Tag Archives: Tribune Studios

Outside chance: DQ talks to Peter Mattei

After initially being told his script wouldn’t find a TV home, Outsiders creator Peter Mattei says he found the perfect fit in WGN America. He tells DQ how his story of renegades who clash with the modern world came in from the cold.

Novelist, playwright, filmmaker, screenwriter – it’s fair to say Peter Mattei (pictured above right) has more titles than most. So it’s a sign of the ongoing strength of television drama that he chose the small screen as the medium for his latest project.

Outsiders marks US cable channel WGN America’s latest foray into the world of original programming. Described as a struggle for power and control set in the rugged hills of Appalachia, the series focuses on the Farrell Clan, a tight-knit family of renegades who have lived atop the rugged Shay Mountain for more than 200 years, and their fight to defend their way of life from the town below and anyone who would dare to challenge them.

The series stars Hollywood actor David Morse
The series stars Hollywood actor David Morse

Produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios, it was created and written by Mattei, who executive produces alongside Fedora Entertainment’s Peter Tolan, Paul Giamatti, Dan Carey for Touchy Feely Films and Fedora’s Michael Wimer.

“I had pitched and sold a batch of TV ideas over the years and none of them really went forward,” Mattei explains. “I wasn’t sure whether I should do this one as a novel or film but I saw it as a longform story. The kind of independent films I’m interested in aren’t being seen and it’s hard to get money, so the idea of doing it as a TV show was more appealing.

“It’s a great time to be doing longform novelistic stories. I wanted to do it as TV but I knew it wasn’t pitchable because it’s so strange, so I just wrote it.”

Mattei says the series was inspired by a number of contemporary issues facing the US, notably in terms of politics and the financial crisis, gentrification and the idea of freedom.

“I was interested in this idea of people living an alternate lifestyle, in cults and communes,” he says. “What if there were people living a lifestyle that people were living 200 years ago and were determined not to change? What would happen if these people were discovered living among us and their way of life was threatened? What if they were illiterate? And the ideas fell in together.”

The author of 2013 satirical novel The Great Whatsis, Mattei wrote the pilot script for Outsiders (originally called Titans) and for a few years was told by friends in the business that it was a great idea but one that wouldn’t fly on television.

Unperturbed, he passed it to his agent, who also represents Giamatti, and they teamed up to take it out to the networks. Arriving at WGN, Mattei was impressed by the broadcaster’s ambition and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for his show.

From left: Actor Ryan Hurst, creator and exec producer Peter Mattei, executive producer Peter Tolan, actor Christina Jackson, actor Paul Giamatti, actor Kyle Gallner, actor David Morse, actor Gillian Alexy
From left: Actor Ryan Hurst, creator and exec producer Peter Mattei, executive producer Peter Tolan, actor Christina Jackson, actor Paul Giamatti, actor Kyle Gallner, actor David Morse, actor Gillian Alexy

Equally impressed, WGN gave Outsiders a 13-episode straight-to-series order, following in the footsteps of its earlier original series Salem and Manhattan. It makes its debut on the network tonight.

“They’re an upstart, similar to AMC when they did Breaking Bad and Mad Men,” Mattei says of WGN. “They’re looking for interesting, edgy material to differentiate themselves and have a straight-to-series model. They also loved the material and it seemed like the perfect fit. After a period of writing, they decided to move forward with it and they brought in Sony as a co-studio (with Tribune, the production arm of WGN parent Tribune Media). I knew I needed a partner and Sony brought Peter (Tolan) in. He loved it too.

“It still feels surreal. This was a very strange idea I cooked up and wrote very quickly – I didn’t think about it too much. I wasn’t trying to sell anything. I wanted to write something I thought would be cool on air. A year later, seeing it coming to life, it’s very surreal. Since I had never made a show before, I felt like I was a student of the process and absorbed everything from Peter. We put the writers room together. It was incredibly daunting to plot 13 episodes of a show when I had barely scratched the surface.”

Though Mattei worked alongside Tolan to run the writers room, he says being a showrunner is different to anything he has done before.

“Showrunning is definitely one of those things you can apprentice if you’re working on a show, but if you’ve never done it before, there doesn’t seem to be a playbook,” he says. “Everyone does it very differently. For me, having the equivalent of four full-time jobs was really hard. I was the only writer on set and the only producer on set.

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The show focuses on a family of renegades

“The experience was twofold: the time I was in LA with the writers room and plotting out the season’s story arc, and being in Pittsburgh during production. Because it was a made-up universe, it was very different to anything everybody had worked on before. It’s not a lawyer show where you know how everyone behaves. I don’t know how my characters talk or how they dress. I had lots of ideas and also the way this story looked was very important to me. I wanted it to be very cinematic. We just shot a 10-hour movie in 13 parts.”

The look of the show was so important to Mattei that he put together a 60-page presentation outlining the appearance of both the world of the show and its characters – drawing inspiration from such groups as bikers and gypsies – and the style of music that should be used. He also worked with director Adam Bernstein to hire the director of photography and costume and production designers.

“I really got involved more than most showrunners do in terms of production,” he says. “We wanted it to be really cinematic so I wanted to be on the ground.”

Mattei values the work of his collaborators and says he is keen to let people have their own voice. “I just want to make sure what we are doing is the best thing we can do,” he adds. “This is the first year of the show and it’s such a made-up fantastical world that there was a lot of back and forth with the actors and designers about what the show would be. By midway, we knew what we were doing and I felt confident I would know the answer to any question people could ask.”

Outsiders also boasts a strong ensemble cast, headlined by David Morse, who is best known for big-screen roles in The Green Mile, Contact, The Hurt Locker and The Rock. He has also appeared in episodes of HBO dramas True Detective and Treme. Other cast members include Thomas M Wright, Ryan Hurst, Joe Anderson, Gillian Alexy, Kyle Gallner, Christina Jackson, Francie Swift and Phyllis Somerville.

“When we set out in casting, we just wanted great actors in every role as opposed to having specific ideas of the look of a character,” Mattei says. “We were very lucky because when the script got out, there were certain actors who came to us.

“We were overjoyed when we heard from David Morse. He was someone whose name I had thrown out as the kind of actor I wanted to work with. He’s an actor’s actor. All our actors were really smart about their characters and their story arcs. It was a very collaborative process where they would give feedback on stories. We did table reads and a lot of rewriting based on those.”

Having taken a series to air after several false starts, Mattei says he now cannot imagine doing anything other than television. “I’m a dilettante; I like to try everything. I’m sure at some point I would love to get back in theatre – it’s been 20 years – and to make a film as well. For the moment, this is an incredible moment for US TV. I hope it lasts. It feels to me like when I got into making films and was in the middle of the independent film community at Sundance. TV feels like that, filled with excitement and so many people making smart stuff. It’s full of energy where lots of things are possible and really great work is happening.

“Mr Robot is amazing. It’s incredibly good. I also liked Black Mirror – that was a real masterpiece. When there’s stuff out there like that, you get really inspired.”

Looking back on making the first season of Outsiders, Mattei describes it as “easily the most intense experience” of his life.

He adds: “I was not at all prepared for how demanding it would be to run a show like this. I fucked up a lot of stuff and struggled with a lot of stuff. We all did. It’s one of those experiences. It’s really quite a journey. It’s so much more intense than making a film. We were taking 15 days to make 90 minutes, not 30 days. The pace is daunting. We have been through a war together.”

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The stuff of Legend: Singer boards slavery drama

As John Legend becomes the latest singer-songwriter to sign up to a television drama, hot on the heels of fellow artists Timbaland and 50 Cent, Michael Pickard asks whether more will follow.

US cable channel WGN America was on song this week as it announced details of its latest original production.

Underground will tell the story of a group of plantation slaves who come together to fight for their families, their future and their freedom.

But while the straight-to-series order follows in the footsteps of other WGN original dramas, including Salem and Manhattan, the new series also followed another new trend with the addition of a key member of the creative team.

Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning musician John Legend (pictured above) was unveiled as an executive producer on the project. Together with his Get Lifted partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius, he will oversee Underground’s score, soundtrack and all musical aspects of the series.

Salem is among previous straight-to-series WGN original dramas
Salem is among previous straight-to-series WGN original dramas

Earlier this year, Legend won the Oscar for Best Original Song for Glory, from the motion picture Selma, which followed the 1965 voting rights marches that took place from Selma to Montgomery under the civil rights leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

“We are excited to join forces with WGN America and Sony and the talented team of writers and producers on this powerful project that we believe will inspire us all,” Legend said. “This series has a unique opportunity to speak to the passion and courage of those who risked it all as they raced to freedom. We are honoured to bring our creative vision to this thrilling project.”

Underground is created and written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who also executive produce with writer Akiva Goldsman of Weed Road Pictures, Tory Tunnell and Joby Harold of Safehouse Pictures and Legend, Jackson and Stiklorius of Get Lifted.

It is produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios, and is being filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a 2016 debut.

The cast is led by Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, a restless slave who organises a small team of fellow slaves on the Macon plantation to plan an escape. It also includes June Smollett-Bell, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller and Jessica de Gouw, with Marc Blucas, Adina Porter, Mykelti Williamson, Amir Vann, Johnny Ray Gill, Chris Chalk, Reed Diamond, and Jussie Smollett.

“Underground depicts a raw and revolutionary chapter in the American story. We wanted an artist who could help us find the light through the darkness, and John Legend was a perfect fit,” said Green and Pokaski. “We are beyond excited to be working with John, Mike and Ty at Get Lifted. They stand without peer at the intersection of music and television – we couldn’t think of better producing partners.”

Matt Cherniss, president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios, added: “We are thrilled that John Legend will lend his impressive talents to Underground, a story that chronicles the compelling journey of brave individuals whose fight for freedom still inspires us today.

“We look forward to John, Mike and Ty’s creative imprint on this series that we believe will be both provocative and captivating.”

While musical dramas are nothing new – Glee, Smash and Nashville are some of the more recent efforts – Legend joins a growing list of musicians moving into television.

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson (right) in Power, on which he is also an exec producer
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson (right) in Power, on which he is also an exec producer

Music producer Timbaland signed up as a songwriter and song producer on US network ABC’s hip-hop drama Empire, which features a mix of original and current music as it spins the story of a family that runs a music empire.

Meanwhile, Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson is an executive producer on premium cable network Starz’ Power, about a New York nightclub owner who leads a double life as one of the city’s biggest drug dealers. Jackson also has a hand in the music that accompanies each episode.

It is a sign of the current strength of TV drama that artists such as Legend, Timbaland and 50 Cent are interested in working on the small screen, following a similar migration of film actors, directors and screenwriters, plus bestselling authors such as Harlan Coben.

It is also a shrewd move on behalf of the networks and producers, who can expect to sell additional show merchandise by way of series soundtracks, while the performers can also look forward to increasing interest in their back catalogue.

So can we expect more musicians to move into TV? With Kanye West linked to Underground before Legend signed on, and with Mick Jagger on board a new HBO rock drama headed by Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter, a television series could soon be as lucrative as a residency in Las Vegas.

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