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.
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.
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.
Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?
The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.
But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.
Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.
This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.
“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”
Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”
A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.
Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”
Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”
This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”
This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.
Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”
One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.
The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.
So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”
There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.
Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.
Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.
It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.
Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”
A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.
Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”
None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.
While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.
DQ sits down with Stephen and Simon Cornwell, co-CEOs of The Ink Factory, to look back at their Emmy-winning drama The Night Manager and discuss how they hope to follow its success.
If 2016 proves to be a vintage year for television drama, one series that helped to raise the bar was The Night Manager.
The six-part adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy novel starred Tom Hiddleston as former British soldier Jonathan Pine, who is recruited as a spy to infiltrate the inner circle of lethal arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).
Directed by Susanne Bier, the cast also included Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki and David Harewood.
The series was an immediate hit for UK broadcaster BBC1 on its February 21 debut, with an average (overnight) audience of 6.3 million tuning in each week, while 1.6 million (Live+3) tuned in for the first episode on US cable network AMC – a jump of 70% from overnight figures.
Distributor IMG has since sold the show around the world including to Amazon Prime in the UK, US and Japan, France TV and Chinese VoD platform Youku Tudou.
Bier subsequently won an Emmy for Best Director of a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, while Victor Reyes was also celebrating a win for Outstanding Music Composition. Hiddleston, Laurie, Colman and writer David Farr were all nominated, and additional Golden Globe and Bafta nods surely await in 2017.
The series was produced by The Ink Factory, which is run by le Carré’s sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell (pictured right and left respectively above). They have so far resisted talk of turning The Night Manager, which was a standalone book, into a returning series and have instead returned to their father’s work for their next TV project – an adaption of his 1963 Cold War thriller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) will write the series, which is being coproduced with Paramount TV and Character 7.
Speaking to DQ, Stephen and Simon look back on the success of The Night Manager – their first TV project – and discuss how they hope to stand out in the increasingly competitive world of television drama.
Did you know you were creating something special from the outset? Stephen: It became special very early on. When David [Farr] first came on board, it immediately began to feel shockingly organic. We had very positive momentum every step of the way. Simon: It worked really well. Hugh [Laurie] came on board really early, Tom [Hiddleston] followed rapidly after that and then Susanne [Bier] joined. Once we had a really good start to the script, an incredible cast and brilliant director, all the rest of it started to slot together. It was a long shoot in lots of countries and it was hot – that all sounds lovely, but at 46C in the middle of the night on your 14th hour, you feel it’s hard work.
How did Hugh and Tom become involved? Simon: Hugh is genuinely passionate about the book. He tells a story that he and I met and he basically said he would do anything to be involved [he once tried to buy the rights to the book]. It’s a great story but it is actually true – that’s exactly what he said! Stephen: It was almost like something he was compelled to be involved in. Originally he wanted to be Pine but then it migrated very organically to Roper. And then Tom was very close behind. Tom was a le Carré fan anyway and became a fan of both the script and the book. He really enjoyed the idea of being opposite Hugh. They are older and younger versions of each other in lots of ways so they were good for those two roles.
What did you see in Susanne that you felt would merge well with David’s scripts and your ambitions for the series? Simon: Susanne’s storytelling is very much storytelling through character, through relationships, and The Night Manager – while it’s a great story and an important and relevant plot – is a very simple plot. Tom goes into the bad guy’s lair and brings him out – that’s basically the plot! But it’s on multiple levels with different relationships and that’s what Susanne uses to tell stories. She was exactly the right person to do it. She’d never done television before and she was unsure about doing television as an Oscar-winning filmmaker [she won an Oscar in 2011 for In a Better World]. But very quickly she approached it as if films are short stories, while this was a novel. Stephen: She’s a phenomenal director of camera, she has a very distinct authorship and there was something incredibly dynamic about the way she directed. At the same time, there is a female voice in there that is really interesting. Le Carré’s worlds are traditionally quite male, with men talking in rooms to one another, and she really elevated the love story and relationship components and female characters. The whole emotional level rose in a very accessible way so you really connected with those characters in a really compelling way that, for a thriller, is a really unusual thing. That was part of the magic of The Night Manager – it had this character engagement.
Olivia Colman’s intelligence officer Angela Burr is a man in the book. Why did you decide to change the character? Stephen: It was an interesting evolution. It really emerged after that first hour had been written and when we began speaking to US broadcasters. In those conversations as we pitched the story, we had the early drafts of the script and it suddenly became apparent Burr could be a woman and that it would be really interesting and add another female voice to the show. Olivia was ideal vision of that. By the middle of the series, she’s really the emotional heart of the story – and when she gives that speech about Roper’s involvement in chemical attacks in Iraq, she’s the soul and the conscience of the piece.
Was there one piece of the shoot that you’re most proud of, or that was most challenging? Simon: The explosions – you only get to do them once! We had a wonderful special-effects guy, Pau Costa, and he realised we had enough space to do something that was quite big and he went for it. It’s really good. You can do amazing things digitally, but actually doing it gives you a real sense of it and it’s very dramatic. People will be surprised by the amount of fire and brimstone that was real. Yes, we did bits of digital duplication to beef it up. When we blew up a row of trucks at the end, we only really blew up one truck – but we really did blow it up and then we duplicated the explosion. It was all real. We had six or eight cameras covering it, a couple of which burned up in the explosion! There’s one great shot in there from a camera that burned up that we still managed to get from the memory stick. Other big undertakings for us were building Roper’s camp, which was shot in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and Roper’s lair [filmed in Mallorca] was just stunning. Some of the choreography that went into the series when you have to time people getting up from the dinner table and walking around with a helicopter flying overhead, it just shows the logistics of managing a shot like that. Like a lot of Suzanne’s directing, it looks incredibly fluid and organic and then you actually think about those shots as a piece of choreography and they’re incredibly complicated. It’s virtuoso directing in the truest sense.
How do you now hope to follow the success of The Night Manager? Simon: For us, doing big TV has been fabulous at every level, whether it’s attracting great storytellers, great writers, amazing directors and actors… We have major film stars coming to us saying they want to be in the next TV show we do. And lots of film stars are thinking that way [about TV] too. Tom had done TV before but not for a long while, and he found it truly fulfilling to round out a character across a six-hour format. Essentially it’s a six-hour film. There were days we were shooting scenes from four episodes so it was absolutely constructed like a film. It was a military operation going from place to place – you couldn’t shoot in Mallorca and then pop back to Switzerland, as much fun as that would have been! Stephen: What’s happening in television is a very exciting convergence of possibility and audience. It works enormously well to tell a certain kind of story; there is no prohibition. I don’t see a division of mediums [between film and television], it’s longer-form narrative and it’s a different way of telling stories. Cinema has a totally different experience. A really interesting question now that television is so strong is: what defines cinema? If we can figure out what pure cinema is, there’s a lot of potential, but how do you justify bringing people together in a shared collective experience and make that unique?
How do you choose the writers you work with, and are you looking to work with new writers? Stephen: David Farr, who is a phenomenal writer, had done Spooks, Hanna, lots of theatre, and was someone we really wanted to work with and had spoken to before about other things. Simon: We work on both sides of the Atlantic and there’s a desperate shortage of great writing on each – no news there. But in the US, there’s a deeper pool, without question. In the UK, we are working now with a pretty good range of writers including Simon Beaufoy, Sir Ronald Harwood and Bill Moynihan. There are Oscar-winning screenwriters at one end and, at the other, we’re now working with a couple of very smart younger writers. We have a responsibility to work with younger writers and find the right projects to bring them on. Also, if you give younger writers very strong IP to work with, just in terms of taking that to broadcasters, it works well. Stephen: There’s a relatively small group of established brilliant writers in the UK. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of them. We’re trying to find emerging talent below them and if we can enable and work with them, it speaks to the future. With acting talent, there’s now really no division between television and film writing. There’s barely a top US writer who isn’t interested in writing in longer form. You can talk to anyone about anything and one of the lucky things about the le Carré IP is that it’s introduced us to a lot of people at a high level and we get access to a lot of interesting talent, and that’s only building. We want to use those relationships in really interesting ways.
What are the challenges facing the drama industry? Simon: We need to be more international in outlook. That’s partly about producers being more international, but also broadcasters. International coproductions are great for broadcasters because essentially you can pay for a fraction of the budget and get something that’s really quite big. But it means you have to be ready to work with international partners. It means the UK isn’t always the centre of the world, and sometimes that’s a bit of a mind shift. Stephen: Obviously it’s a time of extraordinary possibility, which is very exciting. The flip side of that is a lot of people are rushing into that space and there’s a lot of drama being made – a lot of excellent drama. A lot of things are very good right now so the interesting challenge is how to take those opportunities and do something exceptional enough to be noticed. It’s a very high bar, you’re pushing towards excellence.
How will storytelling change in the future? Simon: One of the strengths of The Night Manager, although it’s modern and contemporary in lots of ways, is that it’s actually a very traditional piece of storytelling. It was our first piece and quite a voyage of discovery. Having known how big it would have been, we would have done more additional content. Stephen: We see ourselves as a storytelling company, so we have to be excited and interested about where narrative is going. Contrary to the ‘miserablists,’ we feel there’s a more engaged, literate, exciting audience in the future and it’s getting smarter, more global and more diverse. How you tell stories that remain relevant for that audience within the context of new media is really exciting. That’s where the future sits, and you constantly need to be thinking about it.
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
Drawing comparisons to James Bond, The Night Manager features a star-studded cast embarking on a globetrotting journey through the world of international espionage. DQ checks in with the BBC’s hottest new show.
Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki. As casting goes, this line-up could be very close to a broadcaster’s dream team. Add in award-winning director Susanne Bier and a story based on a novel by celebrated spy novelist John le Carré and The Night Manager appears to have all the ingredients for a mega hit series. Just add viewers.
The miniseries, which debuted on BBC1 in the UK on Sunday and lands on US cable channel AMC on April 19, marks the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years in a story that brings together love, loss and revenge in a complex tale of modern criminality.
The show centres on former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a hotel night manager who is recruited by government agent Angela Burr (Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of ruthless arms dealer Richard Roper (Laurie). To get to the heart of Roper’s empire, Pine must allay the suspicions of his chief of staff Major Corkoran (Hollander) and resist the allure of his beautiful girlfriend Jed (Debicki).
Le Carré himself describes the adaptation of The Night Manager as “one of the unexpected miracles of my writing life: a novel I had written more than 20 years ago, buried deep in the archive of a major movie company that had bought the rights but never got around to making the movie, suddenly spirited back to life and retold for our times. And how!”
The adaptation, penned by David Farr and produced by The Ink Factory, isn’t an entirely faithful retelling of the 20-year-old story, however. In particular, the “chief British spook” had originally been a man named Burr but became pregnant Ms Burr – as portrayed by Colman.
Then there was the location. Much of the novel takes place aboard Roper’s yacht but – recognising the high cost and claustrophobic nature of such a small setting – the TV version was transplanted to what the author describes as a “palatial Gatsby-style villa” found on the Spanish island of Majorca.
The backdrop to Roper’s arms dealing was also shifted, from the war on drugs in Central America to the Middle East and pro-democracy Arab Spring.
“I never wanted the film of the book,” le Carré admits. “Actually I never do. I wanted the film of the film. And we all did. All I asked was that the central interplay between our protagonists remain intact, and the narrative arc of the original story – never mind where it’s set – be broadly the narrative arc of the novel, exploring the same human tensions and appetites, and resolving the dramatic conflict in the same broad terms.”
The author also praises the central performances and, in fact, the entire production of The Night Manager, going as far as to compare it to “those glory days in the 1970s when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”
Hiddleston, best known for roles in big-screen blockbusters Thor and the Avengers series, admits he was hooked by the script from the first episode and quickly sought out the novel.
“The character appealed to me because I knew, as an actor, I was going to have to operate at the highest level of my intellectual and physical ability because he is a field agent, but also has to be smart enough to go undercover,” he explains, comparing Pine to a certain James Bond. “I found his nobility, courage and morality very appealing – he is actually a very moral character and is filled with le Carré’s own moral authority about the world. There is a certain line that you can feel underneath all of le Carré’s work which is a very robust moral foundation: a belief in right and wrong; in decency and its opposite.”
In contrast to Hiddleston’s recent discovery of le Carré’s story, House star Laurie says he fell in love with the book when he read it in 1993 and admits he once tried to option the rights himself.
“I tried to get the rights before I’d finished the third chapter,” he reveals. “I was unsuccessful, of course – the great Sydney Pollack had jumped on it and wouldn’t let go – but the character of Pine – and yes, back in 1993 I impudently imagined myself playing Pine – is a fascinating one: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for. Better still, to die for. I thought it was such a beautiful story.”
Now presented with the chance to appear in the series, Laurie says he was happy to take any job on the shoot. “I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” he adds, “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
From the start, Pine is painted out as the hero, stepping out of his comfort zone in a bid to snare the bad guy. But it doesn’t take long for viewers to question whether he will become the very thing he set out to destroy. In contrast, Laurie’s Roper appears to travel in the opposite direction.
“Pine’s original goal is to bring down this monster, but at the same time resist the monster’s charm,” Laurie explains. “There are moments when Pine teeters on the brink of the dark side, when you wonder which way he will go. At the same time you might wonder whether Roper is teetering too – that somewhere inside himself he wants to be caught, to be betrayed. The audience has to judge for themselves where Pine and Roper come close to crossing the line in opposite directions – where Roper might plunge the dagger into his own chest and where Pine might become the very thing he set out to destroy.
“It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré’s writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions. My God, I hope we can do it justice.”
Broadchuch star Colman – who is reunited on-screen with her Rev co-star Hollander – had just found out she was pregnant when she met director Bier, meaning her character not only changed gender during the adaptation process but also incorporated an additional element to her character. She describes Burr as a “zebra among the lions,” a woman in the male-dominated world of espionage who strives to do what she thinks is right.
“Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty,” Colman explains. “She is determined to take this monster down so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within.”
Helming the six-hour miniseries is Oscar winner Bier, who triumphed at the 2011 Academy Awards with foreign-language film In a Better World (Hævnen).
Both Hiddleston and Laurie reserve praise for the Danish director, who is described by Hiddleston as a “crusader for the truth.” Laurie adds: “She is The Night Manager. Her vision, her taste, her approach has defined every part of what we are doing, and it’s been an absolute thrill to be a part of.”
A self-confessed le Carré fan, Bier says she jumped at the chance to join the “irresistible” project. “The drama series explores a world where the line between good and evil is completely black and white, yet we are drawn into the blackness,” she explains. “Audiences will be eerily attracted to the evil and I think that’s sort of what drew me to it. You’re never completely sure if Pine is on the right side.”
The biggest challenge, she recalls, was translating the complexity of le Carré’s novel to maintain the thrilling elements, as well as making the 20-year-old story more contemporary – hence the change of setting from South America to the Middle East.
But like many big-screen talents moving to television, Bier adds that she was also drawn to the challenge of telling a hugely complex story over six hours – three times the average movie running time.
“Like a number of other feature directors, I’ve come to realise that there’s great writing in television right now and something incredibly challenging in dealing with a longer chunk of storytelling,” the director says of her move to the small screen.
“I don’t think you could fit this into a two-hour slot because it’s such a rich story – the characters have so much nuance – and part of the thing that makes a TV series is the fact all of the minor characters are interesting, exciting and complex.
“It was so exciting having a whole gallery of fascinating, fun characters and you couldn’t predict where they were going.”