by Lionsgate TV, will follow dancers in a contemporary performing arts school. Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum, who starred in the original movie, will executive produce.
So far, the US$10-per-month service has focused on shows starring top YouTubers such as Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie. However, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has given a strong indication that scripted content will play an increasingly big part in her plans.
Unveiling the slate, which also included a scripted comedy called Rhett & Link’s Buddy System, she said original series and movies are one of the leading drivers of YouTube Red subscriptions, “with viewership that rivals similar cable shows.” Interestingly, more than half of people watching Red originals are doing so via mobile phones – suggesting there may be a future for vertical video.
Still in the world of streamers, SVoD behemoth Netflix announced that it is backing a true crime drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.
The novel follows Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant living in Canada who, along with stablehand James McDermott, was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employers. The six-part miniseries will be written and produced by Sarah Polley and will air on Canadian public broadcaster CBC in Canada. Netflix will stream it worldwide.
Also this week, JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has linked up with US talkshow host Tavis Smiley on a miniseries about the death of music icon Michael Jackson.
The series is based on Smiley’s book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days. Abrams and Smiley are also working on a TV version of the Smiley’s 2014 book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year.
Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for ITV’s pay TV channel ITV Encore, which has announced a series renewal and a miniseries commission. The renewal is for Rainmark Films’ well-received period drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which stars Sean Bean and was created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford.
Billed as a “thrilling and terrifying reimaging of the Frankenstein story,” the first season followed detective John Marlott, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo who was battling his own demons and is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. In pursuit of a chilling and diabolical killer, Marlott’s investigation took him into the most exalted rooms and darkest corners of Georgian London, a world of body snatchers, anatomists and scientists whose interests came together in the market for dead bodies.
The new series has been commissioned for ITV by controller of drama Victoria Fea and commissioning editor Sarah Conroy. Production is set to begin in Northern Ireland in January 2017.
“We are thrilled to be working once more with Sean Bean in the role of John Marlott, who is a returning hero like no other,” said executive producer Tracey Scoffield. “With the continued support of ITV and (the show’s distributor) Endemol Shine International we want to be more ambitious than ever.”
ITV also announced a new two-hour crime thriller for ITV Encore entitled Dark Heart. In this production, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s Demon, Monroe) plays Will Wagstaffe, a workaholic detective leading the investigation into the deaths of two unconvicted paedophiles.
The two-hour drama, set in London, is written by acclaimed writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten, A Mother’s Son) and based on the novel Suffer the Children by Adam Creed.
Dark Heart is an ITV Studios production for ITV Encore. It is executive produced by Lang, Kate Bartlett (Jericho, Vera) and Michael Dawson (Vera, Holby City). The producer is Chris Clough (The Missing, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) and the director is Colin Teague (Jekyll & Hyde, Da Vinci’s Demons).
ITV Studios’ Bartlett said: “Chris Lang has written a truly compelling and atmospheric script. Adam Creed created a fascinating character in Will Wagstaffe with so many layers, and Chris has brilliantly brought him to screen. We’re thrilled Tom Riley is playing him.”
Still on the subject of novel adaptations, there are reports this week that Endemol Shine-owned drama label Kudos has picked up the rights to Robert Harris’s best-selling Ancient Rome-based Cicero Trilogy, which comprises the novels Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator. No broadcaster is attached and Kudos is yet to decide on the format of the adaptation, but the project is likely to attract interest given the calibre of those involved.
In a busy week for new production announcements, pan-European satellite broadcaster Sky and Germany’s Bavaria Film announced that they are developing a €25m (US$27.5m) TV series based on the classic wartime submariner novels Das Boot and Die Festung by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. The series is being set up as a sequel to the 1981 film version of Buchmein’s novels.
Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the eight-hour series will focus mainly on the German point of view as submarine warfare became increasingly ferocious. Tony Saint (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (The Tunnel, The Spiegel Affair) have been signed up as head writers, while Oliver Vogel and Moritz Polter are attached as executive producers.
Christian Franckenstein, CEO of Bavaria Film, said: “The 1981 film Das Boot is unique, and we are approaching our work with the greatest of respect for this masterpiece. We want to build on the strong brand of Das Boot, telling the story in a contemporary manner by making use of every filmmaking and storytelling technique available to us.”
Still in Germany, UFA Fiction has just unveiled plans to make a film biopic based on the lives of magicians Siegfried and Roy, two of the few truly global celebrities Germany has ever produced.
The film, which will likely be extended into a miniseries for television, will be directed by Philipp Stölzl (Winnetou, Young Goethe in Love, North Face) and scripted by Jan Berger.
Nico Hofmann, UFA producer and co-CEO, commented: “The prospect of working with Siegfried and Roy is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. It’s not only the story of two Germans who became world famous but a plunge into the world of magic and illusion. The lifework of Siegfried and Roy derives from an almost inexhaustible store of energy and creativity. This is the story of two men who set new, never repeated standards in the tough world of show business.”
Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Uwe Horn met on a cruise ship in 1960, where they developed their first joint show, driven by their shared passion for the art of magic and illusion. They had their international breakthrough in 1966 at a charity show in Monte Carlo. From 1990, they had their own show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas featuring white tigers, which became their trademark. The spectacular Siegfried and Roy Show was one of the most elaborate stage shows ever. On October 3, 2003, however, the artists’ unique career was brought to an abrupt halt when Roy was critically injured by his favourite tiger, Montecore.
Alongside all of the above production activity, it has also been a busy week for distributors. ITV’s Maigret has been sold by distributor BBC Worldwide to broadcasters including Channel One in Russia, NRK in Norway, TVNZ in New Zealand, RTÉ in Ireland, Finland’s YLE and Prima TV in the Czech Republic. Simultaneously, StudioCanal has sold Section Zéro to Channel One Russia.
AMC’s international network AMC Global, meanwhile, today announced that it has acquired the upcoming anthology drama series The Terror, an adaption of the bestselling novel by Dan Simmons. Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360 are producing the 10-episode drama, which will premiere globally within minutes of its broadcast on AMC in the US.
Written for TV by David Kajganich, the series is set in 1847, when a Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks the ships and their crew in a desperate game of survival.
“We’re very excited to bring this gripping dramatic story to AMC Global,” commented Harold Gronenthal, exec VP of programming and operations for AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “With a distinctive combination of science fiction and historical non-fiction, The Terror will complement AMC Global series as Fear the Walking Dead, Humans and Into the Badlands.”
Finally, there are reports this week that showrunner Bryan Fuller is still hoping to revive serial killer drama Hannibal. The show was cancelled by NBC after three seasons but Fuller said there might be room for a revival in late 2017 – once he has dealt with the small matter of a Star Trek reboot for CBS and Starz’ American Gods.
DQ speaks to broadcasters and producers about the state of the Canadian drama industry and finds a sector in positive mood when it comes to its place in the international market.
Stepping out of the shadow cast by the US, Canada has emerged as a powerful player in TV drama. From Orphan Black and Rookie Blue to Motive and Murdoch Mysteries, series produced in Canada are now on air around the world.
But amid a changing regulatory landscape, what domestic challenges are now facing broadcasters and producers – and what opportunities are they taking advantage of?
“There’s no question the Canadian industry, as is the case worldwide, has undergone a profound transformation due to changes in technology. But the good news is the industry overall is very healthy,” says Tracey Pearce, senior VP of specialty and pay at broadcast group Bell Media.
“We’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how TV is alive and well in Canada. Television continues to be very powerful but that’s not to suggest we don’t understand the importance of being in the digital space. We do, but we do ourselves a disservice as an industry by forgetting how powerful television is.”
Like broadcasters around the world, Bell Media looks to homegrown drama series to help define its channels, from general entertainment CTV (Motive, Saving Hope) to cable channels Space (Orphan Black, pictured top) and Bravo (crime drama 19-2).
But while Bell can enjoy the success that comes from airing some of Canada’s biggest original dramas, Pearce says she recognises the “nervousness” currently found within the production sector.
“That’s understandable given the technological changes worldwide and the new regulatory environment we are now in. People wonder what impact that will have on production,” she explains. “But we are as, if not more, committed to Canadian programming as we look to sharpen up our brands in this ‘pick and pay’ environment. While we recognise it’s always been a challenging production environment for independent producers in Canada, we’re still in it with both feet.”
The new regulations to which Pearce refers came into force on March 1, when TV providers in Canada were forced to introduce ‘skinny’ cable bundles for consumers, priced at C$25 (US$19) or less. This followed a ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last year that consumers should have a greater choice of – and access to cheaper – cable and satellite packages.
Viewers can now pick and pay for their own channel packages or opt for the basic bundle, which must include broadcast networks CBC, Global and CTV as well as certain regional channels.
As a result, questions are being asked about the future of some Canadian speciality channels and whether, like in the US, smaller networks will begin commissioning original drama in a bid to find their defining series – think AMC and Mad Men – in a bid to stay on the air.
“It’s certainly a changing landscape,” says Melissa Kajpust, head of creative development at pay TV network Super Channel. “We don’t anticipate this will affect our subscribers but it’s a landscape where no one can predict what will happen. Certainly people are going to be looking for good content, and that’s what we’re focused on finding.”
But according to Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO at prodco Shaftesbury, drama producers shouldn’t be worried. “There’s no question that it’s going to affect non-scripted factual and lifestyle producers, and it will also affect those broadcasters – but as drama producers it doesn’t affect us.
“What does affect us is the culmination of several years of consolidation, which means on the drama side we’re now down to just a handful of buyers. The uncertainty when you have so few buyers makes it tougher but, on the plus side, Canada has two new OTT services, Shomi and CraveTV.
“We’ve only seen one original commission from either (Bell Media-backed Crave’s comedy LetterKenny, which has been renewed for a second season) and it’s early days but, as they build their subscriber bases, we’re hopeful they’re going to become buyers of content.”
Shaftesbury’s slate includes CBC’s long-running crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Super Channel’s original drama Slasher and period supernatural procedural Houdini & Doyle, a coproduction with the UK’s Big Talk Productions for UK commercial network ITV, Canada’s Global and US network Fox.
“The other slight concern,” Jennings says, “is there are so many channels, so many options, how do you cut through? It helps to have a big brand or comic book, a big star or a big showrunner. We’ve had great luck with (House creator) David Shore joining Houdini & Doyle. David coming on board got the show made, no question. But will everything soon need one of these big auspices to get a commission? Not every project necessarily needs them.”
Breakthrough Entertainment may have found another way. The Toronto-based producer was behind a new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, which starred Martin Sheen and aired on YTV in February. But it is another of its productions, Omni Television’s Blood and Water, that proved to be an interesting experiment when it premiered last year.
The eight-part cop drama aired in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese and featured a cast that was 80% Asian-Canadian. It has now been renewed for a second season of eight half-hour episodes, written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu.
“Because of the plethora of great dramas, you have to find new ways to cut through,” says Ira Levy, partner and executive producer at Breakthrough. “It starts with a great director or writer and a wonderful script, but the good news is there’s a voracious appetite for drama from around the world. The golden age allows for new models of content because there’s such a demand for stories.”
Of Blood and Water, he adds: “There’s a market of ex-pat Chinese and hundreds of millions of people (around the world) interested in seeing contemporary drama in a language they can relate to. That’s part of our strategic positioning but, first and foremost, it’s a great story that hasn’t been told in this way. You do something not because it’s different but because you believe in the story. If it has other elements that can cut through, that’s just a smart thing to do.”
A glance at the schedules of Canadian broadcasters – both free-to-air and pay TV – shows that US series are still widespread, but there is now a growing belief that homegrown series can go head-to-head with imports.
“They’re a little late but broadcasters are coming around to the idea you can have a pretty good Canadian drama slate now,” says David Cormican, executive VP of business development and production at Don Carmody Television. “So you’re seeing an influx of Canadian dramas taking off, doing multiple seasons and finding US buyers themselves.
“What’s more interesting is the Canadian consumer is watching these programmes without necessarily realising they are Canadian shows. Whereas before we had this negative stigma attached to Canadian dramas, the comment now is, ‘I didn’t realise it was Canadian,’ which we take as a compliment. It’s been tricky for many years because our largest trading partner is immediately to the south.”
Super Channel has, Kajpust notes, raised the bar in terms of its own original drama aspirations, leading to horror series Slasher and Van Helsing, a modern-day take on Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter starring Kelly Overton.
“The US will always influence Canada but it has changed,” she says. “Canadians are watching more Canadian programming and the other broadcasters are commissioning more Canadian series, so it’s a good time for writers and producers.”
But it’s only by partnering with US outlets, such as Chiller for Slasher and Syfy on Van Helsing, that Super Channel is able to do more expensive dramas.
Don Carmody is also building its US relationships, most notably with Freeform (formerly ABC Family) fantasy Shadowhunters, which has been renewed for a second season, and science-fiction drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix in partnership with Canada’s City.
Described by Cormican as “Lord of the Flies meets The Walking Dead – but without zombies,” Between is set in a small town where everyone over the age of 21 dies from a mysterious disease. Looking to build its coproduction slate, Netflix came on board after reading the first two scripts, and a second season is due to drop on July 1.
“Netflix was looking to explore this coproduction model and we were the guinea pig, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cormican says. “Both Netflix and City are taking pride and ownership of the project. We have two very strong partners. They’re not always on the same page but we manage to find middle ground that works for everyone.”
Muse Entertainment has also built strong partnerships in the US, leading to its slate of TV movies for Hallmark Channel (including the Aurora Teagarden and Gourmet Detective franchises), Egyptian drama Tut for Spike and The Kennedys for Reelz. A sequel to the latter, called After Camelot, will see Katie Holmes reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy when shooting begins in May. Friends alum Matthew Perry has also been cast as Ted Kennedy.
“Most Canadian consumers are watching American programming most of the time anyway,” CEO Michael Prupas says. “The CBC is focused on doing programming that is distinctively Canadian and, as such, it tends to be a turn-off for most international broadcasters, with Canada not being the hottest girl at the dance.
“CTV and Global are happy and interested in programming sold to the US but they tend to put in the lesser part of the financing, which means the show is American-orientated and the driving force behind it is often the US company.”
Muse is also looking further afield, with projects in Germany and ambitions to work in the UK and France. Shaftesbury, too, is well placed internationally and Jennings says coproductions are now more important than ever to piece together financing.
“When you have fewer buyers in Canada, unless you’re going to pack up your tent and go home, you have to find other ways to raise finances,” she says. “But for many years, we’ve all taken advantage of Canada’s government support, tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, so Canada took an unreasonable amount of the burden of financing shows. We’re going to start seeing coproductions where more money is brought to the table and Canada is the smaller piece of the puzzle.”
Fellow producer Incendo is also focusing on international coproductions. It’s currently in production on season two of Versailles, the English-language series produced with Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction for French pay TV network Canal+. The period drama, which airs in Canada on Super Channel and recently debuted on BBC2 in the UK, is set in 1671 and follows France’s King Louis XIV during his first years in power when he made the decision to move his court to Versailles and construct the largest palace in Europe.
It is also developing Ice, in which a suburban woman turns to diamond theft following her divorce, for Bell Media. Writer Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) is attached.
“I’ve been doing coproductions here and there for 25 years and now, over the past few years, the world has discovered coproduction,” says Incendo president Jean Bureau. “It’s great because minds are opening up to sharing ideas and having discussions on creative issues between two or three producers. When we talked about coproductions 10 years ago, people would freak out. Everybody wanted control. Now it’s very different. We’re competing with the very best productions from around the world, so Canadian producers must create compelling drama if we want broadcast partners to participate. It pushes us to be the best.”
Montréal producer-distributor Attraction Images’ forthcoming projects include crime drama Séquelles (titled McDougall in English), which is based on novels by Johanne Seymour and will air on Series+ in April. Among its other credits is medical drama Au Secours de Béatrice for TVA.
“Broadcasters want fiction because that’s the most addictive programming for viewers,” notes Louise Lantagne, the firm’s VP of fiction. “But here in Québec, they don’t really look for procedurals. They want character-driven stories over multiple seasons. It’s really tough.
“Coproduction in French is also more difficult than in English,” she adds. “In English, it’s organic to coproduce with the US, England or Australia. But here, if we’re not going to work with France, there are no opportunities for coproduction, which makes things difficult.”
However, there may be a solution in the form of rights exploitation. Attraction is producing a French-language version of US series Web Therapy, which starred Lisa Kudrow as a therapist who treats her clients via webcam. And it’s by selling rights to its own original formats, in lieu of coproduction, that the producer hopes to bring in extra income to devote to new series.
“If we’re looking for additional money, coproduction might not be the first option for us,” admits Chrystine Girard, Attraction VP of content rights management and international relations. “But we have dramas that have quality scripts so we can talk to other parties about producing remakes in English or other languages. This is where you can finance additional series, and it’s why I believe there will be more emphasis on exploitation of original content than ever before.”
The challenge going forward, then, is winning commissions from a select number of buyers while building the budgets modern audiences demand to see on screen. Muse’s Prupas admits he’s “nervous about what the future is going to bring. There’s too much supply coming down the pipeline but, at the moment, there’s a lot of demand as well.”
Don Carmody’s Cormican agrees Canadian drama is in a “huge boom cycle,” but warns producers shouldn’t get accustomed to the good life: “You have to practice some restraint and not expect the good times to roll all the time. And we have to be incredibly supportive of our government to ensure we have a strong incentive front.”
As for the broadcasters, Bell Media’s Pearce is just looking for the next Orphan Black: “That show was a huge risk – but what I remind myself is that the next Orphan Black is going to be nothing like Orphan Black. So we have to ask what the next big story is. You feel emboldened by success, and it has energised the Canadian production community to find the next big hit.”
Canadian public broadcaster the CBC has greenlit an ambitious 10-part drama called The Council.
Based in a remote Canadian Arctic town, the series is “set against the unfolding drama of our changing planet and draws inspiration from the true-to-life fight over the vast resources of the Arctic,” according to the pubcaster. “It traces the journey of two cops who uncover a small-town murder that is at the heart of a global conspiracy.”
Production kicks off this summer, shooting in Resolute, Iqaluit, London, Copenhagen and Manitoba. The series has been created by Canadian writer/producer René Balcer and will be distributed by NBCUniversal International TV Production.
The Council is a Canada/UK copro involving Lark Productions, Keston International Productions and Giant Films.
On the face of it, the hard-hitting, politicised subject matter of the series seems like a change of direction for Emmy winner Balcer, who is best known for writing and showrunning US procedural Law & Order and creating its spin-off Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He also wrote for the Star Trek: The Next Generation series plus three TV movies.
However, closer inspection reveals Balcer is not shy of tackling tough or controversial topics. He started his career as a cameraman covering subjects such as the Yom Kippur War and then transitioned to become a documentary maker.
He carried his current affairs sensibility into Law & Order, most notably in an episode entitled Memos From the Dark Side that criticised the Bush administration in the US over the so-called torture memos (US government documents that purported to legitimise torture as a response to the ‘War On Terror’).
The episode resulted in colourful accusations from some quarters that Balcer was a Marxist agent provocateur. However, he has proved resilient against such barbed attacks, saying: “What many of these critics fail to realise is that Law & Order has always been an equal-opportunity offender, and if a Democratic administration had implemented this despicable (torture) policy, our show would have taken them to task for it.”
Explaining the appeal of The Council, Balcer said: “The Arctic has engaged my imagination since I was a kid reading stories about the Inuit, and then as a college student working construction at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. The Council is a story where the stakes are as high as they come, about a land and a people who are the bellwether of our survival. It’s an exciting mystery and a political intrigue set against a wide canvas – climate change, indigenous extinction, competition for resources. As a storyteller, I couldn’t ask for more.”
The story of The Council begins on the edge of the Arctic frontier during the endless days of the polar summer when a young woman, a renowned environmentalist, is found ritualistically murdered near the Canadian hamlet of Resolute.
An investigation is mounted by local police inspector Mickey Behrens and her partner, officer Jo Ullulaq. However, the pair “quickly discover that the mystery extends far beyond the borders of the town and to the backrooms of Canadian parliament in Ottawa, the dark corridors of US intelligence in Washington DC, the halls of European parliament in Brussels, the airbases of world powers and the migrant conflicts at the border of Norway and Russia. Yet it all traces back to the Arctic, as they expose a complex international conspiracy to control the vast natural resources at the top of the world.”
Aside from Balcer’s background as a journalist and documentarian, it also worth noting that the Quebec-born writer created another police series, called Jo, in 2012. This one is interesting because, while produced in English, it was targeted at the European market. Starring Jean Reno as a Paris-based cop (his first TV role), it was coproduced by Atlantique Productions and Stromboli Pictures in association with TF1, RTBF, Sat1, ORF and RTS (also airing in Italy on Fox Crime).
So, far from being limited to US procedurals, Balcer’s work puts him at the heart of a growing trend for screenwriters to work outside the comfort zone of their home markets (US/Canada in the case of Balcer).
Other recent examples of this include Gideon Raff, the Israeli writer of Prisoners of War who was involved in the adaptation of the show as Homeland for Showtime US; Hans Rosenfeldt, The Bridge writer who was commissioned to write Marcella for ITV in the UK; Paula Milne, the English writer who has written German-language drama The Same Sky; Anna Winger, the US writer who co-created Deutschland 83 with her husband Joerg; Jack Thorne, who created multilingual thriller The Last Panthers; Lars Lundstrom, the Swedish creator of Real Humans who is working with Gaumont TV Europe on an English-language drama 1001; Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer/director who is working on English-language series The Young Pope; and Rodrigo Garcia, the US-based Colombian whose recent writing credits include the online series Blue and indie movie Last Days in the Desert.
The ambition of Balcer’s new show puts it in a league with some of the other espionage dramas that have done the rounds in recent years, such as The Honourable Woman and Occupied. And executive producer Louise Clark is convinced it will resonate internationally: “René has created an intriguing mystery and dynamic characters stemming from his personal connection to the north and the Inuit culture. This story, emanating from a little-known but much-discussed part of our world, will resonate with Canadians and have worldwide appeal.”
Seduction and espionage marry in Canadian thriller The Romeo Section. Showrunner Chris Haddock outlines the ‘quieter’ series’ origins and explains why showrunning is like a football match.
While spy dramas such as Homeland and 24 are filled with explosions, gunfire and high-speed car chases, The Romeo Section is decidedly more covert.
The Canadian drama follows a seasoned spymaster and academic who secretly manages a team of agents, known as Romeo and Juliet spies, who use their powers of seduction to extract secrets from state intelligence targets.
And creator and showrunner Chris Haddock, pictured above, says he intentionally decided to walk a different path to other noisier series when developing the show for Canadian pubcaster CBC.
“All you hear in Hollywood when pitching is ‘bring me a noisier show,’” Haddock says. “There’s so much of it and there’s so very little difference between one cast and another or the appearance of one show or another. My gut told me counter-intuitively I’m going to make the quieter show that everybody gets drawn to.
“We’re in a niche market now. You’re looking for the audience that loves that stuff, and people see the value in that. If you get a strong demographic behind you, a show can really grow and become a long-term success.”
The Romeo Section, which launched its 10-episode first season last October, is described as a taut thriller about espionage set in the Pacific Rim.
Filmed on location in Vancouver, where the story is set, the show slowly introduces viewers to the underside of a seemingly serene city that is exposed as a haven for international drug barons, fugitives and covert financiers.
The ensemble cast includes Andrew Airlie, Jemmy Chen, Juan Riedinger, Eugene Lipinski and Stephanie Bennett.
Haddock worked alongside fellow executive producer Laura Lightbown, director Stephen Surjik, producer Arvi Liimatainen and writer/co-executive producer Jesse McKeown on the series, which is produced by Haddock Entertainment and distributed by Red Arrow International.
The showrunner says he had been interested in the espionage genre for a while but was looking to create a new drama that didn’t follow the paths trodden by similar series already on air.
He explains: “I was thinking about espionage and reading about it, and the title of the show came from this guy who was head of the Stasi in East Germany during the Cold War who used to run what he called Romeo and Juliet spies – he’d run people over the border into West Germany and try to get them to cosy up to and get into intimate relationships with people in power or with the secretaries to people in power.
“The use of honey traps and seduction is a classic technique of intelligence-gathering and I thought there was something there that I could make into a show. I enjoyed pursuing the idea that the lead of this ensemble was also an academic at university because that’s also such a breeding ground for intelligence agents worldwide. They go after the smart kids at universities.”
The Romeo Section is not Haddock’s first foray into the world of espionage and informants, however. He previously created crime drama Intelligence, which aired on CBC for two seasons between 2006 and 2008, and says that audiences can relate to lots of themes integral to the spy genre.
“I enjoy people worming into other people’s heads in drama and trying to out-psych them, so there’s a lot of duplicity that relates to normal everyday human nature,” he says. “We all know what it’s like to hold secrets and to try to acquire information. It’s human nature to know that if you’ve got information, you’ve got a better chance of survival.
“The audience can relate to people withholding secrets from them, be it friends or partners, and they know what it’s like to be betrayed. People understand in their gut what it’s like to be sneaking around. There’s a direct connection with how we know people can be – they can be completely deceptive.”
But why the added element of seduction? Haddock says it can be used to “pry into the darker corners of the drama. I try to keep it parallel to real relationships where you make an advance, you seduce someone and it goes from there. And people know what that’s like. I thought it would be a really fruitful area. There’s lots of places you could go with it and I’ve got a great cast.”
Immediately prior to The Romeo Section, Haddock had been a writer on HBO’s prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, which was brought to life by showrunner Terence Winter and executive producer Martin Scorsese.
“That gave me the itch to do my own thing and create a show again because it can be very rewarding,” he says, having been approached by CBC to create a new series for the broadcaster after leaving 1920s Atlantic City behind. “So it was nice to have the broadcaster eager to work with me, rather than fighting uphill and convincing them that you know what you’re doing. It’s good to go back and work with people you have a successful history with because you can get through that early wariness of trust issues and creative freedom. They give me creative freedom, which is the holy grail for screenwriters and television writers.”
Working on Boardwalk Empire was something of a departure for Haddock, however, as it was the first time he wasn’t running the show that he was writing in more than 10 years. But he says he enjoyed the chance to sit back and watch someone else in the showrunner role – and when it came to The Romeo Section, he put some of the lessons he learnt as an observer into practice.
“One of the things I learnt was to make sure the scripts are out in time for the people you’ve hired to do their best work,” he says. “There’s no point in delivering a script three days into shooting it so they have no time to display their talents. It’s no joke. You have to get scripts out on time and that means you’ve got to get an efficient writers room.”
Haddock also aims to spend as much time as possible on set, rather than spending all his hours looking over scripts: “When starting a show, you want to get in there and make sure the actors are hitting the right spot. They may never see some of the other actors and might not know what the overall tone is, so I’m there saying you should do this or that. That’s how I bring it all together.
“Showrunners love just being in the writers room and the editing room – they get two shots at telling the story, in the script and the edit – but I’m writing it, I’m on set and sometimes directing. So I hire some of the best editors I’ve ever worked with and give them a chance to put a cut together because sometimes you’re too close to it and it’s important to have that trust and collaboration. Sometimes you’re blind because you work to close to the storyline and you might be missing it.”
While it’s clear that Haddock enjoys playing a part in all aspects of his shows – he also sits with the composer to discuss how the music for his shows is developed – he stresses that collaboration is also a key theme of any of his projects. And nowhere is that more important than in the writers room.
“The first phase is complete immersion in the subject, the story and the characters,” he explains. “We read as much as possible, swap sources and immerse ourselves in it until we can’t stand it. A writer might then sketch a scene we talked about. I try not to get hung up on writing a polished script very early because you’ve got to develop a structure that allows the characters freedom. You’ve got to make sure you’re not closing doors; I like to keep open the potential and possibility of where characters can go.”
On 10-part The Romeo Section, shooting began with five scripts in hand, allowing the writers the chance to react to any on-set chemistry or character development in the latter half of the season.
“It’s like being in a football game,” Haddock says. “You do all this prep but you’ve got to be able to react to what’s going on immediately and go with any openings and see if you can develop them. That’s the exciting part of the whole process. It’s a bit intimidating. I only threw up once this year, so that’s a good year!”
And as if he didn’t have enough to do, whether in the writers room, on set or in the editing suite, Haddock also likes to climb into the director’s chair.
“I enjoy the hell out of it,” he exclaims. “The challenge is finding the time to prep each episode and get out there with your location managers in the van looking around for the right location or one that fits the schedule. A lot of that is time-consuming and it steals me from other writing, but 10 scripts is an achievable number to be able to hold in your head and know where you’re going. The directing is very exciting and I did enjoy working with a bunch of actors I hadn’t worked with before. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The first season of The Romeo Section concluded in December last year, and CBC says no decision has been made yet on whether it will return for a second run.
But whether it’s with this show or another, it’s hard to imagine Haddock away from the TV spotlight for long.
“It’s exciting and exhausting but that’s the job and I’m happy to have it,” he adds. “This job allows you to keep all your interests in different crafts – music, design, costumes – and storytelling. It all feeds what I write because I’m learning about different ways stories are told. It’s a privilege of the job.”
Like office workers using up their holiday entitlement before the end of the year, TV channels are rushing to greenlight scripted shows before they shut up shop for the holiday season.
Among those celebrating this festive bounty is UK producer Neal Street Productions, which has just been given the greenlight by the BBC to produce a sixth season of period drama Call the Midwife. The new order comes despite the fact season five has yet to air.
Neal Street executive producer Pippa Harris said: “I am delighted the BBC has decided to commission season six of Call the Midwife even before we have gone on air with season five. It really demonstrates their commitment to and passion for the show. The success of Call the Midwife is down to the incredible writing skills of Heidi Thomas and the talent and dedication of our wonderful cast and crew. I hope the audience will enjoy watching season five, which I firmly believe is our strongest yet.”
In the US, meanwhile, protests in front of HBO’s offices seem to have paid off, with the premium pay TV channel announcing that it has ordered a third season of critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers.
Fans of the show were so desperate for a renewal that they took to the streets to make their feelings felt – and it seems the channel has listened: “It is with great enthusiasm that we welcome back Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta (the creators) and the extraordinary talent behind The Leftovers for its third and final season,” said HBO programming head Michael Lombardo. “This show has proven to be one of the most distinctive HBO series, and we are extremely proud of its originality, which has resulted in such a passionate following by our HBO viewers. We admire and fully support Damon’s artistic vision and respect his decision to bring the show to its conclusion next season.”
As Lombardo’s comments make clear, next year will be the final season of The Leftovers. This is a neat way of giving the fanbase what they want and allowing the show’s creators to achieve closure, while tacitly acknowledging the fact that the show has not done that well in the ratings.
“On behalf of our incredible crew and superb cast, we are all tremendously grateful that HBO is giving us an opportunity to conclude the show on our own terms,” said Lindelof in a statement. “An opportunity like this one rarely comes along, and we have every intention of living up to it.”
Over in Canada, public broadcaster CBC has greenlit a four-part miniseries from producer Shaftesbury and Sharon Mustos. Based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall On Your Knees, the story follows four sisters in the early 1900s.
Moving from Nova Scotia via the battlefields of the First World War to the emerging jazz scene of Harlem in New York City, the show is described as the riveting tale of a family beset by hidden desires, terrible secrets, intolerance and repression.
Mustos said: “I am proud to bring this much-loved, acclaimed novel to the screen in partnership with Shaftesbury. Celebrating the quiet heroism of women in the face of heartbreak, adversity and the sweeping changes of the early 20th century, it is a remarkable story.”
Published in 1996, Fall On Your Knees has been translated into more than 20 languages and will be adapted by Adriana Maggs.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite a renewal but NBC in the US has given a hefty vote of confidence to freshman medical drama Chicago Med, which has been awarded five extra episodes. Part of a Chicago trilogy of TV shows from Dick Wolf, the first four episodes of Med’s first season have averaged 8.9 million viewers in live + same-day ratings. With the new instalments, the total order for season one is up to 18 episodes.
Still with the US networks, Fox has ordered Shots Fired, a drama that will be written and executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The show, set to air in 2016, looks at the tensions that arise when a black police officer shoots an unarmed white teen in a small town in Tennessee.
David Madden, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company, said: “Gina and Reggie have crafted a profoundly moving portrayal of a timely and sensitive issue that pervades our culture at this very moment. This is not only an important story to tell, but also an explosive mystery-thriller, and we couldn’t be in better hands both with the creative team behind this and Sanaa Lathan leading the cast.” Lathan plays an expert investigator who digs into the case, alongside a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.
One of the most hotly anticipated series of the new year is Fox’s six-part reboot of The X-Files, which debuts on January 24. The show has now been picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
“Securing the UK premiere of the hugely anticipated return of The X-Files is a major coup for the channel and will create one of the TV events of 2016,” said Ben Frow, director of programmes at C5. “This acquisition underlines our ambition to deliver a diverse slate of brilliant, must-see programming on Channel 5.”
With Downton Abbey over, the key participants are now out there looking for their next job. Last week, we reported that season five and six producer Chris Croucher is now working on ITV drama The Halcyon, while creator Julian Fellowes has been crafting his version of Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne.
Meanwhile, US cable channel TNT has announced that it is going to series with Good Behaviour, the story of a thief and con artist that will star Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton). It’s not clear if Dockery will have to use an American accent in her new role, but if you’re wondering whether she can, watch this appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
With Downton done, there are reports that the show’s production company Carnival has won a second-season commission from BBC2 for The Last Kingdom, which has just finished its first season. There has been no official confirmation yet but executive producer Gareth Neame has already sketched out the plot and character development for a follow-up. The show is based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, whose work also gave rise to the long-running Sharpe franchise (set during the Napoleonic Wars).
Switching briefly to corporate news, this week has seen suggestions that SVoD platform Netflix is gearing up to launch in the Middle East next year, while rival streamer Amazon has started offering its users access to cable channels such as Showtime and Starz.
Under a new scheme entitled the Streaming Partners Programme, Amazon Prime members can pick and choose SVoD versions of famous TV channels – a move that may well push the pay TV subscribers further towards cord-cutting. Showtime and Starz will be available for US$8.99 per month, with the promise that the latest episodes of series will be available simultaneous with broadcast.
“The way people watch TV is changing, and customers need an easier way to subscribe to and enjoy multiple streaming subscriptions,” said Michael Paull, VP of digital video at Amazon. “With the Streaming Partners Programme, we’re making it easy for video providers to reach highly engaged Prime members, many of whom are already frequent streamers, and we’re making it easier for viewers to watch their favourite shows and channels.”
David Nevins, president of Showtime Networks, said: “By marrying Showtime with the powerhouse retail capabilities of Amazon, we greatly expand our footprint, making sure our service is available to new subscribers whenever and however they want to watch us.”
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht added: “Starz is excited to offer subscriptions to our premium hit shows like Outlander and Power, as well as our thousands of movies, to Amazon Prime customers.”