Tag Archives: Patrick Vien

Fairy Godmother

Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star attraction in Cannes when she attended Mipcom to promote her forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother. DQ was on hand to hear how she helped develop the series, how she transformed herself for the role and why she has now returned to the medium where her screen career began.

She won an Oscar for her dazzling turn in big-screen musical Chicago and has starred alongside Tom Hanks and George Clooney in films such as The Terminal, Ocean’s Twelve, The Mask of Zorro and Brit comedy Dad’s Army.

Now Catherine Zeta-Jones’s career has come full circle. After beginning in theatre, her big break came with British TV drama Darling Buds of May before she moved to films. But now she’s back on the small screen, first with FX drama Feud, which aired earlier this year, and now as the lead in Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.

Zeta-Jones plays real-life drug lord Griselda Blanco, a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade who built a drug distribution network spanning the US and was suspected of ordering more than 200 murders.

The Asylum Entertainment production is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights.

Zeta-Jones last week added some star power to Mipcom in Cannes, where she spoke about the project alongside Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks, and Tanya Lopez, senior VP of original movies and miniseries at A+E-owned Lifetime.

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco was a vicious, brutal character – and that’s why Zeta-Jones wanted to play her on screen…
Catherine Zeta-Jones: What drew me to this role was a desire to get inside the skin of such a woman with all those qualities. Usually in drama school they say you have to find some thread of yourself that you can put into a character. Well, this is not that at all and that’s what made it so interesting. A woman came from nowhere, literally the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and became the most revered, powerful, feared woman in the drug business, dominated by ruthless men. How did that happen? Who was this woman? So to be able to get deep into that character, get under her skin, is something I personally had’t had the chance to do in a long time.
For me, this movie [reignited] my love of acting. This is what it’s about. It’s all very good to be playing ingenues; it’s all very good and flattering to have your character’s name preceded by ‘the beautiful, sexy woman walks in, her name is …’ – but I always go, ‘Aw, shit’ because I know that’s way too much time in hair and make-up. With Griselda, I was able to let all that go and find the woman, find out who this woman was. [I had to] humanise her in a way that was unfathomable but certainly not to homogenise her or find some sympathetic quality to her, because I don’t think she had one. That’s why I thank A+E and Lifetime, because it would be very easy to homogenise and rose-tint this character and story, and I was adamant about that. I said, “Please, Tanya, let me loose,” and she said, “Go girl.” [Griselda] was everything I thought she would be for me as an actor – deep, dark, emotional, dangerous. [She is] unsympathetic in a way but, for some weird reason, I think our audience will connect with her or at least understand her.

Cocaine Godmother embodies what a Lifetime movie should be…
Tanya Lopez: The message I want everyone to hear is we’re telling stories about strong, smart and, in some ways – and I really feel this about Griselda – badass women, with high production values and exceptional talent. That’s where, as far as we’re concerned at Lifetime, the movies are evolving to and we’re reaching for. On this particular movie, part of it was shot in Colombia, in Medellín, and the idea of us spreading out and shooting these movies in other parts of the world is very important.

The actor reveals she underwent a physical transformation for the role

TV movies can bring an audience to stories that may be lost as low-budget features, and give actors the chance to bring stories they’re passionate about…
Patrick Vien: We’re living in such an extraordinary period of television where the gates have been blown wide open for a group of artists who, if you go back 15 some years, might have been more about the motion picture business. If you’ve ever worked in a company that has a motion picture division and a television division, there is that absolute rivalry between the two. What’s brilliant about television is it started at a moment in time when Kevin Costner joined our company with Hatfield & McCoys and we saw many other projects – True Detective is another example – where suddenly [film talent] was coming into the marketplace.
The golden age of television is made that much more golden by talents such as Catherine who come to us to realise projects that we can bring to vast audiences through the medium of television. This film simply puts us in the league we want to be in. Everybody uses this phrase ‘premium content.’ Having Catherine at our side and this project in our stable means we are solidifying A+E Networks’ position on a global scale as a premium content provider.

For all her bad traits, Zeta-Jones found something strangely likeable about Griselda Blanco…
Zeta-Jones: There are so many qualities about her that are normally just bad, just not right but, as a woman, there’s something sadistically fantastic and admirable about where she came from and how she was literally the boss in a very dangerous man’s world. You’ve got to give it to her. I know in some of our early conversations, it was like, ‘How do we humanise Griselda? How do we make people relate to Griselda?’ I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, as bad as she is, I’m going to make people kinda like her.’ Whatever she did, the violence and the murders she’s associated with and eventually charged with, and eventually assented for, I kind of like her. It’s a very sick, dark sense of humour I’ve been hiding all my life and now it’s come out in Griselda.

Zeta-Jones (second from left) in The Darling Buds of May

The stigma of actors moving between television, film and theatre that once existed has now been broken…
Zeta-Jones: I was stuck in the theatre actor box – it wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV. That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television]; they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.

The star underwent a huge physical transformation to play Griselda Blanco and relished immersing herself in the character…
Zeta-Jones: Griselda had a very specific face. It was a very interesting face. I didn’t want to do a caricature so that people who never even knew who Griselda Blanco was would see a picture of her and say, ‘She’s not very good, she looks nothing like her.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get under the skin of this woman. But I wanted to have a transformation – I gained weight, I put my back out the week after I finished shooting. I’m an ex-dancer so I always have a straight back, but my pelvis was forward, I was hunched, I was a bit like a man – if I had balls, I’d grab them from time to time. So that whole transformation was something I lived through every day.
I love my husband and my kids but I was so glad to be on my own on location, to immerse myself in this woman. So I pretty much was walking around feeling like Griselda for the whole length of the shoot, and then I put my back out. But I don’t care – it was worth it. I wanted to let it all hang out. Griselda didn’t care; she thought she was beautiful. She was a movie star, starring in her own movie, and she didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I wanted to have that attitude, that mentality, not to do a caricature of the mugshot people only ever see of her. She was glamorous, she was a bit of a recluse, she was a shopaholic, she was an addict. Everything in excess. She had rooms of clothes, bags, shoes and she never went out – only to kill people. It was a fascinating character to immerse myself in, very liberating. I didn’t care that my eyes were puffy, I was really hoping I was having a puffy day on the shoot.

Cocaine Godmother is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro

Her career has now gone full circle – “a wonderful circle” – as she returns to the medium that made her name…
Zeta-Jones: I’d only done theatre before and then I was cast in [ITV drama] The Darling Buds of May. We did six hours for two years with our legend of a television actor, Sir David Jason. That was the first thing I did on screen. I was a complete unknown and, within an hour of television, my life changed completely. Then I was in France doing films with Philippe de Broca and Édouard Molinaro. Then I went to the States and auditioned for a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing was really coming to fruition. But I was cast in the TV version of Titanic. All I wanted was to be Kate Winslet opposite Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] – I wasn’t, but I took the TV version of Titanic. Cut to Steven Spielberg watching it on Sunday night and he casts me in The Legend of Zorro.
Next time I come back onto TV, it’s the biggest stroke of luck because I got to work with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my career, and it’s Griselda, it’s Cocaine Godmother. I feel very happy, lucky and blessed to be back in a medium which I felt very comfortable in, at home in, and what was really the start of my career. Even though I did theatre since I was nine years old in Britain and played leads in West End shows, I was completely anonymous, so it was The Darling Buds of May that opened up my world to TV and film. I’m very happy to be in a medium I feel very comfortable in.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

There will be blood

Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?

Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’

The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.

The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.

At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.

Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.

“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”

The body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.

Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”

The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.

Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”

Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”

Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
being gross.”

The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”

While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”

Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?

On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”

This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.

This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.

On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.

Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”

On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.

Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , ,