Tag Archives: Tom Harper

Train of thought

Multi-award-winning writer Jack Thorne chose The Commuter as his entry into sci-fi anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. Here, the writer, director Tom Harper and stars Tuppence Middleton and Anthony Boyle discuss making the episode and the dilemma at its heart.

When it came to choosing one of Philip K Dick’s short stories to adapt for sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams, it’s surprising Jack Thorne didn’t choose one centring on time travel – because surely time travel is only way the award-winning writer can juggle the remarkable number of television projects to which he is currently committed.

Jack Thorne

Best known for his work on Skins, Shane Meadow’s This is England series, The Last Panthers and National Treasure, Thorne’s upcoming projects include The Eddy, Kiri and another Meadows project, The Virtues. He is also adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC.

On the side, he’s also written film screenplays for Wonder, War Book and A Long Way Down, among others, and has been brought in to work on the script for Star Wars XI. And if that wasn’t enough, he co-created and wrote the book for the awards-laden play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.

Yet when the producers of Electric Dreams (including Ronald D Moore and Bryan Cranston) came calling, it was understandably hard to resist. So Thorne took inspiration from his own experiences when he chose to bring Dick’s The Commuter to the screen.

In the affecting adaptation, which airs as the third of 10 hour-long films in the series this Sunday on Channel 4, Timothy Spall stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to find a number of daily commuters are travelling to a town that shouldn’t exist. When he makes the journey himself, he finds himself confronted with an alternate reality that forces him to confront his relationship with his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) and his troubled son Sam (Anthony Boyle).

“It made me think about my granddad, who was a ticket clerk at Euston and whose son was a paranoid schizophrenic and who ended up quite seriously depressed,” Thorne explains. “He couldn’t cope with having my uncle for a son. So when I was thinking about that idea, his ideal wouldn’t be desert islands and coconut juice, it would be a pretty town that he could walk through where everyone was nice. It was just thinking about the idea of removing things from your life and whether that would make your life better.”

The Commuter stars Timothy Spall as Ed, a man who faces a life-changing dilemma

At the centre of the story is a choice offered to Ed by Linda (Tuppence Middleton), who is perhaps best described as a guardian angel, steering Ed towards the town of Macon Heights – a place that doesn’t exist on any maps. In this seemingly perfect place, Ed finds the problems brought about by his son don’t exist – because neither does he. Ed then faces a decision about whether to live this new life or revert back to his old one, with his son back in the family home.

“I’m interested to know whether people think he makes the right choice, actually, because I think there is a logic [to both options],” Thorne adds of the dilemma.

Middleton admits her only previous experience of Philip K Dick was Blade Runner-inspiration Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a full-length novel. “I actually hadn’t read any of [Dick’s] short stories before doing The Commuter,” says the actor, who recently starred in the BBC’s War & Peace.

“I didn’t want to read the entire back catalogue of his short stories before we did this. I just wanted to concentrate on The Commuter. What I really like about this story is I love sci-fi that’s really rooted in reality and it feels like something extraordinary happens in a very ordinary world. There’s such a huge spectrum with sci-fi – it can be otherworldly, outer space, aliens, or just something very ordinary with something strange going on, and that’s the sci-fi that interests me the most and why I was excited to do this.”

Tuppence Middleton’s Linda guides Ed through the alternate reality of Macon

In the original text, Linda is actually a short, bespectacled man. But Thorne opted to change things around for the television adaptation – “very fortunately for me,” says Middleton, who adds: “I felt like I had quite a lot of creative freedom with it. There wasn’t anything I was basing it on particularly. But we talked quite a lot about Linda before we started in that we didn’t want to make her either angel or devil.

“She was kind of this fairy godmother figure. She feels she’s doing something to better people’s lives but it’s debatable whether she’s doing something morally right. She’s offering a service she feels will make other people’s lives better.”

In contrast, Boyle based his character on something very real after speaking to a counsellor who had worked with kids with psychotic issues. “We spoke a lot about how they behaved and dressed,” he explains. “There was a lot about hats and keeping their heads low and their body language, so it was really useful to have the counsellors to speak to. It was amazing working with Tom and Jack because they just guided me through. It was an absolute joy. It was a bit difficult at times but Tom was just like a dad on set – if anything got a bit much, he was there for a cuddle!”

Harper, known for his work on Peaky Blinders and War & Peace, was drawn to Thorne’s study of one man’s breakdown, which he describes as “really emotional.”

Much of the show was filmed in Poundbury, a town with a ‘very artificial feel’

“What really appealed to me about it, and I’m not a massive sci-fi fan, was that it was sci-fi through the prism of one man’s experience,” he explains. “The original short story is fascinating, it’s clever and makes you think, but it’s not such a rich character study, certainly. It was that human story that really appealed to me and how you would fight for the love of your son, despite the costs, for better or for worse.”

The cast and crew descended on Woking, Surrey, to film scenes set in the train station, while Poundbury, the Dorset ‘new town’ championed by Prince Charles, doubled for the otherworldly Macon Heights.

“We did nothing to it,” Harper says of Poundbury. “It was built very recently and it has a very artificial feel. It’s an ideal town, built to spec from a set of plans rather than having emerged over time, so it does have this strange feel. I think it will get less strange as it matures.”

Middleton continues: “It’s such an amazing place. What makes it so bizarre is all the buildings are built as if they’re period buildings, but they’re all new, so it kind of feels like something isn’t right. You can’t feel the history coming out of the buildings. So it does feel like a set, which really helped for those scenes because we’re in this unreal world.”

The episode’s creators hope its ending will prove divisive among viewers

Thorne compares his work on The Commuter to writing a short film, with less than 60 minutes to tell a complex, emotion-filled story that the audience must be challenged by, yet not so challenged that its themes and ideas are incomprehensible.

To help him, the writer would often have calls to discuss the episode and receive notes from the executive producers, among them Battlestar Galactica’s Moore.

“I’m a massive Battlestar fan so working with him was very exciting,” Thorne says. “To be honest, you do these notes calls and get these voices – there was like 10 of them – and I think I knew which notes were coming from him but I wasn’t entirely sure. It was just these disembodied voices on the end of the phone. I got lots of clever notes from lots of clever people.”

While Electric Dreams populates a very different strand of science fiction, comparisons to another genre series, Black Mirror, which also started life on Channel 4, are inevitable. It’s interesting to note, however, that rather than dismiss any similarities between the two series, Thorne actively sought to put distance between The Commuter and anything that might make a Black Mirror episode.

“I was determined that it wouldn’t be a Black Mirror story; there’s no way this could fit into the Black Mirror universe,” he says of the Sony Pictures Television series. “I’m sure there’s some Philip K Dick stories that could very easily, but it was important to me that this was something that could not ever be seen [as part of Black Mirror]. Black Mirror’s not interested in stuff like this, so it was important it wouldn’t be. I love Black Mirror, by the way.”

It’s the ending to The Commuter that could prove divisive among viewers, as Ed faces the extremely personal decision about whether to fight for his relationship with his son or to continue life in an altered reality.

“Jack and I spoke a lot about it and we maybe even have slightly different ideas about what Ed should do at the end,” Harper says. “What I really hope is people take different things away from it.”

Thorne adds: “For me, it’s about someone who has, at the back of his head, a better reality than the one he lives in, and what it’s like to live with that and then what it means for that to become reality for them. It’s about the horrors of that.”

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Making Peace

Writer Andrew Davies has slimmed down Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace into a new six-part drama for the BBC. DQ hears from the creative team behind this lavish production.

For anyone who’s always wanted to read War and Peace but never found the time, Andrew Davies might just have the answer.

The acclaimed writer has previously adapted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, among others.

Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it
Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it

But now he has turned his attention to Tolstoy’s weighty tome, condensing it into a lavish six-part drama for BBC1 that will premier on January 3.

“I’d never read War and Peace; I’d been saving it up for my old age,” he jokes. “So I was pleased when Faith (Penhale, then head of BBC Wales Drama but set to become joint CEO of Lookout Point in February) invited me to read it with a view to adapting it. I took it on holiday and read it on a beach in Antigua and came back very enthusiastic about the book and very positive. It’s a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning but I’ve sorted it out.

“You have to remember the names of three families, that’s all it is. Nobody need bother reading it now because I’ve got all the best bits out of it! I didn’t find it too daunting. You have to be very arrogant to take on these jobs with these great works of literature and not be frightened of them. I give my own interpretation, take the bits that I love and express them as well as I can.”

Described as “a thrilling, funny and heartbreaking story of love, war and family life,” War and Peace features an ensemble cast headed by Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano. It also stars Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Barnard, Tuppence Middleton and Stephen Rea.

It’s produced by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point, while Tom Harper is on directing duties.

“It’s the weight of it – everyone looks at it and goes ‘Oh, no!’ People don’t even want to start it,” producer Bethan Jones says of Tolstoy’s 1,300-page book. “How many of us have it on our shelves and have never read it? But we were looking for a piece that hadn’t been done for a long time, something we thought was due, that we needed to make, something we felt had a contemporary feel.

“It’s all about young people – their lives, their loves and the mistakes they make; the things they go through and the process of growing up, emotionally as well as physically.”

Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson
Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson

Rea, who plays Prince Vassily Kuragi, adds: “Sometimes the translations of War and Peace are very poor or heavy-handed, but the first thing I saw with Andrew’s script was how easy it would be to play. The language was light and easy. It’s an incredible piece of work.”

Davies focused the story around three characters in particular. Pierre, Natascha and Andrei are at the heart of the story, with their families and their relationships built into the wider narrative.

The writer’s preference for focusing on youth was shared by Harper. Jones says: “Tom’s brilliant. He’s very young and he brings youth to the piece so it feels very contemporary – not through any wobbly camera style but through the real, young heart he’s brought to the show. Tom also works so well with the actors and draws out interesting, fresh performances.”

Filming for the production took place across six months in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania as the production team quickly decided that 19th century Russia couldn’t be replicated on the backlots at studios such as Pinewood.

“It felt important for the creative direction of the show that it should feel very authentic,” says Penhale. “If we were building, we would have had to build five Russian palaces, which, given the budget, wouldn’t have been feasible. But it also mattered to us that we shot in St Petersburg, that we went to some of the locations where some of these events would have taken place. It adds to the sense of truth and naturalism to the production. I hope viewers get a sense of Russia as a character in the piece.”

Faith Penhale
Faith Penhale is set to join War and Peace coproducer Lookout Point early next year as joint CEO

The seven-year timespan during which the story takes place also meant the crew was always on the move to film scenes at each location in both summer and winter.

“We started in January in winter in St Petersburg and moved to Lithuania, and we did some in Latvia as well,” explains Jones. “As the seasons wore on, in the beginning of the summer we went back to St Petersburg, so it was a very well-thought-out shoot. The crew were brilliant.”

Overseeing such a huge production did have its challenges, of course, and none so big as the language barrier. “We’d be doing a big scene with lots of extras, either military or a huge dance scene, and we’d have English, Lithuanian, Russian and Latvian speakers,” Jones recalls. “If we had any huge challenge, we couldn’t move as swiftly because we were having to tell everybody in their own language what to do. It was fascinating, though, I really enjoyed it. A couple of us are also Welsh speakers, so we threw that into the mix and really freaked them out!”

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein might be best known for award-winning films such as The Artist and The King’s Speech, but within 24 hours of BBC1 announcing its plans to adapt War and Peace, he was on the phone to Penhale to help bring his “passion project” to life.

“Harvey tracked me down to my office in Cardiff and was ringing repeatedly on the hour,” Penhale says. “We had a great phone call where he said, ‘If you’re doing War and Peace, I want to do it. This is my favourite book of all time,’ and it went from there. It’s really born out of his passion for it.”

Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast
Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast

Negeen Yazdi, president of international production at The Weinstein Company, says of the coproduction process: “The project matches the ambition, scale and material we want to be working on. With the BBC, we discovered very quickly our tastes were aligned, our ambitions for the project were aligned and that we’re not that different in the way we work. We’re all committed to the show and, above all, the show comes first. Like any working family relationship, there were disagreements and discussions but all in a very healthy way.”

Once The Weinstein Co was onboard, War and Peace was subsequently picked up in the US by A+E Networks-owned Lifetime, A&E and History, which will all simulcast the series from January 18 next year.

“The BBC and Weinstein marriage has been a surprisingly effective and powerful thing, in terms of both attracting talent and cast and making a statement to the industry that this is a big deal and you’d better pay attention,” says Simon Vaughan, CEO of Lookout Point. “That’s what it takes to get heard in a marketplace where thousands of new hours of TV are being produced each year.”

Vaughan adds that while coproductions of this magnitude can be tricky to navigate, all parties united behind Penhale’s leadership to bring the series to air.

“It’s about leadership – who’s the boss?” he says. “Faith was the boss and we all work for Faith. That is how it was from the beginning. As difficult as some moments were, when a call needed to be made, it got made. Somebody has to drive the train and if you don’t have that, run a mile. I’ve been around the block and done difficult coproductions and if there isn’t one clear leader, forget it. Don’t make it.”

As with any adaptation, plot points and character details have been chopped and changed, but Jones says Davies’ War and Peace is “very true” to Tolstoy’s original text.

“Inevitably there are some changes and characters that aren’t there – otherwise we’d be doing a 95-part series,” she says.

On the back of Doctor Who and Sherlock, BBC Wales has built up an impressive drama slate, and War and Peace is set to be the most ambitious yet.

“It is a great place to work,” Jones adds. “It started some time ago with the regeneration of Doctor Who. We’re quite bold. It’s very small but tight and hardworking team. We like to push ourselves.”

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