American showrunner Kurt Sutter got his big break as a writer on FX crime drama The Shield. But it was his next project, Sons of Anarchy, that established him as one of scripted TV’s most acclaimed auteurs. Across seven series (again on FX), Sutter created a cult following for his gritty tale of an outlaw motorcycle club. A strong ratings performer, the show’s finale attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers when it aired last December.
There was talk for a while that Sutter would move on to a Sons prequel next, set in the 1960s. But instead he elected to write a pilot for FX called The Bastard Executioner, about a traumatised 14th century warrior who quits the battlefield and becomes an executioner. This week, FX announced it had greenlit a 10-part series, presumably hoping Bastard will be its answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’ Outlander (without the soppy bits).
Commenting on that decision, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, whose Fox 21 TV Studios (Fox21TVS) will produce the project with FX Productions, said: “The Bastard Executioner, written by Kurt and directed by the talented Paris Barclay, is dangerous, brilliant, emotional and undeniable. This is the perfect follow-up to Sons and another huge event series for FX. Viewers are in for a wild and spellbinding ride.”
Sutter, according to industry folklore, spent time with motorcycle clubs while researching Sons Of Anarchy – the writer equivalent of method acting. So it will be interesting to see how he gets under the skin of this subject (hopefully without too many casualties). Explaining why he has opted for swords and sandals, he said: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. I love working with FX and Fox21TVS. They’ve been my family for 15 years. They not only tolerate me, they embrace my extremely disturbing storytelling sensibilities.”
Biopics and based-on-true-story dramas are stalwarts of the scripted business, though they invariably court controversy. Such is the pressure to create narrative jeopardy and shades of dark and light that writers generally end up turning some of their characters into villains, in order that their heroes and heroines can be thrown into sharp relief. So it will be interesting to see how Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski manage this process on American Crime Story, a true-crime TV franchise they are creating for FX.
First up is a series entitled The People v O.J. Simpson, a retelling of the murder trial that gripped the world in 1995. With Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson and a supporting cast including John Travolta and David Schwimmer, this looks like a dead cert ratings hit.
Alexander and Karaszewski have a long, illustrious and critically acclaimed track record as writing partners on offbeat biopics, usually in the form of movies. As far back as 1994 they worked with Tim Burton on Ed Wood. Subsequent projects included The People vs Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Auto Focus, before they came full circle and made another biopic with Burton last year, called Big Eyes. All this will stand them in good stead for the Simpson project, though the challenge will be how they harness their distinctive humour in a way that works with such tough material.
A biopic is also making headlines in the UK this week, with ITV announcing plans for a drama called Churchill’s Secret, set during Winston Churchill’s second stint as prime minister in the 1950s. Based on Jonathan Smith’s book The Churchill Secret: KBO, the two-hour drama will star Michael Gambon as the ailing political icon.
The writing job has been handed to Stewart Harcourt, who has built up a formidable array of production credits over the past two decades. After writing on shows such as Peak Practice, Jericho, Marple, Poirot and Treasure Island, Harcourt was named as lead writer on ITV’s Love and Marriage in 2013. As well as Churchill’s Secret, he is also in the process of writing two Maigret detective stories for ITV. The latter project stars Rowan Atkinson, though today’s fun factoid link is that Michael Gambon played Maigret in a previous TV adaptation in the early 1990s.
Another big US scripted project grinding into action is Lifetime’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is based on the first book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series. The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those books that neither you nor your friends have ever read, but which has somehow established itself as a global publishing phenomenon. At last count, the six books that make up Auel’s epic caveman saga had sold around 45 million copies worldwide. The story was also turned into a film starring Daryl Hannah in 1986.
The new TV version is only at pilot stage right now, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those projects that could run for years if the writer, Linda Woolverton, pulls it off.
Her credentials suggest she’s got as good a chance as anybody. Hit machine Woolverton was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney when she penned Beauty and the Beast. She also wrote screenplays for The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – all very successful projects with plenty of strong female characters (which will be crucial to her interpretation of Cave Bear). When not discovering her inner cavewoman, she will be writing the screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass.
tagged in: American Crime Story, Churchill’s Secret, Fox Television Group, FX, ITV, Kurt Sutter, Larry Karaszewski, Linda Woolverton, Scott Alexander, Stewart Harcourt, The Bastard Executioner, The Clan of the Cave Bear, The People v O.J. Simpson, UK, US