With credits including Happy Valley, Cucumber and The Five, Red Production Company has built a reputation for being a writers’ producer. DQ speaks to executive producer Nicola Shindler – and some of the A-list scribes lining up to work with her.
Among the numerous writers to have walked through the doors of Red Production Company, it’s notable how many of them have returned.
Russell T Davies first linked up with the Manchester-based outfit on Queer as Folk and returned for 2015’s Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Danny Brocklehurst got his first break on the writing team of Clocking Off, before reuniting with Red for two seasons of Ordinary Lies plus Exile, The Driver and The Five.
Meanwhile, the peerless Sally Wainwright created detective series Scott & Bailey, family drama Last Tango in Halifax and award-winning crime series Happy Valley all under the Red banner. Bill Gallagher also created Blood and Blackout before returning with Paranoid.
“We aim to make the writers’ work as good as it can be, rather than change what they want to write,” Red executive producer Nicola Shindler says of her relationship with writers at the label she founded in 1998. “It’s really an exposing thing that writers do. They have to draw ideas from themselves, they have to go to some dark or deep places and have to feel their work won’t be judged for the wrong reasons.
“It’s always about what they want to get out of it, and we have to work our arses off to get there, rather than us imposing ideas on them, which I don’t think is right.”
The development process of BBC1 medical thriller Trust Me (pictured top) is a case in point. In-demand writer Dan Sefton (Delicious, The Good Karma Hospital) had taken a spec script to Red years ago that was so extraordinary “I don’t think it will ever get made,” Shindler admits. “But we knew he was a great talent.”
Then discussions over Trust Me – about a nurse who loses her job and moves to Edinburgh where she pretends to be a doctor – began. “First of all, we tried to make it a long-running, weekly medical story-of-the-week. But with such an exceptional story, you really can’t do that,” she says of the show, which was subsequently turned into a four-part miniseries. “It’s great when you find a solution. It became a shorter-form, potentially returning format, but you could really be honest about the story Dan wanted to tell.”
Ideas come to Red in all shapes and sizes, be it in the form of a script, something scribbled onto a scrap of paper, or even the result of a casual chat.
“We’ve definitely started with the tiniest of ideas,” Shindler says, highlighting Prey, the 2014 ITV crime drama from then newcomer Chris Lunt. “The first season started when our now head of development, Richard Fee, drove past an overturned police van. He was having a meeting with Chris that morning and just started talking about it, and that was the very beginning of the first season of Prey. They used that image of an overturned police van as the beginning of a story about a man on the run. That was a tiny idea and it went to two seasons.”
But across a range of genres and writers, what makes a Red drama? Shindler describes a recipe comprising one compelling story, a dash of pace, a spoonful of reality and a pinch of humour.
“Everything we do, however dark we go, has humour,” she explains. “To me, Happy Valley was funny at times, because that’s what life is like. I really need realistic dialogue and characters I can engage with, and a really strong sense of storytelling.”
As an executive producer, Shindler is on hand throughout development of every project on Red’s books to ensure they all meet her approval. She admits she will be “all over everything,” from reading scripts, following story development and working with the producer and director to watching rushes every day and being in every edit.
“I will read every draft of every project we’re making, without doubt,” she admits. “I can’t not. We’ve now got another executive producer, which we haven’t had before. Some of my development team are exec-ing as well, so people are gradually getting their own little slates, but I will never not read everything. I actually really enjoy doing it. I don’t read books anymore, I just read my work!”
Alongside Trust Me, Red is also behind new dramas including Brocklehurst-penned duo Come Home and Safe. Of the former, a three-parter for the BBC, Shindler says: “It’s about a woman who walks out on her family and it’s a brilliant emotional exploration of a relationship, which you kind of don’t see a lot of on TV anymore. It’s really warm in the way Danny is, and has humour in it, but it puts you through the wringer in terms of this big relationship.”
Safe, meanwhile, is a spiritual sequel to The Five that again pairs Brocklehurst with author Harlan Coben, who created the story. An eight-part mystery thriller, it centres on buried secrets that come to the surface of a small community after a murder and a disappearance. The show is coproduced by Netflix and French pay TV broadcaster Canal+, and marks the first time series lead Michael C Hall (Dexter) has worked on a British show.
“It’s totally the opposite of the other Danny project,” adds Shindler, a self-confessed devotee of US musical drama My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show as far removed from Safe as one could possibly conceive. “With Harlan, it’s just such a great process. He’s brilliant on character and he’s got amazing ideas.”
Shindler and Red are also taking advantage of new opportunities in television, a result of broadcasters’ continuing focus on scripted series. But the exec adds that she’s not swayed by the amount of competition or the rising budgets on offer.
“It doesn’t really make a difference,” she says. “Everyone can tell you they want different things, but all they actually want is a really good idea, a really good script and a really good writer, and there are only so many of them. It doesn’t change my world; I’m just happy to keep on making drama.”
After landing his big break in television with 2000’s Clocking Off, Danny Brocklehurst has a long working relationship with Red – one he describes in terms of trust and honesty. “It’s just every single aspect of the relationship. From development and being in the edit to talking about casting and Nicola being brutally honest about my scripts, it’s one of total trust. There’s no game playing. Those kinds of relationships are invaluable in television.” The writer describes his latest project, Come Home, as an emotional family drama about a mother (played by Paula Malcomson) who leaves her kids. “The BBC wanted a show about a family that’s about emotions – there’s no dead bodies, no police,” he says. “It’s very much about getting to the heart of these characters and making it as complex as possible. What you want is to play around with the viewers’ emotions a bit so at different times, they’re feeling different things about the characters and perhaps blaming different people. At first, you’re very sympathetic to Greg (Christopher Eccleston), the father, but by the end of episode one, we’ve done something where you maybe change that a little bit and you’re thinking differently about him.”
Following 2016’s Sky1 drama The Five, acclaimed novelist Harlan Coben has reunited with Red and Danny Brocklehurst for Safe, a mystery set in a small community where a murder and a disappearance bring buried secrets back to the surface. “It wasn’t an idea I had for a novel,” Coben explains. “I came up with this as a TV series after we did The Five and I liked the idea of somebody missing and somebody dead, so I combined them. It will be very different, and really suspenseful and intriguing to follow two different storylines and see how they match up.” As per The Five, the story was created by Coben, with Brocklehurst as lead writer, but the US author says he’s involved in every level of production, despite being based in New York, thousands of miles from the Manchester set. “They’re showing me set designs, costuming, locations, talking about tone, how we want to shoot it. We even had a long discussion over camera lenses with the director of photography when I was there. So every aspect I try to be involved with in some way.” On working with Red, Coben says Shindler, “more than most producers I know, really does appreciate the writer,” adding: “She’s a wonderful conduit for writers, she’s a wonderful partner to have.”
With his medical background – he still walks the wards as a doctor of emergency medicine – it’s natural that Dan Sefton (pictured alongside Jodie Whittaker) finds compelling drama within hospitals. ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital, which aired earlier this year, gave the genre an Indian flavour, while Sefton’s latest series is Trust Me, a four-part thriller for the BBC. Jodie Whittaker – recently revealed as Doctor Who’s first female lead – stars as Cath, a nurse who loses her job for whistleblowing and starts a new life by stealing her best friend’s identity as a doctor. “It’s a combination of writing what you know about and people wanting to commission the stuff they feel I’ve got an additional angle on because of my work,” Sefton says, admitting he’d love to write a British version of ER. “A medical show about a doctor who’s not really a doctor is something I always found interesting, so it’s just a matter of how you find a fresh angle on something.” Sefton has also enjoyed working with Red: “They speak to you like you’re a grown-up, which is really important as a writer. I find sometimes people infantilise you a bit, but it was very much a relationship of mutual respect, which I really appreciated. There’s a lot of loyalty from writers who have worked with Red and it’s a two-way street.”
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
Director Mark Tonderai talks to Michael Pickard about helming every episode of new Sky1 drama The Five and finding inspiration from football managers.
A former radio DJ, Mark Tonderai made his name as a director in feature films – most notably 2012 thriller House at the End of the Street, starring a then relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence (it was filmed before but released after The Hunger Games).
He’s now about to break out on the small screen after directing all 10 episodes of Sky1’s latest original drama, The Five.
The series, created by novelist Harlan Coben and with Danny Brocklehurst as lead writer, follows a group of friends who are haunted by the disappearance of a young child while he was in their care. Years later, they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
Produced by Red Production Company (Happy Valley) and distributed by StudioCanal, it stars Tom Cullen, O.T. Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
It’s rare for a TV director to helm every episode of a single show, especially one that runs to 10 parts – still an unusually high number of episodes for a British drama.
“Most people don’t do 10 episodes. It’s a real ask,” Tonderai admits. “I come from features and it’s equivalent to three films. It’s a long time to shoot – it took over 127 days. It’s a massive deal.”
The director was initially brought on board to oversee three episodes of The Five, which launches tonight, but says the material and the team around him gave him the confidence to take on the whole season.
“You are only as good as your producer, and Karen Lewis has got a wonderful way of leading – she just lets you be,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could go into battle with this lady because, if I’m honest, she’s stronger than me.’ I had the right foundations to go forward, and I thought it would really help to have one person immersed in all of the creativeness.”
In particular, Tonderai says he was drawn to the project because he could relate to the idea of a group of people who haven’t been able to move on with their lives and are in a position in life where they don’t want to be.
“I lived like that for years,” he explains. “I used to put up posters in football stadiums. The job wasn’t beneath me but I didn’t want to be putting up posters in urinals in football stadiums. I wanted to be making films. That feeling of living in limbo, stasis and ambiguous grief that the characters have is where I was. It was a form of grief. So it was a combination of the material, the personnel involved and thinking I had to go for it because I might not get an opportunity to do all 10 with this sort of platform again. Sky were fantastic about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
A self-confessed fan of Coben’s thrillers, Tonderai shared the author’s intention to replicate his page-turning plot twists on television: “My goal was I didn’t want people to go to the toilet. I want people to sit there or, if they do go to the toilet, they rush back because they want to know what happens next.
“What you get is this rollercoaster where every episode is better than the one before. By the time you get to eight, nine and 10, you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s really good. I really believe that. I’m hoping that people just hook into it.”
He also praises Brocklehurst – “a really class writer” – who was one of the key contributors to what Tonderai describes as a “perfect storm” of talent behind the scenes.
It’s that collaborative effort that resonates most with Tonderai, who believes everyone on set should work for the story, rather than any individual. “I always say to the crew, ‘You’re not working for me and I’m not working for you, we’re working for the story.’ I come into work and say, ‘We’re going to do this right and we’re going to do it from the story’s perspective.’ I don’t care who’s got an opinion. If it’s not about the story, I don’t want to hear it. That’s my philosophy.
“A lot of my inspiration for how to direct comes from football managers because they all have ways of getting the best out of their players. You need a strong philosophy and everyone has to buy into it. If they don’t, you get clashes. But if everyone does, and they know what’s going to happen and exactly how you’re going to do it, it’s OK.”
Tonderai gets a new tattoo after every job he does, this time choosing to have the words ‘Take a position’ inked on his skin. The phrase represents his directorial style on The Five, he explains, because “you have to do that in life and you have to do that when you film. You have to take a position. You can’t be mediocre, cute or middle of the road. We live in mediocrity. Take a position because if it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter.”
He adds: “Every moment in life is unique and I believe every scene should be unique. You look around and find the angles. That’s what we did with every scene, so it meant sometimes we used a whole lot of operating styles – steadicam, handheld, we used the crane a lot and filmed in widescreen as much as we could. We took a position.”
But the thing the director is most proud of? That everyone came to the wrap party. “It means everyone enjoyed the experience,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. Everybody had a really good time on it.”
As a director, Tonderai’s career has been mostly in features, with one episode of Syfy drama 12 Monkeys also to his name. And he says the changing film business in the US prompted his move into television and the opportunity to join The Five.
“House at the End of the Street made US$66m – a lot of money. It only cost US$3.5m,” he reveals. “I couldn’t make that film now. That isn’t because I couldn’t get it made – the point is I couldn’t get it distributed. The whole distribution model has changed because studios now control a lot of release dates because of their blockbusters.
“We now have global releases, whereas five years ago you had this slow roll-out. So the nature of the film business has changed. Really you only get three sorts of films being made – low-budget horror, massive blockbuster and Oscar-bait, which actually is a genre now. The latter is only triggered by actors; you’ve got to get the right actors. So I started to realise that if I didn’t adapt, I was going to starve.”
The former BBC Radio 1 DJ, who helps his actors get into character by playing music on set, first looked to the US TV market but admits that once he broke through, “I hated it because you’re basically there just to collect footage. You have four days in the edit and you just work out what you’ve done.”
That led Tonderai to leave his LA home and return to England, where he says a television director is still central to the creative process. After The Five, his next step is to have ownership of the content he’s creating, either in television or film.
“There are lots of directors but very few storytellers,” he says. “David Fincher, Ang Lee – these people are allowed to tell their own stories. It’s very hard to be in that camp –writers who direct their own stuff – and that’s the space I want to be in. You have to earn that right and you can’t do too much of other people’s work. You’ve only got so much juice in the tank as a director.”
In particular, he’s passionate about stories from Africa that reflect his own heritage and is working on a project about asylum seekers travelling from the continent to Europe.
“I’m from Africa and I’m very passionate about African stories, but they don’t get a look in because they don’t sell, especially in America,” Tonderai notes. “I’m an immigrant over there. I’m there by their grace so this idea I went to America to better myself, my position and my standing is something I really relate to. So when I see all these people coming from Africa, all they want is a better life. They’re not coming here to steal our money, our jobs or our women; they want a better life for themselves and that strikes a chord with me.”
He adds: “But you’ve got to dress it up in genre or something else so people hook into it. The best example is (Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi movie) District 9 – a fantastic film that uses allegory and metaphors to say something quite profound about Apartheid. That’s a space I would love to be in.”
Crime novelist Harlan Coben was at MipTV in Cannes this week to promote his new series The Five, created in partnership with Red Production Company for UK pay TV channel Sky1.
While in town he also took 30 minutes out of his schedule to take part in a keynote interview. Articulate and witty, he provided plenty of food for thought for would-be novelists and screenwriters in the audience.
He is, for example, refreshingly honest about his status as a writer. Asked about his influences, he expressed irritation at writers who talk as though they haven’t lived through the modern era: “Ask a lot of writers about their influences and they’ll say Milton, Shakespeare, the great philosophers, but that’s all nonsense. I was influenced as much by the old Batman series as anything, the TV shows I grew up with.”
This may explain why Coben has found it relatively easy to convert himself from a novelist (28 novels, 60 million book sales worldwide) into a TV writer: “I’ve always seen my books as quite visual – though I didn’t realise how visual you could be with TV until I started working on The Five.”
His books are also packed with dialogue, another symptom common among novelists who have grown up in the TV era. His emphasis on dialogue that works hard is another factor that has made the jump to TV achievable: “I’ve always believed dialogue has to serve more than one purpose in a book, and it’s the same for a TV show. It’s advancing the plot, but it has also got to tell you something about the character and create mood. If your dialogue isn’t doing at least two of these things, you should get rid of it.”
A lot is written about the difference between the internalised world of the novel and the way TV plot and character development are moved forward through action. But Coben focused more on the way novel-writing is a solitary occupation whereas TV is collaborative.
He enjoyed the fact that, with The Five, his original idea was refracted through the prisms of other people’s perspectives: “I planted the seed and someone else is taking care of the tree. For me, that’s exciting. It’s cool that I had this idea in Jersey where I live and now this wonderful cast, crew and production team have turned it into this glorious thing. I’m not just seeing my interpretation but a lot of people’s work.”
That said, it’s not an accident that Coben’s TV work to date has involved European partners – before The Five, he adapted one of his novels, No Second Chance, for TF1 in France
Obsessive about his work, he told delegates that Sky and TF1 were more willing to allow him to present his vision than the Hollywood system would have been: “That’s important to me. We might succeed or fail with The Five, but a least I know the end result is based on my vision.”
Cohen is unabashedly commercial and expresses annoyance with writers who say they only write for themselves: “That’s like one hand clapping, or saying I only talk to myself. What we do, books or TV, is all about communication. I chase readers/viewers because I want my stories to move them, to keep them up at night. No one wants to make a TV series that isn’t watched by anyone.”
Although he has good dialogue with his fans, he says he tries not to be too influenced by their opinions: “If a consistent message was coming back from them, I’d probably listen – but there never is. I appreciate my fans, but it’s a mistake to write by committee. We’re not as good when we try to do what people want. My job is to take fans where they don’t necessarily know they want to go. I don’t look at the data and try to respond. If I see that my books are popular in Bulgaria, I don’t add a Bulgarian character in the next one. I write about what I know. The more specific you are with your creative vision, the more universal the appeal.”
Coben focused more on the similarities between books and TV than the differences, comparing The Five to a novel on TV – with “10 chapters, and a real end, no cliffhangers – because that’s unfair on the audience. I want them to like the show enough they come back for the next one. At the end of the day, both forms come down to storytelling and that’s how it’s been since the caveman era. You tell a story; if you’re boring, someone picks up a club and kills you.”
Despite his sales success, Coben talked about the anxiety and constant self-doubt that comes with being a writer: “I’m still learning how to write novels. Part of being a writer is you’re immensely insecure and always think you suck. And every day, that brings me back… when you lose that doubt, that’s when you call it a day. Only bad writers think they’re good. You need that angst to make your stuff better.”
Continuing this theme, he advised fellow creators to avoid reading reviews on platforms like Amazon: “It’s like reading the comments section below a news story. Don’t do it!”
Aside from The Five, Coben has now launched a TV company with Red’s Nicola Shindler called Final Twist, which will make scripted shows based on his books. The first one in development is Six Years.
On working in TV, he added: “This really is the golden age. It’s never been better, there’s never been more variety and there have never been more ways of seeing it. And how lucky are we to work in this business? We get to make TV for a living! We’re not making cardboard boxes for a living. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s just so frigging cool!”
As we’ve discussed previously, there’s a growing trend in the TV business for producers to go in search of talent and ideas from theatre, film and the book world. A good example was Red Production Company’s decision to link up with author Harlan Coben on The Five, an original series for European pay TV broadcaster Sky.
The primary rationale for this is to get access to good ideas. But there is also a commercial advantage in being able to add a name like Harlan Coben to your package. Producers regularly bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough top rank writers to go round, so this is one way of sprinkling sufficient fairy dust on a project to help it pass muster with the commissioning broadcaster.
As it happens, Coben didn’t write The Five. He provided the idea, which was then turned into TV by Danny Brocklehurst (with Coben an active participant in the creative process). Potentially there’s a double benefit here. If The Five does well, Coben-backed projects have greater appeal. At the same time, Danny Brocklehurst also becomes an increasingly in-demand writer.
Anyway, the point of all this speculation is that Coben has just announced that he is launching his own independent production company in partnership with Red. Coben will be joint CEO of the new company, Final Twist Productions, alongside Red founder Nicola Shindler, with StudioCanal handling international distribution of any original content that emerges from the firm.
The new company is already in development on a series called Six Years, adapted from Coben’s bestselling novel. It tells the story of Jake, a college professor who six years earlier watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. But when Natalie’s husband is murdered and Jake goes to find her, he discovers the grieving widow is not Natalie at all, but a woman he’s never seen before. As Jake seeks to uncover the truth, his search takes him on a dark journey that puts his life at risk.
Significantly, the new firm will be based in the US and will develop “contemporary, thrilling drama for American broadcast networks.” This is a significant step both for Red and StudioCanal, both of which take pride in their European DNA.
Coben said: “Nicola and I had such a terrific experience creating The Five for Sky1. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve made. Final Twist Productions will take our American-British teamwork to the next level by bringing Nicola’s daring new outlook and producing style to the USA.”
Shindler was equally enthusiastic: “I am excited about our upcoming projects for US audiences, which will have Harlan’s characteristic blend of suspense, humour and hope.”
The race to lock in great writing talent has also seen Zodiak Rights, part of the newly enlarged Banijay Group, sign a first-look finance and distribution deal with Arise Pictures this week. Key to this deal is access to an original slate of programming created and written by Arise’s co-founder, LA-based British writer/director David Raymond (The Other Man, Sins, Absence of War).
Tim Mutimer, head of distribution at Banijay Group, said: “David is brilliant at creating original, returnable series with global appeal, and Arise comes equipped with a slate of content that perfectly aligns with the Banijay Group scripted strategy. We are delighted to be working together to utilise the international distribution channels of the newly merged group to help bring these projects to the market.”
Raymond added: “For me, the great thing here is the creative support. By collaborating with a global partner, we have been able to create a flexible commercial framework that puts the creatives first and moulds the finance plan around the project’s individual requirements. It’s liberating and gives us a platform to focus on narrative and hopefully create content that audiences are going to want to return to.”
The first series under the deal is expected to go into production later this year – details to follow.
Other interesting announcements this week include Sonar Entertainment’s decision to option the rights to bestselling graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J Tiwary. The critically acclaimed novel will be developed as a multi-part event series, with Tiwary adapting his work for TV and serving as executive producer.
The Fifth Beatle recounts the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and his effort to drive the unknown band from playing in a cellar in Liverpool to international superstardom. Epstein overcame great obstacles, being a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
Tiwary says: “Brian Epstein’s story is rich in inspiration and is set amid a backdrop of great cultural change and the legendary history of The Beatles, so an event series feels like the only way to do Brian justice. We’re going to do wonderful things with the extra creative room afforded to us and I’m thrilled to be working with Sonar to take advantage of all the exciting elements this format has to offer.”
News of the adaptation comes as another man often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – legendary producer George Martin – passed away aged 90.
Another interesting project in the works is a series about Grand Duchess Anastasia, which is being prepared for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the US. Anastasia was probably executed with the rest of the Russian royal family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But there were rumours in the following years that she had actually escaped with her life. This project supposes she did survive and went to live in Paris, where she became a spy.
The idea is from Daniel Mackey and Seth Fisher. We’ve talked about Fisher in this column previously. Having made his name as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, he moved on to co-write National Geographic Channel’s four-hour Mayflower pilgrims miniseries Saints and Strangers. In January he was also named as co-writer of Discovery Channel’s Harley & The Davidsons, a limited series about the origins of the iconic motorcycle brand. Clearly he is seen as being good at spicing up history. His partner on the new project – Mackey – is less well established. His major credit to date is web series Aim High.
At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.
In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.
What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.
If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.
Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.
Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.
Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.
So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.
At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.
Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.
This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.
Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.
While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.
There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.
Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.
There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.
But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.
The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.
An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.
Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.
Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.
Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.
The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.
There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.
Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.
There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.
Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.
Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.
A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.
The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.
Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.
Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.
But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.
Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.
He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.
“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.
“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”
Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.
Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”
Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.
“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”
For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.
“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”
Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.
“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”
Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.
“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”
To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”
Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”
As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.
“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”
Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.
The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.
So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.
“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”
The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.
“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”
Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.
“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”
On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”
Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”
If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.