Tag Archives: Little Women

Little time

Executive producer Sophie Gardiner and director Vanessa Caswill tell DQ about taking a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women from page to screen in just 12 months.

Drama series can often be years in the making, trudging through development hell before finding a route to air. Not so for Little Women, the three-part miniseries that proved a popular addition to the BBC’s Christmas 2017 schedule and is now set to air in the US on PBS Masterpiece, beginning this Sunday.

“We got the greenlight just before Christmas 2016 but there were no scripts,” recalls executive producer Sophie Gardner, the former head of drama at producer Playground Entertainment. That meant Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) faced a tight deadline to turn around the scripts, based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, while the production team also faced a battle to put the cast in place.

“You need a script to be able to attract your Angela Lansburys as well, so it was quite a tight one,” Gardiner continues. “But because Heidi wrote them really well, her first drafts in each instance were great. Heidi knows the book inside out. There was also a very clear sense in her mind of what had stuck with her and what perspective she was writing it from.

“The actual production, in terms of the shoot, wasn’t curtailed. It was just getting the scripts done much quicker and then at the end, in post-production, it was quicker than it normally would be, so we were editing two [episodes] at the same time. It’s funny, though, because you work so intensely for a year whole and then it goes out and it’s gone.”

The March sisters at the centre of the story are played by (L-R) Annes Elwy, Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton and Willa Fitzgerald

Set against the backdrop of a country divided, Little Women follows the four March sisters: Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) on their journey from childhood to adulthood while their father (Dylan Baker) is away at war.

Under the guidance of their mother Marmee (Emily Watson), the girls navigate issues such as gender roles, sibling rivalry, first loves, loss and marriage, accompanied by the charming boy next door Laurie Laurence (Jonah Hauer-King), their cantankerous and wealthy aunt March (Lansbury) and benevolent neighbour Mr Laurence (Michael Gambon). The story is described a coming-of-age tale that is as relevant and engaging today as it was upon the book’s original publication in 1868. The three-part show is distributed by Lionsgate.

After pitching an adaptation of Little Women to the BBC, Gardiner sought out Thomas to pen the scripts without knowing it was one of the writer’s favourite novels. “She writes with such a lot of warmth and depth around the domestic, and that is what Little Women is,” Gardiner says. “She does that so brilliantly and gets right into the heart of characters and how they interact with each other in a very domestic context. Once she delivered those great scripts, it was our job to deliver on the high expectations, and that was beautifully collaborative all the way through.”

Thomas’s fondness for the book meant she had already considered how she could adapt it, with a focus on keeping it modern and fresh. “One of the things I loved about what Heidi did is the scene where they’re getting ready for a party and Jo ruins Meg’s hair,” Gardiner reveals. “It could have been my daughters getting ready to go out. It has a very modern feeling, even though it’s absolutely set in the period. Things like when Jo moves to New York and she’s on her own for the first time without sisters – there’s a really tiny beat in it of Jo struggling to put on her own corset because she’s never done it by herself. Those sorts of things, they’re so small and they don’t change anything but, accumulatively, they make it feel very truthful, and maybe that’s what made it feel fresh and modern. It was looking at the reality of that life, and I think Heidi came to that pretty early on.”

Director Vanessa Caswill grabs a selfie with actor Michael Gambon

Shooting took place across a summer in Ireland, which doubled for Concord, Massachusetts. But with Alcott’s story set across all four seasons, the crew were tasked with recreating numerous conditions.

“The seasons are very relevant so that was our biggest challenge,” Gardiner says. “But I like to think we did pretty well. We were really lucky. On the days you’re shooting snow, if it’s raining, that’s a real problem. But we were really lucky because it never rained. There was a lot of hard work, obviously, by the production designer and the VFX people, but overall it was a very blessed production.”

Behind the camera was director Vanessa Caswill, whose previous credits include BBC psychological drama Thirteen. She joined the production in April 2017 and began work a week later, scouting locations in and around Dublin before heading to the US to visit Orchard House, the building in which Alcott wrote Little Women and which is also the story’s setting.

“It’s extremely honest and respectful [of the original book],” the director says of the adaptation. “It’s probably got more of the story than any other adaptation has because we’ve had three hours to do it rather than an hour-and-a-half. Heidi is really masterful at distilling drama and finding dramatic moments in it. She’s captured all the depth and beauty and sensitivity in it, and it’s all about the characters and telling their story and their emotional journey, which she’s done very honestly and delicately.”

Gardiner describes Caswill as a “very lyrical director, very emotional and very physical.” And before shooting began, Caswill spent a week with the cast in rehearsals – the main aim of which was to turn the cast into the family they would play on screen.

Little Women also stars Angela Lansbury

“By the end of that week, those four girls and Emily Watson had an intimacy and a comfort with each other that was really second nature,” the director says. “It was wonderful. We actually ended up doing a lot of physical exercises and space and relational exercises rather than too much intellectualising. It was very important for me also to spend time with each of the relationship dynamics so every sister got a chance to rehearse with each sister and with each parent. I just wanted a sense of intimacy between them and that they really felt comfortable and vulnerable in front of each other.”

On set, Caswill used handheld cameras to achieve the level of intimacy she desired, describing these as being like a “fifth sister.” She also shelved traditional blocking techniques, instead looking to feature all four sisters in shot at once to create the idea that at the start, they are a “four-headed monster” but by the end, they have all splintered and are following their own lives.

“We don’t see enough female protagonists that aren’t being abused or aren’t mad,” the director adds. “This is about really wholehearted women who have integrity and who are becoming women, understanding the world and finding their voice in it and expressing it and doing it through being good. That’s extremely current and important because we don’t see that enough. We see all the darkness and very rarely the light.

“The story really matters to me because it’s a humanist story and it’s aspirational and about trying to be the better version of ourselves. It’s really interesting to see a story that’s about trying to master ourselves.”

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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AMC finds more life in Dead franchise

Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global
Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global

There are only three weeks to go until the launch of Fear the Walking Dead, US cable channel AMC’s LA-based spin-off of its hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead.

Earlier this year, AMC said it had greenlit two series of the new show. This week it added some detail, saying that there will be 15 episodes in the second run, which is scheduled to air during 2016.

Fear The Walking Dead, which launches on August 23, has a special significance for AMC because, unlike The Walking Dead, it will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global, which is available in 125 countries after a rapid international roll-out over the last year.

The Walking Dead started to gain momentum as a franchise before AMC had an international channel to air it on. So internationally most of the branding benefits of the show have gone to Fox channels, which have the international rights.

This time, however, AMC wants to make sure it is the primary beneficiary. To make the most of its relationship with Fear The Walking Dead, it also plans to air the show simultaneously around the world, a move that will drive its social media stats sky-high.

AMC has also announced the launch date for its hotly anticipated martial arts series Into the Badlands. Scheduled to premiere on November 15, this show will also be available internationally on AMC Global. It’s too early to say if Into the Badlands can have the same kind of impact as The Walking Dead, but it is the most ambitious martial arts project to have hit TV screens for some time.

Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November
Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November

“Martial arts is not only a new genre for an AMC series, but also one that has been largely absent from television for 15 years,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming for AMC and SundanceTV. “The team behind Into the Badlands, led by showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, is comprised of some of the best martial artists and martial arts filmmakers in the world, and they have crafted a show that over-delivers against two big goals we set for the show: to create a compelling character drama and to introduce the highest calibre of martial arts filmmaking to a weekly, ongoing series.”

Other interesting developments include National Geographic Channel’s announcement that it has ordered a pilot script from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for Last Men Out. Based on a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the series will look at the rearguard actions of a band of marines during the final days of the Vietnam War. Fontana, whose credits include Copper and Borgia, will write and executive produce the pilot through Levinson/Fontana Co – the production company he formed with Levinson.

If all of the above sounds too violent for your tastes, then US cable channel The CW has revealed plans for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic Little Women, to be written by Alexis Jolly and produced by Solar Drive Productions in association CBS TV Studios.

The 1994 movie version of Little Women
The 1994 movie version of Little Women

However, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie version of the book that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst may be in for a surprise. Press reports claim The CW is planning a “hyper-stylised adaptation” of the novel in which “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”

Last year, cable channel E! entered the scripted market for the first time with The Royals, a series based around the public and private lives of a fictitious British Royal Family. Now it has announced plans for a second project, with the working title Hollywood Teen Medium. Following the life of 19-year-old Tyler Henry, the series explores the world of a “self-proclaimed clairvoyant medium as he balances his unique abilities with trying to be a regular teenager. Formerly of a small-town, Tyler has become one of Hollywood’s top mediums, bringing messages from the heavens and profound visions to today’s hottest stars.”

With a greenlight for eight one-hour episodes, Hollywood Teen Medium “adds a new layer of mystery and intrigue to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that our audience is so passionate about,” said Jeff Olde, executive VP for original programming and development at E!.

Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing
Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing

This week has also seen a fair amount of activity in terms of series renewals. The big news at Starz is a fourth season of Black Sails, which stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint.

The first two seasons of Black Sails averaged 4.5 million multi-platform viewers per episode and the series is distributed in 175 countries worldwide. A greenlight for the fourth season comes despite the fact that the 10-episode third season doesn’t air on Starz until 2016. As mentioned previously, Starz has also cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons.

Amid a slew of announcements over the last week, Netflix said the fourth season of Longmire will air on September 10 (available to audiences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Based on the novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson, Longmire is a crime drama that centres on a Wyoming county sheriff who returns to work after his wife’s death.

The show is interesting because the first three seasons aired on A&E, which then cancelled it. Producer Warner Horizon TV then touted the show around, at which point Netflix stepped in and saved it.

Netflix came to Longmire's rescue after it was cancelled by A&E
Netflix came to Longmire’s rescue after it was cancelled by A&E

Finally, Channel 4 has announced a second season of its hit sci-fi drama Humans, produced by Kudos from a Scandinavian drama by Matador. It is coproduced with AMC.

The decision was announced just prior to the finale of the first run this Sunday. Commenting on the decision, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said the drama “marks a key moment for C4 as we expand our remit for bold and original drama into the international copro space.”

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