Tag Archives: NBCUniversal International Distribution

Revisiting Downton

In 2009, period drama was dead – or so it appeared until Downton Abbey was commissioned by ITV and subsequently aired to acclaim the following year. Going on to run for six seasons, Downton eventually culminated in a feature film that was released last year.

The drama followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their servants downstairs between 1912 and 1926, with an ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nichol and Sophie McShera.

In this DQTV interview, creator and writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame revisit the origins of the series, revealing the faith ITV put in the series at a time when period dramas were out of fashion.

They also recall how the series was developed and discuss Fellowes’ approach to writing for his actors, their opposing thoughts on making a movie and why Downton has fascinated audiences around the world.

Downton Abbey was produced by Carnival Films for ITV and Masterpiece on PBS, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

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Scaling new Heights

Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian ensemble drama The Heights, discusses the making of this series set in a housing tower and the challenges of launching a serial drama.

Is there a more challenging type of show to create than a serial drama, with numerous characters and storylines to introduce while ensuring they feel familiar and relatable to viewers from the outset?

That was the unenviable task facing Warren Clarke, co-creator and showrunner of Australian series The Heights. The 30-part, 30-minute drama transports viewers to the fictional inner-city neighbourhood of Arcadia Heights, exploring the relationships between the residents of the Arcadia social housing tower and the people who live in the rapidly gentrifying community that surrounds it.

Humorous, thoughtful and entertaining, the series is also driven by a diverse group of characters who tackle a range of social issues that face many Australians today. The ensemble cast includes Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires), Marcus Graham (Secret City) and Roz Hammond (Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell).

From the first episode, which launches on pubcaster the ABC tomorrow, all manner of subjects from birth, death and everything in between are dramatised as the series aims to hit the ground running, as if placing cameras into the homes and workplaces of people who are just going about their daily lives, without the drawn-out introductions and exposition seen in many long-running dramas gone by.

“You don’t want it to feel like a pilot episode. It’s that old thing of starting with episode two,” Clarke says. “It’s coming at you pretty hard and fast. We wanted it to be an episode that captures everything the show is about. It’s about love and loss, birth and death, families, and struggle and triumph, as we all face day to day.

The Heights was co-created by showrunner Warren Clarke (second from right)

“Viewers want to see characters in situ. I don’t think we need introductions the way perhaps we traditionally did in television. They’re just so savvy and know the medium so well. The curtain has been pulled back on television and storytelling so much. It’s actually really liberating as a writer because they meet you more than halfway, and that lets you just dive into the story.”

Clarke conceived the idea behind The Heights with ABC executive producer Que Minh Luu when they worked together in development roles at producer Matchbox Pictures (The Slap, Barracuda), with the pair often discussing the kind of television they wanted to make and what format it might take.

“Certainly in Australia at the time, there was a huge conversation in our industry about opportunities for emerging diverse voices and pushing the bar a little bit in terms of what we were seeing on television,” Clarke recalls. “That led to the idea of an ongoing series with a story that would always have a sense of tension. We looked at the idea of gentrification, which is a global issue that immediately speaks to ideas of the wealth divide, divided politics, separation and difference.”

The notion that there is a universality in the experiences and challenges we all face, no matter our background, religion or politics, would go on to shape the series, with a housing tower at its centre – a space where families and other groups of people from all walks of life naturally become neighbours.

“It is reflective of the world we live in, and that was what we always tried to drive towards,” Clarke says. “These are the streets we know and the stories we see. That applies to us and that will apply to a broader audience. We didn’t necessarily want to tell culturally specific stories. Characters are completely informed by a cultural point of view but while tapping into that universality. I hope that’s what pulls audiences in; that they connect to those characters no matter what community they might represent.”

The show focuses on a wide range of characters living in a tower block, including the Jafari family

The Heights is produced by Matchbox and For Pete’s Sake Productions, with NBCUniversal International Distribution handling worldwide sales. As the showrunner, Clarke was tasked with managing the logistics of the series as well as the creative side, and he believes it’s important for a series to have a “creative conduit” through which all decisions pass.

In the writers room, “it was a learning process that evolved as we went,” he says. “The key really was to have a team that could service the series as a whole,” Clarke adds, pointing to script editors Hannah Carroll Chapman, Romina Accurso, Peter Mattessi and Megan Palinkas, who ensured the multiple stories stayed on the right path.

“Then it is a question of bringing your writers in to break story and plot episodes. Sometimes you might have a writer who wants to write one of the episodes because they’ll have a point of view and an authenticity to inform that story, so you want to encourage that as much as possible. Writers rooms can sometimes be challenging, particularly when we plotted at pace, but I was predominantly in the room for the whole day, every day, to ask those questions – is this our show? Is this how our show tells this story?

“By and large, any new show is particularly tough. It has its really high moments and really low moments, but it has been a positive experience. A lot of people have come away feeling like they’ve created something that feels true to them and there’s an interesting voice there that people want to see.”

With filming taking place in Perth, Western Australia, the creative team were conscious of not locating the series in a specific part of the country. “It is Anywhere, Australia,” Clarke says. “You want the sense that Arcadia Heights could be your local neighbourhood.”

The Davies family, another group living in the tower

Once production was underway in the city, it unfolded at a rapid pace, employing nearly 100 local crew and 93 actors across speaking and extra roles. Two episodes were shot per week, with four days in the studio and then two crews working simultaneously on location on Fridays, effectively creating six shooting days in a five-day period.

Scenes were filmed with at least three, and sometimes four, cameras on operators’ shoulders, meaning they could be flexible and mobile to get as much coverage as possible and move on to the next scene without too many retakes. This, in turn, informs a gritty visual style with noticeable camera movements.

“Jim Frater, the DOP, has such a great instinct for capturing the truth of any given moment,” Clarke says of the shooting process. “It may not be a wide [shot] and two singles, it might be a close-up of someone’s hand or the empty space in a room. He’s a very visual storyteller. And because you have all the cameras in there at once, you’ve got an incredible amount of coverage. The advantage of that is that it keeps the performances agile and interesting, and you empower the acting. The actors were able to let the drama inform their performance, which would then inform how the cameras captured it.

“As we witnessed across the shoot, the camera team learned the nuances of those actors and those characters and were able to anticipate them. In many ways, it feels like a really quick shoot. If we’d shot it traditionally, it probably would have been more challenging. But because we had a visual style that allowed us to be really fluid, we could move quickly. There was definitely energy in the series, which was great to see.”

Undoubtedly the initial challenge was writing the series, once the creative team had settled on exactly what kind of show they wanted to make. When that was agreed, Clarke describes a feeling of empowerment among the writing team, which then helped them push the boundaries of traditional serial dramas.

“We were constantly trying to push and push, and the crew were so embracing of the idea of ‘let’s just knock it out of the park.’ They wanted to push as hard as us; they just believed in the show so much and that created challenges, like how much can we film in a day,” he says. “Yet they never faltered, they never complained or begrudged the idea of trying to make a great show. Everybody came to work to make a great show and was committed to doing the best work they could, which carried the show through those tricky days.”

Clarke admits that in many ways, the television landscape is saturated by content. But for creators, that presents an opportunity to tell more varied and diverse stories.

“In a world that’s challenging and where big questions are being asked politically and socially, there’s great appeal for a show that engages with its audience and isn’t afraid of those issues but also has a sense of human spirit,” he adds. “This is also a show that could bring family viewing together and I do think there’s room for that in the current television landscape. I’m like anyone, I like the gritty stuff too but there’s room for us all.”

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Third time Lucky

James Nesbitt heads to the Far East for a third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which continues the story of a man bestowed with the power of eternal luck. DQ meets him in Hong Kong to find out more.

This is a first. Drama Quarterly is invariably transported to a television set in the back of a cramped and slightly run-down production minibus. But today is rather different; we are being taken to visit a location on a sampan from Hong Kong Island.

As we look out over a marina filled with the sort of superyachts that even Russian oligarchs might covet towards some of the most expensive property on the planet, we could get used to this.

The sampan deposits us at The Jumbo Floating Restaurant, the most famous eatery in the country. The giant six-storey barge, festooned with elaborate carved wooden animals, is being used as a location for a key scene from Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.

Hong Kong is “full of noise, people and bustling street food stalls” says Nesbitt

At the venue, which has also been employed as a location in movies such as Skyfall and Internal Affairs 2, more than 50 supporting artists have gathered. They are being dressed up to play waiters and market traders selling fruit and vegetables, cooking utensils and dumplings. Meanwhile, a stunt rider is revving his motorbike in preparation for a daring sequence along the upper deck of the restaurant. The producers are really giving this scene some welly. The whole scene is redolent of authentic Hong Kong life.

The barge is the location for a complex fight sequence at the restaurant between the show’s hero, Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt) and new enemy Samuel Blake (Rupert Penry-Jones).

In this entertaining series created by comic book genius Stan Lee (who is also behind Spider-Man, The X Men and Iron Man), Blake has arrived in Hong Kong in search of Harry. This implacable baddie will stop at nothing to take possession of the bracelet that gives Harry the superpower of being eternally lucky. The fact that Blake is impervious to pain only helps his villainous quest.

Pausing for breath between scenes while wearing both shin and forearm guards for rehearsing the fight sequence, Nesbitt says that he couldn’t be happier to be in Hong Kong. “We’re here today in the home of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan doing fantastic stunts,” he says. “It’s absolutely brilliant!”

Stan Lee’s Lucky Man airs on Sky One in the UK

This third season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, currently airing on Sky One in the UK, captures the vivid essence of Hong Kong, a breath-taking mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. It is a unique ambience that would be simply impossible to conjure up at Shepperton.

Nesbitt underscores that this Hong Kong-set season could not have been shot anywhere else. “This place is a one-off,” enthuses the actor, who has also starred in Cold Feet, The Hobbit, The Missing, Bloody Sunday, Five Minutes of Heaven, Occupation and Murphy’s Law.

“It’s so exciting to be filming here. You have the joy of immersing yourself in a new and vibrant culture. Hong Kong is a fabulous city to set this show. The entire place has a real sense of urgency. Visually, it’s stunning too. It has these extraordinary skyscrapers and also this astonishing street life. You only have to look out of the window to see the real collision between the wealthy and the not so wealthy. It’s teeming with all kinds of life.

“Yesterday we were filming at the famous Temple Street Night Market,” the Northern Irish actor explains. “It’s a fascinating place, full of noise and people and bustling street food stalls. Then you peer into a backstreet kitchen and you see topless male chefs smoking. It’s a place like no other. Hong Kong is one of the leading characters in this series of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man.”

James Nesbitt sees the character of Harry Clayton as “at his core a good man”

Chen On Chu, a producer on the series – produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution – agrees that it would be unthinkable to recreate the atmosphere of Hong Kong anywhere else: “If you shoot in a live location like the Temple Street Night Market, there are elements that you just can’t replicate anywhere else in the world. You can never reproduce the density of the people or the look of the Hong Kong buildings on a backlot in the UK. The texture of this show is very authentic.”

Which is not to say that there are not immense challenges involved in filming in Hong Kong. Chu, who has previously worked on many enormous Hollywood productions in Hong Kong, including Batman: The Dark Knight, Transformers, Battleship, Ghost in the Shell, Geostorm, Lara Croft and Pacific Rim, is all too well aware of the difficulties. “It is really challenging filming here because it’s such a busy place,” he adds. “We might have 50 trucks on a production, and it’s really not easy to find a parking space for them. We have to tell the crew they can’t drive to the set.

“Also, the space here is very limited and it’s really hard to divert traffic, so it’s very difficult to close roads for filming in Hong Kong. We had a joke that the only time you could film The Fast & the Furious in Hong Kong would be when there was a street protest and the roads were closed anyway!”

Rupert Penry-Jones (right) plays new villain Samuel Blake in season three

Nesbitt concludes by reflecting on just why Stan Lee’s Lucky Man has proved so popular over the past two seasons. He reckons that one of the principal reasons is because Harry represents a very British type of superhero. “At his core, Harry is a good man,” the actor muses.

“But he is still the very last person who should be a modern-day superhero. He is flawed, of a certain age and a gambling addict. He is a very unlikely superhero. It’s especially unlikely to have a 53-year-old Northern Irish superhero who says, ‘Fecking eejit’!”

Finally, are there any similarities between Nesbitt and Harry? “Clearly there are bits of me in him,” the actor admits. “I recognise the isolation he feels. There are certainly times in my life when I’m away from home and on my own. I also really love his dryness. But unlike Harry, I have never been a big gambler.

“That’s one of the few vices that has escaped me – thank God!”

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Choppy waters

Commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS, miniseries Safe Harbour offers a fresh perspective on the global refugee crisis. DQ sits down with the on- and off-screen talent behind the show to find out more about this ‘very cinematic’ piece of television.

Actors from a Middle Eastern background are usually cast in Australian TV shows for one of two reasons, according to director Glendyn Ivin – “To make us laugh or make us scared.”

Ivin seized the chance to avoid those caricatures when he was hired to direct Safe Harbour, a four-hour psychological thriller commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS.

Produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, the miniseries tackles the controversial topic of asylum seekers and the moral dilemmas they pose to governments, societies and individuals, particularly in the West.

The plot follows five vacationing Australians who set sail on a yacht bound for Indonesia. En route they encounter a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.

Despite concerns that the Aussies could face charges of people-smuggling, they agree to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia, but by the next morning it has vanished. Five years later they meet some of the refugees and discover someone had cut the tow rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.

Safe Harbour’s diverse cast includes Nicole Chamoun as Zahra

The relatively unknown Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas play Zahra and Ismail, an Iraqi couple whose nine-year-old daughter dies after the vessel sinks. Robert Rabiah is Ismail’s brother Bilal.

“When we were casting we had a lot of people come out of the woodwork who were great actors, often from the theatre,” Ivin says. “They saw this as an opportunity to explore Iraqi or Arabic characters who were neither good nor bad: they were very human. In the show, we don’t explore characters in terms of their race, religion or politics; we explore characters purely as human beings. It’s paid off because their performances are so rich and so beautiful.”

Australian-born Chamoun, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon during its civil war, made her screen debut in the SBS series Kick in 2007 and more recently appeared in December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Sticky Pictures’ Ronny Chieng: International Student, both for pubcaster the ABC.

“Nicole came in and did this screen test that had me in tears. It was in Arabic but there was a guttural panic and sadness behind what she was doing; the words seemed to force themselves out of her throat in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Ivin says. “She did something I’d never seen an actor do before in a screen test. She requested that she did not talk beforehand; she just wanted to come in and do the scene and then we would talk afterwards. When she arrived in the room, she was in a heightened emotional space. She delivered it twice, and then through tears we began the more familiar casting small talk. She is an incredibly passionate actor who puts everything on the line.”

Chamoun says of her audition: “I felt compelled and so connected to the story and this character I was not leaving that room without [getting the part].”

Director Glendyn Ivin says he sees ‘TV as the new cinema’

Of Zahra, she says: “She is a strong, hard-working woman, the glue in the family who is trying to keep everyone together when everyone around her is crumbling. She takes on the weight of everyone’s problems and comes out fighting. I don’t know if I would have been as strong and determined. It was gut-wrenching for me but this could have been real and has happened to many, many people.”

After a lot of hard work and perseverance, Chamoun’s star is rising: she also plays a Muslim university student who gets embroiled in race riots in Melbourne in Roadshow Rough Diamond’s Romper Stomper, an original series commissioned by streaming service Stan that debuted in Australia on January 1, 2018.

Ivin was similarly impressed with the performances of Shammas, an experienced stage actor whose screen credits include Screentime’s Underbelly and ABC comedy At Home with Julia, and Rabiah (Screentime’s Fat Tony & Co, Matchbox Pictures movie Ali’s Wedding).

The producers secured marquee names to play the Aussie holidaymakers. Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Rake) plays Ryan, the boat’s captain, with Phoebe Tonkin (The Originals, The Vampire Diaries) as his sister Olivia and Leeanna Walsman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cleverman) as his wife Bree.

Joel Jackson (The Wrong Girl, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door) is Damien, Olivia’s boyfriend who disappears after the incident on the water and reappears at a group reunion five years later. Jacqueline McKenzie (Love Child, Hiding) is the fifth passenger, a lawyer named Helen.

The cast and crew faced the challenge of a week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane

Filmed over six weeks in Brisbane and off the Queensland coast, Safe Harbour is co-funded by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, SBS and NBCUniversal International Distribution, which has international rights. The series is due to premiere on SBS next Wednesday.

The concept was one of 300-plus ideas that flooded in after Matchbox Pictures opened an office in Brisbane in 2015 with the support of Screen Queensland and issued a general call-out for stories. Matchbox development executive and producer Stephen Corvini says the two-page treatment from neophyte writers Phil Enchelmaier and Simon Kennedy for the project, then titled Asylum, was the standout.

Corvini held a brainstorming session in Brisbane with Enchelmaier, Kennedy and experienced writers Beatrix Christian and Anthony Mullins, who runs Matchbox’s Brisbane office. Christian subsequently dropped out to co-write FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for Foxtel, so Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld came aboard and a series bible was written. Wyld then moved on to create and co-write medical drama Pulse for the ABC and Matt Cameron was hired.

Chayko had worked with Cameron on Matchbox’s miniseries Secret City for Foxtel and the prodco’s drama series Old School, which starred Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, for the ABC.

Corvini subsequently pitched the project to SBS head of drama Sue Masters, who readily agreed to fund the script development. After four scripts had been written, SBS gave the greenlight and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland provided production funding.

Safe Harbour launches in Australia next week

The international relevance of the subject was a big plus, as Corvini explains: “Shows that travel are very important to the company and, as storytellers, we want our stories to travel. We absolutely want to be successful in the domestic market foremost, and with NBCUniversal distributing they have a say in what we produce and give us some indication of how a show like this will perform internationally.”

Masters says: “We’re inordinately proud of the show. The fact it is a psychological thriller was very exciting. The great beauty of the SBS charter is that we won’t make anything that is unimportant. The challenge is always to make it engaging, compelling, fresh and bold. Four-part, one-hour series are dense and quite difficult.”

SBS adopted the four-hour drama template with FMA’s Better Man, which Corvini produced, followed by Essential Media and Entertainment’s The Principal, Blackfella Films’ Deep Water, Easy Tiger/Carver Films’ Sunshine and, also premiering in 2018, Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky.

“It’s creatively challenging – you feel like a start-up company every time you do one of these four-hours because they are all different. But we feel it is an efficient use of our money, and it’s important to have some marquee stars so that our projects can stand out,” Masters adds.

Chayko wrote episodes one and four and co-wrote episode three with Enchelmaier. Cameron did episode two. The plotting was a collaborative process involving all the writers plus Kennedy, Mullins and Corvini.

Glendyn (right) chats to actor Hazem Shammas

“The most difficult challenge in the writing was to get the delicate emotional balance of the characters right, particularly the Australians,” says Chayko. “The more we got into their stories and acknowledged the depth of their feelings once they realised what the consequences had been, that’s when it felt like it was all really coming together.”

Chayko sees one virtue of four-part dramas as the ability to tell stories that in the past might have been the subject of theatrical features.

Ivin, who directed Seven Types of Ambiguity and the US cable series Hunters for Matchbox as well as numerous other dramas including The Beautiful Lie, Gallipoli and Puberty Blues, heard about the project on the grapevine.

“It’s the first time in a long time that a project made me think, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I was jealous when I heard someone talking about it,” he admits. “Then I got a call from Matchbox when I had been day-dreaming about the project. I had been doing a run of commercials so I was really happy to jump back into longform drama. I see TV as the new cinema. This is four hours, one director and we’ve treated it as one film. It’s a piece of very cinematic television and the kind of thing I aspire to make.”

The director adds that the ambiguity of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story was the key to the drama. “I did not want it to be a for-or-against story,” he says. “We’re talking about the issue of asylum seekers, which could be anywhere in the world. From the outset, this felt like a way of contributing to and discussing this really important issue without it becoming a piece of advocacy.

“We as an audience expect a lot more from TV drama than in the past. As a director, the stories I’ve been drawn to in television, I know that if I had made them as feature films they would not have had the audiences they had on TV.”

The director frames a shot while out at sea

Tonkin jumped at the chance to come back to Australia to work on a grounded drama after spending years on the heightened-reality milieu of The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. The actor relished tackling her character’s arc from being a hopeful, happy young woman to someone who, five years later, harbours a lot of anger, guilt and sadness.

Working for the first time with veterans McKenzie, Leslie and Walsman, Tonkin says she was a bit intimidated initially but felt comfortable after the first day and enjoyed the collaborative effort. “It was incredibly inspiring to work with all those actors; I probably learned more than I did in the past 10 years,” she says.

Ivin notes: “[Tonkin] proved herself to be a much greater actor than we had been aware of. I think people will see her differently from now on because she delivers a stellar performance.”

Similarly, McKenzie marvelled at Tonkin’s temperament and technique as she persevered filming a scene in dying light after a camera malfunction, observing: “Phoebe is at the top of her game in the US and it was lovely to see her back in Australia doing a fabulously dramatic role that she could get her teeth into.”

McKenzie describes her character as an embittered, driven and ambitious woman who is nearly unhinged after the tragedy at sea. Thereafter, she sets out to save her soul.

Like most of the cast and crew, Leslie found the week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane challenging, especially playing the boat’s captain with zero maritime expertise. He was cracking Jaws and Waterworld jokes before venturing out to sea but quickly desisted.

Leslie was attracted to the project because all the characters are complex and make bad decisions over the course of the four episodes, and by the chance to work with Ivin for the first time, having followed the director’s career since 2003 short film Cracker Bag. He also enjoyed teaming up again with Jackson after they collaborated on the Foxtel-commissioned First World War miniseries Deadline Gallipoli.

“What I really liked about Safe Harbour was that it’s very much a personal story about the inter-connected relationships, as opposed to being a political story,” Leslie says. “Because of the subject, people viewing at home are going to bring their own politics to it. But the show doesn’t make any attempt to push any agenda. I would not want to watch if it did. It sets up a very complicated dilemma and lets it play out as both sides make questionable decisions that have repercussions.”

Ivin is full of praise for the work of first-time cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who had been the B camera operator on The Beautiful Lie, a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks for the ABC. Before that, Chiplin was a director’s assistant at TVC production house Exit Films, where Ivin met him.

“He created an amazing aesthetic on the show,” says the director, adding that he had only seen that level of enthusiasm and attitude in two other people: Australian DoPs Greig Fraser, whose movie credits include Lion, Mary Magdalene, Rogue One and Foxcatcher, and Adam Arkapaw, who shot the first series of Top of the Lake, True Detective and features including Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans.

Executive producer Debbie Lee, who is Matchbox’s director of scripted development, says the show is based on a key premise: what would viewers do if they were confronted with the moral dilemma the Aussies faced? “It is complicated and there is no simple answer to what is a unifying dramatic question,” Lee says. “It’s about the fantastic characters created by the writing team and their own dilemmas.”

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Home from home

A small town serves as a sanctuary for a group of people with secrets to hide in supernatural mystery Midnight, Texas. DQ speaks to showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen about adapting Charlaine Harris’s novels and the show’s political parallels.

When the first novel in the Midnight, Texas series was published in May 2014, Donald Trump was still a year away from entering the race to succeed Barack Obama as US president.

Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossroad introduced the inhabitants of a derelict town with little to distinguish itself besides its quaint and quiet atmosphere. For someone looking for a place to hide, Midnight is the perfect location.

Monica Owusu-Breen

The paranormal saga sets Midnight up as a town where outsiders can find sanctuary from those who would otherwise seek to persecute them, and a sense of community among others with secrets of their own.

Three years on from that initial publication date, Harris has followed up her first book with sequels Day Shift and Night Shift, and Trump is now in the White House, making headlines for his anti-immigrant agenda and his attempts to withdraw funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with national immigration laws, promoting themselves as safe havens for undocumented immigrants.

As such, the arrival of a television adaptation of Harris’s novels could not be more timely – and the show’s correlation with contemporary politics is not lost on series creator and showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen. At the heart of Midnight, Texas, she says, is “the idea of a town full of diverse people from all walks of life who find sanctuary in America and then fight the forces of evil together, respecting each other’s differences as strengths, not weaknesses. The whole thing has this metaphorical quality that was not intentional at the pilot stage but became super meaningful as the show progressed.”

US network NBC put Midnight, Texas into development in 2015 and ordered a pilot in January 2016. The show was picked up to series last May and the 10-part first season debuted last month. NBCUniversal International Distribution is selling the show worldwide, with Syfy in the UK among those to have picked up the supernatural drama.

Like the books, the series explores the eponymous remote town that is home to a vampire, a witch, an angel and an assassin – a haven for those who are different and have to hide from the outside world. However, the arrival of a powerful psychic and a murder from within threaten their tight-knit community.

Despite the long-running success of another series based on Harris’s novels – HBO’s True Blood – Midnight, Texas opened in the US to soft ratings of 3.6 million viewers. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a genre series far removed from the legal and medical procedurals that draw the biggest crowds to network television, particularly during the ratings-light summer season.

Francois Arnaud leads the cast as psychic Manfred, a new arrival to Midnight

Owusu-Breen jokes that she checked with NBC executives to make sure they knew what they were getting when they ordered this “crazy” show. “When I read the books, I had a personal connection to it and there was also this crazy, madcap world of surprising beings,” she says. “Charlaine has this boundless imagination and there was a joy in that for me. There definitely were moments when I would look at look my NBC executive and say, ‘You guys want this? You’re sure, right?’ But it was so fun, weird and hopeful.”

In any other series, the characters that populate Midnight would most likely be the villains of the piece, but that’s part of the fun – particularly when recent arrival Manfred (played by François Arnaud), the aforementioned psychic, begins to discover who his new neighbours are.

“They all felt like they could have their own show,” Owusu-Breen says of Midnight’s inhabitants. “What you realise is these people come from really ugly pasts. Some of them have histories that are profoundly painful, so for them to come to Midnight and find sanctuary is really quite beautiful. While they start off as these fun, crazy characters, what got them to Midnight and those reveals really adds heart to them.”

As network television sticks to largely episodic fare amid the wave of serialised drama on cable and streaming platforms, Owusu-Breen remarks that with Midnight, Texas, she’s having her cake and eating it too. “I was on [Fox sci-fi drama] Fringe and our showrunner coined the phrase ‘Mythalone’ – a series of standalone episodes that add up to a whole story, like chapters in a book. Every episode is part of the greater myth of the story.

Fitz Henley plays a witch named Fiji

“In every episode, we’re following Manfred because he’s our hero. But we also explore one of the Midnighters in each episode, so by the end of the 10 instalments, you will understand who these people are and why they’re there. Then we have an overarching myth than will hopefully feel satisfying when you get to the end.”

Owusu-Breen was introduced to the world of Midnight, Texas when her agent sent her the books as a potential development project, and she says there were immediate parallels with her personal life. Her mother-in-law was a small-town psychic, while the showrunner would spend her summers as a child in a small Spanish town “in the middle of nowhere,” where everybody knew each other and their business.

“The novels have this oddly personal resonance for me, and as I continued to read the saga, I realised I loved these characters,” she admits. “The community of Midnight is so peculiar that I could see the story going on endlessly. So it felt so fertile for a TV writer to approach. What I loved, too, is that Charlaine has a very specific voice – she doesn’t shy away from being funny, she doesn’t shy away from being romantic, so those two things also made the show feel special for me. It’s very rare you find material that rich.

“TV is a character’s medium; you’re asking people to tune in every week to see the same people, so if they’re not interesting… she creates these wildly interesting characters. They’re strange and they surprise you at every turn, but they’re fun and funny and obviously human despite being supernatural.”

Peter Mensah as vampire Lemuel

Season one blends the murder mystery of Harris’s first novel with the supernatural elements of book three, with Owusu-Breen describing the books as a roadmap for the series. A major element of the show was putting Manfred front and centre, serving ostensibly as the series lead before making way for the rest of the ensemble.

“In the book he was less of a driving force but we’re following him as the newcomer into the town,” the showrunner explains. “He’s the outsider and he’s the one who becomes an insider, so he has a different role than he plays in the books.”

Midnight, Texas is Owusu-Breen’s first solo showrunning job, having previously shared the role on ABC drama Brothers & Sisters. So when setting up her writers room, she was keen to bring with her a lesson she had learned on her previous job writing for ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a “no assholes” policy.

“What that meant in practice is we had a delightful working environment where people were competitive and generous with ideas and could disagree without getting mean,” she reveals. “So I really took that to heart, because it didn’t hinder the creativity. It actually made it a more positive experience because you spend 10 hours in a room with the same people. So for me it was important to get writers who engage in the spirit of this material, which is funny and a little wacky, and also at its core it’s got sentiment and heart. You don’t want to get mired in cynicism, so it was a very fun writers room. The stories weren’t easy to break because they’re crazy, but I had a wonderful writing staff. We laid out Charlaine’s tentpoles [from the books], deciding what we wanted at the beginning, middle and end of the season, and then we just built stories around those.”

Assassin Olivia is portrayed by Arielle Kebbel

By the end of the first season, Midnight, Texas becomes a “repulsively large show” as a story that begins with a murder mystery ends with a ‘Hellmouth’ opening in the middle of the town.

“Thankfully we had directors, a line producer and creatives who just jumped at the challenge, so when we needed a lot of dead bodies, they’d come up with some ideas,” the showrunner says. “It was very funny how everyone rallied around everything. Some episodes are a little darker and emotional, while some are wildly fantastical and have a ton of CGI.  think we kept everyone on their toes but, at the end of the day, everyone had a really good time reaching for the stars.

“We close up the story of the first season and then open up a possible world for the second season. I try not to get my hopes up [about winning a second season renewal] but book two is there and I’ve got ideas I’m playing with. I’m just going to enjoy season one and see how the rest of the world likes it.”

Should political events in the US continue on their current trajectory, Midnight, Texas could prove to be a suitably diverting sanctuary for viewers to take cover from current affairs.

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Settling down in Jamestown

Eight-part drama Jamestown charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their lives in America, among them a group of women destined to marry the men of the colony.

Facing all manner of trials, the settlers come together to conquer and adjust to the realities of their new lives on the other side of the world. But while Jamestown is a place for them to build new lives and start again, it’s also somewhere past secrets can be buried.

Writer Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford, The Paradise) tells DQ about the historical facts that inspired the story of Jamestown, the research he undertook in Virginia and why he compares the series to a novel.

He also discusses the value of collaboration to help create the identity of a show, which in turn informs the direction, casting and other decisions during production.

Jamestown, which debuts on May 5, is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

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Lady Luck

Thekla Reuten tells DQ about joining the cast of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and ponders what she might do with a bit of good fortune.

Fortune didn’t always favour James Nesbitt during the first season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, in which he plays a detective given a magical bracelet that gives him unlimited good luck.

Circumstances have become trickier still for Nesbitt’s DI Harry Clayton in season two, with his world thrown further into chaos after his discovery of the existence of a second bracelet that belongs to a mysterious stranger called Isabella.

Enter Thekla Reuten, a Dutch actor whose big-screen credits include In Bruges and The American. She has also previously appeared in British TV dramas Restless and Hidden, and US series such as Showtime’s Sleeper Cell and long-running ABC series Lost.

“I’m always after the story,” she tells DQ about how she chooses her parts. “It can be theatre, which is how I started out, it can be film and it can be television. Who knows what medium will be invented in the near future? But for me it’s always about the story and the people involved. That’s what grabs me.”

Reuten stars alongside James Nesbitt in the second season of Lucky Man

The decision to play Isabella appealed to Reuten for several reasons, most notably her intrigue at a cop show tinged with comic-book sensibilities. As its full title suggests, the show, produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, was co-created by comic-book legend Stan Lee.

“It’s a thrilling combination,” she says. “Isabella was described as a mysterious, glamorous woman because she’s very experienced with her bracelet – she’s had it for 10 years, which we learn in the first episode. It can be very hard when a role starts out so mysteriously but she pushes the storyline forward so we’ll find out about her with Harry while watching the series.

“What I did love about her is she’s a mother and, because of the bracelet, she also leans towards being a comic-book character because she has this power and she knows how to work with it. She has seen that Harry’s found it all quite vexing for the first season, and he seems to want to get rid of it. But she wants to show him the other side of it. Also, they’re the only two people in the world with a bracelet and it’s lonely. It’s made Harry very isolated during the first season, while she’s had it for 10 years. So there’s an instant connection when he sees another person with a bracelet; it’s a shock as well at first but he’s intrigued.”

Though she had never met him before, Reuten says working with Nesbitt also soon became part of the charm of joining the cast in season two. She describes the leading man as “lovely, generous and down to Earth” and says they shared the same ideas about their characters and their screen relationship from the first script read-through.

Reuten and Nesbitt film outside London’s Somerset House

“I could ask him lots of questions about the superhero element and these two worlds combining, and we just had a really good connection over that, talking about how we could give Isabella and Harry their world,” explains Reuten, who was hoisted up onto wires alongside her co-star for publicity shots for the show, which returned to Sky1 in the UK last month.

“It felt very organic and lovely. In working with him in the middle of London, he was very open and kind to people approaching him, and very patient if they wanted to take a picture. You just feel he’s loved by a huge audience and they are happy to approach him. It’s been a big pleasure.”

Viewers of season one will remember the central role the UK’s capital city plays in the series, with producers keen to present a postcard view of London by using various landmarks as backdrops throughout the series.

Reuten spent six months living in London during filming last summer and says it was the perfect way to see the sights. “I knew London a little bit, being here every now and then for a day or two, but with the locations that my character goes to – I was on the Millennium Bridge [which can be seen behind Reuten in the top image], in the National Gallery before opening time, at Piccadilly Circus on a Friday afternoon, in the West End and on rooftops with all these amazing views of London – it felt like being on a London holiday!”

She recalls “bumping into” Somerset House during one expedition around town on a day off, only to discover a couple of days later that she would be filming at the historic location.

Reuten’s character, Isabella, has had her lucky bracelet for a decade

“I saw on the call sheet my character was going to walk through the fountains of Somerset House – that’s one of my favourite scenes,” she says. “That’s a big extra when you work on a show and you can spend your days off at Somerset House in the fountains and it’s all yours for a whole morning. It was also really special to be in the National Gallery before opening – somehow being in front of those paintings on your own makes it really different. There’s something about it, it’s really magical. So I’m very thankful for those enormous treats that come with a job that I’m already very happy doing.”

More challenging were the shoots at the aforementioned tourist hotspots of Piccadilly Circus and the Millennium Bridge, where Reuten and Nesbitt were tasked with completing their scenes as star-spotting crowds grew around them.

“The Millennium Bridge is a public place so you’re not allowed to stop people there,” says the actor. “So they were being guided around us. We had quite a lot of heavy dialogue and we were doing this while people were there checking out Jimmy. You have to work hard building a little wall around you but it’s great, it’s wonderful! You just have to focus really hard and shut the outside world out.”

She continues: “We were in the West End on a Friday night, it was Halloween, and trying to walk there with Jimmy and play a scene was a big challenge. People were very happy because they’d had a little drink – they were all dressed up really weirdly so if they jumped into shot, you couldn’t use it. Normally you could just ignore it but, with those crazy outfits, that was impossible. So that was fun!”

Ultimately, viewers will see Isabella take DI Clayton on a new journey as he continues to question life with the lucky bracelet, but Reuten also points to the family stories that make the series stand out from the crowd.

“What I like about the second season is that the stories about Harry and his family are stronger,” she says. “Obviously, when you do a second season, you build from the first one. And the characters that Amara Karan (DS Suri Chohan), Darren Boyd (DI Steve Orwell), Steven Mackintosh (DSI Alistair Winter) and Sienna Guillory (Eve) all play, that goes to the next level as well. I really like how the show has these private lives and the different cases, and then my storyline pushing it forward. Isabella pushes the story of the bracelet to a more extreme situation.”

But what would Reuten do if she were given the power of never-ending luck?

“I really wouldn’t want to have it – that’s what I know from being in the series!” she jokes. “It’s fine the way it is. Where you have it,  you enjoy it – and yet it can be gone before you know it.

“I definitely know a few changes in the world I would like to make, and there are quite a few obvious ones! It’s a really strange world at the moment, with lots of negativity and divisiveness. In the end, I hope everyone sees that it’s not the way we should want to have the world. So I would use a little magic on that.”

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Feeling Lucky

James Nesbitt is reunited with his enchanted bracelet in the second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. DQ chats to the cast and production team on set in East London.

The offices of the Murder Investigation Squad (MIS) have a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the River Thames, offering sights of some of London’s best-known landmarks.

Yet on the police station set of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, this impressive vista is revealed to be an illuminated backdrop. Elsewhere, banks of computer screens stand in front of a backlit map of the city, surrounded by bare-concrete walls and pillars that complement the grey steel desks and filing cabinets that complete the Bethnal Green set’s industrial look.

The series, which first launched on the UK’s Sky1 in January 2016, is back for a second season after becoming the pay TV network’s highest-rated original drama series ever, attracting an average audience of 1.9 million.

Viewers followed the fortunes of Detective Inspector Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt), who acquires an ancient bracelet that makes him incredibly lucky. Now the stakes are set to rise higher as he discovers the existence of a second bracelet.

Lucky Man star James Nesbitt works it for the camera

The new 10-part season, launching tomorrow, also takes on a new structure, shifting from the serialised storyline of season one and picking up a story-of-the-week format as DI Clayton becomes embroiled in new cases in each episode.

Co-created by comic book writer Stan Lee, Lucky Man is produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

“If the first season was about getting the bracelet, understanding what it is, believing in it and realising the power of it, the second season is about what Harry does with it,” explains exec producer Richard Fell. “He’s confronted by the possibilities of what it might or might not do when he meets the mysterious Isabella, who has had a bracelet for 10 years. This means Harry has to make some decisions about what he’s going to do now he’s accepted he has a lucky bracelet and how powerful it really is. And, in that classic Stan Lee way, is it a curse, a blessing or both – and how do you balance it out?”

Fell describes Lucky Man as “a little bit of crime drama, a little bit of high-concept superhero drama and definitely an action show.” But underneath it all is a very British drama, he says, with the lead character pitched as a flawed hero who often walks far too close to the line. “A British show doing a British version of The Flash or even Spider-Man would grate slightly,” he admits. “Harry is definitely a very British hero.”

Exec producer Richard Fell

Madonna Baptiste, who joined Lucky Man as producer for season two, feels many ingredients contributed to the show’s successful debut run. “It was fun, entertaining, had a great cast and great crimes,” she says. “It was a nice mix but ultimately it was great entertainment, plus it had the appeal of Stan Lee so it felt a little bit global. It was ambitious and it was a great Sky1 show. That’s what I loved about it. It was something I hadn’t seen before.”

Back on set during repeated takes of an interrogation scene for episode seven, Nesbitt is asked to kick over the same chair several times as Lily-Anne Lau (a returning Jing Lusi) gets the better of Clayton and his partner DS Suri Chohan (Amara Karan).

Chatting between takes, Nesbitt says: “I wasn’t sure where season two would go or how the character would develop but they’ve done a great job.” Wrapped in a knee-length coat to guard against the biting cold temperatures on set, Karan adds: “There’s a great cast and there’s lots of group scenes so everyone’s involved all the time.”

The actor, who is now a huge star thanks to her turn as lawyer Chandra Kapoor in HBO miniseries The Night Of, also teased that there will be lots of surprises for her character as season two plays out. “It’s an amazing script and there’s lots of action,” she adds. “I’m getting physical this season and even get to fire a gun!”

Fell describes the series as “entertaining, bold and fun,” with the “brilliant” Nesbitt at its heart. “He’s the kind of actor who can convey what is quite a wild idea – a lucky bracelet that actually works – and give it heart so it doesn’t feel too silly,” he says. “There are moments where he brings it back to Earth. It’s a combination of those things. It’s great Friday night telly, it’s really fun. And it looks good, it’s got a lot of energy.”


Baptiste adds of the show’s star: “James just knows the character and the character’s voice. For me, that was helpful because you would send him the script and he would say, ‘I don’t think the line is right.’ He’s an absolute professional and everybody loves him. He brings the fun and he’s just entertaining. You love to watch him and that energy transfers to the set. But he does long hours, he’s constantly filming. He’s in 90% of the scenes. It’s challenging for him but I have never seen him grumpy. He’s always enthusiastic.”

For Lusi, whose casino owner Lau once again goes head-to-head with Clayton, returning to film season two felt like she had never been away. “I hope her return is unexpected,” she says of her character. “One of my favourite things about Lily-Anne is that she is unpredictable, so I hope the viewers don’t see her coming. With regards to what to expect, let’s just say she hasn’t exactly seen the error of her ways from season one. Her wardrobe still rocks though!”

Lusi, who has also appeared in crime dramas Scott & Bailey and Law & Order: UK, says the show’s premise perfectly blends elements of both detective and superhero series. “I really like the style of the show – the slickness, gloss and pace,” she adds. “It’s different to a lot of other British shows and Lucky Man is quite daring in that respect. The creatives made a unique and complex world that the actors revelled in bringing to life, and every day we laughed a lot. It’s important to have fun, no matter what you do, and fun we certainly had.”

Actor Jing Lusi on set

The actor reveals she was more relaxed during filming this time around than she was for season one thanks to her chemistry with Nesbitt and Karan. “I knew that if anything went wrong, we would just laugh it off and carry on,” she explains. “The worst thing you can do on set is to pressure yourself. There’s enough pressure as it is, you don’t need to add to that.”

The producers faced entirely different pressures, however, as the show’s unique challenges included filming in multiple locations across London, and capturing stunts and explosions. The season opens with a dramatic car chase around the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the City of London.

Baptiste says: “We’ve done lots of falls from high buildings and fight sequences and they’ve all been fairly big and ambitious. They’ve all been quite brilliant. We did want to have a stunt on Tower Bridge but there’s a thing about bridges and people diving off them – you’re not allowed to do that sort of thing. The writers will create something huge and we try to make it manageable. We go as big as we can.”

Locations are also key to the show’s identity, with the creative team very consciously presenting postcard London and all its iconic landmarks. “The shows I really like are those that are sunk into the place where they’re filmed,” Fell says. “London is a character and it’s exciting. It’s got dark bits and light bits and it’s vibrant, amazing, diverse and full of energy. We wanted the show to have that look and feel. It’s a very different London [to that presented in other shows], purposefully. It is a bit of a love poem to the city. Everyone who’s worked on it has lived here for years and loves it and wants it to look good.”

“We did a bunch of shots on the Millennium Bridge and Jimmy [Nesbitt] and Thekla [Reuten, who plays Isabella] were trying to act a scene and there’s tourists coming in and having their pictures taken. For them to maintain their confidence and focus among that chaos is testament to how good they are. That’s probably the most challenging part about this show because we want to be right in it, in the middle of London.”

With filming completed in December, Baptiste recognises season one as a tough act to follow and hopes fans won’t be disappointed when the show returns. “We just want to build on that and give the fans a little bit more – but give them what they loved about the series too. There’s something very British about Lucky Man but American shows broaden our horizons and it ups everyone’s game. Lucky Man rises to that challenge very well.”

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Medical examiner

Fact trumps fiction in US medical drama Pure Genius, which offers a glimpse into treatments of the future. Michael Pickard discusses the show with writer David Renaud.

David Renaud
David Renaud

From storylines featuring mind-reading technology to using spider silk screws to repair a broken leg, US series Pure Genius might appear more medical fantasy than medical drama.

But as staff writer David Renaud reveals, there’s nothing in the show that’s completely fictitious.

“Everything is real, everything is based on reality,” he says of the CBS drama, which began its first 13-episode season in October. “There’s this weird perception that it isn’t but it doesn’t take much Google searching to find out most of this stuff is happening. When [showrunner] Jason Katims convened the writers’ room, he did not want to make a science fiction show. He wanted to make an aspirational medical show and that’s been the directive we’ve tried to follow as we explore the technology and medicine behind a lot of the cases in the show.”

Set at futuristic hospital Bunker Hill, the story centres on young Silicon Valley tech billionaire James Bell (played by Augustus Prew) who builds the ultimate cutting-edge hospital that treats only the rarest medical mysteries. Lending credibility to this new venture is Dr Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney), a maverick surgeon who’s the first to discover that his boss’s mission is to take the bureaucracy out of medicine, use the most forward thinking technology practitioners and just save lives – including his own.

The cast also features Odette Annable, Reshma Shetty, Aaron Jennings, Ward Horton and Brenda Song.

Katims (Parenthood, Friday Night Lights) executive produces with David Semel and Michelle Lee for Universal Television Studios and CBS Television Studios. Distribution is handled by NBCUniversal International Distribution, with Universal Channel picking up the show in the UK.

Pure Genius has its roots in real and developing medical techniques

Renaud is a family-doctor-turned-TV-writer who left medicine to complete the Disney-ABC Writing Program in 2015/16. His first show was ABC’s Blood & Oil, before he joined the writers’ room of Pure Genius earlier this year.

And it was while reading the pilot script for the show, formerly known as Bunker Hill, that the medical drama stood out to him, particularly due to the similarities he shared with the lead character.

“I had a spinal cord injury when I was in high school and after that injury, I woke up in a hospital room with the doctor telling me I was never going to walk again. So I decided I was going to try to find a cure for paralysis,” Renaud reveals. “The fact I went to med school to find a cure for myself really spoke to me about James Bell. I definitely connected to James’ motivation [to use the hospital to find a cure for his own illness].

“I’m also a huge fan of Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and all of Jason’s work, so any opportunity to work with him, no matter what the show was, I would have snapped up. So it was just lucky he was getting into the medical drama game.”

This isn’t your usual medical drama, however. From the opening scenes of the pilot, it’s clear Bunker Hill is a very special hospital where all manner of technology and techniques are used to save patients’ lives by any means possible. But under Katims’ leadership, characters always come first when it comes to creating storylines for each episode.

“Jason is really a character person and cares about why patients are there and how an illness can impact their life in a positive and negative way,” Renaud says. “We’ll usually start with character stories and bring in a really cool technology, like the liver regeneration. Jason wanted to tell a story about whether two people can come together over a broken relationship and then we needed to find some medical way to tell that story. I found this interesting article about regenerating the livers of alcoholics – so what if the only person that could give someone a liver was an alcoholic? That research is actually being done in Edinburgh; everything on the show is really happening.”

Pure Genius 2
Maverick surgeon Dr Walter Wallace is played by Dermot Mulroney

So while everything shown on Pure Genius has its roots in reality, Renaud admits there have been occasions where some stories look further into the future than others.

“In the beginning, Jason would always ask if something was real because he didn’t want anything fake,” he continues. “Then we got to the point where he trusted us! Jason was very particular about everything being rooted in reality. The brain reading in episode one is definitely pushing that technology more than five minutes into the future. They’re doing brain-to-brain communication – that is definitely happening, at a very basic level. It’s a bit of a leap but it’s definitely happening.”

Bringing new medical procedures and techniques to the small screen isn’t just a job for the writers, however, as both production designer Steven Jordan and property master Jeff Johnson are tasked with creating whatever is in the script, with just days to complete the job before each episode starts filming.

“We have a lot of sets built that Steven’s designed but every episode has a new location,” Renaud notes. “There’s also a lot of props and medical technologies we give them and they have a week-and-a-half to turn around, so they read the script and have got to have spider silk screws or a liver to pull out of someone to put into someone else.

“For the props, we’ll usually give them examples of things in reality they can be based on and Jeff will go and put his interpretation on it for the Bunker Hill version. Sometimes there are things we’ve read about in a research paper and there’s no way to tell what something looks like. But then Jason and the director can weigh in on what something looks like. To me, as a young writer, it gets turned around incredibly efficiently and very fast.”

Pure Genius is set in the fictitious Bunker Hill hospital

With Pure Genius joining a list of US medical dramas that boasts long-running series such as Grey’s Anatomy and daytime soap General Hospital as well as Code Black, Chicago Med and Mercy Street, among others, the genre continues to find compelling stories to tell against the backdrop of life-and-death situations.

And it’s for that very reason that Renaud believes hospital-set scripted series remain so popular among viewers.

“Not everyone’s been to space like in Battlestar Galactica but everybody has been touched by a health crisis, whether themselves or a family member,” he observes. “So I feel like these stories are relatable, the stakes are high, medical dramas tend to do well when lives get saved and there’s something about the hope that somebody will do everything they can to save your life. There’s a bit of wish fulfilment tucked in there.

“They’re not going anywhere. There will always be medical dramas because these are human stories, and they’re great stories to tell.”

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US studios extend int’l footprint

Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick
Gone is a 12-part series adapted from Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick

About two years ago, the international scripted TV business started to express its concern that there was a shortage of US procedural dramas coming on to the market. With the trend towards limited series and increased emphasis on superhero/sci-fi, buyers in markets like France and Germany feared a gap.

A number of companies said they would address the shortfall, including NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS), which formed a partnership with RTL (Germany) and TF1 (France) with the intention of creating US-style procedural dramas. This week, they delivered on their promise by greenlighting Gone, a 12-part series based on Chelsea Cain’s novel One Kick.

Gone, which will be broadcast in late 2017/early 2018, tells the story of Kit Lannigan, survivor of a child abduction case and Frank Booth, the FBI agent who rescued her. Determined never to fall victim again, Kick trains in martial arts and the use of firearms.

She finds her calling when Booth persuades her to join a task force dedicated to solving abductions and missing persons cases. Paired with former army intelligence officer John Bishop, Kick brings her unique understanding of the mind of a predator to the team.

Gone will be executive produced by Matt Lopez, JoAnn Alfano and Sara Colleton. All episodes will be written, cast and produced in the US.

Hilary Bevan Jones
Hilary Bevan Jones

RTL and TF1 will broadcast and distribute the series in their territories (German and French respectively) and NBCUniversal International Distribution will license rights for the US and the rest of the world on behalf of the partnership.

Michael Edelstein, president of NBCUIS, said: “We are all delighted to be moving forward so quickly on our first series. In Gone, Matt Lopez has created a fascinating character who we believe will connect with procedural audiences around the world. We are assembling a first-rate production team and look forward to future series with our partners.”

Fabrice Bailly, head of programmes and acquisition TF1 Group, said: “The collaborative relationship represents a new way of working, for both studios and European broadcasters, to achieve high-quality procedural dramas.”

Joerg Graf, exec VP of production and acquisition at RTL Deutschland, added: “TF1 and NBCUniversal International Studios share our view that tailor-made formats will meet the need of our viewers for high-quality crime dramas.”

While the project is a welcome development, one point of interest is that Gone’s 12-episode run is still shorter than a standard US procedural. The first season of Fox’s Lethal Weapon, for example, is 18 episodes, while ABC’s Quantico has received 22-episode orders in seasons one and two. So a 12-episode order still leaves open a questions over the volume of new procedural episodes such cross-border alliances can bring to market.

Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons
Crackle original Chosen has aired for four seasons

Another interesting story this week is the announcement that Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Africa has commissioned its first original drama in the region. While it isn’t a procedural like Gone, it does illustrate the increasing level of US studio engagement in the international market (in our last column, we also reported how HBO Europe is increasing its slate of original dramas).

Called The Nine, the new FNG show is created by Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell (American Odyssey) and produced by Hilary Bevan Jones (Close To The Enemy, State of Play). An eight-hour drama, it tells the story of an ex-spy “who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from spreading chaos throughout the Middle East.”

Maxwell and Parkhill said: “We wanted to tell a story set against the backdrop of our dangerous and uncertain times. The Nine unfolds through the eyes of a man caught between two versions of himself, the past and the present. The genre of an espionage thriller gives us the perfect opportunity to mix his personal story with the turbulence of an ever-changing geo-political landscape.”

UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel
UK indie Big Talk Productions is rebooting1970s sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel

The project was commissioned by Jeff Ford, senior VP of content development, and Sara Johnson, VP scripted drama for FNG, Europe and Africa, and will go into pre-production in the new year.

“Following the success we’ve had with our Fox global content, we made a commitment to develop drama for this region that has the potential to be a success worldwide,” said Ford.

Another story that showcases the increasing international clout of the US studios’ production operations is the news that Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with Chinese streaming service iQIYI on a three-part Mandarin-language drama. The partners will create a new version of Chosen, a Crackle original that has aired for four seasons.

SPT’s Playmaker Media is producing with support from Screen NSW and the show will be shot entirely in Australia. Production begins in the spring with a launch due at the end of 2017.

The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series
The Ritual Bath is the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series

The past week has also seen a number of production and development announcements flowing out of C21’s Content London event. For example, ITV Studios-owned indie Big Talk Productions confirmed that it is remaking sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, with Luther creator Neil Cross attached to the project.

Also, screenwriter/director Tony Grisoni revealed that he is developing a drama set against the 1943 Allied liberation of Sicily, with UK broadcaster Channel 4 paying for script development.

In the US, meanwhile, Thunderbird Entertainment has teamed up with David Salzman (Dallas) to develop a TV series based on Faye Kellerman’s Decker-Lazarus series of mystery novels.

The initial development process will focus on The Ritual Bath, the first book in the Decker-Lazarus series. The story follows a tough LAPD detective and a widowed mother of two who witnesses a brutal crime and becomes embroiled in solving it.

Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie
Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, based on the Jack Black movie

Also in the US, Nickelodeon has greenlit a third season of School of Rock, a tween/teen series based on the 2003 cult movie of the same name. Originally ordered straight-to-series, the show was given a rapid second season order of 13 episodes and has been attracting an average of around 1.4 million viewers.

The third season, which will go into production in 2017, will have 20 episodes, suggesting Nickelodeon is very happy with the show. School of Rock was the first series order for Paramount TV and is the first to go to a third season. The studio has also enjoyed success with Epix show Berlin Station and USA Network’s Shooter.

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