Tag Archives: Tom Fontana

King of the Hill

Veteran showrunner Tom Fontana tells DQ how his latest series, Showtime’s City on a Hill, tackles uncomfortable issues and explains why the 1990s-set show speaks to the present day.

For more than three decades, Tom Fontana has been associated with some of the most iconic series in US television. From medical drama St Elsewhere to The Wire precursor Homicide: Life on the Street and groundbreaking HBO prison drama Oz, he has scored multiple award wins and nominations while building a reputation as an international showrunner on historical drama Borgia.

“I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for 30 years,” he says. “Technology continues just to evolve and become more and more awesome. You can do things you couldn’t do years ago. But in terms of storytelling, the inherent conflicts and the inherent character flaws of the people we’re writing, when you’re writing human beings, they’ve been doing it the same way since Zebedee.”

Tom Fontana

In every storied career, no matter how long, there’s always time for new experiences and that’s exactly what Fontana has found with his latest project, showrunning Showtime’s crime drama City On A Hill.

Created by Chuck MacLean and based on an idea by Ben Affleck, who exec produces with Matt Damon, the series marks the first time Fontana has run a series he wasn’t attached to from the outset.

“Even with Homicide, on which Paul Attanasio wrote the initial script, I was involved from the very beginning in terms of casting and the whole evolution of the concept,” he explains. “With this, there was a pilot that was finished [when I joined]. We did go back and do some reshoots and reorganisation of it, but the cast was set and the heart of the series was set because Chuck is a brilliant writer. He has a very specific ear for what is Boston, so what I’ve tried to do, because he’s never done a television show before, is to be more like an Obi-Wan Kenobi on this and not change his concept. I’ve tried to enhance it.”

The 10-episode series is set in early 1990s Boston, a city rife with violent criminals emboldened by local law enforcement agencies among which corruption and racism was the norm. Described as a fictional story set during this period, the show sees assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) arrive from Brooklyn and form an unlikely alliance with corrupt yet venerated FBI veteran Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon). Together, they take on a family of armoured car robbers from Charlestown in a case that grows to involve, and ultimately subvert, the entire criminal justice system of Boston.

Produced by Showtime and distributed by CBS Studios International, the series has been selected as the closing-night premiere at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas, tomorrow, ahead of its US launch on June 16. Alongside Fontana, Affleck and Damon, the executive producers include Jennifer Todd, Michael Cuesta, James Mangold and Barry Levinson. Bacon is a co-executive producer.

“I think [the series appealed] because I like to do shows that are troubling and deal with issues people maybe aren’t comfortable dealing with,” Fontana tells DQ on the phone from New York City, while filming is continuing on episode nine and he is editing episode eight. “I felt in this world we live in, and specifically in America in 2019, what was going on in Boston in the 1990s was incredibly on point as to what’s going on in America right now. So for me, the idea was that while we could be in the haze of doing a ‘period piece,’ we could deal with a lot of questions and confusion that exist in our lives today.”

Kevin Bacon (left) and Aldis Hodge in City on a Hill

While the idea of a period drama set in the 1990s might seem troubling to those who feel like they were only recently living in that decade, at the heart of City on a Hill is a question that remains as relevant today as it did then and even decades earlier: what is justice? The show aims to interrogate that topic not just on a legal level but also by examining how people are treated either justly or unjustly and how this is affected by wealth, race or sexuality.

“So from what Chuck created and the characters he created, we sat down and we talked about real events that happened in Boston in this period and how they might ignite these characters into the journey they’re individually going to take during the course of the season.”

This isn’t Fontana’s first time in Boston, with St Elsewhere also set in the Massachusetts city. But he says that the city serves the same purpose as Baltimore did in Homicide, being specific to its location but universal in the way it captures an American city metropolis.

“Boston is unique unto itself because it’s the birthplace of the Revolutionary War [which led to American independence from British rule], but also because, over time, it has remained both a small town and a large city,” he says. “It suffers and celebrates both those elements. It’s a small town in the sense that people are very tied to their neighbourhoods, tied to their beliefs and tied to their prejudices, but it’s also a city that is the centre of a lot of medical research and the Harvard Kennedy School of political science. It has big stakes as well as little stakes.”

The pilot was filmed in Boston and the crew will return there for the season finale, with other locations sought further down the Eastern Seaboard in the New York State areas of Staten Island, Yonkers and White Plains. Interior scenes were filmed on sound stages.

Bacon plays FBI veteran Jackie Rohr

“Like Mad Men, the show is 90% interiors. So whether we were shooting it in a sound stage in Brooklyn or a sound stage in Boston, it really didn’t matter,” Fontana notes. “And a lot of Boston in 1992, specifically the neighbourhoods we’re dealing with, don’t exist anymore in the sense that they have been gentrified, so we have managed to find places that look like Boston in 1992.”

Fontana’s experience on crime dramas in particular has seen him work on series such as Homicide, which was based on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon and ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999. The book would also later inspire Simon to create HBO’s seminal drama The Wire.

Fontana also created Copper, a police procedural set in 1860s New York that would become BBC America’s first original drama when it debuted in 2012, and short-lived drama The Beat, while he has also explored the criminal justice system in Oz and courtroom-based The Jury.

City on a Hill moves away from the typical police procedural format, telling stories not just from the perspective of the cops of Boston Police Department but also the FBI, the county sheriff, state troopers, the district attorney’s office and a group of criminals hellbent on targeting cash-carrying armoured vans. Other cast members include Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Jill Hennessy, Lauren E Banks, Amanda Clayton, Kevin Chapman and Jere Shea.

“I don’t like to write bad guys or good guys,” Fontana explains. “I like to write people, and so what we’ve worked very hard to do is make everybody incredibly human, both positively and negatively.”

Hodge as assistant DA Decourcy Ward, who arrives in Boston from Brookyln

It’s Jackie Rohr, played by Bacon, who immediately raises eyebrows with his foul-mouthed attitude and willingness to bend the rules to get what he wants. “I hope the audience will root for all the characters, but with Jackie specifically, he is so unabashedly who he is,” the showrunner says. “I think he articulates things that other people wish they could say and he behaves in a way other people wish they could behave. That’s not to justify anything he does but, on the same side, I think what’s wonderful about what Kevin is doing with the part is there is a crack in Jackie’s sense of self in that he’s clearly coming to understand he is an anachronism, that his time is passed.

“Yet he is fighting like a tiger to maintain a sense of himself and also gain the respect of the people around him. On the surface, he’s just an asshole. But the character is so multi-faceted that I think not only will the audience enjoy him but I think they will come to understand him because he’s a lost soul in a way.”

Rohr immediately ruffles the feathers of Hodge’s principled Decourcy Ward but, by the end of episode one, it seems they might already by finding some common ground in and out of the courtroom.

“The relationship between the two of them is never settled. There are weeks when Decourcy wins and weeks when Jackie wins, and weeks when they both win and weeks when they both lose,” Fontana says. “But their relationship is a rollercoaster ride because they have to trust each other and they’re basically using each other to get what they individually want to accomplish. I think it’s a really enjoyable ride on a week-to-week basis seeing them connect and disconnect and the reasons why they do that.”

In writing the series, “I don’t really do a writers room, per se. I find them wildly unproductive,” he says, laughing. “What happens is everyone gets together and the first thing you do is talk about what you did last night and what the kids are up to, and then someone comes in and says it’s time to order lunch and everybody orders lunch, then the whole day goes by and no actual writing happens.”

City on a Hill launches on Showtime this month

Instead, once the basic story has been outlined, the writers will each go off and explore their assigned episode individually. Fontana continues: “I believe each writer needs to be able to use his or her voice fully. Then I get the script and I give them suggestions, they do another draft and then I give them maybe more suggestions or do a final pass to get it ready for production. To me, writing by committee is not writing; I think writing has to be a very personal experience. I try to maintain that on all the shows I do.”

But like many series on television today, City on a Hill goes far beyond the initial crime – the “underbelly” of the story – and instead focuses on the ensemble of characters involved, which Fontana says he hopes will draw viewers into their world.

“I hope the characters are engaging enough and original enough, which I believe they are, that the audience will want to know what’s going to happen to them,” he adds. “We not only have some great male characters, we have four really powerful women characters, because it’s not just a procedural cop show. It’s about these men and women and what they’re going through during the course of their lives that has nothing to do with the crime that’s out there.”

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Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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AMC finds more life in Dead franchise

Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global
Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global

There are only three weeks to go until the launch of Fear the Walking Dead, US cable channel AMC’s LA-based spin-off of its hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead.

Earlier this year, AMC said it had greenlit two series of the new show. This week it added some detail, saying that there will be 15 episodes in the second run, which is scheduled to air during 2016.

Fear The Walking Dead, which launches on August 23, has a special significance for AMC because, unlike The Walking Dead, it will also premiere on AMC’s international channel AMC Global, which is available in 125 countries after a rapid international roll-out over the last year.

The Walking Dead started to gain momentum as a franchise before AMC had an international channel to air it on. So internationally most of the branding benefits of the show have gone to Fox channels, which have the international rights.

This time, however, AMC wants to make sure it is the primary beneficiary. To make the most of its relationship with Fear The Walking Dead, it also plans to air the show simultaneously around the world, a move that will drive its social media stats sky-high.

AMC has also announced the launch date for its hotly anticipated martial arts series Into the Badlands. Scheduled to premiere on November 15, this show will also be available internationally on AMC Global. It’s too early to say if Into the Badlands can have the same kind of impact as The Walking Dead, but it is the most ambitious martial arts project to have hit TV screens for some time.

Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November
Into the Badlands is coming to AMC in November

“Martial arts is not only a new genre for an AMC series, but also one that has been largely absent from television for 15 years,” said Joel Stillerman, president of original programming for AMC and SundanceTV. “The team behind Into the Badlands, led by showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, is comprised of some of the best martial artists and martial arts filmmakers in the world, and they have crafted a show that over-delivers against two big goals we set for the show: to create a compelling character drama and to introduce the highest calibre of martial arts filmmaking to a weekly, ongoing series.”

Other interesting developments include National Geographic Channel’s announcement that it has ordered a pilot script from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson for Last Men Out. Based on a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, the series will look at the rearguard actions of a band of marines during the final days of the Vietnam War. Fontana, whose credits include Copper and Borgia, will write and executive produce the pilot through Levinson/Fontana Co – the production company he formed with Levinson.

If all of the above sounds too violent for your tastes, then US cable channel The CW has revealed plans for an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic Little Women, to be written by Alexis Jolly and produced by Solar Drive Productions in association CBS TV Studios.

The 1994 movie version of Little Women
The 1994 movie version of Little Women

However, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie version of the book that starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst may be in for a surprise. Press reports claim The CW is planning a “hyper-stylised adaptation” of the novel in which “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”

Last year, cable channel E! entered the scripted market for the first time with The Royals, a series based around the public and private lives of a fictitious British Royal Family. Now it has announced plans for a second project, with the working title Hollywood Teen Medium. Following the life of 19-year-old Tyler Henry, the series explores the world of a “self-proclaimed clairvoyant medium as he balances his unique abilities with trying to be a regular teenager. Formerly of a small-town, Tyler has become one of Hollywood’s top mediums, bringing messages from the heavens and profound visions to today’s hottest stars.”

With a greenlight for eight one-hour episodes, Hollywood Teen Medium “adds a new layer of mystery and intrigue to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that our audience is so passionate about,” said Jeff Olde, executive VP for original programming and development at E!.

Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing
Black Sails has been given a fourth season before its third has started airing

This week has also seen a fair amount of activity in terms of series renewals. The big news at Starz is a fourth season of Black Sails, which stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint.

The first two seasons of Black Sails averaged 4.5 million multi-platform viewers per episode and the series is distributed in 175 countries worldwide. A greenlight for the fourth season comes despite the fact that the 10-episode third season doesn’t air on Starz until 2016. As mentioned previously, Starz has also cancelled Da Vinci’s Demons.

Amid a slew of announcements over the last week, Netflix said the fourth season of Longmire will air on September 10 (available to audiences in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Based on the novels by bestselling author Craig Johnson, Longmire is a crime drama that centres on a Wyoming county sheriff who returns to work after his wife’s death.

The show is interesting because the first three seasons aired on A&E, which then cancelled it. Producer Warner Horizon TV then touted the show around, at which point Netflix stepped in and saved it.

Netflix came to Longmire's rescue after it was cancelled by A&E
Netflix came to Longmire’s rescue after it was cancelled by A&E

Finally, Channel 4 has announced a second season of its hit sci-fi drama Humans, produced by Kudos from a Scandinavian drama by Matador. It is coproduced with AMC.

The decision was announced just prior to the finale of the first run this Sunday. Commenting on the decision, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said the drama “marks a key moment for C4 as we expand our remit for bold and original drama into the international copro space.”

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