Tag Archives: National Geographic

Long story

Best known as the scheming Doug Stamper in House of Cards, Michael Kelly heads into battle for his latest role. He tells DQ about how he was inspired to play a real life war hero in National Geographic’s The Long Road Home.

He’s not the first actor to play a real person on screen, but you’d be hard pushed to find someone who felt as much pressure to do justice to his role as Michael Kelly.

The House of Cards star takes the lead in National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home, which tells the story of Black Sunday, when a small platoon of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were ferociously ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad, in April 2004. Eight Americans were killed and more than 65 seriously wounded.

The series, which launches in the US tonight, is based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account of the events, adapted by showrunner and executive producer Mikko Alanne. Kelly plays Lt Col Gary Volesky (now Gen Volesky), the incoming battalion commander who was in his first hours of assuming authority over Sadr City as the battle broke out.

“It’s so fucking stressful,” he admits of playing someone who is still alive, still in active military service and “respected by his men like no one I’d ever seen before. So I felt a serious weight on my shoulders to do it as best I could. The more I learned about Gary and the more I heard about Gary from his men, the pressure became greater and greater.”

Michael Kelly (left) with the real Gen Gary Volesky, whom he plays in the Long Road Home

That pressure weighed more heavily once Kelly met a group of soldiers who had fought with Volesky. “They just looked me up and down with disdain and said, ‘Some tall shoes to fill, buddy. You better be ready.’ I was like, ‘Guys, it’s fucking hard enough. Give me a break.’

“So the pressure grew and grew but, when I met him, I wanted to capture the essence of who he is and why he was a true leader among his men. That was my true goal; I just wanted to capture that guy. I did the best I could. He was incredible.”

Kelly first met Volensky at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, the home of the 1st Calvary Division and where The Long Road Home was filmed, with a training field transformed into the Sadr City set. The actor and the real Volesky walked and talked together for a while until the general was told his car was waiting.

“He put his arm on my shoulder and was like, ‘Come on,’” The actor recalls. “He walked me over to this field and said, ‘What do you want to know? You’ve got to have some questions.’ I was able to ask him some things that I wanted to know. It was great, man. Having met him, I got it. I had him on a pedestal in my mind and when I met him, it got even higher. I understood very quickly what all of those men who served under him meant when they said those were big shoes to fill. I knew it, but then you meet him and you really know.”

The series was filmed on real-life military base Fort Hood in Texas

Kelly had just finished a six-month House of Cards shoot when was offered the chance to play Volesky, moving his family’s spring break vacation to ensure he was available for filming. And his sense of responsibility to play the role the best he could was shared by the rest of the cast, among them EJ Bonilla, Noel Fisher and Jeremy Sisto.

Living together on the base, the cast also bonded during a pre-production training camp, which saw them on set wearing military gear, carrying rifles and learning how to clear buildings.

“We all loved it,” Kelly says. “Everyone felt the same way– let’s get this right. Because it’s a true story and because we lost men over there, let’s tell it the best we can. And Nat Geo gave us that platform and the US Army gave us that platform. Martha Raddatz gave us that platform. Having everything at your disposal to do the best job you can… if you don’t, you’re kind of a dick. You’re a real ass.”

Filming The Long Road Home was “insane,” Kelly adds, recalling one scene where he is in a Humvee rolling through Sadr City, passing a burning automobile and being fired upon by enemy fighters hidden among the rooftops. “Another time, my Humvee got stuck and the insurgents were coming at us,” he says. “There were bed frames and a car and all these things the insurgents had put in the street to try and block our passage, and this Bradley [armoured vehicle] rolls by and just ploughs through all this shit and it’s on fire. Shit just goes flying – it was crazy.”

The Long Road Home also focuses on the soldiers’ families back home

Thirteen years on from the real situation portrayed in the show, Kelly believes now is the right time to tell the story of The Long Road Home, with events far enough in the distance that they are no longer fresh but recent enough to invite reflection upon what happened. “It’s also a good reminder, at least with our story, of the true consequences and casualties of war,” he says, noting the way the series – distributed internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution – not only focuses on the traumas experienced by those on the battlefield but also examines the reverberations felt at home.

“When you see the mum and dad who are never going to see their kid again, or the wife who’s never going to see her husband again, or the unborn child who’s never going to meet their dad – that’s why this series is so special, because you’re on the base with the families and then it cuts right to a guy lighting up shit out of a Humvee. I think that’s what I loved so much about this one.”

Kelly is speaking to DQ during last month’s Mipcom, two weeks before a string of sexual misconduct allegations were made against House of Cards star Kevin Spacey. Netflix subsequently announced the forthcoming sixth season of the political drama would be its last, before suspending production entirely the very next day and then severing all ties with Spacey. The series won’t be back with its former star.

But regardless of when the political drama returns, assuming Netflix doesn’t shelve the final season entirely, it will always be the show that launched the SVoD platform into the original series business and helped to change television – both how it’s watched and how it’s made – forever.

Kelly in Netflix’s House of Cards

Kelly says “not in a million years” did anyone foresee the impact House of Cards would have when it first launched in 2013, admitting that he struggled to understand why they would launch all 13 episodes at once.

“They were like, ‘Yes, that’s how the audience wants to watch television,’” recalls the actor, who plays Doug Stamper, chief of staff for Spacey’s Frank Underwood. “[Director/executive producer] David Fincher showed me a rough cut of episode one and my manager said, ‘How was it?’ I said, ‘We’re making something special. I don’t know if anyone’s going to see it.’ It was so good. It wasn’t like television; it looked like a movie. But I didn’t know if anyone was going to see it, because what was streaming then?

“That was five years ago, now look. I never dreamt it would change so quickly. What it did was create a platform for people to make very filmic production for television – and look at everyone who’s followed suit. It’s just incredible. And National Geographic is doing it, and has done it, with Genius, which was critically acclaimed [and heading into its second season]. I can only hope this one is too. Everyone’s willing to jump in the game wholeheartedly and not half-ass it. It’s a great time to be an actor.”

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The Long way round

The true story of a US Army unit ambushed in Iraq is dramatised in National Geographic limited series The Long Road Home. Showrunner Mikko Alanne discusses adapting Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction novel and filming at the base where the real soldiers were stationed.

When The Long Road Home debuts on National Geographic, it will be the end of Mikko Alanne’s nine-year journey to bring the story of Black Sunday to the screen. During that time, the project evolved from a three-hour movie to an eight-hour limited series that will air in 171 countries around the world and in 45 languages.

The military drama recalls the events that began on April 4, 2004, when members of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were ambushed in Sadr City, Baghdad. Based on Martha Raddatz’s non-fiction account, it crosses between the soldiers fighting for their lives and their families waiting at home for news of their loved ones and fearing the worst.

Mikko Alanne

It was executive producer Mike Medavoy who first sent Alanne the book, which the latter describes as “one of the most incredible, astonishing reports” he has ever read. He was particularly drawn to the equal weight given to the soldiers’ struggle in Baghdad and the plight of the families left behind at Fort Hood military base in Texas.

“It also took place a month after President Bush declared ‘mission accomplished,’ so there was a real sense that this was going to be a peacekeeping mission,” creator and showrunner Alanne explains of the real-life situation.

“Families are always anxious when [loved ones are] deployed to a war zone, but Sadr City had been virtually without incident for the first year of the occupation so was unofficially known as the safest place in Iraq. Then suddenly CNN breaks the story [of the ambush] before the army even has a chance to notify anyone on base, and it throws everyone’s life into chaos. I felt for the first time I really understood what the experience is like for the American military family, and that’s what I wanted to convey.”

Having initially pitched the story as a movie, Alanne spent time interviewing the real people involved. But once Nat Geo came on board, he found he was able to tell a far richer and more detailed story than he ever could have told on the big screen. The series follows events in real time in Iraq and on the home front, with each episode adopting the perspective of a particular soldier.

That’s not the only storytelling flourish in The Long Road Home, however, which attempts to put a wedge between itself and the slew of other military series – CBS’s SEAL Team, NBC’s The Brave and The CW’s Valor – on US television this autumn by also jumping backwards and forwards in time.

The show shifts to moments before the soldiers were deployed, one soldier’s previous tour of Kosovo and the life of the unit’s Iraqi interpreter during the first year of the US occupation, in an episode that is partly filmed in Arabic. “So even as we tell the story in real time, it has a unique structure that will illuminate what the experience is like [in a way] that no one has attempted to do before, certainly for television,” Alanne says.

The Long Road Home depicts the real-life Iraq War events known as Black Sunday

The emergence of limited series in US TV by 2015 – when Nat Geo put the show into development – certainly helped to land a deal for The Long Road Home, while the showrunner believed at that time, four years after the official end of the Iraq War, the US would be ready to re-examine it. To this end, he says the series is a microcosm of the entire conflict.

“All the essential lessons, tragedy and hope are in this story of this one day,” he explains. “This day also marks the beginning of the insurgency in Southern Iraq from which comes the collapse of the Iraqi state and the birth of ISIS. It also sparked the beginning of the modern anti-war movement in America, so it was a unique event – something that really became evident more in retrospect.”

Adapting Raddatz’s book for TV, Alanne’s first challenge was to condense the 60 characters that readers get to know. The early stages of scriptwriting then centred on finding natural break points for each episode, while trying to find a complementary way to pass back and forth between scenes set in Iraq and the US without disrupting the story. But the biggest challenge came when he had to find themes to pull each episode together.

“In looking at what each of these soldiers struggled with and what defined their experience as a soldier, I wanted that to be the frame for that hour,” he says about plotting the series, which is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. One episode focuses on staff sergeant Robert Miltenberger (played by Jeremy Sisto), who had a very strong premonition he was going to die in battle.

“So when gunfire started hitting the back of his truck, he just calmly moved and gave aid to his soldiers, saved the lives of three guys and was never touched by a bullet once, even though he was certain he was going to die. So if his hour is thematically about fate, how is that same idea reflected in other characters? That was one of the organising principles I started to think about.”

L-R: Roland Buck, Noel Fisher, showrunner Alanne, Jorge Diaz and Ian Quinlan on set

Another episode focuses on stranded platoon leader Shane Aguero (EJ Bonilla), who stood out to Alanne due to his love of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. “It’s just a completely different kind of portrait to what you think a young lieutenant looks like, so I always knew I wanted his point of view,” the showrunner says. “We also feature lieutenant colonel Garry Volesky (Michael Kelly), the battalion commander who led the rescue effort, and captain Troy Denomy (Jason Ritter, pictured top), who physically led the first rescue into the city, so all of these people would give us points of view from different command levels.”

Alanne says it was always his dream to be able to film the ‘home front’ scenes in Fort Hood – featuring Kate Bosworth as Denomy’s wife Gina and Sarah Wayne Callies as Volesky’s wife LeAnn – to ensure the fact-based drama was as authentic as possible. As it transpired, the entire series was shot in Fort Hood, with the production taking over one of the training sites at the military base to turn it into Sadr City.

More than 80 buildings were constructed and 35 redesigned to create the Baghdad district’s main streets, including the alley where the army unit is pinned down by insurgents. Videos and photographs taken by Raddatz and soldiers at the time were used to recreate the location, while each episode also has up to 200 visual effects to create views beyond street level.

“We were filming on the 13th anniversary [of the real events] earlier this year and, as fate had it, we were filming the goodbye scene at Cooper Field [where families say goodbye to departing soldiers],” Alanne recalls. “We invited a lot of veterans to come to filming and see the set, and for both cast and crew it was one of the most meaningful things to have the real people there, many of whom got to meet the actors portraying them. There was something poetic about the fact everyone was anxious to see filming but no one had really wanted to see battles recreated where their sons or husbands were hurt or killed.

“One of the most affecting things for me was when I came to Austin and the costume department had been empty for several weeks. Once I came back it was full of uniforms from 2004, which don’t exist anymore, so we had to make them. I remember it really struck you to see all the characters names [on the uniforms] and it was just a reminder that real people wore these uniforms. For the families seeing hundreds of soldiers in the field and having their farewell ceremony recreated, I can understand why it would feel surreal. It felt surreal to me.”

The entire series was filmed on location at Fort Hood, Texas

With a background as a documentary and fact-based filmmaker (The 33, Voice of Dissent), it’s no surprise Alanne brought some of those techniques to The Long Road Home. He sought out interviews with all the principal soldiers and their families as he wanted to keep dramatisation in the series to a bare minimum, save for universal truths about soldiers or elements that would give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters.

“I have always found that nothing is as fascinating to me as real life,” he admits. “I also know that when people watch films and TV shows based on true stories, they assume they’re getting the true story. We can say there’s dramatisation, but the expectation is that what you’re seeing on screen is true. That’s something I take very seriously.”

Because the series will air on National Geographic around the world from November 7, the showrunner was also keen to look at the Iraqi perspective of events, understanding where the insurgency originated from and how ordinary citizens in Sadr felt about the events portrayed.

“We wanted this to be the definitive portrait in this one day of the war,” he concludes. “When you hear the stories the soldiers tell on screen, they feel real because they are real. It’s a unique challenge to stitch together real-life stories and still make them fit a dramatic frame, but that’s always been the most exciting creative challenge for me in telling real stories.”

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TCA tour de force from US series

Starz has renewed The Girlfriend Experience, based on the film by Steven Soderbergh
Starz has renewed The Girlfriend Experience, based on the film by Steven Soderbergh

The lazy summer month of August doesn’t seem like an obvious time for new scripted commissions ABC, Starz and National Geographicto be announced. But it’s actually pretty active in the US, thanks to the Television Critics’ Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour.

For a couple of weeks, network execs give the media a frank and detailed insight into some of their plans for the coming year.

ABC, for example, has given a straight-to-series order to Ten Days in the Valley, a 10-part drama series that plays out over a 10-day period. Produced by Skydance and created by Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue), the series focuses on a television producer and single mother whose young daughter goes missing in the middle of the night. The show was originally set up with Demi Moore in mind but the lead will now be The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick.

The show is reportedly part of ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey’s ambition to re-introduce more procedural dramas into the network’s schedule. If that is the case, it will be welcomed by European buyers, who have been complaining about the lack of decent procedurals coming out of the US.

NGC's eight-hour miniseries The Long Road Home
NGC’s eight-hour miniseries The Long Road Home

Premium pay TV channel Starz has also used the TCA tour to unveil plans for a number of shows, one of which we referenced in last week’s Writers Room column (Pussy Valley). Another greenlight announcement is a second season of The Girlfriend Experience, based on the film by Steven Soderbergh. The series will tell a new story with new characters, putting it firmly at the heart of the current trend for anthology drama.

Carmi Zlotnik, MD of Starz, said: “The first season of The Girlfriend Experience [GFE] allowed us to accommodate all viewing appetites with the traditional weekly episodic premiere schedule as well as a bingeing option for the entire 13 episodes. We’re excited to offer Starz subscribers a second season that will explore new GFEs, clients and relationships as we take viewers back into this world that questions the price of intimacy and its emotional consequences.”

Another player making a big scripted statement at the TCA tour was National Geographic Channel (NGC). Although best known for its factual content, NGC is boosting is scripted profile with a show based on a manuscript from the late Michael Crichton.

Crichton died in 2008 but he was such a remarkable creator of sci-fi adventure series (Jurassic Park being his seminal work) that the TV and publishing industry has continued to mine his creative archive for gems. In 2009, for example, a novel called Pirate Latitudes was released, followed by Micro in 2011.

Dragon’s Teeth will be released as a novel next year and is being developed for TV by Amblin Television, Sony Pictures Television and CrichtonSun. Set in the American West in 1878, it follows the intense rivalry between real-life palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.

we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves-cover
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Carolyn Bernstein, exec VP and head of global scripted development and production at NGC, said the story was an “epic tale of science, adventure and exploration” that would be “the perfect project for the network.”

NGC has also ordered a miniseries called The Long Road Home, based on the novel by Martha Raddatz. Set up as an eight-hour production, the show tells the story of a US Army unit fighting for survival after being ambushed during the Iraq War.

Other US-originated dramas to hit the headlines this week include ICE, a drama for AT&T Audience Network that will “focus on the treacherous and colourful world of diamond traders in downtown Los Angeles.” A 10×60′ series from Entertainment One (eOne) and Antoine Fuqua’s Fuqua Films, ICE will be written by Robert Munic (Fighting, The Cleaner). International rights to the show will be managed by eOne.

Christopher Long, SVP of original content and production at AT&T, says: “ICE has truly been a labour of love for us as we have been cultivating and evolving this project with Antoine Fuqua for more than two years. With Antoine, our amazing team of writers, as well as eOne, we know that ICE will capture the attention of viewers who are looking for exciting new shows with compelling storylines to add to their line-up.”

HBO is also in the news this week with reports of two miniseries. The first is from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and has Nathalie Portman lined up to star. Called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it is based on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel about a university student who loses her twin sister during childhood.

OWN's Queen Sugar
OWN has ordered a second run of Queen Sugar before the first has begun

The premium cable channel is also developing miniseries Black Flags with Bradley Cooper. This show is based on a book by Joby Warrick and explores the rise of ISIS. The Cooper connection is presumably an attempt to inject the project with an air of American Sniper.

Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, meanwhile, has given a season two commission to Queen Sugar, before the show’s first season has even begun.

Created by Ava DuVernay, the show is about a group of estranged siblings who are forced to work together to save their family’s struggling sugarcane farm in the Deep South.

“When we saw the first cut from Ava we knew right away that we wanted a second season,” said OWN president Erik Logan. “We think viewers are going to connect with the deeply layered characters and powerful story. We are proud to be a network that supports a filmmaker’s creative vision.” Season one launches in September with 13 episodes and the second run will have 16.

Suits
Suits’ renewal for a seventh season indicates its importance to USA Network

Finally, from the US, USA Network has awarded a seventh season to its legal drama series Suits. The news comes just three episodes into season six and is an indication of the importance of the show to the channel.

Suits continues to be USA’s top-rated show and is currently generating an audience of around 1.7 million, rising to three million when time-shifted viewing is factored in. Suits has arguably become more important in recent weeks given that season two of Mr Robot has slipped in the ratings. The critically acclaimed hacker show started season two with around one million viewers, down from the season one average of 1.39 million. Subsequently it has slipped to around the 700,000 mark, which is surprising given its recent high profile on the awards circuit.

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Networks and streamers look for laughs

The 2014 movie Dear White People
The 2014 movie Dear White People

This week there has been a lot of movement on the scripted comedy front. Netflix, for example, has given a series order to Dear White People, a 10-part adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name.

Due to air on the US streamer in 2017, it tells the story of a group of students of colour at a fictional Ivy League university dominated by white students. Like the film, the series will be produced for Netflix by Lionsgate.

Commenting on the deal, Chris Selak, executive VP of television at Lionsgate Television, said: “We’re proud to expand our partnership with our friends at Netflix on a comedy that tackles racial themes with a combination of intelligence, honesty, irreverence and wit. Our original film with Roadside Attractions catapulted Dear White People into the national conversation about race, and Justin and the rest of the creative team have an opportunity to expand this world and bring its timely and universal themes to a global television audience.”

Another comedy in the news this week is E4’s Foreign Bodies, which follows a motley gang of travellers on a three-month trip around Asia. The show, which is being produced by indie company Eleven and is backed by eOne, was first unveiled by E4 in January. But this week it was announced that US cable channel TNT is coming on board as a partner.

“Foreign Bodies is a terrific opportunity for TNT to work with eOne, Eleven and E4 on a series that will appeal to young adults not only in the US and the UK but also around the globe,” said Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming for TNT. “It’s also a great chance to bring (the show’s creator) Tom Basden’s voice to our stateside viewers.”

The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall
The Mindy Project is getting a second season on Hulu, its fifth run overall

Hulu, meanwhile, has announced that there will be a new season of The Mindy Project. The show aired on Fox in the US for three seasons before moving to Hulu for season four. The new run will take the total number of series to five (and the total number of episodes over 100).

A number of critics have been watching season four closely since it launched in September to see how the show has changed under new management. The general conclusion has been ‘not much’ – although the Hulu episodes are two to three minutes longer. This has led some observers to suggest that The Mindy Project has benefited as a result, because it can dwell a little longer on comic scenarios or character development.

Hulu’s announcement about Mindy was part of its Upfronts, which also included some news about its drama slate. It has, for example, ordered a pilot set in prehistoric times called Dawn. Created by Hank Steinberg (The Last Ship, Without a Trace) and Ken Nolan (Transformers 5, Black Hawk Down), the show centres on a tribe of Neanderthals and their battle for survival after meeting a group of Homo Sapiens.

The company also announced there will be a second season of The Path, which centres on a religious cult.

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path
Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path

Among other major scripted stories this week is the news that FX in the US has ordered Feud – another anthology drama series from Ryan Murphy. The eight-episode show, which also involves Fox 21 Television Studios and Brad Pitt’s prodco Plan B Entertainment, will star Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Based on a script by Jaff Coihen and Michael Zam, it explores the rivalry between iconic US actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

This week also saw National Geographic in the US move forward with Killing Reagan, a TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book of the same name. Playing Reagan, the actor who became US president, will be Tim Matheson (The West Wing). His wife Nancy will be played by Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City). The script for the adaptation is from Eric Simonson, a documentarian who is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The Killing franchise has been a remarkable success for Nat Geo in recent years. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, which were also based on books by O’Reilly and Dugard, were the most watched shows in the channel’s history. Kennedy and Jesus were also Emmy-nominated. The new show is different from the other Killing productions in that it deals with an unsuccessful assassination attempt (by John Hinckley in 1981). The other three stories famously ended with the deaths of their protagonists.

The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronal Reagan
The chaotic scene in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

There are also a couple of stories this week about planned book adaptations. Sonar Entertainment is developing a show about the contraceptive pill based on a book by Jonathan Eig. Called The Birth of the Pill, the show centres on the four people who were involved with the development of the birth control during a period of sweeping social change and rapid scientific advances. Eig has previously written three non-fiction books, two based around baseball players and one about the plot to capture gangster Al Capone. The TV adaptation is being written by Audrey Wells, who has penned a number of popular movies including The Game Plan, Shall We Dance and Under the Tuscan Sun.

In the UK, meanwhile, there are reports that production firm Rooks Nest is developing Joseph O’Neill’s acclaimed novel Netherland for TV. The project is Rooks Nest’s first move into TV drama after success with recent movies such as The Witch and Obvious Child. Netherland is set in post-9/11 New York and London and centres on Hans, a Dutch expat working on Wall Street who rediscovers his love of cricket when he joins the Staten Island cricket team. However, he soon falls under the spell of the team’s charismatic Trinidadian coach Chuck Ramkissoon.

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