Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph talk playing superheroes, joining the Marvel universe and doing their own stunts in comic book adaptation Cloak & Dagger.
While Marvel’s big-screen ambitions have left nothing on the floor in terms of scale, ambition and epic action sequences, the same cannot be said for its television offerings. The likes of Daredevil and The Punisher may live in the same ‘universe’ as movie characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther and Thor, but there’s a stark contrast between them on screen.
In particular, TV series such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and Netflix foursome Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – as well as crossover series The Defenders, which brings the four titular characters together – offer an altogether darker, grittier and more grounded tone.
One of the most recent entries into Marvel’s television canon is Cloak & Dagger, commissioned by US cable channel Freeform and available on Amazon Prime Video across Europe. It tells the story of Tandy Bowen (‘Dagger,’ played by Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson (‘Cloak,’ played by Aubrey Joseph), two teenagers from very different backgrounds who find themselves burdened by and awakened to newly discovered superpowers that link them together. One can emit light while the other can shroud people in darkness.
The series is based on the beloved comic characters and is coproduced byMarvel Television and ABC Signature Studios. It is distributed by Disney Media Distribution.
Here, Holt and Johnson talk about how they were drawn into the world of the original comic books, their on-screen partnership and some of the issues the teenage characters face in the series, which has been renewed for a second season.
How much did you know about Tandy and Tyrone before starting the show? Holt: We were not familiar with the comics whatsoever. We did a little bit of research going into it and I ended up bringing the first comic book to the audition just to understand the characters and the tone and their journey. Then when we got the parts, we dove into the comics a little bit more.
How do you feel the show fits into the larger world of the Marvel universe? Holt: We’re a very progressive show and we’re taking a current-day twist on what’s happening in society right now. I think that’s unique and rare and something we don’t see a lot of in television, or certainly not in shows that are based on superheroes. As far as the larger scale of the Marvel universe goes, it’s important for us to finally tell a story about an interracial duo team and how they’re better together than they are apart. For Marvel fans, it’s about bringing a new generation of superheroes on board and telling their stories in an authentic way. Johnson: Also, a lot of superhero duos are the hero and his sidekick, but Tyrone and Tandy are on a level playing field and they need each other. I love how the show stresses who they are as people away from their superpowers.
Did you know from the start that you had such great chemistry? Holt: We did chemistry tests with a lot of different actors but the minute we were in the room together it just felt right. We actually did an improvisation scene where we sat down and basically talked about both of our backgrounds and stories. By the end of it we were in tears. It felt good and we left the room feeling confident that, whether we booked the parts or not, nobody could ever take that moment away from us.
In the first two episodes, you only have one scene together – was it hard to get the chemistry going again? Holt: No because that’s the scene we did at the audition and so we’d done it a lot. But our director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed that first episode and who we just worship and love, really helped us get to an authentic place. And while it’s true we have very few scenes together in the first few episodes, when it comes to episode four we really start to develop a dynamic and a friendship. Johnson: You get to know Tyrone and Tandy for who they are respectively, as individuals, and you’re rooting for them, so when they finally get together it’s like, ‘This is heaven.’ And I do feel the fans are in love with the chemistry that Tyrone and Tandy have. I think it’s worth the wait.
What are you most enjoying about playing these characters? Johnson: One of the best things about Tyrone is how much he shares with Tandy. He’s an introvert, which I’m definitely not – and actually that was a challenge for me at first, but I love a challenge. Being able to portray that introverted side of him and to see how much Tandy changes him is great. Throughout the season you really watch them grow, not into two completely different people, but you really see them grow up.
Do you think teenagers today are switched on to what’s happening in society? Johnson: I think this generation is so aware and so, I guess they say, ‘woke.’ They’re already talking about these things and I think this is going to push it to another level where we see that if we connect and if we talk, we’ll progress more than if we separate ourselves. Moving with hate isn’t going to take us anywhere, so I feel connecting with young people is going to achieve a lot because television and film are two of the biggest outlets in the world. Holt: Our goal is to start an open dialogue and to make society aware of what’s happening in this day and age – what it’s like to be a female in America and a young black male in America. It has a lot of heavy material and a lot of layers and a lot of really hard topics to talk about like police brutality, addiction and sexual assault. The aim is to show it in a very raw, authentic way. Of course, we want to make a fun show that’s entertaining and has a bit of wit. We don’t want it to be dark and heavy all the time, but I think it’s important to address bigger issues.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve done on the show so far? Holt: We got to do most of our own stunts, which is pretty cool. We definitely got our steps in and there were a lot of bruises and a lot of sore muscles towards the end of the season, but all for good reasons. To be able to actually go and do what your character is doing is really fun; to feel that adrenaline and that rush, then go into the scene afterwards with that feeling is pretty epic. There’s nothing quite like it. Johnson: The days where we did stunts made it feel a lot more real, like, ‘Wow, I guess we are superheroes!’
Harrow, Disney-owned ABC Studios International’s first scripted series, is a fresh twist on a well-worked genre. Don Groves chats to the creative team and star Ioan Gruffudd.
Four years ago, Australian screenwriter Stephen M Irwin and writer/producer Leigh McGrath had an idea for a procedural crime series centred on a brilliant yet unorthodox forensic pathologist.
Both loved classic, character-driven forensic shows like Quincy, which ran on US network NBC from 1976 to 1983 and starred Jack Klugman as an LA County medical examiner.
But they knew they needed an original angle to differentiate their show from myriad other procedurals and came up with this twist: the protagonist, Dr Daniel Harrow, committed a murder years ago, and thus much of the suspense hinges on how, why and when the crime occurred.
“It’s a ‘whydunit’ as opposed to a whodunit, where the character solves murders as well as using his skill to cover up his own crime,” says McGrath, a former story editor on Thames Television’s long-running UK cop show The Bill.
Irwin, who at the time had just scripted murder mystery Secrets & Lies for Brisbane- and now LA-based prodco Hoodlum, wrote the pilot script on spec and he and McGrath created a pitch document, with the show taking its name from the lead character’s surname.
The problem was that Hoodlum had zero experience in the crime procedural genre. “It was a big idea and it was not an easy fit in Australia or overseas, so the first challenge was getting people to read the script,” says Tracey Robertson, who founded Hoodlum with Nathan Mayfield in 1998.
Sally Riley, who had been appointed head of scripted production at Oz pubcaster the ABC in May 2016, liked the idea but could not immediately see where a show like Harrow would fit in the schedule.
Fortune was in their favour, however, when Robertson and Mayfield met with Keli Lee, the London-based MD of international content and talent at Disney’s ABC Studios International.
Lee was executive VP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment Group when ABC greenlit the US remake of Secrets & Lies, which was co-written by Irwin and executive produced by Barbie Kligman, Robertson and Mayfield.
Lee was impressed with the Harrow script and the treatments for all 10 episodes, and within a couple of weeks commissioned the show, the studio’s first scripted series. Soon after, the ABC’s Riley came on board.
“Nathan and Tracey were absolute terriers who, by hard graft rather than good luck, got the script to the right people at the right time,” says Irwin, who wrote eight episodes and co-wrote another with Lucas Taylor, the script editor, while McGrath penned one.
The producers drew up a list of actors from Australia, the US and the UK to play the lead. Lee pushed for Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd, whom she had known since he starred as a 200-year-old man attempting to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality in the series Forever, which ran on ABC in 2014 and 2015.
After reading the pilot script, the LA-based Gruffudd spoke via Skype one Sunday morning Australian time with Irwin, who was at home in Brisbane. “I knew we’d found our guy, someone who could be a little bit acerbic, funny, gruff and likeable and could carry quite a lot of medical information,” Irwin says. “He also needed to have the gravitas that suggests the character might have done something quite bad for a reason to be revealed.”
Asked what differentiates Harrow from multiple other crime procedurals, Robertson says: “Some tend to just be all plot while others are all character and no plot. We have created great, well-defined characters in Harrow himself and the people around him, while each episode deals with a crime of the week. There are no cardboard cut-out stereotypes.” The drama premiered on ABC Australia in March, with Disney Media Distribution licensing the US and international rights.
To ensure the series had a large-scale, cinematic look, the producers hired directors who either had feature film experience or had worked in the TV murder-mystery genre. Kate Dennis, whose credits include the Australian original and US remake of Secrets & Lies, plus CSI: Cyber for CBS, AMC’s Turn and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she was Emmy nominated, was the setup director and directed one episode.
Dennis, who was booked to direct an episode of Netflix comic book-based drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones when Robertson offered her the gig, was initially reluctant. “I told Tracey that me and procedurals are probably not a good mix, but I read the script and thought this one was different and out of the box,” she says. “It’s very character-driven and there is the mystery of the man at its core. I was very attracted to it.”
Dennis created the look and style of the show with Robert Humphreys, who was the DOP on the first five episodes (Simon Chapman shot the remainder). During three weeks’ hectic prep, she wrote a detailed series bible for her fellow directors that set out numerous cinematographic rules, including often having the camera behind Harrow or raking past close to his face; shooting through foreground objects and shifting shadows of water or patterns on windows and other reflective surfaces; basing the colour palette on the human iris; and making Brisbane itself a character.
Tony Krawitz (The Kettering Incident), Tony Tilse (Wolf Creek, Underbelly), Daniel Nettheim (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Peter Salmon (Wanted, Rake) each handled two episodes, while Catriona McKenzie (The Warriors) did one.
Nettheim had long wanted to work with Robertson and Mayfield again after directing the duo’s first ever production, Fat Cow Motel, an interactive comedy drama that screened on the ABC in 2002. He watched footage of the first five episodes before directing the final two instalments. “My prerogative was to honour the earlier work and to try to bring something fresh so I was not repeating the same ideas,” he says.
“The show has a unique tone because of the level of humour. What I really enjoyed from some of the earlier episodes was seeing what an actor like Darren Gilshenan can bring to those comedy parts and how well that sits with the grimmer parts of the investigation.”
To round out the cast, the producers did a lot of chemistry tests, pairing various actors with Gruffudd. Robertson found that process so productive that she intends to use it for all future productions, including supernatural crime drama Tidelands, Netflix’s first original Australian series, which was also written by Irwin and is shooting in Queensland this year.
Ella Newton is Harrow’s estranged teenage daughter, Fern, while Anna Lise Phillips plays his ex-wife, Stephanie. Robyn Malcolm is Maxine, Harrow’s often exasperated boss, and Darren Gilshenan is Dr Lyle Fairley, a resentful colleague who keeps butting heads with Harrow.
Remy Hii portrays Simon, a forensic pathologist who is completing his studies and is a protégé of Dr Harrow. “The two have an odd-couple relationship as friends and colleagues,” Hii says. “Playing opposite Ioan was a lot of fun because he has such an incredible range. At my first audition, we did chemistry reads together and there was an immediate connection.
“A lot of the subject matter is dark because we are in a morgue for much of the series and we deal with death but the scripts are so witty and they pop off the page. All the characters are larger than life, but so relatable.”
Hii, who appears in every episode, adds: “It was a heavy workload and lightning fast – that is Australian TV. You prepare to the eyeballs and, at the same time, you are prepared to drop much of your homework in order to get it done. You never know what challenges will be thrown your way. It was a blessing working with six of Australia’s top directors – people with so many different processes, styles, visual flair and experiences.”
Mirrah Foulkes plays scenes-of-crime officer Sergeant Soraya Dass, a former detective who has moved to Brisbane from Melbourne and works with Detective Senior Sergeant Bryon Nichols (Damien Garvey). Dass develops a romantic relationship with Harrow but has her own dark secrets, says Foulkes.
Foulkes had taken time out from acting to write the screenplay for Judy & Punch – a feature she will also direct, which reimagines the puppet show Punch & Judy – when Robertson asked her to audition in early 2017. She found the short prep time challenging, noting: “My favourite part of the process is rehearsals and eking out all the interesting things that are going on in the writing. You don’t have time for that in Australian television. The best-case scenario in a show like Harrow is you get a quick catch-up with the directors and touch base on some key moments in each episode, some key emotional beats. It was incredibly hard and fast, and I enjoyed it. The scripts were hugely ambitious and the shoots were really tricky.”
Filming started in Queensland in August 2017. The budget was only slightly higher than the average for an Australian drama but did allow a nine-day schedule for each episode (seven is typical), plus elaborate set builds and hiring well-known actors such as Tony Barry, Ditch Davey, Gary Sweet, Chris Haywood and Dan Ewing for guest roles.
“When you have a big international partner in Disney-ABC, the bar is raised in production values,” Mayfield says. “This is about taking a show that speaks to its Australian audience but is viable and competitive to sell internationally. Disney-ABC brought a wealth of knowledge, information and experience. We got a lot of valuable insights into storylines and character beats.”
Business partners for 21 years, Robertson and Mayfield share every aspect of their jobs, from creative development and physical production through to business affairs, although he is Brisbane-based and she spends most of her time in LA.
“We are a very close-knit team,” Mayfield says. “There is a short-hand and a trust that have been built over two decades. We do butt heads occasionally on creative things when neither of us has the answer, but that is healthy because the best idea wins. We always want to deliver on the promise.”
Gruffudd gravitates to the dark side
Ioan Gruffudd follows his riveting performance as a renowned surgeon accused of date rape in the SundanceTV and ITV series Liar by playing a forensic psychologist who harbours a dark secret in Harrow. DQ gives him a call.
It’s no coincidence Ioan Gruffudd is now being cast as damaged characters after playing heroic types in Horatio Hornblower, Black Hawk Down and two Fantastic Four comic book adaptations.
“I’d been dying to play these three-dimensional parts, flawed characters, for such a long time but I’d never really looked old enough or had enough weight and gravitas in my face and experiences before,” the Welsh actor says on the line from Brisbane while shooting the final episodes of Harrow. “I’m meeting these characters in the right time of my life. I’m in my 40s and I am starting to look right for these parts.”
Gruffudd did not expect the critical acclaim that greeted Liar in the UK, the US and Australia, which no doubt persuaded the networks to greenlight a second season from the creators Jack Williams and Harry Williams. The first season of the show saw Gruffudd’s character accused of rape, with viewers left to unravel the truth.
“We knew we were doing something special and good but you just never know, until you go out there into the universe, how people are going to respond,” he says. “I think the purpose of casting me was to put people off the scent, especially in those early episodes, to lull the audience into a false sense of security that this guy could not possibly have done this.”
Gruffudd leapt at the chance to play the title role in Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow, drawn to the scripts by Stephen M Irwin and producer Leigh McGrath. He relished the prospect of playing a character he describes as eccentric, slightly curmudgeonly, borderline arrogant and selfish but also funny.
In addition, he was a fan of Hoodlum’s Irwin-scripted Australian series Secrets & Lies, rating Irwin as an exceptional writer. And he was happy to return to Queensland, where he had worked on the films San Andreas and Sanctum.
Harrow also stars Remy Hii, Mirrah Foulkes, Ella Newton, Darren Gilshenan, Anna Lise Phillips and Robyn Malcolm, for whom Gruffudd is full of praise. “I am working with the crème de la crème of Australian actors. They are stars in their own right and could lead a show in their own right,” he says.
Similarly effusive over set-up director Kate Dennis, he says: “Kate blessed the ship and all who sailed in her. She set up the look, the costumes, the production design and the tone. It is unique but there are elements of House, Rake and CSI. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny, with office gallows humour, and the next scene could be quite sad and tragic.”
Dennis marvelled at Gruffudd’s ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama, the ease with which he mastered wads of dialogue laden with medical terms and his ever-cheerful demeanour on set. “He’s a genuinely terrific person to be around and deeply professional,” she says.
Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson adds: “The show has a great sense of humour and deals with the light and the dark really well. Dr Harrow has his own view of the world and is a really lovable character, which Ioan sells to the moon and back.”
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, mermaids and humans are set for a battle to control the ocean in Siren, which launches on US cable channel Freeform next week. DQ dives into the series with showrunner Emily Whitesell.
Long before the cameras began rolling on Humans, the sci-fi coproduction from Channel 4 and AMC, the group of actors cast to play the androids at the centre of the show spent weeks in rehearsal perfecting every movement and gesture. For Freeform drama Siren, which debuts next Thursday, the starring ensemble went through a similar process – only this time they were playing mermaids, and they were underwater.
Visual effects, the final piece of the jigsaw put into place ahead of Siren’s debut, will help to create a realistic look for this fishy tale. But when it comes to movement, that’s on the actors.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the water because we wanted everything to look as authentic as possible,” says showrunner Emily Whitesell when asked how much of the show was shot on camera. “These actors are unbelievable, they are diving into the freezing water off the coast of Vancouver [where Siren was shot]. Then for anything under the water, we have a giant tank and underwater cameras, and they’re in suits that mark them up in a way so that, afterwards, the visual effects people can add something. But as for the actors, the more they can move as these creatures, the better off we are once we get to visual effects.
“Eline Powell, who plays the mermaid Ryn [at the centre of the story], must be partly mermaid! She’s such a physical actor; she takes on the life of this thing and moves in such a way that it’s so authentic. Our main actors are so into it, they’re really embodying these creatures. We just have to keep them safe [in the water] and try to make their movement as close as possible [to a mermaid] so we can minimise the visual effects.”
Siren is set in Bristol Cove, a coastal town that, according to legend, was once home to mermaids. And when the arrival of a mysterious girl (Powell’s Ryn) proves this folklore to be true, there begins a vicious battle between man and sea as these predatory beings seek to reclaim their right to the ocean.
The drama is based on a story by Eric Wald and Dean White, who executive produce alongside Whitesell, Brad Luff, Nate Hopper and RD Robb. Disney Media Distribution is handling international sales.
Whitesell’s reluctance to lean too heavily on her effects team also extended to a desire to avoid the pattern of shows such as 1970s/80s series The Incredible Hulk, in which viewers would see Bill Bixby’s David Banner transform into Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk each week. “We really tried throughout the first 10 episodes to vary what you’d see in terms of transformation,” she explains of the mermaids’ differing states between land and sea.
“Part of the mythology we’re using – we got to make up a whole mythology of our own – is when mermaids come onto land, they become more adaptive each time, so they can stay longer each time. So for a couple of episodes we can have a different transformation or tell a different story about what it means to be a mermaid. In every episode you see something cool as far as a transformation or visual effect, but we only do the actual transformation in visual form several times throughout the first 10 episodes.”
As a writer and producer, Whitesell’s credits include Homicide: Life on the Street, Roswell, Party of Five, American Dreams and, most recently, MTV teen drama Finding Carter, on which she was also showrunner.
“I got so lucky,” Whitesell recalls of becoming involved in Siren, which was originally titled The Deep. Her agent passed her the script as production was ramping up for the pilot, and despite initially hesitating at the prospect of a mermaid drama, she agreed to read it.
“I’m not a mermaid girl but I read the script and I could not believe the quality of it and the level it was being worked at,” she says. “I’d never seen a story like this on TV. As a producer and a writer, you’re always looking for new things to explore, and it rang all these thematic bells about things I love to write about in terms of the ‘others’ in the world and acceptance of people – very deep themes that I always care about.”
Wald and White wrote the pilot, before White left to continue his directing career and Whitesell stepped in to help Wald polish the script. Scott Stewart then directed the pilot before Freeform, the cable channel formerly known as ABC Family, greenlit a further nine episodes in April 2017. Production began in July.
Despite not being involved in the story’s conception, Whitesell says she feels fully invested in Siren, having joined at such an early stage and having taken charge of casting and the writers room. Her partnership with Wald has also blossomed.
“I know you hear all kinds of crazy stories about people not getting along but Eric, because he’s not done television, is such a collaborative and creative person and he’s been fascinated by the process,” she says. “Some of the compromises you end up making in your initial vision or what you thought of when you were writing and then how it actually plays out, he’s been fascinated by watching that happen. He has such a great film eye so he always starts from a very elevated place, and together we’re able to say, ‘Here’s the compromise.’ He has been absolutely riveted and the relationship has gotten better and better.
“He naturally loves to work on visual effects and that is such a labour-intensive process. I am much more about how we’re telling the story and the arc of the story. I’ve taken the reins in that way and we both have different strengths, so that has been fantastic.”
Asked about her showrunning mentors, Whitesell lists peers such as Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick (both Once & Again) and Party of Five’s Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, noting that beginning her career on the lowest rung of the writing ladder meant she could reflect on different ways of doing the top job and how she might one day approach it herself.
“Nowadays, showrunning is such a big job in terms of casting and writing, and you’re responsible for every aspect [of the show]. Where are we shooting, what are we shooting, what does it look like, how are we lighting it, what stories are we telling, how are we casting? When I consider all the jobs that happen every day, I can’t think too much or my head will explode.”
Ensuring her head stays intact comes down to delegation, with Whitesell surrounding herself with talented people and letting them do what they’re good at. “You shouldn’t be threatened by really talented people, they can help you. It’s all good and you should try to elevate everyone. That helps people invest in the show.”
Producing a series for teen-skewing Freeform, Whitesell is aware of the seemingly unstoppable tide carrying her target audience away from traditional television and towards YouTube and other streaming platforms. How they watch Siren, however, doesn’t concern her, as the showrunner’s focus remains locked on the type of show she is making.
“This show on FX or another network would be completely different and yet I think Freeform really wanted to take some risks with it and push some darkness and some interesting things,” Whitesell notes. “They also believe younger viewers are so savvy – not just technically, but they have great taste and they’re used to seeing visual effects and things that look good. It needs to look good.
“I do not concern myself with the idea of trying to make a hit and grab an audience. I leave that to the network to figure out. Creatively, it’s the wrong place to operate. You have to think about what you’re trying to say and the quality of what you’re doing. Beyond that, I have no control so I don’t spend much time thinking about it.”
What Whitesell has been thinking about, together with Wald, is the future direction of Siren, which the showrunner says could run to five seasons and beyond. “We always say television eats story so quickly so some of the stories we thought were going to be five years down the line, we’ve moved up already,” she explains. “But Eric does have a long-term vision for the show, which is why I think the network was so excited about it. He was really able to talk about where it was going to go, so we’ve continued that conversation and we’re so much on the same page at this point that we’re pitching the same stories for future seasons.”
Across the TV drama landscape, it’s sink or swim as hundreds of competing series look to grab enough viewers to keep their heads above the water. As a show about mermaids, creatures rarely given their own platform on the small screen, Siren has a good chance of staying afloat in 2018.
Having got her big break on Sex and the City, Amy B Harris is now showrunning Wicked City for ABC – but the two shows couldn’t be more different. She tells DQ about fulfilling her appetite for something a bit darker.
With credits including Sex and the City (SATC) and The Carrie Diaries, Amy B Harris admits she might not be the obvious choice to run a show about serial killers in 1980s Hollywood. But it’s her experience writing character dramas and series about relationships that she hopes will keep viewers tuning into new ABC crime drama Wicked City when it debuts this October.
The show, which debuts tonight, follows a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like serial killer couple who are rampaging along the Sunset Strip and the police officers charged with tracking them down. It stars Ed Westwick, Erika Christensen, Taissa Farmiga, Gabriel Luna, Jeremy Sisto and Evan Ross.
Created by Steven Baigelman, it is produced by ABC Studios and Mandeville Television and distributed by Disney Media Distribution.
Harris joined the limited series as showrunner in June – after the pilot had been picked up to series – as part of her new overall deal with ABC Studios, and says studio bosses were surprised when she expressed her desire to come on board. “They sent me a bunch of shows to watch and I told them I loved Wicked City and would love to meet on it,” Harris recalls. “They said, ‘Is it not too dark for you?’ but I told them it was right up my alley – perhaps revealing too much of the inner workings of my brain!
“It was something I was intrigued by, and when I talked to Steven (Baigelman), a lot of what he talked about were things I’m interested in – why we crave relationships or attention, or our need to be recognised and seen by people. Sometimes that manifests with positive effects and sometimes with very dark effects.”
Unlike traditional cop dramas, Wicked City’s viewers will be informed of the killers’ identities from the start, which Harris says allows the writing team to explore the characters rather than trying to keep them hidden from view.
“Although I probably wasn’t the most obvious choice for a show about serial killers and the cops who chase them, as someone who’s written a lot of shows about relationships, I’m hopeful viewers will come and want to keep returning because they’re intrigued by the characters they’re seeing,” she says.
But while writing about relationships is something in which Harris has plenty of experience, running a series she hadn’t created herself was an entirely new prospect. Previously she had joined other people’s shows (SATC) or created her own (The Carrie Diaries). However, she is extremely positive about the experience so far, highlighting the role she has taken on to help bring Baigelman’s ideas to screen.
“There are always growing pains as you’re trying to figure out what the first season
of a show actually looks like – not just for the creator but for all the writers on the team and in production, figuring out how many days you can be on location and then on set,” she says. “We have a terrific team of people, so those natural growing pains are made a lot easier by that.”
Another exciting proposition for Harris is that Wicked City is the latest in a growing trend towards limited series on US television, benefiting viewers in that they aren’t left hanging for a resolution. Harris says this is also advantageous to writers, allowing them to “blow through story” while building towards an explosive finale.
“Our hope is we’ve created this incredibly compelling season where we know right from the get-go who our bad guys are and, in a strange way, we know that our bad guys are more complicated than just evil,” she continues. “The fun for us if we get to continue (next season) is that our police officers will continue on and follow a new case. We haven’t decided yet if we’ll know right away who our bad guys are. The audience knows now and our detectives don’t, but we haven’t figured how that will play next season.
“It gives you an opportunity to explore a variety of different ways of getting into a story, which is really fun. As terrific as it is to work on a story where you really understand the template, we can play within episodes – some with a voiceover or flashback – and because there aren’t any really rules, it’s kind of anything goes.”
Growing up with parents who were both lawyers, Harris thought her career path was laid out in front of her – college, then law school. But after her father advised her to take a break following her college graduation, Harris landed in New York, where she got a job writing for Vanity Fair.
“That’s when I started to realise that this was my passion, that I had a voice and stuff I wanted to say,” she explains. “I met really great people who were very supportive of me.”
Harris worked as an assistant to Darren Starr before he created SATC, and then became a non-writing producer on the iconic HBO series. It was during this time that showrunner Michael Patrick King became her mentor and biggest supporter.
“I started writing because he said I might be a writer,” she says of King. “He was generous and kind enough to read my work and then hire me on SATC, which was a dream first writing job. It was like being at Harvard, except they paid me. It really taught me a lot about how to be a mentor when the time came. For my first script, the night before it went to the reading table, he sat with me for four hours and punched up jokes and made sure it was perfect.
“Although I had written that script, it was just as much down to Michael helping, encouraging and supporting me that I had a successful first experience – because when you’re new, the muscles you need to do this job aren’t quite developed yet. He was unbelievably supportive through the entire process and really gave me the confidence to know I could write and work and continually improve. It was a thrilling experience that set me on my way.”
If she started at the top, Harris is still riding the wave, having added a string of hit series to her name. Her other credits include Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, also on HBO, and teen drama Gossip Girl. She then created SATC prequel The Carrie Diaries for The CW, where it ran for two seasons.
“Running my own show made me realise that’s what I love doing,” she reveals. “I like having my hand in all of it. It was an amazing experience. The shows have all been different and unique but I feel I’ve learnt a lot from them all. I can’t pick a favourite.”
Yet the rise from writer to showrunner wasn’t an entirely smooth ride, with Harris describing leading a writers room for the first time as “the thing I was most afraid of.” But, again, King was her mentor, giving her confidence to differentiate between good and bad ideas and to follow her instincts.
“He was right,” she says. “So much of TV is trusting your instincts and moving forward. There’s a million ways a story could go but you have to pick the way that sparks you and drive towards it. It was scary for me at first, not knowing whether I would have the right instincts.
“The other stuff was all great – casting, looking at locations and picking the directors. That was thrilling. If you collaborate the right way with talented people, it just works. You have to be a control freak but, at the right moment, let go and trust you’ve hired great people who are going to bring their own talent to it. It’s a weird combo plate of letting go and never letting go of the reins.”
Now in charge of Wicked City, Harris says she’s keeping the same mindset and bringing together ideas from the room that follow her central vision. And when individual writers are charged with bringing a script together, she hopes they have enough room to express their own voice while following the season’s story arcs that have already been broken down to their barest bones.
She explains: “I want writers to own their episodes and feel like they have a lot to say within that episode, but I also want them to feel incredibly supported through the process. I know other people do it differently, but we break everything pretty much in the room.
“On a serialised show like this, you have to drive the story forward episode by episode. We do a lot of story arcing early so we know where we’re heading. And then once we dig into an episode and I’ve assigned it (to a writer), we talk through stories. I won’t ever break a story based on ad breaks or where I think a fun twist might happen. It all has to drive from character and then we’ll find the great moments within that.
“On SATC and The Carrie Diaries, I always broke Carrie’s story first. There’s always the A story, then it’s a debate over which character gets the B story or C story. On Wicked City, the fun of it is that – because it’s an ensemble piece and we’re following lots of different people throughout – we can really change that up. Sometimes we’ll break the procedural aspects of what the police are doing first, or sometimes the killers’ story, or a police officer’s personal story. That’s the unknown on the show that I really enjoy – figuring out which story will rise to the surface as the big story for the episode.
“Then we break each story out in its entirety and get all the beats down for each one. After that comes what I call the ‘smush’ – we merge all the stories so we see them as an entire episode and talk about it one more time. The writer goes off and does a beat sheet with their questions and concerns. Then they go to outline. My whole thing is ‘your episode is your episode,’ but if it’s not working, it’s not your fault – it means we haven’t broken it properly. If it’s working and it’s great, then you’ve done a great job finding it and we’ve done great job supporting you.”
Akin to running a multimillion-dollar company, being a showrunner can bring no end of pressure. But Harris says the volume of original drama now being produced in the US means the weight on her shoulders seems lighter, rather than feeling even greater strain from the added competition.
“Five years ago when you woke up in the morning, there was a certain number you were supposed to hit and if you didn’t hit it you knew you were going to be off the air in three episodes,” she says, citing the shift in focus away from overnight ratings as an example of how the industry is changing. “Now, if a network head likes a show and supports it, the programme stays on the air. What you find happens is they find out the ratings plus three, live plus seven, on-demand and from iTunes. Suddenly there’s this whole new way of looking at the success of a show.
“Do I wonder what it would have been like to work on M.A.S.H. and know that 27 million people watched my show? I’m sure that was thrilling. But what I love is that I feel like people are coming to shows and loving them, and getting focused on them. Now networks, studios and streaming platforms are finding ways to make money with shows that are specific and particular. That’s really exciting. We don’t totally know how it will play out, but I’m thrilled by it. I will still feel sick on the morning after the premiere waiting for the ratings because that’s who I am, but I appreciate that it is less about that now than it used to be.”
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.