Brothers Jack and Harry Williams started writing out sitcoms, separately, before they decided to join forces and then give scripted drama a try. The result was The Missing, a gripping thriller that propelled them to the top tier of British writing talent.
They have since followed up that series with One of Us, a second season of The Missing, reverse-narrative crime drama Rellik and emotional thriller Liar.
In this DQTV interview, the brothers discuss getting their big break and look at the challenges of breaking traditional story structures with both Rellik and Liar.
They also talk about the phenomenon of water-cooler television and how they balance writing and producing through their company, Two Brothers Pictures, which is owned by All3Media and was responsible for smash hit BBC comedy Fleabag.
The writers of The Missing turn the hunt for a serial killer on its head with a new drama that starts at the end and works backwards. DQ chats to Richard Dormer and Jodi Balfour about starring in mind-bending crime drama Rellik.
Since they burst on to the scene in 2014 with The Missing, Jack and Harry Williams have joined the ranks of the most sought-after writers in television.
The success of that series spawned a sequel two years later, while they were also behind crime drama One of Us and acclaimed comedy Fleabag. Forthcoming commissions for their Two Brothers Pictures label include conspiracy thriller White Dragon and The Widow.
But now the Williams brothers find themselves in the unique position of having two series debuting in the UK at exactly the same time. Liar, which begins on ITV at 21.00 on Monday, is an emotional six-part drama that explores the consequences of a meeting between a teacher (Joanne Froggatt) and a surgeon (Ioan Gruffudd).
In the same slot over on BBC1, meanwhile, Rellik looks to be a show that will tear up the detective genre and leave viewers on the edge of their seats as the Williams brothers tell the story of a serial killer in reverse. Eagle-eyed fans will have noted the title is the word ‘killer’ spelled backwards.
Drawing parallels to 2000 film Memento, the perpetrator is caught at the beginning of the series before the drama moves back in time across six episodes to the very beginning, where the crime and the killer are revealed.
At the centre of the story is damaged and disfigured detective Gabriel Markham, played by Richard Dormer, who becomes obsessed by the hunt for the killer who scarred him in an acid attack. Alongside Gabriel is his partner Elaine (Jodi Balfour), who is described as a bright and intense detective who is eager to please.
With a cast that also includes Rosalind Eleazar, Paterson Joseph, Paul Rhys, Michael Shaeffer and Lærke Winther, the series is produced by New Pictures and Two Brothers Pictures for BBC1 and US cablenet Cinemax in association with distributor All3Media International.
It’s a sunny May afternoon when DQ arrives at the production base for the series – a dimly lit multi-storey car park in Stratford, east London, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Park.
Two Metropolitan Police officers are standing beside their motorbikes, ready to escort the crew onto the adjacent dual carriageway that will serve as the setting for a car chase. Nearby, a mint-green Nissan Bluebird is hooked up to the back of a truck as two cameramen settle in for the ride.
“It’s very original; it’s a completely original way of storytelling,” says Dormer, fresh from the daily chore of having his facial prosthetics removed. “We start almost at the end and work our way backwards to find out how all these characters came to be the way they’re presented at the beginning of the viewing experience. So it’s like a puzzle that comes together.
“There are so many red herrings, so many clues left throughout, but you’ve got to go backwards through it. That’s also very hard to do as an actor because we’re not shooting it in order, we’re almost shooting backwards and you’ve got to imagine what you’re feeling at the beginning, or is it the end? I’m confused – but it’s very interesting.”
Dormer describes his character as “not a typical cop,” and as someone who is very driven, intense and emotionally explosive. And from the beginning – which is actually the end – the hunt for the killer is a personal obsession for Gabriel. Viewers will see the acid attack play out midway through the series.
“He’s so driven to catch the person who did this that he comes back to work. He’s not psychologically, emotionally or physically prepared to do that, but he does it anyway,” Dormer says about Gabriel’s life-changing injuries. “That’s why the drama is so good, because you’re watching somebody unravel. He’s a pretty unpredictable, scary guy. He’s scary because of his absolute intense conviction. He’ll do anything and break any rule to get this guy who’s done this to him.”
Actors often say the toughest roles to play are those that are most similar to their real lives. Dormer agrees with that sentiment, describing Rellik as the hardest thing he has ever done, despite battling the undead in Game of Thrones and prehistoric wasps in the freezing environs of Fortitude.
“The weird thing with this person, I’ve discovered, is that I’m almost playing myself but in an altered reality, which is very interesting,” the Northern Irish actor explains. “It’s very strange. As soon as I hear my accent – I’m speaking in my own accent – I’m a different person but I’m not. Obviously I’m not a cop, but what if 20 years ago instead of coming to London to become an actor, I came over to become a cop? That’s how close it is to me.
“The one thing I’ve always done with every character I’ve ever played is I’ve crawled into somebody else, I’ve become this other thing, which is really liberating because then you have no fear of showing ugliness because you’re a different person. But if you’re playing yourself, it’s a lot rawer and can be very truthful, and that’s pretty scary. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s a scary story.”
It’s proven to be a particularly challenging role for Dormer, who admits he has struggled to switch off after a hard day’s filming and has found listening to classical music with a glass of red wine in hand helps him to unwind.
“Otherwise,” he says, “your head is buzzing with all the emotions and thoughts and fears you’ve been feeling all day. If it feels very real, it’s done something to your psyche. It’s invaded some part of you and shaken things up, so it’s important to recognise what those things might be and put them to bed and remind yourself they’re not your problems.”
Sharing the screen with Gabriel is his police partner Elaine, who “rocks his world,” Dormer says. “She’s a very mysterious, exciting woman and he is attracted to her. He’s married, it’s very complicated!” he adds.
Playing Elaine is South African-born Jodi Balfour, who starred in Canadian drama Bomb Girls and US series Quarry before landing her part in Rellik. She will also be seen on screen later this year as Jackie Kennedy in season two of Netflix’s royal biopic The Crown.
Describing the appeal of starring in the series, Balfour explains: “So often what draws you to acting is those great two-hander scenes where you get to have a really in-depth conversation with someone. But in this show, any time that’s happening, the characters are usually playing against what they really want or they’re concealing what they’re thinking, so that’s been really fun.
“The other thing I wanted to do, which I hardly ever get to do, is just to play someone who’s quite tormented as a human being, and [Elaine’s] whole life has been pretty dark and difficult. I hardly ever get to play those kinds of roles, so that was really exciting.”
Balfour says she has also found it difficult to switch off after filming, so much so that she set herself boundaries during the shoot. “The most boring and laughable of which is I don’t really work at night, on the script or anything,” she reveals. “Obviously we work at night but when I was prepping and running lines, I didn’t work at night. Any time close to bed it really has been affecting my dreams and my sleep and all sorts of stuff. I have a completely separate life to this character and really work at maintaining that.”
Was she surprised when she discovered who the killer was? “I was pretty shocked,” the actor admits, adding: “I think everyone was. No one knew who the killer was for the longest time. Then slowly as people started finding out, it was really funny to see everyone’s reactions. For all of us who are on the inside of it all and knew all the dynamics, it was quite a shock so hopefully the audience will be even more surprised.”
While Richard Dormer points to the similarities between himself and his character in Rellik, one thing that certainly sets them apart is the horrific injuries Gabriel suffers from an acid attack.
The hugely disfiguring scars his character bears give him a route into his performance, but they also meant the actor could look forward to spending two hours every morning having the silicon prosthetics attached to one side of his face. He then spent another 30 minutes each evening having them removed.
Heading a seven-strong make-up team was make-up designer Pippa Woods, who began work three months before the show started production.
“I started researching actual acid burns, which is the most horrific kind of research you’ll ever have to do,” she tells DQ on the set of the series. “We got Richard from about three or four weeks before the actual shoot started so we could only get the ball rolling from then. So we were gathering images of things we liked and talking to the directors and producers to find out how they wanted it to look as well.
“When we got Richard, we sent him to get a life cast from [make-up effects expert] Kristyan Mallet, who’s been making prosthetics for Gabriel and Christine [played by Rosalind Eleazar]. Christian took the designs and sculpted bits and pieces, and those images go backwards and forward between all the different companies and directors and execs, and you try and piece it all together.
“We bought the moulds from Kristyan and we’ve got two full-time prosthetics artists: one who does make-up with me and one who’s always running the pieces in the workshop and painting them up and getting other bits ready for other things.
“Gabriel’s got a few different stages of his make-up. His main one that you see was sculpted with all the big moulds, and then there are different stages where he’s got a recovery mask on, which stops the face from stretching, so it stops a lot of the scarring. We made a few separate pieces that go into his hair and down his neck. Everything under the mask is just colour, just to stop pieces from sticking to the skin, and it cuts down the time a lot. It’s been ongoing because you keep tweaking things. Even now we’re still changing little bits.”
New prosthetics had to be created each day of shooting, with a dedicated ‘prosthetics bus’ on set to handle the different pieces as they moved different stages of construction.
“In the bus at the moment, there’s 10 pieces in a row all at different stages of being painted,” Woods notes. “So they have to be painted exactly the same, and then we just have to try to stick them on in the same place every day. We worked out [Dormer] has had 60 days in full prosthetics.”
Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.
Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.
The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.
Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”
The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.
Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”
As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”
All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.
Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).
Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).
The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.
David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”
Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.
MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.
This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.
Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.
The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”
Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.
The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.
Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.
Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.
This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.
From Sophocles to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie to Arthur Conan Doyle, great thriller writers have distinguished themselves by their ability to shock and surprise audiences. It’s no different in the world of TV drama, where intriguing setups, sudden changes of direction and disguised denouements are key to keeping viewers engaged. We ask writers of recent hit shows how they hooked audiences and kept them off balance until the reveal.
Jack Williams wrote the BBC1/Starz thriller The Missing alongside his brother, Harry. Across eight episodes, fans tried to work out the identity of the villain who snatched Tony Hughes’ son, Oliver.
Discussing their approach, Jack says: “For us it’s about not treating characters as villains – every character needs to be three-dimensional and have their own back stories. That way, no one stands out more than anyone else, making it possible for anyone to be the villain. And for us it’s often more important why someone did it, rather than who did it.”
Williams says he and his brother always try to “play fair” with their audience, but stresses it is important not to underestimate them: “Audiences are very smart, and assuming they won’t get something is always the first mistake. Assume your audience is smarter than you and then try your hardest to surprise them.”
However, he doesn’t believe it is necessary to have endless twists and turns to keep fans hooked: “As long as the characters and emotional journeys are compelling enough, that should carry you through. You have to earn every plot turn and twist – if we believe what the characters are doing, any twist is much more surprising.”
In The Missing, the story focuses on the possibility that Oliver has been taken by paedophiles, and maybe even exported as a child slave. In the end, though, it’s revealed he was the victim of a bizarre accident involving the owner of the hotel where he and his family had been staying.
“The hotel keeper wasn’t the most obvious villain – in all the newspaper polls, he was very low down on every list,” says Williams. “But eagle-eyed viewers had worked out that he shared a surname with the mayor Georges Deloix and started to realise around episode six he might be involved. What interested us about the hotel keeper is that he wasn’t an evil paedophile. He was a drunk and a coward who made a terrible mistake.”
Indeed, it is Tony’s deterioration that is the masterstroke of the story, meaning viewers didn’t over-obsess on the whodunnit resolution. “We always wanted all our characters to be interesting in their own right, and for the audience to care more about their journeys than the whodunnit. We liked the notion that everyone would immediately be hugely sympathetic to Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) – what he’s gone through is so awful and primal. But something like that would corrupt someone’s soul, and it was interesting for us to see how far that audience sympathy stayed with Tony as he went to darker and darker places.”
Asked about his favourite dramas, Williams picks out FX’s Fargo: “The first episode, when Martin Freeman’s character (Lester Nygaard) snaps and kills his wife with the hammer – it’s really well played and was very surprising. A brilliantly judged and executed moment.”
Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are the writers who adapted Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans) for the English-speaking market. A hit for Channel 4 in the UK and US cable network AMC, the show imagines a world in which ordinary people own robot servants that look like attractive young humans (called Synths).
Thematically, the show explores what is means to be human. It also uses the Synth idea as a metaphor for issues like race and migration, analysing the way that mobs can come to distrust and abuse ‘the other.’
The plot centres on a small group of Synths capable of independent thought. The sentient Synths are pursued by a government agency that fears their potential. But there are other unexpected twists that take the story in different directions. For example, young policewoman Karen is revealed as one of the thinking Synths who regards herself as a freak experiment.
This, say Vincent and Brackley, is their favourite twist: “Karen’s reveal as a Synth is such an unexpected, odd and striking image. And (actress) Ruth Bradley’s performance is wonderful – very coolly shifting into eerie Synth mode.”
Finding out that Karen was a Synth was, however, only a partial reveal because her motive still wasn’t clear: “It provided mystery rather than conclusiveness. The fact she’s a Synth didn’t necessarily mean she was an antagonist, nor did the fact she was looking for the other Synths. It was only in the penultimate episode we finally found out what it meant to her and how she was going to react.”
Vincent and Brackley were in an interesting position because they were working with an existing format. They say: “We can’t take credit for several of the key twists in the show, as they were created by the brilliant Lars Lundstrom for the Swedish series. But we did a lot of moving around and additional reveals to keep the audience on their toes.
“We were also wary of trying to hang on to big twists and hooks for too long. It’s good to keep your powder dry for the finale, but it’s also good to blow some up at the beginning – and in the middle.”
The audience response has been hugely gratifying for the writers, but not just because of the plot: “What’s satisfying is that people seemed to be talking about artificial intelligence, technology and the future. We always wanted to spark debate and that was reflected in the show’s coverage in the media – there were lots of articles discussing moral and tech issues beyond the show’s content.”
In terms of twists from other shows, they say: “We remember watching
the first series of 24 together and being blown away when Nina Myers was revealed to be the mole and killing (main character) Jack Bauer’s wife. More recently, pretty much every death in Game of Thrones has had us on the edge of our seats. For a show that’s famous for the indiscriminate dispatching of characters, it’s amazing how they manage to make it a heart-stopping surprise every time they do.”
Modus is an eight-part thriller commissioned by Sweden’s TV4 from Miso Film. Based on books by crime author Anne Holt, the series is directed by Lise Siwe (The Bridge) and Mani Maserrat, and written by Emmy-winning Danish writers Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe.
The story centres on criminal psychologist and profiler Inger Johanne Vik and her detective partner. Vik is drawn into the investigation of a series of brutal murders in Stockholm after one of the killings is witnessed by her autistic daughter Stina. Vik discovers a connection between the case and a ruthless international network.
“Modus is about love and hate,” say co-writers Brostrøm and Thorsboe. “It is a dark, entangled contemporary tale about death and holy wrath.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe are well-established writers, and for this reason have become wary of the genre’s cliches. For example, they try not to over-promise at the outset, despite the fact that producers often want a high-impact opening: “We try to hold back and not give away the story too quickly. There is always a risk for writers if they promise too much at the start of the story because it is difficult to keep on climbing towards the climax. In this case, the opening of the show involves a wedding, where we try to give the impression evil is coming, that something will happen.”
For similar reasons, Brostrøm and Thorsboe don’t over-emphasise the whodunnit or cliffhanger elements of the story. “We see this story more as a ‘whydunnit.’ This isn’t a story where everyone in the show could have done it… we wanted something with more realism. We learn the identity of the killer before the last episode but then explore the motives. This is a way of keeping the audience more involved in the structure of the story. They aren’t spending their whole time trying to guess the killer. We have questions at the end of each episode but not deadly cliffhangers.”
Having said this, they still feel all the usual pressures of trying to keep the audience on their toes: “You have to be like a magician, getting the audience to look at one hand as you do something with the other. There is a big twist near the end that we think will take the audience by surprise. Producers like to have twists.”
Writing a thriller based on existing novels has its own challenges, they admit. “On the whole it is not as hard as writing from scratch. But you have an obligation to the writer, the book and the fans, who you can’t cheat. At the same time, it needs to work for television. This story is actually drawn from three Holt novels.”
Brostrøm and Thorsboe add that there are advantages to working as a team: “We do a lot of talking about character and plot – we love to challenge each other and come up with ideas for crazy endings. In terms of how we work, there is always paper on the floor and the tables and pictures on the walls that help set the atmosphere.”