Tag Archives: Showtime

Counting Billions

It took something special for movie star Paul Giamatti to sign up for his first leading role in a TV drama. As Billions heads into its fifth season, he tells DQ about making the show and working with the “geniuses” behind it.

As one of America’s most versatile actors, Paul Giamatti has enjoyed a diverse and varied film career. He was nominated for an Oscar for sports biopic Cinderella Man and won Golden Globe for comedy drama Barney’s Version, among a list of credits that include Sideways, American Splendor and 12 Years a Slave.

Giamatti went on to earn awards and plaudits for playing John Adams, the second president of the US, in a 2008 HBO miniseries chronicling his political life and role in founding the United States. He’s also enjoyed bit-part roles in several TV series, such as Downton Abbey, 30 Rock, Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue, in which he played a character credited as ‘Man in Sleeping Bag.’

But it’s Billions, the Showtime drama that started in 2016 and plunged viewers into a game of power politics set within the world of New York high finance, that has provided the actor with his most settled and stable period on screen.

For four seasons, he has played Chuck Rhoades, initially the US attorney for the southern district of New York but later the attorney general for the state. Ruthless and with a dislike of wealthy individuals who buy their way out of trouble, he continually clashes with hedge fund boss Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) when he is asked to investigate Bobby’s firm Axe Capital – where his psychiatrist wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) also works.

In Billions’ fourth season, Giamatti’s Chuck forms an alliance with ex-enemy Bobby (Damian Lewis)

However, season four, which launched in March this year, saw the former enemies join forces in an uneasy alliance designed to take out their rivals, including Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown). Created by showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien together with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions has been renewed for a fifth season to air in 2020.

“I’ve never really done a TV show. It’s curious,” he tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “It’s like, ‘Wow, it just keeps going.’ It’s really interesting. But these guys [Koppelman and Levien] are able to vary the thing in a really interesting way. It keeps changing, so I don’t ever feel stuck in a rut. With a lot of people, you’re really just doing the same thing over and over again.”

Giamatti says that, prior to Billions, he had always been interested in doing a TV show. But the scripts he received – mostly comedies and sitcoms – never quite piqued his interest. Then Billions landed on his desk and, after reading the first few scripts, “I thought it was kind of cool,” he says. “It was a weird, psychological crime show. It was like a chess game crime show. There was no chasing each other with guns; it was all guys in offices on phones and in restaurants making deals. But I thought it was an interesting approach to a crime show and I thought it was interesting dealing with this kind of world.”

Now, after 48 episodes, that initial cat-and-mouse chase between Chuck and Bobby has subsided for an altogether more complex, tangled relationship where characters are neither good nor bad, each residing somewhere in the large grey expanse in between. Giamatti believes this is key to the show’s success, with the writers continually pushing the story forward and not having it fall back to the dynamics laid down in episode one.

“This season was interesting and it’ll be different again next season,” he continues. “It’s a different scenario next season, but you’d have no idea where it’s actually heading. We could end up being buddies again or something. I don’t know. You never know.”

Billions has already been confirmed for a fifth season on Showtime

After so many seasons playing Chuck, has Giamatti found elements of himself starting to emerge in the character? “That’s what’s interesting; you do start to worry that there’s something about you in this character,” the actor jokes. He has enjoyed playing out the relationships between Chuck and his powerful, wealthy father, and between Chuck and Wendy, with their adventurous sex life seeing him become her ‘slave.’

“He operates in a lot of different places. The sexual stuff was interesting, actually, and I liked that he is so smart and that he’s generally more effectual than characters I usually get to play. He actually manages to get stuff done. He manages to shape his world in a way that guys I usually get to play don’t. I get to play guys who fail to do that. This guy actually does, and that’s sort of nice. He tells somebody to do something and they do it. That’s really kind of cool. I like power; I like coming in and being able to order people around, it’s sort of fun.”

If Giamatti’s roles are notable for varying in genre, period and style, that’s entirely on purpose. He says he never knows what his next move will be or what he will find appealing, adding that story is always the deciding factor.

“It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but it is true that the story has to interest me more than anything,” the actor explains. “I don’t want to be in a boring story because all that really is going to matter is the movie. And if the movie’s no good, it doesn’t matter what kind of character you played or even how good you were in it. The movie itself has got to be good, so the story has got to be interesting. That’s the main thing.”

Behind the scenes on Billions, Giamatti leaves the heavy lifting to Koppelman and Levien, who have a singular vision for the series that he doesn’t want to disrupt. “The writing is very specific. You can’t really mess around with it. That’s great, because it gives you so much that you don’t want to mess around with it. They have things plotted so carefully on this show, they don’t want to mess around either. They know what they’re doing.”

Giamatti has appeared in films such as 12 Years a Slave

Giamatti is more involved in Lodge 49, an AMC series currently in its second season, on which he is an executive producer through his company Touchy Feely Films. The show is set in Long Beach, California, where ex-surfer Sean ‘Dud’ Dudley (Wyatt Russell) joins a fraternal lodge – the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx – with the promise of beer and camaraderie that may or may not help him rediscover the idyllic life he lost following the death of his father.

It’s clear Giamatti is immensely proud of the series, and he laments the fact it has not been more widely seen despite drawing critical acclaim. “It’s an awesome show. But it’s very different from Billions. It’s not dark – I mean, it gets emotionally dark, but it’s a very optimistic show and it’s terrific. It is odd, but I think it has a really wide appeal. It’s about people in a secret society like a Masonic organisation, who don’t seem like the sort of people who would be in a Masonic organisation, but it’s really fun. It’s a lovely show.

“I do enjoy the producing side of it. My partner Dan [Carey] deals with all the less pleasant parts of it, but I got to deal with looking at the scripts, looking at the dailies, doing the casting and stuff. I got to do the fun stuff. I love to do it. He and I are very interested in genre stuff and the show is a weird genre show. I don’t know what genre it is, but it’s definitely a genre show! I enjoy science-fiction stuff and I enjoy spy stuff, so we try to get stuff like that made. We’ve got some really weird crime things and some weird science-fiction movies, so that’s what we’re interested in.”

Giamatti also executive produced WGN’s Outsiders, alongside numerous film projects, and agrees there isn’t a better time to be in the TV business, with no end of potential broadcasters or platforms eager for new content that will help them stand out from the crowd.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say TV is easier now, or whatever TV is anymore. We used to make independent films and that was nearly impossible. It was very hard to distribute the things. This is easier to do. They’re way more open to stuff.”

Heading back into production on Billions, Giamatti is looking forward to seeing where the writers will take Chuck next. And that, he says, is the show’s greatest strength.

“They are geniuses at plotting,” he adds. “They have kept the plot alive. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV but I hear they have not suffered an off-season. It’s like they haven’t had that, ‘Oh, second season didn’t go well, fourth season didn’t go well.’ I know I feel like the show just keeps getting better, so they’ve been genius for rearranging a plot.”

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King of the Hill

Veteran showrunner Tom Fontana tells DQ how his latest series, Showtime’s City on a Hill, tackles uncomfortable issues and explains why the 1990s-set show speaks to the present day.

For more than three decades, Tom Fontana has been associated with some of the most iconic series in US television. From medical drama St Elsewhere to The Wire precursor Homicide: Life on the Street and groundbreaking HBO prison drama Oz, he has scored multiple award wins and nominations while building a reputation as an international showrunner on historical drama Borgia.

“I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for 30 years,” he says. “Technology continues just to evolve and become more and more awesome. You can do things you couldn’t do years ago. But in terms of storytelling, the inherent conflicts and the inherent character flaws of the people we’re writing, when you’re writing human beings, they’ve been doing it the same way since Zebedee.”

Tom Fontana

In every storied career, no matter how long, there’s always time for new experiences and that’s exactly what Fontana has found with his latest project, showrunning Showtime’s crime drama City On A Hill.

Created by Chuck MacLean and based on an idea by Ben Affleck, who exec produces with Matt Damon, the series marks the first time Fontana has run a series he wasn’t attached to from the outset.

“Even with Homicide, on which Paul Attanasio wrote the initial script, I was involved from the very beginning in terms of casting and the whole evolution of the concept,” he explains. “With this, there was a pilot that was finished [when I joined]. We did go back and do some reshoots and reorganisation of it, but the cast was set and the heart of the series was set because Chuck is a brilliant writer. He has a very specific ear for what is Boston, so what I’ve tried to do, because he’s never done a television show before, is to be more like an Obi-Wan Kenobi on this and not change his concept. I’ve tried to enhance it.”

The 10-episode series is set in early 1990s Boston, a city rife with violent criminals emboldened by local law enforcement agencies among which corruption and racism was the norm. Described as a fictional story set during this period, the show sees assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) arrive from Brooklyn and form an unlikely alliance with corrupt yet venerated FBI veteran Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon). Together, they take on a family of armoured car robbers from Charlestown in a case that grows to involve, and ultimately subvert, the entire criminal justice system of Boston.

Produced by Showtime and distributed by CBS Studios International, the series has been selected as the closing-night premiere at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas, tomorrow, ahead of its US launch on June 16. Alongside Fontana, Affleck and Damon, the executive producers include Jennifer Todd, Michael Cuesta, James Mangold and Barry Levinson. Bacon is a co-executive producer.

“I think [the series appealed] because I like to do shows that are troubling and deal with issues people maybe aren’t comfortable dealing with,” Fontana tells DQ on the phone from New York City, while filming is continuing on episode nine and he is editing episode eight. “I felt in this world we live in, and specifically in America in 2019, what was going on in Boston in the 1990s was incredibly on point as to what’s going on in America right now. So for me, the idea was that while we could be in the haze of doing a ‘period piece,’ we could deal with a lot of questions and confusion that exist in our lives today.”

Kevin Bacon (left) and Aldis Hodge in City on a Hill

While the idea of a period drama set in the 1990s might seem troubling to those who feel like they were only recently living in that decade, at the heart of City on a Hill is a question that remains as relevant today as it did then and even decades earlier: what is justice? The show aims to interrogate that topic not just on a legal level but also by examining how people are treated either justly or unjustly and how this is affected by wealth, race or sexuality.

“So from what Chuck created and the characters he created, we sat down and we talked about real events that happened in Boston in this period and how they might ignite these characters into the journey they’re individually going to take during the course of the season.”

This isn’t Fontana’s first time in Boston, with St Elsewhere also set in the Massachusetts city. But he says that the city serves the same purpose as Baltimore did in Homicide, being specific to its location but universal in the way it captures an American city metropolis.

“Boston is unique unto itself because it’s the birthplace of the Revolutionary War [which led to American independence from British rule], but also because, over time, it has remained both a small town and a large city,” he says. “It suffers and celebrates both those elements. It’s a small town in the sense that people are very tied to their neighbourhoods, tied to their beliefs and tied to their prejudices, but it’s also a city that is the centre of a lot of medical research and the Harvard Kennedy School of political science. It has big stakes as well as little stakes.”

The pilot was filmed in Boston and the crew will return there for the season finale, with other locations sought further down the Eastern Seaboard in the New York State areas of Staten Island, Yonkers and White Plains. Interior scenes were filmed on sound stages.

Bacon plays FBI veteran Jackie Rohr

“Like Mad Men, the show is 90% interiors. So whether we were shooting it in a sound stage in Brooklyn or a sound stage in Boston, it really didn’t matter,” Fontana notes. “And a lot of Boston in 1992, specifically the neighbourhoods we’re dealing with, don’t exist anymore in the sense that they have been gentrified, so we have managed to find places that look like Boston in 1992.”

Fontana’s experience on crime dramas in particular has seen him work on series such as Homicide, which was based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon and ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999. The book would also later inspire Simon to create HBO’s seminal drama The Wire.

Fontana also created Copper, a police procedural set in 1860s New York that would become BBC America’s first original drama when it debuted in 2012, and short-lived drama The Beat, while he has also explored the criminal justice system in Oz and courtroom-based The Jury.

City on a Hill moves away from the typical police procedural format, telling stories not just from the perspective of the cops of Boston Police Department but also the FBI, the county sheriff, state troopers, the district attorney’s office and a group of criminals hellbent on targeting cash-carrying armoured vans. Other cast members include Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Jill Hennessy, Lauren E Banks, Amanda Clayton, Kevin Chapman and Jere Shea.

“I don’t like to write bad guys or good guys,” Fontana explains. “I like to write people, and so what we’ve worked very hard to do is make everybody incredibly human, both positively and negatively.”

Hodge as assistant DA Decourcy Ward, who arrives in Boston from Brookyln

It’s Jackie Rohr, played by Bacon, who immediately raises eyebrows with his foul-mouthed attitude and willingness to bend the rules to get what he wants. “I hope the audience will root for all the characters, but with Jackie specifically, he is so unabashedly who he is,” the showrunner says. “I think he articulates things that other people wish they could say and he behaves in a way other people wish they could behave. That’s not to justify anything he does but, on the same side, I think what’s wonderful about what Kevin is doing with the part is there is a crack in Jackie’s sense of self in that he’s clearly coming to understand he is an anachronism, that his time is passed.

“Yet he is fighting like a tiger to maintain a sense of himself and also gain the respect of the people around him. On the surface, he’s just an asshole. But the character is so multi-faceted that I think not only will the audience enjoy him but I think they will come to understand him because he’s a lost soul in a way.”

Rohr immediately ruffles the feathers of Hodge’s principled Decourcy Ward but, by the end of episode one, it seems they might already by finding some common ground in and out of the courtroom.

“The relationship between the two of them is never settled. There are weeks when Decourcy wins and weeks when Jackie wins, and weeks when they both win and weeks when they both lose,” Fontana says. “But their relationship is a rollercoaster ride because they have to trust each other and they’re basically using each other to get what they individually want to accomplish. I think it’s a really enjoyable ride on a week-to-week basis seeing them connect and disconnect and the reasons why they do that.”

In writing the series, “I don’t really do a writers room, per se. I find them wildly unproductive,” he says, laughing. “What happens is everyone gets together and the first thing you do is talk about what you did last night and what the kids are up to, and then someone comes in and says it’s time to order lunch and everybody orders lunch, then the whole day goes by and no actual writing happens.”

City on a Hill launches on Showtime this month

Instead, once the basic story has been outlined, the writers will each go off and explore their assigned episode individually. Fontana continues: “I believe each writer needs to be able to use his or her voice fully. Then I get the script and I give them suggestions, they do another draft and then I give them maybe more suggestions or do a final pass to get it ready for production. To me, writing by committee is not writing; I think writing has to be a very personal experience. I try to maintain that on all the shows I do.”

But like many series on television today, City on a Hill goes far beyond the initial crime – the “underbelly” of the story – and instead focuses on the ensemble of characters involved, which Fontana says he hopes will draw viewers into their world.

“I hope the characters are engaging enough and original enough, which I believe they are, that the audience will want to know what’s going to happen to them,” he adds. “We not only have some great male characters, we have four really powerful women characters, because it’s not just a procedural cop show. It’s about these men and women and what they’re going through during the course of their lives that has nothing to do with the crime that’s out there.”

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Stiller breaks out

Escape at Dannemora is a Showtime miniseries based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of a prison break in Upstate New York in 2015 that led to a statewide manhunt for two convicted murderers who escaped with help from a married female prison employee.

In this DQTV interview, Ben Stiller talks about directing the “fascinating” seven-part drama. He recalls how he initially turned the project down before the release of an official report into the escape prompted him to seek the “real story” behind the incident.

He also discusses casting Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano and Patricia Arquette in the lead roles, and how his reputation as a comedy actor gave way to the dark and heavy themes of a series set in prison.

Escape at Dannemora is executive produced and directed by Stiller and produced by Michael De Luca Productions, Red Hour Productions and Showtime for the US premium cable channel. CBS Studios International distributes.

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Making Melrose

Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.

Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.

Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.

The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.

In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose

The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”

There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.

“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.

For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.

“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.

The Sky Atlantic and Showtime series also stars Hugo Weaving

“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”

The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.

“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”

One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.

Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.

The show comprises five episodes, covering the five Patrick Melrose books

“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”

Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.

“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.

“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.

“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”

Get Out’s Allison Williams is part of the ensemble cast

Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.

“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.

“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”

Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”

The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”

Patrick Melrose is directed by Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror)

“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”

Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”

Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”

Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.

“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”

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Casting Guerrilla

Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.

It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.

Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.

Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.

Katie Swinden

Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”

Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.

But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?

John Ridley (centre) poses with Guerrilla stars Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto

“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”

Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.

“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”

Ridley’s dislike of scenes with large numbers of extras and his desire to have ‘actors’ in every role meant Baig was casting right to the end, picking out people to play supporting parts throughout filming.

Ceesay portrays Marcus, who is in a relationship with Pinto’s character Jas

“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”

One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.

“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’

“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”

The show had to work around the busy schedules of actors such as Rory Kinnear

Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.

“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”

The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.

“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”

For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.

“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.

“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”

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Under the influence

As Twin Peaks returns to television after a 26-year absence, DQ explores the wide-reaching impact the series had on the shows and creatives that came after it.

This Sunday, US premium pay TV channel Showtime will launch the return of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch and Mark Frost drama that first saw the light of day on ABC in 1990. No one knows what to expect, but if the new series is half as ingenious as the original, it will be worth adding to your watch list.

At a time when there is so much great drama on TV, it’s easy to lose sight of the show’s creative significance. The crime drama gripped millions of viewers as Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper investigated the shocking murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee).

But most writers, producers and critics acknowledge that Twin Peaks paved the way for some of the industry’s most iconic scripted series.

Twin Peaks unravels a murder mystery in the titular small town

Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which launched on Fox in 1993, is often cited as an early beneficiary of the Twin Peaks revolution. While the show had more procedural rigour than its predecessor, David Duchovny’s portrayal of FBI agent Fox Mulder owes much to MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. In tone, pacing, geography, humour and supernatural suspense, the creative connection is clear.

Frank Spotnitz, founder of indie producer Big Light Productions, worked on The X-Files for a number of seasons as a writer and showrunner. He recalls that “a lot of us in the writers room were fans of Twin Peaks and the way it took television drama to a new place. It was one of those shows that just seemed impossible at the time. This was an era when the only things on network TV were shows about cops and doctors and lawyers. But then along came this clever, compelling, original series.

“It really was the show that changed what TV meant. It was so cinematic at a time when television drama was rigid. It was mysterious, sexy, chilling and atmospheric. The message it passed on to the rest of us was to have a sense of ambition. If you’re going to make TV, make sure it is as good as it can possibly be.”

Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in the original series

Less immediately obvious is the impact Twin Peaks had on HBO’s landmark gangster series The Sopranos. But the creator of the latter, David Chase, has never been slow to acknowledge his creative debt to the rule-bending nature of Twin Peaks.

The impact of Twin Peaks is also evident in shows such as Lost, Bates Motel, Veronica Mars, Northern Exposure and Wayward Pines. But its impact didn’t stop at the US border. Both the pace of the show and its visual grammar were forerunners of Nordic noir – 10 years before the Scandinavians made their mark. For many, Danish hit Forbrydelsen (The Killing), with its meticulous attention to a single case, is a direct DNA descendant of Twin Peaks. So too is atmospheric French supernatural thriller Les Revenants (The Returned).

Twin Peaks’ use of language has also had a defining impact on high-end drama. How many times do we now see shows digress from the central narrative arc or wrong-foot audience with non sequiturs – just as Lynch and Frost did repeatedly with Twin Peaks?

And while there is always a danger of ‘over-attributing’ a work of art’s impact, there are many who see Twin Peaks’ focus on the horrors that exist beneath the surface of small-town life as the prototype for subsequent scripted series.

Broadchurch, Haven, Fortitude, Les Revenants, The Valley, The Kettering Incident and Trapped are just a few examples of recent scripted shows located in similar locked-in communities.

Showrunner Carlton Cuse admits the drama had a huge influence on his career: “It shaped the way Damon Lindelof and I approached Lost, and also my approach to Bates Motel.”

In terms of specifics, he says: “It was intensely visual at a time when most drama relied on dialogue. There was this visually arresting use of negative space – you’d find yourself watching traffic signals as they turned red to green. It was moody and lyrical, like something you’d get from European cinema. And at the same time there was an intentional ambiguity that forced the audience to puzzle out what was going on – not just watch. You had to pay close attention to make sense of things.”

Kyle MacLachlan (left) as Special Agent Dale Cooper and Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S Truman

As a seasoned TV professional, Cuse also has the utmost admiration for the fact the show even got made: “There are so many gatekeepers in TV that it was a profound achievement to convince network executives to let it get through in the way it did. It broke so many rules, and in doing so, emboldened Damon and I to break the rules with Lost. It challenged conventions and made a future in TV an attractive option.”

While it’s possible to see overt evidence of Twin Peaks’ impact in a show like Bates Motel, part of the point made by Cuse is that Lynch and Frost encouraged showrunners to interrogate process. So even where a show doesn’t immediately look the same as Twin Peaks, there can be a connection.

Rob Thomas, showrunner on critically acclaimed Veronica Mars and The CW’s ratings hit iZombie, is another who recalls the show-stopping impact of Twin Peaks: “It was the first show I remember going out of my way for. I used to drive to my buddy’s house 40 miles away across Texas to watch with a group of eight friends. We were just obsessed with the show and would record it on VHS so we could spend the next week picking over the clues. For me it was a bit like The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. In a world of prog rock, someone let this crazy album happen. And it was like that with Twin Peaks.”

Interestingly Thomas says the show taught him lessons in both how to make TV and how not to make it. “I wouldn’t take anything away from the show. It had an amazing sense of style and inventiveness that I hadn’t seen in TV before. The offbeat dialogue contributed to a really singular voice. But I remember really thinking about it a lot when I was making Veronica Mars, because it seemed to me that parts of Twin Peaks weren’t mapped out in advance. There’s always a certain amount that you make up as you go along in a 22-episode show, but I was determined to have a clear idea of where I was going.”

Jane Campion’s mesmerising Top of the Lake is another critically acclaimed show that has been compared to Twin Peaks – in part because of its lyrical, atmospheric qualities but also because it is an example of a cinema auteur embracing TV.

Dana Ashbrook as Bobby Birggs and Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings

Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind Top of the Lake, recalls watching Twin Peaks avidly when it first aired: “I was about 20 and couldn’t believe what I was watching. I loved the amazing characterisation, slow-burn narrative, ethereal music [composed by Angelo Badalamenti] and the mystical, moody atmosphere. It played with every assumption about what a television drama series should be.”

For Kousetta, the importance of the show is not just the list of genetic traits that have been handed down to today’s generation of drama producers, but the central role it gave to auteurs: “With Top of the Lake, we were at the forefront of the recent wave of feature film talent coming over to TV,” he says. “But, of course, David Lynch and Twin Peaks were way ahead of anybody. I think its real importance is that it bridged the gap between film and television – because that is one of the factors that is making today’s TV drama so interesting.”

As UK-based Kousetta’s comments illustrate, Twin Peaks’ popularity spread worldwide. In New Zealand, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at prodco Pukeko Pictures, recalls seeing the show when she was a college student.

“I think all of us bought into its filmic qualities,” she explains. “It was a dark, visually arresting piece of television that was unlike anything we’d seen before. Looking back, the thing that probably stands out most for me is the extraordinary casting. The show wasn’t filled with beautiful or gorgeous people. It prioritised quirky, interesting and weird talent, and that is something I see in drama casting today.”

Chatfield, whose company is a coproducer on Australian fantasy series Cleverman, also makes the point that Twin Peaks was an early example of world-building in TV, something that now informs so many series from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead.

That this emphasis on a coherent mythology was intentional is evident from a 2014 Variety interview in which Mark Frost said: “I felt in Twin Peaks we were more or less filming a novel – drilling down to a level of detail you weren’t used to seeing in network storytelling. Over the years, many people have credited us with inspiring them to think differently in how to tell stories.”

Hopefully, a new generation of talent will feel equally inspired after the return of Twin Peaks.


David Lynch (third from left) is joined by returning cast members Kyle MacLachlan (far left), Kimmy Robertson (third from right) and Mädchen Amick (second from right), plus newcomers Laura Dern (second from left) and Robert Forster (far right)

The return of Twin Peaks: What do we know?

So what do we know about the new Twin Peaks? Well, not much, since those involved are sworn to secrecy.

The new project is 18 hours long, the cast is broadly the same – Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper – and the action takes place 25 years after the occurrences of the original two seasons. This time lag is, reportedly, significant to the plot.

But just days ahead of the premiere, on Sunday May 21, little remains known about the story, although episode descriptions could provide some clues.

Meanwhile, the returning cast are continuing to remain steadfastly tightlipped about what is in store for viewers, with little being revealed ahead of its launch.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January, David Lynch gave little away during a surprise appearance. But when quizzed on what viewers should expect, he said: “I see it as a film. And a film in parts is what people will experience. This word ‘expect’ is a magical word. People expect things, and their expectations are hopefully met when they see the thing.”

As to whether the show might go beyond its initial 18-episode run, Lynch said: “Before I said I wasn’t going to revisit it, and I did. You never say no. But right now there’s no plan for more.”

There is a possible hint of a warning in comments made by Showtime president David Nevins, who told Deadline Hollywood the new season “rewards close watching” and is “the pure-heroin version of David Lynch.” That sounds like it will appeal to Lynch junkies, but it may prove a little too challenging for most viewers.

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Protest behaviour

From Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Guerrilla is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. It tells the story of a couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.

Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

Leading couple Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto, who play Marcus and Jas, discuss their characters and their roles in the ensuing struggle, why they both wanted to work with Ridley, diversity in television and why this story is more than relevant in the present day.

Guerrilla is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Sky Atlantic and Showtime, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

For more about Guerrilla, read DQ’s interview with series creator John Ridley here.

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Power to the people

Oscar-winning screenwriter and American Crime creator John Ridley realises a long-held ambition to tell a story about race relations in the UK with Guerrilla, a six-part series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

From Oscar-winning feature film 12 Years a Slave to critically acclaimed drama American Crime, race relations in the US are a common theme in the works of screenwriter and director John Ridley.

His latest project, Guerrilla, transports that topic across the Atlantic to 1970s London, one of the most politically explosive periods in British history.

The series tells the story of a couple whose relationship is tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The six-part series is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution. It debuts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on April 13 and Showtime in the US on April 16.

“This is a story and types of characters I’ve been fascinated in since I was a young child,” Ridley (pictured above between stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay) tells DQ. “I was a child of the 1970s and a lot of the iconography of black activism was just so very potent, as well as people like [black activists] Angela Davis and Huey Newton and what they represented both visually and emotionally.

“Then, as you get older, you start to realise consequences of actions and what it means to stand up for a group of people, to stand up against others, and that those individuals themselves were complicated. They were human beings. So over the years growing up, I found those stories very interesting.”

Ridley (right) in discussion with Idris Elba on the Guerrilla set

With race and immigration issues front of mind around the world in this age of Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis, Ridley adds: “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the stories out there for any of us to tell [about race] are both timely and timeless, in that the issues folks were dealing with 10, 15 or, in our case, 40 years ago, people are still dealing with now.”

The story that would ultimately become Guerrilla was first conceived in 2007. But it wasn’t until a trip to London in 2013, when Ridley was in post-production on Jimi Hendrix drama All Is By My Side, that the American filmmaker began to get a sense of the similarities in and differences between racial dynamics in the US and the UK. And after carrying out research and speaking to Brits about their experiences during the 1970s, he found he could tell a story that was firmly rooted in reality.

The accounts offered by the people Ridley spoke to, many of whom joined the show as advisors, were central to shaping the narrative of Guerrilla’s characters. “They lived through this era and their experiences – sometimes in opposition to each other – were instrumental,” Ridley explains. “We wanted to make a show with a certain velocity that makes the audience want to return week in, week out.

“But at the core we wanted to tell a very human story, a story of people who are struggling – against the system, against their own choices, against each other. We could have done a purely dry disposition of London in the 1970s, but I can’t say enough about the individuals who shared their stories and perspectives that ended up being the foundation of everything else we ended up doing.”

The show is centred on race relations in the UK in the 1970s

As the show’s creator and lead writer, as well as its director for three of the six episodes, Ridley certainly assumes showrunner status on Guerrilla, a role still relatively uncommon in the UK. He says he aspired to bring together elements of the US and UK production systems, including setting up a writers room with British co-writer Misan Sagay (Belle). “We’d sit around talking about ideas and she’d give me a sense of things that really happened in the UK. And sometimes it would just be small language things – like the difference between ‘flat’ and ‘apartment,’” Ridley says of working with Sagay. “She also wrote the fifth episode of our series – I wrote one, two, three, four and six. So it was much smaller than a traditional US writers room, but it definitely worked having someone who’s very talented and knows the UK, as well as someone who knows their history.

“In production, little things are different [between the UK and the US] – hours of the day, how many hours you have to shoot. Some things in the infrastructure are different, like permitting, where you can shoot and how you can shoot. A lot of that was left to our line producer to help figure out. Ultimately, what made Guerrilla work was hopefully taking the best of these two systems and making sure we supported each other in the stories we wanted to tell.”

In terms of scriptwriting, Ridley says he likes to make it clear on the page exactly what’s happening in every scene, meaning the script serves as a blueprint for every department, from hair and makeup to wardrobe and set design. “I want anybody who picks up that script to be able to read it and really understand what is going in a scene,” he says. “You cannot talk enough about every script, every page, every scene, everything that’s happening.”

That also goes for any extras on set: “I really don’t like having a lot of extras. When somebody’s in a scene, I want to know what they are doing and what’s happening with that person. It makes much more sense to have one or two people engaged in a very specific way than having people wandering around in the background.”

Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton is among the supporting cast

As such, Ridley faced a daunting task when it came to filming a protest scene for Guerrilla’s premiere episode involving hundreds of cast members and extras, along with several police horses. However, by working initially with just a handful of actors to plan the action, he was able to piece it together once the cameras were rolling.

“We mapped it out very carefully,” he says of the scene, in which the peaceful demonstration quickly turns violent. “You have 300-and-something people out there, plus horses and crew, so just from a safety standpoint you don’t want to simply turn up and tell people to re-enact a riot – you don’t want anybody to get hurt.

“There are always issues there but you realise that every problem you solve ahead of time, you’re leaving space for issues that come up, no matter what they are. We were able to shoot a fantastic scene full of scale, but also a really emotional scene. On a personal level, you can’t do it without preparation and you can’t do it without a crew that’s fully informed and part of the creative process.”

The protest scene is also notable for featuring one of several instances of police brutality highlighted in the opening episode. On another occasion, a female character is sexually assaulted by an officer. Ridley says that while the production team didn’t want to shy away from such “realities,” they opted to use camera angles and editing techniques to show them in a way that feels more graphic than they actually are.

“Sometimes suggesting things to an audience has more impact than lingering on them,” he notes. “They fill in the gaps of that brutality in a way that depicting them as graphically as possible may not do as well. But that’s part of the joy of putting a show together – when you get into the edit, you can really think about it. I deeply appreciate having the opportunity to do a show that isn’t straightforward. It has allowed for different storytelling than traditional television has allowed for.”

On screen, Ridley has assembled a stunning array of acting talent, from leading stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay (who play central couple Jas and Marcus respectively) to supporting cast members Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

Ridley reserves special praise for Pinto and Ceesay, who he says put in a lot of work to develop their on-screen partnership. “If there is no sense of chemistry between your lead actors, the show’s not going to work,” he says. “That chemistry comes through trust, camaraderie and a sense of leadership through two people who are sharing the screen.

“Freida and Babou put in that work. It goes beyond the writing, the lighting, the wardrobe; it’s about the actors putting in the time so when they arrive on set, they’re good friends, they’re there for each other and they put in a great day’s work for the rest of the crew. Freida and Babou just really had it. It’s great to watch.”

The cast also includes Luther star Idris Elba, who is also an exec producer on Guerrilla through his Green Door Pictures label. “He gives an outstanding performance, one that is very different from the Idris people have seen over the last few years,” Ridley says. “It was a special opportunity to work with him as a partner on the show.”

With season three of American Crime having launched in March this year, Ridley is now developing a Marvel series, though he declines to reveal anything about the top-secret project. But while cinema is currently buoyant on a wave of blockbuster superhero films, Ridley believes there’s still room on the big screen for storytelling-focused dramas such as Lion and Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight.

He continues: “When people are making a US$200m bet, you can’t blame them for wanting to take a short bet. But I hope there is still space for filmmaking that’s a little challenging, not traditional and represents people in different ways, and that such films can co-exist [alongside blockbusters].

“I’m just happy, thankful and appreciative television does exist because I don’t know that someone would have made a bet on a film like Guerrilla,” Ridley adds. “I certainly can’t fault the film studios for the choices they make, but I’m thankful there’s another space where we as writers, as storytellers, can tell the stories that are most meaningful to us.”

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Top execs line up for Drama Summit West

Visit Drama Summit West online by CLICKING HERE.

Content chiefs at AMC, Netflix, Showtime, Starz and Bad Robot will speak at C21 Media’s Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on Friday May 19, bringing together the global scripted business to facilitate new productions and partnerships.

The one-day summit, which occurs between the Upfronts and LA Screenings at The Ebell Theatre in Hollywood, will focus on ‘new drama, new models,’ bringing partners together around a creative conference, festival and networking agenda with a view to helping facilitate next-generation relationships.

AMC and Showtime president of original programming and development Joel Stillerman, Showtime president of programming Gary Levine and Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik are among a raft of top-tier US programming execs speaking at the event.

They will discuss the state of the US market and their respective 2017 slates, which include Loaded and The Son (AMC); Twin Peaks, Billions and Homeland (Showtime); and American Gods, The Girlfriend Experience and The Missing (Starz).

Netflix VP of content Elizabeth Bradley and VP of international originals Erik Barmack will host a joint session at the event, outlining their global coproduction and international originals strategies respectively. This in-depth session will provide unique insight into how the international business can work with the platform.

Entertainment One Television CEO John Morayniss joins a panel of industry leaders discussing the big questions ahead in US scripted television and creating premium scripted series, which include the forthcoming Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams for HBO; Ransom, from executive producer Frank Spotnitz for CBS/Corus/TF1/RTL; Foreign Bodies for E4; and Havana, starring Antonio Banderas for Starz, among many others.

Bad Robot head of television Ben Stephenson and HBO Latin America VP of original production Roberto Rios will also join panels at the event.

Marti Noxon, showrunner of Sharp Objects, and execs from from Lionsgate, The Ink Factory, Color Force and TV Globo will also speak at the event.

Noxon, whose other credits include UnREAL, Glee, Mad Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will join a panel of writer-producers discussing the evolving entrepreneurial role of showrunner in the changing TV landscape. Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name, is being directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies) and produced by eOne.

Stephen Cornwell, co-CEO of The Night Manager producer Ink Factory, and Nellie Reed, senior VP of Television at American Crime Story producer Color Force, also join a panel looking at how the industry’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama.

DSW17 Speakers

Further speakers will be announced in the coming weeks.

This year will see the addition of a Drama Summit West Networking Lounge where delegates can reserve meeting tables to use throughout the day.

The 2016 event sold out, attracting more than 500 top-level executives.

Visit Drama Summit West online by CLICKING HERE.

Register today by CLICKING HERE.

Drama Summit West is the sister event to the International Drama Summit, part of C21’s Content London, which takes place in London in December. Recent speakers and contributors have included actor Tom Hardy, director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Knight (Taboo); showrunners Bryan Fuller (American Gods), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Tony Grisoni (Southcliffe, Red Riding) Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Simon Mirren (Versailles); executives Joel Stillerman (AMC), Channing Dungey (ABC), Eric Schrier (FX), Sharon Tal Yuguado (Fox) and Morgan Wandell (Amazon); and leading global producers Jane Tranter, Jane Featherstone, Liza Marshall, Greg Brenman, Richard Brown, Gub Neal and Andrew Marcus.

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Daniels’ Star risks implosion

Star has not been received well by TV critics

Lee Daniels has made a strong impression with Empire, the music industry show that has been rating so well on Fox in the US. But it looks like he is going to have a tougher time with his follow-up drama Star, which debuted on the same network on Wednesday.

The series follows three young women trying to break into the music scene. Star (played by Jude Demorest) has spent most of her life in foster care following her mother’s death from a drug overdose. She forms a girl group with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), an aspiring singer who (unknown to Star) is the daughter of a wealthy rock musician; and her 16-year-old sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), who she has not seen in five years.

At time of writing, the audience figures aren’t in but an IMDb score of 6.8 doesn’t augur well. Nor do the reviews, with critics quick to pan the series. The Chicago Tribune, for example, complained about the show’s “stilted dialogue” and “sloppy narrative,” while the New York Times said Star was “all over the place.” According to the NYT, “Empire’s first season set a standard for narrative drive and engaging storytelling that Star doesn’t approach in its initial three episodes. What Star doesn’t have is a Cookie – a Taraji P. Henson to light a fire that would draw your attention away from the tackiness of the show. It needs a star.”

Baron Noir – ‘the French House of Cards’

It’s early days, of course, but it looks like Daniels will need a rapid turnaround in fortunes to keep the network bosses happy. If not, the show could go the same way as HBO’s musical miss Vinyl.

Turning to French-language/French-produced drama, the last few years have seen a steady stream of acclaimed shows coming on to the international market – examples including Braquo, Spiral, The Returned and Witnesses. 2016 has also been a pretty positive year, with series like Netflix’s Marseilles, the France-Sweden copro Midnight Sun and English-language epic Versailles attracting a lot of interest. Not to be overlooked either is The Bureau, a political thriller that has picked up a strong following on iTunes in the US and Amazon in the UK; or the two Belgian series, Truce and Public Enemy, which have attracted critical acclaim.

There are signs that this momentum will be maintained into 2017 following the news that StudioCanal has sold the German-speaking rights for eight-part series Baron Noir to Sony Channel.

A Canal+ Création Originale, Baron Noir follows French politician Philippe Rickwaert’s thirst for revenge against his political enemies. Launched to critical acclaim in France, with a second season now in development, this “French House of Cards” has also been acquired by SBS Australia and Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland. “Baron Noir is a gripping political thriller and a masterpiece of French storytelling. We are proud to premiere this series on Sony Channel,” said Carsten Fink, VP of German-speaking Europe at Sony Pictures Television Networks.

Skam’s audience figures have skyrocketed this year

Another show in the news this week is the cult Norwegian youth series Skam (Shame), which is to be adapted for the US market by XIX Entertainment’s Simon Fuller. “Shame is an important show,” Fuller said. “There is precious little content created primarily for a teen audience and Shame provides this with great honesty and integrity. This show packs a punch and is leading the way in exploring multi-platform storytelling. It has become an enormous hit in Norway and has the potential to become an influential show in America, where there is simply nothing like it. Scandinavia and Norway in particular is at the forefront of innovation and creativity in the shaping of the world’s digital and creative industries right now. I’m proud to be in partnership with NRK to take Shame to a worldwide audience.”

Created by Julie Andem for NRK Super, Skam tackles topics such as school, depression, sex, homosexuality, alcohol and religion. With a fourth series now commissioned, the show has seen its weekly audience grow from 24,000 to 1.26 million in 2016. It is also popular in Denmark and Sweden and has picked up a strong teen audience via social media platforms. Addressing the deal with Fuller, Håkon Moslet, head of youth TV for NRK added: “A lot of people in the TV industry have got their eyes on Skam this fall, but no one has got a vision like Simon Fuller. He wants to be true to the original idea and make Shame a series that can change the rules in the American TV market. We’re honoured he wants to take our baby to the next international level.”

Shameless’s Emmy Rossum has agreed a new deal with Showtime

Also this week, there’s good news for Showtime following reports that the premium pay TV channel has signed a new salary deal with Shameless star Emmy Rossum. A holdup over Rossum’s pay demands had threatened the future of the show, but now that this has been resolved it leaves the door open for an eighth season of Shameless, which also stars William H Macy.

Although Showtime has not yet officially ordered an eighth run, it is very likely to do so. Shameless is currently Showtime’s second strongest performer behind Homeland and ahead of Ray Donovan and Billions. With The Affair experiencing a substantial drop in ratings for season three, having the stability that Shameless provides must surely be a priority for Showtime. Shameless is based on a UK show of the same name. Created by Paul Abbott, the original version ran for 11 seasons on Channel 4.

Finally this week, Tribune Broadcasting-owned cable network WGN has cancelled its witch-themed drama Salem after three seasons. The show, which is centred on the 17th century witch trials, is currently averaging around 260,000 viewers – well down on its performance in seasons one and two. To date, WGN has had a hit-and-miss record on drama origination. Manhattan was also a poor performer but Underground and Outsiders have both done well for the network and have been renewed for second seasons.

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Reign ends but royalty remains

Reign dramatises the life of Mary, Queen of ScotsOn Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.

thecrownThe Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).

victoriaVictoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.

tudorsThe Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.

versaillesVersailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.

magnificent-century-kosem-10Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.

theroyalsThe Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.

mary-princessMary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.

the-queens-sisterThe Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.

powerandpassionCharles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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European dramas get backing from buyers

Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.

Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).

This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.

20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).

Trapped
Trapped will return for a second season

Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.

More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.

Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”

Zero Days
Zero Days examines cyber warfare

Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.

We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.

The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.

The original She's Gotta Have It
The original She’s Gotta Have It

Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.

Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.

Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime
Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime

Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”

Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”

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Showtime plays the long game

Homeland
Homeland has been given a double renewal

US premium pay TV channel Showtime is one of the most loyal commissioning networks in the world, revealing a willingness over the past few years to let its scripted series run and run.

Looking back at Showtime’s classic titles, for example, serial killer drama Dexter ran for eight seasons before it finished in 2014. And even then it might have continued had lead actor Michael C Hall not wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.

Nurse Jackie and Californication also lasted seven seasons on Showtime – an impressive performance in our short-attention-span society.

Looking at current shows, top performer Shameless was granted a seventh season earlier this year. And this week Showtime announced that it had greenlit seventh and eighth seasons of Homeland, the espionage series derived from Israel’s Prisoners of War (Hatufim). That news comes despite the fact that the sixth season of Homeland doesn’t premiere until January 2017.

Homeland, starring Claire Danes, looked as though it might be running out of steam at the end of season four and heading into season five. But a strong recovery in the back half of season five reaffirmed its versatility and its importance to Showtime’s schedule. The show will now run until at least 2019.

Ray Donovan
Ray Donovan will get a fifth season

In parallel with the Homeland announcement, Showtime also announced that there will be a fifth season of Ray Donovan, which stars Liev Schreiber as a fixer for LA’s rich and famous. The show, which runs in batches of 12 episodes, is currently in the middle of season four and rating pretty consistently. With an average audience of around 1.2 million (same-day figure), it is currently the third best-performing drama in Showtime’s line-up.

Showtime’s other dramas aren’t as far advanced as these titles, but they all seem to be benefiting from similar support from the channel.

Billions, The Affair and Masters of Sex have all been renewed, while Penny Dreadful probably would have been if creator John Logan hadn’t decided to call it a day. Even House of Lies managed five seasons before cancellation, despite the fact its ratings were looking pretty limp by the end of season four.

Showtime’s willingness to back its dramas for extended runs will probably become an industry norm over the next few years. While it’s important to refresh schedules with new productions, the TV drama market is now so cluttered that established series with consistent audiences are worth their weight in gold.

The extent of the competitive challenge has been well documented by FX Networks president John Landgraf, who has used the last couple of Television Critics Association Summer Tours to unveil research into key trends in scripted TV. Last year, for example, he said the US industry was poised to have more than 400 original shows a year on air. This year, he revised that figure up to 500 originals a year.

John Landgraf
John Landgraf

In Landgraf’s view, this is too many to make economic sense, so he is expecting a crunch to come at some point. He backed up this view by saying that while the top 20% of scripted series average 10.5 million viewers, the bottom tier attracts a mere 380,000.

This brings us back around to Showtime and longevity. If you have a show that rates moderately well then it makes sense to keep it going as long as possible. Why cancel it and replace it with a new show that might end up in the uneconomic end of the spectrum? That would be like a supermarket deciding to eject Heinz and Persil from its shelves in favour of completely new brands.

The attraction of sustaining shows over several seasons is reinforced by the amount of money that SVoD players are now pumping into new content. With Netflix spending around US$6bn a year on content and Amazon aiming to triple the number of new shows it has on its platform, long-running scripted franchises become even more important –which is why we’re seeing more of a trend towards multi-season commissioning.

Of course, this doesn’t mean networks should stick with every series regardless of ratings. Some series simply aren’t very good and need to be killed off so others can bloom. But as far as possible, networks need to be launching series that can last. This is why we are seeing such a strong trend towards IP that is already known (film and TV reboots, books, comics) and the use of talent packages that audiences are likely to respond well to. Anthologies and series spin-offs reinforce this overall trend.

Mad Men
Mad Men comprised seven seasons

Showtime’s key rivals are not quite as advanced in the longevity stakes but they are moving a similar way. FX, for example, reached seven seasons with Sons of Anarchy and looks like it will hit a similar mark with American Horror Story. There is now also talk of a Sons of Anarchy prequel.

Starz, meanwhile, is putting its shoulder behind Power and Outlander. At AMC, The Walking Dead has hit the magic seven and Fear The Walking Dead may eventually go the same way. Mad Men reached seven seasons and so did Breaking Bad if you count in its spin-off Better Call Saul.

Netflix has commissioned as far as seven seasons of Orange is the New Black and USA Networks has taken its hit show Suits to seven seasons. HBO’s Game of Thrones will go at least as far as eight seasons and it would be a major surprise if the network gives up there (some kind of spin-off must surely be in the works).

Versailles will return to BBC2
Versailles will return to BBC2

Elsewhere in a quiet week for scripted series, BBC2 in the UK has acquired the second season of French period drama Versailles, which will air on the channel next year. The first series rated well on BBC2 and has sold extensively around the world. In the US, it is soon to air on Ovation while distributor Zodiak Rights has also licensed it into around 130 countries. In addition, SVoD platform Netflix picked up second-window streaming rights in the US.

Also in the news this month, Portuguese public broadcaster RTP is working with producer BeActive on a drama set in the world of electronic sports. Called The Players, the series follows a group of friends as they journey to the European championship finals of League of Legends, a popular online video game. BeActive claims it is the first scripted series to focus on the world of e-sports. That’s interesting given our column last week on the role of sport in scripted TV.

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Homeland’s Chip Johannessen: Stories from the writers room

US writer-producer Chip Johannessen shares his approach to writing series television based on his spells on The X-Files spin-off Millennium, Fox hit 24 and Showtime’s Homeland.

Millennium/The X-Files
Johannessen wrote and produced for Fox series Millennium (pictured left below), which followed an ex-FBI agent who could see into the minds of criminals, between 1996 and 1999, before penning one episode of The X-Files – season seven’s Orison. Both shows were created by Chris Carter.

Millennium (left) and The X-Files

Point of view was a total obsession of Chris Carter, the showrunner on The X-Files and Millennium. Things like subjective camera moves helped you get into the characters’ heads.

By far the most important thing was tightening the sightlines to the point where the actor was almost speaking into the camera. This helped you get into the psychological unease of the characters.

But point of view is not just the shooting style, it gets baked into the script. Every scene has a point of view and every scene must take the past and drive it into the future. This is cause and effect – something happens, something else happens and because that happens, something else happens and so on.

Chip Johannessen
Chip Johannessen

Cause and effect is the glue that holds everything together. Without it, you have nothing – just a bunch of random crap happening. You would think you don’t have to say it, but the fact is cause and effect quickly goes out of the window if you’re not constantly reminded of it.

Stories are not robust, they’re fragile. If you have something that’s working, treasure it – because if you add one or two things that don’t belong, you go from having something that works to having something that doesn’t.

I do not believe in character scenes. When I’m told it’s a character scene, that’s a code for ‘nothing is going on here.’ In terms of driving the past into the future, that is not a good thing. When I hear that term, I get my scissors. This was the deal at The X-Files and Millennium: if a scene is not necessary, delete it; if a line is not necessary, delete it; and the scary part… if a word is not necessary, delete it.

Each scene was represented by a three-by-five card. At The X-Files and Millennium, if you did not believe in the alchemical properties of a perfectly lettered three-by-five card attached by push pin to a cork board, you would not survive in that shop. The stories were almost engineered and would appear to you from the board – you could see whether there were pieces not working well, if there was stuff you could get rid of. The cards can make non-writers into writers.


24
Johannessen was an executive producer of the action drama, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as CTU agent Jack Bauer, for season eight, which first aired on Fox in 2010. He was also a consulting producer for season seven (2009).

24-s8-ep1-1

The big innovation with 24 was, of course, the ‘real time’ element. Real time was in the air at that point. There had been a movie called Timecode that had split screens. We realised in The X-Files and Millennium there were advantages to it. A typical episode had four acts and by the top of act three you’d be breathless trying to get where you were going, and by four you’d be running in real time with a very tight timeline to the end.

What Joel Surnow did as writer of 24 was radical. He said: “Let’s take that energy and sustain it through every frame.” It means jump cuts and flashbacks are off the table. The only thing taking the past and driving it into the future is the life of the characters. If your sense of writing was two people come into a room to have a conversation, you were out in the cold; if your sense of writing was two people come into a room to talk about nothing, you were really out in the cold.

The other thing real time demands is that scenes start at the beginning and play out to the end. We have a sense of where the character is coming from, we have an entrance into the scene and then there’s usually an exit at the other side. In the middle, people have to deal with difficult situations in real time – they look very smart because they have a whole writers room behind them figuring out the smartest way to get through things.

This created an idea that a scene should only be about one thing, and that’s something we retained as we moved into Homeland.

We kept parts from The X-Files and Millennium and jettisoned others. The lighting was simplified and the horror story vocabulary was now gone, but we retained a strong sense of point of view. The producers and directors called it “human height” and everything was shot from there. We lost all the high and low angles unless it was actually somebody’s point of view, and that way we were very much in the action.

The one writerly conceit we did retain was cliffhangers. This is clearly a big thing in the binge-watching world. But we discovered early on that a good cliffhanger is not an action cliffhanger; it’s not putting a gun to somebody’s head where they’re going to die or get blown up. A good cliffhanger is something that upends your entire story, that changes everything. Something like: “The president is going to be assassinated.”

“Yes, Jack, that’s true – and you’re the one who’s going to do it.”


Homeland
Having worked with co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa on 24, Johannessen has executive produced all five seasons of Homeland. Season six is due to air later this year.

Homeland-s3-4

With Homeland, we had a much more naturalistic way of doing things. Instead of everything feeling staged, we wanted a feeling that the action was just captured, almost documentary style.

The language was more simple and natural. You could already see that happening in 24 because the language was simple and direct – Jack Bauer was an action hero and his language was often reduced to things like, “do it, do it now.” In Homeland we wanted to bring everything back down to earth.

To get the writer out of the script, we used reality as a trump card. We put a big emphasis on research. We did none, ever, at 24; we just made that shit up – it was a point of honour. We researched Homeland meticulously – ahead of every season, we take a trip to the CIA for three days and talk to a parade of spooks about what’s going on in the world. Ahead of the most recent season, they were all talking about Syria and Europe, so that’s where we ended up landing. We have technical consultants for everything – we try very hard to get it all right.

Even though the number of episodes is reduced compared with 24, where we felt like we were stumbling through and trying to survive, it still really exceeds one person’s ability to write that much material – particularly when you’re producing as well, which we all do at Homeland. This means we have multiple people in a serialised story, so we all have to be in the room together. If I’m writing episode three I have to know what happened in one and two, and have to know what to hand off to four and five.

We cling to the card system we inherited from The X-Files like a life preserver. The good thing is once we have the cards on the board we can hand those to anybody and they can go out and write a script. It’s not quite like a monkey could do it – that would depend on the monkey – but anybody who was there for the process is capable of writing the script.

So we’re asking writers to give up a lot. But if you serve the story, get rid of the noise, never do anything just because it’s cool and try to get rid of all the bad things we inherited from 40 years of bad broadcast TV, you get something very significant in return. You get a writing process generating pages that is so simple it is almost terrifying. All you do is close your eyes and you’re there with your characters and you let them speak.

But don’t let your actors drink coffee in scenes. They’ve already had enough.

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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The growing complexity of commissioning

Vinyl has been cancelled
Vinyl has been cancelled

The process of renewing and cancelling scripted shows used to be pretty straightforward. But these days there is a growing number of variations on this theme.

Recently, for example, we shone a spotlight on Nashville, which was cancelled by ABC and then revived by CMT. And this week, we have a reverse example in the shape of HBO’s Vinyl.

In this case, the music-based series was initially given a second season but has now been cancelled. Despite much hype and creators including Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the first season didn’t rate well and was a prime candidate to get the chop when it finished airing in April.

Instead, programming chief Michael Lombardo decided to stick with it. Now, however, Lombardo has been replaced by Casey Bloys and it is he who has called time on the series. A similar thing happened to VH1’s Hindsight earlier in the year, though in that case it was a change in editorial direction, not bad ratings, that drove the decision.

‘Uncancellations’ and ‘unrenewals’ are not the only new developments in the scripted market. As we’ve reported before, there is also a growing trend for US networks to order two or three seasons of a hit show in one go as a way of locking up the key talent involved (a high-profile example being Netflix’s Orange is the New Black).

The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom

We’re also seeing situations where international coproductions have to rejig their broadcast partner structure because one of them drops out or is no longer regarded as suitable. Netflix, for example, has just replaced BBC America as a partner on period series The Last Kingdom.

Then there is the emerging tendency for shows to be co-commissioned by networks (such as the recent simulcast of Roots across A+E’s main US cable channels) and for commissions that are destined to start their life on OTT or SVoD platforms.

We’ve seen Amazon, Netflix and Hulu lead the way on this latter development, of course, but now we have a number of shows that have opened or will open their account on platforms like Crackle, BBC iPlayer or CBS All Access.

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, CBS CEO and president Les Moonves talked about the decision to debut the latest TV reboot of Star Trek on CBS All Access, an OTT platform that costs US$5.99 per month. It is due to launch in January.

According to Moonves, every part of CBS wanted to get its hands on Star Trek first – and there was also a lot of interest from third-party platforms like Netflix. But it’s a sign of the changing profile of the TV business that a company like CBS that makes most of its money from advertising and syndication/distribution should place this iconic property on a nascent subscription service.

Penny Dreadful's creator has called time on the show
Penny Dreadful’s creator, John Logan, has called time on the show

Other interesting developments have seen creators, rather than networks, call time on series.

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, for example, was still in good shape when it came to the end of season three. But creator John Logan has simply decided it has reached its natural end: “I created Penny Dreadful to tell the story of a woman grappling with her faith, and with the demons inside her,” he said. “For me, the character of Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) is the heart of this series. From the beginning, I imagined her story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finding peace as she returns to her faith.”

This is an interesting dynamic, because it runs counter to the usual notion of TV networks being the all-powerful decision-makers, with creatives holding their breath in anticipation of a recommission. As TV becomes increasingly reliant on A-list auteurs and high-profile actors for content that cuts through the clutter of competition, it will encounter this situation more and more.

Maybe networks and distributors will want six or seven seasons of a show in order to fully monetise their investment, but the creative in question may only want to do two or three seasons before following their muse somewhere else. It’s an interesting conundrum that is an inevitable part of a TV system that has become more film-like in terms of its approach. In the case of actors, the problem can be addressed through the use of anthology-style series, but with writers it’s not so simple.

Reference to anthologies is, of course, another example of how the traditional commissioning model is adapting to the realities of 21st century television. Franchises like American Horror Story, Fargo and True Detective are all examples of how networks can, in effect, get a completely new show while leverage existing brand awareness.

Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf
Oprah Winfrey (left) in Greenleaf

This kind of renewal can have a re-energising effect on a show – and it’s not the only way that the drama business tries to breathe new life into shows.

Showrunner replacement, especially in the context of the US, is an increasingly common way of trying to sustain a franchise that networks like but don’t think is firing on all cylinders – or where the original showrunner is maybe running out of juice, or distracted by other projects.

We’ve also seen the interesting example of Supergirl moving from CBS to The CW in pursuit of a more appropriate audience.

Finally, in the increasingly complex world of commissioning and renewal, we’ve seen the emergence of the spin-off, which, like the anthology, seeks to marry fresh content with brand track record. Dick Wolf’s Chicago family of shows for NBC and Fear The Walking Dead for AMC show that this approach can work across the range. All in all then, the world of hits and misses, renewals and cancellations, has become much more sophisticated in the multiplatform universe.

Away from the complexities of commissioning and cancellation, one of the big new debuts of the week was Greenleaf, a new scripted series for Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that stars Winfrey herself. The premiere of the drama attracted an audience of 3.04 million and a 2.18 rating in OWN’s target market of women aged 25 to 54. That makes it the biggest series launch in OWN’s five-year history.

Written by Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey and Clement Virgo, Greenleaf is produced by Lionsgate and explores the inner workings of the powerful family behind a Memphis megachurch.

With its predominantly African-American cast and characters, it’s the latest example of the pulling power of shows that appeal to the black audience in the US. It’s also an example of the immense appeal of Winfrey in any screen incarnation (chat show, TV drama or film).

Compared to other cable networks, Greenleaf was the most-watched show on its debut evening. It is also the second-most-watched scripted cable debut of 2016 so far after FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson – which reinforces the point about subject matter that resonates strong with the black community.

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Nordic drama in good company

Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh
Ole Søndberg produced the BBC version of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh

London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.

The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”

Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.

ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season
ABC in Oz has brought back legal drama Janet King for a third season

Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”

Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”

Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.

Cleverman is BBC3's first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network
Cleverman is BBC3’s first drama acquisition since it became a web-only network

Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.

A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”

DRTV's Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada
DRTV’s financial crime drama Follow The Money will air on CBC in Canada

In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.

Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.

US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla
US VoD service Acorn TV has added UK biopic drama Cilla

The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.

As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.

The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.

Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC's Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan
Amazon Prime Video has taken AMC’s Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan

“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”

As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.

Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season
Omen spin-off Damien has ended after a single season on A&E

Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.

Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”

Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.

Don Cheadle in Showtime's now-axed comedy House of Lies
Don Cheadle in Showtime’s now-axed comedy House of Lies

Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”

In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.

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Sky takes drama to new heights

The Last Dragonslayer
The Last Dragonslayer is coming to Sky as a ‘family adventure’ drama series

In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.

At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…

Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.

In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.

Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”

Idris Elba, pictured here in Luther, will star in Sky's Guerrilla
Idris Elba, pictured here in BBC detective series Luther, will star in Sky’s Guerrilla

News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”

The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.

Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”

Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”

Sky drama boss Anne Mensah
Sky drama boss Anne Mensah

Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.

In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.

Silicon Valley's third season started last night on HBO
Silicon Valley began its third season last night on HBO and has already been renewed for a fourth

Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.

“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”

As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.

In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.

This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).

Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.

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Sky high

From talking the talk to walking the walk, UK pay TV broadcaster Sky has put its money where its mouth is in the search for compelling original drama.

It was in 2011 that Sky group CEO Jeremy Darroch said the UK pay TV giant would be investing £600m (US$909m) a year in original content by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its previous spend.

Now that money is being seen on screen in the guise of an enviable slate of original series, including You, Me and the Apocalypse, The Last Panthers and Fungus the Bogeyman, which aired over Christmas. New series coming up include The Five, created by crime author Harlan Coben, and second seasons of The Tunnel (pictured above) and Fortitude.

And as Sky moves into a new era of year-round drama commissioning across three channels – Sky1, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts – there is only the promise of more to come.

Mensah: 'If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left'
Mensah: ‘If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left’

“We are a pay TV platform so we have a mandate from our CEO to make sure we can provide drama that people want to pay for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. “What’s brilliant about that relationship with our customers is that it’s a mandate for distinction. Everything we do is about being the boldest, the most distinctive, the most innovative drama in the UK, specifically for our customers. We have one drama after another and they all have that ambition to be absolutely best in class, but also good fun and really watchable.”

Sky is best known for its acquisition of rights, predominantly for sport, movies and US television – in particular series from HBO. Last month, Sky tied up exclusive UK rights to content from Showtime, which will include Billions and the revival of Twin Peaks.

And Mensah compares Sky’s original drama ambitions to that of the film business: “We look at television like movies. In the same way you’re working really hard to get an audience to get out of their chair and go to the cinema and buy a ticket, you buy a ticket for Sky. We treat our customers in the same way, with the same production values, the same stars and the same sense of event.

“On Sky1, it’s a blockbuster experience; on Sky Atlantic, it’s more of an art-house cinema experience. But Sky Atlantic is not niche – it’s an art-house cinema experience with wine.”

Cameron Roach, Sky’s drama commissioning editor, takes the identities of Sky’s channels further by describing them in terms of how viewers watch them.

“On Sky1 we want to promote shared viewing in households, whereas Sky Atlantic is not about the overnights and is much more like reading a novel – you might watch two or three episodes at once,” he explains. “The on-demand platform (Sky Go) is really important for that viewing experience.”

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made extensive use of CGI

But when viewers are watching Sky’s output in a variety of ways, how does the broadcaster measure success? Mensah says it’s about what the programme makers wanted their show to achieve in the first place.

“Some shows are built to be consumed like novels, to be massive critical successes and to talk to an audience that want to get into real think-pieces. Others are built to be super entertaining,” she says. “Everybody’s obsession with how you measure success is totally reductive because every show does something different. Particularly when you’ve got a pay TV platform – on a basic level our jobs are to bring people to Sky and keep them at Sky, and to give them a good experience of being Sky customers. That’s not one show, that’s the whole offering.”

As far as development goes, Sky doesn’t have a number of projects waiting in the wings. Instead, its drama team puts its money only on shows that are likely to make it to air, rather than taking scripts on and passing on them further down the line.

Mensah notes: “If we know we want to do a show, we think we shouldn’t put other things into competition with it. I would hope the talent comes to work with us and knows we’re backing their show and not slightly playing the odds like some other channels can do. It can be quite hard to get stuff into development with us, but once we’re in development with something, we’re doing it because we intend to make it.”

Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime
Billions is coming to Sky via its deal with Showtime

Roach adds that Sky’s drama team turns down lots of projects. “Before I started working with Anne, she said her ambition was to run a narrow slate,” he says. “Lots of people say that but it is genuine. We’re a small team but if something is in funded development with us, that means one of the team absolutely loves it. We’ve all got different tastes so it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but we have an absolute ambition to see that show made and we will support that production company.”

Funding from the pay TV broadcaster is also dependent on the type of project in question. With its use of CGI, Fungus the Bogeyman required extensive research and development, while horror story The Enfield Haunting also required commitments in terms of research and script development.

Sky’s development process has also become slightly more complicated since Sky UK’s acquisition of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, creating a single company that broadcasts to 21 million customers in five territories across Europe.

Both Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland have retained their own drama teams, however, with forthcoming series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, offering the first example of how the trio will work together.

The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers was simulcast across all of Sky’s territories

“The Young Pope is a coproduction through all three but editorially it goes through Sky Italia, because what you don’t need is 7,000 voices on something,” Mensah says. “There’s one editorial voice but the backing of the whole weight of Sky. The Last Panthers was simultaneously transmitted across all of our territories, as was Fortitude. What you’ve got is the best of all possible worlds, which is clear editorial focus but with the weight of this massive company backing your show.”

Sky is also a committed coproduction partner, working with NBC on end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, Showtime on horror Penny Dreadful and France’s Canal+ on cross-Channel drama The Tunnel and pan-European crime thriller The Last Panthers.

“We love coproductions but luckily with Sky, it’s not about the money as much as creativity. Working with Canal+, not only do we like them personally but they also brought creative talent to us that we couldn’t find ourselves. I’d never worked with Haut et Court (Les Revenants) before Panthers. The Warp Films-Haut et Court partnership is why Panthers is so unique. As for The Tunnel, we had worked with Kudos before but working in France with French directors was new to me.”

Looking ahead, Roach says The Five is a good example of how Sky wants to take an existing genre – crime, in this case – and give it a different hook for Sky1.

The show follows a group of four friends haunted by the disappearance of one of
their younger brothers some years earlier while he was in their care. The group is forced to revisit the past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. It is written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst and produced by Nicola Shindler’s Red Production Company.

Penny Dreadful
Penny Dreadful is a coproduction with Showtime

“Anne and Nicola started talking about the hooky novels that come from the likes of Harlan Coben,” recalls Roach. “It was a really innovative development process and it was the same with Fungus and Lucky Man (now airing on Sky1), which was an original idea from (Marvel Comics’) Stan Lee.”

The prospect of year-round drama also looks set to create a new story for Sky’s channels, with their individual identities no longer being separated by strict boundaries.

“There has to be fluid boundaries between the channels, particularly as we’re aware of the growing importance of our on-demand offering,” says Roach. “We’re planning two or three years in advance and we’re not sure how platforms will emerge. Sky1 and Sky Atlantic have a very clear identity but as we go to year-round drama we can diversify our output.”

Mensah says anyone hoping to pitch a project to Sky should simply talk to her and her team. “A pitch should feel like a conversation,” she explains. “Too often people put too much emphasis on the formal pitch – anything we’ve got in funded development began as a conversation. People can over-think that process. We’re working with Graham Moore, who wrote The Imitation Game, and he simply called us. We bought the idea on the phone. He then won an Oscar. Equally, other people send us full scripts. There are seriously no rules.”

Stan Lee's Lucky Man
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man

No rules, then, but if one were to offer potential partners some guidelines, it would be to avoid generalised stories and to throw caution to the wind in a bid to offer big, bold, epic tales.

“If you’re lucky enough to be a commissioner, when everybody else turns right, you should turn left,” says Mensah. “With The Five, everyone else was doing lovely, languid thrillers so we thought, ‘how can we do it as quickly as possible?’ It turns on a dime every five seconds and the producers have done such a good job.”

Ultimately, to have a drama land on Sky, you’ve got to reach for the stars. “If you feel a show could sit on ITV or the BBC, they’re brilliant so that’s the space it should be in,” Mensah adds. “We really do look for stuff that feels like it could only be us.”

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