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Seeing red

Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale brings Margaret Atwood’s eponymous 1985 novel to the small screen – and it could be the most timely and relevant drama of 2017.

When the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president prompted thousands of people across the US – and the world – to join women’s marches in January this year, it was notable that many were reminded of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Signs reading “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again,” “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual” and “No to the Republic of Gilead” all relayed fears that the rise of the political right in Washington could see America become a totalitarian state comparable to that imagined in Atwood’s 1985 novel – which also shot back up the bestseller lists.

The story is set in Gilead, formerly part of the US but now a republic ruled by religious fundamentalists who treat women as property of the state, against a backdrop of environmental disasters and plunging birthrates. The few remaining fertile women are designated as handmaids to the ruling class and forced into a life of sexual servitude in an attempt to boost the falling population.

Offred, the titular handmaid, must navigate between Commanders, their wives, domestic Marthas and her fellow handmaids, where anyone could be a spy for Gilead, and all with one goal – to survive and find the daughter who was taken from her.

The Handmaid’s Tale stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred

Timely as it might seem now, US SVoD platform Hulu announced the 10-part adaptation of Atwood’s book nine months ago, with the series due to debut on April 26. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, alongside Joseph Fiennes (the Commander), Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen), Samira Wiley (Moira), Max Minghella (Nick) and OT Fagbenle (Luke).

Atwood is a consulting producer on the series, which is exec produced by showrunner Bruce Miller alongside Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears and Warren Littlefield. MGM Television produces and distributes.

Miller was writing the pilot script at the time of the US primaries in 2016 and immediately recognised how relevant the story was more than 30 years after it was published. “I don’t think people are worried that America is going to turn into Gilead,” he says of the protest signs. “Really it ties into the fact people feel like their government is beyond their control and the things that are happening are getting scary and there’s nothing they can do about it.

“People aren’t really attaching themselves to Gilead, they’re attaching themselves to the rebellious spirit under very difficult circumstances. There’s fear attached to it but strangely there’s a lot of optimism and inspiration.”

Miller became a fan of Atwood’s novel during his time at college and says the text inspired him to become a writer. He followed the movement of a potential TV adaptation for several years, to the point where he says Ilene Chaiken was writing a series for US premium cable network Showtime. But when Showtime passed and Hulu picked up the baton, Miller stepped in as showrunner while Chaiken focused on her Fox series Empire.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia

The pitfalls for any writer adapting a “sacred text” such as this may have been off-putting, but Miller’s own love for the story meant he was ideally placed to lead its transition to TV.

“People have paragraphs from this book tattooed on their body!” he says. “This is something people treasure quite a bit, so you have to be mindful of that – but you can’t be a slave to it. Luckily I was one of those people who thought it was a sacred text and I’m thrilled it came out as I had hoped, only better, which is kind of the dream.”

Atwood proved to be a key resource for Miller to lean on, particularly when it came to addressing changes he believed needed to be made for the screen. He says the biggest change was to give Gilead a more diverse population than that in the book, in which the state is strictly a “white world” where people of African-American origin are sent to reservations and Jews are deported to Israel.

“I struggled with that on a few levels,” Miller admits. “That doesn’t look like our world today and I was worried about that. And, honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and a racist TV show? I couldn’t get my mind around that.

“We had a long discussion and my thinking was that in Gilead, fertility trumps everything. So whatever level of racism they had would have been subverted for the ultimate goal of having children. That’s why in the first episode, you see handmaids are all different shapes, sizes and colours.”

Joseph Fiennes joins the high-profile cast as the Commander

Another major change was reducing the ages of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy – the couple who welcome Offred into their home as a handmaid. In the novel they are much older than Offred, but Miller was keen to make them younger to create a new relationship between the female characters. “The dynamic between Serena Joy and Offred is so central that I wanted to make them more direct competitors. What happens to Serena Joy’s identity when this person is in her house and sleeping with her husband? It was a difficult but mindful decision and was made to make sure I had an ongoing, interesting dynamic moving forward.”

In keeping with the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale jumps across multiple timelines, from the present day to Offred’s time at the Red Centre – a handmaid training camp run by ‘Aunts’ – and to a time pre-Gilead, when Offred (then known by her real name, June) is living with her husband Luke and their young daughter.

But the biggest challenge Miller faced during filming in Toronto was maintaining an attention to detail that would shame most period dramas. “I’m very detail-oriented and I don’t want anything to bug me while I’m watching because it knocks me out of the world. But this show was a whole other level of attention to detail,” he says. “If you see a Mercedes car, are we saying Gilead has trade relations with Germany? So what does Germany think about that? Or are we a pariah nation?

“All of a sudden, just by showing someone polishing a car, you’re opening up a political, global trade discussion about human rights. So you really have to pay attention to that on a comical scale.”

Miller also praises lead director Reed Morano, who was behind the camera for the first three episodes, as an “extraordinary talent” who worked tirelessly in pre-production to iron out exactly how she wanted to bring Gilead to life.

The series, which also stars Yvonne Strahovski, debuts next week

Morano was also a fan of the novel – “I’ve always been fascinated by stories of alternate realities, it just creeps me out a lot,” she admits – and won over Hulu and MGM with her sheer passion for the source material. “I read the pilot very early on and, although it has two storytelling devices that are typically red flags to me in flashbacks and voiceover, it’s a testament to Bruce’s writing, to Margaret Atwood and Ilene Chaiken that not only was I not deterred by it, I was inspired by the challenge of subverting expectations with devices that have been used so many times before.”

Stylistically, Morano used a combination of classic camera techniques to capture Gilead, mixing a symmetrical, composed design with a romantic, impressionistic look. She also opted for handheld coverage for Offred and Ofglen to give viewers a more intimate relationship with the handmaids.

Her episodes are also full of directorial flourishes, from overhead shots to slow-motion sequences and even the soundtrack, which uses songs such as Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me and Blondie’s Heart of Glass to maximum effect.

For the flashbacks, Morano was keen to create a contrast between Gilead and pre-Gilead. “I often wanted the flashbacks to be jarring, almost offensive,” she says. “Gilead is so sanitised, reserved and controlled. Then you get thrust into a messy, impressionistic flashback where Moira and June are listening to a loud, graphic song and smoking a joint at a party. If they only saw life in Gilead, it might be easier for the audience to separate themselves from it. But because we’re constantly reminding the audience what life was like before, which is what life is like right now [in reality], it makes the story more emotional and makes it feel like a much more accessible world.”

Colour was also a key consideration for Morano, working in partnership with director of photography Colin Watkinson, costume designer Ane Crabtree and production designer Julie Berghoff. Shades of red were picked out for the handmaids, blue for the wives and green for the domestic servants, known as Marthas. The striking appearance of the show was taken further with the production design, with one notable example being that Serena Joy’s room is nearly the same colour as her clothing, creating a look the director describes as “super weird.”

On set, Morano had hours of conversations with Fiennes and Strahovski about their characters, who have their own sets of problems in Gilead. “At the end of one scene in episode two, you briefly see the Commander in his office by himself and I just thought, ‘Man, it is lonely in Gilead for everyone,’” she says. “Everyone would expect Serena Joy to be the villain but she has all sides to her, which is what makes her so dynamic and her character so unexpected. There is a vulnerability to her that I always saw potential in revealing.”

However, it is star Moss who Morano describes as her “partner in crime.” When not on set together, the pair would constantly exchange messages about the next day’s shoot. “It was a luxury having such an intuitive partner in Lizzie, by my side every day, so we could challenge each other and brainstorm on how to take every scene to the next level,” Morano explains. “Not only being the lead but also a producer, she’s more invested than anybody. The level of dedication she’s put into this series is insane.”

Morano is now prepping her next movie, post-apocalyptic I Think We’re Alone Now, but says The Handmaid’s Tale also feels like a film because her level of involvement, from pre-production to the edit, meant she had a hand on her episodes at every level.

“Film and TV have very different processes but, in my experience, this was the closest it’s been creatively to being on a film,” she adds. “I got lucky enough to be there at the beginning and to be the one to come in and imagine the way the story is told and to create the visual language of the world. In TV, you don’t often get the opportunity to truly put yourself into a project, to put your stamp on it, so I was really grateful for the chance to do that.”

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Williams brothers plot deceitful drama

The Williams brothers
The Williams brothers’ Liars is coming to ITV

Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.

Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.

The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.

Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”

The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.

Das Boot is being adapted as a television series
Das Boot is being adapted as a television series

Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”

As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”

All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.

Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).

Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).

The Heart Goes Last
Rights to The Heart Goes Last have been picked up by MGM Television

The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.

David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”

Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.

MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.

This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s works will be reimagined in Welcome to Hitchcock

Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.

The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”

Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.

The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.

Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.

Dynasty
Dynasty is set to be reborn on The CW

Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.

This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.

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Drama at its peak: Caryn Mandabach on the state of the industry

Peaky Blinders producer Caryn Mandabach explains why she isn’t concerned by the so-called drama glut.

“There aren’t too many novels,” says Caryn Mandabach, the US television producer behind Nurse Jackie and gangster drama Peaky Blinders (pictured above).

She’s responding to a question about whether there’s too much television nowadays, a view expressed by FX Networks chief John Landgraf earlier this summer and one that has played heavily on the minds of broadcasters and creators alike ever since.

In the literary world, the bestsellers stand apart from the rest, and Mandabach views the television industry in the same way.

Mandabach: 'We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told'
Caryn Mandabach: ‘We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told’

“I think the cream will rise to the top,” she says. “I’m always interested in stories and storytelling. I love a narrative that’s told through the medium of a character or characters because I relate to human beings, because I am one. I believe in the power of fiction and I think I’m not alone.

“What’s wonderful about Peaky Blinders is it appeals to young and old. Some things are just for the young, some things are just for the oldies, and if you can have something that crosses the border, that thing should go on forever. That has a depth of meaning. If a book, symphony or piece of art appeals to everybody, you’re connecting on a really deep level. Therefore, it’s like a novel.

“Something that’s wildly appealing is never going to out of style. Maybe the niche stuff might go out of fashion but if it’s appealing to a wide demographic, you’re always going to find something to say.”

From her roots in comedy, Mandabach’s television credits include The Cosby Show, Cybill, 3rd Rock from the Sun and That 70’s Show.

She’s since become known for producing Showtime’s dark comedy-drama Nurse Jackie, while BBC2’s Peaky Blinders – an epic gangster drama created by Steven Knight and set in 1920s Birmingham – is in production on its third season.

“I’m a daughter of a gangster from Chicago so the story of family, class and immigration was 100% mythologically accurate,” Mandabach says of Peaky Blinders. “Britain was yet to mythologise working-class people and Steven always says Americans mythologise cowboys and all they really are is guys who herd cows and horses, but we make a big deal of them. Similarly American gangsters.

“It’s not so much about gangster culture as the combination of the immigrant culture, the British class structure that was hard to break through and the inclination to ‘keep it in the family’ because they’re the only people you can trust. Steve appreciated I knew where he was coming from just on a human level.”

Caryn Mandabach Productions has two offices, one in Santa Monica and the other in London, where Mandabach began to spend more time after recognising the production possibilities offered in the UK, such as being able to retain rights over a series you created instead of handing them over to a US studio.

Nurse Jackie
Showtime drama Nurse Jackie

“That’s why I’m in the UK,” she admits. “We develop high-end drama series because I know how to do television series, and I’d be happy to do minis and one-offs. Because I know the rules here, I’m happy to play here. It’s a wonderful industry with lots of wonderful people.”

Mandabach is now developing shows for US cable channels, streaming platforms and broadcasters in the UK, and says she “couldn’t be happier” with the opportunities currently available to produce television.

In October, Caryn Mandabach Productions inked a multi-year deal with MGM Television (Fargo, Vikings) to produce hour-long and half-hour scripted series.

“The indie film industry has fallen away in both the UK and the US and, as a result, high-end extraordinary talent is now coming to TV,” she says. “Steven Knight writes movies and television. It doesn’t matter to him and it doesn’t matter to the actors. It shouldn’t matter to the audience.

“As a community of producers and writers, actors and directors, we don’t care any more. Steve is writing three movies – Peaky Blinders is six hours, that’s three movies for the BBC and for Netflix. That’s the way we treat it. The love and the passion of everyone involved – I haven’t seen the likes of it before.”

Mandabach says she is now working on new shows with writers including Craig Wright (Dirty Sexy Money), Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies) and Michael Thomas (The Devil’s Double), and has three projects at Sky and another with Sony’s international networks. But she admits she doesn’t worry about the competition to get commissions or where viewers might have to go to find her shows.

“It doesn’t matter where they are – people will find you now. You could be anywhere in the world watching Peaky Blinders, and that is a much more interesting game,” she says. “We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told.”

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