Tag Archives: The New Odyssey

Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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AMC feels Terror as Soderbergh goes west

Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

US cable channel AMC is making headlines again this week by commissioning a 10-part anthology series based on a 2007 novel by Dan Simmons called The Terror.

Set in 1847, The Terror unfolds as a Royal Naval expedition searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks their ships and crew. The show continues the recent fascination with thrillers set against a backdrop of snow and ice (Fargo, Fortitude, Trapped and Liam Neeson movie The Grey, to name a few).

The Terror is being exec produced by Ridley Scott and will be adapted for the screen by David Kajganich, whose recent credits include the movie The Bigger Splash. Kajganich will also be a co-showrunner with Soo Hugh.

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Originality is still something that gets our attention every day, and the very unique mixing of historical non-fiction with a gripping and imaginative science-fiction overlay in Dan’s novel is something we hadn’t seen before. That, combined with an exceptional team behind the project, made this something we really wanted to bring to air on AMC.”

Meanwhile, Netflix has ordered an original western series from director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank. Called Godless, it is set in a 19th century New Mexico mining town.

As yet there are no more details. However, the news is generating a lot of excitement because of the Soderbergh/Frank link-up. The last time they worked together was on the acclaimed movie Out of Sight. Since then, Soderbergh has shifted much of his energy in the direction of TV with shows such as The Knick, while Frank has been screenwriting movies including Minority Report, The Wolverine and Marley & Me.

Fuller House has already been given a second run on Netflix
Fuller House, a revival of Full House, has already been given a second run on Netflix

Netflix has also renewed its revival of US family sitcom Full House for a second season. The reboot, titled Fuller House, follows a pregnant and recently widowed woman who is living with her younger sister, best friend and teenage daughter. They all help to raise her two boys and prepare for the birth of the new baby. The original Full House aired on US network ABC from 1987 to 1995.

Elsewhere, projects now getting kickstarted out of the UK include Tina and Bobby, a three-part drama from ITV that will celebrate the life of England football legend Bobby Moore and his wife. The project writer is Lauren Klee, who has a strong track record on shows like EastEnders, Waterloo Road and Holby City.

Meanwhile, Colin Callender’s indie prodco Playground has picked up the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. It plans to make a TV series based on the book, which charts Kingsley’s journey to 17 countries where he met hundreds of refugees making their way across deserts, seas and mountains in a bid to reach Europe.

Discussing the decision to acquire the book, Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground’s UK office, said: “The New Odyssey is an epic piece of journalism that provides an intimate account of the people caught up in one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the Second World War. We believe this can be TV at its best – powerful, emotional and compelling storytelling that explores the complexities and human dimensions of the biggest story of our time.”

Playground Entertainment is making a TV version of The New Odyssey
Playground Entertainment is making a TV version of The New Odyssey

One of the most eye-catching stories to have come out of the US TV business in recent weeks was the news that Channing Dungey, executive VP of drama at Disney-owned network ABC, was being promoted to entertainment president, replacing incumbent Paul Lee. The story came as a surprise and got people wondering about how it might affect decisions over cancellations and renewals.

Well, Dungey hasn’t wasted any time making her mark, giving early renewals to a huge swathe of ABC shows this week. Among these are dramas like Quantico, Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, Once Upon a Time and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the comedy front, Fresh off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, Black-ish and The Middle got the nod.

Dungey’s renewals are interesting for a few reasons. First, because it looks like she is playing safe in season one. Rather than rip up the schedule, she has decided to play the percentages and give herself time to settle in. Second, because she has renewed the shows much earlier than Lee had a habit of doing. This is her way of quickly distinguishing herself from her predecessor.

Finally, Dungey’s list of renewals is also notable because of what she has not yet committed to. Long-running procedural Castle (nearly at the end of season eight), for example, has not yet been given the OK. Dungey has also delayed decisions on four other scripted series, Nashville, The Muppets, Marvel’s Agent Carter and Galavant.

Castle stands a reasonable chance of being renewed if star Nathan Fillion is prepared to sign up for a new season. However, the other series are harder to call.

Galavant's chances of renewal on ABC look shaky
Galavant’s chances of renewal on ABC look shaky

In January, Paul Lee said Nashville would probably be back for a fifth season. But the show has never really been a massive ratings hit, so it might not secure the same support from Dungey. In the case of The Muppets, a strong start has given way to sub-par ratings. But this is a Disney-owned property so ABC won’t necessarily want to give up on it just yet. Similarly, Agent Carter hasn’t been particularly strong in ratings terms but it does come from the Disney-Marvel stable of scripted shows.

Galavant, a musical comedy/fantasy series, is coming to the end of its second season and probably looks like the easiest of the five to say goodbye to. Ratings haven’t been especially strong and there’s no obvious Disney 360-degree reason to keep it alive. That said, it does have a top creator behind it in the shape of Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Cars). So that might be enough to persuade ABC to give the show another chance.

Finally, in Scandinavia, Swedish commercial broadcaster TV4 has ordered two 10-part seasons of a medical drama based on a Finnish format called Nurses, produced by Yellow Film & TV and distributed by Eccho Rights. Jan Blomgren, CEO of Swedish production company Bob Films, said: “The original version of Nurses is well written and produced. We believe the audience in Sweden will relate to real stories in a glossy drama series.”

This isn’t the first time a Finnish drama has been adapted for the other Nordic territories. It’s also just happened with DRG-distributed thriller Black Widows.

Although the Finns make dramas to a decent standard, tight budgets mean their shows often aren’t glossy enough to appeal to audiences in the other Nordic markets. In the case of Nurses, a third season is about to air on YLE in Finland. Eccho Rights, which licensed the format to Sweden, has also sold it into the UK. At the same time, it has licensed the first two Finnish seasons to ProSiebenSat.1. Eccho will also sell the Swedish version of the show internationally.

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