Tag Archives: The Passage

Rite of Passage

Liz Heldens, showrunner of US drama The Passage, discusses the two-year journey to bring the Fox series to screen, adapting one of her favourite books and finding the balance between character and a furious blend of science fiction, thriller and the supernatural.

It must have been fate. When writer-producer Liz Heldens signed a deal to link up with 20th Century Fox Television in 2016, her first meeting saw her sit down with the studio’s development team to find out what they were working on. What she didn’t expect to hear was that they had picked up the rights to Justin Cronin’s book trilogy The Passage – a novel she describes as “one of my favourite books ever,” having read it three years earlier.

With Heldens signing on to develop the project as showrunner, a pilot was subsequently ordered that year. And though it missed out on a pick-up in 2017, Fox backed script rewrites and some reshoots before giving the series the green light last May. The Passage finally debuted in the US on Monday, and has been rolled out on various Fox channels around the world.

Liz Heldens

Heldens came to the project as a fan, having loved the first book. She “devoured” the second and even went to buy the third before Cronin had finished writing it. “So I was geeking out about the book before I knew Fox had it,” she says. “When they mentioned the book, I just jumped on it.”

Described as an expansive, character-driven thriller, the story focuses on Project Noah, a secret medical facility where scientists are experimenting with a dangerous virus that could lead to a cure for all disease – but also has the potential to wipe out the human race.

When a young girl, Amy (played by Saniyya Sidney), is chosen to be the next test subject, a federal agent (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is tasked with bringing her in. But he ultimately chooses to ignore his orders and protect her at any cost, even as Project Noah’s work threatens to unleash an unimaginable vampiric apocalypse.

A brief synopsis fails to do justice to the vast, far-reaching story of The Passage, which goes into the backstory of the discovery of the virus and reveals how a number of patients had been tested – with variously monstrous results – before scientists decided a child subject would offer the best chance of creating a successful serum, leading to the decision to send Gosselaar’s agent Brad Wolgast to pick up Amy.

Helden’s original take was to tell the story in two timelines, owing to the fact the book features a big time jump. “So we shot that and it was great, but it was just a lot for a 43-minute network TV show. It was too much information to take in and it felt too big and unwieldy,” she explains of the decision to reshoot the pilot. “So we sat down with the network. Everyone loved Mark’s part, but the show felt too big and sprawling. I went back and reimagined Project Noah with the intention to give the scientists the same dimensions as the other characters and find out why they were doing what they were doing. That was the mission statement going into The Passage 2.0.”

What makes The Passage stand out from other US network dramas is its melting pot of genres  – from crime and thriller elements to sci-fi, horror and the supernatural. Each of these are very much present in the first episode, but in a way that manages not to seem shoehorned into a broadcast hour.

Part of that is down to the focus on the characters at the heart of the story, from Brad and Amy’s burgeoning father-daughter-esque relationship to the way those involved in Project Noah are humanised beyond their ‘evil corporate villain’ exteriors.

Saniyya Signey and Mark Paul Gosselaar in The Passage

“What I like about the way we are doing it now is the focus on character, and that’s what I do well,” the former Friday Night Lights, Deception and The Orville writer says. “That’s what broadcast can do really well – it lets you take time to get to know characters at the heart of Project Noah as well as Brad and Amy.” That also goes for the ‘Virals,’ the vampire-like creatures Heldens calls “the true bad guys,” which are being housed at the secret facility and about which viewers will learn more through flashbacks.

Heldens praises Cronin’s “wonderful” source material, which provides plot tentpoles that are also used in the series and acts as a blueprint for Brad and Amy’s relationship. “Telling the story from their point of view was a natural focus for the piece,” she says, revealing that ideas for a TV adaptation began spinning in her mind as soon as she read the book, with the 10-episode first season based on just part of Cronin’s first tome and ending with a “huge cliffhanger.”

In the writers room, the showrunner knew she would use flashbacks to explore the past lives of some of the characters, with fans of the book among those hired to write the scripts. “Then we got into the room and I like to just talk about characters for a while,” Heldens says. “Who are Brad and Clark [Richards, a Project Noah scientist played by Vincent Piazza]? What’s the thing they’re most afraid of? What do you want to see?

“Then the first episode ends in a car chase. So I knew the first scene of episode two would be in the middle of the car chase. Justin had things that needed to happen so we put markers on the board. It’s really fun storytelling to do.”

The drama is based on Justin Cronin’s book trilogy

One of the biggest challenges was keeping the characters realistic and relatable in a world that hosts vampiric creatures that are hungry for blood. “It’s kind of crazy but we try hard to keep characters grounded and play it for real,” Heldens says. “Reading Justin’s book, you really feel like this could happen.”

Filming on the series, which is produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox Television, took place in Atlanta, where a writer would be on set for every episode, with Heldens there at the beginning and at the end of shooting. Everyone in the writers room was given a script, with Heldens taking a pass on everything. “Sometimes I take a pass with the writer sitting in my office or I sit with senior staff and we talk about it,” she reveals. “I like to give notes if there’s time. It’s pretty collaborative; I like to hear everyone’s opinion. It was a good group of people.”

During development and then into production, however, particular focus was placed on what the monsters would look like. The showrunner reveals that while the Virals are truly terrifying creatures in Cronin’s book, she wanted them to retain some of their humanity in the series. “That’s a change we did for TV. We wanted to be able to see the human being in there and see the character they once were,” she explains. “The Virals don’t speak but that person has to convey things with their eyes.” Practical make-up was used to create the look, with visual effects coming into play to show the Virals changing from their human state to reveal the monster within.

Having learned her trade under Jason Katims on series such as Boston Legal and Friday Night Lights, and with support from producing director Jason Ensler, Heldens says she has been able to go about the complex role of being a showrunner with the same sense of calm and joy as Katims, whose more recent work includes Parenthood and The Path. “I just allowed everyone to do their creative best – and I get addicted to deadlines. I like it all,” she says.

It’s been a long road for Heldens but with The Passage finally on air more than two years after it first scored a pilot order, she concludes: “I’m just really super happy that it’s out in the world.”

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Networks bank on spin-off series

The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper
The Big Bang Theory spin-off will focus on Sheldon Cooper’s younger years

In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.

According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.

Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.

The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on
The spin-off from The Goldbergs will centre on Bryan Callen’s character Mr Meller

The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.

And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.

US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.

There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil
Jon Bernthal as The Punisher in Daredevil

However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.

There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.

Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.

Pulling is set to be remade in the US

In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.

Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.

Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).

Darren Criss in Glee
Darren Criss in Glee

Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.

However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.

In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”

Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.

Fauda’s second season has been picked up by Netflix

Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.

Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.

The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.

In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.

Valkyrien will air on Walter Presents

Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.

The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.

“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”

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