Tag Archives: Max Landis

Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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Gently does it

Step aside, Sherlock. Dirk Gently, the star of BBC America’s latest original drama, is turning the detective genre on its head.

When Sarah Barnett became president of BBC America (BBCA) in November 2014, she quickly identified the need for an original drama that could stand alongside the network’s established big hitters – namely Doctor Who and Orphan Black.

Just under two years later, she is overseeing the launch of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series based on Douglas Adams’ novels about eccentric ‘holistic’ detective Dirk Gently and his reluctant assistant Todd.

Created by Max Landis, the first season opens as Todd discovers the scene of a gruesome murder – kickstarting a chain of events that sees him team up with the fast-talking Gently to investigate the case and meet a collection of wild and dangerous characters.

“Dirk Gently was a no-brainer for us,” Barnett says of the comedy thriller. “It’s so fresh and different – all the things we’re looking for at BBCA. Douglas Adams is like royalty and it’s fantastic source material. I was really bowled over by Max’s interpretation of it.

Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set
Max Landis (left) and Arvind Ethan David on set

“You cannot slavishly adapt it but to take the heart of Adams’ bonkers, brilliant version and interpret it in a way that’s unique and fresh is brilliantly cool. For us, that added up to a belief that shows on this network should be smart, have depth of character and be immersive. But they also shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Doctor Who, Orphan Black and now Dirk Gently all have that wit and character that’s fun and super entertaining.”

From its title and the budding relationship between Dirk and Todd, viewers might expect a new take on the dynamic that has served Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) so well in Sherlock, the recent revival of the legendary detective story, which also airs on BBCA in the US.

However, audiences will soon discover that Dirk Gently is about to turn traditional detective stories upside down. “The thing about Dirk is that, unlike Sherlock or Miss Marple or any other detective, he is singularly bad at being a detective,” explains executive producer Arvind Ethan David. “He’s not a genius, he’s not physically brave, he’s not good at clues. He is funny, absurd and overly dramatic, but what makes him truly unique is he has an innate, almost paranormal sense of the connectedness of all things.

“This means you’re not constrained by the limits of the possible. In season one, you think you’re in an ordinary murder investigation after the death of Patrick Spring, but what’s unusual is that Dirk was hired by Patrick six weeks before his death to investigate his murder.”

For David, the launch of Dirk Gently last Saturday (and later this year on Netflix around the world) brings his relationship with Adams’ novels full circle, having adapted the story for the stage both at school and later during his time at Oxford University. The latter version starred Rory Kinnear, now known for roles in Penny Dreadful and the James Bond films, and cemented David’s friendship with Adams.

“We did it as a school play and I knew it was something special, so we did it again when I was at Oxford, bigger and better,” he recalls. “That was the one [Adams] really liked and was when our friendship started. It also starred Rory, who has just finished on Penny Dreadful with Samuel Barnett, who plays our new Dirk.”

The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and
The series stars Elijah Wood (left) and Samuel Barnett

Thirteen years after Adams’ death in 2001, the author’s estate asked David if he would consider rebooting the series, following an earlier adaptation for BBC4 in the UK.

“Each season is one case but there’s a bigger mystery around Dirk, who he is and where he comes from that will be explored across multiple seasons,” David explains. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for in terms of my career. I wasn’t going to return to Douglas’s work until I felt there was a way to do him justice and I think American cable television is the place to do that.

“You get to tell a detailed story with tonnes of digressions and tonnes of interesting characters. We have something like 20 lead cast members in this season. It’s not quite Game of Thrones scale, but it’s pretty close!”

The series is produced by AMC Studios, Ideate Media, IDW Entertainment and Circle of Confusion, with Landis and David executive producing alongside showrunner Robert Cooper, Zainir Aminullah, Ted Adams, David Ozer, David Alpert and Rick Jacobs. It is distributed by IMG.

Cooper, whose credits include Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, came on board to help steer the production and develop Landis’s take on Adams’ characters.

“Dirk Gently was just so incredibly different,” says the showrunner, who was looking for a new project to join when Landis’s script came across his desk. “It was so unique and defied definition in so many ways. It’s indescribable – it’s a thriller, it’s a character drama and it’s funny.

“I loved Max’s voice – it was energetic – and there’s a real pull to doing a short run of episodes. It feels like a long movie – one with a heavily surrealist angle.”

But despite the absurd elements of the source material that carry over into Landis’s scripts, Cooper says it was important to introduce these slowly – at least at the beginning – to give viewers time to warm to the characters.

“While this show definitely has some strange things to it, it’s still grounded,” he explains. “Both Max and I wanted people to fall in love with the characters and feel the world was very real, so as it becomes more unusual, we have these characters to hang on to.”

The expansive cast includes Hannah Marks, Jade Eshete, Michael Eklund, Osric Chau, Viv Leacock, Zak Santiago, Richard Schiff, Neil Brown Jr, Aaron Douglas, Miguel Sandoval, Dustin Milligan, Mpho Koaho and Fiona Dourif.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is based on the books by Douglas Adams

But in particular, it’s lead duo Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings), who plays Todd, to whom the creative team hope viewers will warm as much as they have.

“I cannot imagine other people in those roles,” says BBCA’s Barnett. “Sam and Elijah had this fantastic chemistry. They play so well together. It wasn’t super easy to find our Dirk. We looked for a while but when Sam read, Max said he was the Dirk he had imagined in his head.”

Cooper continues: “From the moment Sam and Elijah were in the room together, we felt there was magic. I have never worked with two people who are so easy, professional and never miss a beat. With so many other challenges, it’s such a pleasure to know the one thing we don’t have to worry about is the leads nailing the dialogue.”

Though the show is packed full of stunts and effects, the other challenges to which Cooper alludes refer largely to the complicated filming schedule in Vancouver, which doubles for the show’s Seattle setting.

“You can bring a certain amount of experience to the table but there are always challenges,” he reflects. “In this case, the show was based in several locations and they were locations that didn’t always recur – and we were doing this in Vancouver, which is incredibly busy [with other film and television productions].

“There’s a tremendous amount of production going on and it’s stretching the capacity and talent in terms of what was doable. There was a point towards the end where Panavision was just out of cameras. You’re literally desperate for crew and it means you pay considerably more.”

David reveals that the creative team wanted to produce a series that celebrated the filmmaking traditions of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) and the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) – an aspiration that led to executive producer Dean Parisot, who helmed the hit sci-fi comedy movie Galaxy Quest, directing the first two episodes. Michael Patrick Jann is also on directing duties.

“Dean famously directed Galaxy Quest and one of the reasons I wanted him to do it was that blend of science-fiction and comedy, of serious and absurd, which is really hard to pull off – but Dean has shown repeatedly that he can do it,” David says. “We’re definitely bringing talent to the game. Max is certainly the lead creator but it was important to him and us that we hired the most talented people we could and that everyone’s vision was integrated.”

The absurdist nature of Adams’ writing leads Cooper to admit adaptations of his work – such as the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – haven’t always been successful, owing to his ideas being “inflammable.” But David, a self-confessed “fanboy” of the author, believes Dirk Gently will have enough to attract those less familiar with Adams’ work.

“We know there’s a specific audience that will turn up for the first few episodes,” he says. “As a fanboy myself, I know we’re making something those people will like. What we’re hoping, though, is that we’ve also made something that has enough intrinsic heart and is funny enough that we won’t be limited to just that community. I’m sure people will say they don’t watch science-fiction but I hope they give us a chance and see we’re much more than that.”

As for BBCA, the network is confident Dirk Gently can break through the vast number of TV shows competing for viewers. “In the intense mountain of content, there’s something smart, moving and really refreshingly different about Dirk Gently and I hope that continues to rub off on how viewers see BBC America,” Barnett notes. “It’s a blend of audacity and pleasure that makes for a unique and entertaining cocktail.”

Cooper adds: “On the surface it looks like a detective show – Sherlock and Watson on a peculiar day – but when people watch, they will see very quickly that it’s something fresh and different, and they’ll have no idea where it’s going.”

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Hornby’s Love lost on BBC1

Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1
Nick Hornby’s Love, Nina is performing below the slot average on BBC1

There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).

It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.

Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”

In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”

As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”

Toby Jones in BBC1's Capital
Toby Jones in BBC1’s Capital

It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”

Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.

As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.

The Secret stars James Nesbitt
ITV’s The Secret stars James Nesbitt

Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.

Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.

The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.

Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle
Frank Spotnitz will no longer be showrunner on The Man in the High Castle

Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.

Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”

Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.

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