Tag Archives: Phoebe Waller Bridge

Killing it

As US espionage thriller Killing Eve lands in the UK, DQ hears from lead writer and executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge about refreshing the genre, infusing drama with comedy and the joy of writing.

“She’s utterly unique,” actor Fiona Shaw says of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (pictured above), the actor and writer behind British comedy drama Fleabag and US spy thriller Killing Eve. “It’s fantastic to have someone who is a master of language writing television. It’s wonderful – not just a master of narrative or a master of seeing things, but a master of words. It’s just great fun to read [her scripts] and be allowed to play it.”

Cue an act of faux embarrassment and modesty from Waller-Bridge, as Shaw, who stars in Killing Eve as MI6 head Carolyn Martens, talks about the writer while sitting beside her at a Bafta screening of the British-made US drama, which launched in April this year on BBC America but has now travelled back across the Atlantic to BBC1, where it debuts this Saturday. The full six-episode boxset will be released on BBC VoD service iPlayer immediately after the first episode has aired.

Waller-Bridge should be used to receiving plaudits after her award-winning adaptation of her own stage play, Fleabag, saw her become one of the most in-demand talents in the UK. But it was Sally Woodward Gentle who, after much persistence, managed to secure the writer to adapt Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas for television as Killing Eve.

The series, which is now filming its second season, follows Eve (Emmy-nominated Sandra Oh), a bored, whip-smart MI5 security officer whose desk job doesn’t fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. Her life changes, however, when she enters into an epic game of cat and mouse with Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. The series sees them go head-to-head in a chase across Europe that is in equal parts funny, smart and action-packed.

Killing Eve stars Jodie Comer (left) and Sandra Oh take a break from filming

Sid Gentle Films produces, with Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Lee Morris executive producing. Endeavor Content distributes the series internationally, with other buyers including HBO Europe, Israel’s Hot and TVNZ in New Zealand.

In her own words, Waller-Bridge discusses the challenge of refreshing the spy genre, infusing drama with her own brand of comedy and the joy of writing.

Comedy isn’t just about telling jokes but about presenting characters in unexpected situations…
My role in life as well as in writing is to never let it get too heavy. I think people fall in love with characters who make them laugh, and comedy is such a huge part of surprising people. I always want to be surprised and a joke always surprises me, especially in a murderous drama.

The writer was forced to be creative when coming up with insults, with Eve calling MI5 boss Frank Haleton (Darren Boyd) a ‘dickswab’…
I was thinking really hard about what to call Darren Boyd. You write those things because you’re not allowed to say really rude words. BBC America said, ‘Unfortunately you can’t say that,’ but that forces you to be more creative sometimes, and ‘dickswab’ was that. I looked it up and it turns out someone’s name is Dick Swab.

Sandra Oh was destined to play Eve and nothing would stop Waller-Bridge from getting the Grey’s Anatomy star…
Sally [Woodward Gentle] heard from her agent several times that Sandra wasn’t available and I looked at Sally and said, ‘I’m just going to do it one more time.’ It was an operation. I wrote a long email about why it had to be Sandra, and from the moment she came into our imaginations as Eve, it couldn’t be anybody else.
Then we had a Skype call, which was really strange because the moment we pressed video on Skype, we were wearing exactly the same outfit. So it was like, ‘This is happening.’

Comer (Doctor Foster) plays assassin Villanelle

The series’ heightened take on the spy genre comes more from who Villanelle is than Waller-Bridge’s desire to play with the rules…
It was more about what’s inside Villanelle, that she’s designing her own life. She’d be like, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m riding a motorbike.’ It’s not about looking at Villanelle being cool, it’s about her feeling cool and that’s what’s feeding her, or feeling like she’s living the life she wants to live.
She can have sex with anyone she wants and she does; she can have a motorbike and she’ll eat a tiny sandwich on a hillside because she can. She’s kind of in the ‘Villanelle’ movie of her life. She’s not entirely sure who she is and she’s constantly trying to play different people, but without insecurity, which I think is what’s fun about her. She goes, ‘I’m going to climb a drainpipe in a weird see-through blouse,’ not because that makes the show sexy but because Villanelle says, ‘That’s what I’m going to do and nobody’s going to stop me.’ It was mainly through her playing around. She cracks herself up.

But taking on such well-trodden ground as the espionage thriller meant the writer wasn’t afraid to freshen things up…
When I’m trying to write something, there’s a time when I feel like I want to see something, and it comes out as, ‘I want to see Fiona Shaw do that.’ It can be as simple as that – to have these amazing actors do or say something surprisingly funny. It keeps coming back to doing something surprising.
So many of the tropes work and parts of the genre fit together so well for a reason, because they work and they fell good. So it’s not that you completely discard them, it’s about how you freshen them up to feel surprising again.

The source material offered the chance to create a series with two lead characters…
Luke Jennings introduced these characters and their world so vividly that you’ve got two shows in one. You’ve got the office drama with Eve, the accessible character who you think you know, and then all these details come out and you reveal this everywoman to be something more extraordinary.
On the flip side, you have this extraordinary woman [Villanelle] who you’re slowly revealing has a need to be normal, and that feels like two stories that would otherwise have been separate. Suddenly you have two heroines and two villains at the same time.

Oh’s Eve is an MI5 officer who has become bored of her desk job

The series generated a lot of buzz in the US for its LGBT representation, though Waller-Bridge says this was part of the creative process and not a political point…
It’s purely from character point of view – the idea that these two women just became obsessed with each other in every possible way. That was exciting, new, nuanced and real. It was a different kind of passion and it just felt very natural to the characters. The moment Eve knows Villanelle exists, a switch is turned on in her that hasn’t been turned on before. The first time they meet is the moment they fall in love, and that was a very natural, normal story point for us. They’re just women who adore each other, who are attracted to each other. There’s a sexual power play between the two that isn’t for anyone else, it’s just for them. It’s all about what happens between these two and how it effects them.

Waller-Bridge says the joy in writing Killing Eve was the faith shown in her to do it in the first place, and the freedom she was given to write the story she wanted to tell…
When I’d written Fleabag as a play, it was a monologue and it was ostensibly a comedy but then Sally came along and said, ‘Espionage thriller – go!’ [The joy is] that moment when you go, ‘Yeah alright, fuck it, I’ll try that.’ That moment of faith and ‘please break the rules’ coming from the very beginning – and then the challenge is to break the rules. It wasn’t like I was working within parameters, and BBC America was behind that as well.
The real joy comes when you’ve cast it and you’re starting to see these characters come to life. You get the rushes, you see what they’ve filmed that day, you’re on set and see the actors fill in the cracks and then you’re just like, ‘They’re not just in our heads anymore.’
Killing Eve had been in our hearts for so long and then you see the characters walking and talking, and then you get to carry on writing for them and building that relationship. I remember so many plot twists that happened over my kitchen table with Sandra talking about, ‘What if she did this, what if she did that?’ Then you’re completely aligned with everyone like that. It’s the best.

To reach this point in her career, Waller-Bridge found the fun in writing, surrounding herself with people – her “family” – who push and support her.
I went to drama school, left and nothing happened for ages. And in that gap of nothing happening, I met a director called Vicky Jones [The One], who became my best friend, and we just decided we wanted to do stuff for fun on the side of failing as actors and directors.
So we started our theatre company [DryWhite], producing work. And it was stuff we were doing for fun that took on a life of its own. It was Vicky who eventually said, ‘Just write a play,’ and so then I did – that was Fleabag. Then after Fleabag, I said to her, ‘You write a fucking play.’ And that did brilliantly well too.
That has been a huge part for me, finding your people who want to push you and you can push in return and that’s your gift to each other. It’s so lonely, so hard and so competitive comparing yourself to other people. So if you can find people you have fun with, if you crash and burn, you’ve got someone to say, ‘We’re going down together.’ You build your family and start working with the same people again.
I met Jenny Robins, the producer, doing Killing Eve. We bonded and continue to work together. [Director] Harry Bradbear worked on Fleabag and set this show up. Just build your family.

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Killing time

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer engage in a game of cat and mouse in spy thriller Killing Eve, from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. DQ visits the windswept English countryside to see them in action.

Sandra Oh is staring out of the window of a production trailer lodged on an exposed hillside overlooking miles of beautiful English countryside. It’s a typical British autumnal day as grey clouds jostle with blue skies. “Look at this location,” she says while wrapped up amid the blustery conditions. “It’s like the most beautiful, fantastic location. And it’s raining – it’s so romantic.”

More used to the never-ending sunshine enjoyed in LA, it’s here at Ivinghoe Beacon, which stands tall among the Chiltern Hills, that Oh chats to DQ as she prepares to film scenes from BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve.

Oh plays the eponymous Eve, a bored MI5 security officer whose desk job does not fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. When she is tasked with tracking down fearsome Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), working on behalf of a shadowy organisation, the two women are thrown into a cat-and-mouse game set over eight episodes and several stunning European locations, including Tuscany, Berlin, London and Russia.

Based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, the series was created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and star of BBC comedy Fleabag, who is the head writer and executive producer. It is produced by Sid Gentle, with Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris also exec producing and Colin Wratten as producer. Endeavor Content distributes the show, which debuted in the US this month and has already been sold to the BBC in the UK. Other buyers include France’s Canal+, HBO Europe, HOT in Israel and TVNZ in New Zealand.

Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh as Eve

“When we meet her, the surface of her life is that it is a happy and complete one,” Oh says of her character. “But she’s unfulfilled in ways that are mysterious to her. Her relationship with this assassin really awakens something deep in her that she’s willing to sacrifice many things for.”

Later on set, the crew is fully exposed to the elements as firearms experts prepare a number of weapons between takes. One is then handed over to Comer, who runs through a rehearsal before filming a scene from episode four, in which Villanelle, gun raised, approaches a battered and broken 4×4 that has been brought to a stop along a dirt track by what appears to have been a tremendous volley of bullets.

Liverpudlian Comer – who sports a Russian accent in the series – agrees Villanelle is a complicated character. “When you first meet her, she’s mystical in the sense that you don’t really know much about her. She lives in Paris, she has this very luxurious lifestyle but seems to have nobody around her. The only real relationship she has is with Konstantin [her handler, played by The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia]. She very much wants to be in control of every aspect of her life – and when Eve comes into the picture, things start to slip up.”

But is she also a psychopath? “Essentially she is, yes. She kills people. She enjoys it. Killing is like an art to her,” Comer explains. “She really thinks about how she’s going to execute it. She takes on personas to do that, whether it be dressing up as a different person, [speaking a] different language… all these different things she goes at with full speed. She’s not to be trusted but I think she’s very likeable, in a weird way. I hope she is, anyway.”

Comer has risen to fame on the back of starring roles in BBC dramas Thirteen and Doctor Foster. And after heading the cast of Starz period drama The White Princess, the actor was looking for something more contemporary when Killing Eve came along. “Phoebe’s script was probably the only one that came through and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” she recalls. “You get scripts that you love but this was so much fun to read on the page. Also, [I had to take] the chance to work with Phoebe, because I loved Fleabag and I thought with episode one, where is this story going to go?

Oh comes up against Jodie Comer’s Villanelle

“As for Villanelle as a character, I feel like assassins can be so one-dimensional and unrelatable. They can be very cold. But I felt that people would relate to her in some way. It’s quite original what Phoebe has done – going from quite a dark moment to laughter is the perfect balance.”

The role also afforded Comer the chance to do some stunts. “But I’m so uncoordinated,” she admits. “There will be a close-up of me flicking a knife and I’m, like, butterfingers, so we have to do it eight times. I’m so bad at this. But it’s fun and it’s something I’ve never done before.”

However, the actor adds: “Villanelle gets so close to the people she kills that not an awful lot of it is super physical. It’s very interesting how she gets so close to these people and how comfortable people feel around her. She can so easily be the girl next door. She can do all these different things and I think that’s what she enjoys the most.”

By contrast, what makes Eve stand out is that when she enters the spy game, she doesn’t suddenly know her way around a machine gun or become an expert at going undercover. “She’s not being an idiot, but everything is new,” Oh says. “She’s just a middle-aged lady who works at MI5 and makes sure everyone’s security is in order. There’s a difference between someone who picks up a gun that is believable and someone who is really picking up a gun for the first time.

“I remember one time I was going to do a movie where I had to shoot a big gun. I went into training and I looked at myself and thought, ‘I just look like a middle-aged Korean lady holding a big gun. This is not believable.’ I feel like in a lot of shows and movies, people seem to know how to do shit and that’s just not true.”

Killing Eve launched in the US last weekend

Sid Gentle had picked up the Villanelle novellas for adaptation when founder Woodward Gentle first met with Waller-Bridge. The latter was then still relatively unknown, as Fleabag, based on her play of the same name, had yet to air. “I’d read the play and I just loved the idea of putting her voice with that material,” Woodward Gentle says. “She really liked [the Villanelle IP] as well and was really excited by it. We actually developed it for another broadcaster, but BBC America took the script away and completely loved it even before Fleabag had gone out, so they totally got the tone and the ambition of it and weren’t just jumping on the Fleabag bandwagon. When it was greenlit, they asked if there could be one American character, so at least there would be some access point for an American audience.”

Eve was cast first, with the producers seeking a 40-something American to play the part. Canadian-born Oh, whose parents are Korean, fitted the bill. “She’s an extraordinary, serious, compelling, compassionate actor,” Woodward Gentle says. “You also believe her to be married to a Brit and to have been here [in the UK] for a while.”

For Villanelle, “we didn’t want a kick-ass sexy female,” she continues. “We wanted somebody who feels real, who feels like you could sit next to her on the Tube and she would just mix in. She needs to be a chameleon.

“Jodie’s an extraordinary actress. She chemistry-read with Sandra and that was amazing. She can have many different looks, she’s got amazing intensity and she’s also really naughty and spontaneous, so that worked well.”

Oh says she was drawn to the project by the mixture of wit and drama in Waller-Bridge’s scripts – and early trailers for the series suggest there will be large doses of humour throughout the drama.

“I thought it was unique and I really hope that’s what comes across,” says the actor, best known for her long-running role in US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. “The English do dark detective series very well but it’s not just that, and it’s not just a character piece or thriller piece. It’s unique and it absolutely has to do with Phoebe’s voice as a writer and her choices.

“I really appreciate the way the show handles its wit specifically to each character. It’s not just like everyone’s funny – I can’t stand that, when everyone has the same type of humour. That’s just not true in life.”

The show’s comedic elements are never cartoony, however, with Woodward Gentle highlighting the production team’s extensive research aimed at bringing realism to the scripts and the world in which the series is set. “We’ve done a lot of research into who this organisation [that controls Villanelle] could be, who they might be killing off and what their ultimate ends might be,” she says.

“As you go further on with the show, you realise they’re actually mad and their scheme is quite terrifying, but that won’t get revealed until we’re into later seasons. We’re trying to ground it as much as we possibly can – it’s not James Bond, it should feel more grounded than that. But there is this black wit that you get in real life anyway.”

For Oh, meanwhile, the chance to lead a series has been a “30-year wait” – but she believes there is still plenty to be done to increase diversity in the industry. “You have a face like mine who is the face of the show and it’s two lead women, it’s produced and created by a woman. But I still feel there’s a lot of work for us to do to encourage women and actors of colour and crew of colour both in front of and behind the camera.”

“When was the last time you saw an Asian woman as the lead of a show? It’s very important to me and that is not lost on me at all. Having said that, it is 30 years in the making. But I’m happy to be here to do it.”

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Creative heavyweights step up development

 

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

Fox in the US is developing a drama based on the 2015 Netflix movie Parallels.

Entitled The Building, it centres on a group of people who enter a skyscraper that transports them into parallel universes, which are similar to but not quite the same as our own. In one, for example, Russia has dropped a nuclear bomb on the US.

The idea is being adapted for TV by Neil Gaiman and Chris Leone (the latter wrote and directed the movie). Albert Kim, whose writing and production credits include Sleepy Hollow and Nikita, is the showrunner. The project caps off a busy year for Gaiman, who has also been adapting his novel American Gods for Starz.

Also in the news this week is Alan Ball, creator of HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball is reported to be teaming up with HBO again on a series that will star Holly Hunter as the mother of a non-traditional progressive family.

According to Deadline: “Once a therapist in private practice, Hunter’s Audrey now reluctantly utilises her skills as a psychologist in the corporate world, balancing her more progressive personal philosophy with the need to make money. She is a smart, caring woman who believes she knows what’s best for everyone and has no problem telling them. But with her husband now fighting depression and her children mostly grown, she finds herself somewhat adrift.”

Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter

Other high-profile stories this week include the news that Sonar Entertainment has signed a first look deal with Robert Downey Jr and Susan Downey’s production outfit Team Downey. As part of the deal, Sonar and Team Downey are working on a project called Singularity. Also involved in the creation of the series is Anthony Michael Hall, who will star.

The deal is the latest link-up between Sonar and star talent. The company is also working with George Clooney and Tom Hardy, with the latter starring in upcoming period series Taboo.

Commenting on the new deal with Team Downey, Sonar CEO Thomas Lesinski said: “We are excited about Team Downey’s vision for developing and producing a broad scope of original premium content. [This] is another example of our commitment to forge creative collaborations with the most dynamic talent in the industry.”

In terms of commissioning news, US network NBC has renewed its military medical drama The Night Shift for a fourth season. The series, produced by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), follows the medical team at the fictional San Antonio Memorial Hospital. Season one of the show averaged around 6.5 million viewers, followed by 5.3 million for season two and five million for season three.

Night Shift
The Night Shift has been given a third season

At Fox, meanwhile, there are reports of a new dance drama being developed with director McG, who began his career in the music industry. The project, which sounds little bit like the Channing Tatum movie Step Up, is called The Cut and is set in a dance conservatory. It’s the latest in a line of Fox scripted projects with a musical theme – possibly inspired by the success of Empire. For example, Empire creator Lee Daniels has been working on a series called Star for the network, while last week we reported that Glee star Darren Criss was working with Fox on Royalties.

Also this week, it was announced that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of BBC3’s Fleabag, is to write and star in a spy drama for BBC America. The network has ordered eight episodes of Killing Eve, a thriller about a psychopathic assassin and the woman hunting her. The show is based on a novella by Luke Jennings called Villanelle.

“[The show] is a brilliantly fresh take on the cat-and-mouse thriller from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a major talent,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “Underneath the deceptively simple and entertaining surface is a subversive, funny, obsessive relationship between two women, that plays out across some of the most and least glamorous locations imaginable.”

Bull
First-window rights to Bull in the UK have been taken by Fox Networks Group

It’s also been a busy week on the distribution front. Fox Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Asia, for example, has secured exclusive first-window rights to CBS legal drama Bull in the UK from CBS Studios International. This follows a previous deal that gave FNG rights to Bull in markets including Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Sweden.

Elsewhere, SPT has sold the much-anticipated new ITV period drama The Halcyon to broadcasters in Scandinavia, while Vimeo has continued its move into longform TV content. Among scripted titles that will now be available on its platform are All3Media International comedy Fresh Meat and seven seasons of Company Pictures’ cult youth series Skins, available globally excluding Australia.

Paul Corney, senior VP of global digital sales at All3Media International, commented: “Vimeo has a strong presence around the world with a great brand that reaches consumers in all key markets. Its team has a dynamic outlook on content delivery and we’re looking forward to working with them to bring more fantastic new shows to the Vimeo audience.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag

In terms of new book rights deals, the big story this week is that BBC Worldwide-based indie producer Baby Cow has acquired the rights to Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith has been lined up to adapt the novel for TV alongside her husband Nick Laird.

Swing Time is Baby Cow’s first major acquisition since Christine Langan, ex-head of BBC Films, took over as CEO this month. She said: “Zadie Smith is the voice of a generation and Swing Time is a thrillingly ambitious story of friendship, rivalry and fame.”

Smith added: “I am absolutely delighted at the prospect of working with Baby Cow on an adaptation of Swing Time. Their extraordinary track record in both drama and comedy I have always admired from afar and it’s a thrill for me to get the chance to collaborate with [founder] Steve Coogan and Christine Langan.”

Smith burst onto the literary scene with her first novel White Teeth. Swing Time, only released this week, is her fifth novel.

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