Tag Archives: Steve Conrad

Grace period

Co-showrunners Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris tell DQ how they plan to disrupt the traditions of crime noir in Perpetual Grace, Ltd, a 10-part series from US cable network Epix and MGM Television.

At first glance, Amazon Prime Video series Patriot has all the traditional hallmarks of a spy drama, and yet it’s so much more than that. Darkly comic, dreamy and melancholic, with more than a splash of folk music, it stands out by the way it stretches the conventions of the genre.

Steve Conrad

Now showrunner Steve Conrad is taking the same approach to crime noir with his new series Perpetual Grace, Ltd. Created with co-showrunner Bruce Terris, who also worked on Patriot, it’s a show that promises a big personality, from the themes at the heart of the story to the vivid characters and even the western aesthetics of its shooting location in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“If you picture what we do on Patriot, which is take the infrastructure of the spy genre and ask it to hold up a bunch of different fascinations, we do that with Perpetual Grace with noir,” Conrad says. “The characters are never one-dimensional. They want the pot of gold at the end of this thing, but they also desperately want the same thing as everybody else on Earth, which is peace and dignity. That’s just as important to the appetite of our characters as ill-gotten gains.

“So there will be those similarities with Patriot where the world is wide and we try to be splendid and to make a show that you’ll watch and like, but that’s not simple-minded.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd (formerly called Our Lady, Ltd) tells the story of James, a young grifter who attempts to prey upon Pastor Byron Brown, who turns out to be far more dangerous than he anticipated.

James, a disgraced firefighter played by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson, seizes a chance to reverse his life’s worsening course. But when his plan veers dangerously off track, James must call on strength and fortitude he did not know he possessed in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Pastor Byron (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) and his wife Lilian (Jacki Weaver), known to their parishioners as Ma and Pa, have used religion to bilk hundreds of innocent men and women out of their life savings. Ma, who appears at first glance to be a modest, dutiful church lady, is Pa’s willing accomplice and his counterpart in regard to potency and cruelty.

Commissioned by US premium cable channel Epix and produced by MGM Television, the series launched on Sunday. MGM is also distributing internationally.

Patriot and Perpetual Grace, Ltd both originated around the same time. Terris had been an assistant director, then a producer and a writer on Patriot and during some down time while they were trying to get that show off the ground, Terris brought the idea of Perpetual Grace, Ltd to Conrad.

Perpetual Grace, Ltd pits Jimmi Simpson (right) against Ben Kingsley

The roots of the series can be found in Terris’s desire to write a drama about identity, but not just a thriller about a case of stolen identity. “The central tension of those dramas is almost always really good surface tension but I thought that a deeper tension might be what’s underneath,” he explains. “In that way, it’s this idea that if James is someone who tries to escape problems by assuming the identity of someone else, you better make sure that person is not in worse trouble than you are. That’s the central hub of the idea that I brought to Steve. Then we just took it from there.”

James is a character who has had a run of bad luck and made some bad decisions, but still clings to the hope that he can turn his life around. But he then makes another bad decision in an attempt to fix things.

“We’re studying how out of desperation, and only facing the most desperate odds, you can actually hope to save yourself. It might become survival,” Conrad explains. “So James finds himself outmatched by the power of a man he thought was powerless, and he made a terrible mistake when he picked Byron Brown to prey on. Now he finds himself in the middle of a heavyweight fight he hadn’t prepared for, but he can’t leave the ring.

“Jimmi Simpson is just a guy with that light in his eye that I’ve been hoping to work with for a long time. The way he delivers human beings, they’re complicated but they have a simple-mindedness of purpose which is to get over and find safety somehow. He’s instantly likeable but also somehow a tremendously nuanced actor. He’s going to fit right into the way Bruce and I convey this fictional world.”

Opposite Simpson is Kingsley, who has played Ghandi, ferocious Sexy Beast gangster Don Logan and every character in between during his storied screen career. “There’s no safer bet than Sir Ben in terms of the way we are going to throw everything that humans are capable of into the course of this guy’s story,” Conrad continues. “He’s going to say and do almost everything humans say and do when they’re desperate.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd also follows Patriot’s lead in its use of supporting characters. “Everyone gets heavy lifting in this show and they’re all material to the unravelling of the plot,” Conrad notes. “These characters find themselves having to depend on each other just to survive.”

The show launched on Epix at the weekend

Terris continues: “Coming up as a writer, Steve really mentored me, and one of the things I noticed in all of his scripts was there truly were no throwaway characters. That waiter or waitress had a story. The finest drama you can construct is one where you explore all their stories and you learn about everyone. The person you think is going to be an ‘extra’ becomes a fully fledged participant in the drama that unfolds.”

Conrad and Terris opened their writing room by first figuring out how they wanted the story to end. Once that was decided, they simply watched movies for a couple of months, making a staff writer position on the show the latest entrant for ‘best job in the world.’

“The first week is fun and then you get to the second week and you think, ‘Are we really just wasting time?’” Conrad admits. “But then we open the room and we have four writers and an assistant, and all we do is sit in a room and talk about how to most intricately and expertly convey this story in relation to films that have done this before.”

For example, Conrad talks about the moment in Al Pacino’s 1975 bank heist film Dog Day Afternoon where viewers know the robbery is going to fail, but what makes them continue to watch? Similarly, what makes viewers sit up and pay attention during high-stakes moments in 1998 crime thriller A Simple Plan?

“That sounds boring but we did this theoretical engineering of plot for months and months,” he continues. “Then we’re left with very little time to write the scripts because it’s time to turn them in, so we just write all day and night.”

Even at the moment DQ speaks to Conrad and Terris last October [2018], they are spending their days location scouting in Santa Fe before returning to their rental house to continue writing. Despite having a writers room, only they have written the scripts. “But the story’s figured out. You don’t have the blank page and you don’t bang your head on the desk,” he adds. “You just have to write it.”

L-R: Ben Kingsley as Pastor Byron Brown, Jackie Weaver as Lillian and Jimmi Simpson as James

As showrunning partners, Conrad and Terris will each write pages and then swap them for revisions, ensuring responsibilities are split equally. Terris has been on location scouts, while Conrad also picks up directing duties, helming six of the 10 episodes.

“We’re blessed in the sense that I was Steve’s first AD for many years so we had a long working relationship before we started writing together,” Terris says. “That really helps. It wasn’t like two guys who didn’t know each other very well being thrust together in this situation. We actually know each other very well.”

It’s more common for writers to become directors, rather than the other way around. Terris has found himself having to stop worrying about budgets and deadlines in order to focus on the story. “So I will instantly think, ‘You can’t write a scene on a train because nobody will let you shoot on a train.’ And Steve will have to remind me that I’m not the AD, I’m a writer – and if a scene demands that it’s set on a train, you write it,” he says. “And then later on you might have to cancel it. So it’s been hard to drop the baggage from the other side of production and let my creativity flow.”

Behind the camera, Conrad must balance the demands of multiple genres, blending camera angles that create suspense with sweeping vistas associated with westerns and the show’s Santa Fe setting.

“The challenge is making something that can cast a spell on an audience,” Terris says. “That’s just a function of making all the right decisions. You have to pick the right locations, you have to pick the right cast, then you have to work too hard and then you have to cross your fingers in editing that it all comes together.”

Then there’s the fact that Perpetual Grace, Ltd will arrive in a television landscape filled with more than 500 series in the US alone. But Conrad is unconcerned by the competition. “We’re going to try to make something very, very good. If you can accomplish that goal then there is something distinctive about that show,” he says.

Terris, in his first showrunning role, is “totally psyched” about the job. “This is a thrill for me,” he adds. “When you’re in the 11th hour or 12th hour of shooting and you’ve got one more scene and you’re exhausted, the trick is you must gather the energy to go and be excellent, and not just throw that last scene together. Demand excellence. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Patriot games

Michael Dorman and Terry O’Quinn lead the line in Patriot, Amazon’s latest original drama, which centres on the complicated life of a US intelligence officer. They tell DQ about their father-son relationship on screen and the unique style of showrunner Steve Conrad.

Since November 2015, visitors to Amazon Video have been able to tune into the pilot episode of a spy thriller called Patriot. That enough of them watched it and, more importantly, liked it means that 15 months later, nine more episodes are now available to subscribers to complete the 10-part first season.

The opening episode introduces viewers to the complicated life of intelligence officer John Tavner, whose latest mission is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. To do so, he must go deep undercover as an employee at a Midwestern industrial piping firm.

However, a bout of PTSD, the federal government’s incompetence and the challenge of keeping his day job lead to an ever-increasing number of fiascos that threaten the entire operation.

Patriot stars Michael Dorman as John Tavner

Focusing on the less glamorous aspects of spying, Patriot sees Tavner struggle with situations that force him to choose between bad alternatives and his efforts to conceal his plan, often leading to matters unravelling further.

Australian newcomer Michael Dorman stars as Tavner, with Terry O’Quinn (Lost) as his father and State Department director of intelligence Tom Tavner and Michael Chernus (Orange is the New Black) as his brother, Texas congressman Edward Tavner.

Kathleen Munroe plays John’s wife, Alice; Aliette Opheim is Agathe, a brilliant young homicide detective from Luxembourg hot on John’s trail; and Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show) is Mr Claret, John’s ‘boss’ at the piping firm.

With the pilot shot in Montreal and most of the series set in Chicago, in addition to visits to Prague to film the European-based exterior scenes, joining Patriot was a chance for Dorman to venture outside Australia for the first time. The actor began his career in the theatre before moving into TV and film down under.

“This one was a whole new playground for me,” he tells DQ at the Berlin International Film Festival, where Patriot received its world premiere. “I’d never worked in the new way of delivering content and, even though it’s a TV show, the way the creative team approached it was that it is more like a film. I guess we look at it like it’s a 10-hour film we’ve shot in a really small amount of time.”

The actor admits he enjoyed the pilot script so much, he knew immediately that he wanted to be a part of it.

Kathleen Munroe as Alice alongside Michael Chernus as Edward

“[Writer/director] Steve Conrad’s writing is unique compared with any other writing,” the actor continues. “He’s got his own style and it’s got a real rhythm to me, and that’s what excited me. Also, it was the fact I was laughing out loud. You read so many scripts and, with some of them, you’re pushing yourself through it. This one I couldn’t put down.

“I remember reading it in bed, which is something I don’t normally do, and emailing my team as soon as I finished, saying I had to be part of it. I was just reading it and for me it was more about the process of how we could make it happen.”

Dorman describes his character as having an “amazing ability to remain composed when the world around him is falling apart; he’ll make whatever decision he has to take at the very last moment, whether he likes it or not.”

The show goes on to explore the consequences of those decisions, which usually lead Tavner into increasingly sticky situations, while also analysing his job affects his character. Music subsequently becomes an outlet for Tavner to reveal his inner-most thoughts, and scenes in the opening episodes show him playing some of his own songs to a crowded bar, much to the exasperation of his brother Edward, who is cajoled by their father to keep an eye on him.

“He’s the perfect intelligence officer in the sense that, no matter how he falls, he’ll get back up,” Dorman says. “And he’s someone who can think on his feet and decide the best way forward when every way is a bad way. So he goes with the least bad way, but he’ll still do it. The conventional style is someone who can fight off every threat.”

The series delves into the difficult decisions faced by a spy deep undercover

The series can be shocking, not least in the opening sequence when Tavner goes to great lengths to win a job at the piping firm by pushing a rival jobseeker under a truck. But it’s also laced with black humour that goes hand in hand with the sense of doom enveloping the spy’s mission. This is evident in one fight scene when Tavner must escape from the grasp of five Brazilian brothers who suffocate him with jiu-jitsu holds.

“We worked a lot and we worked hard,” Dorman says. “I was completely invested, my heart was in it the whole way. It never felt like a burden, it always felt like a gift. And to be working alongside people who have been telling stories a lot longer than me, to grow from them and learn from Steve about the craft in storytelling, it was pretty inspiring for me.”

It was music that helped Dorman connect with his on-screen father, actor Terry O’Quinn, a hugely experienced character actor best known for starring in Lost.

“When I first met Terry in the pilot, we had to do a duet of an old song by Townes Van Zandt called If I Needed You,” Dorman reveals. “That was a great way to meet him and enjoy spending time with him – and then it became something that we just always did. We always had our guitars on set or if we were off set we would just play music together and you see it on the show. It was the best of both worlds.

For O’Quinn, writing is the crucial factor whenever he’s looking for a new project. “It’s the script, then it’s who we’re doing it with and where we’re doing it, then what we’re going to eat and what hotel I’m staying at,” he jokes. So what was it about Patriot that encouraged him to sign on for 10 episodes?

“I just loved the story,” he explains. “Steve Conrad’s dialogue was very particular. He’s one of those guys who, when he writes a period after a word, he obviously wants you to pause in all those places. He’s somebody who’s very meticulous. I’d also seen his work before [The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty], so that recommended him to me.”

O’Quinn also believes Patriot goes beyond just being a spy thriller, also fulfilling the role of a family drama in which the central characters are always helping each other out of trouble.

Terry O’Quinn (right) as John Locke in Lost

“When I describe it to people, I say there’s some international intrigue, some politics; it’s sort of spy thing, sort of dark comedy,” he admits. “It’s hard to describe!”

O’Quinn adds that working with Amazon has been “terrific,” not only because of the democratic way the streamer uses viewer feedback as part of its commissioning strategy.

“I don’t know why the networks don’t do that now,” he says. “All the networks should show a pilot one night and say, ‘Call us up if you like it and we’ll make some more.’ It makes perfectly good sense.

“Amazon gave Steve a lot of freedom to do what he wanted to do and shoot what he wanted to shoot. Steve and Jimmy [Whitaker], our cinematographer, were so prepared and so precise in what they wanted to shoot. They didn’t waste a lot of time, they didn’t shoot a lot of stuff they didn’t need. It was very clean and that sets the actors free. But Steve is so precise and particular. He could say things like, ‘Could you not blink in that line?’ and you’re like, ‘OK.’ I love it. I like working with someone who knows what they want.”

As a viewer, O’Quinn reveals he’s a fan of Game of Thrones – “My girlfriend got me hooked” – and British period drama Peaky Blinders. But there’s one show from his own CV that is still a talking point almost seven years since it finished.

“Lost was one of those ultimate experiences,” he says of the ABC drama that has proven to be one of the most talked-about series of the last decade. “It’s a one-off. There was nothing like it and I’ve never had an experience like it. I’m forever grateful for having been in it and I enjoyed it immensely.

“We were shooting in Hawaii, we all got along great and the set was a happy place. So after that, for a while, I’ve compared everything to it and it’s a pretty hard thing to come up to. But this [Patriot] comes pretty close. If we’re able to do this for a while longer, it would be akin to that.”

With hints of a cliffhanger ending at the conclusion of season one, it seems Conrad’s intention is to return for a second season – something Dorman would also be keen to see.

“I wouldn’t turn away from this one [for a second season],” he adds. “The character was great but it was more about the project as a whole and the people working on it that I found were rare gems. Steve Conrad, Jimmy Whitaker, [camera operator)] Jody Miller and all the producers who were onboard were all like-minded. I didn’t feel like there were too many chefs in the kitchen. Everyone was on the same page. That’s the element I would love to be a part of again.”

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