Tag Archives: Robert Franke

Serial killer

Acorn TV’s London Kills will quench audience thirst for the kind of episodic, procedural storytelling that is now overshadowed by long-running serialised dramas, claim writers Paul Marquess and Sarah-Louise Hawkins plus Robert Franke of distributor ZDF Enterprises.

The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video has, in part, been responsible for television series shifting away from episodic procedural storytelling towards long-running serialised dramas. Stories no longer have to wrap up within a single episode, offering writers, directors and actors the chance to take a deep dive across 10 to 13 hours.

Yet one online platform, US streamer Acorn TV, is bucking the trend with London Kills, its second original programme and first straight-to-series commission. Acorn has ordered two five-part seasons of the British show, which dramatises the experiences of a team of top murder detectives in London, focusing on a different murder in each episode while also featuring a serialised story involving the lead detective’s missing wife.

“There’s a substantial international appetite for English-speaking crime procedurals that isn’t being catered to by the UK broadcasters. Straightforward murder-of-the-week doesn’t get commissioned anymore for various reasons,” says London Kills creator and head writer Paul Marquess, who was also responsible for Channel 5’s improvised crime drama Suspects. Acorn had bought Suspects to the US and, knowing the interest in procedural crime dramas among the platform’s Anglophile audience, Marquess pitched the streamer the idea for London Kills.

“I’ve had the title for a long time – I’ve known what the show was,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do a murder procedural in London for a long time, I like murder procedurals, I wanted to shoot in London and shoot as much of the city as I could, and so the whole thing came together. Obviously I’ve made a few cop shows in the past [such as The Bill, Crime Stories and MIT: Murder Investigation Team] but it felt like the one I wanted to make now. And they really liked it.”

L-R: Paul Marquess, Sarah-Louise Hawkins and Robert Franke

With European broadcasters also in need of episodic dramas, Acorn partnered with German distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) to finance the series, a decision ZDFE’s head of drama Robert Franke called “a no-brainer.”

“There is a demand for English-speaking crime procedurals and we’re having problems procuring these types of programmes internationally. What we said was instead of having to run around trying to find additional coproduction money, we come in and match the Acorn investment and all of a sudden we have a greenlight,” Franke recalls. “That was important because we wanted London Kills as fast as possible. It was just like all the stars aligned.”

With the commission announced in March 2018, filming began in June and the series was subsequently launched to potential international buyers with a premiere screening at C21 Media’s Content London last November. Less than 12 months on from its order, London Kills launches in the US on Acorn TV today.

“What I hear when I talk to our buyers is they say they’re looking for something that is low commitment for the viewer,” Franke says of ZDFE’s decision to back the series. “Horizontal storylines mean viewers are committed for the whole show. What we see is a lot of people like to have something they can enjoy for an episode or two, and that’s exactly what a crime procedural provides. There has been a misconception in the market about what kind of buyers are actually buying these shows. They haven’t gone away.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Marquess, who compares the current situation to a period when he worked at global production giant Fremantle and many people believed talent shows were on the wane. That, he remembers, was not long before Pop Idol first aired in the UK in 2001, with the show going on to reinvent television singing competitions around the world.

“I’ve been in television long enough to see things come and go. People really like crime-of-the-week shows and the thing about London Kills is it’s also a serial story,” he explains. “That element is low in the mix compared to other [serialised] shows, but it’s there and it connects you with the detectives. But the show does give you that weekly satisfaction that a lot of the audience really like. Anecdotally, I’m finding more and more people are saying to me they would like a beginning, middle and an end. These shows are not particularly sexy or fashionable but it doesn’t mean they’re not good and the audience doesn’t like them.”

London Kills’ first season was filmed across just 10 weeks

London Kills, a coproduction between Acorn Media Enterprises and Marquess’s PGMTV, saw the creator bring together Sarah-Louise Hawkins, Sally Tatchell and Jake Riddell to write the series, after he had written the pilot.

Having worked with Marquess on Suspects, Hawkins says she found the pilot script “absolutely compelling” and quickly began pitching potential cases to feature as the ‘story of the week’ in the writers room.

Marquess says his background in soap operas such as Coronation Street means he prefers a collaborative writing process. “I write very reluctantly. Lots of people are better writers than I am, and a problem it would take me a day to solve on my own in my office, I can solve in two minutes in a room with some good writers,” he notes.

“It was a totally crucial part of the process and it pays off in spades. The more you bring the writers into the room, the more you sit and talk together, you all know what you’re doing. Twenty years ago, I went to LA and sat in some writers rooms there and have never looked back.”

Episode one begins with the discovery of a body hanging from a tree in a park overlooking the city, while another story, penned by Hawkins, opens with a corpse found underneath a garden patio. “It turns out three years ago it was buried when it was a student house, and the detectives then unpick what happened,” she says. “Some people start with the death first, but I find if you find some kind of emotional hook, that’s the thing I have first and everything else comes after that. Also, when you’re able to work with complete freedom and someone allows you the latitude to work that way, you can see how it ends up as such an enjoyable experience,” she says of working with Marquess.

Marquess notes that these days, most television detectives are “dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky.” The team at the heart of London Kills – played by Hugo Speer (Britannia), Sharon Small (Mistresses), Bailey Patrick (Bodyguard) and Tori Allen-Martin (Unforgotten) – are decidedly lacking in fancy headgear, nor do they have any recent deaths to overcome. That’s why he says London Kills is a series that simply lives up to its title.

The show follows a ‘story of the week’ format but also features a serialised element

“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it,” he says. “Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what detectives do. And we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK murder-of-the-week series being shot at the moment that’s just that, and that is OK. People really like that.”

Marquess likes his productions to be shot hard and fast, with a single episode filmed in five days via three cameras operating at once. “I took this idea to Hugo, thinking, ‘You’re not going to want to do this.’ But Hugo loved it. He said it was like acting on the stage because the directors and actors work together, put it on its feet, we shoot it with three cameras and then we move on. It’s bloody exciting actually. I am famously impatient. I still think it’s slow! But compared to everything else, it’s an express train.”

Shooting this way offers “huge dividends,” Marquess says, including the fact actors are spared from continuous retakes. There is still that safety net of redoing a scene if it doesn’t work first time around, but otherwise the team can move swiftly on.

“We’re able to do it because the cameras are small and lightweight,” Marquess adds. “We don’t have to light it because they’re really light-sensitive. I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago but now I can. The edit is also less stressful now and more limber so you can make it work. I love it. I’m pitching shows that are bigger budget but, if I could, I’d shoot everything like this because you end up with much more electricity and energy.”

The remarkably long heatwave enjoyed by the UK last summer took its toll on the crew during filming. Marquess admits it makes the series simmer on screen, though the finished product stands in contrast to the rain-soaked London he had envisioned when he wrote the pilot. The 10-week production schedule, as opposed to the more common 30 weeks, also meant making the show was incredibly tough, but that the crew could see the finish line from the start.

“We shoot five days a week, not six or seven, so the actors get two days off to recover and learn what’s next,” he says of the schedule. “As a process, I think it works really well. We had a great building in Whitechapel where we had our production offices and our set. In each episode there’s something iconic of London, but we also shot around the East End, which is a great area to shoot in.”

From an international perspective, Franke adds that London Kills is very much in tune with what ZDFE believes is missing from the UK. “We were happy Paul was able to do something [financially] competitive with a great story that looks good. It is a show that delivers. It’s not gimmicky. It’s very straightforward and it just gives the people what they want to see.”

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Speak of the Devil

Tuvalu Entertainment and ZDF Enterprises this week announced they had joined forces for supernatural thriller One Bad Apple, in which the Devil seeks to return to Earth and reunite with his teenage daughter. DQ spoke to the creative team behind the series about their ambitions for this female-led drama.

Gripping action and daring adventure will meet supernatural thrills and teen drama in a new female-led series currently in development.

One Bad Apple takes inspiration from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, Riverdale, The Omen and Indiana Jones to tell the story of a teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her own identity and the truth behind her parentage, all while she navigates the corridors of an elite school.

The series comes from a partnership between UK producer Tuvalu Entertainment and distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE), with father-daughter writing team Gavin and Rebecca Scott also on board.

Broadcasters are now being sounded out to join the production, following a private screening held by ZDFE for potential buyers at Content London in November 2017.

Gavin Scott

The story centres on Mercy Emerson, the spoilt teenage daughter of world-famous lifestyle guru Gwyneth Emerson. But unknown to everyone except her mother, Mercy’s father happens to be the Devil.

After enrolling at a respectable boarding school set in the southern England countryside, Mercy begins to take control of the school and the nearby town. The school’s location is also significant, being close to the burial site of the Holy Grail, a powerful artefact hidden long ago after Satan’s last defeat and preventing him from returning to Earth. Mercy must find it and destroy it so her father can regain his power.

“We created the idea for One Bad Apple after we thought it would be a good to have a strong British female drama,” says Tuvalu executive producer Paul Johnson, who compares Mercy to a female Darth Vader. “I loved the feeling of her coming to terms with being a woman while comprehending how to control the minds of other people and control the world.”

German distributor ZDFE is well known for its slate of compelling crime drama, including Scandinavian series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing) that kick-started the boom for Nordic fiction a decade ago. And now head of drama Robert Franke has identified a gap in the market that One Bad Apple can fill.

“What’s an underserved genre? Something made for the female audience,” he says. “We wanted to find a project that could take this on. Paul had this and I knew it was something special. It was perfect for what we were trying to do as a distributor. We took it from there, we funded development and then Paul found Gavin and Rebecca.”

Johnson looked at 30 different writers and interviewed 10 before the Scotts signed up. “Their ideas, chemistry and eye for captivating story ideas came out and I was hooked,” he explains. “Then I went out to LA in March last year and brainstormed with them and a story editor. We put together the story arc and episode structure and began the narrative journey.”

A month later, Gavin and Rebecca landed in the UK to explore the Sussex countryside, castles, mysterious grounds and ancient churches and take in the spirit of One Bad Apple’s setting. Two episodes have now been written, with storylines for 18 episodes also completed.

Gavin Scott was one of the writers of 1998 movie Small Soldiers

“It’s a universal process about discovering who you really are,” Gavin Scott says of the show’s central premise. “That’s what the two female protagonists are doing in the most special way. Mercy has discovered she’s the devil’s daughter, it’s quite a big deal. That’s a parallel for the process of self-discovery. Lydia, the antagonist, has to prevent the devil from coming back. She’s also in the process of finding who she is and how to fulfil that role.

“Paul came up with a brilliant concept but I like to know the complete logic behind it. Something in the cosmos wants to come back to Earth, but something is preventing it and the daughter is the means to do it – that was something we had to brainstorm. We worked it out together.”

Rebecca Scott picks up: “We just took Paul’s great concept and, being father and daughter, having that relationship already, we jumped on it. We got to create our own world. It was limitless and fun and we just bounced ideas. It came really quickly.”

Speaking about the pair’s writing process, Rebecca says it was a case of building a partnership as the project grew. “The first episode we wrote entirely together,” she says. “For the second episode, we wrote different acts and then swapped them. We created everything together and then physically swapped our work in progress.

Gavin, who has worked on series The Young Indiana Chronicles and hit movie Small Soldiers, continues: “This is not just two writers coming together, it’s two generations. It’s a fantastic resource to draw on. I’ve been watching TV since the 1950s, while Rebecca is of the generation that’s making content right now. When we’re brainstorming, having two generations gives us an enormous amount of richness.”

Rebecca Scott

The announcement of One Bad Apple also comes in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal engulfing Hollywood, and the subsequent Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns. Rebecca, whose writing, directing and production design credits include Blood Relatives and Murder Among Friends, says she has seen manifold changes across the business in the past year.

“I’ve been a writer-director under the radar,” she explains. “I’ve had to knock on some doors myself but no one was giving me a chance. Now I’ve been working on Goliath, 911 and Scandal. I directed 10 hours last year. I don’t think I would have been able to say that a year ago. Things are changing in the most wonderful way. It’s reflected in projects like this.”

Johnson picks up: “It feels like the timing could not be better for a drama just like One Bad Apple. We certainly weren’t thinking about [the current industry climate] at the genesis of the project but we are happy that women in the entertainment industry [are being heard] and their time has come.

“We have strong female leads and characters throughout. We also have an incredibly talented female writer-director in Rebecca and we think One Bad Apple is a very good example of drama empowering women all over the world.”

With the search for a broadcast partner well underway, Johnson is optimistic that production could begin as early as this autumn, with One Bad Apple debuting at some point in 2019. A few roles have already been cast, with Johnson revealing some are “household names in the UK.” Other parts will be open to non-British actors, owing to the international mix of students and teachers at Mercy’s boarding school.

“We want to make a thrilling drama,” Gavin concludes. “Hopefully this is a thrilling and exciting, eye-opening drama. Once we set it in the English countryside, there’s also a thought there should be an element of wry humour. That shouldn’t be the heart of it. It’s a supernatural psychological thriller.”

Johnson concludes: “Mercy controls people’s minds, which doesn’t require too many special effects. This story is real life, looking at everyday people. There are not a lot of explosions – it’s a grounded drama that’s supernatural in theme but not in nature.”

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