Tag Archives: Frank Spotnitz

Under the influence

As Twin Peaks returns to television after a 26-year absence, DQ explores the wide-reaching impact the series had on the shows and creatives that came after it.

This Sunday, US premium pay TV channel Showtime will launch the return of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch and Mark Frost drama that first saw the light of day on ABC in 1990. No one knows what to expect, but if the new series is half as ingenious as the original, it will be worth adding to your watch list.

At a time when there is so much great drama on TV, it’s easy to lose sight of the show’s creative significance. The crime drama gripped millions of viewers as Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper investigated the shocking murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee).

But most writers, producers and critics acknowledge that Twin Peaks paved the way for some of the industry’s most iconic scripted series.

Twin Peaks unravels a murder mystery in the titular small town

Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which launched on Fox in 1993, is often cited as an early beneficiary of the Twin Peaks revolution. While the show had more procedural rigour than its predecessor, David Duchovny’s portrayal of FBI agent Fox Mulder owes much to MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. In tone, pacing, geography, humour and supernatural suspense, the creative connection is clear.

Frank Spotnitz, founder of indie producer Big Light Productions, worked on The X-Files for a number of seasons as a writer and showrunner. He recalls that “a lot of us in the writers room were fans of Twin Peaks and the way it took television drama to a new place. It was one of those shows that just seemed impossible at the time. This was an era when the only things on network TV were shows about cops and doctors and lawyers. But then along came this clever, compelling, original series.

“It really was the show that changed what TV meant. It was so cinematic at a time when television drama was rigid. It was mysterious, sexy, chilling and atmospheric. The message it passed on to the rest of us was to have a sense of ambition. If you’re going to make TV, make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.”

Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in the original series

Less immediately obvious is the impact Twin Peaks had on HBO’s landmark gangster series The Sopranos. But the creator of the latter, David Chase, has never been slow to acknowledge his creative debt to the rule-bending nature of Twin Peaks.

The impact of Twin Peaks is also evident in shows such as Lost, Bates Motel, Veronica Mars, Northern Exposure and Wayward Pines. But its impact didn’t stop at the US border. Both the pace of the show and its visual grammar were forerunners of Nordic noir – 10 years before the Scandinavians made their mark. For many, Danish hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing), with its meticulous attention to a single case, is a direct DNA descendant of Twin Peaks. So too is atmospheric French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned).

Twin Peaks’ use of language has also had a defining impact on high-end drama. How many times do we now see shows digress from the central narrative arc or wrong-foot audience with non sequiturs – just as Lynch and Frost did repeatedly with Twin Peaks?

And while there is always a danger of ‘over-attributing’ a work of art’s impact, there are many who see Twin Peaks’ focus on the horrors that exist beneath the surface of small-town life as the prototype for subsequent scripted series.

Broadchurch, Haven, Fortitude, Les Revenants, The Valley, The Kettering Incident and Trapped are just a few examples of recent scripted shows located in similar locked-in communities.

Showrunner Carlton Cuse admits the drama had a huge influence on his career: “It shaped the way Damon Lindelof and I approached Lost, and also my approach to Bates Motel.”

In terms of specifics, he says: “It was intensely visual at a time when most drama relied on dialogue. There was this visually arresting use of negative space – you’d find yourself watching traffic signals as they turned red to green. It was moody and lyrical, like something you’d get from European cinema. And at the same time there was an intentional ambiguity that forced the audience to puzzle out what was going on – not just watch. You had to pay close attention to make sense of things.”

Kyle MacLachlan (left) as Special Agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S Truman

As a seasoned TV professional, Cuse also has the utmost admiration for the fact the show even got made: “There are so many gatekeepers in TV that it was a profound achievement to convince network executives to let it get through in the way it did. It broke so many rules, and in doing so, emboldened Damon and I to break the rules with Lost. It challenged conventions and made a future in TV an attractive option.”

While it’s possible to see overt evidence of Twin Peaks’ impact in a show like Bates Motel, part of the point made by Cuse is that Lynch and Frost encouraged showrunners to interrogate process. So even where a show doesn’t immediately look the same as Twin Peaks, there can be a connection.

Rob Thomas, showrunner on critically acclaimed Veronica Mars and The CW’s ratings hit iZombie, is another who recalls the show-stopping impact of Twin Peaks: “It was the first show I remember going out of my way for. I used to drive to my buddy’s house 40 miles away across Texas to watch with a group of eight friends. We were just obsessed with the show and would record it on VHS so we could spend the next week picking over the clues. For me it was a bit like The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. In a world of prog rock, someone let this crazy album happen. And it was like that with Twin Peaks.”

Interestingly Thomas says the show taught him lessons in both how to make TV and how not to make it. “I wouldn’t take anything away from the show. It had an amazing sense of style and inventiveness that I hadn’t seen in TV before. The offbeat dialogue contributed to a really singular voice. But I remember really thinking about it a lot when I was making Veronica Mars, because it seemed to me that parts of Twin Peaks weren’t mapped out in advance. There’s always a certain amount that you make up as you go along in a 22-episode show, but I was determined to have a clear idea of where I was going.”

Jane Campion’s mesmerising Top of the Lake is another critically acclaimed show that has been compared to Twin Peaks – in part because of its lyrical, atmospheric qualities but also because it is an example of a cinema auteur embracing TV.

Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Birggs and Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings

Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind Top of the Lake, recalls watching Twin Peaks avidly when it first aired: “I was about 20 and couldn’t believe what I was watching. I loved the amazing characterisation, slow-burn narrative, ethereal music [composed by Angelo Badalamenti] and the mystical, moody atmosphere. It played with every assumption about what a television drama series should be.”

For Kousetta, the importance of the show is not just the list of genetic traits that have been handed down to today’s generation of drama producers, but the central role it gave to auteurs: “With Top of the Lake, we were at the forefront of the recent wave of feature film talent coming over to TV,” he says. “But, of course, David Lynch and Twin Peaks were way ahead of anybody. I think its real importance is that it bridged the gap between film and television – because that is one of the factors that is making today’s TV drama so interesting.”

As UK-based Kousetta’s comments illustrate, Twin Peaks’ popularity spread worldwide. In New Zealand, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at prodco Pukeko Pictures, recalls seeing the show when she was a college student.

“I think all of us bought into its filmic qualities,” she explains. “It was a dark, visually arresting piece of television that was unlike anything we’d seen before. Looking back, the thing that probably stands out most for me is the extraordinary casting. The show wasn’t filled with beautiful or gorgeous people. It prioritised quirky, interesting and weird talent, and that is something I see in drama casting today.”

Chatfield, whose company is a coproducer on Australian fantasy series Cleverman, also makes the point that Twin Peaks was an early example of world-building in TV, something that now informs so many series from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.

That this emphasis on a coherent mythology was intentional is evident from a 2014 Variety interview in which Mark Frost said: “I felt in Twin Peaks we were more or less filming a novel – drilling down to a level of detail you weren’t used to seeing in network storytelling. Over the years, many people have credited us with inspiring them to think differently in how to tell stories.”

Hopefully, a new generation of talent will feel equally inspired after the return of Twin Peaks.


David Lynch (third from left) is joined by returning cast members Kyle MacLachlan (far left), Kimmy Robertson (third from right) and Mädchen Amick (second from right), plus newcomers Laura Dern (second from left) and Robert Forster (far right)

The return of Twin Peaks: What do we know?

So what do we know about the new Twin Peaks? Well, not much, since those involved are sworn to secrecy.

The new project is 18 hours long, the cast is broadly the same – Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper – and the action takes place 25 years after the occurrences of the original two seasons. This time lag is, reportedly, significant to the plot.

But just days ahead of the premiere, on Sunday May 21, little remains known about the story, although episode descriptions could provide some clues.

Meanwhile, the returning cast are continuing to remain steadfastly tightlipped about what is in store for viewers, with little being revealed ahead of its launch.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, David Lynch gave little away during a surprise appearance. But when quizzed on what viewers should expect, he said: “I see it as a film. And a film in parts is what people will experience. This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are hopefully met when they see the thing.”

As to whether the show might go beyond its initial 18-episode run, Lynch said: “Before I said I wasn’t going to revisit it, and I did. You never say no. But right now there’s no plan for more.”

There is a possible hint of a warning in comments made by Showtime president David Nevins, who told Deadline Hollywood the new season “rewards close watching” and is “the pure-heroin version of David Lynch.” That sounds like it will appeal to Lynch junkies, but it may prove a little too challenging for most viewers.

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There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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Back in the room

DQ visits Big Light Productions to see a writers room in practice as executive producer Frank Spotnitz works on a second season of Ransom.

Imagine a writers room and you may well picture several people sitting around a big table, pens in hand and plenty of coffee within arm’s reach.

And on a visit to the offices of London-based Big Light Productions, DQ finds that isn’t far from the truth. In a fifth-floor room with a view across the city, three large desks have been pushed together and are covered with notepads and sheets of paper, laptops, pens, bottles of water and bowls filled with grapes, nuts and other treats.

Around the desks sit eight people – six writers and two script editors – who are in early development mapping out episodes for a potential second season of hostage drama Ransom. Created by David Vainola and Big Light CEO Frank Spotnitz, the series follows crisis and hostage negotiator Eric Beaumont (played by Luke Roberts), whose team is brought in to save lives when no one else can.

Frank Spotnitz

Season one debuted on CBS in the US and Canada’s Global TV on January 1 and will also air on Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France. All four networks coproduced the series, which is produced by Big Light, distributor Entertainment One, Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions.

Inside the writers room where work has been underway on season two since the beginning of the year, four cork boards are covered with notecards, each marked out with a different plot point or scene. Around the walls, there is memorabilia relating to previous Big Light series as well as shows Spotnitz has worked on himself. Posters from The X-Files, Hunted and The Man in the High Castle can be seen alongside a clapperboard from the set of Medici: Masters of Florence. Pictures of the Ransom cast are stuck to another wall.

As DQ pulls up a chair to sit in on the ongoing discussion, executive producer Spotnitz takes his place at the head of the table to listen to the latest episode outline. Whether leaning back with his arms folded or sitting forward to emphasise a point, the former X-Files showrunner wastes no time in offering notes as the episode is dissected, or leading discussions on character motivations and movements.

On several occasions he refers to movies to illustrate a point he is trying to make, and continually takes the writing team back to the beginning of the episode to iron out any wrinkles in the plotting.

Spotnitz has long championed writers rooms outside the US and describes the room at Big Light as a hybrid of UK and US production systems, using script editors to help guide the writing process in a way a showrunner might across the Atlantic. “I do think writers rooms are getting more traction outside the US,” he tells DQ later. “It won’t work for all shows. Really, you need eight or 10 episodes to even make it worthwhile. But with a certain number of shows, if they’re needed in a certain period of time, it’s just faster and I do think it’s better. The quality’s higher when you have all these people interrogating every beat of the story. They argue but it’s good because if you can survive that process, you have your whole story worked out and you go to the script process feeling really confident.”

Spotnitz jumps in and out of the room as his schedule permits – he’s also overseeing production of Canadian series The Indian Detective in South Africa and season two of aforementioned Italian historical drama Medici – leaving the other writers to get on with the task at hand in his absence.

Big Light’s hostage drama Ransom airs on CBS in the US and Global TV in Canada

“They’ve worked out a lot of it and then they tell me the story, and in a perfect world I’d say, ‘Great, go write it’ – but that rarely happens,” he admits. “Usually I go, ‘What about this and what about that?’ We talk about it, I’ll have read the story outlines that have been sent to broadcasters. There’s a lot of formal steps you have to go through because we have to please our studio and the broadcasters.

“But after season one, we know our show better and what worked well; we know our actors better and their strengths and chemistry. That’s one of the joys of doing television – you keep doing it, you don’t just do a movie and it’s over. We can learn and refine and do things we didn’t do before.”

In the room, it’s also clear that Spotnitz isn’t just thinking about the story. He might be imagining the budget total rocketing up when different settings are discussed for a particular scene, before suggesting the action be kept in a previous location.

“When I first started doing this, I remember thinking, ‘this sucks’ because we had to go back to an old location. But we’ve only got 10 days to shoot an episode and we can’t have 15 locations,” he says. “We’ve got to be practical. It forces you to simplify your storytelling and that’s actually really good. It’s hard to be simple but it’s better to be simple. So I’ve come to not resent it at all and to actually like it. The few times I’ve done episodes when I didn’t simplify things and I insisted we did all this production stuff, it hasn’t been better. There’s an economy to it that the audience responds to.”

The Ransom writers room is also notable for two of the scribes taking part – Bo Poraj and Susie Farrell – who were invited to join the team as the winners of a shadow writing scheme launched by Big Light and Creative Skillset, which works with the UK’s screen-based creative media industries to develop new talent.

Actor-turned-writer Poraj has worked on British soaps including EastEnders and Doctors, and the writers room experience offered a big step towards high-end drama that isn’t often available. “Getting your own stuff on screen is such a lottery,” he says. “Unless you get that break, it’s very hard. So hopefully a scheme like this is win-win because it gives us that development opportunity and also gives Big Light a potential talent pool to draw from in the future.”

Ransom stars Luke Roberts as negotiator Eric Beaumont

Poraj admits the process isn’t perfect, with hours of discussion often leading to dead ends that serve no use to the final script. “There have been days where it felt like we didn’t make any progress at all,” he says, “but sometimes you feel like that and then at the end of the day, you touch on something that fixes the whole problem and you realise it was worth spending five hours meandering around the subject.”

And despite the downsides to using a writers room, including the increased cost of keeping several writers in place across many weeks, Poraj suggests its something the UK drama industry should do more often.

“I know it’s more expensive but when you think of production budgets, as a percentage of that budget, without a decent script, you’ve got nothing,” he says. “Even the best director and the best actors aren’t going to make it compelling viewing. It seems to be a fairly expedient policy to not invest more time in script development. I hope we will move more towards that model in the UK. Collaborating can be much more fun as well. You get an idea for a script and you get to run it past seven smart people – it can only make it better, can’t it?”

Over the last seven years, Big Light has brought around 60 writers through its doors, having established writers rooms on every show it produces. Spotnitz believes it’s a natural opportunity to train new writers.

“In the UK it’s very challenging. Broadcasters tend to buy drama from established writers – and if you’re not one of those established writers, it’s very hard to get your show commissioned,” he explains. “But drama is growing because of things like Netflix, Amazon and international coproductions. We need people who are trained to work collaboratively, who are comfortable sitting in that room batting around ideas and talking with other writers. Younger writers are really eager. They have watched American television and they’re not intimidated by it. They don’t feel like a writer must sit by themselves in a shed and write, they’re open to coming in and it’s fun. You laugh and make friends and go for drinks. It’s more fun than sitting by yourself with your computer.”

Kaye Elliott, programme lead for Creative Skillset’s High End TV (HETV) Council, adds: “The scheme provides a fantastic and unique opportunity for writers to learn about the process of working in a writing team for HETV. Creative Skillset is proud to support such an excellent initiative and encourages the development of more UK writers rooms to give writers more opportunities to further progress their skills and build their networks.”

Spotnitz concludes that ultimately, whatever the writing process used, there is no perfect story. “You get to the point where people say, ‘I enjoyed that,’ and that’s success,” he says. “There’s no true success, and perfection is not achievable. You’ll never get there. But that’s why this is an interesting job. You’ll never master this, you’ll never get bored because it’s impossible to say, ‘I’ve got this.’ Every story is so unique and different with different variables, it’s like a new puzzle to put together.”

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Delivering Ransom

Executive producer Frank Spotnitz discusses the real-life origins of hostage thriller Ransom – commissioned by CBS in the US, Canada’s Global, German broadcaster RTL and French network TF1 – while star Luke Roberts describes the life-and-death stakes in play for his character, negotiator Eric Roberts.

Ransom is produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions, and distributed by eOne.

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Meet the Medici

Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden are father and son in Medici: Masters of Florence, the story of one family’s rise from simple merchants to power brokers in Renaissance Italy.

When Frank Spotnitz was looking for an actor to portray the head of one of the most famous families in Italian history, the seasoned showrunner sought a screen legend who had enough gravitas to carry the role.

So when Dustin Hoffman agreed to play Giovanni de Medici, the writer was understandably excited.

“He was amazing – I’ve grown up my whole life watching him, so I can’t believe we get to have him,” Spotnitz says. “I was so nervous when I spoke to him on the phone the first time!

Frank Spotnitz
Frank Spotnitz

“We needed someone to present both the hardness and the humanity of this character. There aren’t many people in the world who have that. And Dustin’s such a brilliant actor with such presence. It was a bit unreal having him there.”

Hoffman heads the cast in Medici: Masters of Florence, which charts the family’s rise from simple merchants to power brokers in 15th century Florence.

As the family’s influence sets off an economic and cultural revolution, patriarch Giovanni de Medici (Hoffman) is murdered in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin) are then forced to confront a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power.

The series, produced by Lux Vide and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, receives its world premiere in the Tuscan city next Friday before it airs on Italian pubcaster Rai. A second season has already been commissioned.

Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle, The X-Files) and co-creator Nicolas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) have a long-standing relationship and the former immediately thought of his sometime collaborator when the chance to dramatise the Medici was first proposed.

“Lux Vide, approached me two years ago and said they were going to make a show about the Medici,” Spotnitz recalls. “They had a script, which they weren’t happy with, but they thought the show had huge potential. They wanted the best locations, the best costume designer, the best production designer, everything. I said it sounds good to me!”

And the producers were good to their word, particularly when it came to locations. Medici: Masters of Florence was shot entirely in original locations, adding a layer of authenticity to the story, which blends elements of political thriller and murder mystery with a family saga.

“There’s some CGI in the show but not much,” Spotnitz reveals. “We had an amazing production designer who knew everything about the 15th century. So we drove all around these medieval villages in Tuscany. It’s just amazing how much is unchanged. You just have to take down the signs and get rid of some cars and it’s like you’re in the past.

Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman is ‘amazing’ as Giovanni de Medici, says Spotnitz

“And the access Lux Vide was able to get… I had the mayor of Florence showing me around the Palazzo Vecchio, seeing all the rooms and the cell where Cosimo really was imprisoned. And we got to shoot in the real cathedral in Florence. It was astonishing. We’re used to seeing period drama like this where you shoot in Romania or Hungary or Bulgaria – some place that’s less expensive. So to actually be able to shoot Italy for Italy is quite extraordinary.”

Filming in the Tuscan countryside did have an impact on the show’s shooting schedule, however, as scenes from all eight episodes were shot based on the production’s location. Having director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan take charge of the entire first season added extra continuity to the style and tone of the series.

As Spotnitz explains: “It really had to be one director because of the way we were shooting. We’d go to Montepulciano and we’d shoot all the scenes from all eight episodes there, and then we’d move to Pienza, so you couldn’t divide it all up between different directors. It would have been impossible. It’s quite a jigsaw puzzle.

“The show has a fairly classical style a la The Godfather. It has the lustre of The Godfather but with the beauty of Italy and the colours of the Renaissance. But for me, Sergio’s real gift is with actors. I’ve never seen actors respond better to a director than to him. I remember the first day when Dustin Hoffman was in Rome and we rehearsed and he said to him, ‘You’re the best kind of director for an actor,’ because he’s very good at listening to actors and guiding them and making them feel understood.”

Spotnitz hadn’t previously been interested in working on a historical drama but once the story was stripped down, it was a tale of two brothers searching for the person who murdered their father that stood out to him.

Game of Thrones' Richard Madden (right) also stars
Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden (right) also stars

The fact that that the truth behind Giovanni de Medici’s death is unknown also meant Spotnitz and Meyer could use history to their advantage.

“We have taken a few liberties here and there [with historical accuracy] but the truth is there’s an awful lot that’s not known,” he says. “For instance, there’s not a lot written about Cosimo’s wife, Contessina [played by Annabel Scholey], so we were trying to connect the dots, trying to imagine the human being who did these things. I think we were fairly faithful to the facts, but you realise when you write one of these things how much of it is an interpretation.

“[The Medici] were trying to change the world. They were making money by providing credit and trade to the common man and it created social mobility and an opportunity for people to better themselves, and that was radical. It felt like a very relevant issue for today.”

The story of the Medici was particularly personal to Lux Vide heads Luca and Mathilda Bernabei, whose father was born in Florence. Momentum behind Italian drama has been building, with shows such as Gomorrah winning acclaim on the international stage, and Luca Bernabei says Medici grew from his ambition to create a series that spoke about the creation of modern Italy.

Spotnitz was then the key to turning a historical story into a contemporary murder mystery.

“He gave us this wonderful way of writing that was able to bring history alive,” he says. “But we were giving him the possibility to shoot in the real places where the story actually took place. We were shooting where the Medici lived instead of in a back lot in Bulgaria or wherever. That’s what makes it different from all the other Italian shows.

“Even the costumes, the concept was they were bankers so we gave the men a banker style – black, grey, blue. It’s very contemporary, like [styles seen in] the City of London. For the women, we used rigid geometry inspired by the greatest fashion designers. We tried to avoid ‘museum’ costumes in order to bring the show to life.”

The decision to produce Medici in English was made early on in order to broaden the show’s reach. “From the beginning they knew they wanted it to be in English,” Spotnitz says of the producers. “You reach a very small audience with Italian drama. Even with the most successful Italian drama – Gommorah, Inspector Montalbano – there’s only a certain number of people in the world who are willing to watch a show in a subtitled format and you just reach a huge audience with English. So they knew from the beginning it would be in English and they would try to get a first-class cast.”

Bernabei adds that the challenge for Medici, and Italian drama as a whole, is to bridge the gap to UK and US dramas, which often have a budget many times larger than those filmed in mainland Europe.

“Our challenge was to show we can make a really international product, not something local, not regional,” he continues. “But momentum in Italy is building because of Gomorrah, The Young Pope and now Medici. So this is a new era for our production. There are three or four producers in Italy that are able to produce international drama. It is changing our business. Producers are able to collect more money in the market.

“This is also [distributor] Wild Bunch’s first TV project, so it was a wonderful combination of a company like ours specialising in television working with a company like them that specialises in cinema. It’s very interesting because we’re different but similar and we both love a challenge. We were talking the same language and that was wonderful.”

Work is now well underway on season two, with production due to begin by the end of the year. The story will focus on Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most powerful statesmen in Renaissance Italy and Cosimo de Medici’s grandson.

“It’s a family saga, it’s a murder mystery and it’s a political thriller – it’s all of those things,” Spotnitz says of the show. “The Medici were who Machiavelli wrote about. They’re really good at manipulating politics but the story is very much rooted in the family.”

He adds: “It’s such an incredible time in television. Yes, it’s amazing in the US with this explosion of drama, but in Europe, it’s a different story. Europe has been so underserved for so long and people have been deprived of opportunity for so long, primarily because the US wouldn’t buy European drama. That’s changing, and now there’s huge appetite and they’re looking for ways to buy it, which is great for Europeans because it creates opportunities to make these large-scale shows that compete with the best of US drama.”

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Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

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European dramas get backing from buyers

Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.

Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).

This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.

20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).

Trapped
Trapped will return for a second season

Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.

More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.

Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”

Zero Days
Zero Days examines cyber warfare

Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.

We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.

The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.

The original She's Gotta Have It
The original She’s Gotta Have It

Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.

Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.

Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime
Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime

Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”

Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”

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Netflix plays Chandra’s Games in India

Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra is adapting his novel Sacred Games for Netflix

Hot on the heels of Amazon’s announcement of its content origination plans in Japan, Netflix has revealed a new scripted project in India.

Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The author, who will also write the adaptation, said: “Over the last few years, I’ve watched with great excitement and pleasure as Netflix has transformed narrative television with its ground-breaking, genre-bending shows. I’m confident all the colour, vitality and music of the fictional world I’ve lived with for so long will come fully alive on the large-scale canvas provided by Netflix. I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix and Phantom Films (the show’s production company).”

The show is set in Mumbai against a backdrop of crime, political corruption, and espionage. Seven years in the making, it centres on Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force. The story pits Singh against Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India. Shot on location in India, the series will be a hybrid Hindi-English production. It will be available to Netflix members globally upon completion.

Now 55 years old, Chandra was born in New Delhi and has a number of novels to his name, including the award-winning Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which has been published in territories such as the UK and US.

Commenting on the opportunity to work with Chandra, Madhu Mantena of Phantom Films said: “We are very happy to start this journey with Netflix by producing Vikram’s outstanding story. And we are confident we will create some exciting and groundbreaking television content from here on.”

Erik Barmack, VP of international original series at Netflix, added: “We are delighted to partner with creative powerhouse Phantom Films to bring Vikram Chandra’s epic novel to life with the best Indian and global film talent available today. Sacred Games reinforces our commitment to bring the authenticity of local stories to Netflix members across 190 countries worldwide.”

David Carr
The late New York Times columnist David Carr, whose memoir is being made into a series by AMC and Sony Pictures Television

Other high-profile stories this week include AMC and Sony Pictures Television’s decision to develop a six-part miniseries based on The Night of the Gun, the memoir by late New York Times columnist David Carr.

Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) will play Carr while Eileen Myers is attached as an executive producer and writer. Myers has several high-profile credits, including Mad Dogs, Masters of Sex, Last Resort, Hung, Big Love and Dark Blue.

For those unfamiliar with Carr’s memoir, it is an acclaimed depiction of his battle with cocaine and alcohol addiction. As an active figure in the US media business, he is credited with having kick-started the career of Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls.

Elsewhere, CBS has given a straight-to-series order to Ransom, a new hostage negotiator series created by David Vainola and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle). The show has been set up as an international coproduction, with France’s TF1 and Canada’s Global also signed up for the 13-parter. Also on board is global content distributor Entertainment One (eOne).

The series will star Luke Roberts as Eric Beaumont, an expert crisis and hostage negotiator who resolves difficult kidnap and ransom cases. The show is inspired by the experiences of crisis negotiator Laurent Combalbert, one of the top negotiators in the world.

Spotnitz said: “The world of crisis negotiation is incredibly compelling, as demonstrated by the fascinating real-life cases Laurent Combalbert has negotiated. Laurent has inspired a brilliant and complex character, and you can’t help but be moved seeing all the lives he’s saved around the world.”

James Wood
Evelyn Waugh novel Decline and Fall is being adapted by James Wood

Amazon continues to be busy – picking up a number of new scripted pilots. Among them is Carnival Row, a supernatural series from Guillermo Del Toro, Travis Beacham and Rene Echeverria. A coproduction between Amazon Studios and Legendary TV, the show is based on a feature-film script created by Beacham 11 years ago. Since then, he has established himself as a leading action-adventure movie screenwriter with titles like Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim (on which he worked with Del Toro).

Another Amazon pilot continues the current fascination with Cuba now that the country is opening up to the international market. Called Tropicana, it is set in the world of the Tropicana nightclub against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Written/executive produced by Josh Goldin and Rachel Abramowitz and executive produced by Andrea Simon, the series will feature all the usual suspects including the mafia, the CIA, Batista loyalists and Castro revolutionaries. Goldin and Abramowitz previously worked together on Klondike, while Goldin’s solo credits include Darkman.

Interesting projects bubbling up in the UK include a BBC2 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s superb novel Decline and Fall. With comedian Jack Whitehall already installed as the lead of the three-part miniseries, there are reports that Eva Longoria is in negotiations to co-star.

The adaptation is being handled by James Wood, who came to fame with BBC comedy Rev. Set in the 1920s, Decline and Fall follows student Paul Pennyfeather, who is unfairly expelled from Oxford University and ends up teaching at a boys school in Wales.

Still in the UK, FremantleMedia has announced that it is backing a new scripted indie to be headed by feted producer Laurence Bowen. Called Dancing Ledge, the company is setting up new offices in Notting Hill with projects from some of the UK’s most talented writers and a development deal with The Hobbit star Martin Freeman.

Laurence Bowen
Laurence Bowen has set up Dancing Ledge

According to Fremantle, the new Dancing Ledge slate includes a dozen projects for UK and US broadcasters including dramas by Mark Gatiss, Guy Hibbert, Chris Lunt, Dan Sefton, and John Donnelly, as well as a new limited event-series development commission for History written by Simon Block (Home Fires). Bowen is also developing several scripted ideas with Martin Freeman.

Commenting on the new company’s excellent writer relationships, Bowen said: “Dancing Ledge is only ever going to be as good as the writers it works with and we are lucky enough to already be working with some of the very best in the UK.”

Finally, Canadian broadcaster CityTV has greenlit some dramas. Bad Blood: The Vito Rizzuto Story, will debut on City and FX in the US in 2017 and is inspired by the life and death of mobster Rizzuto. New Metric Media, Sphere Media and DHX Media will produce the series, based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War – co-authored by Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso.

Another commission is Second Jen, a coming-of-age comedy about two second-generation Chinese and Filipino-Canadian millennials and best friends. Created by and starring Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy, the show will be produced by Don Ferguson Productions and premiere on Citytv.com in the autumn.

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Hornby’s Love lost on BBC1

Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1
Nick Hornby’s Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1

There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).

It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.

Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”

In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”

As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”

Toby Jones in BBC1's Capital
Toby Jones in BBC1’s Capital

It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”

Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.

As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.

The Secret stars James Nesbitt
ITV’s The Secret stars James Nesbitt

Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.

Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.

The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.

Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle
Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle

Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.

Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”

Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.

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MipTV scorecard: Which dramas stood out?

Jenna Coleman in Victoria
Jenna Coleman in Victoria

There were 11,000 delegates at MipTV this week, 3,900 of whom were content buyers. And top of their shopping list was drama, with a wide array of titles being picked up by free-to-air, pay TV and SVoD channels and platforms.

MipTV doesn’t see much activity from the major US studios, which prefer to focus on the LA Screenings next month. So this meant the attention was more on European and Asian drama, with a few US cable titles also attracting attention.

A big winner at the market, for example, was ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which sold its period drama Victoria into the Nordic region, the Netherlands and Canada. There was also interest in BBC Worldwide’s Anglo-French fashion drama The Collection, which sold to SVT Sweden and DR Denmark.

As the above titles indicate, British dramas tend to secure an initial wave of sales in Scandinavia and other English-speaking markets before picking up deals in other territories. This point was underlined by deals done on Capital. Distributed by FremantleMedia International, the adaptation of John Lanchester’s novel has been sold into the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

If there was a clear trend in terms of sales, it was the continued importance of SVoD platforms, which seem to be doing almost as many drama deals as traditional networks.

The Book of Negroes
The Book of Negroes has been picked up by US streamer Hulu

Hulu picked up eOne’s The Book of Negroes, while All3Media International sold Irish drama Red Rock to Amazon Prime Video in the US. Channel 4’s international drama strand Walter Presents, meanwhile, acquired two series from Keshet International – Baker & The Beauty and Milk & Honey – plus Spanish drama Locked Up.

Perhaps the most high-profile SVoD deal of them all saw Netflix acquire Marcella from Cineflix Rights. Created by The Bridge writer Hans Rosenfeldt and produced by Buccaneer Media for ITV in the UK, Marcella delves into the psychology of a troubled female detective investigating a serial killer. Larry Tanz, VP of global television at Netflix, said: “We got involved with the series early on in the process to gain the opportunity to bring Hans’s great storytelling to our members around the world.”

Other dramas that secured good deals at the market include the Content Television-distributed Line of Duty, which sold to DirecTV Latin America, BBC Worldwide Benelux and Hulu in the US, which picked up VoD rights.

There was also an interesting deal that saw Zodiak Rights’ Versailles picked up by US pay TV channel Ovation. Ovation isn’t really known as a drama buyer, so it’s another good indication of the demand for event dramas.

One company that has got more interesting to the international market in recent years is Italian public broadcaster Rai, which until recently was only really interested in commissioning mainstream scripted shows for primetime slots on flagship channel Rai 1. But there has a been a definite shift as a result of the wider changes taking place in the international drama market.

Marcella
Marcella, starring Anna Friel and now airing on ITV in the UK, was acquired by Netflix

On the one hand, the company is now producing edgier, younger-targeted drama for Rai 3, with the result that it is attracting more attention from international buyers. An example at the market was Close Murders, which was on the verge of being picked up by Franco-German network Arte at Mip.

On the other, Rai has started getting interested in supporting English-language event dramas. At the market, for example, it was one of the backers of Wild Bunch TV’s epic new period drama Medici: Masters of Florence, which has now been greenlit for a second season.

One new development at the market was the launch of the Mip Drama Screenings, a showcase for 12 new drama titles that was held on April 3 in the JW Marriott Hotel. The event, heavily skewed towards European content (but with a Chilean and an Israeli-originated show involved) was well received by buyers and put the spotlight on some interesting series.

Writer/producer Frank Spotnitz, whose Medici was among the shows screened, called the screenings “an excellent platform. We had the undivided attention of 400 buyers who were able to watch extended excerpts and trailers in a nice theatre, with proper sound and picture quality. When you are running around at a hectic TV market like MipTV, a focused and quiet environment is valuable for both the filmmakers and the broadcasters. I hope the screenings expand in the future.”

Public Enemy
Belgium’s Public Enemy won the Coup De Coeur following the Mip Drama Screenings

At the end of the screenings, one show is given an award called the Coup De Coeur for being the best of the bunch according to the buyers. This year it was Belgium’s Public Enemy, which is distributed by Zodiak Rights.

It’s too early to know how Public Enemy’s success at the screenings will impact on its sales – but it certainly should help. Sarah Wright, director of acquisitions at Sky and one of the executives on the advisory board that selected the show, said: “We chose Public Enemy because we felt it was brave, it was strong, it was fresh, it had twists and turns. It feels like something that will travel.”

Last week, we name-checked a few scripted format deals. By the end of MipTV a couple more had bubbled to the surface. Onza Entertainment sold the format for Spanish drama The Department of Time to China’s Guan Yue International, while Russia’s NTV commissioned a local version of Nordic Noir hit The Bridge.

In a related development, Lionsgate licensed its new show Feed the Beast (starring David Schwimmer and Jim Sturgess) to AMC’s UK pay TV channel. This show, about two friends who launch a restaurant, is based on a Danish scripted format.

This market was very much billed as being about Germany – this year’s Country of Honour. But it was noticeable that France was actually among the most high profile in terms of deal-making. StudioCanal, for example, used the market to announce that it was acquiring stakes in a number of international production companies, including Spanish powerhouse Bambu, producer of hit shows like Velvet, Gran Hotel and the first Spanish-language series ordered by Netflix. The firm’s sister company Canal+, meanwhile, launched Studio+, which is billed as the first global premium series offer for mobile devices.

Velvet
Velvet, produced by Spain’s Bambu

The new company will produce exclusive premium drama series for smartphones, tablets and a dedicated app. Each series will consist of 10 10-minute episodes, with an average budget of €1m (US$1.14m). Studio+ president Manuel Alduy said the service will launch in September in France with 25 complete original series, before opening in Europe, Russia and Latin America in partnership with major local telecoms. Early series include drama Amnesia starring Caroline Proust, action series Brutal and Urban Jungle and thrillers Kill Skills and Madame Hollywood. Sixty more shows are currently in development.

Explaining the thinking behind the series, Dominique Delport, president of Vivendi Content (Canal+’s parent company), said 60% of smartphone users watch shortform video. He said the directing talent for the new series comes from advertising and music, sectors that have experience of reaching Studio+’s target audience of 15- to 35-year-olds.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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