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Anything but Normal

Sally Rooney and Alice Birch tell DQ about adapting the former’s critically acclaimed novel Normal People, in which a pair of teenagers embark on a tender but complicated relationship.

Sally Rooney’s fledgling literary career can be described as anything but normal. Extraordinary, meteoric, phenomenal or prodigious, perhaps. Other superlatives are available.

After writing numerous short stories, the Irish author’s first novel, Conversation with Friends, was published in 2017 following a seven-way bidding war for the rights. Her second book, Normal People, quickly followed in 2018, receiving a Man Booker Prize nomination and being named Irish Novel of the Year and Waterstones’ Book of the Year. It also won the Costa Book Awards’ novel category and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Element Pictures (Dublin Murders) had optioned the television rights to both Conversation with Friends and Normal People, but it’s the latter that will arrive on the small screen first. Rooney is adapting her own novel alongside Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth, Succession) and Mark O’Rowe (Temple), in a coproduction between UK online channel BBC3 and US streamer Hulu.

The story follows Marianne and Connell’s relationship from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Dublin’s Trinity College. At school, Connell is well-liked and popular, while Marianne is lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers. A year later, they’re both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world but Connell finds himself on the sidelines, shy and uncertain.

Through the course of the plot, the pair weave in and out of each other’s lives as the story explores just how complicated intimacy and young love can be.

Sally Rooney

“I only finished writing this book at the end of 2017, so it’s quite surreal and even freakish that it already exists as a TV show,” Rooney tells DQ. “It’s frightening but also rewarding and fun for me. Because I was involved in the project from the very beginning and in the casting process, I really did slowly become acclimatised to the fact that other people were going to be playing these parts and other people would be involved in making all kinds of creative decisions about the television show. So I’m just very thankful the people who were involved were people I felt I could really trust and who really wanted to stay true to the spirit of what we were trying to achieve with the TV show.”

Rooney says she wasn’t concerned about other people interpreting her story for a different medium. “I had to let go of the book when I published it because, as soon as something like that goes out into the world in any form, it’s no longer yours,” she notes. But the author describes her move into TV as an experience that bears little resemblance to her life as a novelist.

“My creative process in writing both books and the one I’m working on now is completely solitary, it’s really just me on my own all day,” she explains. “It was a huge shift in what I was used to, and I found it a lot of fun. Going to meetings was always really fun and energising but definitely not what I was used to thinking of as creative work. I had to reorientate my brain in that sense. It’s not my natural way of working, but I found it fascinating and really fun while, at the same time, exhausting in a way that working on a novel isn’t necessarily.”

The team at Element had read Normal People before it was published and were quick to jump on it before it became a literary juggernaut. Director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) was also involved from an early stage, while Rooney, who also executive produces, soon decided she wanted to be involved in more than an advisory capacity.

Crafting an outline of the 12-part series, with each episode running to 30 minutes, comprised the bulk of the work, Rooney says, owing to the key decisions being made over story structure and chronology and how closely the show would follow events in the book.

Normal People stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

“Once we’d locked down an idea that everyone was happy with in terms of how we were breaking up the book into episodes, I would write a draft, send it around and get some notes back. Then I’d have a meeting with Alice or the team and we’d discuss and do rewrites,” Rooney says. “Most of the actual writing still took place on my own, but it was a collaborative process deciding how to attack this story in terms of transforming it into a number of episodes.”

Rooney says that while the series is “enormously faithful” to the source material, it uses a different language to tell the story – namely the language of television. What has definitely been preserved in the adaptation is the world of Marianne and Connell, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and television newcomer Paul Mescal respectively, with the action unfolding in Dublin, the Irish town of Sligo, and Italy.

“It would have been possible to adapt this book and set it anywhere in the world. It’s a love story about two people, and maybe it doesn’t matter so much where it is, it’s just about their relationship,” Rooney says. “But, from the very beginning, Lenny was really interested in trying to maintain, in all its specificity, the exact kind of social world they inhabit and how that shapes them – the small town they grow up in, the university they go to and all the details of that. That was something that made me feel really energised about doing the adaptation in this particular way.”

The author says the book has remained front of mind throughout the process, with the production team and the actors dipping back into Rooney’s novel whenever they wanted a clearer idea of a character’s situation at any point in the story.

Mescal, a TV newcomer, plays Connell

“It was very much the core text that we kept coming back to whenever we ran into a problem or difficulty with the adaptation,” she says. “That was generally felt all round, but I also think we all felt the importance of doing something new because we had all this armoury of new techniques at our disposal. TV is so rich and offers so much possibility that we wanted to be sure we were using all that and using the book in a way that felt faithful to the form as well as to the story.”

Rooney co-wrote episodes one to six with Birch, who then wrote episodes seven to 10 and 12. O’Rowe picked up number 11. Behind the camera, executive producer and lead director Abrahamson took on one to six, with Hettie McDonald (Howards End) helming the rest.

Birch has previous experience with adaptations, having brought 19th century Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to the big screen in 2016 under the shorter title Lady Macbeth. “This one’s been completely different. Leskov is long dead and I don’t see everybody on the Tube reading that book,” she says. “So many people talk about reading [Normal People] and hoovering it up. When I read it, it was quite an emotional experience, so I want to recreate that and find a way to do something similar on screen.”

Rooney had already written drafts of the first six episodes when Birch joined the project. She then took a pass at the scripts, offered some notes and wrote the later episodes

“We wanted to make each episode feel quite distinctive,” Birch explains. “In the same way the book operates, each time you begin a new chapter and they’ve moved on a few months and so much has changed, it’s like opening a letter each time, hunting for new information. So we wanted to recreate that, but it’s a different thing to recreate on screen.”

Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds) is Marianne

Birch had read both Rooney novels and describes working on Normal People as a dream job. “I’d read Conversations with Friends and then Normal People very soon after it came out,” she says. “I did something I never do and asked my agent if they were making it and if I could do it. They were in the very early stages, so when they called and asked if I wanted to be involved, it was a really easy yes.”

Birch shared a coffee with Rooney in Dublin, where she was given a tour of the key locations in the novel. “She’s so clear in her writing, and her scripts were very clear as well,” she says of her writing partner. “When I would write an episode or do a rewrite of a draft, she would give notes back. The conversation was always through the characters. She’s so open and obviously knows those characters and that world better than anybody.”

While Normal People has enjoyed tremendous success in print, legions of fans are now eagerly awaiting the chance to follow the intoxicating romance between Marianne and Connell all over again, with Endeavor Content distributing the series internationally. Meanwhile, the BBC has ordered Conversations with Friends to series, with Element reuniting with Rooney and Abrahamson. Again set in Dublin, it follows college students Frances and Bobbi, and the strange, unexpected connection they forge with married couple Melissa and Nick.

“It’s an extraordinary relationship between these two incredibly young people,” Birch adds of Normal People. “What happens in one moment is relatively small, delicate and emotional, but this kind of relationship doesn’t happen between two people at that age of life. That’s the extraordinary thing.”

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Fresh territory

Co-creator Maria Feldman and stars Mélanie Thierry and James Purefoy speak to DQ about how No Man’s Land, an eight-part thriller set against the backdrop of the Syrian War, offers a new perspective of the conflict.

War in the Middle East and the rise of Isis has proven to be fertile ground for drama writers in recent years, with Sweden’s Kalifat (Caliphate) and the UK’s The State among those to focus in particular on the war in Syria.

Another series set in the same arena is No Man’s Land, an eight-parter that follows the conflict through the eyes of Antoine, a young Frenchman in search of his estranged, presumed-dead sister.

While unravelling the mystery, he joins forces with a unit of Kurdish female fighters and travels with them into Isis-controlled territory, bringing him into contact with anarchists, spies and innocent victims in a series that provides a fresh look at events in the country.

The French-Israeli drama comes from co-creators Maria Feldman (False Flag), Eitan Mansuri (When Heroes Fly), Amit Cohen (False Flag) and Ron Leshem (False Flag), with Cohen and Leshem writing alongside Xabi Molia. Oded Ruskin (False Flag) directs.

The inspiration for No Man’s Land came to Feldman when she was watching a news report about events in Syria, when Isis was at its peak. She saw two young female fighters making a lot of noise and wearing brightly coloured clothing – not the best camouflage for battle.

Maria Feldman
(photo: Ronen Akerman)

“The reporter explained the reason for this unusual scene is that Isis fighters are not afraid to die in battle, unless they’re killed by a woman,” she explains. “So hearing those sounds and seeing those headscarves, they know women are shooting at them and they totally freak out. Sometimes they just drop their weapons and run away. That’s why battalions of female fighters were playing such an important role in defeating Isis in Syria. I got really fascinated by this phenomenon – they’re very young and beautiful and they’re fighting evil.”

Feldman also became intrigued by the number of Western volunteers arriving in Syria from all over Europe and the US, not only those joining Isis but also those aiding the Kurdish side.

“I decided we needed a Western character to bring us into the region because I wanted it to be a really international show,” she continues. “So we start with Antoine, a young Frenchman from the Parisian bourgeois, whose sister died in a terrorist attack two years earlier in Cairo.

“We start with him two years later and he’s in a fertility clinic with his beautiful wife. All of a sudden, something draws his mind to the TV. There is a news report from Syria and then there’s an explosion. He sees a woman running towards the explosion to help the wounded. He can’t see her face, it’s very blurry. But he’s sure that it’s his sister. He knows it can’t be true, but he can’t take this woman out of his mind and he decides he needs to find out who this woman is, even if it’s not his sister.

“Very quickly, he finds himself in Syria in the middle of the war with the Kurdish female fighters, and through him we explore this side of the story.

“Another side of the story is about three British childhood friends who come to join Isis for various reasons. We tell this small story of friendship and betrayal, rather than the story of Isis, because one of them is going to betray the others.”

French actor Mélanie Thierry (La Douleur) plays Anna, the supposed dead sister of Antoine (Félix Moati, The French Dispatch). She’s not giving away any spoilers as to her character’s fate, however, explaining only that viewers will meet her through flashbacks and family videos.

Félix Moati plays Antoine, who goes in search of his presumed-dead sister

“What we see is this young archeology student living in Paris in a warm family. Because of a terrible loss and after a betrayal, she has to quit,” Thierry says. “She doesn’t believe in her family anymore and she has to start with a blank slate and create her own family with a new identity. She’s going to be mixed up with some good and bad people; she’s an easy target, she’s vulnerable, and she’s going to make some courageous choices.”

Feldman adds: “At some point, we will also see what really happened to Anna – we have an episode that tells Anna’s story. But I can’t tell you if she’s alive or if this woman in the video is her or not.”

No Man’s Land, which had the working title Fertile Crescent, marks Thierry’s first TV role. The actor describes her experience as “very interesting, challenging and demanding,” adding: “It was a melting pot of all these cultures, all these languages and English actors, French actors and Kurdish actors. It was nice to work in Morocco for several months.

“The flashbacks give an idea of who Anna is. She’s a human-rights activist and she helps people and falls in love with a refugee in Paris, and we can feel she has to confront something very painful. It will drive her to something. What I liked was working with an Israeli director, some French and English actors and having to play in English and Kurdish sometimes.”

Meanwhile, James Purefoy (The Following, Altered Carbon) also stars as a character who represents Western interests in the Syrian conflict. “I play a guy called Stanley – or is he? He works for a humanitarian organisation – or does he? He works for MI6 – or does he? He’s a slightly shadowy figure,” the British actor teases.

Mélanie Thierry as Antoine’s sister Anna, whose fate is unknown

What is certain is Stanley works with the intelligence services and uses all his skills of manipulation to turn events in his favour, coming into contact with Antoine, Anna and the three London friends through the series.

“He has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies,” Purefoy says. “He’s really interesting and it’s a really incredible story.” Is he honourable? “That depends where you’re coming from. I played a CIA agent in an Amazon series last year and somebody said to me, ‘So you’re the good guy.’ Well, if you’re American, I’m the good guy. But often one country’s interests in other countries might not make you quite so friendly to the people of those places. But to your own country, maybe you are. It’s very complicated and ambitious and grey, and that’s always the best area to be in. They’re not what they seem.”

The actor also notes similarities in playing a spy and a psychopath, having played a killer in three seasons of Fox drama The Following. “There is something similar between them in terms of manipulation, acting and getting people to do the things you want them to do,” he explains. “It’s very much in the script – he shifts and changes. You think he’s one thing, you think he’s gay at one point. We still don’t know. Has he got a family somewhere else? Or is he just using that as a way to be very unthreatening? There are a lot of stories and he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.”

Feldman jokes that she thought the CIA were going to knock on her door at one point during development, with the writer’s web searches including such terms as ‘How to join Isis’ and ‘beheading.’ But as with all fact-based drama, research has been key throughout the project to ensure as much authenticity as possible.

“We all did a lot of research and we tried to be a real as we could. It was very important for us,” she says. “We had Kurdish and Syrian coaches on set to make sure people spoke and acted correctly and we had the right rituals. We even had British accent coaches, so we get the West London authenticity too.”

James Purefoy plays another mysterious character, whose name may or may not be Stanley

Purefoy says it’s important for everyone involved to feel no “bumps” in the story. “You feel these people have done their homework and what you’re watching is absolutely believable. You don’t look at it and question anything, because the only thing you want to be watching is emotion, character and story,” he says. “You don’t want to feel, ‘Oh they got that wrong,’ because that just takes you out, even if it’s just a brief moment.”

Feldman and Mansuri originally devised the Isis storyline, before the former inserted the French family dynamic. Then they brought Cohen and Leshem on board to write the scripts. “We all live in different cities and continents, so it was a bit challenging – a lot of Skype and a lot of note writing but a lot of discussions,” Feldman says.

Feldman’s Masha Productions and Mansuri and Jonathan Doweck’s Spiro Films then connected with French producer Haut et Court (Les Revenants) to produce the series, which was named best project when it was first pitched to international partners at Series Mania in 2017. Fremantle joined as distributor, with French network Arte and US streamer Hulu commissioning the series.

Filming took place in Belgium and France, while sections set in Turkey and parts of the Middle East – Syria, Egypt and Iran – were shot in Morocco.

“The shoot was very challenging; the international nature of it was challenging,” Feldman explains. “We had crew and actors from more than 15 countries because we’re trying to keep it authentic and we were shooting Belgium and France and Morocco with one director who did the whole thing.

The series looks at the Syria conflict from multiple perspectives

“It’s a big thing that happened that affects the whole world, and it will keep on affecting the world for a long time. Our show takes a very different perspective, with the Kurdish female fighters, European involvement and Western intelligence involvement in the conflict. It’s very different, but the war in Syria is not a local conflict – it affects the world.”

Featuring family secrets and drama, love affairs and betrayal, No Man’s Land goes far beyond the arena that serves as the backdrop to the series, with every character being cheated or double-crossed at some point.

“It’s a show about betrayal and identity and who you really are – French, British, Israeli? I think it will appeal to a lot of people because we’re dealing with very universal themes,” Feldman says, revealing that her thoughts have already turned to a second season before season one airs later this year.

Purefoy adds: “It also dramatises things we are aware of in the news but which I have not seen in a drama. I have not seen a story about three West London lads who go out and join Isis. I’ve read about those stories, but I haven’t seen that and been able to think what that might be like for them and how they deal with that, or the character Melanie plays. There’s lots of fresh stuff in this show we haven’t seen before.”

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In development

Ex Machina creator Alex Garland considers the notion of free will and the power of big tech in eight-part thriller Devs, his first television series.

Alex Garland first found fame as the author of The Beach, the novel that inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring movie of the same name and saw a generation of backpackers search for paradise in Thailand.

More recently, however, he has evolved into an accomplished screenwriter and director, most notably in science fiction, where his credits have included Ex Machina and Annihilation. He also wrote zombie horror 28 Days Later and space-set Sunshine (both of which were directed by Danny Boyle), adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the big screen and penned comic book adaptation Dredd.

Alex Garland

Garland’s latest project is equally ambitious, beautifully constructed and brimming with far-reaching ideas, but this time lands on television. For his small-screen debut, Garland has written and directed Devs, an eight-part multidimensional tech thriller that stars Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman and Alison Pill.

The limited series focuses on a young software engineer named Lily Chan (Mizuno), who works for Amaya, a cutting-edge tech company whose buildings sit in vast swathes of forest in Silicon Valley. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), Lily suspects foul play and begins to investigate. She quickly realises that all roads lead to Forest (Offerman), Amaya’s enigmatic CEO, and Devs, the company’s secret development division where Sergei recently began work alongside Katie (Pill).

But beyond the thriller structure of the storyline, Devs is an in-depth exploration of quantum computing, reality, intellectual espionage and paranoia, the latter dramatised by a giant statue of a toddler that towers over the Amaya campus, its eyes constantly watching over those who work there.

Garland says several things inspired the series. “One of them was really simple. It was just about this weird idea called determinism, which is that everything that happens is a result – cause and effect – so that ends up leading to a place where we lose free will,” he tells DQ. “That’s a strange idea because we’re all sure that we’ve got free will, but the argument [against it] is actually very strong. So there was something interesting about that.

“Then there was the arrival of this really spectacular new form of computing called quantum computing that has immense potential locked within it, and then I suppose a bit of nervousness about the scale and power of the big tech companies.”

Devs stars Sonoya Mizuno as Lily Chan

All of those topics are wrapped around a thriller in which Lily looks for answers into the disappearance – and supposed suicide – of her boyfriend. “It is fundamentally a murder mystery and, in the process of trying to figure out the reasons for this murder, that’s when all this other stuff begins to unfold,” Garland says.

From the first two episodes, all his ideas are thrown into play, from the power and cultish appeal of Offerman’s Forest to the work of the secretive Devs department, which takes place in an incredible cube-like structure. Viewers’ heads may well spin initially, with Garland likening his creative process to having a one-man argument.

“I think about the issues and try to understand the science and the philosophy and try to come to some kind of conclusion,” he says of developing the series. “I’m not really thinking about story at all. I’m really just struggling to understand and get my head around these themes. Some of them are quite straightforward and some are actually really complicated, and they’re so complicated that you can’t make them simple. You just need to dive in and do your best.

“Then, after I’ve been really obsessing about a subject, suddenly, a story just appears – it literally could be while I’m doing the washing up. I’m thinking about what I’m doing to get some bit of dirt off a plate and, suddenly, a whole story pops into my head. It’s weird. It’s not very thought through. I can remember in the old days I was constantly writing story ideas down on cigarette papers because that was the only bit of paper I’d have on me. Then I’d have this huge collection of Rizlas with little scribbles on them in my wallet.”

While some of the themes covered in the series (not to mention the work undertaken by the Devs team) are certainly complex, Garland says his intention is not to challenge viewers but to challenge himself. “I’m trying to make it as clear and exciting and elegant as I possibly can,” he says. “But the issue is if you simplify some of the science, you end up making the science false; and if you make science false then any philosophical implications also become false. Then you think, well, what’s the point? It’s not about trying to throw down a gauntlet.”

Nick Offerman plays Forest, CEO of tech company Amaya

He goes on to describe Devs as a companion piece to Ex Machina, his 2014 film about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is given the chance to evaluate the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander). But Garland admits this correlation won’t become clear until later in the series.

“In some respects, it just gets stranger and stranger and goes deeper and deeper down this weird rabbit hole,” Garland says. “The film I worked on before, [2018 Netflix release] Annihilation, was effectively like a hallucination in the form of a film, and everything in it works via metaphor and some dreamy, trippy state. This is not like that. This is much more like Ex Machina; it’s grounded in its own walls and it stays within those lines. But those lines then do take it to a very strange place.”

Central to the series is Lily, who viewers follow on her journey to discover what really happened to Sergei. “I wanted her to be an unusual female lead and to have some qualities about her that were elusive and hard to pin down in a particular way,” says Garland, who reunites with Mizuno after the Japanese actor appeared in both Ex Machina and Annihilation.

“Often what happens in mainstream storytelling is everybody involved in it wants the audience to like the characters in a particular kind of way. When they test films and somebody says the character is unlikeable, that freaks everybody out and they’ll start reshooting and recasting. It’s not that Lily’s unlikeable – I think she’s very likeable – but she’s not conventionally likeable. She’s not likeable in a mainstream way, and I knew that Sonoya would be a good fit for that. It’s just in her wheelhouse.”

As for Offerman, Forest is far removed from the actor’s previous comedic roles, most notably as Ron Swanson in sitcom Parks & Recreation. Here he’s a laid-back, messianic figure sporting long hair and an impressive beard who leads the employees of Amaya with notably coded statements. When Sergei asks what he will be doing for Devs, for example, Forest replies: “I’m not going to tell you. I won’t need to. Just sit, read code. Take your time, and don’t worry. You’re going to figure it out. I know you are.”

The show is driven by themes including determinism and quantum computing

Garland says Forest was designed with the intention of avoiding commentary on any one real-life leader of a big tech firm. “I wasn’t interested in saying anything particularly about [Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs or other people like him, [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or whoever it happened to be,” he says.

“I wanted him to have some of the qualities of those guys, the slightly cultish vibe they create around them, but also to have his own particular warmth and tragedy and very human stuff. Often when we think about those guys, we don’t think about warmth, we think about other things – power and hypnotic or cold personalities – and I didn’t want Forest to be like that.”

Writing a TV series has much more in common with penning a novel than it does a film script, Garland argues, describing features as “economic and contained,” like a long short story or novella. “If you really wanted to film a novel, you’d end up with an eight-hour story, and that’s what Devs is,” he says. “Years and years ago, I worked as a novelist so I did think it was like this, but it’s also like film in most other ways because you have to stand on a set and figure out where to point the camera and then figure out where to cut together the images.”

But it was the opportunity to collaborate that led him to move away from novels and towards the screen. “A novel, you write on your own in a room. And a movie, you write as part of a large team,” he says. “As soon as I started doing it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

The creative team behind Devs is made up of some of Garland’s frequent collaborators: composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day and VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. The Insects – screen composers Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk – also worked on the soundtrack, which bounces between jazz-inspired riffs, booming robotic chords and soaring choral themes.

Garland on the Ex Machina set with Alicia Vikander

Garland describes working with his core team as “getting the band back together,” having sounded them out early in the writing process to ensure they were available and willing to sign on. But while he has his own clear ideas about how he wants the show to look, he says he’s also very open-minded when it comes to the thoughts of those around him.

One notable aspect of Devs is the production design, with the muted tones of Lily’s apartment juxtaposed with the gold, metallic and reflective surfaces of the Devs facility, the centrepiece of Amaya that stands like a concrete temple in a woodland clearing. Offerman’s Forest breaks down the design: “A lead Faraday shield, a 13-yard-thick concrete shell, then a gold mesh, then an eight-yard vacuum seal, totally unbroken, then the labs and the core – the machine.”

The labs appear within a cube inside the building, appearing as if floating by electromagnetism, with a hovering elevator transporting workers through the vacuum seal from the outside to the inner chamber.

“I’ve never done any project with Mark and Michelle where they haven’t done something that has elevated any of the ideas I’ve had. Having clear ideas about what you think it should be doesn’t mean other people can’t have better ideas, so I always try to recognise ideas when they come around,” Garland says. “One of the things I have seen sometimes before with directors was people being very closed-minded and not able to hear what the people around them were suggesting, and that usually was to the detriment of the film.”

Produced by FX Productions, the show is exec produced by Garland alongside Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA TV, as well as Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Garrett Basch of Scott Rudin Productions.

Natalie Portman in Garland’s critically acclaimed 2018 film Annihilation

The show was filmed in Ealing Studios in London and Space Studios in Manchester, England, with location work in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California. Garland says it was a dream to film at Ealing, having grown up with the studio’s famed comedies, and describes Space as an “absolutely stunning new studio” that fulfilled his needs for an enormous stage in which to build the Devs facility.

“We needed an unusually huge sound stage and we were lucky that one happened to be built that we could have access to,” he says. “The Devs’ cube, where the sharp end of the sci-fi stuff happens, that was all one 360-degree se, so the space we needed was cavernous, like an aircraft hangar.

“If you imagine the cube is about the height of a two-storey building, we built the middle section and then made that 360. So if we want a wide-angle lens of the glass elevator floating across a vacuum seal, there’s a VFX addition that happens for the top and bottom. But if you’re on a tighter lens, then it can all be in camera.”

With the series launching in the US tomorrow on FX on Hulu and coming to BBC2 in April, Garland hopes viewers will enjoy the ride. “It’s a strange thriller that moves with a weird propulsion but also includes some really interesting ideas that have been presented by science and philosophy and offers them up in an intriguing manner,” he adds. “All of that notwithstanding, I just hope people like it.”

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Caught out

George Clooney leads the creative team behind Catch-22, a six-part dramatisation of Joseph Heller’s iconic war novel. DQ hears how the sprawling story featuring dozens of characters was brought to the small screen for broadcasters including Channel 4, Sky Italia and Hulu.

Taking on Catch-22 is a statement in itself. Adaptations in the 1970s were either flawed (Mike Nicholls’ 1970 film) or calamitous (a 1973 television pilot), falling foul of the book’s intentionally chaotic structure, encyclopaedic cast of characters and the iconic status of the novel itself, with Joseph Heller’s unforgiving satire of war, bureaucracy and human foibles already established as a literary landmark.

“There’s a justifiable protectiveness if you’re a fan of the novel,” concedes Luke Davies, who adapted the book as a new drama Channel 4, Sky Italia and Hulu with fellow Australian David Michod. “If you’re a fan, you tend to be an obsessive fan – and I am one of those.”

Yet take it on he did, pulling apart the dense, diffuse structure and piecing it back together chronologically. The six-part series, from Paramount Television, Anonymous Content and Smokehouse Pictures, focuses the narrative tightly on Second World War US bombardier captain Yossarian, serving in Italy in 1944 and as fearful of dying at the hands of vindictive superiors as much as the anonymous Germans. The early drafts attracted the attention of a very big hitter indeed.

George Clooney in Catch-22, for which he directed episodes and also exec produced

“If you’re going to devote 18 months of your life to something, it has to be worth taking a risk on,” says George Clooney. “I don’t care about the medium, I just care about the quality of the work. There are 430 scripted television shows out there, which is great for actors. Some television is as good as anything I’ve ever seen, but there’s a lot to sift through to get to those things.”

While it’s not quite right to say Catch-22 marks Clooney’s return to television after 20 years away – since leaving ER he has turned in the odd cameo and produced a number of HBO projects – it is unarguably his most prominent TV role in years, both on and off camera. Television’s facility to give the story and its characters more room to breathe swung it for the Hollywood heavyweight. “You couldn’t do this in two hours. We kill a lot of people and, in a movie, you don’t get to learn who those characters are, so it doesn’t have the same resonance. With this it’s, ‘I liked that kid, he had a family and a life.’”

“This was a seminal book for me growing up,” says Clooney’s longtime collaborator and co-director/producer, Grant Heslov. “The sex, violence and humour made it appealing, but later in life I’ve noticed the horror as much as the hilarity. George and I read Luke’s scripts simultaneously and, by the end of the sixth, we’d agreed to direct and produce them. As he often does, George said he’d play a role because it’d make it easier for us to do it right away.”

Clooney’s turn as rigid, parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf was both a chance to indulge his inner ham and a less time-consuming part than the paranoid, vindictive Colonel Cathcart, relinquished to Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler after Clooney’s workload became too great. “From the minute Kyle opened his mouth, Grant and I were high-fiving, thinking we’d hit the jackpot,” the actor recalls.

Kyle Chandler plays Colonel Cathcart

“They didn’t tell me about the high five until months later,” Chandler says wryly. “I didn’t think I should be in a remake of it until I read Luke’s scripts. There are pitfalls with Cathcart – you could easily create a cartoon – so I had to create my own arcs inside the big arc. George said it came together OK!”

With Hugh Laurie as the enigmatic Major De Coverley and other parts taken by a squadron of predominantly British up-and-comers, the lead role was won by Girls’ Christopher Abbott, who captured the innate charm and weary charisma of one of literature’s great anti-heroes.

“I like Yossarian very much,” says Abbott. “He’s an existentialist and has a lust for life. I sympathise with that fight to stay alive. It’s beautiful.”

Yossarian’s airborne experiences were made that much more visceral and credible by two vintage Mitchell B-25 Bombers, flown over from the US to the set in Sardinia. “Even going one mile per hour down a runway was scary,” says Abbott. “The nosecone is vulnerable, hot and claustrophobic. It all came together about why Yossarian is the way he is – I understood that pure fear.”

Other aspects of the era were treated with less respect. “You can’t erase history,” says Clooney. “You can’t change the way people spoke, you just make it look as ridiculous as it should have looked in 1944, but didn’t.”

House and The Night Manager’s Hugh Laurie is Major De Coverley

Davies also addressed Heller’s grimly sexist treatment and wafer-thin writing of women, giving the female characters fuller personalities and proper names, which also precipitated an important decision from Clooney behind the scenes. “I was going to direct four episodes and Grant two, but all the Me Too stuff started coming through and I went to Paramount and said, ‘It’s all guys – we have to be part of the solution in all this.’”

Enter Ellen Kuras, cinematographer for Scorsese and Gondry and director of series including Ozark and Legion. She flew over only four weeks before production began, but was entirely unfazed. “I’m used to being the only woman on set,” she grins. “Catching up to the tone and perspective was challenging, but we got there. George and Grant wanted to make it feel more like a longform movie than six disparate episodes – crossboarding [shooting multiple episodes at the same time] meant we could all see what each other were doing and make the tone and trajectory much more seamless.”

The latter was logistically tricky, not least for Abbott. “It was insane,” he acknowledges. “We’d shoot one episode in the morning then two others in the afternoon, each with a different director, context, costumes and make-up. It was hard keeping track, even with prep time.”

“There’s no way you can do this half-assed; you’ve just got to go for it,” adds Clooney. “You’ve got to take a swing and you can’t always be subtle about it. War’s a gruesome business, so there’s a morbid comedy to it.”

Chandler believes that morbid comedy is what has kept the story fresh and relevant since its publication in 1961. “This piece is like a card – you can slice it into the deck anywhere you want and it’ll fit. Even the Romans would find this funny.”

But for Davies, it’s also a tragedy. “Our series doesn’t discard the comedy, but dark and sorrowful things happen and our ending is open to interpretation, like the story itself. For me, it’s the origin story of the geopolitical here and now, not just at the obvious level of the insanity of war, but also the insanity of bureaucracy and the systems and structures that send young men to their deaths. It still feels incredibly resonant.”

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Happy holidays?

Blumhouse Television is blurring the lines between TV and film with Hulu’s holiday-themed anthology series Into the Dark. DQ finds out more from producer Alexa Faigen.

There’s a scene in Halloween, the latest instalment in the horror franchise kick-started by John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 movie of the same name, where resident bogeyman Michael Myers is walking along a tree-lined suburban street wearing his iconic mask and carrying a very large kitchen knife.

On any other night, he would stand out like a tiger in an antelope enclosure, but not here, because it’s Halloween night and he is surrounded by dozens of children, teenagers and adults all wearing their own costumes. Tonight, he’s just another masked face in the crowd.

The scene is also notable because it echoes the premise of the first episode in a new television anthology series produced by Blumhouse Television, one of the studios involved in the latest Halloween movie. Into the Dark comprises 12 episodes that are released on streaming service Hulu once a month and tell a story specifically about or relating to a US holiday taking place that month.

The series launched in October with Halloween-themed The Body, in which a sophisticated hitman with a cynical view of modern society finds his work made more difficult when he has to transport a body on Halloween night, but everyone is enamoured by what they think is his killer costume. Ring any bells?

Into the Dark’s Halloween episode The Body

November’s offering, Flesh & Blood, takes place on Thanksgiving, while episode three (December) will be set at Christmas and episode four (January) at New Year. Other holidays to feature in the year-round event series, distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television, include Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day.

With Blumhouse making a name for itself both in TV (Amazon’s The Purge) and feature films such as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Whiplash and Get Out, Into the Dark manages to balance elements of the big and small screens.

“At its conception it was really a complete hybrid, so we toggle between saying episode or film for each episode because it really does straddle the line. We use different principles from different sides of the business to help us with our decision-making along the way,” explains producer Alexa Faigen, who has overseen the first, third and fourth episodes of this “unique” project. “Obviously it’s made for streaming on Hulu but the ambition is incredibly cinematic and, for the most part, we’ve enlisted filmmakers with feature backgrounds. That has been part of the approach for the entire time.”

That approach has been aided by the “tremendous amount of energy and optimism” afforded by Blumhouse through the development and production phases, according to Faigen. “I love that they try to do things that are challenging, both from a process standpoint and a content standpoint. They often make the impossible possible and I love being part of that,” she continues. “On one hand, they are very hands-on; and on the other, they are very freeing to the creative process. So it’s a very happy relationship. They’ve really figured out how to straddle the line between studio and producer and gave a lot of freedom and flexibility within the series to the creative while also keeping the objective in mind. It’s definitely a series with an idea behind it and an audience we’re trying to get, and they always keep that front of mind.”

Dermot Mulroney in Thanksgiving-set instalment Flesh & Blood

Episode one, set during Halloween, was written by Paul Fisher and Paul Davis, and episode two, in which an agoraphobic teenager begins to suspect she is in danger on Thanksgiving, was written by Louis Ackerman and directed by Patrick Lussier. While a holiday is firmly baked into each episode, it may or may not have a direct influence on the story that plays out. Each part may also appeal to a different audience, meaning Into the Dark does not adhere to one particular genre or theme – horror, for example – throughout its entire run, echoing Blumhouse activity on the film side, where it has produced in a range of genres.

“The Halloween episode is a horror comedy about how a hitman wisely uses Halloween to cover his job,” Faigen reveals. “On Halloween, no one suspects a killer actually killing someone. It’s a really funny episode that has a really odd, idiosyncratic love story at the centre. We think it’s a great launch for the series.”

Christmas-themed episode three is written by Gerald Olsen and directed by a Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, who Faigen describes as “a tremendous talent who really brought such a unique vision to this piece. It’s a very unique and noisy episode.”

In contrast, episode four is an all-women episode directed by Sophia Takal. “It’s a completely different look from any of the others that will have come before it,” Faigen says of the New Year special. “Sophia did a tremendous job with the look, tone, message and themes in a very purposeful way. I think it will grab people.

“The organising idea is really Blumhouse and the holidays but, beyond that, each episode has a unique look, tone and purpose that is very filmmaker-specific. It’s a really exciting way to approach an anthology series that really has a filmic quality to it.”

Flesh & Blood also stars Dana Silver

Episodes are being filmed back-to-back, with some occasional overlap, while everything is filmed in LA, whether the City of Angels is the setting of a particular story or doubles for another location. Some pillars of the production team also provide some continuity, though each episode brings in a whole new cast, writers and directors.

“It was wild,” Faigen says of production, which saw episodes filmed in just 15 to 18 days. “July was a very challenging month in my life but it is for Blumhouse as well. Although different producers will come in and do different episodes, they shoulder all of it. They’re just going in all phases at all times. From my point of view, it was a wild summer but it’s exciting.”

While the pace may have been slightly frenetic, working on multiple episodes at once afforded Faigen a far-sighted view of the series, which meant they would try to avoid repeating elements from one episode in another and could experiment with different techniques. “But the real heroes are the crews, the production designer who cohesively moves from episode to episode, the stunt coordinators, the effects team and also the editorial team. The crew and the people we’ve been fortunate enough to work with are really heroes to keep it running. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the motivation, tenacity and artistry of all of them. I think it’s also very exciting for them because every time a new director comes in, it’s a new energy. They’re not continuing a look and a tone for an entire series. They’re getting challenged from a creative standpoint every time out. So although it’s incredibly taxing, it’s also very invigorating and fun.”

Had it not been for the recent trend for anthology series that has continued to blossom since the debut of American Horror Story back in 2011, Into the Dark may not have found a platform. Faigen says the ongoing popularity of anthology series is a sign the television business is responding to viewers’ ‘consume anywhere’ approach to the medium, which demands varying episodes and running times.

“Things that were out of fashion or impossible before are now things people are taking new bets on, and that’s really exciting,” she adds.

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Bi the way

Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Appropriate Behaviour) co-writes, directs and stars in The Bisexual, a comedy-drama that offers a raw, funny and unapologetic take on the “last taboo” – bisexuality – and the prejudices, shame and comic misconceptions that surround it.

Akhavan, in her first television project, plays Leila, who has decided to take a break from her long-term relationship with her girlfriend and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peake). She then begins sleeping with men and comes out as bisexual to her gay friends, as the series explores the differences between dating men and women from the perspective of someone who is doing both.

In this DQTV interview, Akhavan talks about the personal story behind the concept for the series and explains why she wanted to see greater representation of bisexuals on screen.

She discusses her role behind the scenes and the female-led team she put together to make the six-part series, and outlines why she believes storytelling is seeing “a new wave” as viewers no longer want to see the same stories, narratives and faces time and time again.

Akhavan also opens up about the types of stories that interest her and how she is striving for greater diversity on screen.

The Bisexual is produced by Sister Pictures-owned Hootenanny for Channel 4 in the UK and Hulu in the US, and distributed by All3Media International.

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Shooting for Mars

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon joins the space race with Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction The First, but as DQ discovers, this eight-part drama keeps its feet firmly on the ground.

Mars has fascinated writers of fiction for more than a century, from the outlandish late Victoriana of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac to the recent CGI extravaganzas of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Julien Lacombe’s French series Missions and Ron Howard’s blend of documentary and drama for National Geographic, Mars.

The most ambitious of them all, however, is also the one most grounded in realism and minutiae. The First – co-financed by Channel 4 in the UK, US streamer Hulu, IMG and AG Studios and created by House of Cards nabob Beau Willimon – barely leaves the planet for its first eight-episode season, set in 2031, with Willimon determined to honour both the efforts that go into making any space mission a success and the human costs.

“We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of the crew, the ground team and the aerospace moguls to see what their motivations were for embarking on this journey and the sacrifices required,” says Willimon. “Our focus is how hard it is to get to the starting line. When you talk to people in NASA or the private sector, who devote a decade of their lives just to getting a rover to Mars, it would be irresponsible not to explore that side.”

The First stars Sean Penn, who accepted the role at the second time of asking

The series was, in a sense, decades in the making. Willimon was inspired by his father’s years as chief engineer on US navy submarines: the space-age technology of subs, his father’s necessarily lengthy absences on tour and the concept of epic journeys all fed into The First. “I see this as an ancient story that happens to be set in the near future, rooted in a little kid fascinated by his dad working on a submarine,” he says.

Willimon recalls how, ater a snatched coffee at a Tribeca bistro with C4’s now-outgoing head of international drama, Simon Maxwell, three years ago “I said, ‘how do you feel about a show about a mission to Mars?’ and luckily he leaned forward rather than said, ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.’”

The scripts began to take shape and the cast was assembled, headed up by Sean Penn in his first TV role, playing rugged but troubled Mars mission leader Tom Hagerty, and Natascha McElhone as distant, cerebral aerospace CEO Laz Ingram.

McElhone signed up after an eight-hour coffee meeting with Willimon (“For all future actors I may work with, they need not worry, it’s not a requirement!”); Penn took a little longer, Willimon explains. “His rep said he was unavailable, but I’ve been around long enough to know you should always ask at least twice. We got the scripts to him and he responded well, so I flew to Dallas to discuss the story and character, and eventually he came on board. Actors who take their careers and craft seriously take the time to be sure this is where they want to invest their talent. It’s why they have the careers they have – they’re rigorous.”

Underpinning the series is research perhaps even more rigorous than Penn’s quality control. Not every show, for example, features ‘futurist’ among its credits  for helping to make tangible and feasible the technology on display.

Natasha McElhone plays the CEO of an aerospace company

“The difficult thing about the near future us that it’s near,” laughs Willimon. “If you were setting something 100 years from now, you could have warp speed or teleporting and the audience will accept as a given that these things will be figured out between now and then.”

The solution came from looking back, explains The First executive producer Jordan Tappis, documentary-maker and co-founder with Willimon of Westward Productions; The First is the company’s debut drama series. IMG is handling worldwide distribution of the series, which launched in Hulu in September and comes to C4 on November 1.

“Step one was going backwards into what the world looked like 15 years ago, before trying to predict what happens 15 years from now,” says Tappis. “We focused on communications and cars, two areas where the eye can see the evolution of technology. The big prediction we made is that people could use smart technology built into earbuds and glasses. We effectively took the same idea that Google Glass represented, but made it cool and integrated. The aesthetic was, in some ways, as important as the technology itself.”

The space travel elements needed to look absolutely accurate to the people whose job it is to do it for real. NASA was “extraordinarily forthcoming,” says Tappis, as were the veteran astronauts and representatives from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who were consulted.

“From the jargon to the designs, you won’t find many liberties taken with tech and science,” says Tappis. “But when we’ve had to make a narrative choice that doesn’t chime exactly with the research, it’s never by accident. For example, the rocket used is an original design, but derivative of the SLS rocket that NASA will likely use for their first manned missions. The capsules are technically accurate, but we also needed bigger cameras so we changed the dimensions a little bit.”

The eight-episode series is set in 2031

Ditto the presence of Laz Ingram, a female leader in an industry many might assume to be male-dominated. “There are loads of women in senior positions in aerospace,” says McElhone. “Julie van Kleeck is a VP at Aerojet, Gwynne Shotwell runs SpaceX, Leanne Caret is CEO at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. I’m sure the ladder isn’t straightforward, but we did a screening at JPL and every gender and ethnicity was represented. The show reflects that rather than altering reality.”

Even the selection of New Orleans as the centre for the launch was carefully thought through, with NASA having built a manufacturing facility there. Aesthetic and financial incentives also played a part, of course.

“New Orleans is an incredibly diverse and vibrant city,” says Tappis, “which makes a nice contrast to the surface of Mars. It’s also custom-built for the film community. There are incredible tax incentives, the state rallies behind productions and there are wonderful crews. The only challenging aspect is the unpredictable weather, but the looming danger of a hurricane or rainstorm is thrilling and in line with some of the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

In short, the psychological and physical peril of such a mission is placed front and centre, yet Tappis is convinced the appeal of the red planet will endure. “Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why did ancient humans see birds flying over the horizon, seemingly towards nothing, and decide to paddle in that direction? Mars is the great unknown, the ultimate antagonist. It’s staring at us, daring us to give it a shot, and I guess that’s what we’ve done with The First.”

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The UnReal deal

As reality TV-focused drama UnReal ends after four seasons, showrunner Stacy Rukeyser reflects on the show’s controversial storylines and the rise of female anti-heroes.

UnReal, the US drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a reality dating competition, went out with a bang when its fourth and final season landed on SVoD platform Hulu last month.

The exploits of Quinn King, Rachel Goldberg and the team behind fictional matchmaking series Everlasting have served to both shock and amaze audiences since the series launched on US cable network Lifetime in 2015, going on to win a Peabody Award for its first season.

That it was based on the real inner workings of reality shows like the one at its centre has only increased the attention paid to UnReal. It was inspired by co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film Sequin Raze, itself a behind-the-scenes look at a reality TV show, with Shapiro also once a producer on real-life dating series The Bachelor.

Stacy Rukeyser

“We hear a lot in the reality TV industry about how real [UnReal] is,” reveals Stacy Rukeyser, a writer on UnReal since season one and showrunner on the final two seasons. “We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘Oh they should call it Real, not UnReal.’ That was always terrifying to me because we showed these terrible, terrible things.”

From the beginning, UnReal has pulled back the curtain on the way reality television works, highlighting the ways producers (in the show’s case, Rachel, steered by Everlasting executive producer Quinn) manipulate the contestants in the quest for high ratings. As Rachel says in season one: “Producers produce things. I create conditions for things to happen.”

Season four of UnReal follows Rachel and Quinn as they return to the set of Everlasting for an ‘All Stars’ season, with former contestants and a new format that means the show-within-a-show is poised to be even more dramatic than ever.

UnReal also offers commentary on society’s relationship with reality television, and this season confronts the ‘hate watching’ phenomenon around the genre, with viewers tuning in not to enjoy the show but to snipe about the contestants.

In addition, it draws on a real-life scandal that engulfed ABC reality series Bachelor in Paradise. That show shut down production last year following allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the contestants, though an investigation later found no evidence of wrongdoing. In UnReal, producer Jay makes a complaint that Rachel twists into a publicity stunt.

“We have been looking at how dangerous these shows are for our culture because they’re perpetuating these myths about relationships, and women in particular – that we should look great in a bikini, sit in the hot tub and be really interested in the guy,” Rukeyser says. “And in exchange, he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali for dinner, and that’s what a relationship looks like. That’s really dangerous.”

UnReal centres on the production of a reality dating show

Rukeyser joined UnReal, which is produced by A+E Studios, in season one as a writer and to also step in for then-showrunner Marti Noxon when she was working on her other series at the time, Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.

“When we were writing the first season, I really had no idea that the show was going to be a buzzy, critical hit,” she admits. What she did know, however, was that UnReal would be about flawed women and would be full of risk-taking storylines. One Everlasting contestant commits suicide in the sixth episode, for example.

Season one sparked conversations around the emergence of female anti-heroes, feminism and female relationships, as drawn through the pairing of Quinn and Rachel. “I really had no idea it was going to have such an effect. When people were saying, ‘It’s the female Breaking Bad,’ I never stopped to think, ‘It’s a female protagonist who’s flawed and evil,’ and I certainly never stopped to think we had not just one but two female protagonists,” the showrunner says. “It just felt like these were women I’d recognise.

“The relationship between Rachel and Quinn is really the love story of the series, even though it’s not a romantic love story, and to have that much focus on female relationships, which are so central for us and, I believe, can withstand awful behaviour and [allow us to] understand each other and support each other, that’s been really exciting too.”

The strength of the relationship between Rachel and Quinn also comes down to the partnership between the actors who play them, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, respectively. Both have also directed episodes of UnReal, with Appleby helming the series finale.

Constance Zimmer (left) and Shiri Appleby play lead characters Quinn and Rachel respectively

“There’s so much of what Shiri does as Rachel that is non-verbal. If she is expressing so much of who that person is and what she is experiencing just through her face and eyes, there’s been an inherent vulnerability and likability in her that has made her root for Rachel and want her to get out [of Everlasting] by the end of the series,” Rukeyser says. “But it’s been incredible to be able to write in a more spare kind of way because you can trust she’s going to tell the rest of the story in a non-verbal way.”

As for Quinn, Rukeyser sees her as “one of the great characters in TV history,” explaining: “It would be very easy for the Quinn character to turn into an evil bitch, but it was never that way with her. Constance adds so many layers to her performance. It’s magic when you find two actresses who are not only spectacular individually but spectacular in the way they interact with each other. And it has really been such a privilege to write for them.”

Having previously worked on series including One Tree Hill, Crash and The Lying Game, Rukeyser has been writing and rewriting scripts on UnReal since the beginning. It proved to be a good training ground for the transition she made to become showrunner at the beginning of season three. “I knew I could do the job, so that was reassuring. But also, the show means so much to so many people who make it, so what’s been a really gratifying part of my job is, if I’m doing my job right, there are 200 people who feel responsible for the success of the show. It’s been great to be running a show that is about something, that sparks conversations and also means so much to the people making it.”

Beyond the issues it raises and the show-in-a-show format it has so successfully created, it’s the characters at the heart of UnReal that Rukeyser believes will be its legacy.

UnReal’s fourth and seemingly final season is on Hulu

“We’re part of this groundswell of ‘unlikeable female protagonists’ you see more and more on television. We’re seeing a lot more of them and I hope we continue to see a lot more of them because they feel like complicated, flawed women who I recognise,” she says.

“In terms of the comment on reality television, I don’t think that conversation is done. I don’t even think that conversation is really happening. We have so many fans to who tell us, ‘I love your show and I watch The Bachelor all the time’ – I sometimes cannot understand how that’s possible. There is something deeply embedded in our society – that princess fantasy that some man will come along and sweep me off my feet is still so desirable to so many women, unfortunately. So I would love for someone else to take that conversation on, because the conversation for sure is not done.”

But with the fourth season moving from Lifetime to Hulu, is there no way back for the show and a potential fifth season? “I don’t think so,” says Rukeyser, who has a pilot with Lifetime among other new projects in development. “I think this is it.”

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Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Returning to Gilead

In the first instalment of a two-part feature, the cast of acclaimed dystopian epic The Handmaid’s Tale reflect on the challenges in store for the Hulu series’ hotly anticipated second season.

Praise be! The television breakout of 2017, Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, returns to US screens next week for its second season.

Set in a post-apocalyptic US that has been violently commandeered by religious zealots, the MGM Studios-made show centres on the life of Offred (Elisabeth Moss, pictured above), a woman forced into sexual slavery as a child-bearing ‘Handmaid’ in the nightmarish society of Gilead, serving the corrupt Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

In spite of – or perhaps because of – its bleak tone, the show became an unexpected cultural reference point during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, with protesters across the country donning the show’s signature red robes to protest over women’s rights issues throughout the calendar year. Publications ranging from Time and The Nation to The New York Times and The Atlantic fell over themselves to write think pieces about the show’s relevancy and urgency.

The first season went on to sweep the board come awards season, winning eight Emmys, a trio of Critics Choice Awards and two Golden Globes, including the outstanding drama series prize at all three ceremonies. Adapted from the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale depleted most of the book’s source material in its first season, leaving showrunner Bruce Miller free to chart an original course for the sophomore outing, which lands on Hulu next Wednesday.

In the show, Offred seeks to flee the ruins of the US for refugee safe haven of Canada, which – perhaps fittingly or perhaps ironically – is where the American series is filmed.

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale moves beyond the events of Margaret Atwood’s book

On a cold and rainy day in late February, DQ travelled an hour or so from Toronto to the town of Hamilton, Ontario, to observe filming of the ninth and 10th episodes of the second season’s 13-episode run. “We have shot outside in the winter and I look at the Canadians, who look as if it is a spring day; they never look cold and they never complain about the weather,” says actor Ann Dowd. “Meanwhile, the Americans are huddled in a corner, begging for their lives.”

Dowd won an Emmy and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as the villainous Aunt Lydia in the drama’s first season. Commuting from her home in New York for the eight-month Ontario shoot, she jokes that she finds the Canadians’ imperviousness to cold weather “deeply annoying.”

In returning to a character as cruel as Aunt Lydia, who is in charge of the Handmaids, Dowd notes that “you have to step away from judgement” and embrace the role in full. “To come to know a character well is like a friendship or a relationship,” she says. “If there is judgement, there is only so far you are going to get.

“I can understand from the outside that Lydia could be called an evil character, certainly a dark character, but I think from her perspective – and, therefore, from my perspective – she believes she is doing the only thing that will keep those girls alive in this world. As far as Lydia is concerned, I don’t think she sees any other way to get it through to them. She is a big believer in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’”

Dowd acknowledges the show returns to screens with a weight of hype and anticipation that wasn’t present when it launched. The success of season one has been transformative for Hulu, demonstrating that it can compete as a premium drama network in much the same way that Mad Men did for AMC, or House of Cards for Netflix.

Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes as the Waterfords

“What a wonderful problem to have,” she reflects. “The great thing about the work in this business is that they are 15-hour days. I say great, even if it brings me to my knees, because the chatter, the publicity, the awards, the award shows… all of that falls away when you are doing the work.

“Plus, I am 62 now. Can I just say that age is underrated? Because after a while, all of that chatter falls away and you realise you don’t have to pay attention to anything at all except what is in front of you today, and today I am going to tackle a scene which is very challenging.”

During DQ’s visit, the cast and crew are filming at a beautiful, ivy-coated, three-storey heritage building in rural Hamilton. Familiar to viewers as the home of the Waterfords, the Bankier House – which dates back to 1893 and takes its name from its original owner, lawyer Patrick Bankier – is doubling for a fictitious residence in Boston.

Returning from a disastrous trip, the episode sees Commander Waterford and Serena Joy, portrayed by Fiennes and Strahovski respectively, ascending a staircase and wearily retiring to their separate bedrooms. It’s 18.30 as the first take starts, and filming will continue until midnight.

During a break from shooting, Strahovski tells DQ that her character’s relationship with Moss’s Offred “ebbs and flows in more dramatic ways” and “has become even more complicated” in the second season.

Viewers can expect an even more cinematic experience in the second run

Despite their adversarial positions, “there is closeness that is found between us, because of certain circumstances that arise in the household. Negotiating that, given the circumstances that already exist, is very complex.

“It just seems to be a bit of a rollercoaster journey in that particular relationship, which is so interesting for me because it was already so heavy and guarded, and there was so much envy and frustration and anger towards her,” she says of her character’s feelings about Offred.

During the first season, critics were quick to draw comparisons between the powerful Joy and some of the most prominent women in the Trump administration, such as Melania and Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway.

“A lot of people saw parallels, and I don’t blame them at all,” Strahovski says. “Our show is incredibly relatable and potent right now because of Trump’s America and everything that’s going on with women’s rights, all the new stuff that’s arising. But we became accidentally aligned with that, because we started shooting the show well before the presidential election.

“As with any character, I approached this one the same way, in that I stripped away all the judgements you can place on Serena. Having read the book, I see she is bitchy, but once you strip all of that away and realise she is a woman who doesn’t have any trust or faith in her husband anymore, in her marriage, she doesn’t have any intimacy with her husband, those raw emotions were my springboard into shaping her further… connecting with her emotionally and finding that humanity in her.”

Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen toils in the ‘colonies’

The Australian-born Strahovski adds: “I don’t think anyone, ultimately, thought this was going to have such a massive impact, and that this show was going to become a show of resistance, particularly the ‘Handmaid’ red outfit. It’s incredible to be part of this positive movement where we are getting to talk more freely and more openly about women’s issues.”

British actor Max Minghella, who plays the shadowy Nick, the Waterfords’ driver and Offred’s love interest, echoes her sentiment. Having initially signed on for just a minor part in the show’s pilot, Minghella takes on a significantly expanded role in season two.

“It’s been a fascinating thing to be a part of something that actually has become relevant in a way none of us anticipated, predicated or necessarily intended,” he says. “The fact that we have become a part of a bigger conversation is kind of remarkable.”

In returning to the show, “I was nervous there might be some kind of shift in tonality on the set,” he says, “but there isn’t at all; everyone’s very work-focused. It’s an ambitious thing to try to continue the story beyond Margaret’s book, which is astonishing, but to have her hand in it – to have her blessing – I think gives us the confidence to keep telling the story.

“And certainly, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, I think it is stronger than last year. It feels more cinematic to me, it feels richer. There is an artistry to it which I think we are all craving more and more in this media.”

The red robes worn by Handmaids have become a symbol of women’s rights protests

Indeed, the cinematic quality has been a source of recurring praise for the US streaming service’s breakout hit, offering further evidence of the oft-discussed crumbling barrier between television and cinema.

“The whole of television, the whole platform has shifted into new, exciting territory with budget, talent and production value, and with writers that have come from cinema,” says Fiennes, who earned a Bafta nomination earlier in his career for his role in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. “I think this is the television golden age and you really feel that in this production.”

Reflecting on his character, Commander Fred Waterford, Fiennes says that “like many men in positions of great power, who believe they are untouchable and who think they can get away with things, he breaks the rules. And I think this is something we see all the time in that area of authority; it’s very human.”

He also acknowledges that his role has taken on a particular resonance in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, with his character standing in for the many men who use their powerful positions to abuse women.

“Before Harvey Weinstein there was Roger Ailes at the Fox News network, and there are many white men in big positions of power,” Fiennes reflects. “We see it. It’s right the way through history, and when the book [The Handmaid’s Tale] was conceived and written, it was happening then.

“Every day you are reminded of regimes, theocracies and patriarchal rulers, that is what is really startling to me. And they are all human, they are all fallible. I think a lot of it is to do with repression; you give a person with deep repression great power and you are in danger of creating someone like Fred,” he adds. “That is maybe a simplistic breakdown, but I am fascinated by that. There is a benign ineptitude that he is aware of, but he has been given a desk and he’s been given a power position.”

As for the show’s storyline now that the events of the book have been expended and the story is heading off-piste, Fiennes offers enthusiasm. The second season promises to expand upon the world established in the first, showing life in the toxic ‘colonies,’ the free country of Canada and using a flashbacks to explain how Gilead came to be.

“It’s rather like doing a great classical play, where someone in the front row has got the book and is muttering the soliloquies along with you,” he remarks. “Now they can’t. They are forced to enjoy a new narrative, so there is a departure. I think it is 100% authentic to the book and to the first season – darker and creepier in many respects, but still authentic.

“It liberates everyone to a point of just enjoying the narrative for the first time; that’s what is really special.”

Stay tuned for the second part of this feature, which will include interviews with showrunner Bruce Miller, director Jeremy Podeswa and DOP Colin Watkinson.

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Jack of all trades

As British drama Kiri makes its US debut, writer Jack Thorne tells DQ about penning the four-part miniseries and his approach to writing, with upcoming projects including The Eddy and His Dark Materials.

Widely regarded as one of the busiest people working in television, Jack Thorne hardly has a spare moment. So it’s no surprise that when DQ catches up with him, the writer is in New York combining promotion of his four-part miniseries Kiri with preparations for the Broadway transfer of his West End play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.

Having worked on Skins and the Bafta-winning The Fades, Thorne is best known for collaborating with Shane Meadows on miniseries trilogy This Is England, as well as The Last Panthers, feature film Wonder and an episode of dystopian anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.

More recently, he penned National Treasure, which sought to examine the fallout from a public figure being accused of historical sexual assault. But his most recent television outing is Kiri (pictured above), which launches on Hulu on April 4 and examines the disappearance of a young black girl (Kiri) who is soon to be adopted by her white foster family, and the trail of lies, blame, guilt and notoriety that follows.

Jack Thorne

Central to the drama is social worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), who arranges for Kiri to have an unsupervised visit with her biological grandparents, leading to her abduction. The series reunites Thorne with National Treasure producer The Forge and distributor All3Media International.

“It was quite stressful,” Thorne says of writing Kiri. “I was so happy with National Treasure and I feel very confident now in it in terms of what it said. So I was very anxious Kiri had something to say and what it had to say was something worth saying. The first draft of Kiri was one of the worst drafts I have ever handed in. [Executive producer] George Faber took me to dinner to say, ‘This is brilliant but a mess.’ He was being nice by saying it was brilliant but there wasn’t anything brilliant about it. Then started a long process of excavation.”

Writing Kiri was particularly troublesome because it was so personal, Thorne explains. His mother was a social worker, while he and his wife have looked into the adoption process, so transplanting those experiences and memories into a television drama proved to be a “scary process,” particularly when the transracial element opened up even more avenues to consider.

He continues: “All you have got to do as a writer is tell the truth but sometimes telling the truth is really tricky, and on Kiri it was. You’re dealing with a wasp’s nest of issues and that wasp’s nest is full of other people’s scars. Episode two sent me mad.”

Faber was also instrumental in helping solve the conundrum of the story’s structure, which shifts perspective between several different characters in a narrative method known as a relay race. “I thought about how to structure it and that idea came about, which is what Abi Morgan did brilliantly with [BBC drama] Murder. If I’ve got another show that can be my model, that makes me feel better,” he says.

Kiri stars Sarah Lancashire as social worker Miriam

Thorne says he works out a lot of knots in the storyline by writing through the problems, though he admits he needs to know the end of the story and what he thinks about it before he turns out a script. National Treasure proved to be an exception to the rule, however, when it came to deciding the courtroom verdict.

“I remember the moment when we realised [central character] Paul was not guilty as being quite late on, but we were talking about how we felt about him all the way through. He was guilty for a long time. It was just in that moment, going, ‘It’s a drama about someone who’s going to be found not guilty,’ and what that means and what that says.”

“In Kiri, it was about who did it and what that means. When it became clear it was about someone’s indignation that someone else wasn’t grateful for what they’d given them and that psychopathic anger inside him, we thought, ‘OK, that’s the truth we’re getting to, so how does every episode ask a question that leads to that ending?’”

Like National Treasure, the themes of blame and responsibility and the role of the media run through Kiri, so although it wasn’t billed as such in the UK (where both shows aired on Channel 4), the two miniseries form the first two instalments of a planned trilogy. In the US, it will air under the title National Treasure: Kiri.

Robbie Coltrane in National Treasure, the first part of a trilogy from Thorne that includes Kiri and an as-yet-unrevealed story

“Hopefully we’re going to get a chance to do a third one, and hopefully [the link] will become clear,” Thorne explains. “It was always in my head as a trilogy of different things. Season one was gender, season two was race. Season three I know what it is but I don’t want to curse it [by revealing too much] and hopefully it will all join together in a way that makes sense for people. I’ve got a story but I’m trying to work out how to make it function.”

Work only seems like work when you’re not enjoying it, and that’s certainly the view Thorne takes, admitting that he takes on so many jobs simply because he likes writing. He points again to Morgan who, speaking on the Royal Court podcast, describes the moment she realised she had taken on too much work was when she had 14 projects on her slate and felt like she was constantly having affairs with each one, forcing her to strip back her workload.

“I don’t feel I’m quite in that place,” Thorne admits. “But I recognise the danger and it’s important not to overexpose. I’m also working out how, in an age when inclusivity is becoming increasingly important, to use my voice to make things better, rather than just propagate a world that is over-dominated by white men. I’m doing a lot of thinking about that at the moment. Visibility has always been very important to me and my logic has always been if I can get those faces and stories on TV, then I’m doing alright. I’m just working all that out.”

For television, Thorne is now developing The Eddy, a musical drama for Netflix with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, and the highly anticipated adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials triology of novels, first announced by the BBC back in 2015. Thorne came on board in April 2016. Season one, based on the first book, Northern Lights, introduces Lyra, an orphan whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, all set in a parallel universe where science, theology and magic are entwined.

Thorne also penned The Last Panthers

“We’ve been together working on it for so long now. I’ve written all eight episodes of the first season and am rewriting them now,” Thorne says. “It’s been joyous so far, working out how to do it to make it work.

“There’s huge pressure. My job is to tell Philip’s story as well as I can. In doing so, I have to make decisions [about what to keep or cut out]. There are constant battles in how we tell these stories as well as you possibly can, but we’ve got a lot of time to tell them as well. Hopefully we can please everyone. That’s the aim but I’m tremendously scared.”

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Back to the brothels

Set in 18th century Georgian London, Harlots is described as a powerful family drama offering a new take on the city’s most valuable commercial activity – sex.

The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner in the face of an attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.

Season two, set to air this year, sees Liv Tyler join the cast as Lady Fitz while Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), places herself in Quigley’s home and their toxic and deep-set rivalry is taken to a dangerous new level.

In this DQTV interview, Brown Findlay and executive producer Alison Carpenter recall the making of season one and preview the twists and turns that await viewers in season two of the series, which is entirely written, produced and directed by women.

They also discuss how authenticity was placed at the heart of the production, and give their views on the sexual harassment scandal currently sweeping through the film and television business.

Harlots is produced by Monumental Television for Hulu and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

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Stars on show

Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.

For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.

Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.

To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.

Six-part miniseries Picnic at Hanging Rock stars Natalie Dormer

Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.

The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.

Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.

Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.

Heimebane is about a female football coach and also features ex-player John Carew (left)

Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.

Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.

The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.

Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.

Tobias Menzies (left) and Jared Harris in forthcoming AMC drama The Terror

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.

The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.

The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.

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Hot stuff

Six-part drama Hard Sun is described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.

While investigating the death of a computer hacker, partners and enemies Charlie Hicks and Elaine Renko inadvertently stumble upon proof that the world is facing certain destruction in five years.

Pursued by ruthless security service operatives, who are willing to kill them in order to keep them silent, they must protect themselves and those they love while ensuring a new breed of murderers, abusers, serial killers and cult leaders face justice.

In this DQTV video, writer/creator Neil Cross (Luther) and executive producer Kate Harwood discuss making the series, which centres on the relationship between two detectives who stand morally and ethically opposed to each other.

Stars Agyness Deyn (Renko), Jim Sturgess (Hicks) and Nikki Amuka-Bird (Grace) also reveal more about the conflicted and complex relationships between their characters and the appeal of starring in a show written by Cross, who also talks about his writing process.

Hard Sun is produced by Euston Films for BBC1 and Hulu and distributed by FremantleMedia International.

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Join the club

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

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

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

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

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

Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hard work

Luther creator Neil Cross begins the countdown to the end of the world in Hard Sun, starring Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn. DQ joins the cast and crew on set to find two detectives fighting crime as society threatens to descend into chaos.

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing // News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in // News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying // Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.

The unrivalled legacy of the late David Bowie reaches far and wide, with musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers alike finding inspiration in his flamboyant use of make-up and costumes and his groundbreaking musical flair.

In television, Bowie’s music has been used as title tracks for Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and The Last Panthers, and is said to have inspired Fox network drama Lucifer. Now, his song Five Years – the opening track on his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – serves as the loose inspiration behind the new series from Luther creator Neil Cross.

Hard Sun marks a first TV role for model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn

Described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London, Hard Sun follows detectives Robert Hicks and Elaine Renko as they discover the end of the world is nigh. With five years until annihilation, they face the prospect of maintaining justice as Armageddon looms. But how do you leave your family behind each morning and put your life at risk? And what criminal would fear a prison sentence in a world on the brink of extinction?

It’s a suitably sunny day when DQ joins the cast and crew on set during filming of scenes for the climactic sixth and final episode. The vast number of buildings and grounds that make up a former HSBC training site, located on the outskirts of north-west London, have provided many of the interior and exterior locations for the series.

A stairway and some double doors inside one building lead to the set of the police station. Here, a dimly lit observation room is filled with CCTV monitors while a central room is full of desks, with one wall covered with photographs of victims, crime scenes and evidence. The walls are painted metallic grey throughout as flashing lights from a bank of computer servers break the darkness.

It’s inside interrogation room FR7 that DQ meets executive producer Kate Harwood, MD of producer Euston Films. The sterile room contains a single steel desk with a recorder on the table. There are grey tile walls and a green lino floor, with CCTV cameras in every corner. Light shines through barred windows.

Shooting a fight scene on the banks of the River Thames

Hard Sun represents the first commission for Euston Films since Harwood rebooted the FremantleMedia label in 2014. The former head of drama for the BBC’s in-house production unit, she was at the channel when Cross first introduced tough-talking detective John Luther, brought to formidable life by Idris Elba.

BBC1 commissioned Hard Sun on the strength of one episode, so after getting the commission, Cross spent the next 18 months writing scripts. Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful) joined as lead director, with Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech) as production designer and “rising star” Nick Rowlands (Ripper Street) as second-block director.

“It’s a crime show with a science-fiction premise,” Harwood says. “It’s as procedural as you can be when the cops are carrying around the secret that the world is going to end. So it’s part cop show, part sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller. But we’ve called it a pre-apocalyptic crime show set in contemporary London.”

Amid a lot of interest in the US, streaming service Hulu quickly boarded the series, while distributor FremantleMedia International beefed up its budget. Tax breaks have also been used to maximise the show’s finances.

The show is a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London

On screen, Jim Sturgess and model-turned-actor Agyness Deyn (in her first TV role) play Hicks and Renko respectively, distrustful partners who seek to enforce the law and protect their families as destruction edges ever closer. Nicki Amuka-Bird plays an MI5 government official, a mysterious character who is part of the establishment and trying to suppress the information.

“Neil always says Hicks is the sun and Renko is the moon,” Harwood explains. “There’s a polarity about them. They circle each other. Sometimes they’re partners, sometimes they’re opposites. It’s a distrustful, must-trust relationship. That tension between them is absolutely essential. Hicks is explosive and external and bright and Renko is more watchful, more secretive, more held back and it’s a lovely duality between them. Agyness has never done TV. She seemed really excited by the material as soon as we met her. She’s like a duck to water and she’s so hard-working, focused and punctilious.”

Back on set and with the cameras rolling, Sturgess and Deyn find themselves in the lobby of a grand house, the air thick with smoke as an elaborate chandelier hangs above. One side room appears to be a surgery, with a lobotomy chair in the middle. Other rooms appear to be bedrooms, with TVs screening static fuzz in the gloom.

As Renko and Hicks, they enter the room from a dark corridor, torches raised to find a lady in a medical gown. Slowly, others emerge from the darkness to surround them in what promises to be an extremely creepy climax to the sixth episode.

“It starts off as a procedural show with Hicks and Renko investigating a particular crime – a man who’s apparently fallen off a balcony and is found dead in a tree,” explains producer Hugh Warren, who also reveals the Bowie link to the series. “But what unravels is that his stolen flash drive contains this Hard Sun dossier that, internationally, is being suppressed by government forces because they’ve learnt that an extinction-level event is coming. So by the end [of episode one], Hicks and Renko know there’s five years left for the planet and that’s the new world they’re in.”

Filming locations took in areas of London including Shepherd’s Bush, Shoreditch and Oxford Circus. Naturally, the logistics and cost of moving the production around the city caused headaches for Warren and his team. The scripts also called for numerous night shoots, which became increasingly difficult as the production, which began shooting at the end of January, entered spring and early summer.

“It’s also very action-heavy for British television so there are a lot of stunts, a lot of complicated stuff to shoot. The normal amount you would expect to shoot on an average day for a TV drama, we can’t achieve,” he admits. “We’re shooting for many more days per hour than you would expect. That’s a real challenge in terms of time because we’ve only got the actors for a finite period.”

But what will fans of Luther, which is returning to the BBC for a fifth season, make of Cross’s latest series? “I think it will surprise people,” says Warren, adding that celebrity cosmologist Brian Cox has been on hand to help the creator root his end of-the-world theory in fact.

“What it has in common with Luther is the darkness – there are some very dark stories in there but also real humanity. We’re telling a huge cosmic story about the end of the planet but what’s interesting is it comes down to really common human experiences. They’re very everyday stories set against this massive global catastrophe.”

Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn

Too good to turn down

Having only just appeared in a BBC drama – Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy – Jim Sturgess wasn’t planning on signing up for another one. Instead, he was pondering a break from acting to focus on his music career. So it’s testament to Neil Cross’s script that the actor immediately signed up to play detective Robert Hicks in Hard Sun.

“I was almost cursing Neil for writing something so good,” Sturgess reveals, adding that he was attracted by the combination of “messed up, flawed characters” and the overall concept for the series.

“What’s great about this, and why I’m really excited about it, is it’s a pre-apocalyptic story that doesn’t need to rush,” he says, citing movies such as Armageddon that cram an extinction-level event into 120 minutes. “I hadn’t seen this before, where something’s looming but you can really spend time looking at what that’s going to do to individuals and society as a whole. TV works for a project like this because you can really take your time with it.”

Cross travelled from his New Zealand home for rehearsals alongside Sturgess, co-star Agyness Deyn and lead director Brian Kirk. It was there that the two leads cemented their partnership, both on and off screen.

“Our relationship on screen is incredibly intricate and at times complicated and strategic,” Sturgess says. “Off-screen It’s great to have a partner in crime on set who you really trust, has a very similar work ethic and cares about it as much as I do. She brings everything she has to it and we get on really well. We’re both pretty chilled out.”

Sturgess, whose film credits include 21 and Cloud Atlas, last year starred as a chef in AMC’s 2016 series Feed the Beast, an adaptation of Danish drama Bankerot. He’s also played criminals, drug addicts and a stoner musician, but has never played a detective before – “and I’ve never really wanted to,” he admits, “until I read this particular detective.”

“He’s not squeaky clean at all,” Sturgess adds. “He’s not James Bond. He makes some very tricky decisions that have a difficult impact on his life later on. But he considers himself to be a good family man, and that becomes an important part of the story because it’s his family he’s trying to save.”

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Handmaid to measure

Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield discusses the success of The Handmaid’s Tale and the lessons he learnt making the leap from broadcaster to producer. 

With Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (above) scoring 13 Primetime Emmy nominations and FX’s Fargo earning six, Warren Littlefield has a hand in two of the biggest shows on TV right now.

Warren Littlefield

But it is with the The Handmaid’s Tale, a gritty adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 novel, that the former NBC Entertainment president – who serves as an executive producer on both aforementioned series – has found a cultural phenomenon.

The 10-part drama, which airs on Hulu in the US, Channel 4 in the UK and Bravo in Canada, has found a dark mirror in current affairs. Across the US, protesters have taken to wearing red robes and white bonnets – the attire of the titular handmaids in Attwood’s dystopia – to raise awareness of hot-button political issues such as Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.

The show has a “grotesque timeliness” in the age of Trump, according to The New Yorker, and as the series finale wrapped in the UK at the end of July, “No television event has hit such a nerve,” proclaimed The Guardian.

The maelstrom of contemporary resonance is not lost on Littlefield. “Margaret’s work has been relevant since the time she published it and any time within the last 32 years would have been a perfectly good time to adapt her book,” he tells DQ. “We felt that relevancy rising, and then we were in the middle of production – deep in the middle of shooting the series – when Trump won the election. And that became a new level of ‘we better not fuck this up.’

“When the development process was going on, we were in a Barack Obama world, but clearly there was a sense that Brexit was a loud, loud alarm that went off,” he adds. “You could see it and you could feel it, throughout the globe, that rise of the right and the alt-right. We were a country that was becoming more and more divided.”

Though Hulu renewed the show for a second season in May, The Handmaid’s Tale began its journey to the small screen with MGM and exec producer Ilene Chaiken originally developing it for Showtime. When the US cablenet passed on the project, streaming service Hulu saw a chance and moved in.

Billy Bob Thornton in the first season of FX’s Fargo

“Hulu said, ‘We really like the idea of doing this as a series; our choice would be to start with another writer.’ Ilene had gone off and done Empire [on Fox] and they said, ‘Let’s do two scripts and begin again,’” Littlefield explains.

“That was acceptable to MGM, so Hulu and MGM interviewed a lot of writers. Ultimately, [showrunner] Bruce Miller came in and said, ‘OK, I know I’m not a woman, and if I were you I would hire a woman to develop this property. But, since I’m here in the room and you’ve granted me this meeting, this is my take on how I would do it.’ And they said, ‘Wow, he gets it.’”

WME, which represents both Littlefield and The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss, approached the exec to see if he was interested in coming aboard. At the time, Littlefield was exec producing FX’s anthology crime dramedy Fargo, which had just won him a Primetime Emmy.

“I read it and said, ‘This is incredible material,’” Littlefield recalls. “I was ramping up to do Fargo [season] three, so on a practical level this made no sense, but I just said to Lizzie [Moss], ‘I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk away from this opportunity.’”

While showrunner Miller was acute enough to realise that a show centred on female repression would take flack for not being helmed by a woman, he and Littlefield preempted some criticism by filling the crew with female talent, including most prominently in the writing and directing departments.

Littlefield worked on influential sitcom Seinfeld during his time at NBC Entertainment

Of the hires, the biggest bet the team took was in hiring acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano to direct the show’s first three episodes.

“She had very little directing experience,” Littlefield recalls. “She didn’t have an Oscar, she had never done a pilot. She was an award-winning DP, but had almost no experience as a director, and yet we felt that she was the right person, that she understood what to do with this material.

“If I were at a traditional network, a) they wouldn’t have done the show, but b) they never would have signed off on Reed Morano. And we hired her for the first hour and then I said, ‘I’m looking at the schedule, and I think she’s going to do all three. That’s what I want to do.’”

In many ways, making a dystopian SVoD drama is a step far removed from the 24-episode realm of broadcast sitcoms where Littlefield cut his teeth.

As a protégé of the late Brandon Tartikoff, he climbed the ranks, serving as senior and then exec VP at NBC Entertainment, before rising to the role of president – a post he held from 1993 to 1998. During that time, he oversaw a primetime line-up that included Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, ER, Cheers and Frasier.

Nevertheless, he says lessons learned from his broadcast days are still applicable today.

“There was a philosophy that the late and wonderful [former NBC chairman and CEO] Grant Tinker helped instil in us, when we were young programmers and broadcasters, and that is: respect the audience,” Littlefield says. “We tried to aim high in my NBC years, and audiences rewarded us for that.

“That was a great lesson to learn as you’re growing up in the broadcast business. The world has changed, however. We’re in this age of peak TV – I think of it as platinum TV – where audiences reward you for outstanding work. The difference now is the quality; as much as I’m proud of what we put on the air when I was at the network, the level of quality that goes on the screen now is unlike anything that’s ever been done before.

“It doesn’t matter if an actor or director has an Oscar, they want to go where the most complex narratives, and the most complex, sophisticated characters can be found,” he adds. “And, for the most part, that’s television.”

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Seeing red

Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale brings Margaret Atwood’s eponymous 1985 novel to the small screen – and it could be the most timely and relevant drama of 2017.

When the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president prompted thousands of people across the US – and the world – to join women’s marches in January this year, it was notable that many were reminded of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Signs reading “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again,” “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual” and “No to the Republic of Gilead” all relayed fears that the rise of the political right in Washington could see America become a totalitarian state comparable to that imagined in Atwood’s 1985 novel – which also shot back up the bestseller lists.

The story is set in Gilead, formerly part of the US but now a republic ruled by religious fundamentalists who treat women as property of the state, against a backdrop of environmental disasters and plunging birthrates. The few remaining fertile women are designated as handmaids to the ruling class and forced into a life of sexual servitude in an attempt to boost the falling population.

Offred, the titular handmaid, must navigate between Commanders, their wives, domestic Marthas and her fellow handmaids, where anyone could be a spy for Gilead, and all with one goal – to survive and find the daughter who was taken from her.

The Handmaid’s Tale stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred

Timely as it might seem now, US SVoD platform Hulu announced the 10-part adaptation of Atwood’s book nine months ago, with the series due to debut on April 26. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, alongside Joseph Fiennes (the Commander), Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen), Samira Wiley (Moira), Max Minghella (Nick) and OT Fagbenle (Luke).

Atwood is a consulting producer on the series, which is exec produced by showrunner Bruce Miller alongside Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears and Warren Littlefield. MGM Television produces and distributes.

Miller was writing the pilot script at the time of the US primaries in 2016 and immediately recognised how relevant the story was more than 30 years after it was published. “I don’t think people are worried that America is going to turn into Gilead,” he says of the protest signs. “Really it ties into the fact people feel like their government is beyond their control and the things that are happening are getting scary and there’s nothing they can do about it.

“People aren’t really attaching themselves to Gilead, they’re attaching themselves to the rebellious spirit under very difficult circumstances. There’s fear attached to it but strangely there’s a lot of optimism and inspiration.”

Miller became a fan of Atwood’s novel during his time at college and says the text inspired him to become a writer. He followed the movement of a potential TV adaptation for several years, to the point where he says Ilene Chaiken was writing a series for US premium cable network Showtime. But when Showtime passed and Hulu picked up the baton, Miller stepped in as showrunner while Chaiken focused on her Fox series Empire.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia

The pitfalls for any writer adapting a “sacred text” such as this may have been off-putting, but Miller’s own love for the story meant he was ideally placed to lead its transition to TV.

“People have paragraphs from this book tattooed on their body!” he says. “This is something people treasure quite a bit, so you have to be mindful of that – but you can’t be a slave to it. Luckily I was one of those people who thought it was a sacred text and I’m thrilled it came out as I had hoped, only better, which is kind of the dream.”

Atwood proved to be a key resource for Miller to lean on, particularly when it came to addressing changes he believed needed to be made for the screen. He says the biggest change was to give Gilead a more diverse population than that in the book, in which the state is strictly a “white world” where people of African-American origin are sent to reservations and Jews are deported to Israel.

“I struggled with that on a few levels,” Miller admits. “That doesn’t look like our world today and I was worried about that. And, honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and a racist TV show? I couldn’t get my mind around that.

“We had a long discussion and my thinking was that in Gilead, fertility trumps everything. So whatever level of racism they had would have been subverted for the ultimate goal of having children. That’s why in the first episode, you see handmaids are all different shapes, sizes and colours.”

Joseph Fiennes joins the high-profile cast as the Commander

Another major change was reducing the ages of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy – the couple who welcome Offred into their home as a handmaid. In the novel they are much older than Offred, but Miller was keen to make them younger to create a new relationship between the female characters. “The dynamic between Serena Joy and Offred is so central that I wanted to make them more direct competitors. What happens to Serena Joy’s identity when this person is in her house and sleeping with her husband? It was a difficult but mindful decision and was made to make sure I had an ongoing, interesting dynamic moving forward.”

In keeping with the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale jumps across multiple timelines, from the present day to Offred’s time at the Red Centre – a handmaid training camp run by ‘Aunts’ – and to a time pre-Gilead, when Offred (then known by her real name, June) is living with her husband Luke and their young daughter.

But the biggest challenge Miller faced during filming in Toronto was maintaining an attention to detail that would shame most period dramas. “I’m very detail-oriented and I don’t want anything to bug me while I’m watching because it knocks me out of the world. But this show was a whole other level of attention to detail,” he says. “If you see a Mercedes car, are we saying Gilead has trade relations with Germany? So what does Germany think about that? Or are we a pariah nation?

“All of a sudden, just by showing someone polishing a car, you’re opening up a political, global trade discussion about human rights. So you really have to pay attention to that on a comical scale.”

Miller also praises lead director Reed Morano, who was behind the camera for the first three episodes, as an “extraordinary talent” who worked tirelessly in pre-production to iron out exactly how she wanted to bring Gilead to life.

The series, which also stars Yvonne Strahovski, debuts next week

Morano was also a fan of the novel – “I’ve always been fascinated by stories of alternate realities, it just creeps me out a lot,” she admits – and won over Hulu and MGM with her sheer passion for the source material. “I read the pilot very early on and, although it has two storytelling devices that are typically red flags to me in flashbacks and voiceover, it’s a testament to Bruce’s writing, to Margaret Atwood and Ilene Chaiken that not only was I not deterred by it, I was inspired by the challenge of subverting expectations with devices that have been used so many times before.”

Stylistically, Morano used a combination of classic camera techniques to capture Gilead, mixing a symmetrical, composed design with a romantic, impressionistic look. She also opted for handheld coverage for Offred and Ofglen to give viewers a more intimate relationship with the handmaids.

Her episodes are also full of directorial flourishes, from overhead shots to slow-motion sequences and even the soundtrack, which uses songs such as Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me and Blondie’s Heart of Glass to maximum effect.

For the flashbacks, Morano was keen to create a contrast between Gilead and pre-Gilead. “I often wanted the flashbacks to be jarring, almost offensive,” she says. “Gilead is so sanitised, reserved and controlled. Then you get thrust into a messy, impressionistic flashback where Moira and June are listening to a loud, graphic song and smoking a joint at a party. If they only saw life in Gilead, it might be easier for the audience to separate themselves from it. But because we’re constantly reminding the audience what life was like before, which is what life is like right now [in reality], it makes the story more emotional and makes it feel like a much more accessible world.”

Colour was also a key consideration for Morano, working in partnership with director of photography Colin Watkinson, costume designer Ane Crabtree and production designer Julie Berghoff. Shades of red were picked out for the handmaids, blue for the wives and green for the domestic servants, known as Marthas. The striking appearance of the show was taken further with the production design, with one notable example being that Serena Joy’s room is nearly the same colour as her clothing, creating a look the director describes as “super weird.”

On set, Morano had hours of conversations with Fiennes and Strahovski about their characters, who have their own sets of problems in Gilead. “At the end of one scene in episode two, you briefly see the Commander in his office by himself and I just thought, ‘Man, it is lonely in Gilead for everyone,’” she says. “Everyone would expect Serena Joy to be the villain but she has all sides to her, which is what makes her so dynamic and her character so unexpected. There is a vulnerability to her that I always saw potential in revealing.”

However, it is star Moss who Morano describes as her “partner in crime.” When not on set together, the pair would constantly exchange messages about the next day’s shoot. “It was a luxury having such an intuitive partner in Lizzie, by my side every day, so we could challenge each other and brainstorm on how to take every scene to the next level,” Morano explains. “Not only being the lead but also a producer, she’s more invested than anybody. The level of dedication she’s put into this series is insane.”

Morano is now prepping her next movie, post-apocalyptic I Think We’re Alone Now, but says The Handmaid’s Tale also feels like a film because her level of involvement, from pre-production to the edit, meant she had a hand on her episodes at every level.

“Film and TV have very different processes but, in my experience, this was the closest it’s been creatively to being on a film,” she adds. “I got lucky enough to be there at the beginning and to be the one to come in and imagine the way the story is told and to create the visual language of the world. In TV, you don’t often get the opportunity to truly put yourself into a project, to put your stamp on it, so I was really grateful for the chance to do that.”

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Battle of the brothels

Co-creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman reveal the journey they took to bring Harlots, a period drama about rival brothel owners, to the small screen.

An 18th century mansion on the outskirts of London proved to be the perfect location for a period drama that presents a new take on what Rudyard Kipling described as the world’s oldest trade – prostitution.

But Harlots, which was co-commissioned by UK broadcaster ITV and US streamer Hulu, is more than just a sex saga.

Set against the backdrop of 18th century Georgian London, the eight-part series follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she juggles her roles as mother and brothel owner. When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam, she decides to fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.

Harlots is based on an idea from head writer Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the drama is the first commission for Monumental Pictures.

Harlots creators Moira Buffini (left) and Alison Newman

“One of the things we always wanted to do with Harlots was to tell the story of these women from their point of view – it’s a story of survival,” Newman explains. “We often called it ‘misery porn,’ and while these women’s stories are awful, horrendous and difficult, especially to a modern audience, they did happen and we just wanted to truthfully tell the stories of the world.”

Buffini adds: “We have honoured their tenacity and courage and ability to survive, rather than dwelling on the ‘poor them’ aspect.”

Harlots had been in development, in some shape or form, for four years before finally getting the greenlight. Part of the delay was down to Buffini and Newman’s insistence on making the show they wanted to make and finding partners to support that vision. With US SVoD platform Hulu and ITV, they finally found the freedom to bring their ideas to life.

The pair first worked together on 2001 play Loveplay. Written by Buffini and starring actor Newman, it centred on transactions between men and women across the centuries. From that starting point, they both had ideas of how to take this story forward.

Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte

“One of the things about Harlots, which is why we love it so much, is that really this is one profession that never changes,” Buffini says. “Yes, we’re writing about Georgians but we’re absolutely writing about the modern world as well. That feeling really comes through.”

Their aim was to create a drama with a large female cast, telling a story from the female gaze. “Obviously this world is perfect for that,” Newman notes, “and we wanted a cast peopled with characters of all different backgrounds and ages and we’ve managed to do that, which is great.

“Once we really started looking into the world, we did a vast amount of research and discovered that an awful lot of Georgian London was built on vice. These women had disposable income so they put it into property and bricks. At that point, London was the capital of the world; it was a boom town, expanding massively, and the women who were successful in this trade were businesswomen.

“There is nudity,” she adds, “but if people are expecting some kind of cheap thrill, they’re not going to get it watching Harlots. Whatever you think it is, it probably isn’t that thing. If you think you’re going to get a political feminist diatribe, it isn’t that either.”

Applying the final touches on set

The main story – with rival brothel owners at its centre – evolved over much time and discussion, they admit, as the pair began storylining ideas before bringing fellow writers Cat Jones, Jane English and Debbie O’Malley, exec producer Alison Carpenter and script editor Katie Kelly into a writers room to thrash out individual episodes.

“I’ve never run a writers room before or even been in one, and it was brilliant,” says Buffini, who is best known for films such as Tamara Drew, Jane Eyre and Byzantium. “We just had such a laugh. It was really tricky, difficult and hard work but it was always a very creative atmosphere. Together, we worked from big sketches to tiny detail and we worked out all our storylines in that room. Then each individual writer went away and wrote their episodes and we all came together again to get them to the screen. What you realise about television when you start on the path of it is that it just becomes a bigger and bigger collaboration as you walk the path.”

Collaboration was a key part of the process for Newman and Buffini, with the latter admitting she is “not the kind of writer that is an omnipotent being.” In the early stages as the writing process continued apace, lead director Coky Giedroic did the bulk of casting. But as filming wore on, the creators found themselves becoming more involved in production, and say they found overseeing the editing process particularly rewarding.

Newman adds: “While we might not have been on set because we were storylining in the writers room, we signed off on everything from casting to design. And now that the episodes are in the edit, to be involved in shaping them is brilliant. It’s fascinating and really enjoyable.”

As befitting the flamboyant Georgians, Harlots was destined to be a big, noisy and colourful affair. “It’s not often you see the finished show and think, ‘That’s it,’ but with Harlots, I do think that,” Buffini reveals. “We’re both so proud of it. It’s the show we talked about years ago, but it’s better.”

The cast is led by Samantha Morton (pictured top), who stars as Margaret Wells opposite Lesley Manville (River) as Lydia Quigley. Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays Charlotte, Margaret’s eldest daughter and the city’s most coveted courtesan who is coming to terms with her position in society and her family.

Buffini says the cast were “an absolute pleasure and a privilege to write for,” adding that each of them brought something surprising and different to their character.

“Lydia could have been such a villain but that’s not how Lesley played her,” she continues. “She’s very warm and funny, quite maternal and a horrendous villain. And what Samantha has brought to Margaret in such a subtle way is this sense of relationship between damage and resilience. It’s so beautifully observed and a real credit to Sam. Jess, she’s just absolutely amazing.

“You don’t want to prescribe too much to an actor, especially actors of that calibre, because if you have written the script well enough, it will just be there in the action and in the dialogue. I like very sparse scripts that aren’t full of character description. Usually I allow myself one sentence to describe each character and then you leave it to the actors to find. That’s where a writer can really overstep the mark.”

By the end of season one, which launched on both ITV Encore and Hulu in March, every character has their story resolved, a move designed to ensure viewers aren’t left standing on a cliff edge awaiting a potential second season.

“Statistically there are not enough female stories by female creatives, but we forgot how unusual Harlots is,” Buffini adds, citing all-female directing and writing teams and its female-led cast. “We just got used to it being women producers, women directors, this big cast of actresses, but not forgetting our wonderful men.

“There are so many untold women’s stories. When you think of how many father-son stories you’ve seen and compare that with the number of mother-daughter stories you’ve seen, there just aren’t as many. There are lots of stories about brothers but there aren’t as many about sisters. As a dramatist, it’s amazing because it’s all uncharted territory and you can do anything. There’s so much more that is new and exciting about being in this world where a woman drives story.”

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East Los High

Now in its fourth season, East Los High broke new ground as it told the story of a group of students at high school. Producer Wise Entertainment shares seven facts about the half-hour series.

When it launched in 2013, East Los High broke new ground for its authentic storytelling and discussion of thought-provoking social issues.

Set against a backdrop of dance, romance and true-to-life characters, the half-hour series follows a group of teenagers navigating their final years at an East Lost Angeles high school.

A Hulu original drama, East Los High is now in its fourth season, starring Gabriel Chavarria, Danielle Vega, Carlito Olivero, Alexandra Rodriguez, Vannessa Vasquez, JD Pardo and Prince Royce.

East Los High is said to tackle real-life issues in gritty yet sympathetic ways

It was created by Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya and is produced by Wise Entertainment. All four seasons have been picked up for distribution (excluding the US) by Dynamic Television.

Here, Hector Ceballos, manager of research and development at Wise Entertainment, gives DQ seven facts you should know about East Los High.

1. It’s high school like you’ve never seen it. A Hulu original series, East Los High revolves around the lives of a group of teens navigating their final years at an urban high school in East LA. The school’s dance crew, the Bomb Squad, takes centre stage as the series tackles real-life issues in meaningful ways that are gritty yet sympathetic. Romance, nail-biting competition and complex yet relatable characters bring high-stakes drama that keeps viewers hooked and coming back for more.

2. It’s making history. East Los High was the first English-language show with an all-Latino cast, creators and writers, and was born out of the recognition that Latino audiences in the US are underserved and fatigued by their stereotypical representation in film and television. East Los High is now also the longest running original series on Hulu, consistently ranking as one of the platform’s top shows. The Los Angeles Times recently called East Los High “a TV unicorn in the broadcast marketplace” and Variety called it a “revolutionary show.”

The show follows the school’s dance crew, the Bomb Squad

3. It was created out of the box. Wise Entertainment, the production company behind East Los High, uses research and meaningful partnerships with an advisory committee of more than 25 non-profits to inform the development and production of the show. Connecting to the community and “on the ground” experts helps to keep a finger on the pulse of what is most important to the show’s audience, while working in tandem to create meaningful characters and stories. In fact, thanks to focus groups with teens in East LA after the table read of the pilot episode, the show’s producers decided to cast Gabriel Chavarria in the role of heartthrob Jacob instead of bad-boy character Abraham.

4. It spawned a whole new hashtag. Shortly after the season one premiere, fans created the hashtag #ELHAddicts which immediately started trending. The series, which reached 153 countries, is the most social show on Hulu with a passionate and highly engaged community of fans that exceeds 4.5 million people across social networks weekly. The show also has a robust transmedia experience on www.eastloshigh.com, including more than 100 pieces of extra content.

East Los High is the longest running original series on Hulu

5. It’s award-winning. For its nuanced portrayal of Latino teens and the issues they face, East Los High has received critical acclaim, including five Emmy nominations, a Cannes Lion Entertainment Award, recognition as Adweek’s Hottest Webseries, and two Sentinel for Health Awards for serial drama. It was also a semi-finalist nominee in the People’s Choice Awards for favourite premium drama series and won a National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Award for outstanding online series, among many other honours.

6. It has catapulted careers. The show has served as a launching pad for new Latino talent in Hollywood like Gabriel Chavarria (Jacob), who will appear in the upcoming feature film War of the Planet of the Apes, Tracy Perez (Vanessa) who can now be seen on FX’s The Strain and Alicia Marie Sixtos (Maya), who just landed a regular role in TNT’s Monsters of God.

7. It has star power. Throughout the course of four seasons, the series has featured an impressive list of guest stars, including bachata superstar Prince Royce; Academy Award nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno; JD Pardo of Twilight: Breaking Dawn and NBC’s Revolution; Carlito Olivero from The X Factor; Christina Milian; Pia Mia; Perez Hilton; Stephen ‘Twitch’ Boss of So You Think You Can Dance fame; Orlando Jones and more.

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