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To boldly go… again

Alongside the cast and crew of Star Trek: Picard, Sir Patrick Stewart opens up about returning to the lead role after 18 years and explains why this series marks a new direction for the storied franchise.

As far as Sir Patrick Stewart was concerned, the Star Trek chapter of his heralded career was over. From his first appearance as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship USS Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, he appeared in all seven seasons of the sci-fi series, plus one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and four feature films, culminating in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

It took some persuading, but thanks to executive producers Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman and supervising producer Kirsten Beyer, he has now returned to the role after an 18 year hiatus for Star Trek: Picard, the first series in the franchise to be named after a character rather than a starship or station.

“I’m on record as having said, ‘Nope, no more Star Trek. I said goodbye to that, I’m proud of everything we did but I’m done with it.’ Then Alex, Akiva, Michael and Kirsten began talking to me, and they talked and talked about Star Trek in a way I had never imagined before,” Stewart recalls.

“As I reflected and talked to my own team about this, at the end, I realised it was something I had to do – and what a smart decision that was! We wrapped filming our first season at the end of September and I was as happy with what we’d done with that as anything in my career.”

Set at the end of the 24th century, 14 years after Picard’s retirement from Starfleet, Star Trek: Picard opens with the lead character enjoying a quiet life with his dog, Number One, on his French vineyard, Chateau Picard. But when he is sought out by a mysterious young woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), in need of his help, he soon realises she may have personal connections to his own past.

Star Trek: Picard begins with the retired starship captain on his vineyard in France

“I feel I have been preparing to shoot Star Trek: Picard for over 30 years,” Stewart jokes, speaking on stage at the London premiere of the series. “There was a quality about him, a feeling I had about him from the very beginning, which was unlike any acting experience I had had before. When these people came to me and pitched an idea, I was all ready with my speech of refusal. Indeed, I insisted through my representative that I would meet them face to face and tell them why I was going to say no.

“I did my best, and then I do remember Alex saying, ‘Can we just talk to you a little about our idea?’ And he talked and talked. They all got my attention. When the meeting was over, I asked my agent to ask them if they could put on paper the things they said to me because I’d like to study them more closely. The last thing I felt I wanted or needed was to return to Star Trek.

“Two days later, 35 pages showed up. I read them and I was hooked, because what they were writing about was an image of the future of Jean-Luc and the world of Star Trek, which I have never envisioned before and thought could not be possible under the overriding rule of what Star Trek is and what it isn’t. These guys were breaking those rules again and again. That’s the kind of stuff that interests me and, with increasing excitement, I signed on.”

The fact that Star Trek: Picard would provide the next chapter of Jean-Luc’s life was what appealed so much to the actor.

“The world has changed since we finished The Next Generation,” he continues. “I was intrigued by that and the challenge it presents Jean-Luc when he was no longer an authority figure. Doing this again became irresistible because there were so many transformations in the character, his behaviour and what he believed in.”

Sir Patrick Stewart was initially reluctant to return to the character he last played in 2002

From the first episode, it’s easy to see why Stewart was drawn to his character’s new adventure, opening with Jean-Luc taking long strolls through the vineyards and haunted in his dreams by the mistakes of his past. A television interview forces him to face the reasons for his retirement head-on, while the arrival of Dahj causes him to shake off the dusty shackles of life after Spacefleet and throw himself into a new mission.

Kurtzman, who has been involved in rebooting the Star Trek franchise with two movies and another series, Star Trek: Discovery, says Stewart threw down the gauntlet to the producers and challenged them to do something that hadn’t been done before.

“I didn’t want to do just season eight of The Next Generation,” the exec producer says. “This is the next chapter of this man’s life. He’s living with regret and loss in a way that is profound. The idea he has this opportunity, in a very unexpected way, to right wrongs he feels he was a part of, it’s a second chance to make amends.

“It’s a beautiful story. You almost never get to tell that story. Jean-Luc is 92 years old in Starfleet years. How many shows allow you to tell the story from the point of view of someone who’s looking back on their life and giving them one last chance at hope? That’s really what we wanted to say.”

Goldsman, who has been involved in Star Trek: Discovery and the Short Trek companion series, agrees that the creative team were keen to respect the period of time that had passed since Jean-Luc was last seen on screen.

The series also sees the return of Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine

“We didn’t want to pick up right on the heels of The Next Generation, we wanted to acknowledge that for both Sir Patrick and the character, 20 years had passed,” he says. “The plans we make rarely line up with the outcome, so as much as Jean-Luc might have left Star Trek: Nemesis thinking he was going one way, life took a different set of choices. We felt that to restart him at his ancestral home gave us some grounding and a way to celebrate him for folks who knew him but also introduce him to those who didn’t.”

Stewart wasn’t the only one who didn’t think the series would materialise from those early conversations. “It was completely unexpected and nothing that even in my wildest fan boy dreams have I ever had the hutzpah to imagine might come to pass,” admits showrunner Chabon, who says he was “lured in” by Goldsman and joined the team when it was already in the early stages of trying to evolve the next Star Trek series following Discovery.

“There were so many dozens of times in the course of making this show that I said to myself or Akiva, Alex or Kirsten, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this’. I still can’t, but it’s true.

“We’re fans. We are steeped in Star Trek and we put everything we love most about the show, every iteration of the show all the way back to the original series, into our work on Picard. We also want people who don’t know the show at all, people who don’t like Star Trek or never watch Star Trek, so we’ve tried to make the show work for those people as well.”

Beyond Stewart, the cast brings together a blend of familiar faces and new arrivals. Returnees include Jeri Ryan, who reprises her Star Trek: Voyager role as Seven of Nine. Jonathan Del Arco is The Next Generation’s Hugh and Brent Spiner appears as android Data.

Stewart’s Picard finds his quiet life interrupted by Dahj (Isa Briones), who needs his help

Among the newcomers are Michelle Hurd as Raffi Musiker, who shares a “complicated history” with Jean-Luc and Starfleet, while Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora play Romulans Narek and Elnor. Alison Pill is synthetics expert Dr Agnes Jurati.

Similarly to Stewart, Ryan says she thought she had said goodbye to her character 20 years ago, and initially didn’t think talk of a return would lead anywhere. “When I was approached about it two years ago, I thought it was a joke. I laughed – I thought it was really funny – and they said, ‘No, we’re serious,’” the actor recalls.

“They pitched the general direction the character was going to go in, which was surprisingly intriguing to me because I thought I was done. Then I thought nothing was going to come of it. People pitch ideas in Hollywood all the time and nothing ever happens.

“Then, cut to a year later, and I’m backstage at the Creative Arts Emmys with Alex getting ready to go on stage and he turns around and says, ‘We’re talking a lot about Seven of Nine in the writers room.’ I was like, ‘Oh, so it’s real? OK.’ It never occurred to me it would actually happen. I’m so thrilled and grateful that it did.”

In contrast, Treadaway was given a speedy introduction to the world of Star Trek. “I remember a phone call early on, lying on my back looking at the stars in Devon while Alex was talking me through what Star Trek was and what the world and this version was,” he remembers.

The Star Trek: Picard cast line up at the show’s premiere

“I was really coming at it from a very unknowing place and I decided to take that and use it to my advantage rather than anything else. I was fresh-eyed and it just blew me away. I was aware of the heritage and what this world has meant to so many people for so long. It’s an incredible thing.”

Airing on CBS All Access in the US, Bell Media and Crave in Canada and in more than 200 countries worldwide on Amazon Prime Video, Star Trek: Picard is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Secret Hideout and Roddenberry Entertainment. Distribution is handled by CBS Studios International.

The weekly roll-out of episodes – the series debuted last week – means fans won’t be able to binge the entire season straightaway. But with a second season of Picard already commissioned, the good news is they won’t have to wait another 18 years to see Jean-Luc back on screen.

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Reid between the lines

Reid Scott, best known as one of the stars of HBO’s political comedy Veep, tells DQ about his latest role in darkly comic drama Why Women Kill, which comes from the creator of Desperate Housewives.

After seven seasons starring in HBO’s awards-laden comedy Veep, Reid Scott is swapping politics for polyamory.

In dark comedy-drama Why Women Kill, he plays writer Eli, who enjoys an unconventional, open marriage to lawyer Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). But when Taylor brings home her lesbian lover, Jade (Alexandra Daddario), everything changes.

Taylor and Eli’s story, set in the present day, is one of a trio of tales that weave their way through the 10-part limited series, each detailing the lives of three women living in different decades and dealing with infidelity in their marriages, examining how the roles of women have changed but how their reaction to betrayal has not.

In the other strands, Ginnifer Goodwin plays 1960s housewife Beth Ann, while Lucy Liu is 1980s socialite Simone. The supporting cast includes Sam Jaeger as Beth Ann’s husband Rob and Jack Davenport as Simone’s husband Karl.

Coming off such a successful, long-running series such as Veep, in which he played US vice-president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)’s highly ambitious and ruthless deputy communications director Dan, Scott would be forgiven for feeling daunted about what might come next.

In Why Women Kill, Scott plays a man in an open marriage with Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Taylor

But he says ending the show earlier this year felt like the right decision, while the opportunity to join Why Women Kill – which comes from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry – was a risk worth taking.

‘It was so different from anything I’ve done recently but I guess that’s always kind of a point, to move outside of your comfort zone,” he tells DQ. “I read the script twice and obviously was well aware of Marc and his reputation. Then they started to build this really phenomenal cast. Ginnifer had come on board while I was reading the script, and then Lucy joined. I came on next, so I really felt great about the world they were building.”

“When I met with Marc and his team, it’s not Veep, it’s a different show. But these people are really dialled into something special.”

While Veep was often built around the exploration of ego and “how these horrible, despicable self-centred people move through their professional lives and what makes them tick,” Why Women Kill is the complete opposite, focusing on the emotional heart of each relationship. Viewers will get to learn something of the professional side of each character, but Cherry keeps the show’s lens on the nuances and intricacies of life for each couple.

In the case of Taylor and Eli, Scott says it’s a very complicated coupling, offering insight into a relationship dynamic that is becoming more socially acceptable. “I thought that was important,” he says. “I also like that, in the specific chemistry between my character and his wife, there’s a bit of a gender role reversal. He’s very much the beta to her alpha. I thought that was something that was important to portray, and it’s been fun. He’s a total departure from Dan, but that’s not to say he’s without his darkness. We get into some stuff. As the series evolves, you realise he has a very dark past and he has very specific demons that come back to haunt him. But overall, he’s a good guy, whereas Dan is not a good guy.”

The show focuses on couples in three different eras, including and Jack Davenport and Lucy Liu’s 1980s duo Karl and Simone

The conflict and the ensuing fallout between Taylor and Eli comes from the fact they take a wrecking ball to their own marriage, the actor says. “You get that this is a good guy who loves his wife very much. But they throw a wrench into their own relationship and then they have to deal with it. Where the story goes, they’re forced to take the wrong path over and over and over and over. But that happens in life, because sometimes you can’t really see the forest for the trees. And before you know it, you’re in the quagmire.”

Scott, Howell-Baptiste and Daddario quickly became friends on set. But with the Spanish-style house in Pasadena in which all three of the show’s central couples live being the sole link between the stories, they would only see other members of the cast during the table reads for each episode, or if more than one of the storylines was being filmed on the same day.

As well as containing plenty of comedic moments, Scott’s storyline also called for some intimate scenes. “It’s a bit uncomfortable but it’s all very choreographed and we really trust each other, so we didn’t have too much trouble doing that,” the actor notes. In fact, he considers the biggest challenge making the series to be the fact this is the first season, with cast and crew still working out the show’s tone and style.

“But this is a collaborative art form,” he says. “You’ve got 150-plus people working on this thing, and everyone’s trying to figure themselves out and how they fit into the overall matrix of this production. There’s a lot of stumbling and false starts, but everyone really believes in this project and really comes together and gets it done. Part of the exciting thing about starting a new project is that you try to hit the ground running and move forward from there, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

With projects such as Desperate Housewives and Devious Maids, Cherry has built a reputation for domestic stories with a wickedly dark sense of humour, striking a balance between comedy and drama. Scott says this continues with Why Women Kill, which blends lighter moments with thrills and scares.

“You can’t say it’s a comedy, you can’t say it’s a drama. Just when you think you might laugh out loud – bang – something else happens and it draws you back into the dramatic side,” Scott explains of Why Women Kill, which is produced by Imagine Television Studios and CBS Television Studios for US streamer CBS All Access. “It’s an interesting way to work and it’s really fun. One of the challenges was to make sure that we kept it reined in. You never want to go too darkly dramatic, you never want to go too over-the-top comedic with it. It was trying to strike that balance, and it’s hard work but, ultimately, I think it works.”

As for the title, is it a signpost to where the series is heading? “The audience is going to be very satisfied,” Scott teases. “The title definitely delivers. But there’s a twist. The murdered as well as the murderers are not necessarily who you think at the beginning. That’s part of the fun, trying to figure that out.”

Launching on HBO in 2012, Veep won numerous accolades, including three consecutive Emmys for outstanding comedy series and six for Louis-Dreyfus’s performance as the embattled Meyers. It’s little wonder that Scott describes working on the political satire, created by Armando Iannucci, as “the greatest job ever.” He continues: “I have a whole new family out of it. We grew so close to one another over seven seasons.”

He knew Iannucci’s work from equally sweary British political comedy The Thick of It, on which Veep is based, and film spin-off In The Loop. But despite becoming one of the must-watch programmes on US television, Veep was just a small show at first, says Scott.

“There was a different style of humour that we all believed in, and we just had fun doing it. Armando’s such a genius; he invented ways of shooting and he invented ways of editing. The way Veep was shot was unique and it was just a process that was really special. It’s never going to be repeated. There’s no chance you’re going to assemble that murderers’ row of incredible comedic writers, comedic actors and comedic directors and get that to happen again. But I’m so glad to have been there when that lightning struck.”

Scott alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep

The process Scott alludes to involved plenty of creative freedom afforded to the show by HBO’s executive team, while Iannucci would fly the cast to London for intense rehearsals where the cast would go over and over the scripts, before casting them aside and improvising the scenes. The writers would then edit the scripts using some of the material created by the cast.

“Then we would do it all over again,” Scott recalls. “So it was a very collaborative process. That’s how we found the characters. That’s how we found what worked. None of us had ever worked that way before but, from an actor’s standpoint, it’s great because you really become the custodian of your character. Between each season, Armando would contact us and say, ‘Here’s some ideas I have for next season. What do you think?’ That never happens in television – no one does that. It really bolsters you and gives you this ownership of the character that makes you very excited to go back to work.”

That working method also proved to be a shock for the numerous guest actors who joined the show. “I remember when Gary Cole [senior strategist Kent Daviso]  and Kevin Dunn [White House chief of staff Ben Cafferty] showed up for the first time. They were like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ They’d never worked that way. We were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been doing this for three years now. We’re sort of used to it.’ Once you work that way, once you get used to it, it’s so hard to go back.”

On Why Women Kill, which is distributed by CBS Studios International, the script wasn’t quite ripped up and reassembled like it was on Veep, but Scott says Cherry did offer the cast the chance to offer their own thoughts.

“I was like, ‘I want to mix it up. I want to like tear the script apart and play with it.’ You should see the looks on the writers’ faces! Marc’s been very open to letting me play around with it,” he adds. “There’s certainly not as much improvisation as there was in Veep, but he’s been very encouraging and let me push Eli around a little bit – and Kirby’s a phenomenally wonderful improvisational actress too. So when they let us off leash, we really get to run. It’s pretty fun.”

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Another dimension

Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele fronts the return of The Twilight Zone, exactly 60 years after the iconic series first aired. Executive producer Audrey Chon explains how the show was reimagined for a new generation.

Since it first launched in 1959, The Twilight Zone has become an iconic title in television, with every episode exploring socially conscious stories with mind-bending twists that examine all aspects of humanity.

Now 60 years later, under the stewardship of Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele (pictured above), the classic anthology series has been reimagined for a new generation and a new world.

Peele hosts and narrates the CBS All Access series, taking up the role made famous by original creator Rod Serling, with a stellar line-up of actors set to appear in the standalone episodes. Chris O’Dowd (Get Shorty) appears in one episode called The Blue Scorpion, while Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time) stars in Point of Origin. Others featuring include Seth Rogen, Greg Kinnear, John Cho, Alison Tolman, DeWanda Wise, Jessica Williams, Stephen Yeun and Jacob Tremblay.

Audrey Chon

The new version of The Twilight Zone, is distributed by CBS Studios International, launches on the US streamer on Monday with a double bill. The first episode, Replay, is a time-travelling tale about racism and police brutality. Nina (Sanaa Lathan)’s old camcorder can rewind time – but can it help her ensure the future of her college-bound son Dorian (Damson Idris)?

Episode two, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, sees journalist Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) lose his mind when he discovers a podcast is describing future events onboard his flight. Parks & Recreation star Scott will be in the French city of Lille when The Twilight Zone has its international premiere at Series Mania tomorrow (Saturday).

The series is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Simon Kinberg’s Genre Films. Kinberg and fellow executive producer Audrey Chon joined the project three years ago, at a time the latter acknowledges the US was in a different political climate.

“We were looking at how we were going to reimagine the show and asking why were we doing it in a way that makes it worthwhile. It’s been an iconic title for so long, we didn’t want to do it just to be opportunistic,” Chon tells DQ as post-production continues on the series. “We needed a creative reason to do it, and we were looking for that reason as we were talking to various showrunners about their vision for it.

“Then in 2016, the world, or at least our country, changed,” she says, with a nod to Donald Trump’s presidential election win. “We realised it now feels like a responsibility to comment on what’s happening, and it felt like this show was the perfect form to do that.”

Adam Scott stars in episode two, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

It was around the time the new president moved into the White House that Peele’s debut feature, Get Out, which he wrote and directed, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The horror hit went on to win an Oscar for best original screenplay for its story of a young black man who discovers a disturbing secret about the family of his white girlfriend.

It was good timing for Chon, who saw the film shortly after joining The Twilight Zone. “It was the first time we said, ‘That is The Twilight Zone, that’s exactly what a modern day Twilight Zone should feel like.’ It was Jordan’s first film and we went after him pretty aggressively after that, and then the other pieces fell together.”

A series of meetings and phone calls were arranged before Peele was fully on board, with discussions focusing on how to make the show distinctive. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has often spoken about how the original Twilight Zone was an inspiration for his own examination of modern society, largely through the lens of futuristic technology – and that admiration came full circle as The Twilight Zone entered early development.

“We all love Black Mirror, so how is this not Black Mirror? How do we do this justice?” Chon says of those early discussions. “What we realised was that, during the 50s and 60s, what Rod Serling was really writing about was the human condition and ideas that felt timeless. It was not emphasising tech but things that seemed relevant then and still seem relevant today, when you think about ‘the fear of the other’ and various issues like that. The tone was a big thing for all of us and, having seen Jordan’s work, there’s always a wink to it. There’s a very mischievous vibe. It was important to Jordan that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously and we were making a show that felt very accessible.”

Rather than updating or modernising the original Twilight Zone, the producers embraced the DNA of Serling’s work and used it as a blueprint for the new version, with Peele taking on Serling’s role as narrator, introducing viewers to the latest character to enter the Twilight Zone. “We went back to the original and analysed how the stories were told. It became a guiding force for us,” Chon says. “We didn’t reimagine the way Rod told those stories, we really embraced it. It wasn’t broken and we really thought that was the way to do it.”

The third episode sees Silicon Valley’s Kamail Nanjiani as a man seeking fame

The series follows an anthology format, with each episode standing on its own in terms of its individual themes and its take on “modern-day paranoias.” While Replay deals with racism and police brutality, other episodes will tackle immigration and guns. But not all of them are deeply rooted in social commentary. Episode three, The Comedian, stars Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) as a man who yearns to become famous – but what will be the cost of his personal ambition?

The stories told during the 10-part series originated from a hybrid writing process, with a small staff of full-time writers taking on some episodes and several freelance writers commissioned to write their own scripts. Peele also brought his own ideas to the table.

There were a lot of ideas pitched to us we decided not move forward with, often because they didn’t feel ‘Twilight Zone’ enough,” Chon notes of the writing process. “We would hear ideas that felt more like a straight drama and we didn’t get the weird twist or why it felt slightly off-centre. It was tricky. You know when you hear a great one. It took a little while to figure out what did do that. It’s a weird balance in our show of having stories that feel grounded but a little off, both of our world but not.

“All of these episodes have different flavours. Some are just purely fun and weird and provide a good time. Others we hope really resonate thematically. They’re all labours of love.”

Episodes were also conceived within the framework of The Twilight Zone’s distinctive style and tone, with the production designer and cinematographers involved early in the process. Episode directors also had to find the right balance between bringing their own style and embracing the overall vision for the series.

The original Twilight Zone was helmed by Rod Serling, who created the show

Filming took place in Vancouver, with an average shoot time of 10 or 11 days per episode. “It was like producing a movie each time,” Chon says. “There were certainly some that were more ambitious in terms of a build or visual effects and with the mammoth sets we had to do. One of our most ambitious sets we built was of a space shuttle. It was not only expensive but a massive endeavour for one episode.”

In contrast, the last episode in the series is more grounded, and thus was cheaper to produce, she adds. “We were non-stop. There were no breaks. We were always preparing, shooting and in post. You would just roll into the next episode with the schedule we had. We were mindful of trying to set the more ambitious productions with things that would give our teams some relief.”

Ultimately, it was getting the tone of each episode correct that proved to be the hardest part of making the series. “If you don’t get the tone just right, sometimes the story doesn’t make sense. That was probably the really hard thing to break on a number of episodes,” Chon says.

The biggest hope of the production team, which also includes Win Rosenfeld, Glen Morgan, Carol Serling, Rick Berg and Greg Yaitanes, is that the show resonates with audiences as much as the original CBS series did during its five-season run between 1959 and 1964.

“I think we will be incredibly fortunate if people embrace it like the original,” Chon concludes. “I hope the episodes provoke people to think and talk about issues we’re putting forward. At the same time, I hope it’s just really fun. We’re trying to be engaging and mischievous and mess with the audience a little bit too. I hope we’re doing both of those things.”

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