Tag Archives: Piers Wenger

Lust for life

Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh tackle complicated matters of the heart in Wanderlust, a bold, stylistically fresh and funny six-part drama for BBC1 and Netflix. The stars, writer Nick Payne and director Luke Snellin reveal why this series stands apart from anything else on TV.

From the start of episode one, there’s something different about Wanderlust. Whether it’s the naturalistic dialogue, offbeat soundtrack, title design or the extremely unsexy sex scene that plays out in the opening few minutes, it has all the hallmarks of a quirky indie movie – not a six-part series commissioned by BBC1.

“It really is a special thing,” says Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama commissioning, of the funny and extremely honest portrayal of one multi-generational family’s attitude to love, sex and relationships. Wenger adds that he’s “proud – and slightly terrified – to say we’ve never seen anything like it before on BBC1.”

Award-winning playwright Nick Payne’s first television series, Wanderlust follows Joy Richards (Toni Collette), a therapist struggling to keep the spark in her marriage to teacher Alan (Steven Mackintosh). As the story progresses, it looks at how people build and maintain relationships and asks whether lifelong monogamy is possible, or even desirable, with Joy and Alan reassessing their relationship amid stories of love, lust and forbidden desire.

“It’s real people grappling with real stuff,” says Mackintosh, noting the show’s lack of heroes or villains. “There’s no high concept here, it’s not heightened in any way. This is an ordinary household, a loving couple who love each other and are grappling with where to go from here. It’s life. For me, it’s completely real.”

Collette agrees Wanderlust is extremely lifelike and reflective of the situation in which many couples find themselves after several years of happy marriage. “But nobody really talks about it,” she continues. “All of the characters are so real and so complex and so warm and likeable, even when they’re messing things up – maybe even more so.”

Toni Collette plays therapist Joy Richards in Wanderlust

The Australian actor, best known for film roles including Little Miss Sunshine and recent horror hit Hereditary, says she knew she wanted to play Joy after “devouring” the scripts. “This was like, I will die if I don’t do it,” she recalls. “The writing is so beautiful and it has so many layers and says so much in a very subtle manner. There were a lot of lovely things to play with. I knew I wanted to do it straightaway.”

Having starred in her first television series, Showtime’s United States of Tara, in 2009, Collette says she is excited by the characters now being written for the small screen and praises Payne’s scripts and the distinctive voice he lends to the drama. “This is pretty much the best writing I’ve ever worked with and one of the best jobs of my entire career,” she says. “I’m a 45-year-old woman and I’m a pig in shit. Even through the rain in Manchester [the city in the North West of England where Wanderlust was filmed] through the winter, it’s still a highlight.”

Mackintosh was no less enthused by the prospect of starring the series, calling the decision a “no-brainer” and revealing that every pause, ‘um’ and ‘err’ on screen were written into the script, rather than being improvisation.

“The humour is fantastic in it, and with Nick’s writing you instantly feel how a scene should be, you feel a sense of the pace,” he says. “I love the meandering sentences that end up gently funny and awkward. That’s what feels completely real and wonderful about the whole thing. It’s incredibly poignant; it’s moving but the humour is always bubbling right below the surface.”

And despite some initial nervousness, neither Mackintosh nor Collette had any reservations about the sex scenes called for in the script. “I think I got quite used to it,” Collette says. “You can’t half-heartedly act that. You have to make it feel real. So I was nervous at first but the more steeped I was in the story, the easier it became.”

The series will air around the world on Netflix (excluding the UK)

Mackintosh (Kiri, The Halcyon) adds: “Often with sex on television, when I watch something, I’m taken out of the story and feel like I’m suddenly watching two actors in a specific scene, rather than two characters. But with this it’s so intrinsically part of it. And the way Nick writes – the awkwardness, the fumbling and the bits in between – it’s really rooted in these people trying to figure things out, and that just feels completely real to me.”

Produced by the team behind Doctor Foster, Wanderlust comes from Drama Republic and is executive produced by Roanna Benn, Jude Liknaitzky and Lucy Richer. Kate Crowther is the producer. BBC Studios is the international distributor, with coproducer Netflix airing the series worldwide outside of the UK.

The show emerged from a play Payne wrote in 2009, which was performed the following year at the Royal Court. He then met Benn and Liknaitzky, who were on the lookout for a TV drama about sex and relationships and enquired whether he would like to adapt his play.

In the transition from stage to screen, Joy became a therapist, a decision that opened the door for the show’s honest portrayal of sex – something that will certainly become a talking point as the series progresses.

Payne met lots of therapists during his research for the show and says they spoke pretty frankly about the subject. “I just thought, ‘Why don’t I give it a go and see if we can do it like that?’” he says. Romantic dramas don’t often dramatise sex, preferring to focus on the build-up and then skipping to the following morning. “I guess I’ve always wondered what happens if you make the sex the driver of the story, so you explore all these romantic lives through all the shagging,” the writer adds.

Like being in therapy, though, this series doesn’t offer all the answers at the beginning. “Joy says at the start [when meeting a new client for the first time], ‘This is going to take years, there are no quick fixes,’” Payne adds. “I’m trying to say to the audience this isn’t going to be a story-of-the-week, it’s going to traverse the whole six hours. I tried to be truthful to the act of therapy but, at the same time, you have to cheat to make a story.”

Wanderlust also stars Steven Mackinstosh (pictured in Kiri)

Behind the camera is director Luke Snellin (The A Word, Our Girl), who matches Payne’s rhythmic dialogue with his own visual style composed of lingering wide shots and extreme close-ups of the actors.

“We set out to do something that felt very different and not for any other reason than the writing felt so unique and interesting, so we just felt we were trying to service that the whole time,” he says. “We’re so used to TV tropes and ways of being given information or ways of consuming stories that it felt like we should try to make a break from that and explore things from a different point of view visually.”

Echoing Mackintosh, Snellin says the pace of the series was inherent in Payne’s scripts. “I read it on my own in my house and I read both episodes in one sitting without stopping. That’s a good sign,” he says. “In TV there are so often moments where characters stop and think about things that don’t feel very real. It’s a show totally rooted in naturalism.”

If there’s one line that could sum up the series, it’s something Joy says in episode one: “We’re very bad at talking about our private lives in public.” It goes someway to explain the awkward situations and meandering sentences Mackintosh acknowledges, and Payne says the line is a direct quote from someone he spoke to during his research.

“For some reason, we struggle. We have a similar struggle with death and grief, I think, to find a language for it, to feel safe and supported with the people close to us to discuss it,” he says. “It’s a shame we struggle but it’s obviously useful for me dramatically because then we get a whole show out of people being repressed.”

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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AMC finds more life in Dead franchise

Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global
Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global

There are only three weeks to go until the launch of Fear the Walking Dead, US cable channel AMC’s LA-based spin-off of its hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead.

Earlier this year, AMC said it had greenlit two series of the new show. This week it added some detail, saying that there will be 15 episodes in the second run, which is scheduled to air during 2016.

Fear The Walking Dead, which launches on August 23, has a special significance for AMC because, unlike The Walking Dead, it will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global, which is available in 125 countries after a rapid international roll-out over the last year.

The Walking Dead started to gain momentum as a franchise before AMC had an international channel to air it on. So internationally most of the branding benefits of the show have gone to Fox channels, which have the international rights.

This time, however, AMC wants to make sure it is the primary beneficiary. To make the most of its relationship with Fear The Walking Dead, it also plans to air the show simultaneously around the world, a move that will drive its social media stats sky-high.

AMC has also announced the launch date for its hotly anticipated martial arts series Into the Badlands. Scheduled to premiere on November 15, this show will also be available internationally on AMC Global. It’s too early to say if Into the Badlands can have the same kind of impact as The Walking Dead, but it is the most ambitious martial arts project to have hit TV screens for some time.

Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November
Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November

“Martial arts is not only a new genre for an AMC series, but also one that has been largely absent from television for 15 years,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming for AMC and SundanceTV. “The team behind Into the Badlands, led by showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, is comprised of some of the best martial artists and martial arts filmmakers in the world, and they have crafted a show that over-delivers against two big goals we set for the show: to create a compelling character drama and to introduce the highest calibre of martial arts filmmaking to a weekly, ongoing series.”

Other interesting developments include National Geographic Channel’s announcement that it has ordered a pilot script from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for Last Men Out. Based on a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the series will look at the rearguard actions of a band of marines during the final days of the Vietnam War. Fontana, whose credits include Copper and Borgia, will write and executive produce the pilot through Levinson/Fontana Co – the production company he formed with Levinson.

If all of the above sounds too violent for your tastes, then US cable channel The CW has revealed plans for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic Little Women, to be written by Alexis Jolly and produced by Solar Drive Productions in association CBS TV Studios.

The 1994 movie version of Little Women
The 1994 movie version of Little Women

However, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie version of the book that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst may be in for a surprise. Press reports claim The CW is planning a “hyper-stylised adaptation” of the novel in which “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”

Last year, cable channel E! entered the scripted market for the first time with The Royals, a series based around the public and private lives of a fictitious British Royal Family. Now it has announced plans for a second project, with the working title Hollywood Teen Medium. Following the life of 19-year-old Tyler Henry, the series explores the world of a “self-proclaimed clairvoyant medium as he balances his unique abilities with trying to be a regular teenager. Formerly of a small-town, Tyler has become one of Hollywood’s top mediums, bringing messages from the heavens and profound visions to today’s hottest stars.”

With a greenlight for eight one-hour episodes, Hollywood Teen Medium “adds a new layer of mystery and intrigue to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that our audience is so passionate about,” said Jeff Olde, executive VP for original programming and development at E!.

Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing
Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing

This week has also seen a fair amount of activity in terms of series renewals. The big news at Starz is a fourth season of Black Sails, which stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint.

The first two seasons of Black Sails averaged 4.5 million multi-platform viewers per episode and the series is distributed in 175 countries worldwide. A greenlight for the fourth season comes despite the fact that the 10-episode third season doesn’t air on Starz until 2016. As mentioned previously, Starz has also cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons.

Amid a slew of announcements over the last week, Netflix said the fourth season of Longmire will air on September 10 (available to audiences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Based on the novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson, Longmire is a crime drama that centres on a Wyoming county sheriff who returns to work after his wife’s death.

The show is interesting because the first three seasons aired on A&E, which then cancelled it. Producer Warner Horizon TV then touted the show around, at which point Netflix stepped in and saved it.

Netflix came to Longmire's rescue after it was cancelled by A&E
Netflix came to Longmire’s rescue after it was cancelled by A&E

Finally, Channel 4 has announced a second season of its hit sci-fi drama Humans, produced by Kudos from a Scandinavian drama by Matador. It is coproduced with AMC.

The decision was announced just prior to the finale of the first run this Sunday. Commenting on the decision, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said the drama “marks a key moment for C4 as we expand our remit for bold and original drama into the international copro space.”

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