Tag Archives: Homecoming

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.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Homecoming queen

Award-winning actor Julia Roberts makes her television debut in Homecoming, Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail’s mind-bending psychological thriller. DQ hears how they transformed an award-winning podcast into Amazon Prime Video’s latest original series.

If the knowledge that Amazon Prime Video’s latest original drama comes from the creator of Mr Robot and is based on an award-winning podcast wasn’t already enough of a reason to tune in, add into the mix the fact it is also Oscar-winner Julia Roberts’ first foray into television and Homecoming becomes the latest must-watch series.

Described as a mind-bending psychological thriller, Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Centre, which helps soldiers transition back into civilian life. It’s there that she meets Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a soldier eager to begin the next phase of his life, while overseeing Heidi and the facility is Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), an ambitious company man with questionable motives.

Julia Roberts and Homecoming director Sam Esmail

Four years later, Heidi has started a new life, living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and working as a small-town waitress, when a Department of Defense auditor (Shea Whigham) visits with questions about why she left the Homecoming facility. Heidi soon realises there’s a different story to the one she’s been telling herself.

The series is based on the podcast of the same name created by writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and is rolling out in more than 200 territories on Prime Video tomorrow. Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail is the director and executive producer and the cast includes Jeremy Allen White, Alex Karpovsky and Dermot Mulroney.

Esmail admits he is used to listening to non-fiction podcasts and documentary series, but fell in love with Homecoming’s radio play style. “It was scripted, it had actors and it was great. It was like this throwback to an old-school thriller that was steeped in characters, as opposed to the action-thrillers of nowadays,” he says, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London. “I binged it in one sitting and then I binged it again and I thought there was something here to really do something special as a TV show.”

But adapting an audio drama into a television drama meant Esmail had to find a reason why it now demanded to be a visual experience too. He explains that while the podcast looks back on events in the past, the series is able to be with the characters in those moments, where “the suspense and the tension could be really amped up.” He also found inspiration in the visual dynamics of “old-school throwback thrillers” that he loved to watch growing up, citing “the old masters” such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Alan Pakula, who Roberts worked with on 1993’s The Pelican Brief. “The [visual] language was already there, so it was really exciting,” he says.

Similarly, Roberts liked the way the podcast harked back to a time when families would sit and listen to a story together, whether it was a book being read out loud or a radio play, forcing the listeners to use their imagination to build the world being described to them.

Roberts plays two versions of the character Heidi in different time periods

“I think that’s where inspiration as artists starts – imagining what it would look like and what it would sound like if you were doing it,” the actor says. “So I was really attracted to that. When Sam called me, we seem like different people, we’re kind of the same but my hair is much longer! Instantly we were like 20-year friends and so it seemed really clear that this was going to be a match and it was going to work bringing it to television, because TV is not for the faint of heart, for sure.

“Workload wise, we were very efficient, we were very aligned with our cast mates and crew and it made the days so the page count was very high. The days were very efficient and we had a great momentum all the time.”

In Homecoming, Roberts says she plays two characters – two versions of Heidi in different time periods that are signified by different frame ratios – which she says was a “great, fun challenge” for her. “There was some organisational stuff that I’m not used to,” she says of jumping between the two during filming. “Sam kept me on track with a map of, ‘Here’s what we know has happened and here’s what we don’t know has happened and here’s what we think might have happen later.’ So there was a little bit of that.”

Both Esmail and Roberts praise their fellow cast and crew, with both picking out production designer Anastasia White in particular for the way she physically built the world of Homecoming. She had previously worked with Esmail on Mr Robot.

“The one thing I wanted was to build the set. I didn’t want to go out and find the location because of the camera movements. I really wanted as much control as possible,” Esmail says. “I think we shot like 70% of the show on that set, so it was really critical. We sat down and talked about it and, honestly, it was one of those things where I told her the tone, the theme of what we’re going for in the story and she took it and ran with it.”

Sissy Spacek, an old friend of Roberts, plays Heidi’s mother

Roberts recalls one rehearsal where, surrounded by plywood, tape and chalk marks on the floor, she had to pretend to walk down some stairs and through a room that hadn’t been built yet. “I thought, ‘How will this ever work in a week?’ And then we walked into this facility. It was breathtaking, truly.”

About her co-stars, Roberts says James is “just terrific. The highest compliment I can pay as a person is he’s always on time and the highest compliment I can pay as an actor is he is incredibly prepared. When you are those things, that leaves space to be creative and have fun, and that’s what Sam really encouraged and nourished in all of us – to fill the space the way we felt confident about. The space that he made was so unique and present, we felt like we lived in this special land – Sam Land.”

The actor, whose storied film career includes Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich and Notting Hill, reveals she prepared for her role as Heidi with numerous wig fittings and trying to understand the character’s strength and vulnerability. “I absolutely adored the relationship with Heidi and her mother, maybe because I’m in love with Sissy Spacek,” she continues. “I have known her since I was 13 years old so she might as well be my mother! But nothing makes it easy to act with Sissy Spacek. On the first day, everyone was like, ‘It’s Sissy!’ ‘Yeah I know, she’s right next to me, keep your voice down.’”

“We were all having a moment,” jokes Esmail, adding that he didn’t hire a composer for the series because he wanted to keep the music authentic to the visual style. “All the music is from the old classics and a lot is Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s composer. We used one of the big scores from Carrie in the show, which Sissy’s also in. It’s very meta.”

Homecoming also sees Roberts reunite with her My Best Friend’s Wedding co-star Mulroney. “This was Sam’s dream to bring us back together. He gets all the credit,” she says. “I’m a huge My Best Friend’s Wedding fan, it’s one of my favourite romantic comedies. It’s very deliberate.”

Bobby Cannavale plays the head of the Homecoming facility

Homecoming premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, when Roberts sat down to watch the first four episodes and discovered Whigham “steals” the show. “I realise if I hadn’t been working so hard as an actor, I would have been paying a lot more attention as a producer and done something about that,” she jokes. “But since I didn’t, he’s so fantastic in this and it just speaks to the brilliance of Sam that he cast each part so perfectly, so specifically. Bobby is so terrific but Shea, this funny little investigator person, he just is magnificent. It makes the show such a fully realised universe of people. It’s incredible.”

With her first role on television, Roberts says she can’t say she’s worked in the medium, thanks to Esmail’s efforts to shoot the 10-episode series as a movie. “A lot of our crew I know from movies and the way we filmed it, we didn’t film it one episode at a time, we filmed it in blocks and in locations, so it was very much like a movie,” she adds.

Esmail is now working on the fourth and final season of Mr Robot, which is due to debut in 2019, but he hints that a second season of Homecoming is also in the works. Following in the footsteps of dozens of Hollywood stars now regularly appearing on television, perhaps Roberts will now make her home on the small screen too.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,