Tag Archives: Graeme Manson

Off the rails

Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson brings DQ aboard his latest project, Snowpiercer, in which humanity’s last survivors live on a train that continually travels around a frozen planet Earth.

While Korean director Bong Joon-ho and his black comedy film Parasite have enjoyed a triumphant 12 months, from winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes to claiming Best Picture at the Oscars, a television adaptation of one of his earlier movies has been picking up steam.

Three-and-a-half years after TNT first ordered a pilot for a series based on Bong’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, the 10-part first season of the show of the same name is set to launch on the US cable network and around the world on Netflix. A second season has already been commissioned and is close to completion.

Set seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland, Snowpiercer finds the last 3,000 survivors on Earth living on the titular perpetually moving train, which endlessly circles the globe. Inside its 1,001 cars unfold class warfare, social injustice and the politics of survival.

While viewers isolating at home amid the coronavirus pandemic might identify with the feeling of claustrophobia that is shared among some of the train’s passengers, the devastation of the Earth and its permanent, man-made winter plays into fears about real-world climate change and how the planet is changing. It’s certainly a theme that showrunner Graeme Manson was keen to highlight, long before Covid-19 put society under lockdown.

Graeme Manson

“We are in a climate crisis and that is the fabric of the show. The backdrop is we destroyed the world with our own avarice and the last survivors of that world have gotten on this perpetually moving, existential train that can’t stop or we all perish,” he tells DQ from Vancouver, his home town and also where the series is filmed.

“Within the backdrop of climate change that underlies everything, there are also deep stories of migration, immigration, detention and class structure, the have-nots, political deception and the lies of a 1% holding on to all the power and the leverage of production and sustenance.”

The rules of the world of Snowpiercer are easily identifiable by the structure of the train, with the wealthy elite inhabiting the front end – dining-room discussions are punctured by complaints about faulty saunas – while an underclass has been created at the ‘tail,’ a series of cars at the rear that has become home to the swathes of people who fought their way onto the train just as it was starting its journey.

It’s in the tail that we first meet Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a leader and a revolutionary who is also the last homicide detective on Earth. When a murder takes place on board the train, the formidable head of hospitality Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) persuades him to leave the tail and solve the case.

Produced by Tomorrow Studios and CJ Entertainment, which was behind the original film, the show’s cast includes Alison Wright, Mickey Sumner, Susan Park, Iddo Goldberg, Katie McGuinness, Lena Hall, Annalise Basso, Sam Otto, Roberto Urbina, Sheila Vand and Jaylin Fletcher. Bong is among the executive producers of the series, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios.

It is Andre’s voice the audience hears first, as he narrates the opening section of episode one, a beautifully animated sequence that depicts the riots that accompanied Snowpiercer’s launch before segueing into live-action footage. The opening narration is a tool shared by different characters through the series, with each episode loosely following that individual.

“We have a very big cast so it’s hard to really feature a character, but the character that speaks in the beginning has something to say during the episode,” Manson explains. “That can be a first-class character or third-class character, or someone from the tail. It adds social perspective to the class structure on the train and is something we continued through the series. It turned out to be a pretty neat device.”

Snowpiercer stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly

Manson, best known for co-creating award-winning Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, admits to being a big fan of the original film, which mixes action and political allegory in a post-apocalyptic world. But when he pitched to run the series, taking over from initial showrunner Josh Friedman in February 2018, Manson returned to Le Transperceneige, the French graphic novel series that inspired the movie.

“They’re filled with philosophy, existentialism and bizarre and funny situations, with leaps of imagination,” he says. “More than anything, I thought the series should be very politically charged and it should, at its core, be an action-adventure story. That’s what we did – we tried to lean into the visual flair, the themes and the action of the movie and some of the wilderness and conceptual leaps of the graphic novels and combine those.

“One of the greatest things about the film was the sense of, ‘What the hell is this train?’ Whatever door you open, you were never sure what was on the other side. We kept the graphic novel idea that the train was 1,001 cars long so we could constantly open up doors on new cars and be amazed by what we found inside.”

Joining mid-development – Friedman developed the project and wrote the original pilot that was produced but later remade – Manson took the series in a new direction, stating he had a “very strong sense of what the show should be.” But his late arrival posed a challenge when he had to find a balance between what was already in place and how he wanted to take Snowpiercer forward.

With 13 casting deals secured, he had to figure out which characters to retain, before “a lot of phone calls and in-person meetings to convince at least half of them to take on new roles in the new world.” Manson then received a vote of confidence when he was given approval to rebuild the sets that would present the vision he shared with producing director James Hawes.

Diggs plays Andre Layton, a leader and a revolutionary who is also the world’s last homicide detective

As a showrunner, Manson says he feels most comfortable in the writers room. Working in LA for the first time, he brought with him some key members of his Orphan Black team, notably producing partner Mackenzie Donaldson and his “second in command” Aubrey Nealon.

“My process begins with doing a lot of research on the world. We did a lot of research on climate science, climate change; we talked to NASA climate scientists about what would the world do if it froze and went to -117 degrees,” he says, also noting the challenge of creating the “eternal engine” that powers the train. “A perpetual-motion machine doesn’t exist but here it is on screen, so it’s about how you talk around it or when you decide to delve into the science of what might make it run.

“We peeled back the science of how the engine works slowly over the course of a couple of seasons, but the advantage of showing your cards at that pace is our VFX team, our physical effects team and our production design and art departments all have ideas about how it might really work, and those ideas came into a collective model we could work towards. I’m not saying we solved perpetual motion, but our explanation might hold water.”

Orphan Black, a science-fiction series about a woman who discovers she is a clone, was similarly rooted in science. Manson says this keeps the series grounded and the characters realistic, until you take one step forward into imagination.

“For Snowpiercer, the world the characters left behind was this world, here and now in 2020. So although we’re then taken seven years into the future, their concerns are about the world they left behind,” he continues. “After seven years, they are at the point where some people would be casting off the ways of the old world, while some people would be holding on tighter to their religion or whatever it is that keeps them moving. Moving seven years into the future also keeps everybody’s grief very raw, and that emotion and undercurrent of loss is a big character driver on Snowpiercer.”

Connelly is Melanie Cavill, the train’s head of hospitality

To create the sets of the train and numerous carriages on a studio lot in Vancouver, season one production designer Barry Robison and his team partnered with outside engineers and designers to build a modular system that would allow them to build sections of the train on modified shipping containers, which could then be linked and moved around.

“We can put five or six cars together and you can walk a character down the train from one car to another,” Manson reveals. “They’re on rubber wheels or air bags, and there are grips outside every time the train is rolling along, making it bounce and weave, so you get this kinetic feeling inside the sets. Nobody’s faking a lurch – they’re real, because they do bounce, roll and move.

“One of the real joys is the idea you never know what’s on the other side of the door. As Layton moves up the train, his eyes just grow wider at what they have up there. We have this amazing set called the Nightcar, which is the exact geographic centre of the train, and it’s essentially the train cabaret and brothel, run by Lena Hall’s character Miss Audrey, who gets to have fabulous musical numbers in this very exotic lounge car.”

One idea retained from the original pilot is known as the sub-train, a small cable car that sits beneath the carriages in-between the wheels and allows people – usually train employees – to travel quickly up and down Snowpiercer without having to pass through its hundreds of cars.

“It’s a narrative necessity,” Manson admits. “With 1,001 cars, the train is approximately 10 miles long. It’s something we talked about a lot and, when things are cut together, you begin to understand what is forgivable in terms of train geography. The more important thing is that the class geography and the design tells you where you are. The tail is like a jail, third class is like turn-of-the-century working-class tenements, second class is a little academia and a bit professional and then first class is like a Roman court or Las Vegas.”

The 1,001-carriage train encompasses the various classes of society

With the show filmed entirely in studios, VFX has been added to create the hazardous world beyond the train, particularly on the few occasions passengers do venture outside. Blue-screen technology is otherwise limited to windows and long shots of train corridors.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down post-production on season two in March with just a week left to go, but having long since wrapped on season one, the show is finally set to debut on TNT this Sunday before the first two episodes drop on Netflix on May 25. Each episode will then arrive on the streamer the day after its US premiere.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Manson says. “I’ve never been in a situation where you’re this deep into something you’ve spent two years on and it’s yet to air. But it’s even longer for the actors.

“It’s a very different world [from Orphan Black]. It’s a darker world by a shade, but one thing it does have in common is there’s a lot of heart in the show. It doesn’t actually take itself too seriously. We’re a perpetually moving train that’s 1,001 cars long. I like shows where you can be put through the wringer and on the edge of your seat through a drama and then go, ‘Wait a minute!’ A slightly ludicrous and existential premise are the most satisfying to make real and visceral.”

And as for what is coming down the line in season two, Manson jokes: “We’re definitely a train show. We’re on that train. We open up a little bit, but it’s still very much a train show.”

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Where next for in-demand US writers?

In 2016, several US shows have been killed off despite airing successfully for a number of seasons. This week, we look at the creators and writers behind these shows, many of whom will be in strong demand after the conclusion of their latest projects.

Carlton-Cuse-Official-880x1024Bates Motel has been a strong performer for cable network A&E but is due to end in 2017 after season five. The first script was written by Anthony Cipriano, and then Carlton Cuse (pictured) and Kerry Ehrin joined as head writers. Cuse and Ehrin continue to run the show and will be in charge of the last season – which is expected to be a retelling of Psycho, on which the series is based. Cuse is one of the busiest showrunners in Hollywood, so won’t be short of things to do. His other gigs include FX’s The Strain and a new project for Amazon based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels. Ehrin has been linked with a couple of projects over the last two years (a romantic comedy for NBC and a terrorism drama for CBS) but there’s no concrete news on her plans after Bates Motel.

black-sailsBlack Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, in the same way Bates Motel is a prequel to Psycho. Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, it airs on Starz but will finish after its fourth season. Steinberg and Levine have written many of the episodes together and also include Human Target and Jericho among their previous credits. Their plans after Black Sails are yet to be revealed. Steinberg wrote a pilot for an updated version of Beauty and the Beast for ABC, but this appears to have gone quiet.

castleCastle rumbled along for eight seasons on ABC before being cancelled in May 2016 (though it was very nearly given a short-run ninth season). It was created by Andrew W. Marlowe who wrote a lot of episodes up until season eight before stepping back. The most prominent writers on the latest season were showrunners Alexi Hawley and Terence Paul Winter. The latest news regarding Marlowe is that he is writing a comedy crime series for Tandem Productions with his wife Terri Edda Miller. Called Take Two, the LA-based series centres on private investigator Eddie Valetik and former cop show actress Emma Swift, who come together to form an unlikely crime-busting partnership. Hawley and Winter have yet to reveal their plans following the show’s termination. Hawley’s credits include The Following and State of Affairs, while Winter worked on All of Us.

Michelle-King-and-Robert-King-2The Good Wife ran for seven seasons and 156 episodes on CBS, ending on May 8, 2016. The award-winning legal/political drama ended on a high, which is good news for its creators Robert King and Michelle King (pictured). The Kings have their own production company, King Size Productions, which they operate under a three-year overall deal they signed with CBS in late 2014. Key projects to have come out of this setup include political satire BrainDead, which debuted on June 13 on CBS. Ratings for the show have not been great, suggesting an early cancellation (though it may be saved thanks to a streaming rights deal with Amazon).

house-of-liesHouse of Lies was a Showtime comedy series that followed a group of unscrupulous management consultants. Its fifth and final season ended last month. The show was created by Matthew Carnahan, who also wrote a lot of its episodes. In 2014, he also found time to write a movie called Ride, which starred his partner Helen Hunt. Previously he wrote a novel called Serpent Girl. House of Lies made the news earlier this year when it filmed in Cuba. There are no details yet re Carnahan’s next project.

Jonathan_Nolan_2_croppedPerson of Interest was a CBS sci-fi drama that ran for five seasons and ended on June 21 this year. Created by Jonathan Nolan (pictured), it was well received by critics and fans, securing an 8.5 rating on IMDb. Nolan is never short of stuff to do, but is currently most closely associated with Westworld, his HBO reboot of the classic movie. He co-wrote the last episode of Person of Interest but a lot of the writing work in recent seasons has been done by Greg Plageman, Denise Thé and Tony Camerino. There’s no news yet on what any of these three are planning for their next projects.

Jeff_Davis_by_Gage_SkidmoreTeen Wolf will end after next year’s season six on MTV. Developed by Jeff Davis (pictured), it’s loosely based on the 1985 film of the same name. Davis has been the dominant writer throughout, typically writing around half of the scripts in each season. Less well known is that he also created CBS’s Criminal Minds, which has gone on to run for 11 seasons. With his track record and the fact he is just 41 years old, Davis is sure to secure another significant gig in the near future. However, the news about Teen Wolf only broke a few days ago, so there has been no word on his future plans.

Graeme Manson

Orphan Black is a Canadian sci-fi thriller that has built up a strong cult audience. The show has been greenlit for a fifth season by Space in Canada and BBC America but will end after that. There was a panel on the show at this month’s Comic-Con during which the creators Graeme Manson (writer, pictured) and John Fawcett (director) confirmed it was their decision to end the show. They didn’t discuss future plans except to say they’re open to the possibility of a spin-off series or feature film. For Manson, the series was his big breakthrough moment, so expect him to be in demand.

John Logan

Penny Dreadful, Sky/Showtime’s gothic horror series, will end after three seasons. Like Orphan Black, the decision to end the show came from its creator, John Logan (pictured), who said: “I created Penny Dreadful to tell the story of a woman grappling with her faith, and with the demons inside her,” he said. “For me, the character of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is the heart of this series. From the beginning, I imagined her story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finding peace as she returns to her faith.” Logan, of course, is not short of work, having penned numerous movies including Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall and Spectre. His next announced film projects are Just Kids, The next James Bond film and Alien: Covenant. The big question, of course, is whether he’ll be tempted back to TV at any point in the near future.

Kevin Williamson

The Vampire Diaries is soon to end after clocking up eight seasons on The CW. Parting with the show has been made easier for the network by the success of its superhero series. Based on books by LJ Smith, The Vampire Diaries was developed by Kevin Williamson (pictured) and Julie Plec. The latter wrote a couple of episodes in season six but the major writing responsibilities in recent times have belonged to Caroline Dries and Brian Young. Williamson is now busy with a series for ABC called Time After Time and a paranormal project for The CW called Frequency. Williamson and Plec are also exec producers on Fox pilot Recon, which is written by Dries. This one is about an FBI agent who embeds herself in a suspected terrorist family.

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Spirited display from pay TV

Outcast
Outcast was given a cross-platform launch

The success of movie franchise The Conjuring suggests the supernatural is back in business. After the original film came a spin-off called Annabelle, which grossed around US$250m worldwide. Then came The Conjuring 2, which recently topped the box office worldwide (except in China). And now there’s talk of a new movie spin-off called The Nun, which is based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic antagonist.

The TV business has also realised that ghosts and ghouls are fertile territory. In the US, HBO sister channel Cinemax has just launched Robert ‘The Walking Dead’ Kirkman’s new 10-part project Outcast, in which a young man searches for answers as to why he’s been suffering from supernatural possessions throughout his life.

Echoing recent trends, the show was given a cross-platform launch – starting two weeks before its official debut date (June 3). Aggregating the data from HBO/Cinemax platforms, YouTube, Facebook and Playstation 4 (all of which aired the first episode), the show was viewed around four million times – a record for Cinemax. With the show also generating a good response among critics and on IMDb (8.2), it looks like Kirkman could be in for another long journey.

The Enfield Haunting
The Enfield Haunting could come back to Sky in the form of a franchise

Sky TV in the UK has also decided there is a future in spookery. After the success of last year’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting, it has revealed plans to revisit the genre. Details are not yet clear but there are reports that Sky will revive the franchise as a series of 90-minute feature length dramas. It’s not obvious exactly how this will work as The Enfield Haunting was a self-enclosed story. It may decide to work with the same characters, or retain part of the brand (The XXX Haunting). But the fact that it is considering a feature-length format is interesting, since this is a growing trend among pay TV/SVoD platforms.

On top of Outcast, the HBO family has had a pretty good week in the scripted genre. Fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones picked up the Jury Grand Prize at the Banff World Media Festival’s 2016 Rockie Awards. There was also good news for Damon Lindelof, who picked up Banff’s Showrunner of the Year Award. Lindelof, whose credits include Lost, is currently in charge of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers.

Feed the Beast
Feed the Beast stars David Schwimmer (left) and Jim Sturgess

The news was less positive over at AMC, where new restaurant drama Feed the Beast has had a lacklustre debut. Despite starring a talented duo in David Schwimmer (Friends) and Jim Sturgess (One Day), the show has seen its ratings slip badly after a reasonable first episode. The premiere attracted 976,000, but this was followed up by an episode-two audience of just 398,000 and an episode-three audience of 484,000. Its 6.9 IMDb rating is also discouraging.

Other shows in the news this week include Orphan Black, the cult sci-fi thriller that has been such a big hit for US cable channel BBC America and Canadian sci-fi channel Space. This week, just ahead of the season four finale, BBC America announced there would be a fifth season of the clone drama in 2017 – but that this would be the last.

Orphan Black
Orphan Black has been given a fifth and final season

“Orphan Black is a thrilling, genre-bending ride that has captured our fans’ imaginations and hearts like no other show,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Our genius team of actors, writers and producers have, time after time, taken us to a place of awe, delight and utter shock and surprise. Tatiana (Maslany, the lead actress) has been a complete revelation– hers is one of the most remarkable performances on TV –and she is joined by an extraordinary cast. We can’t wait to take our passionate audience on one final gobsmacking clone adventure.”

Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson added: “The past four seasons have been a phenomenal adventure and we are eternally grateful to our loyal fans who have loved our weird little show. We are thankful to our partners at Temple Street, and to BBC America and Space for their support and giving us the opportunity to end on a high.”

Also in the news this week is Filmpool’s constructed reality show Day and Night. Originated in Germany and sold as a format on the international market, each episode of Day and Night spans 24 hours in the lives of eight diverse young inhabitants of a trendy apartment in the heart of a vibrant metropolis. Although it is a drama, Day and Night adds to its authenticity by using amateur actors and real locations.

Day and Night Berlin
Day and Night Berlin

The show is sold abroad by All3Media International, which this week secured orders for more than 350 new episodes. RTL Hungary has just greenlit the highest number of episodes of Day and Night in one order (outside Germany) with 249 new one-hour episodes now set to air on RTL Klub. This brings the total episodes ordered for Hungary since its first airing in 2013 to more than 1000.

In Bulgaria, meanwhile, MTG has ordered another 140 one-hour episodes of Day and Night for air on the Nova channel later this year. Others countries where the show has done well include France (W9), Austria (ATV) and Slovakia (PLUS).

Lucy Roberts, formats sales manager for northern EMEA at All3Media International, said: “We’re delighted that Day and Night is continuing to go from strength to strength across the CEE region. The format is fantastic proof of Filmpool’s expertise in this genre, boasting scripts and characters that are always engaging and relevant to its target audience, and multiple story arcs and themes that keep viewers hooked across the whole series. Combine this with the ability to generate a huge buzz on social media and its diverse commercial interactive opportunities, and Day and Night represents a great proposition for broadcasters looking to target the youth audience.”

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