Tag Archives: Discovery

Discovery draws up its Manifesto

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber
Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber

Series like The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story have proved there is a healthy market for well-told dramas based on real events. So it’s interesting to see that Discovery Channel is coming to market soon with Manifesto, a highly anticipated series that looks at the story of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.

This week, Discovery announced that actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) will star in the show as FBI Agent Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, whose innovative new approach to intelligence gathering ultimately led to the capture of the Unabomber. Kaczynski himself will be played by British actor Paul Bettany.

The show, which is produced by Lionsgate and Trigger Street Productions, is being written by Andrew Sodroski, a former Harvard graduate. It has taken Sodroski a while to get a break in the TV business, but finally things look like they’re coming good. Aside from Manifesto, he is also working on a project for Amazon Studios entitled Holland, Michigan. This comedy-thriller centres on a schoolteacher who, suspecting that her husband is cheating on her, enlists the help of a fellow teacher she fancies.

Fact-based drama is a good fit for Discovery and is an area where it has already enjoyed significant success in. In September, it aired Harley & the Davidsons, which delivered 4.4 million viewers and became the most-watched single-network cable miniseries in three-and-a-half years. Echoing the OJ Simpson series, which aired on FX, Discovery wants Manifesto to be the first in an anthology series of dramas that focus on infamous criminal masterminds.

Tom Hardy at Content London
Tom Hardy at Content London

Another upcoming dramas attracting attention right now is actor Tom Hardy’s Taboo, which will air on BBC1 in the UK and FX in the US. A historical period drama, it follows an adventurer who returns to the UK from Africa to avenge the death of his father. Hardy created the idea with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight.

Knight, of course, has built up a loyal fanbase through his acclaimed gangster series Peaky Blinders. The new show, which focuses on the activities of the East India Company, will provide him with the same kind of complex political web that has made Peaky Blinders such an enjoyable romp.

Commenting on the show, he said that the East India Company will be depicted as a mix of “the CIA, NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on Earth.”

Knight and Hardy Snr are credited as writers on the series – as is Emily Ballou, an Australian-American poet, novelist and screenwriter. Among Ballou’s high-profile TV credits are Channel 4’s Humans, ITV’s Scott & Bailey and The Slap from ABC in Australia.

Emily Ballou
Emily Ballou

Over the past couple of days, the Australian screen industry has gathered to announce the winners in the sixth Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards. On the scripted TV front, recipients in a range of categories have included Rake, No Activity, The Beautiful Lie, Cleverman, Secret City, Down Under, Molly, Mary: The Making of a Princess, The Kettering Incident, Wentworth and Wolf Creek.

There’s a lot of great drama in that list but it’s interesting to note that the award for Best Screenplay in Television went to Sarah Scheller and Alison Bell for ABC’s Comedy Showroom – The Letdown. To win the award they had to beat competition from The Beautiful Lie, The Kettering Incident and Upper Middle Bogan.

The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit
The Letdown is Alison Bell’s first writing credit

The Letdown tells the story of a struggling new mum (played by Bell) and the mother’s group she thinks she doesn’t need. Originally shot as a one-off as part of the Comedy Showroom strand of pilots, the show’s strong performance means it is set to reappear next year as a full series. The Letdown is Bell’s first writing credit, although she is well established as an actress. Scheller also has a bit of an acting track record and was a writer on the comedy No Activity.

Good news for Marvel fans this week following the news that Netflix has ordered a second season of its series Luke Cage. This follows previous second-season orders for other Netflix/Marvel collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Luke Cage was created for TV by Cheo Hodari Coker, who also leads a 12-strong writing room. A former music journalist with an intimate knowledge of the rap scene, Coker’s other TV credits include Southland, NCIS, Ray Donovan and Almost Human. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious.

Cheo Hodari Coker
Cheo Hodari Coker

With Luke Cage one of the few black male characters in the superhero comic book business, Coker’s track record has made him the perfect choice to bring Cage to life.

In a recent interview, he said: “The show is what I call ‘inclusively black.’ It’s an unadulterated hip-hop show. But it’s done in such a way that anyone from outside the culture – not just hip-hop culture, outside of geek culture – it can play against anything on television.” For more on Coker, click here.

C21’s Content London event last week included a wide array of top screenwriters in its line-up. One of the speakers was Tony Grisoni, whose numerous TV credits include acclaimed series Red Riding, The Unloved and Southcliffe.

Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London
Tony Grisoni speaking at Content London

During the event, Grisoni discussed a new drama he is working on with producer Andrea Calderwood. Called In the Wolf’s Mouth, it is set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development. The story is based on a novel by Adam Foulds published a couple of years ago.

Although C4 is paying for script development, Grisoni and Calderwood were also at Series Mania in Paris this year pitching the project in the hope of attracting international coproduction partners.

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The wheel deal

Adrenaline-fuelled motorcycle races take pole position in Discovery’s dramatic retelling of the birth of Harley-Davidson.

Since it was founded more than 100 years ago, Harley-Davidson has cemented its reputation as one of the world’s most iconic brands.

Now the story of how the world-famous motorcycle company came into existence – set against the backdrop of social and technological change – is being retold for US cable channel Discovery.

Harley and the Davidsons recalls how three friends from Milwaukee, William ‘Bill’ Harley (Robert Aramayo) and Arthur and Walter Davidson (Bug Hall and Michiel Huisman), risked their entire fortune and livelihood to launch the budding enterprise.

In particular, it was Walter’s ferocious ambition that propelled him to become a top motorcycle racer – and help put Harley-Davidson on the map – while competing in the deadly motordrome competitions sweeping the US.

Produced by Raw TV, the six-hour series launched last night on Discovery in the US and will air around the world from this month. The executive producers are Ciaran Donnelly, Raw’s Dimitri Doganis, and John Goldwyn, the channel’s executive producer of drama.

Harley and the Davidsons
Harley and the Davidsons stars Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman (left)

Like Discovery, Raw is best known for its factual and documentary programming but both firms are stepping further into drama. The network’s first scripted miniseries was 2014’s Klondike, set during the Gold Rush of the 1890s, while Raw has produced single dramas such as Cyberbully and Blackout.

But while some ideas naturally fit factual formats, Doganis says it was clear the story behind the birth of Harley-Davidson would be best told as a drama, with Evan Wright, Seth Fisher and Nick Schenk on scriptwriting duties.

“It’s one of those stories someone tells you and you can’t believe no one has told it before,” Doganis explains. “It lends itself so well to dramatic retelling; it’s full of rich characters and has enough conflict to fill a great drama series. But the early struggle in the scripting process for both producers and writers was deciding what to leave out.

“The series spans 30 years of history, which not only takes in the rise of a blue-collar family business from the Midwest but also what happens in a period of huge change in the world. The First World War and the Depression take place in that time period but those events become the backdrop and what you’re left with is compelling characters and their conflicts.”

The company started life at the turn of the 20th century
The company started life at the turn of the 20th century

Harley-Davidson was founded by Harley and the Davidson brothers in 1903 in Milwaukee, where the company is still based. So for the series, researchers travelled to its headquarters to study the archives, while every book on its history was studied from cover to cover.

“We talk a lot about the men behind Harley-Davidson as a rock band,” notes Doganis. “Without one of them, the whole thing would have crumbled – so each one of them was critical to its success, but they were often in conflict with each other.

“The research revealed clear moments of critical decision making and turning points in the history of the individuals and the company. The differences and the conflict between the characters at the heart of the company are what made the story so compelling.”

Goldwyn believes Harley and the Davidsons is exactly the type of scripted programme that dedicated viewers of reality and factual television will take to.

“At its core, this is very much based on the truth,” the former Dexter producer explains. “For the audience that’s going to watch this show, particularly the dedicated Harley viewers who own the bikes, Harley-Davidson is a culture. They are loyal to the brand and the company. They are acolytes and don’t want to see something they revere in any way transgressed. So we worked very hard to make sure even when we were changing the facts, we were not changing in any way the spirit of the accomplishment.”

The team behind the show conducted painstaking research into the iconic brand's history
The team behind the show conducted painstaking research into the iconic brand’s history

Doganis picks up: “The series is very much adorned in real history. There are inevitably gaps in what we can know that we have had to fill in, but creatively all the critical points are things we know or believe to be true. Where there has been some levity is with the order of events and the geography.”

Accuracy was also key in terms of the races and the replica motorcycles, which were manufactured in South Africa and based on original designs. The series culminates with the launch of the classic Knucklehead bike in 1936.

“We had to create a lot of very accurate motorcycles from 100 years ago that could be raced and crashed and used in a variety of different situations,” explains Doganis. “That was extremely challenging. The whole series came together very quickly, and building those bikes and getting them historically correct meant building more than 50 motorcycles from scratch to take us through the different periods.

“And it was not just Harley-Davidson but Indian, Excelsior and other iconic motorcycles. That was a huge endeavour and involved designing from the ground up.”

Shooting took place across 12 weeks this spring in Romania, where early 20th century America, which was still largely rural, could be easily replicated.

“One of the things we follow over the course of the show is the evolution of Milwaukee from what feels like a pastoral town into a burgeoning city,” Goldwyn says. “We were able to achieve this with the production design. The other thing was making sure the bikes looked, felt and sounded like the real thing.”

The producers were clear that Harley and the Davidsons shouldn’t simply be a biopic of the company – and for Donnelly, who directed episodes one and three, this meant blending the excitement of the motorcycles with the human elements of the story.

“I wanted to know the men behind the machines and something about their lives and the world they lived in,” he says. “I also wanted to bring the story to the audience in a visual, visceral and cinematic way, in terms of establishing where the characters live and work and making the racing as exciting as possible. I wanted to get the audience onto the seat of the motorcycles as much as possible.”

Unsurprisingly, it was Walter Davidson’s race sequences that proved the most challenging for Donnelly and Stephen Kay, who steered episode two. They used aerial positions and fast-moving cameras to capture the actors recreating the motordrome races on circular tracks not dissimilar to cycling velodromes.

“They went around these tracks racing at 100mph and back in the day they didn’t even have brakes,” Donnelly says. “It was intensely dangerous and intensely exciting. One of the big things I brought to the show was a desire to firmly get into the world of motordrome racing.

“It was a big challenge from a design and creative point of view. Luckily, in Bucharest there was a velodrome so we built a drome on that. On screen, 70% of the action is real and 30% is CGI building up the stands. But we built all the motorcycles from scratch. It’s quite mind-blowing.”

Goldwyn, who describes the race sequences as “extraordinary,” says his ultimate aim is for viewers to be immersed into the story and the world in which Harley-Davidson was born.

Doganis concludes: “The great thing about the story of Harley-Davidson is you think you know a bit about the people or the objects, but you couldn’t make up the detail and incredible struggle and extraordinary conflict and creation they had to come up with. It’s one of those times where the true story is more satisfying than fiction.”

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James Patterson enters the true crime arena

Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer
Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer

Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.

Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.

Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.

Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.

James Patterson
James Patterson

This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”

It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.

The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.

Harley and the Davidsons
Harley & The Davidsons is being prepared for Discovery

The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.

In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson

Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.

Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.

Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.

Katori Hall
Katori Hall

Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.

Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”

This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.

The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”

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ITV checks into The Halcyon hotel

Spain's Gran Hotel
Spain’s Gran Hotel

Hotels are great places to set dramas. Not only do you get to see the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff, from lowly bellboy to entrepreneurial owner, you also have guests coming in and out every week.

As with hospitals and shops, this means a constant turnover of stories and characters as the series progresses.

Hotel dramas are nothing new – think back to the UK’s iconic soap Crossroads, for example – but in the last few years they have certainly been in vogue.

There was, for example, the BBC’s Hotel Babylon, set in the world of a luxury five-star hotel. And then came ZDF period drama Hotel Adlon. In the US, we have seen American Horror Story’s most recent season set in a hotel, while Spain has given us the best example of them all with Grand Hotel.

An opulent series set in the early 20th century, the show has proved a big hit at home and in the international distribution market. Not to be overlooked either is Stephen Poliakoff’s new spy drama Close to the Enemy, set in a run-down hotel after the Second World War.

American Horror Story's current outing is based in a hotel
American Horror Story’s current outing is based in a hotel

And so to the point of this preamble, which is that ITV in the UK has commissioned The Halcyon, a series set in a London-based five-star hotel during the Second World War. Produced by Left Bank Pictures and written by Charlotte Jones, it will focus on the guests and staff of the hotel in 1940. As such, it adds the unsettling backdrop of conflict to the transitory nature of hotel life – bombs overhead, staff going to war, soldiers passing through and perhaps even spies.

The eight-hour drama will be produced by Chris Croucher, who also produced the last two seasons of ITV’s period hit Downton Abbey. So there is clearly a hope that The Halcyon can go some way towards replacing that show.

ITV director of drama Steve November said: “A hotel is the perfect place to show ambition in telling the story of the Second World War. It was an extraordinary time in our country’s history, and London was a transforming city. The Halcyon takes us right to the heart of this as the hotel is busy, energetic and vibrant, which reflects how people carried on with their lives with defiance in the air.”

ITV's Steve November
ITV’s Steve November

Left Bank CEO Andy Harries added: “1940 was one of the most dramatic years in our island’s history. Who could have imagined London would survive the blitz and Luftwaffe’s attempted destruction of the city? What was it like to be in a five-star hotel in the West End through this extraordinary period? It’s such a compelling idea for a drama. The world of The Halcyon has to carry on through thick and thin and against all odds. The bedrooms have to be made safe, the bars have to stay open and the band has to play on. People have to sleep, eat and survive.”

Left Bank is owned by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), so the likelihood is that SPT will hold the international distribution rights to the show. If so, this will echo the business model of Downton Abbey, which was commissioned by ITV but produced by NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films. The series will begin filming in London and surrounding areas from April 2016.

It’s been a good week for Left Bank, which has also been commissioned by ITV to make a fifth season of crime drama DCI Banks. The series, which premiered in 2010, is based on the novels by Peter Robinson and stars Stephen Tompkinson. It is set and filmed in the county of Yorkshire.

Stephen Tomkinson in DCI Banks
Stephen Tompkinson in DCI Banks

Harries said: “I’m delighted we are producing a fifth season of DCI Banks, one of ITV’s best-loved dramas. The stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside is contrasted with the uncompromising storylines the team is dealing with.”

Left Bank isn’t the only indie to have benefited from ITV’s voracious appetite for new drama this week. Indie producer CPL Productions has been given the greenlight to make Brief Encounters, a six-parter looking at a group of four women who get into the lingerie and sex-shop business in the 1980s.

The series is inspired by chapters telling the story of the early days of the Ann Summers party plan business found in Good Vibrations, the memoir by Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold. “Brief Encounters is a refreshingly different domestic drama taking us back to the wonderful world of the 1980s,” said November. “We’re really excited by this commission – it’s full of heart, story and great new characters.”

Executive producer Arabella McGuigan added: “Brief Encounters is gutsy, emotional, warm and surprising. Like the real Ann Summers saleswomen, through their camaraderie our women discover hidden strengths and an ability to come out fighting no matter what life throws at you. As wives, mothers and businesswomen, they unleash talent – and they blossom.”

Luther creator Neil Cross's new show is set in a pre-apocalyptic London
Luther creator Neil Cross’s new show is set in a pre-apocalyptic UK

CPL belongs to Red Arrow Entertainment, which presumably means distribution will be handled within the Red Arrow family.

Still in the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has commissioned a new detective series from Euston Films called Hard Sun. The six-parter is being written by Neil Cross, creator of Luther and a writer on Doctor Who. FremantleMedia International is handling sales.

It’s described as a pre-apocalyptic drama, meaning it is set against the backdrop of a dying world. “Imagine the world you see when you look out your window… except it’s been given a death sentence,” Cross said. “There’s no hero to come save us; no contingency plan. What’s it like, trying to keep order, trying to enforce the law in a city that, day by day, slips closer to certain destruction? How do you get up in the morning? How do you get out of bed and leave your family and go out there, putting your own life at risk? And what about the predators? What about the murderers, the rapists, the thieves? What about the psychopaths, the religious nuts, the cult leaders, the serial killers? Who would fear a prison sentence?”

Meanwhile, comic books continue to be a fruitful source of TV ideas, with US cable channel Syfy developing a new series based on the Dark Horse comic Harrow County. The story focuses on a teenage girl who finds ghosts, goblins, and the restless dead in a nearby forest. She subsequently learns she is the reincarnation of a powerful witch.

Blood and Water has been renewed by OMNI Television in Canada
Blood and Water has been renewed by OMNI Television in Canada

The series is being written by Becky Kirsch, who has previously worked on Syfy’s Dominion and 12 Monkeys.

Discovery is also reported to be working on an anthology drama series. According to Deadline, the broadcaster is developing a show called Manifesto, which will explore how the FBI caught infamous criminal masterminds, with each closed-ended season following a different case. The show sounds similar in structure to Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story on FX.

Finally, in Canada, OMNI Television has announced that it has renewed crime drama Blood and Water, just a month after the first season’s debut. The show, which is set in Vancouver, is unusual because it delves into the lives of Chinese immigrants and is produced in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

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