Tag Archives: Goalpost Pictures

Battle scars

Commissioned by Foxtel, Goalpost Pictures’ Fighting Season is the first Australian miniseries dealing with the plight of Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan. DQ finds out how it came together.

During frequent trips to the US several years ago, Australian producers Kylie du Fresne and Rosemary Blight were struck by the fact that US military personnel were the first passengers to be invited to board planes, or had their own airport lounges.

The Goalpost Pictures co-founders contrasted that recognition with the near-invisible status of Australian soldiers at home, including those who suffered PTSD after serving in Afghanistan.

Realising this subject had never been explored in an Australian television drama, they began fleshing out their ideas for a miniseries with writer-producer Blake Ayshford. Penny Win, head of drama at pay TV giant Foxtel, loved the concept and agreed to fund development.

The result is Fighting Season, a six-part drama/mystery that will premiere on Foxtel’s Showcase channel on October 28. UK-based distributor Sky Vision is handling international rights.

Kylie du Fresne

Set in 2010, the story follows a platoon of soldiers who are recalled from Afghanistan after the death in combat of their captain, Ted Nordenfelt, during a mission marred by mistakes. They arrive to a near-empty airport with only their families to greet them. The mystery of Nordenfelt’s death unfolds with devastating effect on the men, their loved ones and friends, testing the bonds of mateship and the army’s culture of self-sacrifice.

Ayshford wrote three episodes and Belinda Chayko, Kylie Needham and Tommy Murphy each wrote one. During his research, Ayshford met with a number of serving soldiers and one who had just left the army after undertaking multiple missions to Afghanistan. These men became the basis of Fighting Season’s characters and stories. He also interviewed family members on how they coped with the absence of partners or fathers for six months or longer.

“It feels very true to life; we could not invent some of the stories we were told,” says Ayshford, who has a personal connection to the subject due to his father serving as an airman, meaning the writer lived on several army bases around Australia as a child. “It’s a deeply human story, a gripping mystery with a lot of heart. I went to a screening for buyers from 60 countries in London and you could have heard a pin drop.”

The 2010 setting was chosen because Australian forces suffered a particularly heavy toll of casualties and the defence forces’ top brass were resistant to the phenomenon of PTSD. The following year saw the emergence of support groups such as Soldier On.

“I hope it makes people think about what we’re asking modern soldiers to do and the risks they take, both mentally and physically – particularly mentally,” says du Fresne, who produced with Elisa Argenzio. “What they see and what they experience is outside of the realms of experience of most Australians. I hope our show gives a voice to that experience and shines a different light on what we ask soldiers to do in the name of the safety of our country. If a soldier watches the series, we want him or her to say, ‘I can see my life.’ That, to me, is truth.”

US-based Kate Woods came back to Oz as the setup director, helming four episodes, while in his TV debut emerging director Ben C Lucas called the shots on the other two. “I loved the scripts, which just got better and better, and it’s an important subject,” says Woods, speaking from the Albuquerque, New Mexico, set of Netflix drama Messiah, which was created by Aussie Michael Petroni. “Australia has not looked at the situation of its veterans in Afghanistan, our longest war, and the effects when they come home.

Fighting Season star Jay Ryan with director Kate Woods

“We send these young men to war and teach them to kill. And when they do, and it becomes part of their life, how do they assimilate that into themselves as human beings when they come back home? And what responsibility do the armed forces have for that?”

Woods, whose recent credits include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. and Underground, admired Ayshford’s work on such shows as Barracuda and Devil’s Playground and had long wanted to collaborate with Goalpost Pictures.

Keen to give opportunities to new voices, Goalpost hired Lucas after he made his feature film debut on Wasted on the Young, followed by OtherLife, to which Netflix acquired worldwide streaming rights. Coincidentally, he was developing a feature about returned servicemen and PTSD when he heard Fighting Season was in development.

“I actually hunted this show down. It’s always a subject that’s been really close to me,” he says. “I’ve not been in the military. Plenty of my family have, and I have friends who have been through some quite extraordinary ordeals, so there’s an academic interest in the subject, not necessarily a personal connection to it. But I’m interested in the storytelling that comes out of what these men and women go through. It’s also quite a sensitive subject and you want to get it right.”

Woods says she and Lucas had different approaches to the project, explaining: “I always come from inside the actors and create the work around that; he came from an image-making perspective, but we always arrived at the centre.”

Kate Mulvany has her clothing adjusted between takes

Emerging screenwriter Chris Squadrito, who began his career as a development assistant to Ian Collie and Rachael Turk at Essential Media while completing a masters in screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2013, served as the script editor. Ayshford says: “Chris is very talented, one of those writers who thinks internationally. He is really going places. I am fairly hands-on when it comes to giving feedback on scripts to writers, so Chris acted more as a script editor in the UK sense: he worked with me a lot, giving general and later detailed feedback on the scripts.”

When Blight and du Fresne first approached Foxtel’s Win, it was just after Foxtel had screened Deadline Gallipoli, a 2015 miniseries dramatising the infamous First World War campaign through the eyes of war correspondents Charles Bean, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Phillip Schuler and Keith Murdoch.

“It just seemed both timely and important to have a sort of bookend to that drama,” Win says. “One hundred years after Gallipoli, the myths and legends that had grown up around it and the increasing focus of ANZAC Day meant it had become almost an alternative Australia Day. Blake wrote a compelling treatment about the reality of the Australian soldier coming home – a world we seldom see on screens – that beautifully highlighted the gap between the myth and the reality.

“We knew it was a story worth being told. Kylie and Blake made sure there was truth in everything on the page and screen. There was a lot of research and input from those who had served. The heart of this story shines through – it’s not so much about the battles, the war, it’s about coming home after and not being forgotten.”

Ewen Leslie (Safe Harbour, Top of the Lake: China Girl) plays Nordenfelt, a ruthless leader and excellent soldier who is seen in flashbacks. The character suffers from PTSD but fears he could be discharged if he seeks the help of a psychiatrist.

Fighting Season will premiere on Foxtel’s Showcase channel later this year

Filming the show gave Leslie a greater respect and appreciation of the armed forces, observing: “If I had a family member who had returned from war, I would treat them with as much empathy and delicacy as possible.”

Kate Mulvany (Secret City, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) is Ted’s widow, an army engineer and captain who suspects a cover-up. The narrative struck a personal chord with Mulvany, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who suffered from severe PTSD and died two days after the actor landed the role. “The moment that I read this script it was so familiar to me, it was heartbreaking. I had complete compassion for these characters, complete empathy, and I know them because I’ve lived them,” she says.

“At the end of each shoot day, I called my mum and said, ‘I played you today, mum, on screen.’ These women deserve to have a voice; they are the forgotten soldiers, they are the allies of our soldiers on the home front and they deserve to have their stories told too, and that’s what Fighting Season does so beautifully.”

Jay Ryan (The CW’s Beauty & the Beast, Canadian miniseries Mary Kills People) plays Sgt Speedo Collins, a father-of-two who has undiagnosed PTSD and is the only one who knows how the captain died. “I interviewed a lot of soldiers; a lot were special forces because a lot of our stories are inspired by true events from special forces,” Ryan says. “Some of those soldiers had experienced PTSD and were still going through it and some were not. So it was interesting to hear what these real guys on the ground had experienced and how they felt about an actor portraying a soldier with unacknowledged symptoms of PTSD on screen.”

As most of the soldiers are aged under 21, the producers hired emerging actors including George Pullar, Marco Alossio, Julian Maroun and Paul de Gelder. The cast also includes Sarah Armanious as Speedo’s wife, Jay Laga’aia as a minister of religion who is the father of Alossio’s character, Sabryna Waters, Lex Marinos, Lucy Bell and David Roberts.

The six-part drama is distributed by Sky Vision

“It is a war drama but it’s not about war. It is about the futility of war, the fallout, family and healing. And ultimately people will come to watch Fighting Season because it’s not glorifying war, it’s simply about how we pick up the pieces and how we move on from that,” Laga’aia says.

A team led by production designer Paddy Reardon built a section of an Afghan village in a quarry near Sydney, which was raided by the Australian soldiers. The wide-angle battle scenes were filmed in the vast expanse of the outback near Broken Hill. Other scenes were shot in the suburbs of Sydney where the soldiers and their families lived. Shooting the raid in the village was the biggest challenge, involving three camera teams. The production also received permission to film the annual ANZAC Day march in Sydney, in which thousands of people participate, including serving and former armed forces personnel and their families.

According to Woods, DOP Geoffrey Simpson achieved a magic realism with some sequences, portraying the nightmares experienced by the soldiers. She drew a lot of inspiration from her hero Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, noting: “No one else can tell stories like that in a masculine world.”

Costume designer Damir Peranovic relished the contrast between the faded greens of military uniforms with the “at home” uniform of cargo shorts or jeans with graphic T-shirts. After watching documentaries including Illustrated Man by New York-based photographer and director Sophy Holland, hair and make-up designer Angela Conte discovered nearly all the men got tattoos when they came home from Afghanistan: some from sadness, others from shame or guilt. So she designed tattoos that were relevant to each soldier.

Founded 10 years ago by Blight, du Fresne, MD Ben Grant and Cass O’Connor, Goalpost Pictures operates on a broad canvass encompassing feature films as well as TV projects such as supernatural drama Cleverman, a copro with New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, which SundanceTV acquired for US audiences. Its feature slate includes The Sapphires and the upcoming Top End Wedding, both directed by Wayne Blair, and Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller Upgrade, a copro with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions.

Earlier this year the prodco signed a first-look deal with London-based global distributor All3Media International. Du Fresne adds: “Because we have always done films and television, we can be a bit dextrous in the way we move between the two, with talent and with stories. On the TV side, there are genuine global opportunities to make international content. Of course, it is a much more crowded marketplace than 10 years ago and the competition is greater, so we have to think very cleverly about the kind of projects we are doing.”

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Cleverman smartens up

Ryan Griffen, the creator of Australian sci-fi drama Cleverman, introduces DQ to the show’s second season and a new cast of characters known as the Bindawu.

Everyone has seen a superhero movie montage in which the hero is working out the breadth of their powers and how to control them. The first season of Cleverman was, for all intents and purposes, a season-long exploration of this for our main character Koen (played by Hunter Page-Lochard), the eponymous Cleverman, but the same was also true for the entire cast and crew of the series. Armed with the experience of producing our first season, we’ve been able to make a big step up, and it shows on screen.

Ryan Griffen

Season two is again an Australia-New Zealand coproduction between Goalpost Pictures Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand, a great relationship that has a real influence on the stories, look and sound of the show.

After completing season one, the key creative team really felt they knew where they wanted to head for the next season. We understood our strengths and weaknesses and this informed the scripts. We also had a vocal core audience who were telling us what they wanted to see. The political voice within the show is very much the same but the genre and storytelling dives a lot deeper. We had the advantage of knowing more about our characters, which allowed us to heighten the risk and danger that they play in, by placing them in life-changing situations and watching the effects of this take hold. What really helped this was that all of our season one partners returned, including [Australian broadcaster] ABCTV, [US cable network] SundanceTV and [distributor] Red Arrow International, and they encouraged us to continue to be bold.

Set in the near future, Cleverman sees creatures from ancient mythology, known as the Hairypeople, battle for survival in a world that seeks to silence and destroy them. Their only hope is Koen West, who discovers he is the new Cleverman, a powerful figure in Aboriginal folklore with supernatural powers.

Season two begins after the Zone [a contained area that serves as the home of the Hairypeople] has been razed by the Containment Authority. The humans and Hairypeople have scattered, disappearing deep into the city in fear for their lives. Their only hope lies in Koen realising the full potential of his Cleverman powers, and using them to bring peace to this world. But while Koen’s brother Waruu (Rob Collins) shares the same vision, the lengths he is prepared to go to make it a reality are far more extreme and far more secular. His hunger for the Cleverman’s power and his connection with billionaire Jarrod Slade (Iain Glen) sends the two brothers hurtling towards each other on a tragic trajectory that neither of them sees coming.

Cleverman season two continues the story of Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard)

From the outset of season two, we explore a striking new location within our Cleverman world, as many of our returning characters come into contact with a new group of traditional Hairypeople, the Bindawu, who live deep in the bushland that surrounds the city. The word ‘bindawu’ means muscle, or strength in my language – Gamilaroi. This new location was a chance for us to take the audience out of the concrete and glass of the city and into the lush green of the trees and beautiful landscape that Australia has to offer, as well as a chance to show our modern spin on Aboriginal culture with the powerful Bindawu.

Our Bindawu Hairies were created by the world-renowned Weta Workshop and Jake Nash, and they are strikingly different from the urban Hairies of season one. The brilliant Sir Richard Taylor from Weta encouraged us to dig deeper into the design of our Hairies, to create an iconic, powerful creature. From this idea the Bindawu emerged, having a huge impact on the direction our season two story took.

Jake Nash, who stepped into the production designer role this season, is an Indigenous man and he has managed the fine balance between our sci-fi world and the 60,000 years of Aboriginal history we draw our stories from.

The follow-up season sees the introduction of the Bindawu

The Bindawu allow us to tell stories from earlier colonisation in a modern setting, most notably through a new lead character, Jarli (Clarence Ryan), a fiery young Bindawu warrior, and his reaction to the dispossession of the land his family has lived on for thousands of years. With the expansion of the city, the Bindawu are under greater threat than ever – their land is diminishing and with it so too is their ability to openly practice traditional customs and honour their culture. They are forced to live with great vigilance, and in hiding and fear, lest they be discovered.

Our directors, Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, return with a strong understanding of what our show is about, and they are brilliantly teamed with many returning creatives including Jake Nash, DoP Mark Wareham and hair and makeup designer Kath Brown. Between them, they’ve given the Cleverman world a smarter, more sophisticated look and they’ve found a stunning balance between the lush Australian bush and the darker, more sinister city. For me, the show feels much bigger and it is an honour to be able to showcase what a production team from Australia and New Zealand is capable of achieving on screen.

The Cleverman world has certainly found its legs in season two and I’m very much looking forward to continuing the journey with new and old fans of the show. There are some big story twists, laughs, tears and action ahead, but what is truly exciting for me is that we get to show the world what an Aboriginal superhero can do.

Cleverman season two debuts on SundanceTV on June 28 and ABC on June 29.

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ABC Oz makes Clever decision

Cleverman
Cleverman made its debut last week

Cleverman, the futuristic drama from Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures New Zealand, has been greenlit for a second six-part season just as the first launched on ABC down under and SundanceTV in the US.

Starring Hunter Page-Lochard, Iain Glen and Ryan Corr, the drama tells the story of two Indigenous brothers as they struggle to survive in a dystopian landscape where people exploit and segregate a hairy human-like species with special powers.

The show was originally commissioned by ABC TV Australia with the assistance of Screen Australia, Screen NSW and the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. Subsequently, Red Arrow International came on board as a distributor and SundanceTV joined up as a coproducer.

Sally Riley, head of scripted production at ABC TV, said: “It’s rare that you get the green light for a second season of a show before the first season has even gone to air, so for me it’s a testament to the quality and audience appeal of Cleverman. It is also a testament to the unflinching support the show has from our funding partners Screen Australia and Screen NSW here in Oz, and our international partners Red Arrow and SundanceTV.”

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, added: “The world that (show creator) Ryan Griffen and the rest of the team behind Cleverman have created is a perfect blend of timeless mythology seen through the prism of a near-future lens. This is a series that sophisticated genre fans will no doubt fall in love with.”

Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “Cleverman has already generated a huge amount of interest with international broadcasters, and the great news about season two will continue to build on this success.”

Outlander
Outlander has been given two more seasons

Channels that have already signed up for the show include online streamer BBC3 in the UK.

Cleverman was one of a number of high-profile renewal stories this week. In a piece of good news for the Scottish production business, US premium cable channel Starz announced there will be two new seasons of its period/time-travel epic Outlander, adapted by Ronald D Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s books.

Seasons three and four will be based on the third and fourth books in the series: Voyager and Drums of Autumn.

“Outlander is like nothing seen before on television,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht. “From its depiction of a truly powerful female lead character, to the devastating decimation of the Highlander way of life, to what is a rarely seen, genuine and timeless love story, it is a show that not only transports the viewer but inspires the passion and admiration of its fans.”

The show has been a solid performer for Starz, attracting an average of 1.1 million viewers (overnight figures) for its current second run. “The audience has rewarded Outlander with their praise and loyalty, and we know we will deliver the best seasons yet in the years ahead,” said Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, presidents of US programming and production at Sony Pictures Television – the company that produces the show for Starz. “Starz has been an incredible partner and has helped shape this into one of the most iconic premiere series on the air today.”

As discussed in our last column, an early renewal was also given to Lifetime’s UnREAL this week. The same is true for Amazon’s acclaimed comedy drama Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. With season three yet to air, the show has already been given a season four commitment.

Transparent
Amazon has renewed Transparent (pictured) and unveiled a slew of Japanese originals

“As the quality of television rises to new heights, Transparent continues to stand out for its depth of character, compassionate storytelling and its infinite creative risk-taking,” said Joe Lewis, head of half hour television at Amazon Studios. “We’re grateful that customers have responded so enthusiastically and we’re excited to bring another chapter.”

Amazon has also been in the news for unveiling a slate of new shows for its Prime Video service in Japan. The line-up, presented by Amazon Japan president Jasper Cheung, Amazon Studios chief Roy Price and Amazon Japan content head James Farrell, includes 12 Japanese-made titles, some of which are scripted. Price said Japan is a high priority, adding: “Of our 40 new original global contents, 20 are Japanese originals.”

Among the new dramas on the slate are Baby Steps, a teen rom-com series based on a popular girls’ comic about a would-be tennis star who takes up the game to impress a pretty classmate. Others include Businessmen vs Aliens, a sci-fi comedy scripted and directed by Yuichi Fukuda; and Magi, a historical drama about four Japanese youths who journeyed to the Vatican nearly four centuries ago – and returned home to find Christianity banned. Also in the pipeline for Amazon Japan are new adaptations of popular superhero franchises Kamen Rider and Ultraman.

In terms of movie-to-TV adaptations, cable channel TV Land is reportedly planning a reboot of The First Wives Club, a popular 1996 feature film starring Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn.

Umbre
HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre has been picked up by Hulu

Set in present-day San Francisco, the new version will revolve around three women – friends and classmates in the ’90s – who reconnect after their close friend from college dies in a freak accident. When they discover that they are all at a romantic crossroads, they band together to tackle divorce, relationships and life’s other annoying challenges. As an idea, it doesn’t sound that bad – though you have to ask how much extra value is generated by connecting the idea to the 1990s movie, rather than just presenting it as an original concept.

Elsewhere, Hulu has picked up HBO Europe’s Romanian crime drama Umbre for streaming in the US. Produced entirely in Romania by Multi Media Est, the story follows a taxi driver who doubles as a collector for a major local mobster and whose life is threatened when he accidentally kills someone. DQ sister publication C21 reports that show is based on Small Time Gangster, an Australian show produced by Sydney-based prodco Boilermaker Burberry and distributed by UK-based DRG.

Finally, Netflix has greenlit a new comedy from Jenji Kohan (creator of Orange Is The New Black). Entitled G.L.O.W., the new series tells the story of a 1980s female wrestling league.

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Nordic drama in good company

Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh
Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh

London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.

The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”

Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.

ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season
ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season

Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”

Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”

Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.

Cleverman is BBC3's first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network
Cleverman is BBC3’s first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network

Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.

A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”

DRTV's Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada
DRTV’s financial crime drama Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.

Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.

US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla
US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla

The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.

As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.

The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.

Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC's Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan
Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC’s Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan

“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”

As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.

Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season
Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season on A&E

Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.

Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”

Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.

Don Cheadle in Showtime's now-axed comedy House of Lies
Don Cheadle in Showtime’s now-axed comedy House of Lies

Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”

In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.

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Smart TV: Get the lowdown on Cleverman

A new Australian drama blends Aboriginal history with contemporary culture in a futuristic landscape. DQ meets the team behind Cleverman.

It’s a groundbreaking new genre drama heading to screens in Australia – but just how can one describe Cleverman?

Set in the near future but rooted in Aboriginal history, and using a blend of CGI and traditional make-up and prosthetics, the show sees a group of non-humans (the ‘Hairies’) battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior to them – and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

In particular, the story focuses on two Indigenous brothers who are forced together to fight for survival in a land that is also home to otherworldly creatures.

Ryan Griffen
Ryan Griffen

The series is produced by Goalpost Pictures in Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for ABC TV Australia, with SundanceTV and distributor Red Arrow International coproducing. Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, pictured directing on set above) is the lead director, with Leah Purcell also behind the camera.

Cleverman features an all-star ensemble cast, headed by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Frances O’Connor (The Missing), Deborah Mailman and Hunter Page-Lochard (both The Sapphires), Rob Collins (The Lion King) and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games).

And it is exactly the uniqueness of the series that drew Glen to the project. “It’s just a very original script, which is where it always begins for an actor,” he says.

“It started with one of those very happy emails you get. It was very intriguing. I read the first two episodes and asked for more information about where the series was headed, and it took no persuasion.”

Goalpost also needed little persuasion to take the project on after receiving a pitch from series creator Ryan Griffen.

It was during an internship with Goalpost that Griffen first suggested a kids’ show called Dreamtime Detectives, which was based on storytelling traditions rooted in Aboriginal mythology and aimed to help children understand different cultures.

But when the project went out to public broadcaster ABC, “they kept asking to age it up, and with Dreamtime stories, a lot of the consequences are death,” Griffen explains. “You can’t put that in kids’ television, so we progressively aged it up until we got to a point where ABC said if we really wanted to push it, this would be the home for it. We jumped for that opportunity straight away.”

In Aboriginal culture, the title of Cleverman often refers to a man of power within a clan who provides the conduit between dreams and the real world.

Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade
Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade

Speaking about the show’s origins, Griffen says: “Early on, it was about creating an indigenous superhero but also looking at the idea of identity and how change in even the smallest form affects everyone. And we’ve kept on building that from when it was something very small to where it is today.”

Goalpost producer Rosemary Blight adds: “It’s just so distinct. It’s 60,000 years of storytelling. Ryan, as an Aboriginal man, comes from this line of stories. There aren’t books that provide the chance to sit and read these stories, so they haven’t really been explored. There are thousands of different dramas but there’s no Cleverman, because of where this story comes from.”

Blight describes the partnership with coproducer Pukeko Pictures as “like a glove; it was a very natural fit.” But what was it about Cleverman that ensured Pukeko, too, wanted to come on board?

Chief creative officer Martin Baynton explains: “Great genre stories are actually adult fairytales, and adult fairytales work because they speak to the heart of today’s moral issues. Science fiction and genre have always done that. They’re the ones that stay with us, that speak to the heart and to everyone in the audience.

“This is about cultural issues we’re facing now – the integration of cultural difference, how we get on as a people, how we go on that journey of bringing others in and not being scared of them. So while it’s a genre piece, it’s absolutely and most amazingly an engaging story of now.”

Glen echoes Baynton’s views: “Fundamentally, the series is about how you live with others in society, which is really pertinent today as we see swathes of people leaving their homelands and trying to belong in other areas of the world. That’s the strongest theme within Cleverman and it’s why it should be very universal. You don’t wish it to be the case but it has a horrible relevancy.”

An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation
An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation

The universal themes contained within Cleverman also resonated with Henrik Pabst, MD of Red Arrow International, who believes the story holds huge international appeal. The series received its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month and is set to debut down under in mid-2016.

“As a distributor, I think about how I can differentiate,” he says, reflecting the need of broadcasters around the world to offer programming that stands out from the crowd. “I can have the next cop show or I can try to reposition myself and find a niche. Broadcasters tell me they need an audience to come to them, so they can’t have average programming. They need something different – and Cleverman is that. I’m really interested in seeing the results. I’ve got interest from broadcasters I’d never thought of. Commercial broadcasters are looking broader and asking if Cleverman provides something for their audience because the topic is so relevant, and that’s what we love.”

To create the look of the Hairies, Cleverman’s creative team sought out Pukeko’s Oscar-winning sister studio Weta Workshop, which together with production designer Jake Nash brought the creatures to life.

Initially, Nash worked with Griffen, Goalpost and Pukeko to begin exploring what these characters and the world they inhabit looks like. “It’s such a great project and something I connected with strongly,” Nash explains. “As it’s an Aboriginal story and I’m an Aboriginal man myself, it connected personally and culturally in a contemporary world. For Ryan to tell this story, it’s the continuation of our culture, which is so exciting.”

One Cleverman creature in particular, the Namorrodor, described as a flying serpent, also comes from Aboriginal culture, so the team had a starting point from which to build the character. “Ryan came forward with a good brief and there were some original artworks that we used to inspire us, and that was really important,” says Nash, who also took on the role of Cleverman’s Indigenous advisor.

Cleverman-s1-2
Cleverman takes inspiration from Aboriginal stories

“With everything on this project, we started from the bottom and worked our way up. What does this character eat? How does he move? What’s his attack mode? We had this list of questions that we had to answer and that began to shape what our characters looked like, which was a really fun process. You learn so much about the characters.”

Ideas and designs were then sent between the team and Weta’s New Zealand base as the creatures began to take shape. Many of the special effects were achieved on camera, ensuring a balance between CGI and traditional character design.

“The creation of the Hairy family is pretty special – you’ve never seen anything like them,” Nash adds. “They are amazingly unique and I think we’ve done a great job.

“For Australia, Cleverman is a first. It takes us out of realism and into genre TV, and that’s really exciting. It’s a story rooted in Aboriginal culture, it’s genre-based and has
an international and Australian cast. Viewers are going to eat it up – it’s great, it’s the next big thing.”

Of course, HBO’s Game of Thrones is often cited as the benchmark for contemporary genre fiction – and Glen admits the show, in which he plays swashbuckling knight Ser Jorah Mormont, has been a game-changer in the industry.

“It took what was perhaps a tired genre, or one that people were nervous of, and made it the biggest global hit ever,” he says. “It’s blown out of the water any notion that TV is a small-screen affair because there are film budgets for pretty much every episode. Not every drama needs vast amounts of money to make it look good, but Game of Thrones changed what was possible and raised the bar.”

He adds of Cleverman: “When you start trying to describe what Cleverman is, it’s quite hard. But at its roots, it’s a character drama. It’s about families, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And it’s about their relationships, which are universal and to which people can relate very easily.”

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TV drama faces dilemma down under

ABC miniseries success The Secret River
ABC miniseries success The Secret River

Each year, Screen Australia releases a detailed report that analyses feature film and TV production levels in Australia. Entitled Drama Report, the 2014/15 edition came out last week.

When all elements are combined, the market is in pretty good shape. Total expenditure for the year in question was A$837m (US$597m), down just 1% on the previous year’s record high, and there is a positive trend in terms of inward investment.

All told, 16 foreign projects came to the country in 2014/15, generating a record expenditure of A$418m. These included the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, underlining the fact that the country can be relied on to deliver superb quality.

But the situation in domestically produced TV drama isn’t looking so good. According to Screen Australia, total spend on TV drama in 2014/15 was down 13% year-on-year to A$299m. And the situation is worse if you strip out children’s drama, which actually saw an increase last year.

Nine Network's hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries
Nine’s hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries

Looking specifically at adult drama titles, the decline is 19% – from A$291m to A$235m. Onscreen, this translated into 34 adult titles and 401 hours of production, compared with 40 titles and 472 hours last year and a 2012/13 peak of 40 titles and 502 hours.

The figures are a reminder that the ‘golden age of drama’ doesn’t benefit everyone in the value chain equally.

Explaining the figures, Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason said domestic drama is “very expensive to produce, especially when weighed against the cost of cheap American imports. With competition in subscription VoD further fragmenting audiences, government incentives to produce local content will be more important than ever.”

An additional problem for Australian TV producers is that the “cheap American imports” referred to by Mason actually rate pretty well down under. One of the key consequences of this is that domestic broadcasters tend to look abroad for longer-running series and ask the local production community to focus more on miniseries and shorter runs.

Glitch has been renewed by ABC
Glitch has been renewed by ABC

There are exceptions, of course, such as long-running soaps Home & Away and Neighbours, but it’s notable that the most popular domestic dramas of the past year have been miniseries like Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, House of Hancock and The Secret River.

Even Glitch, recently renewed by ABC, comes in batches of only six. All of the above are excellent shows that may earn their producers awards and acclaim, but it’s not easy to run a drama production business on the back of miniseries and serials.

The extent of the problem for Aussie producers is further underlined when you look at how reliant domestic drama funding is on public sources. According to Screen Australia, a significant share of funding comes from public broadcaster ABC, Screen Australia itself, state agencies and a refundable tax rebate known as the Producer Offset.

Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman
Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman

Commercial free-to-air networks provided only A$93m (across 21 titles) during the year in question – “the group’s lowest contribution to the slate since 2005/06.”

In other words, the health of the domestic drama business going forward will require continued goodwill from politicians.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The fact that Australian writers and producers have the craft and creativity to make great drama is clearly a blessing. And there are new trends emerging that may support the sector.

While the ABC, Seven and Ten Networks have been the biggest supporters of scripted production, public network SBS recently aired its first home-grown drama in two years (four-parter The Principal). Nine Network also used its Upfront presentation last week to say that it will be increasing its spend on local content significantly in the next three years.

Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident
Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident

Having recently ended an output deal with Warner Bros, it has invested some of the freed-up money in titles like Hide & Seek, an espionage thriller from Matchbox Pictures, and House of Bond, a miniseries about the colourful entrepreneur Alan Bond. Produced by Paul Bennett (House of Hancock), House of Bond is exactly the kind of project that is likely to set Nine’s ratings alight (for a day or two).

Screen Australia also cites new areas of activity that might support Aussie drama producers into the future. “Subscription TV had a very strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and A Place To Call Home. This year’s slate also featured four series made for broadcaster catch-up or subscription VoD services: Fresh Blood Pilot Season, SBS Comedy Runway, No Activity and Plank.”

Not to be overlooked either is the contribution from foreign investors, which presumably includes international distributors looking to pick up global rights to shows. Although Screen Australia’s 2014/15 figure of A$54m was down on the previous year, it’s still a potent reminder that Aussie shows have the ability to work well in a number of foreign TV markets.

Similarly, the state-supported body also picked out a trend towards international coproduction, with activity up “on last year and the five-year average.” While a lot of this is down to kids’ drama coproduction, Screen Australia said this was “the fourth consecutive year with at least one adult TV drama coproduction in the slate,” in this case Cleverman, a partnership between Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand.

A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way
A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way

Cleverman, which will air on ABC in 2016, is an interesting project that was launched to the international market at Mipcom last month. A six-hour sci-fi genre series, it has been picked up in the US by Sundance TV and is being distributed worldwide by Red Arrow International. If it does well, it will provide the kind of creative and business model that may help Australian producers ease the financial pressures they currently face.

In the meantime, what have Aussie viewers got to look forward to? Aside from shows like Cleverman, Hide & Seek and the next run of Glitch, Seven has just unveiled plans for Molly, Wanted and The Secret Daughter. The first two are miniseries, but the latter is a 10-parter from Screentime that will be distributed by Banijay International.

Also coming up is a new series of ABC thriller The Code, which did well at home and overseas. Ten has struggled with drama recently, with titles like Wonderland and Party Tricks failing to hold on to viewers (it announced on October 26 that Wonderland has been cancelled after three seasons). Perhaps that is why it has announced a sixth season of Offspring, its most popular drama in recent years.

Offspring was rested for a year, with some fans fearing it might never come back. But with Ten anxious for a drama hit, reviving the show clearly makes sense. As yet it’s not clear what else Ten is planning in terms of drama.

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Amazon offers Trial

Ron Perlman takes the lead in Hand of God
Ron Perlman takes the lead in Hand of God

Amazon has dominated the drama headlines over the past few days, with the e-commerce giant’s subscription VoD platform Prime Instant Video continuing to bolster its original content.

On Friday September 4, it launched edgy new thriller Hand of God, in which a morally corrupt judge (played by Ron Perlman) suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. The show, which has opened to mixed reviews, starts when the judge is found naked in a fountain speaking in tongues.

There has also been a steady drip-feed of news about forthcoming programmes on the platform. Sneaky Pete, for example, is now going to series. The show, which credits Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a co-creator, stars Giovanni Ribisi as a conman who, after leaving prison, takes cover from his past by assuming the identity of his cellmate, Pete.

There was also good news for Electus-backed period production Casanova. With the pilot having recently aired, more scripts have been commissioned by Amazon (though this doesn’t guarantee that the production will be taken forward to series).

The platform also recently announced that Billy Bob Thornton is to star in a legal drama called The Trial, which will have David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) as its showrunner. Aside from the talent attached, an interesting point about The Trial is that Amazon has ordered a full series, whereas it usually orders pilots and makes its final decision about whether to go to series based on audience feedback.

Sneaky Pete is going to series on Amazon
Sneaky Pete is going to series on Amazon

It’s a significant change in approach that suggests one of two things: either top talent is refusing to commit to shows on the basis of a pilot – forcing Amazon to make more attractive offers; or Amazon is feeling pressure to get shows to the consumer market quicker. Either way it’s a move that contributes to the current scripted feeding frenzy.

As for subject matter, The Trial focuses on a once-respectable lawyer who is ousted from the firm he co-founded. He spends his days getting drunk until a big case comes his way that pits him against the head of his former firm. On paper it sounds very much like a John Grisham story and joins the rising number of legal-focused scripted shows hitting the market.

This feeding frenzy shows no sign of stopping, despite recent expressions of concern from channel execs in the US. The last week has seen reports that Apple and UK telco/pay TV provider BT are both planning to invest in original scripted content to distinguish their services.

The BBC has also announced plans to invest an additional £50m (US$76m) a year in drama, with BBC director general Tony Hall saying the corporation must ensure drama continues to form the “backbone” of its output.

Game of Thrones' Iain Glen stars in Cleverman
Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen stars in Cleverman

David Nevins, president of premium US cable channel Showtime, recently said there may be “too much TV.” But this hasn’t stopped the network pursuing its own high-end scripted agenda. Reports this week suggest it is developing a new drama about the life of former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Called the Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt, the limited series is being written by David McKenna, with Electus and Authentic Entertainment producing.

Elsewhere, AMC-owned cable channel SundanceTV has proved itself very receptive to dramas with a non-US perspective in recent times – examples including The Honourable Woman and Deutschland 83. It is continuing to pursue this bold strategy with the acquisition of Australian/New Zealand series Cleverman, which is distributed by Red Arrow International.

The six-hour drama, which will launch at Mipcom next month, is produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures in coproduction with SundanceTV and Red Arrow International. Based on an original concept by Ryan Griffen and starring Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), the story follows a group of non-humans who are battling for survival in a world where humans feel inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Meanwhile, as anticipation builds for the launch of Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner – which debuts on FX on September 15 – there are reports that Sutter is working on a spin-off of biker drama Sons of Anarchy, the show that firmly established his reputation.

Kurt Sutter's The Bastard Executioner
Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner

If the spin-off goes ahead, it is like that Sutter will not be as hands-on as he was with Sons, thus enabling him to juggle more projects. It’s no surprise that FX is interested in a Sons spin-off. The show ran for seven years and ended as the channel’s most successful series to date.

Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox International Channels appears to be redoubling its interest in the UK. Following the announcement that it is to launch a female-focused free-to-air channel in the UK called YourTV, FIC has also acquired six-part Australian series Jack Irish for its pay TV channel Fox UK. Based on the books by Peter Temple, Jack Irish follows a former criminal lawyer who now spends his days as a part-time investigator, debt collector, apprentice cabinet maker, punter and sometime lover.

The Jack Irish books first came to the screen as three TV movies, which aired on ABC Australia and ZDF in Germany. Fox UK also aired the TV movies and will transmit the spin-off TV series in 2016. Both the movie and TV versions of the property star Guy Pearce, whose career to date has mainly focused on film (LA Confidential, Memento).

“We’re thrilled to be premiering Jack Irish dramas first on Fox in the UK,” said Fox UK head of programming and scheduling Toby Etheridge, who brokered the deal for Jack Irish with DCD Rights. “We’re massive fans of the compelling, entertaining and intelligent books and TV movies.”

Guy Pearce in Jack Irish
Guy Pearce in Jack Irish

Finally, there was an interesting funding story for producers this week as the Scottish government launched a £1.75m “production growth fund” in association with public body Creative Scotland. Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop announced the initiative as a way of stimulating the country’s television and film production industry. Applications are expected to be open by the end of October, with the initiative lasting at least until the end of the 2016/17 financial year.

Aimed at indies, funding awards will be based on criteria that are currently being drawn up. “The Production Growth Fund will help to attract new inward investment, further support homegrown productions and will boost Scotland’s economy as well as our international reputation,” said Hyslop. Next month, Drama Quarterly’s Mipcom issue takes a deeper look at the issue of locations and the factors that drive the places where producers decide to make their shows.

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