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Go behind the scenes on Top of the Lake: China Girl, which sees Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie join director Jane Campion and star Elisabeth Moss for the sequel to the 2013 original crime mystery.

It seems more likely that casting directors would be beating a path to Nicole Kidman’s door, as opposed to the Oscar-winning actor pitching for roles herself. But such was her desire to play a role in Top of the Lake: China Girl that she visited co-creator Jane Campion and requested a part in the show a whole year before production was due to begin.

The director was keen to accommodate Kidman, with whom she had first worked on 1996 romantic drama The Portrait of a Lady, but there was a problem: the character she had in mind was a side player.

Kidman, who admits she was a huge fan of the first season of Top of the Lake, accepted nonetheless but then Campion and Gerard Lee, the co-writer of the six-part sequel, decided to expand her character, Julia Edwards, who in the story adopted the daughter of the central character, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).

As revealed in the 2013 original, Robin gave up her daughter Mary after being the victim of a rape at the age of 16. The set-up sees a battle of the mothers between Robin and Julia, who is having an affair with a female French teacher.

Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in the Kings Cross red light district that houses a brothel.

Hollywood star Nicole Kidman plays Julia Edwards

Speaking in the Bondi Pavilion overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Campion says of Kidman: “It’s really fun for her to play a character when she can really stretch herself emotionally and humorously. When you are tall and good-looking like she is, you can get trapped in that beauty. It was lovely to work with her again because she is so damned good, an extraordinary actor.”

Campion directed the first and fifth episodes of the drama, produced by See-Saw Films’ Libby Sharpe and Philippa Campbell for the UK’s BBC2, SundanceTV and Australia’s Foxtel and BBC First, while Ariel Kleiman handled the other four instalments. The series has already launched in the UK and down under but will debut on September 10 in the US.

The main plot follows Robin as she investigates the murder of an Asian girl whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach – an investigation that takes her into the city’s darkest recesses and to the secrets of her own heart. British actor Gwendoline Christie plays Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin.

For the role of Mary, Campion cast her daughter Alice Englert, who has an impressive list of credits including the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Channel 4’s New Worlds and the movies Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures. Campion explains: “The character is a little bit younger than she is but Alice has the depth and the experience to carry off quite a difficult role.”

However, she asked Kleiman to direct most of the scenes involving Mary. Englert suspects that’s because those were the times when she had to wear fewer clothes and her character faced difficult, complicated situations. “I viewed the first season as a fan,” says the 22-year-old actor. “The women’s camp [in season one] was huge because, prior to the making the series, the producers were nervous as they didn’t know if viewers would like it; people really liked it. It meant a lot to me to be able to feel so emotional and not feel manipulated by a drama.

“Season two is very romantic in a way. There are some great and complicated love stories and there is the true romance of human connection.”

Elisabeth Moss returns as Robin Griffin

Englert relished the chance to work with Kidman – praising her generosity, kindness and engaging presence – as well as Moss and Christie. “Lizzie [Moss] is inspiring as a leading lady,” she says. “You feel confident when she is there, and Gwendoline is such a beautiful, adorable human being.”

Campion cast Christie after receiving an email from the actor explaining that she had been a fan of the director since she saw An Angel at My Table on television when she was 12, adding that she had watched the first season of Top of the Lake four times. Christie also emphasised she is very tall, pale-skinned and has whitish hair – the very characteristics Campion needed for her character.

Christie had initially sent the email to a friend to gain her advice, asking her not to forward it to the director if she thought it made her look foolish. The friend promptly sent it to Campion nevertheless, with Christie doubtful it would result in her getting the role.

But when Christie and Campion met, the deal was sealed. “She has so much humanity, it’s like a baby elephant coming into the room,” Campion says of the actor.

Englert has an interesting perspective on why her mother has shifted her focus to TV drama after a lengthy career directing features including The Piano, Bright Star, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. “She found doing the press for films so difficult and she wanted the opportunity to tell a story like a novel and to have freedom in doing that,” she explains. “TV is giving people that freedom.”

Campion, Moss and Emile Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films who executive produces with Campion, first discussed the idea of a sequel to Top of the Lake when they dined in a Japanese restaurant during filming of the first season in Queenstown, New Zealand.

“We started talking about a lot of what-ifs, like what if they moved to Thailand?” Campion recalls. “It’s such hard work that you don’t want to do it to yourself again, but I started to think [of a follow-up]. We did not know the show would be as successful as it has been. There seemed to be an appetite for a boutique, event-type series like that, so that was really encouraging.

Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie (right) joins the cast as Miranda Hilmarson

“There are a lot of people who are not going out to see films but they are enjoying more challenging television or wanting smart television. Every now and again a film will break through, but that’s so rare for mid-budget or low-budget features. It’s more relaxing doing TV series.”

After Top of the Lake screened to critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin festivals and was nominated for seven primetime Emmys (it won the gong for Outstanding Cinematography) and for Bafta, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America awards, financing the sequel proved relatively easy.

BBC2, SundanceTV, BBC First and Foxtel were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development. SundanceTV brought in Hulu to replace Netflix, which had the second-window rights to the original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.

As happened with the first season, Lucy Richer, senior BBC commissioning editor for drama, and Sundance reps met with the creative team before production started for a week-long brainstorming session, reviewing the scripts and discussing ways to improve them.

Sherman says: “What allows shows like these to be made is to have broadcasters that want to be involved in something that gets the highest level of publicity and awards focus, rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people. That different focus results in different sorts of shows being made.

“The series was always intended as a one-season show. But we all fell in love with the characters and started thinking, ‘What next for them? Is there a future?’ Some ideas were thrown around at the end of making the first season. We all went back to our lives, but we kept needling Jane slowly but surely over the years, and getting Jane and Gerard [Lee, co-writer] together to see if creative sparks would fly and stories would emerge.

“Philippa [Campbell] spent some time with them in Jane’s hut in New Zealand and thankfully they engaged. It all comes from the creative centre. This series is the tableau that allows Jane and Gerard to paint and really explore what they find fascinating about contemporary society.”

Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion pictured during filming

Moss is currently one of TV’s hottest talents, having starred in AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy. But she had to be convinced that the sequel would be even more challenging than the original, observing: “When Jane asked me to do this season, I said, ‘Yes, but it has to be more challenging than the first’ – otherwise why do it and why watch it? I told Jane, ‘Go deeper, go darker.’ I wanted Robin to be really fucked up. Everything is ratcheted up from 10 to 100.

“It was slightly less scary than the first season but this one is so much more challenging for Robin and for me, material-wise and emotionally. This is a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, as well as allowing the show to have its own tone and mood, which are unlike anything else.

“That bloomed fully in the first season and the audience loved it. In season two it goes deeper into that tone and those directions. It’s that Jane Campion thing where it’s dark and creepy but also grossly hilarious at times.”

Campion told Christie she had written the role of Miranda for her, but Moss doubted she would be available. Moss only discovered Christie had signed on after they met by chance in London one month before production was due to start. At the time, both felt too awkward to ask each other if she was on board, so Moss emailed Campion, who confirmed they would work together.

In a clear case of mutual admiration, Moss says of her co-star: “She is a spectacular actress. She is so great for the role and I knew she would bring something that nobody else could. It’s been an eye-opening, illuminating and inspiring performance that I have had the pleasure of watching for the past four-and-a-half months.”

Christie said of her first experience of working in Australia: “We have moved out of traditional comfort zones to get the best out of each other and to achieve something a little less ordinary.”

The Game of Thrones star, who also plays Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enjoyed the opportunity to work on a contemporary, real-world story, noting: “The show gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour and a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality.

“Jane’s work is so much about reality. Something they achieved so brilliantly in season one was dealing with the extraordinary in terms of subject matter, drama and relationships, but in a way that felt so real. That was magical to me and that’s what I wanted to explore.”

Both Moss and Christie were full of praise for Kleiman, who makes his TV debut after directing several shorts and the 2015 feature Partisan, a bleak thriller that starred Vincent Cassel and Jeremy Chabriel.

“What he might lack in experience he makes up for in vision, passion, his precision of what he wants and his willingness to communicate with you and for you to take it in turns of where you push it,” Christie says. “Also, he shares a similar kind of sense of humour to Jane, which is why this relationship works in terms of directing styles.”

On the differences between the original Top of the Lake and the sequel, Sherman says: “It has the same DNA underneath, with a different expression. The second season is more internal, a really sophisticated character and relationship story with a great crime story pulled through it. Having a new cinematographer in Germain McMicking gives it a distinctive feel, elegance and a lit quality that is different to the first season.”

Lee and Campion first met at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, going on to co-write her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Lee likens their relationship to that between brother and sister.

Campion clearly enjoyed filming at the beach, Sydney’s nightclubs, red-light district Kings Cross and other locations in the Eastern suburbs. Pointing to the Pacific Ocean, she says: “Forget the lake, we’ve got a whole ocean here.”

Asked if she and Lee have left the door open for a third edition, Campion is unequivocal: “We have.”

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Back to the Lake

The biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. Now, ahead of the show’s television debut, Top of the Lake: China Girl producer Emile Sherman tells DQ about reuniting with writer Jane Campion.

Emile Sherman and Jane Campion were pretty confident they had a winner in the sequel to Top of the Lake when they got the thumbs up at the first screening for its commissioning broadcasters, which include the BBC, SundanceTV and Foxtel.

But it wasn’t until Top of the Lake: China Girl had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim, alongside the first two hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series for Showtime, that they knew for sure.

Emile Sherman

“It was a gamble because Cannes is that prestige-level festival and as a TV series you are an outsider to all those films,” says Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films, which co-executive produced the six-hour miniseries with Campion.

“We just didn’t know how it was going to be received. It is always incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking to launch your baby into the world. We felt Cannes was a wonderful opportunity and platform to position the TV series as the highest quality and to differentiate it from so many of the TV series around the world.”

Typifying the rave reviews, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the sequel co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee “bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings.”

Variety’s Brett Lang hailed a twisty mystery that will keep audiences guessing until the final credits roll, another knockout turn by Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and stellar work from Nicole Kidman as a mother dealing with a volatile teenage daughter.

Campion directed episodes one and five and, in his TV debut, Aussie Ariel Kleiman directed the other four. The producers hired Kleiman after being impressed with his short films and his first feature, Partisan.

Sherman describes deciding on the co-director as the show’s biggest creative choice, involving a search for likely prospects in Australia, the US, the UK and parts of Europe.

Elisabeth Moss returns as Detective Robin Griffin

“We needed a director who respected and understood the tone of the series. It is slightly heightened in some ways but for Jane it is not heightened because that is how she views the world. Ariel understands that and he also brings out the humour in the story; he has that Australian/European sense of the absurd but always grounding everything in the truth.”

Sherman was keen to do a follow-up while the first season was shooting in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012. But Campion decided she would only revisit Top of the Lake if she and Lee could come up with a compelling idea. That emerged from brainstorming sessions at the director’s holiday home in New Zealand, also attended by producer Philippa Campbell.

BBC2 in the UK, US cable channel SundanceTV and BBC First/Foxtel in Australia were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development, with BBC Worldwide again distributing. SundanceTV then brought in Hulu, which will start streaming the show the day after its Sundance premiere, replacing Netflix, which had the second window to the 2013 original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.

“Broadcasters want to be involved in shows that get the highest level of publicity and awards focus rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people,” Sherman says.

Movie star Nicole Kidman also plays a key role

The plot follows Moss’s Griffin as she returns to Sydney and tries to rebuild her life after the events of season one. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer – until she discovers “China Girl” didn’t die alone.

Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie (pictured top alongside Moss) plays Miranda, a fellow cop who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin. Kidman plays Julia Edwards, who adopted Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up at birth after being the victim of a gang rape when she was 15, as chronicled in the first season. Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in Kings Cross that houses a brothel.

Sherman rates the length of the shoot (16 weeks), the number of takes, the cinematography, the lighting and design as comparable to the highest levels of the movies he’s worked on.

Campion adds: “The attraction for Gerard and me was to make something entertaining and enjoyable, which is also the way we see the world and the things that scare us and the things we find moving. It’s about our lives, parenting, reproduction, IVF, kids, being mothers and fathers…”

Lee interjects: “And we’re passing it off as a detective story so people will watch it.”

Would Sherman like to do a third chapter? “I would, but I am being patient,” he says. “Jane always toys with a range of ideas and, at a certain point, she and Gerard decide if there is something they are really excited about telling.”

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Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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Starz Powers ahead but drops its Sails

Power is going from strength to strength
Power is going from strength to strength

As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.

The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.

The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.

As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.

Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”

Black Sails' end is on the horizon
Black Sails’ end is on the horizon

There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.

Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”

Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.

So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.

San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.

Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix's Marvel titles
Luke Cage is the next addition to Netflix’s Marvel titles, launching on September 30

Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.

At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.

In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.

Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.

Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”

Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon
Jordskott is being adapted into English by Amazon

Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.

Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”

There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.

Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser (photo: Ian West/PA Wire)
Loch Ness will star Laura Fraser
(photo: Ian West/PA Wire)

A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.

Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.

One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).

Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”

Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”

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Oz drama enjoys upbeat year

The Kettering Incident
Tasmania-set The Kettering Incident debuts on Foxtel in the summer

Australian television dramas often struggle to compete against US imports in their domestic market. But there are some encouraging signs in terms of titles coming through. One series to watch out for is The Kettering Incident, which debuts on Foxtel on July 4.

Set in Tasmania, the show tells the story of Anna Macy (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who left Kettering when she was 14 years old, shortly after her best friend disappeared when they were playing in the forest. Anna returns 15 years later to find the town is struggling to survive. Then another young girl disappears.

The show was co-created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan. Madden is also part of the writing team, alongside Andrew Knight, Cate Shortland and Louise Fox. Her previous credits include Lynda La Plante’s Trial and Retribution, The Bill and Halifax FP – though what makes this title so interesting that she is from Tasmania. So, in fact, are most of the cast, crew and supporting industry, with an estimated 300 Tasmanians involved.

Overall, the eight-part production has cost A$14m (US$10m), with Tasmania expecting the local economy to benefit by around A$5m. In return for a Tasmanian government contribution there is also an attachment training initiative that has seen trainees work across various production areas, including screenwriting.

House of Hancock follows the life of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock
House of Hancock follows the life of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock

While The Kettering Incident is very much an Australia/Tasmania labour of love, there are strong indicators that it will do well internationally. One is that BBC Worldwide is handling international distribution – always a good sign. The other is that it won the Special Jury Prize at the Series Mania festival last month.

Another upcoming Australian show that promises to hit the headlines is Nine Network’s miniseries House of Bond, which stars Ben Mingay as flamboyant fraudster Alan Bond. Currently in production, the show follows the success of last year’s House of Hancock, which was a biopic of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock.

House of Bond is produced by Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, with the assistance of Screen Australia and Screen NSW. The writer is Sarah Smith, originally from Perth. Smith has been in the screenwriting business for more than 20 years as a writer and producer on shows like The Alice, All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters, Canal Road and Sea Patrol. She’s also the co-creator, producer and writer of Wild Boys and Rescue Special Ops as well as co-writer and producer of the telemovie, Dripping In Chocolate.

Her most recent project prior to House of Bond was six-part thriller Winter, a spin-off from the 2014 telemovie The Killing Field. Aired on Seven Network it averaged around one million viewers.

The Doctor Blake Mysteries
The Doctor Blake Mysteries has been commissioned for a fifth season

Another Aussie show in the news this week is ABC’s period drama The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which has been commissioned for a fifth season (due to air in 2017).

Starring Craig McLachlan as police surgeon Dr Lucien Blake and Nadine Garner as his devoted housekeeper Jean, the show has been a bit hit for the channel. “We are delighted to commission more Doctor Blake for our audience,” says ABC director of television Richard Finlayson. “Season four has been the most successful to date with an average audience of 1.67 million viewers across TV and iview. Doctor Blake satisfies an appetite for engaging, home grown stories.”

The series co-creator and showrunner is December Media’s George Adams, who added: “December Media is elated to be returning to 1960s Ballarat once again to bring our loyal audience more tales of murder, mystery, mayhem and a wee bit of love with Blake, Jean and all our favourite characters.”

So far the show has racked up a total of 36 episodes and draws on quite a large writing team. One key figure has been Stuart Page, who wrote seven episodes in the first series and has been heavily involved in the following three series.

David S Goyer
David S Goyer is behind Krypton

Other episode writers have included Chelsea Cassio, Chris Corbett, Tim Pye, Jane Allen, Peter McTighe, Marcia Gardner, Michael Harvey, Pino Amenta, Roger Monk, Jeff Truman, Paul Oliver, Paul Jenner and Sarah Lambert.

Of these, British writer McTighe is perhaps the best known, having written for several UK and Australia productions including EastEnders, Neighbours, Crownies and Nowhere Boys. He was also handed the task of reinventing Prisoner Cell Block H as Wentworth, a show that has proven to be a major hit. (Stuart Page also cropped up as a writer on Wentworth in season three.)

Elsewhere in the world of TV drama, Syfy in the US has ordered a pilot for a prequel to Superman from David S Goyer. Called Krypton, the show will explore the home of Superman before it is destroyed. Goyer, who has become the go-to guy for superhero stories in recent years, wrote the pilot with Ian Goldberg. Goyer’s other credits include The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel.

Another interesting story brewing this week is that The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) wants a bigger share of the operating profits that it says Hollywood’s major media studios made last year. Those profits, which the WGA claims doubled in the last decade, are largely attributable to the content created by guild members, according to the organisation’s leadership. According to the WGA, the guild’s health plan is now running in the red and the average incomes of film and series TV writers have decreased while the Hollywood studios’ profits have risen.

The significance of this is that the last confrontation between the WGA and the studios resulted in a huge writers’ strike in 2007/08, with 12,000 writers laying down their pens for three months. Reports at the time suggested that the strike cost the economy of LA anywhere between US$500m and US$1.5bn. Nothing will happen straightaway but it will be worth watching negotiations towards a new contract over the coming year.

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Drama behind bars: Wentworth and Orange is the New Black

Viewers are doing time with two dramas set inside women’s prisons, but is there room for both Wentworth and Orange is the New Black?

There was a splash of colour in the Outstanding Drama Series category when the nominees for the 67th Emmy Awards were announced last week.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB, main image) will face competition from Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards and Mad Men for the prize, which will be handed out on September 20.

Previously considered a comedy – it was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at last year’s Emmys – the Netflix series was pushed into the drama category when the Television Academy defined episodic comedies as shows with a running time of 30 minutes or less. Each episode of OITNB runs for 60 minutes.

But while its running time may set it apart from other comedies, its comedic tones and storylines are exactly what set it apart from other dramas, particularly those it’s up against for this year’s award.

Orange is the New Black is available in all Netflix territories
Orange is the New Black is available in all Netflix territories

OITNB creator Jenji Kohan said as much when reacting to news of the show’s drama nomination: “We’re proud to be the misfits who don’t fit in – comedy, drama, nobody knows what to do with us … and we like it that way. No matter what you call us, we’re honoured to be recognised by the Academy with this nomination. On behalf of the entire cast, the writers, producers and crew, and so many others that work tirelessly on this show, this is really cool and we thank you.”

It is also its comedy roots that set OITNB apart from the other women’s prison-set drama currently on television. Wentworth, which airs in Australia on Foxtel’s SoHo network and is also in its third season, is described as a modern adaptation of the iconic Prisoner series, which originally aired from 1979 to 1986.

This reboot – which debuted in May 2013, just two months before season one of OITNB landed on Netflix – is set in Wentworth Correctional Centre, with each episode focusing on a different character and how they cope in a women’s prison living under warring criminals fighting for supremacy over the inmates.

Similarly, OITNB also uses individual episodes to focus on inmates’ backstories as groups of criminals fight over who rules the wings of Litchfield Penitentiary.

But that’s where the similarities end, at least according to Wentworth star Danielle Cormack, who also points to the American series’ comedic undertones as a reason why there’s room on the television landscape for two series delving into the world of women’s prisons.

Speaking ahead of launch of the third season of Wentworth on the UK’s Channel 5, Cormack said: “I love Orange is the New Black. I think it’s been the best thing for our show as well, so I say that with a lot of gratitude towards great television now but also in a very selfish way.

The original Wentworth (left) and its Dutch remake Celblok H, which airs on SBS 6
The original Wentworth (left) and its Dutch remake Celblok H, which airs on SBS 6

“Having two successful prison dramas on TV at the same time that have a very different take on prison life, I think they work very well off each other. Orange is the New Black explores the minutiae of prison life in an American way and society in America with much more of a comedic bent and Wentworth, I think, explores the greater, more dramatic arcs. There’s these sweeping, broad statements about being top dog, about corrupt governors and everything, and it’s much more dramatic and people say more gritty.”

Cormack, who plays top dog Bea Smith in the FremantleMedia Australia-produced series, adds: “But I think they serve each other really well. Wentworth wouldn’t have had the overseas attention if Orange is the New Black hadn’t played first off, and perhaps vice versa.

“So I’m really happy to walk side by side with Orange is the New Black and I applaud their storytelling. I find their take on prison life extraordinary because it’s taught me about other aspects of what it means to be incarcerated, and most of the crew that I work with have done extensive research about what it’s like to be locked away for long periods of time with other people and our take on it is very different.

“So cheers to all the people who have created Orange is the New Black. I love the show.”

With OITNB available on all Netflix platforms around the world, Wentworth has also proved extremely popular on international screens. Since its launch, it has aired in 88 countries, including France, Japan, Poland, Brazil, Canada, Korea and Sweden.

Furthermore, the series has been the subject of two foreign-language adaptations – Celblok H in the Netherlands, which has aired for two seasons on SBS 6, and Block B – Unter Arrest on Germany’s RTL.

Despite their similarities, there’s plenty to separate OITNB and Wentworth, and with fourth seasons for both already locked up, audiences can look forward to spending more time behind bars with these two series.

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Foxtel boosts drama down under

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh
Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh

For fans of TV drama living down under, things are about to get very interesting indeed.

Pay TV platform Foxtel this week announced plans to “create the best in Australia” by doubling its investment in original content, including factual, lifestyle and entertainment programming by 2018.

The key point, however, came when it was revealed that in each of the next three years, Foxtel will commission at least five major drama series. Currently it averages two every 12 months.

And while other programming genres will get a boost in funding, the budget for scripted content, including comedy, will be tripled.

Viewers of prison drama Wentworth will be well aware of Foxtel’s push into local drama. The series, which debuted on the SoHo channel in 2013, is described as a contemporary reimagining of the classic drama Prisoner and has proved such a success that a fourth season was ordered earlier this year.

Other homegrown commissions include A Place to Call Home and The Kettering Incident. The former, created by Bevan Lee, is a 1950s period piece that follows one woman’s journey to heal her soul and a privileged family rocked by scandal. After two seasons, a landmark deal between Foxtel and Seven Productions last year saw a further two runs commissioned, with season three due to launch on SoHo later this year.

Foxtel's prison drama Wentworth
Foxtel’s prison drama Wentworth

The Kettering Incident, created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan, is an eight-part mystery thriller that sees a woman uncover terrifying secrets hidden in her town as she investigates a missing person case. Uniquely, it is also the first major TV drama to be filmed entirely in Tasmania.

Foxtel has already put other news series into development. The first to be announced is Secret City, a political thriller inspired by novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, both co-written by journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman.

The six-part series, produced by Matchbox Pictures, is set in the Australian capital Canberra where a journalist uncovers a web of interlocked conspiracies that are putting innocent lives – including her own – in danger. The cast includes Anna Torv (Fringe), Damon Herriman, and Dan Wyllie, and it is set to air in 2016.

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh said Secret City “is further commitment by Foxtel to explore bold and interesting ideas for the screen and commission unique Australian storytelling to complement the best of the international series. We keep looking for inspiring and intelligent scripts and we think we’ve found one again with Secret City.”

The news of Foxtel’s original-content investment echoes similar plans by Sky in the UK. In 2011, its CEO Jeremy Darroch unveiled ambitions to invest more than £600m (US$944m) a year in fresh British programming by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its 2011 budget. This led to new dramas including The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful, while Darroch has since vowed that Sky will continue to raise its game towards £1bn a year.

Sky boss Jeremy Darroch
Sky boss Jeremy Darroch

However, whereas Sky’s plan was a proactive bid to attract more viewers who weren’t interested in its movie or sport channels, Foxtel’s own drama investment could not have come at a more critical time for its business. US VoD giant Netflix stepped up its international expansion earlier this year by landing in Australia, hoping to attract subscribers to its own original drama series and, in turn, possibly denting Foxtel’s numbers, while other online players including Stan are also up and running.

With drama series now commonly promoted as the flagship content for a television network or platform, the quality – and quantity – of shows is only going up, fuelled by extra investment. This growing competition, across free and pay TV and online, is great news for viewers, who can look forward to hours of new programmes – providing they are willing to pay for it.

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