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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Ahead of the Bafta Television Craft Awards, costume designer Susie Coulthard takes DQ through her work on the standout episode from the third season of Black Mirror, San Junipero, for which she has been nominated.
When the third season of Black Mirror dropped on Netflix, there was one episode that stood out, not just among this line-up of six new stories but across the entire run of the anthology series.
Set largely in the 1980s but ultimately across multiple eras, San Junipero turned the show’s typically twisted take on the impact of future technology into a nostalgic romance that unfolds in the fictitious fun-loving beach town that gives the episode its title.
It stars Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie, an awkward introvert whose life changes after meeting exuberant and outgoing Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Born from Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker’s desire to create a “vintage” episode of the series – one set in the past as opposed to its usual near-future or modern-day setting – the look and feel of the episode is completed by the retro soundtrack, the production design and the detailed costumes.
Enter costume designer Susie Coulthard, whose credits include Kill Your Friends, Alphas and The Gamechangers. Coulthard’s work on San Junipero has earned her a nomination at this Sunday’s Bafta 2017 Television Craft Awards, where she will be up against Charlotte Holditch (The Durrells), Michele Clapton (The Crown) and Nigel Egerton (The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses – Richard III) in the costume design category.
Here Coulthard tells DQ about joining Black Mirror, which is produced by House of Tomorrow and distributed by Endemol Shine International, and how she helped to create the unique style of San Junipero.
How did you first become involved in Black Mirror?
I had a call from [producer] Laurie Borg, who I’d worked with on [Mathew Cullen-directed feature film] London Fields asking if I’d be interested in designing an episode for the new season of Black Mirror, and of course I jumped at the chance. There was no director in place at the time and then Owen Harris was hired, whom I’d just shot Kill Your Friends with, which sealed the deal.
Were you a fan of the series and what were your first impressions of this episode?
I was a big fan of the series. It’s a very different model to the usual TV series but great for a designer as each episode has a completely different concept and feel. When I first read the episode I was blown away. And that doesn’t happen very often.
Once you join a project, where do you begin? I like to read the script numerous times over the first couple of days so I have an idea of characters set in my head before I start the research. I’ll then research and produce ‘mood boards’ prior to a chat with the director so that we have visuals to refer to. I always check to see if they have any filmic references. We used John Hughes films [The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off] as the main reference for San Junipero. Everyone remembers those films from the 1980s and they are sort of ingrained in our memories. We wanted to create nostalgia. Then I immerse myself in more specific research before I start designing.
What unique challenges did San Junipero present you with? When I first read the script I thought, ‘Christ how are we going to do this?’ There’s a lot of jumping around different eras. The 1980s and 1990s were fine, as we all know what that looked like. However, 2002 was quite difficult. It doesn’t feel that long ago but actually the period has a definitive style and once I actually researched it, I realised how period it feels and how much we’ve moved on from the early naughties.
How do you use the script to inform your decisions?
A well-written script will give you everything you need. If I’m uncertain of a costume choice, I’ll read the script or scenes again. It’s amazing what clarity this gives you – it does tend to be on the page.
How do you work with the writer and director to find the right styles for the characters?
It’s a very collaborative process. Owen is a fantastic director to work with; he’s very sure of what he wants but is open to let me interpret his thoughts. Charlie [Brooker, series creator and San Junipero writer] is also very strong in what he thinks. After all, the characters were born in his head so he is the one who really knows who they are. I originally had a much softer look in mind for Kelly but Charlie was like, ‘No! Think Janet Jackson!’ It can just take one reference and everything falls into place with the look.
What is the biggest challenge for a costume designer on a TV show?
Late casting always poses great problems for the costume department. You can be really sure of a direction and then it can change dramatically when you speak to the cast. Their opinions are so valid for me, as we are there to service their needs as much as the director’s. And to help them find the character, they have to be part of the collaborative process. Time is also necessary post-fitting to refine the look, and sometimes this can be a bit of a scramble when time is short.
How does your role differ between film and television, if at all?
A normal episodic TV show can turn into a bit of a machine. You have very tight deadlines and masses of rounds of approvals, which can see all of your time taken up on emails, reducing your creative thinking time and often turning into design by committee. In film it’s much freer, a much more organic process, a more creative process. Black Mirror is more like film than TV, which is what makes it so attractive to creatives.
Was there a particular part of this episode you were most pleased with?
I really like the wedding dress scene. I knew some of this was going to be shot at dusk so I wanted a fabric that would shoot well in dim lighting. Wedding dresses from the 80s are the ultimate in hideous but there are certain aspects of them that are so fun and evocative of the time – the ruffles and leg-of-mutton sleeves. The idea that they would go into the San Junipero programme to pick their wedding outfit gave us the opportunity to use the same fabric but differing styles, which Kelly and Yorkie would have picked, and I think it worked really nicely. Clinton Lotter, the fabulous bridal designer, made the bespoke dresses for the girls.
What are you working on next? I’m currently back at Black Mirror working on a new episode for the upcoming season. Then I’d like to do a feature next.
Content chiefs at AMC, Netflix, Showtime, Starz and Bad Robot will speak at C21 Media’s Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on Friday May 19, bringing together the global scripted business to facilitate new productions and partnerships.
The one-day summit, which occurs between the Upfronts and LA Screenings at The Ebell Theatre in Hollywood, will focus on ‘new drama, new models,’ bringing partners together around a creative conference, festival and networking agenda with a view to helping facilitate next-generation relationships.
AMC and Showtime president of original programming and development Joel Stillerman, Showtime president of programming Gary Levine and Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik are among a raft of top-tier US programming execs speaking at the event.
They will discuss the state of the US market and their respective 2017 slates, which include Loaded and The Son (AMC); Twin Peaks, Billions and Homeland (Showtime); and American Gods, The Girlfriend Experience and The Missing (Starz).
Netflix VP of content Elizabeth Bradley and VP of international originals Erik Barmack will host a joint session at the event, outlining their global coproduction and international originals strategies respectively. This in-depth session will provide unique insight into how the international business can work with the platform.
Entertainment One Television CEO John Morayniss joins a panel of industry leaders discussing the big questions ahead in US scripted television and creating premium scripted series, which include the forthcoming Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams for HBO; Ransom, from executive producer Frank Spotnitz for CBS/Corus/TF1/RTL; Foreign Bodies for E4; and Havana, starring Antonio Banderas for Starz, among many others.
Bad Robot head of television Ben Stephenson and HBO Latin America VP of original production Roberto Rios will also join panels at the event.
Marti Noxon, showrunner of Sharp Objects, and execs from from Lionsgate, The Ink Factory, Color Force and TV Globo will also speak at the event.
Noxon, whose other credits include UnREAL, Glee, Mad Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will join a panel of writer-producers discussing the evolving entrepreneurial role of showrunner in the changing TV landscape. Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name, is being directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies) and produced by eOne.
Stephen Cornwell, co-CEO of The Night Manager producer Ink Factory, and Nellie Reed, senior VP of Television at American Crime Story producer Color Force, also join a panel looking at how the industry’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama.
Further speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.
This year will see the addition of a Drama Summit West Networking Lounge where delegates can reserve meeting tables to use throughout the day.
The 2016 event sold out, attracting more than 500 top-level executives.
Drama Summit West is the sister event to the International Drama Summit, part of C21’s Content London, which takes place in London in December. Recent speakers and contributors have included actor Tom Hardy, director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Knight (Taboo); showrunners Bryan Fuller (American Gods), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Tony Grisoni (Southcliffe, Red Riding) Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Simon Mirren (Versailles); executives Joel Stillerman (AMC), Channing Dungey (ABC), Eric Schrier (FX), Sharon Tal Yuguado (Fox) and Morgan Wandell (Amazon); and leading global producers Jane Tranter, Jane Featherstone, Liza Marshall, Greg Brenman, Richard Brown, Gub Neal and Andrew Marcus.
US star Kiefer Sutherland reveals why he elected to play the president in US drama Designated Survivor and what he learned from working on 24.
Best known for saving the day – and quite often the US president – in action drama 24, Kiefer Sutherland still finds himself spending plenty of time in the Oval Office.
Only now he plays the president as the star of ABC drama Designated Survivor. The political series sees Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the US secretary of housing and urban development, rapidly promoted to become the leader of the free world after an explosion during the State of the Union address claims the lives of the incumbent and all other members of the US cabinet.
The drama, from creator David Guggenheim and producer Mark Gordon, debuted last September to more than 10 million viewers and a week later, it was handed a full season order of 22 episodes for the 2016/17 season.
It also airs on CTV in Canada and around the world on Netflix following deals with distributor Entertainment One (eOne).
Sutherland has built his career across television and film, with big-screen credits including Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill. So when he gave a keynote address at television industry event Mipcom, DQ was in the audience to hear more from the London-born Canadian actor.
Sutherland hadn’t planned on joining another network drama…
My experience on 24 was the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. Having done a lot of smaller movies that no one ever saw, I remembered it was nice to have people watch what you do and enjoy it. So I was so grateful for that. Having said that, it was nine years, anywhere between 12 and 15 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year – it’s a lot of work, so when I did 24 I wasn’t aware of any of that.
When I agreed to do Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. So it was a big decision and when I first got the script, it was sent to me by Mark Gordon. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I was doing a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a very small picture. I was getting into some music things, and taking on the responsibility of a television show was not in the forefront of my mind.
But his attitude changed when he read the pilot script…
I was going to give it what I call a cursory read – I was going to read it really quickly to gain enough information about the script to explain to Mark why I couldn’t do it. And I got to about page 25 and I went, “Fuck.” I knew I was potentially holding what I was going to be doing for 10 years if I was lucky, and I went back and re-read it. But the opposite thing happened – I got to the end almost praying it stayed as good as it was and David Guggenheim really wrote a script that spoke to me.
The actor could see similarities between Jack Bauer and Tom Kirkman…
It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realised there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer I had not anticipated. Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and both characters are willing to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win. That through line in both characters is something I obviously really relate to. I would like to aspire to be one of those people. It ended up being something that I knew if I chose not to do it for a lot of very reasonable reasons, I would really regret it. I do not regret the decision [to sign up] for a second.
Tom Kirkman was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt, because Abraham Lincoln “would have been too obvious…”
One of the nice things about the character is he’s not even elected, he’s not even an elected member of the cabinet. He’s an architect who had very specific ideas about urban planning and affordable housing across the country and that’s how he became part of the cabinet. So he had no political aspirations. What is nice about this character is he can approach the country’s issues, domestic and abroad, with common sense and a sense of fairness and what he thinks is right or wrong, as opposed to a political agenda that’s been dictated by three years of campaigning. That is a really fresh point of view. Common sense is the foundation of the character, and when he becomes more political, that’s when he starts to make mistakes and that will be a constant thread in the character throughout the whole show.
As an exec producer of Designated Survivor, he sees himself as the show’s ambassador…
I was an exec producer on 24 as well and Joel Surnow [the creator of 24] taught me something: the writers had all the offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot, we never went up there and they never came down. As I’m experiencing on this show, that was very unique. I once asked Joel, “Why don’t you ever come down?” He said it was because he hired the people he wanted to do what they’re doing and he didn’t have to oversee everything because he hired the people that he really wanted to do it. It’s a really valuable lesson. Mark is the producer of this show; I work as an ambassador because of the amount of actors we do have coming in and out of the show. I try to make sure they’re comfortable if they’re having a problem with part of the script, I’ll try to work it out with them or direct them to who else to talk to. That’s really my role. I’m certainly not sitting in budget meetings or things like that.
The biggest problem on 24 was also the ‘star’ of the show…
When I first read this script [for Designated Survivor], as much as I was moved by the characters, I had learned a lot from 24 about what would potentially make the show great and what would not. 24’s real -ime aspect, which was in my opinion the real star of the show, was also a problem. We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline and it was almost every year, right around episode 14 or 15 and we’d have to do something wonky to get around it, but we’d make up for it in the last eight episodes. It was something we really had difficulty every year navigating and I think Howard Gordon would be the first to acknowledge that.
But Designated Survivor was designed to avoid those same challenges…
It was designed to never get caught in that position. This show works on three different prongs. So you have a terrorist attack and an FBI investigation into who did this attack and what would be the appropriate response – that’s the thriller aspect of the show. Then you have a family drama, of what happens to a family that is split up, or is moved into the White House overnight. What does that do to the dynamic of his marriage, how does it affect how he interacts and behaves with his children? That’s its own storyline. And there’s the political aspect – how do you stabilise the country after having its entire government wiped out? How do you rebuild the government and shore up the country on an international level?
Those are all things we’ll be dealing with throughout this first season. If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, then all of a sudden the show can shift back to being a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. It’s the same with the investigation. So the fact that three storylines are living within the show, all at the same time, gives the writers incredible flexibility to also react to what the audience is enjoying about the show. For those reasons, the show has a flexibility that I think is stronger than anything I’ve been a part of so far.
Sutherland wasn’t sure he wanted to do television before 24 changed his mind…
When I took 24, I wasn’t very clear on how it all worked. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to do a television show – and of course it ended up becoming the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. I seem to land in certain situations. If I manage to get out of my own way, things can work out and 24 was the great lesson for that for me.
He now believes the small screen is the most exciting medium in entertainment…
When I started working, there were five studios in the US and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios in the US and they’re making about 15 movies a year. And if you’re going to do one of those movies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape! So all of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid – whether it was The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment – those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were and that drama, that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television, whether it’s 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City or Game of Thrones. The list is endless and the fact we’ve moved from three channels to four channels to 500 channels, content is king – and for the writers who want to tell real drama, television is where it is at right now.
Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.
Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.
The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).
Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).
Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.
The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.
As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.
The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.
Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.
After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.
Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).
The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.
Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.
At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).
Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.
The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.
As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).
But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.
Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.
Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).
The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.
BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.
And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.
From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.
In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.
Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.
Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).
A quartet of British stars have another trophy for the cabinet this morning after triumphing at the 74th Golden Globes in Hollywood last night.
Claire Foy, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie each came out victorious on a night when UK dramas The Crown and The Night Manager went head-to-head with some of the best US dramas of recent years.
With a reputation as the wild and eccentric sibling of the more straight-laced Emmys, the Globes has a reputation for bucking the trend with its winners – look no further than recent prizes for Lady Gaga (for American Horror Story: Hotel), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.
Nevertheless, all eyes this year were on Game of Thrones – arguably coming off the back of its strongest ever season – and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story scooping prizes across the board, as they had done at the Emmys last September.
But perhaps it should come as no surprise that a ceremony presided over by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) once again took a different path and instead showered awards on international series and their stars.
Netflix’s royal epic The Crown – the SVoD firm’s first UK original – took home the biggest prize of the evening, winning Best Drama against competition from Netflix stablemate Stranger Things, HBO duo Game of Thrones and Westworld and the fall’s standout network series, This Is Us (NBC).
Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the Peter Morgan-penned drama, was also named Best Actress ahead of Winona Ryder (Stranger Things), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Catriona Balfe (Outlander) and Keri Russell (The Americans).
In the Limited Series/TV Movie category, The People v OJ Simpson came in ahead of The Night Of, The Night Manager, American Crime and The Dresser.
Sarah Paulson was also named Best Actress in a Limited Series for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the same show, beating competition from Felicity Huffman (American Crime), Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience), Charlotte Rampling (London Spy) and Kerry Washington (Confirmation).
But there was to be no repeat of The People v OJ’s dominance at the Emmys, when it also picked up trophies for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series.
Instead it was UK drama The Night Manager – coproduced by the BBC and US cable channel AMC – that picked up the highest number of prizes of any TV show at the Globes. Tom Hiddleston was named Best Actor in a Limited Series/TV movie, ahead of Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Bryan Cranston (All the Way), John Turturro (The Night Of) and Emmy winner Courtney B Vance (The People vs OJ Simpson).
Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie completed an acting treble for The Night Manager, picking up best supporting actress and actor awards respectively for a limited series/TV movie.
Goliath star Billy Bob Thornton won the other acting prize for a drama, picking up Best Actor in a Drama TV Series ahead of Mr Robot’s Rami Malek, Matthew Rhys for The Americans, Better Call Saul leading man Bob Odenkirk and Liv Schrieber (Ray Donovan).
It’s not unusual for the Golden Globes to step out of the shadow of the Emmys with some different winners. In fact, The Crown wasn’t even in contention in 2016, only debuting in November several months after the Emmys were handed out, so it could be the series to watch when those statuettes are handed out again later this year.
Yet the Globes could also be a precursor for another awards ceremony, the Bafta TV Awards, which will take place in London in May. Back on home soil, The Crown and The Night Manager are dead certs to be in the running for every major category, both on screen and behind the camera, and their success stateside is unlikely to go unnoticed.
Writer Paula Milne and director Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss their upcoming Cold War drama Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), in which a ‘Romeo’ agent is sent on a seductive mission in 1970s Berlin.
When it was first released in cinemas, German feature Downfall was praised for its gripping portrayal of Hitler’s last stand and Bruno Ganz’s striking performance as the embattled Führer.
Twelve years on, however, Oliver Hirshbiegel’s film is largely remembered for one iconic scene inside Hitler’s bunker – in which he rants and raves at his officers – that has been parodied hundreds of times to comedic effect. A quick YouTube search can find the dictator angrily lashing out at news that he has been banned from Xbox Live or at the latest plot twist in Game of Thrones.
“That’s hard to top,” Hirschbiegel jokes. “I can be very proud of this phenomenon – it’s a first in film history where a scene has been used over and over again. The most recent one I’ve seen is about [British politician] Boris Johnson finding out the UK voted to leave the European Union – it’s brilliant and very funny.”
Whether the director’s latest project, six-part Cold War thriller Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) for German broadcaster ZDF, can earn similar cult status remains to be seen. But on the back of smash-hit spy dramas Deutschland 83 and The Night Manager, it’s certainly tapping into a genre riding a wave of popularity.
Set in 1970s Berlin, the story centres on East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) who is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin, pictured top).
Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’ cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic swimming team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.
A story of divided families and a divided city, The Same Sky is written by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and produced by UFA Fiction, distributor Beta Film and Mia Film, in association with Rainmark Films. Netflix has picked up the series for multiple countries worldwide, including English-speaking territories.
The show has its origins as a passion project for Beta CEO Jan Mojto, who had been involved in 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and was interested in commissioning a TV series focused on divided Berlin.
And Milne – who is no stranger to Germany, having penned 1990 drama Die Kinder (The Children) for BBC1 – was approached by Rainmark’s Tracey Scoffield to develop Mojto’s ambitions further. “It was very spy-orientated,” Milne recalls of the initial treatment, “but I felt it should have been more than that. So I re-pitched it and was commissioned to write the scripts. Originally it was going to be in English, but then ZDF got involved and it became German.
“Oliver did all the translations himself – during prep, he would take two hours off every afternoon and translate the whole lot. He would call me and say, ‘We don’t have a word for this, do you have another one?’
“He then printed the scripts with my English on one page and the German version next to it. We worked really well together and, because he was also directing, he was hugely loyal to the material as he was partly involved in delivering it.”
The Same Sky led the writer to immerse herself in research about the Stasi – the East German security force – and the use of Romeo spies. The discovery of a defunct NSA listening station on the outskirts of Berlin also gave Milne a location in which to plant Helin’s intelligence officer.
“We were able to put the characters in there and it opened up a whole new area of research into listening signals,” she says. “It transpired that domes found in the middle of this forest were used to disguise the direction in which the radars were facing, and they often faced West as much as East. That gave it a contemporary conduit [referencing whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA surveillance practices]. It’s always important to look at what resonates with a contemporary audience because otherwise you’re just doing a curiosity piece about the past.”
Milne also stresses the importance of authenticity: “It’s crucial when you do a piece like this, set in the past, that you don’t have what I call ‘precognition with hindsight.’ You don’t write it knowing what happened. You have to write it in the moment and that really helps with the authenticity.”
Hirschbiegel says he was fascinated by the story and immediately hit it off with Milne. “She has a very good way of writing and describing the world and the characters,” the director reveals. “She hardly ever gave me notes and for me, it was irritating – she was totally happy with the results. She said I was brilliant and wonderful, but I kept telling her, ‘You wrote it. It’s a good script!’”
Behind the camera, Hirschbiegel says he tries not to over-stylise the look of a show, instead admitting that he’s a “slave to the story” and keeps his focus on how each scene progresses the plot. But for The Same Sky, strong visual consideration was certainly employed to capture the look and feel of the period and the disparity between East and West Berlin.
Contrasting colour palettes were used to represent the two sides of the city, with hand-held cameras used more often when filming scenes set in the East. Shots in the West, Hirschbiegel explains, were “more stately, more static.”
The director continues: “The idea was for the audience to immediately recognise whether a scene is set in the East or the West. But the challenge was not being able to use any real locations, as we shot in Prague. So you just look at lots of images and try to find matches where you’re shooting. I created my own Kurfurstendamm [a grand boulevard in Berlin], though it is actually smaller than the original.
“The East was easier. They had these eastern bloc pre-fab housing areas everywhere in the East and also in Prague, so we used those. But back in the day, West Berlin was not in good shape. There were lots of ruins and run-down houses, while in the East, all these pre-fab buildings were new because they were built in the 1960s and 70s. Going to Berlin or Prague now, all these old facades have been renovated, while the pre-fab buildings are all fucked up and run-down. So it’s a bit of a challenge to find the proper locations to match what it looked like then.”
Describing The Same Sky as a “serial, not a closed series,” Milne is now preparing a story treatment for a potential second season – though the show’s future depends on how season one is received when it airs in early 2017.
“Ultimately,” she adds, “this is a story about ordinary people who are living in extraordinary times and are forced to make decisions perhaps none of us are confronted with today. It has a morality under it without, I hope, ever being preachy – but I don’t answer the questions, I just pose them!”
As for Hirschbiegel, the director admits he’s now turning down movie projects because he wants to work in television, and has already signed on to direct an episode in the second season of Showtime drama Billions. “It’s more cool right now and it happens so much faster,” he says of the small screen, “and often the scripts are way more relevant and daring. It’s much more of an adventure now to do television than it is to do a movie.”