Tag Archives: Kris Mrksa

Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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On the up down under

Stateless marks Cate Blanchett's directorial debut
Stateless marks Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut
Dozens of Aussie screenwriters will be dusting off their computer keyboards following the news that Screen Australia has greenlit A$640,000 (US$474,241) of development funding for 23 films and television series.

The project that has caught the attention of the international media is Stateless, which will be directed by Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchett. Described by Screen Australia as Blanchett’s “first venture into high-end TV,” it tells the true story of Cornelia Rau, a young German-Australian who escaped a frightening cult, only to be trapped in a bizarre labyrinth of psychiatric and legal systems.

NBCUniversal-owned production company Matchbox Pictures will produce Stateless, which is based on a screenplay written by Elise McCredie. McCredie has a long and varied track record as an actress, but her first big hit as a writer was Nowhere Boys, a teen series that was also produced by Matchbox.

First airing on ABC3 in 2013, the show was successful enough to secure a renewal and to be adapted as a feature film (Book of Shadows). Sold internationally by NBCUniversal, it has also aired in the UK and Canada.

The other projects backed by Screen Australia include works from Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Marieke Hardy, Jan Chapman, Stephan Elliott and Bondi Hipsters’ Nicholas Boshier. However, the only other high-end television drama to secure Screen Australia funding this month is Trust – a drama based on a journalist’s mission to expose a shadowy movement cloaked in conspiracy theories and deception.

Trust’s writing team consists of Sarah Lambert, Blake Ayshford and Kris Mrksa. Lambert’s standout credit to date is Love Child, a critical and ratings success for Channel 9 and Playmaker in 2014.

Sarah Lambert is part of a team of writers on Trust
Sarah Lambert is part of a team of writers on Trust

Ayshford has written episodes for a number of shows including The Beautiful Lie, Nowhere Boys, Devil’s Playground, The Code and Crownies, while Mrksa’s credits include Underbelly, The Slap and Glitch.

The latter is a six-parter that started airing on ABC1 this month. Pursuing a familiar theme, it focuses on a policeman who is called to his local cemetery in the middle of the night after six people have inexplicably risen from the dead in perfect health.

Nerida Moore, senior development executive at Screen Australia, said: “The titles we’ve announced reflect a really exciting slate of projects and associated talent. They’re very individual in approach and each will have its own unique creative journey ahead. The recent changes to our Story Development Guidelines reflect our appreciation for the individual creative process and the ongoing need for flexibility in the ways we offer support. We look forward to seeing more innovation and imagination as these projects flourish.”

Elsewhere, Endemol Shine Studios has acquired the English-language reversion rights to Follow the Money, a new thriller from Danmarks Radio (DR) that is set in the world of economic crime. The deal follows an earlier adaptation success for DR’s The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen) and comes despite the fact that Follow the Money doesn’t air in Denmark until January 2016.

The original series was created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of the three writers on Borgen, writing a total of 14 out of the 30 episodes. His partners on Borgen were Adam Price, who recently co-founded production company SAM, and Tobias Lindholm.

“This is yet another compelling series from DR, and we’re looking forward to developing it for the American audience in partnership with the very talented team at Anonymous Content,” said Charlie Corwin, co-chairman and co-CEO of Endemol Shine North America.

The Wire's David Simon is working on Show Me a Hero for HBO
The Wire’s David Simon is working on Show Me a Hero for HBO

Meanwhile, HBO has announced that its upcoming miniseries Show Me a Hero will debut on August 16. Starring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi, the show is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a young mayor of a mid-sized American city who is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighbourhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyses the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.

Written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero is based on a non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin that explores the issue of racial segregation in Yonkers, in the state of New York.

Simon said: “The story appeals to me not merely as political history, but because the question in Yonkers in 1987 was the same one that we face today. Are all of us – those with and those without, white, black or brown – are we all sharing some portion of the same national experience? Or is the American Dream something other than that?”

The director is Paul Haggis (Crash), who says: “Frankly, I have long desired to be a part of anything David Simon does. If he had asked me to direct a history of footwear, that’s what we would be discussing now. Luckily, it was a part of our history that intrigued me, largely because it isn’t history at all, but an exploration of issues that remain at the core of the American narrative.”

In last week’s Hit & Miss, we looked at some of the titles that have garnered a high number of Emmy nominations. Today, we are giving a shout out to the writers nominated.

In Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, the contenders are Joshua Brand (The Americans), Gordon Smith (Better Call Saul), David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Weiner alone (for Mad Men again).

Jane Anderson's work on Olive Kitteridge has earned her an Emmy nomination
Jane Anderson’s work on Olive Kitteridge has earned her an Emmy nomination

The sentimentalist vote would surely favour Weiner, to mark the end of Mad Men. But he will be hard pushed to see off Game of Thrones, which is nominated for the final episode of season five (Mother’s Mercy).

In Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, the nominees include John Ridley (American Crime), Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Glois and Horton Foote (Bessie), Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Hello Ladies), Hugo Blick (The Honorable Woman), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) and Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall).

Despite the dearth of women in these two line-ups, Anderson has a good chance of winning. An industry veteran, she boasts credits ranging from The Wonder Years and How to Make an American Quilt to Mad Men.

She gave an interesting interview to HBO recently in which she discussed the challenges of adapting Olive Kitteridge from its source novel by Elizabeth Strout. “It took a long time for me to solve this as an adaptation,” she said. “Because HBO’s work is known for its edginess, we talked about how we make this very brilliant novel about older people in a small town in Maine sexy. What will make this different? What will give this edge?

“I tried an outline where we started backwards and we went back in time, and it didn’t work. Then I tried it starting with the suicide scene. It’s just three minutes of screen time that assure the audience that something really drastic is going to happen down the line. When you add stakes like that, everybody can just friggin’ relax and I can tell the story. I can just unwind it. You need that in television and you need that in a miniseries.”

Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless has quashed speculation of a reboot
Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless has quashed speculation of a reboot

At the other end of the spectrum with regard to female characterisation, actress Lucy Lawless has played down speculation that her iconic series Xena: Warrior Princess is undergoing a reboot at NBC. Sam Raimi was reported to be involved but Lawless later described it as a “rumour.”

She Tweeted: “Sorry, friends! News of a #Xena reboot is just a rumour. I’d love it to happen one day but it’s still in the wishful thinking stage.”

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