The Night Manager writer David Farr takes on Homer’s Iliad in an epic series promising sweeping battles, desperate conflict and forbidden love for the BBC and Netflix. DQ heads to South Africa to see the making of Troy: Fall of a City.
It’s perhaps the oldest story ever told. The Trojan Wars have everything: epic conflict, sweeping affairs, shocking betrayals, iconic characters, battling deities and heroic sacrifices. In that sense, it’s no surprise the BBC and Netflix would be interested in telling it – but they’re hardly the first, with Hollywood’s last attempt the big-grossing but critically maligned Troy from 2004, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.
Troy: Fall of a City was born on a beach in Crete, when executive producer Derek Wax was struck by a Zeus-esque bolt of lightning while reading The Penguin Book of Classical Myths and decided that Homer’s Iliad was ripe for adaptation once more. The eight-part series became the first project for his new company, Wild Mercury, produced in association with Kudos, with both companies owned by Endemol Shine Group. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.
Series producer Barney Reisz was undaunted by the inevitable comparisons. “The film came at the moment when everyone thought CGI was the next best thing, so they poured their resources into making it epic and lost the story a bit. It looked amazing, but for what gain? We’re making an epic show but trying to tell that story from a human, personal, authentic standpoint. It’s not our interpretation of the Iliad, it’s our interpretation of the myth as interpreted by lots of different people.”
Those people include not just Homer, but also Greek tragedians Euripedes and Aeschylus. But in the absence of Trojan sources and with even the dates of the war itself disputed (estimated to be somewhere around late 1300 BC), screenwriter David Farr, the Emmy-nominated adapter of The Night Manager, had carte blanche to be as creative as
Farr had Bettany Hughes on hand to advise on historical detail, but was also keen to explore the relatively untold story of life in Troy during the siege. “On the Greek side, you have an existing, well-trodden narrative,” he says. “It works and it’s exciting. The great challenge was to explore characters and stories in a way that would be as gripping as what’s happening outside the walls. We didn’t want to reduce the world to something smaller, but we did want to find the psychology and the grit in it.”
DQ can attest to that, having come to one of the series’ three major sets, an hour or so outside Cape Town, on an unseasonably warm July 2017 day during the six-month shoot. “We looked all over for a location,” says Reisz. “The real site of Troy in Turkey, plus Spain, Croatia, Malta… We chose South Africa because of the amazing landscape, the fantastic beaches and terrific infrastructure – we’ve only brought about 10 crew from the UK.”
Below the spectacular crags of the Simonsberg mountains, a collection of derelict farmhouses have been transformed into Troy’s Upper City, the courtyard outside the Trojan Citadel; the interior sits in a Cape Town warehouse, while the set for the Lower City, occupied by the general populace, is in the northern Cape Town district of Durbanville.
The Upper City architecture is a striking mix of Moroccan, Assyrian and Ancient Greek, assembled with some educated guesswork from production designer Rob Harris. Crumbling shrines and shrivelled offerings sit alongside swords, shields and spears in racks. The dilapidation is telling and quite deliberate: the series was shot in three blocks and in sequence by three directors – Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Mark Brozel (Dickensian) and John Strickland (Line of Duty) – so the sets have been allowed to deteriorate to reflect the trajectory of the conflict. We’re halfway through the series and – spoiler alert – Troy is losing the war.
The cast is a who’s who of sturdy television actors: on the Greek side, there’s Johnny Harris as Agamemnon, David Gyasi’s Achilles and Joseph Mawle as Odysseus; for the Trojans, David Threlfall’s King Priam, his queen Hecuba (Frances O’Connor) and Tom Weston-Jones as Hector. Caught in the middle are star-crossed lovers Helen (German actress Bella Dayne, last seen in Humans) and Paris, played by relative newcomer Louis Hunter. There are also other, less familiar faces. To serve this lesser-told side of the story, Farr invented some characters and expanded others who had walk-on parts in the Iliad – notably Priam’s advisor Pandarus (Alex Lanipkun) and Greek spy-cum-assassin Xanthius (David Avery), who befriends a Trojan family and comes to understand the toll of war on normal people.
“Even though it’s a mythical world, the characters are still human,” explains Avery. “There’s conflict and struggle. It shows that anyone can be touched by war, from soldiers to kings to families – it’s not just happening in a field hundreds of miles away, there are repercussions for everyone.”
Reisz agrees. At a time where the failings of patriarchy are being exposed in all areas, it’s a timely demonstration of “the complete fallibility of men. They’re fighting over beautiful things for the sake of it. I hope it’ll say something about the stupidity and futility of war, why people go to war and why many wars are never won or lost.”
Triggering the conflict are, of course, Paris and Helen (pictured top), whose affair ensures the divine prophecy, in which Paris brings about the downfall of his city, would come to pass.
“It’s a monumental shift, but it happens slowly,” says Hunter of his character’s journey from goat herder to returning royal prince to spark catastrophic conflict. “He’s impulsive and makes a lot of mistakes at first, but you see him develop and mature. This war goes on for 10 years, so Helen and Paris are constantly questioning whether their love means so much that they’ll put up with all the death and famine. The blood is quite literally on their hands, but their love is deep and true.”
“What makes Helen charming and allows her to affect men in the way she does is her vulnerability and open heart,” adds Dayne. “She’s intelligent, well read and knows about the politics. She also has a confidence in her sexuality, which women weren’t supposed to have at that time. She was more of a symbol of beauty than beauty itself. I had to think like that, because otherwise the pressure [of playing her] would have been too much.”
The gods, strikingly, are played by local actors and integrated as carefully as possible: there will be no declaiming in togas or brandishing fistfuls of lightning, nor will deities be dictating the actions of mortals. Instead, Farr approached them as a means to explore concepts of destiny and fate.
“They’re a presence,” explains Reisz, “without interacting too directly with the humans. They’re around and influencing things, but not in charge as they’d like to be. The key is that we know the humans are completely invested in them and fundamentally believe in them. People do extraordinary acts because they’ve been told to by the gods.”
As important as the emotional grip and thematic sweep of the story, meanwhile, is the fact viewers have certain expectations of Greek mythology that have to be met – expectations of battles, duels and a particular artificial horse.
“You only get one shot at it so you may as well get it right,” laughs Harris of the absent Trojan Horse that was the talk of the cast when DQ visited – drafted but not yet built. “It’s nearly eight metres tall and will accommodate a couple of soldiers. The idea is it’s a thing of beauty that people want.”
Harris’s greatest challenge to date, however, has been the construction of a 25 metre-long Greek ship, in 70 pieces. “If you put 50 people on a ship, it can’t tip over. We used a structural engineer and built it in a studio, then wondered how it would fare in a tidal pool. But it did float!”
The battles presented their own logistical challenges, overseen by on-set military adviser Nigel Tallis. Almost 200 extras and stunt professionals assembled for the biggest battle. Alfred Enoch, playing the part of Aeneas – general, Greek ally and future founder of Rome – was unsurprisingly caught up. “We were doing a battle scene at night, lots of extras and stunt guys, and after I killed the first person I just had a little look around and thought, ‘This is great!’”
The set-piece duels reflected the characters involved: there’s Achilles, efficient and elegant; Hector the muscular bruiser; and Paris, agile and quick. The set-to between Hector and Achilles took some four days to shoot and will most likely occupy about five minutes of the series. But, promises Farr, it will be well worth it. “We’ve all seen 100 westerns with 100 shootouts and they’re all great. This was the first ever shootout. It’s been replayed time and time again and never ceases to intrigue us, as long as you care about the people involved. You just have to enjoy those moments for what they are.”
The shoot wasn’t without its hairy moments. Half-a-dozen black mambas were removed from the location prior to filming, and a snake wrangler remained in attendance throughout. Baboons lurked during the beach scenes, scavenging food. A storm accounted for some of the set, a sickness bug for some of the cast, but only for a few days in both cases. A couple of stuntmen came a cropper when horses were startled, breaking ankles. But otherwise, given the level of ambition and devil-may-care attitudes of some of the stars (Hunter voluntarily tumbled 120 feet off a cliff for one scene), it’s had a relatively clean bill of health.
Off set, the collaboration between Netflix, the BBC and Wild Mercury also seems to have run smoothly, with the US streaming giant conforming to its hands-off reputation. “They brought a lot of money to it, which is hugely welcome,” says Farr. “They respond like audiences would – we’re a bit bored there, we don’t get that bit – but they don’t tell you how to solve it. They’re very positive and they trust people who make stuff to make stuff.”
The broadcasting arrangement sounds similarly straightforward. “The BBC will show it as early as possible,” says Reisz, nodding to its debut tomorrow, “once a week for eight weeks, then have it on iPlayer for a time. Thereafter, Netflix can show it in all territories apart from the UK, everywhere on the same date, then there’s a UK DVD date and Netflix will get it in the UK eventually.”
At the end of which, Troy will have definitively fallen – although that doesn’t necessarily bring an end to the team’s adventures in the ancient world. After all, in The Odyssey and The Aeneid there are two ready-made sequels waiting. “If I got another chance to wave a sword around, that would be amazing,” laughs Enoch. “That’s the idea,” reckons Reisz.
Farr is a little more circumspect. “Let’s wait and see how this one goes! I’m sure Homer was asked what came next after The Iliad and said much the same thing. Unlike other things I’ve worked on, there are consequences to this story and those consequences are very interesting, so let’s see.”
The Trojan Horseman
Horse trainer and stuntman Elbrus Ourtaev on the challenges of maintaining safety and order while working with no fewer than 18 horses on the set of Troy: Fall of a City.
I’ve been doing this for about eight years. I ended up in South Africa as one of the Cossack riders with the Moscow State Circus, then got involved with the film industry, started Film Equus and here we are with lots of horses riding around, doing silly things.
We have 18 horses for this show, although they don’t use too many in the big sequences. Maybe six in the big battles, but they’ll use CGI to make that look like more. We specialise in stuntwork – the most specialised sequence here was in the forest where a horse rears up, gets shot by an arrow and falls with a rider.
Training actors is more difficult than training horses! On Troy: Fall of a City, we had to start at the beginning with a lot of them and only had a limited time to get them to the level we needed. Sometimes the production would ask a horse to gallop with an actor, but it couldn’t be done – safety is the priority and things can happen so fast with horses. We can’t say ‘action’ on set. If you say ‘rolling,’ horses know it’s coming, and if you say ‘action,’ they’ll just start running. It’s been a privilege to be in this show – we love historical films and we’re proud of all the actors. They’ve worked very hard.