Tag Archives: Eve Gutierrez

Easy Rider

Anthony Horowitz’s teen super spy Alex Rider is coming to television in an eight-part series drawn from the writer’s hit novel series. DQ went back to school to visit the set.

In a hazy, smoke-filled school corridor, a blond-haired teenager is hurtling down a passageway. Shadows dance on the dimly lit walls as he charges along, his jacket lifting behind him, while a camera positioned on a moving platform captures him in full flight.

It’s not clear what he’s running from – or to – but the arrival on set of a group of ‘agents’ carrying guns suggest this isn’t your average school day. But then, since he was recruited by a shadowy government agency to work as a spy, no day has quite been the same in the life of Alex Rider.

Fifteen years after Anthony Horowitz’s literary character made the leap to the big screen in 2006’s Stormbreaker, Alex Rider will land on the small screen in an eight-part adventure of the same name produced by Eleventh Hour Films (EHF) and Sony Pictures Television (SPT).

Taking its lead from Horowitz’s second Rider novel, Point Blanc, the series sees the teenager learn that his recently deceased uncle, who unbeknown to him was a secret agent, had been surreptitiously training him his whole life to follow in his footsteps.

Anthony Horowitz

Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps. Here he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school, which is home to the troubled children of parents who run successful global businesses.

Otto Farrant stars as Rider, with Brenock O’Connor as his best friend Tom. At The Department, Stephen Dillane plays Alan Blunt, while Vicky McClure is his second-in-command, Mrs Jones, and Ace Bhatti is John Crawley.

Unusually, the series has been financed and produced without a commissioning broadcaster, with distributor SPT now shopping the coming-of-age drama worldwide for a 2020 broadcast. Horowitz previously partnered with EHF – where his wife, Jill Green, is CEO – on crime dramas Foyle’s War and New Blood, and exec producer Eve Gutierrez says she had been tracking the availability of his Alex Rider novels for some time.

“The world has changed so much since Stormbreaker that we realised there is now this huge TV landscape opening up and a desire for things that are more ambitious,” Gutierrez explains on the school set where Alex and Tom both attend lessons.

“That coincided with the rights situation clarifying itself and us being able to then start conversations more seriously with Anthony about what we might do with it and how it might evolve for the screen.”

As well as admiring the books’ story of an ordinary person becoming a hero, Gutierrez noted the popularity of series such as Stranger Things, in which children and teenagers are forced into adult situations, and saw an opportunity to bring the young spy to TV.

Whereas the books are predominantly aimed at a young-adult audience, however, writer Guy Burt has endeavoured to broaden Alex Rider’s appeal to viewers beyond that demographic. To emphasise the point that this isn’t a kids’ series, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska (Das Boot) was brought in to lead the show’s visual style alongside second-block director Christopher Smith.

“The books are written very much from Alex’s point of view, while the other characters are very peripheral in his world,” Gutierrez notes.

“So we have opened up all the other characters that exist in his world, particularly the characters who work at The Department, played by Vicky and Stephen, and also Jack, the girl who shares Alex and his uncle’s home and was a nanny when she originally joined them. She’s more a housekeeper to them now and provides a 20-something point of view of the world.”

Otto Farrant (left) and Brenock O’Connor as Alex Rider and his best friend Tom

The intensive six-month shoot began in March 2019 on location in the Romanian mountains, which doubled for the French Alps and the location of the Point Blanc academy.

The site was so remote that cast and crew had to use skidoos to reach the set, while the first few weeks of shooting involved several action-packed stunts, including a sequence from the book where Alex snowboards down the mountain on an ironing board.

“I was seriously intimidated by the prospect of bringing this sequence to life in Romania, a country I’d never shot in before,” admits series producer Matt Chaplin. “This iconic sequence was first up in the entire shoot, the first thing Otto had to do.

“We very quickly identified Romania as the place to do it. They have a film-friendly infrastructure, the right climate and topography, and had the right location to use as the basis for Point Blanc, which we are enhancing with effects.

“Then we set about figuring out how we would get 100 people up to the top of the mountain, shoot safely and then get them down again. The Romanian people we were working with were just brilliant. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”

Filming then resumed in London for five months, in locations including Bermondsey, Crouch End, the South Bank and the Shard. Hornsey Town Hall was used for interiors of Point Blanc.

To find the right actor to play Alex, the production team embarked on an extensive search across the UK, scouring schools, drama groups and theatre schools. All the leading candidates were seen at least twice by the casting team, with the role open to candidates from anywhere and of any ethnicity. “We even had a girl turn up to the open casting demanding to know why Alex Rider couldn’t be a girl,” says Chaplin. “It’s a valid question.”

Ronke Adekoluejo (right) plays Jack, the Rider family’s housekeeper

Eventually, Farrant (Mrs Wilson, The White Queen) was selected for the role, with the producers convinced he could convey the emotional depth required to take Alex from an ordinary boy to an extraordinary hero across the series.

Speaking during a break in production, Farrant describes a vigorous week filming stunts at the West London school location for the climactic eighth episode. A demanding training regime before shooting started, incorporating running, Tae Kwon-do and Israeli martial art Krav Maga, has kept him in good stead for the gruelling schedule.

“It’s been a real test of endurance,” Farrant admits. “It’s a big job; it’s not something I’ve done before so it’s been really useful to take that [training] experience and put that into the work. I hope that reflects on screen.”

Farrant puts Alex’s literary popularity down to his relatability. “He’s a normal kid – he goes to parties, he has trouble with girls. He’s just a typical teenager,” he says.

“Then you throw in this world of espionage he has to navigate and he’s out of his depth. He really has to dig deep to essentially save the world. That is such a cool and epic story. I don’t think we’re telling a story of someone who has it easy, we’re telling a story of someone who really has to fight to save himself and save his friends.”

Part of Farrant’s task has been the aforementioned emotional journey, as Alex confronts the loss of his uncle, as well as lying to his friends and seeing his two worlds collide. “So you do see the struggle he goes through as a kid, becoming a man throughout all this turmoil,” he continues.

“He has to dig deep to find out who he is and how he fits into this world and the world of spies. He has to readjust throughout the series. That’s why it’s interesting to watch.”

British Olympic snowboarder Billy Morgan doubled for Farrant in some of the iron-boarding scenes, though the actor says he has tried to do as many stunts as the production team would let him. However, insurance practicalities prevented him from later joining Morgan on the slopes.

Farrant was keen to do stunts himself where possible

“I’m happy to do them and I love doing them. It’s a welcome relief from some of the more intense emotional sides of the character,” Farrant explains. “It’s actually quite cathartic doing those stunts. Mostly, I’ve done my own stunts bar some big hits and the snowboarding, because there’s some big hits in the snowboarding. Those guys were insane!”

Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend Tom has been given a beefed-up role in comparison to the books, where he doesn’t feature until further down the line. “There wasn’t a great deal on the page, so one of Guy’s fantastic contributions to this is that Tom is essentially his character,” says Gutierrez. “The relationship between Tom and Alex is one of my favourite things in the show.”

Tom is one of the few people to know about Alex’s double life, providing someone to whom the title character can reveal his worries about his covert activities.

“He’s definitely there to support Alex going through whatever it is he’s going through,” says O’Connor, best known for playing Olly in Game of Thrones. “From a human standpoint, Tom’s best mate loses an uncle very early on in the story. If your best mate at 16 loses his parental guardian, it’s a horrendous trauma, so that’s what Tom’s role is in the early part, to be the support to that, and then there happens to be some spy stuff along the way.”

It’s not all deep and meaningful, however. “For the first couple of episodes, all I do is pop up occasionally, say something sarcastic and then disappear again,” he jokes.

“It’s been such an easy ride for me. It gets messy – you don’t get to be friends with a super spy and get away with it. But I really love Tom, he’s exactly like I was at 16. He thinks he’s cool as hell and really isn’t. Tom’s very relatable to me; there’s very little acting required.”

The other person to learn about Alex’s secret spy games is Jack Starbright, played by Ronke Adekoluejo (Been So Long). Arriving in the UK from the US to study, she becomes a housekeeper in the Rider household, growing up alongside Alex.

Scenes set in the Alps were filmed in the mountains of Romania

In the beginning, Alex lies to Jack about his new role, struggling with the deception that comes with his secret life. She puts their changing relationship down to his growing pains as a teenager, until she learns there’s something bigger behind it.

“Obviously, discovering he’s a spy is a bit much to handle,” Adekoluejo says. “It doesn’t quite make sense. There was a child before and now there’s a spy. She definitely doesn’t approve. It’s a very dangerous profession!”

Keeping her role in the series quiet proved to be her own secret mission, particularly when she began borrowing the novels from her younger brother. But Adekoluejo says his excitement, and that of her younger, female cousins, means she is now even more thrilled to be a part of the show.

“We all have the desire to be the best version of ourselves and to save the day, whether it’s our own day, our family day or the world,” she says of the reasons for title character’s popularity. “So because Alex is so ordinary and very much a representation of us in our day-to-day lives, when you see him go on to become a super spy and save all these people, even though you might not admit it, you think you could do it too.”

With a dozen Alex Rider novels to draw from – the 13th will be published in 2020 – Gutierrez says there’s hope the series can run for several seasons. And as superhero films and series continue to dominate the screen, there’s something refreshing about watching Alex Rider save the world. “It’s so normal,” O’Connor adds.

“He’s just a normal kid in a normal school – and then he fights a supervillain!”


Have you met Mrs Jones?
Best known for starring roles in Shane Meadows’ gritty This is England franchise and Jed Mercurio’s hard-hitting police corruption series Line of Duty, Vicky McClure doesn’t often get to introduce younger members of her family to her work.

Clockwise from left: Vicky McClure in Alex Rider, Mother’s Day, Line of Duty and This is England ’86

So when the opportunity to star in Alex Rider came along, she immediately sought the advice of her 11-year-old nephew.

“I wasn’t familiar with the books, just because I’m not the demographic to have read them. But I asked my nephew and he knew exactly what they were,” McClure tells DQ on set, her hair in rollers ahead of the day’s shoot. “He’s been on a school trip while I’m shooting this where the theme was Alex Rider, so he was a big reason for doing this. I don’t think he’s really ever been able to watch anything I’m in because the majority of what I do is fairly dark. And the success of the books and the writers and the involvement of everyone in it – it seemed really exciting.”

McClure plays Mrs Jones, second-in-command of The Department, the shady organisation that recruits Alex. The actor describes her character as “very headstrong and probably slightly frustrated with certain decisions that get made.” Her relationship with Alex, however, is less business and more personal, with Mrs Jones adopting a nurturing role towards the teen spy.

“She does have this concern for him,” McClure says. “If it was an adult they were putting in that position, I don’t think she’d feel quite the same, but there’s a history there as to why she’s concerned for Alex’s welfare. He’s a child and he’s being put into situations and scenarios that are really dangerous, and part of the reason he’s in those positions is because of her part in The Department. There’s that element of responsibility.”

McClure says she always likes to push her characters’ hairstyles and costumes to the extreme, hence the rollers, so that she can change her appearance between series while remaining believable.

“[Line of Duty’s] Kate Fleming has got quite a distinct look, Lol [in This is England] has quite a distinct look, and it was the same for my character in [fact-based single drama] Mother’s Day,” she explains. “All these different roles I’ve done all have quite distinctive looks, so I’m always up for making sure there’s something to play with. Mrs Jones is very suited so I’m in predominantly in suits, which is fine by me.”

But why does she think Anthony Horowitz’s young hero appeals to so many readers, particularly youngsters? McClure points to the chance to escape reality within the pages of the novels, which also offer adventure, excitement and some humour.

“The scripts and the writing are brilliant – it’s a page-turner – and you could see there’s something we can all play with,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have blood and guts everywhere to make it exciting. It can still be exciting without those elements in it, so it’s quite safe but, in the same breath, there is violence, there are fights. There’s a lot at stake.”

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Scaling New heights

Eleventh Hour Films executive producer and head of talent Eve Gutierrez reveals why one scene from BBC drama New Blood gave her cause to hold her breath.

There’s one on every production – that one scene that embodies the spirit of the entire show. A moment so key that it will often dictate the selection of director and HoDs [heads of departments], and set a precedent for how the whole shoot will be executed. A scene that starts with meticulous planning and preparation, allocated just the right amount of money and time in the production schedule, soon inspires an unexpected determination, a bloody-mindedness and finally a full-blown obsession in the entire cast and crew.

Eve Gutierrez

On New Blood, our investigative series for BBC1, the scene in question acted as the climax of the characters’ first case. It sealed the friendship between the two lead characters and (literally) pushed our two relatively inexperienced actors into free fall.

On the page, creator Anthony Horowitz made the scene feel simple: just two characters, a few lines of dialogue – and a jump. As the action played out on the rooftop of a London hotel, it was clear this scene was anything but simple, requiring the characters to jump into the hotel’s swimming pool more than a dozen floors below.

It’s surprising how few outdoor pools there are. Even fewer of which are anywhere that would visually feel like London and fewer still that are next to high-rise buildings. In fact, it turned out there is only one – the pool at the Oasis Sports Centre on Tottenham Court Road. And, luckily for us, they were open to the idea of us shooting in their pool at night.

Obviously we would not be asking stunt performers or actors to actually jump off an incredibly tall building and free-fall in to a pool below, so it was clear from the outset that we would need not one location but two. The pool would provide the landing moment but the rooftop and POV of the pool would need to be achieved somewhere else.

Director Anthony Philipson prepares for the stunt

Our production base in Dagenham, at LondonEast Business Park, provided a rooftop of the right height and shape to shoot the dialogue part of the scene against a green screen and for our stunt team, helmed by stunt coordinator Tony Lucken, to cheat an impressive jump over the side of the building onto a mountain of boxes. And with the magic of visual effects from VFX supervisor Sascha Fromeyer, we were well on our way to building an impressive sequence.

All that was left was the need to shoot our two actors plunging into the pool with enough force that it was believable they had jumped from a great height – to achieve the ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ moment that encapsulated the relationship between our characters.

Stars Ben Tavassoli and Mark Strepan take the leap…

Just two things lay between us and the successful completion of our scene, and neither were elements that we could control or influence. The first was the weather. Rain would most definitely stop play. The folk at the Oasis Sports Centre were very clear about that – and the forecast was for intermittent showers all day and all night.

The second was the fact we would be shooting in a location right next to Waterloo Bridge in the afternoon before moving over to Tottenham Court Road to access the pool after it had closed to the public, on the same evening of the Million Mask March when supporters of hacking collective Anonymous were due to march from Trafalgar Square to Westminster. At the very least, gridlock was predicted, with the media speculating on whether there would be chaos and violence on the streets.

For most of the afternoon, I paced about in the rain, alternating between the weather app on my iPhone and Twitter for news of what was happening on the march.

Finally it was time to move the unit, and it was here that transport captain Andy Blackburn and his team of drivers came into their element. I’m a born-and-bred Londoner, but their pre-planned route of back roads managed to make even me dizzy. It got us clear of the march, across the river and through Soho in 20 minutes – just as the clouds parted and the rain stopped.

…and plunge into the illuminated pool

Our director, Anthony Philipson, and the camera team headed up by DoP Rasmus Arrildt were prepped and set in record time. The grip department had built a tower for the actors to safely jump from, the underwater camera was in place and we all collectively held our breath as our actors were counted down to jump from what felt like a great height…

There was a big splash but, to our horror, they both immediately floated to the surface. On camera it looked like they had barely broken the line of the water, let alone plunged to the depths that would sell a jump from an impossible height. It turned out that both the wetsuits the actors were wearing under their costumes and the costumes themselves floated.

The actors immediately shed the wetsuits (luckily it was a freakishly mild November night) whilst the costume department hacked into their clothing to try and remove anywhere that pockets of air could gather. And with just moments to spare, we were reset to achieve the all-important shot – and it was miraculously ‘scene complete.’

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