Tag Archives: Netflix

Space odyssey

Since beginning his television career on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Naren Shankar has worked across the spectrum of science-fiction drama. Now helming Syfy’s The Expanse, he discusses adapting the source novels and the increasing demands of being a showrunner.

For most aspiring writers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, landing a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation must have seemed light years away. Yet that’s exactly where Naren Shankar got his big break in Hollywood at the start of a career that – eight years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation apart – has been dominated by science fiction.

Shankar has also written episodes of other Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and has worked on SeaQuest 2032 and The Outer Limits. Stints on Farscape and Almost Human came later, while he has also worked on fantasy series Grimm.

Shankar is now showrunner of Syfy space opera The Expanse, which has returned both the showrunner and the network to their respective space travel roots. Season one opens two hundred years in the future, when the case of a missing young woman brings a hardened detective (played by Thomas Jane) and a rogue ship’s captain (Steven Strait) together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.

Naren Shankar

The series, produced and distributed by Alcon Television Group, is based on a collection of books with the same name, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James SA Corey).

The books were acquired by Alcon and executive producer Sharon Hall, who developed The Expanse for a straight-to-series pickup with the Sean Daniel Company. Writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (who both worked Children of Men and Iron Man) were brought in to write the pilot, which was then picked up by Syfy for a 10-episode first season debuting in 2015. That’s when Shankar comes in.

“Alcon had never done a television show before, neither had Mark or Hawk and neither had Sean Daniel Company,” he explains. “Sharon and I had worked together through the years so she reached out to me, and that’s how I got involved in the project. I met with the team and just hit it off.

“This was everybody’s first experience of television except for me, and going from the feature world to television is not necessarily an easy transition. That’s how it all started and it’s been a great experience.”

Joining Shankar in the writers room from the start have been the original novel writers Franck and Abraham – and though that could have been a difficult partnership, the showrunner says the pair have been very open to adapting their books for television.

“Ty had worked with George RR Martin when Game of Thrones was getting set up so he had a front-row seat to the process, and with Mark and Hawk from the feature side, me from television, Ty and Daniel from novels, I think we’ve actually been able to get a little of each world into the show,” Shankar explains. “It’s just been a really enjoyable experience and here we are in season three.”

The Expanse is adapted from books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck

Much has changed in sci-fi, both on and off screen, since Shankar first started work on The Next Generation. He recalls the genre was “a little bit of a ghetto” with very niche storytelling that many people didn’t think translated into broad, mainstream entertainment.

Now, however, elements of sci-fi are littered across the TV landscape, from The X-Files and Black Mirror to Stranger Things, Orphan Black and, of course, Star Trek: Discovery.

After spending the first 10 years of his career working in the genre, culminating in Farscape, Shankar transitioned to cop shows, admitting he no longer found much to interest him in the genre.

“I hadn’t really liked what Syfy was putting on the air and, for a long time, they kind of lost their way in terms of programming,” he says. “They weren’t quite sure what it was and I think the network in some ways missed the boat. There’s no reason The Walking Dead couldn’t have been on Syfy. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and then there was a big regime change there. Bill McGoldrick from USA Network was brought in and The Expanse was the first major project he brought to the network with the express purpose to restore science fiction to Syfy. He said to us, ‘Well, you’re either going to get me fired or get me promoted.’ He got promoted!”

Picking up The Expanse novels, Shankar found there was a lot of story condensed into each novel and that events moved quickly. So one of the first things he changed from the pilot when he joined the production was to shift the focus to character and give the show room to breathe. As a result, some elements cut from the original pilot eventually made their way to screen in episode four.

Shankar’s first major writing job was on Star Trek: The Next Generation

Novellas and short stories that Franck and Abraham had written to accompany the main books also serve to flesh out the show’s main characters. “It opened up this whole extra world of material and the show has become kind of a hybrid of the novels and novellas with additional material that we’ve created, so it’s very much its own thing,” Shankar says. “But what I’m finding from people who know the novels and watch the show is it’s very true to the spirit of the books, and that’s the key.”

Where The Expanse differs from other space-set dramas is in its dedication to physics, preferring to indulge the science part of science fiction that some titles in the genre have ignored.

“Star Trek had very little to do with science,” Shankar observes. “For the most part, and this is a broad generalisation, Star Trek was essentially a social allegorical kind of a show. There were problems of the day transposed to aliens and different races and how we deal with them. It was very much about ideas. The ‘technology’ was about the same as magic – faster-than-light travel, tractor beams, phaser beams and all this kind of stuff that just isn’t real. And spaceships moved like airplanes.”

The Expanse, however, is firmly rooted in science reality, with the writing team tasked with considering issues such as the state of gravity. “If a ship’s not under thrust then the people inside have to be weightless, because that’s just how space works,” the showrunner says, offering one example.

Dominique Tipper is among the show’s leading cast members

“Most television shows just ignore it [science], even Battlestar Galactica,” Shankar says, highlighting the space opera that ran on Syfy in the early 2000s. “It’s a war movie. The original series was about Pearl Harbor. Ron Moore turned it into a 9/11 allegory but in terms of the fighter battles, it is the Second World War in the Pacific. That isn’t how we do things on The Expanse. Battles are different but they’re much more about how, if you had these things happen in space, this is how they would be. Rockets only go in one direction, there are no brakes. The only way to turn around in space is to flip around and push the rocket the other way. The joke in our series pilot was the big action scene was a gigantic truck changing direction. That’s all it is. It feels very dramatic because of the aesthetic approach was to say living in space is hard, it’s difficult to do, it’s risky.

“When The Expanse was brought to me, I thought it was an opportunity to make space a character in the show in a way I had not seen done before on television, and we’ve really persisted in that. That’s very much baked into how we work.”

As a showrunner, Shankar says his method comes from his early Star Trek days, where the staff for the last two seasons included the aforementioned Ronald D Moore plus Brannon Braga and René Echevarria, with consultant producer Joe Menosky, showrunner Jeri Taylor and former showrunner Michael Piller.

“The room was very egalitarian,” Shankar recalls. “It was the old adage of the best idea wins. There was very little hierarchy, everybody could argue, nobody was afraid of fighting with the boss or saying what was on their mind in a really healthy way. That’s how we broke stories and that’s how I like rooms.

The third season of The Expanse will air next year

“The rooms I’ve found most problematic and least interesting to be around are ones where everyone’s worried about if the boss is going to like it or what does he think he wants or what does she think she wants. When you take that out of it, you get what’s in somebody’s head and if you really listen to them, it’s the best way to go about making shows.”

Having been a showrunner on CSI and now three seasons into The Expanse in the same position, Shankar describes showrunning as an “evolving” role, and considers television to be tipping into an auteur-based model often associated with cinema. “But I don’t know how great that is, necessarily,” he admits. “When I was starting out as a baby writer on Star Trek, the showrunner responsibilities were very much confined to the show. As the business has grown and as connections with the fans have grown, the portfolio for a showrunner has gotten much broader,” he explains, noting his responsibility in areas such as marketing and brand awareness, helping the show to break through the noise of more than 500 other scripted series in the US alone.

Shankar also sees a place in television for shows that are essentially “very long movies” such as Big Little Lies, which HBO has now confirmed will return for a second season. “They’re beautifully done, beautifully realised, beautifully acted… it was like a seven-episode movie,” he says of the Nicole Kidman- and Reese Witherspoon-starring show. “That’s one way of doing television, but I don’t know how that’s going to work if you’re going season after season after season. That felt to me like one story that you’re telling.”

That’s not the case with The Expanse, however, with the sixth novel in the series published earlier this month, season three of the show due in 2018 and the promise of more to come. “One of the great joys of television is when you put the right bunch of people together and let them take some creative ownership of material as a group,” Shankar concludes. “You can really do some amazing things. I think The Expanse is a show that could go to seven seasons, easily.”

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Back to the 1980s

As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.

It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.

Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.

The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.

Netflix hit Stranger Things has been at the forefront of the 80s trend

“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”

But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.

“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”

As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.

Female wrestling drama GLOW is also on Netflix

“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”

In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”

Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”

When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.

Weissensee, which highlights a less colourful side of the decade than many other series

“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”

It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”

Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”

“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”

To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”

LA crack cocaine drama Snowfall

That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”

“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”

With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.

One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”

US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.

“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”

So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”

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Crowning glory

Ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s impending nuptials, royal marriages will be pushed further into the spotlight in season two of Netflix’s The Crown. DQ visits the set to hear how the Queen’s union with Prince Philip is pushed to the limit in the second run.

In what looks like a car park at Elstree Film Studios, situated next to a large branch of Tesco, sits Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

The doors and gates of Buckingham Palace are surrounded by green screens that allow The Crown’s crew to work their magic so that it really looks like a palace rather than a particularly ornate bit of plywood. Meanwhile, the door of the somewhat grubby-looking prime ministerial home is taller than normal; it was raised by nine inches to make John Lithgow look more like the rather smaller Winston Churchill in the first season and now it is stuck at that size.

These two buildings, weighted with history, are at the heart of British life and the interweaving stories of what goes on behind their doors are the spine of the award-winning show, one of the most ambitious pieces of television ever made.

The first two seasons cost a rumoured £100m (US$133m) but almost every penny can be seen on screen. This season also spans Antarctica, the South Seas, the Suez Canal, Scotland, Lisbon, Washington, Nazi Germany, Paris and Ghana, while much of the action of the first three episodes takes place on the Royal Yacht Britannia. No effort has been spared to make this sumptuous world believable.

The second season of The Crown sharpens the focus on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith respectively

The characters, too, are larger than life, encompassing everyone from the Kennedys and preacher Billy Graham to cuckolded prime minister Harold Macmillan and Christine Keeler, the showgirl who helped bring down a government. But, at the heart of it, is a special but often dysfunctional family.

The Crown showed the world a very different side of the royals in its 10-part first season. Starring Claire Foy as a naïve but eager-to-please princess who found the crown thrust upon her two decades before she expected it and Matt Smith as her alpha male husband who was forced to give up his own aspirations to stand behind his wife, the show humanised them and made them more understandable.

“I am not a Queen nutter or anything,” insists Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and writer. He first wrote about Elizabeth II in The Queen, the Oscar-winning film about how the Palace and prime minister Tony Blair reacted to the death of Princess Diana. That led to The Audience, the award-winning play where he looked at the secret weekly meetings between the monarch and prime ministers over the decades. The Crown, the entire second season of which landed on Netflix today, was the obvious next step.

As a younger man, Morgan was a republican, but he admits he has since changed his mind. “Most sensible people in the early 1990s probably thought this lot should be kicked out,” he says. “But if we had a referendum on the royal family tomorrow, I think 80% of the country would vote to keep them. I certainly would. I really would. Look at the heads of state everywhere else – there has been a catastrophic failure of the political class in the last couple of years, but [the Queen] represents stability.”

Dexter star Michael C Hall as JFK alongside Jodi Balfour as Jackie Kennedy

The second season of the Netflix show, which is made by Left Bank Pictures and distributor Sony Pictures Television, starts in 1956 with prime minister Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez Crisis and ends in 1964 with his successor, Harold Macmillan, resigning amid the Profumo scandal. In every crisis, the Queen is left to pick up the broken pieces, as she has so many times since.

In this season we also see how, despite her home life being turbulent, the Queen always puts duty first. Her marriage to Philip is particularly under the spotlight at the start of the 10-episode run.

“Doesn’t everybody in Britain know Philip’s had an affair?” teases Morgan. The answer is no; no one knows for sure whether he had an affair or two, but there have been plenty of rumours. The season plays on them, and how they and Philip’s playboy behaviour impact the Queen. The rumours arc across the season, starting with Philip’s five-month tour on the HMS Britannia that took him away from his family to open the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and visit some of the Commonwealth’s far-flung islands. It ends with his name being mixed up in the Profumo affair.

History has proved the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge’s marriage to be spectacularly successful and last month they celebrated 70 years together. It meant the programme-makers had to think hard about how to treat these rumours, and they tread the line carefully.

The Crown creator Peter Morgan sandwiched between stars Smith and Foy

“There has never been any confirmation of an affair and it would be prurient, really horrible and irresponsible to make hefty suggestions,” says Left Bank’s Suzanne Mackie. “We know for a fact that this has been a very long and successful marriage. So many people we have talked to, historians and people who have worked in the palace, say they have witnessed a lot of love and affection in this marriage. We have nothing but respect for that. It would be ghastly of us to say anything else.

“And yet, like any marriage, it has to go through periods of change and periods of uncertainty and instability. It is something most of us have experienced; this is a real marriage and we would be whitewashing it to say it was happy all the way through. So we go on a complicated twisting, winding road and we hope that we come out with something truthful.”

While the programme-makers have always been keen to stress they are making drama, not a documentary, they try not to steer too far from facts. A group of historians dubbed The Brains Trust both suggest storylines to Morgan and also ensure the spirit, if not the letter, of the drama is correct.

One story sees the Queen fall out with Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) over nasty comments the First Lady made about the monarch. This plot element was based on rumours in Cecil Beaton’s diaries but is heavily fictionalised. A separate story about the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the Queen’s uncle who abdicated the throne, and his Nazi past is more based on fact. It hinges around the discovery of the Marburg Files, which indicated just how sympathetic the Duke was to Germany’s ambitions.

Matthew Goode and Vanessa Kirby, who play Tony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret

“You can access the files at the British library and they are amazing,” says Philippa Lowthorpe, the Bafta-winning director who helmed the episode. “When we were filming, I carried them around in my bag so when the crew asked – and they frequently did – how much of it really was true, I could fish them out and show them.

“They are telegrams and letters from people who were around the Duke. Everybody was talking about him. They were manipulating him but he didn’t seem to mind. He had sympathies with Hitler and his philosophy.

“We used copies of the real files throughout the show and there’s a scene where the Queen is given them. It was the first time Claire got to read them – there are about 60 documents in the file – and when she finished the scene she just said, ‘Oh my God.’” Just to emphasis how true this story is, real pictures of the Duke are used at the end of this particular episode.

Meanwhile, the turbulence we see in the love life of Princess Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby, who in this season meets and marries the philanderer Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), is also based on fact.

“Tony represents the shock of the new, which is a real theme of the series,” says director Ben Caron, who directed three episodes of season two. “This is the end of the age of deference and the royals are being thrust into the modern era. Tony is from an artistic world and he challenges all the conventions people have got used to.”

The plan is to have six seasons altogether and filming for the third starts in July but with an entirely new cast who will take the royals into the 70s and 80s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Olivia Colman, the Bafta- and Golden Globe-winning star of Broadchurch and The Night Manager, will replace Claire Foy as an older version of the Queen, while the producers are close to choosing the rest of their royal family.

Caron, who directed the final scene to feature Foy, Kirby and Goode (ironically one that has not made the final cut), says wrapping the shoot was a bittersweet moment. “The gaffers put on an amazing light display and turned the whole room into a big disco,” he says. “Everyone had slowly started appearing on set from all the departments you don’t always see and you suddenly realise the magnitude of the thing.

“There were a few speeches and some champagne. We’ve all been on this amazing two-year journey together – we’ve seen more of each other than we’ve seen of our own families and it was tough having to say goodbye to the cast. But, for the rest of us, the work continues.”

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The future is now

Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has become rather adept at predicting future technologies and scientific advancements. With season four coming to Netflix, he and coproducer Annabel Jones reveal the writing and development process behind the anthology series.

The future can often look like a bleak and rather scary place in Netflix’s Black Mirror. That’s why when those in the scientific know tell the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, that he’s unconsciously stumbled upon something they were working on, it terrifies him.

“We don’t really talk to scientists, even though we keep thinking that we should go on some fact-finding mission to Silicon Valley,” says Brooker, who writes and coproduces the hit anthology series.

Charlie Brooker

“So when people whose job is to worry about the future say to me, ‘Yes, you were right about that,’ my only thought is, ‘Oh shit!’”

Yet Brooker has an uncanny knack of getting things right. “I am often surprised when something I’ve written about turns out to be true,” he adds. “Last season, I had one story called Hated in the Nation, which had little bee drones in it. They were terrifying, and it turns out they are real – I didn’t realise until after the show went out.”

The Waldo Moment, which debuted in 2013, foreshadowed both the rise of Donald Trump and Apple’s iPhone X, which allows people to become avatars on their phones.

“Sometimes when we’re doing a story, it resonates with something that’s going on in the real world, but that’s often a coincidence, or it’s accidental, or it’s just because that stuff was in the ether. The Waldo Moment is a good example, where actually it was about Boris Johnson on panel shows but then down the line it became more of a global thing than we probably realised at the time.”

But Brooker is clearly doing something right, and it’s not just his predictions. After starting as a cult hit on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix for season three last year, Black Mirror won two Emmys in September and has rapidly become event television. Its range of often dystopian, sometimes beautiful and always challenging stories means the fourth season, due to land on Netflix this month, is eagerly awaited around the world.

So where does Brooker, a former television reviewer for The Guardian who started his working life writing about games for PC Zone magazine, get his twisted ideas? Instead of reading science periodicals and going fact-finding in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Roundabout, Brooker and his long-time coproducer Annabel Jones (their House of Tomorrow production company is part of the Endemol Shine Group) talk about their everyday fears and then think of ways adding technology to them to make things even scarier.

Arkangel arose from a discussion of fears around parenting

“Often it starts with just a general discussion about something like parenting and then one of us will come up with a ‘what if’ idea and we’ll ping-pong it back and forth,” Brooker explains. “I’ll be trying to think of the worst possible outcome and Annabel will challenge me by saying, ‘Well, that wouldn’t happen because…’ and I will say, ‘No, but it would.’ It is at the point where I realise I can’t shut up and Annabel is saying, ‘That sounds horrible,’ that we really think, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”

And then comes the hard work. “Writing can take two or three days, or sometimes a month, and then I hand it over to Annabel, she makes a load of critical marks and find myself getting defensive on every level,” he admits. “Sometimes I end up ripping it up and starting again – that has happened several times – or I just park an idea and start on another.”

If a script does pass the Jones test, there is almost inevitably some kind of rewrite when the director or even the cast come aboard.

The scary parenting idea turned into season four’s Arkangel, which explores what might happen if you could watch your child 24/7 with a sophisticated surveillance tool. The episode was directed by Jodie Foster, who immediately loved the story.

Crocodile stars Andrea Riseborough in a story set in Iceland

“Jodie had lots of thoughts and suggestions so I went back to redraft it,” says Brooker. “We were so flattered to have her on board and, of course, she is someone who understands privacy, who understands being in the spotlight and how you can control your profile in the world.

“Because she was, of course, a child actor she knows how to work with them and it was a pleasure to see her on set working and getting these great performances from the young actors.”

Meanwhile, when movie actor Andrea Riseborough was sent the script for Crocodile, a story set in Iceland in a near future when memories are no longer private, she immediately asked to play a different role, which meant Brooker had to rewrite the script with the lead character as a woman, not a man.

“Basically, the more people there are who get involved, the more flesh is added to the bones,” says Brooker. “Luckily, I find now that when I get to the end I can’t remember what it looked like originally. The finished product has always got so many things I would not have thought of.”

Metalhead stars Maxine Peake and is shot entirely in black and white

When it moved to Netflix, Black Mirror shifted from a three-episode season to six episodes, giving Brooker and Jones the space to push the boundaries ever more, with the duo determined that each story should have a very different feel.

This season sees everything from a satirical Star Trek-style space story in the ambitious feature-length USS Callister (pictured top), starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Miloti, to a short domestic black-and-white tale called Metalhead, starring Maxine Peake, which is just 38 minutes long.

“We feel that we can really explore and push the perception of what the story is without breaking it up,” says Jones, who has worked with her Black Mirror collaborator for nearly two decades. “On Netflix, not only can we experiment with the size and tone of a story but even with the duration. Working like this gives us so much more freedom to tell different stories.”

Since the success of Black Mirror, anthologies have become fashionable once again, as seen recently in another transatlantic collaboration, Electric Dreams, comprising adaptations of short stories by science fiction writer Philip K Dick for Channel 4 and Amazon.

Hang the DJ  focuses on dating in the digital age

However, Brooker says he deliberately avoids watching any competitors. “I think I would probably suffer crippling professional jealousy,” he reveals. “I tend to avoid things that I think might be in the same ballpark if I can, just because I don’t want to be shown up.

“People did tell me to watch [HBO drama] Westworld and [Spike Jonze movie] Her because they were similar to Black Mirror, but I’ve deliberately avoided them. I also don’t want to be influenced by them – they might put me off.

“But it’s flattering there are more anthology shows around. It’s not a format I’ve invented by any means; I nicked it from The Twilight Zone. It’s pretty much the oldest format in television history, but I think the advent of streaming platforms has brought it back into fashion. You no longer have to worry about an audience coming back week on week; it’s all just there in the magic streaming cupboard.”

For someone who conjures such chilling stories about the future, Brooker remains remarkably sanguine about the rise of technology and its impact on humans. He believes we just need to learn how to deal with it.

“You can’t put progress back in a box, that’s the problem – it won’t fit,” he says. “If you’ve ever tried putting an iPad back in a box, you can’t even do that! It’s weird, there’s a bewildering number of technological things we’re having to grapple with at the moment and we have to work out what the social rules are, basically. The closest analogy I can think of is the motor car, which obviously revolutionised transport and was a good thing but it took us a while to learn the rules; to have road signs, to work out road markings.

“We must have had a lot of accidents before we worked out a system of keeping everybody safe. It feels like there’s a hundred different motor cars being invented every week at the moment, that’s the difference, so we’ve got our work cut out. But what are we going to do, go back to xylophones and eating mud? No!”

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¡Viva España!

Without much noise or fanfare, Spain has been steadily building a reputation as one of the hottest producers of scripted drama, with homegrown series finding fans around the world. DQ takes an in-depth look at the wave of new series coming out of the country.

Spanish drama may not attract as much attention as Nordic noir or the ‘Korean wave,’ but there’s no question the country’s scripted series are now enjoying decent levels of profile around the world. And with significant increases in content investment from free-to-air (FTA) channels, pay TV and SVoD platforms, Spain’s storytellers are poised to deliver a new wave of diverse and ambitious shows to the international market.

One of the first firms to identify the potential of Spanish drama was German distributor Beta Film, which was responsible for the international roll-outs of Gran Hotel and Velvet, two exquisite period pieces produced by Bambú Producciones for FTA network Antena 3.

According to Beta Film executive VP for acquisitions and sales Christian Gockel, the success of the Bambú/Antena 3 partnership convinced his company to board two new productions from the same stable: Morocco – Love in Times of War and Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic. “They have raised the bar yet again by taking the unique blend of romance and drama we know so well from Velvet,” he says.

Morocco, says Gockel, is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops. Farinia, meanwhile, “centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.”

Farinia is a good indicator of how Antena 3 – the dominant force in FTA drama – has diversified its slate in recent times. The channel also launched Vis a Vis (pictured above), a female-prison drama produced by Mediapro drama label Globomedia. Distributed by Mediapro sales arm Imagina under the title Locked Up, that show broke into the English-speaking market, airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on foreign-language SVoD service Walter Presents.

Gran Hotel was produced by Bambú Producciones for Antena 3

Walter Presents also picked up fellow Antena 3/Globomedia drama Pulsaciones (Lifeline). The psychological thriller is about a surgeon who unravels a medical scandal after suffering a heart attack and having strange nightmares when he receives a donor heart. “Last year, Locked Up exploded onto the international scene, heralding a renaissance in Spanish scripted excellence,” says Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino. “This year they’ve done it again. Lifeline is a thriller with shock narrative twists and epic cliffhanger endings.”

The growing appeal of Antena 3-commissioned drama to the global market is further underlined by a deal that will see Netflix air miniseries The Cathedral of the Sea around the world. Based on Ildefonso Falcones’ bestselling novel and produced by leading Spanish prodco Diagonal, the story takes place in 14th century Barcelona during the Inquisition.

Explaining his remit, Antena 3 senior VP for drama Nacho Manubens says: “Although we produce sporadically for our other channels [laSexta, Neox], we mainly focus on Antena 3. We commission more than 600 hours of TV per year, with 120 primetime hours and 500 daytime hours. We have a range of genres, since our audiences demand variety and innovation. In thrillers we have had hits with Bajo Sospecha, Mar De Plastico and Vis a Vis. In period dramas we have had El Tiempo Entre Costuras and Velvet. These are both lines we will continue exploring.”

Antena 3 has developed a reputation for edgy shows – something Manubens wants to maintain. “We cannot take risks in every show we produce, but we try to keep making shows that push the envelope like we did with Casa De Papel [aka The Money Heist, the latest show from Via a Vis creator Alex Pina].”

Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are) was a hit for Mediaset España

Public broadcaster RTVE and Mediaset Espana, owner of commercial networks TeleCinco and Cuatro, have also upped their scripted game. For RTVE, key titles have been El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) and Isabel, produced by Onza Partners/Cliffhanger and Diagonal respectively. Isabel, one of several royal-themed shows on the market, ran for three seasons and travelled well internationally. Buoyed by its success, RTVE also made a foray into English-language drama with Reinas (Queens), about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.

Mediaset España, meanwhile, had a hit with Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are), a Filmax production about a charismatic university lecturer’s possible involvement in his niece’s murder. The show was bought by several networks, including the influential BBC4 – its first Spanish acquisition – with head of BBC programme acquisitions Sue Deeks calling it “the dramatic equivalent of a page-turning thriller.” Mediaset España’s increased investment in event series has also seen it back Forgive Me God, an eight-part miniseries about a nun battling delinquency and the drug trade.

Alongside the increased ambition among FTA channels, there are also new opportunities in the pay TV and SVoD arenas, according to Pilar Blasco, MD of Endemol Shine Iberia, a division that includes Diagonal. “Spain has always been a strong market for local original scripted programming and this has enabled us to build an industry of creative writers, showrunners and directors,” she says. “The big game-changer, however, has been increased commissioning of Spanish productions from the likes of Movistar+, Netflix, HBO and Amazon. As a result, the Spanish drama industry is flourishing with higher budgets that tell more daring stories from a broader range of genres.”

The most high-profile example of Blasco’s point is Telefónica’s decision to invest €70m (US$84m) a year in scripted series for its pay TV platform Movistar+. According to Domingo Corral, head of original programming at Movistar+, the plan is to launch 11 original series a year, initially for SVoD customers. The emphasis will be on “Spanish-language series dealing with Spanish stories created by Spanish talent,” he says.

Movistar+ drama La Zona is set four years after a nuclear accident

Titles include La Zona, a story set in northern Spain four years after a nuclear accident. Also coming soon is La Peste, set in 16th century Sevilla against the backdrop of a plague. Movistar+ has also done a deal with Bambú for a spin-off from Madrid fashion-store series Velvet, which ended on Antena 3 after four seasons. The new series, Velvet Collection, will take the story forward to the 1960s and relocate to Barcelona.

At first sight, Corral’s insistence on super-charged Spanish series seems like it will limit their international appeal. But he takes the view that “great storytelling and characters have universal appeal.” Besides, he adds, Movistar+ series will have 50-minute episodes, rather than the 70 minutes typical to Spain. This will make them a better fit for the global market. Also, Movistar+ has spared no expense on talent, pulling in writers and directors from the country’s admired cinema scene.

Beta Film is continuing its relationship with the Velvet franchise and is also distributing La Zona, says Gockel. “We believe La Zona is one of the most exciting shows coming from Spain this year. It’s an innovative eco-crime thriller with a high budget that will catch viewers around the globe.”

About Premium Content has picked up rights to eight-part mob thriller Gigantes, while Sky Vision has secured global rights to La Peste, which is budgeted at €10m for six episodes. Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip gives an upbeat assessment of Movistar+’s shows: “With La Peste, they have assembled an incredible team with a proven track record. The partnership of Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos has delivered a deeply engaging story that delivers a thriller of scale, a pungent sense of the past and a modernity that will satisfy audiences.”

Big-budget series La Peste is being distributed by Sky Vision

Movistar+’s investment in drama is especially timely given the growing competition. In April, Netflix launched Las Chicas del Cable, another sumptuous period piece from the Bambú stable that tells the story of four young women working for Spain’s national telephone company in the 1920s.

Also muscling in on the Spanish market is Fox Networks Group (FNG), which has just done a deal with Mediapro’s Globomedia that will see future series of Via a Vis air on its pay TV networks, rather than on broadcaster Antena 3. This is Fox’s first foray into original scripted series, with Vera Pereira, exec VP of FNG Iberia, saying it “will give us greater visibility and relevance in the market.”

Success in scripted formats is also contributing to Spain’s creative revival, with Star-Crossed (The CW), Red Band Society (Fox) and The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) all reimagined for the US market. Televisa USA is also teaming with Lantica Media to produce an English-language Gran Hotel, while Lionsgate has been linked to a US adaptation of Bambú’s Velvet.

The final dimension to the Spanish market’s new dynamism relates to the ambition of the producers. Bambú is part of StudioCanal and has coproduced time-travel drama Refugiados (Refugees) with BBC Worldwide. Diagonal, meanwhile, sees projects like The Cathedral of the Sea as a new phase. “It is a huge leap for the company as it moves into international coproductions,” observes Blasco. “It’s an ambitious project that would never have been commissioned without the support of Netflix.”

Velvet Collection follows on from Velvet

Another leading Spanish producer, DLO, recently became part of the Banijay network and has also picked up a commission from Movistar+ — a series based on Julia Navarro’s best-selling historical novel Dime Quien Soy. In a similar vein, Lagardère Active-owned producer Boomerang is well-known for El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time in Between), a 2013 hit for Antena 3 that went on to sell into 75 territories. Now the company has identified Latin America as a key expansion opportunity and is working on a brace of series for broadcasters in Chile. Bambú is also building its profile in Latin America, via a development deal with Televisa in Mexico.

Mediapro is also involved in an eclectic mix of domestic and international series. It coproduced English-language drama The Young Pope and is working on Paradise, a Finnish-Spanish copro that takes place in a Spanish village on the Costa del Sol with a large Finnish community. Other projects include The Head, a copro with Sweden’s Dramacorp in which 10 scientists, trapped in a laboratory at the South Pole, realise one is a killer. “We are also working with DirecTV Latin America on El Fútbol no es Así, a crime series set in the world of Spanish football,” says Mediapro head of content Javier Mendez.

While Mendez welcomes the influx of pay TV drama funding, he says a key opportunity for Mediapro is the international market – especially in light of the fact it has a distribution arm, Imagina. “Series like Narcos show it is possible to find great stories that have the ability to travel all over the world,” he explains. “Increasingly, our strategy is to back good stories regardless of where they come from, because there is a huge appetite for drama around the world.”

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Join the club

From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.

Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.

Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.

Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.

Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).

Evan Peters in FX’s American Horror Story: Cult

Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.

Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.

In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).

Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.

A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in Waco

On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).

Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.

As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.

The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.

Last year, CBS was also said to be developing a limited miniseries about the kidnapping and alleged brainwashing of heiress Patty Hearst by the cult-like Symbionese Liberation Army in the 70s.

Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.

There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.

Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.

The Path stars Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (left)

Back in January 2016, Jake Gyllenhaal was said to be developing an anthology series about cults with Jim Jones as the subject of season one, but little has been heard of the project since then.

Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).

On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.

Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.

Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.

Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.

Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.

HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.

And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.

We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).

In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.

In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).

Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).

Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.

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A slice of the action

Rock star Meat Loaf does battle with his demons as he continues to build his extensive acting career with a starring role in paranormal drama Ghost Wars.

For a man known best for his operatic rock star persona, Meat Loaf has amassed an impressive array of film and TV credits since he made his screen debut in the 1960s. David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club stands out, of course, though roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Wayne’s World, Nash Bridges, House, Glee and Elementary are all evidence that the singer has long established a parallel career as an actor.

He’s now starring in Ghost Wars, a supernatural thriller airing on US cable channel Syfy and worldwide on Netflix. Set in an Alaskan town overrun by paranormal forces, it principally follows Roman Mercer (played by Avan Jogia), who must harness his repressed psychic powers and save everyone from the mass haunting that’s threatening to destroy them all.

Meat Loaf plays Doug Rennie (pictured in character above), a bully and a tyrannous handyman who makes it his mission to torment Mercer. When the town descends into chaos, he charges to the front of the lynch mob, ready to point fingers.

Singer/actor Meat Loaf performs on stage

Speaking to DQ from Ghost Wars’ Vancouver set, Meat Loaf comes across as a very considered, hard-working and thoughtful actor, who admits he is constantly striving to improve his screen performances having started acting on the stage.

“People tell me, ‘You’re really good,’ but I just say I’m not good enough,” the star says. “The minute you think you’re good, you’re no longer good. So all I do as a human being is continue to work and continue to be better, in every shot. It’s not as difficult physically [as singing] but mentally I’m in the middle of the sun. I really attack the scene. I put so much effort into it. I’ve never been complacent.”

The effort to avoid complacency means his fans have never seen the real Meat Loaf on screen, as the star refuses to accept cameos where he is asked to play himself. Instead, he prefers to adopt a new character each time he is on screen, much like the way he embodies a different character for each of his songs when he performs on stage.

Ghost Wars also stars Avan Jogia

“If I get a script and I know how to play a part, I will turn it down,” he reveals. “If I get a script and think, ‘How am I going to pull that off?’ that’s the one I take. You should never know exactly how to do the part. You should have to work for it. It should be a challenge.”

When asked if he sees his future in music or acting, Meat Loaf is clear about the direction of his career. “I have no music plans whatsoever,” he says bluntly. “The music industry is completely insane. Radio completely ignores my songs because I’m not 16 or 21. If that’s the way it is, so be it.” That being said, he sees lots of similarities between the two branches of show business.

Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“At my concerts, I perform every song like it’s a different character,” he says. “They have very different hand movements and the physicality is different. So I always work on the physicality of a character before reading the script.”

On Ghost Wars, a 13-part series produced and distributed by Nomadic Pictures, Meat Loaf was also keen to see his fellow cast members in action so he could build his character around them. “Even on days when I wasn’t working, I knew there were characters I would meet so I went to see who they were,” says the actor, who enjoys binge-watching series including The 100.

“I watched them working to see who these characters were. This show is not about ghosts but more about the people and personalities in the show and how they are related to each other. Doug is very angry at himself. He projects that anger only at other people.”

Looking ahead to the next stage of his acting career, Meat Loaf vows to keep pushing himself further in future roles. “If you don’t challenge yourself in life, you will never challenge yourself in anything,” he adds. “If you challenge yourself, you will be happy.”

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Down with the kids

While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.

Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.

Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.

From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.

George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.

Ackley Bridge targeted a ‘broad, multigenerational audience’

“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”

Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”

Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”

Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.

You Me Her has a strong social media following

Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”

You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”

While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.

Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”

Clique was made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment

The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”

In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”

Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”

Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”

Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”

NRK Norway’s Skam (Shame)

While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.

Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.

All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”

This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”

Freeform teen success Pretty Little Liars

This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”

The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”

While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).

Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”

Stranger Things’ second season landed on Netflix last week

Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”

Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”

On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”


Riverdale Rundown
The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.

Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”

Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”

Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”

The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.

In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”

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Trial of the century

Set immediately after the Second World War, Tokyo Trial follows the 11 judges from allied nations who were called to Tokyo to preside over landmark legal proceedings that would determine the fates of 28 Pacific military and political leaders charged as war criminals.

The four-part miniseries, set over two-and-a-half years, follows the judges’ struggle to reach verdicts for each of the accused while finding a balance between political, professional and personal conflicts.

Here, executive producer David Cormican reveals how the series – which mixes authentic footage with scripted scenes based on extensive research – was developed for Japanese broadcaster NHK, with Netflix picking up international rights.

He also describes the challenge of recreating post-war Japan on set in Lithuania and finding costumes for a cast of thousands.

Tokyo Trial is produced by NHK, Don Carmody Productions and FATT Productions in association with Netflix, and is distributed by Entertainment One.

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Building Stranger Things

Netflix drama Stranger Things became an instant classic upon its launch last summer, not just for its horror story but also its celebration of 1980s culture. Production designer Chris Trujillo reveals how he created the look of the series and what’s in store for season two.

If television doomsayers greeted the emergence of SVoD platforms by sounding the death knell for genuine word-of-mouth hits and watercooler moments, they hadn’t banked on a little show called Stranger Things.

To be fair, not many people had heard of the supernatural series until it launched on Netflix in July 2016. But when it did land around the world, everything that was old became new again as this tribute to the 1980s made as much noise as the biggest prestige drama on HBO – only viewers could now watch all eight episodes in one sitting.

The drama opens in 1983 Indiana, where a young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl.

Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin joins the cast alongside returning actors such as Winona Ryder

The series, which returns for a second season this Friday, skilfully combines elements of thriller and horror with the nostalgia of a decade wistfully remembered for Dungeons & Dragons, Ghostbusters and walkie-talkies.

Much of the success in recreating this era on screen has been down to production designer Chris Trujillo, who drew inspiration from the likes of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. But he says creators Ross and Matt Duffer were keen to avoid creating a “dim facsimile” of their heroes’ work. In particular, they wanted to draw on the designer’s indie film background that has seen him create gritty, realistic worlds on a shoestring budget.

“My approach is always to take all those films and go a layer deeper to figure out how they made that texture – movies that were made during that era as opposed to movies that look back and try to recreate it,” Trujillo explains. “Then it becomes about the physical media of the time. We spent a lot of time poring through catalogues, Life magazine, Ladies Home Journals and tons of comics. The computer industry was just coming into the light of popular culture so there’s loads of tech magazines and fan magazines. So it was all about spending a lot of time immersing ourselves in the look, feel and texture of that stuff.”

The series is filmed in and around Atlanta, Georgia, which serves as a base for the studio lot, while nearby Jackson and other surrounding towns double for Stranger Things’ fictional setting of Hawkins. It proved to be the perfect location for Trujillo and his team to recreate the small-town vibe they were looking for, making use of a number of towns developed at different stages over the last 50 years.

Finn Wolfhard (left) followed his breakout Stranger Things role by starring in horror movie remake IT

“Once we decided we were going to make small-town USA, it became important to have a real wide range of neighbourhoods at our disposal,” he says. “The thing about Atlanta is, the way it developed, it was kind of in fits and starts and it’s made up of a lot of small towns around the main urban centre. Each of those towns has a different flavour and grew during different periods of time, whether it was the 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s.

“Atlanta is such a hotbed for filming right now – ‘That’s The Walking Dead town,’ ‘That’s The Vampire Diaries town’ – so we had to go a little further out to find our little town, but it worked out pretty well.”

With the locations identified, Trujillo found that once the trappings of modern life – satellite dishes, cars and so on – were removed from the exteriors, they quickly reverted to their original state, particularly when it came to the houses that were used as the main characters’ homes. Then the designer was able to take images of the exteriors into the studio and build matching interiors.

“One of our secret weapons in Atlanta is that every weekend there are these incredible estate sales, so you’re going into these homes that seem like they have been sealed since the 70s or 80s,” he reveals. “Often we would go into one, find stuff we could dress a set with and purchase a houseful of really useful stuff. That’s why we were able, in a lot of cases, to transcend what you might expect from a period 80s set because you can really feel this is a real space where people lived, down to the spare batteries lying on the counter. That’s a big part of the physical base.”

The Duffer Brothers offer guidance to the show’s young stars on set

Trujillo’s path to Stranger Things came through a friendship with director Leigh Janiak, with whom he worked on 2014 horror Honeymoon. Janiak is married to Ross Duffer, who pitched Trujillo a show called Montauk, an 80s-set love letter to all the movies he and his brother loved. Trujillo says he was “instantly enchanted” by the idea, which brought back his own fond memories of films such as The Goonies.

“They pitched this project to me and I just thought, ‘If ever this comes to fruition, don’t forget about me,’” he recalls. “It seemed totally far-fetched – I didn’t think anyone would let them make this show. But two years later, it was greenlit with Netflix. I basically already had a vision for it and put together this look-book, and they were super on board with it.

“A lot of people don’t realise that a lot of our references, tonally, beyond The Goonies and Stephen Spielberg stuff were a lot grittier and darker, from late-70s US movies – The Conversation, Ordinary People, Silkwood… It came from a general love of US cinema from the mid-70s through to the 80s.”

Trujillo and his team built most of the interior sets for Stranger Things, most notably the Byers house that goes through an intense transformation as it’s attacked by monsters and Christmas lights are hung up as a makeshift ouija board. The inside of Hawkins Lab, which serves as the main gateway to the paranormal world of the Upside Down, was also built after location scouts found a suitably creepy building on which to model it.

Millie Bobby Brown returns as the supernaturally gifted Eleven

And when it came to finding the props that were key to turning Stranger Things into a nostalgia trip for many viewers, Trujillo says he was largely given free rein to find the items that would add a layer of authenticity to the action.

“There are some references to walkie talkies and things that are scripted but [the Duffers] really gave me pretty open creative reins to bring my vision to life,” he says. “There’s always the process of making sure they’re happy with the line I’m going in, showing them look-books, references, drawings and concept work, but they really trust me to be on the page with them. I had a lot of creative freedom.

“We talked through things and some specific scripted things they wanted, mostly prop elements, and we all talked about the characters and figured out who they are together. Once we made the broad creative decisions about what kind of space it should be, they really let me loose.”

Following the events of season one, Stranger Things’ second run opens a year later, in 1984, as citizens of Hawkins are still reeling from the horrors of the Demogorgon and the secrets contained within Hawkins Lab. Will Byers has been rescued from the Upside Down but a bigger, sinister entity still threatens those who survived.

The show also stars Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery

Most importantly, Trujillo believes the next eight episodes retain what was at the heart of the success of season one. “You’ve got this great group of misfit friends who are dealing with new problems and having new adventures but it’s bigger,” he teases about season two. “We went bigger in scope, definitely. With the proven success of season one, I think we had to dream bigger and there’s some really exciting new sets.

“In this day and age, the sets we built for season two are not built, they’re more CGI so we’re lucky to be able to have this aesthetic that we’re building stuff that would normally be green screen now. Season two delivers on the promise of season one, it opens up the world, we have some fun new characters and great new sets and you’re going to start seeing the home life of some of the characters you would have liked to have seen in the first season.”

With a third season all but confirmed and a fourth season in the works, Trujillo can already start planning his return to Hawkins and the Upside Down to delve further into a world that will inevitably get bigger and darker, as is the trend for franchise series. Returning to Hawkins shouldn’t be a problem, however. “Everybody loves it,” Trujillo concludes. “Nobody wants it to end.”

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Good girl gone bad

Michelle Dockery sheds her Downton Abbey image in TNT thriller Good Behavior, which is returning for its second season this month. She tells DQ about leaving Lady Mary behind for a life of crime in the US drama – and previews her upcoming Netflix series Godless.

As Downton Abbey transformed from a quintessential British period drama into an international hit series, its young cast became overnight superstars. Subsequently, Lady Sybil Crawley and Matthew Crawley were both killed off as the actors who played them – Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens – went in search of new projects after two and three seasons respectively.

One star stayed put, however, alongside more established actors such as Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. Michelle Dockery played Lady Mary Crawley in the ITV drama for its full six-season run (and several Christmas specials), perhaps running the risk of becoming singularly known for her part in the Julian Fellowes-penned series.

Michelle Dockery stars alongside Juan Diego Botto in Good Behavior

But while some viewers will always remember her as Lady Mary, the actor opted for a complete change of pace for her next role and put some distance between her and Downton. Quite literally, in fact, as she travelled to the US to star in cablenet TNT’s Good Behavior.

Following a successful pilot, a full 10-part first season debuted in November 2016, with season two set to launch in the US on October 15. The show is now also airing in the UK on Virgin Media, which launched season one on September 11, with the first six episodes immediately available on demand before subsequent episodes were rolled out ahead of the start of season two.

Pitched as a seductive thriller created by Chad Hodge and Blake Crouch, based on the books by Crouch, it tells the story of Letty Raines (Dockery), a thief and con artist whose life is always one step away from implosion. Fresh out of prison, she hopes to stay out of trouble while reuniting with her 10-year-old son, who is being raised by her mother Estelle (Lusia Strus), and fulfilling mandatory meetings with parole officer Christian (Terry Kinney).

Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey

But chaos ensues when she overhears a hitman (Juan Diego Botto) being hired to kill a man’s wife and sets out to derail the job, entangling both of them in a dangerously captivating relationship.

“I was still on Downton when this one came along,” recalls Dockery, who was nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her role as Lady Mary. “We were towards the end of the last season and my agent in America said, ‘You must read this pilot.’ She loved it and I read it and fell in love with the part.

“From the get-go, my heart was with Letty all the way. There’s something about the writing; it’s so character-driven and you instantly know this person and empathise with her. I just loved how flawed she was and with such complexity. Then they offered me the part. I was really surprised at the ease at which everything went after that. After Downton, I thought I’d have a big rest after six years, and suddenly I was on a flight to the States to do this pilot. So it wasn’t something I was actively seeking, nor was I seeking something so vastly different. It just came my way. She’s just a riot. She’s really fun to play.”

Good Behaviour returns to screens on October 15

Despite a radical move between genres, from a period drama to a thriller,  the differences between working in the UK and the US are less drastic – apart from longer hours, Dockery says. “In American television, it’s not unusual to do a 15-hour day, so you’re really on this hamster wheel and if you step off, you’ll end up in bed for a week with a cold so you have to keep going. But the filming process was very similar. For me, it was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my career.”

The actor reveals she was constantly learning lines – and perfecting her American accent – to keep on top of the nine-day shoots for each episode, with filming taking place in Wilmington, North Carolina. She found support in fellow actor JD Banks, who would run lines with her as well as helping Spanish actor Botto with his pronunciation.

The biggest difference, however, was moving from an ensemble player in Downton, albeit one of the main stars, to being the lead of a major US television drama.

Dockery also has a role in Netflix series Godless

“On Downton, Mary was a prominent role but I had time off when I wasn’t in it, and you are supported by everyone there. But here, if I have a day off, everyone has a day off,” Dockery says. “Letty’s in every scene so it was certainly a lot more pressure. I have to look after myself on a show like that, eating well and just sleeping as much as I can. But it’s a wonderful part to play. I really enjoy playing her.”

After Good Behavior, Dockery will next be seen in Netflix western Godless, which debuts worldwide on November 22. The six-part series centres around Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a menacing outlaw who is terrorising the west as he hunts down Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), his son-like partner turned mortal enemy. While Roy hides at Alice Fletcher (Dockery)’s ranch, Frank’s chase leads him to the quiet town of La Belle, New Mexico – which is mysteriously home only to women.

“It’s just this seven-part epic Western,” Dockery says. “But the thing that’s unusual about it, and wonderful and brilliant, is it’s very female-driven.

“Aside from that, being in a western is every actor’s dream. We had cowboy camp where we had gun training and horse-riding, which was very different from any riding I did on Downton. New Mexico [where Godless is set and filmed] is breathtaking and just being part of such a massive ensemble on that was amazing.”

After leaving Lady Mary behind – save for the finally confirmed Downton Abbey film – Dockery says she now intends to “keep mixing it up” in the search for more varied and challenging roles. “I’m always drawn to these women who are flawed, like real women, and that’s what we’re seeing more of in television,” she adds. “I feel part of this change now that’s happened in the last 10 years of television, where women are being portrayed in a much truer way. These last few characters I’ve played I’ve really been lucky with.”

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Breaking the mould

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, comic book publisher Marvel successfully transplanted its cinematic universe to television with two spin-off series based on characters from its big-screen blockbusters.

Marvel Television then made a groundbreaking deal with US SVoD giant Netflix to bring The Defenders to the small screen. First came solo series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, followed by a drama that brought them all together.

Speaking to DQ TV, Marvel TV senior VP of original programming Karim Zreik explains how Marvel rolled out its series across television, bringing fans of the cinematic universe with them to the small screen.

He then reveals details of a development process that aims to find the right character for a new series, while trying to keep things fresh to avoid superhero saturation.

Zreik also looks ahead to new Marvel series including Inhumans, Clock & Dagger, The Runaways and The Punisher as the company seeks to break the mould with each new show.

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Creative arms race

As Netflix and Amazon continue to flex their financial muscles, battle lines are being drawn between network, cable and digital channels in the fight for top writing talent.

Call it what you will – peak TV, the new golden age or even the first platinum era of television – there are few signs that the number of scripted dramas being produced around the world, and particularly in the US, is on the wane.

So as the transfer window for football leagues across Europe enters its final days, television is doing its best to keep up, with rival players fighting to sign up some of the small screen’s biggest talents in the hope of continuing to attract viewers.

If former Barcelona superstar Neymar is worth a world-record transfer fee of £200m (US$258m) to Paris Saint-Germain, how valuable is showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes (pictured above) to Netflix?

However much Rhimes will earn, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos would doubtless say she is worth every cent after the showrunner agreed to bring her Shondaland production company to the US streaming giant in a multi-year deal that will see her create new series for the platform. Indeed, Sarandos described Rhimes as “one of the greatest storytellers in the history of television” after securing her signature.

Shondaland’s ABC series include long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy

And who is in any doubt over the credibility of that statement? This is, after all, a writer and producer who has her own night on US network ABC, with Shondaland series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder bringing in primetime audiences every Thursday.

But while becoming synonymous with ABC, which also previously aired Shondaland dramas The Catch and Still Star-Crossed, among others, Rhimes has slowly built up a relationship with Netflix. The streamer has global rights outside of the US to How To Get Away With Murder and also airs Grey’s and Scandal in many other territories.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that despite a long and successful partnership with the network, she has jumped ship with the promise of untold production budgets and the opportunity to tell any story she likes without having to jump through the hoops laid out by a broadcast network’s standards and practices department.

Robert Kirkman

“Her work is gripping, inventive, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping, taboo-breaking television at its best,” Sarandos continued, with all the hyperbole of a football club chairman announcing his club’s latest star signing, lacking only a Netflix T-shirt with Rhimes’ name across the back. “I’ve gotten the chance to know Shonda and she’s a true Netflixer at heart – she loves TV and films, she cares passionately about her work and she delivers for her audience.”

Rhimes hinted at the potential to break away from the more stringent rules at ABC when she said: “Ted provides a clear, fearless space for creators at Netflix. He understood what I was looking for – the opportunity to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach provided by Netflix’s singular sense of innovation. The future of Shondaland at Netflix has limitless possibilities.”

While Grey’s, now entering its 14th season, and its ABC stablemates will not be moving with Rhimes, one wonders what new projects Shondaland will be pitching to the streamer.

In the case of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the dark content that comprises his comic book back catalogue and the output of his Skybound Entertainment prodco provides a clue of what is likely to come now that he too has agreed an online deal, with Amazon being the beneficiary in this case.

The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows in the world, giving cable network AMC the kinds of ratings that broadcast networks would once have considered unremarkable. Kirkman is also behind Cinemax’s Outcast and is developing pre-apocalyptic drama Five Year, which is being prepared for multiple territories including Germany, India, Brazil and Italy.

“Robert is a gifted storyteller who shares our passion for elevated genre storytelling that pushes boundaries,” said Sharon Tal Yguado, head of event series at Amazon Studios, which is ramping up its focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror series. “Robert and the team at Skybound are some of the most innovative and fearless creatives in the business. Together, we plan to explore immersive worlds and bold ideas for Prime Video.”

Kirkman is best known as the creator of AMC’s The Walking Dead

The digital tractor beam has also managed to pull in major movie talent, with Netflix revealing it had tapped the sought-after Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) to produce western anthology series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a six-parter starring Tim Blake Nelson that will feature six different frontier tales featuring the eponymous character.

“We are streaming, motherfuckers,” said Joel and Ethan Coen, understatedly, in what was another coup for Netflix in the wake of Disney’s revelation that it would be pulling its movie titles from the SVoD player in 2019.

It’s a stark reality that the some of the biggest names in TV and film will head to Netflix and Amazon due to the promise of being given the freedom to let their creative juices flow. But what is left for the networks they leave behind? AMC will have to make do without the next series from Kirkman, while Matthew Weiner, who spent eight years at the channel with Mad Men, has also set up his next show – The Romanoffs – at Amazon. Cable rival FX, meanwhile, has been tying down its biggest creative assets, among them Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) and Donald Glover (Atlanta), for fear of them also moving on.

Noah Hawley

But it is broadcast networks that will face the biggest challenge. Already trailing in the wake of their subscription-based competitors and unable to place the same bets on niche dramas as their cable and streaming rivals, the onus is on them to unearth new gems each year to keep their advertisers happy.

ABC Studios has been doing some transfer business of its own, reuniting with veteran showrunner Carlton Cuse (Jack Ryan, Bates Motel) who oversaw six seasons of Lost for the Alphanet Network. The hope will be that he can steer some new shows in its direction.

But like smaller football clubs facing off against their bigger rivals, television now has a new ecosystem, and it’s likely networks will have to get used to seeing their best and brightest talents picked off.

The demanding nature of network dramas means they should continue to be the biggest training ground for up-and-coming writing talent as writers rooms grapple with the demands of 22-episode seasons. That’s where the next great storytellers will emerge to take the places of Rhimes et al.

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Clean living

Jason Bateman has money troubles in Netflix original series Ozark, in which he stars as a big-city financial advisor forced to move to the country after upsetting a drug kingpin. But as DQ discovers, it was the opportunity to direct that drew him to the project.

Jason Bateman is best known for starring in movies such Juno and Horrible Bosses and as Michael Bluth in cult TV comedy hit Arrested Development.

But in his latest small-screen role, starring alongside Laura Linney in Netflix original drama Ozark, the opportunities behind the camera drew him to the project as much as those in front of it.

Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial advisor who has been quietly laundering money with his partner Bruce (Josh Randall) for a drug kingpin called Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales).

When US$8m goes missing, Del Rio dispenses with Bruce – but agrees to spare Marty after hearing his plan to recover the money and move his operation to the Ozarks, a mountainous region in the central US.

Marty quickly uproots his family – adulterous wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) – and sets about finding a home in this lazy lake resort and a business through which to launder the cash.

Ozark stars Jason Bateman, who is perhaps best known for starring in all four seasons of Arrested Development

Other cast members include Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Jason Butler Harner, Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery.

Directed by Bateman, Daniel Sackheim, Ellen Kuras and Andrew Bernstein, Ozark is produced by Patrick Markey for Media Rights Capital and Aggregate Films. The executive producers are Bateman, showrunner Chris Mundy, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams.

“My agent called me, telling me he just read one of the best scripts he’d ever read,” Bateman recalls. “I [told him] I wasn’t really looking for a series, but he answered, ‘I know, but I can’t unread this thing.’ I read it and totally agreed with him, but told him, ‘The only way I’d ever consider doing this is if I could direct them all. It would break my heart to just be the actor in something like this and watch somebody else have all the fun, directing something as chewy as this thing.”

Due to time constraints, Bateman ended up prepping all 10 episodes and starring in each, though he only directed the first two and last two. Three other directors – Sackheim, Bernstein and Kuras – shared the remaining six.

Chris Mundy

The everyman character of Marty equally appealed to Bateman, who says he is always interested in playing the person most relatable to the audience.

“I like having the responsibility to process things for the audience and spit out, in words or in expression, how the audience could or should feel about what they’ve just seen or heard. And that was easy to do with this guy,” the star explains.

“What I found interesting to play, that’s in the writing, is that he’s forced into these situations that demand that he reach down deeper than he probably would have otherwise. So he’s churning up these brand new efforts of courage.”

When viewers first meet the Byrde family – the series launches on July 21 – they’re enjoying a comfortable life in Chicago, Bateman says, adding: “But you start to see some cracks in both of those worlds [of their family life and Marty’s work], and pretty quickly you see it cracked completely open. They have to react to that and try to navigate these dangers. And the answer takes the form of the Ozarks.”

But despite the sticky situations he finds himself in, Marty’s motivations are purely family-driven, says showrunner Mundy (Criminal Minds, Low Winter Sun), who points to the character’s 10-year-old Toyota Camry as evidence that he’s not in the money-laundering business just to splash the cash.

“It’s not about greed or excess, as it might be for his partner, Bruce,” he says. “It’s about security for his family. I think he liked the idea of, ‘Could I get away with this? Could I have a secret that is powerful and makes me feel better?’

“We didn’t want to get too caught up in the mechanics of money, but we did want to get caught up in the emotional desire for it: what motivates people for it – is it family? Greed? Is it escape? Is it a blessing or a curse? Everyone’s motivation is slightly different. And the more people we get to meet in that world, we found we wanted to go deeper into the other people and their families. We just keep digging into the humanity of the whole situation.”

Starring alongside Bateman is acclaimed actor Laura Linney (The C Word)

Bateman’s co-star Linney shared his love of the script and, conveniently, a manager so they were able to talk it through after reading it.

“We just bonded talking about the script, and found an affinity for one another, just personally, that leant itself to the kind of chemistry you need when you’re asking the audience to invest in a couple that’s going through something complicated,” Bateman says of that first meeting. “That’s what you need when you’re asking the audience to experience a vicarious situation. You need to feel that these two people are kind of like you – that you would be doing the same things they’re doing. And if you don’t have somebody who can penetrate that kind of vulnerable, honest space in you like Laura does, it just won’t happen.”

Mundy describes Linney (The C Word) as “the most present and empathetic actor I’ve ever seen, just on the simplest level.” He continues: “She never looks down on the character she’s playing, even if they’re doing something bad. She makes you understand where they’re coming from, because she understands it, as well as the people she’s dealing with.”

In Wendy, Linney plays a character who took the opportunity to leave her small-town upbringing behind but is able to use that experience when she finds herself in the new surroundings of the Ozarks.

“I think, because of that, she’s a little bolder, more of a risk-taker than Marty, in a lot of ways, a way she’s always been,” Munday states, before revealing that as Wendy grows more distant from her husband, she finds comfort in Chicago attorney Gary Silverberg (played by Bruce Altman). “She wasn’t looking for it, but was happy to get attention when someone gave it to her, because she was feeling neglected. We didn’t want it to be someone with whom she just had this purely physical fling. We wanted someone who was a serious individual Wendy would be involved with. She needed an emotional connection that she wasn’t getting with Marty, more than a physical one.”

The series follows the Byrd family’s move to the Ozarks

Mundy was first approached about the Netflix show in October 2015 by series producer Media Rights Capital but he was already working for the SVoD giant on fellow drama Bloodline, which ended following the release of its third season earlier this year.

He subsequently joined the project in February 2016 and the following month set up a writers room that included Ryan Farley (Justified), Whit Anderson (Daredevil), Alyson Feltes (The Firm), Martin Zimmerman (Narcos) and Paul Kolsby.

Then in April last year, the team travelled to the Ozarks to see the area for themselves, knowing that this was where screenwriter Bill Dubuque wanted to set the series.

Episode one largely takes place in Chicago but the action quickly moves south – a decision inspired by the Dubuque’s own experience of owning a cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks for 25 years. The Blue Cat Lodge, which features in the show, was based on a restaurant/motel called The Alhana Resort, where Dubuque and his brother once worked.

“We went to everything they showed us, and then tried to go out as much as we could, just on our own, and talked to people in bars and restaurants and diners in the morning, just to get the lay of the land,” Mundy recalls of the trip, which was supported by the Missouri Film Commission. “It’s quite different when you finally walk the actual ground.”

In town, the writing team met local politicians, visited the remote Meth Mountain and chatted to workers at the local GQ strip club to uncover the local way of life, while Mundy kept a notebook of local phrases he would later weave into his scripts. One episode features the expression ‘FT’ – referring to the annual ‘Fuck the Tourists’ party held to celebrate the departure of tourists – while episode 10 includes the line, ‘Go home and get yourself a frozen custard,’ a nod to the area’s popular custard stands.

The Netflix drama’s plot revolves around a money-laundering operation

Researching money laundering was equally important, with an active FBI agent and a hedge fund manager both spending a day in the writers room to field questions about moving money, legal or otherwise.

With the writers working in Hollywood, filming took place on location in and around Atlanta, with producer Markey setting up shop in an office above the sound stages that housed Ozark’s standing sets at the Georgia city’s Eagle Rock Studios.

The majority of filming, however, took place 45 minutes north of the studios at two different lake locations – Lake Altoona and Lake Lanier – where the water itself could become a central character in the series. “And what’s nice about shooting there, as opposed to, say, a little north of the city in New York or in Vancouver, is that you can spin the camera 360 degrees and you still have some really great colour and grit to the aesthetic that’s perfect for the rural flavour we want,” Bateman says. “In those other places, your ‘pie wedge’ [of spin] might be smaller, so you can only shoot in one direction at a location. This was more natural.”

Along with their teams, pilot production designer Roshelle Berliner and series designer Derek Hill were then challenged with creating an authentic run-down look perfect for Ozark, with Mundy seeking to use lots of natural light to ensure it “felt real.”

The task involved creating lakeside resort The Blue Cat Lodge, which is run by a young woman called Rachel Garrison (Spiro) and soon becomes part of Marty’s laundering operation. The location chosen was a real-life closed-down restaurant called The Little River Sports Bar and Grill, on Lake Allatoona, with the production securing an extended lease on the premises and building cabins, a picnic area and pool for the series.

As viewers will discover, the arrival of the Byrde family changes the Ozarks, and the Ozarks changes the Byrdes, with the new surroundings pushing the family to their limits.

But when push comes to shove, adds Mundy, “they want to be together. There’s something that still holds them together. At their core, they’re still a family worth fighting for.”

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Return of the King

As Spike launches its adaptation of The Mist, DQ explores how TV and film versions of Stephen King’s work have become more popular and prolific than ever.

The title of this piece is something of a misnomer as, especially over the last few years, Stephen King’s literary creations have rarely been absent from either or TV or cinema screens.

With a TV and film career spanning 41 years since the release of Carrie in 1976, the author shows no sign of stopping, with around two-dozen verified screen projects in various stages of development, production and completion since 2014 alone.

King is a phenomenon, especially when compared with other writers in what can loosely be described as the horror genre.

Stephen King

His contemporaries such as the late James Herbert (The Secret of Crickley Hall, BBC1, 2012), Dean R Koontz (Odd Thomas, 2013), Whitley Strieber (Hunters, Syfy, 2016) and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987) have largely failed to achieve a similar level of exposure on screen.

Indeed, the only real challenger to King’s crown has been Neil Gaiman, who has thrived in both TV (American Gods for Starz, Likely Stories for Sky Arts) and film (Stardust, Beowulf, Coraline and How to Talk to Girls at Parties), with his co-created Sandman comic book character also used as the basis for Fox’s hit series Lucifer (2015).

As could be expected with such a fecund author with attendant TV/film adaptations, the success of King’s properties on screen is mixed.

Looking at book-to-movie adaptations, reportedly his own favourites are Stand by Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and 2007’s The Mist.

In terms of the general critical evaluation, for every praise-worthy The Shining (1980), Carrie (1976), Misery (1990), 1408 (2007) and Dead Zone (1983), there seem to be at least two of the derided likes of Thinner (1996), The Mangler (1995), Dreamcatcher (2003) and umpteenth Children of the Corn sequel.

Unsurprisingly, the rule appears to be the better the director, writer and cast, the better the Stephen King movie, although this doesn’t explain the failure of the aforementioned Dreamcatcher, which flopped despite the presence of Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado/The Big Chill) as director, William Goldman (All the President’s Men) as writer and a talented cast that included Damian Lewis (Wolf Hall), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) and Timothy Olyphant (Justified).

This year sees a step change in film adaptations with the big-budget version of King’s The Dark Tower, a fantasy blockbuster starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, which unusually, is also planned to kickstart a TV series in 2018 linked to the film.

Presumably the series version of The Dark Tower (in which Elba is said to return) will depend on the box-office performance of the movie this August, which means production will have to proceed at a fair clip to meet a 2018 transmission date.

James Franco in 11.22.63

If so, it’s an atypical move, with the only analogous example in recent years being the apparent budget-prompted plan to have the final film in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Ascendant, redesigned as a TV movie, which has apparently now been cancelled due to the rights expiring last month.

Another King would-be blockbuster will be the first part of a movie take on It (previously a 1990 ABC TV miniseries with Tim Curry), popularly – although evidently erroneously – linked with kicking off the notorious ‘clown scare’ trend of 2016.

Netflix has bought into the Stephen King brand, with two movies to be released on the service this year.

Gerald’s Game stars Carla Gugino (Nashville) dealing with the consequences of a sex game gone wrong with husband Bruce Greenwood (The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story), while 1922 features Thomas Jane (Hung/The Mist movie) and Molly Parker (House of Cards) in a Nebraskan pastoral horror.

Among the numerous upcoming movie adaptations of King’s works are reputed to be Doctor Sleep, The Breathing Method, The Stand (also a popular ABC 1994 TV miniseries), The Jaunt, In the Tall Grass, The Long Walk, Revival, My Pretty Pony, The Ten O’Clock People, The Things They Left Behind and Joyland, plus remakes of Pet Sematary and Firestarter.

1990’s Misery starred Kathy Bates in an adaptation of King’s novel

Turning to TV versions of King’s work, the pace has picked up over the last few years, as series have come thick and fast, including Haven (Syfy 2010-2015), Under the Dome (CBS, 2013-15) and 11.22.63 (Hulu).

As the years have progressed, King’s TV works have acquired a more sophisticated veneer, a million miles away from the (relatively) cheap and cheerful adaptations of the 1990s.

Consequently, reviews have tended to become increasingly positive since his TV shows began to take themselves more seriously, in the process attracting bigger-name talent such as James Franco and Chris Cooper in 11.22.63.

As with King’s movies, due to the sheer volume of work, there’s going to be variance in quality, with still watchable miniseries such as Salem’s Lot (CBS, 1979), It and The Stand holding up relatively well, aided by especially spot-on casting of their respective villains.

Thus, we had James Mason (Straker) and Reggie Nalder (Barlow) in Salem’s Lot, Tim Curry (Pennywise) in It and Jamey Sheridan (Randall Flagg) in The Stand.

On the other side, the pointless TV remakes of The Shining (ABC, 1997) and Salem’s Lot (TNT, 2004) showed that people didn’t know enough to leave well alone.

As is widely known, King was prompted to take a second crack at The Shining due to his disappointment at Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 take on the book.

This year will see three TV adaptations of King’s novels. To some acquainted with the movie, Spike’s eagerly anticipated 10-episode version of The Mist, which launches tomorrow, will have a tough time measuring up to Frank Darabont’s 2007 bleak big-screen classic. The series’ reported US$23m budget compares to US$18m for the movie.

Also coming up is JJ Abrams’ Castle Rock (Hulu’s second Abrams-produced King tale after 11.22.63), which is set in the fictional Maine community familiar from many of his novels and the onscreen credits of Rob Reiner (director of Stand by Me)’s production company of the same name.

In a similar fashion to Dickensian (BBC1, 2015-16), the show will feature characters from the various King ‘multiverse’ stories that have a nexus in the town.

Last but by no means least is David E Kelley (Ally McBeal/Boston Legal)’s Mr Mercedes (pictured top) for DirecTV’s Audience Network, a 10-episode excursion into hard-boiled detective drama, with a strong cast that includes Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful).

And coming down the pike, apparently, are TV series based on King’s Grand Central, Ayana, Sleeping Beauties (written with his son Owen) and sinister government agency-focused The Shop, which features in his novels Firestarter, Langoliers, Tommyknockers and The Stand.

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Ready to rumble

Sydelle Noel and Britney Young tell DQ why they climbed into the ring for GLOW, the forthcoming Netflix show about a group of women who are chosen to star in the first female wrestling TV series.

When it debuted in 2013, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular original series. Like the streaming giant itself, the women’s prison-set drama has since gone from strength to strength, with its fifth season landing on Netflix on June 9.

It was only natural, then, that the streamer would also become the home of OITNB creator Jenji Kohan’s next project, GLOW, which launches on June 23.

Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, with Kohan exec producing, GLOW (which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) is the fictionalised story of an out-of-work actress called Ruth, played by Alison Brie, who makes one last attempt to live her dream by joining the cast of a weekly series about female wrestlers.

Inspired by the true story of the 1980s female wrestling league, a women-only version of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), the series is exec produced by co-showrunners Flahive and Mensch, Kohan and Tara Herrmann.

Britney Young (right) puts the moves on Alison Brie

Headlining alongside Brie are Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young and Marc Maron. Young plays Carmen, the daughter of a wrestling family who wants to continue that dynasty but is not yet prepared for the Hollywood limelight.

The actor’s route to GLOW came in serendipitous fashion: after reading about the series, she intended to email her agent about it – but never did. As it happened, the stars aligned when her agent secured her an audition without knowing of her interest.

“What excited me about Carmen was I am a bigger girl and I do sometimes have very strong features where I can play a mean girl and a bully just by a look,” Young says. “I found that some of the auditions I was going on were constantly for the mean girl, the bully, which is great, it’s work – but when they described Carmen as a gentle giant, I wanted to play her.

“I’m a bubbly, very talkative person and wanted to play something that was a little more my personality. So I was always drawn to that aspect. I also love the fact that, because I’m so used to playing the bully, playing a nice character has been something of a stretch for me. Carmen’s very challenging in that aspect and I appreciate that she has so many layers to her personality.”

Noel, meanwhile, says she was hooked on playing Cherry Bang – a professional stuntwoman whose career peaked in the Blaxploitation heyday and is now looking for a chance to be more than a body double – from the moment she read the script. “I told my reps Cherry was definitely the role for me,” she recalls. “Cherry is a former Blaxploitation stunt double for Pam Grier – Foxy Brown, of all people! I grew up watching Foxy Brown movies and I also wanted to do action movies, something where you’re being very physical, so when I read she was a stunt double and then she’s coming in for wrestling, this was hands down what I wanted to do. It just really screamed out at me. Then they also said she was the coolest chick you’d ever want to meet – now come on! She’s a stunt double and the coolest chick you’d ever want to meet? I was like, ‘That’s me, hands down!’”

Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang

When Young auditioned, she was asked to perform a rap and carry out a stunt, while Noel, a former track athlete, proved her agility by following the script to the letter. “It literally said that Cherry Bang says her line and then does a tuck roll and a spinning kick,” the actor explains. “Then she pulls out a gun and says, ‘Freeze motherfucker!’ So I was like, OK, and what I found out in the end was I had been the only person to do that. Everyone else just pulled out the gun but I did the roll and the kick.

“But there was nothing that was going to deter me from getting the role, so I did it on the hard concrete floor – I did the roll, jumped up and did a kick. Luckily I didn’t kick the camera. So I showed them I could do a little something in the audition room.”

Though Noel had maintained her fitness since her running career came to an end, wrestling was something entirely new for the actor to get to grips with. But under the watchful eye of professional wrestler and GLOW wrestling coach Chavo Guerrero Jr, the ensemble cast were put through their paces for five weeks in order to shape up for the fight scenes that were to follow.

“When we started training last August, that was my first time ever getting into a ring and it was an unbelievable experience,” Noel says. “A lot of people have this idea that wrestling is fake, but it’s a physical toll on your body. It’s definitely not fake. Before GLOW, I’d never done any wrestling but now I’m totally a fan. I watched WrestleMania and I’m thinking of moves we could do if we get a second season. I want to take it to the extreme.”

Despite fellow cast member Jackie Tohn twisting her ankle while filming the season finale, Noel says there were no other injuries on set – a lucky break for a show about wrestling. But that may have been thanks to the stunt team led by Shauna Duggins and Helena Barrett, who ensured all the moves were performed safely, even if it meant doing them more than once.

Marc Maron plays GLOW director Sam Sylvia

It was the training that Young believes brought the tight-knit ensemble together, so much so that they still communicate daily in a WhatsApp message group, five months after the production wrapped in December.

“Besides Kia Stevens [who plays Tamee], who’s an actual professional wrestler, all of us came in at the same level, and growing together really made us stronger as a team,” she says. “That is one of our messages on the show – this is a female empowerment show and we are showing that this group of different women can come together, form this team and be so supportive of each other.”

On set, showrunners Flahive and Mensch were constantly communicating with the cast, keen to ensure the actors were happy with their characters and seeking their input on everything from the script to hair and make-up. Kohan was also a regular on set, whenever she could reach LA in between shooting the fifth season of New York-set OITNB.

“They were very hands-on, which I really appreciated,” Young says. “During the pilot, they pulled us all aside for little meetings where we talked about our characters, explaining where they thought our character was going to go and how we should approach it. The stuff they write is so great and I love that they’re so excited to be there. They were on set every single time they were available. To see them laughing and giving us the thumbs-up was so reassuring and inspiring.”

Noel picks out episode two as a personal highlight, with Cherry showing her assertive qualities when she is handed the task of training the GLOW ensemble. Then in the finale, viewers will see how wrestling becomes more to her than just a job.

“I also had my big wrestling scene,” adds the actor, who has recently finished filming a part in Marvel’s upcoming blockbuster Black Panther. “So that was the best part ever. The crowd was really cheering us on. I had my managers and my agents come to see that scene and they were like, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ Neither did I! I definitely have wrestling on my resume now.”

Young describes herself as a “true fan” of the show. “People are really going to respond to it,” she adds. “It’s got something for everyone – the sports aspect, the comedy, the drama. A lot of people will hopefully relate to these characters and see themselves in them. I can’t wait for it to launch. I’m counting down the days.”


Netflix originals around the world

The launch of GLOW coincides with the broadening range of international dramas airing on Netflix. Here are some of the most recent…

UK: The Crown
Described as the inside story of two of the most famous addresses in the world – Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street – and the intrigues, love lives and machinations behind the great events that shaped the second half of the 20th century. Season two is in production.

Spain: Las Chicas del Cable
Set in Madrid at the beginning of 1928, when the national telephone company opens its headquarters and hundreds of women queue up to work as ‘cable girls.’ Starring Blanca Suárez, Nadia de Santiago, Ana Fernández and Maggie Civantos, it launched in April.

Brazil: 3%
This post-apocalyptic thriller is set in a near future when a select few are allowed to join a privileged society after undergoing an intense and competitive process. It stars Bianca Comparato, João Miguel, Michel Gomes and Rodolfo Valente, and a second season has been ordered.

Italy: Suburra
A crime thriller set in Rome that explores how the church, the state, organised crime, local gangs and real-estate developers collide and blur the lines between the legal and the illicit in their quest for power. Based on the novel of the same name by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo de Cataldo, but set several years before.

Mexico: Ingobernable
Kate del Castillo stars as Mexico First Lady Emilia Urquiza, who wants to improve conditions in the country. But when she starts to lose faith in her husband (played by Erik Hayser), she finds herself at a crossroads where she must deal with a great challenge and uncover the truth. Renewed for a second season in April, a month after the series debuted.

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Punishing work

Tom Shankland has directed shows including Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, The Missing, Ripper Street and House of Cards.

Speaking to DQ, he reveals his approach to directing, how he picks new projects and how the process differs between the UK and US.

He also discusses his work on Marvel series Luke Cage, Iron Fist and forthcoming The Punisher, as well as new BBC drama The City & The City, based on the book by China Miéville.

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Sci-fi high

Science fiction has a long association with television, but it’s now more visible than ever. DQ explores how a shift in storytelling has pushed the genre into the mainstream.

When it finally launches later this year, Star Trek: Discovery will carry the hopes of the next generation of science-fiction fans. But the show is also a perfect example of the state of the genre on television.

The space-set franchise, which has been on air in some form since 1966, embodies the long-running popularity of sci-fi, which has roots as far back as the 1930s with the BBC’s fledgling broadcast service and a 35-minute play called RUR.

The fact that Star Trek is returning to television, albeit on US network CBS’s SVoD service All Access, is also proof of the current strength of the genre and the new opportunities it is finding on non-traditional platforms. But space-focused shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Expanse (pictured top) and Dark Matter represent just one part of a genre that continues to inspire and amaze – and shock and scare – viewers around the world.

Series like Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Sense8 and Legion represent the sheer breadth of stories that can sit under the sci-fi umbrella, offering unbridled creativity to those behind the camera. And though it was once the preserve of an elite group of fans, the genre has gone mainstream by focusing less on science-fiction and more on ‘science-possible,’ asking questions that resonate in the present day, whatever the setting.

The BBC’s Doctor Who currently stars Peter Capaldi

Regardless of whether series fall into the space opera or speculative fiction camps, Martin Baynton, chief creative officer at Pukeko Pictures, believes that sci-fi dramas “at their best are fairy stories for adults – they allow us to ask difficult questions, they’re stories of consequences and are often moral fables.”

He continues: “People don’t watch The Walking Dead for the zombies. It’s actually how these human beings deal with the implications of having to stay alive and function as a group. Everyone watches it fascinated by the drift of the moral compass of the characters and what it means to be human. Good science fiction always asks that question.”

Australian drama Cleverman, on which Pukeko is a producing partner, is set in a near future when creatures known as ‘Hairypeople’ must live among humans and battle for survival in a world that wants to exploit and destroy them, touching on themes of immigration and racism. Season two launches later this month on ABC in Australiana and SundanceTV in the US.

“Science fiction allows you to explore really fundamental consequences safely because it puts issues at a distance,” Baynton continues. “If you put it in a contemporary setting, it can become almost too powerful. So by putting it in the near future, it becomes a cautionary tale where you think, ‘We’ve got time to change direction and not go down that path.’”

For many viewers, the words ‘science fiction’ still conjure images of “spaceships, aliens and the planet Zargon,” observes Sam Vincent, co-creator of British drama Humans, which is based on Swedish series Äkta Människor (Real Humans). “They don’t necessarily think of things that are a little bit more grounded, more speculative and use ideas about the future to explore things that are happening in the present. That’s what Humans is.”

Channel 4 and AMC coproduction Humans centres on humanoid androids called ‘synths’

The series, produced by Kudos for Channel 4 and AMC and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, posits a “parallel present” in which robots known as ‘synths’ have become part of everyday life.

“Everything looks like it does now, except there are these humanoid androids,” adds Vincent’s writing partner Jonathan Brackley. “That was such a smart way of bringing this idea to be much more accessible for an audience, allowing us to enter this sci-fi world on a very grounded, domestic level, and having an everyday family at the heart of the show.”

Humans is also notable for dispensing with traditional sci-fi logic and, like HBO’s sci-fi western Westworld, wanting the audience to feel sympathy for the robots, rather than their human masters. “They’re really different shows, with different settings, tones and scales, but the most interesting thing for us about Westworld is that viewers are encouraged to root for and see through the eyes of these machines as consciousness dawns on them, much like in Humans,” Vincent says of the “companion” shows. “The humans are the bad guys now and that’s undeniably an interesting parallel.”

Artificial intelligence is also at the centre of Danish drama Unpunished, which follows a group of scientists as they attempt to create AI as a defence against a cyber virus that threatens to reveal the world’s best-kept secrets. Currently in development with producers Investigate North and distributor About Premium Content, it is slated to begin production in March next year.

But creator and producer Niels Wetterberg believes it’s a “fallacy” to say sci-fi is becoming more mainstream: “It’s always been very mainstream,” he argues, citing movies such as Alien, ET and Jurassic Park. “But the future is threatening us in a new way, and so the shows you see now are more science-possible. They’re moving from the realms of the fantastical to something more achievable, and that resonates better with a wider audience.”

Travelers sees a group of time-travellers from the future attempting to save mankind in the present

Humans and Unpunished are just two of the sci-fi shows rooted in some kind of present-day reality that allows them to tap into themes and issues affecting contemporary society – none more so than the increasing role of technology, which is also at the heart of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror. The anthology series, first commissioned by the UK’s Channel 4, is now exclusive to Netflix, which launched the third season last October.

The global SVoD platform and its competitors have undoubtedly had a huge effect on the way sci-fi is created, commissioned and consumed, while also giving writers the opportunity to explore ideas over 10 hours, where perhaps previously they might have been limited to a 90-minute movie.

Netflix series such as 1980s-inspired Stranger Things and mystery thriller The OA have ensured television can still have its water-cooler moments in an on-demand world, and the streamer has also been investing in a host of other sci-fi shows.

One example is The Expanse, the Syfy drama set in a future when humanity has colonised the solar system. Netflix acquired the series, which has been renewed for a third season, for global distribution late last year. There’s also Canadian time-travel series Travelers, on which Netflix linked up with broadcaster Showcase. Starring Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and distributed by Sky Vision, the show centres on a group of time-travellers from the future who come to the present to save mankind.

“What’s interesting about this is sci-fi shows aren’t going anywhere,” notes Carrie Mudd, president of Travelers producer Peacock Alley Entertainment. “Travelers is not like the Terminator films, where you see glimpses of a dystopian future. Instead, that comes out through the characters and their experiences because they’ve never had a piece of fruit or heard a bird sing. It’s so much more character-driven and draws a much broader audience as a result of the drama and the characters.”

Concept art for in-development Danish drama Unpunished

Sci-fi isn’t appreciated the world over, however. Vlad Ryashin, producer and president of Star Media Group (Mata Hari), explains: “Russian viewers prefer more emotional dramas, focused on human collisions between the protagonists. Since the early 1990s, soap operas and comedies have represented solid options for the channels, while historical films and series are also a big attraction for mass audiences. Sci-fi is a bit too tough for a viewer who is looking for relaxation without being involved so quickly in some alternate reality or parallel world.”

But Star Media isn’t giving up on the genre just yet, and its efforts in the region could be buoyed by The Contact, produced by Ukraine’s Film.UA. The sci-fi crime drama sees three people – a criminal, a writer and a photographer – realise they can enter each other’s minds.

Series director Mikhail Barkan believes the secret to successful sci-fi drama lies in looking at the world in a new way. “It’s not about chasing impressive visual effects or creating realistic monsters, it’s about looking at timeless issues from a different angle,” he says.

“Only three things are of greatest concern for humans: where are we coming from, what are we living for and where are we going after death? Unfortunately, there are no answers we can all agree on – but science-fiction offers the possibility to imagine ‘what if?’”

Sci-fi has always encouraged viewers to question what the future may hold but it’s telling that the shift in dynamic towards science-possible fiction has led the genre to become more visible than ever.

“It used to be second-tier drama,” Pukeko’s Baynton says. “Now it’s of such high sophistication that it’s a leading dramatic art form. Clearly new formats have changed the landscape, because you have the ability to tell complex stories in which characters can develop over 10 hours.”

Mudd adds: “There will always be a lot of room for sci-fi, in whatever sub-genre you choose to define a show. But everything’s cyclical. There hasn’t been a big space opera like Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1 in a long time – maybe that comes back next.”

Not all sci-fi is rooted so firmly in reality, however. Currently in development at Toronto-based True Gravity Productions, Election Day is set on Earth but undoubtedly has some fantastical elements – pondering what might happen if historical leaders could be resurrected.

Taking place in 2055, the show, which is yet to be attached to a broadcaster, sees companies, not countries, ruling the global population. Tech advancements mean humans can be grown from DNA samples, leading to some of history’s best leaders being brought back to life and battling to be elected world president.

“There are no boundaries,” True Gravity Productions creative director David Merry says of working in sci-fi. “You don’t have to adhere to the regular norms of society or the planet, because we’re inventing stuff that could potentially be around 30 years from now. It’s fun to just step outside the realm of normalcy.”


Clockwise from top: The first image from the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery pictured alongside The Next Generation and Voyager

Humans co-creator Sam Vincent on the significance of Star Trek

In terms of pure science fiction, Star Trek is both a space adventure and a sci-fi of ideas – both of the main strands of the genre – and for me it remains one of the more thoughtful and thrilling explorations of sci-fi on TV.

All the Star Trek shows are notable but the high point is The Next Generation [1987-1994]. That stands apart. Each of the six Star Trek shows [Discovery will be the seventh] reflected the values of the era really interestingly and commented on them in a fascinating way. You watch the original show and it’s very rooted in the era and yet, at the same time, had some of the great sci-fi writers of the 20th century like Harlan Ellison contributing ideas and scripts. It was also very much an expression of values.

Sam Vincent

At its core, Star Trek has always been about exploration, which is a hopeful and optimistic venture. So there is an optimism hardwired into Star Trek. When you look at The Next Generation, it was very much an expression of a high point of liberal ideals – that you should not interfere in other cultures, that you should be peaceful. It was a very diverse crew, there were all kinds of aliens, there were even people with disabilities. It was very ahead of its time but simultaneously it was the most optimistic, thoughtful and humane version of Star Trek. The shows that followed were very interesting takes on that.

Deep Space Nine [1993-1999] was set on a space station and was all about the aftermath of a horrendous war between two alien races. It had huge parallels with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, focusing on people trying to come to an accommodation after this conflict. Interestingly, it was the one Star Trek that didn’t move, being set on a space station. That was very important for the DNA – it wasn’t about a ship going into other territories.

Then you had Voyager [1995-2001], which was about getting lost on the other side of the galaxy, arguably reflecting more uncertain times. The most recent series was Enterprise [2001-2005], which was a strange one. It became more conservative again, slightly more empire-building. It harked back to the early series quite a lot; it reflected the George Bush era and was a bit more traditional.

I cannot wait for the new Star Trek. The creative pedigree is really interesting and it will be intriguing to see how the show deals with the world in which we live now.

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Measuring success

As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?

When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.

Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.

Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.

Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.

Wynona Earp gained ‘momentum’ via social media

Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”

The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.

Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”

Christophe Riandee

In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?

Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.

In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?

“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”

CBS’s Doubt was was cancelled after just two episodes

Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.

Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.

The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.

That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.

David Ozer

“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”

These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.

“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.

“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”

At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”

That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.

Netflix’s Pablo Escobar series Narcos is a social media sensation

For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.

“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”

Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”

MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”

Swedish Dicks broke viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay

Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.

Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”

He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.

“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”

Avingerne – an example of a DR drama with ‘a complex story told through relatable characters’

Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”

Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.

“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.

“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”

In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.

“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”

For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”

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Keys to the Kingdom

As historical drama The Last Kingdom charges towards the end of its second season, read DQ’s report from the Budapest set, where stars Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson were preparing to do battle once again.

It’s a cold, wet, November day – the perfect conditions in which to experience a slice of ninth century English life, albeit on the outskirts of Budapest.

It’s here that production designer Martyn John is dodging muddy puddles and piles of dung on the remarkable set he has overseen for the second season of BBC2’s
The Last Kingdom, adapted by Stephen Butchard (Good Cop) from Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Saxon Stories novels.

The first season followed young warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), born a Saxon but raised a Dane and wrestling both with his dual heritage and the bitter warfare splitting England apart. Now, allied with King Alfred (David Dawson), he hopes to reclaim the lands in the north that are his ancestral birthright. It’s not a journey without its difficulties.

“Uhtred has to make quite a few sacrifices,” says Dreymon, looking impressively energised near the end of a seven-month shoot. “He pays a high price to achieve his objectives. It’s a rocky road. It’s important to keep the moments where he’s playful and still a little boy, but there’s a lot less messing about this year. It’s more political and serious and dramatic.”

Actor Alexander Dreymon during a break in filming

Most notably, Uhtred is enslaved and chained to the oar of a Viking longship – a terrifying experience for a man who believes he will only reach Valhalla by dying with sword in hand. “Going through that emotional arc, you have to dig quite deep,” says Dreymon. “I was very disappointed I wasn’t able to go through the journey physically because we didn’t have time. To get to that point of emaciation wasn’t possible, but with prosthetics and baggy clothes and sleep deprivation, I think we got away with it.”

If Uhtred is the hero, then Alfred is the anti-hero, and one who fades into the background of the books adapted in this second season, which debuted in March. Butchard was keen to rectify this: “I tried to keep Alfred and Uhtred tied together as much as possible by having Alfred use Uhtred for his own ends, to spread his influence in the north. England is a game of chess for him, and Uhtred is his key piece on the board. In a period of violence and conflict, Alfred is trying to build something substantial, because it’s only in periods of peace where cultures grow.”

“You’ll really find out why he goes down in history as Alfred the Great,” says wiry, self-confessed “history geek” Dawson. “It’s not just about him taking land, but about him trying to create an identity for his kingdom. He was militarily smart, building forts around Wessex to secure it from any more Viking invasions. He’s clever with his court, which is full of people wanting to take his place. But he also translated books into English to promote learning and signed a peace treaty with the Danes when they would have expected a ruthless response. He’s a frail intellectual who achieves so much, and as a skinny lad I appreciate that!”

Dawson is speaking just outside Alfred’s Wessex stronghold of Winchester, as recreated by John. Not quite as regal or majestic as you might expect, it’s a network of dwellings and stables, official rooms and religious buildings. There are loose straw roofs for the poor and thatched for the more wealthy. With authenticity the watchword, timber was used where possible.

What becomes rapidly clear is John’s ingenuity. A TV veteran with the likes The White Queen and Foyle’s War under his belt, he may ostensibly be showing us around Winchester but, from a different angle and with a bit of redressing, the same space has represented York, Northampton, Leeds and assorted other settlements in East Anglia and Wessex.

The Last Kingdom airs on BBC2 and is available on Netflix in the US

Here is a network of staircases inspired by the famous Escher lithograph; there, a pagan meeting hall that had doubled as a cathedral in an earlier scene. The architectural design incorporates Saxon and Viking influences, but with elements of ancient Roman mural and filigree for the eagle-eyed. Truly, anything goes if it enhances the show.

“I’ve got to use all my sets four or five different times,” says John, who looks exhausted but justifiably proud of his achievements. If this does indeed prove to be his last run on The Last Kingdom (“Two seasons is enough for me!”), then he has left quite the legacy for his successors.

Continuity has been key to the smooth running of the shoot. Most of the cast and, perhaps unusually, most of the crew returned for the second season, including producer Chrissy Skins and director of photography Chas Bain. The directors, though, continued to rotate – a policy with pros and cons.

“It’s a great learning curve,” Dreymon says. “The whole crew and most of the cast have a shorthand now, but the one person with the ultimate decision is the one who changes every two episodes. Everyone’s nerves get tested sometimes, but the best directors are the ones who are open to suggestions, whether it’s from me or a runner on their first day.”

Jon East, who directs the second block of episodes in this second season, has both originated series (The Last Weekend, Critical) and stepped onto moving vehicles (New Tricks, Whitechapel). For him, too, it was a challenge: “You’re trying to create a reasonably seamless next chapter – you don’t want you to create this odd, ungainly shape in front of an elegant wall of bricks, but you have to bring some distinctiveness to it. You can either ask the audience to observe the characters and scenario, or ask them to step inside it and immerse themselves. I’m in the latter camp – I like to take an audience right alongside the character for a more visceral experience.”

Those visceral experiences are most arresting in the epic battles that were a hallmark of season one, climaxing in the bloodbath of Ethandun that saw Alfred defeat the Viking hordes. While season two doesn’t have anything on quite that scale, there are still some impressive set pieces. For East, though, the priority was always narrative over spectacle.

“Those long action sequences can make it feel as if time is standing still,” he argues. “You think, at some point, they’ll stop clashing swords and someone will win, when what the audience is really watching is what happens to individual characters. You need story milestones worked into those set pieces, and characters need to go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one.”

The period drama is filmed in Budapest, Hungary

East talks with audible excitement about filming the slave sequences and a fortress siege featuring “stuntmen who had to dress in layers of fire-resistant clothing, set themselves on fire and hurl themselves off battlements in 34 degree heat.” His most enjoyable moments, however, tend to be lower key.

“My favourite scene is a very quiet one between Uhtred and Hild, a warrior who becomes one of his coterie. They just sit in a field and talk, shot in a ‘magic hour’ light. There was a delicacy, honesty and truthfulness about their performances that was very touching.”

On the whole, however, The Last Kingdom’s team had to work hard to avoid scenes looking too idyllic and thus clashing with the dour, angst-ridden nature of much of the narrative. Unlike season one, the bulk of filming was done over the sweltering Hungarian summer rather than the bitterly cold winter. Plenty of post-production work was carried out to ensure that ninth century life looked every bit as nasty, brutish and short as it really was.

Oddly, the actors missed the wintry chill. “I think you benefit from seeing people’s breath, being cold, miserable and in the mud,” grins Dreymon. “The make-up artist has kept putting on dirt all the time because you couldn’t see it in the sunlight. It’s been easier this season to not suffer those conditions, but I would gladly do it again in the winter just for the look.”

Yes, winter will come again to Winchester as surely as there will always be a Westeros-shaped shadow over any series involving swearing, sex, men with mullets and frequently wielded swords. The comparison to HBO’s Game of Thrones is one everyone acknowledges but few seem to mind (although perhaps tellingly, no one will admit to having watched The Last Kingdom’s nearest equivalent, History’s Vikings). Dawson even concedes that The Last Kingdom would probably not have been made without the success of Game of Thrones.

“It’s incumbent upon any team working within this genre to try and put clear blue water between themselves and that giant of a show,” says East. “But The Last Kingdom has as its basis those fantastic novels and a drive towards historical and visual authenticity that differentiates it.”

The Last Kingdom, produced by Carnival Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, has a new US partner for season two, with Netflix taking rights stateside, replacing BBC America. And though the drama has yet to be recommissioned for a third season, given the rich history and with 10 Cornwall books to plunder (each season has so far covered two each), there’s scope for at least another three outings. Dreymon, however, must be hoping the divergence from the source novels is complete by that stage, as by book 10, Uhtred is in his 50s – a leap of the imagination surely beyond even the most gifted make-up artist.

The central theme, however, will never age and, if anything, feels more pertinent now than ever: the clash of cultures personified by the one-man melting pot at its heart. Can such apparently opposed perspectives ever be reconciled? “There’s a bit more gravitas this year,” says Butchard. “Saxons and Danes are living together and becoming more integrated, so it’s harder to say who the enemy is and who’s fighting for who.”

Dreymon believes that, however nightmarish his era may appear, Uhtred has attributes that many significant 21st century figures might do well to heed: “He’ll look beyond what religion people are from or where they’re from, which is a beautiful thing – he’s really ahead of his time.”

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