Tag Archives: The Last Tycoon

Great Scott

Showrunners Billy Ray and Christopher Keyser take DQ back to 1930s Hollywood as they discuss Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, their adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel.

With screenplays including The Hunger Games, Captain Philips and State of Play to his name, writer Billy Ray has worked on some of the biggest Hollywood movies of the last decade.

So it’s notable when he describes making Amazon Prime drama The Last Tycoon as the most fun he’s ever had. “I’ve never had a working experience that was better than this from the start,” he says of the streamer’s adaptation of celebrated American author F Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel.

“I so love the book, I so love its voice and tone and I had such a strong feeling that the conversations people have on movie studios today are the exact same conversations that were being had in Fitzgerald’s book, and it seemed like the perfect vehicle to talk about the dynamics in Hollywood. Then on a character level you have all these dynamics, and the idea just seemed inexhaustible because the people are so compelling. It’s literally been my favourite job I’ve ever had.”

The Last Tycoon stars Kelsey Grammer (right) and Matt Bomer

After writing a bible for the series but having no prior experience of working in TV, film veteran Ray partnered with seasoned TV exec Christopher Keyser (Party of Five, Sisters) to bring The Last Tycoon to the small screen together as co-showrunners. Three years later, in June 2016, Amazon launched a pilot, allowing viewers the chance to view and rate the show ahead of a possible series commission.

The streamer was suitably impressed with the feedback, greenlighting a full nine-episode first season a month after the pilot launch.

Recreating the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, the series follows rising star Monroe Stahr, played by Matt Bomer (White Collar), as he battles father figure and boss Pat Brady (Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer) for the soul of their movie studio. Lily Collins also stars as Celia Brady, Pat’s daughter.

It follows the lead of Fitzgerald’s novel, itself inspired by the life of legendary film mogul Irving Thalberg who helped create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and produced more than 400 films at the studio. The book was previously adapted in 1976 as a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum as Stahr and Brady respectively.

Lily Collins also stars as Celia Brady

“It’s about the dream of Hollywood and the reality of Hollywood,” Ray explains. “We’re writing about a period in which that dream became captured on film and became immortalised. That filmic fantasy of America really began to be sold in the 1930s and, in some way, the world still believes in that vision of America. That’s the power of the movies.”

Keyser continues: “The question of what we thought of ourselves [at that time] and whether we were telling ourselves a lie, or whether it was true or a necessary lie – that’s really interesting and it’s still really interesting, unfortunately, in 2017.”

Speaking about the cast, the showrunners claim Bomer is “the perfect Monroe,” while Grammer brings physicality, gruffness and humour to the role of studio boss Brady, adding that the pair were the only actors to whom the parts were offered.

The same was true of Collins’ (The Blind Side) casting. “Lily was the only person we offered the part of Celia to,” says Ray. “You could see she was a rocket ship about to take off, which is now happening [with films such as Okja and To the Bone]. She was so utterly charming and beautiful. Then Rosemarie DeWitt [La La Land] had a tiny part as Rose Brady in the pilot; she was only in two scenes so Chris and I had to do some serious lobbying to get her to take the part – and with her we developed Rose into a fully fleshed out character, who it turns out is absolutely vital to the show and, for some, one of the most intriguing parts of the show. She was also our first choice – it was just one of those parties people wanted to be a part of.”

Billy Ray directs Nicole Kidman in Secrets in Their Eyes

Still, Keyser notes that unearthing new talent is part of the fun of television, and he believes The Last Tycoon, which rolls out in more than 200 territories and countries tomorrow, features several actors on the path to stardom.

“Take a look at Mark O’Brien, who plays Max Miner, Enzo Cilenti, who plays Aubrey Hackett, or Dominique McElligott (as Kathleen Moore), who’s been in a number of series but we didn’t know her until we did this. She’ll be well known to people because of House of Cards and Hell on Wheels. There are names you haven’t really heard of who I think are going to show something special, and that’s one of the great things about TV. You don’t have to have stars; it makes stars. Wait until you see [Flashdance star] Jennifer Beals as the reigning queen of the 1930s cinema, Margo Taft.”

Ray and Keyser hadn’t worked together before pairing up for The Last Tycoon, knowing each other only through their association with the Writers Guild of America. That meant they had figure out how they would partner on the show, though they reveal there are no boundaries between what they each do or don’t do.

But while Ray writes and also directs multiple episodes, he admits he leaves a lot of the behind-the-scenes work to his partner: “There’s another part of it that the public doesn’t see, which has to do with maintaining the relationship with the studio [TriStar TV] and the network, and making sure their voices are heard while ensuring the sensibility of the show doesn’t change in over-response to notes. Chris is very good at navigating all of that stuff.”

The showrunners are also quick to praise others who worked on The Last Tycoon, from director of photography Daniel Moder (The Normal Heart) and production designer Patricia von Brandenstein (Amadeus) to costume designer Janie Bryant (Mad Men), producer Pavlina Hatoupis and directing producer Scott Hornbacher.

“We did have some really amazing other people who were working with us,” Keyser says. “In the long run, being a showrunner is, in the large part, finding great people and more or less trusting them to do their jobs.”

After the pilot launched on Prime Video, Amazon shared some of the feedback with Ray and Keyser – something many producers say generally doesn’t happen at Amazon or similar platforms like Netflix, where key metrics such as viewing figures aren’t released, even to the programme makers.

But Keyser notes that the Amazon system of seeking feedback from a pilot isn’t that much different from other, more traditional networks – only in this scenario, it’s the viewers who get to give their opinions.

The series is based on the final novel by F Scott Fitzgerald

“One of the big differences in this world is not so much the way we make this stuff but the fact that the way we deliver it actually affects the stories we tell,” he explains, pointing to the way television dramas have evolved from strict episodic procedurals to a much more fluid, serialised format. The Last Tycoon, in fact, adopts a hybrid form, with individual episodes telling standalone stories but also tying into the themes of the whole season.

“Television storytelling has become more or less anything it wants for an audience that can watch it at its own pace – they can turn to the next chapter whenever they feel like it. That’s improved TV storytelling. We are the beneficiary and it allows us to take a novel and turn it into an even longer story.”

The drawback to this, Ray concedes, is that writers can be keener to finish each episode on a cliffhanger, encouraging viewers to watch the next one immediately.

“You definitely are conscious of wanting to put something at the very end of an episode that will be intriguing, titillating or terrifying enough that someone will click and stay with it,” he says. “On our show, that represents challenges and opportunities, but we were always mindful of it.”

The showrunners put together a writers room, led by Keyser, though they both agreed that Ray would write most of the first half of the season to lay down a clear and consistent voice that could then be carried through the remaining episodes.

“But they were all stories Chris and I had worked out together for over a year by that point,” Ray says. “Then you empower the people in the room to write their own episodes and, happily, we had hired really well and they did some beautiful work. Everybody was always steering in the same direction. That made the process run very smoothly.”

In fact, the production process on The Last Tycoon is one of the things Ray points to when asked about why he enjoyed making the show so much. “It’s magic. I don’t mean that in a flippant way – it’s absolute magic when I think about what our crew is able to construct and reconstruct and flat-out make up [when recreating 1930s Hollywood]. We had magicians working for us on our crew.

“That meant every prop, costume and hairstyle was completely thrilling for the actors,” Ray adds. “Every time they walked onto the set, they loved the way they looked. Everything helped ground those performances, which is why I think they’re as much fun to watch as they are.”

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Acorn TV is US growth opportunity

And Then There Were None
And Then There Were None is among the overseas shows that have been added to Acorn

Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.

However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).

This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.

Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.

Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.

Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt
Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt

Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.

Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.

Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”

Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in HBO's Ballers
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in HBO’s Ballers

Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.

Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.

HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.

HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.

The Last Ship
The Last Ship has been given a fourth run on TNT

Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.

Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.

In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”

Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”

The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name
The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name

Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”

In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.

News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.

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BBC reveals diverse slate

David Nicholls' Us
David Nicholls’ Us is being adapted by Nick Payne

The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.

But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.

The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.

As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.

Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor

Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”

For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.

Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”

The Boy With the Topknot
The Boy With the Topknot is being made into a series for BBC2

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”

On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.

Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.

Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”

The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.

To Be a Better Man
To Be a Better Man centres on a Chinese chef

Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”

In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.

The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.

Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.

Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.

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