Tag Archives: Viola Davis

Sky enters realms of fantasy

Jasper Fforde novel The Last Dragonslayer
Jasper Fforde novel The Last Dragonslayer

Sky1’s adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer suggests the scripted market is swinging back towards TV movies and miniseries, as Crackle announces a follow-up to The Art of More.

There are reports this week that UK pay TV channel Sky1 has greenlit a TV adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel The Last Dragonslayer.

Set in a world where the power of magic is being eroded by technology, it centres on a teenage girl who finds herself mixed up in a prophecy about the death of the last dragon.

The project is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it underlines the continued interest in fantasy projects – The Magicians, Shannara, Game of Thrones and American Gods being a few others – and secondly, because it is reported to be a two-hour single as opposed to an event or returning series.

A few executives in the drama business are starting to support the idea of shorter-run productions because of the sheer volume of scripted content now on the market. Although the received wisdom is that singles are harder to promote than series and offer fewer long-term return, there’s no real point spending tens of millions of dollars on a series that is going to fail because viewers can’t be bothered investing eight or 10 hours of their lives in it. It will be interesting to see if there is now a renaissance in the TV movie format.

The Hobbit's Martin Freeman stars in Start Up
The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman stars in Start Up

Another of this week’s major scripted TV stories is that Sony-owned on-demand service Crackle has commissioned its second original drama series. Following up on The Art of More, starring Dennis Quaid, Crackle has now greenlit a project called Start Up.

Set in Miami and starring Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock, The Hobbit), Start Up explores what happens when a brilliant but controversial tech idea gets incubated with dirty money. The message seems to be that Crackle is mainly interested in backing high-concept thrillers with proven theatrical talent attached.

There are a couple of stories with a Canadian flavour this week. In the first, Canadian broadcaster Global TV has ordered an original drama after partnering with producer/distributor Entertainment One. Called Mary Kills People, the six-parter has been created and written by Tara Armstrong and is set in the world of assisted suicide. It tells the story of a nurse who helps people with terminal illnesses.

Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson
Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson

The other project is a production partnership between Macmillan Publishers’ in-house film and TV unit and Toronto-based Wildhorse Studios. This one will see the two partners collaborate on a TV adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson. Written in 1957, the book tells the story of Jewish exiles in New York City just after the Second World War and just before the creation of the state of Israel. It was first published in serial form by a Yiddish newspaper called The Forward.

As previous DQ columns have demonstrated, the US TV market offers an almost constant pipeline of new scripted shows. However, this time of year is especially prolific because it is when the major networks greenlight shows from paper to pilot. Like baby turtles heading for the ocean, there will be lots of casualties before we finally see full series being commissioned. But pilot season is a useful indication of the way networks are thinking.

This week, for example, ABC ordered two new legal-themed drama pilot (no real surprise given that one of its biggest hits at present is legally themed show How To Get Away With Murder – congratulations, by the way, to Viola Davis for her latest SAG Awards success). The first of the two pilots is Notorious. Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan, the story follows the relationship between “a charismatic attorney and a powerhouse television producer as they attempt to control the media, the justice system, and ultimately, each other.”

ABC's SAG Awards success How To Get Away With Murder
ABC’s legal drama How To Get Away With Murder brought Viola Davis a SAG Award

The second is the aptly named Conviction, which comes from The Mark Gordon Co, the firm behind ABC political thriller Quantico. This one focuses on the prodigal daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job at LA’s ‘Conviction Integrity Unit.’ Here, her job is to investigate cases where there’s reasonable suspicion the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.

The CW, which is the US market’s fifth broadcast network, has also announced a bunch of new pilots including comic-based project Riverdale, Transylvania and an untitled Mars project. These new projects join a previously announced paranormal drama called Frequency from Kevin Williamson, which is a reboot of the 2000 time travel movie of the same name but with a female lead.

Transylvania continues the trend towards fantasy Victoriana (with examples including Penny Dreadful, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Ripper Street, Dickensian and Jekyll & Hyde). Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of a young woman looking for her missing father who goes to Transylvania and she teams up with a wrongfully disgraced Detective. Once there, the duo encounter the usual suspects.

A second season of Wolf Hall could be two years away as it waits on novelist Hilary Mantel
A second season of Wolf Hall could be two years away as it waits on novelist Hilary Mantel

The Mars project is not actually new, having first been talked about in 2013 when it was called Colony. A reimagining of the 400-year-old Roanoke ‘Lost Colony’ mystery, it follows a team of explorers who arrive on Mars to join the first human colony, only to discover that it has vanished. The show is not the only Mars project in the market, with Syfy currently making Red Mars, based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction series.

In the UK, meanwhile, the Radio Times quotes director Peter Kosminsky saying there will be a second season of Wolf Hall – but it’s not possible yet to say when. According to Kosminsky, nothing can happen until author Hilary Mantel finishes the novel upon which the sequel will be based. Then it needs to be adapted for the screen and slotted into the busy schedules of actors Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. “She [Mantel] has still got at least a year of writing on the novel,” says Kosminsky, “and we have to get it adapted, which will take quite a while because it’s probably going to be quite a thick book. It’s not going to be any time soon I’m afraid. Two years down the road I would think, probably.”

Louis CK's web comedy Horace and Pete
Louis CK’s web comedy Horace and Pete

Usually when we talk about greenlights, it’s six to 12 months before a show actually appears. But US comedian Louis CK surprised us all this week by releasing a new series on his website without any advanced warning. Entitled Horace and Pete, it stars Louis CK, Steve Buscemi and Alan Alda in what is being described as a black comedy version of Cheers. The 67-minutes show revolves around an Irish bar and the people who work there and frequent it.

Given the quality of the talent involved it will be interesting to see how it is received and whether it encourages other creatives to drop surprise series via the internet. (Actually, there is something vaguely similar here to the recent story about JJ Abrams making a Cloverfield sequel without telling anyone.)

Finally, on the distribution front, Australian streaming service Stan has become the exclusive home of Showtime’s brand and programming, echoing a similar deal with Sky in Europe.

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Playing it safe

Jason Statham's lead role in Viva la Madness marks his first in a TV series
Jason Statham’s lead role in Viva la Madness marks his first in a TV series

The clear message in the international drama business right now is that producers like to back projects with strong provenance. So intense is the competition that no one wants to go to market without some kind of built-in brand equity, whether that’s a star actor, established screenwriter or pre-existing storyworld. In fact, the safest bet is to develop a project with all of the above.

A good case in point is Gaumont International Television (GIT)’s new action thriller Viva la Madness, announced this week. A one-hour drama series, Viva la Madness is based on the book of the same name by J.J. Connolly. It is the next instalment to Connolly’s novel Layer Cake, which was turned into a movie starring Daniel Craig in 2004. And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with, the show will star feature film actor Jason Statham (The Expendables, Transporter, Snatch) in his first lead TV role.

In Viva la Madness, the hero of the story is stranded in the Caribbean itching for a criminal life he left behind – but he’s still a wanted man back home. Soon he joins forces with two gangsters: the menacing Sonny King and his paranoid partner Roy ‘Twitchy’ Burns. Explaining why Viva will be a TV series, Statham said: “The way J.J. writes is so on the ball and authentic it’s hard to let any of it go. Trying to lose characters or shave down scenes every other page didn’t work – we wanted it all. The best place was a 10-hour-plus show that lets you fully disappear into Connolly’s world.”

Statham and Steven Chasman, who own the rights to the project, will serve as executive producers, along with Connolly who is also set to write the series (as part of a growing trend of authors trying their hand at TV). Commenting on the project, GIT CEO Katie O’Connell Marsh said: “With its riveting characters and twisting storyline, Viva la Madness is a volatile cocktail of action and comedy that only J.J. Connolly can create. Jason Statham brings such strength and credibility to his characters but also has an effortless shade of vulnerability that gives him so much dimension on screen.”

Viva la Madness follows on from Layer Cake, which was made into a film starring Daniel Craig
Viva la Madness follows on from Layer Cake, which was made into a film starring Daniel Craig

The TV industry’s endless fascination with gangsters has thrown up another interesting project this week, with Showtime reportedly in development on a mobster series with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company. Set in 1980s Brooklyn, the series will focus on the relationship between an unstable mafia captain and a rogue FBI agent (against the corrosive backdrop of Wall Street high finance). The series will be written and exec produced by Brett Johnson, whose recent credits include Ray Donovan. The series is the latest in a run of TV projects that DiCaprio and Appian Way are working on. DiCaprio recently signed a first-look deal with Netflix to develop documentaries and docuseries and he has also optioned the rights to Simon Toyne’s novel Solomon Creed (The Searcher in the US).

Another idea going into development this week is Moreau, a drama series inspired by HG Wells’ classic novel The Island Of Dr Moreau. Phillip Iscove, who previously reimagined Sleepy Hollow for TV, is writing the script for CBS TV Studios and Kennedy Marshall. In this variation of the story, Moreau is a woman who expands the boundaries of medicine through revolutionary scientific experimentation in a privately funded island hospital.

On the international sales front, A+E Studios International has just announced a slew of deals for scripted series UnREAL, which debuted on Lifetime in the US earlier this year. Set against the backdrop of fictional hit dating competition show Everlasting, UnREAL is a workplace drama led by flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby). Rachel is a young producer whose job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the dramatic and outrageous footage her dispassionate exec producer demands.

UnREAL has been picked up by broadcasters around the world
UnREAL has been picked up by broadcasters around the world

With a second series already greenlit, the first run has been picked up by broadcasters including TF1 (France), Antenna 3 (Spain), TV2 (Norway), Cellcom TV (Israel), YES (Israel), 360TV (Latvia), SBSTwo (Australia), Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). The series will also air on international versions of Lifetime in Canada, Latin America, the UK, Southeast Asia, Poland, and Africa. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen an ongoing trend for original, character-based shows,” said Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks. “UnREAL rises above the rest with its sharp storytelling and bold characters. We expect further deals at Mipcom.”

Another distribution story this week shows the interesting interplay between traditional TV studios and the ever-rising power that is Netflix. On Friday, it was announced that Netflix had secured the worldwide rights to the first season of ABC’s hit drama How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM). Episodes are now available in the US, Canada and Latin America, with other Netflix territories streaming the show in the coming months.

Clearly, the financial terms must have been attractive for Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution to do the deal. But there is also some strategic logic to the link-up. With season two of HTGAWM due to premiere on ABC on September 24, letting audiences binge season one of the show for a week beforehand is a way of building up the anticipation, with the hope that Netflix will drive viewers back in the direction of ABC.

Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder
Best Actress Emmy winner Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder

In related new, Viola Davis, the star of HTGAWM, has just won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series. The first black actress to win the award, she gave this excellent acceptance speech. DQ previously looked at the show here.

On the subject of Emmys, this year’s big winner was – and about time too – Game of Thrones, which picked up 12 gongs. The next best showing came from Olive Kitteridge, with eight. Both shows are from HBO, which dominated proceedings this year. All told it took 43 Emmys, while NBC was next with 12. Other shows that did well were Amazon’s Transparent – which won five, including Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor – American Horror Story and Veep.

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A journey through ShondaLand

How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis
How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis, who spoke on the panel in Cannes

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is something of a surprise package. While it’s aimed primarily at executives in the advertising business, its conference programme attracts some of the biggest names in film, TV and music.

This year, for example, it managed to reel in the likes of Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Marilyn Manson, Richard Curtis, Kenneth Branagh, Freida Pinto, Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.

From a Writers Room perspective, one of the most interesting conference sessions was hosted by McCann Worldgroup and the Paley Centre for Media. Under the heading ‘Is creativity the only way to survive and thrive today?’ they brought together three top talents closely associated with ShondaLand, the Shonda Rhimes-led production company that makes hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) – all for US network ABC.

It was also behind Private Practice, a Grey’s spin-off that ran for six years.

One of the three contributors was producer Betsy Beers, who has been on board the ShondaLand express train since its early days. Beers, who has exec produced all of the above shows, recalled how, back in the middle of the last decade, both she and Rhimes were in the movie business.

“When we met, we had never made TV,” she said. “Shonda was a successful movie writer but I sucked at making movies. Everything I did bombed. So when we started talking about making TV, I was really excited. I’d always been a closet TV fan, which was not something you could admit around movie people.”

Grey's Anatomy is poised for a 12th season
Grey’s Anatomy is poised for a 12th season

Finding they shared a similar sensibility, Rhimes and Beers decided to make a show about female war correspondents. “We created a pilot, but were thinking in movie budget terms,” said Beers. “So we came up with something that would have had a US$30m budget. Of course, that didn’t work out. But we still wanted to work together so we hit on the idea of a medical drama.”

‘Medical drama’ hardly sounds like the most original of premises, but in the hands of creative powerhouse Rhimes it became Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most travelled shows in the world.

Beers continued: “Back then, a lot of the female characters on TV didn’t look or sound like us. So what we set out to do was make a show about messy, confused, twisty women. In its first year it was the last show to get picked up as a pilot. And then it was the last show to go to series. But the audience liked the show so we survived.”

Beers said ABC became increasingly supportive of the show, which has now run for 11 seasons (with a 12th on the way). She admitted there were some people in the business that found it sexually aggressive and, therefore, offensive “but our response was ‘this is what the show is, so live with it.’”

ShondaLand’s shows all have the ballsy quality displayed by Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Nowalk, the creator of HTGAWM, came into the company as a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. Also at the Cannes Lions session with Beers, he said: “You can’t be generic anymore. There are so many TV shows out there that you have to really raise your game. With my work, I’m always looking at how to put ordinary people in extreme situations.”

Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice
Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice

While this approach has built a big fanbase, it inevitably exposes ShondaLand shows to the risk of criticism. Nowalk, who has grown up in ShondaLand, working on Grey’s, Scandal and HTGAWM, said his way of dealing with this is to write “in a bubble. Constructive criticism makes you better and smarter, I think. But when I’m writing new episodes I keep it small — just me and my computer.”

Beers said her ability to cope with adverse criticism is helped by the fact “that I border on being a luddite. But we’ve also created a safe environment at work, where we can express our fears and passions. I also think you need to really love what you are doing (to deal with criticism). We really love the shows we make.”

One of the big successes of HTGAWM (which debuted in 2014 to strong audiences and positive reviews) was the casting of actress Viola Davis in the lead role as Annalise Keating. Nowalk recalled applauding Davis at the first read-through of his script “because Viola really brought my words to life.”

Davis, who was the third participant in the Cannes Lions session, talked about the importance of authenticity in the way she handles the part. She said: “The role called for a messy, mysterious, sexy woman. I said ‘yes,’ then thought to myself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ But I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. So what if I didn’t fit the mould? I just dared to be a woman who fit those adjectives and in doing so was able to release my creativity. Typecasting is kryptonite to actors, so all I want to do is offer my interpretation of a real woman.”

Davis’s approach has helped make HTGAWM stand out. There was one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode of season one where it was revealed that her character Annalise was wearing a wig and eyelash extensions.

Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand
Scandal is among the shows Pete Nowalk has worked on for ShondaLand

By removing them on screen, Davis made a statement about how women are represented on TV. She said: “I’ve never seen a woman like me on TV. It’s important to bring that up. You have to give yourself permission to have a voice.”

Beers said this gradual revelation of the vulnerabilitiesand contradictions of character is one of the beauties of working in serialised TV: “You have time to roll a character out.”

To take advantage, however, you need to keep pushing at the uncomfortable boundaries of the character, added Davis. “For actors, TV’s trap is that you can create a personality, not a person. The pursuit of likeability can be dangerous because you end up looking for gimmicks. You need to keep characters complex.”

Nowalk said this is what he tries to do from a writing perspective, by making sure characters don’t always follow the expected path, because it is the contradictions that come closest to truth.

All three panellists were asked what they feared most. Davis admitted to being “terrified not to have the courage to be authentic,” while Nowalk said: “I’m always terrified by the next episode – right now, the debut episode of season two.”

As for Beers, it was “the fear that I will stop growing, that I will start repeating myself. You have to learn, listen and be curious if you want to keep growing.”

Right now, it seems the ShondaLand team is doing a good job of staying curious.

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