Jacquelin Perske, writer of psychological drama The Cry, reveals how she adapted Helen Fitzgerald’s novel for television and tackled one of the opening episode’s most turbulent scenes. The miniseries was produced by Synchronicity Films for BBC1 and is distributed by DRG.
The Cry is a four-part drama adapted from a novel by Helen Fitzgerald. It is a contemporary story set in both Scotland and Australia. I was drawn to the novel as it was both a nuanced relationship drama and an original thriller. Basically, really terrible things happen to an average couple and this couple deals with these events in ways that are surprising, almost logical and also deeply disturbing. All the things I like about a good story.
Thematically, the show is about becoming a parent, in particular a mother. As a mother of three children myself this was deeply relevant to me. No matter how prepared you think you may be, how much you read, absorb and observe, the shift from single, childfree woman to wife and mother is seismic, shocking and irreversible. There is no going back. You walk through a door and it shuts behind you.
I found the experience both exhilarating and also frightening. The Cry is a study in parental fear. The fear of not being up to the job, the fear of failing in your duty of care, the fear of losing your child, the fear of not loving this creature that you must love for the rest of your life. These fears and anxieties are usually hard to dramatise, but The Cry had a structure that allowed their full weight to be played out with devastating consequences, within a tight thriller story.
When adapting The Cry, I decided to tease out the thriller elements by playing with time. The four episodes shift from the present to the past to the future as the audience starts to piece together what has happened to new parents Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and Alistair (Ewen Leslie). There is a building tension as we see where this couple has come from, what they are doing now and what they will become. This structure allowed a sense of impending crisis and an uncomfortable tension and looming dread as the story plays out.
One of the early sequences in the novel takes place on a long-haul flight from the UK to Australia. It became a kind of core thematic place I could return to throughout the four episodes. It encapsulated the tension and the thematic concerns of the show. On a long-haul flight, a group of strangers are strapped in and locked in a metal can thousands of feet in the air. The notion of personal space is strained. Passengers politely confine themselves and endure the hours before they arrive at their destination.
If you place a crying baby into such a scenario, there is an instant tension. In The Cry, Joanna and Alistair are taking their baby from the UK to Australia to visit family, and it is their baby, Noah, who does not stop crying. He cries for hours and hours. The child himself is distressed and too young to understand why. The passengers’ patience wears thin as the crying continues and there is nowhere to escape. The parents themselves are in a terrible predicament as they bear both the brunt of their fellow passengers’ discomfort and an intense public display of their seeming incompetence as parents.
This sequence works on a thematic level in The Cry because Joanna is privy to the other passengers’ open judgment and criticism of her parenting skills, as they become increasingly angry at the incessant crying. The sequence also shows Joanna struggling to know what to do – isolated and alone – despite being surrounded by other people. It spoke to me of the experience of being a new parent in a unique and yet very real way. In The Cry, Joanna bites back – yelling back at the other passengers for their callous judgement of her and lack of sympathy for her predicament.
The sequence sets off the chain of narrative for the rest of the series, so it is a pivotal moment both thematically and narratively. Its honest brutality set a tone that I carried through the screenplay for all four episodes.
International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.
The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.
But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?
Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.
The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.
“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”
Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.
Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.
That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.
“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).
“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”
Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.
“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”
Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.
Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.
Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”
Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.
“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”
Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”
Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”
Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.
Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.
Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”
The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”
Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.
Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.
The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.
Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.
“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.
“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”
Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”
Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”
Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”
Four-parter The Cry is a psychological drama set between Scotland and Australia, chronicling the collapse of a marriage in the aftermath of an unbearable tragedy.
Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Doctor Who) plays Joanna, a struggling new mother who falls into a state of despair when her baby is abducted from a small coastal town in Australia. Together with her husband Alistair (Ewan Leslie), they must come to terms with what has happened under increasing public scrutiny.
In this DQTV interview, Coleman reveals why she was intrigued by the journey of Joanna, a flawed character who is by no means presented as a hero and is finding it difficult to cope with her newborn baby.
Executive producer Claire Mundell, creative director of producer Synchronicity Films, also talks about why four-part dramas are so in vogue at broadcasters like the BBC and explains why the short-run format can help turn a TV series into an event.
The Cry is produced by Synchronicity Films for BBC1 and distributed by DRG.
New parents Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie face unthinkable tragedy in four-part BBC psychological drama The Cry – but is all as it seems? Leslie, director Glendyn Ivin and executive producer Claire Mundell reveal the makings of this emotionally complex miniseries.
It all started with a book. Claire Mundell picked up the manuscript for Helen Fitzgerald’s novel The Cry long before it was published in 2013 and immediately recognised its potential to be transformed into a psychologically and emotionally gripping television series.
The story sees Joanna and husband Alistair travel with their newborn baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother Elizabeth and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter Chloe against his ex-wife Alexandra. But after they arrive down under, their lives are transformed when their baby goes missing.
Brimming with dilemmas, moral ambiguity and crimes that are relayed through a family setting, it also portrays the intense strain new parents face, with Joanna seemingly struggling with post-natal depression, exhaustion and loneliness while Alistair juggles the demands of his high-flying political career. Mundell was instantly hooked by the “compelling” story. “It takes us behind the scenes of an unthinkable situation and it allows you to vicariously experience how these characters react to it and try to manage the situation they’re in,” she says.
The project was in development with the BBC for several years until last July, when a four-part miniseries was given the greenlight with just one script in place. Now, just over 12 months later, The Cry is launching on BBC1 this Sunday. It will also air in Australia on the ABC, with DRG distributing the drama internationally.
Getting the series on air in such a short timeframe is an impressive achievement by the team behind the production. Not only did writer Jacquelin Perske need to complete the scripts, but producer Synchronicity Films needed to lay out exactly how it would tell this story, which is split between Glasgow in Scotland and Melbourne in Australia, factoring in things such as casting and location scouting down under – a country in which the company had never worked before.
Pre-production began in Australia at the start of 2018, with filming in Melbourne commencing in early February. Shooting shifted to Glasgow from the end of March before wrapping in May.
Executive producer Mundell and producer Brian Kaczynski had flirted with filming in South Africa to save time and money, while working in a country with a timezone much closer to the UK’s. But their desire for authenticity – Fitzgerald’s book was set in Melbourne – meant they pulled out all the stops and headed to Australia.
Their first trip last autumn involved scouting locations, meeting potential production partners and beginning their search for talent, both in front of and behind the camera. December Media came on board as a local partner and, once it was decided that the first leg of filming would take place in Melbourne, it then made sense to hire an Australian director and DOP to steer the project.
Recommended by Perske, director Glendyn Ivin was invited to join the production on the strength of his previous work, most notably SBS drama Safe Harbour. Mundell and Kaczynski watched the miniseries and subsequently picked up a three-for-one deal, with Ivin, his DOP Sam Chiplin and star Ewen Leslie all signing up for The Cry. “They were brilliant,” Mundell says. “Safe Harbour was a really compelling show told in a similar fractured timeline to ours. It had all the hallmarks of our show and it’s the quickest approval I’ve ever had from the BBC. I sent them an exert from that show and they were like, ‘Yes let’s have all three of them.’”
While on the surface Safe Harbour and The Cry are very different stories, Ivin says they are united by the morale ambiguity of their leading characters. In the first episode of The Cry, while you sympathise with Joanna and Alistair’s struggle to cope with their baby’s incessant crying, it’s never made clear whether they are good or bad people.
“What we had to find was where the story starts becoming a relationship drama about a couple with a new baby and where it starts teasing the audience and saying there’s something else going on here,” Ivin says. “It gets darker and more dramatic and it boils down to a scene at the end [of episode one] where Alistair and Joanna go into a supermarket. It’s a good sign a drama’s working when you can watch a couple walk up and down shopping aisles yet you’re not breathing at the same time.”
“The ambiguity of the characters is really interesting,” says Leslie, who plays Alistair. “There’s something with the characters that you can relate to, then all of a sudden they’ll do something or behave in a way that makes you go, ‘Wait, hold on a minute.’ That’s what was really interesting and fun about playing that. You hit bits in the script where you know people will not be on board with you. That can be scary or really empowering and you can play around with it a bit.”
Starring opposite Leslie is Jenna Coleman, best known for her role in Doctor Who and, more recently, for playing the lead in Victoria. Mundell says Coleman was her first choice to play Joanna due to her ability to elicit empathy from the audience and her appeal to a wide cross-section of viewers. “Principally it was the fact we wanted someone who could get to the depths this character needs to go to but still make us care for her and be empathetic,” she says. “We were totally thrilled when she said she wanted to do it.”
Leslie says of his co-star: “We’d never met or worked together before doing this and she was absolutely amazing. She was very good at finding the truth in every scene and also questioning a lot of things in a really great way. She was very supportive, really open and great to work with.”
In Leslie, The Cry found an actor who can play charming and intelligent but with a darkness bubbling beneath the surface. “You have to believe Joanna falls in love with this guy and it’s only gradually over time she begins to realise who he is beneath the charm,” Mundell teases. “Ewen has played that absolutely brilliantly, so much so the novelist herself said she couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that character.”
Aside from the time difference between Australia and the UK, which ranged from nine to 11 hours depending on daylight savings, Mundell says the biggest challenges of the project were differing working practices, Australia’s union system and a fluctuating exchange rate, with Australia proving more expensive than the UK.
“We took some Scottish heads of department out because it’s a four-parter and it’s important we have continuity creatively across those episodes, so we knew the HODs would be across both sides of the shoot,” she says. “We must have spent at least £1m in travel and accommodation alone, just because no one has invented a portal yet to travel between hemispheres. So the only way to do it was the long haul, and that is quite painful.”
Mundell says the first few weeks of shooting took the cast to some deeply emotional places, admitting to crying while watching a cut of episode two, even though she knew the script inside out. “It tells you something about the performances we got from our cast. They’re just extraordinary,” she says. “My passion is to tell stories like this that are thrillers but have depth and a relatability to them, in the sense that this is a domestic setting. It’s a scenario that could happen to anybody and therefore it’s very relatable.”
Across the four episodes, the plot unfolds across multiple timelines, jumping between past and present as it shows how Joanna and Alistair first meet, as well as into the future, where scenes tease Joanna facing an unruly mob as she is put on trial for an as-yet-unknown crime.
“There’s definitely a feeling through the series is that it’s a show that keeps its cards very close and then starts revealing them as the episodes go on,” Leslie says. “So you’re very aware when you’re doing a scene of what information you might have that certain other characters might not have and, on top of that, information that the characters have that the audience doesn’t have.
“The other thing here is, as a father, it’s an unthinkable scenario and absolutely horrifying. But wailing and falling apart for four hours is going to be unwatchable. You’ve got to walk a delicate line and find a balance within that grief and give a lot of variation.”
Ivin admits there’s a fine line between intrigue and confusion, so was careful not to splinter the storytelling too haphazardly, with match cuts often linking two different timeframes. That being said, playing scenes out of order means viewers can immediately sense something will happen later in the story, driving up the tension until those events unfold.
“I really enjoyed that process,” Ivin says. “The editing was taking a pretty complex jigsaw, pulling it apart and finding a different way for all those pieces to come together. It’s still the same story, but from script to the way we shot it to the way it’s being presented, we’re telling the same story but in a very different order. But it’s an order that is based around keeping an audience intrigued. Each scene tightens the drama until the credits roll at the end.”
The Cry won’t be the last time Synchronicity Films pitches up in Australia to make a television drama, with plans already afoot to return to Oz. “We coined a phrase for it,” Mundell adds. “You’ve heard of Scandi noir, this is Scaussi noir – Scotland-Australia – and we tend to do a lot more of it.”