Tag Archives: Prison Break

Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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Watch all the best teasers and trailers from Comic-Con 2016

As the dust settles on another action-packed San Diego Comic-Con, there is plenty to look forward to if the new footage previewed at the event is anything to go by.

From teasers for forthcoming new series to big reveals about new seasons of fan favourites, expectations were certainly heightened by what was showcased during four days of panels, screenings and guest appearances at the San Diego Convention Centre.

Here’s a rundown of the best videos unveiled at Comic-Con:

Starz unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and due to air in 2017

BBC America also dropped the first footage of comic book adaptation Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Fox previewed a new trailer for its take on classic horror movie The Exorcist

Another new series Syfy’s Incorporated, which is set in a world controlled by corporations. It is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

The trailer for The Walking Dead season seven introduces King Ezekiel and his tiger (pictured at the top of this page)

But not to be outdone, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead gave fans a teaser of a new storyline that feature a cult that sacrifices its own members in the second half of season two

If that wasn’t enough blood, Starz also previewed season two of Ash vs Evil Dead as star Bruce Campbell announced Lee Majors was joining the cast

Fans saw the first glimpse of season four of Sherlock

Here’s the first footage from Prison Break, which is returning to Fox in 2016/17

ABC used Comic-Con to reveal that Aladdin and Jafar would be making their debuts in the first scene of sixth season of Once Upon a Time

But excitement for the sixth season trailer of MTV’s Teen Wolf was tempered with the announcement that the new run would also be its last

Of course, Comic-Con royalty status is reserved for the big comic book publishers, and this year was no exception in terms of their television crossovers.

Among its film and television panels, DC Comics unveiled the third-season trailer for The CW’s The Flash, which introduces the comic’s Flashpoint storyline after Barry Allen goes back in time to prevent his mother’s murder

Fans inside the convention centre also saw footage from the fifth season of Arrow

The most recent entry into the DC Comics television landscape, Legends of Tomorrow, debuted its season-two trailer

Meanwhile, Batman prequel Gotham unveiled clues about its upcoming third season

It was Marvel, however, that stole the show and provided some of the biggest talking points from this year’s event.

The studio unveiled the first trailer for Legion, the new FX drama from Noah Hawley (Fargo) that is set in the X-Men universe

Marvel also debuted footage from its upcoming Netflix shows. First up is Luke Cage, which debuts online on September 30

Iron Fist follows, completing the line-up of superheroes to appear on the SVoD service in the wake of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage

The studio also confirmed there will be a third season of Daredevil with this teaser

But also in 2017, the quartet will come together in miniseries The Defenders, as previewed in this teaser that plays against the soundtrack of Nirvana’s Come As You Are

Not to be forgotten, however, is a little show called Star Trek, which returns to television next year on CBS and CBS All Access in the US and Netflix around the world. And in the week the latest feature film in the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, hit cinemas, Trekkies got to see this test footage from Star Trek: Discovery, which will follow the crew of the USS Discovery.

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Strange bedfellows boost TV

E4 is adapting Turkey's Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded
Channel 4 is adapting Keshet’s  Israeli series Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded

This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.

In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.

It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).

Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).

The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.

The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK
MTV fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK

E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.

Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.

Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.

“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”

Cuba Gooding Jr will play OJ Simpson in a drama series following the ex-NFL star's murder trial
Cuba Gooding Jr plays OJ Simpson in a drama series about the ex-NFL star’s murder trial

Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.

It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).

It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.

Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.

Prison Break is coming back
Prison Break is coming back

With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”

Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.

With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.

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BBC1 is adapting Apple Tree Yard

Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.

Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin). “Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk,” says the pre-production blurb.

Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”

Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead (pictured left) will star in The Punisher
Jon Bernthal (left), best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, will star in The Punisher

Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.

Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.

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