After eight seasons and 73 episodes, HBO’s epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones has come to an end.
The series debuted in April 2011 and aired in 207 territories. Over the course of its run, it filmed in 10 countries, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Spain, Croatia, Iceland, the US, Canada and Scotland.
Northern Ireland was home to 49 locations alone, with Titanic Studios used for the interior sets of Winterfell, Castle Black, the High Hall of the Eyrie, the Sky Cells in the Eyrie, the Hall of Faces, the House of Black and White, the Great Sept of Baelor, and the throne rooms in both the Great Pyramid of Meereen and King’s Landing.
The series used 12,986 extras in the country and 2,000 Northern Ireland crew members across the series’ eight seasons. Overall, the show totalled 105,846 days of work for extras across all seasons and countries.
In this DQTV interview, executive producer Frank Doelger looks back on his “extraordinary experience” making the series, which he says has broken the mould for cinematic storytelling while also successfully combining elements of fantasy and reality to create a cohesive drama.
He also praised the team behind the scenes that put the show together, often with three or four units filming on different continents at the same time, and reveals his surprise at learning how the series would end.
As visual effects become a more prominent – and expensive – part of television, DQ hears about how writers and producers are aiming to meet cinematic standards in high-end dramas and how VFX can enhance storytelling.
Until recently, visual effects (VFX) in television series were a luxury rather than the norm. But the advent of epic shows such as HBO’s dragons- and magic-infused fantasy Game of Thrones has changed the paradigm in terms of what programmes can offer and, perhaps more importantly, what audiences now want from their high-end dramas.
Game of Thrones (pictured above), which came to an end this week, has employed numerous high-profile VFX firms over the years, including Primetime Creative Arts Emmy-winning teams at German firms Pixomondo and Mackevision. With this stamp of quality comes an obligation for VFX outfits to continuously improve the quality of their work. “It doesn’t matter if they’re playing Call of Duty, in the cinema or watching Netflix on their phone, audiences expect it to be of the highest quality,” says Richard Scott, CEO and co-founder of UK-based Axis Studios.
It’s a point picked up by Louise Hussey, executive producer at the UK arm of Lucasfilm-owned VFX outfit Industrial Light & Magic, who says VFX, a “longstanding part of film,” are fast becoming integral to TV. Hussey joined the company in 2018 to set up ILM TV, the company’s new London-headquartered television branch, having previously done the same for fellow VFX firm Double Negative (DNEG).
“We still don’t have the budgets that feature films have, but the fact we can harness a lot of the technology and development that’s been going on within film and bring that to bear in TV VFX is really key. That’s why we’re driving forward on all of those fronts, with creative and tech at the minute,” she says.
While conceding that the US is more advanced than the UK in this space, Hussey believes the shift from cinema to TV – in terms of both consumer habits and the migration of talent – is being felt domestically and globally. While projects she had been looking at during her tenure at DNEG had been “very much constrained by the budgets that were available,” the upswing in the popularity of series, fuelled by premium drama on streamers like Netflix and traditional broadcasters like the BBC, has helped open the coffers for VFX. And off-screen talent has benefited as much as viewers.
“What’s incredible is the ambition of the storytellers and the ability writers now have to put things down on paper – that actually there is a chance [their ideas] can happen. Instead of writing themselves into a budgetary corner, they’re able to have a vision,” Hussey continues.
The forthcoming BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds is a case in point. The miniseries, coproduced by ITV Studios-owned Mammoth Screen and Creasun Media in association with Red Square, uses VFX to complement the drama. Peter Harness, who penned the adaptation, says that although writers are “hard-wired into [thinking about] what things cost,” and therefore manage expectations on the page, he still prepares a first draft unfettered by budgetary constraints because it galvanises VFX teams to consider his vision from the outset.
“You are making a statement about the scale you are aiming for, even if you can’t afford all of it,” he says. “It’s quite helpful for people to get that and be a bit terrified by it and start thinking about how these things can be achieved.”
Harness reveals he already had an image of The War of the Worlds’ “iconic” Martians in mind, adding that conversations with director Craig Viveiros, designers and effects producers early in the process helped achieve the spectacle he was going for, removing the threat of eating into the budget with false starts.
“One of the biggest wastes of money is not having enough time or doing things on the fly. With The War of the Worlds, the one thing that didn’t change from script to script was the big effects sequences,” he explains. “We said, ‘We’re locking these so people can start building effects, storyboarding, looking at locations.’”
However, Harness admits the production did end up having to go without one effects sequence it had storyboarded, meaning he had to think up a scene with “the same impact for no money at all.” It became two people walking down a smoky road and hearing a baby crying in an abandoned house.
“I actually think it’s the most horrifying sequence in the [drama], and we basically got it for the cost of a smoke machine and a sound effect,” he says. “Budget constraints force you to be more creative.”
Rory Aitken, co-founder of management and production company 42, which is behind the recent BBC/Netflix animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ seminal novel Watership Down, says there was a “huge focus on getting the script right,” and notes the tensions between TV drama and captivating visuals. Given the steep costs of producing animation, Aitken says the whole process of making the series was turned on its head.
“You realise, when you’re shooting live action, what you get for free with a camera and actors is huge. You get the sun for free, you get houses for free if you’re filming on the street; someone’s figured out the drainage, someone’s figured out the actor’s haircut,” he says.
“With animation, you edit first and shoot later because it’s so expensive. Any second of animation you have on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. We’ve delivered a four-part, 50-minute show and there’s not one second on the cutting room floor. The actual animation is the very last bit. You’re kind of flying blind up to that point.”
Dan May, co-founder of UK design studio Painting Practice alongside Joel Collins, says art departments and VFX teams often enhance a series that is renowned for its writing. Painting Practice was the driving force behind the look and effects of the first 13 episodes of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology drama Black Mirror, on which May served as VFX art designer. The series had initially apportioned very little for visuals but as its popularity grew and it became a Netflix show with higher budgets, VFX progressed as a key part of its fabric and USP.
“Often, Joel and I will work from the very beginning to get the visuals to go with the writing and the script, to get the project greenlit,” May says. “Then we’ll do a lot of concept art to get people excited. We’ll feed those concepts to the writers, and some of that will go into the scripts, some of it won’t. Then you go into production but you’ve got a lot of that pre-planning done.”
UK pubcaster Channel 4’s recent cyber-thriller Kiss Me First required constant interaction between VFX teams and producers from the start. The series, produced by UK prodcos Balloon Entertainment and Kindle Entertainment, tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who is addicted to a fictional online gaming site, and combines live action with computer-generated sequences set in a virtual world. Axis Studios was brought on board at pilot script stage because of its previous work with the gaming industry.
“We essentially fed our animation process into the writing process; the scripts were being developed at the same time we were boring out sequences,” Scott says. “Some of the sequences were established as being animation, and we could start working on those while the rest of the script was evolving.
“We were working on the animated sequences, designing the world, the costumes, and they hadn’t shot a single frame of live action. We did motion capture with all the actors and it was the first time they’d ever acted together. It was an upside-down production from that perspective.”
Clearly, VFX has transitioned from its perennial associations with fantasy and the big screen and is now being implemented as a tool in numerous premium dramas. As budgets continue to fuel its uptake in television, the migration of audiences from the cinema to the living room is likely to speed up.
For one night a year, the cream of the behind-the-scenes talent working in the British television industry is recognised at a star-studded celebration. DQ hears from the winners at the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018.
The courtyard of central London’s The Brewery is abuzz with guests donned in black ties and ballgowns. Episodes and Green Wing star Stephen Mangan stands at the entrance, greeting new arrivals as guests pose for photos beside a giant golden mask.
The mask, of course, is the instantly recognisable symbol of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – better known as Bafta – and Mangan, soon to appear in BBC1 drama The Split, is working the door in his role as the host of the 2018 Television Craft Awards, where 20 golden mask trophies will be given out to those who work behind the scenes on scripted and factual productions.
Prizes are handed out for costume design, directing, editing, make-up and hair design, sound, writing, photography and music, with nominees in the fiction categories coming from series such as Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Taboo, Game of Thrones, Three Girls (pictured above), Line of Duty, The Miniaturist, Black Mirror and more.
After a champagne reception, the nominees, award presenters and other guests file into the ceremony room to take their seats at the dozens of tables set out in front of the grand stage.
Then, as the awards get underway – after a VT introduction introducing Mangan in Handmaid’s Tale cloak and bonnet – DQ speaks to the winners in the scripted categories about their work and the shows that earned them a prized Bafta award.
Breakthrough Talent: Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, writers, This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Charlie Cooper: It’s been six years since we first started writing something and it’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs. We did a pilot a few years ago for ITV, which went disastrously wrong. Shane [Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning] had seen our stuff a few years ago and just commissioned a series straightaway, which is unbelievable. Daisy May Cooper: I ended up emailing Shane and said, ‘I didn’t know who to go to. I will literally stand outside your office dressed as the Karate Kid, because you’re my Mr Miyagi, until you come down and talk to me.’ He said don’t do that, just come in for a meeting. We went in and he just said everything was going to be alright. He is absolutely the most amazing man to young fresh talent. He’s like God to us. When you’ve got people like Shane backing you, you just feel so looked-after. The BBC, I have to say, have been absolutely amazing and there are so many amazing comedies coming through the BBC and they’re discovering fresh young writers. The BBC is the place to be and they’re the ones to watch when it comes to breakthrough talent.
Editing: Fiction: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was actually very lucky because I have historically done feature documentaries and Phillipa [Lowthorpe, director] wanted to shoot this show in that type of manner with the roving camera, not using the normal establishing shots. So I embraced it and she shot it so beautifully that it was a joy to edit. We had challenges in trying to keep the veracity and integrity of the girls’ story [with the show being based on a true case of widespread sexual abuse in the UK town of Rochdale] and we couldn’t manipulate the truth, but that was a good challenge because it makes sure you do the right thing. These people live and exist in the world today and they were going to watch it and make sure they were happy with it, so it was a good challenge.
Whenever they were shooting the series, I was editing and assembling from home so I didn’t see anyone during that period, which is a grace period for editors because then we can get to know the material and try things out. Once the final cut began, I was with Philippa in [email protected] in Bristol and after about three weeks, Nicole [Taylor, writer] started to come in, so it was very collaborative. All of us wanted to tell this story in the best way we could for an audience at home to understand on-street grooming and how those girls found themselves in that situation. That was our guide. The real people came to meet us, so that also helped us keep our finger on the pulse of the truth.
Titles & Graphic Identity: William Bartlett, SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films, BBC1)
I’d read the book before and then I read the scripts, and I liked the idea of the main character, Archer, not knowing who was on his side and the shadowy nature of it. The visual aesthetic, I’d had ages ago. I’ve got a number of ideas for title sequences in the back of my mind, and I thought I had a seed of a visual idea that was right for this. So I did a few tests and it fit with the narrative of the book and the ideas within the programme. It evolved out of the story.
I love title sequences for a couple of reasons. From a creative point of view, it’s an area that has really limitless possibility. You can come up with something that’s unique and interesting and you’ve got real scope to do what you want. I think of them like an overture from an opera where you’re trying to set the scene and plant little ideas and visual references of what’s going to come later. Because of that, it’s interesting how it’s constrained by the narrative, the story and the drama, but it’s really free as well. It’s unique in terms of what you have to do visually. Title sequences, generally, are going through a real heyday at the moment. There are tonnes of really great title sequences being done all over the world. With more TV being done, title sequences have come into their own as well. People are prepared to invest in them a little bit.
Special Visual & Graphic Effects: DNEG TV, Jean-Clement Soret, Russell McLean, Joel Collins for Black Mirror episode Metalhead (House of Tomorrow, Netflix) Michael Bell, visual effects supervisor: Filming the episode in black and white was the idea of David Slade, the director. It was strange for us because you don’t see much VFX in black and white. Ultimately, it made it unique, made it really stand out and we’re really proud of the finished thing.
It took months and months just for the modelling of the creature itself [a relentless robotic killing machine], the inner workings and all the details. There were basically two characters in this episode – Maxine Peake’s character and this creature – so you had to see how it was thinking; it had to be believable and it was quite a difficult challenge. Sometimes it could be comical but it had to be scary and I think we pulled it off.
Costume Design: Michelle Clapton, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic)
My ideas are always informed by the story. We get the outlines two months before we get the scripts, and they usually give me two weeks to think and draw. I speak to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners] so it’s all story-led, which is why it’s so exciting. I work quite closely with them and I’ll develop something to a stage where I think they’ll understand it. Sometimes they don’t like it and say, ‘What we’re trying to say about this character is this…’ So then we’ll have a discussion. Most of the time it’s fine but it’s interesting when it’s not, because you learn something.
It was nice to step out of Game of Thrones and do something like The Crown [in 2016] because in some ways it gave me a break from the show and I could return and feel enthused again about it. Period shows are really interesting but you have a period you’re looking at, so you design within that period but there’s still references. On something like Game of Thrones, you have no references, which is what I find so exciting. It’s been one of a kind and I doubt we’ll see a show like that again to such an extent. It’s been such a huge show and I’ve grown with it.
Photography & Lighting: Fiction: Adriano Goldman, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
I was invited to come on board the first season by [lead director] Stephen Daldry, but the first two episodes we shot, three and five, were not directed by Stephen. So I had a very practical challenge just to get to know this director who I was just being introduced to, Philip Martin. Of course, we got along really well but you have to build the whole thing from scratch with a director who is not a person you can read right away. Prepping was super intense and long. [We spent a lot of time] just reading scripts and going back to locations and trying to envision something that especially the British audience knows so well, the story of the Queen, and wondering what could be fresh about our approach.
The main discussion was the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The classic but also fresh approach was a challenge in itself. How do we deliver a story that everybody more or less knows but with a fresh visual style or rhythm?
Writer: Comedy: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No 9 (BBC Studios Comedy, BBC2) Reece Shearsmith: Comedy’s such a funny thing because it’s all about taste – what you find funny, I might not and vice versa. But comedy drama is a difficult one because there is comedy in the most bleak situations. I’ve had a career mining very dark themes and I think the release of something that’s quite dark is cathartic. With the No 9s, we enjoy telling stories. They’re little black jokes and it’s been lovely to resurrect the anthology series because that’s a great lost genre that you don’t really do anymore. People like the longform, big, strong boxsets but these are one-off little hits that you can watch in any order. There’s appeal for that these days.
Steve and I have a little office and we write there. We talk a lot before we even begin thinking about the writing of a story. We try to get the mechanics of where it’s going. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of where it will go and, during our conversation, we’ll think it’s too obvious and we need to change the ending if we’re thinking of a twist where we want to surprise people. Then we try to tell the story in the most judicious number of scenes possible. Sometimes the story itself never even leaves a room, so it’s even harder to tell the story without ever leaving and time passing. We think about taking the very mundane and taking it to an extraordinary conclusion. It gets harder and harder for us because we’ve done so many different stories and different worlds, and each week you start again. It’s like a pilot each week. That’s the challenge, but that’s the fun thing because you can do extremes, because they’re disposable. Next week you have a completely clean slate. You can kill them all off. You can reach heights you might not be able to if you had to go back to a default position if it was a sitcom. They’re thrilling to write and, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas, we’ll go on forever.
Writer: Drama: Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
Factual drama is always what I’ve loved watching, and Britain has an amazing tradition of that type of social-realist drama going back to Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. If people are watching it now, it must be because of the fractured moment we’re in, Brexit… we’re strangers to each other. No wonder we’re trying to watch things about ourselves to understand the state we’re in.
Three Girls was brought to me by Sue Hogg, the executive producer who I worked with on The C Word. I was initially very afraid to take it on and I said no a fair few times. I just think I didn’t have the bottle. Like everyone else, this was a story I didn’t want to be true and it’s a story that everyone wants to look away from. I came up with my own reasons why I was going to turn it down and then I discussed it with my partner, who’s a journalist, who called me out on it and said I was doing what everyone did, turning away. I thought, ‘That’s right. Let’s go.’ It took me years and years to dissolve into it because it was so complex Once I got started, it felt like something was going that spoke to the state we’re in more broadly, and [I wanted] to do the best job I could of getting people who want to turn away to be glued to the story.
Philippa [Lowthorpe, director] did a lot more than just direct this magnificently. First off, she has a documentary background so she did a lot of the research with me. She gave me so much confidence in how you go into people’s homes and have them feel comfortable with you. She’s brilliant on scripts, she’s amazing with writers so I feel so stretched just in pure nerdy craft terms. She was just a joy, such a collaborator and, uniquely, she wanted me on set whenever I wanted to go. I was in rehearsals. That collaboration was so tight and I can’t wait to work with her again. She’s a phenomenal talent and such an inspiration for me as a woman working in this industry.
Sounds: Fiction: Sound Team, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Chris Ashworth, production sound mixer: My biggest challenge is managing the scale of the show. It’s an enormous shoot. It goes on for 30 weeks, so it’s a huge management thing from my point of view on the floor, managing three crews and making sure everyone’s working together. Then on the huge set pieces we do, we have to keep a variety of directors happy. Lee Walpole, supervising sound editor: In post production, we’re trying to take Chris’s clean recordings on location and add a complexity, scale and richness, bringing it to life and pinning it to the period it comes from. Sound recording is only becoming more complex, and that brings its own challenges. We have five days to final-mix an episode and you’re expected to produce a film soundtrack in that time. Andy Kennedy, sound designer: The line between cinema and television is very blurred. We’re not dealing with stereo, we’re dealing with multi-channel formats and it also has a different presentation because The Crown is shown as a streaming piece, so sound is evolving and it’s very close to what a cinema produces, but it’s slightly smaller scale.
Make Up & Hair Design: Jan Archibald, Erika Ökvist and Audrey Doyle, Taboo (Scott Free London, Hardy Son & Baker, BBC1) Audrey Doyle: Tom Hardy and his dad, Chips, developed the whole storyline seven years ago, he said, in his kitchen. They approached Steven Knight to write the scripts and it developed from there. We all did research of the period and the looks and started there. Tom is covered in his own tattoos so we had to develop a whole new tribal make-up for him. We had ‘Naked Mondays’ – every Monday, for some reason, we always seemed to film his tribal scenes, so we had to do his full tattoo cover, full tribal make-up and scars and everything. But he did wear a loin cloth. It took two-and-a-half hours each time.
Production Design: Deborah Riley and Rob Cameron, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic) Deborah Riley: My process begins right at the start in LA with the writers when they issue an outline, which tells us exactly what is going to be in every episode of the whole season. The scripts don’t come until a bit later. Then we’ll start the approval process. We have concept artists that draw everything for us, and everything gets approved before it gets made. It’s an amazing team of people. We’ve got great producers. David and Dan know exactly what they want, they’re very clear with their vision. Time is the challenge, because there’s just too much to do in too short an amount of time, as we’re trying to produce film finishes on a television schedule. We just really work hard, and David and Dan’s biggest talent is they collected a whole lot of workaholic perfectionists in one place.
Visual effects are always led through production design. We create the worlds and then we need visual effects to help us when we can’t build it all or see it all, but it’s very much a collaboration; we don’t work in isolation. The whole show is very cohesive in its vision and what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a very special thing. I’m most proud of just surviving.
Original Music: Jocelyn Pook, King Charles III (Drama Republic, BBC2)
In a lot of films, less is more. Music is so overdone quite often and it’s nice when people use it more carefully and more thoughtfully. On this particular project, it was really inspiring because of all the settings. It had been a theatre play, but hardly any of the music I had written for the theatre worked for film so I had to do a whole new score.
Because of the history of the monarchy, there’s a sense of the ancient and modern combined, and definitely elements of the contemporary because it’s set in the present day. That was lovely, musically, to mine, particularly English choral music that I’m naturally inspired by. There’s also an Englishness, whatever that is.
Director: Fiction: Philippa Lowthorpe, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was really lucky because I was involved in the research right from the beginning of Three Girls and that, to me as a director, is very valuable. I got to meet all the real people very early on and, with our wonderful writer Nicole Taylor, I was able to be part of the research along with our producer Simon Hughes. That really informed how I saw it and how to direct the actors, because I’d met the real people. I don’t think I could have done it without having met them and spending a a lot of time with them.
I went for a real feel, but it wasn’t pure documentary either. I used lots of very long takes because I wanted the actors to feel absolutely free to move where they wanted to move. Sometimes in drama you put the light somewhere and they have to hit a mark. I banned marks and we did very long takes where we would capture a bit of the scene and then do back and do it again. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors at first because they’d never done it like that before, but it was brilliant and it gave the actors so much freedom to absolutely inhabit their parts.
We had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of discussion with the actors, and that was so valuable. Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp were the leaders of the cast. The British Pakistani actors who were so brave to play the perpetrators in the piece were also very involved in the rehearsal, so their voices became part of the fabric of the rehearsal and we learned a lot from them.
The most important thing in the filming was to capture the truthfulness of the story and help the actors achieve that real authenticity in their performances, which they did. I’m very proud of the young people who played the girls. All three of them – Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill – are amazing.
There have been some amazing factual dramas recently and that’s hats off to Charlotte Moore at the BBC, who has really given a platform to real stories.
Special Award: Game of Thrones John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly: When I did my first day’s work on Game of Thrones, I knew nothing of how TV production worked. I remember getting my first call sheet the day before I shot my very first scene and not knowing what I was looking at. I read the scene, which was two pages long, and I thought, ‘Well, how long can that possibly take?’ I was always under the impression they just had the set and 20 or 30 hidden cameras in little nooks and crannies around the set, they kicked the actors into the set, we did it a couple of times and then we went home. In fact, what I thought when I first saw that it was going to be two pages long was, ‘What on Earth am I going to do with my afternoon?’ After all these years, I look back on that first day and I’m struck by how lucky I am that I was given such an incredible learning experience – the best learning experience in the world, working alongside some of the very best craftspeople at work anywhere. We as actors will forever owe a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring us every single time we walk onto the set and every single time we see the finished product on the screen, every day learning something new from them and learning new things to admire them for. Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly: When you see so many phenomenally talented people in so many departments working at the very top of their game and getting breathtaking results time after time, it really forces you to bring your very best efforts to the table, if only to make sure you don’t look inadequate by comparison. Every year, they’re given scripts that on paper seem totally unfilmable, and every time they put it on the screen to mind-blowing effect. We as actors are so lucky to get to step into the world they create and we are as in awe of their work as the fans of the show all over the world. The show is a global phenomenon and what makes us proudest is that the work of so many British and Irish talents are being recognised on such a grand scale. We know our showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are grateful to be working with this incredible team of people.
Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have ruffled some feathers by revealing their plans for life after Westeros. Stephen Arnell analyses their proposal for a new alternative-history drama about the Civil War.
The announcement by HBO of Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss’s new alternative-history drama Confederate has generated headlines.
With the final, truncated six-episode season of GoT still a year off, Benioff and Weiss (pictured above, Benioff on the right) appear to have lost no time in lining up their next project for the cablenet.
Coming off the back of their successful world-building in GoT, Confederate presents another scenario where the duo can create their vision of a complex society from the ground up.
According to HBO’s press release, the show “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
Tackling an original concept without source material (differing in this regard from GoT), Benioff and Weiss obviously believe in giving themselves enough time to map out the story in a considered fashion, especially now they have reportedly relinquished any role in the many mooted GoT spin-off series and movies.
The subject matter of Confederate is inherently controversial and the pair have already responded to the criticism they have faced since the series was announced by drawing attention to the fact that their writing partners – Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)– are black.
In an interview with Vulture, Spellman commented on the genesis of the show: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.” But in acknowledging this, he also said: “As people of colour and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”
Tramble Spellman continued: “There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With The Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”
In the same interview, Weiss stated: “It goes without saying [that] slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. That sin is still with us in many ways. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”
British actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) echoed the thoughts of some on social media that African-American and non-US Black performers may well boycott Confederate. On hearing the announcement of the show, Harewood commented on Twitter: “Good luck finding black actors for this project.”
The current polarised situation in the US recently led Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein to opine that the country was experiencing a ‘Cold Civil War,’ which gives some idea of the background to the furore surrounding Confederate.
Meanwhile, the arguments over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in the southern states continue to rage, with sporadic acts of violence, illustrating the toxic atmosphere into which Confederate will launch.
Last December, TNT dropped Civil, its planned take on a contemporary US civil war, due to concerns that it may have felt “too close to home,” given the agitated mood of the US after the election of Donald Trump as president.
With the recent reboot of Roots (History), the movie Free State of Jones (2016) and 2015’s miniseries The Book of Negroes (BET), Confederate’s depiction of a fictional modern-day slave society could be viewed as insensitive, if not regressive – depending on how the material is handled.
Although blindsided by the immediate reaction to Confederate, Benioff and Weiss must now be fully aware that they will be under intense scrutiny and are presumably cognisant of the pitfalls that lie ahead of them.
Although alternative-history TV adaptations such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) have become increasingly popular, the subject of the slave-owning South either winning the Civil War or remaining in a stalemate with the North has proved understandably contentious in terms of TV and film, although it has spawned a cottage industry of novels.
The granddaddy of these was Mackinlay Kantor’s 1961 If The South Had Won the Civil War, which led to a slew of American Civil War alt-history books from writers including Alex Scarrow, Larry Niven and Stephen L Carter.
The lack of a source novel of critical repute for Confederate leaves Benioff and Weiss relatively exposed – there’s no original author to use as a shield.
Confederate’s closest comparator is 2004’s low-budget feature-length mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee).
Written and directed by occasional Spike Lee co-writer Kevin Willmott, CSA combines jet-black humour and social commentary to explore what life would be like in the present day if the rebel South had won the Civil War.
Due to the biting satire of the movie, which includes mock online Slave Auctions and racist TV adverts, it has been rarely shown outside festivals and IFC, but is available on DVD.
Aside from CSA, there are two US dramas that have a passing resemblance to some of Confederate’s themes: HBO’s 1997 parodic The Second Civil War and Amerika, an ABC miniseries from 1987.
Penned by Martyn Burke (The Pentagon Wars, Pirates of Silicon Valley) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins/Small Soldiers), The Second Civil War played the setup of a US “overrun” by immigrants and refugees pretty much for satirical laughs, although one wonders what kind of reception the TV movie would receive if shown today.
Amerika was a much more serious proposition, centring on a Soviet EMP attack on the US that disables all computer equipment and electronic communications followed by the subsequent turmoil when the country faces occupation, division and possible nuclear extinction as resistance to the Russians grows.
Playing over seven consecutive nights and apparently attracting up to 100 million viewers during its run, Amerika is a curious relic of the 1980s late Cold War era, although some may find in the series an element of prophecy, bearing in mind the cyber-wars currently being waged across the world.
Possible alternate outcomes to the Civil War were tackled in a broader fashion in TV series including The Time Tunnel and The Wild Wild West, while action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter improbably gave the author of The Gettysburg Address a side-line in slaying the undead.
As Confederate has yet to reach script stage, the burden of expectation the show faces is perhaps unfair – but could HBO in effect be ‘lancing the boil’ by announcing it so far ahead of its likely 2019 transmission date?
One potentially major problem will be in the marketing of the show. Back in 2015 the first season of The Man in the High Castle’s ad campaign proved extremely controversial and Nazi and Imperial Japan-themed subway ads in NY had to be pulled.
How will HBO promote Confederate? It’s going to be an unenviable challenge, but HBO has always prided itself on its ability and willingness to break new ground.
From the new season of Stranger Things to CBS’s long-awaited Star Trek: Discovery, DQ presents 10 of the hottest drama trailers to premiere at this year’s Comic Con event, which concluded in San Diego yesterday
Despite all the noise surrounding big-screen blockbusters such as Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Ready Player One, these days San Diego Comic Con is as much about television as it is about the movies.
This year’s event saw panels and special events surrounding shows such as The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and Westworld, delighting fans with behind-the-scenes gossip and clips of forthcoming adventures.
Lucky visitors were also able to catch a sneak peek at new series such as Stephen King adaptation Mr Mercedes, Syfy’s Ghost Wars and Star Trek: Discovery (pictured above), the CBS reboot of the hallowed sci-fi franchise.
Here DQ picks out 10 of the hottest new TV trailers to come out of the four-day event.
The towering landscapes of Superman’s home planet are brought to life in US cable network Syfy’s first-look teaser for its upcoming Superman prequel, which is based on the characters created by DC Comics. The series will explore the Man of Steel’s lineage, focusing on the House of El. The series airs in 2018.
Family tensions run high in the latest Marvel offshoot to hit the small screen. The series follows the royal family of the Inhumans, a race of human beings altered by experiments carried out by an alien race known as the Kree, as they face a growing threat on their home planet and from their enemies on Earth. The series premieres on ABC on September 29, while the first two episodes will also be shown globally in IMAX theatres from the beginning of September.
American Horror Story: Cult
The teasers for American Horror Story never fail to be anything less than disturbing and unsettling, a tradition that continues with the first look at the seventh season of the FX anthology as row upon row of creepy clowns spell out their simple message: “Join us.” Creator Ryan Murphy took to Twitter to tease details of the latest instalment before Comic Con, revealing it would be known as Cult. Fans in San Diego then got to see some of the first clues to the series ahead of its launch launch on September 5.
San Diego was awash with volunteers ready and willing to lead the hunt for mutants in a stunt designed for Fox’s forthcoming X-Men series The Gifted. The series, which launches on October 2, tells the story of a suburban couple whose ordinary lives are rocked by the sudden discovery that their children possess mutant powers. The opening of this trailer leans on Carrie as the teenagers unwittingly destroy a high school while simultaneously discovering they aren’t exactly average, as their family is forced to go on the run to evade capture by the authorities.
The Netflix series that became one of the television talking points of 2016 is back for a second season, and this new trailer shows poor Will Byers once again in the ‘Upside Down’ as he faces a monster considerably bigger than season one’s Demogorgon. The use of Michael Jackson’s Thriller with Vincent Price’s iconic spoken-word part adds to the 1980s nostalgia. Stranger Things returns on October 27.
Marvel’s The Defenders
After the lukewarm reaction to Iron Fist, Netflix aims to get its Marvel franchise back on track with The Defenders, which brings together Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist as they face off against an enemy – led by Sigourney Weaver – hellbent on destroying New York City. The Netflix series launches globally on August 18.
Star Trek: Discovery
Fans at Comic Con were given a first glimpse at this new trailer for the long-awaited series during a panel with the cast and creative team behind the show, which will premiere on CBS and CBS All Access on September 24, in Canada on Space and in 188 countries on Netflix. The new incarnation of the space franchise sets up a conflict between the Federation and the Klingons.
With an astonishing 22 Emmy nominations, HBO’s robot-centric western has certainly been one of the biggest shows of the last 12 months – and the robots aren’t finished yet. Here’s a teaser for the upcoming second season, which will air in 2018.
The Walking Dead
Like one of the zombies that stalk AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead shows no sign of stopping – though the war now looks set to take place between Rick’s crew and the Saviours, with both sides gearing up for battle. Season eight debuts in the US on October 22.
Game of Thrones
After an extended break, Game of Thrones is back on air and two episodes into its seven-part penultimate season. That doesn’t mean there’s any less excitement for new footage of this epic series, as this teaser reveals some of what’s in store as Jon, Cersei, Daenerys et al ramp up their fight for the Iron Throne.
Alexander Siddig is used to playing characters with accents – but his next role, as Aristotle Onassis, presented a very different challenge, as he told DQ.
With major roles in such shows as Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, it’s hard to imagine Alexander Siddig enjoys much anonymity.
In his latest role, however, the actor is simply unrecognisable. Wearing a fat suit and sporting nose, chin and neck prosthetics, Siddig plays Aristotle Onassis (pictured above) in The Kennedys: After Camelot, the four-part follow-up to 2011 miniseries The Kennedys.
“It’s quite something,” he says of his new appearance, which required 90 minutes in make-up every day before filming. “Even my wife couldn’t recognise me – she had no idea! I sent her a photo and she asked, ‘Who’s this?’
“You don’t want to try to get it exact because it’s just stupid to attempt an exact replication of a human being. But as an actor, as well as for the make-up artists, you want to get an essence of the person and let the audience fill in the gaps. That’s exactly what they did and they’ve done a really wonderful job.”
Set following the murders of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, After Camelot depicts the complicated public and private life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Katie Holmes), her marriage to Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis and her challenges with her son John F Kennedy Jr (Brett Donahue) as he struggles with school, work and his self-identity.
It also follows Senator Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy (Matthew Perry) as he tries to pick up the mantle of his fallen brothers while dealing with alcoholism, infidelity and the shocking events at Chappaquiddick, which resulted in the death of a young woman.
Based on After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family 1968 to the Present by J Randy Taraborrelli, the show is directed by Jon Cassar and Holmes and written by Stephen Kronish and Sandra Chwialkowska.
Due to premiere on April 2 on US cable channel Reelz, the producers are Muse Entertainment, Asylum Entertainment and Intuition Productions, with Muse Distribution International handling worldwide sales.
Despite the controversy surrounding The Kennedys – which Reelz picked up after it was dropped by History amid claims of historical inaccuracies – Siddig says it was an easy decision to join the sequel, having first been asked to play Onassis during filming for 2015 miniseries Tut, which was also produced by Muse.
“To be honest, it was not something I’d ever thought about and I told them to have a look at Javier Bardem,” he admits, before later deciding to take on the role of the Greek shipping magnate who was one of the world’s wealthiest men.
The costume and make-up he had to wear turned out to be key to getting into character, however, as there was little footage of Onassis available for Siddig to use as research.
“There’s almost nothing you can do, it’s really tricky,” he says. “There are a couple of good books I read and I watched 14 seconds of Aristotle talking on TV online. So I imagined he had to be larger-than-life, pretty bombastic and pretty damned charming for someone like [opera singer] Maria Callas or Jackie Kennedy to fall in love with him. And we just played around with that.”
It’s Jackie who takes centre stage in After Camelot, with Siddig describing Holmes’ performance as “astonishing.”
He continues: “She really brought an intimacy to that character that surpasses what she did in the first season. It felt uncomfortably close to Jackie at times – I thought I really shouldn’t be seeing some of the things I’m seeing, some of the emotions I’m experiencing. That ended up being one of the things people will enjoy about the show – you really get an uncomfortably voyeuristic view of someone everyone knows. We did a pretty intimate portrait and she was just marvellous. She was really wonderful.”
It was an equally simple decision for Siddig to join the cast of HBO’s epic drama Game of Thrones to play Doran Martell, the head of House Martell, in seasons five and six. His joy at landing the part was shortlived, however, with Martell meeting a grisly end after just five appearances.
“I was so excited,” Siddig exclaims, “and so gutted when I died. It was such a surprise to me. I had four more episodes, so I was expecting to go somewhere with this character. It was a real shame but it’s their business and their prerogative, and they bloody well made one of the best shows in the world so they’ve got a plan – I’m just going to be disappointed roadkill on the side of the road!
“But it was tremendous fun to get involved in the show. Even though I was only on for five seconds, people already recognise me for Game of Thrones and not something else, so that’s pretty great.”
Siddig is arguably best known for his role as Dr Julian Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which he appeared in more than 170 episodes over six years to 1999. More recent TV credits include season six of thriller 24, Peaky Blinders, Strike Back, Primeval, Atlantis and Da Vinci’s Demons, while big-screen appearances have included starring in Syriana alongside George Clooney and Matt Damon and in Inescapable with Marisa Tomei.
He is also due to appear later this year in the third season of Fox drama Gotham, playing one of the Dark Knight’s deadliest enemies, Ra’s Al Ghul.
Yet for the Sudan-born actor, who grew up in England before moving to LA when he was 24, there’s one thing that usually links his screen roles. “I’m 51 and I seem to have done only accents all my career,” he says. “You name it, I’ve done it. Every part I do is, ‘I need a guy from Spain,’ ‘We need a guy from the Arab world.’ I just do accents and I’ve come to the conclusion there is no authentic accent for anything. Our accent changes depending on who we’re around. It’s the spirit that drives the accent that is much more important. As long as the audience buy it, it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t obsess about it.
“But I don’t mind at all – it’s not typecasting. I’m not going to be a cop in a 1950s British procedural, I’m not going to be in a Dickens or Jane Austen piece. I’m never going to be Bond, however much I’m upset about it – unless he happens to be from India! I’m probably not going to be many women either, I’m just relaxed about it.”
Siddig jokes that despite his agents’ hopes that he would become a leading man, he is happy taking the supporting roles that give his career variety and help him avoid being pigeon-holed into a particular role or genre.
“I’m enjoying being a character actor but I do get the odd leading man part if I need my vanity pumped up a bit,” he says. “But [that means] I have to go to the gym, and I can’t be bothered to do that! All through Star Trek I wore a padded shirt with muscles in – the whole nine yards. I had the perfect six pack until I took my shirt off. Patrick Stewart [who played Captain Picard in various Star Trek franchises] and I enjoyed the extra muscles they gave us!”
Back in the 1990s, fan culture was not what it is today and Siddig says there was no way to predict how appearing in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would impact his life, both at the time and some 20 years later.
“Star Trek has become very cool but at the time it wasn’t,” he recalls. “Yet, of any one thing I’ve done, Star Trek has actually helped a lot of people. God knows how or why. Perhaps a lot of people were babysat by TV when they were kids, or felt excluded from society in some way or had a disability. Star Trek was really good for those people. I don’t know why, but they felt comfortable watching that show and got confidence from it. It gave them hope.
“I don’t know what alchemy or magic it is that show has – if people think it’s cheesy, I don’t care. It does really good work around the world. The amount of people who tell me Dr Bashir helped because he was like them – socially uncomfortable but passionate about what he did – there was something cool about that. It’s really gratifying, and if that doesn’t give you pride, I don’t know what will.”
As the quantity and quality of international television drama booms, Siddig believes a “creative El Niño” is behind shows such as The Man in the High Castle and True Detective – series he doesn’t think would have been made five years ago.
“When I started as an actor, TV was looked at with such scorn,” he notes. “Now the shoe’s on the other foot while movies work out how to monetise their business again without making Batman 57. TV’s figured out people are happy to watch a six-hour movie, just in little bits. Or they’ll watch a 13-hour movie in one go in one weekend. TV is having its day but it’s not going to be dislodged any minute soon.”
And while he might do a movie “every couple of years,” Siddig is now moving into production through his own label, This Red Rock, and is developing the company’s first project, a TV adaptation of Zoë Ferraris’ novel City of Veils.
The story follows a policeman and a female forensic scientist who team up to investigate the murder of a young woman found on a beach in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“Having been in the business for so long, there’s part of you that says you seem to be wasting part of yourself by not doing more,” Siddig explains. “Don’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring!”
He adds of his forthcoming production: “It’s crime and it’s super-high-concept TV set in the desert. But, most importantly, it’s talking about the struggle of women in Saudi Arabia. Someone’s got to make that. This time next year, there will be a poster for City of Veils. We don’t know who’s going to broadcast it but we’re up and running.”
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss discussed on-set disasters, character deaths, celeb cameos and plans for life after the fantasy series during a keynote chat in Austin.
Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss set the scene for one of the most anticipated series finales in TV history during a discussion at the South by Southwest festival.
The duo filled to capacity the Austin Convention Center’s 2,400-person main ballroom for a Q&A, moderated by GoT stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (who play Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, respectively, in the show), that was for the most part loose and playful.
Nevertheless, the talk revealed a few news items for hardcore fans – notably that GoT’s final season will consist of just six episodes, and that the forthcoming seventh season will see musician Ed Sheeran make a cameo appearance.
Topics ran the gamut from Benioff and Weiss’s favourite on-screen deaths to tales of on-set disasters. Discussing the show’s controversial portrayal of women, Weiss said the writers had been drawn to the strong and complex portrayal of female characters in George RR Martin’s books, the source material for the series, from the start.
“We realised it’s an awful world this story takes place in, but there were more compelling female characters in the books who had agency, who were out there,” Weiss said. “They weren’t secondary to anybody – they weren’t anybody’s women or wives. They had their own storylines in this world. It seemed like a very actress-centric show from the source material.”
Elsewhere, Benioff expressed exasperation at the prospect of trying to stop spoilers leaking out each season, given the show’s huge cast and crew. “Even the CIA can’t keep information private, so how can we do it?” he joked, adding that, ultimately, it is up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to spoil the show’s revelations. “I’m not someone who reads the last page of a book first,” he said.
The showrunners also revealed that GoT’s four writers had argued over who would get to write what for the drama’s final season. “We have two of the writers on the staff, and the four of us get together in a room and break down [the story],” Weiss said. “Usually it takes two minutes to decide. This time it took 18 emails back and forth, because we realised it was the last time we’d be doing the show.”
He added that Dave Hill, who began writing for the show on season five, would pen the final season’s premiere.
Benioff said the aim for the drama – which returns to HBO for season seven on July 16 – from the beginning had been essentially “to tell a 70-hour movie.” He added that he was “relatively happy that we’ve managed to keep everyone together and tell it the way we want to.”
As for the post-GoT future, Weiss said his focus was entirely on finishing the series. “We’ve discussed things but, honestly, this show is a 24/7 thing,” he said, adding jokingly that his only real plan was “sitting in a cool, dark room for two months” once the show wrapped.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.
Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.
A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.
Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.
Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.
The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”
The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.
It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.
Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.
FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.
That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).
However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).
As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.
This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.
The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.
In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.
In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.
Kevin Lygo, director of television at UK broadcaster ITV, used a Bafta event this week to call for more “happy, life-affirming drama.”
He’s not the first senior figure in the industry to make this plea. Last year at the C21 Drama Summit, StudioCanal’s Rola Bauer also argued that the industry was focusing too much of its creative energy on scripted series with a bleak worldview.
To some extent, the emphasis on dark storytelling can be explained by the audience’s continued fascination with crime drama. But in recent years it has been amplified by the emergence of horror, fantasy, superhero and hard-boiled period dramas as stalwarts of the scripted genre.
More than eve, graphic, emotionally upsetting violence has become a core constituent of TV drama – especially in pay TV and SVoD. And for now it seems to be proving popular with international audiences.
Take AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, which returned to schedules at the weekend. Episode one of season seven, written by Scott M Gimple and directed by Greg Nicotero, was about as bleak as TV viewing can get, with arch-villain Negan beating one of the show’s best-loved characters to death with a baseball bat embedded with barbed wire.
The episode attracted a lot of criticism from people who felt the show had finally gone too far. But at time of writing it doesn’t look like The Walking Dead has suffered in terms of ratings. Around 17 million people watched the show on AMC in the US and a further 1.43 million watched it on Fox in the UK. The latter was Fox’s best-rated show in its 14-year history.
Nicotero’s explanation of the episode’s uncompromising brutality was as follows: “It’s graphic and it’s horrible. We wanted to push it a little bit. When we shot the season five premiere, we had everybody at the trough and we went down the line and you saw these guys being murdered and drained of blood. That was purely a mechanism just to show how bad the people in Terminus really were. With Negan, you only have to see that once or twice to know this guy means business.
“The haunting remnants of that episode are similar to how I felt when I read the comic book and I experienced that sense of loss and the futility of trying to step in. [Andrew Lincoln’s lead character] Rick Grimes is powerless to stop this and that’s something we’ve never seen on the show. I think the violence and brutality are a part of the helplessness. Seeing our hero completely crushed in front of us is more disturbing than the actual violence for me.”
The audience’s appetite for violence is also evident in numerous other shows, as outlined below. So the big question is, how much further can the TV industry go in this direction? Will viewers get fed up with violent drama and start demanding the upbeat shows Lygo would like to see? Or will writers and directors keep finding new ways to turn our stomachs?
Game of Thrones: The Walking Dead’s status as the most violent show on TV is challenged by David Benioff and DB Weiss’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series. Rape, mutilation, torture and massacres have been regular themes through the HBO series. But while the more outrageous scenes have their critics, the audience has stayed supremely strong throughout. Echoing TWD’s most recent episode, arguably the most shocking scene was when Gregor Clegane crushed The Red Viper’s skull with his bare hands during a gruesome duel. There’s something about seeing a person’s head smashed in that is particularly disturbing – and it’s an increasingly common image.
Hannibal: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal makes the original Silence of the Lambs movie look like a spin-off of Shaun the Sheep. Of the many grotesque sequences in the NBC series, one of the most gut-wrenching is when serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives Mason Verger the drug PCP and then tells him to peel off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. In a state of drug-induced euphoria, Mason complies, and afterwards feeds the pieces to his dogs, except for his nose, which he himself eats. And that’s only the beginning… Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons but attracted an extremely loyal audience throughout its run.
Sons of Anarchy: Kurt Sutter’s acclaimed biker gang drama was another painful piece of television to watch, though it didn’t stop the show becoming a runaway hit for FX. For some, the worst moment was when the villainous Damon Pope burned another man’s daughter alive and forced him to watch (season five). For others, it was the brutal murder of Opie Winston, who had his head bashed in with a lead pipe by a group of prisoners, egged on by a bunch of prison wardens (season five). Sutter returned to graphic violence in his next show The Bastard Executioner, though this one only lasted a season. Questioned by the press about the use of violence in this show, he said: “My mandate, as it was on Sons of Anarchy, is the same for this – the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, it always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. That’s sort of my same mandate here. There are ways to portray that violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous, so I sort have the same mandate with this show.”
American Horror Story: With a name like that, you’d feel shortchanged if Ryan Murphy’s AHS anthology series didn’t scare the bejesus out of you. But there are some especially excruciating images in this successful FX drama. In AHS: Hotel, one of the most disturbing scenes sees a drug addict check into a hotel room, whereupon he is raped by a creature covered in wax-like skin wearing a disturbing looking dildo. Murphy has attempted to explain the scene as a commentary on the hell of addiction. However, even with this story rationalisation it’s pretty warped stuff. Sexual brutalisation ranks alongside head-smashing as one of the TV industry’s preferred ways of horrifying its audience.
Vikings: Period dramas on TV used to be sedate stuff – carriages, elaborate hats, dancing and the occasional shiny cutlass. But series like Starz’s Spartacus and History’s Vikings have reinvented the genre. The latter, created by Michael Hirst, is a big hit for the A+E-owned channel. Not surprisingly, given the subject, Vikings has regular recourse to violence. One example was the slow-motion scene when lead character Ragnar Lothbrok ritually carved open his enemy Jarl Borg from behind. This style of death is called the Blood Eagle, because the victim’s lungs are pulled out through his back and laid across his shoulders like wings.
The Strain: Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their own novels, this FX vampire drama has some truly grotesque moments. One of the most famous is when an infected worm forces its way into the eyeball of the hero’s wife. The image was so revolting that an ad campaign featuring the image had to be pulled after complaints. Just as gruesome was the sight of vampire elders feeding off a human prisoner in season two, a scene that also carried sado-masochistic overtones. The show will end after its fourth season, but it’s a meandering narrative rather than uncompromising violence that caused this.
Daredevil: Superhero series and movies have started to deploy more graphic violence in the pursuit of audience. The Netflix/Marvel show Daredevil (created by Drew Goddard, based on the Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation) is a case in point. Although it has received a lot of critical acclaim, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to graphic violent imagery. Bad guy Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) is especially disturbing, beating someone to death and decapitating him on his first appearance in the show. In season two, the violence is increased with the arrival of The Punisher (pictured). Time Magazine is critical of the way the show has gone, arguing that: “Daredevil just wants to dole out fun doses of extreme gore on the path to an endpoint on a business plan.”
Boardwalk Empire: HBO’s acclaimed mobster series is another drama that attracted criticism for its portrayal of violence. Again, you can’t make a mobster movie without breaking heads, but there is a legitimate question over whether the portrayal of violence was a) accurate and b) necessary. Showrunner Terence Winter’s response to questions about violence was to say: “Murder is ugly, it looks like what it looks like.” Like many of his peers, Winter justifies the shows violence by saying it is used in context. “We’re not gratuitous,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve never said, ‘We need a murder here or how can we make this scene more bloody?’” But “[One of the murders] is as graphic as it gets and I don’t know why we would want to sugarcoat that. I don’t want to make it look antiseptic or like a video game where they are no consequences.”
The Following: Fox’s 2013 series stars James Purefoy as a brilliant, psychotic serial killer who communicates with other serial killers and activates a cult of believers following his every command. The show was created by Kevin Williamson, who built his reputation with movie franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer before turning his attention to TV. Gory in the extreme, the show was labelled “a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic” by The Washington Times. Chasing Purefoy’s serial killer is a cop played by Kevin Bacon, who gave this assessment of the show: “We were trying to make a thriller that scares people and keeps them on the edge of their seats. It was brutal, but the people who watched it seemed to not have a problem.” The series lasted three seasons.
Oz: HBO’s Oz is a reminder that violence isn’t new to our screens. Launched in 1997, the show was set in a maximum-security prison facility populated by the kind of people you hope never see parole. In 2001, The Guardian’s review of season four said: “The previous three seasons of Oz have featured poisoning, lynching, burning, shooting, beating, eye-gouging and crucifixion. The actors admit they find it tough-going sometimes. ‘I have difficulty watching some scenes,’ says [actor] Edie Falco. At times even writer Tom Fontana finds it all too much. He claims that he closed his eyes while penning some scenes because, ‘I didn’t want to see myself writing the words I had to produce.’” The Guardian’s conclusion, however, was that the ultra-violent show was “never gratuitous” and that its primary goal was to shine a light on “political cynicism and a morally bankrupt penal system.”
The US leads the way in terms of the depiction of violence on the small screen, but the rest of the world has been catching on. Series like Gomorrah (Italy), Braquo (France), Underbelly (Australia), Valley of the Wolves (Turkey), Epitafios (Argentina) and The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) have all had some tough-to-watch moments. Ironically, given Lygo’s concerns, so have ITV’s recent dramas – notably Marcella and Paranoid. In the latter, the show opens with a graphic sequence in which a mother is stabbed to death in a playground in front of her child. The Radio Times ran an interesting comment piece on the message that dramas like this are sending out about to women about the threat of violence. However, the real message of today’s TV dramas is that nobody is safe to go out anymore…
The 2016 Primetime Emmys didn’t spring too many surprises when its winners were unveiled at the weekend. One of the top performers on the night was HBO’s magnificent Game of Thrones (GoT), which was named Best Drama for the second year running.
Aside from being one of US cable TV’s most-watched series ever, it has now broken the record for the highest number of Emmys won by any fictional series (38, beating Frasier’s 37).
GoT’s two showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, also picked up Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the season six’s Battle of the Bastards. This follows their win in 2015 for the exceptional Mother’s Mercy episode.
The big irony surrounding GoT, of course, is that there is such a schism between the progress of the TV series and the progress of the books it is based on. The novels’ author George RR Martin is, much to the consternation of his fans, taking an eternity to finish his magnum opus.
But the end of the show is now just two seasons away and there is no question that Martin will still be tapping away at his keyboard when Benioff and Weiss’s TV adaptation concludes in 2018 with season eight.
For those of us who fell in love with GoT as a written work, that creates a conundrum regarding the story’s closure.
HBO also has a conundrum, which is what to do when its most popular show by far ends. It seems so unlikely that HBO would let such an important franchise slip through its fingers that everyone remotely interested in GoT is speculating on whether there is scope for a prequel.
When this subject came up after the latest batch of Emmy wins, Martin kept that possibility open – with a proviso. “I do have thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of material there and I’m writing more,” he said, before adding: “At the moment we still have this show to finish and I still have two books to finish, so that’s all speculation.”
If there is a prequel, however, it seems Benioff and Weiss have already decided they won’t be involved. In response to questions about the idea, Benioff said: “You might want to ask George about that. It’s a great world that George created. I think it’s a very rich world, and I’m sure there will be other series set in Westeros but, for us, this is it.”
Of course, this means HBO actually has two challenges – how to keep the spirit of GoT alive and how to hold on to Benioff and Weiss. Maybe it’s time for a Lord of the Rings reboot…
Another writer to go home with an Emmy last weekend was DV DeVincentis for Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – an episode of FX’s excellent series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special). All told, The People vs OJ won nine Emmys from 22 nominations, making it the top performer on the night.
DeVincentis wrote three of the show’s 10 episodes and was part of a writing team led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Echoing an increasingly common theme in the TV business, his previous credits are mostly movies (but with some extended career gaps).
He co-wrote the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and then penned the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity (also starring Cusack) in 2000. Short-lived TV series Dead Last (2001) and movie Lay the Favourite (2012) followed. The latter, which didn’t review well, reunited him with director Stephen Frears, with whom he worked on High Fidelity. Now he’s in the TV big league, but there is no news yet on his next scripted project.
The winner of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series was Netflix’s Master of None, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. This makes it a good year for SVoD comedy, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle picking up a Golden Globe in early 2016.
While Ansari, the star of the show, is by far the better known of the two, Yang put himself firmly in the spotlight this week with an Emmy acceptance speech that pleaded for more diversity – but immediately managed to stir up a controversy on the subject.
He said: “There’s 17 million Asian Americans, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong [a character from Sixteen Candles regarded as a racist stereotype by the Asian community]. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you can do me a favour: just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll all be good.”
While Yang’s intentions can’t be faulted, the sensitivity of the diversity issue was underlined when his comments received a disapproving response from The National Italian American Foundation, which said it was “disturbed by the very public degradation of Italian American history. Mr Yang listed what he considered to be notable representations of Italian Americans in the entertainment industry citing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. Mr Yang’s comments, while meant to point out the under-representation of Asian Americans in film, ended up including a reckless disregard for Italian Americans by citing films that portray Italian Americans as violent, dim-witted, and involved with organised crime – all three – and insensitive stereotypes that in no way reflect the lives of everyday Italian Americans.”
Away from the Emmys, Channel 4 in the UK and NBCUniversal-owned comedy streaming channel Seeso have announced there will be a second season of Flowers, a dark dysfunctional dramedy that stars Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, the show was created by Will Sharpe.
Sharpe is best-known as an actor (Casualty, Sherlock, Dirk Gently), with Flowers his first significant breakthrough on the writing front. Commenting on the re-commission, he said: “Channel 4, Kudos, Seeso and [executive producer] Naomi de Pear have all been such supportive partners on this show and I’m very excited about working with them on another series of Flowers.”
C4 deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans added: “Covering complex issues like fidelity, mental health, sexuality and fraying family bonds, Will Sharpe’s hilariously awkward and heart-breaking show offers another unmissable look at the Flowers’ messed up world. Will’s scripts and the show’s perfect cast are so brilliant at making you wail with laughter one minute, and well up the next.”
Also this month, French production group Newen and the distribution and production arm of Keshet Media Group, Keshet International (KI), unveiled a drama development initiative for French and Israeli writers of high-end drama series. The two companies are calling for professional writers to submit proposals and projects in either English or Hebrew for unique one-hour or half-hour drama series with appeal for European audiences.
The initiative is being led by Atar Dekel, head of global scripted coproductions and Nelly Feld, KI sales director for Europe, on behalf of KI, and Sandra Ouaiss, Newen head of coproductions.
Dekel said: “Within KI’s aim to grow its global drama coproductions, we are excited to be partnering up with a company as prestigious as Newen. This is a unique opportunity for the creative communities in both France and Israel to take their local stories to the international stage. There is a keen appetite in the global market for Israeli and French scripted content and we hope this collaboration will instigate several high-end international coproductions.”
The submission period began on September 6 and ends on October 31 this year. Each candidate may submit a maximum of two projects via the KI or Newen websites (where full terms and conditions are available). The firms have committed to selecting at least one and up to three projects that they will co-develop and coproduce if appropriate. The finalists will be announced in January 2017 and given the opportunity to work with an experienced European showrunner.
The Emmy Awards will celebrate the best creative work in television when the annual ceremony takes place over three nights this month. Three nominees tell DQ the story behind the work for which they were recognised.
Greg Middleton, Game of Thrones Nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series for the episode Home (season six, pictured above)
For the season six episodes I worked on – opener The Red Woman and episode two Home – I was paired with director Jeremy Podeswa. With Home, we tried to come up with a way to honour a slightly expected twist in the story of Jon Snow’s resurrection but not make it look like we were trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
We broke down the script based on the look and feel of each scene. There were a lot of different environments and a lot of time spent in Jon Snow’s office with the windows shut – we tried to keep the characters in the dark to create the moody look of a huddled cabal and to make the scene claustrophobic. We turned that atmosphere into something more mystical when priestess Melisandre brings Jon back to life.
We try to make scenes flow nicely – we scout locations in advance and put together a visual effects storyboard. We figure out the blocking and the use of sets. Unlike lots of drama shows, we have lots of different locations in different places. It takes some planning!
We drive the look and feel of a scene from the script. It also comes from the writers and showrunners. They encourage you to do your best possible work and to add something to every scene.
Every episode has its individual challenges. For the resurrection scenes, they included working in a small room, keeping things tense and interesting – and putting a fake Ghost (Jon Snow’s dire wolf) in there. We used a stuffed animal as a stand-in! We had to shoot the scene in multiple passes and the wolf was shot separately. These things are all very complicated.
In a separate scene depicting the death of Balon Greyjoy, we built a rope bridge between two parts of the Iron Islands castle. It took place in the middle of a storm – it was so windy on set that we had to light the scene completely differently. Most of the rain blowing around is real. It was a hilariously miserable experience for the actors but it looks fantastic. That was a tricky thing to figure out and to capture the real rain and the atmosphere.
I feel honoured to be part of the Game of Thrones team. Everyone has a huge amount of pride in it. It’s a totally unique experience. There are five films in production at the same time. All the departments, from special effects to costumes, art and armoury, are doing the kind of work you’d do for a two-hour film, but are making five in a row.
Martin Phipps, War and Peace Nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special
I was really proud of the War and Peace score. It was seven months’ work and was a labour of love for me.
Initially I passed on it because I’d done a lot of period drama and was doing more film at that stage. It just felt like such a big commitment – but the producers kept coming back to me and, after a while, I thought, ‘Who am I to turn down War and Peace?’ It was too tempting in the end.
I started quite early, which is a really positive thing for a composer. I began writing music while they were still filming. Tom Harper, the director, flew me out to Lithuania, where the show was being filmed, and I met him for breakfast each morning. We’d listen to Russian choral music, pop tracks – a whole variety of stuff just for us to cook up some basic ideas.
I really like putting new music against old pictures but you don’t want to jar the viewer too much or make them feel disorientated. I’m not interested in writing authentic period music. It’s really about trying to find an element in it that resonates, and for us it was the big choral stuff, the ‘Man Choir,’ as we called it. That just had Russia written all over it and had such an immediate connection. I took that and mixed it with very modern, driving synthesisers and guitars and other elements. It didn’t end up like a traditional Russian choral piece at all.
The choral stuff was a real starting point for us. I then did some orchestral sessions as well with the BBC Welsh National Orchestra. But I was really trying not to write conventional, not even authentic period music. I did it in two halves: I tried to write big, epic choral-driven pieces and then I went for very small, intimate, incredibly simple piano or just a solo voice. It was the big landscapes and the battles against the very small, emotional, intimate stories of the characters. I was trying to use the music to juxtapose between the two elements.
Music is such a brilliant fast track to emotion. It bypasses the verbal/visual thing. It can tap into the viewer’s psyche and emotions straightaway. That can be very powerful. For me, the music should add a new layer to the picture – something you might not have known was there but somehow makes sense when you hear it matched to the picture.
Michelle Dougherty, Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Vinyl Nominated for both series for Outstanding Main Title Design
Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg was open to a lot of ideas for the main titles. She gave us the lowdown on the character – an investigator – and we thought it was natural to make the audience feel this sense of voyeurism, as that’s what she does, she’s a voyeur into people’s lives. We had this idea of having glimpses of information and using her point of view.
The painterly quality was inspired by David Mack’s artwork in the original Jessica Jones comic books. He worked on the sequence with us and painted some new elements for us. Then our designer, Arisu Kashiwagi, took all those paintings and some photographs and put them together to create a piece that felt true to the show. You also want to be a little abstract so you’re not rewatching the show in the main titles.
On Vinyl, we met with the creators and they gave us their take on it. We got to watch the first episode, which was so thrilling. It was shot beautifully and the story was amazing. We were trying to capture that feeling of when music moves you inside and we wanted to convey that in the title, like the first time you ever heard your favourite band.
The process varies with each sequence because sometimes they haven’t started shooting yet. We had already pitched our storyboards for Jessica Jones by the time we saw the first episode. After seeing it, you can then see if you were off on the colour pallet, but Melissa directed us nicely so we weren’t too far off.
Sometimes we’ll work with tracks of music and then the producers will come back with something they feel is right. With Jessica Jones, we had a rock track but they came back with something Shaun Callery, the show’s composer, created. It was so different from our idea but we loved it.
For Vinyl, we researched a lot of music from the time that maybe wasn’t so popular but that was really interesting to us. Then the musicians working on the series composed an amazing piece of music that was exactly what we wanted – something that weakens your soul.
When we’re talking to the creators, sometimes they want to use the titles to tell a back-story, to set a mood or a tone or to introduce a character. But sometimes they’re very open and want us to decide which way we think it should go.
Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.
However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).
This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.
Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.
Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.
Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.
Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.
Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”
Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.
Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.
Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.
HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.
HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.
Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.
In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”
Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”
Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”
In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.
News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.
As HBO says goodbye to Game of Thrones for another year – and edges closer to the show’s end – it’s time for the storied network to look towards life after Westeros.
With the sixth season of Game of Thrones (GoT, pictured top) now concluded, rumours abound that the final two chapters of the fantasy drama may only run to a total of 13 episodes. It’s time for HBO to contemplate life after Westeros.
For HBO (and other channels that air the series, like Sky Atlantic in the UK), the prospect of saying goodbye to such a ratings juggernaut must be daunting, with thoughts of what – if anything – can take its place.
Doubts have been raised about the appeal of some HBO’s upcoming slate of shows. Sci-fi series Westworld and 1970s/80s New York-set porn industry drama The Deuce (from The Wire’s David Simon) should attract high sampling, but others may fall by the wayside.
Succession, about a super-rich dynastic American family, and Somali-American drama Mogadishu, Minnesota could find less traction, as might historical miniseries Lewis & Clark and American Lion (starring Sean Penn as the seventh US president, Andrew Jackson), which might struggle outside the US.
Back in 2008, the UK’s Channel 4 played HBO’s other presidential biopic miniseries, John Adams, to critical praise but few viewers.
For Sky Atlantic, some of HBO’s more US-centric shows – such as public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, Olive Kitteridge, The Brink and the recently cancelled Vinyl – have failed to resonate with viewers.
Political dramas based on real-life events such as Game Change, Too Big To Fail and Recount have also struggled to connect with audiences outside the US, as have biopics You Don’t Know Jack (about assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kervorkian), Temple Grandin (the autistic inventor of the ‘hug box’) and Phil Spector (the famous The Beatles producer now in prison for murder).
So for Sky Atlantic, GoT is an essential part of its long-running deal with HBO, wisely beefed up earlier this year by a similar agreement with Showtime.
Returning to the show itself, its approaching end in 2018 has prompted inevitable speculation about a possible prequel, with two distinct possibilities.
Through the visions of the Three-Eyed Crow (played by Max Von Sydow) and other flashbacks, season six has already given us tantalising glimpses of King Robert’s rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, including Ned Stark’s epic duel with Ser Arthur Dayne and Jamie Lannister’s slaying of Aerys.
For a GoT fan, the prospect of seeing the young (non-corpulent) Robert Baratheon and his deadly clash with Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford must be enticing, as well as earlier incarnations of Tywin Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Arryn, the latter seen only as a corpse in the series.
Another possibility would be to adapt other work from GoT author George RR Martin. Novella series Tales of Dunk & Egg, set 90 years before the events of the books on which GoT is based, is somewhat lighter in tone. The stories provide further insights into the complicated world of Westeros and how the seeds of rebellion were planted decades before Robert Baratheon began his campaign to oust the Targaryens and avenge the ‘abduction’ of Lyanna Stark.
If so, will current showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss be heavily involved, or will they take a backseat and explore other, non-Martin projects?
Furthermore, will the success of the show prompt HBO to develop works in similar territory? This is a risky path but one that may be worth treading, despite the inevitable comparisons to GoT.
After all, GoT started well but it only become a phenomenon in season three, a fact that may persuade HBO to persist with the long haul involved in commissioning another serious fantasy show.
Other networks’ attempts to exploit the success of GoT with dramas of a similar style have had varying levels of success.
History’s Vikings has carved out a distinct identity and proved a ratings winner, but others have paled in comparison, including The Bastard Executioner (FX), Beowulf (ITV/Esquire), The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America), The White Queen (BBC1/STARZ) and ABC’s Of Kings & Prophets – all of which have failed to ignite the same interest as GoT.
Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the books on which The Last Kingdom is based, took a swipe at HBO’s fantasy behemoth in the Radio Times, saying of the show: “This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all, they’re called ‘sex-planations’ in the trade. My programmes won’t need sex-planations.”
Sky and BBC1 are going back to the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery well, with The Last Dragonslayer and Troy: Fall of a City respectively, but industry expectations are currently not especially high for either show.
Long-gestating plans for a film followed by a TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s popular Dark Tower series of novels have now been abandoned solely in favour of a cycle of movies, with stars including Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey attached.
There are also a number of serious fantasy novels in development as series; the trick for HBO will be to order something that shares some of GoT’s DNA without being a copycat. Perhaps a fresh take on a known property may do the trick.
Could there be mileage in looking at ‘classics’ of the fantasy genre that could benefit from a new HBO-style spin without the accusations of aping the GoT formula?
Possibly one of Robert E Howard’s characters Conan, Kull and Soloman Kane, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, which has a legion of fans despite the poorly received 2012 movie adaptation titled John Carter. Maybe even Michael Moorcock’s lesser-known Elric could also get a TV spin.
After all, Elric’s blade is referenced in GoT – when the obnoxious King Joffrey Baratheon is presented with a new sword at his wedding feast, he asks the crowd what should he name it, and someone shouts out “Stormbringer.”
For a more female-skewing audience, Ursula K Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels, which possess a unique aesthetic, clearly distinguishable from the world of GoT, could be worth a pop. Syfy’s 2005 miniseries did little justice to the books and was quickly forgotten.
To some minds, HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus acted as trailblazers for GoT – perhaps HBO will return to the apparently shelved remake of I Claudius.
With their dynastic blood-letting, perversion and intrigue, the time may well be ripe for a big-budget take on Robert Graves’ novels.
James Franco isn’t afraid to follow his muse. Like Johnny Depp, Joaquin Phoenix and Shia LaBeouf, the actor is willing to challenge himself by getting involved in eclectic and experimental projects. Like all these guys, however, he also has the ability to cross comfortably into the mainstream, as he is now doing in 11.22.63.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it sees Franco as a teacher who goes back through a time portal in an attempt to stop the assassination of US president John F Kennedy.
Based on a story by Stephen King, it’s a slick, well-acted production that has generally received positive reviews from critics. And Franco is really good – playing a slightly sardonic but essentially straight romantic lead, instead of his more usual manic characters.
It’s hard to tell if the wider audience likes the show, because it is airing on SVoD platform Hulu in the US (Fox in the international market). But an IMDb score of 8.5 is respectable, suggesting it has a pretty loyal fanbase.
While there is potential for 11.22.63 to trip over its time travel parameters, it seems self-evident on the basis of this performance that Franco will be able to grab himself as much TV work as he wants.
Indeed, he is already lined up to appear in HBO’s forthcoming The Deuce. Although The Deuce isn’t due out until 2017, it has ‘award contender’ written all over it.
Written by David Simon (The Wire), it follows the rise of the porn industry in New York from the early 1970s and through the mid-1980s. Aside from Franco, it also stars the superb Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has already proved her TV credentials in acclaimed BBC series The Honourable Woman.
While checking out 11.22.63 on IMDb, I also paused to see which current scripted series ranks highest, to see if it is reasonable to claim a correlation between the website’s ratings and the more tangible world of audience research.
Top of the pile by some margin is HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT), which has a rating of 9.4 (the same as Breaking Bad and The Wire). By good fortune, GoT has also just returned for a new season, its sixth, which means it is possible to bring hard numbers to the table.
The audience figures for last Sunday’s 21.00 premiere were, as expected, huge – confirming the IMDb indicators. The initial broadcast attracted an audience of around eight million. This figure rose to 10.7 million after two TV encores and streaming figures were added in. This is a record, around 400,000 higher than the previous best.
Close analysis of the show threw up two possible areas of concern for HBO. One was a reduction in the number of 18-49 viewers, down around 5% on the season five finale. The other was that the linear TV broadcasters were slightly down on last year as well – suggesting audiences are migrating to other platforms.
But these are relatively minor issues when weighed against the bigger picture. Indeed, the 10.7 million audience above only tells part of the story. It’s inevitable, for example, that this figure will increase significantly once the show’s Live+ 7-day ratings are in. Not to be overlooked either is GoT’s international appeal. In the UK, for example, the season six premiere attracted 2.2 million, the drama’s biggest overnight audience ever (a fact made even more impressive by the fact it was simulcast at 02.00).
Also worth noting is the fact that GoT is still a huge hit with pirates, with one million illegal downloads in the first few days. While that may represent lost revenue to HBO, a more enlightened view of piracy would see this as a marketing boost for the show, helping maintain its water-cooler credentials.
Perhaps a bigger concern for HBO is the fact GoT, which is based on the spectacular novels by George RR Martin, will have to end one day. Although season seven has already been commissioned, the writers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, recently told the Radio Times they are already planning the show’s end: “We’re approaching the finish line. From the outset, our hope was to tell a complete story – beginning, middle and end. We are writing the final act now, and the last thing we want to do is stay on stage after the play is over.
“In the beginning, we hoped that if the show worked, we’d get seven seasons to tell the tale. Seven kingdoms, seven gods, seven books – seven felt like a lucky number. The actual messiness of storytelling might not be quite that numerologically elegant. But we’re looking at somewhere between 70 and 75 hours before the credits roll for the last time.”
Maybe for their next trick they could do Lord of the Rings, which would probably also benefit from a six- or seven-season run on TV.
Elsewhere, A+E Studios International has reported that broadcasters in more than 50 territories have acquired the eight-hour slavery-focused miniseries Roots. Buyers include SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS, D’Live in South Korea, Atres Media in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada – demonstrating a broad interest in the show.
Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, the series debuts on A&E, History and Lifetime in the US on May 30. It stars Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Rhys Meyers – the kind of cast that really demands audiences tune in. And at least on this occasion we’ll be able to check the audience figures on the show.
In terms of other upcoming shows expected to land with a bang, May 5 sees the return of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 for its third season. A terrific piece of television, there is hopefully plenty of life left in this franchise – with creator Steven Knight keen to push Peaky towards a conclusion at the start of the Second World War. Season three opens in 1924 so it could potentially run and run. Oh, and it has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which is just about right.
In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.
At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…
Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.
In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”
News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”
The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.
Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”
Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”
Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.
In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.
Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.
“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”
As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.
In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.
This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).
Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.
Award-winning casting director Nina Gold tells Michael Pickard about discovering the stars of Game of Thrones and the importance of trusting your instincts.
Their decisions can make or break a series – but this isn’t the writer or director we’re talking about.
Imagine House of Cards without Kevin Spacey, The Bridge without Sofia Helin or Mad Men without Jon Hamm. That these stars have become so synonymous with the characters they play and the series in which they appear is down to the casting director, who faces the unenviable task of finding the right group of actors to turn a script into a smash hit.
While casting directors are absent from most award ceremonies, one is set to be honoured for a career that has included credits for TV series such as Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall, London Spy, The Fall and forthcoming Tom Hardy drama Taboo. She has also worked on films including The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
On Sunday, Nina Gold (pictured top) will become the first casting director to be recognised by Bafta’s Special Award at the British Academy Television Craft Awards.
Krishnendu Majumdar, chairman of Bafta’s television committee, said: “Nina has a superb eye for talent and a genuine commitment to her craft, which has been borne out by the success of so many of the productions she’s worked on. Nina’s impressive portfolio highlights an incredible contribution to television, so I’m delighted she will be receiving this year’s Special Award.”
Gold began her career in casting with the films Twin Town and The Borrowers in 1997, and has cast every Mike Leigh film since they first paired up for Topsy-Turvy in 1999.
She won two Emmy awards for her work on HBO miniseries John Adams in 2008 and the premium cable channel’s smash hit Game of Thrones in 2015, with many more nominations for the latter.
Speaking to DQ about her Bafta award, Gold says: “It’s marvellous. I’m incredibly flattered and honoured. But it’s not just for me. Casting directors in general really deserve an award. I’m incredibly grateful I’m getting this one but we do feel a bit left out that we’re the only ones deemed unworthy of getting any awards.”
She describes the casting business as “make or break” and quotes acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s assertion that more than 90% of directing is the right casting.
“If you get the casting wrong, you’re stuffed,” she says. “Sometimes you read the script and meet the writer and director and talk about your ideas together. I’ll have my ideas and they’ll have some thoughts. But to have a good working relationship, you have to be roughly coming from the same angle or sensibility. Sometimes you’ll do a movie and the star name will already be attached; other times, you do it all. The process varies from project to project.”
Gold says casting is most often a targeted exercise, identifying actors for particular parts rather than holding open or invitational auditions.
“All of us are constantly building up knowledge of actors and what they’ve been in, what they’re good at and their general qualities,” she explains. “There’s a constant accumulation of knowledge and you’re drawing on that all the time and applying it to each individual circumstance.
“But on Star Wars we did open auditions and literally saw thousands and thousands of people. It was quite time-consuming and a lot of people’s hopes were being dashed. That’s the bad part of the job – crushing people’s dreams left, right and centre. But if you’re going to be an actor, you’ve got to get used to being rejected because otherwise you couldn’t take it.”
Though her credits are undoubtedly dominated by big-screen features, Gold says there’s often more freedom in casting on television, which gives her the opportunity to find new people and create new stars – an element of the job she particularly enjoys.
One series for which that was a particular requirement was Game of Thrones (GoT), not least because of the sheer volume of actors required to play the multitude of characters and the number of young actors needed.
“I loved working on Game of Thrones and the opportunity to find all those new, young people,” she says. “That was a great voyage of discovery. I also loved working on Wolf Hall (BBC) with all that incredible talent. I’ve just been casting The Crown (for Netflix), which has also been really great. It’s been great to work on these shows but not having to cast stars, just casting people who seem really right for the roles.”
Of course, when casting works, the awards follow. Mark Rylance scooped a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Oliver Cromwell in Wolf Hall earlier this year, while Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke are just some of the GoT cast members to have won awards while appearing on the show.
Gold returns to GoT when asked about the best new talent she has uncovered: “Maybe the young people in Game of Thrones, who started with very little experience and have grown enormously as actors and are now stars. Emilia, who was just out of drama school and was clearly a really good actress, has taken the role of Daenerys and made her real. And Kit Harington had done a year in (theatre production) War Horse but Game of Thrones was his first screen role. Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner (who play sisters Arya and Sansa Stark respectively) were just children when we started but now they are adults and have really grown as actors too.”
The trouble with casting, however, is that there is no exact science behind which actor will best play a role.
“The nature of the job is you never know the definitely perfect answer,” Gold admits. “No one’s got a formula of how to get it right, otherwise all films and TV shows would be perfect all the time. It’s about trusting your instinct and feeling like it’s the right thing to do.
“But while the pressure is on the big parts to carry the show, the really small parts – if you don’t get them right – can really mess things up as well. Getting really good people in the small parts almost slips by unnoticed. But if they weren’t really great, boy would you notice it. They’re part of a very delicate fabric you have to put together and every little bit counts.”
And if the pressure of finding the right name to headline a series wasn’t challenging enough, there are other aspects of the job that prove tricky to negotiate. Gold continues: “In my experience – and this happens perhaps more in film than TV – sometimes producers want to make casting decisions for what I believe to be the wrong reason. They might want to cast the biggest, spangliest name, rather than the person who is best for the part. That can sometimes turn into a long and challenging wrangle.”
To be a good casting director, Gold says you have to be interested in people and the business. “Otherwise, it’s just hard work for nothing,” she adds. “But if you’re genuinely interested in them and find it fascinating, it’s really great. It took me quite a long time to trust my instincts and not to worry about it all the time – and, remember, they’re hiring you to have an opinion, so it’s alright to have one.”
Looking back on her career so far, Gold picks out one highlight as the close collaborations she has built with “amazing creative people – like my long association with Mike Leigh, which has been an incredible learning experience and also very entertaining. Or maybe working with Jane Campion, who is a total inspiration to me.
“Or maybe when The King’s Speech won the Oscar,” she adds of the film’s 2014 best film victory. “That was definitely fun!”
AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.
This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.
AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.
In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.
The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.
TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.
The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.
The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.
Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.
For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.
Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).
Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.
As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.
HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.
Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.
Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.
The winners of the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series at this year’s Emmys were David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for Mother’s Mercy, the final episode of season five of Game of Thrones (GoT). Maybe there was an argument for giving the award to Matthew Weiner for Mad Men, but there’s no question that the climax of GoT’s latest series was utterly compelling. In fact, the entire season was a triumph, notwithstanding the mid-season controversy surrounding Sansa Stark’s brutal rape.
For the uninitiated, the show is based on George RR Martin’s book series entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones is the title of the first book. Five massive tomes have been published so far and there are plans for two more in the series. Anyone who has read Martin’s books will appreciate just what a formidable task it must be to transfer the author’s vision to the small screen. But to do so without having the entire GoT fanbase lambasting your interpretation is a remarkable scriptwriting feat.
One of the biggest challenges in adapting the books is the way Martin has developed his story, using multiple point-of-view narratives that take place in wildly different locations. Readers of the books are familiar with the way much-loved characters can go missing for hundreds of pages (nay, entire books!) while other characters and stories are dealt with. Somehow, Benioff and Weiss brought all the disparate elements together in Mother’s Mercy, creating a cascade of cliffhangers and gut-wrenching climaxes. Critics found a few things to nitpick about, but the nature of their complaints tended to reveal them as hardcore fans of the show, rather than mystified outsiders trying to fathom its appeal.
It’s not just the scale of the enterprise that presents challenges. GoT is also a highly complex exercise in characterisation that Benioff and Weiss have captured beautifully. Heroes are frequently killed because of their hubris or recklessness; villains unexpectedly elicit our sympathy when they show moments of humanity.
At a superficial level, it can seem as though the series is simply seeking to defy audience expectations of a character’s rightful end or reward. But the reality is the reverse. Characters in GoT tend to get exactly what they deserve – not what we think they deserve. Their ends are a product of their actions, played out against the backdrop of a brutal, uncaring world. GoT may eventually reward us with a happy ending, but that is far from a given. For an interesting insight into why Mother’s Mercy played out the way it did, watch this interview with Benioff and Weiss.
Looking more broadly at the franchise, it has to be said that the entire GoT edifice is at an interesting juncture. Until now, all of the TV seasons have been based on published books. But the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter, is yet to be released. Martin has generally kept his cards close to his chest on this subject, but the expectation is that the book will be launched ahead of the TV series. That would suggest a spring/summer launch of the book with a view to HBO launching a new season of the TV show in autumn 2016.
Presumably, though, Martin must have given Benioff and Weiss a look at the draft version of the book so that they can start building scripts for the next series. Otherwise they will have insufficient time to get the next series into production.
Where this all gets really gripping is what happens after the next book and series launches. GoT fans have long feared the moment when the TV series races ahead of Martin’s writing schedule. After The Winds of Winter, Martin is planning one more concluding book, entitled A Dream of Spring. But, based on his current record, that could take four to five years to deliver. So what do Benioff and Weiss do while they are waiting?
Well, if we assume (and it is only an assumption) that HBO gets two series out of The Winds of Winter (2016 and 2017), there are three options. First, they could negotiate permission to push on ahead of the books, under guidance from Martin. A big enough financial offer might make that possible, but it seems unlikely that the author would let his 25-year life’s work conclude in such an unsatisfying way – while the TV series is very good, the books are astonishing.
Second, they could try to originate new GoT content to fill the two- or three-season gap they’ll be left with (2018, 2019 and maybe 2020). This could be a prequel or a spin-off series set within one of Martin’s locales. Perhaps if that doesn’t feel right they could take the franchise to the big screen for a year or two.
And finally, of course, they could do nothing – and just wait for Martin to finish his book. But given the success of the show, that would seem like a commercially damaging decision, both in terms of lost momentum and upsetting addicted fans. Assuming ratings stay strong, my money would be on a series that focuses on the rebellion of Robert Baratheon – which takes place a couple of decades before the main story in GoT. An intensely dramatic backstory (featuring a young Ned Stark), it would also shed some light on the current politics of the GoT world.
Martin used to be worried about the problem of timing, but has resigned himself to being outpaced by the TV series. In a recent interview, he explained: “I said, ‘To hell with that.’ Worrying about it isn’t going to change it one way or another. I still sit down at the typewriter, and I have to write the next scene and the next sentence… I’m just going to tell my story, and they’re telling their story and adapting my books, and we shall see.”
Martin has always been under pressure from his fans – both to finish the book and to do right by their expectations. But it’s unusual to see an author also being pulled into the ongoing debate around the series. With the success of the show, however, he now has to deal with interventions from the mainstream media and lobby groups. Earlier this year, for example, he found himself defending the TV portrayal of Sansa Stark’s rape – despite the fact that the scene did not even appear in his books. And he also has to address issues of diversity in a way that he probably never expected when he started writing the books in the early 1990s. Here’s an interview, for example, where he talks about gay characters in GoT. In this interview, he also promises us a “bittersweet” ending – citing Tolkein’s end to The Lord of the Rings as an inspiration. But ‘bittersweet’ in Martin’s hands is sure to come laced with plenty of blood and betrayal, rather than a return to Bag End.
Other Emmy winners this year include Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche for Veep (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series) and Jane Anderson for Olive Kitteridge (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie Or A Dramatic Special). You can get a few details about Jane Anderson here.
The clear message in the international drama business right now is that producers like to back projects with strong provenance. So intense is the competition that no one wants to go to market without some kind of built-in brand equity, whether that’s a star actor, established screenwriter or pre-existing storyworld. In fact, the safest bet is to develop a project with all of the above.
A good case in point is Gaumont International Television (GIT)’s new action thriller Viva la Madness, announced this week. A one-hour drama series, Viva la Madness is based on the book of the same name by J.J. Connolly. It is the next instalment to Connolly’s novel Layer Cake, which was turned into a movie starring Daniel Craig in 2004. And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with, the show will star feature film actor Jason Statham (The Expendables, Transporter, Snatch) in his first lead TV role.
In Viva la Madness, the hero of the story is stranded in the Caribbean itching for a criminal life he left behind – but he’s still a wanted man back home. Soon he joins forces with two gangsters: the menacing Sonny King and his paranoid partner Roy ‘Twitchy’ Burns. Explaining why Viva will be a TV series, Statham said: “The way J.J. writes is so on the ball and authentic it’s hard to let any of it go. Trying to lose characters or shave down scenes every other page didn’t work – we wanted it all. The best place was a 10-hour-plus show that lets you fully disappear into Connolly’s world.”
Statham and Steven Chasman, who own the rights to the project, will serve as executive producers, along with Connolly who is also set to write the series (as part of a growing trend of authors trying their hand at TV). Commenting on the project, GIT CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh said: “With its riveting characters and twisting storyline, Viva la Madness is a volatile cocktail of action and comedy that only J.J. Connolly can create. Jason Statham brings such strength and credibility to his characters but also has an effortless shade of vulnerability that gives him so much dimension on screen.”
The TV industry’s endless fascination with gangsters has thrown up another interesting project this week, with Showtime reportedly in development on a mobster series with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company. Set in 1980s Brooklyn, the series will focus on the relationship between an unstable mafia captain and a rogue FBI agent (against the corrosive backdrop of Wall Street high finance). The series will be written and exec produced by Brett Johnson, whose recent credits include Ray Donovan. The series is the latest in a run of TV projects that DiCaprio and Appian Way are working on. DiCaprio recently signed a first-look deal with Netflix to develop documentaries and docuseries and he has also optioned the rights to Simon Toyne’s novel Solomon Creed (The Searcher in the US).
Another idea going into development this week is Moreau, a drama series inspired by HG Wells’ classic novel The Island Of Dr Moreau. Phillip Iscove, who previously reimagined Sleepy Hollow for TV, is writing the script for CBS TV Studios and Kennedy Marshall. In this variation of the story, Moreau is a woman who expands the boundaries of medicine through revolutionary scientific experimentation in a privately funded island hospital.
On the international sales front, A+E Studios International has just announced a slew of deals for scripted series UnREAL, which debuted on Lifetime in the US earlier this year. Set against the backdrop of fictional hit dating competition show Everlasting, UnREAL is a workplace drama led by flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby). Rachel is a young producer whose job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the dramatic and outrageous footage her dispassionate exec producer demands.
With a second series already greenlit, the first run has been picked up by broadcasters including TF1 (France), Antenna 3 (Spain), TV2 (Norway), Cellcom TV (Israel), YES (Israel), 360TV (Latvia), SBSTwo (Australia), Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). The series will also air on international versions of Lifetime in Canada, Latin America, the UK, Southeast Asia, Poland, and Africa. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen an ongoing trend for original, character-based shows,” said Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks. “UnREAL rises above the rest with its sharp storytelling and bold characters. We expect further deals at Mipcom.”
Another distribution story this week shows the interesting interplay between traditional TV studios and the ever-rising power that is Netflix. On Friday, it was announced that Netflix had secured the worldwide rights to the first season of ABC’s hit drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM). Episodes are now available in the US, Canada and Latin America, with other Netflix territories streaming the show in the coming months.
Clearly, the financial terms must have been attractive for Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution to do the deal. But there is also some strategic logic to the link-up. With season two of HTGAWM due to premiere on ABC on September 24, letting audiences binge season one of the show for a week beforehand is a way of building up the anticipation, with the hope that Netflix will drive viewers back in the direction of ABC.
In related new, Viola Davis, the star of HTGAWM, has just won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series. The first black actress to win the award, she gave this excellent acceptance speech. DQ previously looked at the show here.
On the subject of Emmys, this year’s big winner was – and about time too – Game of Thrones, which picked up 12 gongs. The next best showing came from Olive Kitteridge, with eight. Both shows are from HBO, which dominated proceedings this year. All told it took 43 Emmys, while NBC was next with 12. Other shows that did well were Amazon’s Transparent – which won five, including Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor – American Horror Story and Veep.
It was the service that changed the rules. But with subscriber numbers continuing to soar and questions being asked about higher prices, what comes next for Netflix?
You might not remember what you were doing on Sunday Feburary 5, 2012, but Netflix’s early adopters might remember sitting back and watching the first episode of a Norwegian comedy-drama called Lilyhammer.
Starring Steven Van Zandt, it follows a New York mobster who, after testifying in court against a mob boss, is placed in a witness protection programme and relocated to Lillehammer in Norway.
The fish-out-of-water premise might not sound particularly revolutionary in terms of TV storylines, but looking back at the words used by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, to announce the launch of the series, it’s amazing to consider how far the industry has come in little more than three years.
“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favourite shows on Netflix?” he asked. “Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV? Well, starting today, you can enjoy as many episodes as you please of the brand new Netflix original series Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt.”
The phrase ‘binge-viewing’ had not yet become synonymous with Netflix and the way its viewers would use the service, but the foundations were being laid for a major shift in viewing habits.
After describing the series further, Sarandos ended: “Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time, today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want: choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.
“This will be the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix. We will have more news on those shows as they get ready to premiere. Enjoy the show and tell your friends – but no spoilers! They may not be on the same episode as you are on.”
With these few sentences, Sarandos outlined not only Netflix’s own strategy but one that the rest of the industry would soon follow, with an increasing number of online services commissioning original content and traditional broadcasters widening the opportunity to catch up online. NBC has already gone one step further than other US broadcasters to “push new boundaries” by releasing all 13 episodes of its David Duchovny-starring 1960s drama Aquarius at once. ZDF in Germany also blurred the lines of linear and digital TV with its pan-European crime drama The Team.
Fast forward from that Lilyhammer announcement to this week, when Netflix unveiled its results for the second quarter of 2015.
The service added 3.3 million new subscribers worldwide during that period, bringing the total to 65.6 million. It has 42 million members in the US alone.
Global numbers were boosted by the platform’s international expansion, with moves into Australia and New Zealand in March. It will land in Spain, Italy and Portugal in October this year, and aims to open in Japan in the fall. There are also plans to roll into India, China and South Korea.
These new international outlets will only help to swell subscriber numbers further, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings under no illusion about what is drawing viewers both in the US and around the world to the service.
He told shareholders that subscriber growth was “fuelled by the growing strength of our original programming slate,” which in Q2 included the first seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and season three of Orange is the New Black.
Daredevil is already in production for its second season, he notes, adding: “Our global expansion extends to our content strategy as well. Sense8, the mind-bending cinematic thriller from the Wachowski siblings and J Michael Straczynski that debuted June 5, is an ambitious, truly international show with talent behind and in front of the camera from multiple countries.”
Another international drama, Narcos – “a gripping account of the roots of the cocaine trade, shot in Colombia and starring the great Brazilian star Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar” – launches on August 28.
“They are the perfect example of what we strive for in our original programming: an elevated version of popular genres that reach a large audience globally,” Hastings says.
“We closed the quarter with season three of Orange is the New Black, which went live on June 11 and set off a social media shockwave around the world. On the following Sunday, Netflix members globally watched a record number of hours in a single day, led by Orange, despite the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones and game five of the NBA finals also falling on that Sunday.
“Global enthusiasm for the third season of Orange underlines our ability to create franchise properties that bring new members to Netflix as well as delighting current ones. Nearly 90% of Netflix members have engaged with Netflix original content, another indicator that we are on the right path.”
To that end, Netflix said it would continue to invest in original series (and now movies) as its original content spending is predicted to hit US$5bn in 2016.
The downside, however, is that this spending, coupled with a marketing bill nearing US$1bn in 2016, has led to a 63% fall in net income, according to the results.
If viewers want great content, ultimately they will have to pay for it, and on a subscriber-funded service like Netflix, that means subscriptions will rise.
Hastings alluded to as much when he said subscribers should brace themselves for higher-priced plans in the future, though no details have yet been released.
At a time when the television drama space is becoming increasingly congested, particularly in the US, where cable networks continue to move into original scripted programming to build their brands alongside VoD platforms, viewers will be asked to pay more and more for the high-cost shows they love so much or see them book-ended by advertisements.
But as cord-cutting has shown, viewers’ loyalty to their favourite service provider can, and often does, have a limit. Will Netflix test that loyalty when it unveils its new pricing plan?
The service broke the mould in 2012 when it launched its first original series, Lilyhammer, for viewers to watch in one go. Its attempts to balance spending and subscriber numbers could also be another watershed moment for the industry.