Tag Archives: Fremantle

Dark tales

Known for her frequent Agatha Christie adaptations, writer Sarah Phelps reveals how she transformed Tana French’s Irish crime novels into BBC drama Dublin Murders.

Sarah Phelps is a master of the literary adaptation. Best known for her TV reworkings of Agatha Christie novels, Phelps has so far brought four of the beloved author’s stories to the BBC – The ABC Murders, Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution – with a fifth, The Pale Horse, to come.

The screenwriter, playwright and producer has also proved a dab hand at Dickens, having penned miniseries versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist as well as multiple episodes of Dickensian, again all for the BBC.

For her latest book-to-screen project, however, Phelps has turned to altogether darker and more contemporary source material, taking on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad book series.

Set, as you might have guessed, in and around the Irish capital, Dublin Murders takes its lead from the first two novels in French’s six-part collection, In the Woods and The Likeness. Made for the BBC, Irish pubcaster RTÉ and US cablenet Starz, the show takes place in 2006, centring on detective partners Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox, played by Killian Scott and Sarah Greene.

The series is produced by Euston Films, Veritas Entertainment Group and Element Pictures, with Fremantle distributing.

Dublin Murders revolves around detective partners Cassie and Rob, played by Sarah Greene and Killian Scott

Rob and Cassie are tasked with investigating the murder of a teenager Katy Devlin, whose body is found on a makeshift altar in the middle of a woodland archaeological site – the same location where, 21 years earlier, three children went missing and only one came back alive.

It’s soon revealed, however, that Rob’s connection to the case isn’t merely professional and that the troubled detective’s deeply traumatic childhood makes this a very personal investigation.

As the eight-episode drama unfolds and the partners track a killer, Cassie, too, finds herself dealing with her past, and secrets relating to the dark, mysterious history of the woods and the unusual inhabitants of the neighbouring estate – including Katy’s family – come to the fore.

While adapting two books into a single story may sound like a daunting task, Phelps says it was a natural approach to take: “Tana herself said that she’d always thought of the books as being in pairs, and when I was reading them, I thought it would be a really great idea to sort of plait them together.”

With In the Woods focusing more on Rob and The Likeness more on Cassie, Phelps wanted the “consequences” of each story to “impact on [both characters] and really intensify their relationship within the investigation.”

The show comes from serial adapter Sarah Phelps, pictured here at C21’s Content London last year

And although the series is a mashup of both books, Phelps believes the story has stayed more faithful to the source material than some of her adaptations of single titles. “I think I’ve stuck to the plot, which may surprise people who know that I like to deviate from plots as much as possible,” she jokes. “Obviously there are deviations and obviously I change things, because one of the strengths of Tana’s writing is it’s such an immersive world.

“Her books are very ‘interior’ – you get to know every single, tiny little corner of each character, because you’re in their skin. You’re in their brain, in all the tiny little fissures of their mind with all the things they really don’t want you to know. In TV, you need to show, rather than tell, so that was one of the challenges. Taking the read experience to the watched experience is always a challenge – but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

As well as adaptations, Phelps clearly has an affinity for detective stories, with Dublin Murders coming on the back of her multiple Christie works – most recently, The ABC Murders saw John Malkovich play her iconic investigator character Poirot. But what was it about French’s books that particularly appealed? “One of the things I found really exciting about them is that, within the genre of detective thrillers, they’re also modern reimaginings of really ancient tales,” she says.

“For example, In the Woods is a modern reimagining of the ancient tale of the children who go under the hill. When you peel it down to its roots… it’s infanticide – all these dark tales are invented to cover up some terrible crime.

“It was really exciting to think that this is a detective thriller, this is a murder mystery and this is also a really deep dive into the stories that we tell ourselves, that we’ve told ourselves forever. Why do we tell those stories? To keep away the beast in the dark as we huddle round the fire and hope we’re not going to die before tomorrow.”

Although set in the Irish capital, the series was largely filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The theme of darkness is something that crops up frequently as Phelps talks about the series. Discussing entering the woods as a metaphor for descending into madness, she says: “I really like the idea that there’s this place where you think it’s familiar – it’s where you pitch your tent, it’s where you go and smoke a joint, where you build a den – but actually there’s something else going on.

“I’m always really attracted to stories where we think we know everything. You’ve got electric light, a torch on your phone… but when the lights go out, what we think and what we believe is a very different story. We’re great when the lights are on; we’re rational, we’re brilliant. But you turn the lights off in a dark place – in the country – it’s really dark. And I guarantee, within a minute, you’ll be thinking all sorts of shit.”

The writer adds that she’s always keen to pursue the idea of “who we are when the lights are on and who we are when they’re turned off – when everything goes wrong, when everything stops working. Who are we then? What do we believe when we’re out in the woods and all you can hear is a creak? That’s really what this show is about.”

The show opens with a flash-forward several months into the future, featuring a desolate Rob in a difficult conversation with Cassie, their relationship apparently broken beyond repair. This time shift is indicative of things to come, with Dublin Murders frequently swapping between 2006 and 1985 to reveal more about Rob’s past.

The production team took several steps to ensure viewers would immediately know what era they were seeing without it being literally spelled out on screen or awkwardly inserted into the dialogue.

Dublin Murders will air on Starz in the US after premiering on BBC1 in the UK

Saul Dibb, who directs the first two episodes, explains: “We took the idea of two different types of film that were present in 2006 and 1985 and we tried to replicate them. One is a very common Fuji stock from 2006, which is a bit cleaner and greener, while the one from 1985 is a lot grainier.

“We tried to make it subtle as well – it wasn’t a massive change, but a lot of other incremental things in the costumes, the performances, the writing and the language. It needed to be clear without the thing of turning the dial to no colour or super colour,” adds Dibb, who also exec produces alongside Phelps, Euston Films MD Kate Harwood, Noemi Spanos, Ed Guiney, Alan Gasmer, Peter Jaysen, Elizabeth Kilgariff and Tommy Bulfin.

Phelps picks up: “The colours in the 1985 sequences always make you think of the photo of your holidays that you’ve forgotten and you find it down the back of a skirting board. There’s a shock to it – immediately, you can taste Angel Delight. It was really shocking when I first saw the rushes, like seeing something you’d forgotten you’d lost.”

Although filming largely took place in Northern Ireland capital Belfast, Dublin Murders is notable for having an almost entirely Irish cast and crew, which certainly helps achieve the authentically Irish feel its creators strived for.

“The writing feels very, very real, and what it’s showing is not a stereotypical view,” says Dibb. “Partly, the challenge was shooting in Belfast and then keeping the look consistent to Dublin, but certainly in 2006 Dublin was a very fast-moving city, and that’s what was captured in the writing.

Dublin Murders’ cast and crew are almost entirely Irish

“It was exciting to be able to say, ‘We’re going to root this story, which has these pretty extraordinary characters and situations, in a very real world, with characters that you can engage with.’”

Keen to avoid anything like “the disastrous episode when EastEnders went to Ireland, over which we should draw a thick veil,” Phelps notes: “I wanted Ireland as it’s seen through the eyes of people who absolutely know it.”

As such, she felt it important to avoid landmarks and to show a side to the country less familiar to those from elsewhere. “It’s like when you’re watching London and you see St Paul’s. For Christ’s sake, I know what I’m looking at – let’s see Peckham!

“There’s an unfamiliarity to it. You don’t really know where you are and you’ve got to trust the people who are telling you the story, your guides. You’re like Dante in the Inferno.”

Dublin Murders debuts on BBC1 tonight before hitting US screens on Starz on November 10. And while its impact on viewers is yet to be seen, Dublin Murders has already quite literally left its mark on Phelps, who reveals she has tattoos dedicated to the show. One is of a set of antlers, a recurring visual theme in the show, and the other is of a hawthorn leaf, whose back story is rather more complicated.

The writer describes watching an episode of BBC factual series Countryfile in which a man in rural Northern Ireland was protesting against plans to cut down a hawthorn tree as part of a motorway expansion. The man warned that, because of the tree’s magical properties, cutting it down would have dire consequences.

“This guy wouldn’t back off. He kept going and going – ‘You cannot do this. This hawthorn tree is a magic tree. There’s going to be chaos.’ You’d think that, at some point, he’d be carted off,” Phelps recalls.

But it turns out the man got his way, with the motorway ending up curving around the tree, because, as Phelps sees it: “At some really deep metaphysical level, every single person, from contracting to engineering and planning – high government level – at some point woke up at four o’clock in the morning and went, ‘What if he’s fucking right? What if he’s right about the hawthorn tree?’

“And I thought, ‘That’s the story [of Dublin Murders].’ We think we’re modern, we’ve got everything. But deep down, what if? What if?”

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Trying on a different hat

Actor Natalie Dormer explains how working on an independent feature film and Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock encouraged her to take more control behind the camera.

Natalie Dormer’s career to date might be noted for her on-screen appearances in Game of Thrones and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but she’s also had a long-standing if less noted interest off-screen too.

It was back in 2009 that the UK actor started co-writing indie feature In Darkness with her then other half Anthony Byrne, when by her own admission she was going through “a moment of frustration” with her career over the roles she was being offered.

Fast-forward a decade or so and Dormer now has a production deal with global giant Fremantle designed to allow her to fulfil her ambitions behind the camera but also steer her career in front of it too.

“I want to push myself as a storyteller, both as an actor and behind the camera,” she says. “But as an actor I feel the only way to not be offered the same role I’ve done before is to grab the reins myself a little bit. Then once you’ve shown people you have that skill, it begets itself and hopefully the snowball starts going down the hill.”

Natalie Dormer in Foxtel and Amazon period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock

While working on thriller In Darkness, which took six years “to draft, re-draft, finance and produce,” Dormer was also acting in shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, and CBS’s Elementary, plus movie The Professor & the Madman. And it was during this period that she had the “privilege of standing next to ‘monitor village’ and working closely with directors and producers.”

“There were five or six years where I really started to think about storytelling beyond the acting talent remit and my appetite got whetted, I got a taste for it and the team camaraderie,” she says.

“I learned so much in the years of development [on In Darkness] and then the post-production process and the promotion of that,” Dormer continues, adding that the lower budget nature of the show also meant she gained experience of attracting off-screen talent without the ability to pay top dollar.

“Everyone is on a job like that out of a passion to make a statement for themselves of some sort in terms of their creative discipline.

“I learned so much that it made me hungry to continue the process. I felt part of the team, and it was really invigorating being part of that core of producers, directors and lead writers. It’s addictive – how can we improve this story?”

Dormer as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones

It has also made Dormer a much better actor, she says, because she was privy to conversations that are normally kept from on-screen ears. “I went to dinners not with actors but with editors and producers so I was surreptitiously amassing an entire skill set without even realising it.”

Dormer, who most recently starred in Foxtel and Amazon drama Picnic at Hanging Rock, adds that “without sounding wanky” she has “a natural instinct for storytelling” that also propelled her career in its current direction.

“I realised that as well as wanting to hold the harness over my own career because of the frustration with the roles I was being offered, I also got a real kick out of finding stories, pitching them, finding colleagues – and that brings me up to where I am.”

Precisely, that is a first-look production deal with Fremantle to create a slate of projects, with Dormer already working with the prodco on Vivling, a series based on the life of Gone with the Wind star Vivien Leigh.

“At a basic level I have a first-look deal with Fremantle but they also give me financial support and an infrastructure to feel supported as I develop my slate,” she says, adding that the relationship developed during filming for the prodco’s drama Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“We shot In Darkness in 2016 and I had a producer credit on that, and I had this ground-shifting experience of shooting my own indie film. Quickly after that I went onto set [on The Professor & the Madman] with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and they’d both directed so I spoke to them. Then I went to do Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia and hung out with a lot of people who were doing it and had done it – I was trying to find my centre and confidence.”

CBS’s Elementary saw Dormer as a female version of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty

Dormer admits to experiencing “some teething problems” on the Aussie show, partly because “it was such an ambitious and wonderful project” but the experience drew her together with Fremantle’s exec VP, creative director of global drama Christian Vesper.

“The amazing Christian Vesper came out to Australia to speak to me and [showrunner/director] Larysa Kondracki to help smooth out those early teething problems,” she explains. “Through him and I having conversations, we realised we were simpatico. The Fremantle ethos at the moment is being a place where talent has a home. They’re nurturing those talent deals in a way that America is more used to than we are on this side of the pond, although we are going that way.

“Fremantle has a strong desire to nurture those creative relationships,” she adds, with this ultimately leading to the deal revealed late in 2018. Dormer was already working with Fremantle on Vivling, which also has UK production company Mainstreet Pictures attached. The story will explore Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier and her Academy Award-winning performances in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, plus themes of equality, abuses of power and mental health.

Acclaimed screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Maigret, Churchill’s Secret) is on board and reportedly has access to a wealth of archive material alongside Kendra Bean’s book Vivien Leigh – An Intimate Portrait. Fremantle will hold the global distribution rights to the series, with Dormer serving as producer as well as starring.

So will Dormer’s Fremantle deal enable her to pick and choose which roles she would like to play? “Some stories might have a nice small cameo role I could play,” she explains, “and Viv is specifically a vehicle to show an acting range. On a few of the other projects, I don’t know yet. Possibly no – I’m hoping to be so busy that it won’t be possible to do them all.”

Dormer alongside Ed Skrein in feature film In Darkness

What’s clearer is that Vivling will join the growing number of shows with a strong female protagonist, a trend that is finally now making its mark. “When you turn on the TV, there are all these female-protagonist shows. It is the golden era of TV and we’re on the crest of a wave with the three-dimensional female protagonist upon us. It’s long overdue.”

Inclusivity across the board is improving, she adds, but there remains a long way to go. The hope for Dormer is that she can attract some of that talent – both known and yet to be discovered – to develop projects that reflect the passion of those working on them.

“We all like money,” she jokes, “but what I can bring to this Fremantle situation is that I know what can attract creatives to a project, and that isn’t necessarily anything to do with a bank balance.

“People have points to make about what they can do, and it’s not just actors. Across the board, directors, producers and writers get pigeon-holed just as much as acting talent.”

With almost a decade of experience both in front of and behind the camera, Dormer is now looking to use her first-hand experience to change that.

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