Tag Archives: Sam Esmail

Homecoming queen

Award-winning actor Julia Roberts makes her television debut in Homecoming, Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail’s mind-bending psychological thriller. DQ hears how they transformed an award-winning podcast into Amazon Prime Video’s latest original series.

If the knowledge that Amazon Prime Video’s latest original drama comes from the creator of Mr Robot and is based on an award-winning podcast wasn’t already enough of a reason to tune in, add into the mix the fact it is also Oscar-winner Julia Roberts’ first foray into television and Homecoming becomes the latest must-watch series.

Described as a mind-bending psychological thriller, Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Centre, which helps soldiers transition back into civilian life. It’s there that she meets Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a soldier eager to begin the next phase of his life, while overseeing Heidi and the facility is Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), an ambitious company man with questionable motives.

Julia Roberts and Homecoming director Sam Esmail

Four years later, Heidi has started a new life, living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and working as a small-town waitress, when a Department of Defense auditor (Shea Whigham) visits with questions about why she left the Homecoming facility. Heidi soon realises there’s a different story to the one she’s been telling herself.

The series is based on the podcast of the same name created by writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and is rolling out in more than 200 territories on Prime Video tomorrow. Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail is the director and executive producer and the cast includes Jeremy Allen White, Alex Karpovsky and Dermot Mulroney.

Esmail admits he is used to listening to non-fiction podcasts and documentary series, but fell in love with Homecoming’s radio play style. “It was scripted, it had actors and it was great. It was like this throwback to an old-school thriller that was steeped in characters, as opposed to the action-thrillers of nowadays,” he says, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London. “I binged it in one sitting and then I binged it again and I thought there was something here to really do something special as a TV show.”

But adapting an audio drama into a television drama meant Esmail had to find a reason why it now demanded to be a visual experience too. He explains that while the podcast looks back on events in the past, the series is able to be with the characters in those moments, where “the suspense and the tension could be really amped up.” He also found inspiration in the visual dynamics of “old-school throwback thrillers” that he loved to watch growing up, citing “the old masters” such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Alan Pakula, who Roberts worked with on 1993’s The Pelican Brief. “The [visual] language was already there, so it was really exciting,” he says.

Similarly, Roberts liked the way the podcast harked back to a time when families would sit and listen to a story together, whether it was a book being read out loud or a radio play, forcing the listeners to use their imagination to build the world being described to them.

Roberts plays two versions of the character Heidi in different time periods

“I think that’s where inspiration as artists starts – imagining what it would look like and what it would sound like if you were doing it,” the actor says. “So I was really attracted to that. When Sam called me, we seem like different people, we’re kind of the same but my hair is much longer! Instantly we were like 20-year friends and so it seemed really clear that this was going to be a match and it was going to work bringing it to television, because TV is not for the faint of heart, for sure.

“Workload wise, we were very efficient, we were very aligned with our cast mates and crew and it made the days so the page count was very high. The days were very efficient and we had a great momentum all the time.”

In Homecoming, Roberts says she plays two characters – two versions of Heidi in different time periods that are signified by different frame ratios – which she says was a “great, fun challenge” for her. “There was some organisational stuff that I’m not used to,” she says of jumping between the two during filming. “Sam kept me on track with a map of, ‘Here’s what we know has happened and here’s what we don’t know has happened and here’s what we think might have happen later.’ So there was a little bit of that.”

Both Esmail and Roberts praise their fellow cast and crew, with both picking out production designer Anastasia White in particular for the way she physically built the world of Homecoming. She had previously worked with Esmail on Mr Robot.

“The one thing I wanted was to build the set. I didn’t want to go out and find the location because of the camera movements. I really wanted as much control as possible,” Esmail says. “I think we shot like 70% of the show on that set, so it was really critical. We sat down and talked about it and, honestly, it was one of those things where I told her the tone, the theme of what we’re going for in the story and she took it and ran with it.”

Sissy Spacek, an old friend of Roberts, plays Heidi’s mother

Roberts recalls one rehearsal where, surrounded by plywood, tape and chalk marks on the floor, she had to pretend to walk down some stairs and through a room that hadn’t been built yet. “I thought, ‘How will this ever work in a week?’ And then we walked into this facility. It was breathtaking, truly.”

About her co-stars, Roberts says James is “just terrific. The highest compliment I can pay as a person is he’s always on time and the highest compliment I can pay as an actor is he is incredibly prepared. When you are those things, that leaves space to be creative and have fun, and that’s what Sam really encouraged and nourished in all of us – to fill the space the way we felt confident about. The space that he made was so unique and present, we felt like we lived in this special land – Sam Land.”

The actor, whose storied film career includes Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich and Notting Hill, reveals she prepared for her role as Heidi with numerous wig fittings and trying to understand the character’s strength and vulnerability. “I absolutely adored the relationship with Heidi and her mother, maybe because I’m in love with Sissy Spacek,” she continues. “I have known her since I was 13 years old so she might as well be my mother! But nothing makes it easy to act with Sissy Spacek. On the first day, everyone was like, ‘It’s Sissy!’ ‘Yeah I know, she’s right next to me, keep your voice down.’”

“We were all having a moment,” jokes Esmail, adding that he didn’t hire a composer for the series because he wanted to keep the music authentic to the visual style. “All the music is from the old classics and a lot is Pino Donaggio, Brian De Palma’s composer. We used one of the big scores from Carrie in the show, which Sissy’s also in. It’s very meta.”

Homecoming also sees Roberts reunite with her My Best Friend’s Wedding co-star Mulroney. “This was Sam’s dream to bring us back together. He gets all the credit,” she says. “I’m a huge My Best Friend’s Wedding fan, it’s one of my favourite romantic comedies. It’s very deliberate.”

Bobby Cannavale plays the head of the Homecoming facility

Homecoming premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, when Roberts sat down to watch the first four episodes and discovered Whigham “steals” the show. “I realise if I hadn’t been working so hard as an actor, I would have been paying a lot more attention as a producer and done something about that,” she jokes. “But since I didn’t, he’s so fantastic in this and it just speaks to the brilliance of Sam that he cast each part so perfectly, so specifically. Bobby is so terrific but Shea, this funny little investigator person, he just is magnificent. It makes the show such a fully realised universe of people. It’s incredible.”

With her first role on television, Roberts says she can’t say she’s worked in the medium, thanks to Esmail’s efforts to shoot the 10-episode series as a movie. “A lot of our crew I know from movies and the way we filmed it, we didn’t film it one episode at a time, we filmed it in blocks and in locations, so it was very much like a movie,” she adds.

Esmail is now working on the fourth and final season of Mr Robot, which is due to debut in 2019, but he hints that a second season of Homecoming is also in the works. Following in the footsteps of dozens of Hollywood stars now regularly appearing on television, perhaps Roberts will now make her home on the small screen too.

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Golden Globes makes bold TV selections

Mozart in the Jungle's writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds
Mozart in the Jungle’s writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds

I’m not sure if bookmakers take bets on the Golden Globes. But if they do, they would have offered a long price on Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall winning the three TV drama categories.

That a cable series about hackers, an obscure Amazon original about classical musicians and a British series about Thomas Cromwell could come out on top is testament to the significant changes that are currently taking place in scripted television.

Mozart in the Jungle, which won Best Series – Music or Comedy, is perhaps the most surprising choice, particularly as it came out ahead of its much-praised Amazon stablemate Transparent. A quirky story of professional musicians working the New York concert circuit, Mozart is based on the memoir of an oboist called Blair Tindall.

It was brought to the screen by a company called Picrow, with the pilot episode written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Once the show was commissioned as a 10-part series, a further eight people were credited with either writing scripts or providing stories. The most prominent names among these were John Strauss and Paul Weitz, the latter also directing a number of first season episodes.

Season two, which was released on December 30, 2015, involved some of the same writers but there were also five new additions – giving the show an ensemble feel both on and off the screen.

Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Among the key names, one of the best known is Roman Coppola – partly because of his famous father Francis Ford Coppola. However, Roman, like sister Sofia, has proved himself a genuine talent in his own right. In 2007, he co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Wes Anderson and Schwartzman and then, in 2012, he co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Anderson (securing an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay).

Mozart in the Jungle collaborator Schwartzman, still only 35, is better known as an actor than a writer, having appeared in a string of excellent, usually quirky, films dating back to Rushmore in 1998. He has since featured in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is now a member of the Mozart cast. Aside from his involvement with The Darjeeling Limited, his only writing credits to date are the three episodes of Mozart that he has so far co-written with Coppola and/or Alex Timbers.

Timbers, who has written or co-written four episodes of Mozart, is a Yale graduate whose career to date has mostly involved writing and directing for Broadway. Twice Tony-nominated, his directing credits include Rocky The Musical and Peter & The Starcatcher.

The appropriately named John Strauss wrote three episodes of Mozart season one and is much more of a jobbing writer than the three who produced the pilot. Major credits go all the way back to TV series Boy Meets World in 1994, followed by movies such as There’s Something About Mary and The Santa Clause 2 and 3.

Weitz, writer and director on Mozart, is arguably the most feted of all the creatives behind the show. An experienced producer, director and writer, his many credits include American Pie (director), About a Boy (writer/director), Little Fockers (director), and Off Centre – a 2001 sitcom for The WB network about a couple of young guys having a crazy time in New York.

Sam Esmail's Mr Robot has been given a second season
Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot has been given a second season on USA Network
Once you see the array of different talents involved in Mozart in the Jungle, you begin to get some sense of why it has been so successful. The above five bring film and TV experience, an array of skillsets and a deep love of New York to the table. That the series was ordered by Amazon just goes to show how much viewers are benefiting from the current SVoD revolution.

Mr Robot, a Universal Cable Productions show for USA Network, beat Narcos, Game of Thrones, Empire and Outlander to win the Best Television Series – Drama category, which is an extraordinary achievement.

There were six credited writers on the 10-part first season. But unlike Mozart in the Jungle, it’s clear who Mr Robot’s driving force is, with Sam Esmail writing five episodes including the story setup and the conclusion. He also directed three. Esmail, 38, had limited success before Mr Robot, which he originally conceived as a movie – but that has now changed.

Aside from his Golden Globe success, he was a winner at the 2015 American Film Institute Awards and is also nominated for the 2016 Writers Guild Awards.

USA Network has ordered a second season of Mr Robot, which Esmail will direct in its entirety, while Universal Cable Productions has given the writer a seven-figure TV deal under which he will write other series for NBCUniversal’s family of networks.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall won Best TV Limited Series
“Sam is a visionary and, although he might not use the term himself, a real mensch,” said Jeff Wachtel, CCO of NBCUniversal cable entertainment and president of Universal Cable Productions when announcing the deal. “Everything about Mr Robot has been a dream. We look forward to creating other shows with him.”

And then there is Wolf Hall, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novel by Peter Straughan, which took home Best TV Limited Series at the Globes.

Before Wolf Hall, Straughan was best known as a movie writer, with credits including the superb Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (written with his late wife Bridget O’ Connor). Wolf Hall is his first major TV work but it’s unlikely to be his last if he can fit it in around his movie work. The latest reports suggest he is working on an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning novel The Goldfinch for Warner Bros.

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GLAAD shines spotlight on LGBT progress

Orange is the New Black 'boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme'
Orange is the New Black ‘boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme’

In the US, an organisation called GLAAD – formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – has spent the last 20 years tracking the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) characters on television.

Each year it uses the data generated to create a comprehensive report entitled Where We Are On TV. The 2015/2016 edition of the report came out this week and shows that the TV industry is moving in the right direction – but still has a lot of work to do.

As GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis points out, fair representation of the LGBT community on TV isn’t just about the number of LGBT characters in TV dramas, but also how they are portrayed: “As each of us lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that TV characters reflect the diversity of the LGBT community,” she says. “

It’s not enough to include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care. They must reject outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

So this week we’re taking a look at which shows and writers are making the most headway towards LGBT equality.

jamal-lyon
Empire’s Jamal Lyon is played by Jussie Smollett

US broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, NBC)
GLAAD’s figures show that out of 881 regular characters on 118 primetime scripted series, 35 were LGBT. This is up from 32 characters last year. GLAAD counted an additional 35 recurring LGBT characters in the same pool of shows.

Gay men make up a slight majority, though lesbian representation is up 5% year-on-year to 33%. Perhaps surprisingly given the prominence of the transgender agenda, “there are currently no regular or recurring transgender characters expected on broadcast networks’ primetime scripted programming.”

The organisation singles out Fox hit Empire as one of the best performers in terms of its LGBT character credentials. With a writing team headed by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, season two sees gay musician Jamal Lyon “taking on more of a business role as the head of the family music label, Empire,” says GLAAD. “Tianna, a bisexual artist signed to the label, was upped to a series regular this year. Several other gay, lesbian and bisexual characters will recur (during season two).”

There are also plaudits for Fox’s new show Rosewood, with a writing team headed by creator Todd Harthan: “While crime procedurals have long been a place where LGBT characters were most often included as villains or victims, this season introduces lesbian couple/pathology experts Pippy and TMI.”

GLAAD also singles out CBS sci-fi drama Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between hacker Root and assassin Shaw. It also finds encouragement in the superhero genre, at least on TV – film is a disappointment by comparison.

“Arrow (developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg for The CW) will resurrect bisexual heroine Sara Lance before moving her over to mid-season series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as a lead character, the White Canary. Her former girlfriend Nyssa will continue to recur on Arrow, and the series will add the recurring gay character Curtis Holt. ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell) will introduce recurring gay character Joey Gutierrez, who has the power to melt metal.”

Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character
Penny Dreadful has killed off its Angelique character

US cable networks
The number of LGBT characters on scripted cable programmes continues to rise, says GLAAD, with 84 regular characters, up from 64 last year. This trend will presumably continue with the growing number of scripted shows being commissioned and the industry’s increasing awareness of the diversity debate.

Recurring characters were also on the rise, up to 58 from 41 previously. Echoing the situation in broadcast TV, gay men dominate, though in this universe lesbian representation dropped 3% to 22%. “Three characters are transgender,” says GLAAD. “Unfortunately one of these is the now-deceased Angelique on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (created/written by John Logan).”

According to GLAAD, “the teen- and young adult-skewing ABC Family and premium channel Showtime are set to be the most LGBT-inclusive networks on cable, with each network boasting 18 regular or recurring characters (including all of the transgender characters counted on cable).

“The returning drama The Fosters, which follows a lesbian couple raising their biological, foster and adopted children, is ABC Family’s most inclusive show, with seven LGBT characters including trans teen Cole – played by transgender actor Tom Phelan.” The Fosters was created by Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, who continue to be directly involved in the writing of the series.

GLAAD praises ABC Family for upcoming series Shadowhunters (which has Ed Decter as showrunner) and Recovery Road, in which gay actor Daniel Franzese will play a gay man struggling to combat an addiction. There is also a positive report for AMC’s The Walking Dead, which has a gay couple and a lesbian in its extended pool of characters. “The new season will also introduce Paul ‘Jesus’ Monroe, a gay character from the comic books series that provides the show’s source material.”

Toby Stephens as Black Sails' Captain Flint
Toby Stephens as Black Sails’ Captain Flint

Other shows to get the GLAAD stamp of approval include Starz pirate drama Black Sails, where it is revealed that lead character James Flint has previously been involved with a man. Created by Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine, the show also features a number of other bisexual characters.

USA Networks’ critically acclaimed new series Mr Robot, created by Sam Esmail, boasts “several LGBT characters,” says GLAAD, “including cybersecurity firm CEO Gideon, Evil Corp’s VP Tyrell, and hacker/activist Trenton.” It’s a similar case with BBC America’s Orphan Black (created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett), which depicts a lesbian romance between Cosima and Shay, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, in which Lady Gaga does her bit for the LGBT community by playing a character engaged in a same-sex relationship.

In terms of where the sector could do better, GLAAD wants to see “more racially diverse characters.” Of 142 regular and recurring LGBT characters analysed, 71% are white, which is a bit high for a country with the USA’s multiracial profile.

Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon's Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor takes the lead in Amazon’s Transparent

Streaming content providers
This is the first year GLAAD has analysed Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Due to the lack of defined seasons on such platforms, it looked at shows that premiered or are expected to premiere between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. Across 23 series, GLAAD found “43 regular LGBT characters and an additional 16 recurring characters.” Lesbians had a higher representation than on broadcast and cable, while the transgender community is represented by four characters.

“Notably, two of these four characters are leads: Maura in Transparent and Nomi in Sense8,” says GLAAD. “Transparent show creator Jill Soloway also paid special attention to ensuring diversity both in front of and behind the camera by employing trans writers, crew members and several trans actors in recurring roles.”

Other LGBT-inclusive Amazon series include Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks, while Hulu’s most LGBT-inclusive series, interestingly, are imported British soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. “The two series include 10 LGBT characters between them, with Hollyoaks, notably, including a gay character who is HIV-positive. Hulu also airs Australian series Neighbours in the US, which includes two gay characters.”

Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks
Kieron Richardson as Ste, one of a number of LGBT characters in Hollyoaks

Hollyoaks works with the Terence Higgins Trust charity on its HIV storyline. The show’s executive producer Bryan Kirkwood says: “We have wanted to tell this story for a long time and while HIV can affect anyone, infection rates in young gay men remain too high and to ignore that is to do the gay audience a disservice. Hollyoaks is in a unique position to talk directly to millions of young viewers and if the safe-sex message is not coming through education, we can help with that on screen and through multiplatform support.”

According to GLAAD, Netflix series Orange is the New Black (created by Jenji Kohan) “boasts more LGBT regular and recurring characters than any other scripted programme.” Other LGBT-inclusive Netflix shows cited include Sense8, Grace and Frankie, Degrassi: The Next Class, The Fall, Bojack Horseman, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: “We’ll also be keeping an eye on upcoming series Jessica Jones,” says GLAAD.

Aside from the lack of racial diversity in LGBT portrayal, GLAAD noted that people with a disability are underserved. It also called for better representation of the HIV issue (keeping in mind the only HIV-positive character in the report is from a UK show).

GLAAD’s Ellis concludes: “We’ve witnessed tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. We will continue to applaud networks and streaming services telling (LGBT) stories – and hold their feet to the fire when they don’t.”

Footnote: There isn’t anything like the GLAAD report internationally. But there are good examples of LGBT-inclusive shows. A classic case from the UK is the Russell T Davies 2015 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Also worth noting is the Norwegian drama Eyewitness, distributed internationally by DRG, and CBC’s Schitt’s Creek – a mainstream show that includes a pansexual character. Another standout example (mentioned briefly above) is Allan Cubitt’s The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson portrays bisexual detective Stella Gibson.

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