Tag Archives: John Ridley

Casting Guerrilla

Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.

It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.

Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.

Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.

Katie Swinden

Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”

Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.

But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?

John Ridley (centre) poses with Guerrilla stars Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto

“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”

Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.

“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”

Ridley’s dislike of scenes with large numbers of extras and his desire to have ‘actors’ in every role meant Baig was casting right to the end, picking out people to play supporting parts throughout filming.

Ceesay portrays Marcus, who is in a relationship with Pinto’s character Jas

“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”

One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.

“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’

“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”

The show had to work around the busy schedules of actors such as Rory Kinnear

Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.

“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”

The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.

“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”

For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.

“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.

“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”

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Protest behaviour

From Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Guerrilla is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. It tells the story of a couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.

Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

Leading couple Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto, who play Marcus and Jas, discuss their characters and their roles in the ensuing struggle, why they both wanted to work with Ridley, diversity in television and why this story is more than relevant in the present day.

Guerrilla is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Sky Atlantic and Showtime, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

For more about Guerrilla, read DQ’s interview with series creator John Ridley here.

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Power to the people

Oscar-winning screenwriter and American Crime creator John Ridley realises a long-held ambition to tell a story about race relations in the UK with Guerrilla, a six-part series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

From Oscar-winning feature film 12 Years a Slave to critically acclaimed drama American Crime, race relations in the US are a common theme in the works of screenwriter and director John Ridley.

His latest project, Guerrilla, transports that topic across the Atlantic to 1970s London, one of the most politically explosive periods in British history.

The series tells the story of a couple whose relationship is tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The six-part series is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution. It debuts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on April 13 and Showtime in the US on April 16.

“This is a story and types of characters I’ve been fascinated in since I was a young child,” Ridley (pictured above between stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay) tells DQ. “I was a child of the 1970s and a lot of the iconography of black activism was just so very potent, as well as people like [black activists] Angela Davis and Huey Newton and what they represented both visually and emotionally.

“Then, as you get older, you start to realise consequences of actions and what it means to stand up for a group of people, to stand up against others, and that those individuals themselves were complicated. They were human beings. So over the years growing up, I found those stories very interesting.”

Ridley (right) in discussion with Idris Elba on the Guerrilla set

With race and immigration issues front of mind around the world in this age of Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis, Ridley adds: “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the stories out there for any of us to tell [about race] are both timely and timeless, in that the issues folks were dealing with 10, 15 or, in our case, 40 years ago, people are still dealing with now.”

The story that would ultimately become Guerrilla was first conceived in 2007. But it wasn’t until a trip to London in 2013, when Ridley was in post-production on Jimi Hendrix drama All Is By My Side, that the American filmmaker began to get a sense of the similarities in and differences between racial dynamics in the US and the UK. And after carrying out research and speaking to Brits about their experiences during the 1970s, he found he could tell a story that was firmly rooted in reality.

The accounts offered by the people Ridley spoke to, many of whom joined the show as advisors, were central to shaping the narrative of Guerrilla’s characters. “They lived through this era and their experiences – sometimes in opposition to each other – were instrumental,” Ridley explains. “We wanted to make a show with a certain velocity that makes the audience want to return week in, week out.

“But at the core we wanted to tell a very human story, a story of people who are struggling – against the system, against their own choices, against each other. We could have done a purely dry disposition of London in the 1970s, but I can’t say enough about the individuals who shared their stories and perspectives that ended up being the foundation of everything else we ended up doing.”

The show is centred on race relations in the UK in the 1970s

As the show’s creator and lead writer, as well as its director for three of the six episodes, Ridley certainly assumes showrunner status on Guerrilla, a role still relatively uncommon in the UK. He says he aspired to bring together elements of the US and UK production systems, including setting up a writers room with British co-writer Misan Sagay (Belle). “We’d sit around talking about ideas and she’d give me a sense of things that really happened in the UK. And sometimes it would just be small language things – like the difference between ‘flat’ and ‘apartment,’” Ridley says of working with Sagay. “She also wrote the fifth episode of our series – I wrote one, two, three, four and six. So it was much smaller than a traditional US writers room, but it definitely worked having someone who’s very talented and knows the UK, as well as someone who knows their history.

“In production, little things are different [between the UK and the US] – hours of the day, how many hours you have to shoot. Some things in the infrastructure are different, like permitting, where you can shoot and how you can shoot. A lot of that was left to our line producer to help figure out. Ultimately, what made Guerrilla work was hopefully taking the best of these two systems and making sure we supported each other in the stories we wanted to tell.”

In terms of scriptwriting, Ridley says he likes to make it clear on the page exactly what’s happening in every scene, meaning the script serves as a blueprint for every department, from hair and makeup to wardrobe and set design. “I want anybody who picks up that script to be able to read it and really understand what is going in a scene,” he says. “You cannot talk enough about every script, every page, every scene, everything that’s happening.”

That also goes for any extras on set: “I really don’t like having a lot of extras. When somebody’s in a scene, I want to know what they are doing and what’s happening with that person. It makes much more sense to have one or two people engaged in a very specific way than having people wandering around in the background.”

Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton is among the supporting cast

As such, Ridley faced a daunting task when it came to filming a protest scene for Guerrilla’s premiere episode involving hundreds of cast members and extras, along with several police horses. However, by working initially with just a handful of actors to plan the action, he was able to piece it together once the cameras were rolling.

“We mapped it out very carefully,” he says of the scene, in which the peaceful demonstration quickly turns violent. “You have 300-and-something people out there, plus horses and crew, so just from a safety standpoint you don’t want to simply turn up and tell people to re-enact a riot – you don’t want anybody to get hurt.

“There are always issues there but you realise that every problem you solve ahead of time, you’re leaving space for issues that come up, no matter what they are. We were able to shoot a fantastic scene full of scale, but also a really emotional scene. On a personal level, you can’t do it without preparation and you can’t do it without a crew that’s fully informed and part of the creative process.”

The protest scene is also notable for featuring one of several instances of police brutality highlighted in the opening episode. On another occasion, a female character is sexually assaulted by an officer. Ridley says that while the production team didn’t want to shy away from such “realities,” they opted to use camera angles and editing techniques to show them in a way that feels more graphic than they actually are.

“Sometimes suggesting things to an audience has more impact than lingering on them,” he notes. “They fill in the gaps of that brutality in a way that depicting them as graphically as possible may not do as well. But that’s part of the joy of putting a show together – when you get into the edit, you can really think about it. I deeply appreciate having the opportunity to do a show that isn’t straightforward. It has allowed for different storytelling than traditional television has allowed for.”

On screen, Ridley has assembled a stunning array of acting talent, from leading stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay (who play central couple Jas and Marcus respectively) to supporting cast members Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

Ridley reserves special praise for Pinto and Ceesay, who he says put in a lot of work to develop their on-screen partnership. “If there is no sense of chemistry between your lead actors, the show’s not going to work,” he says. “That chemistry comes through trust, camaraderie and a sense of leadership through two people who are sharing the screen.

“Freida and Babou put in that work. It goes beyond the writing, the lighting, the wardrobe; it’s about the actors putting in the time so when they arrive on set, they’re good friends, they’re there for each other and they put in a great day’s work for the rest of the crew. Freida and Babou just really had it. It’s great to watch.”

The cast also includes Luther star Idris Elba, who is also an exec producer on Guerrilla through his Green Door Pictures label. “He gives an outstanding performance, one that is very different from the Idris people have seen over the last few years,” Ridley says. “It was a special opportunity to work with him as a partner on the show.”

With season three of American Crime having launched in March this year, Ridley is now developing a Marvel series, though he declines to reveal anything about the top-secret project. But while cinema is currently buoyant on a wave of blockbuster superhero films, Ridley believes there’s still room on the big screen for storytelling-focused dramas such as Lion and Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight.

He continues: “When people are making a US$200m bet, you can’t blame them for wanting to take a short bet. But I hope there is still space for filmmaking that’s a little challenging, not traditional and represents people in different ways, and that such films can co-exist [alongside blockbusters].

“I’m just happy, thankful and appreciative television does exist because I don’t know that someone would have made a bet on a film like Guerrilla,” Ridley adds. “I certainly can’t fault the film studios for the choices they make, but I’m thankful there’s another space where we as writers, as storytellers, can tell the stories that are most meaningful to us.”

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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Black writing talent thriving in US

Black screenwriters are rarer than unicorns in European TV drama, but there is a growing number of talented black writers making their mark in US broadcasting and streaming. This week, we look at some of the best-known names and rising stars in the hope it might inspire the European business to embrace ethnic diversity. Take note of how many of this clever bunch also happen to be women – and how many black writers are involved in hits.

latoya-morganLaToya Morgan is in the news this week after signing a two-year deal with cable network AMC. Morgan has recently finished writing for the Revolutionary War drama Turn: Washington’s Spies and will now join the team on AMC’s Into the Badlands. She will also be given the chance to develop new TV projects. She also previously worked on the Shameless writing team at Showtime.

Courtney-Kemp-Agboh[2]Courtney Kemp Agboh recently told DQ that she started her career as a comedy writer and “sucked.” Fortunately, she reinvented herself as a drama writer and has gone on to have great success with Starz series Power, which tells the story of a club owner who also runs a huge drug network. Prior to her success with Power, Kemp Agboh worked on The Good Wife.

tylerperryTyler Perry is good at most things in the media business. As a TV writer, he is best known as the creator of The Haves and the Have Nots, one of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)’s top-performing dramas. Perry has an ongoing deal with OWN that has seen him produce a number of scripted series include If Loving You Is Wrong and Love Thy Neighbour.

kenyabarrisKenya Barris is best known as the creator of ABC’s acclaimed comedy Black-ish, which includes Michelle Obama among its fans. This funny series focuses on the challenges faced by a successful black ad agency exec as he tries to keep hold of his heritage while assimilating with the bourgeois, mainly white community he now lives in. A third season was ordered by ABC on March 3 this year.

Lee_Daniels_2013Lee Daniels shot to the front rank of screenwriters thanks to Fox hit Empire, co-created with Danny Strong. After the success of Empire, Daniels started working on another music-based scripted show with Tom Donaghy. Called Star, the series is about three girls who form a band, and charts their rise to the top. Like Empire, Star is for Fox, with which Daniels has an overall deal.

aishamuharrarAisha Muharrar, a Harvard graduate, made a name for herself as part of the team on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, having previously worked on comedy series Sit Down Shut Up. Muharrar is now reported to be working with Parks & Rec star Amy Poehler on a new comedy for NBC about a young agnostic woman who inherits a church and its strong-willed community.

john-ridleyJohn Ridley is best-known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, but he is now having a big impact in TV. Having set up the successful ABC series American Crime, he is in the process of bringing crime series Presence to the screen for ABC. He is also working on Guerrilla, a six-part limited series for Showtime and Sky Atlantic that stars Idris Elba and Freida Pinto.

Janine-Sherman-BarroisJanine Sherman Barrois was a key member of the team on CBS’s long-running crime drama Criminal Minds until she signed a deal with Warner Bros Television to create and develop new drama series. Prior to all this, she worked on The Jamie Foxx Show, The PJs and Third Watch. Sherman Barrois is also active advocate of increased industry diversity.

MishaGreenMisha Green has previously worked on Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy for FX, Syfy thriller Helix (cancelled last year after two seasons) and popular NBC drama Heroes. But her big breakthrough has come as creator (with Joe Pokaski) and executive producer of WGN’s Civil War drama Underground – which tells the story of slaves escaping to freedom via the underground railroad.

shondarhimesShonda Rhimes is one of the top drama showrunners in the business, but as well as being an amazing talent in her own right, she’s also bringing through new black talent such as Zoanne Clack (see below), Raamla Mohamed and Zahir McGhee. In terms of her own credentials, Rhimes has created or overseen several hits for ABC including Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

zoanneclackZoanne Clack was a doctor before she got into the TV business. Her medical background helped her secure a role working on Grey’s Anatomy, though now she has more than demonstrated her creative skills as a writer and story editor. The most recent news about Clack was that she is working on a new series for ABC about a US Army Medevac team based in the Iraqi city of Baghdad.

justinsimien_1331505284_46Justin Simien is a rising star who made the acclaimed film Dear White People. Netflix recently ordered a 10-part adaptation of the film, to be produced by Lionsgate. Due to land on Netflix in 2017, the series version of Dear White People tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students.

ClementVirgoClement Virgo is actually Canadian, but gets in here because of his impact on the North American TV business. Following his adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, he is currently working with Hill again on The Illegal. This is the story of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo is also exec producing OWN’s Greenleaf.

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No coming back for The Returned

A&E has cancelled The Returned
A&E has cancelled The Returned

It’s been a topsy-turvy week for US showrunner/screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who is currently working with cable channel A&E on two scripted series, Bates Motel and The Returned.

A few days ago, he learnt that the former had been greenlit for seasons four and five, but the latter – an adaptation of French zombie drama Les Revenants – has been cancelled after a lacklustre debut.

The Returned is a rare failure for Harvard-educated Cuse, whose shows tend to run and run. His first big success was Nash Bridges, which aired on CBS from 1996 to 2001.

A small hiccup came in 1998 with the quickly cancelled series Martial Law, also on CBS, but it seems churlish to even mention it when you consider that Cuse would later become one of the key architects of ABC’s Lost, arguably the standout drama series of the last decade. Although Cuse wasn’t involved as a writer in the pilot or the early episodes of season one, he co-wrote a number of episodes in the second half of its freshman year and then took on additional writing duties in seasons two and three.

Carlton Cuse has worked on hit shows such as Lost and Nash Bridges
Carlton Cuse has worked on hit shows such as Lost and Nash Bridges

By season four, he was penning the all-important opening and closing episodes in partnership with Damon Lindelof – a role he kept until the show ended in 2010. The final episode earned Cuse and Lindelof an Emmy nomination.

Bates Motel, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psych, launched in 2013 and marked the start of an incredibly prolific period for Cuse. In 2014, his vampire drama The Strain debuted on FX and in 2015 came A&E’s The Returned. He’s also working on Colony for USA Network, a thriller about life in LA after a mysterious foreign occupation and the efforts by the proxy government to crush the resistance movement. Initially greenlit as a pilot, it secured a 10-episode order in February. And as if all of this isn’t enough to be getting on with, he also found time to create a 2015 pilot for Amazon Studios called Point of Honor.

Bates Motel: renewed for seasons four and five
Bates Motel: renewed for seasons four and five

With so much good stuff to Cuse’s name, what went wrong with The Returned? At first sight, you might argue that Cuse had too much on his plate – with four series at various stages of production and development. But that seems unlikely given that Cuse typically shares creative responsibilities with a strong partner, thus easing the workload. In the case of The Returned, for example, he worked alongside Raelle Tucker, who established her credentials on HBO’s hit vampire series True Blood.

It is more likely, perhaps, that The Returned arrived in the US too late, with ABC’s Resurrection – another show about the dead coming back to life – hitting the market in 2014. It’s also just possible that we’re starting to see flaws in the scripted format model, at least in terms of foreign dramas being adapted for the US market.

While the success of Homeland, based on Israeli drama Hatufim, has proved that this model can work, the growing number of scripted format failures suggests transplanting shows is not such a safe bet.

John Ridley won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave
John Ridley won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave

While no one likes it when one of their shows doesn’t work, Cuse is unlikely to be too downbeat about the loss of The Returned. In a profile by Variety, he observed philosophically how “in Hollywood, it’s impossible to get the temperature of the porridge just right. No matter what your intentions are, Hollywood has a 90% failure rate. I had to put a few different irons in the fire because I didn’t think everything was going to work.” To his credit, Cuse is currently running at a higher success rate than most.

There is also news this week concerning another of the US industry’s hottest talents, John Ridley. After winning an Academy Award in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave (Best Adapted Screenplay), Ridley has been riding high with American Crime, a series he created and wrote for ABC. ABC is clearly very impressed with Ridley because it has renewed American Crime for a second season and this week also ordered a pilot from him, entitled Presence. It will be produced by ABC Studios.

In development for the 2016/2017 season, Presence is about a former army counter-insurgency operative who starts a new career as an unlicensed private investigator in LA. There are also reports that Ridley is working on a secret project with ABC Studios’ sister division Marvel Studios.

Ridley's ABC show American Crime
Ridley’s ABC show American Crime

Ridley, soon to turn 50, is something of an eclectic talent. Have started his adult life as a stand-up comedian, before going on to write episodes of shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Subsequently, he has written and directed movies, produced TV series and penned numerous books. His novel Spoils of War became the acclaimed David O. Russell movie Three Kings.

On the subject of novelists-turned-screenwriters, the big story of the week in the UK is that Irvine Welsh (who will forever be referred to as the author of Trainspotting) is working on a 6×60’ series called Too Much Rock N Roll. Backed by producer Keo Films and distributor Content Media, the drama will tell the story of Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, who were born into Manchester’s notorious gang culture but went on to launch an internationally successful fashion label.

The factual drama, which continues Keo’s recent push into scripted series, is based on the Donnellys’ autobiography Still Breathing, which was published in 2013.

Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh are writing Too Much Rock N Roll
Irvine Welsh (pictured) and Dean Cavanagh are writing Too Much Rock N Roll

Welsh and long-time collaborator Dean Cavanagh are co-writing the show, having previously worked together on projects like Good Arrows, Dose and Wedding Belles. In a joint statement, Welsh and Cavanagh said: “We’re really excited to be involved in telling the story of the Donnelly Brothers for the screen. We’ve been offered many true-life stories over the years but what attracts us to this story in particular is the fact that Anthony and Christopher are unbeatable – they won’t take no for answer – and we’re going to capture that spirit. It’s something we relate to, having spent decades working in the business that is ‘show’ and all the attendant bullshit that comes with it. Anthony and Christopher are stand-up lads and so are we. Hopefully this is the start of a long and creative partnership.”

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