Tag Archives: Perpetual Grace Ltd

World building

As television drama transports viewers to new worlds, both historical and fantastical, the role of the production designer has never been more important. DQ finds out more about the job from those doing it on shows in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers, the number of TV dramas in production has skyrocketed. With this, niche genres that would have been ignored by mainstream broadcasters are being exploited by these new services, keen to bring fans of these previously underserved stories together, wherever they are in the world.

As a consequence, it has fallen to production designers to flex their creative muscles and bring these stories to life, from a horror series in which a haunted house is a central character (The Haunting of Hill House) to a futuristic sci-fi show in which human bodies are interchangeable and death is no longer permanent (Altered Carbon).

Sam Hobbs has worked on Australian series including Janet King and The Kettering Incident, and most recently sent modern-day Sydney back to the 1980s for ABC drama Les Norton. Based on the novels by Robert G Barratt, the show follows country boy Les who arrives in the city on the run from his past and winds up as a bouncer at an illegal casino.

Hobbs says the role of the production designer is to create the dramatic world of the series, both in terms of its time period and by establishing the rules to which that world adheres. “With Les Norton, the first thing I tried to facilitate was a discussion of the zeitgeist of that period. There was a huge sense of optimism and that anything was possible, despite the radical changes to Australian society, but it happened in conjunction with a sense of fairness. That’s the background. It was a really dynamic time.”

Australian drama Les Norton is set in the 1980s

Hobbs took inspiration from research that included photography by Rennie Ellis, before designing the 160 sets and locations that would be used across the 10-part series. Casino and brothel sets epitomised the decadence of the period with a rococo, theatrical design, while conversations with the producers, directors and cinematographers also brought elements of nostalgic melancholy to the style and tone.

Equally important was avoiding clichés of the period by ensuring the series, from producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment, focused on the characters, who just happened to exist in the 1980s.

“We did some building to give us some studio sets to go to but then we were pretty much on the road building sets into real dwellings or onto real exteriors the whole way through,” Hobbs says. “It’s a pretty crazy schedule. It was 10 one-hour episodes we knocked off in a very short period of time.”

An increasing challenge facing productions is cast availability. For Les Norton, stars Rebel Wilson and David Wenham needed to shoot their scenes in a short timeframe, which for the art department meant having all 10 episodes prepared by the time the cameras were ready to roll.

“That’s quite a new shift in terms of TV production – that casts are now driving schedules to a degree,” Hobbs notes. “We accept that’s the way it’s going to be in the future because it’s great to have big names like Rebel and David, but it certainly makes it challenging for us.”

Perpetual Grace Ltd is a stew of ‘film noir, western and timelessness’

Locations included Sydney’s real Kings Cross district, where the story is set, as well as Bondi, which Hobbs describes as an “extraordinarily beautiful place.” But the show’s style stands in stark contrast to Foxtel’s mystery drama The Kettering Incident (2016), in which Elizabeth Debicki played a woman on a journey to discovering the truth about her past.

With the show set in Tasmania, “we travelled to lots of interesting locations to put that world together,” Hobbs says. “It was a very conscious effort to create a deeply melancholic universe where those characters were essentially trapped at the end of the world. Once we had that broad idea, we were really punching with all those set and location decisions to find that palette and tone. It’s a similar process. Every project throws up its own logic. Every project has its driving spirit.”

On Perpetual Grace Ltd, that spirit came directly from the tone and sensibility of the scripts, overseen by co-showrunners Steve Conrad (Patriot) and Bruce Terris. Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the western noir stars Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as a grifter who attempts to prey on Pastor Byron Brown (Sir Ben Kingsley), who turns out to be far more dangerous than he suspects.

Having loved Patriot, which ran for two seasons on Amazon, production designer Laura Fox was familiar with writer/director Conrad’s “visual vibe,” which also flows through Perpetual Grace. “The similarity is he’s got an artistic style. It’s not hardcore realism,” she explains. “Our show is really a stew of film noir, western and timelessness. And, of course, the vistas of Santa Fe help define it. It has an interesting graphic quality we try to achieve with some shots. There’s some camerawork that’s visually striking.”

Just as he did with the spy genre in Patriot, Conrad has disrupted traditional ideas of the western genre in Perpetual Grace, which was commissioned by US cable channel Epix. Fox’s tasks included creating a saloon bar at the centre of the show’s location that mixes modern design with the traditional cowboys who frequent it. Similarly, officers from the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency drive modern trucks, while other characters have vintage cars. “So there’s a timelessness to it that disrupts the genre. It all works together in our world but there’s nowhere you’d see it exactly like that in an old western or in a modern setting,” says Fox, whose credits include films Alex Cross and 500 Days of Summer.

Filmed on studio sets, the interiors of the titular mansion in Sanditon were inspired by Bond movie Thunderball

As ever, Fox’s work begins with the scripts, the characters and speaking to the creators and directors, before working out how to use the main shooting locations. “It started with Steve and we all collaborated around his big vision and then brought new ideas to him and let it build from there,” she says. “We were talking to each other and making sure we were all living in the same world and not deviating too much.”

When a deserted prison didn’t match the look of the show, Fox transformed an old stable into the show’s jail. She also built elements of a NASA test site, a barber shop and a funeral home. “We were always trying to push the edge out of reality,” she says of the MGM-produced series. “You knew where you were but you hadn’t seen it before. It’s constantly that struggle between what is in Santa Fe and what we can push to fit our show.

“Every job I do, they start by saying, ‘We’re not going to build anything,’ and then you always end up building a lot of stuff. But it felt to me less like we couldn’t find it [the right location] and more like it needed to be from another world. I don’t think what we built exists.”

For ITV period drama Sanditon (pictured top), production designer Grant Montgomery built an entire town. Produced by Red Planet Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the series was inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies (War & Peace). It tells the story of a developing Regency seaside town at the forefront of the great social and economic changes of the age.

Grant Montgomery

Production took place across 21 weeks, with filming largely based at The Bottleyard Studios in Bristol, England, where Montgomery oversaw a massive building project to create a slice of 1819 England. “The challenge was to create a seaside resort that pretty well doesn’t really exist,” he says. “We went down to [English coastal town] Lyme Regis but we couldn’t shut it down over the summer. That wasn’t going to work. We then decided that the best way forward was to build it, and I took my inspiration from Boardwalk Empire in the sense of how to stitch it together so it looked like it was next to the sea, which it’s not because it’s built in a car park in Bristol.”

Montgomery highlights one of the opening shots of the series, filmed using a drone, that reveals an overhead view of the town opening out on to a beach and the sea beyond. It was created by matching footage from the set with a beach the production team found. Green-screen technology was used to create the impression streets from the set led out to the sand.

The quarter-of-a-mile-long set also doubled for London, meaning it could be redressed to present different locations, while the design allowed for different camera angles to make the lot seem larger than it actually was.

Some exteriors were filmed on location, with 17th century mansion Dyrham Park doubling for Sanditon House, while all interiors were filmed on studio sets, owing to the fact that period properties owned by heritage charity the National Trust restrict the use of candles. It was here that Montgomery really pushed the boundaries of period drama, revealing that the black marble design of the grand house is based on interiors from James Bond movie Thunderball.

“We had a very tight schedule because we had a delivery day, so everything was set in stone. We built all the sets in 10 weeks – that’s a mountain to climb – but we tried to push it as much as we possibly could so it didn’t become pastel-coloured,” Montgomery says, adding that 35 Jane Austen ‘Easter eggs’ have been placed around the set for avid fans of the novelist to identify. “I had the Jane Austen Society there. They got them but some of them are pretty obscure jokes.”

In longform TV, Montgomery argues half the attraction for viewers is the chance to spend time with characters in another world. “They want to explore it with you and the more time that’s given to it, the better it becomes,” he says. “That’s part of the richness of TV drama.”

The Handmaid’s Tale takes its lead from Margaret Atwood’s book

By common agreement, Davies has played fast and loose with Austen’s novel to create a sexed-up period drama that is accentuated by Montgomery’s design. But when it comes to books and films that have a particularly strong sense of style, adaptations tend to be more faithful.

Elisabeth Williams has worked on two such projects, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, both of which are produced by MGM. With both shows’ source material having already defined the look of the unique worlds in which they take place, did Williams have any room left to create something fresh?

“There has to be a certain respect for the original material, because these shows are basically an homage to both Margaret Atwood’s book and the Coen Brothers’ original film,” Williams says of working on seasons two and three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and season three of FX’s Fargo, respectively. “If you steer far from it, you’re doing something wrong and that’s not the intention. So there’s definitely a desire to stay as close to the original as possible but also to add your own touch.

“For The Handmaid’s Tale in season three, I had the chance to pull away from what had been done in seasons one and two and make the world a little more my own. In Fargo, each season is set in a different time period so the style automatically changes, but still respects the Coen Brothers’ style. That’s the whole point.”

Williams describes her role as translating the showrunner’s vision into something visible, while adding her own style to create a sense of the location and even the characters’ personalities. On Fargo, she takes her lead from showrunner Noah Hawley, who for each season writes a 100-page series bible from which each head of department can work.

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley writes a 100-page series bible ahead of each season

“So I was able to start some research and begin imagining the sets before I even got the scripts,” says Williams of the Calgary-based show. “All of the decisions are made with Noah, so for the first two months of prep it was just the two of us. We did a lot of it by phone; we would send each other some pictures and some images and I was able to come up with the look of the show.”

In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is filmed in Toronto, is more collaborative, with showrunner Bruce Miller spending a greater proportion of his time in the writers room. “What he says is, ‘I hire you guys because you’re best at what you do. I’m not going to tell you what to do.’ So it’s wonderful,” Williams says of working on the dystopian drama. “I was on my own at the beginning but I know what the style of the show is, so it’s not like I can stray that far. But it’s always the same process: it’s the script, research, concept boards, mood boards, looking for locations and then off we go.”

Season three featured a two-storey home belonging to Commander Lawrence (played by The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford). “We wanted to build one house so the actors and camera could move freely from one floor to the other,” Williams recalls. But since studio space is at such a premium in Toronto, owing to the sheer number of productions shot there, the crew wasn’t able to find a space big enough and was forced to split the set in half, with the ground floor and first floor side by side in the same studio.

While the process behind production design may have not changed dramatically in recent years, Williams believes the pace at which they need to work is increasing. “I feel like what we deliver are feature-quality TV shows, but the time you have to prep a feature is the same as the time you have to prep 13 episodes of TV,” she explains. “The scripts trickle in so it’s extremely demanding, in terms of time management, to deliver quality. TV is no longer TV the way we knew it 10 or 15 years ago. The quality is higher.”

Meanwhile, Hobbs says the key challenge for designers is to be clever with the way scripts are visualised and to avoid being derivative. “Scandinavian noir was a thing that kept swimming around and everyone just thought, ‘Well, if we do a Scandi noir visual style, that’ll be cool.’ But I found that really annoying,” he says. “Ultimately, you can keep doing great work as long as you think freshly about the material. Don’t look to other TV shows or movies. You can be inspired by them but not copy them. That’s the challenge, because we’re all watching so much stuff now. Ultimately, it’s got to come from the story and the words on the page.”

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Grace period

Co-showrunners Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris tell DQ how they plan to disrupt the traditions of crime noir in Perpetual Grace, Ltd, a 10-part series from US cable network Epix and MGM Television.

At first glance, Amazon Prime Video series Patriot has all the traditional hallmarks of a spy drama, and yet it’s so much more than that. Darkly comic, dreamy and melancholic, with more than a splash of folk music, it stands out by the way it stretches the conventions of the genre.

Steve Conrad

Now showrunner Steve Conrad is taking the same approach to crime noir with his new series Perpetual Grace, Ltd. Created with co-showrunner Bruce Terris, who also worked on Patriot, it’s a show that promises a big personality, from the themes at the heart of the story to the vivid characters and even the western aesthetics of its shooting location in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“If you picture what we do on Patriot, which is take the infrastructure of the spy genre and ask it to hold up a bunch of different fascinations, we do that with Perpetual Grace with noir,” Conrad says. “The characters are never one-dimensional. They want the pot of gold at the end of this thing, but they also desperately want the same thing as everybody else on Earth, which is peace and dignity. That’s just as important to the appetite of our characters as ill-gotten gains.

“So there will be those similarities with Patriot where the world is wide and we try to be splendid and to make a show that you’ll watch and like, but that’s not simple-minded.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd (formerly called Our Lady, Ltd) tells the story of James, a young grifter who attempts to prey upon Pastor Byron Brown, who turns out to be far more dangerous than he anticipated.

James, a disgraced firefighter played by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson, seizes a chance to reverse his life’s worsening course. But when his plan veers dangerously off track, James must call on strength and fortitude he did not know he possessed in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Pastor Byron (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) and his wife Lilian (Jacki Weaver), known to their parishioners as Ma and Pa, have used religion to bilk hundreds of innocent men and women out of their life savings. Ma, who appears at first glance to be a modest, dutiful church lady, is Pa’s willing accomplice and his counterpart in regard to potency and cruelty.

Commissioned by US premium cable channel Epix and produced by MGM Television, the series launched on Sunday. MGM is also distributing internationally.

Patriot and Perpetual Grace, Ltd both originated around the same time. Terris had been an assistant director, then a producer and a writer on Patriot and during some down time while they were trying to get that show off the ground, Terris brought the idea of Perpetual Grace, Ltd to Conrad.

Perpetual Grace, Ltd pits Jimmi Simpson (right) against Ben Kingsley

The roots of the series can be found in Terris’s desire to write a drama about identity, but not just a thriller about a case of stolen identity. “The central tension of those dramas is almost always really good surface tension but I thought that a deeper tension might be what’s underneath,” he explains. “In that way, it’s this idea that if James is someone who tries to escape problems by assuming the identity of someone else, you better make sure that person is not in worse trouble than you are. That’s the central hub of the idea that I brought to Steve. Then we just took it from there.”

James is a character who has had a run of bad luck and made some bad decisions, but still clings to the hope that he can turn his life around. But he then makes another bad decision in an attempt to fix things.

“We’re studying how out of desperation, and only facing the most desperate odds, you can actually hope to save yourself. It might become survival,” Conrad explains. “So James finds himself outmatched by the power of a man he thought was powerless, and he made a terrible mistake when he picked Byron Brown to prey on. Now he finds himself in the middle of a heavyweight fight he hadn’t prepared for, but he can’t leave the ring.

“Jimmi Simpson is just a guy with that light in his eye that I’ve been hoping to work with for a long time. The way he delivers human beings, they’re complicated but they have a simple-mindedness of purpose which is to get over and find safety somehow. He’s instantly likeable but also somehow a tremendously nuanced actor. He’s going to fit right into the way Bruce and I convey this fictional world.”

Opposite Simpson is Kingsley, who has played Ghandi, ferocious Sexy Beast gangster Don Logan and every character in between during his storied screen career. “There’s no safer bet than Sir Ben in terms of the way we are going to throw everything that humans are capable of into the course of this guy’s story,” Conrad continues. “He’s going to say and do almost everything humans say and do when they’re desperate.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd also follows Patriot’s lead in its use of supporting characters. “Everyone gets heavy lifting in this show and they’re all material to the unravelling of the plot,” Conrad notes. “These characters find themselves having to depend on each other just to survive.”

The show launched on Epix at the weekend

Terris continues: “Coming up as a writer, Steve really mentored me, and one of the things I noticed in all of his scripts was there truly were no throwaway characters. That waiter or waitress had a story. The finest drama you can construct is one where you explore all their stories and you learn about everyone. The person you think is going to be an ‘extra’ becomes a fully fledged participant in the drama that unfolds.”

Conrad and Terris opened their writing room by first figuring out how they wanted the story to end. Once that was decided, they simply watched movies for a couple of months, making a staff writer position on the show the latest entrant for ‘best job in the world.’

“The first week is fun and then you get to the second week and you think, ‘Are we really just wasting time?’” Conrad admits. “But then we open the room and we have four writers and an assistant, and all we do is sit in a room and talk about how to most intricately and expertly convey this story in relation to films that have done this before.”

For example, Conrad talks about the moment in Al Pacino’s 1975 bank heist film Dog Day Afternoon where viewers know the robbery is going to fail, but what makes them continue to watch? Similarly, what makes viewers sit up and pay attention during high-stakes moments in 1998 crime thriller A Simple Plan?

“That sounds boring but we did this theoretical engineering of plot for months and months,” he continues. “Then we’re left with very little time to write the scripts because it’s time to turn them in, so we just write all day and night.”

Even at the moment DQ speaks to Conrad and Terris last October [2018], they are spending their days location scouting in Santa Fe before returning to their rental house to continue writing. Despite having a writers room, only they have written the scripts. “But the story’s figured out. You don’t have the blank page and you don’t bang your head on the desk,” he adds. “You just have to write it.”

L-R: Ben Kingsley as Pastor Byron Brown, Jackie Weaver as Lillian and Jimmi Simpson as James

As showrunning partners, Conrad and Terris will each write pages and then swap them for revisions, ensuring responsibilities are split equally. Terris has been on location scouts, while Conrad also picks up directing duties, helming six of the 10 episodes.

“We’re blessed in the sense that I was Steve’s first AD for many years so we had a long working relationship before we started writing together,” Terris says. “That really helps. It wasn’t like two guys who didn’t know each other very well being thrust together in this situation. We actually know each other very well.”

It’s more common for writers to become directors, rather than the other way around. Terris has found himself having to stop worrying about budgets and deadlines in order to focus on the story. “So I will instantly think, ‘You can’t write a scene on a train because nobody will let you shoot on a train.’ And Steve will have to remind me that I’m not the AD, I’m a writer – and if a scene demands that it’s set on a train, you write it,” he says. “And then later on you might have to cancel it. So it’s been hard to drop the baggage from the other side of production and let my creativity flow.”

Behind the camera, Conrad must balance the demands of multiple genres, blending camera angles that create suspense with sweeping vistas associated with westerns and the show’s Santa Fe setting.

“The challenge is making something that can cast a spell on an audience,” Terris says. “That’s just a function of making all the right decisions. You have to pick the right locations, you have to pick the right cast, then you have to work too hard and then you have to cross your fingers in editing that it all comes together.”

Then there’s the fact that Perpetual Grace, Ltd will arrive in a television landscape filled with more than 500 series in the US alone. But Conrad is unconcerned by the competition. “We’re going to try to make something very, very good. If you can accomplish that goal then there is something distinctive about that show,” he says.

Terris, in his first showrunning role, is “totally psyched” about the job. “This is a thrill for me,” he adds. “When you’re in the 11th hour or 12th hour of shooting and you’ve got one more scene and you’re exhausted, the trick is you must gather the energy to go and be excellent, and not just throw that last scene together. Demand excellence. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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