Netflix’s acquisition of Richie Mehta’s manhunt series Delhi Crime made waves at this year’s Sundance. Here, the showrunner tells DQ why he decided to plough ahead and make the Hindi-language drama, despite having no broadcasters attached.
Richie Mehta wasn’t planning on making a TV series. The filmmaker – whose predominantly India-set movies include 2007’s Amal and 2013’s Siddharth, as well as the 2016 documentary India in a Day – was in Delhi in 2013 working on a movie script when he crossed paths with family friend Neeraj Kumar, a former commissioner for Delhi’s police force.
“He looked at my script and said, ‘Alright son, forget about this. The story you should be doing is about this gang rape on the bus,’” Mehta tells DQ.
The event in question, which forms the basis of Mehta’s seven-part series Delhi Crime, is the infamous December 2012 assault on a private bus in South Delhi, which saw a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern brutally beaten, raped, tortured and murdered by a gang of men.
The horrific crime prompted international shock and condemnation, leading to protests and riots, and forced India into a national reckoning over its treatment of women. “I was in Delhi when it happened; I saw the protests that had arisen, I saw the riots,” Mehta remembers. “It was insane. The whole country was moved.”
A week-long manhunt led to the apprehension of the men responsible. One died in custody, another – a minor at the time of the attack – was sentenced to three years in prison and the remaining four were sentenced to death by hanging.
After mulling the idea, Mehta, who is Indo-Canadian and Toronto-based (and also no relation to filmmaker Deepa Mehta), initially rejected his contact’s proposal, suggesting that a local or female filmmaker might be better placed to tell the story.
Sensing the filmmaker could be swayed, Kumar dismissed his protests. “He said, ‘I have seen your work, I think it should be you. I am going to give you some police files, I’m going to give you the verdict – which is 350 pages – and I’m going to introduce you to all the investigating officers involved, especially the woman who led the investigation, [revealing] how these six guys were caught across the country in six days with no information on them. And if you think there is a story there, I will give you the world on this.’”
Ultimately, the access proved irresistible. “They trusted me with so much information that they had never trusted anyone with,” the showrunner recalls. “As I got all these details, I realised this could be a compassionate look at law and order, done in a way that not only illuminates the issues these people face trying to do the right thing, but also how this manhunt across North India was so sprawling and so varied that each detail revealed another aspect of why this thing happened.”
With such extraordinary access, one might wonder why Mehta chose to make a drama, rather than a documentary. But he says the open doors came with caveats.
“Whenever I would meet the Delhi police and talk to them, they would say, ‘You’re not recording this, are you?’ because they could be held accountable. It’s a very media-savvy culture and they would get nailed. So I would say, ‘No, I am taking notes.’ They were telling me really intimate details about their lives, but they would say, ‘If you want to recreate it, go ahead. You can generalise this point but please don’t make it specific to me.’
“So, I realised I could actually be more truthful if I depicted it dramatically rather than with a documentary, of which there have been many. People would come from the CBC and the BBC to interview them and they would just tell them what they wanted to hear, because that was the safe thing for them.”
After opting for a dramatic approach, there was still the question of whether to make a movie or an episodic work. It was former high-ranking HBO executive David Levine who first convinced Mehta to adapt the story into a TV series, rather than a feature. (Levine stepped down as HBO’s exec VP and co-head of drama in February, after more than a decade with the pay TV network, to become Anonymous Content’s president of television.)
“He said, ‘Why don’t you go write it and then I can look at it,’” Mehta recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a TV series.’ So he said, ‘I will give you all the research material from The Wire and I will teach you how to write a series.’ And so for two years he taught me how to write a series based on that material, purely because he wanted to see this exist. He’s a wonderful person and a real collaborator.”
As the months passed, the filmmaker would send various drafts to the exec, receiving notes and rewriting accordingly. “One of the things I learned from my HBO tutelage, in a series like this, it’s that it’s the opposite of a film’s priorities,” he explains. “It’s world first, character second and plot third, which is the exact opposite of what you would do with a film.
“If you have a supermarket paperback, its plot-oriented,” he adds. “Whereas if you have a piece of literature, you have your tree trunk, which is the plot, and you have the branches, which are character digressions that add to the world. You are allowed to do that in this space, versus in a film where you are not. That became a guiding light for me. Yes, the trunk is the plot of this manhunt, but really the value of this tree is the leaves that come from the branches.”
Despite Levine’s support, broadcasters and networks – including HBO – were skittish about the prospect of taking on such a dark work. “In the West, they would say, ‘It’s Hindi language; not really for us,’” says Mehta. “And in India they said, ‘We don’t want to touch this.’ I would take it to broadcasters and they would say it was too controversial.”
With traditional TV doors closed, Mehta turned to independent financiers to tell the story, securing investment from Mumbai-based Golden Karavan and Hong Kong-based Ivanhoe Pictures (the latter of which coproduced last year’s rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians) to shoot in New Delhi.
Actor Shefali Shah (Monsoon Wedding, Juice) was tapped for the role of lead investigator Vartika Chaturvedi, with a supporting cast that includes Adil Hussain (Life of Pi, Hotel Salvation), Denzil Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Rasika Dugal (Qissa, Manto) and Rajesh Tailang (Siddharth, Selection Day). Mehta’s Canadian ties qualify the project as a Canuck coproduction, with all the series’ postproduction sound and music work having been completed in Toronto.
Heading into production with no broadcaster attached constituted a significant risk. But the gamble paid off this January when Netflix purchased global rights to the series at the Sundance Film Festival, in a landmark deal that marks the first major global rights, scripted episodic sale in the festival’s history. Such deals have been commonplace for years for feature films, but with Sundance only in its second year of hosting an independent episodic strand, the acquisition is the first of its kind.
While the first two episodes screened at Sundance under the title Delhi Crime Story, Netflix has retitled the series as simply Delhi Crime, with all seven episodes dropping globally on March 22. The streaming giant also plans to build the show into an anthology series, telling further Indian crime stories under the banner.
Simran Sethi, the streamer’s director of international originals, describes the series as “an important story told with sensitivity and responsibility,” adding: “Shows like this bring a much-needed lens to the lived reality of women around the world.”
Mehta reflects that the acquisition brings a happy ending to what was, in many respects, “a huge gamble” for his international producers. “For me, the risk was time and energy, but they rolled the dice and put in their money,” he says.
“And it was a huge risk because it was a very controversial subject and it was a big project. There were more than 200 actors, 400 locations and seven hours of content. And they were gracious enough to give me the freedom to figure it out.”
Paul Feig, the director of movies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, talks to DQ about life behind the camera, why history is the best critic and his efforts to back new voices for the screen.
As a writer, director, producer and actor across television and film, Paul Feig (pictured above) is better placed than most to judge the current blurring of the lines between the two mediums.
“We’re in a really interesting place right now, in a good way,” he tells DQ during a break from post-production on his upcoming holiday-themed feature Last Christmas. “TV’s in a great place, better than it’s been in a long time. Movies are playing catch-up a little bit sometimes but there’s still a lot of great movies.
“For me it’s just trying to figure out what is new for an audience, what’s going to surprise an audience, what will they be excited to see, what are they tired of, what don’t they want to see – it’s a never-ending question. It will never be answered by anybody that accurately. If it were, every movie that came out would be a giant hit.”
Feig jokes that he’s old enough to remember when Star Wars was an original movie, and says that despite the crowd of superheroes dominating the box office, he is always looking for the next big thing that doesn’t come from existing IP or a known franchise. “That’s what I get most excited about and I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out. What are the new ideas?”
Feig is speaking to DQ ahead of his appearance at the 2019 Banff World Media Festival in Canada, where he will give a Summit Series Keynote and be presented with the event’s Award of Excellence.
It’s that attitude to original material that has served Feig well across his career, which has seen him work on major movie titles including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy plus TV hits such as Freaks & Geeks, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men, 30 Rock, the US version of The Office and Weeds.
Among his recent major directorial projects is 2016’s female-fronted reboot of classic 1980s blockbuster Ghostbusters – and taking a fresh approach to the existing and much-loved property certainly represented a bold move for the filmmaker.
Feig says the offer to reboot Ghostbusters excited him because he thought it would be fun to put a new spin on it for today’s generation, more than 30 years after Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first battled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in New York City.
In the run-up to its release, the new film was dogged by criticism, largely relating to either its departure from and lack of relationship to the existing films or its women-led cast, leading the trailer to become the “most disliked film trailer” on YouTube.
But despite the controversy, Feig says: “I’m very proud of it. It didn’t do what we hoped it would do [at the box office] but I’m very proud of it. It keeps finding a fanbase – it’s a pretty rabid fanbase. That’s the great thing about what we do; it exists for ever. I did a bunch of movies and when they first came out, they weren’t well reviewed or well thought of and didn’t do that well, but suddenly they’ve taken on a life of their own because they eventually just get judged on their own merits. That’s why I’m always drawn to ‘recorded’ media because it just exists. You get it right once, hopefully, and there it is for people to consume.
“I am annoyed [Ghostbusters] became such a lightning rod [for criticism] but I had a ton of fun making it. That’s all that matters to me. I still like it. I don’t turn it on and go, ‘Oh, this thing.’ I run across it on TV or sometimes on a plane and watch a scene. It’s one of my babies as much as one of my other movies.”
Feig might hope history will be kinder to Ghostbusters in much the same way it has been to his early television series Freaks & Geeks, which he created, wrote and directed for US network NBC in 1999. Though 18 episodes were produced in its first season, the series was abruptly cancelled after only 12 had been shown, drawing fewer than seven million viewers.
Twenty years on, however, the story of two siblings navigating high school is regularly cited as one of the best series ever made, making it into Time magazine’s 100 Greatest Shows of All Time. It also launched the careers of actors such as Linda Cardellini (ER), James Franco (127 Hours), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother).
“You do something, you make it the best you can and the one thing you can’t control is the culture around you at that moment; you can’t control what the audience is consuming,” Feig explains. “Freaks & Geeks came out at a time when the viewing public mainly were really into watching gameshows and really into Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and all that. So I can’t control that. I don’t make gameshows, so all I can do is make the best show I can.”
He puts a lot of the Freaks & Geeks’ success down to the decision to release the show and its soundtrack on DVD and CD. “Because of that, it’s found a whole life of its own – between that and starting to show up on various second-run networks. It’s a testament to making it and getting it right. Eventually, it will either find an audience or it won’t. If time rejects it, that’s a fairer assessment of what you did then, as opposed to what the critics, audience and competition you were surrounded by dictate at that moment. If something is right and enough people think it’s good, it keeps going, and that’s good.”
For a time, Freaks & Geeks was available in the US and UK, among other territories, on Netflix, which is also home to one of Feig’s most recent projects. He is an executive producer on the streamer’s original film Someone Great, written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, in which Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays a music journalist who sets off for one last adventure with her friends following a break-up.
Though he says his main focus for his movies is the cinema – “I love the theatrical experience and it’s exciting to have a movie in the cinema and that will always be what I’m shooting for” – Feig says he is excited about the number of opportunities to find an outlet for all levels of projects these days, whatever the budget and regardless of who is behind the camera.
“When we look at Someone Great, here’s a small script that was great with a first-time director who most studios would not take a chance on,” he says. “We went to Netflix and they took the chance, they saw the potential. That’s where having Netflix is great. They’re bringing back the romantic comedy, whereas a lot of theatrical studios have stepped away from it, while ensuring anything that needs to be made gets made while opening up opportunities for new filmmakers. That’s all that really matters.
“[If a movie can’t get made] because it’s too small or the person who wants to make it doesn’t have the reputation for the studio to take a chance on them, that’s bad. The only things that shouldn’t get made are things that aren’t good enough to get made.”
But whether he’s behind the camera, in the writing room or a producer, either in television or film, Feig says his approach to picking up new projects is always the same. He asks himself a simple question: does anybody want to see this?
“When you’re looking at different projects, whether it’s something I’m going to write or it’s a script that’s brought to me, the first thing is, is it any good? And if it’s great, is this something people will want to see or is it something we can motivate them to see?”
That’s the difference between making a movie for Netflix or the cinema, he notes. Filmmakers have to draw people out of their home to see a film on the big screen, while viewers only have to turn on their television or mobile device to see what’s streaming. “That’s why picking projects is just the hardest thing in the world, and then making sure the script is great is the big thing. Beyond that, it becomes all production and casting. But it’s always about the story. If the script’s not good, all the other stuff is window dressing.”
When it comes to TV, directors such as Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) have been at the forefront of the role’s evolution, helming every episode of a serialised drama. But Feig believes that, beyond series that are often described as eight or 10-hour movies, the small screen is still a world of multiple directors.
“You just have to do it that way,” he argues. “One of the greatest moments of my career was when I did the second season of Nurse Jackie. For whatever reason, I ended up doing like eight out of 12 episodes. TV’s not supposed to do that. You don’t have time to prep. So that’s why you do it with multiple directors.”
Even so, television “is the greatest school a director can go to,” he continues. “To anybody who’s starting directing, or even a working director, do some TV, because you can experiment with different genres. That’s why, now I’m a movie director, I’m so addicted to trying different genres every time I do a movie – because I really had fun as a TV director challenging myself that way.”
Despite his multitude of roles on any given film or series, Feig says he still considers himself a director first, though he adds that whatever his title, he uses every skill he has learned along the way. Producing, he remarks, is all about finding the right people and letting them “do their thing,” with support from him, his producing partner Jessie Henderson and Dan Magnante, VP of Feig’s production company Feigco Entertainment.
It’s through Feigco and fledgling digital company Powderkeg that Feig is now using his profile to champion new voices, particularly those of female, LGBTQ and diverse filmmakers, offering support to those who have a hard time getting their stories told. He is also an ambassador for ReFrame, which promotes inclusion in Hollywood, and supports the 4% Challenge to increase the number of women directing studio movies. The initiative takes its name from the fact that just 4% of the 1,200 top-earning films released between 2007-2018 were directed by women.
“They need to be supported by those of us in the industry who have worked hard enough and been lucky enough to be able to get things made,” Feig says. “I just don’t think you can just tent yourself in. I get excited every time I see something from a new voice or from a person or group that doesn’t necessarily get to tell their stories all the time. I’ve found it so invigorating. I’m tired of my own voice in movies; I love doing it, but that’s why I’ve been doing other people’s scripts [Last Christmas comes from writers Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson while Jessica Sharzer penned 2018’s A Simple Favor].
“And then, through our company, we can empower all these other writers and directors and people to do their thing.”
Feig’s latest projects include re-teaming with A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick for WarnerMedia anthology series Love Life and musical drama Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which NBC has recently picked up to series. But he says he is particularly proud of Powderkeg six-part webseries East of La Brea, which tells the stories of two Muslim-American women living in LA.
“I want to be surprised by stuff. I want people to be able to tell their stories, because there’s such an audience out there for these stories that aren’t being told,” he adds. “East of La Brea is the type of story that need to be told, to help bring us all closer.”
Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill star Uma Thurman makes her Netflix bow in psychological horror series Chambers. The actor talks to DQ about the appeal of the drama, working with a young cast and why film is still her first love.
Uma Thurman’s career has been defined by her big-screen partnership with director Quentin Tarantino that has seen her star in seminal movies such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
However, the actor is no stranger to television, having appeared in Broadway-inspired Smash, the US adaptation of Australian series The Slap and Bravo dark comedy Imposters – and now Thurman has become the latest Hollywood star to link up with Netflix, making her debut on the global streaming platform in psychological horror Chambers.
The series stars Sivan Alyra Rose as Sasha Yazzie, a 17-year-old heart attack survivor who becomes consumed by the mystery surrounding the heart that saved her life. The closer she gets to the truth about the death of her donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), the more Sasha seems to be taking on the personality of the dead woman, including the most sinister aspects.
Thurman plays Becky’s mother, Nancy, who forges a hesitant relationship with Sasha – only to find out her daughter might not be as dead as she thought. Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn is Becky’s father, Ben.
The 10-part drama, which launches worldwide tomorrow, received its international premiere last month at Series Mania in France, where Thurman revealed that a meeting with creator Leah Rachel led her to join the show.
“I met Leah, I read the pilot and I thought it was really beautiful,” the actor says. “We just hit it off. I thought she had something really special to offer and I took the great leap of faith.
“I was grabbed by the metaphor of the heart and the fact there’s a strong female energy, and the drama and the tragedy of the parent I was playing, and the relationship between her and this young woman who is struggling with her identity in a very hardcore way.”
Rachel says Chambers became a psychological horror because that was what the plot demanded. This style and tone is laid out in the trailer, which maximises those genre themes with some intense music and quick cutaways that reveal a creepy dimension to the drama.
“[The genre] is found through the story; the story requires it,” says Rachel, who wrote the series with Akela Cooper. “Dealing with the loss of a child, dealing with the loss of a sister, to me that feels like a psychological horror already. So it definitely leant itself to this in the story. It can be an extension of human behaviour and emotion, in the same way that dance and music can.”
Executive producer Jennifer Yale picks up: “With psychological horror, we were always trying to play the metaphor first and foremost – the teenage girl and how she feels somewhat out of control with her body. And in our show, she literally is out of control.
“We also wanted to play with the other characters and what they’re going through. Nancy struggling with the loss of her child, only to meet this young woman who has a piece of her child in her and then to start to see pieces of her child somewhat slip out or come through; that psychological trauma that plays with Nancy and her thinking, ‘Is this just me? Am I going crazy? Or is this actually real?’ That’s very much how we were trying to play with the horror element, through the characters.”
As a mother of three, Thurman says there is no greater fear for a parent than losing a child. “That was very compelling to me about the character,” she says of Nancy. “She’s a woman being completely tormented by grief and is also experiencing the sense of haunting. You have a stay-at-home mother who identified with herself only really as a mother and, in fact, she really didn’t know either of her children. She’s truly haunted.”
With a screen career spanning more than 30 years, Thurman says she is “excited” about the current creative explosion TV drama is enjoying, but adds: “I love film – let me not mess around! I’ve really started to nurture my own theatre career because that really is the actor’s medium, but I’m really excited about the freedom, the space to breathe and the exploration of doing television. It’s a very democratic art form; it’s available to people. But I quite desperately am first and foremost loyal to film.”
Best known for her work with auteur filmmakers, Tarantino among them, Thurman says her decision to accept parts is more often based on who the director is than the role itself. “But as far as this baptism of fire, this new medium, for me, Jennifer has more experience in television compared to us,” she says. “We really didn’t know what we were doing and had to figure it out. Jennifer is much more versed [in television].”
Yale, whose credits include Legion and Outlander, also praises Thurman’s behind-the-scenes involvement. “We were very lucky to be able to have Uma come and work on this show and bring her expertise and also her wealth of knowledge,” she says. “We had a pretty inexperienced cast and we really rose to her level because she came prepared every day. She was the best ‘first person on the call sheet’ on any show I’ve ever worked on. I cannot say enough how lucky we were to have her on the show.”
Thurman responds: “When you’re working with young people, the first thing you do is, when they call you to set, you go immediately. You get there before they do, which is basic professionalism and discipline. It’s a privilege to get to do creative narrative storytelling work of any kind. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to get to live a creative life, and I think you pay back your team with professionalism and passion.”
But as a movie star now appearing in a Netflix series, what does Thurman think of the streaming platform’s fight for recognition for its feature-length output? “We’re in such a rapidly changing technology [landscape] that this thing is going to not even be a debate soon,” she responds. “It’s very expensive to buy a ticket and go to a movie theatre so, as much as I’d like someone to [go to the cinema], I wouldn’t want them not to experience the communication that people can have on any device. It’s pure snobbery. But I do love film so I can say people should enjoy the communication of sharing stories together in any way they can possibly achieve it.”
Rachel agrees, adding: “It’s great that art in many forms is becoming more accessible to people. Storytelling is changing and stories are being told from perspectives that are different, and I think it’s really important for everybody to be able to digest cinema. The meaning of the word ‘cinema’ might change behind it, but art is art.”
It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.
Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.
In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.
Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?
Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.
With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.
That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.
Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.
“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”
Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.
“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”
Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.
“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”
Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.
“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.
“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”
When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.
In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.
“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”
On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.
Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.
“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”
Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.
Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.
“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”
By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.
“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”
The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”
Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.
“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.
“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”
Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.
“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”
Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”
Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”
Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.
Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”
But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.
Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.
“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”
Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.
In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.
“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.
Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.
“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”
Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”
The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”
Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.
Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.
“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”
Based on the bestselling novel, Störst av Allt (Quicksand) sees a teenager put on trial for murder in the wake of a high-school shooting. DQ hears from the creative team behind Netflix’s first original Swedish drama.
The opening moments of Swedish drama Störst av Allt (Quicksand) are nothing less than chilling. From a black screen, the sound of half-a-dozen shots ring out, before the camera hovers over the bloodied bodies of the victims of a school shooting. When it comes to rest, with screams still ringing in the background, it is on Maja Norberg, sitting frozen in a chair, blood staining her jumper, a discarded rifle at her feet.
Apparently the only survivor of the horror, Maja is swiftly taken away by police, cleaned up and charged with murder. But what really happened in that room – and what was the role played by her boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman?
Over six episodes, the drama jumps back and forth between Maja’s police interrogation in the present and a past exploration of her relationship with Sebastian – how he swept her off her feet before she was seemingly corrupted by his dysfunctional lifestyle and family – until it is revealed whether she is in fact guilty of the shocking crime.
Notably, Quicksand is Netflix’s first Swedish original series, with producer FLX bagging the rights to Malin Persson Giolito’s bestselling novel amid fierce competition.
“There’s a first time for everything, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you work with a company like Netflix for the first time,” says producer Fatima Varhos (Sanctuary, Trespassing Bergman). “I was a bit worried in the beginning, because you don’t know how it could turn out, but Netflix came into Sweden and could easily see we didn’t do high-end drama with young adults in the lead. I’m sure other channels in Sweden would be delighted to show this series, but I’m not sure they would have had the courage to commission it. They wouldn’t have put as much money or trust into this as Netflix.”
Fellow producer Frida Asp (Bonusfamiljen, The Simple Heist) says Netflix recognised the need to make everything “bigger” when it came to sets, the number of extras and key scenes. “Had we made it with a Swedish broadcaster, there might have been a different way of doing it,” she continues. “This series could be broadcast on Swedish television but the method of making it would have been different. I really think it was a perfect series for Netflix and that’s why it was quite easy to work with them.”
The book attracted huge international acclaim due to its young female perspective, with the story told entirely from Maja’s point of view and carried to its conclusion with increasing tension – elements the producers wanted to keep in the series. Asp and Varhos worked with head writer Camilla Ahlgren and lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to bring the novel to the screen, while Lisa Farzaneh (Arne Dahl, Det Som Göms i Snö) also directs. “It’s very close to the book, and that was important to us,” Asp says. “It is a true gift to be able to make it into a series.”
FLX had approached Ahlgren about other projects, but the writer had been busy overseeing Swedish-Danish crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). However, when she was sent the novel, “I knew I wanted to adapt it into a TV series,” she recalls. “From the first page, I thought it was something special. I had pictures in my head and I was so grabbed by the main character. I couldn’t stop reading the book. I had an idea of how I wanted to do it, from Maja’s point of view. This is her story and I wanted to keep it that way.”
Ahlgren opened a writers room with Veronica Zacco and Alex Haridi to work on the scripts, based on the “clear idea” she had for the series. Giolito, a lawyer, was also involved, offering greater insight into the ideas and themes of the book and helping to read drafts.
But working with Netflix was no different from her experience with Swedish pubcaster SVT on The Bridge, she says. “The only difference is we had a lot of Skype meetings,” she jokes. “We had discussions but they trusted me. I also like to work with producers because they help me in my work and add things to my story and help me to do it better. It’s teamwork, and that worked very well.”
Central to the series is the love story between Maja (Hanna Ardéhn) and Sebastian (Felix Sandman), whose increasing influence over his girlfriend as their relationship develops is explored through flashbacks. “Maja is very controlled and the good girl at school,” Ahlgren says. “Suddenly, she’s with someone who can break the rules and is exciting. I can imagine her feeling that she’s now in another world. He also really needs her; she’s the only one he can rely on. One of the themes is about absent parents and dysfunctional families. That psychology is very interesting. It’s a very strong love story but there are a lot of different things in it.”
Director Sørensen was one of the producers’ first choices to steer the series, owing to his reputation for suspense dramas, and he too had read and loved the book. “It was a perfect match,” Asp says. “He has a certain method of working with actors. That made it great for both the amateurs and the experienced actors. He had a way of making it feel authentic, real and alive. He’s a brilliant director.”
Ahead of Sørensen’s appointment, just three months before production began, several key decisions had already been made. The producers decided Quicksand would be shot in the affluent Stockholm suburb of Djursholm, where the novel is set. Casting also began early: by the time Sørensen arrived, “we had seen 1,000 Majas,” Asp reveals. “When he joined, we said, ‘Here are 20 we think have potential.’ So we didn’t lose too much time because he was late joining. We had huge time pressure, but I feel we have been in control of the situation the entire time. It’s a huge project but we did the things in the right order and always felt confident in our decisions.”
Despite the number of hopefuls, only one truly stood out for the role of Maja. “Hanna has this face and with it she can express so many different kinds of emotions,” Varhos says. “We needed somebody who could do all of these faces – from so happy to extremely dark and sad – and also carry the part. She’s been in the picture every day of the shoot. She’s done an incredible job. She has incredible strength and she’s a great actor.”
Complications on set included finding a yacht that appears in episode one and filming spectacular party scenes that take place in Sebastian’s luxurious family home.
“Making parties in a way that feels real in a movie or series is really difficult,” Varhos explains. “We wanted to get the tone right, we wanted it to be realistic. Happily, the parties in the series came out great.”
Though the ending of the book stands strong in the series, which is exec produced by Pontus Edgren and Martina Håkansson, Ahlgren says it was important to keep viewers guessing over Maja’s guilt right up to the conclusion. How to achieve that was a discussion that kept the producers and writers engaged throughout the drama’s development and even during the editing process. Netflix also brought in an additional exec producer who hadn’t read the book or seen any of the scripts to cast a fresh eye over the drama.
Most importantly, however, Ahlgren believes the series will capture audiences around the world when it launches in April, with a story rooted in Swedish culture. “It has been very intense. We worked very fast but everyone was in it,” she adds. “The most exciting challenge was making the first show for Netflix. I’m proud it’s their first original Swedish series.”
While on the surface Störst av Allt (Quicksand) appears to be the cut-and-dried story of whether a high-school teenager is guilty of carrying out a killing spree, the series is far more complicated than that.
It’s that underlying complexity that drew lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to the project. “It’s a story about murder; there’s an investigation going on; it’s a heavy love story; it’s a drama about growing up; it’s a court drama; it’s a political comment on a segregated Sweden,” he explains. “But in all this, we portray a young woman pushed to take impossible choices in her young life. Finding a storytelling balance in all this is fascinating work.”
Sørensen worked closely with head writer Camilla Ahlgren to ensure that by the time he was on set, “her intentions for the story and every single scene are in my DNA.” She was also just a phone call away should he need her advice, with the script still open for rewrites deep into filming.
The director says the show presented him with a unique challenge due to the fact the novel is written like a long monologue purely from the perspective of Maja, the accused at the heart of the story. Early on, he ruled out using voiceovers to convey her inner thoughts, instead using close-ups to reveal the facial expressions that betray Maja’s true emotions.
“We wanted the camera to be as close to her, to her eyes, to her smile, to her thoughts as possible,” he says. “Maja is the focal point of our storytelling and we did not walk away from this at all. Maja is at the centre of every scene. The young actor, Hanna Ardéhn, gave an out-of-this-world performance. I am forever grateful for her courage, generosity and talent.”
Scenes were shot with two or three cameras at once, with long takes that allowed the actors an unusual amount of freedom. “The actors acted in super-realistic surroundings and were always ‘on’ camera. They should never find the camera; the camera should find them. And my DOP, Ulf Brantås, was not interested in perfect framing. He and I were interested in framing the situation.”
Sørensen’s earlier series, including Nobel and Kampen om opTungtvannet (The Heavy Water War, aka The Saboteurs) are also available on Netflix. The director says making Quicksand directly with the streamer was a “great experience,” adding: “The Netflix producers and their team were extremely well prepared. They gave excellent feedback, we had good and meaningful discussions along the way, and I really felt the series we locked was a director’s cut.”
Constantin Film producer Oliver Berben tells DQ about making Parfum (Perfume), an inventive German crime drama for ZDFneo and Netflix that uses both the book and film on which the show is based as plot points.
While book and film adaptations are key cornerstones of the television drama market, it’s rare that the existence of the source material is acknowledged within the show on which it is based.
But this is the case with German series Parfum (Perfume), with both the book and film that inspired the series appearing during the story, providing clues that help the detectives solve the mystery at the heart of this particularly gruesome crime drama.
Perfume begins with the discovery of the body of a woman on the Lower Rhine river, whose hair – pubic and axillary – have been removed. The investigators, played by Friederike Becht, Wotan Wilke Möhring and Juergen Maurer, then come across five people who knew the victim from their time at boarding school together.
It transpires that the group were interested in human scents, having been inspired by Patrick Süskind’s real-life 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. To help understand the case, the lead profiler subsequently reads the book and watches the 2006 feature adaptation that was directed by Tom Tykwer and starred Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Dustin Hoffman.
Here, producer Oliver Berben from Constantin Film breaks down the making of the series and talks about how the original book and the movie became integral to the plot of the drama.
What are the origins of the project?
The show originates from the idea of exploring, in a serial form, the fundamental premise of the novel and the movie of the same title: How far can humans be manipulated through their sense of smell? Constantin Film had acquired the film rights and produced Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the novel, which became an international success. But with the serial, we wanted to take the historical ‘story of a murderer’ to another level and transfer it to our time.
What were your first impressions of the book?
I read the novel more or less when it first came out, as a teenager, and was completely overwhelmed by it. Perfume is one of the most fascinating and obscure books I know; it’s complex and intriguing, like a strange perfume. Süskind made me – and so many other people around the world – think about odours and scents in a very different way.
How did the novel and the movie inform the series?
They both served as inspirational starting points and as a reference throughout the series. They turn out to be a key element of the investigation. The novel, in particular, forms part of the backstory of our modern-day protagonists: They read the book when they were at boarding school together in the 1990s, and it inspired them to start experimenting with smells, like Süskind’s protagonist Grenouille in the early 18th century. The profiler who investigates the actual murder case, in the present, reads the book and watches the movie in order to learn about the possible motives behind the crime.
How are they related and why did you decide to take this route, rather than a straight adaptation or remake?
Tom Tykwer’s 2006 movie is a congenial adaptation of Süskind’s novel, in every sense. We did not see the point of trying to copy or simply repeat this approach in a TV show more than a decade later. Instead, we thought it would be interesting to ask ourselves: What makes this story so fascinating and relevant to us today? How can it be translated from 18th century France to our own world, where smells and perfumes are being perceived differently but may still have the same power over people’s emotions and behaviour?
What was writer Eva Kranenburg’s process?
Eva started developing the idea for the show, the plot and the characters in close collaboration with me, and continued to write a concept that we closely discussed and worked on as a team over the course of several months. The process of writing the scripts for the six episodes was also aided by Philipp Kadelbach, the director, at a later stage.
How was the series developed with ZDFneo?
ZDFneo series are typically supervised, in the development stage, by a commissioning editor from ZDF. For Perfume, this was Günther van Endert, with whom we had worked on a number of great projects before, so there was a lot of mutual trust and understanding. Günther knew the scripts from a relatively early stage and really liked them.
When did Netflix join the show?
Netflix was on board from the very beginning. I explained the idea to Kai Finke [Netflix’s director of German-language content acquisitions and coproductions] in the early development stage and he was on board from day one. We found a deal together that could do justice to the complexity of the book, which had been translated and sold around the world, and also meet the needs of the broadcaster and a worldwide streamer on the other side.
How does Perfume stand apart from other crime series?
Perfume is unlike other crime series in that it combines a thrilling modern crime story, a deep psychodrama and a seemingly esoteric topic such as the mystical power of smell. It is also unusually original in terms of its visual and narrative style: beautiful but bleak, psychological but also extravagant, fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. We tried to create something without using existing patterns or paragons, something with its very own look and feel.
How are the detectives portrayed?
Our main character, Nadja Simon (Friederike Becht), is a young profiler. She leads the investigation but finds herself in a constant power struggle with the prosecuting attorney, Grünberg (Wotan Wilke Möhring), with whom she is having an affair. Köhler (Juergen Maurer), a detective with the local police, supports Nadja’s unorthodox investigation techniques and tries, unsuccessfully, to get closer to her.
What did director Philipp Kadelbach bring to the drama?
As a director with a clear vision and a legendary talent for working with actors, Philipp brought immense creative input to the series. Without his obsession – with every small detail as important as the entire production – Perfume would never have happened.
Where was the series filmed and how did locations influence its look?
Perfume was filmed on location at the Niederrhein, a rural/suburban region in the far west of Germany, between Cologne and the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. The landscape is mostly flat and rather bleak, characterised by potato fields and pervaded by slip roads, power poles and run-down industrial areas. But in between, you come across small spots of surprising beauty: an old castle, the ruins of something in a blooming forest, a small river, a patch of moor.
This area, with its vaguely ‘lost’ feel, was the perfect setting for our show, whose protagonists are isolated – located nowhere, so to speak. The landscape also fits the look we were trying to create, with its focus on a kind of beauty that keeps oscillating between loveliness and gloom, between perfection and devastation, between a brutal present and the nostalgic transfiguration of the past.
What were the biggest challenges in development and production and how did you overcome them?
Movie making is always a big challenge overall and it creates tangible smaller problems during each step of the development and production process. It is only with the support of an excellent team, both on the creative side and on the production side, that you can overcome these constant challenges.
Why did you think Perfume would appeal to both German and global viewers?
Now that the series has come out [it debuted in November 2018 on ZDFneo and in December worldwide on Netflix], it is very exciting for us to see that German viewers and audiences around the world are reacting so strongly to it. Perfume has turned out as we had hoped – it is unlike anything people have seen before, and it has a sort of suction effect, a tight grip. So we are not surprised but very happy that it provokes and fascinates so many people at the same time, in so many different countries.
Love, life, laughter and loss come under the microscope in family adventure drama Northern Rescue, a coproduction from Canada’s CBC and Netflix. Executive producer David Cormican tells DQ how the show meets audience demand for hopeful programming.
Amid the ongoing boom in scripted, fuelled by demand for increasingly niche shows, one genre feeling the love is family drama, on the back of titles such as This is Us and a planned reboot of celebrated 1990s series Northern Exposure.
One series looking to provide storylines and plot twists with family and adventure at its heart is 10-part Northern Rescue, which has been co-commissioned by Canada’s CBC and Netflix for international audiences.
Produced by Don Carmody Television (DCTV), the series follows John West (played by William Baldwin) who uproots his three children from the city to return to his home town, where he takes charge of the local search and rescue service, after the death of his wife.
The series explores the effect of grief on the family, as the children’s aunt, Charlotte (Kathleen Robertson), struggles to help John and his kids heal while she also copes with the loss of her sister and her own desire for a family.
Mixing episodic and serialised storylines that introduce some colourful characters from around the family’s new community, the show’s cast also includes Michelle Nolden, Michael Xavier and Peter MacNeill. Amalia Williamson, Spencer McPherson and Taylor Thorne play John’s children Maddie, Scout and Taylor, respectively.
Northern Rescue was conceived by DCTV’s David Cormican (Tokyo Trial, Between), who developed it together with co-creators Mark Bacci (Between) and Dwayne Hill (Peg + Cat). They subsequently wrote the 10-part drama, with Cormican showrunning.
“It was an exhausting experience but super rewarding, with huge learning curves,” Cormican says, “which is great and ultimately very rewarding to go from the genesis of the idea to the execution and the premiere of it.”
Between them, Bacci, Cormican and Hill adopted a “best idea wins” rule to fuel the writing process in a bid to create the most thrilling show possible for audiences, and families in particular. “It’s a nice family show – you don’t see too many of them,” says Cormican. The showrunner also executive produces alongside Bradley Walsh, who directs four episodes, Bacci, Hill and lead actor Baldwin. “I’ve got a daughter, she’s 11 now and for years I’ve been making programming that’s fairly dark and edgy, not necessarily family fare, always genre-skewing. Every time I have a show that comes out, my parents get the popcorn and sometimes it’s a little too gory for a family sit-down.
“So I wanted something I could feel proud to have my entire family and all our friends watch. It’s wholesome, hopeful programming that’s crunchy in terms of the emotions and grief we’re working through, but it’s comfort food for television viewers these days.
“We’re hunkering down with these kids, their dad and their aunt and redefining what family means, not just to us but to the characters as well. That was the idea – what is this definition of family? Because it’s very much different from the 50s and 60s, and even the 80s when I was growing up as a kid. Family is now very much who you choose as much as who’s just there.”
Though it was just a working title at the outset, the name Northern Rescue applies not only to the West family’s decision to move north and John’s job, but also to the emotional trauma the family is facing following the death of their matriarch. Every week, the series brings in guest stars as characters who need to be physically rescued, but each episode also looks at how the family is coping with their grief in an unfamiliar location.
To heighten those moments, the show also utilises flashbacks to a time when Sarah (played by Nolden) is still alive. “I hate flashbacks and voiceover as devices but we’ve used both of them in this,” Cormican admits. “It just kind of worked and leant itself naturally to it, and we do it in such a way that it motivates the story.
“We’re really seeing this story through the eyes of Maddie, the oldest daughter of the West family; we’re seeing the story through her journal and the therapy she’s having. The flashbacks happen naturally. We didn’t expect them to carry throughout as much as they have but we just leaned into it because Michelle was phenomenal and was crushing those scenes. They also opened up a new perspective to the emotional gravity our characters are experiencing.”
Bacci, Cormican and Hill wrote the series together, passing drafts between them. They also worked with several female writers to provide additional perspective, with America Olivo joining the production full-time.
“When we were breaking the season, we came up with ideas that were for season five, or season two. So now we have a big document full of ideas,” Cormican reveals. “We had an idea that the second season would be about X, season three would be about Y. Then there’s the milestones of falling in love, getting married, having a baby and a death somewhere along the way. Then there’s a divorce. We’re ticking some of those boxes.
“One of the interesting parts of Charlotte’s character is she was trying to have a child with her ex and they lost the baby. There’s a huge amount of grief in losing a child and wanting your own family, so this is an opportunity for her to become a pseudo-mother to these three children. Then we complicate it when the ex comes back to town.”
Location scouting took place in North Bay and Sudbury, two towns in northern Ontario, before scenic Parry Sound was chosen as the backdrop for the drama. “We kept looking to move scenes outside because it was so pretty,” Cormican jokes.
“The therapy sessions are a great example – we had them meeting inside in the first episodes and then we thought they should do walk-and-talks and go on hikes. One thing we didn’t know was that there’s a train going by every nine minutes – there are so many tracks in that town. So we were always like, ‘Hold for the train.’ Sometimes you work with it, but ultimately the sound team is going nuts with the tracks you give them.”
The distance from Toronto, three hours north, proved to be the biggest challenge to the production as it meant finding accommodation for the entire cast and crew on location, in the middle of the busy summer season. “It’s a town of 6,000 people that swells to 60,000 as well as us in the middle of summer. So everything was at a premium,” says Cormican, revealing that at one point they looked at buying an old cruise ship, docking it and turning it into a production village. Disappointingly, the duration of shipping times and the hours needed to have a vessel fitted for their needs proved prohibitive.
When it comes to the current demand for family drama, Cormican points to Party of Five, Northern Exposure, Heartland, This is Us, Parenthood and film The Grand Seduction as inspirations for Northern Rescue. And with Northern Exposure primed for a reboot at CBS, he believes “we’re onto something.”
“I feel like there’s an ache and a need in the world right now for hopeful family programming, grounded in a reality that’s not saccharine or precious,” Cormican adds.
There’s definitely some tear-shedding moments in this show, he notes, but there are also plenty of laughs. But while a similar show, Schitt’s Creek, plays to the zany side of the genre, Northern Rescue promises to be much more grounded in emotion, reality and truth.
With so many plot points already noted down, writing has already started on a potential second season. “We felt a little behind the eight ball this year when we got the green light, as we only had two scripts written,” Cormican adds of the show, which is due to debut on March 1. “We did it, we made it, but I’d like to not be working 21 hours a day next year!”
Channel 4’s stylish new spy thriller Traitors, starring Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg, looks at the communist threat to Britain just after the Second World War through the eyes of a young woman. DQ joined the cast on set in London.
Imagine a Britain deeply divided over political matters, with well-founded fears of Russian government interference and its ‘special relationship’ with the US seemingly on shaky ground.
While that may be a perfect description of today’s UK, in this case it applies to a period three-quarters of a century ago in the fledgling days of the Cold War. It’s that correlation that makes Channel 4’s new thriller, Traitors, even more relevant in its portrayal of international turbulence and murky government goings-on.
Created and executive produced by playwright Bash Doran, who wrote four of its six episodes, Traitors is set during the pivotal time from the end of the Second World War up until 1948.
“The series is extremely timely as it tackles an extraordinary moment in British history that has continued to play out across the years,” explains Emma Willis, MD of Twenty Twenty Productions (part of Warner Bros International Television Production), which is producing alongside 42 for Channel 4 and Netflix, in a deal negotiated by All3Media International. “At the end of the Second World War, as is true today, the nation was divided with deeply opposing views on what Britain’s place in the world should be.
“Many of the series’ key themes are extremely relevant to today – race, gender, class inequality, the role of the welfare state, the special relationship with the US and a distrust of Russia. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why C4 commissioned the project – together with the fact it had a fantastic creator in Bash Doran and strong female leads.”
On the surface, Traitors is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Clique’s Emma Appleton plays Feef Symonds, a naive young aristocrat who lands a job in the civil service immediately after the war, eager to make her mark rather than be married off to an earl. Actress-of-the-moment Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, The Durrells) plays her influential boss, Priscilla Garrick, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg plays a US agent, Rowe. He quickly tries to turn Feef into a double agent, eager to root out Soviet operatives in the British government.
Executive producer Eleanor Moran laughs about the moment she approached Doran with the idea for Traitors. “It was 2013 and I was thinking politics was in a really depressing place, which is hilarious to think of now,” she says.
She’d had an idea about a female-centric period political drama with an international feel – and she had a particular female in mind. “My grandmother had this incredible experience during the war where she had a great deal of freedom,” explains Moran. “She worked in the spying business and was a codebreaker. And after the war, all of that ambition was shut down when she got married.
“I thought that moment in 1945 was incredible for women in that there was this incredible push to go back into the home, but also with the Labour [Party’s landslide general election victory] and beginning of the welfare state, the civil service offered these huge opportunities for women.” However, the ban on married women working for the service forced females to resign their jobs upon tying the knot.
On set at one of Traitors’ many London locations last summer, a church in a leafy Georgian square in Islington, Hawes is looking business-like in Priscilla Garrick’s utilitarian work suit. Sitting down for a chat in a church hall – she’s here to film a scene with Stuhlbarg in the churchyard – Hawes explains her dismay at learning of the marriage ban.
“I knew nothing about that,” she says. “The women in the civil service are being asked to go back to being housewives after spending the war being ambulance drivers. Suddenly being given the sack! It’s just terrible.
“Priscilla campaigns against the marriage ban, even though she’s not married. She is a real champion of women and really modern in that way. And when Feef comes in, Priscilla sees she’s bright.”
Traitors, which is distributed globally by All3Media International, weaves John le Carré-style spy plots into a story about women’s social struggles. It’s 1945 and the Soviet Union has replaced the Nazis as the biggest threat to global stability and democracy. But just at that moment, in September, President Truman decides to close America’s wartime spying agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).
“We’re capturing that moment when the Soviets were trying to influence the whole of Europe and did manage to get people within British secret service to great effect,” explains Moran. “Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Rowe, who is an OSS agent, is ahead of the game and realises there is infiltration, and his job is find out how much.” It’s the era of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which would come to light several years later.
Stuhlbarg was lured to British shores by the prospect of working again with Doran – he’d been in episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Looming Tower that she’d written – and Dearbhla Walsh, who directed him in the third season of Fargo.
Rowe, explains Stuhlbarg, becomes a rogue agent after Truman’s disbanding of the OSS. The actor’s research impressed upon him the complexity of real-life OSS agents.
“Some of these men of the OSS balance a kind of integrity with an ability to lie, cheat, steal and murder,” explains Stuhlbarg. “So there’s this great juxtaposition of and being able to live with all that stuff – these are people fighting for the survival of democracy and are willing to do anything for it.
“Rowe thinks it’s essential that America has an operational intelligence agency to compete with all the other spies.”
The 17-week shoot took place last summer in studios in Cardiff, in Morocco (doubling for Egypt) and in various picturesque London spots in which real spies surely operated – the Inns of Court, Whitehall and St James’s Park. Innovation was required, too – a replica House of Commons was built at University College School in Hampstead for scenes featuring a newly elected Labour MP played by Luke Treadaway.
Ultimately, Traitors chimes with what’s going on in the world today and also delivers a period thriller about a time not often depicted in spy stories.
“It’s very much about the kind of global fight for hearts and minds, much like the way we’re going at the moment, with Russians infiltrating the US election and Brexit,” says Moran. “This is a call back to that and also a depiction of a very specific moment in British social politics.”
Launching this Christmas on BBC1 in the UK and worldwide on Netflix, the new version of Watership Down is touted as the first primetime animated drama. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss how the series originated and the challenges they faced along the way.
Watership Down is a beloved 1972 novel by Richard Adams that was first translated for the screen six years later as an iconic animated movie famed for the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes and with a reputation for terrifying younger viewers.
Now, 40 years after the film was first released, a new adaptation has gone back to Adams’ original text to retell the story for a new generation across four hours of television – one that promises to be much less scary.
Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they face the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stout-hearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a better society.
Stars such as James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Gemma Arterton (Clover) and Olivia Colman (Strawberry) have leant their voices to the project, which is written by Tom Bidwell, directed by Noam Murro and co-directed by Alan Short and Seamus Malone for BBC1 in the UK and Netflix worldwide. The producers are 42 and Biscuit Entertainment.
Watership Down was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Murro, Bidwell, executive producer Rory Aitken, former BBC commissioning editor Matthew Read and Larry Tanz, VP of global originals at Netflix, discussed the making of the series.
In the beginning…
Noam Murro, director: I wasn’t one of those kids who read it when I was young. I grew up in Israel and got it fairly late in life. My friend suggested I read it, and I fell in love with it. That started a quest to get the rights for it, and at the start I thought of doing it as a feature. But bringing it to 42, we decided to do it as a four-part series, as the book can be served much better. The idea wasn’t to remake the film but reimagine the book. That’s really what this was all about.
Rory Aitken, executive producer, 42: It’s been a long process, it hasn’t been easy and we ended up pioneering something because it’s the first animated primetime hour-long drama series ever made, which we didn’t know at the time. It was the most extraordinary experience because of the sheer quality [of partners], the brand and the love for the book – and everybody said yes. We rang up Matthew [Read] at the BBC and said, ‘Watership Down.’ I think he just said one word, which was ‘yes.’ We talked about writers and our first choice was Tom [Bidwell]. He said it was one of his favourite books of all time and, further down the process, it was the same with the actors. Everybody just responded like that, which was extraordinary. If it wasn’t Watership Down, it might have been almost impossible to make.
Matthew Read, former BBC drama commissioning editor: When I was a kid, everyone was into Star Wars, but Watership Down was like Star Wars to me. I went to see it at the cinema 12 times and I was really obsessed with the film. I didn’t see it as a kids’ film, I saw it as an action movie. Years later, I read the book and realised there was a very different version of Watership Down. I love the film and still do, but the book is much more about nature and solidarity. Were the BBC sitting around waiting for a big animated show? Definitely not – but the idea was if you have something good enough, we’d figure out a way. I had a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and just tried to back them in whatever shape or form I could.
Larry Tanz, VP of global originals, Netflix: It was a bit of a leap for us as well. The project came to us in early 2015 and Noam had designs and storyboards and Rory came in with the script. But Netflix had just launched in Germany and France, and was not yet in Italy, Spain, India or the rest of Asia. It was a very different time in the company. We had never engaged in an animation project of this scope but we were thinking, ‘In a year from now, we hope to be global so what opportunities are there for global brands?’ This book is beloved not just in the UK but all over the world. I read it with my kids and, if you can execute it well, it has huge potential. The creative team, partnering with the BBC and knowing there probably would be no better place to see this show developed than at the BBC gave us confidence to go in on this multi-year journey so we have a show that will work for the service we hope to be when it comes out.
Tom Bidwell, writer: It’s one of my favourite books and favourite worlds. There’s a discrepancy between Watership Down the film and Watership Down the book, and my job is the book. It’s Richard Adams – one of the great world-builders along with JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. My work was focused on how to build the myth of this world and really embrace the story, the narrative and the characters. When they offered me the project and I knew who was attached, it was an honour to work on it. It really pushes and challenges you.
Adapting the novel…
Bidwell: The structures are already evident in the novel. It’s broken into four distinct chapters, so we used those as the basis of our four episodes [screened in two parts on the BBC on December 22 and 23]. We did make a few changes: we reduced the number of characters for clarity and added more female characters [Strawberry was changed from a buck to a doe]. If I added something to the script that wasn’t in the novels and people think they remember that from the book, that’s the win of adaptation for me.
Aitken: We were making television drama and also making animation. They’re two completely distinct worlds and being television drama, there was a huge focus on getting the script absolutely right before we started anything. On an animated movie, you’d have the beginnings of the script and then you’d start on the visuals. Although we talk about how long it’s taken, including two-and-a-half years in production, people in animation would be amazed how quick that is. We’re looking at it through the prism of TV drama and there’s a completely different prism to look at it through, which is animation. They can’t believe how quickly and cheaply we did it, but in TV, everyone’s like, ‘That took a long time and was expensive.’ We sat on the divide but it served us well.
Read: I don’t know if it’s a general trend in drama or television that if you find something specific and brilliant, an audience really wants that. Ten years ago, everyone was trying to think about what the audience wants and give them something for everyone. Now, because of the way we can reach audiences, if you give people a specific version of something, they’ll come to that. We all felt we had to make the best possible version and that people would respond to that. That’s good for the book and hopefully good for the audience.
Pioneering ‘animated drama’…
Murro: None of us approached it, oddly, as animation. That’s the most important part. Yes, there’s a huge difference in the process but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of entertainment. Part of watching the series is you forget these are bunnies very quickly and it becomes like any other movie. You sit on the edge of your seat or you cry.
Aitken: Having made films and now TV, it’s basically the opposite way round. You edit first and shoot later. It’s so expensive – any second you have of animation on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. So we’ve delivered four 50-minute episodes and there’s not one second on the floor. Every tiny thing has to be created from scratch, so there’s a vast amount of work initially to decide on the universe you’re building – what is the tone, the fear, the look – and hundreds of people then have to build that in all different ways, from production design to lighting. Essentially, you get to the point where you’re two years in and you can’t see the show but you feel the drama’s working and you say ‘go’ on the animation. Then every week you get two more scenes and you probably get to change one or two things in each of them.
Murro: Part of what made this possible is we had an unbelievable cast. We had arguably the greatest of English actors, and it makes life a lot easier when you have that talent. If it wasn’t at that level, I don’t think we’d have got this far or this deep.
Creating the world – and the rabbits…
Murro: We felt there’s a huge canvas that’s been untouched between Pixar and DreamWorks and the [Japanese director Hayao] Miyazaki and the Watership Down film itself. There were two things: one was to block it as if I was shooting in live action – the lenses and camera were very specific – but the overall look is like a diorama. You have an animal that is 3D and real in the front but, as it goes back, it becomes more painted. That, for me, was a clear direction. I don’t remember seeing it done that way.
Aitken: Animation costs are coming down and TV budgets are going up, so we caught ourselves on the nexus of the two. But we realised we couldn’t create a Pixar world because we didn’t have the money. So all of the deep backgrounds are paintings. That worked really well because we’re set in the British countryside, so a painted sky and backdrop works really well for it. We have about seven rabbits; normally in animation, you make one pink and blue and viewers know which one is which. If you want to make it realistic, the danger is you don’t know which one is which. Noam and the team did a great job because it’s just on the line. They’re such strong characters, the voices are different and they’re sufficiently different visually that you just pick them up without having to resort to making them different colours. Also, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, and if you bring them too far to the front, they start to look like dogs or weird animals. In drama, you find emotion in characters mostly through the eyes, but rabbits’ real eyes are completely black. They don’t have pupils, so in almost any animation with animals, you get human eyes because that’s how we understand eye line and emotion.
The music of Watership Down…
Murro: It’s huge, it’s everything. Federico Jusid, who wrote the music for this, is a genius. [He completed the music] with very little time, about three months. This is a 1,000-page score! It really is a supportive emotional base and I feel incredibly fortunate to have him and this music. What we tried to do with this series is make it timeless.
Tanz: It’s also an important through line for us because a lot of people will watch the show in different languages – probably 10 different dubbed languages. One of the fun things for me on the project was localising the title and the artwork for all these different places. It’s a reminder that we have this incredible cast and a lot of people will watch that show with that cast, but a lot of people will watch in Italian or Spanish. The score is the spine that is consistent throughout that. The score is the audio layer everybody will experience around the world.
The show sparking a new trend for animated drama…
Aitken: I genuinely think it could be. Animation costs are coming down, TV budgets have gone up. I feel like we maybe accidentally pioneered something and now we’ve made all the mistakes, it would be nice to do it where we know what we’re doing!
Tanz: I would love to do more projects like this. For us, it fits in the category of it’s not a kids’ show, it’s about families watching it together and having truly a global property that already has fans around the world. The storytelling will allow millions of people to access it for the first time.
Netflix’s first original Australian series, Tidelands, is a novel twist on popular mythology. Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield, co-founders of producer Hoodlum Entertainment, tell DQ how the sirens-focused show came together.
When Australian author Stephen M Irwin first met with Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield (pictured above with actor Elsa Pataky), the co-founders of Brisbane-based prodco Hoodlum Entertainment, they suggested a TV series about sirens – mythological creatures who lure sailors to their deaths with their enchanted music and singing.
By happy coincidence, Irwin, whose second novel had just been published, had compiled a sizeable dossier on the mythology of these creatures in various cultures around the world for his next novel, set on an icebreaker in Antarctica. Irwin immediately came up with a fresh angle for Tidelands. The series would focus on a group of young people who are the children of humans and sirens, combined with a young woman who returns to that world after her father dies, hoping to get her hands on the inheritance.
The concept was fleshed out in meetings between Irwin, Robertson, Mayfield and Hoodlum producer/writer Leigh McGrath. “We spent a good few days in a room nutting out the story we wanted to tell, unpacking the world of sirens but with no tails or scales,” Mayfield says. “We knew we were not going to make a monster story or The Little Mermaid. We wanted to get to the emotional heart of the story of the characters who were the bastard offspring of sirens and humans.”
That was in 2013, but the Hoodlum partners and Irwin had to put the project on the shelf while they embarked on crime series Secrets & Lies for Australia’s Network Ten, followed by the US remake for the Disney-owned ABC network. Irwin also scripted the Lingo Pictures miniseries Wake in Fright for Ten and Hoodlum’s feature film Australia Day for Foxtel. Then came Harrow, Hoodlum’s crime drama starring Ioan Gruffudd for ABC Studios International and Oz pubcaster the ABC.
In between these projects, Irwin wrote the bible and the first episode of Tidelands, which the LA-based Robertson pitched to Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix VP of international originals, last year.
“I told Kelly the show is about a group of people who live on the outskirts of town, who are disenfranchised and different and crave privacy,” Robertson says. “I felt it was something that is very relevant now. She loved the genre and the fact it is set in the world of mythology and is sexy and fun.”
Within a week, Luegenbiehl had commissioned the show, Netflix’s first original Australian series. The Hoodlum execs had known Luegenbiehl since she worked at the US ABC network, where she acquired the format rights to their first production, comedy mystery drama Fat Cow Motel, in 2004. In 2015 she then commissioned Hoodlum’s first US show, Strange Calls, a remake of the Oz comedy created by Daley Pearson.
For Tidelands, Irwin wrote five of the supernatural thriller’s eight episodes and co-wrote another with emerging writer Chris Squadrito. McGrath penned the other two.
In the biggest role of her career, Charlotte Best (Puberty Blues, Home & Away) plays protagonist Cal McTeer, a street-smart, sexy and sharp-tongued young woman who returns home to the small fishing village of Orphelin Bay after years in juvenile detention for manslaughter. Best was on the shortlist when Robertson had lunch with her US manager, Circle of Confusion’s Charles Mastropietro, who pressed her claim. Best came in for a chemistry test, as did all the key cast, and, according to Robertson, the actor was “mind-blowing.”
The plot centres on Cal as she aims to collect the inheritance of her late father, who led a group of smugglers and had shielded her from the truth of the Tidelanders – the children of the sailors and fishermen lured to their deaths after hearing the sirens’ song. Orphans, they don’t know the identity of their mothers and live in a hippie-style shanty town away from the Orphelin Bay residents.
Another major plotline is the dynamic between Cal, her uncaring mother Rosa (Caroline Brazier) and Adrielle, the self-proclaimed Queen of the Tidelanders. The latter is played by The Fast & The Furious’s Elsa Pataky, who Robertson had wanted for the part from the off.
Aaron Jakubenko (The Shannara Chronicles, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is Augie McTeer, Cal’s fisherman brother, with Peter O’Brien (Glow, Winter) as deckhand Bill Sentelle and Mattias Inwood as Corey Welch, the local cop and Cal’s former flame. Marco Pigossi and Madeleine Madden (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mystery Road) play Tidelanders, and Hunter Page-Lochard (Harrow, Cleverman) is a fisherman/smuggler from Orphelin Bay.
Tidelands marks the English-speaking debut of Brazilian actor Pigossi, who has a multi-title deal with Netflix, including Brazilian original Invisible Cities. Robertson says: “He plays Dylan, which was a difficult role to cast because he is strong, sophisticated and sexy but also subservient to Adrielle. Kelly suggested him, we looked at him and we loved him.”
The first two episodes were directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser, who has helmed instalments of Daredevil and Iron Fist for Netflix and previously collaborated with Jakubenko and Inwood on The Shannara Chronicles. “We just hit it off,” Robertson says of meeting Fraser, who was hired after impressing the producers with his showreel. “He was so passionate about the project. We wanted to work with people who are as excited about it as we are.”
Catriona McKenzie and Daniel Nettheim, who both worked on Harrow, and Emma Freeman each directed two episodes. Robertson had long wanted to work with Freeman and was particularly impressed by her expertise on Glitch, Matchbox Pictures’ supernatural series for the ABC, on which Netflix has been the coproducer on the second and third seasons.
The 16-week shoot happened in and around Brisbane, supported by Screen Queensland, on a healthy budget that matched the ambitions of the producers. “We shot on water, underwater and at night – all those things that cost money,” Robertson says.
The Australian actors spoke in their natural accents and there are references to Brisbane, so it is an identifiably Aussie show, albeit partly set in a hitherto unknown world. There were three DOPs: Katie Milwright (Celeste, The Space Between), Robert Humphreys (Harrow, Secrets & Lies) and Bruce Young (Bite Club, Sunshine). Production designer Matthew Putland and costume designer Tess Schofield also both worked on Harrow.
Tidelands was Hoodlum’s first production not to include recaps at the start of each episode, recognising that many Netflix subscribers binge-view shows, but there are still plenty of cliffhangers. The producers enjoyed the collaboration with Netflix, noting there were no creative disagreements. “Netflix had approval on the casting and gave notes on the script and footage – but no more so than any other studio or broadcaster we’ve worked with,” Mayfield says. “It was never heavy-handed. They brought a lot of currency to the project because there was so much interest around their first original Australian series.”
A writer with a prodigious output, Irwin can churn out as many as 12 pages a day after weeks of plotting and structuring, followed by extensive rewrites. “As they say, the secret of writing is rewriting,” he notes. “We wanted the show to be grounded and gritty – so when people die, they die painful deaths. In many ways, it’s rough and bloody, but it’s also very sensual and sexy.”
Robertson says: “It’s a big new world with a really well thought-out mythology. At its heart, it’s the story of a girl who comes back to her home town and tries to find her place in the world. While she is trying to discover who she is, she finds out the people she thought were her people are not her people, and the story she’d been told about her life is not really the truth. It’s also the story of a triangle of three women – Cal, Rosa and Adrielle – who are trying to find their place and become queen of their domain.”
Hoodlum’s aim for Tidelands, as with all its productions, is for a returning series. “We started with such amazing material that we think we have enough stories for many seasons,” Mayfield adds.
The creators of Screentime miniseries Pine Gap reveal how they recreated the eponymous Australian/US defence base and explain why it makes the perfect backdrop for drama.
Australian writer-producers Greg Haddrick and Felicity Packard knew they would face at least one major challenge when they pitched a miniseries set at the Pine Gap defence facility in the Outback to US and international broadcasters.
The problem? That few Americans are even aware of the existence of the joint US/Australian base, let alone its pivotal role in collecting and sharing intelligence on sensitive matters including terrorism, arms control and targets for missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.
But Netflix was an obvious choice as the copro partner with Australian pubcaster the ABC for Pine Gap, a six-part spy thriller produced by Banijay-owned Screentime Australia that launched on October 14.
Haddrick and Packard hatched the idea when ABC executives asked what they planned to do after ANZAC Girls, a 2014 miniseries that centred on the Australian and New Zealand nurses who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War. As showrunner, Haddrick thought Pine Gap would be a great setting for a thriller that deals with the growing tensions between China, the US and Australia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Packard, who lives in Oz capital Canberra, knew a lot of people who had worked at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), a government foreign intelligence-collection agency.
Funded by the ABC, they started developing the screenplay with producer Lisa Scott, a long-time collaborator. David Rosenberg, an American who lives in Australia and worked on the operations floor at Pine Gap for years, provided plenty of non-classified information.
Based on her conversations with Rosenberg and former ASD personnel, Packard was keen to explore the complexity of relationships involving people in the intelligence services who are not allowed to discuss their job with their partner.
“Greg and I were entranced by the idea that you fall in love with somebody from a different country, you have both signed secrecy agreements and you have a fundamental loyalty to your own country,” says Packard. “What if you can’t tell your partner everything? And what if you work on the base but you partner doesn’t and you can’t talk about your work at all? What sort of stress does that level of secrecy place on relationships?”
Given the scale of the production, which involved location shooting in the Northern Territory and the construction of the vast operations floor in the Adelaide studios managed by the South Australian Film Corp, the producers knew they needed a copro partner.
Elizabeth Bradley, Netflix’s former VP of content, was a fan of the duo’s previous work including ANZAC Girls, Janet King, Cloudstreet and the Underbelly crime franchise. She contacted Haddrick to ask if he had any projects he thought might interest the streaming platform, so he sent her the first two scripts. That was followed by three long phone conversations as Haddrick explained the role of the base and how intelligence is shared between the two countries. He also mapped out the personal stories of the Americans and Aussies who work at the base and the issues of trust, loyalty and betrayal. Netflix signed on a year ago and the first two episodes will have their world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival this October.
“There was a lot of interest in the idea from many American end-users. It was a matter of finding the right partner who was willing to take a risk on a show being made 12,000 miles away,” says Haddrick, who has since left Screentime, where he spent 17 years as head of drama, to launch his own banner, Rainfall Creations. ‘Rainfall’ was the CIA’s code name for Pine Gap.
Mat King, an Aussie director who helmed three seasons of Law & Order: UK and episodes of Doctor Who and DCI Banks, was entrusted with all six episodes. King, who grew up in Adelaide and was aware of the Pine Gap base, worked with Packard and Haddrick on Underbelly: Razor in 2011 and had been keen to collaborate with them again. “I had to pitch my vision of the show to Netflix; they were happy and approved me as the director,” King says. “The biggest part of my pitch is that I saw this as a six-hour film with six chapters.”
In casting, Netflix execs made it clear they did not necessarily want marquee names, asking the producers to cast a wide net to ensure they got the right actors. The US-born, UK-based Parker Sawyers plays Gus Thompson, the US mission director, who is forced to question where his allegiance lies when he begins a romance with Jasmina Delic (Tess Haubrich), the Australian communications intelligence team leader.
Sawyers, who earned rave reviews for his turn as a young Barack Obama in 2016 movie Southside with You, relished playing a character whose skin colour is incidental and a story that has nothing to do with the issue of race. His main challenge was learning 66 pages of dialogue, much of it in the lingo of the intelligence world. He had worked for the Republican governor of Indiana, as a model and for a lobbying firm in London before deciding, aged 28, to pursue his long-held ambition of becoming an actor.
Steve Toussaint, a Brit of Barbadian descent, plays facility chief Ethan James, a former US Air Force fighter pilot whose job has taken a toll on his personal life. “These people are doing incredibly important jobs; the weight of the world may not be on their shoulders but it’s close to it,” says Toussaint.
The actor, who was a regular in ITV’s Lewis and had recurring roles in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude and Epix’s Berlin Station, was attracted by the script and by the series’ mixture of physical action and cerebral interplay. He sees the show as highly topical, observing: “It’s about the shifting nature of geopolitics as the US comes to terms with no longer being the dominant superpower due to the emergence of China.”
The set of the operations floor was the largest that any of the key creatives had experienced, including 168 computers, a mezzanine level and multiple corridors. The executive offices and a cafeteria were built in a warehouse at the former General Motors factory in suburban Elizabeth. “We could shoot wide shots inside our world, almost interior landscapes, which gave a sense of scale to what was happening in the base,” King says.
FX house KOJO digitally created the Pine Gap facility and plonked it in a valley west of Alice Springs, which was filmed by drones. Geoffrey Hall (ANZAC Girls, Deadline Gallipoli, Wolf Creek) was the DoP. Hall and King adopted a non-traditional approach to TV drama by thoughtfully framing shots and aiming for a cinematic tone.
Knowing that Netflix viewers often binge-watch shows, consuming three or more episodes in one sitting, the producers and King edited the end of each instalment with a hook or a question mark to encourage viewers to continue to the next.
Packard wrote episodes one, four and five, with Haddrick penning the rest. The lengthy development was an advantage. “Starting pre-production with six very advanced scripts does not happen very often in Australian television,” says producer Lisa Scott. “There are many times you rush into production. This time, Felicity and Greg wrote double-digit drafts of episodes one and two.
“Producing is hard and it’s only getting harder because you have to stretch the dollars as far as you can, and you put everything on screen. There is no right way to do what we do. A lot of what we do is subjective. Netflix’s financial support enabled us to realise the vision that Greg and Felicity wanted from day one. When we started with Netflix, we wanted to prove that Australian producers could produce world-class entertainment – and hopefully we have done that.”
While the climactic episode resolves the key plotlines, Haddrick says: “There are enough tantalising loose ends that it could easily go to a second season. Viewers can look forward to a fast-paced, gripping and compelling story told in an environment that really hasn’t been explored before. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
Jordi Frades, director of Spanish period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), tells DQ about filming the epic series and why he wanted to stay true to its source material.
Four months after its debut on Spain’s Antena 3, period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea) is now available worldwide on Netflix.
Set in Barcelona during the 14th century, the series uses the construction of the real-life church of Santa María del Mar as its backdrop. It focuses on a servant who, after escaping his father’s abuse, harbours ambitions to secure wealth and freedom – much to the disdain of the noble class and the suspicion of the Inquisition.
The large ensemble cast is led by Aitor Luna (Arnau) and Daniel Grao (Bernat), who share the screen with 2,500 extras. It is based on the book of the same name by Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones.
The eight-part drama is produced by Diagonal TV and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Here, director Jordi Frades tells DQ about the origins of the series, the challenges of production, filming epic battle scenes and why its intimate style means it shouldn’t be labelled Spain’s Game of Thrones.
How would you describe the story of La Catedral del Mar?
It is the story of how a child becomes a man and how a servant becomes a free man while Santa María del Mar is built in Barcelona during the 14th century. It is a story of pain, love and guilt – guilt as heavy as the stones that Arnau carries for the construction of the cathedral.
What was the origin of the series and how did you become involved?
When the novel was published in 2006, my father told me about it, saying there was a great movie or series in it. I read it and it impassioned me. But I found it impossible to produce for the screen because of the high budget that would be needed.
At that time, there was no tradition of period drama series in Spain. Years passed and I began to direct some period series: La Bella Otero, La Señora and República… Suddenly, the production company I was working for, Diagonal TV, told me to make a first document about the possible adaptation of La Catedral del Mar, to license the rights. So I made that document and they gave us the rights.
At that moment, the script process began. Rodolf Sirera, Antonio Onetti and Sergio Barrejón were going to be the writers who would adapt the novel. Meanwhile, I directed the three seasons of historical series Isabel and a film called The Broken Crown. Then the long process of pre-production for La Catedral del Mar began.
What was the appeal of directing this series?
I was passionate about recreating something that had touched me so much – a truly powerful story with great characters and emotional moments. I wanted to have the chance to show what life was like in Barcelona during those times, and at the same time it was the biggest production I had ever faced. It would have been a great challenge for any director.
How did you work with the writers during the script stage?
We had a great relationship because we agreed on almost everything. They made the great decisions on how to take the novel to script. They wrote a first draft with absolute freedom, and from there we worked together. I believed the adaptation should be totally faithful to the novel so the readers wouldn’t be disappointed. We incorporated some parts that had disappeared and that I wished to keep. We also changed the number of episodes from six to eight to find the right pace for the story.
The writers worked with humility, respecting the original author’s work. As we were having difficulties fully financing the series, shooting was delayed. That inconvenience, paradoxically, gave us the opportunity to improve the script in new versions.
How was the series developed with Antena 3?
We had the chance to work creatively with total freedom. As is often the case, they gave us some notes on the first versions of the script. At no time did I have the feeling that they intruded; they supported us completely and made the series better. In fact, I have always been lucky enough to work with total freedom.
Are there many parallels to contemporary Spain or does this series serve only as a historical story?
Class struggle is something timeless and universal. The same goes for feelings: love, pain, guilt…
How much did you use the original novel by Ildefonso Falcones as a guide to creating the show’s visual style?
I tried to shoot the scenes the way I imagined them when I read the novel. I went back to the novel to remember the feelings I had when I read it for the first time. I also delved into the atmospheric descriptions in the novel. Many of them gave me the right pacing and breakdown I was looking for.
Tell us about production – how did you approach filming this series?
It was very complex, because although the money needed to shoot the series had been collected, it was a very tight budget. That forced us to cut some scenes, which was very painful. I worked hand-in-hand with the production manager and assistant director to adjust the shooting days, locations, CGI and so on according to the budget. But I was sure that I wanted to tell the story in an intimate way and not try to emulate series like Game of Thrones or do things we did not have enough budget for.
Most of the series is shot on location – where did you film and how do you authentically recreate 14th century Spain in the modern day?
We shot in many parts of Spain: Cáceres, Madrid, Segovia, Sos del Rey Católico and Barcelona. The sum of all those locations was going to give us the feeling of period that we needed. We also had a lot of sets on a soundstage.
What was the biggest challenge during filming?
The most important thing was that the audience recognised the novel in the series and did not feel frustrated. So all decisions were made with this in mind. Regarding the production, the castle assault and the sea battle were the most difficult scenes. We were short of money, time and extras, and the CGI budget was also tight. In addition, I didn’t have much experience with those kinds of scenes. The stunt crew saved my life.
The construction of the cathedral was a great challenge as well. Marcelo Pacheco, the production designer, did great work by building the exterior cathedral set over a real cathedral in Cáceres.
What scene stands out as being particularly difficult with the number of extras, and how did you film this?
Without any doubt, the castle assault was the most difficult. We had to make 200 extras seem like more than a thousand people. The three armies involved in the battle were played by the same extras. First we shot one army, then we changed clothes and we shot the other army and so on. It was complex because we only had two days to shoot the entire battle.
Why does Spain continue to be fascinated by period dramas? Will this trend continue?
The historical genre exploded in Spain because of the success of Isabel. So far we have had a lot of period dramas, but not historical. I think period works so well because the audience is moved away from reality in all senses. The music, performances, costume and sets are far from our daily life. It gives the story a unique and poetic point of view.
Of course, it is also a matter of trends. Our market is now in a new cycle where everything is a thriller, but there is always a period series in development or production.
Is your role as a director changing?
I have always worked in the same way; there is nothing I do now that I did not do before. What has changed is technique. Before, almost every series was shot with multiple cameras on a set. Now they are shot in real locations with one or two cameras, like movies.
Is there a second season planned? What are you working on next?
La Catedral del Mar has a second part written: Heirs of the Earth, and we already have an adaptation proposal, but I guess it is still early days given the series is still airing on TV Cataluña and has just launched on Netflix. Now we are about to premiere Matadero, a very Spanish black comedy thriller, for Antena 3 and Amazon Prime Video.
Crime drama Narcos burst onto Netflix in 2015 with huge popular and critical acclaim, with the first two seasons of the bilingual drama following the story of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Last year’s season three picked up after Escobar’s death, tracking the DEA’s investigation into the infamous Cali Cartel.
Returning later this year, season four follows a brand new story under the title Narcos: Mexico, focusing on the illegal drug trade in the country. The first three seasons were largely set in Colombia.
In this DQTV interview, Narcos showrunner Eric Newman discusses the challenges of making the Netflix drama, the impact of binge-watching and the legacy Narcos has created for bilingual shows.
Narcos: Mexico is produced by Gaumont Television for Netflix. Newman, José Padilha, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard are the executive producers.
Young love meets the supernatural in Netflix’s original UK drama The Innocents. DQ chats to creators and writers Hania Elkington and Simon Duric about making their first television drama, Norse mythology and shape-shifting.
As breaks go, it doesn’t get much bigger than landing an eight-part series on Netflix. Yet that’s the route Hania Elkington and Simon Duric have taken into television, securing their first ever show with the global streaming platform.
The programme in question is The Innocents, an atmospheric, often dreamy and ethereal drama that plays out across contrasting backdrops – chaotic urban England and peaceful, secluded Norway.
Teenagers June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) run away together to escape their repressive families, only to discover June has the ability to shape-shift – the power, or curse, to adopt the image of anyone she touches. As the pair struggle to control June’s new power, a mysterious professor living in an isolated commune reveals she’s not alone.
The show was created and written by Elkington and Duric, who executive produce with Elaine Pyke, Charlie Pattinson and Willow Grylls of New Pictures and Farren Blackburn, who directed six of the eight episodes.
The writers first met when Elkington, a former agent, signed artist and filmmaker Duric to United Agents. They would often talk about projects, scripts and films they’d seen, and continued their friendship when Elkington left to become a full-time writer.
At that point, Duric was working on a story about a brother and sister pair who could turn into animals, while Elkington was developing a story about young love, featuring a female lead and a family full of secrets and lies. “So over several beers and several meetings, the ideas conjoined into one hybrid and we ended up co-creating the series,” Elkington says.
Rather than The Innocents being a purely supernatural show, however, the duo were always adamant that Harry and June’s budding romance should be at the heart of the story. Her ability to shape-shift would then be used to magnify the emotional stakes.
“We also felt shape-shifting really spoke to a young female lead, particularly in terms of transformation and questions like ‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I belong?’” Elkington says. “It also spoke to a bit of a fear about society at the minute, because we’re trying to tell a story about empathy and seeing the world literally through someone else’s eyes, breaking down boundaries, overcoming fear. All of those things felt like they could marry very well between the supernatural element and the family and emotional elements.”
The shape-shifting component was introduced after the writers uncovered information about the Bezerkers, a group of ‘bear warriors’ from Norse mythology who were said to transform themselves in the fury of battle. “We thought, ‘What if we allow that dormant DNA to resurge only in women and tell a modern, emotional, empathetic story with it and really turn that on its head?’” Elkington says. “A few elements really came together in an interesting way.”
Duric and Elkington spent six months developing the show themselves before they took it to market, working on the premise of a series with teen leads and a multi-generational cast around them. “We wanted to really nail down the world of the series and have a first script that felt in good shape before we went out, just so it didn’t get messed around too much,” Elkington says.
New Pictures wasted little time in snapping up the project, something Duric admits was incredibly bold of the company, which is best known for fellow UK dramas The Missing, Rellik, Indian Summers and Requiem.
“To make a show like this in this country, we don’t do it very often,” he notes. “I can’t think of anything past [Jack Thorne’s 2011 series] The Fades, really.”
Netflix – which has built its own roster of original genre series with shows including The OA, Dark, Stranger Things and The Rain – then picked up the series, which debuts tomorrow. “They facilitated us in terms of story to make the best version of the show we wanted to make,” Elkington says of working with the streamer, recalling a five-hour phone conversation with Netflix executives before they greenlit the show. “They were not at all interfering but they were very attentive and they really invested. They were encyclopaedic about it. They knew every character inside out, every plot twist we’d put into it, and they really collaborated with us on it.”
Duric calls Elkington a “kindred spirit,” though the pair don’t consider themselves co-writers in the traditional sense. Once the story and episode details were set in a writers room that also included Kim Varvell, head of development at New Pictures, and script editor Imogen O’Sullivan, they would write scripts individually. “We wouldn’t necessarily consider ourselves a writing team in general but it’s been an amazing collaboration working on this and we hope there’s a chance to do further series,” Elkington says. “Our two brains are so different and our tastes and inspirations are so different that we’ve created quite an unusual mix, an unusual tone.”
Two other writers were also involved, with Stacey Gregg co-writing episode five and Corinna Faith penning episode six.
In the show, June and Harry’s journey takes them from their Yorkshire home to London. The story is also interspersed with scenes from a picturesque Norwegian location that is home to Sanctum, the collective run by Halvorson (Guy Pearce), a mysterious doctor studying other shape-shifters like June. The locations and camera work from lead director Blackburn and DOP David Procter are enhanced by Carly Paradis’s enchanting soundtrack, which helps to create the fragile, otherworldly tone of the series.
Duric describes the Norway-set scenes as being like a “Scandi western,” with a slightly vintage design and wide open spaces. There are also echoes of Nordic noir, although there’s nothing nearly as dark as the sinister skylines on show in Forbrydelsen (The Killing) or Bron/Broen (The Bridge).
“The greatest inspiration we took from Nordic noir was the gallows humour of Steiner [Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson] and Alf [Trond Fausa], our bounty hunters and mindless thugs who actually have this quite ‘odd couple’ relationship, with moments of humour and moments of real humanity,” Elkington says. “That’s something that owes a debt to Scandi drama. Otherwise, we were very lucky to be in those locations but we did want to do something different and not just give the audience something they had previously enjoyed.”
Duric and Elkington enjoyed the collaboration with Blackburn, Procter, fellow director Jamie Donnaughue and producer Chris Croucher, and were particularly involved in the casting, location scouting and editing.
Casting involved watching tapes of up to 500 Junes and 500 Harrys, whittled down from the thousands of auditions by casting director Daniel Edwards. “It was exhausting at times, but always thrilling and exciting,” Duric admits. “There are so many good young actors out there that it’s insane, but you just watch them and hope to get that feeling in your stomach – the feeling Hania and I had when we started to create the characters. And with Sorcha and Percelle, it came quickly.”
Elkington adds: “Sometimes the way they played it surprised us, and that was amazing. They really got their teeth into the roles on the page and really elevated them with their performance.”
While “biblical” rain that turned Sanctum into a Norse version of the traditionally soggy Glastonbury Festival posed difficulties during filming, the biggest challenge from a writing perspective was keeping Harry and June’s story at the front of the drama from script to production – particularly with June spending large portions of several episodes in someone else’s body.
To enhance the emotional storyline, they decided that June’s reflection would still show her true identity after shape-shifting, with Harry continuing to hear her real voice. Elkington admits that took some orchestration during production, but it’s a concept that provides a haunting, ghostly element throughout.
VFX studios Lexhag and Jellyfish were also on hand to blend the performances of two actors portraying a shift – June adopting the other person’s body while the original character lays rigid on the floor, eyes wide open and rolling in their sockets, as if their soul is being sucked out.
“We talked to Chris and Farren about how we imagined it feeling and the emotional triggers, the shaking, the eyes and the sudden muscle spasms. But in terms of the mechanics of the shifting itself, it’s a hard one to explain until you get into that process,” Duric notes. “There’s a lot of to and fro but, ultimately, we got what we wanted, which was a very physical, real emotional experience as opposed to anything too body-horror or ghastly.”
The series’ transformation theme is present on multiple levels, from Harry and June’s romance and their relationship with those around them, to June’s physical being. But it’s the love story that comes first. “Those themes of love are hopefully universal, and I think we take genre and have tried to naturalise it into an epic family drama. We’re hoping the two can exist side by side without seeing the join – and if that can work for an audience, it will take them to a space they haven’t been in many times before,” Elkington concludes, promising a “gut punch” at the end for viewers who watch all eight episodes.
“That’s my hope, and it will leave them clamouring for more. I think it’s the kind of show where the more you watch, the more it rewards. I hope people stick with it.”
Amybeth McNulty has delighted viewers with her star turn in Anne with an E, the latest adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables. Ahead of season two, she tells DQ about getting her big television break.
Not only did season one of Netflix series Anne with an E travel across Canada’s picturesque landscapes, the drama also covered a lot of ground in introducing its poetic, outspoken leading lady.
The latest adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, the series is set in the 1890s and tells the story of orphan Anne Shirley.
Played by Irish actor Amybeth McNulty, Anne is a delightfully energetic and upbeat 13-year-old with an impressive vocabulary. So how did McNulty, 16, deal with the tongue-twisting nature of the script considering it was her big TV break?
“Initially, I loved what she was saying. It was a scene about being a bride and she was such a chatty Cathy,” explains the actor, recalling her first reading. “I loved her spirit and enthusiasm about everything around her. As I read the script, I guess I enjoyed getting into character and appreciated how brave she was to have gone through what she had. It was very inspiring.”
The first season sees Anne find an unlikely home with a spinster played by Geraldine James and her soft-spoken bachelor brother (RH Thomson). Having spent most of her young life being passed around from home to home, the chance of becoming part of a family is a breakthrough moment for Anne and forms the basis of the series.
McNulty reveals she read the original novel when she was nine, so was already familiar with the story prior to bagging the part. But having to memorise a four-page monologue for her audition was a baptism of fire and stood her in good stead for the rest the first season.
Despite each of the seven episodes being penned by a different writer, McNulty’s delivery is consistent and infectious. In the first episode alone, she gets through more lines than some characters do in entire seasons of other shows.
“The language kind of changes and shifts around a little bit and [so does] the way sentences are formed, for instance, so that’s what I found kind of tricky with the different writers,” McNulty says. “But the language itself, from the 1800s, is pretty easy, I learned new words every day so it increased my vocabulary, which was awesome.”
The story of Anne’s troubled past is told through the use of flashbacks, some of which are distressing bullying scenes. Despite the story being a century old, many of the issues thrown up are relevant today, such as those of identity, prejudice, feminism, bullying, gender parity and empowerment. Anne’s relentless imagination also helps her to escape certain situations, offering another interesting storytelling technique.
While the clever writing is one of the main assets of the Netflix adaptation – showrun by Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad) – the costumes are also key to doing Montgomery’s story justice on screen. Anne’s straw hat and travel bag, for instance, are particularly poignant symbols of her previously unsettled existence.
Reflecting on her costume and fake face freckles, McNulty says the whole package helped her to make the character her own. “It gave you a whole vibe itself. The carpet bag, the stockings were dirty, the bloomers and the vest – they were all filthy,” explains the actor.
In one scene, when Thomson’s character offers to hold Shirley’s bag, she politely refuses due to it being broken and having a “knack” to it. “Anne’s bag is a symbol of comfort, the way only she knows how to hold it,” McNulty notes.
Seeing the young actor out of character is intriguing considering she embodies her role as a 19th century teenager so well. And with McNulty a newcomer to the world of TV, the part could have been considered a daunting first job on screen.
“I don’t think it’s been challenging, it’s been more exciting,” she says. “I have a project hopefully coming up in September where I’ll be playing a new character, which will be very strange as I’ve played Anne for a couple of years now.
“It’s going to be interesting to play someone closer to my age in a different country with my own accent, and I’m very excited to explore it.”
She adds that James and Thomson were influential role models on set and taught her a lot as mentors throughout the process.
Anne with an E was reportedly the fourth most binged series on Netflix last year, so it’s no surprise the show returns for a second season this Friday. Produced by Northwood Entertainment, it will also air on Canadian pubcaster the CBC in September.
Asked whether having the whole season available at once is a good thing as season two’s debut approaches, McNulty says she’s just looking forward to seeing what people think of it.
“I guess we’ll see what people think of season two and keep our fingers crossed. I hope it comes across well, I’m very excited,” says the actor. “It’s exploded much more than I thought it would. When I originally auditioned, I didn’t even know it was for Netflix, so that was a shock.”
McNulty reveals she’d love to continue in Anne’s shoes, adding: “I think Moira’s hoping to expand it; her dream is five seasons to get the story out there in a way that isn’t rushed. I’m just insanely humbled at the opportunity I’ve had and the things I got to do.”
As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.
For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.
The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+ series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.
The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.
“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”
That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.
“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.
“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”
Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.
“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.
“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”
Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”
But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.
“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”
When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.
“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”
Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”
The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.
“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”
Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.
“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.
“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”
Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.
With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”
London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.
Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.
Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.
BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.
After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.
Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2) This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2. Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.” Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”
International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4) After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4. O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”
Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV) O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. “Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.
Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1) The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month. Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.” Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.” Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.” Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”
Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound.
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”
Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3) This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths. Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”
Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month. Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.” Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”
Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4) The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season. “I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”
Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1) The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department. George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.” Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding… I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.” Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”
Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1) Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern. “It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”
Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”
Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.
With the third season of Netflix’s The Crown about to begin production, creator and writer Peter Morgan explains why he keeps going back to the royal family and discusses the pitfalls of depicting real people.
It’s a bad time to be a republican in the UK.
The royal family, never far from the headlines even in regular circumstances, are seemingly everywhere at present. The Queen’s 92nd birthday last month was followed just two days later by the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s third child, Prince Louis. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s a wedding coming up in a couple of weeks, with Suits star Meghan Markle leaving the world of TV drama behind to join the Windsor clan. Good luck stepping into a newsagent without seeing her face staring back at you from at least half-a-dozen magazines.
This surge of interest in Britain’s most famous family must have Netflix execs rubbing their hands with glee ahead of The Crown, a global hit for the SVoD giant, entering production on its third season this summer. The show, which centres on Queen Elizabeth II, will return with an entirely new cast as the action picks up at a later stage in the characters’ lives.
While the new actors face a daunting task in living up to the rave reviews earned by Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and co, The Crown’s creator and writer Peter Morgan is braced for the equally difficult proposition of outdoing his acclaimed work on the first two seasons of the show.
“I’m still slightly embarrassed to be writing about these people and to find myself still doing this,” admits Morgan, for whom The Crown is a third major project with the UK’s reigning monarch at its centre, following 2006 film The Queen and 2013 play The Audience, both of which starred Dame Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. “I yearn to write a heist film,” he jokes.
So what is it that keeps Morgan coming back to the royals? “They link us – they connect all of us,” says the Academy Award nominee. “There’s something really interesting and profound about the way all of our lives are interconnected with theirs. They are, at some level, the thing that unites all of us. Our grandparents, our parents, our children – [the Queen] has been there as a constant for everyone, and this family has been there.
“Whatever you may feel about them, about monarchy, we’ve lived with this very special relationship with this extraordinary woman. Whatever you feel about [the existence of a monarchy], it never stops binding us together.”
Making a drama about such high-profile figures inevitably invites scrutiny over historical accuracy. And while Morgan is keen to stress that he has never purported to be a “documentarian,” that’s not to say he doesn’t feel enormous pressure to get things right. “If you start to make an imagination about certain relationships, about certain moments in history, to offer an explanation about why people did something and you shortcut it because you have an hour to explain why something like the Suez conflict happened,” he says. “I feel the responsibility of that and whether I’m misjudging it or I’ve oversimplified it.
“The good news about these characters is we do know where they are most of the time – it’s a matter of public record. You know where they were on which day and what they were doing. My job is to join the dots. We have to make some leaps of imagination about how people were feeling. And maybe sometimes I get it wrong.”
Literally holding up his hands, he adds: “This is just me having a punt. I’m just guessing.”
The writer initially had an idea for one season of the show, with plans to focus on the young queen’s relationship with prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) in the 1950s. But it soon became clear that there was a much bigger story to tell.
“It just gets more and more interesting the closer you look and the longer you give it,” Morgan says of Elizabeth’s reign. “The truth is, if I gave it the same time again, I could still find more stories to tell.”
Netflix clearly agrees, with The Crown already confirmed for a fourth season before the third has even started filming. And so, it seems, do the streamer’s subscribers. While Netflix is famously tight-lipped over viewing figures, Morgan expresses his surprise at what he has learned about the show’s audience.
“One of the things that’s been interesting to watch is how different generations have connected with the show,” he says. “To be honest with you, this is crass, but I thought this would appeal largely to educated, mainly female, over 40s. But all the research suggests it’s completely different. I think that speaks to the unconscious current that [the Queen’s] face, her presence, has in all our lives.”
Indeed, even without viewing statistics, The Crown’s importance to Netflix is evidenced by its prominence in marketing material for the streamer’s offerings around the world. It’s also among the most critically acclaimed drama originals Netflix has served up so far.
Of course, the greatest proof is in the cold hard cash Netflix has fronted up for the series, which has been touted as the most expensive TV show ever made, with £100m (US$135.28m) being a commonly cited figure. However, Morgan bristles at such claims. “None of the rumours of our budget were true, none of them,” he insists, “and it’s been sort of painful not to be able to say it. We have perfectly healthy budgets, but there are many television shows that have larger budgets.”
Regardless of the actual financial details, The Crown represented a major coup for Netflix back in 2014. The streamer reportedly outmuscled both the BBC and ITV to secure its first UK original, produced by Left Bank Pictures, in a move seen by many as a watershed moment in the power struggle between traditional linear broadcasters and the SVoD contenders.
Netflix will be hoping its faith in the show continues to pay off in season three, and with a host of talented actors forming the show’s new cast, it surely has little to fear. Leading the pack is Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Broadchurch, The Night Manager) who replaces Foy on the throne as Elizabeth II. Tobias Menzies (The Terror) will play Prince Philip, while Helena Bonham Carter and Jason Watkins will also star as the action shifts from the 50s to the 70s, when Harold Wilson was UK prime minister.
It’s hard to think of a better choice than Colman for the lead role. The actor has the ability to be “both plain and dazzling,” says Morgan. “There’s a sort of everywoman [quality to her]. She’s very connectable and yet quite anonymous. We were all excited about her.”
Colman needed no convincing. “We rang her up and she said yes on the phone,” Morgan reveals. “She didn’t want to meet or anything. It was weird because we rang her on the day that she had just watched it, and her husband had said, ‘Claire Foy is just so good!’ But she said yes on the spot – normally it’s a big palaver.”
With work on season three still at a very early stage, detail is scant. But one thing we do know is that Colman will be the highest-paid cast member this time out, after it was controversially revealed that Foy was paid significantly less than Smith for the first two seasons of the show.
Morgan, meanwhile, is just focused on getting through it. “I have yet to enjoy the moment of feeling confident,” he says. “I just feel overwhelmed and nervous as my default condition. I gather there are pills you can take. That’s how I feel about the show. The biggest challenge for me is all the time thinking of misjudging it. I describe the show as a haemophiliac – if you touch it too hard in the wrong place, it will bruise.”
The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.
All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.
One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.
Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).
All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.
In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).
In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).
Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.
It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.
Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.
On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.
Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.
Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.
This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.
The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.
The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.
Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.
On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’
Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).
On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”
Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”
Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.
One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.
FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).
Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.
And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.
Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’
But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.
The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.
Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.
Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.
The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.