They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
The cast of Amazon’s latest release, The Collection, open the doors to the fashion house drama.
Actors signing on to appear in a period drama can usually expect to be transported into another world by the costumes they have to wear. But that claim has never been more valid than it is for The Collection, a stylish drama set in a haute couture fashion house in 1940s Paris.
The series stars Richard Coyle, Tom Riley and Mamie Gummer in the story of an illustrious fashion house emerging from the dark days of the Occupation. Brothers Paul and Claude, played by Coyle and Riley respectively, are at the heart of the family saga, which threatens to expose the grit behind the glamour of the business they, their family and employees all work in.
Frances de la Tour, Alix Poisson, Jenna Thiam and Irène Jacob complete the main cast.
“The costumes are amazing,” says Coyle, best known for roles in Covert Affairs and Crossbones. “I had to travel to Paris to be fitted to have suits made – I’ve never had suits made before. Even though the legs were far too wide for my tastes, they were beautiful suits – and Mamie’s worn some incredible things.”
Gummer, who plays Paul’s American ex-wife, continues: “Our designer Chattoune is a genius. Her scope and her appreciation for every single element and character is so specific and, for me, a costume fitting is always so informative and I’ve learned so much about my character, Helen, through that process.”
There was more to the appeal of starring in The Collection than just the costumes, however. Created by Oliver Goldstick (Ugly Betty), the series is set in a time when France is recovering from the Second World War – a period that Gummer (Emily Owens MD) says was brought to life immediately in the scripts.
“It was so engaging and I felt really pulled in by it,” she explains. “When I was done reading it, I wanted more. It was so clear from the outset that Oliver was so passionate and so well informed about every aspect of this time and of the characters – he worked on it for nearly a decade. Whenever you sign on to a television project, when you’re only given a couple of scripts to read, it is a bit of a leap of faith but I just sensed that we were in very good hands.”
Riley (Da Vinci’s Demons) picks up: “It was really visceral and there’s an element of it that, despite being a fashion show, felt kind of ugly, which was appealing. The darkness behind it, just beneath the surface, is very appealing as far as a world that seems so shiny but all that glitters is not gold.
“It all starts from the script and if the script is great, it makes your job a lot easier. It’s like driving a really nice car – it makes it easier to do your thing on top. If you’re polishing a turd, it makes your job a bit harder but thankfully they’re brilliant scripts.”
The actor is also full of praise for director Dearbhla Walsh, who he says shared the same passion for The Collection as Goldstick. “Dearbhla was the perfect backup because she was very excitable and cared very deeply about the project and had strong opinions,” he explains. “Even if you don’t always agree with them, it’s always nice to have someone who clearly knows what they want. You can disagree but at least you can trust someone has a vision for the show. It makes you feel safer about slipping up.”
The story plays on the traditional upstairs-downstairs dynamics often found in period drama by splitting the fashion house into front-of-house and backstage areas.
“There’s a place where it’s all elegance and then there’s backstage where it’s catty and there’s a lot going on,” Riley reveals. “It’s something I don’t think has been done before; I don’t think anybody’s really opened the doors on a fashion house and said, ‘This is what it’s like.’ It’s an interesting backdrop. It’s like another character, this sense of having just come out of this incredibly shameful period of French history – it’s so fresh. Everyone’s reeling and trying to recover from it.”
Speaking to the trio, it’s clear they have an affinity for each other as well as the show they’re working on – a relationship they say came very naturally and easily to them.
Coyle reveals he first met Riley in a Starbucks just before the first script read-through: “It was a fateful meeting. I feel like we immediately slipped into an easy working relationship.”
Riley continues: “The first scene we shot was very indicative of the brothers’ relationship. I was in the bath, getting completely naked while your brother just sits on the toilet chatting to you. It really said a lot about their relationship very quickly.
“It showed a great deal of confidence from the producers in our abilities to do that kind of thing on the first day. Similarly, the first couple of days with Mamie were crazy. They gave us our biggest, most fraught emotional scenes. Normally they let you get a feel for it but they were just like, ‘Here you go.’ But we got through it. There was a lot of generosity and goodwill and care. It’s hard when you’re thrown those tough scenes straight off the bat and everybody’s getting used to everybody else. It’s really tricky to pull that stuff on early on.”
Gummer, Meryl Streep’s eldest daughter, adds: “It was really like a sink or swim. It was good because people are essentially trying to survive, they’re trying to make their love endure, they’re trying to keep their families together, they’re trying to stay afloat.”
It’s not just the costumes that help transport the actors to post-war Paris but the sets as well. Although exterior shots were filmed in the French capital, huge stages were built in Wales to accommodate the sets.
Coyle says: “The production is amazing, the sets are brilliant. When you walk into the sets they’re just beautiful. It helps immensely to be able to transport yourself to where you’re meant to be.”
Gummer continues: “It’s like walking through a wardrobe. You see evidence of the ravages of war, contrasted to the stark determination to rebuild and beautify life again.
Produced by Lookout Point, Artis Pictures and MFP, the eight-part series is executive produced by Goldstick, Anne Thomopoulos, Pascal Breton for French production partner Federation Entertainment, and Kate Croft. BBC Worldwide is handling international sales.
The Collection has been picked up by both France Télévisions and Amazon, which is set to launch it on September 2.
“It’s clear they care and they want to make a big splash with it,” Riley says of the SVoD platform. “The one thing that’s very different about streaming services, it seems, is they’re more confident. Despite the fact it’s a coproduction where so many people have an opinion that it ends up being produced by committee, they seem to have a lot more faith in the showrunner, saying, ‘Go and do your thing.’”
Gummer concludes: “It seems they grant a lot more artistic freedom, which is a great vote of confidence and that trickles down – the trust they place in Oliver that he’s then handed down to us. You can feel a real ownership of it, which is great.”
Writers and producers often spend years crafting their passion projects before they come to air – but the risk is always whether the audience cares as much as they do, writes Michael Pickard.
When US cable network FX commissioned bloody medieval drama The Bastard Executioner (pictured above), it was billed as the eagerly anticipated next act from writer Kurt Sutter.
Sutter had built his career at FX, first working on ground-breaking cop drama The Shield and then creating hit biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ran for seven seasons until 2014.
The Bastard Executioner, which made its UK debut this week on History, would represent an entirely different direction from his previous work. It was an ambitious Middle Ages drama that told the story of a warrior knight in King Edward II’s charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. But when that violence finds him again he is forced to pick up the bloodiest sword of all.
Sutter developed the series from an idea from Brian Grazer, who executive produced the 10-episode show with Sutter and Francie Calfo.
And it was immediately clear how Sutter he had invested in the show, exclaiming at the time of its commission in May 2015: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. And with this extraordinary cast – Stephen Moyer, Katey Sagal and newcomer Lee Jones – this world explodes on screen.”
But as Sutter would discover, no amount of excitement can turn the tide of public opinion if the audience doesn’t share the same interest in your passion project as you do.
Writers and producers can spend years developing a series, often focusing on obscure or niche stories or time periods. But in most cases, they must build their reputations working on other shows before being given the chance – and freedom from a network – to bring their passion projects to life. And even if the story does connect, there is still a possibility the project could be undone by its execution.
Among the successes is Poldark, BBC1’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, starring Aidan Turner and written by Debbie Horsfield.
When it first aired in 2015, no one could have predicted how quickly the show would develop a devoted following in both the UK and the US, where it airs on PBS. The series has since been renewed for a third season to air in 2017 – ahead of its season two launch this September.
“Poldark is a passion project for all of us, and it’s with real excitement that we prepare for both the launch of season two and our return to Cornwall to shoot season three,” said Damien Timmer, MD of Poldark prodco Mammoth Screen. “Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield’s extraordinary flair for storytelling means the saga of [lead character] Ross, his friends and enemies will go to even more thrilling places!”
Writer/actor Mark Gatiss is a long-time fan of sci-fi series Doctor Who and has written eight episodes of the show since it was revived in 2005. But it was the opportunity to write a special film to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary that proved a real labour of love. Gatiss, who also co-created Sherlock, penned An Adventure in Time and Space, which followed the creation of the series with David Bradley portraying the first Doctor, William Hartnell.
“The strange thing is, because I’m a Jon Pertwee child, this was before my time,” Gatiss said at the film’s 2013 premiere, referencing the third actor to play the Doctor. “But I grew up with the story – almost like a bedtime story – of how the show came together. These very unlikely people coming together… nobody liking the Daleks… all these little stories that were like holy writ.
“I always thought it would just be a fantastic story to tell and it’s just come together at the right time.”
Steven Knight may consider himself a film writer, having penned movies such as Locke, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, but it’s in television that he found a home thanks to Peaky Blinders, a series that began life as a novel until Knight transformed it for the small screen with Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach.
When the series was given a two-season renewal by BBC2 following its successful third run earlier this year, Knight admitted: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
More recently, Emmy-nominated spy drama The Night Manager was discovered to be a long-held passion project for star Hugh Laurie – so much so that the actor once tried to option the rights to the John Le Carré novel on which the show was based, only to find they had already been snapped up by Sydney Poitier.
The stylish BBC1/AMC series, which aired earlier this year, saw Laurie play arms dealer Richard Roper opposite Tom Hiddleston’s hero Jonathan Pine, with the adaptation penned by David Farr.
“I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” former House star Laurie said. “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s The Night Of, an adaptation of BBC drama Criminal Justice, was a passion project for the late actor James Gandolfini, who championed the series that was brought to air last month by Steven Zaillian.
Less successful, however, was Vinyl, HBO’s big-budget music industry drama set in 1970s New York City. Said to have been a passion project of former network programming chief Michael Lombardo, the series looked a surefire hit with a creative team comprising celebrated director Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
However, after disappointing reviews and lacklustre ratings, plus the departure of Winter and a change in management at the premium cable network, the show was cancelled in May after one season – reversing an earlier decision in February to order a second season after just one episode had aired.
“After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl,” HBO said. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project.”
Hoping to have better luck is forthcoming Amazon drama The Collection, which has been a long-time ambition for its creators, Oliver Goldstick and Kate Croft.
The series is set in an illustrious Parisian fashion house, emerging from the end of the Occupation into a golden age of design. The story focuses on two brothers while exposing the grit behind the glamour of the couture business.
“The Collection has been a passion project of mine for years; an entrepreneurial fable set in a pivotal moment in history, when fashion served as the ultimate vehicle for transformation and reinvention,” admitted showrunner Goldstick, best known for his work on US drama Ugly Betty. “It’s the story of a war-scarred family – upstairs and downstairs – tethered together by its success and its secrets.”
Croft, who executive produces the series and worked with Goldstick to develop the show, continued: “Out of our shared passion for the world and the period, Oliver has created his extraordinary vision of Paris and the golden age of couture. It’s full of his signature flourishes, and his unique take means we get to peek behind the elegant façade and realise it is not just about the dresses, but more about what they are covering up.”
Elsewhere, Laeta Kalogridis held the rights to Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon for four years before Netflix commissioned a 10-part series in January.
The story is set in the 25th century when the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite interstellar warrior, has been imprisoned for 500 years and is downloaded into a future he had tried to stop. If he can solve a single murder in a world where technology has made death nearly obsolete, he’ll get a chance at a new life on Earth.
“Altered Carbon is one of the most seminal pieces of post-cyberpunk hard science fiction out there – a dark, complex noir story that challenges our ideas of what it means to be human when all information becomes encodable, including the human mind,” Kalogridis says.
As for Sutter and The Bastard Executioner, the writer took the unusual decision to cancel his own show when it failed to connect with viewers – an announcement he made by placing an advert in several Hollywood television industry magazines.
“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, ‘OK, that’s our audience.’”
He added: “When a show gets cancelled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A common saying among writers is only write what you love – why waste your time on anything else? But with passion projects, there will always be a risk that the audience might not care as deeply as those who created it.
As Sutter concluded in his advert: “The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”
Post-war fashion drama The Collection is setting up shop at Amazon and France 3. DQ hears from the creative team about their designs for this UK-France coproduction.
Period drama will dress up in high-end fashion for a new series set in post-war Paris in the aftermath of the Occupation. The Collection follows two brothers who run a haute couture business in the French capital in 1947, with storylines exposing internal rivalries, betrayals and the grit and treachery behind the glamour.
The cast is headed by Richard Coyle and Tom Riley as brothers Paul and Claude Sabine, with Frances de la Tour as their mother Yvette, Mamie Gummer as Paul’s American wife Helen and Jenna Thiam, who plays Nina, the working-class daughter of the chief seamstress who becomes the iconic face of the fashion label.
But behind the scenes, the show could also become a template for the way international coproductions are made in the future.
Showrunner Oliver Goldstick (Ugly Betty) says The Collection was born when he visited a museum exhibition about the golden age of couture during a trip to London.
“It was delicious and visually arresting on so many levels but I also knew there was something more to uncover,” he explains. “So I set out to write a story about a fictitious fashion house. I particularly imagined a saga about a family that’s bound not only by blood. Some of them are linked by sheer trauma from the war and all are bonded by their passion for couture and national pride. It occurred to me this was not a show so much about fashion but about transformation and reinvention and revival.”
Goldstick says post-war Paris was chosen specifically as the show’s setting as he was fascinated by the impact and aftermath of the Second World War on the city.
“It’s a crucible of a lot of potential drama. Our show centres upon a thorny relationship between two brothers – one who undresses women with his eyes and the other who dresses them in something much better.
“Here was a world where it’s not so much what they’re wearing but what they’re covering up. Everybody’s got a secret. Everybody’s got a life that no one else knows about. We are putting together a very special show. It’s the most exciting project I’ve ever been involved with.”
Goldstick partnered with executive producer Kate Croft’s Artis Pictures and War and Peace producer Lookout Point to help develop the project, with backing from distributor BBC Worldwide.
Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan says he was keen to attack a big period drama with a very modern voice. “It’s fast-paced, witty and it’s got an edge to it,” he says of The Collection. “The marriage of that and big period drama felt fresh and interesting. And the idea of something set in Paris, shot in English but for a global audience just felt like the kind of thing Lookout Point would be good at putting together.”
The Collection boasts a creative team that notably includes celebrated costume designers Chattoune & Fab, director Dearbhla Walsh (Penny Dreadful), producer Selwyn Roberts (Parade’s End) and production designer Alison Dominitz.
Bringing to the project her experience on series including Versailles, Borgia and Camelot is exec producer Anne Thomopoulos, who also oversaw shows such as Rome and Generation Kill when she was an executive at HBO.
“I love period drama, and the post-war period is really interesting to me, having worked on Band of Brothers, so the aftermath – being able to do something from a ground’s eye view of the common man in Paris in post-war – is fascinating,” she says. “Fashion also has a tendency to be perceived as very frivolous. People have tried multiple times to develop and produce fashion projects and that frivolity always seems to come through. Oliver and Kate really found a way to tell the story where there’s a human face to everything and there’s an overlay of fashion.”
If there were any fears that The Collection would put style before story, Croft insists that the fashion setting is only ever a vehicle through which to tell “human stories.”
“We have this wonderful crucible of drama with the family,” she says. “Then you get that incredible layering in the very particular detail of how the costumes are put together, how that couture was made, how that atelier is put together. So hopefully there’s joy in those moments of detail, but it’s not just about the button being sewn on.”
Behind the camera, the series has been put together with as much precision as a Dior dress. Building on Goldstick and Croft’s vision, Lookout Point partnered with French production company Federation Entertainment to produce the series, which has been picked up by Amazon and France 3. It will be coproduced by France Télévisions production arm MFP.
For Vaughan, The Collection represents an increasingly common way of bringing series to air – rather than winning a broadcaster commission, the show is greenlit by the studio before channels, in this case Amazon and France 3, licence it. He describes the partnership as a tapestry between a global SVoD player, a distributor and broadcaster. “Instead of thinking SVoD is taking the show off the table, we’re asking what rights does Amazon need and working out on a country-by-country level how we maximise the value of the show so broadcasters and other platforms can co-exist with Amazon.
“It’s about looking at each market in an intricate way and being intelligent about how you fit those platforms together. That’s at the heart of this deal and that’s at the heart of this business story in terms of the future of dynamically financed drama and it’s bloody complicated.”
Following in the footsteps of series such as The Tunnel and The Last Panthers (both for Sky Atlantic and Canal+), The Collection is part of a new wave of “miracle” UK-France coproductions, says Federation founder Pascal Breton: “The Collection is even more of a miracle because it’s British producers bringing to the world a French topic. It’s good for the industry in France, of course. It’s really exciting because we are learning together to build this new model of international coproductions. It’s not easy, but it’s really great when we manage it.”
Amazon UK film and TV strategy director Chris Bird says he was drawn to The Collection by the quality of the writing and the ambition behind the project: “It’s a prestigious, dramatic, glamorous television show and when it was first presented to us, it was very clear that Simon could have made this show with anybody, any major broadcaster in the UK or around the world, and that if we wanted to participate we had to move quickly.
“We were able to create a new structure for our involvement that allowed us to come on board at a very early stage. We have tremendously high hopes for it. It’s going to be big. Everything from the costume design – the couture – to the set design and cinematography is going to be of an extremely high standard and, from our customers’ perspective, it’s another example of very high-quality drama we’ll be bringing them this year.”
Filming for The Collection began at the end of January 2016, with Parisian streets created on an expansive studio backlot in Wales to complement exteriors filmed on location.
“We’re doing a very ambitious studio build to create our atelier, both downstairs and up, because that doesn’t exist,” says Croft. “The vision from Dearbhla and Alison was very specific so we thought we had to create that world. Practically, that affords us all sorts of advantages.
“One of the great strengths of working with Oliver is he’s used to working in that studio system way with a big backlot and studio build, and with an enormous amount of research. We’re all used to seeing that period in black and white photographs, but when you find the colour images, it’s incredibly vivid and lush. It’s really exciting because we’ve all seen a lot of dramas set during the Second World War and the 1950s, but that post-war period hasn’t been tackled in this way. It’s a feast for the eyes.”
Vaughan adds: “Dearbhla as a director has exquisite taste, judgement and craft. She turns down nine out of 10 things she gets offered and is extremely picky. If you look at her body of work – Esio Trot, Penny Dreadful, The Tudors – she’s the controlling force from a vision standpoint alongside Oliver and the team. And it feels like everything fits together in a very modern way.”
It’s very much in vogue to talk about the quality of scripted series coming out of HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix and Amazon. But this week let’s raise a glass to Starz, which has picked up Golden Globe nominations for two dramas: Outlander and Flesh and Bone.
When Starz made its first meaningful move into original production with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, it didn’t look like it would be a contender for industry gongs. But under the leadership of Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the US channel has really raised its game – delivering shows like Power, Black Sails and, coming in 2016, The Girlfriend Experience – as well as the above-mentioned series.
Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Left Bank Pictures and was developed for TV by Ronald D Moore. Moore also heads a writing team that, in season one, included five credited writers (Moore, Toni Graphia, Ira Steven Behr, Anne Kenney and Matthew B Roberts).
Moore, who wrote the opening two episodes of season one, is still just 51. But his extensive writing credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica and Syfy series Helix. He was also reported to be working on a TV reboot of movie A Knight’s Tale for ABC.
Flesh and Bone, meanwhile, is an eight-part miniseries about the dysfunctional but glamorous world of ballet. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, it started airing on Starz on November 8 and is currently five episodes through its one and only season. Walley-Beckett’s career to date has seen her win a Primetime Emmy for her work as a writer on AMC’s Breaking Bad. She was also a writer-producer on ABC’s short-lived period series Pan Am.
Elsewhere, fans of Fox thriller 24 will be delighted to hear that the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland is to headline a new ABC series entitled Designated Survivor. The drama, which has been ordered straight-to-series, focuses on a junior US cabinet member who is unexpectedly appointed president after a huge attack kills everyone above him in the line of succession. The production company behind the show is Mark Gordon Co Studios (Quantico) and the writer will be David Guggenheim.
Guggenheim’s major credits to date are movies – most notably the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. He is also working on a sequel to Safe House and a new instalment in the cult Bad Boys franchise. The drama is ABC’s first new scripted series for the 2016/17 and follows on from a decent showing for Quantico.
If this is the golden age of TV drama, then one has to ask why so many old movies and TV series are being revived. Still, it’s good news for writers. The latest beneficiary is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a former Lost writer (seasons one and two) who was been signed up to write a reboot of NBC’s cult series Xena: Warrior Princess.
The chances of Xena getting into production seem pretty good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the current trend towards action-adventure shows with female leads. Secondly, because the show is popular internationally, suggesting a successful reboot could be a money-spinner for NBC’s distribution division.
Another show to secure a nomination at this year’s Golden Globes is Fox’s ratings hit Empire. Unsurprisingly, Fox has asked the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels to come up with a follow-up series. Daniels, who is currently casting the pilot, is co-writing the new series with Tom Donaghy.
Although the programme doesn’t yet have a title, it will follow the fortunes of a girl group hoping to make it in the music business. Donaghy started his career as a playwright but, like many of his peers, is now active in TV. Credits before now include The Whole Truth, Without a Trace and The Mentalist.
Another project in the news this month is Lookout Point’s Parisian fashion drama The Collection. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the eight-hour show has been picked up by Amazon and will be written by Oliver Goldstick. Goldstick’s credits include Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and, notably, Pretty Little Liars (PLL), for which he has written 30 episodes. He also co-created the short-lived PLL spin-off Ravenswood with I Marlene King and Joseph Dougherty.
One project in search of a writer is AMC’s new adaptation of Joe Hill horror novel NOS4A2. The story centres a young woman with an uncanny talent for finding lost things – a gift that is gradually destroying her mind. She encounters Charlie Manx, who abducts children in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and sucks their souls to keep himself young. The licence plate on the Rolls (NOS4A2) gives you a clue as to what kind of character he is.