Tag Archives: Kiefer Sutherland

Designated showrunner

As the newly appointed showrunner of White House drama Designated Survivor, Keith Eisner is taking the series in a new direction. He tells DQ about his plans for the ABC show, comparisons to The West Wing and making a political drama in the era of Donald Trump.

Designated Survivor launched last autumn with the huge expectation that came with seeing 24 star Kiefer Sutherland playing the character that, until recently, he was usually tasked with saving – the president of the United States.

Keith Eisner

But for the most part, what began as a mix of political drama, thriller and family saga settled into familiar rhythms of the show that made Jack Bauer a household name – a terrorist plot, conspiracies and double-crossings, only without the iconic digital clock counting down.

Yet when the ABC series returns for season two on Wednesday, September 27, viewers should expect a markedly different show under the stewardship of new showrunner Keith Eisner.

“The show was very much a thriller last year,” he says. “We’re broadening that to make it much more of a West Wing-type White House drama, which very much deals with the events that a novice president would face on a week-to-week basis, while still retaining a lot of what people loved about the show and involving more intrigue this year than gun-toting antics every week.”

Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who suddenly finds himself appointed president after a catastrophic attack on the US Capitol during the State of the Union. Season one saw him struggle to keep the country and his family together while leading the search to find those responsible for the attack.

It concluded with a major cliffhanger involving the suspected conspirator, and Eisner promises that storyline will be resolved over the first few episodes of season two, despite the show restarting six months on from the events at the end of season one.

“We felt very much that last year was the story of a Mr Smith Goes to Washington-type character, a deer caught in the headlights,” Eisner says of Kirkman’s sudden elevation to commander-in-chief. “We really wanted to ground the president a little bit more [this season]. We still centre on our theme – an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation – but we wanted him to find his feet a bit as president.”

Designated Survivor finds Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman facing a host of new challenges

To that effect, “White House stories” will feature much more prominently in a show designed to be faster and funnier, with a bit of romance included too. The expanded cast includes White House counsel Kendra Daynes (played by Zoe McLellan), political director Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo) and British MI6 agent Damian Rennett (Ben Lawson), who could prove to be a love interest for Maggie Q’s FBI agent Hannah Wells.

It’s all part of the distinct vision Eisner has for the show, which he joined in May as the series’ fourth showrunner in just a year, following Amy B Harris, Jon Harmon Feldman and Jeff Melvoin. “I thought the show was terrific last year but the difficulty is there are only so many ways to try to kill the president,” he tells DQ during a break from rewriting episode six.

“In terms of making sure this was a show that can run for many years, it was about broadening that storytelling base. We’re well into our new journey here, we’re excited about it and we have the secret weapon, the fantastic Kiefer Sutherland. He was so good last year – wait until you see what he does this year.”

Eisner’s career working on shows such as The Good Wife, NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Gilmore Girls points to the type of stories he will seek to bring into the show, while he says he also wants to make it more aspirational for viewers: “In these times, it is not a bad thing to see a president that wrestles with difficult decisions but is someone we admire and see trying to do the best he can in every situation.

Sutherland is best known for starring as Jack Bauer in 24

“He doesn’t always make the right decisions; that’s part of the game and one of the things Tom Kirkman wrestles with on a week-to-week basis. He also wrestles with family issues, which are coming a little bit more to the fore, as does his marriage. We are doing personal stories for all our characters, so we will go outside the confines of the White House to see them and to see their lives and become more invested in them.”

Of course, Designated Survivor is now operating in a world where the real White House has the kinds of storylines and plot twists than a screenwriter couldn’t dream of. How, then, does Eisner plan on running a political drama in the era of President Trump?

“We’re not trying to be an express commentary on the Trump White House,” he says. “We’re trying to be our own story about our own president, who always tries to do the right thing in difficult situations. Having said that, there are obviously issues in the real world that we can’t be blind to, because they inform our drama. Without being an express commentary, there might occasionally be parallels or situations where we see how our president reacts in a similar situation and whether he reacts differently or in the same way.

“We think, more than anything, the attention given to the White House in 2017 is a great opportunity for us to portray a different kind of White House perhaps, but a White House also struggling with a lot of things that perhaps the Trump administration struggles with.”

However, it’s a fictional White House that will likely have more bearing on Designated Survivor’s new direction. The success of NBC’s The West Wing has cast a long shadow over other political series ever since the Emmy-winning show began in 1999, “but it’s not a bad shadow,” Eisner admits.

“The things that Aaron [Sorkin, The West Wing creator] pioneered are very much part of the tapestry now – the ‘Walk and Talks,’ the humour. One embraces that, one doesn’t shy away from it. What’s very different was The West Wing was 20 years ago. The world has changed and how we deal with issues and social media and the speed of everything informs a different type of storytelling.

Keith Eisner has taken inspiration from fellow White House drama The West Wing

“We’re also different because we have a component The West Wing never had, which is this thriller/action/intrigue component built into the show, and that will continue to be part of the show and makes it very different. We have everything we feel The West Wing had but we have this additional component, so the cocktail of the show tastes different.”

There are some limits to the changes Eisner is bringing in. Fans around the world who tuned in to binge Designated Survivor on Netflix, following a worldwide deal with distributor Entertainment One, will be happy to hear that the series will retain its serialised elements, with plenty of jeopardy and cliffhangers still to come.

“I don’t think anyone who watched the show last year will be disappointed because there’s going to be a lot of what they love,” the showrunner says. “People will want to continue to binge it because some of the serialised stuff will still be there. But the other advantage in terms of broadening the base is if you’re not one of those people who binges on shows but occasionally likes to check in, there’s a standalone component to the show this year that will allow you to not know everything about the mythology we built up and still enjoy the show as a standalone episode.”

With his time spent on The Good Wife and Law & Order, Eisner has learned his craft by working with acclaimed showrunners including Michelle and Robert King and Dick Wolf, respectively. As such, he admits is “very story-driven and character-driven as a showrunner,” adding: “I arc things out, I focus on real human behaviour and make sure it’s relatable and complicated, but I like conflict too. The shows I’ve worked on have dealt with that a lot.

“I’m very much focused on producing a television show that deals with conflict and emotion. I think people will find the show very emotional this year. The stories will climax in, we hope, very surprising ways that will move you and make you laugh, hopefully make you think and occasionally scare you a little bit too.”

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Hello Mr President

US star Kiefer Sutherland reveals why he elected to play the president in US drama Designated Survivor and what he learned from working on 24.

Best known for saving the day – and quite often the US president – in action drama 24, Kiefer Sutherland still finds himself spending plenty of time in the Oval Office.

Only now he plays the president as the star of ABC drama Designated Survivor. The political series sees Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the US secretary of housing and urban development, rapidly promoted to become the leader of the free world after an explosion during the State of the Union address claims the lives of the incumbent and all other members of the US cabinet.

Kiefer Sutherland in Cannes for Mipcom 2016

The drama, from creator David Guggenheim and producer Mark Gordon, debuted last September to more than 10 million viewers and a week later, it was handed a full season order of 22 episodes for the 2016/17 season.

It also airs on CTV in Canada and around the world on Netflix following deals with distributor Entertainment One (eOne).

Sutherland has built his career across television and film, with big-screen credits including Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill. So when he gave a keynote address at television industry event Mipcom, DQ was in the audience to hear more from the London-born Canadian actor.

Sutherland hadn’t planned on joining another network drama…
My experience on 24 was the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. Having done a lot of smaller movies that no one ever saw, I remembered it was nice to have people watch what you do and enjoy it. So I was so grateful for that. Having said that, it was nine years, anywhere between 12 and 15 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year – it’s a lot of work, so when I did 24 I wasn’t aware of any of that.
When I agreed to do Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. So it was a big decision and when I first got the script, it was sent to me by Mark Gordon. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I was doing a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a very small picture. I was getting into some music things, and taking on the responsibility of a television show was not in the forefront of my mind.

But his attitude changed when he read the pilot script…
I was going to give it what I call a cursory read – I was going to read it really quickly to gain enough information about the script to explain to Mark why I couldn’t do it. And I got to about page 25 and I went, “Fuck.” I knew I was potentially holding what I was going to be doing for 10 years if I was lucky, and I went back and re-read it. But the opposite thing happened – I got to the end almost praying it stayed as good as it was and David Guggenheim really wrote a script that spoke to me.

Sutherland as Jack Bauer in long-running drama 24

The actor could see similarities between Jack Bauer and Tom Kirkman…
It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realised there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer I had not anticipated. Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and both characters are willing to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win. That through line in both characters is something I obviously really relate to. I would like to aspire to be one of those people. It ended up being something that I knew if I chose not to do it for a lot of very reasonable reasons, I would really regret it. I do not regret the decision [to sign up] for a second.

Tom Kirkman was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt, because Abraham Lincoln “would have been too obvious…”
One of the nice things about the character is he’s not even elected, he’s not even an elected member of the cabinet. He’s an architect who had very specific ideas about urban planning and affordable housing across the country and that’s how he became part of the cabinet. So he had no political aspirations. What is nice about this character is he can approach the country’s issues, domestic and abroad, with common sense and a sense of fairness and what he thinks is right or wrong, as opposed to a political agenda that’s been dictated by three years of campaigning. That is a really fresh point of view. Common sense is the foundation of the character, and when he becomes more political, that’s when he starts to make mistakes and that will be a constant thread in the character throughout the whole show.

As an exec producer of Designated Survivor, he sees himself as the show’s ambassador…
I was an exec producer on 24 as well and Joel Surnow [the creator of 24] taught me something: the writers had all the offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot, we never went up there and they never came down. As I’m experiencing on this show, that was very unique. I once asked Joel, “Why don’t you ever come down?” He said it was because he hired the people he wanted to do what they’re doing and he didn’t have to oversee everything because he hired the people that he really wanted to do it. It’s a really valuable lesson. Mark is the producer of this show; I work as an ambassador because of the amount of actors we do have coming in and out of the show. I try to make sure they’re comfortable if they’re having a problem with part of the script, I’ll try to work it out with them or direct them to who else to talk to. That’s really my role. I’m certainly not sitting in budget meetings or things like that.

The actor alongside Designated Survivor co-star Natascha McElhone

The biggest problem on 24 was also the ‘star’ of the show…
When I first read this script [for Designated Survivor], as much as I was moved by the characters, I had learned a lot from 24 about what would potentially make the show great and what would not. 24’s real -ime aspect, which was in my opinion the real star of the show, was also a problem. We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline and it was almost every year, right around episode 14 or 15 and we’d have to do something wonky to get around it, but we’d make up for it in the last eight episodes. It was something we really had difficulty every year navigating and I think Howard Gordon would be the first to acknowledge that.

But Designated Survivor was designed to avoid those same challenges…
It was designed to never get caught in that position. This show works on three different prongs. So you have a terrorist attack and an FBI investigation into who did this attack and what would be the appropriate response – that’s the thriller aspect of the show. Then you have a family drama, of what happens to a family that is split up, or is moved into the White House overnight. What does that do to the dynamic of his marriage, how does it affect how he interacts and behaves with his children? That’s its own storyline. And there’s the political aspect – how do you stabilise the country after having its entire government wiped out? How do you rebuild the government and shore up the country on an international level?
Those are all things we’ll be dealing with throughout this first season. If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, then all of a sudden the show can shift back to being a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. It’s the same with the investigation. So the fact that three storylines are living within the show, all at the same time, gives the writers incredible flexibility to also react to what the audience is enjoying about the show. For those reasons, the show has a flexibility that I think is stronger than anything I’ve been a part of so far.

Sutherland wasn’t sure he wanted to do television before 24 changed his mind…
When I took 24, I wasn’t very clear on how it all worked. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to do a television show – and of course it ended up becoming the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. I seem to land in certain situations. If I manage to get out of my own way, things can work out and 24 was the great lesson for that for me.

He now believes the small screen is the most exciting medium in entertainment…
When I started working, there were five studios in the US and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios in the US and they’re making about 15 movies a year. And if you’re going to do one of those movies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape! So all of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid – whether it was The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment – those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were and that drama, that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television, whether it’s 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City or Game of Thrones. The list is endless and the fact we’ve moved from three channels to four channels to 500 channels, content is king – and for the writers who want to tell real drama, television is where it is at right now.

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Starz shines in Golden Globe nominations

Outlander is based on novels by Diana Gabaldon

It’s very much in vogue to talk about the quality of scripted series coming out of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon. But this week let’s raise a glass to Starz, which has picked up Golden Globe nominations for two dramas: Outlander and Flesh and Bone.

When Starz made its first meaningful move into original production with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it didn’t look like it would be a contender for industry gongs. But under the leadership of Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the US channel has really raised its game – delivering shows like Power, Black Sails and, coming in 2016, The Girlfriend Experience – as well as the above-mentioned series.

Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Left Bank Pictures and was developed for TV by Ronald D Moore. Moore also heads a writing team that, in season one, included five credited writers (Moore, Toni Graphia, Ira Steven Behr, Anne Kenney and Matthew B Roberts).

Moore, who wrote the opening two episodes of season one, is still just 51. But his extensive writing credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica and Syfy series Helix. He was also reported to be working on a TV reboot of movie A Knight’s Tale for ABC.

Flesh and Bone is a one-season-only drama
Flesh and Bone is a one-season-only drama written by Moira Walley-Beckett

Flesh and Bone, meanwhile, is an eight-part miniseries about the dysfunctional but glamorous world of ballet. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, it started airing on Starz on November 8 and is currently five episodes through its one and only season. Walley-Beckett’s career to date has seen her win a Primetime Emmy for her work as a writer on AMC’s Breaking Bad. She was also a writer-producer on ABC’s short-lived period series Pan Am.

Elsewhere, fans of Fox thriller 24 will be delighted to hear that the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland is to headline a new ABC series entitled Designated Survivor. The drama, which has been ordered straight-to-series, focuses on a junior US cabinet member who is unexpectedly appointed president after a huge attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession. The production company behind the show is Mark Gordon Co Studios (Quantico) and the writer will be David Guggenheim.

Guggenheim’s major credits to date are movies – most notably the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. He is also working on a sequel to Safe House and a new instalment in the cult Bad Boys franchise. The drama is ABC’s first new scripted series for the 2016/17 and follows on from a decent showing for Quantico.

Kiefer Sutherland as 24's Jack Bauer
Kiefer Sutherland as 24’s Jack Bauer

If this is the golden age of TV drama, then one has to ask why so many old movies and TV series are being revived. Still, it’s good news for writers. The latest beneficiary is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former Lost writer (seasons one and two) who was been signed up to write a reboot of NBC’s cult series Xena: Warrior Princess.

The chances of Xena getting into production seem pretty good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the current trend towards action-adventure shows with female leads. Secondly, because the show is popular internationally, suggesting a successful reboot could be a money-spinner for NBC’s distribution division.

Another show to secure a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes is Fox’s ratings hit Empire. Unsurprisingly, Fox has asked the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels to come up with a follow-up series. Daniels, who is currently casting the pilot, is co-writing the new series with Tom Donaghy.

Although the programme doesn’t yet have a title, it will follow the fortunes of a girl group hoping to make it in the music business. Donaghy started his career as a playwright but, like many of his peers, is now active in TV. Credits before now include The Whole Truth, Without a Trace and The Mentalist.

Could Xena: Warrior Princess be the latest show to see a revival?
Could Xena: Warrior Princess be the latest show to see a revival?

Another project in the news this month is Lookout Point’s Parisian fashion drama The Collection. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the eight-hour show has been picked up by Amazon and will be written by Oliver Goldstick. Goldstick’s credits include Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and, notably, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), for which he has written 30 episodes. He also co-created the short-lived PLL spin-off Ravenswood with I Marlene King and Joseph Dougherty.

One project in search of a writer is AMC’s new adaptation of Joe Hill horror novel NOS4A2. The story centres a young woman with an uncanny talent for finding lost things – a gift that is gradually destroying her mind. She encounters Charlie Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and sucks their souls to keep himself young. The licence plate on the Rolls (NOS4A2) gives you a clue as to what kind of character he is.

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