Tag Archives: National Geographic Channel

Out of this world

The Red Planet is the setting for National Geographic Channel’s ground-breaking new series Mars. DQ meets the cast and director as well as the author of the book that inspired this visionary docudrama.

The dusty deserts of Morocco, littered with red and black rocks, have long served scientists as a suitable setting to recreate the desolate landscapes of Mars.

So when National Geographic announced plans for a six-part docudrama that sends the first crewed mission to the Red Planet, it was only natural that the North African country would be chosen as the filming location.

Set in both the future and the present day, the simply titled Mars combines scripted drama with documentary sequences and talking heads to tell the story of mankind’s quest to colonise the planet.

In 2033, the crew of the spacecraft Daedalus set off on their mission to Mars. Their story is presented against the present-day quest to reach the planet, shown through interviews and documentary footage featuring scientists and innovators who are leading research to make such a mission possible in the future.

The series is based on the book How We’ll Live on Mars, written by Stephen Petranek, who was approached by RadicalMedia’s Jon Kamen about optioning the rights before it was published. Nat Geo then stepped in to fund the project, which mirrors the book’s exploration of a fictitious future mission to Mars set against real-life science and research that could prove to be the first steps towards making such an ambition possible.

“They were very dedicated from the beginning to get everything right and make sure it could be real,” Petranek says. “That was an important part of the drama and is what makes it very different from being fiction, because it’s anchored in reality. There’s nothing you see on screen that makes me uncomfortable it couldn’t happen. In fact, it’s very probable.

“This is the greatest adventure anyone will undertake in our lifetimes. It’s like going to the Moon, magnified 1,000 times. That’s literally true. It’s a thousand times farther than the Moon, it’s a thousand times more difficult to do, yet we’ve had the technology to do this for probably 30 years. It’s just that nobody has chosen to do it.”

Mars is executive produced by Brian Grazer alongside Ron Howard, who has been into space before as the director of 1995 feature film Apollo 13. Kamen, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg and Robert Palumbo also executive produce for Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia.

And it was Kamen and then Howard who headhunted Everado Gout (Days of Grace) to helm the series. But the Mexican director said he would only take charge if he could make “Das Boot on Mars” – a drama that focused on the human beings endeavouring to reach the Red Planet, rather than the rockets that would take them there.

“If last year they’d told me I would do something about space, I would have laughed,” Gout says. “I love astronomy, I love watching the stars. Every day I try to look at the stars and I teach my daughter to look at the stars, if only to put things in perspective. If you look to the heavens, it puts whatever problems you might have in perspective.

The Moroccan desert doubled as the Red Planet
The Moroccan desert doubled as the Red Planet

“Green screens aren’t usually my thing but this sounded really interesting, partly because of Stephen’s book, and we embarked on this journey. I had [the audiobook] on a loop every time I was location scouting all over the world looking for our Mars. It was such a fantastic revelation to hear him talk about it and, at the same time, to look out at the landscapes and start forming the bigger picture of where it could be.”

Pre-production was “brutal,” however, if only due to the amount of Mars-related information Gout had to absorb before he felt comfortable with the subject matter.

He continues: “We’re used to seeing shows with spaceships that are huge and luxurious and have showers. That’s not the truth. We’re sending six people to Mars in a tin can like we did when we went to the Moon. They’re going to be floating for six or eight months to get there and it’s going to be brutal. They will be filled with radiation, stress and other problems, and that makes great drama. That’s what I’m interested in.”

Filming for the interior scenes took place on sound stages in Budapest, while Morocco was the perfect choice to replicate Mars.

“We picked part of the desert close to Algiers, where nobody has ever shot before, but NASA has tested their rovers there so it made absolute sense,” the director notes.

“And because it’s Nat Geo, I wanted to have more than one look for Mars. These astronauts will explore different landscapes – where they set up and then the mountains and deserts. That makes it sexier for everyone and Morocco gave us that opportunity.”

Musician Jihae plays identical twins in the show
Musician Jihae plays identical twins in the show

And, as if a space drama playing out on the surface of the Red Planet wasn’t challenging enough, Gout says the structure of the docudrama proved to be his biggest headache as the creative team looked for a way to seamlessly merge fiction with fact. The series comprises about 80% drama and 20% documentary.

“That was a truly special recipe we had to invent for this show so one hand fits the other,” he explains. “You are entertained by the drama and then get your facts right and that propels you through the story. That was the biggest challenge but I think it sings – it’s beautiful. It’s really organic and it flows from one to the other. You aren’t jarred by the documentary segments, you feel engaged. Everything the documentary is doing is expanding your mind so you can enjoy the drama. It’s a really nice balance.”

Petranek cuts in: “They reinforce each other. The drama gives you visualisation and the documentary gives credibility to the drama. They feed back and forth on each other. You can’t imagine what it’s like just from the facts and the talking heads but they can make the drama seem real.”

The drama, which is scored by Nick Cave, was often real enough for the cast, who had to shoot in the sweltering Moroccan heat while wearing space suits as they played out scenes set on Mars.

“I’d never been to Morocco so standing out in the desert was just so incredible,” says actor Ben Cotton. “There was a moment partway through shooting where we had to hike around and with the helmet on, it’s hard to breathe and it’s too hot. You just think, ‘Why aren’t we doing this on a green screen?’ But then you look around and you know why. The authenticity is amazing.”

Cotton plays American mission commander Ben Sawyer, the leader of the six-strong crew sent to Mars aboard the Daedalus. Travelling with him is Korean-American mission pilot Hana Seung, played by musician Jihae in her first screen role. She also plays Hana’s twin sister Joon, the capsule communicator who is left on Earth as part of the Mars Mission Corporation control team based in London.

“The story is about the first manned journey to Mars to colonise the planet,” Cotton explains. “So what they’ve done is create a wonderful story that has some of the possible troubles and successes we might go through on a real mission to Mars, so there’s a lot of drama, and some romance involved.”

Jihae continues: “Ben as the commander is our gang leader. As a team we really revere him and his passion that we all share. This isn’t just exploration – we’re doing this as a sacrifice and taking a one-way ticket out of here. There’s nothing glamorous about it. Every moment of our journey is fighting for survival.

“I’m so excited about this show, and not only because it’s genre-breaking with one of the best filmmakers around and the most amazing network. Personally, I’m also really sick and tired of the amount of violence I have to see in anything I appreciate. There are shows and movies I really like but I really can’t stand the violence and the gratuitous sex. There’s no other show that really merges science and entertainment. Enough of the Kardashians – give us more knowledge. Let’s celebrate that more.”

Left to right: Stars Jihae, Ben Cotton and Clementine Poidatz at Mipcom last month
Left to right: Stars Jihae, Ben Cotton and Clementine Poidatz at Mipcom last month

Jihae carried out research for her dual role as identical twins and helped to create a backstory for Hana and Joon, which is explained in further detail in a scripted prequel series called Before Mars. http://dramaquarterly.com/highlights/journey-towards-mars/

“[Showing the twins on screen together is] something they do with technology,” she says. “But the biggest challenge was starting with one character and going to the next and then going back to the first one.

“As far as defining the differences between the two characters, I started coming up with a backstory for each from their childhood all the way up to their present day, 2033 – considering everything from which one would come when mother called them for dinner and who would still be playing with a model rocket, to which one was more popular, their different personalities, who had more boys at school, who was more studious. It was a challenge but an exciting one.”

Mars – which launches in the US on November 14 and will air in 171 countries and in 45 languages – is a thrill ride, Jihae adds. “I don’t think there’s any other show in the world where you can mix science and entertainment the way they do. You get so much out of it.”

Gout also believes the show’s appeal lies in its factual grounding, with contributors to the factual segments including Petranek, former astronaut Charles Bolden, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, The Martian author Andy Weir and NASA scientist Jennifer Heldmann.

Revealing that Mars has been designed as a returnable series, the director concludes: “It’s about people; I want to see how they suffer and bleed and sweat. And if it works, it’s just the beginning of a greater adventure.”

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Journey towards Mars

Drama on National Geographic Channel will go out of this world with the launch of Mars later this year. As DQ’s Digital Drama Season concludes, National Geographic Channel’s Andy Baker discusses the show’s online drama spin-off Before Mars.

While television networks are embracing the internet as a place for viewers to catch up on single episodes or whole seasons of a particular show, there are few examples where they have launched a series entirely online.

Following its move online, former terrestrial channel BBC3 launched psychological drama Thirteen across the digital airwaves, while NBC dropped every episode of the first season of Aquarius online following its network debut.

Mars airs on National Geographic Channel later this year

Until now, broadcasters have largely used the digital space as a way to extend their programmes online, either through bonus footage or mini-episodes, otherwise known as webisodes.

One example is Flight 462, a 16-part miniseries that aired on AMC.com ahead of the second season of Fear The Walking Dead, focusing on a group of survivors onboard a plane in the earliest moments of the outbreak.

In 2013, the BBC also dropped a mini-episode of its hit drama Sherlock, while sci-fi favourites Doctor Who and Heroes have also extended their stories online. The latter launched five batches of webisodes between 2008 and 2009.

National Geographic Channel is now using the same tactics for its groundbreaking drama Mars. Set in both the future and the present day, the six-part series will use a blend of drama and documentary sequences to imagine the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033.

Andy Baker
Andy Baker

But ahead of its debut this November, when it will air in 171 countries and 45 languages, Nat Geo has also produced its first ever web series that will serve as an online prequel to the main event.

Set in the present day, Before Mars introduces twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung – central characters in Mars – as young girls struggling to fit into their new school in a small rural town. Joon discovers an old ham radio in the attic and eventually develops a long-distance radio friendship with a female astronaut who has grown homesick while serving on the International Space Station. While the friendship between Joon and the astronaut grows stronger, Hana begins to thrive at school and makes her own friends on Earth.

Before Mars is produced by Variable, with executive producer Tyler Ginter and director Lloyd Lee Choi. Mars comes from Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, with executive producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg, Jon Kamen and Robert Palumbo.

“The way content is consumed now, it’s not just linear TV,” says Andy Baker, senior VP and group creative director of National Geographic Channels. “Things are online, whether it’s YouTube, Amazon or Hulu. We wanted to create something to support that show that they can watch on different devices.

“Very early on, as we started to look at stories and plots for Before Mars, we found we had these two characters in Mars, which is set in 2033. But what motivated them to become these pioneers that would land on Mars [back in] 2016 when they are young teenagers? What inspired them and motivated them to take this giant leap for mankind?”

 Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars
Before Mars looks at the back stories of the two main characters in Mars

Baker reveals the creative team read through dozens of potential scripts and storylines for Before Mars. “It was pretty wide open,” he says. “The characters are shown 15 to 20 years earlier than the main story. It starts with Hana on the launch pad. She’s looking back at this one moment in her life so we wanted to make something that lived up to that. There’s a lot of opportunity and options. We wanted to tell a story people enjoy and has a bit of nostalgia to it. We just wanted to write something that feels compelling, interesting, relatable and emotional for the audience.”

With Joon and Hana set as the focal point of Before Mars, the writers were tasked with coming up with a backstory for them that would become an origin story for their relationship in Mars.

“We wanted to create a fairly simple story,” Baker explains. “We’re making a shortform digital series, so we wanted to tell one moment in time from their youth. But you don’t need to watch Mars to appreciate Before Mars. It’s just a shorter piece of content around that same subject.

“In the series, Hana goes to Mars and Joon stays behind. That same theme is in the prequel when one sister goes on a big adventure while the other stays behind, so their personalities become clear.”

Like Mars, Before Mars also comprises six parts, though the running time for the web series is still to be determined ahead of its October launch.

“As we got into the story, the running time got a little bit longer,” Baker admits. “It will total 40 to 45 minutes and each episode will be six to nine minutes. One of the best things about creating a digital series is that running time takes a back seat. You don’t have to cut it a certain way. Longer or shorter is OK as long as it’s compelling storytelling.”

Baker says the look and tone of Before Mars will differ from the main series, simply because one is set on Earth in the present day and the other is in the future on another planet. However, scripts from Mars were used to inform the prequel and ensure the character’s featured remained consistent throughout.

Ultimately, though, whether on terrestrial TV or online, he says the success of any project comes down to the story. “There’s such a proliferation of great content that the single most important focus is to tell a great story, whatever length that might be or wherever the show is consumed,” Baker notes.

National Geographic is pushing further into TV drama next year with Genius, an anthology series that will feature the story of Albert Einstein in season one. Before then, however, viewers will get to journey to Mars in what Baker describes as “the biggest series ever that we have launched.”

He adds: “We’re excited and hope everyone enjoys the story. We’re in the middle of the rough cuts but we’re really excited by where it’s going.”

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Hulu tells Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale has previously been made into a feature film
The Handmaid’s Tale has previously been made into a feature film

Inevitably, the current TV drama boom has resulted in a lot of formulaic, derivative and half-baked series. But that has to be balanced against the impressive ambition of the industry.

This week, for example, Hulu announced that it has commissioned an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The only bad news about this is that it didn’t come two years ago so it could help my daughter with her English exams.

Written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale centres on Offred, a reproductive slave who lives in the male-dominated totalitarian regime of Gilead. In Hulu’s TV version, Offred will be played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake), with Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, and Warren Littlefield serving as executive producers (Wilson was also the producer of a 1990 film version of the story).

The adaptation will be written by Bruce Miller (The 100), with Atwood also on hand as a consulting producer.

Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu, said: “Hulu has established itself as a home for blockbuster television events and what better way to expand our originals offering than with a series based on this acclaimed, best-selling novel? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was seen as ahead of its time and we look forward to bringing it to life on our platform.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is produced by MGM TV and marks the first collaboration on an original series between Hulu and MGM. It will go into production later this year and will premiere in 2017. In a joint statement, MGM’s Mark Burnett, president, television and digital group, and Steve Stark, president, television development and production, said: “The Handmaid’s Tale is a project we have been committed to bringing to life as its story remains as powerful today as it did when Margaret first published her novel. It has inspired a film, a graphic novel, an opera, a ballet and, finally, for the first time, a compellingly immersive drama series.”

Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)
Elisabeth Moss will play lead character Offred (photo by Flickr user Dominick D)

Attwood added: “I am thrilled MGM and Hulu are developing The Handmaid’s Tale as a series, and extra thrilled that Elisabeth Moss will be playing the central character. The Handmaid’s Tale is more relevant now than when it was written, and I am sure the series will be watched with great interest.”

This week’s other big story is that National Geographic Channel has greenlit its first scripted series (as opposed to docuseries or miniseries), with the first episode to be directed by Ron Howard.

The plan is for the show, called Genius, to be a multi-season anthology series, with a different subject in each run. The first season, based on Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, will be adapted by Noah Pink. Production is expected to begin this summer in Prague and the series will premiere on Nat Geo in 171 countries.

Genius is being made by Fox 21 TV Studios, Imagine TV, OddLot and EUE/Sokolow. Fox 21 president Bert Salke said: “Genius is a franchise with infinite possibilities. We think this instalment, which tells the fascinating back-story of the man who articulated the theory of relativity, is just the beginning of a long and successful partnership between our companies.”

Howard said the show will be “an ambitious but intimate and revealing human story behind Einstein’s scientific brilliance,” adding: “I hope his story, as well as those of other geniuses, will entertain and inspire the next generation of Einsteins.”

Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel's first full drama series
Albert Einstein will be the subject of National Geographic Channel’s first full drama series

Meanwhile, the migration of movie heavyweights into TV continues apace. Last week, it was Mel Gibson, and this week it’s Sylvester Stallone, who is set to star in a TV adaptation of Mario Puzo mafia novel Omerta (Puzo is best-known as the author of The Godfather).

The drama has yet to be attached to any network, but with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) also on board as director, it presumably won’t be too long before that is sorted out. Omerta was published after Puzo’s death and had its fair share of critics. However, the halo effect of The Godfather will prove appealing to would-be suitors who can use it as a marketing hook.

While Hulu has stolen this week’s headlines, the other SVoD platforms have also been in the news. Netflix, for example, has ordered a second season of its new Ashton Kutcher comedy The Ranch – just a few weeks after the first season premiered. Set in modern-day Colorado, the series stars Kutcher as a failed semi-professional football player who returns home to manage the family ranch. There will be 20 episodes in the second season.

Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta
Sylvester Stallone will star in the TV adaptation of Omerta

Meanwhile, Deadline reports that John Krasinski (The Office) will play the title role in a new Amazon series based on Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan. The new series, created by showrunner Carlton Cuse and writer Graham Roland, is reported to be “a new contemporary take on the character in his prime as a CIA analyst/operative, using the novels as source material.” For Amazon, the franchise will sit neatly alongside Bosch.

Finally, US indie studio IM Global has unveiled a slate of new TV projects this week. The company, which first got into the TV business in 2014, is working on five titles including Muscle Shoals, a project that has been in development for a while with partners Johnny Depp and Virgin Produced.

The other titles on the slate are I Rebel, LD50, The Lesser Dead and Planetoid. The Lesser Dead is an acclaimed vampire-themed novel from Christopher Buehlman, while Planetoid is a graphic novel first released in June 2012 by Image Comics. Written and drawn by Ken Garing, it focuses on Silas, a space pirate who crashes onto a planetoid where he must fight off various mechanical creatures, cyborgs and aliens.

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Overmyer and Fisher board the Mayflower

Seth Fisher has teamed with Eric Overmyer on Saints and Strangers
Seth Fisher has teamed with Eric Overmyer on Saints and Strangers

National Geographic Channel announced a star-studded cast for its upcoming four-hour miniseries Saints and Strangers this week. The story of the Mayflower pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, it will feature the likes of Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), Michael Jibson (Hatfields & McCoys), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Natascha McElhone (Californication) and Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers).

The original script for the miniseries was written by Chip Johannessen (Homeland), with revisions by Walon Green (Killing Jesus). But the final version is in the hands of Eric Overmyer and Seth Fisher, a combination that promises a mix of experience and innovation.

Overmyer, the senior partner, has a lengthy list of credits that includes Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order and The Wire. In all of these productions, he came on board when the projects were up and running as a writer/consulting producer. However, he has also proved his ability to set up high-profile series from scratch. He was, for example, co-creator of HBO’s Treme, which explored post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. More recently, he developed the Amazon original series Bosch, pulling together talent he had worked with on The Wire, Law & Order, Treme and Boardwalk Empire (another credit).

Fisher is a different proposition. 30 years Overmyer’s junior, he is best known as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, a movie that explores a New York City family’s reactions to the sudden death of famous playwright Harold Blumenthal. Part of a new generation of can-do creative entrepreneurs, Fisher accompanied the production of Blumenthal with a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com. As the blog’s fanbase increased, Fisher launched a crowdfunding campaign that helped make Blumenthal a reality. The novelty of his approach will bring an interesting energy to the NGC project.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 (C4) in the UK has announced plans for a 12-month project aimed at developing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writing talent. C4 is working on the project with Acme Films, which will oversee a competitive development process. At the start, Acme will review a number of ideas submitted by writers for series aimed at C4 or its digital sister channel E4. Acme will choose eight for a pitch-development process. Of these, four will progress to a second phase, which will require them to write draft scripts and a series outline. This process will lead to two finalists, which will go through a further development phase with a view to creating an original series.

Channel 4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis
Channel 4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis

The initiative is called Studio4 and is part of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter, which it launched in January. The aim of the scheme is to launch the careers of five new writers from diverse backgrounds. Commenting on the scheme, C4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis said Studio4 would be an opportunity for BAME writers to “fast-track their ideas with script commissions with regular support from experienced writers, script editors and producers as well as the commissioners at Channel 4.”

In a related move, Channel 4 has also hooked up two writers from ethnic backgrounds with leading prodcos Lime Pictures and Red Production Company. Nuzhat Ali and Sharma Walfall picked up the C4 and Northumbria University Writing for Television gong at the recent Northern Writers’ Awards. As a prize, they will take up 10-month placements with Lime and Red, which will school them in script commissioning.

As part of its efforts to instil a diverse culture at the broadcaster, C4 has also appointed Nina Bhagwat as its off-screen diversity executive, while Ramy El-Bergamy has been brought in to address the issue of diversity on-screen.

Back in the US, Deadline reported this week that Criminal Minds executive producer/writer Janine Sherman Barrois has signed an overall deal at Warner Bros Television to create and develop new drama and comedy series. Barrois, whose previous credits include Third Watch and ER, is also a judge on the Writers Guild of America’s Writers Access Project, which was set up to identify diversity writers.

A more expansive version of the C4 scheme outlined above, the WGA Access project is designed to open up opportunities for writers from five categories: minorities, the disabled, women, people aged 55 and over, and gay and lesbian writers. WGA members are invited to enter a piece of material and, if they get through the judging process, their work will be presented to showrunners and other hiring executives for their consideration in the upcoming television staffing season.

Among the week’s most interesting project announcements, Virgin Produced and City Entertainment have teamed up with Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski’s Infinitum Nihil to produce a new drama series based on the acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals. Greg Camalier, who directed and produced the doc, will produce the television adaption, while Virgin Produced exec VP of production Rene Rigal will oversee the project alongside Infinitum Nihil’s Bobby DeLeon. Like the documentary, the series will explore the south through its “colourful characters, cultural and political history and southern gothic settings, which became a melting pot of diverse musical and cultural traditions.”

Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced, said: “Greg’s film unearthed the poetic mysticism and inspired us to produce a series that utilises music and narrative in a unique and ground-breaking way. This provocative story about the rich region and pioneering artists that birthed the iconic Muscle Shoals sound fits in with Virgin’s music roots and provides an ideal opportunity to partner with Depp, Infinitum and City Entertainment.”

As yet, no writer, cast or broadcaster has been named for the project, which is part of Virgin Produced’s expansion out of film production into TV.

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