Tag Archives: Howard Overman

Mipcom showcases global writing talent

Malin Lagerlof
Malin Lagerlof

Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.

At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.

French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.

Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.

Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.

Jesse McKeown
Jesse McKeown

Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.

Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.

Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”

Chris Haddock
Chris Haddock

This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.

StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.

Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK  as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.

Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind
Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind

Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.

From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”

Ortega
Sebastian Ortega

RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.

Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.

It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”

Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.

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About Time: How to make time travel work on TV

DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.

Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.

His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”

Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.

Hindsight
Hindsight takes its main character back in time on the eve of her wedding

A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.

But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.

“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”

Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”

Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”

But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.

Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.

Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).

Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”

The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.

But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”

Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.

tvN’s Nine: Nine Times Time Trave
tvN’s Nine: Nine Times Time Travel uses time travel to redefine the romance genre

In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.

“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”

Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”

This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.

While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.

In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.

Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”

While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.

“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”

The BBC's Doctor Who also incorporates time travel elements
The BBC’s Doctor Who also incorporates time travel elements

Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”

One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.

Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.

The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”

This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).

Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”

This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.

“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”

Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”

BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”

For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).

US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.

Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.

Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.

“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”

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Finding the right fit

Howard Overman
Howard Overman

Howard Overman is one of the UK’s leading screenwriters, with recent credits including BBC1’s Atlantis and E4 cult hit Misfits.

It has taken him around 10 years of perfecting his craft to reach the front rank of the profession, although his entry to the industry didn’t necessarily hint at his future success.

“I was doing a job I hated,” he recalls, “something in marketing. So I decided to go and do a course at college. I chose screenwriting, but I might just as easily have chosen cookery classes. I was just looking for a new direction and that’s what was on offer.”

Soon after, he entered an ITV screenwriting competition, which resulted in him being given the chance to write an episode of Clocking Off for Red Production Company’s Nicola Shindler.

“It wasn’t used because the show finished. But that episode was passed around and got me my first television writing jobs,” he says.

Starting in 2005, Overman has written for shows such as Hustle, New Tricks, Moving Wallpaper, Hotel Babylon and Spooks: Code 9. A major gearshift in his career came with BBC fantasy series Merlin, for which he wrote 11 episodes.

Misfits, the 'big turning point' in Overman's TV career
Misfits, the ‘big turning point’ in Overman’s TV career

“But the big turning point was definitely Misfits,” says Overman. “It won a Bafta in its first season and was well received in the US. I learnt so much about storyline, plotting – everything – as a result of running that show for five years.”

Apart from a few episodes, Overman wrote all of Misfits. He also created and co-wrote a pilot for a US version of the show. So does he prefer the European auteur approach to the US writers room model?

“They’re very different. In the US, they are working with bigger budgets and more episodes – whereas Misfits was only around six episodes per season. I’d probably give the writers room approach a try, but with Misfits I’m not sure it would have worked because it was such a genre mash-up, combining teen comedy, superheroes, horror, time travel and so on. Even with a traditional show, it’s tough to find other writers who can write your show in a way you are happy with. Everyone thinks they can write but it’s harder than you think.”

Alongside Misfits, Overman wrote comedy-drama police procedural Vexed (which didn’t do especially well) and Dirk Gently, a BBC4 adaptation of the novels by Douglas Adams.

Overman wrote 11 episodes of Merlin
Overman wrote 11 episodes of Merlin

However, the next big breakthrough came when he was handed the task of delivering a Saturday-evening hit for mainstream channel BBC1 (perhaps more of a reflection of his work on Merlin than Misfits). The result was Atlantis, a fantasy adventure created by Overman, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy via their new production company Urban Myth Films.

The show ran for two seasons but was axed earlier this year having failed to really ignite the Saturday evening schedule. While some observers believe the BBC was premature in its decision to cancel the show, Overman is philosophical.

“Atlantis was a slightly troubled beast,” he explains. “We thought it would play in early evening but it went out at 21.30, where it didn’t really sit that comfortably. If we had known it was going into that slot we would have done it a bit differently.”

Post-Atlantis, Overman is currently developing a range of feature film and TV projects via Urban Myth. On the TV front, he says he is working on a dark comedy for ITV2 about a young man suffering from a terminal brain tumour. He is also writing a “Dickensian period piece” for the BBC about bare-knuckle boxing in the early 1800s.

BBC1's Atlantis
BBC1’s Atlantis

He says: “It’s set in Regency London and follows the experiences of a black fighter. It’s loosely based on a real-life fighter from the era called Tom Molineaux who was born into slavery in Virginia but came to Britain to fight successfully for years. Bare-knuckle fighting was hugely popular back then and could attract crowds of 15,000 or more.”

Looking back over his career, Overman believes his progression counters the notion that TV is an inherently nepotistic industry.

“I didn’t know anyone in the business when I started,” he adds. “I’ve always found it to be quite a pure industry in that respect. My experience is that producers don’t give a monkey’s where you’re from as long as your writing is good. This business is all about having the desire, ambition and drive to do it.”

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