Tag Archives: Snowfall

Back to the 1980s

As a host of scripted series find inspiration in the 1980s, DQ speaks to the creatives behind these shows to find out how they recreated the era – and why it remains so popular almost 30 years after the decade ended.

It’s hard to believe shoulder pads and neon clothing were once fashionable. But take a look at any number of television shows on air today and you might think time has stood still since the 1980s, such is the number of scripted series now set during the decade.

Spy thriller The Americans, tech series Halt & Catch Fire, various instalments of Shane Meadows miniseries This is England, Argentine gangster drama Historia de un Clan, British series Brief Encounters and Black Mirror’s Emmy-winning season three episode San Junipero (pictured above) have all fuelled this trend, in which series largely use the period as the backdrop for stories centring on historical, political or cultural events that took place during the decade. For others, such as short-lived Sex & the City prequel The Carrie Diaries, it suits the age and sensibilities of its fashion-conscious characters.

The show that has arguably done more than any to inspire nostalgic recollections of the 1980s is Netflix’s Stranger Things, in which co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer turned a paranormal murder mystery into a love letter to their childhood. Inspired by the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the show, which returns for a second season this autumn, is loved as much for the use of walkie-talkies and Dungeons & Dragons as it is for introducing viewers to a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down.

Netflix hit Stranger Things has been at the forefront of the 80s trend

“Fortunately it’s not the 1780s,” remarks production designer Chris Trujillo, who was tasked with creating and dressing the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, both at a studio lot and on location in and around Atlanta. “A lot of this stuff is very collectible and very available, so with a thorough internet search we were always able to find super-specific stuff. The challenge is being true to the 80s and making sure everything’s authentic, as opposed to just going to a prop house and renting a bunch of furniture that’s been on half-a-dozen shows. The more challenging items were the fantasy stuff, where you’re making it up for the Upside Down.”

But while Ghostbusters figures and He-Man bedsheets might be collectibles now, the fashion of the period was much more disposable, as costume designer Beth Morgan discovered when she joined another 1980s-set Netflix series, female wresting drama GLOW.

“It is a challenging period because it was a time when people didn’t save their clothes,” she says. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people didn’t have as many clothes. People took really good care of them, they saved stuff. The 80s was a lot more casual. A lot of T-shirts and jeans got ruined and were thrown out. There wasn’t as much care. So there’s a lot of stock out there but not good-quality stock.”

As well as its resurgence on television, 1980s style is also enjoying a renaissance in real life, and Morgan found unlikely competition for thrift-store garments in the guise of LA hipsters looking for authentic items to add to their own wardrobes. “If there are any other shows in town that are set in the 80s too, you’re racing to the costume houses to get the stuff you want,” she continues. “But we were always able to find the perfect piece for each actor for each scene. There’s a blouse for Ruth [played by Alison Brie] that’s my favourite thing, which we found on the floor of a rag house.

Female wrestling drama GLOW is also on Netflix

“The hard part for us was the Jazzercise class. We have so many workout looks in our show. The key was those 80s elastic belts that perfectly match the leotards – finding those was a real challenge. Finding the right clasp for a belt was really hard because there’s not a ton of them around. So it was a challenge but a fun one, and now we have so much stuff. Next season will be even more fun.”

In contrast, when Cold War family saga Weissensee launched in 2010, costume designer Monika Hinz was tasked with finding considerably less glamorous clothing. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to get away from the sepia look that is often used to create a historic atmosphere,” she says of the German drama, which airs locally on Das Erste. “The script dived into all kinds of classes – artists, military officers and generals – so my costumes served all of those different people. It was my concept to use lots of colours as it was the fashion in the late 70s to wear green, orange, brown and yellow. This helped a character like Julia Hausmann, played by Hannah Herzsprung, to look young, cheerful and sexy, ready to jump into life.”

Hinz’s biggest challenge, however, was finding the right material to dress prisoners depicted in the series. “The original clothes were a striking neon-blue synthetic material. They were given to the prisoners in purposely non-fitting sizes to make them feel bad because they had to hold their pants to stop them falling down. So I had to find cloth that was as authentic as possible. It’s a terrible colour for the camera, but the DOP and the director thought it was very important to do it that way. And I got them all tailored in a non-fitting size.”

When production designer Frank Godt joined the team behind Weissensee, which was created by writer Annette Hess and is distributed by Global Screen, his task was to recreate East Germany (DDR) right down to the smallest details. “We searched for furniture, wallpaper, props, cars, lorries, buildings, surfaces, shields and so on,” he recalls.

Weissensee, which highlights a less colourful side of the decade than many other series

“Compared with the Western countries, the DDR was very conservative and simple – because of communism and socialism, of course – and that was also the case in the 1980s. Trabbies [East German Trabant cars], food, furniture and all other consumer goods were like this. The DDR was an isolated and closed country, totally cut off from the outside Western world. The wall looked like a bastion – it demonstrated fear and a prison feeling to the inhabitants every day and one felt scared all time.”

It’s for this reason that the show stands out from the more vibrant 80s-set dramas, adds Godt. “Life seemed colourless, grey and sad. Western people were constantly looking over to the DDR people and felt sorry for them. But the people behind the wall created their own colourful world and made the best of it. To visualise this incomprehensible contrast between the grey DDR and the colourful and cosmopolitan life in the West was the biggest challenge for the production design team.”

Fellow German drama Deutschland 83, meanwhile, demanded splashes of colour in every scene. As such, set designer Lars Lange sought to create a visual language for the show to avoid it looking like a documentary or “museum piece.”

“It was quite a challenge and an exciting task to grapple with the history of Germany during this very special time in the Cold War,” he explains. “It was also a challenge to interpret this through our sets and images for an audience that, in part, is acquainted with that time from personal experience, and, at the same time, for those who had nothing to do with it.”

To create the look of the show – whose sequel, Deutschland 86, is now in production for RTL and Amazon – Lange used historical research, eyewitness accounts and memories from his own youth. “Apart from the wall, soldiers, punks and shoulder pads, there were, alongside the half-crumbling backyards on both sides, also architectural highlights from the 50s, 60s and 70s, which shaped the cityscape.”

LA crack cocaine drama Snowfall

That visual language was strengthened by the costumes designed by Katrin Unterberger, who wanted the FremantleMedia International-distributed series to be “colourful and cool.”

“The creative heads had agreed a look to visually distinguish between East Germany and West Germany,” she recalls. “The East had to be in pastel colours, with floral patterns and hand-crafted stitching. The West, on the other hand, was fast-paced, so characters needed clear lines and bright colours without patterns. But in reality the styles were not as black and white.”

With 1980s fashion still popular, Unterberger was able to source original items in second-hand shops, though the large cast meant she had to find specific styles for lots of different people. That meant high heels, big hairstyles and colourful make-up.

One discovery particularly stood out: “I found a very nice patchwork T-shirt in the West, and in an East shop I found an almost identical piece,” she says. “[The latter] was made from different-coloured bed sheets, self-sewn and then decorated. This was a moving moment for me that spoke volumes politically. In the West, people could buy what they wanted but in the East, they had to use their imagination.”

US drama Snowfall, which airs on FX, has a vibrant and colourful style. The series, recently renewed for a second season, recreates LA in 1983 to follow the rise of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic.

“We did want to embrace the world as much as possible,” says showrunner Dave Andron, although he adds that he was keen to ensure the period in which the series is set did not overshadow the story. “For me, a lot of it was doing it in a way that felt authentic and organic and not distracting. And with costumes, it was always a fine line where you want it to feel 1980s but you don’t want there to be neon shoulder pads to the point where all you’re looking at is the clothes. It’s got to feel completely of the piece, with the world you’ve created, but not distracting all at once.”

So why is the trend for 1980s-set series so prevalent? One theory is that the commissioners and screenwriters now working in television grew up during that period and are dramatising their own experiences. However, Stranger Things’ Trujillo believes there’s a “general exhaustion” with technology, apps and selfies that means viewers are keen to return to a period where such trappings belonged in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

“There’s something really fun about these kids on an adventure,” he says. “No one’s going to call them on a cell phone. It harks back to a time when I was a kid and you could go out in the neighbourhood and have a real adventure. I feel like somehow that’s a bit lost and the idea of adventure is now virtual adventures. But when I was a kid, you imagined having a Stand By Me adventure instead of doing something weird on the internet. It’s a bit of a relief.”

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Cracking up

FX explores the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped LA in the 1980s in period drama Snowfall. DQ chats to showrunner Dave Andron about the series, which he describes as a “love letter” to the city.

A storm is coming – but from the opening frames of Snowfall, it’s hard to see from which direction. There’s not a cloud in the LA sky as the camera pans up and down a South Central street lined on both sides by perfect palm trees. A sprinkler is soaking one front lawn as an ice cream truck arrives to the excitement of children playing basketball outside their homes.

It’s here that viewers meet Franklin Saint, played by Damson Idris (pictured above), who chastises two kids for stealing ice creams and preaches to his mocking friends that crime “isn’t how America works.”

Dave Andron

What he doesn’t know is that he and numerous other characters will be pulled onto a violent collision course with one another as, here in 1983, a crack cocaine epidemic takes hold of the city and ultimately has a radical impact on society and culture.

Facing Franklin, described as a young street entrepreneur on a quest for power, are Gustavo ‘El Oso’ Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler caught up in a power struggle within a crime family; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative running from a dark past who begins an off-book operation to fund right-wing militants the Nicaraguan Contras; and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios), the self-possessed daughter of a Mexican crime lord.

Created for US cable network FX by John Singleton, Eric Amadio and showrunner Dave Andron, Snowfall is executive produced by the trio alongside Thomas Schlamme, Michael London and Trevor Engelson. The FX Productions show is distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution.

“I’d never seen anything before on TV that came in right before crack hit,” says Andron about the appeal of running the show, which debuts in the US on July 5. “Everything always starts when you’re in the war on drugs and there’s bars on the windows and South Central is a war zone. So I was very interested in exploring the moment right before crack hit, when it was just cocaine [on the streets] and South Central was this working-class neighbourhood that wasn’t the place everyone thinks of when they hear of Compton now. That I found fascinating.

“Then to be able to simultaneously touch on the CIA’s role and whatever part they played in the war on drugs, it just felt big. It has scope but it’s also really entertaining.”

Andron has a long relationship with FX, having written for western drama Justified until it ended in 2015. He later received a call from the network asking him if he would take a look at a script they liked but thought needed a rewrite. That script was the pilot of Snowfall, penned by Amadio and Simpleton, who had previously worked in movies but had no experience in television.

Snowfall centres on crack cocaine’s impact on 1980s LA

“So much of it was wonderful, it just needed some tweaks to get it to that final place,” Andron recalls. “They were thinking of it as a one-off, they both had done some movie stuff, but it needed to fit more into a format for a TV show.

“The world of Franklin had enough intrigue and drama and the character was set up. [The changes were] really about the CIA story – it needed to feel bigger, more global. Then we gave Teddy a little more mystery, a little backstory and made him somebody you were rooting for a little more. And it was the same for the Gustavo story. Weirdly, that actually needed to be simplified. It was a little over-complicated for the pilot. There were too many characters. And I just wanted there to be more of a sense of suspense and intrigue coming out of his storyline.”

Boyz n the Hood director Singleton’s experience growing up in South Central provided much of the authenticity the series demanded, while Snowfall also employed a CIA consultant and worked with a former member of a Latino gang. Their knowledge helped to flesh out the 10-episode season, which, like the pilot, was shaped by Andron based on Singleton and Amadio’s initial outlines.

“They had some broad-stroke ideas they wanted to get to but the CIA and Mexican-American storylines changed so much after I came in. Those things I had pretty specific ideas on,” the showrunner explains. “I put together a [writers] room and as a group we figured out where those ideas were going to go. John, having this real-world experience, had some notions of where he’d like to see certain things go [in Franklin’s story] but, frankly, once we all came together, it was a hive model. It was really a group effort to figure out the season.”

Carter Hudson plays CIA operative Teddy McDonald

In his first showrunner role, Andron is quick to praise the show’s producing director, Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), describing him more as a “co-showrunner” who was an “incredible, invaluable part of the process for me and somebody who I could completely rely on.”

Andron also drew upon the time he spent working with Justified creator and showrunner Graham Yost, who is a champion of hierarchy-free writers rooms that allow writers to speak freely regardless of their credits or experience.

“If you were in the room, you deserved to be there and your voice was as important as the next guy’s voice,” Andron says. “I was really proud of the room we put together and how diverse it was. I really wanted everybody to be in there pitching in what felt like a safe environment – somewhere to really empower people.

“Running a show, there are so many things to do so you have to hire people you believe in and trust and let them do good work. Across the board, we were fortunate to have hired really well, from people in the room to our production heads. You’ve got to guide the ship and have an overarching view of where you want to go, but you let people do what they came to do – and everyone brought it. It was a wonderful experience.”

Looking at the broader genre of “drug dramas,” Andron holds up HBO classic The Wire as the “gold standard,” but says his ambition was to make Snowfall more fun, with a unique visual style and a script that was full of energy  “so it didn’t feel like you were watching a documentary.”

The 10-part series launches on FX on July 5

So in an effort to make the show stand out from the almost 500 other dramas that will air in the US this year, FX suggested directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah helm the pilot. They had worked together on Belgian feature Black, a Romeo & Juliet-style story between members of black and Moroccan gangs in Brussels.

“It was just incredible; it had such visual style, such life and it was so cool,” Andron enthuses of the 2015 movie. “The emotion was there as well. These guys had never worked in the US studio system but we got on the phone with them and they are the most gregarious, wonderful young guys. Having Tommy there, I knew he could guide them through the process of making this pilot so they ended up meshing wonderfully with everything we had hoped it could be. It was a wonderful experience working with them.”

Snowfall began filming last autumn and the production utilised real locations across LA, from Beverly Hills and the Valley to East LA and South Central – one of the reasons Andron calls Snowfall a “kind of love letter to LA.” Subsequently, he also found himself on set more than he had anticipated, taking time just to observe Schlamme working with the pilot’s directors and noting how the characters evolved through production, allowing him to tweak later episodes to reflect the actors and the buzz on set.

The showrunner’s ambition for the series, however, proved to be his biggest hurdle as he tried to juggle three complex, tangled storylines and multiple locations into an eight-day filming schedule for each episode.

“At one point we had a draft of the seventh episode where it was a really ambitious Franklin story and we tried to have the other two storylines be similar in scope, but we just looked at it and said, ‘My God, there’s no way to get all this in,’” Andron recalls. “So we decided that seven is just a very Franklin episode, without giving too much away. That’s not uncommon in TV, as you always want it to be as big and as ambitious as possible but the reality of what you can do in eight days is inescapable.”

Emily Rios as Lucia Villanueva, the daughter of a Mexican crime lord

On the journey of Snowfall’s characters, the showrunner adds: “What you’re watching are these four people who are all really ambitious but heading into something they don’t quite understand yet. Going forward, we want to see what happens when crack really lands. We do bring crack in, of course, a little later in the first season, and then it’s about watching the transformation. People talk about the moment crack arrived as being like a bomb dropped on South Central, and we’re really going to go for that moment. The plan is to make a show that feels like it needs four or five seasons to examine what happened when it landed, how it happened, why it was allowed to happen and how we’re still feeling the ramifications of it today.”

For a network currently at the top of its game, with Fargo, The Americans and American Crime Story also on the slate, FX could have its next big hit with Snowfall. Looking from the creative side of the television business, Andron has no doubts over why it has become arguably the most prolific cable network in the US in terms of drama.

“It’s the amount of leeway and respect they afford you as a creative,” he says, noting that FX offers feedback with no expectation that it might be acted upon. “They really do approach notes in this way of, ‘This is just our opinion, take it or leave it, but this is what we’ve experienced so you might want to consider this.’ As anybody knows, receiving a note in that way means you’re so much more apt to take it than from somebody who’s like, ‘You need to do this.’

“They have great instincts, and it starts with [FX Networks president] John Landgraf. He’s a wonderful collaborator, a brilliant guy and he’s got great taste, and that trickles down to the people he hires, who follow his lead in the way they approach things. I’ve been at FX for almost eight years now and I’d be very happy being there another eight years if they’d have me.”

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