Tag Archives: Peter Kosminsky

A cautionary tale

Bafta-winning writer and director Peter Kosminsky joins the cast of his latest miniseries, The State, to discuss the show, which tells the story of four Britons who leave their UK lives behind to join so-called Islamic State in Syria.

When HBO revealed that the next project from Game of Thrones showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff would be an alternative-history drama about slavery continuing into the modern US, the backlash was swift.

While July’s announcement of Confederate came at a time of heightened political and racial tensions in the country, events in Charlottesville and their aftermath in the past week have taken the situation to boiling point, forcing the US premium cable network to defend its plans for the show, describing accusations of irresponsibility as “simply undeserved.”

Peter Kosminsky

From the outset, one of the chief concerns about the series was how a story in which the South successfully seceded during the Civil War would be dealt with by two white writers. The presence of fellow writers and executive producers Nichelle Tramble and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, has allowed Weiss and Benioff to assure commentators it would not be a series centred on whips and plantations.

But it boils down to the question of whether somebody can, or should, tell the story of a race or culture they are not themselves a part of. That same question was posed to Peter Kosminsky, the Bafta-winning director of Wolf Hall, when he was asked why the story of four non-white British Muslims who join Islamic State (IS) was one he – a white filmmaker – felt qualified to tell.

Responding at a screening of the drama, four-part miniseries The State, he described himself as a generalist who moves from subject to subject while briefly becoming an expert on each one.

“Prior to doing this, I became moderately expert on Henry VIII [for Wolf Hall] and what was going on in Tudor England,” he explained. “Prior to that, it was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [for The Promise]. I believe there’s room for a whole choir of different voices on these issues and, for better or for worse, I’m lucky enough to have access to the airwaves.

“Television is a very serious matter; it’s fine that some of it’s escapist, but primarily it’s a powerful tool and we should use it responsibly. If the only people who could make these kinds of shows were people who were themselves immersed in the story, first of all it’s hard to bring objectivity, and what do they do next? So there is a role still in programmes that are rooted in reality and research for the generalist. I’m not saying it’s the only way to make these programmes, but I do think it’s a legitimate way.”

The State follows four characters who head for Syria for different reasons

Produced by Archery Pictures and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution, The State follows best friends Jalal and Ziyad, student Ushna and mother and nurse Shakira (with her nine-year-old son Isaac in tow) who have left their UK lives behind to join IS in Raqqah, Syria.

Initially exuberant at what awaits them in the caliphate, their journeys soon diverge as their motivations for joining clash with the reality of day-to-day life.

Describing his own motivation for making a drama that has already courted controversy, Kosminsky says he saw a space for a series that starts on the border and uncovers what happens to Britons when they join IS. For 18 months, he worked with a research team to find real-life testimonies on the conditions in Syria, and two years after he first began work, the series is due to premiere on Channel 4 this Sunday. It will air in the US on National Geographic in September.

Kosminksy admits it is an uncomfortable watch, as his intentions were to humanise the characters to ensure The State acts as a “cautionary tale.”

“I don’t think we do any service to the people who have suffered at the hands of IS to pretend the people who go over there are all clinically insane,” he says. “It’s easy and comfortable to think that, but unfortunately it’s not true. They seem to come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, all different levels of academic attainment. The one common factor seems to be a shallowness of their connection to their faith.

Peter Kosminsky hopes the series will serve as a cautionary tale

“These people are either converts to Islam, or Muslims who have only been born again relatively recently. From the research, it seems the deeper your faith, knowledge and understanding of Islam, the less likely you are to travel. So the first thing was to make characters who are real, faithful to the research and didn’t allow us the easy out of thinking these people are all mad. The second thing – I’ll be quite open about it – is this is meant to be a cautionary tale. The main characters’ attitudes change. I didn’t think it would act as a cautionary tale if you couldn’t associate with the characters.”

As such, Kosminsky is acutely aware of why Muslims might be upset with the show, and admits that concerns over Islamophobia were at the forefront of his mind during the production process.

“A dramatist’s job is to hold a mirror up to society and, given the fact thousands of Brits decided to go over there [to Syria] and now that issue is spilling back onto our streets in London and Manchester and in some European cities and capitals, I think this is an issue we need to address,” he says.

Breaking down the first episode, Kosminsky says it leans on research that suggests one of the driving factors behind people going to Syria is a sense of exclusion at home and the promise of brotherhood and sisterhood when they arrive.

“Episode one ends with almost a sense of euphoria among a band of brothers and sisters,” Kosminsky says. “It’s misplaced with a sense of purity, of having found a safe place. If we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have faithfully reflected the research. The next three episodes are spent unpicking that view and I think you see at the end that it isn’t the main characters’ faith that departs, it’s their belief in the caliphate that departs – and that’s the key part. If this film in some ways suggested the characters rejected their faith as a result of rejecting Islamic State, that would be not realistic and would be quite destructive.”

Extensive research was involved in developing the characters and their motivations

The main cast members – Shavani Cameron (Ushna), Sam Otto (Jalal), Ony Uhiara (Shakira) and Ryan McKen (Ziyad) – admit to feeling a sense of responsibility when they took on their roles.

Otto, whose character heads to Syria in the footsteps of his brother who was killed in combat, says it was important to understand where these people are coming from. “It was a real challenge to get into the mind of somebody who’s decided to up ship and go to Syria,” he says, adding that he spoke to a cab driver who knew people who had joined IS. “He said these people don’t have a deep understanding of their faith. The pious guys wouldn’t go. That was an interesting thing for me to think about.

“This is the most sensitive issue of our time. When I found out I had this part, there was a sense of doing it justice and doing it right because I’m representing groups of people in this really sensitive subject. For Jalal, it’s about duty and honour, which is what some of these guys actually feel.”

The mix of characters was also identified through the show’s research. Kosminsky says certain character types emerged, including siblings of people who had already been to Syria (Jalal), young girls radicalised on the internet (Ushna) and those with skills to offer (nurse Shakira).

Subsequently, Uhiara has several scenes set inside a hospital, and she admits learning lines in Arabic was tough. “It was a fun, difficult challenge,” she says of the series, which was filmed in Spain. “I approached it like learning a song. We broke it down phonetically and, once you get to grasps with the pronunciations of the language, you can move on to find ways to pinpoint what word means what so when you’re playing the scene, you can hear those. Most of my scenes in Arabic were with natural Arabic speakers so it was pressured sometimes and there was a lot of tension. But I love languages so it was a good additional aspect of the job.”

Beth Willis, head of drama at Channel 4, praises Kosminsky for his “passion, dogged determination, his forensic eye for factual detail, coupled with a deep understanding of humanity and of drama.” In fact, she says The State surpasses his previous “jaw-dropping” work.

“This show has reminded me of the power and the importance of drama – to be able to get to those places factual programming sometimes just can’t reach,” Willis adds. “By inviting you to experience this world with these characters from their point of view, we’re offered an insight that goes well beyond the headlines. This is everything a Channel 4 drama should be – bold, thoughtful, compelling and important.”

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Sky enters realms of fantasy

Jasper Fforde novel The Last Dragonslayer
Jasper Fforde novel The Last Dragonslayer

Sky1’s adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer suggests the scripted market is swinging back towards TV movies and miniseries, as Crackle announces a follow-up to The Art of More.

There are reports this week that UK pay TV channel Sky1 has greenlit a TV adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel The Last Dragonslayer.

Set in a world where the power of magic is being eroded by technology, it centres on a teenage girl who finds herself mixed up in a prophecy about the death of the last dragon.

The project is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it underlines the continued interest in fantasy projects – The Magicians, Shannara, Game of Thrones and American Gods being a few others – and secondly, because it is reported to be a two-hour single as opposed to an event or returning series.

A few executives in the drama business are starting to support the idea of shorter-run productions because of the sheer volume of scripted content now on the market. Although the received wisdom is that singles are harder to promote than series and offer fewer long-term return, there’s no real point spending tens of millions of dollars on a series that is going to fail because viewers can’t be bothered investing eight or 10 hours of their lives in it. It will be interesting to see if there is now a renaissance in the TV movie format.

The Hobbit's Martin Freeman stars in Start Up
The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman stars in Start Up

Another of this week’s major scripted TV stories is that Sony-owned on-demand service Crackle has commissioned its second original drama series. Following up on The Art of More, starring Dennis Quaid, Crackle has now greenlit a project called Start Up.

Set in Miami and starring Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock, The Hobbit), Start Up explores what happens when a brilliant but controversial tech idea gets incubated with dirty money. The message seems to be that Crackle is mainly interested in backing high-concept thrillers with proven theatrical talent attached.

There are a couple of stories with a Canadian flavour this week. In the first, Canadian broadcaster Global TV has ordered an original drama after partnering with producer/distributor Entertainment One. Called Mary Kills People, the six-parter has been created and written by Tara Armstrong and is set in the world of assisted suicide. It tells the story of a nurse who helps people with terminal illnesses.

Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson
Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson

The other project is a production partnership between Macmillan Publishers’ in-house film and TV unit and Toronto-based Wildhorse Studios. This one will see the two partners collaborate on a TV adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson. Written in 1957, the book tells the story of Jewish exiles in New York City just after the Second World War and just before the creation of the state of Israel. It was first published in serial form by a Yiddish newspaper called The Forward.

As previous DQ columns have demonstrated, the US TV market offers an almost constant pipeline of new scripted shows. However, this time of year is especially prolific because it is when the major networks greenlight shows from paper to pilot. Like baby turtles heading for the ocean, there will be lots of casualties before we finally see full series being commissioned. But pilot season is a useful indication of the way networks are thinking.

This week, for example, ABC ordered two new legal-themed drama pilot (no real surprise given that one of its biggest hits at present is legally themed show How To Get Away With Murder – congratulations, by the way, to Viola Davis for her latest SAG Awards success). The first of the two pilots is Notorious. Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan, the story follows the relationship between “a charismatic attorney and a powerhouse television producer as they attempt to control the media, the justice system, and ultimately, each other.”

ABC's SAG Awards success How To Get Away With Murder
ABC’s legal drama How To Get Away With Murder brought Viola Davis a SAG Award

The second is the aptly named Conviction, which comes from The Mark Gordon Co, the firm behind ABC political thriller Quantico. This one focuses on the prodigal daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job at LA’s ‘Conviction Integrity Unit.’ Here, her job is to investigate cases where there’s reasonable suspicion the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.

The CW, which is the US market’s fifth broadcast network, has also announced a bunch of new pilots including comic-based project Riverdale, Transylvania and an untitled Mars project. These new projects join a previously announced paranormal drama called Frequency from Kevin Williamson, which is a reboot of the 2000 time travel movie of the same name but with a female lead.

Transylvania continues the trend towards fantasy Victoriana (with examples including Penny Dreadful, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Ripper Street, Dickensian and Jekyll & Hyde). Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of a young woman looking for her missing father who goes to Transylvania and she teams up with a wrongfully disgraced Detective. Once there, the duo encounter the usual suspects.

A second season of Wolf Hall could be two years away as it waits on novelist Hilary Mantel
A second season of Wolf Hall could be two years away as it waits on novelist Hilary Mantel

The Mars project is not actually new, having first been talked about in 2013 when it was called Colony. A reimagining of the 400-year-old Roanoke ‘Lost Colony’ mystery, it follows a team of explorers who arrive on Mars to join the first human colony, only to discover that it has vanished. The show is not the only Mars project in the market, with Syfy currently making Red Mars, based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction series.

In the UK, meanwhile, the Radio Times quotes director Peter Kosminsky saying there will be a second season of Wolf Hall – but it’s not possible yet to say when. According to Kosminsky, nothing can happen until author Hilary Mantel finishes the novel upon which the sequel will be based. Then it needs to be adapted for the screen and slotted into the busy schedules of actors Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. “She [Mantel] has still got at least a year of writing on the novel,” says Kosminsky, “and we have to get it adapted, which will take quite a while because it’s probably going to be quite a thick book. It’s not going to be any time soon I’m afraid. Two years down the road I would think, probably.”

Louis CK's web comedy Horace and Pete
Louis CK’s web comedy Horace and Pete

Usually when we talk about greenlights, it’s six to 12 months before a show actually appears. But US comedian Louis CK surprised us all this week by releasing a new series on his website without any advanced warning. Entitled Horace and Pete, it stars Louis CK, Steve Buscemi and Alan Alda in what is being described as a black comedy version of Cheers. The 67-minutes show revolves around an Irish bar and the people who work there and frequent it.

Given the quality of the talent involved it will be interesting to see how it is received and whether it encourages other creatives to drop surprise series via the internet. (Actually, there is something vaguely similar here to the recent story about JJ Abrams making a Cloverfield sequel without telling anyone.)

Finally, on the distribution front, Australian streaming service Stan has become the exclusive home of Showtime’s brand and programming, echoing a similar deal with Sky in Europe.

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Leader of the pack

BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.

Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”

Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII
Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII

For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.

Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.

“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”

Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.

“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”

Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”

Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity  to 'create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience'
Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity to ‘create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience’

“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”

The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”

Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.

Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.

“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.

Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.

Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.

Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.

They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”

Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen 'mini films'
Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen ‘mini films’

“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”

If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”

Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”

Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.

“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.

“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”

Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance's performance
Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance’s performance

Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”

Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.

“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”

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