Tag Archives: HBO

Jack and Jones

Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.

The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.

Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.

It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.

The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.

Sally Wainwright

Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.

However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.

On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.

The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.

The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.

“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”

Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.

“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.

“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”

Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.

The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.

Some 320,000 words of Lister’s coded diary entries were translated to inform the drama

Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.

“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”

Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”

Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.

For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.

Gemma Whelan (left) and Gemma Jones (right) also star in the series

“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”

Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.

“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”

Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the  series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.

Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”

Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) plays Lister’s partner, Ann Walker

The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.

“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”

But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”

Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.

“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”

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Going nuclear

The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.

Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.

Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.

The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.

Chernobyl stars Jared Harris as real-life nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who died in 1988

It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?

Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”

Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”

Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.

“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”

Stellan Skarsgård plays soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina

The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.

Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.

Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.

Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”

While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”

Emily Watson’s character is an amalgamation of scientists who worked to mitigate the disaster

He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”

The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.

“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”

“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”

The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”

This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.

Adam Nagaitis as a fireman who suffers the terrible effects of radiation poisoning

“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”

But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.

“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.

“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”

Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”

“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”

Chernobyl launches on HBO and Sky Atlantic next month

One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.

Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”

Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”

This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.

“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”

Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.

“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”

With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.

But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”

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Story time

It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.

Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.

In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.

Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.

Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?

Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.

Amazon’s Homecoming (left) and Netflix’s Russian Doll both adopt the 30-minute format

With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.

That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.

Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.

“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”

Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.

Swedish political drama The Inner Circle is written by Hakan Lindhee

“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”

Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.

“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”

Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.

“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.

Shows like Netflix’s The OA might have been considered too niche for a traditional broadcaster

“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”

When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.

In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.

“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”

On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.

ITV procedural Grantchester also features overarching, season-long storylines

Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.

“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”

Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.

Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.

“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”

Christina Jennings

By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.

“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”

The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”

Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.

“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.

“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”

Departure centres on the disappearance of a passenger plane

Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.

“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”

Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”

Paul Marquess

Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”

Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.

Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”

But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.

Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.

Vienna Blood is being produced for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany

“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”

Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.

In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.

“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.

Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.

The Twelve focuses on the jury in a murder case

“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”

Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.

Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”

Peter Bouckaert

The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”

Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.

Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.

“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”

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Making Friend

L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) is one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year. Director Saverio Costanzo tells DQ how he steered the ambitious period drama, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel, for Italian broadcaster Rai and US cable network HBO.

Since the project was first announced in February 2016, anticipation has been building for L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend). Not only does it mark the continuance of Italian broadcaster Rai’s expansive drama ambitions, it is also a rare example of a foreign-language series commissioned by US cable network HBO. Then there’s the fact it is based on the bestselling novel by Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian novelist operating under a pseudonym.

Interestingly, Ferrante has been a key member of the development team behind the series, corresponding with director Saverio Costanzo by email. She is also listed as a writer on the first four episodes, alongside Costanzo, Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci.

Based on the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quadrilogy, the story opens with Elena Greco (aka Lenù) who, after discovering her long-time best friend has disappeared without a trace, starts to write the story of their friendship. From her first meeting with Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, at school in 1950, she goes on to cover more than 60 years of their lives, describing Lila as both her best friend and worst enemy.

Set in Naples, the Italian-language series stars Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as the young versions of Lenù and Lila, while Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play teenage the pair in their teens.

My Brilliant Friend is an HBO-Rai Fiction and TimVision series, produced by Wildside and Fandango. The producers are Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside and Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in coproduction with Umedia. Fremantle is the distributor.

The series launches on HBO this Sunday and on Italian streamer TimVision on November 27.

Here, Costanzo, director of all eight episodes, tells DQ how the series came together and discusses the challenges of casting more than 150 actors and 5,000 extras and filming across southern Italy on vast sets totalling 215,000 sq ft.

Director Saverio Costanzo pictured with young actor Ludovica Nasti during filming

How did you first join the project?
I was contacted by the publishing house because, among other suggestions, Elena Ferrante mentioned my name. I didn’t search out this beautiful story; it was looking for me. I feel very fortunate.

What was the appeal of directing the series?
Ferrante’s story possesses the fundamental features for a film narrated in episodes: great characters who are facing a deep and exciting dramatic reality; plot twists that are never announced, but almost invisible, which film enlarges like a magnifying glass, building the tale of a life piece by piece; and a perfect synthesis of the epic and the tragic.

What are your thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s novel? What were the core elements needed in the series?
The real challenge was to succeed in narrating the epic story of a friendship. Friendship is an exchange of love where the boundaries between rights and duties are much more blurred compared with the love between a couple or the love of one’s children. It’s a free exchange and a much more lively one, where roles are mixed together and overlapping. The friendship between Lila and Lenù is a romantic dance that occasionally takes on the form of a very violent struggle. It’s two bodies chasing each other and overlapping, but stubbornly following the same rhythm, with the shared purpose of becoming complete persons, one by means of the other.

How involved were you in the adaptation process?
I wrote the first three episodes in one go, following the narration of the original text. Then, following a blueprint that the author agreed with and accepted, we wrote the rest of the scripts together with the screenwriters.

What was your experience working with Ferrante and having the original author so involved in the adaptation?
She supported and helped us whenever the turns the screenplays were taking didn’t agree with the book. Every so often, she worked on some original dialogue in an extraordinarily convincing way. She has an impressive talent for cinematic writing, a sense of scene that is not self-evident for someone writing literature.

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of an epic friendship

What is your directing style? How did you bring that to this production?
Provided that my approach [as a director] remains the same, I adapt my style each time to the story of the film I am making, to the needs of the story I am telling. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, I was thinking of a classical story where the camera would be almost invisible. The director’s ego, or the director’s character, should never make an appearance in the scene, but rather should let the narration of the story be as fluid as possible. This act of mimesis was the most difficult to achieve.

How did you use the book to inform your direction?
I let myself be inspired by the literary weight of the original text. I concentrated on setting up the scenes, on the nuances of the acting and on the picture, so that every shot could include the same tension and fullness that makes the pages of the book come alive.

How did you work with the cast, both before and during production? What kind of performances did you look for?
I’m always looking for authenticity, depth and gravitas. The greatest risk was to become generic and focused on motives. We engaged in a long period of rehearsals with the little girls in order to give them a strong awareness of the story and characters. We tried and retried until, once they arrived on the set, they could enjoy the adventure of the story with a strong awareness of who Lila and Elena are. We managed to do an even more specific job with the teenage girls. For six months, they were working every day in a workshop where all of the cast rehearsed the scenes. In this way, they learned to use their voices, bodies and emotions, while at the same time we built a strong and consistent working team. I’m very proud of all of them.

Tell us about casting the lead actors.
We held open casting sessions; thousands of children came. We tried out more than 9,000 people to find the four protagonists. We were helped by the city of Naples, which is like an open-air theatre: everyone is capable of playing a part there, everyone is a great actor. But we were lucky to have such developed characters that were well described by the author. For this reason, once we found ourselves in front of the protagonists, we understood immediately that they were the ones for us. When what you’re looking for is clear to you, it’s much easier to find it.

Margherita Mazzucco as the teenage version of Elena

What kind of Naples is presented in the series? Where did you film and how did you use real locations and studio sets?
Most of the locations were reconstructed in the studio. It was impossible to film in Naples at the real sites, because the city has changed too much since the 1950s. We reconstructed the neighbourhood 20km away from Naples, basing it on a community in the outskirts that the author started from in order to imagine her neighbourhood. We never tried to be only literal, though. We started out from a real piece of data and adapted it to our dramatic needs. Reconstruction added great value: in cinema, a cardboard wall is often more real than a cement one – an imagined city, rather than a real one.

How did you balance working for Rai, TimVision and HBO? Did they have specific demands or needs for their audiences?
Miraculously, all the networks involved in the production had a strong artistic vision. Nowadays, television series are showing they can elevate their discourse to the same level as film. To give you an example, in our first meeting with the team from HBO, the very first question that they asked me was whether the series would be performed in Neapolitan dialect. I said yes, but I asked why on Earth this was so important to them, since their audience would have to read the subtitles anyway, and they answered that it was because they wanted an authentic piece of work. From that point on, it was a wonderfully shared job with the same artistic purpose.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, either in development or production?
When you’re directing a series, it takes many weeks of work. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, there were 29 of them, and the hardest part was staying concentrated and focused for that long. Furthermore, our backdrop had to seem ‘lived in’ each time, and even a simple dialogue scene with two people involved at least 200 extras. Keeping the magnitude and the ambition of the project under control was important.

How does the series stand out against the huge number of series being made around the world?
I wouldn’t know. I tried to maintain a classic linear form of narration. Maybe My Brilliant Friend is simpler than other series that try out more original forms of narration, but maybe it’s exactly this timeless aspect that makes it distinct and, hopefully, attractive.

What are your plans for making a second season based on the next Ferrante novel?
If I don’t get fired, I’ll be happy to finish the entire tetralogy.

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Hagai heads home

Hagai Levi, creator of Israeli drama Be Tipul (In Treatment) and co-creator of US drama The Affair, tells DQ about his latest project, his approach to storytelling and returning “home” to HBO.

It has been 10 years since HBO first launched In Treatment, the psychotherapy drama based on the much-adapted Israeli format Be Tipul (pictured above).

The original series, which ran between 2005 and 2008 on cable platform HOT, has spawned copycats around the world and was among the pioneers in the ongoing wave of interest in Israeli drama that has made original dramas such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War), False Flag and Fauda household names.

It’s fitting, then, that a decade on, Be Tipul creator Hagai Levi is relishing the opportunity to return “home” to HBO for his latest project.

The 10-episode, as-yet-untitled series is based on a true story and follows the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants. Two days later, the burned body of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem is found in a forest on the outskirts of the city.

Hagai Levi

In the days that follow, an agent of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency) investigates the murder, while the parents of the slain teenager begin their quest for justice and consolation.

HBO has partnered with Keshet International for the series, which Levi created with filmmaker Joseph Cedar plus Tawfik Abu Wael and Noah Stollman (Pillars of Smoke). Cedar and Abu Wael also direct, with filming on location in Jerusalem due to be completed in September.

Retelling the events that led to the outbreak of war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the drama follows the investigation into Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder and tells the story of all those involved, Jews and Arabs alike.

“We are focusing on the investigation of this story, which was quite shocking, but it should be said that it’s rare,” Levi explains, noting that the story is told from three points of view – the family, one of the killers and the investigator. “We know Palestinian terror, it’s obvious. They are fighting for their state. But Jewish terror, or these kinds of hate crimes, are much more rare. So it was quite shocking for the Jewish population. We are following the investigation, the interrogation, the courtroom, everything.

“But of course, it’s not a courtroom drama. It exposes a lot of layers in Israeli society and it’s also about understanding the nature of hate crime – you see it everywhere, not just in Israel, and what are the necessary conditions? There are so many layers needed to create hate crime. So we are showing the Palestinian side, the Israeli side and, in the middle, Shin Bet are investigating the whole thing.”

The series has been developed over the past three years, with Levi linking up with Oscar-nominated director Cedar (Beaufort, Footnote) and Palestinian partner Abu Wael, who writes and directs the Arab-set elements.

“It’s very interesting, but the partnership means it just takes time,” Levi admits. “Basically I’m in charge as a kind of showrunner. We have some other writers writing the scripts, and Joseph is a director-showrunner. We’re assembling material together, rewriting it ourselves. It’s complicated.”

Gabriel Byrne in the US version of In Be Tipul, titled In Treatment

From the beginning, however, it has been an HBO show, with former head of programming Michael Lombardo taking the initial lead on the Hebrew-language drama, which together with Italian series My Brilliant Friend notes a shift in the US premium cablenet’s appetite for foreign-language drama.

“They’re trying to do these things, which is great,” Levi says. “Instead of remaking them, just show it. People seem more open to watching foreign languages and are more used to seeing subtitles. So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse; it was the best of both worlds. We have a nice budget compared to Israeli budgets, but a very low budget compared to US series. But for us it’s great, and I can do it in my own language with my own sensitivities. Since In Treatment, HBO has been a home for me. It’s the best place I know.”

In the US, Golden Globe winner Levi is arguably best known as the co-creator of Showtime drama The Affair, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson and now into its fourth season. Before The Affair, however, he was an executive producer on HBO’s remake of Be Tipul. Another 16 versions of the series have been produced in countries including Canada, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.

“The best thing about In Treatment is the option of the word ‘remake’ didn’t exist, it never happened in Israel,” Levi reveals. “So I was just doing my thing, and because we have very low budgets, we had to make something where the budget wasn’t an issue. The worst thing is when you have a low budget and you try to make a big thing, and then it looks rubbish. But the nice thing about In Treatment is it’s been shot the same everywhere. That’s my taste as a writer and director; I like two people talking.

“Whenever I have more than two people in the room, I’m nervous,” he says, emphasising his preference for dialogue and the relationships and moral dilemmas that characterise both Be Tipul and The Affair. “If you think about In Treatment, the main story is a therapist who’s in love with their patient, and vice versa. In The Affair, it’s about betrayal. So it’s always like that. I don’t see anything more interesting in the world than that.

The Affair’s fifth season on Showtime will be its last

“I remember watching House of Cards, just one episode. I couldn’t watch more – I hated it. But the main problem was they didn’t have any moral issues because they are not moral to start with. They’re cynical, bad people so where is the conflict? Where is the drama?”

Levi is now developing two more projects. The first is a remake of Scenes from a Marriage, the 1973 Swedish miniseries that starred Ingmar Bergman. Produced by Filmlance International and Media Res, it’s the first time a Bergman property has ever been remade. “That was the most influential piece of my career – that was the inspiration for In Treatment and a lot of things I did,” Levi says of the original show. “When I did The Affair, we watched it again. So when the family of Bergman approached me a couple of years ago and asked me to do the remake, it’s complicated, it’s hard, it’s very dangerous and frightening, but that’s my next project.”

The writer/director will also pick up a movie he has written, The Girl Who Learned How to Kneel, based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish author whose diaries recounted the persecution of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.

Before then, his Summer 2014 Project, to give it its working title, has the best of both worlds – Israeli creativity fuelled by a US premium cable channel – though Levi admits he hasn’t got the same budget as other HBO series like Game of Thrones or Westworld.

But Israel is well known for producing drama on a shoestring budget, building a reputation for original concepts and unexpected twists and turns.

“The equation is quite simple. If you have less money, you have more time,” Levi says. “In the US, you have to write a whole season in half a year. That’s fast, much too fast. You cannot write 13 or 15 episodes in half a year. It’s crazy. But in Israel, no one pays, so you can take the time.

“Then if you are very successful, you don’t make money. The limit is very low. You still have to struggle to pay the rent, so you better do what you want, what comes from your heart. It’s not a business. You’re more creative, you’re more personal. You’re more innovative. You work more as an artist than as a business.”

The success of Israeli drama internationally has led some to ditch this successful formula, though. “I see people trying to make something in order to sell,” Levi says. “They think about it while they’re writing and it’s not a great thing. It could spoil the industry.”

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Shades of grey

As season two of HBO’s Westworld draws to a close, co-creators and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan discuss making the series, rebooting the Western genre and their fascination with the mind-bending themes at the heart of the drama.

With overlapping timelines, dozens of characters and a premise built on mysterious and complex technology, Westworld might seem a daunting proposition for the more casual TV viewer.

Set in a colossal Wild West-themed amusement park for the super-rich, where guests’ darkest desires are fulfilled by hyper-realistic android ‘hosts,’ the HBO series has demanded its audience’s full attention from the start, trusting viewers to keep track as the rug is constantly pulled from beneath their feet by a succession of twists and reveals.

Among the many surprises of season one, the most significant was perhaps the revelation that two main characters – William and the Man in Black – were in fact the same person, depicted at two different ages.

Season two, the finale of which aired on HBO in the US last night and hits UK screens on Sky Atlantic this evening, has kept the intrigue flowing, exploring the newly sentient hosts’ quest for freedom while simultaneously taking viewers deeper into the origins of the park and its key characters.

It has also revealed the existence of at least two more parks run by the shady Delos corporation, with a British India-based location referred to as The Raj and the previously-hinted-at Shogun World, set during the Edo period of feudal Japan.

Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden play ‘hosts’ Dolores and Teddy

Lisa Joy, co-creator and co-showrunner of Westworld alongside husband Jonathan Nolan, admits there is “a lot of complexity” to the show’s “puzzle-like structure” but adds that, this time around, the show has “played the timeline stuff cards up.”

“Each season, the questions that we tee up, we do try to have an answer for all of them. We do intend to answer the questions we set up,” says Joy, whose previous TV credits include Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice.

Nolan, who has worked with his brother Christopher on blockbuster movies such as Interstellar and the Christian Bale-led Batman trilogy, adds: “We do this in part because it’s the kind of show we would like to watch, which is why it’s layered and complex.”

He compares Westworld’s weaving narrative to the film noir structure. “You start at the end and then figure out the way to the beginning. And you have the classic noir protagonist in Bernard [Jeffrey Wright], who has forgotten something important.”

It’s an approach that has at times made it necessary to withhold information from the cast – which includes big-name stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden – to “keep the story as fresh and present for them as possible.”

Ahead of season one, even acting royalty like Hopkins, who plays Westworld co-founder and park director Robert Ford, reportedly had to battle to get access to complete scripts. Wood, meanwhile, was largely kept in the dark over revelations about her character Dolores, a host who exhibits different personalities throughout the show.

Ed Harris as William/the Man in Black

“We didn’t really tell Evan anything, as we wanted her to be sort of stranded in her character’s situation, guessing what the larger story was,” Nolan says.

For season two, however, the tables were turned, with Wood being given a clearer picture of the overall story while Wright – whose character, Bernard, discovers late in season one that he is not human but a host based on the park’s other co-founder – was tasked with reacting to developments along the way.

“This season we sat down with Evan and laid out the story; for Jeffrey, we explained we weren’t going to tell him anything,” Nolan reveals.

Joy adds: “We’re lucky enough to have this tremendous cast and crew who I think are as invested in protecting the story and their character arcs as we are. So it’s actually not that hard to keep things under wraps, as we have such wonderful collaborators.”

The Wild West-themed park in which much of the action plays out sees Westworld straddle the dual genres of Western and science fiction. And while it might seem a curious combination, it’s not without precedent, following in the footsteps of the short-lived but hugely popular series Firefly as well as movies Back to the Future Part III, Cowboys & Aliens and, of course, the 1973 Westworld film on which the show is based, written and directed by Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton.

“We were fascinated by the idea of this moribund genre,” Nolan says of the Western element. “The most terrifying part of launching the show was that half of it was this dead genre. Even when Crichton wrote the original film, the Western period was on its way out.

Westworld’s second season has introduced new locations, including Shogun World

“But I think for him and for us it’s a genre that is so consistent; its rules are so simple. There are some phenomenal movies and they all have this underlying structure, which is an investigation of good and evil, free will. It’s a fascinating genre.”

“The idea of good vs evil is really quite binary – the black hat and the white hat – and what we’re trying to do is delve deeper and deeper into character, and eventually you see that everything is shades of grey,” says Joy.

The Western setting also allows for some stunning cinematography. Much of the exterior shots in the show, produced by HBO Entertainment, Kilter Films, JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and Warner Bros Television, are filmed in Utah, making use of awe-inspiring locations such as Castle Valley to illustrate the enormous scale of the Westworld park.

The expansion this season into Shogun World, meanwhile, saw Nolan and Joy draw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker known for such titles as Seven Samurai. “We had a lot of conversations about what the look and feel of that should be,” Nolan says. “We were riffing on Kurosawa, so we went back and looked at all of his films to see if there was a signature film stock or a signature aspect ratio, anything we could play with. Kurosawa was restless; he moved back and forth between black and white and colour, he moved back and forth between different aspect ratios.”

This led to increased experimentation in filming methods, with parts of Westworld being shot on anamorphic film. “When you use anamorphic lenses, your bokeh and your focus roll off in a very beautiful way and it just has a totally different, very beautiful texture to it,” Nolan explains.

Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard has struggled to come to terms with the discovery he isn’t human

The showrunner adds that the different techniques are used to suggest to the audience that things aren’t quite what they seem. “By the finale, you realise that that’s our gentle way of putting you in a virtual space,” he notes.

What proved most attractive to Nolan and Joy, however, was the opportunity to explore the themes inherent in a show about androids gaining sentience, particularly free will and the implications of artificial intelligence.

After Abrams had come to them with the idea of remaking Westworld – initially as a film before later suggesting a TV series – Nolan says the pair realised it was “everything we’re interested in and everything we’re talking about right now, in terms of artificial realities and artificial intelligence and consciousness, and human nature, which I’ve always been fascinated by – memory and morality and all this stuff that we’re made of. Looking at it from the perspective of a set of creatures made in our image was just kind of irresistible.

“My point on artificial intelligence is I’m not really sure why anyone would be writing about anything other than artificial intelligence right now. [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry would be very disappointed we’re not already there, but it does feel like we are stumbling into it a bit now. I think we’ve just got a few years left until AI shows up and tells us to stop writing about it!

“We were endlessly interested with exploring what it would be like to have an artificial consciousness – how you would perceive and understand time, how you would perceive memory. From the beginning, we said that this would be a show about the emergence of a new form of life on Earth – and that’s not a short story.”

Anthony Hopkins returned for season two despite his character being killed off in the first run’s finale

Westworld, distributed by Warner Bros Television Distribution, also examines free will from the point of view of both the hosts and the humans, with several episode titles referring to philosophical concepts relating to free will, and the question of whether it truly exists for anybody.

Season one finale The Bicameral Mind takes its name from a term coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who proffered the idea of two separate minds within every individual – one that gives instructions and another that performs them. Jaynes discussed how consciousness comes from breaking down the wall between the two by exposing the individual to new stimuli.

And tonight’s finale is called The Passenger, alluding to the notion that the conscious mind is just that: a passenger in a vehicle being driven by the subconscious, to which we are all slaves.

Nolan’s position is unequivocal. “As far as we can tell, free will is an illusion,” he says. “If you think about the beginning of The Simpsons, where Maggie has the little fake steering wheel, that’s consciousness. Marge is at the wheel; we don’t get to talk to her. We’re Maggie, looking out the window and imagining we’re making the decisions – and most of the empirical evidence suggests that we aren’t.”

Joy adds: “Humans can be reduced to some rather elementary building blocks. When you start to think about the drives that humans have, sometimes we find that we are maybe simpler than we thought, more manipulable.”

Profound stuff, and viewers can expect more in season three, which received the green light soon after the second run’s premiere. The ending of season two teases the prospect of major changes to come, with the show poised to spend more time outside its amusement parks.

“One of the things we’re excited about is the third season is our world, and we now have the fun-slash-terrifying challenge of building out what the real world looks like,” Nolan says.

Quashing any suggestion that the pair are making it up as they go along, Joy reveals that she has had an ending in mind since day one. “When we were writing the pilot, I pitched a scene to end the entire series on, and so far we have not deviated from liking that scene. As a writer, you never want to tempt a smiting from the TV gods, so I would never venture to guess how many seasons we will live for. But I do think there are tentpole moments we are trying to work towards, and hopefully we will reach our ending in the time we have.”

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Join the club

From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.

Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.

Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.

Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.

Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).

Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult

Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.

Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.

In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).

Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.

A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).

Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.

As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.

The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.

Last year, CBS was also said to be developing a limited miniseries about the kidnapping and alleged brainwashing of heiress Patty Hearst by the cult-like Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s.

Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.

There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.

Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.

The Path stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (left)

Back in January 2016, Jake Gyllenhaal was said to be developing an anthology series about cults with Jim Jones as the subject of season one, but little has been heard of the project since then.

Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).

On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.

Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.

Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.

Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.

Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.

HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.

And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.

We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).

In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.

In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).

Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).

Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.

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Lucky Strike

DQ meets stars Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger on the set of Strike, which introduces JK Rowling’s dogged detective Cormoran Strike in three new crime dramas produced for the BBC and HBO.

When it comes to iconic television fashion, there are few better examples than Sherlock’s deerstalker hat and the knitted jumpers donned by The Killing’s Sarah Lund, while every incarnation of the Time Lord in Doctor Who has their own unique and memorable style.

Next to join TV drama’s sartorial wall of fame could well be Cormoran Strike’s thick grey woollen coat, which is likely to become the must-have garment this winter following the launch of Strike, BBC1’s adaptations of the three crime novels written by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, famously published under the guise of her pen name Robert Galbraith.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, a three-part miniseries that launched in UK last Sunday, introduces private detective Strike, a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds. When a young model falls to her death from a Mayfair balcony, her brother asks Strike to investigate, unconvinced that she took her own life.

Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott alongside Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike

Two-parter The Silkworm will follow, with Strike set to explore the death of a novelist who is found brutally murdered, apparently to silence him from publishing a tell-all book about everyone he knows.

Then later this year comes Career of Evil, a grittier, darker two-parter that opens when a woman’s severed leg is delivered to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. With the police investigating a suspect who Strike is sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands as more horrendous acts occur.

When DQ visits the set of The Silkworm in March this year, Strike and Robin are inside their shared office as the former returns from a gruesome crime scene. A packet of Yorkshire Tea can be found in the kitchen area, while a map and notes are pinned up on one wall. There are business cards scattered about, an old filing system in another corner and an ashtray filled with cigarette ends on a table.

Two cameras are rolling, one focused on Holliday Grainger sitting behind a desk as Robin, when Tom Burke’s Strike comes in, wearing that soon-to-be iconic grey coat. There are plants on the nearby windowsill, while a desk lamp is on next to the computer. The scene is repeated several times and, after a short break, filming resumes with new angles and a tighter focus on the stars’ faces.

The set of Strike’s London office

The office set, with an authentic backdrop of London’s Denmark Street lit up outside the windows, is the only one that is shared across all three adaptations, while the production took great effort to film on location – and in the exact places Rowling describes in the novels.

It’s also that sense of place that helps to give each story its own identity, with producer Jackie Larkin explaining that each story is set in a different world.

“The first one is the fashion world – Mayfair and Chelsea,” she says. “The second is about the publishing and literary world. That’s a lot around west London. For book three, we did manage to have a very interesting chase sequence all over Soho one Sunday evening, locking off Frith Street and Old Compton Road.

“The shoot has been 80% location, 20% studio. It’s been great – we have had very good access. In book three, some of that happens up north so we really felt we had to go to Barrow-in-Furness. And the third book is a road movie; it’s very much about trying to find who delivered the severed leg. So that brought us to Catford, to Bow, to Whitechapel.”

Strike is described a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds

Another key landmark is The Tottenham pub, a staple of London’s bustling Oxford Street but recently renamed after a change of ownership. That meant finding another location for Strike’s preferred watering hole, in this case The Duke of York in nearby Fitzrovia, and redressing it as The Tottenham. “It’s a small, intimate pub. It feels exactly like the place Strike would be. It feels like The Tottenham in the book,” Larkin says.

Sold globally by Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Strike is produced by Rowling’s Brontë Film & Television in coproduction with HBO-owned cablenet Cinemax, and the author, who is an executive producer, has been extremely involved in the development of the series and can often be found on set during key scenes.

“She’s actually amazing,” Larkin enthuses about the author. “She comes to our read-throughs and feeds into the script. She’s so supportive of the writers and her notes are so insightful for all of us. She has the most amazing notes on character – it’s wonderful for us because she’s created them and we want to get them right.”

That’s not to say the scriptwriters – Ben Richards on The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm and Tom Edge for Career of Evil – haven’t made some departures from the stories Rowling first put on the page. “There are times when, simply because of the sheer volume of the books, to get it into two hours you have to make some trims or simplify some plot stuff. But I don’t think you would ever look at it and say, ‘I don’t recognise the book in this,’” Larkin says. “The books are such great source material that you want to try and fit as much of them into that two or three hours as you can.”

DQ visited the set Strike set during filming in March

When Strike and Robin first meet in The Cuckoo’s Calling, there’s an awkwardness in the air. He’s forgotten he’d hired a temp, while she arrives at the worst possible moment. But very quickly she makes herself indispensable – and the pair become inseparable by the end of the first story.

“They’re the heart and soul of the show, such wonderful, intelligent actors,” Larkin says of Burke and Grainger, who also won the approval of Rowling. “Tom was cast before I came on board and he fits the character so well. Then we cast Holliday a couple of weeks later. She is Robin. Ruth [Kenley-Letts], our executive producer, had an idea of who would play Strike and her instinct was absolutely right. The broadcasters loved him. And we didn’t see many people for Robin.”

War & Peace star Burke says that while reading the books, he was struck by how Strike is always eating, putting this down to the character being a fragile man looking for comfort in curries and beer. That need for comfort also comes through in his clothing, particularly his ever-present coat, which also reflects the fact Strike is constantly on the move through the three stories.

Being hidden beneath the large coat gave Burke extra time to bulk up for the role, with the actor taking up weightlifting and increasing his food intake. “I wanted to look like somebody who did drink pints regularly,” he jokes.

Grainger is coy over suggestions of romance between Strike and Robin

Besides his look, Burke had to perfect Strike’s voice, settling on a London accent with some added Cornish notes in a nod to where the character grew up. “That’s how most people sound nowadays – a lot of people just sound London and then you hear a tiny little thing [that hints at their background],” he says. “He has moved all around. It wouldn’t have been right to make him properly Cornish or properly London.”

Then there’s the prosthetic leg Strike was fitted with after losing half his right leg in a bomb explosion, which led to him being discharged from the army. “I was not stressing about it initially but I did think, ‘I need to get that right,’” Burke says of perfecting Strike’s walking pattern. “I spent a good day with this chap who was also military and has the same thing. Sometimes I just put on the sock they use on the stump, this rubbery kind of thing, and the tightness of it slightly slows your knee. That’s what you see [in Strike’s walk].”

In contrast, Grainger (The Borgias) didn’t have to look far for her inspiration to play Robin. “It’s funny, I have heard someone say there’s a lot of Jo [Rowling] in Robin – and when I read the book, I thought she was just like me, and every woman I speak to thinks Robin’s just like her,” the actor says. “I think that’s the great thing about Robin – she’s got all the likeable qualities you want to have. She’s compassionate, brave, practical, intelligent. Nice girl! I was a massive Harry Potter geek but I’d never read them until I got the part. Then I read them all in a week.

“It’s an interesting journey, as Robin’s just a layman when she starts and so she’s learning on the job, but there’s not a sense that Strike patronises her. There’s mutual respect. It’s not the usual competition you get because it’s a different balance from most detective dramas.”

While Strike and Robin share a close working partnership, there’s also a deeper connection that threatens to spill over into romance – though the actors decline to reveal whether viewers will see them hook up on screen.

“In a lot of shows like this, there’s an ‘are they/aren’t they’ thing, and I just think they are,” Burke admits. “There’s something there from the beginning and it’s a permanent blur in their periphery. It’s not like Mulder and Scully [in The X-Files], where you think they’re not but then maybe they are. It’s always there. I don’t know [whether they will]. You surrender to whatever she’s [Rowling] going to do.”

The show’s stars also share a lot of trust on the set of Strike, something they say is down to the fact they have lifted the characters they play directly from the page. “Tom feels like he’s on the same page as Jo on Strike and I feel like I was with Robin and, therefore, you are with each other because I know my idea of Strike is his idea of Strike,” Grainger explains. “When you trust you’re both thinking along the same lines, it makes decisions on set very easy. There isn’t really one to be made most of the time.”

Whether Strike and Robin do finally get together will be down to Rowling, who is currently working on the fourth book in the series, Lethal White. Until then, Burke and Grainger are left to contemplate viewers’ reactions to a show that Rowling fans will have been looking forward to with as much anticipation as a new Harry Potter novel.

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All over

Damon Lindelof looks back at three seasons of The Leftovers after the HBO drama finished earlier this year.

He tells DQ about why he was drawn to Tom Perrotta’s book for a TV adaptation, how he worked with the author to create the critically acclaimed series and why the show was reset in a new location when the book’s story was exhausted by the end of the first season.

Lindelof, whose credits also include big screen blockbusters Star Trek: Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, discusses why fear and anxiety are key to his writing process and what differences he sees between working between film and television.

The writer also looks back on hit series Lost and reveals what lessons he learned from the show, which ran for six seasons on US network ABC.

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A house divided

Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have ruffled some feathers by revealing their plans for life after Westeros. Stephen Arnell analyses their proposal for a new alternative-history drama about the Civil War.

The announcement by HBO of Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss’s new alternative-history drama Confederate has generated headlines.

With the final, truncated six-episode season of GoT still a year off, Benioff and Weiss (pictured above, Benioff on the right) appear to have lost no time in lining up their next project for the cablenet.

Coming off the back of their successful world-building in GoT, Confederate presents another scenario where the duo can create their vision of a complex society from the ground up.

According to HBO’s press release, the show “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”

Weiss and Benioff’s Game of Thrones is currently in its penultimate season

Tackling an original concept without source material (differing in this regard from GoT), Benioff and Weiss obviously believe in giving themselves enough time to map out the story in a considered fashion, especially now they have reportedly relinquished any role in the many mooted GoT spin-off series and movies.

The subject matter of Confederate is inherently controversial and the pair have already responded to the criticism they have faced since the series was announced by drawing attention to the fact that their writing partners – Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)– are black.

In an interview with Vulture, Spellman commented on the genesis of the show: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.” But in acknowledging this, he also said: “As people of colour and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”

Tramble Spellman continued: “There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With The Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”

In the same interview, Weiss stated: “It goes without saying [that] slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. That sin is still with us in many ways. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”

British actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) echoed the thoughts of some on social media that African-American and non-US Black performers may well boycott Confederate. On hearing the announcement of the show, Harewood commented on Twitter: “Good luck finding black actors for this project.”

The reboot of Roots aired on History last year

The current polarised situation in the US recently led Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein to opine that the country was experiencing a ‘Cold Civil War,’ which gives some idea of the background to the furore surrounding Confederate.

Meanwhile, the arguments over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in the southern states continue to rage, with sporadic acts of violence, illustrating the toxic atmosphere into which Confederate will launch.

Last December, TNT dropped Civil, its planned take on a contemporary US civil war, due to concerns that it may have felt “too close to home,” given the agitated mood of the US after the election of Donald Trump as president.

With the recent reboot of Roots (History), the movie Free State of Jones (2016) and 2015’s miniseries The Book of Negroes (BET), Confederate’s depiction of a fictional modern-day slave society could be viewed as insensitive, if not regressive – depending on how the material is handled.

Although blindsided by the immediate reaction to Confederate, Benioff and Weiss must now be fully aware that they will be under intense scrutiny and are presumably cognisant of the pitfalls that lie ahead of them.

Although alternative-history TV adaptations such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) have become increasingly popular, the subject of the slave-owning South either winning the Civil War or remaining in a stalemate with the North has proved understandably contentious in terms of TV and film, although it has spawned a cottage industry of novels.

The Man in the High Castle’s marketing campaign caused controversy

The granddaddy of these was Mackinlay Kantor’s 1961 If The South Had Won the Civil War, which led to a slew of American Civil War alt-history books from writers including Alex Scarrow, Larry Niven and Stephen L Carter.

The lack of a source novel of critical repute for Confederate leaves Benioff and Weiss relatively exposed – there’s no original author to use as a shield.

Confederate’s closest comparator is 2004’s low-budget feature-length mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee).

Written and directed by occasional Spike Lee co-writer Kevin Willmott, CSA combines jet-black humour and social commentary to explore what life would be like in the present day if the rebel South had won the Civil War.

Due to the biting satire of the movie, which includes mock online Slave Auctions and racist TV adverts, it has been rarely shown outside festivals and IFC, but is available on DVD.

Aside from CSA, there are two US dramas that have a passing resemblance to some of Confederate’s themes: HBO’s 1997 parodic The Second Civil War and Amerika, an ABC miniseries from 1987.

Penned by Martyn Burke (The Pentagon Wars, Pirates of Silicon Valley) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins/Small Soldiers), The Second Civil War played the setup of a US “overrun” by immigrants and refugees pretty much for satirical laughs, although one wonders what kind of reception the TV movie would receive if shown today.

The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of the current trend for depicting alternative societies

Amerika was a much more serious proposition, centring on a Soviet EMP attack on the US that disables all computer equipment and electronic communications followed by the subsequent turmoil when the country faces occupation, division and possible nuclear extinction as resistance to the Russians grows.

Playing over seven consecutive nights and apparently attracting up to 100 million viewers during its run, Amerika is a curious relic of the 1980s late Cold War era, although some may find in the series an element of prophecy, bearing in mind the cyber-wars currently being waged across the world.

Possible alternate outcomes to the Civil War were tackled in a broader fashion in TV series including The Time Tunnel and The Wild Wild West, while action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter improbably gave the author of The Gettysburg Address a side-line in slaying the undead.

As Confederate has yet to reach script stage, the burden of expectation the show faces is perhaps unfair – but could HBO in effect be ‘lancing the boil’ by announcing it so far ahead of its likely 2019 transmission date?

One potentially major problem will be in the marketing of the show. Back in 2015 the first season of The Man in the High Castle’s ad campaign proved extremely controversial and Nazi and Imperial Japan-themed subway ads in NY had to be pulled.

How will HBO promote Confederate? It’s going to be an unenviable challenge, but HBO has always prided itself on its ability and willingness to break new ground.

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On the Boardwalk

Formerly a writer on The Sopranos, Terence Winter is best known as the creator of fellow HBO drama Boardwalk Empire.

In this DQ interview, he discusses the origins of the latter series, his approach to showrunning and how he emulated the style of his mentor, The Sopranos creator David Chase.

He also discusses the fate of Vinyl, the HBO music industry series he created with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger that ran for just one season, and his future plans in television.

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There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

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Lindelof joins Drama Summit West line-up

Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.

You can see the full line-up and register online by CLICKING HERE.

Damon Lindelof

Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.

As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.

Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.

Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.

Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.

British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.

The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.

A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.

Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.

The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.

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End Game

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss discussed on-set disasters, character deaths, celeb cameos and plans for life after the fantasy series during a keynote chat in Austin.

Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss set the scene for one of the most anticipated series finales in TV history during a discussion at the South by Southwest festival.

The duo filled to capacity the Austin Convention Center’s 2,400-person main ballroom for a Q&A, moderated by GoT stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (who play Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, respectively, in the show), that was for the most part loose and playful.

Nevertheless, the talk revealed a few news items for hardcore fans – notably that GoT’s final season will consist of just six episodes, and that the forthcoming seventh season will see musician Ed Sheeran make a cameo appearance.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark alongside Kit Harington as Jon Snow

Topics ran the gamut from Benioff and Weiss’s favourite on-screen deaths to tales of on-set disasters. Discussing the show’s controversial portrayal of women, Weiss said the writers had been drawn to the strong and complex portrayal of female characters in George RR Martin’s books, the source material for the series, from the start.

“We realised it’s an awful world this story takes place in, but there were more compelling female characters in the books who had agency, who were out there,” Weiss said. “They weren’t secondary to anybody – they weren’t anybody’s women or wives. They had their own storylines in this world. It seemed like a very actress-centric show from the source material.”

Elsewhere, Benioff expressed exasperation at the prospect of trying to stop spoilers leaking out each season, given the show’s huge cast and crew. “Even the CIA can’t keep information private, so how can we do it?” he joked, adding that, ultimately, it is up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to spoil the show’s revelations. “I’m not someone who reads the last page of a book first,” he said.

Maisie Williams plays Arya Stark

The showrunners also revealed that GoT’s four writers had argued over who would get to write what for the drama’s final season. “We have two of the writers on the staff, and the four of us get together in a room and break down [the story],” Weiss said. “Usually it takes two minutes to decide. This time it took 18 emails back and forth, because we realised it was the last time we’d be doing the show.”

He added that Dave Hill, who began writing for the show on season five, would pen the final season’s premiere.

Benioff said the aim for the drama – which returns to HBO for season seven on July 16 – from the beginning had been essentially “to tell a 70-hour movie.” He added that he was “relatively happy that we’ve managed to keep everyone together and tell it the way we want to.”

As for the post-GoT future, Weiss said his focus was entirely on finishing the series. “We’ve discussed things but, honestly, this show is a 24/7 thing,” he said, adding jokingly that his only real plan was “sitting in a cool, dark room for two months” once the show wrapped.

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Kings of the wild frontier

Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.

Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.

The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).

Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).

Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.

Tim Roth in forthcoming Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star

The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.

As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.

The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.

Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.

After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.

Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).

The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.

Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.

At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).

Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.

The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.

As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).

But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.

Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.

Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).

The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.

BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.

And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.

From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.

In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.

Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.

Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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Stranger than fiction?

As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.

It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.

Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.

After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.

Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live

Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?

After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.

So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?

Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.

Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.

Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons
Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons

He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.

A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.

George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.

At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.

The West Wing
The West Wing aired during George Bush Jr’s administration

Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.

Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.

Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”

Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.

The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.

Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.

Graves
Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president, began airing in October

Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.

Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).

The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.

This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).

Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).

Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.

Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.

Madam Secretary
How will shows like Madam Secretary react to Trump’s tenure?

Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.

It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?

It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.

Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?

All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.

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Classic sci-fi novels – TV’s new frontier

Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.

As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.

This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.

To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle’s second season launches on Amazon next month

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.

The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.

11.22.63
11.22.63 is based on a story by Stephen King

11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.

The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End aired on Syfy last year

Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).

The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.

The Expanse
The Expanse centres on Earth’s response to overpopulation

The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.

With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.

Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.

In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.

Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.

Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.

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Scripted series battle to get noticed

Humans' season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing
Humans’ season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing

The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.

The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…

The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.

The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic
The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic

This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.

This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of

Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.

The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.

Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic
Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.

Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.

Goliath looks likely to secure a second season
Goliath looks likely to secure a second season

Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.

offspring
Offspring will get a seventh season next year

One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.

Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.

In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.

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