Tag Archives: Jane Tranter

Materials world

Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed novels, HBO and BBC drama His Dark Materials aims to set a new benchmark for fantasy series. The cast and writer Jack Thorne reveal their approach to writing and filming the adaptation.

Fantasy novels have always proved popular source material for films and TV series, but the unprecedented success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has sent the genre into overdrive in recent years, with commissioners around the world looking to land their own fantasy epic that can match the majesty of the George RR Martin adaptation.

Recent book-to-screen fantasy titles have included MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks’ novel series, and Starz drama American Gods, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman.

Jack Thorne

The streamers have also been getting in on the act. Amazon, which spent big on adapting Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens earlier this year, is taking its spending to the next level with its series version of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Netflix, meanwhile, is taking a major swing in the genre with The Witcher. Starring Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books, the show will be released later this year.

Now, after Game of Thrones concluded with its eighth season earlier this year and with prequel House of the Dragon on its way, HBO is aiming to set a new benchmark in the genre with an ambitious series adaptation of Philip Pullman novel trilogy His Dark Materials, coproduced with UK pubcaster BBC1.

Debuting in the UK this Sunday and stateside the day after, the first season of the series – a second run of which is already in production – is based on the first book in the series, Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass).

Unfolding across eight one-hour episodes, made by New Line Cinema and Bad Wolf (A Discovery of Witches), His Dark Materials is set in an alternative reality that features multiple parallel universes, with some worlds more like our own than others. The story centres on a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a world where all humans have talking animal companions known as dæmons, which are the physical manifestation of the human soul.

The first season follows Lyra, who lives with other orphans alongside scholars at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College, as she discovers a secret involving her uncle, Lord Asriel, and the villainous Mrs Coulter. After Lyra’s friend goes missing, she leaves Jordan College and embarks on a dangerous journey, uncovering links between a spate of child kidnappings and a mysterious substance known as Dust.

His Dark Materials stars Dafne Keen, who recently appeared in X-Men film Logan, as Lyra

As adaptations go, there is little fantasy IP more revered than Pullman’s young-adult trilogy. And after the enormous disappointment surrounding the most recent screen outing based on the books – 2007 movie flop The Golden Compass – fans of the novels will be hoping for much better from the BBC and HBO.

The daunting task of penning the adaptation has been taken on by prolific British screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne, whose most recent TV credits include Channel 4 drama miniseries Kiri and The Accident. The latter premiered on the UK broadcaster last week.

Thorne admits that when he was initially approached about the project, his first thought was to “run for the hills.” As well as being wary of the huge pressure of living up to the source material, he was just months away from the opening of his West End version of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Cursed Child and also had a pregnant wife to think about.

However, clearly a fan of Pullman’s work, Thorne soon changed his mind. “They’re just so perfect, these books, and the idea of anyone else doing them… I would’ve been insanely jealous,” he says.

The hard work then began, with Thorne returning to the trilogy he had previously read twice and consuming all three books over the course of four days. He then met with exec producer Jane Tranter, co-founder of Wales-based Bad Wolf, and agreed to board the project.

From left: Exec producers Dan McCulloch and Jane Tranter, producer Laurie Borg and Philip Pullman

After that, Thorne and Tranter discussed their plans for the series with Pullman, keen to be as faithful to his work as possible. “The important thing we said from the very moment we met Philip was, ‘We want to tell this story,’” Thorne says. “I wanted to disappear; I didn’t want to be visible as a writer. I wanted to represent the soul of the books as well as I possibly could.

“Where we’ve added stuff or changed stuff, it’s been because we either thought that there was something we could do a bit differently to fit the screen a bit more, or because we were aware that we were going on a longer journey with this and maybe there were elements from later in the books that we could bring forward and help make our story sing.”

In one of many revelations offering an idea of the level of perfectionism applied to the project, Thorne says the first episode went through a whopping 46 drafts. “We went down a lot of wrong corridors, and sat in those corridors and wept,” he jokes.

“These books are monstrously good. When you’re given an adaptation, there are two forms. There are ones where you go, ‘There’s a seed of something brilliant here that I can play with and make work.’ And there are other ones where you go, ‘My job is just to get this as close to [the original] as possible on the screen.’

“I do think these books are perfect. And when you’re given perfection, that’s scary as shit.”

Hollywood actor James McAvoy plays Lord Asriel

The cast of His Dark Materials provides further evidence of the scale of this series, with the production able to attract internationally recognisable actors including James McAvoy (Split), Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Many viewers will recognise British-Spanish actor Dafne Keen, who stars as Lyra, from her remarkable turn as young mutant Laura in 2017 X-Men movie Logan.

The 14-year-old reveals that she didn’t expect to land the part following her first audition, which took place when her face was swollen from a jellyfish sting. But a subsequent audition alongside Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter, gave her a better feel for the character. And despite Keen being quite physically different from Pullman’s description of a blonde, curly-haired Lyra, the young actor believes they share many personality traits.

“We’re very nutty, both of us, very curious, quite loud and quite cheeky,” says Keen, who admits to feeling the pressure of portraying such a beloved character. “You tell yourself that you don’t think about that, but you genuinely do think about it. In your brain, you’re going, ‘Oh my God, someone save me!’

“When I was doing it, I was thinking there would probably be people who would be like, ‘This girl’s terrible, I hate her, she’s not doing it justice,’” Keen continues, before adding – like a true millennial – “sorry, not sorry.”

Ruth Wilson gets a chance to play ‘evil’ as Mrs Coulter

Sat alongside Keen is Wilson, who assures her young co-star that her concerns are unfounded. Recalling that she “knew instantly that [Keen] was the one” for the role upon that first shared audition, Wilson says: “She brought such an amazing energy that I thought, ‘I’ve got to put some of that into my performance.’ She’s totally at one with herself and there’s an animal side to her, which has got to be what Mrs Coulter was like when she was young… I’m taking notes from her.”

Keen and Wilson share plenty of screen time, with Mrs Coulter initially presenting herself to Lyra as a kindly benefactor before her true nature starts to be revealed. For those familiar with the books, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on casting choice for Mrs Coulter than Wilson, who previously excelled as a character with a very dark side in the shape of Alice in Luther, the BBC detective series starring Idris Elba.

Far from being concerned about her “evil” Mrs Coulter frightening young viewers, Wilson identifies a surprising benefit: “My nieces and nephews won’t want me to babysit again, and I’m OK with that,” she jokes.

Revealing that she was instantly attracted to the character, Wilson notes: “She’s so mysterious, unknowable and constantly unpredictable, and that’s why it’s such a joy to play. She’s a master manipulator and she knows what she’s doing. She’s incredibly intelligent and driven and she knows what she wants.”

Despite the well-documented failings of 2007’s The Golden Compass, one area in which it did succeed was in its recreation of Pullman’s dæmons, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

The dæmons were operated by puppeteers during filming and then realised via CGI

Describing the creatures as “fundamental to every scene,” Wilson is confident this production has brought them to life equally well, while Peters, who plays The Master of Jordan College, is full of praise for the artists behind the dæmons. “What was awesome about it was the puppeteers and the way they served us as actors,” he says.

One scene from episode one sees The Master interacting with a dæmon in the form of a leopard. “It could have just been a puppet, but the puppeteer made it breathe and moved it around so it would get comfortable,” says the actor, best known for playing detective Lester Freamon in seminal HBO drama The Wire. “The face of the puppet looks so awesome that you didn’t know whether you were really looking at a leopard or not. So the experience of acting with something that, in the past, would have just been in your imagination was supported by wonderful technicians.”

One of the main criticisms of The Golden Compass movie was the extent to which it shied away from the religious themes in the source material, with Pullman’s trilogy offering a barely veiled criticism of Catholicism.

Executive producer Tranter insists that no punches have been pulled in this adaptation. “We planned to adapt the books as the books were written, so we will go to the heights of the discourse that the books go to,” she says.

“One of the beauties of working for the BBC and HBO is that no-one is fearful. In fact, everyone is embracing of the journey the books go on. You don’t work for the BBC and HBO and do a vanilla adaptation that cuts through the middle and doesn’t tackle, right from the get-go, every note that the trilogy has got to sound.”

The Wire star Clarke Peters as The Master

Thorne, meanwhile, believes the themes of His Dark Materials are now more relevant than ever. Speaking on the day Extinction Rebellion protestors were controversially removed from central London streets, he says: “We live in scary times. There’s so much in Philip’s book that’s about where we’re at now, even more than when he first wrote it.

“The thing that I most admire about his telling is that there’s an obvious story to be told – Asriel’s story – and he doesn’t tell it; he tells Lyra’s. That choice between following the person who’s intent on greatness, Asriel, and abandoning that in order to follow the person intent on goodness, in Lyra, is such a bold and brilliant choice.”

He also compares Lyra to young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, noting: “There are quite a lot of similarities there.”

Sounding wise beyond her years, Keen agrees that her character is a strong role model. “What’s really relevant is that Lyra is growing up in a world of men, in a college, which is basically what is happening to any girl in 2019,” she notes.

“The most amazing thing about Lyra, and what every single girl should take from her, is don’t be scared – go out there and be yourself. Because if you are a force of nature, which is what Lyra is, you will make yourself seen and heard.”

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Into the darkness

Witches, vampires and daemons battle for power in A Discovery of Witches, a supernatural fantasy drama based on Deborah Harkness’s bestselling All Souls novels. DQ visits the Cardiff set to meet stars Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode and executive producer Jane Tranter.

It’s the supernatural equivalent of an arm wrestle. Satu, a bad witch, is testing the power of Diana, a good witch. How is Satu doing this? In the usual way that witches test each other – by dropping her rival down an oubliette.

It is not every day that you see a witch being propelled into a muddy dungeon, but then again it’s not every day that you witness a ‘witch off.’

This is a pivotal scene from A Discovery of Witches, Kate Brooke’s adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s best-selling All Souls novels. Launching on Sky1 and Now TV in the UK this Friday, the drama conjures up the existential battle between three types of supernatural creatures – witches, vampires and daemons – who walk among us entirely unnoticed.

A Sky Original Production made by Bad Wolf and distributed by Sky Vision, the series focuses on Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer). She is an Oxford University academic who has no inkling that she is the most potent witch in the world. When she happens upon Ashmole 782, a bewitched ancient tome that contains the secrets of the creatures’ existence, all hell breaks loose.

Before you can say, “pass the garlic,” she is receiving unwanted visits from Professor Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a magnetic, 1,500-year-old vampire. He has spent centuries searching for Ashmole 782, which he believes will help revive the vampires’ fading powers. But he also issues Diana with a warning that she will attract the attention of other, more venal creatures who will stop at nothing to get hold of the book.

In the creatures’ realm, relationships between species are strictly forbidden. Despite that, Diana and Matthew find it hard to suppress their growing feelings for each other. It’s a supernatural take on Romeo and Juliet.

In between scenes, Palmer and Goode sit down to chat on a soundstage at Cardiff’s Wolf Studios, the largest studio space in Wales. Palmer, who has also starred in Hacksaw Ridge, Warm Bodies and Lights Out, has not had time to change and is still caked in mud after her unfortunate fall down the oubliette. Downton Abbey’s Goode jokes that she is “post-mud pack.”

Palmer clarifies that she is actually “post-confrontation with another witch, Satu [Malin Buska],” adding: “Diana and Satu are good and evil. Satu has taken her powers to a dark and sinister place and is lured by the idea of being in control. She and Diana are battling it out. Satu wins the battle today, but not for long. This look is the aftermath of today’s battle.”

“Thrown down an oubliette – never a great place to be!” Goode interjects with a laugh.

Jane Tranter, the executive producer on A Discovery of Witches, joins the discussion. The former head of drama at the BBC now runs her own production company, Bad Wolf, which is also currently making a major new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed cycle of novels His Dark Materials. Also responsible for such well-regarded dramas as The Night Of, Luther, Torchwood and Succession, she begins by explaining why Harkness’s novels lend themselves so well to television.

“The rights to the books were originally taken by a film company, but I never thought A Discovery of Witches would work as a film,” she says. “If you can’t have breadth, you get a skinny story. So I always thought it was perfect for television.”

Teresa Palmer plays Diana, who discovers that she is a powerful witch

Her belief was strengthened by a single game-changing programme. “Game of Thrones changed a lot,” Tranter continues. “It enabled me to get the rights for both A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials. Authors suddenly realised that TV could capture their work in a way people previously thought only film could.

“So when Deborah decided not to go with the film company, I was ready to give her work safe passage onto television. I’m a tremendous waiter, and I had to tremendously wait for A Discovery of Witches. But it was worth it!”

Part of the appeal of A Discovery of Witches is the fact that the creatures are hiding in plain sight. So the actors have to create characters who do not stand out from the crowd. Goode, who played Lord Snowdon in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown, elaborates: “We’re trying to do something not too exotic.

“A lot of these dramas in the past have been very Gothic. But we’re avoiding that. For instance, the vampires in A Discovery of Witches don’t have teeth like Dracula. The producers were adamant about that, which I think is very clever. A lot of the stuff the creatures go through is very human, like falling in love with someone they shouldn’t. The creatures exist in the same world as us.”

As they walk the earth, it is vital that these creatures possess a chameleon-like ability to melt into the background. “They want to blend in,” muses Palmer. “You could be in a local café, look around and have no idea who the creatures are.”

Matthew Goode as 1,500-year-old vampire Matthew Clairmont

“That’s probably why A Discovery of Witches is set in the UK,” Goode grins. “There are a lot of pale people here.” He adds that he very much enjoyed filming at Oxford University. “When the students are there, you get all sorts. It’s the best people-watching you’ve ever seen. You go, ‘He could be a vampire!’”

The fantasy genre – as manifest in dramas such as A Discovery of Witches, Game of Thrones and True Blood – is immensely popular right now, and Palmer believes the reason is simple. “It’s very exciting to delve into an unknown and scary world. You can let your imagination run wild,” she says.

“It reminds you of your own childhood,” Goode chips in. “Stories about magic are hugely important when you’re developing your imagination. Also, any great story provides terrific escapism from all the terrible things that are going on in the world at the moment.”

One very strong message to emerge from A Discovery of Witches is the power of women. According to Palmer, “what is particularly enticing about this story is the fact that Diana is the most powerful witch in the world without even knowing it. In general, there is a great movement towards showing strong women on TV and film. It’s really nice to play someone who has a lot to say and is stronger than the guys.

“I love the fact that Diana can be all things. She can be vulnerable, divine, feminine and strong, as well as having these insane powers. I’m very excited that in the current climate we’re seeing more and more of these female characters come to life.”

A Discovery of Witches also has something to say about accepting people who are ‘other.’ “That’s absolutely at the centre of this,” asserts Goode. “With a story like this, you can’t help but reflect on our world. This drama is a metaphor for living peacefully alongside every different creed, colour and race. But it’s done intelligently. It’s not a case of, ‘Oh, let’s just drop this in gratuitously.’ It doesn’t feel like someone is trying to educate you.”

Tranter says A Discovery of Witches is “a dramatisation of the need for tolerance and acceptance. It doesn’t show witches, vampires and daemons as odd. Above all, the response I had to the book was that it’s a love letter to our world, told through non-human species. It’s a beautiful world, but it still has some dark places.

“In order to appreciate the light, you have to go through the dark.”

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Inside the Wolf’s lair

Home to British dramas A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials, Wolf Studios Wales offers more than 250,000 square feet of studio space for high-end series just minutes from Cardiff. DQ takes a tour with Bad Wolf CEO Jane Tranter.

With shooting underway on BBC1’s epic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy, the author recently came to look around Wolf Studios Wales, the immense new filming facility that has been built in a former Nippon Glass factory in Cardiff Bay.

Pullman, an Oxford alumnus who still lives in the area, was particularly eager to see the studio’s recreation of the university’s Bodleian Library. This exquisite medieval interior features both in his work and in A Discovery of Witches (pictured above), Deborah Harkness’ bestselling novel, the forthcoming adaptation which was also filmed at Wolf Studios.

Pullman was not disappointed. Jane Tranter, the CEO of Bad Wolf, the production company responsible for the TV versions of both His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches, recalls the author’s reaction to the impeccably detailed set: “He simply said, ‘OK, that’s the Bodleian Library. It’s perfect.’”

Production designer James North, who has also been called upon to recreate upstate New York, Venice, Finland and France for A Discovery of Witches, lets the light in on the magic of filmmaking: “We’re supposed to be in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but we’re actually shooting them in a former factory in Cardiff!”

Of course, such effective trickery requires an extraordinary attention to detail. As an example, North outlines the meticulous work that has gone into the impeccable reconstruction of the Bodleian.

L-R: Bad Wolf chief operating officer Natasha Hale, CEO Jane Tranter and MD Julie Gardner

“It’s virtually impossible to film in the real Bodleian,” he says. “They were brilliant and really helpful, but it’s a working library and the scholars must come first. Also, in the Bodleian, you’re not allowed to touch the books or light fires or throw people around – all of which we needed to do! So instead we recreated one of the reading rooms, Duke Humfrey’s Library, here.”

North, who has also worked on Doctor Who, Line of Duty, Da Vinci’s Demons, United and Outcasts, admits that recreating the Bodleian at Wolf Studios “was a big old build. It took eight weeks to construct.”

And the hardest part? “Building 600 metres of book spines. We took 150 metres of real book spines and moulded them to make fake versions from spray foam. We individually painted each spine.” The sacrifices people make for their art…

But such painstaking work coheres with the high standards that are being set at Wolf Studios. Conceived by Tranter, who was previously head of fiction at the BBC, and her former BBC colleague and partner in Bad Wolf, Julie Gardner, it is the biggest film and TV studio in Wales.

It contains seven studios and covers an area of 250,000 square feet. Its biggest soundstage, Studio 6, has a height of 17.5 metres, making it the tallest in Wales and rivalling the size of the 007 stage at Pinewood.

Wolf Studios comprises seven studios, including one with a height of 17.5 metres

Wolf Studios is a major financial undertaking. The site was acquired by the Welsh government for a reported £7m (US$9.3m) and leased to Bad Wolf for an initial 10-year term. But there should be very healthy returns: over the coming years, Wolf Studios is projected to deliver a £120m boost to the film and TV industry in Wales.

A Discovery of Witches alone, which is being made for Sky and NOW TV and debuts on September 14, has a reported budget of £25m. Rumoured future productions include an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and Harrow Alley, a drama set during the 17th century plague and starring Dame Emma Thompson.

Even though A Discovery of Witches, a supernatural drama about a witch and a vampire who team up to battle dark forces, is the first production to be shot there, Wolf Studios is already creating a buzz throughout Wales.

A graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, North explains: “We are very blessed at Wolf Studios. There was a big cost involved, but it’s worth doing properly. We have an awful lot of studio space here. Having these facilities outside the south-east of England is massive.

“Also, the construction has been exceptional. We have the same standard of soundproofing as they have in cinemas. There is a workshop in the corridor outside the studio. They can have 20 builders working there with saws and hammers and, at the same time, through just one door, we can be filming a beautiful, quiet two-hander love story without hearing any of their work.”

Bad Wolf is currently working on the BBC’s version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

North continues: “The best thing about Wolf Studios is that it’s been built by Jane and Julie, TV production practitioners. It’s not been developed by property developers simply to make money. It’s designed to be practical. It feels like the sort of space where you can make amazing TV. It’s not just about rocking up and filming in a shed, which people have had to do a lot in this industry.”

It is true that Tranter and Gardner are very much hands-on producers with the expertise to tailor-make a user-friendly studio. Tranter sits down with DQ in the immaculate upstate New York drawing room that North and his team have constructed for A Discovery of Witches on a soundstage at Wolf Studios.

The lively, highly intelligent executive, who has had enormously positive experiences of working in Wales on dramas such as Doctor Who, Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons, reveals that it was making the multi-Emmy-winning thriller The Night Of on New York soundstages that first gave her the idea for Wolf Studios.

“During that time, I learned to love filming in a studio,” she says. “British TV drama has traditionally not been so studio-based. We love our locations, partly because in the past they’ve been cheaper, but mainly because we love our social realism.”

But, Tranter adds, “working on The Night Of really made me think about what a studio could offer. I liked the fact that it was a very big employer in the city. Generations of people in New York worked in the same studios.

Wolf Studios occupies a former factory site in Cardiff

“It also made me think of our experiences filming in studios in Wales on Doctor Who, Torchwood and Da Vinci’s Demons, and I realised that New York crews are like Welsh crews. They both have a passion, a commitment and a conviction that carries them through. So I thought, ‘If New York has that, I don’t see why Wales can’t have it too.’”

Tranter proceeds to explain how they found this particular site in Cardiff Bay. “Because we were making His Dark Materials, we knew the studio had to be on a very large scale. But it took us 12 to 18 months to find this location. At first, we looked at various others. But when we found this one, we knew it was right immediately.

“I thought it was really appropriate that we were building a studio in a factory that was closing down. That is so much part of the contemporary story in so many places in the UK. It seemed that if one door was closing, maybe another could open. So we were very privileged to take this place.”

One aspect of Wolf Studios that Tranter insisted on was an education department. “We built a classroom because I felt we needed to create a place where employment can happen,” she reveals. “The sooner we start telling people there are lots of jobs in this industry, the better.

“People can work in front of or behind the camera as writers, directors, producers, drivers, cooks, accountants, electricians, carpenters, hairdressers, costume-makers and make-up artists. Drama production is a big, industrialised business.”

So, the executive continues, “I said, ‘Send us children from nine years old, because within 10 years they can be working here.’ We’ve already had hundreds of all ages through the door. We’ve also had lots of trainees – we have had 41 on A Discovery of Witches. If we keep doing it and repeating it, think how many people we will train for this industry.”

The executive, who co-founded Bad Wolf with Gardner in 2015, was also anxious to make people aware that Wolf Studios would be a year-round operation. “I felt very strongly that we should have a studio that is open 52 weeks of the year,” she says. “When a production comes to town, it fills the hotels, B&Bs, shops, pubs, bars and dry cleaners. But then the production leaves and you have tumbleweed and empty crisp packets blowing down the street – the circus has left town. In this case, the circus won’t leave. It becomes a place of employment.”

Looking back on the events of the past year, Tranter expresses satisfaction. “We christened the studios with A Discovery of Witches and it confirmed that, as a couple of crazy producers, Julie and I were right to open Wolf Studios. You could say that it was an act of insanity, but creating this arena that allows for maximum creativity has been one of the proudest experiences of our lives.”

Tranter concludes that her sincerest desire is that Wolf Studios will be able to carry on regardless of her. “I hope that it continues and continues and grows and grows and eventually has absolutely nothing to do with me. For a period of time, it will have quite a lot to do with me.

“But one day I’ll drive away and everyone will just keep going.”

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Bright Lights, Gritty City

HBO’s slick, cinematic and gritty New York-based crime procedural The Night Of could provide the hit the US cablenet now needs, writes Jules Grant.

HBO has made its name with long-running original serialised drama that defines the so-called golden age of television. So when its new drama The Night Of launches this Sunday in the US (and later in the year on Sky in the UK), it may come as a surprise that there are a few departures from the usual formula.

First off, it’s a limited series, comprising just eight episodes. It’s also a rare adaptation for the network, based on the UK series Criminal Justice, penned by Peter Moffat for the BBC in 2008. And while other network stalwarts have been more layered in terms of genre (think True Detective’s mysticism and murder or The Sopranos’ psychiatry and mafia combo), The Night Of is a straightforward crime genre piece.

The Night Of
The Night Of stars Riz Ahmed as Naz, whose life spirals out of control after a night out

HBO is no stranger to bucking the trend, and perhaps this slight change of direction is what is required for the pioneering network, amid a saturated drama market and increased competition from Netflix, Amazon and other SVoD services.

The network has been promoting the show during season six of its flagship hit Game of Thrones, the recent conclusion of which leaves a gaping hole in the channel’s schedule. And, with the recent exit of programming boss Michael Lombardo, the cancellation of Vinyl and a stumbling performance from True Detective’s second season, as they say in Westeros, winter could be coming.

Yet there’s still the final season of critically acclaimed The Leftovers, new drama Westworld and more Veep to look forward to.

And now this. The Night Of could be a worthy successor to any of HBO’s recent or golden-age shows. Visually reminiscent of the grimy and gritty New York films of the 1970s from Sidney Lumet or Martin Scorsese, this contemporary New York story casts a modern eye on the working class Queens neighbourhood of its Pakistani-American protagonist Naz and the Rikers Island jail (situated on the East River between Queens and the mainland Bronx) in which he finds himself. Looming like an extra character, the location gets under your skin just as The Wire’s Baltimore or The Sopranos’ New Jersey did.

“Historically, the kinds of stories I’m interested in have been made as films,” says co-creator and director Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster). “Now it’s TV. But since I had no experience in TV, I could only approach it as a film – a long film – which is what Richard Price and I did with the writing.”

From left: Steve Zaillian, John Turturro and Riz Ahmed
From left: Steve Zaillian, John Turturro and Riz Ahmed

The talent list, also largely borrowed from film, is impressive. Created by Zaillian and Price (The Color of Money, HBO’s The Wire), The Night Of stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions) as the aforementioned protagonist and largely focuses on his relationship and chemistry with ambulance-chasing low-rent lawyer John Stone, played by John Turturro (The Big Lebowski, Do the Right Thing).

It was directed by Zaillian (seven episodes) and James Marsh (one episode) from teleplays by Price and Zaillian, who are also executive producers. It was also due to star Tony Soprano himself, the late James Gandolfini, who was originally lined up for Turturro’s role and has an exec producer credit on the show.

The extended cast list, featuring 200-plus actors, includes those from The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Leftovers and The Sopranos, to name a few.

The premise goes something like this: A Queens-based Pakistani-American man picks up an Upper West Side woman in his father’s taxi and what pans out to be a great night with drinking, drugs and some romance turns out to be his worst nightmare when he wakes up to find the mutilated body of his lover.

Pilot episode The Beach reveals a truly gripping and high-stakes downward spiral and, without giving too much away if you haven’t seen the UK version, has got to be the worst night imaginable. But there’s still room for moments of black comedy.

While many of the story and character elements have been faithfully transplanted from the UK version, this is very much a New York story with cultural and political overtones. For instance, the central character played by Ahmed is a Pakistani-American, whereas in the original UK story he is white. This decision, made to reflect real life, affected the whole show.

It results in a very specific story about the American police and criminal justice system, the legal proceedings, Rikers Island, justice, race, religion and class – just some of which is evident in the trailer.

What follows are excerpts from the pilot premiere screening and Q&A in London at the BFI last month. The Q&A panel included Zaillian, exec producer Jane Tranter, Ahmed and Turturro.

How did we get here?
Tranter: Way back in the day when I was doing a different job at the BBC, a brilliant young writer called Peter Moffat wrote a five-hour miniseries called Criminal Justice. I felt very much that when I went to work in LA with (business partner) Julie Gardner that it was an unfinished conversation. I felt that there was more that could be said on that piece in the US. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to go to HBO and ask them what they thought about it and what we could say about the American criminal justice system. They said we’d need a really good writer, someone like Steve Zaillian. By July 2009 I met with Steve and shyly asked him if he’d like to write it, and spent the next seven years shyly asking him if he’d like to write a bit more. And so it went on. But Steve took this piece on a very different journey.

Steve, you’ve written on all sorts of subjects. Why did you choose this?
Zaillian: I’m always interested in things I don’t know a lot about. I don’t write about what I know; I write about what I don’t know. The justice system was something I honestly didn’t know much about, so it was a learning experience for me. As you’ll see, I get very much into the detail. Taking this series from the night of the arrest and beyond, it was an opportunity not just to investigate the process in detail but also the characters.

Can you tell us a bit about the writing process in terms of approaching the project like a feature film, then expanding it out to eight hours?
Zaillian: It took a long time. It started out very innocently with just one episode, then we decided to do a second and a third. It was kind of a gradual process. By the time we got to the third episode, I felt we really needed an overall structure. It was kind of nice to wing it for a while, but it’s very important, even in a film, to be really convinced the structure is right, the ending is right and that the way it develops is right. We spent a lot of time doing that. I can’t do anything if I can’t convince myself I know where it’s going.

The show was discussed in a post-premiere Q&A at London's BFI
The show was discussed in a post-premiere Q&A at London’s BFI

Riz, you have a character who from the outset is told to say nothing, do nothing and give absolutely nothing away. That doesn’t leave you a lot to work with. How did you approach that and do it so well?
Ahmed: Obviously there’s a lot going on inside the character’s head. He’s got a lot on his plate, so it was often enough to let him occupy himself with that. The world that Steve and Richard created is so immersive. And Steve’s attention to detail, making sure everything feels real and right, took some of the pressure off my shoulders.

Jane, you’ve worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Is there any difference these days between a show made in the UK and one made in the US?
Tranter: This piece is different from many other TV shows. As Steve said, he approached the whole thing as a really long film and went at it as such. The ability for a broadcaster to put everything in the hands of one central artist –namely Steve who wrote it with Richard, who is also an exec producer across everything and directed as well – is incredible. The result on the screen is very distinctive.

In the course of making the series, were you shocked by anything you learned about the American criminal justice system?
Ahmed: A lot of people are on Rikers Island because they can’t make bail, if the bail is set very high for a murder or another serious crime. There’s a real predatory atmosphere there. While we were filming, there was a young man there who had been accused of stealing someone’s backpack. He was detained awaiting trial for three years just because of a backload of cases. He had no previous criminal history, then he came out and committed suicide due to PTSD.
Zaillian: A lot of the things Richard and I were writing about had come from people who had been detained on Rikers Island. There are 10,000 guys there. You come away from that and it’s scary.

Can you tell us something about the late, great James Gandolfini’s part in the show?
Tranter: When we were writing this as a pilot (not the same pilot shown at the BFI), Steve talked about James Gandolfini, who he had worked with previously and was almost a part of HBO. To his amusement, discomfort and bewilderment, James was also an exec producer and I remember him turning to me and saying, ‘I just don’t get it Jane. I just don’t get what this exec producer thing is about.’ I said, ’It’s fine. You just sit there and look like a baked potato most of the time.’ But the piece was important to him. He agonised over all sorts of aspects of it and Steve had to work hard to get him to do it. But tragically he passed before the rest of the scripts had been written.

Jules Grant is a journalist and head of programming for DQ parent C21 Media’s International Drama Summit.

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Whose Dark Materials?

Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV
Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV

The BBC has greenlit an eight-part drama series based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, which comprises novels Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore and BBC drama commissioning controller Polly Hill, the adaptation will be produced by Bad Wolf – the new prodco from Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s – and New Line Cinema, which is making its first move into scripted TV. The show will be made in South Wales and Los Angeles.

One thing we don’t know is who will write the show. Screenwriters are being talked to right now, so this week we’re speculating wildly on who might get the job.

Adapting His Dark Materials (which has sold 17.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages) is undoubtedly a great gig for any TV writer. But it will also be a tough challenge.

Not only is Pullman’s trilogy a complex and controversial piece of work (which may not sit comfortably in the BBC1 schedule), it has the shadow of a failed movie hanging over its head in 2007’s The Golden Compass, so there is no question it will require a proven talent to pull it off – someone who can capture the dark, subversive nature of the work without diminishing its sense of mischief, romance and adventure.

Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf
Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf

If their diaries allow it, the obvious choices to handle the project would be Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, both of whom have exactly the right credentials for a project of this kind. Moffat, immersed in Doctor Who and Sherlock, might not be a realistic option right now. But both writers are close to Tranter and Gardner and know what it takes to create shows that can work on both sides of the Atlantic, which will be a significant consideration for New Line Cinema.

On the face of it, both writers perhaps seem a little too slick for Pullman’s sombre fantasy world, but their sense of fun may be exactly what’s required to avoid the fate of The Golden Compass movie.

Tranter and Gardner won’t want to stray far from this kind of quality. But if Davies and Moffat aren’t available then they may look to other writers who have developed their credentials in and around Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sherlock. Again it depends on diaries, but you would have to look at the likes of Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock) – who might even bag a part in the show.

Strong alternatives with proven showrunner ability include Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who, Torchwood and Broadchurch) and Toby Whitehouse. Whitehouse would be an interesting call; a long-time friend of Gardner, he has shown the same kind of versatility as Gatiss and Chibnall with credits such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Being Human and The Game.

His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre...
His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre…

If you’re looking for someone with recent credentials in adapting awkward novels then Peter Harness may be an option. Aside from his BBC1 adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, his credits include Wallander and City of Vice. Interestingly, he is also now part of the Doctor Who star chamber, having written episodes for the last two seasons (including The Zygon Inversion, co-written with Steven Moffat).

Other in-demand writers that you ignore at your peril include Jack Thorne (The Fades, The Last Panthers), Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman) and Howard Overman (Misfits). And to balance the fact that this is an all-male list, you’d have to consider talents like Abi Morgan, Sally Wainwright and Sarah Phelps – though this certainly feels like more of a project for graduates of the Doctor Who school of creative writing (which means we should also consider Neil Cross, whose credits include Spooks, Doctor Who and detective series Luther).

Tranter and Gardner might, of course, head in a completely different direction. With so much movie talent coming over into TV, why not go for Alex Garland or Jane Goldman – Brits who are pre-eminent in their field? Or maybe it requires the involvement of Nicholas Wright, the playwright who successfully adapted the novels for the National Theatre.

...for the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass...
…the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass…

The innate Britishness of the Pullman project (its location, its core characters and its brooding discontentment with Catholicism), combined with the film’s underperformance, probably militate against the use of a US writer. And it looks like the kind of project that would suit a writer-auteur rather than a writers room.

But US writers who Gardner and Tranter have worked with recently include Glen Morgan (Intruders), David Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) and John Shiban (Torchwood: Miracle Day). So if winning the US market is a big priority then any of these might be a credible screenwriting solution.

All of which is, of course, pure speculation – and there are plenty of other scribes who could handle the brief. It’s important, for example, to keep in mind that the chosen writer will need to pass muster with Pullman, not just Tranter and Gardner.

...and a graphic novel
…and a graphic novel

In the meantime, all we really know so far is what the production team and author have told us. Commenting on the project, Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel – and now this version for TV.”

Although the BBC announcement was only made this week, there is already a sense that His Dark Materials is better suited to TV than film (echoing other complex fantasy works such as Frank Herbert’s Dune).

Pullman, who will executive produce, seems positive about the medium’s potential to tell his story: “In recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations (Game of Thrones) or original (The Sopranos, The Wire), can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of longform television is formidable.

“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of His Dark Materials. I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”

Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy
Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy

Tranter added: “It is an honour and a joy to be part of the team responsible for bringing Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels to the BBC. Ever since they were first published, these books have been a huge influence on so much of my thinking and imagination and it is enormously inspiring to be now working on them for television adaptation.

“The broad horizons of television suggests itself as the best of vehicles to capture the expansiveness of the story and worlds of Lyra and Will, and I am looking forward to seeing how Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass will occupy their place in an audience’s imagination across many episodes and seasons.”

Tranter’s use of the word ‘seasons’ as opposed to ‘season’ is, of course, illuminating. The books aren’t Game of Thones-like in length, so it’s doubtful the three of them could justify more than a series each (unless Bad Wolf goes down the interminable route taken with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit). So any writer who is thinking about coming on board is probably looking at a three-year commitment (assuming the TV show doesn’t suffer the same fate as the movie version) – which isn’t too bad. That said, they should probably read this article in The Guardian to remind themselves why the film version didn’t work.

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