From his background in theatre, David Farr wrote episodes of BBC spy thriller Spooks before big-screen feature Hanna became his calling card.
However, he got his big break on TV by adapting John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager.
In this DQTV interview, he talks about updating le Carré’s novel, the shifting power between film and television and his fascination with themes of identity, which informs his writing.
Farr also recalls how he fell in love with Philip K Dick’s The Impossible Planet, which he adapted as part of the Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, and how he put Helen and Paris’s love story at the centre of epic BBC and Netflix drama Troy: Fall of a City.
The Night Manager writer David Farr takes on Homer’s Iliad in an epic series promising sweeping battles, desperate conflict and forbidden love for the BBC and Netflix. DQ heads to South Africa to see the making of Troy: Fall of a City.
It’s perhaps the oldest story ever told. The Trojan Wars have everything: epic conflict, sweeping affairs, shocking betrayals, iconic characters, battling deities and heroic sacrifices. In that sense, it’s no surprise the BBC and Netflix would be interested in telling it – but they’re hardly the first, with Hollywood’s last attempt the big-grossing but critically maligned Troy from 2004, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.
Troy: Fall of a City was born on a beach in Crete, when executive producer Derek Wax was struck by a Zeus-esque bolt of lightning while reading The Penguin Book of Classical Myths and decided that Homer’s Iliad was ripe for adaptation once more. The eight-part series became the first project for his new company, Wild Mercury, produced in association with Kudos, with both companies owned by Endemol Shine Group. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.
Series producer Barney Reisz was undaunted by the inevitable comparisons. “The film came at the moment when everyone thought CGI was the next best thing, so they poured their resources into making it epic and lost the story a bit. It looked amazing, but for what gain? We’re making an epic show but trying to tell that story from a human, personal, authentic standpoint. It’s not our interpretation of the Iliad, it’s our interpretation of the myth as interpreted by lots of different people.”
Those people include not just Homer, but also Greek tragedians Euripedes and Aeschylus. But in the absence of Trojan sources and with even the dates of the war itself disputed (estimated to be somewhere around late 1300 BC), screenwriter David Farr, the Emmy-nominated adapter of The Night Manager, had carte blanche to be as creative as
Farr had Bettany Hughes on hand to advise on historical detail, but was also keen to explore the relatively untold story of life in Troy during the siege. “On the Greek side, you have an existing, well-trodden narrative,” he says. “It works and it’s exciting. The great challenge was to explore characters and stories in a way that would be as gripping as what’s happening outside the walls. We didn’t want to reduce the world to something smaller, but we did want to find the psychology and the grit in it.”
DQ can attest to that, having come to one of the series’ three major sets, an hour or so outside Cape Town, on an unseasonably warm July 2017 day during the six-month shoot. “We looked all over for a location,” says Reisz. “The real site of Troy in Turkey, plus Spain, Croatia, Malta… We chose South Africa because of the amazing landscape, the fantastic beaches and terrific infrastructure – we’ve only brought about 10 crew from the UK.”
Below the spectacular crags of the Simonsberg mountains, a collection of derelict farmhouses have been transformed into Troy’s Upper City, the courtyard outside the Trojan Citadel; the interior sits in a Cape Town warehouse, while the set for the Lower City, occupied by the general populace, is in the northern Cape Town district of Durbanville.
The Upper City architecture is a striking mix of Moroccan, Assyrian and Ancient Greek, assembled with some educated guesswork from production designer Rob Harris. Crumbling shrines and shrivelled offerings sit alongside swords, shields and spears in racks. The dilapidation is telling and quite deliberate: the series was shot in three blocks and in sequence by three directors – Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Mark Brozel (Dickensian) and John Strickland (Line of Duty) – so the sets have been allowed to deteriorate to reflect the trajectory of the conflict. We’re halfway through the series and – spoiler alert – Troy is losing the war.
The cast is a who’s who of sturdy television actors: on the Greek side, there’s Johnny Harris as Agamemnon, David Gyasi’s Achilles and Joseph Mawle as Odysseus; for the Trojans, David Threlfall’s King Priam, his queen Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) and Tom Weston-Jones as Hector. Caught in the middle are star-crossed lovers Helen (German actress Bella Dayne, last seen in Humans) and Paris, played by relative newcomer Louis Hunter. There are also other, less familiar faces. To serve this lesser-told side of the story, Farr invented some characters and expanded others who had walk-on parts in the Iliad – notably Priam’s advisor Pandarus (Alex Lanipkun) and Greek spy-cum-assassin Xanthius (David Avery), who befriends a Trojan family and comes to understand the toll of war on normal people.
“Even though it’s a mythical world, the characters are still human,” explains Avery. “There’s conflict and struggle. It shows that anyone can be touched by war, from soldiers to kings to families – it’s not just happening in a field hundreds of miles away, there are repercussions for everyone.”
Reisz agrees. At a time where the failings of patriarchy are being exposed in all areas, it’s a timely demonstration of “the complete fallibility of men. They’re fighting over beautiful things for the sake of it. I hope it’ll say something about the stupidity and futility of war, why people go to war and why many wars are never won or lost.”
Triggering the conflict are, of course, Paris and Helen (pictured top), whose affair ensures the divine prophecy, in which Paris brings about the downfall of his city, would come to pass.
“It’s a monumental shift, but it happens slowly,” says Hunter of his character’s journey from goat herder to returning royal prince to spark catastrophic conflict. “He’s impulsive and makes a lot of mistakes at first, but you see him develop and mature. This war goes on for 10 years, so Helen and Paris are constantly questioning whether their love means so much that they’ll put up with all the death and famine. The blood is quite literally on their hands, but their love is deep and true.”
“What makes Helen charming and allows her to affect men in the way she does is her vulnerability and open heart,” adds Dayne. “She’s intelligent, well read and knows about the politics. She also has a confidence in her sexuality, which women weren’t supposed to have at that time. She was more of a symbol of beauty than beauty itself. I had to think like that, because otherwise the pressure [of playing her] would have been too much.”
The gods, strikingly, are played by local actors and integrated as carefully as possible: there will be no declaiming in togas or brandishing fistfuls of lightning, nor will deities be dictating the actions of mortals. Instead, Farr approached them as a means to explore concepts of destiny and fate.
“They’re a presence,” explains Reisz, “without interacting too directly with the humans. They’re around and influencing things, but not in charge as they’d like to be. The key is that we know the humans are completely invested in them and fundamentally believe in them. People do extraordinary acts because they’ve been told to by the gods.”
As important as the emotional grip and thematic sweep of the story, meanwhile, is the fact viewers have certain expectations of Greek mythology that have to be met – expectations of battles, duels and a particular artificial horse.
“You only get one shot at it so you may as well get it right,” laughs Harris of the absent Trojan Horse that was the talk of the cast when DQ visited – drafted but not yet built. “It’s nearly eight metres tall and will accommodate a couple of soldiers. The idea is it’s a thing of beauty that people want.”
Harris’s greatest challenge to date, however, has been the construction of a 25 metre-long Greek ship, in 70 pieces. “If you put 50 people on a ship, it can’t tip over. We used a structural engineer and built it in a studio, then wondered how it would fare in a tidal pool. But it did float!”
The battles presented their own logistical challenges, overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis. Almost 200 extras and stunt professionals assembled for the biggest battle. Alfred Enoch, playing the part of Aeneas – general, Greek ally and future founder of Rome – was unsurprisingly caught up. “We were doing a battle scene at night, lots of extras and stunt guys, and after I killed the first person I just had a little look around and thought, ‘This is great!’”
The set-piece duels reflected the characters involved: there’s Achilles, efficient and elegant; Hector the muscular bruiser; and Paris, agile and quick. The set-to between Hector and Achilles took some four days to shoot and will most likely occupy about five minutes of the series. But, promises Farr, it will be well worth it. “We’ve all seen 100 westerns with 100 shootouts and they’re all great. This was the first ever shootout. It’s been replayed time and time again and never ceases to intrigue us, as long as you care about the people involved. You just have to enjoy those moments for what they are.”
The shoot wasn’t without its hairy moments. Half-a-dozen black mambas were removed from the location prior to filming, and a snake wrangler remained in attendance throughout. Baboons lurked during the beach scenes, scavenging food. A storm accounted for some of the set, a sickness bug for some of the cast, but only for a few days in both cases. A couple of stuntmen came a cropper when horses were startled, breaking ankles. But otherwise, given the level of ambition and devil-may-care attitudes of some of the stars (Hunter voluntarily tumbled 120 feet off a cliff for one scene), it’s had a relatively clean bill of health.
Off set, the collaboration between Netflix, the BBC and Wild Mercury also seems to have run smoothly, with the US streaming giant conforming to its hands-off reputation. “They brought a lot of money to it, which is hugely welcome,” says Farr. “They respond like audiences would – we’re a bit bored there, we don’t get that bit – but they don’t tell you how to solve it. They’re very positive and they trust people who make stuff to make stuff.”
The broadcasting arrangement sounds similarly straightforward. “The BBC will show it as early as possible,” says Reisz, nodding to its debut tomorrow, “once a week for eight weeks, then have it on iPlayer for a time. Thereafter, Netflix can show it in all territories apart from the UK, everywhere on the same date, then there’s a UK DVD date and Netflix will get it in the UK eventually.”
At the end of which, Troy will have definitively fallen – although that doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the team’s adventures in the ancient world. After all, in The Odyssey and The Aeneid there are two ready-made sequels waiting. “If I got another chance to wave a sword around, that would be amazing,” laughs Enoch. “That’s the idea,” reckons Reisz.
Farr is a little more circumspect. “Let’s wait and see how this one goes! I’m sure Homer was asked what came next after The Iliad and said much the same thing. Unlike other things I’ve worked on, there are consequences to this story and those consequences are very interesting, so let’s see.”
The Trojan Horseman
Horse trainer and stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev on the challenges of maintaining safety and order while working with no fewer than 18 horses on the set of Troy: Fall of a City.
I’ve been doing this for about eight years. I ended up in South Africa as one of the Cossack riders with the Moscow State Circus, then got involved with the film industry, started Film Equus and here we are with lots of horses riding around, doing silly things.
We have 18 horses for this show, although they don’t use too many in the big sequences. Maybe six in the big battles, but they’ll use CGI to make that look like more. We specialise in stuntwork – the most specialised sequence here was in the forest where a horse rears up, gets shot by an arrow and falls with a rider.
Training actors is more difficult than training horses! On Troy: Fall of a City, we had to start at the beginning with a lot of them and only had a limited time to get them to the level we needed. Sometimes the production would ask a horse to gallop with an actor, but it couldn’t be done – safety is the priority and things can happen so fast with horses. We can’t say ‘action’ on set. If you say ‘rolling,’ horses know it’s coming, and if you say ‘action,’ they’ll just start running. It’s been a privilege to be in this show – we love historical films and we’re proud of all the actors. They’ve worked very hard.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.
Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.
A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.
Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.
Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.
The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”
The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.
It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.
Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.
FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.
That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).
However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).
As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.
This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.
The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.
In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.
In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.
Drawing comparisons to James Bond, The Night Manager features a star-studded cast embarking on a globetrotting journey through the world of international espionage. DQ checks in with the BBC’s hottest new show.
Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki. As casting goes, this line-up could be very close to a broadcaster’s dream team. Add in award-winning director Susanne Bier and a story based on a novel by celebrated spy novelist John le Carré and The Night Manager appears to have all the ingredients for a mega hit series. Just add viewers.
The miniseries, which debuted on BBC1 in the UK on Sunday and lands on US cable channel AMC on April 19, marks the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years in a story that brings together love, loss and revenge in a complex tale of modern criminality.
The show centres on former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a hotel night manager who is recruited by government agent Angela Burr (Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of ruthless arms dealer Richard Roper (Laurie). To get to the heart of Roper’s empire, Pine must allay the suspicions of his chief of staff Major Corkoran (Hollander) and resist the allure of his beautiful girlfriend Jed (Debicki).
Le Carré himself describes the adaptation of The Night Manager as “one of the unexpected miracles of my writing life: a novel I had written more than 20 years ago, buried deep in the archive of a major movie company that had bought the rights but never got around to making the movie, suddenly spirited back to life and retold for our times. And how!”
The adaptation, penned by David Farr and produced by The Ink Factory, isn’t an entirely faithful retelling of the 20-year-old story, however. In particular, the “chief British spook” had originally been a man named Burr but became pregnant Ms Burr – as portrayed by Colman.
Then there was the location. Much of the novel takes place aboard Roper’s yacht but – recognising the high cost and claustrophobic nature of such a small setting – the TV version was transplanted to what the author describes as a “palatial Gatsby-style villa” found on the Spanish island of Majorca.
The backdrop to Roper’s arms dealing was also shifted, from the war on drugs in Central America to the Middle East and pro-democracy Arab Spring.
“I never wanted the film of the book,” le Carré admits. “Actually I never do. I wanted the film of the film. And we all did. All I asked was that the central interplay between our protagonists remain intact, and the narrative arc of the original story – never mind where it’s set – be broadly the narrative arc of the novel, exploring the same human tensions and appetites, and resolving the dramatic conflict in the same broad terms.”
The author also praises the central performances and, in fact, the entire production of The Night Manager, going as far as to compare it to “those glory days in the 1970s when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”
Hiddleston, best known for roles in big-screen blockbusters Thor and the Avengers series, admits he was hooked by the script from the first episode and quickly sought out the novel.
“The character appealed to me because I knew, as an actor, I was going to have to operate at the highest level of my intellectual and physical ability because he is a field agent, but also has to be smart enough to go undercover,” he explains, comparing Pine to a certain James Bond. “I found his nobility, courage and morality very appealing – he is actually a very moral character and is filled with le Carré’s own moral authority about the world. There is a certain line that you can feel underneath all of le Carré’s work which is a very robust moral foundation: a belief in right and wrong; in decency and its opposite.”
In contrast to Hiddleston’s recent discovery of le Carré’s story, House star Laurie says he fell in love with the book when he read it in 1993 and admits he once tried to option the rights himself.
“I tried to get the rights before I’d finished the third chapter,” he reveals. “I was unsuccessful, of course – the great Sydney Pollack had jumped on it and wouldn’t let go – but the character of Pine – and yes, back in 1993 I impudently imagined myself playing Pine – is a fascinating one: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for. Better still, to die for. I thought it was such a beautiful story.”
Now presented with the chance to appear in the series, Laurie says he was happy to take any job on the shoot. “I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” he adds, “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
From the start, Pine is painted out as the hero, stepping out of his comfort zone in a bid to snare the bad guy. But it doesn’t take long for viewers to question whether he will become the very thing he set out to destroy. In contrast, Laurie’s Roper appears to travel in the opposite direction.
“Pine’s original goal is to bring down this monster, but at the same time resist the monster’s charm,” Laurie explains. “There are moments when Pine teeters on the brink of the dark side, when you wonder which way he will go. At the same time you might wonder whether Roper is teetering too – that somewhere inside himself he wants to be caught, to be betrayed. The audience has to judge for themselves where Pine and Roper come close to crossing the line in opposite directions – where Roper might plunge the dagger into his own chest and where Pine might become the very thing he set out to destroy.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré’s writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions. My God, I hope we can do it justice.”
Broadchuch star Colman – who is reunited on-screen with her Rev co-star Hollander – had just found out she was pregnant when she met director Bier, meaning her character not only changed gender during the adaptation process but also incorporated an additional element to her character. She describes Burr as a “zebra among the lions,” a woman in the male-dominated world of espionage who strives to do what she thinks is right.
“Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty,” Colman explains. “She is determined to take this monster down so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within.”
Helming the six-hour miniseries is Oscar winner Bier, who triumphed at the 2011 Academy Awards with foreign-language film In a Better World (Hævnen).
Both Hiddleston and Laurie reserve praise for the Danish director, who is described by Hiddleston as a “crusader for the truth.” Laurie adds: “She is The Night Manager. Her vision, her taste, her approach has defined every part of what we are doing, and it’s been an absolute thrill to be a part of.”
A self-confessed le Carré fan, Bier says she jumped at the chance to join the “irresistible” project. “The drama series explores a world where the line between good and evil is completely black and white, yet we are drawn into the blackness,” she explains. “Audiences will be eerily attracted to the evil and I think that’s sort of what drew me to it. You’re never completely sure if Pine is on the right side.”
The biggest challenge, she recalls, was translating the complexity of le Carré’s novel to maintain the thrilling elements, as well as making the 20-year-old story more contemporary – hence the change of setting from South America to the Middle East.
But like many big-screen talents moving to television, Bier adds that she was also drawn to the challenge of telling a hugely complex story over six hours – three times the average movie running time.
“Like a number of other feature directors, I’ve come to realise that there’s great writing in television right now and something incredibly challenging in dealing with a longer chunk of storytelling,” the director says of her move to the small screen.
“I don’t think you could fit this into a two-hour slot because it’s such a rich story – the characters have so much nuance – and part of the thing that makes a TV series is the fact all of the minor characters are interesting, exciting and complex.
“It was so exciting having a whole gallery of fascinating, fun characters and you couldn’t predict where they were going.”
As its name suggests, feature films are the major focus of the Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale. But, echoing trends across the global media market, high-end TV drama is also playing an increasingly important role at the event.
There is, for example, a screening showcase called the Berlinale Special Series, during which TV titles from Denmark, the UK, Israel, Australia and the US will be shown. There is also an event called The CoPro Series, during which seven international TV projects searching for coproduction and financing partners will launch.
For this week’s column, we’re taking a closer look at each of the selected projects, focusing on the writing talent involved.
Berlinale Special Series
The Night Manager is an adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller, starring Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman. Set to be broadcast by the BBC in the UK and AMC in the USA, it has been adapted for screen by David Farr, who recently attended the C21 Drama Summit to discuss his approach to the project. Farr has established a strong reputation as a theatre director but has also proved very adept as a screenwriter. His credits include TV series Spooks and the movie Hanna, co-written with Joe Wright.
Love, Nina is a comedy miniseries for the BBC starring Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Joshua McGuire and Faye Marsay. The story is based on the memoirs of Nina Stibbe, a nanny who worked for and encountered some of London’s leading literary figures in the 1980s. It has been adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Fever Pitch) and is his first ever TV drama. He says of the project: “Love, Nina has already attained the status of a modern classic, and I am so happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to adapt it. We want to make a series that is as charming, funny and delightful as Nina Stibbe’s glorious book.”
Better Call Saul is a spin-off from the iconic AMC series Breaking Bad. Now moving into season two, it’s the brainchild of Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad. For season two, he shares the showrunning duties with Peter Gould. Although Gould is not as high profile as Gilligan, he is equally steeped in the series’ mythology, having worked on all five seasons of the parent show and the first season of the spin-off. For his work on Breaking Bad, he was nominated for four Writers Guild of America Awards.
Cleverman is an Australia/New Zealand coproduction based in a dystopian futuristic fantasy world. Due to be broadcast by ABC Australia and SundanceTV in the US, it stars Iain Glen and Frances O’Connor. The original concept for the story is from Ryan Griffen, a relative newcomer to the industry who also co-wrote four out of the series’ six episodes. Other credited writers were Jon Bell, Jonathan Gavin and Michael Miller (six episodes) and Jane Allen (two episodes). Overal,l that’s a pretty potent line-up of Aussie writing talent, with career credits that include Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Neighbours, The Gods of Wheat Street and Offspring.
Splitting Up Together is the latest drama to come out of Denmark. The TV2 show is described as a serialised character-driven comedy about family, love, sex and happy divorce. The show, which first saw the light of day at last year’s Mipcom, is produced by Happy End and distributed by DR Sales. It is created and written by Mette Heeno, whose previous credits include TV2 comedy series Lærkevej and Lillemand. Prior to that, she spent much of the last decade writing movie scripts (such as Triple Dare).
The Writer is an Israeli series coming out of the prolific Keshet stable. Written by Sayed Kashua, who created award-winning comedy Arab Labor, the 10-part series “observes the reality of a hybrid Israeli-Palestinian existence and the personal and political toll it can take on the individual.” This is a similar theme to Arab Labor, which has so far had four seasons (since debuting in 2007). Kashua earned an international reputation for his previous series, with the New York Times saying: “Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view… into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment.”
Avrupa is a project from Circe Film in the Netherlands centring on a flamboyant Turkish family that immigrates to the Netherlands in the 1980s. It is written by Sacha Polak and Stienette Bosklopper. To date, Polak’s main credits have been movies (Hemel, Zurich and Vita & Virginia). Bosklopper, meanwhile, is best known as a producer – only turning to screenwriting in the past couple of years. Speaking to Screen Daily, she said: “I had been working with a lot of writers and directors. Somehow, there was an urge to contribute on a different level. To my own amazement, it is going very well. It comes quite naturally and I get the feeling I will continue to do this.”
Brotherhood is a Norwegian crime series for TV2 Norway from Friland Film, a production company best known for feature films. The series, apparently inspired by true events, centres on a police investigator in Oslo who becomes heavily involved in organised crime. His secret links to the underworld are suddenly challenged and the protection he has built around his family starts to fall apart. The eight-part project is being written by Nikolaj Frobenius, whose main writing credits to date are as an author and movie writer. Film credits over the course of the last decade include Pioneer, Sons of Norway and Insomnia, while his books have been translated into 18 languages.
DNA is a Danish crime show produced by Eyeworks Scandi Fiction and written by author and creator Torleif Hoppe. Hoppe’s main claim to fame is his involvement in The Killing, of which he wrote 20 episodes. Aside from DNA, he is also working with Buccaneer Media, BBC America and AMC on Moths, a thriller set in Japan.
Lucky Per is a Nordisk Film Production for TV2 Denmark, based on a famous book written at the start of the 20th century. The four-part miniseries will be adapted for the screen by Bille August and his son Anders. It is scheduled to go into production this summer, with delivery at the end of 2017. DR Sales is handling distribution. Anders August established himself as a film and TV writer at the start of the current decade and has gone on to bigger and bigger projects. Recent credits include The Legacy and Follow the Money for DR. There have also been reports that BBC America and AMC are developing a show created by the younger August. Deadline called the BBC/AMC project “an untitled comic-noir thriller set in a 1950s resort (that) follows the social climbing of a disarming young woman who turns out to be a dangerous sociopath.”
The Disappearance is a new project from highly rated writer/director Hans-Christian Schmid. Primarily a movie maker, his credits include Home for the Weekend, which competed at the 2012 Berlinale.
The Illegal is a new project from Clement Virgo, the director of The Book of Negroes. It’s based on a book by Lawrence Hill, who also wrote The Book of Negroes. Virgo’s new project, which is being produced through his company Conquering Lion Pictures, is a dystopian story set in the near future. It follows the journey of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo and Hill co-wrote the TV version of The Book of Negroes so it’s likely they will adopt a similar approach this time.
Wars Inc, produced by Drama Team, is described as an Israeli newsroom-based drama. Unfortunately there isn’t any additional information on the project right now, so you’ll have to wait until the Berlinale pitch to find out more about this one.
The CoPro Series will give producers and financiers the chance to get to know the series’ creators at a networking get-together following their pitch, and arrange one-on-one meetings to discuss potential partnerships. The full programme was designed in conjunction with Peter Nadermann (Nadcon, Germany) and Jan de Clercq (Lumière Publishing, Belgium).
In other writer news, Steven Moffat has announced that season 10 of Doctor Who will be his last as showrunner. His final season will air on BBC1 in 2017 before he is replaced by Chris Chibnall, whose credits include Broadchurch, The Great Train Robbery and Life on Mars.
Moffat said: “While Chris is doing his last run of Broadchurch, I’ll be finishing up on the best job in the universe and keeping the Tardis warm for him. It took a lot of gin and tonic to talk him into this, but I am delighted that one of the true stars of British TV drama will be taking the Time Lord even further into the future.”
Chibnall called Doctor Who “the ultimate BBC programme: bold, unique, vastly entertaining and adored all around the world. So it’s a privilege and a joy to be the next curator of this funny, scary and emotional family drama. Steven’s achieved the impossible by continually expanding Doctor Who’s creative ambition while growing its global popularity. He’s been a dazzling and daring showrunner, and hearing his plans and stories for 2017, it’s clear he’ll be going out with a bang. Just to make my life difficult.”
At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.
In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.
What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.
If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.
Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.
Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.
Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.
So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.
At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.
Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.
This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.
Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.
While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.