Tag Archives: History

Sailing with Vikings

With 70 episodes now under his belt, series creator and writer Michael Hirst tells DQ how the world of Vikings continues to grow each season.

While the popularity of writers rooms outside the US grows apace, Michael Hirst is bucking the trend. As the creator of historical drama Vikings, the British writer has penned all 70 episodes of the series across five seasons since it first launched in 2013.

Filmed in Ireland, the show centres on Ragnar (played by Travis Fimmel, above), a restless young warrior and family man who longs to find and conquer new lands across the sea and claim the spoils as his own.

“It’s been a joy,” he says of the series, which is making its UK free TV debut this Sunday, February 26, on A+E Networks-owned Blaze. The second half of season four debuts on History UK in April. “It’s a great privilege to work in Ireland with the crew we have and our heads of department who I think are just geniuses.

Michael Hirst (left) at Comic Con last year alongside stars Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick

“When we started season one, we had one boat. We had one studio stage with the great hall and probably one other building; and outside on the backlot we had a bit of [the village of] Kattegat and about five or six buildings. Now, Kattegat goes on forever, for acres and acres, we have God-knows-how-many boats and we’ve used thousand of extras. It’s just grown – it’s been a hell of a journey.”

Vikings aside, Hirst is best known for other historical series such as The Tudors and Camelot, and big-screen outings including Elizabeth (1998). Following that film, he paired up with producer Working Title Films to develop a film about Alfred the Great, the English monarch who successfully defeated an attempted Viking conquest.

It was the first time the writer had encountered the Nordic warriors and he quickly became fascinated by them. The movie never materialised but, years later, MGM asked if he was interested in turning Kurt Douglas’s 1958 film Vikings into a TV series. “Of course I was,” he says.

Later on, during the pitch to US cable channel History, which subsequently commissioned the series, Hirst was asked how he would market the show to viewers. “I said I would take a huge billboard and put it on Sunset Boulevard and have the word ‘Vikings’ on it,” he recalls. “It’s one of those subjects and words that is universally recognised. Immediately it brings to mind what turned out to be clichés, but it conjures up these warriors. That’s been a blessing because it works across the world. It’s one of the few things that is almost universal.”

Fimmel (left) has played lead character Ragnar Lothbrok for four seasons

Vikings is an Ireland-Canada coproduction from Take 5 Productions and Octagon Films, with the show now airing around the world via distributor MGM.

The broadness and universality of the title could have been both a blessing and a curse for Hirst – global audiences could immediately identify with the subject matter, but how would the writer create a compelling drama from such a vast landscape of potential characters and conflict?

“I was given a blank canvas,” he admits. “We just had a title so it was up to me to give it shape. There were various Viking leaders that I discussed with Justin Pollard, my historical advisor, and what came out of those discussions was that Ragnar was really the first great Viking leader to emerge from the mists of myth and legend, so he seemed like a good place to start. I wanted to start at the beginning of the Viking age; to try and find what that actually meant.”

The focus on Ragnar was also determined by the fact he had several sons, including Ivar the Boneless and Björn Ironside, who also became famous. “It’s well known that the only thing [the real] Ragnar was afraid of was that his sons would become more famous than he was,” Hirst continues. “So I knew from the start I wasn’t just limited to my lead character. This was a family saga, this is the story of Ragnar and his sons and, of course – spoiler alert – we kill Ragnar in season four but we’ve gone from strength to strength afterwards, dramatising the consequences of his death and the exploits of his sons. So that was a good way to think about a long-running show.”

Katheryn Winnick plays Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha

Hirst was also able to add greater depth to Ragnar’s character when research uncovered the fact that this particular Viking believed he was a descendent of the Norse God Odin, who is associated with battles and war but also poetry and knowledge.

“So Ragnar, my hero, would take after his ancestor and he wouldn’t be travelling abroad or raiding for plunder,” Hirst declares. “He would be motivated by curiosity. We then had a central character who could be extremely sympathetic while still being a Viking.”

Research plays a key role in the show, though Hirst admits that much is unknown about the real Vikings, owing to the fact they didn’t document their own history. Therefore, most of what is known is taken from accounts from their enemies – but the writer says his series is partly an attempt to reconfigure attitudes towards Vikings and shift views away from the clichés and stereotypes.

As a result, everything in the show, from storylines to characters, comes from research. “Then, of course, I have to make drama,” Hirst says. “But I never take the characters or the story far away from the facts I know. Everything can relate back to the storylines that I know are historically real, if one believes the historical accounts.

“There’s no such thing as historical accuracy, at least not in drama, but I try to be as authentic and truthful and plausible as possible.”

Hirst’s duties on Vikings are not just limited to being the creator and writer. He’s also an exec producer and is, in effect, the showrunner, though one who enjoys the collaborative nature of television.

The scale of Vikings’ production has grown with every season

“TV drama is collaborative or it’s nothing,” he admits. “I hate hearing stories of showrunners who try to micromanage shows and who eventually prevent other very creative people from offering suggestions and changing scripts and things. I’m very open to these people’s suggestions and I encourage the creativity of as many people who want to contribute. It’s a richer and more rewarding experience as a result.”

That collaboration also extends to the cast who, after five seasons playing their respective characters, are as invested in Vikings as Hirst. The writer says he wants his cast to feel engaged in the creative process and welcomes their thoughts and comments.

“In season one, everyone’s finding their way and they tend to accept the script more,” he says. “But I would say that scripts in TV and movies are just working documents. It’s not like a play or a novel – it’s not real, it’s just a guide to what’s going to be shot. There’s an amazing thing when you’re in production, you’ve written a scene and the set’s been dressed. The actors come on set and rehearse their lines, then when you look through the camera lens, everything’s different.”

Hirst credits part of the show’s success to its now-departed leading man Fimmel, who he describes as “just magnificent.” He adds: “I envy viewers who are beginning this journey and watching Travis’s evolution as Ragnar. It’s just a stunning performance for many seasons and episodes, it’s a remarkable achievement. Lagertha, his wife (played by Katheryn Winnick), is now as well known as Ragnar. History is a male-skewed channel but it’s got a huge female audience for Vikings and it’s largely because of Lagertha, this shield maiden, this warrior. Someone said to me there’s no one else like her on US TV – she’s a wife, a mother and she kicks ass.”

As you might expect from a show about a band of ninth century warriors, there’s a more than a touch of violence in Vikings, but Hirst stresses that he made a point not to be gratuitous when it comes to the fight sequences.

“Of course it is violent but what we try to be is innovative and interesting in all the fights and battle sequences,” he argues. “I don’t think there’s a show as good as Vikings on TV for showing battles and combat. It’s partly because we focus totally on the individuals, on the characters, so the audience is invested in the life and death of the characters. We don’t have all these visual-effects armies of identical warriors rushing around everywhere. We’ve been really clever about that and been praised for the way we do our battle sequences.”

From its modest origins in season one to the vastness of the 20-episode fifth season, which visits Iceland and the Mediterranean and is due to launch in the US this year, Vikings continues to grow in scale every year. With Hirst confident there will be at least one more 20-episode season to come, there’s no telling where Vikings will land next.

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Two from Six

Six stars Walton Goggins and Barry Sloane reveal the challenges of playing Navy SEALS on screen as they star in History’s military drama Six, which sees these modern American warriors embark on a covert mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan, only for events to go awry when they uncover a US citizen working with terrorists.

The series is produced by A+E Studios in association with Weinstein Television and distributed by A+E Networks.

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Lesli Linka Glatter

Director Lesli Linka Glatter is behind the first two episodes of History’s Navy SEALs drama Six, which launches next month. She tells DQ more about the series, produced and distributed by A+E Studios, and how she pieced together one of her favourite scenes.

I’m pulled to certain kinds of themes. On Six, I was drawn to the fact that people are being put in extraordinary circumstances and are forced to deal with who they really are.

I’m very interested in the idea of what price you pay for serving your country. How do you balance a life of service with a personal life? That’s intriguing to me and it’s complicated, complex and multi-layered. It also takes some digging. Things are not what they appear. You have to dig deep to find out what’s going on.

Lesli Linka Glatter
Lesli Linka Glatter

We’re in the golden age of TV now. The amount of extraordinary storytelling going on in TV is really exciting and there’s been a real shift in television for directors. Now we have to make TV look like a feature film, but you only have a few days. On Homeland, for which I’m an executive producer/director, we shoot an episode in nine days. That’s a very challenging thing to do. With Six, we’re doing a military show and that’s also very challenging! You have to be very clear on what story you’re telling. You want to spend all your time on the dollar scenes, not the 25 cent scenes.

Whether you’re doing 12 episodes or eight episodes, like with Six, you want every one to be fantastic. We tried to set something up in the pilot showing that these men feel more in control when they’re in battle than they do at home. There’s a set of rules you follow in battle and you know your teammates have your back – whereas at home, you don’t have that same control.

Hopefully the material dictates what the director’s style will be. The material has to tell you what it is, rather than the director imposing something on top of it. I hope everything I do feels different. I wouldn’t compare Six with any other shows I’ve worked on like Twin Peaks, Homeland or Mad Men. They’ve all been completely different. That’s what excites me as a director. What interests me are stories about people and the choices they make.

Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) is among the cast of Six
Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) is among the cast of Six

On Six, we were exploring this idea that we’re used to seeing war footage from hand-held cameras. So we decided to do the opposite. Because the SEALs have a sense of control on a mission, we ended up shooting those scenes with a steadicam and dolly – and we used hand-held cameras for their home life, which is filled with unknowns and things there’s no way to control. We flipped it on its ear. That was something exciting to me and Bill Broyles, the writer.

It was amazing to work with our technical advisor Mitch Hall, a former SEAL who has worked on films such as Zero Dark Thirty. He’s an extraordinary guy. We had two other SEAL advisors who were there to ensure we were being true to what they do. It’s a story, not a documentary, but having them was really essential.

The first sequence we did with them was when the SEAL team was on a mission to take out a high-value target in a small village in Afghanistan. We went to the set and I asked Mitch what he would do if he had to enter the target’s building. He and the advisors walked me through it and it was extraordinary. I then shot the scene based on what they told me. The way the SEALs work is they get in and get out. They don’t want to be seen or heard; they don’t want to engage in a firefight. It’s very strategic and tactical. The movement is very balletic but, of course, they have guns. It was amazing for me to watch.

I just love being a storyteller. Even on the hard days, I’m grateful I do what I do.

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Drama veteran

Writer William Broyles Jr tells DQ how he leaned on his own military experience to deliver Six, History’s forthcoming original drama that centres on a group of elite Navy SEALs.

He’s made his name in feature films, with credits including Apollo 13, Cast Away, Planet of the Apes and Flags of Our Fathers.

But for his next project – History’s military drama Six – William Broyles Jr has turned to the small screen to tell the story of a group of Navy SEALs who must overcome adversity when their mission goes awry.

William Broyles Jr
William Broyles Jr

The eight-part series centres on the members of Navy SEAL Team Six, who are sent on a mission to Nigeria where an armed gang has attacked a school – at the same time taking hostage a former commander of the elite unit.

Broyles Jr has created the series with his son, David Broyles, with the pair executive producing the series alongside brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Alfredo Barrios Jr, George W Perkins and Bruce C McKenna. McKenna, Barrios and Karen Campbell wrote the episodes with William and David Broyles, while Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland, Mad Men) directed the first two episodes.

Despite his prominent movie background, Broyles Jr’s career started in television with ABC drama China Beach. Set during the Vietnam war, the show focused on the personal stories of the soldiers, their families and others involved.

This theme is also central to Six, which spends as much time with the Navy SEALs at home as it does in battle.

Both William and David Broyles are veterans – the latter having served in the SEALs and the US Army’s elite special operations unit Delta Force in Iraq and Afghanistan – and it is their unique relationship with the military that forms the bedrock of the drama.

“I’d been to Vietnam myself and knew what it was like to be a warrior and to come home, but from David’s experience I learned what it was like to be the family at home, when someone you love is off at war and at risk,” Broyles Jr explains. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to do this project together because we both have this experience of being in two long, complex wars with not completely positive outcomes.

“Plus I didn’t want anybody else to do this show because I knew they’d screw it up! It’s an important show about what’s going on in the world right now.”

Walton Goggins in Six, which launches on History next year
Walton Goggins in Six, which launches on History next year

Like the writing team behind Six, the drama is also a family affair, showing the special bonds that form between members of a unit such as the SEALs. “These men, who are the elite of the elite, have been fighting together for years and have formed a close-knit family,” Broyles Jr says. “At the same time, they go back and forth between missions. They leave on one hour’s notice and go to somewhere extraordinarily dangerous, but they can’t tell anyone where they’re going. And when they come back, they can’t tell anybody where they’ve been.

“The transition between taking part in most intense warrior combat there is and taking out the garbage, fixing the car and taking the kids to school is incredible, and they do it overnight. This show is not just about the most elite military unit in the world, they are also trying to have a home life and that’s really difficult and complex. The price they pay is immense. They love it; they wouldn’t do anything else, but in terms of cost and sacrifice, their families are essentially at war as well.”

In a television landscape where superheroes can be found saving the world on a regular basis, Six also aims to show that the characters at the centre of this story still fret about the day-to-day problems we all face, despite the extraordinary pressures that come with being a Navy SEAL.

“These guys aren’t bulletproof superheroes, but they are heroes because they’re human and still have doubts and stresses at home,” Broyles Jr notes. “If their car breaks down, they might not be able to fix it until their next pay cheque, or their daughter might not be able to have extra tuition. Financial pressures are very real to them and they give up the American dream so the rest of us can live it.”

The series contrasts soldiers's professional and private lives
The series contrasts soldiers’s professional and private lives

With William and David working behind the scenes, authenticity is key to the series. But the History drama – which is due to air in early 2017 after casting changes pushed back the original July debut – also employed two former SEALs as advisors, who were on hand to discuss everything from the story and wardrobe to props and the way scenes were shot.

“The combat is done in an incredibly authentic way,” Broyles Jr says. “We’re going to be deeply immersed in it, but also in the SEALs’ home life as well. You’re going to feel the bonds that these men share with each other and how they work almost non-verbally together.

“The filming style we used in the combat sequences is very personal because people live and die, and we decided to make the cameras very still and steady. It’s not like the usual hand-held confusion. But when they get home, that’s when the camera’s not so stable ¬– because they’re less confident at home than when they’re at work.”

Part of pre-production involved putting the cast – including Barry Sloane and Walter Goggins – through their paces at a SEAL bootcamp for five days, where they got a taste of the mental and physical exertion real SEALs endure on a daily basis.

“You can act being in combat but what you can’t act is that team bonding, the brotherhood, and they’ve told me they’re closer to their co-stars now than people they’ve known their whole lives, because they’ve seen each other at their most vulnerable,” William reveals. “It was a pretty intense process.”

William and David came on board Six after being approached by Harvey Weinstein, who came up with the idea of a show about SEAL Team Six after reading about Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. Each season of the show will focus on a different theatre of war, this first starting in Africa.

But despite Broyles Jr’s film credentials, and those of Weinstein, he says he couldn’t imagine doing Six on the big screen.

“The whole essence of the show is the ongoing effect of this experience on the characters and their families,” he explains. “To do that, you have to unfold it over time. TV gives you the chance to do the serialised storytelling Charles Dickens did so brilliantly, where the audience gets involved with the characters and the actors get involved in their characters and they exist over time, not just in a shooting schedule.

“That’s the beauty of quality TV these days – you can tell these stories over time with the depth and luxury of character development. I would never do this as a film, ever!”

Click on the following links to see previews of Six via actor Barry Sloane’s Twitter account:
Part one | Part two | Part three

 

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Roots revival starts strongly

Roots' first episode drew more than five million viewers
Roots’ debut drew more than five million viewers

When US network ABC broadcast its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, it attracted a staggering audience of 28.8 million. This achievement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the network had no real confidence that a show about slavery would rate well.

A+E Networks never stood a chance of matching that figure with its updated version of the miniseries, but it will be delighted with the audience it achieved on Monday night. All told, 5.3 million tuned in to premiere of the eight-part drama, which aired across four sister channels – A&E, History, Lifetime and LMN. That figure is the best same-day debut for a miniseries since 2013’s Bonnie & Clyde.

Whether Roots can sustain that level of performance remains to be seen. An IMDb score of 7.1 suggests that the audience is either lukewarm about the show or polarised. The possibility of a polarised audience raised its head when rapper Snoop Dogg took to social media to complain about the number of black-focused films and TV shows that tackle slavery. “When are you going to make a series about the success black folks is having?” he wrote.

UnREAL
UnREAL has been given a third season before its second has begun

The show’s producer, Will Packer, rejected the criticism. In an interview, he said: “I don’t think we should get too comfortable as a country, as a society or as a race of people. I think this is a story that’s important enough that it should be told in repeated ways.”

The good news for Packer and A&E is that critics are on their side. Giving the show four stars, The Daily Telegraph applauded the “towering performance” of Malachi Kirby in the role of Kunta Kinte, while The Wrap called it “an enormously gripping experience” that is “spectacularly shot” and “exceptionally well acted.”

A&E can also take comfort from the fact that international broadcasters have bought into Roots in a big way. A&E Studios International has sold the show to broadcasters in more than 50 territories, including SBS in Australia, TVNZ in New Zealand, Thai PBS in Thailand, D’Live in South Korea, Atresmedia in Spain, HBO Europe, RTL in the Netherlands and Crave in Canada.

Good Witch
Good Witch is Hallmark’s top-performing drama

Another positive story for the A+E family has been Lifetime’s satirical drama UnREAL, co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The show didn’t have an especially strong debut but a shrewd piece of online streaming during the first half of season one helped it find its audience. You can see this in the numbers. Having drifted from 815,000 at launch to 550,000 for episode four, it then bounced backed to around 810,000 for episode five, also boosting its appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds. Subsequently it managed to bring in around 700,000 per episode.

Season two is about to air, but such is Lifetime’s confidence in UnREAL that it has just announced a third series of 10 episodes in 2017. A big part of the show’s appeal to Lifetime is that it is helping to bring down the average viewer age of the network – with a median age of 43.

Commenting on the commission, Liz Gateley, executive VP and head of programming for Lifetime, said, “UnREAL is that rare series that redefines a network. It not only reflects culture, but pushes culture forward by creating television’s first female antihero. The overwhelming fan and critical reaction set the bar incredibly high, but the writers and executive producing team, coupled with the outstanding performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, have taken the second season to even greater creative heights. We are thrilled about the new ground we will break with season three.” An added bonus is that the show is produced by A+E Studios.

Versailles
Versailles’ UK debut, on BBC2, did well

Another leading female-skewing network, Hallmark, has also just announced plans to renew one of its key series. The show is Good Witch, which comes to the end of season two on June 19. Having established itself as Hallmark’s top drama with an audience of around 2-2.5 million per episode, Good Witch has now been given a third season by the channel. Set in the small community of Middleton, Good Witch tells the story of a good-hearted enchantress and her teenage daughter who shares her powers.

Elsewhere, Fear The Walking Dead seems to have fallen into a nice stable pattern for AMC. Now in the middle of its second season, it attracts between 4.4 million and 4.5 million an episode on its first showing. This then rises by a couple of million when Live + 3-day viewing is tallied up. Clearly these figures aren’t in the same league as The Walking Dead, but there isn’t a cable channel in the US that wouldn’t want to attract this magnitude of audience.

Finally, Canal+’s lavish period drama Versailles launched on BBC2 in the UK this week on the back of plenty of hype in the media. Having been described as a “bonkbuster” by The Sun Newspaper and the “most explicit” drama ever by The Daily Express, it’s no real surprise that the show attracted a healthy 1.8 million viewers. The acid test, of course, will be how the show settles once the audience has satisfied its curiosity about the sex quotient…

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The opium of the TV drama business

TV drama, for all its dynamism, is guilty of numerous clichés. One that pops up repeatedly is the portrayal of religious folk as friendless nut jobs, murderous psychopaths or boring killjoys.

Harlan Coben’s The Five and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley both placed credulous Christians with a soft spot for mass murderers at the heart of their plotlines, while the arch-villain in Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is a Catholic priest (superbly played by Paddy Considine) who would have made the Spanish Inquisition squirm – though to be fair to Knight, he also deploys religion very skillfully in his story through the use of former Quaker Linda.

There are three reasons for TV’s reliance on this trope. The first is the growing belief in secular societies that anyone who sincerely adheres to a monotheistic creationist stance is naïve at best, delusional at worst. This Richard Dawkins-inspired view of the world is then used to create caricature believers.

The second is that the image of a badass in a dog collar still seems to enthrall writers and audiences. Sometimes, this is because it addresses the duplicity of evil masquerading as good. At other times, it is because it can act as the catalyst for a story about divine retribution.

And the third is that ordinary believers – the kind who help in soup kitchens and save starving people – don’t make great TV. When not being used to cause mayhem or spout evangelical inanities, people of faith are anal, oppositional forces to main characters in TV drama who are typically much more morally ambivalent.

Whatever the creative rationale for the TV industry’s portrayal of contemporary religion, it continues to have a big influence on content – as we can see from the following scripted series. And to be fair to the TV sector, it doesn’t always do a bad job.

Preacher-smallPreacher: This new 10-part AMC production is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Adapted for TV by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Caitlin, it tells the story of a small-town preacher who becomes possessed by an alien entity. He then sets off on a mission to find God, accompanied by an Irish vampire. This is an example of the badass preacher trope that stretches all the way back to Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.

greenleafsmallGreenleaf: Launching on June 21, Greenleaf is an Oprah Winfrey-backed production for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It follows the unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family, which runs a Memphis megachurch with predominantly African-American members. The series was created by Craig Wright, who is known for his work on series like Six Feet Under and Lost. Wright has a Masters in Divinity from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this subject matter. Oprah is already fending off critics of the show’s controversial subject matter, which is expected to cover dubious tax arrangements, marital infidelity, sexual abuse cover-ups and the extraordinary wealth of some megachurch ministers. In a recent interview, she said: “I am not going to do anything that disrespects the church. I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”

hand-of-god-amazon-smallHand of God: An Amazon series starring Ron Perlman, Hand of God is the story of a corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Created by Ben Watkins, it received a second season order in December 2015 despite modest reviews and feedback. This one is a kind of hybrid delusional/kick-ass Christian setup.

midwinterMidwinter of the Spirit: Based on the books by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit is a three-part drama that first aired on ITV Encore. Adapted by Stephen Volk, it’s actually not a bad portrayal of a Christian central character. It tells the story of a divorced female priest who works as an exorcist while struggling to bring up her increasingly rebellious teenage daughter. Anna Maxwell Martin does a nice job as the protagonist.

Seth-Gilliam-the-walking-dead-lgsmallThe Walking Dead: Such a good series for so many reasons, The Walking Dead (created by Robert Kirkman, with Scott M Gimple the showrunner) has explored the notion of faith very well in the shape of Father Gabriel Stokes, who has managed to retain his faith despite the unfortunate emergence of a zombie apocalypse. His human failings are apparent in the early series but are not really used as a way of attacking the notion of faith-based philosophies. He finds a way to develop human strength without relinquishing his faith.

Adam-PricesmallRides Upon the Storm: From Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured), this promises to be an insightful exploration of faith in modern society. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action,” says Price. “I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying curiosity.”

the-path-aaron-paul-image_1531.0.0The Path: A Hulu series starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), The Path follows a man who is part of a cult that follows a fictional religion called Meyerism. It focuses on his crisis of faith and the cult’s increasingly paranoid relationship with its members and the world. The recently renewed show is written by a team headed by Jessica Goldberg, who also created it.

exorcist-tv-seriesThe Exorcist: A TV adaptation of the iconic movie, The Exorcist was picked up as a series by Fox on May 10. The pilot, written by Jeremy Slater, was described as “a serialised psychological thriller following two very different men tackling one family’s case of horrifying demonic possession, and confronting the face of true evil.” If this is anything like the film then the priests won’t come out of this too badly, subject to the usual human frailties.

leftoverssmallThe Leftovers: HBO’s acclaimed series is widely acknowledged to be a serious exploration of religion. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta, it explores what happens when 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Christopher Eccleston excels as a minister who tries to reconcile the event with his own belief system. Not surprisingly, various cults arise in the aftermath of the event including a sinister group called The Guilty Remnant. Perrotta created the TV series alongside Damon Lindelof.

vikings-ragnar-rollosmallVikings: What is Vikings doing in here, you may ask? Well, there is a general unease among Christians about the way they are portrayed in Michael Hirst’s History channel series. The complaint is well summarised by the Catholic Herald, which explores the way in which audiences seem to prefer bad behaviour to moral rectitude. Somewhere in here there is a more general point about crisis of confidence in all institutions.

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Remaking Roots: How History reimagined the classic miniseries

Telling the story of an African man sold into slavery in the US, miniseries Roots became a cultural sensation upon its release in 1977. Now, History hopes to make a similar impact with a remake of the iconic show. DQ meets the cast and crew.

There’s no denying that remakes are in vogue. From film-to-TV adaptations to reboots of classic television series, the 2016/17 broadcast season will be littered with a host of familiar stories and titles.

Some of the films getting small-screen versions include The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon, Taken, Emerald City (based on The Wizard of Oz), Training Day, Frequency and Time After Time.

And new versions of MacGyver, Prison Break and 24 will join long-running Hawaii Five-0 among the series enjoying a new life this fall.

Before then, however, US cable channel History has chosen to remake classic slavery drama Roots for a new generation of viewers, almost 40 years after Alex Haley’s iconic novel was first adapted for television.

Launching on May 30 and airing over four consecutive nights simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime, the A+E Networks series is described as a historical portrait of American slavery recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite hardship.

Malachi Kirby on set as Kunta Kinte alongside exec producer LeVar Burton, who played the same character in the original series
Malachi Kirby on set as Kunta Kinte alongside exec producer LeVar Burton, who played the same character in the original series

Spanning multiple generations, the story begins with young Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby, pictured top) who is captured in his homeland in The Gambia and transported in brutal conditions to colonial America, where he is sold into slavery.

Throughout the series, the family continues to face adversity while bearing witness and contributing to notable events in US history – including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and eventual emancipation.

“It’s pretty surreal on a lot of levels, coming back to the same project but on the other side of the camera this time,” says co-executive producer LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 miniseries. “Being present for scenes that I was a part of or witnessed 40 years ago, with a different cast of actors and technicians around – it’s like someone who’s been married several times! It’s kind of a weird experience. And one that is so fraught with pressure and a sense of responsibility. It’s always there, it never goes away.”

The original series was a critical and commercial hit for ABC. On average, more than 80 million people watched each of the last seven episodes, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Some 100 million viewers – almost half the country – saw the final episode.

Anika Noni-Rose and Laurence Fishburne also star
Anika Noni Rose and Laurence Fishburne also star

It also scored a host of awards, winning Emmys including Best Limited Series, Best Director, Best Music Composition and Best Writing in a Drama.

While the drama captivated a nation, it also proved a catalyst for people to learn more about the US slave trade and race relations, having a lasting impact in schools and universities less than 10 years after the battle for civil rights dominated the 1960s.

And that legacy is something the cast and creative team of the new Roots miniseries are only too aware of.

Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kizzy, says: “I don’t feel pressure (to repeat the success of the original adaptation). I feel a joyous responsibility, which is greater than just a responsibility to the original – it’s also a cultural responsibility. This story is owed to so many people who came before us, all of us. But it’s a wonderful thing to have the honour of telling a story of such an intense survival.”

For executive producer Mark Wolper, there’s an added element of responsibility in the fact that his father, David, produced the original adaptation. “We could not have taken on a more difficult, ridiculous notion than remaking Roots,” he says. “The equivalent would be remaking one of the greatest films of all time – we’re trying to do Casablanca again or Singin’ in the Rain. But in the TV world, we’re taking on one of the most successful dramas of all time.

Anna Paquin
Anna Paquin admits she was ‘a little apprehensive’ about taking a role in the drama

“There’s a historical responsibility of telling the story even better than Alex did the first time because of all the work that’s been done since then to improve civil rights. There’s also a responsibility to represent cultural issues in America and globally now, with forced migration and slavery; a responsibility to the History channel, which has a brand and identity; to A&E Studios, which is producing one of its first projects. There’s a responsibility to the legacy of my father and what he produced. All these things on top of this project make it exciting – and scary.”

Although Wolper calls the new Roots a “completely different imagining” of Haley’s story, he admits it is a remake, adding: “But if you remember something being great and you go back and look at it now and think, ‘It’s not as strong as I remember it,’ you should do it again. If you remember something being great and you go back and it’s still great, you shouldn’t touch it.

“The original was made in the 70s. We have the capacity to make it better now, technically speaking. My son was the catalyst for me deciding to do Roots again. He did not respond to the original Roots and since it is a family event, I was disturbed by the fact the old one didn’t speak to him. It’s like my music, it didn’t speak to him, so that was the catalyst for me realising why we needed to tell this story again and translate it for a whole new generation, for a generation that didn’t know of it.”

Burton adds: “That’s the most compelling reason – to tell this story so that we don’t forget it, so it stays alive in cultural consciousness. It’s a sense of doing this important story more justice in a modern context.”

Oscar winner Forest Whitaker also plays a part
Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is among the big names appearing in the series

Rose was cast in the miniseries after meeting Wolper and finding out more about his ambitions for a new version of Roots. “I was satisfied in that meeting that it was something that was respectful, and that made a great difference to me,” she says, adding that she avoided watching the original series before or during filming.

“I had read the book as an adult just to read the book, but I’m a reader. I love to read. My parents had the book and I snatched it up and ate it, basically. So I re-read the book, which is not an easy read, to bring myself to this. In some ways, it was extraordinarily helpful just to know the genealogical history of the family, but this wasn’t necessarily immediately helpful in telling this story. Not all things we took with us and utilised.”

The cast also includes big-name stars Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anna Paquin, who also hadn’t watched the original, or read the book, when she signed up to play Nancy Holt.

“I’m just appropriately respectful of the fact that I’m not American, it’s not my story and it’s very important. I wanted to make sure if you’re going to tell someone else’s story, you’re doing it properly and in the appropriate way,” the New Zealander says. “Also, I wasn’t dying to play someone who was evil, so I was a little apprehensive about being white and in Roots. It depended on what I had to do, because there are some things I don’t think I creatively need to explore.

“So then reading the script and finding out she’s essentially a spy and essentially a deeply good person, which matters to me, was really fascinating. And then educating myself more about that period of time, I did a lot of reading and research. It was fascinating.”

LeVar Burton (right) in the original Roots
LeVar Burton (right) in the original Roots

Leading the cast, however, is newcomer Malachi Kirby, who stars as the young Kunta Kinte. “Malachi has an amazing intensity and he embodies both the fire and the heart of a warrior,” says Burton, who shot to fame in the same role and went on to play Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Ultimately, you have to fall in love with Kunta; you have to root for him in order for the story to be successful. If you don’t imprint upon the hero in the opening chapters of the story, you don’t care what comes next.”

Filming took place in Louisiana last summer, with Rose describing the shoot as “physically gruelling.” She recalls: “It was Louisiana in August. It’s not nice in August. It’s unkind, actually, but that serves the story because the time wasn’t nice and they were essentially living August in Louisiana every damn day. But it wasn’t one of those things where we tried to make it gruelling so we could talk about it later and talk about our struggle as artists, it was just how it happened to be. It allowed it to be even a truer tribute to the people whose life this was.”

Wolper says Roots became “the most difficult and complex thing” he has undertaken in his 35-year career as the production team strived to realise their ambitions of creating four distinct films that will air on consecutive nights.

“We were shooting some of them simultaneously, on different continents and on a very rushed schedule because our broadcast partner wanted to air it this May,” he explains. “So it was enormously complex, with the added burden of the responsibility to the show, what it represents, its history, the legacy – all these things contributed to making it supremely difficult, challenging and emotional.

“One particularly emotional day was when we were shooting a significant sequence that was in the original Roots, which is where Kunta Kinte is whipped into submission to say his new name. LeVar was on the set that day, watching as Malachi went through the identical thing he had to experience 40 years earlier. That was very powerful and emotional.”

It also puts into perspective one of the most difficult aspects of filming Roots for television – how do you balance the importance of the story on screen with the desire to entertain viewers?

“Where we are now is because of where we were yesterday and where we are tomorrow is because of our knowledge of both of those periods of time,” notes Wolper. “That’s part of the responsibility of the show. But let’s not forget, it has to be good, it has to be entertaining as well – otherwise the lessons I hope are seeped into it won’t translate. Nobody will see it, nobody will respond to it. So you have to balance the experience with the knowledge you’re trying to share with people.”

But in another 40 years, will there be a need or a desire to retell Roots for the next generation?

Burton says: “It’s incredibly unlikely we’ll have to tell this story again in 30 or 40 years’ time, given that we told this story 40 years ago and looking at where we are today.”

Wolper adds: “But given where we might be 40 years from now, we still have to tell the story again because we might fall into the same trap again. You have to keep telling stories – that’s how you protect yourself from making the same mistakes.”

Rose concludes: “That’s why African villages would have griots. They would go from village to village to tell stories of the history of a people, to keep it a living word so you can move forward and hopefully not make the same mistakes again. And that’s the power of story.”

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Vikings prosper on History

Vikings' 20-episode fifth season will air next year
Vikings’ 20-episode fifth season will air next year

The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.

Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.

Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.

In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.

To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.

Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.

Rowan Joffe
Rowan Joffe

Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.

Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.

With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.

At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.

Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters has been given a second run on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family)

In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.

NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.

This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.

Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.

Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.

Doctor Thorne
Doctor Thorne has sold into a number of territories

Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.

Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.

Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.

While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.

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Tour guide

Jeremy Renner will likely appear in Knightfall (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Jeremy Renner will likely appear in Knightfall (photo by Gage Skidmore)

The Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, taking place this year between January 5 and 19, is a star-studded event during which broadcasters, producers, writers and actors talk about new programme launches, imminent cancellations, casting announcements and ideas for turning around underperforming shows. As such, it is one of the key dates in the scripted TV industry’s annual calendar.

A+E Networks-owned History is one of numerous networks to have unveiled new shows during the tour. The pick of the bunch is a 10-part series about the Knights Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. Knightfall is being produced by The Combine – the prodco from Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) and Don Handfield – alongside Midnight Radio and A+E Studios. It is expected that Renner will guest star in the show, with additional cast and production details to be announced.

The show was unveiled by Paul Buccieri, president of A&E and History, who said: “We are thrilled to partner with Jeremy Renner, The Combine, Midnight Radio and A+E Studios to tell the intriguing story of the Knights Templar, which has been shrouded in mystery until now. Premium scripted content continues to be a growing part of the History portfolio, with an eye towards quality historical fact-based storytelling, and Knightfall is the perfect fit for our brand.”

Six will follow a team of soldiers
Six will follow a team of elite soldiers tasked with taking out a Taliban leader

The channel also announced an eight-episode order for military action-drama Six, from A+E Studios and The Weinstein Company. Written by William Broyles (Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead) and David Broyles, a military special operations veteran, Six follows Navy SEAL Team Six, whose 2014 mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan goes awry when they uncover a US citizen working with the terrorists.

“The backdrop surrounding this elite team of American soldiers – from their lives at home to the bravery they display serving our country – provides an amazing canvas for stories that deserve to be told,” said Buccieri.

The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein added: “The idea originally came to me when I read about Boko Haram kidnapping schoolchildren in Africa. It brought on the idea of creating a series about the world of SEAL Team Six because the story felt as poignant and timely as ever. We brought in Bill (Broyles), whom I have long admired, along with David to write the pilot. They took my idea and developed a brilliant script for the project and added authenticity to the world in a way that only first-hand experience could possibly bring.”

Interestingly, Weinstein said the show will be set up as a kind of anthology drama – echoing a recent trend. “Each year will feature a different theatre of war – the first starting in Africa,” he explained.

Philipp Meyer's The Son is being adapted for TV
Philipp Meyer’s The Son is being adapted for TV

There was also news of a greenlight at AMC, the US cablenet behind The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands. Reports coming out of the tour suggest AMC has ordered a 10-part series from Sonar Entertainment called The Son, based on the acclaimed oil industry-focused book of the same name by Philipp Meyer.

The series, which will involve Meyer as a co-writer, is about America’s birth as a superpower, told through the rise and fall of one Texan oil empire. It will be interesting to see how the show fares after ABC’s lack of success with Blood & Oil, another drama set within the US oil industry.

Elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk about Turner’s plans to refresh its cable networks TBS and TNT by shaking up their scripted content. At TCA, it was revealed that TNT is teaming up with M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines) to reboot HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. In the new TNT version, Shyamalan will curate a two-hour block made up of both long and short stories of suspense and horror.

“This is a new genre for us in our series efforts and a great chance to partner with M Night Shyamalan, whose blockbuster hit The Visit reminded movie audiences and critics this past summer that he truly is a master of horror,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT.

Shyamalan added: “To be part of such a beloved brand like Tales from the Crypt, something I grew up watching, and to also have the chance to push the boundaries of genre television as a whole, is an inspiring opportunity that I can’t wait to dive into.”

Tales from the Crypt is being revived under the auspices of M Night Shyamalan
Tales from the Crypt is being revived under the auspices of M Night Shyamalan

Meanwhile, with the massive success of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, it was only a matter of time before one of US networks hit upon the idea of a TV drama based around cars. This week, it was revealed that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who stars in the Fast franchise) is working with Fox on a new show called Boost Unit.

Described as “Fast and the Furious meets Rescue Me,” it will be written by Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt.

Over at ABC, there was official confirmation of another Marvel-based show in the shape of Marvel’s Most Wanted, a spin-off from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

On the streaming front, there was news from Hulu, which has ordered two 10-episode seasons of Chance, a psychological thriller in which Hugh Laurie will play a medical expert.

Set in San Francisco, the show follows forensic neuropsychiatrist Eldon Chance (Laurie) as he gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness. For Laurie, it’s another opportunity to play a medical expert following the global success of Fox series House (2004-2012).

The Royals
The Royals has been given a third run

Hulu’s upcoming slate of originals also includes 11.22.63, a time-travel drama about the Kennedy assassination from Stephen King and JJ Abrams; The Path, starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul; and Shut Eye, which will explore “the underground world of LA storefront psychics and the crime syndicate that runs them.”

In terms of renewals, E! has ordered a third season of original scripted series The Royals, which stars Elizabeth Hurley as a fictional queen. A coproduction between Lionsgate and Universal Cable Productions, the show is now getting up to the volume of episodes that appeals to international and SVoD buyers.

In terms of shows that are coming to an end, SundanceTV has revealed that Rectify will finish after its upcoming fourth season. TNT, meanwhile, will call time on Rizzoli & Isles after its 13-episode seventh season, which will air this summer.

JJ Abrams also used the TCA tour to speculate that the fifth season of CBS crime/sci-fi series Person of Interest (which he executive produces) will be the last, though he would “love it to continue.”

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