State of the Union, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, stars Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd as a couple who meet in a pub immediately before their weekly marital therapy session.
Each episode pieces together how their lives were, what drew them together and what has started to pull them apart – exploring the complexities of marriage via writer Nick Hornby’s characteristic honesty and humour.
What makes this series stand out, however, is that it is a shortform drama consisting of 10-minute episodes, with the story playing out over 10 weekly instalments.
In this DQTV interview, Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) reveals how some free time in his schedule led him to take up the challenge of writing a 10-minute drama. He also talks about finding the voices of his characters and bringing together stars Pike (Gone Girl) and O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) and director Stephen Frears (A Very English Scandal).
Hakan Kousetta and Jamie Laurenson from producer See-Saw Films also discuss the challenges of financing and producing shortform series.
State of the Union is produced by See-Saw Films for SundanceTV and is distributed by Endeavor Content.
There can’t be many countries in the world where the TV, theatre and literary/publishing sectors are as inextricably entwined as in the UK. Illustrating this point is new BBC1 comedy drama Love, Nina, which debuted last Friday at 21.30.
Based on a best-selling memoir by Nina Stibbe, the five-part miniseries has been adapted for the screen by Highbury-based author Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy).
It tells the story of a young live-in nanny (Nina) who moves to North London in the 1980s to work for a literary editor with two young boys, the mother of whom is played by Hampstead resident Helena Bonham Carter. In the book, the young Nina (Faye Marsay) is exposed to literary heavyweights like Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett – all of whom live in the vicinity or pay the house a visit.
Explaining how the project came about, Hornby said: “Nina Stibbe and I share an editor, Mary, and she sent me a proof copy of the book. I’m bound to think this, but she has good taste, so when she said it was brilliant I took a look and couldn’t quite believe how good it was.
“The first thing that attracted me was that it was funny, and there are so few books that are properly funny from beginning to end. That was the first thing I wanted to dig into, but it’s about a charming and an eccentric world as well. They’re very real people and it’s a situation you don’t come across every day.”
In terms of the writing process, Hornby added: “Nina didn’t read the scripts until I had completed the whole set. We weren’t really in touch during the writing process, although sometimes I would ask her something and she would provide the answer – factual stuff. She was a dream and she trusted us to get on with it.”
As for the challenges, he said: “I didn’t feel that there were any challenges, just opportunities. Nina glosses over comic material quickly because she is writing letters to her sister and she talks about incidents in two or three lines. Of course, you’ve got to open it out, but the characters are in there and the situations are there. Nina’s letters quite often included snatches of dialogue so it was my privilege and pleasure to be able to get to run those on. What SJ (Clarkson, the director) has done with it is incredible. It looks like a quirky indie movie. It’s visually very rich and it certainly doesn’t look like a sitcom. I can’t recall anything quite like it.”
It’s early days, but the response to the show seems mixed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian – which is as North London as the subject matter, Hornby and Bonham-Carter – was positive: “The most important thing is that Hornby and director SJ Clarkson have captured the spirit and hilariousness of the book. It’s a joy.”
Less positive are the audience figures, which came in at around 2.6 million (compared with the four million or so that usually view BBC1 at around this time). This could be explained by the fact that the show was up against ITV’s The Secret, starring James Nesbitt. But Love, Nina also has a pretty lacklustre IMDb rating of 6.9, which suggests that those who did tune in were not that enthusiastic.
As an Arsenal fan, and someone who holidayed in Hackney during the 1970s, I have a residual affection for Hornby. But my suspicion is that the preoccupations of the North London elite are not really right for BBC1’s audience – even when viewed through the lens of a young woman newly arrived from Leicester.
Better in ratings terms was BBC1’s Capital, which looked at contemporary South London and the issues that have arisen from rising house prices. Although this show also scored pretty poorly on IMDb, its subject matter resonated sufficiently with the wider audience to achieve an audience in the 4.5-5 million range. Love, Nina would probably have been better suited to BBC4, where we would have delighted in its eccentricity rather than scrutinised its audience.
Also in the news this week is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, an eight-part series for BBC America that will be distributed internationally by IMG. This show, which will debut in the autumn, is based on the books by the late Douglas Adams, author of the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
It follows the bizarre adventures of eccentric detective Dirk Gently and his assistant Todd. Interestingly, Dirk Gently was previously adapted by BBC4 in the UK in 2010 – with Howard Overman (Misfits) as the writer and Stephen Mangan heading the cast. However, it was not renewed.
The new version is being written by Max Landis, a 31-year-old LA native whose credits include Chronicle, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. So we can expect a very different variation on Adams’s unique humour.
Meanwhile, there was a major surprise this week with the news that Europe-based showrunner Frank Spotnitz has stepped back slightly from Amazon’s alternative-history drama The Man in the High Castle. The show is currently in production on season two after completing a successful run on the platform late last year.
Spotnitz has not said much on the subject but Amazon released this statement: “Given the ambition and scope of the series, the decision has been made to locate all creative efforts on The Man in the High Castle to the west coast; Frank Spotnitz will remain as an executive producer and step back from showrunner. His responsibilities will be managed by our deep and talented bench of producers. We are enormously grateful to him for bringing our customers on one of the most watched original shows on Amazon Video and we are excited about the team’s vision for season two.”
Spotnitz has been in heavy demand as a writer recently and is currently working on the Renaissance-set Medici: Masters of Florence. Starring Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de Medici, this eight-episode series is being sold internationally by Wild Bunch TV and featured prominently at the recent MipTV market in Cannes.
As its name suggests, feature films are the major focus of the Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale. But, echoing trends across the global media market, high-end TV drama is also playing an increasingly important role at the event.
There is, for example, a screening showcase called the Berlinale Special Series, during which TV titles from Denmark, the UK, Israel, Australia and the US will be shown. There is also an event called The CoPro Series, during which seven international TV projects searching for coproduction and financing partners will launch.
For this week’s column, we’re taking a closer look at each of the selected projects, focusing on the writing talent involved.
Berlinale Special Series
The Night Manager is an adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller, starring Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman. Set to be broadcast by the BBC in the UK and AMC in the USA, it has been adapted for screen by David Farr, who recently attended the C21 Drama Summit to discuss his approach to the project. Farr has established a strong reputation as a theatre director but has also proved very adept as a screenwriter. His credits include TV series Spooks and the movie Hanna, co-written with Joe Wright.
Love, Nina is a comedy miniseries for the BBC starring Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Joshua McGuire and Faye Marsay. The story is based on the memoirs of Nina Stibbe, a nanny who worked for and encountered some of London’s leading literary figures in the 1980s. It has been adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Fever Pitch) and is his first ever TV drama. He says of the project: “Love, Nina has already attained the status of a modern classic, and I am so happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to adapt it. We want to make a series that is as charming, funny and delightful as Nina Stibbe’s glorious book.”
Better Call Saul is a spin-off from the iconic AMC series Breaking Bad. Now moving into season two, it’s the brainchild of Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad. For season two, he shares the showrunning duties with Peter Gould. Although Gould is not as high profile as Gilligan, he is equally steeped in the series’ mythology, having worked on all five seasons of the parent show and the first season of the spin-off. For his work on Breaking Bad, he was nominated for four Writers Guild of America Awards.
Cleverman is an Australia/New Zealand coproduction based in a dystopian futuristic fantasy world. Due to be broadcast by ABC Australia and SundanceTV in the US, it stars Iain Glen and Frances O’Connor. The original concept for the story is from Ryan Griffen, a relative newcomer to the industry who also co-wrote four out of the series’ six episodes. Other credited writers were Jon Bell, Jonathan Gavin and Michael Miller (six episodes) and Jane Allen (two episodes). Overal,l that’s a pretty potent line-up of Aussie writing talent, with career credits that include Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Neighbours, The Gods of Wheat Street and Offspring.
Splitting Up Together is the latest drama to come out of Denmark. The TV2 show is described as a serialised character-driven comedy about family, love, sex and happy divorce. The show, which first saw the light of day at last year’s Mipcom, is produced by Happy End and distributed by DR Sales. It is created and written by Mette Heeno, whose previous credits include TV2 comedy series Lærkevej and Lillemand. Prior to that, she spent much of the last decade writing movie scripts (such as Triple Dare).
The Writer is an Israeli series coming out of the prolific Keshet stable. Written by Sayed Kashua, who created award-winning comedy Arab Labor, the 10-part series “observes the reality of a hybrid Israeli-Palestinian existence and the personal and political toll it can take on the individual.” This is a similar theme to Arab Labor, which has so far had four seasons (since debuting in 2007). Kashua earned an international reputation for his previous series, with the New York Times saying: “Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view… into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment.”
Avrupa is a project from Circe Film in the Netherlands centring on a flamboyant Turkish family that immigrates to the Netherlands in the 1980s. It is written by Sacha Polak and Stienette Bosklopper. To date, Polak’s main credits have been movies (Hemel, Zurich and Vita & Virginia). Bosklopper, meanwhile, is best known as a producer – only turning to screenwriting in the past couple of years. Speaking to Screen Daily, she said: “I had been working with a lot of writers and directors. Somehow, there was an urge to contribute on a different level. To my own amazement, it is going very well. It comes quite naturally and I get the feeling I will continue to do this.”
Brotherhood is a Norwegian crime series for TV2 Norway from Friland Film, a production company best known for feature films. The series, apparently inspired by true events, centres on a police investigator in Oslo who becomes heavily involved in organised crime. His secret links to the underworld are suddenly challenged and the protection he has built around his family starts to fall apart. The eight-part project is being written by Nikolaj Frobenius, whose main writing credits to date are as an author and movie writer. Film credits over the course of the last decade include Pioneer, Sons of Norway and Insomnia, while his books have been translated into 18 languages.
DNA is a Danish crime show produced by Eyeworks Scandi Fiction and written by author and creator Torleif Hoppe. Hoppe’s main claim to fame is his involvement in The Killing, of which he wrote 20 episodes. Aside from DNA, he is also working with Buccaneer Media, BBC America and AMC on Moths, a thriller set in Japan.
Lucky Per is a Nordisk Film Production for TV2 Denmark, based on a famous book written at the start of the 20th century. The four-part miniseries will be adapted for the screen by Bille August and his son Anders. It is scheduled to go into production this summer, with delivery at the end of 2017. DR Sales is handling distribution. Anders August established himself as a film and TV writer at the start of the current decade and has gone on to bigger and bigger projects. Recent credits include The Legacy and Follow the Money for DR. There have also been reports that BBC America and AMC are developing a show created by the younger August. Deadline called the BBC/AMC project “an untitled comic-noir thriller set in a 1950s resort (that) follows the social climbing of a disarming young woman who turns out to be a dangerous sociopath.”
The Disappearance is a new project from highly rated writer/director Hans-Christian Schmid. Primarily a movie maker, his credits include Home for the Weekend, which competed at the 2012 Berlinale.
The Illegal is a new project from Clement Virgo, the director of The Book of Negroes. It’s based on a book by Lawrence Hill, who also wrote The Book of Negroes. Virgo’s new project, which is being produced through his company Conquering Lion Pictures, is a dystopian story set in the near future. It follows the journey of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo and Hill co-wrote the TV version of The Book of Negroes so it’s likely they will adopt a similar approach this time.
Wars Inc, produced by Drama Team, is described as an Israeli newsroom-based drama. Unfortunately there isn’t any additional information on the project right now, so you’ll have to wait until the Berlinale pitch to find out more about this one.
The CoPro Series will give producers and financiers the chance to get to know the series’ creators at a networking get-together following their pitch, and arrange one-on-one meetings to discuss potential partnerships. The full programme was designed in conjunction with Peter Nadermann (Nadcon, Germany) and Jan de Clercq (Lumière Publishing, Belgium).
In other writer news, Steven Moffat has announced that season 10 of Doctor Who will be his last as showrunner. His final season will air on BBC1 in 2017 before he is replaced by Chris Chibnall, whose credits include Broadchurch, The Great Train Robbery and Life on Mars.
Moffat said: “While Chris is doing his last run of Broadchurch, I’ll be finishing up on the best job in the universe and keeping the Tardis warm for him. It took a lot of gin and tonic to talk him into this, but I am delighted that one of the true stars of British TV drama will be taking the Time Lord even further into the future.”
Chibnall called Doctor Who “the ultimate BBC programme: bold, unique, vastly entertaining and adored all around the world. So it’s a privilege and a joy to be the next curator of this funny, scary and emotional family drama. Steven’s achieved the impossible by continually expanding Doctor Who’s creative ambition while growing its global popularity. He’s been a dazzling and daring showrunner, and hearing his plans and stories for 2017, it’s clear he’ll be going out with a bang. Just to make my life difficult.”