All posts by Michael Pickard

Girl talk

Having started life as a one-off drama, Our Girl is now in its fourth full season. Creator Tony Grounds tells DQ about making the military series, being inspired by real-life stories and replacing star Michelle Keegan.

At a time when television production has largely shut down, the fourth season of BBC army drama Our Girl was delivered with military precision to ensure viewers wouldn’t face any delays catching up with Georgie Lane and the members of 2 Section.

In fact, creator and writer Tony Grounds is already looking towards a potential fifth season, as he spends time in his London flat during the ongoing Coronavirus-enforced lockdown.

“Will it really be over in three months? If it is, that’s great, and then we can probably all pick up again,” he says of the television industry. “But if it drags on, I don’t know how anybody will be able to go into production, because we have up to 400 people [on set] some days. You have a lot of physical contact.”

The duration of the pandemic will also go a long way to determining how television writers address the global health crisis in their writing, Grounds says, with the potential ‘coronavirus effect’ ranging from characters discussing it nostalgically in a pub to whole storylines covering the issue.

“As human beings when conversing, I’m sure it will be mentioned,” he says. “‘Do you remember that time we couldn’t hold hands?’, ‘Do you remember when the pub was shut?’ Or it could be, ‘Do you remember that time the pub was open?’ if it’s still going on. Things like soaps are going to cover it more, but I don’t know whether people want to hear other people banging on about coronavirus right now.”

Creator and writer Tony Grounds on the Our Girl set

Season four of Our Girl sees combat medic Georgie, played by Michelle Keegan, start a new stage of her career, having been promoted to sergeant and now training a new bunch of medics. Insistent to her friends in 2 Section that she’s happily settled in her new job and will not be joining them on their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, Georgie has a night on the town that results in a near-fatal incident and the realisation that losing the love of her life in a Taliban attack is the real reason she doesn’t want to go back. She then determines that she must return to face her fears.

Produced by BBC Studios, Our Girl is a unique proposition in the television schedules, having originally launched in 2013 as a single film that told the story of disillusioned 18-year-old Molly Dawes, who decides to join the army. A full season then aired in 2014, with EastEnders star Lacey Turner continuing in the lead role as Molly completed her training as a combat medical technician and found herself deployed to Afghanistan with her all-male colleagues in 2 Section.

Season two saw Keegan take the lead, with Georgie sent on a humanitarian tour of Kenya, while season three followed the character as she was sent to Nepal after an earthquake.

“It’s been a fantastic journey,” says Grounds, whose writing credits also include The Bill, EastEnders, Ray Winstone starrer Our Boy and Bodily Harm. “It’s unexpected in the sense that the single film was just a single film, but it seemed to do so well. Ben Stephenson, who was head of drama of the BBC at that point, asked me if it could go to a series. Because we’re following the combat medical technicians around, it can be as long as you want because, as long as we’ve got a British army, there will be stories.”

Grounds recalls that, with Turner contracted to return to EastEnders at the end of the first season, he expected the show would come to an end. “Then Ben said, ‘What about Michelle Keegan?’ At the time, I didn’t know who she was. He pulled that rabbit out of the hat and I met with Michelle, we chatted about it and she was great.

Lacey Turner was the first actor to take the lead in Our Girl

“We didn’t set it up to be a long-running show. It’s funny, sometimes shows that set out to run forever never do. They fade at the end of their first season, whereas this wasn’t intended to be that at all and we’re still going. I do think we’re getting better and better. We’re finding out what the show is.”

Key to the series is its focus not on the army itself but the individual characters who must come together and work in often hostile and emotionally challenging environments. “We put the microscope on the squaddies,” Grounds notes.

In fact, Grounds devised the series after first meeting a batch of trainee female combat medics when he visited a British army base with a military friend back in 2011.

“I didn’t know girls were in the army. At that time, we didn’t have women in the infantry. Now everything’s equal,” he explains. “These girls were 17 with guns and they were in their final bit of training before going to Afghanistan with the Royal Engineers. It was fantastic [meeting them] so I said, ‘Brilliant, I’m going to write a single [drama] about phase-one training.’ That’s what I pitched and what I wrote.”

During its run, Our Girl has featured a mixture of single and two-part stories within seasons, each one contemporary and based on real events, following combat medics in their work around the world. Grounds has written all but a handful of episodes, a process that begins after sitting down with the exec producer for that season to map out where the story will head.

Michelle Keegan took over as the show’s star in the second season

“I pretty much do them all, because when we’re out filming in South Africa, it’s easier because I’m there and can change stuff. It’s less complicated and I can write stuff on the hoof with the actors as well,” he says.

“In some instances, we have to be fairly fluid, because we’re working with 100 extras and you have to be quick on your feet, because sometimes you’re handing bits of script over [on set]. We have military advisors as well to then go, ‘Oh, no, that would never happen.’ It’s not a documentary, but we want to make it as realistic as we can. And on this last one, we had military help before we left [the UK] and on set.”

At first, British heads of department would fly out to run the project with Grounds. But over the years, the series has become entirely populated by local crew. “We take trainees from the townships, everything, so we’ve got a big and fantastic machine going out there,” he explains. “I’ve got a lot of commitment to that, to what we’re doing there, which I think is right. It’s enjoyable to do, and I’m loving the commitment from all the team, actors and crew.”

The launch of this latest season last month, however, was overshadowed by news earlier in the year that Keegan would not be returning to the series should it be renewed for a fifth run, leaving Grounds to find a third lead character.

“She wanted a break,” he says of former Coronation Street actor Keegan, who has now completed three tours of duty with Our Girl. “We’re away for so much of the year filming – predominantly in South Africa, but we’ve also done Malaysia and Nepal and various places abroad. Mark [Wright, Keegan’s reality star/TV presenter husband] was coming back from LA and they planned to spend some time together and do something in the UK. I thought she’d left and then she said [at a press screening], ‘I wouldn’t say forever.’

Grounds (second from right) with members of the Our Girl crew

“So at the moment I’m making plans that she’s not in the next season. I’ll chat to her and, obviously, she can come back whenever she wants. She’s great for us and it’d be sad if she left. She obviously wants to keep that door open, which is great.”

Grounds is now working out what a potential fifth season may look like before turning his thoughts to who could take the lead in Keegan’s place. “I’m sure the BBC will have an opinion on who they’d like to play the part too. I keep reading articles in the paper saying I’m in the final stages of meeting people, but it’s not true because I’ve literally not met anyone,” he says. “We’re flicking through ideas and I’m sure the casting people are ringing up agents to check on availability and stuff like that.”

Whether the show returns is yet to be decided, but running Our Girl for four seasons is still a proud achievement for Grounds. He’s particularly pleased the drama has drawn an audience that doesn’t often tune into BBC1 at 21.00.

“We reach an audience other BBC shows don’t reach,” he says. “We have a drama that skews quite young and yet we’re looking at Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Nepal and the jungles in South America. We’re doing something no other dramas do. We’re literally, hopefully, showing a different aspect of the world. We’re entertaining and hopefully inspiring the people who are watching as well.

“From that first single film, with Molly Dawes, it was really about a girl who broke the expected narrative of her life,” Grounds adds. “Everybody thought she was a failure, she was rubbish, she couldn’t do anything. But she becomes a combat medical technician and actually proves she’s got a lot to offer the world.

“I don’t want anybody to join the army particularly, but I do want people to think, ‘I could do that.’ Whatever it is, she broke the expected narrative of her life and that seemed to inspire a lot of people.”

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Dynamic duo

A modern take on a crime procedural that happens to be set in 1880s London? Welcome to the world of Miss Scarlet & The Duke.

Inside Cabinteely House, a grand country manor set in parkland south-east of Dublin, all the hallmarks and finishes of an exquisite period property can be found. In one room, an ornate chandelier hangs from the ceiling above a china tea set that adorns a wooden table. Gold curtains and a marble fireplace complement the painted blue walls.

Another room is decorated with patterned wallpaper and elaborate gold furniture. A portrait sits above the fireplace while the windows are framed by lace curtains and gold drapes.

Nearby, a film crew has crammed itself into the kitchen, setting up cameras to capture both sides of a conversation about to take place around a wooden table in the middle of the small room. A deep metal sink has been built beneath the window, while copper pots dangle above the stove.

At first glance around the set, Miss Scarlet & The Duke looks to have everything we’ve come to expect from a standard costume drama. But as creator and showrunner Rachael New attests, this isn’t your usual period show.

Described as a full-throttle series about the first ever female detective, operating in 19th century London, the show sees Eliza Scarlet take on her father’s private detective agency following his death, teaming up with drinking, gambling and womanising Detective Inspector William ‘The Duke’ Wellington to solve crimes in the murkiest depths of the city.

Kate Phillips and Stuart Martin play the show’s titular characters

To create the series, New has blended her passions for watching costume dramas, writing crime shows and reading historical fiction to create a character she compares to Sherlock Holmes.

“But where Holmes is a superhero, I wanted to write a character that was a bit flawed, human and relatable,” she says. “Where Holmes would be celebrated for his brilliance, Eliza will have to prove herself a hell of a lot more to gain any kind of acceptance or respect, because our story is set at a time where women had little or no rights at all.

“This is the Victorian era, when women were meant to be submissive at home, not running around London solving crimes. As such, she would be seen as an oddity, an outcast or an embarrassment. But she is determined, she’s smart and she has a forensic mind.”

It’s her emotional intelligence and observational skills that make Eliza a great detective, New continues. But to operate beyond her limits in 1880s London, she leans on three male characters for support. First there’s the titular Duke, who as a young boy was mentored by Eliza’s father. As such, he and Eliza share a sibling bond with a bubbling attraction.

“They have this lovely, sparky, fun relationship – it’s like 19th century banter,” New says. “And they’ve got the measure of each other. They cut through the bullshit and have this very real relationship that sometimes feels very much like they’re siblings. Sometimes they are true friends, sometimes they’re potential lovers. Sometimes they’re even foes.

“So she has to manage him carefully. She does outwit him quite a lot and outmanoeuvre him but, equally, she does respect him. He doesn’t like the fact that she’s stepping on his toes. This is his world. As the season progresses, he does start to respect her more.”

Also supporting Eliza are Moses and Rupert Parker. Moses (Ansu Kabia) has come to London from Jamaica for a new beginning, but falls into a life of petty crime. After an inauspicious start, he forms an unlikely alliance with Eliza. “He essentially becomes her muscle, her minder,” says

New. “They bond because they’re both outsiders. They are both facing prejudice in very different ways.”

Meanwhile, Rupert Parker is a rich, privileged man who proposes to Eliza. To his relief, however, she turns him down because he doesn’t want to be married, only proposing under the pressure of his domineering mother Mrs Parker. “The reason why he doesn’t want to get married – as he reveals to Eliza – is he is secretly gay, something that in this period of time would destroy your life and your reputation. They bond over this and he invests in her agency,” New says.

A “mad Jane Austen fan” who also loves Charles Dickens, New was keen to create a diverse ensemble of characters, all of whom would be considered outsiders in 19th century London – whether that relates to class, gender, race or sexuality – making the series relatable to modern-day society.

“I had these characters in my head for a long time; it was like an itch I just had to scratch,” she says. “The first mission was to get it down on paper, which was the most fun I’ve ever had in my writing career, and then the second mission was to get it on screen.” She partnered with Patty Ishimoto (Rogue) at LA-based Element 8 Productions, who in turn brought in Bandidos Yanquis, 87 Films and A+E Networks International, which is also distributing.

Broadcasters airing the series include Masterpiece on PBS in the US, CBC in Canada, Seven Network in Australia, RTL Germany, OTE Cosmote TV in Greece and UKTV’s Alibi channel, which debuts the drama today, following deals with A+E International.

“It’s been a huge team effort to get this off the ground. We were a very happy, tight group, which has made it even more fun and even more special.”

Behind the camera for all six episodes is Declan O’Dwyer (Atlantis), who first met New via Skype and bought into her vision of a period drama that bucks the genre’s traditional tropes. “It’s just a great, rip-roaring adventure, but it’s grounded. Eliza is not a superhero,” O’Dwyer explains. “You invest in this character, and her adventures are a byproduct of her finding out who she is, surviving this world she’s in. That was one of the things that attracted me to the project.

“I see her as this Indiana Jones character,” he adds of Eliza. “A lot of scrapes, she only gets out of by chance or by fluke. She’s finding her way through and it’s often the mistakes that show the path forward.”

The case-of-the-week series contains lots of twists and turns, though each investigation ultimately leaves its mark on both Eliza and Duke. Storylines include a woman who claims her husband is innocent of murder, despite being found holding a bloody knife and standing over a corpse. Another sees Eliza go undercover with the suffragists women’s rights movement.

“Lots of crime shows leave me a bit cold when you could forensically take those guests stories out [and the characters wouldn’t change],” she notes. “I just wasn’t interested in that. I wanted something where the characters are invested in it. Because of that, we have lots of serial stories running through it. We have a lovely, overarching investigation over the season, which is whether her father died of natural causes or he was murdered. Then we have the lovely will-they-won’t-they story between Duke and Eliza.”

New has updated the language to avoid the series feeling “stuffy,” while the period element is further removed by a modern soundtrack that adds a new dimension to the era in the way Baz Luhrmann transformed Romeo & Juliet in 1996 or, more recently, Peaky Blinders has become the show every musician wants to lend their songs to.

Eliza’s late father, Henry Scarlet, appears in the series through flashbacks recalling his relationship with his young daughter. He is also viewed as a figment of older Eliza’s imagination, talking to her as she tries to solve cases.

“But because they’re emotionally driven, the flashbacks are not an issue,” says O’Dwyer about jumping between timelines. “They’re not just a device. There’s a reason for it and it comes from either what’s happened or what’s about to happen, so there’s a trigger. Then it becomes just a part of the story.

“Visually, it will look slightly different, but it’s quite a seamless transition. They’re not those nightmare flashbacks that are meant to jar you out of your sleep. It does move the story on. They always serve character – and if it does that, it’s a valid story device.”

A woman ahead of her time, Eliza is a mix of some of New’s favourite characters – Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet and Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara – brought to life by Kate Phillips. “Eliza is the character I’ve always wanted to write,” she says.

Phillips says the script for episode one “was like nothing I’d ever really seen or experienced before when reading a script,” adding: “I’d never really met a character like her before. She’s so dynamic and she’s so different with every person she’s with. Excavating her and what makes her tick has been really, really fun.

“She does present as this somewhat refined Victorian lady, and I think that’s part of her. But she’s this really scrappy, feisty thing underneath, so she has to let loose. You want to see that.”

Phillips is no stranger to period dramas, having starred in Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Wolf Hall, War & Peace and the Downton Abbey movie. But one of the biggest appeals of Miss Scarlet & The Duke, was its central bunch of mismatched outcasts, with the fizzing chemistry between Eliza and Duke at its core. “There’s so much fondness there. She respects him as a detective and she’s just so eager to join in and be part of the club.”

Similarly to Phillips, Stuart Martin, who plays Duke, also has a history of starring in costume dramas, most notably Medici: Masters of Florence and Jamestown.

Playing a character from the wrong side of the tracks, Martin says Duke goes on a progressive journey during the series, accepting Eliza’s top-class detective skills and building their partnership beyond their childhood relationship.

“Eliza’s the brains and I’m the brawn,” he says, sporting a full beard that took more than a month to grow for the part. “He needs her and she needs him, that’s what’s lovely about it. They’re a crime-fighting duo. With his brawn, he’s useful in certain situations and, in the same way, with her brain and way of getting into things, they match up.”

Martin believes the first two Miss Scarlet scripts are among the best he’s ever read. “They’re so fantastically good,” he enthuses. “They’re really electric and different. The minute you start reading and think you know where it is, it just goes in a different direction. It’s very exciting.”

It the roundedness and complexity of the show’s main ensemble that makes Miss Scarlet & The Duke stand out from so many other crime procedurals, while its period setting provides a backdrop to the very modern themes and issues the characters confront across the six episodes, with New brimming with ideas for what might wait in store should it land a second season.

“These characters are all fish out of water, struggling to break barriers and survive in a world that treats them as less than they are,” she says. “Ultimately, this is a crime drama with lots of lovely comic moments. It just happens to be period.”

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Ones to Watch: Actors

DQ casts its eye over a range of upcoming series from around the world and picks out 20 actors to tune in for, from Zoë Kravitz in Hulu’s High Fidelity to Marcel Rodriguez in German series Dignity.

20. Kai Ko
The Taiwanese actor and singer is making his television debut in what has been dubbed Taiwan’s most expensive drama ever. Described by producers as an ‘Asian Constantine,’ fantasy crime thriller Agent from Above is based on the book of the same name and tells the story of supernatural crime-fighter Han Jie, who is serving as a heavenly agent on Earth and must defeat demons and solve crimes in order to atone for his sins. The six-part series is expected to cost NT$30m (US$1m) per episode.

19. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Recognisable from Icelandic drama Trapped and countless English-language series, including The Widow, NOS4A2, Emerald City and The Missing, Ólafsson is now set to star in Icelandic political drama The Minister. He plays Benedikt Ríkhardsson, a politician with a unique approach to politics as he rides a wave of discontent to become the country’s prime minister – all while hiding the fact he suffers from bipolar disorder.

18. Shira Haas
With credits including Harem and The Conductor, Israeli actor Haas takes the lead in Unorthodox, a four-part miniseries from showrunner Anna Winger (the Deutschland series) in which a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman in New York flees her arranged marriage and religious community to start a new life in Berlin. The series explores female emancipation, identity and sexuality through the experience of a unique young woman, Haas’s Esther.

17. Anthony Mackie
Television appearances are few and far between on Mackie’s CV, but 2020 is going to be different. First, the actor stars in the second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, set in a future where a person’s memory and consciousness can be transferred between different bodies, known as ‘sleeves.’ He plays Takeshi Kovacs, a character portrayed by Joel Kinnaman in season one but with Mackie now serving as the character’s host body in its second run. Meanwhile, following his success as Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) in Marvel’s Avenger films, Mackie will reprise the role in Disney+’s upcoming series The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, which picks up after Sam was handed Captain America’s shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame.

16. Sian Clifford
The Emmy-nominated actor starred in Fleabag alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge, bringing to life the title character’s tense, uptight and high-achieving sister Claire with a performance that was one of the best things about the series. Having previously appeared in period drama Vanity Fair, Clifford will next be seen in Quiz, a three-part miniseries that dramatises how Charles and Diana Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen and Clifford) attempted to cheat their way to the top prize on gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. She will also star alongside Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams in Sky comedy Two Weeks To Live, about a daughter who steps away from her mother’s life of seclusion and survival techniques and sets out into the real world.

15. Eve Hewson
Irish actor Hewson will already be familiar to US viewers after starring in medical period drama The Knick. This year she joins Eva Green in The Luminaries, based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Hewson plays young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who begins a new life in New Zealand, set against the backdrop of the 1860s gold rush in a story of love, murder and revenge. She will also appear in Netflix psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes, about an unconventional love triangle that reveals a dangerous web of secrets.

14. Otto Farrant
After an extensive casting search that scoured agents, schools and drama groups, Farrant was chosen to step into the shoes of Alex Rider in a small-screen adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s novels about the young spy. Some 14 years after Rider appeared in movie Stormbreaker, Farrant brings energy and charm to this story, based on the novel Point Blanc, of a schoolboy who discovers he has been secretly trained as a spy and is then sent on undercover by a shadowy government agency.

13. Zoë Kravitz
In a cast that boasted Hollywood heavyweights such as Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Meryl Street, arguably the breakout performance in HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies came from Zoë Kravitz. Her career has been built on film roles in Mad Max: Fury Road, X-Men: First Class and the Divergent series, while she will soon play Catwoman in upcoming movie The Batman. For now, though, she is starring in High Fidelity (pictured top), the Hulu series based on Nick Hornby’s novel that flips the lead character’s gender to introduce Kravitz as Rob, the owner of a record store who revisits past relationships through music and pop culture, while trying to get over her one true love.

12. Joanna Kulig
Polish star Kulig takes centre stage, literally, in The Eddy, Netflix’s vibrant Parisian drama about the titular nightclub from director Damian Chazelle (La La Land). As Maja, the singer of the house band and the on/off girlfriend of club owner Elliot (Andre Holland), Kulig’s conflicted performance gives an extra edge to the drama as Elliot’s personal and professional worlds quickly begin to unravel.

11. Russell Tovey
Tovey has grown up on British screens, notably starring in the History Boys stage show and its subsequent movie adaptation and then supernatural drama Being Human. Last year, he was a key member of the cast of Russell T Davies’ dystopian family saga Years & Years, while in 2020 he has already appeared in Flesh & Blood, playing one of three siblings suspicious of their widowed mother’s new love interest. Tovey’s character shines a light on toxic masculinity, addiction and the struggle of a father separated from his wife and children. Later this year, he will take the lead in Because the Night, a four-part story about a man trying to escape his past, written by Neil Cross (Luther).

10. Juno Temple
The English actor’s film credits include Killer Joe, Black Mass, The Other Boleyn Girl and Atonement, as well as US TV series Vinyl and Dirty John. This year she will headline Little Birds, a visually enticing Sky Atlantic series set in the hedonistic environs of 1950s Tangier. Temple’s character, New York heiress Lucy Savage, is given the chance to flee her gilded cage and embark on a moving and provocative journey towards freedom and independence.

9. Marcel Rodriguez
Having played roles in 7 Days Berlin and Der Barcelona Krimi, Rodriguez now fronts political thriller Dignity, the first original drama for fledgling German streaming platform Joyn, which is inspired by the true story of German sect Colonia Dignidad in Chile. He plays federal prosecutor Leo Ramírez, who is tasked with bringing the group’s elusive leader and former Nazi soldier Paul Schaefer to justice – though his mission is clouded by his own secret history with Colonia.

8. Sonoya Mizuno
The Japanese-born British actor has become a regular cast member in Alex Garland’s beautifully shot and realised sci-fi dramas. Having appeared in the writer/director’s movies Ex Machina and Annihilation, Mizuno now leads audiences through the complex themes of Garland’s BBC and FX series Devs, a thriller set against the backdrop of a giant tech company and its messianic leader. In an emotionally taut and nuanced performance, she plays Lily, who is investigating the apparent suicide of her boyfriend.

7. Aaron Pedersen
The Aboriginal actor became one of Australia’s biggest stars on the back of roles in shows such as Jack Irish, The Circuit, City Homicide and The Code, with recent credits including period drama A Place to Call Home, political thriller Total Control and supernatural mystery The Gloaming. But it’s his towering performances as Detective Jay Swan with which Pedersen has become most synonymous, first in films Mystery Road and sequel Goldstone and then in the Mystery Road series that bridges the two movies and brings Indigenous stories to a mainstream audience. Season two airs this year.

6. Josefin Asplund
Swedish actor Asplund has a list of credits familiar to many international viewers, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Vikings and Arne Dahl to Ingen Utan Skuld (Conspiracy of Silence) and Sanctuary. Next she will star in Top Dog, a series based on Jens Lapidus’s novels, as lawyer Emily Jansson, a hard-working careerist who comes together with ex-criminal Teddy Maksumic (Alexej Manvelov) to solve a mysterious disappearance.

5. Tahar Rahim
Rahim broke into television in European crime drama The Last Panthers, before playing a CIA agent in Amazon drama The Looming Tower. This year, he stars in Netflix music drama The Eddy as Farid (right), one of the struggling nightclub’s owners who may be involved in some questions practices, before leading the cast of BBC drama The Serpent. The latter is based on real events and sees Rahim play Charles Sobhraj, the chief suspect in the unsolved murders of young Western travellers across India, Thailand and Nepal’s ‘Hippie Trail’ in 1975 and 1976, who repeatedly avoided capture to become Interpol’s most wanted man.

4. Gugu Mbatha-Raw
The UK-born actor began her career with appearances in British series such as Spooks and Doctor Who, before a breakout performance as Kelly in acclaimed Black Mirror episode San Junipero. More recently, she played a pivotal role in Apple TV+’s standout series The Morning Show, portraying the show-within-a-show’s head booker Hannah, a character whose traumatic experience goes on to shape the series’ powerful #MeToo storyline. From one new streaming service to another, Mbatha-Raw’s next television series will be Loki, the Disney+ drama based on the Asgardian villain from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

3. Laura Smet
From the team behind Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent) comes La Garçonne, in which French star Smet (Les Corps Impatients, The Bridesmaid) plays Louise Kerlac. In Paris in 1920, Kerlac witnesses the murder of a relative by government agents who want to blame her. She subsequently poses as a man to join the police under her brother’s identity as a means to investigate the killing, drawing her into the dark underbelly of high society and bohemian Parisian nightlife.

2. Adam Pålsson
Stepping into the shoes of police officer Kurt Wallander, a role already made famous by Rolf Lassgård, Krister Henriksson and Kenneth Branagh, is no easy task. But that’s next up for Swedish actor Pålsson, best known for roles in The Bridge, Moscow Noir and Before We Die, who will appear this year in Netflix original series Young Wallander. Inspired by Henning Mankell’s detective, the English-language series is set in contemporary Sweden and sees the young Wallander investigate his first case as a recently graduated police officer in his early 20s.

1. Yvonne Strahovski
The Australian actor is best known as Serena Joy in the harrowing adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. She can now be seen on screen with an equally emotional and complex performance in six-part Australian drama Stateless. Strahovski plays Sofie, an air hostess who, after fleeing a performance cult that initially captivates her before leaving her on the brink of a breakdown, surfaces at an on-shore detention centre. Under a new German identity, Sofie’s experience is shown alongside that of an Afghan refugee, a prison guard and a bureaucrat who all come under unprecedented pressure.

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The long road

DQ watches the final stage of filming for Belgian drama GR5: Into the Wilderness, in which a group of friends embark on an emotionally and physically demanding journey from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.

Nowadays, it’s a common cliché to describe a drama character or a reality show contestant as having gone on a journey, whether they face personal crises or life-changing experiences.

The cast and crew of Belgian drama GR5: Into the Wilderness, however, have been on a literal journey together across more than 2,000km, taking them from the Netherlands to the South of France over the course of five months.

Part coming-of-age drama, part psychological thriller, the story introduces four people who embark on the Grote Routepaden 5 (GR5) to commemorate their friend Lisa, who went missing on the path five years earlier. They decide to make the same journey, from the North Sea, over the Ardennes, the Vosges and the French Alps to the Riviera.

But the heavy physical exertion and mutual tensions take a toll on their friendship, leading to a confrontation. They all have different reasons for making the journey, but one thing unites them – a determination to uncover the truth behind Lisa’s mysterious disappearance.

When DQ catches up with the cast and crew in Nice last October, their journey is concluding, with episode 10 set in the city that marks the end of the GR5. It’s here, beside the bustling flower stalls of the Marché aux Fleurs Cours Saleya, beneath a candy-striped tapestry of canopies overhead, that Zoe finally discovers the truth about what happened to Lisa.

GR5: Into the Wilderness stars The series stars Boris Van Severen and Violet Braeckman

Filming began in May in the Netherlands, with the entire production shooting in almost chronological sequence following the GR5 through Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France as if they were doing it for real, filming at various points along the way. Each episode is set further down the path, from Flanders, Ouren, Vianden and Vosges down to Jura, La Vanoise and Mercantour, before finishing in Nice.

Zoe, Lisa’s best friend, feigned injury to avoid the original GR5 expedition, leaving her with a deep sense of guilt when Lisa disappears. The decision to take on the challenge now comes at a time when she’s searching for direction in her own life.

“Zoe is also the most empathetic person of them all, always worried about everybody but when it concerns herself, she is very defensive and cynical,” explains Violet Braeckman, who stars as Zoe alongside Boris Van Severen as Michiel, Said Boumazoughe (Asim), Lauren Callebaut (Ylena) and Indra Cauwels (Lisa). “She loses that during the trip. She’s falling together with her real nature, just being a concerned person and loving her friend very much.”

Executive producer Serge Bierset, from Zodiak Belgium, says that while the group want to find out what happened to Lisa, they are all dealing with their own personal problems and have ulterior motives for making the trip.

“We never forget the disappearance of Lisa, but you’re interested in the characters and why they are doing the trip and how they will evolve,” he explains. “Gradually, they get new clues about what happened to Lisa. So we’re following that, but it’s on two levels – a psychological drama takes over. That’s the strength of it. The landscape is also a part of it. It’s changing all the time.

Director Jan Matthys between the show’s leads

“The guilt Zoe feels towards Lisa is very important,” he says of the character’s motivation to take on the GR5. “This trip is like a process. You could go into psychoanalysis for a few months lying on a sofa, but you could also do this. People want to get out of the rat race and think about life.”

Cauwels says each member of the group has the best of intentions towards the trek, but personal struggles lead to profound transformations. “It’s very nice to be [part of] this mystery that brings them together and makes them deal with a lot,” she says. “I love my character because she’s going through a whole transformation. She starts walking, goes through a lot, encounters a number of problems and then discovers things that were hidden. She has to deal with these things along the way.

“Every character represents so much. There’s no section of the audience that can be left behind; there’s something to relate to for everyone.”

The journey to bring GR5 to the screen began about three years ago, when screenwriters Gert Goovaerts and Lynnsey Peeters came to Bierset with the concept for the series. “Immediately, we felt like this was a different kind of story and also very ambitious because of the road trip and the [production] pitfalls we saw as a producer,” Bierset says.

“Nevertheless, we were ambitious enough to say, ‘Let’s make it work.’ The broadcaster, VRT, was also immediately convinced – it was good luck that one of the commissioning editors is a hiker himself. It was quite clear there was enough story for eight episodes and that it could play on two levels – what happened to Lisa and finding out why these characters go on the trip.

Lauren Callebaut as Ylena

“We took off with development pretty fast. They’re quick writers and, even when they started pitching to us with a one-pager, they had a lot of information already in their minds. Very shortly afterwards, we had a bible of 60 pages.”

Goovaerts first conceived the story 20 years ago when he came upon the red and white markings of the GR5 while walking in woods in Belgium. “It had something intriguing, mysterious and dangerous about it. I was fascinated from the very beginning,” he says. He carried the idea around with him for several years, later partnering with Peeters to make a trailer for a possible story. “For many years, it stayed on our computer, until Serge asked if we had any ideas for a television drama. Then we started thinking of a story. We knew it had to be a thriller.”

It was developed as a mystery about a missing girl, but Goovaerts and Peeters were also set on populating the drama with characters that would evolve and be affected by their surroundings through the course of the plot. “From the beginning, we were also clear the GR5 itself is a character too. It’s an antagonist,” Goovaerts says. “They must confront the physical and the psychological. That was very important to us.”

The writers have worked together for 12 years, describing themselves as each other’s critics. Normally, they would write separately, exchanging scripts and notes, but for GR5, they sat together at one screen, “reading and playing and living it. It was quite a new experience,” Goovaerts says. “The pitch was just a one-page concept – ‘where is Lisa?’ It was just a picture with a yacht on the sea. We really worked on what happened to Lisa and what was interesting and what wasn’t. When we met the broadcaster, we said, ‘We don’t know what happens to her.’”

They also spent a lot of time looking at Google Maps to find real locations they could embed in the story, such as towns, hotels and gîtes where the characters could stop along the way. “We set it out on a calendar,” adds Peeters. “One day, Zoe does 15km, the next day she stays in one place. It was very detailed.”

This proved to be a helpful guide for the production team, though the nature of making a series that follows a group of characters hiking across Europe unsurprisingly presented a number of challenges. “Our scouts went from location to location along the trail to get us as close as possible to where we needed to be with our film crew,” says line producer Barbara Van Poeck. “It’s not always feasible, because you can’t reach some parts of it with all your vehicles. They just went scouting, and it took a long time to find the best locations we needed along the trip.

Drone shots such as this one were used to show the scale of the natural surroundings compared with the characters

“Complicated and extremely difficult” is how Van Poeck describes certain moments in production, such as when cars broke down on the Grand Ballon (the highest mountain of the Vosges mountain range in eastern France). “Those things happened because people are not used to driving at these heights,” she says. “You learn along the way and you solve these problems so the shoot carries on.”

“We were under time pressure, so when our scouts were close to the real GR5 and said, ‘Are we going for it?’ could we say no? There was no alternative,” Bierset continues. “That’s a summary of the whole process. Most of the time, there was no alternative. If you looked at it rationally, you would not do it. You’d call it crazy.

“You cannot really train or be prepared for doing it. We are a Belgian production crew – we’re not used to road movies. There’s no road movie in Belgium, we only have 200km from one side to the other. That’s the reason no other production company decided to do this. Then, as you get into the Alps, the difficulties increase.”

Bierset says he was called a “maniac” for trying to piece together the €6.5m (US$7.05m) budget, a sizeable outlay for a Belgium drama but one he insisted on for fear of making a “light” version of the drama that might ultimately disappoint. Commissioned by VRT’s Eén, GR5’s partners include coproducer Red Balloon Film, German network ZDFneo, Belgian VoD platform Telenet and distributor Banijay Rights, with additional support from the Belgian Tax Credit system.

“Because of the adventure and the fact it’s a road movie, there’s so much money that goes into travelling and accommodation. On every level, it’s so expensive,” Bierset notes. “But we’re not just talking about a Belgian TV series; we’re talking about an ambitious project set across Europe with strong international appeal. That’s why Banijay Rights has come in. If you want to play that game, you have to meet those standards. And you can’t do that with a light version.”

Indra Cauwels plays Lisa

Caroline Torrance, head of drama at Banijay Rights, says GR5’s thriller element meets an international demand for the genre, which is complemented by the stunning locations featured throughout. “You really feel like you’re on the GR5 – it’s one of the characters, starting in the cold and damp and ending up beneath the blue skies,” she says. “There’s been a lot of interest in it. People like the idea of a group of young characters finding themselves. There is also quite a bit of interest in what’s happening in Belgium – there are some great series originating there.”

One of the key driving forces behind the series has been director Jan Matthys, who, at Bierset’s behest, came on to steer all eight episodes and provide an authorial voice to the show. “It’s very satisfying to do the whole journey through the mountains and finally land here in Nice. It feels like catharsis, a relief that we made it,” Matthys says.

“It was not just another story about a missing girl. From the script, the first thing that was very clear to me was how human this story is. There’s a bit of a thriller aspect to it, but it’s also a very human story. There are not only bad guys and good guys and investigations.”

Matthys (Baptiste, The Last Kingdom) is no stranger to the GR5, having once crossed a section of it on holiday with his family. He believes there’s a mythology to the path, which he tried to capture in the series. “I’m not attracted to difficult action scenes, so I was like, ‘Finally, a show with a lot of talking and walking,’” he laughs.

“There are a few interesting action scenes that are completely led by the drama. We have a proper cliffhanger in the literal sense, which was quite difficult, but the storytelling continues during these scenes. If you cut them away, the story doesn’t continue. That’s so important. There’s no redundancy. Every single bit is really needed.”

The drama comes from Zodiak Belgium

Embarking on the journey for real meant little acting was required from the cast to portray their characters’ increasing weariness and exhaustion. “It gets into your body. We’re all dying this week, just being tired, but it helps you in that moment,” Braeckman tells DQ beside Nice’s central port as she prepares for the day’s shoot.

“The first month was so cold. Then there was one day that was so hot, 36°C, and I was wearing leather trousers and a long black jacket and a hat. Sometimes we had to get on a mountain, and you don’t have to act because the air is very thin. But the environment is breathtaking, so it’s really nice to do.”

Matthys says shooting chronologically on the actual path made him change from his usual approach, with the director watching as the actors evolved and became tired just like their characters. “All those things are real. It’s so hard to get them there [in that mindset] if you’re not shooting chronologically,” he says. “It also stimulates your creativity, because sometimes the script says the weather is nice but actually there is fog and you can’t see the landscape. We just embraced the new situation.”

The director also welcomed the “legitimate” use of filming with drones – something he believes has become overused. “But in this case, we needed to show how small a human being can be in this overwhelming nature,” he says. “When we are exploring the characters [at the beginning], the camera is much tighter on them. From episode four on, we go wider and wider and the landscape takes over.”

Belgian drama is certainly changing the international television landscape, with series such as Salamander, Beau Sejour, Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments) picking up viewers around the world. Combining psychological twists and stunning natural backdrops, GR5 looks set to follow the same path.

“At the moment, Belgium is quite attractive internationally as a drama producer,” Bierset adds. “People talk about our quirkiness of storytelling – this is not a quirky story but it has its own voice. What would be a risk is if you compare it to Scandi noir, where, after a few years, these shows start to repeat themselves. This quirkiness of storytelling in Belgium is good, but we don’t just want to make the next quirky story. We want to make something authentic.”

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Bye bye Bosch

Michael Connelly, author of the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer book series, tells DQ about how the dramas based on both have affected by the coronavirus outbreak and his hopes for the final season of Bosch.

As one of Amazon Prime Video’s first original series, detective drama Bosch laid the foundations for the retail giant’s streaming service when it first launched in 2014. Now, six years later, work is underway to bring the show to an end after it was renewed for a seventh and final season.

For Michael Connelly, the author of the book series on which the series is based, it’s a bittersweet moment. Because just as Bosch comes to an end, he is also collaborating on a new series based on another of his book series, The Lincoln Lawyer.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the world, however, both shows are now on hold.

“On Bosch, we had been meeting daily [to discuss season seven]. Just a couple of weeks ago, we reached this point where everyone had to start writing the first set of episodes,” Connelly tells DQ from his home in LA. “Meetings together in the writing room had just started to taper off and we were having one meeting a week when all this came down. Writers were already writing their episodes and separating themselves, so it was quite easy to say, ‘Let’s work from home and communicate electronically,’ mostly by emails.

“So it hasn’t been a huge disruption on Bosch, yet. Our goal was to get the episodes written by the end of May, and that could still happen. Then we’ll have these scripts and not know when we can shoot them. The production wasn’t scheduled until the end of July, so hopefully things work out. But as with anyone in any job anywhere, it’s a waiting game to see what happens.”

Michael Connelly (right) with Bosch exec producer Henrik Bastin

Season seven will continue the story of LA detective Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver and drawing on novels The Concrete Blonde and The Burning Room, as Bosch and Jerry Edgar (The Wire’s Jamie Hector) pursue two separate perilous investigations that take them to the highest echelons of white-collar crime and the deadly depths of the street-level drug trade. Season six, once again produced by Fabrik Entertainment and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, launches on April 17.

Meanwhile, the pilot for legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer had been due to begin shooting on March 16, but was pulled due to safety concerns. Coming nine years after a film adaptation of Connelly’s book of the same name fronted by Matthew McConaughey, the series is about Mickey Haller, an iconoclastic idealist who runs his law practice from the back of his Lincoln Town Car as he takes on cases big and small across LA.

“I’ve been spending most of the start of this year in two writing rooms, going to Bosch in the morning and Lincoln Lawyer in the afternoon, and both are now shut down,” Connelly says. “Hopefully, when the world gets well and we get past this, we’ll start again. Right now, nothing’s happening there. Probably in two or three weeks, we’ll reconstitute that writing room unless things go wrong in the world. But still, it’s a TV show. There are levels of seriousness you have to think about. I’m not sure what will happen, but that’s where it was left.”

Connelly describes LA as a microcosm of the world, with all variety of viewpoints about the pandemic. “Some people think it’s not as bad as it seems to be in the media. Others think we should be doing more and sheltering at home. It’s all over the place and it just adds up to a lot of apprehension about what our world’s going to be like in a week, a month, a year,” he says.

“That makes it tough to even concentrate. We’re writing entertainment. How serious should we be about it? That affects me as a writer. Should we be incorporating what’s going on into the show or into my books? I’m constantly thinking about that. There’s a lot of intrusion of seriousness into this life of fiction.”

Bosch centres on detective Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver

Regardless, work is still progressing on the final season of Bosch, with Connelly exchanging scripts and notes with the other writers over email, which means it can be hard to replicate the openness of a writers room where they will be spitballing ideas. “You get excited about some stuff, less so about other things. It’s very hard to boil that down to an email,” he says. “Something is lost, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re back working together in person.”

But with the end of Bosch on the horizon, Connelly is relaxed about the show concluding. “Obviously it would be wonderful for it to go on for 25 years, both for creative and financial reasons. At the same time, I’m still writing about Bosch in the books, so I have not brought his story to a conclusion on the page. But I’m excited about the idea of writing a season that has a clear ending to the series,” he says.

“It’s going to be eight episodes that will sit on a streaming platform, hopefully forever, and I like the idea it’s not abruptly cut off. We will have written an ending, shot an ending and it will feel complete. There’s something good about that.”

Despite his recent moves into television, Connelly still considers himself a novelist first, with more than 20 Bosch books and five Haller novels published since 1992, as well as many others featuring different main characters. A new Haller novel is also in the works to coincide with the launch of The Lincoln Lawyer on TV.

His day job – and his prolific output – means he has been able to come and go from Bosch as he pleases, but says he has been involved as much as he can be. “I really enjoy it on all levels, particularly the creative camaraderie in the writers room,” he says. “We don’t lose many of our writers; most people have been there the whole time, so it’s a family situation and that expands to the crew and the actors. This will make it bittersweet when it’s all over, but it’s also made it a great ride for seven years. I have only good feelings about it and it resulted in some good TV being made.

The Bosch cast also includes The Wire actor Jamie Hector (second from right)

“It’s a really good show; it’s a very good account of that kind of work, what it does to you and what you get out of it. These goals, I had for my books all along. And when I went into TV, I didn’t want to sacrifice those – and I don’t think we have at all. From my point of view, we’ve accomplished exactly what I hope would happen, so it’s a rare experience and I’m very thankful for it.”

The plan to adapt The Lincoln Lawyer came after Connelly heard of acclaimed showrunner David E Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Eyes)’s interest in bringing the character to television, with 2008 novel The Brass Verdict set to form the basis for season one. Ted Humphrey (Wisdom of the Crowd) will showrun the series.

Haller is based on several lawyers Connelly has known since his days as a crime reporter, first in Florida and then for the LA Times. But the fact The Lincoln Lawyer will air on CBS, a broadcast network, rather than a streaming service such as Amazon won’t make any difference to the storytelling, he adds, pointing to CBS’s ambition to create a serialised story as opposed to having Haller solve a new case each week.

“We’re taking the book and doing very much what we do with Bosch – expanding the world over multiple episodes. In that regard, it’s very similar,” he explains. “We were just gearing up in the last month to start shooting, but the studio postponed everything. It’s very nascent in the arc compared to Bosch, so it’s hard to compare, but if you want to compare writing rooms, it’s very similar, with a goal of the accuracy that’s in the books and bringing that to the TV show. That’s a priority in the writing room and the scripts and outlines that have been produced so far.

Matthew McConaughey in the movie version of Connelly book The Lincoln Lawyer

“The books are entertainment but they also tell it like it is – the wobbly justice system they have here that has a lot of cracks. The stories get to those. It’s a very important series to me. On an authorial level, it’s amazing to me that the books have been successful, a successful movie and now, hopefully, we’ll get a successful TV series out of it. I constantly shake my head and think how lucky I am that I sat in a room for a year and wrote this book and all this has come from it.”

With the pilot now on hold amid the global shutdown over the coronavirus pandemic, the start of production on the full series in July also seems likely to be delayed. But with many people now on lockdown in their own homes, the need for new content has never been greater.

“What’s weird is right now, people need content as they’re in self-isolation,” Connelly concludes. “I have friends say all the time, ‘What is there to watch?’ Bosch is about to drop, it’s a great season. It will entertain people and keep their minds off what is going on in the world a little.

“After this is over, there might be the opposite effect because, when we get the all-clear, people will go outside and won’t be watching their TVs. There are a lot of questions, the main one is when we will be able to proceed with normal life again, and there’s no answer to that right now.”

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Writers unite

Lisa Holdsworth, chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, tells DQ about the union’s plans to support writers amid the coronavirus pandemic, while also questioning how future series might represent current events.

In normal circumstances, Lisa Holdsworth would be in Cardiff, where preproduction on the third season of Sky fantasy drama A Discovery of Witches (pictured above) was scheduled to have started. But these are not ordinary times.

The coronavirus pandemic that has swept around the world has brought almost all aspects of daily life to a standstill and affected workers in every industry. The television business has been no exception, with productions brought to a sudden halt, crews disbanded and projects put on hold – at a time when people ordered to stay indoors are likely to be turning to television more than ever, to keep them informed of the latest developments and to find relief and entertainment in the dramas and comedies to be found on numerous linear channels, catch-up services and streaming platforms.

“I should be in Cardiff working on it but we’re now in our various homes working from there,” writer Holdsworth (Call the Midwife, Midsomer Murders) tells DQ from her home in Leeds. “It’s still a bit uncertain what happens if we can’t go into production in September.

“I have elderly parents who I’m keeping an eye on, so I’m self-isolating more than usual because I need to keep healthy to make sure they’re OK. They’re going to be OK, it’s just keeping them sane. They’re both very gregarious so it’s very frustrating. The worst thing is seeing my colleagues and the devastation and unease at the moment [in the industry], so I’m doing a lot of work with the guild.

“Our amazing staff are all at home working from their kitchen tables, trying to encourage the government to think seriously about how they’ll support freelancers. It feels like the message might finally be getting through, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”

Lisa Holdsworth

Holdsworth is referring to the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) and her role as chair of the trade union, which represents professional writers in TV, film, theatre, radio, books, comedy, poetry, animation and video games. Established in 1959, it seeks to secure better pay and working condition for its members, working with leading industry bodies and broadcasters, while also celebrating their work at an annual awards ceremony.

Uniquely, in circumstances such as these, writers are largely able to carry on, whether they are writing scripts, participating in virtual writers rooms or developing new material. But Holdsworth says the atmosphere among members is “very fearful” following the shutdown of almost all television production, including long-running British soaps such as EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

“And quite rightly,” she adds. “You can’t have a production where people socially isolate or use social distancing. There’s a feeling if the tide doesn’t turn in 12 weeks as [British prime minister] Boris Johnson promised, what happens then?

“There are so many unknowns; nothing is settled. As an industry, we’re pretty used to short-term contracts and a bit of uncertainty, but there’s a lot more uncertainty than we’re used to.”

The guild’s first response to the crisis was to put a page on its website listing a host of possible resources for its members. A welfare fund is also available for those who have been members for more than two years and find themselves in financial difficulty.

“We have also put up resources for protecting your mental health. That is going to be a very serious matter we have to address over the coming months,” Holdsworth says. “A lot of people will struggle as we isolate. We’re very social animals. There’s a section on campaigning and how to write to your MP asking them to protect freelancers. There’s stuff about how to get involved in your local community if you do have time on your hands and want to get involved in helping other people. We’re updating that daily.”

The WGGB is also in talks with broadcasters, independent production trade body Pact and various theatre agencies about how best to support writers who have suddenly found themselves out of work, with the possibility that life may not return to normal for several months.

“But mainly making sure that, hopefully, when things do get back to normal, we are able to support our members,” she says. “There’s a bit of a lag at the moment in terms of individual casework. We are bolstering ourselves ready for a bit of an onslaught when things become a bit clearer, but we will be there. We take on contract vetting, and at the end of the phone we have regional representatives and craft representatives [for different groups of writers] across the industry, so we are ready when people need us.”

Season two of Gentleman Jack is on hold because of the pandemic

Support that could be necessary in the future includes legal assistance if programmes caught up in the production shutdown end up permanently shelved, or if people are not rehired when business does resume. The WGGB is also preparing to campaign for greater government assistance for the arts to make sure theatres don’t close and that training schemes and opportunities don’t dry up either.

Holdsworth is particularly concerned that the fallout from the pandemic will have a severe effect on diversity and access to the industry for people of underprivileged or underrepresented backgrounds and communities. “We have to make sure that’s not the case, because we were doing good work,” she says. “We were getting progress on that, and my fear is this will mean it evaporates.”

Front of mind for Holdsworth and the WGGB is also supporting freelance workers, whose work may have dried up amid concerns about paying rent and looking after their children. As many as 600,000 staff on temporary or zero-hour contracts have been affected  across Europe, according to the European Producers Club, while the British Film Institute and the Film & TV Charity have partnered to create an emergency relief fund for workers in the UK.

The British government is now looking at ways to support this branch of workers as well as the self-employed, with further announcements promised by chancellor Rishi Sunak.

This is an area the union has addressed “over and over again,” Holdsworth says. “What may be interesting is if there is more government support for freelancers and a better understanding of how many people, across the country, are working in the gig economy and on a freelance basis. Then we can hopefully get some improvement for freelance workers. I feel like we are going to get a response but, good grief, they’re dragging their feet over it and it’s enormously frustrating. I wish they could understand the stress and worry it’s causing freelance workers.”

As conversations with broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and Netflix continue, Holdsworth says union staff will be talking to people to find out how they have been affected and ensuring their advice to members is constantly updated.

The sixth run of Line of Duty has also had to halt production

“But this is an extraordinary time to be the chair of the writers’ guild,” she says. “Thank goodness for our incredible staff, who are doing an enormous amount of fact-finding. We will formulate hopefully some more practical things to do when the shape of what we’re walking into becomes clearer.”

Holdsworth predicts facilities and crew shortages when production does gear up again, with workers such as grips, camera operators and designers suddenly finding themselves in huge demand. Writers may also face a bottleneck, with restarted productions taking priority over new commissions. Line of Duty season six and the second season of Gentleman Jack are just two British series that have been forced into hiatus, as well as the soaps, which usually dominate evening schedules with multiple episodes each week.

“We’ve got to make sure people appreciate how long this might take,” she continues. “It’s not going to be a click of the fingers and things go back to normal overnight. There’s going to be a massive period of adjustment.”

Meanwhile, there remains the creative question of how writers will respond to the coronavirus pandemic in their work, and whether viewers can expect to see a rise in the number of dystopian dramas being pitched in the future.

“Any writer worth their salt is thinking, ‘How would I dramatise this?’ We might have had enough of dystopian [dramas] – it all feels a bit Walking Dead anyway,” Holdsworth adds. “It will be interesting to see where the public taste goes. There will always be a section [of the audience] that wants to see the darkest side of this timeline. But I do wonder if there’s a chance for us to examine ourselves a little bit and maybe reflect it in comedy and some lighter drama, about two people trapped in a flat together, self-isolating.

“It is already very strange watching television programmes where people are blithely walking into the pub, shaking hands, snogging and all that kind of thing. It’s really weird. It’s like watching something set in summer at Christmas. It all feels a bit odd and oddly nostalgic, but I’m sure we’ll get back to normal at some point.”

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State of mind

The cast of Australian drama Stateless recall the emotional journey on which they embarked for this story of four disparate characters who find themselves in a detention centre.

Pitched as a powerful and timely series, six-part drama Stateless uses a star-studded cast to tell a story about four strangers whose lives collide at an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert.

Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays free-spirited flight attendant Sofie, whose life begins to unravel after being seduced by a self-improvement group’s charismatic leaders, played by Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Dominic West (The Affair). When she quits her job, she later turns up at Barton Immigration Detention Centre claiming to be Eva Hoffman.

Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad) portrays Cam, who is struggling to provide for his young family until he signs up to work at the centre as a guard, though he finds his attitude is at odds with his co-workers who treat the detainees like criminals, testing his morality and his conscience.

Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi, The Commons) is fleeing persecution with his wife and two daughters, seeking safe passage to Australia. When he is separated from them by people smugglers as they try to board a boat heading to their destination, Ameer is next seen arriving on the shores of Christmas Island, where he is transferred to Barton before learning what has become of his family.

Then there’s ambitious bureaucrat Clare (Asher Keddie, The Cry), who is appointed as the new general manager at Barton in response to the growing media scrutiny surrounding the centre. She soon discovers she is completely unprepared for the challenges ahead, particularly when she discovers Eva is actually an Australian.

Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie, who ends up in a detention centre after escaping a cult

Strahovski first heard about the part of Sofie when she was contacted over email by series co-creator and executive producer Blanchett, who then relayed her personal passion for the issues confronted by Stateless and the story itself in a subsequent phone call.

“I ended up reading the scripts and falling in love with how they were written and how beautifully these stories were told,” the actor says. “The relatability factor is something that’s especially important for a script like this, because it is such a sensitive and dividing issue, especially for Australians. I think it’s so lovely to have so many storylines that are so relatable, littered through this one big piece.”

The multiple perspectives and relatable characters were also key to drawing both Courtney and Keddie to the series.

Cam, says Courtney, might have been a more functional character in another story. “But his unravelling over the course of the series is truly heartbreaking,” he says. “When I got to read some of the scripts and see where things were going, I leapt at the opportunity to take that challenge on and to represent someone who’s in a community of people where this sort of thing is devastating – the welfare of the guards, the lack of support, lack of funding, lack of training. That was something that I found kind of fascinating and wanted to learn more about.”

Keddie picks up: “Quite often as an actor, you’ll have a handful of really good, solid reads of a film or TV series that you’re making, and then really have to knuckle down into the work of your own character. When I was working on this, each night that we were filming, I would just keep reading the other journeys, Cam’s in particular. You get so immersed in the guards’ story. It’s such a wonderful perspective to have.

Jai Courtney as detention centre guard Cam

“When I first read the script, to be perfectly honest, I felt mildly frightened by the idea of playing a bureaucrat and someone who had been working in government for 20 years. My ignorance played into that fear as well – I’m not a political animal. I probably am much more now that I’ve made this show. I’m nowhere near as lethargic as I used to be.

“However, the attraction was also because I knew next to nothing about the complexity of the situation. I thought it was a really interesting time to explore in Australia because I don’t think Australians knew what the hell was going on when it was happening. It sits in the recent past, but it’s so present now and it’s so timely because it’s happening all over the world. It’s a discussion that’s more relevant now than it ever has been.”

Though the stories of the four main characters appear quite singular, they do collide as the story progresses, with the emotional and mental toll on each becoming increasingly clear.

“It just humanises the people behind it,” Courtney explains. “It doesn’t take a stance necessarily on policy or anything like that. We’re not telling the audience to feel a certain way. It’s just putting faces to those stories that otherwise people might just think of as statistics.”

Keddie adds: “It’s so complex, but the way it comes together later in the project is that all four perspectives really marry beautifully. It’s incredibly moving.”

Talk to West, meanwhile, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s starring in a different show. While episode one largely focuses on Ameer’s journey to reach Australia and introduces Cam, the story also reveals how Sofie becomes infatuated by GOPA (‘Growing One’s Potential Achievement’) and its husband-and-wife leaders Gordon and Pat. Despite the initial singing, dancing and eye-catching outfits, it soon becomes clear Sofie has become hypnotised by a cult. Then matters take a decidedly dark turn, forcing her to flee the group and ultimately land at Barton with a mysterious new identity.

Asher Keddie plays a bureaucrat hired as the centre’s manager

West came to the project at the last minute, having received a message from Blanchett while he was filming the final season of The Affair in Montauk, at the tip of New York’s Long Island peninsula.

“I hadn’t met her before and she said, ‘Come and do this thing.’ I thought, ‘I’d love to do anything with Cate Blanchett, that’s marvellous,’” he says. “Then she told me a little bit about it. It seemed a very intriguing project. I went out to Adelaide and I was done in 10 days. So it was quite easy, really.

“It was interesting what she said to me when we first spoke, saying that in her glittering, amazing career – and we’re sort of the same age – now she’s keen to spend her life doing important things that contribute in some way to the debate of the big issues. That really struck me as a wonderful thing to be thinking of and something that I need to think about.”

West describes Gordon as a “psycho” and “a deeply mediocre man who’s given immense celebrity and credibility by his disciples, and there’s a lot of those people around.”

He continues: “It’s amazing how much influence you can have on people’s lives if you say, ‘there, there’ and make them feel wanted and needed. We all need that, we love being told that, and manipulative people like him are able to tap into that.”

Dominic West as cult leader Gordon

The actor, who also starred in HBO’s seminal crime drama The Wire, agrees the beginning of the story disarms viewers about what’s to come. “That’s what great drama does, particularly episodic drama,” he says.

“Mainly because of the outfits and the ludicrousness of it, it was funny because Gordon and Pat did remind me and Cate of our experiences of drama school and the sort of nonsense that people talked. It was very reminiscent of that. So I felt I knew it very well. But mainly because of what Cate and I were wearing and the comedic elements of it, I was a bit worried we were doing this comedy in the middle of this huge tragedy. It’s still a bit like that, but it does work.”

Elise McCredie, who co-created the series with Blanchett and Tony Ayres, says the idea was to bring people into the show “by stealth,” because it’s not initially what you might expect from a story about an immigration detention centre. “We get you in with an all-singing, all-dancing Dominic and Cate,” she jokes.

McCredie (Jack Irish, Nowhere Boys) and Blanchett went to school and university together, and it was in Blanchett’s kitchen in 2014 that they first talked about the themes and ideas behind Stateless, which is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Blanchett’s Dirty Films.

“I’d been writing a lot for TV and so we just started talking about ideas and things that we might do together,” she says. “Immigration detention was a very hot topic at the time in Australia and it was a very political. So we both felt very passionate about it. We were talking about whether, as dramatists, storytellers and artists, we could contribute to the debate around that issue without being didactic. Once we settled on a bit of an idea, we brought in Tony and then we started to workshop further.”

Fayssal Bazzi (centre) plays refugee Ameer

McCredie says they never intended for the series to be “gritty or realist,” instead imagining it as colourful and with a whimsical quality. She wrote four episodes, with Belinda Chayko (Safe Harbour) writing two, while the pair spent almost four years on and off developing the story with Ayers (Glitch, Clickbait).

The series was originally going to comprise just four episodes, but extending it to six provided time to develop the characters more fully.

“When it was four episodes, it went like the clappers but you didn’t feel as much,” Ayres notes. “When we put a little bit more space in, particularly for both Cam and Clare, it helped with the emotional effect of the show. It’s like a relationship drama set in a detention centre.”

The subject matter meant the show was initially difficult to finance, with support coming from Australian broadcaster the ABC, Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corporation and distributor NBCUniversal Global Distribution. Netflix will air the series worldwide.

Once production was underway, filming largely took place chronologically in a specially built detention centre set outside of Adelaide, which meant the actors didn’t have any trouble finding the emotion of their characters and the story.

Cate Blanchett, who plays Pat, helped create the show

“[The set] may just sound like a space to talk about, but when you’re inside it and surrounded by 100-plus extras, a large majority of whom experienced detention for many years, walking into that each day never became easy. It felt more authentic to me because of the incredible preparation of our writers, directors, producers and art department to create something so oppressive,” Keddie explains.

“Playing the bureaucrat, I had extreme difficulty pushing the emotion down. I had to just try all day to push it down, push it down, push it down. I’m a big sook as well – that didn’t help. But I found that extremely difficult because the stories are so human and so relatable, whether you’re a bureaucrat, a refugee or a guard. They are human stories and they’re extremely complex and moving. So it wasn’t a difficult project to commit to.”

Courtney adds: “It’s going to look inside an issue that is too easy for people not to think about. Because of how well these characters are crafted, it’ll be impossible for people not to relate to it on some level.”

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Production shutdown

In part two of a focus on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on television drama productions, DQ speaks to three more producers to see how their latest series have been affected and how development has been pushed to the fore.

About 10 days ago, Chris Aird was in the middle of the Australian outback, 200 kilometres north of Adelaide, on a recce to uncover potential locations for upcoming mystery drama The Tourist. Commissioned by the BBC and Oz streamer Stan, the show opens with a British man being run off the road by an enormous tank. When he wakes up in hospital, he has no idea who he is, while his search for answers is hampered by merciless figures set on pursuing him.

But when Aird, head of drama at UK prodco Two Brothers Pictures (Liar, The Missing), heard US president Donald Trump was about to close the countries borders to many EU countries as a result of the emerging coronavirus threat, he faced an uncertain five-and-a-half-hour journey back to the city. Initially intending to postpone some preproduction plans, Aird soon realised he and his partners would have to suspend everything and get home as soon as possible.

The Tourist is just one of hundreds of television series around the world shut down or put on hold over the last fortnight as the industry, like every other, comes to terms with the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Cast and crew face an indeterminate time out of work, with production companies rallying to support those who have been left in limbo by the shutdowns.

Chris Aird

“We’re early enough [in the process] that we’ve only got a core group of HODs and the producer and the director on board,” Aird tells DQ about work so far on The Tourist. “But it has an impact in as much all the people we were planning on bringing on over the coming weeks, with a view to filming in mid-May, they’re not going to be employed now for the foreseeable.”

Another Two Brothers drama, crime thriller Baptiste, was further down the line – eight weeks into a 14-week shoot – when the decision was made to halt production in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The series continues to follow detective Julien Baptiste, who first featured in two seasons of The Missing before a standalone series launched on the BBC last year.

“It’s been a really challenging process, trying to predict what was going to happen and the international situation and trying to get a sense of the direction of travel, while listening via my colleague John Griffin, the producer, to what was going on on the ground,” Aird explains.

“Because that crew is 80% Hungarian, there was this tipping point around Friday night [March 13] where we went from the crew saying, ‘Look, we want to carry on. These are our jobs,’ to quite quickly, ‘Actually, this is frightening now and we need to get home and be inside.’ It was about being really responsive to that. It’s probably the most challenging management position I’ve ever been in, in terms of fast decisions and really having people’s welfare as much at possible at heart when making those decisions.”

The decision was taken at 09.00 last Monday, with the British crew members back in the air and heading home by Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, sets were left standing, with the art department set to return under safe conditions to pack things up until such time as the production can resume.

“We had a whole production to shut down. In the first instance, that meant walking away from sets,” Aird says. “The office will pack things up. We’ll get all the equipment back. But the first thing to do was to disband the unit as quickly as we could. We’re paying people’s notice and giving people severance pay, but that only lasts so long.”

Baptiste was shooting in Hungary when production had to be shut down

Now working with Griffin for the next couple of months, Aird is focusing on “Baptiste 2.2,” looking at any decisions that need to be made before shooting can resume, they hope, by the end of the year.

“Most of the crew are local Hungarians, so I’d hope we’d be able to put the team back together,” Aird continues. “There’s cast to think about as well and you hope, certainly with your leads, no one’s going to come sweeping in [to take them away]. If we have to change locations or if we didn’t manage to get some cast members back for whatever reasons, we’d make whatever decisions we needed to and rewrite the scripts.”

In Ireland, Dublin-based Element Pictures has been providing production support for The Drowning, an upcoming Channel 5 and Virgin Media drama from Unstoppable Film & Television, while also finishing post-production on Normal People (pictured top), the eagerly awaited adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel that is due to air this spring on UK online channel BBC3 and Hulu in the US. Development is also underway on Conversation with Friends, based on Rooney’s first novel and also commissioned by the BBC, with a virtual writers room now set up with writers in Ireland, the UK and the US.

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from their school days in a small Irish town to university at Dublin’s Trinity College. Working remotely, post-production is continuing apace, with one person in the editing suite at Outer Limits and everyone else who needs to be involved viewing from their own homes.

“It made it complicated but it’s actually doable,” says Andrew Lowe, Element’s joint MD. “It’s interesting that it has been viable to keep it going. Our big fear was the post house itself would close, but they’ve been very responsible and careful about how they do their business and they’ve managed to keep the thing going, which is great.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People

“We’re also continuing with our development meetings and production meetings. Everyone just dials in remotely so there are lots of people on the screen at the same time, which is a nice thing for everyone. It gives some sense of normality and continuity in what’s an otherwise strange and unsettling time. The positive thing to come from this is it’s enabling us to focus more on development. With fewer other things going on to distract us, we can focus more on opportunities that have been around for a while but we haven’t managed to advance.”

In a rapidly evolving situation, Lowe says the Element team will continue to work from home, while the production hiatus will offer him and partner Ed Guiney the chance to carry out some company housekeeping.

“Our attitude is very much, ‘Let’s hunker down for the coming weeks and months and, if this ends up being a very prolonged period, we have more than enough to be getting on with developing new material and cleaning up older stuff,’” he adds.

Aidan Turner

“As founders and directors, Ed and I often struggle to strike a balance between operational time running the business and actually standing back from it and spending a bit more time strategic planning, so this period will give us a chance to take a bit of a breather and complete some work we’ve been doing for a while in terms of strategic planning for the growth of the business. We just have to focus on the more positive aspects, because it’s obviously a grim and serious situation otherwise.”

Elsewhere, production has also stopped on Leonardo, a series based on the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. Created by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and Steve Thompson (Vienna Blood), the show is produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Rai Fiction and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, in association with Sony Pictures Television. Poldark star Aidan Turner will play the seminal artist and inventor, with filming underway since December.

“We are in the same situation as everyone else in Europe, where all production has stopped, as much of the world has as well. With Leonardo, we’re looking to manage the situation and get back as soon as we can,” says Emily Feller, creative director at Big Light (The Man in the High Castle).

“With regard to everything else, we are so fortunate and lucky that we have jobs where we can work from home. But what we’re aware of is a lot of team members won’t have been based from home on a very regular basis. We put together a pack of etiquette and expectations of working from home, just as a support, really, and also being quite aware of mental health and a sense of isolation in your home if you live by yourself. We’ve really wanted to be careful and proactive in thinking about the team as a whole.”

Big Light is also involved in a virtual writers room for an as-yet-unannounced series, working through stories, narratives and characters, while Feller says the move online has had no effect on the openness and creativity of the collaboration process.

Emily Feller

“Last week we were working on two episodes in particular and we’re screen-sharing so, instead of having cards on the wall, we’re using bullet points [on screen]. It’s working fantastically so far,” she says. “I don’t think anyone can plan for this. You can plan to work six or nine months a year, whatever your preferences are or needs are, but I don’t think anyone can plan for this. It’s such an incredibly unique situation for us all.”

The company will have a second writers room opening this summer, while progress is also being made on its proposed live-action Warhammer 40,000 series, in partnership with Games Workshop.

“It’s about maintaining our drive to be pushing forward the high-quality storytelling we’re lucky enough to be able to do and working with the writer we’re still working with,” Feller adds. “That side of things doesn’t change. What these next few months will allow us to do is get into a fantastic place to then go once production is up and running again.”

Read part one of this article here.

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Opening the Crypt

Five years after her last appearance as 1920s private detective Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis returns to the role in big-screen outing Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears. DQ follows the adventurer to Morocco.

Located in south-west Morocco, south of the Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate is known as the Door to the Desert. The city is also notable for the volume of movie productions that are attracted to the stunning landscapes that surround it, with Lawrence of Arabia, The Living Daylights, The Mummy, Gladiator and James Bond film Spectre among those to have filmed there.

More recently, Ouarzazate also welcomed the cast and crew of Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears, a big-screen spin-off from the hugely popular Australian television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries that has aired in more than 120 countries and territories around the world.

The period drama first aired on ABC in 2012, centring on the personal and professional life of Phryne Fisher, a private detective in 1920s Melbourne. Essie Davis (The Babadook, Lambs of God) takes the title role as Phryne, a charming and determined “lady investigator” who has a habit of solving murders, much to the frustration of the local police force.

Three seasons were produced by Every Cloud Productions, the last coming in 2015. Five years later, the series has made the leap to the big screen, with feature-length Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears making its debut in cinemas in Australia and the US earlier this year. All3Media International, which distributes the series, secured deals with US streamer Acorn TV, which will release the film to subscribers today, and Alibi in the UK, where it will air in early April.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher & The Crypt of Tears

It’s October 2018, just days after the start of production, when DQ is taxied out of Ouarzazate and into the desert towards Oasis de Fint, where green shrubs and trees stand against a backdrop of red rocks and mountains that stretches for miles all around. From a unit base that comprises two large tents and an assortment of lorries, a track leads down into the valley where a number of crew members, scattered on the mountainside, slowly come into view.

Beside them, a Bedouin village set has been constructed. Extras sit in huddles in front of mud huts and tents that circle a well, with palm trees standing beside a small stream. Sand and straw cover the ground.

It’s here where some early scenes from the story take place, featuring a young Bedouin girl called Shirin and her mother, played by Nicole Chamoun (Safe Harbour, On the Ropes). What follows is murder, mystery and mayhem as the story takes Phryne between London and Palestine.

After freeing the now grown-up Shirin from her unjust imprisonment in Jerusalem, Miss Fisher begins to unravel a decade-old mystery concerning priceless emeralds, ancient curses and the truth behind the suspicious disappearance of Shirin’s forgotten tribe.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks), Daniel Lapaine (Zero Dark Thirty) and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner) have joined the band of returning series regulars, which includes Nathan Page (Underbelly) as Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Miriam Margolyes (Call the Midwife) as Aunt Prudence and Ashleigh Cummings (NOS4A2) as loyal assistant and maid Dorothy ‘Dot’ Collins.

The oasis forms just one part of the filming schedule in Morocco, with shooting also taking place in Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert. On set, many of the crew are already taking regular shelter from the blistering morning sun, with director Tony Tilse (Serengoon Road, Wolf Creek) and cinematographer Roger Lanser (The Magic Flute) inside one tent watching the camera feeds on two monitors.

Writer Deborah Cox (left) and producer Fiona Eagger

“Part of being a cinematographer in Australia means we’re used to this sort of harsh light,” Lanser says of working in the desert surroundings. “But the difference you get here is you get these lovely contrasts with the costumes, the flesh tones and nature providing reds and earth colours for all these massive wide shots.

“We’re working with such beautiful actors and Essie’s a real trooper. She’s open to whatever makes it work for the shot. She’s happy-go-lucky and very much aware of how cinematography services her part in the show. She has to wear hats a lot – the hats are deliberately modified so that the face is framed beautifully. The costumes, the flesh tone, the make-up and the production design are all elements that come together to get the show this great look; it’s not just one single thing.”

Based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was created by producer Fiona Eagger and writer Deborah Cox, who are also executive producers. They conceived The Crypt of Tears as a standalone story after the series, though one that retains many of the themes and relationships that have made the original series so popular. They also launched a spin-off series, 1960s-set Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, last year.

“We wanted to do sort of an Indiana Jones-type story with a bit of Romancing the Stone,” says Eagger of their ambitions for the movie. “Miss Fisher is a mix of adventure and murder mystery, and this film is probably tipping a little bit more into adventure. We’re still trying to satisfy the murder-mystery audience and the audience that want to come for the romance between Jack and Phryne.”

Both Eagger and Cox have experience in features, with Eagger noting that the size of the Australian television industry means many actors and crew operate in both mediums. Their preparation included looking at other TV-to-film crossovers and seeing where they both failed in order to avoid similar traps. So, after a few drafts of the script, Eagger and Cox sought advice from John Collee (Hotel Mumbai, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World) about what to focus on in the transition from television to film.

The relationship between Phryne and Jack (Nathan Page) is a big part of Miss Fisher’s success

“Writing for television, you write for ongoing characters,” Eagger says. “You have progression in a relationship slightly, but you really want your characters to be the same. Whereas in a film, you’re doing a much bigger arc for your character. It’s the emotional world of finding Jack, and where do you take that? So with the television series, you could make that last for eight hours or 13. But in a film, you have to give a complete experience.”

Davis is certainly impressed by the scale and ambition of Miss Fisher’s move to the big screen. In costume as Phryne, with her trademark haircut, she says returning to the character is “like getting on a bicycle,” though the script will swap pedal bikes for motorbikes, camel rides and a set piece on top of a moving train carriage as it hurtles through the Palestinian countryside.

“She’s full of joy,” the actor says of Phryne. “She’s a fighter for the underdog, she’s a changer of rules. She’s super naughty, and her naughtiness is often on behalf of someone else. She drives a fast car, she can fly a plane, she can speak lots of languages, she can dance any dance that needs to be danced. She’s a great lover of men and a great fighter for women’s rights and human rights but in a very positive way.

“She’s such a joyful life force, and you do get completely influenced by the character you’re playing. To be her is to be in joy and to be curious and to be interested. She’s a fun person to be around so she’s a fun person to be inside.”

Davis is also an integral part of the team behind the scenes, working with Cox on the script and offering opinions during casting. “Even though Deb is the writer, we’re all wrangling, changing ideas, pulling characters out, merging characters and changing how they’re how relationships work,” she says. “It’s a pretty low budget to do a period action film, so there’s been some fantastic, amazing parts of it that have had to go. But then, all of a sudden, there’s just nothing there, and that’s just not good enough – so we go, ‘What can we do?’ and I make lots of suggestions and they say we can’t afford it.”

Parts of the movie were filmed in the Moroccan desert

As Phryne’s professional and personal sparring partner Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, Page is equally effusive about returning to the world of Miss Fisher and fanning the flames of the pair’s affectionate but often contemptuous relationship.

“They just can’t click back immediately into the world we left them in [several years ago], so they come together but they’re not expecting to be here under these circumstances,” Page explains. “Things get pretty dire out in the desert. There’s going to be some tension, which inevitably there has to because you can’t just go for the frisson alone. That’s the wonderful thing about these two characters, that there is that tension and one of them has to bend a little. Usually it’s Jack.”

Page says he has been surprised by the international success of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, revealing fans of the show have travelled to Australia to watch him in theatre shows. Notably, the A$9m (US$5.6m) budget has been boosted by A$1m raised through a crowdfunding appeal, which offered fans from all over the world the chance to become an extra or join the cast read-through. But why has it struck a nerve with audiences?

“Number one, it’s the era – it’s beautiful,” he says. “It has that nostalgia to it. You’ve got that scenery. I don’t think it takes itself too seriously at all; there’s a certain kitsch to it that works. But it’s still manages to address some issues here and there. The Phryne-Jack frisson is one of the key elements, so you’ve got all this action taking place but then you’ve got this side thing going on.”

A new face alongside the regular Miss Fisher cast is Izabella Yena as the grown-up Shirin, who joins Phryne to help solve the mystery at the centre of the story.

“Shirin is a soldier who has been through unimaginable trauma,” she says. “It just becomes so much for her that, a decade later, she’s risking her life to find out what happened. That takes incredible courage and bravery. That political backbone she has is there throughout the whole film and it really defines her.

Davis describes her character as a ‘joyful life force’

“Like Miss Fisher, she’s a feminist, and that is what the series has always championed. Shirin fits that really well and speaks to a really contemporary audience base and young women. It’s the kind of role I’d want to watch on TV and be like, ‘Yay, there’s a young girl my age who looks like me, who is changing things and making a stand and has a voice and isn’t being silenced because of her environment.’”

The film marks one of Yena’s first screen roles, the actor having graduated from drama school in 2016 before appearing on stage in Melbourne. She first auditioned at the beginning of 2018 and, after a callback, was told she had secured the part. With filming now underway, she describes Davis as her “guardian angel” on set, welcoming her into the show’s family.

“She knows the world better than anybody so as soon as you step on set, she’s there, Miss Fisher’s there, the world of Miss Fisher’s there and you just step into it,” she explains. “On the first day of shooting, I was first up and I was a little bit nervous. This is my first film, so it’s a baptism by fire. We were in the make-up van and she grabbed my hands and was like, ‘You’re going to be great. Just take a deep breath. You know, no matter what happens, just do your thing. Know that you know the character better than anyone, and just relax.’ So that was really calming.”

With The Crypt of Tears forming part of what could become a trilogy, Eagger says the film’s ending is left slightly ajar with a view to what might follow, with her dream to set the next film in India during the British Raj. “If this is successful, then we could do more films as Indiana Jones has,” she adds. “We end with the beginning of another potential journey.”

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Dramatic downturn

In the first part of a focus on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on television drama productions, DQ speaks to three leading producers and writers to find out how they have been affected as filming around the world is put on hold.

In the grand scheme of things, how soon a new television drama will be aired is of little consequence as the world sits in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. But like most industries, the future of the TV business, as well as those who work in it, is uncertain. With productions around the world shut down, cast and crew have seen their jobs – and incomes – put on hold, without any idea when they might be able to resume work.

“We predict a lot of things coming along to scupper these projects, but none of us saw this one coming,” admits Simon Crawford Collins, MD of Slim Film+Television and the executive producer of a new eight-part adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days.

The series was three weeks into production on location in South Africa, after which it had been due to move onto Romania and other locations worldwide. And until the end of last week, the crew were confident they would be able to wrap this portion of the schedule before closing down. Then, in the space of 48 hours, everything changed and production halted immediately.

Simon Crawford Collins

“Six weeks ago when I first went to South Africa, they were doing temperature checks of everybody who came into the airport, which is way more than is happening at [London] Heathrow now because nobody checked me when I got back in,” Crawford Collins says. “We were hoping we’d get that part done and it would be one bit in the bag, and then we’d have a bit of a hiatus and push on to the next. But it’s amazing the speed with which things can change.”

The team is now planning to resume production as soon as it is safe to do so, with the majority of the cast luckily having some space in their schedules that should mean filming can continue with all the main players on set.

“We’re also trying to dig in and work out the best ways of storing thousands of costumes, because it’s a big period piece and we’ve got offices all set up [in South Africa],” the producer tells DQ. “It’s like the Marie Celeste when people walk out, but we’re trying to do it in as controlled and careful manner and so that it’s ready to get going again as quickly as possible.”

Conversations are now taking place about rebooking hotel rooms, studios and location owners so that everyone can return later in the year and pick up where they left off.

“Contracts generally don’t really cover this sort of eventuality, it’s not something that people have been prepared for,” Crawford Collins adds. “What we’re trying to do, though, is just talk to people as human beings in desperate circumstances, and to work out the best way of resolving the situations and planning for the next step.”

Around the World in Eighty Days stars Good Omens’ David Tennant as explorer Phileas Fogg, who travels the globe alongside his valet, Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), and aspiring journalist Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch). Federation Entertainment is distributing the series, which will air on European pubcasters France Télévisions, ZDF (Germany), Rai (Italy) and the BBC (UK).

Around the World in Eighty Days stars David Tennant (pictured in Netflix’s Criminal)

Locations in South Africa are doubling for the deserts of Yemen, the hill villages of India, the bustling colonial court of Hong Kong and a desert island in the Pacific, while a set has been constructed to replicate the interior of the Reform Club in London’s prestigious Pall Mall. Sets for India and Hong Kong are now lying dormant, with 16 weeks of shooting still to be completed.

“Because it’s an 1872-set road trip, there are lots of locations within each episode. So there are lots of different sets, and there’s a mix of exterior locations and studio builds and then builds within locations. It’s definitely the most complicated thing I’ve ever done,” Crawford Collins says. “So to throw in a pandemic on top of that, it’s a little cherry on the top of complexity. For all of the people on the crew, it’s presented a whole host of challenges we’ve not had to deal with before, and maybe that’s made us quite resilient. I’m sure we will get through this one.”

Meanwhile, production has also stopped on the second season of BBC crime drama The Mallorca Files, after the Spanish government imposed a lockdown on its residents. International cast and crew were able to leave the Balearic island and have all returned home safely, with six episodes filmed and four to go.

The story follows a British police officer who joins forces with a wise-cracking German detective to fight crime on the picturesque island.

Dan Sefton

“Mallorca was nearly all location so, from a practical point of view, it just stops,” writer Dan Sefton says of the shutdown. “This has been a global problem so no one has been immune, literally. It makes no difference. Every domestic [UK] show has closed down as well. But as quickly as this has all shut down, and it’s been quite a shock for everybody, we have to be prepared that, as soon as it’s safe, it will start up again as quickly as is practical. That’s what people should be making plans for.”

Sefton is also in development on a third season of The Mallorca Files, while also preparing a potential fourth season of ITV’s India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, which recently returned for its third run. All that work is continuing as normal, he says, though there are more video meetings and conference calls over Skype and Zoom than there would have been otherwise.

While broadcasters are looking at their schedules and deciding their own plans, Sefton says writers should be using their time to come up with new series that could shape the television landscape in the next couple of years.

“Writers spend a lot of time working on stuff that’s been commissioned. Having that freedom to work on something completely on spec is quite liberating, as long as you’ve got money coming in, which is another consideration for people,” he explains. “That’s the only silver lining I can think of. Writers can have fun writing things they’ve always wanted to write and then, hopefully, in two years’ time we might get some really interesting shows coming out of it.”

However, the former doctor is also preparing to put those plans on hold should his medical skills be required to help the fight against the pandemic. “I have volunteered to go back but I haven’t heard anything. Because I live in [English county] Somerset, we haven’t been badly affected yet, but I have volunteered to help when I can. I might be working while everyone else is writing.”

The Mallorca Files was filming on the titular island before it went into lockdown

Another show to close following a six-month shoot, leaving it just 12 days away from wrapping production, is Sky drama Intergalactic. The action sci-fi drama, set in the 23rd century, follows a crew of fierce female convicts who break free and go on in the run in space. It is written by Julie Gearey (Prisoners’ Wives).

The series closed down on Wednesday, halfway through the final filming block. Despite precautions being taken up to that point, it quickly became clear they weren’t going to finish as scheduled.

“People started to get anxious and needed to get home. You can’t really stage a scene with loads of extras in it if the government says you need to keep away from people,” says executive producer Frith Tiplady, co-founder of producer Moonage Pictures, which was also behind Sky’s dystopian street-race series Curfew. “It’s been really tough making the decision. We’ve gone on hiatus and we’re still deciding how long that hiatus needs to be.

“Weirdly, you’re left in a strange world where your cast is covered [by insurance] if they have got it [the virus], but they haven’t got it, yet the right thing to do is to shut down. That leaves huge financial exposure. The broadcasters are being amazing and very supportive about each decision but it’s a bit strange, really, and I really feel for all the freelancers. Suddenly they’re in this situation. It’s horrendous.”

Frith Tiplady

The decision to shut down was made on Monday, when production was out on location. Sets stopped being built and the de-rigging of existing sets began quicker than originally planned. The challenge now is deciding when to come back, while trying to ensure there is enough crew available if, as expected, many part-finished and new productions kick back into gear at the same time.

Moonage is also in pre-production on BBC miniseries The Pursuit of Love, starring Lily James in Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel trilogy set between the two world wars. Development work continues apace with weekly meetings held online, but Tiplady wonders whether broadcasters and other elements of the industry will continue to engage during this uncertain period, with planning only able to progress so far before key decisions need to be made.

“We can keep developing, it’s just [about] how much business can carry forward,” she says. “I think it can. It will slow down a little bit because people don’t know how much money they’ve got to spend and when they can produce things. Maybe that will become clear in the next few months.

“In post production, we’re editing remotely, everyone’s gone home and has got their computers and we’re still editing. That process is really working. But then can we grade remotely? Can we do ADR remotely? To a certain extent, yes, but undoubtedly it’s going to slow the process. Intergalactic’s got a lot of CG. It might change work/life patterns in a good way going forward, you never know.”

What’s not in doubt is that cast and crew who have lost their jobs overnight have been hit hard by the fallout from the ongoing pandemic, while questions of insurance, financing and when productions might hope to restart are still up in the air – and perhaps some time from being answered.

“Their salaries have stopped overnight so that’s the biggest casualty. As an industry, how we can support them?” Tiplady asks of the hundreds of people who collaborate to bring television dramas to the screen. “That’s the biggest concern. Crew and cast are the lifeblood.”

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Criminal genes

Forbrydelsen (The Killing) writer Torleif Hoppe speaks to DQ about the genre-defining Danish series and how his latest crime drama, DNA, flips the script on its leading detective.

When it comes to creating crime dramas, for Danish writer Torleif Hoppe, it’s in the blood. More than a decade ago, Hoppe was one of the key creatives involved in developing breakout drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), before writing on other notable series such as Den som Dræber (Those Who Kill) and Broen (The Bridge).

It’s clearly a genre he feels at home with, though that wasn’t always the case. “When we wrote The Killing [with creator Søren Sveistrup], I didn’t have any experience in the crime genre at all,” he admits. “None of us actually did at that time. We had to just start researching it and figure out what police work is like, because everything we knew was from watching crime series, particularly American crime series, and stuff like that. It’s not exactly the same in Denmark, to say the least.”

Hoppe was with Sveistrup from the beginning, working together to help forge the series into what is still the defining ‘Nordic noir’ series, owing to its dark murder mystery themes and brooding Copenhagen cityscapes.

Torleif Hoppe

The writer believes one reason the series, which ran for three seasons, proved so popular, not just at home but around the world, is that they wanted to avoid making a crime series like anything else they had already seen. Another reason behind its success was its lead character Sarah Lund, portrayed by Sofie Gråbøl, and her penchant for patterned knitwear. Hoppe reveals that her fashion sense was based on a real-life police officer they spoke to, who did similar work to Lund, and often wore jeans and a sweater, rather than an official uniform. “

So we joked, ‘Sarah’s going to wear jeans and a sweater,” he says. “Then when it had already become kind of iconic, it was going to be shown in Germany and they were doing some of the material for the press release. They sent us some photos they had photoshopped to see if we liked them – and they replaced the sweater with a blue shirt and tie so that everyone could see that it was a policewoman.”

In his latest series, DNA, there’s no mistaking the central character, criminal investigator Rolf Larsen (Anders W Berthelsen) as anything other than a police officer, his identity card hanging around his neck as he strives to solve a case that takes him across Europe. What begins as the search for a missing toddler in episode one quickly becomes a story of personal tragedy when his own baby daughter inexplicably vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving him heartbroken and stricken with grief.

Five years later, he discovers there is a fault with the Danish national DNA register, news that brings fresh hope that his daughter might still be alive. He then embarks on an unauthorised investigation that leads him into the world of illegal child trafficking.

The eight-part crime thriller comes from Nordisk Film Production, in collaboration with France’s French Kiss Pictures for broadcasters TV2 in Denmark and Arte France. Norway’s NRK, YLE in Finland, SVT in Sweden and Icelandic broadcaster RUV will also air the series.

It was Hoppe’s desire to write a crime series about an investigator trying to solve their own problems, rather than someone else’s, that gave him the first idea for DNA. “That was the driving engine behind the story,” he says. “The ambition was definitely to make a crime story where it was about an investigator’s own life, where the crime plot had something to do with him personally.”

DNA has been made for Denmark’s TV2 and Arte in France

His plan for a new series initially began as a case-of-the-week procedural, but when he presented one potential storyline that focused more on the investigator’s personal life, TV2 asked him to turn that into a serialised storyline that would run across the entire series.

“I wanted to do something about a missing child, and I realised that when you talk about children and adoption, there are so many dilemmas,” Hoppe explains. “It looks really nice from one perspective. A child is taken from somewhere and brought to a wealthy family where they can get an education. It sounds really nice. But from the other side, to take a child from a mother, no matter whether she is rich or poor, and give it to another person, it’s not necessarily a good thing in the eyes of the woman who gave birth to that child.

“The more I started to dive into that, the story became about trafficking of children for surrogacy and adoption, not other trafficking purposes. I found that’s something that does take place, and as soon as it becomes an unauthorised business then there aren’t really any rules.”

But what started out as a “very Danish story” soon expanded to take in other countries in Europe when Hoppe settled on the trafficking storyline, particularly Poland and France, where Rolf teams up with another investigator, Claire Bobain, played by British actor Charlotte Rampling (Broadchurch). Other cast members include Zofia Wichlacz (World on Fire, 1983) as Julita Sienko, Nicolas Bro (The Bridge) as Jarl Skaubo and Olivia Joof (Boogie) as Neel Skibsted.

“In the beginning, everything was seen from the Danish police officer’s point of view,” he says. “But just seeing everything from his perspective became a bit boring. So after I had already written the whole story, I went back and created a Polish strand that weaves into the Danish investigator’s story.”

The series stars Anders W Berthelsen as criminal investigator Rolf Larsen

Arte was involved from the start, while Newen Distribution also invested in the project at an early stage, contributing to the series financing and picking up global distribution rights to the series.

“At first, I tried to make sure that I wrote enough scenes that took place in France to please Arte, because I thought the characters had to go to France. But they just came back to me and said, ‘You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to bring them to France to please us.’ So they were very easy with that and just gave me really good feedback and we bounced really well with ideas and different angles to the story.

“But at some point, I realised we needed to have a French police officer and I wanted somebody who had some authority. The producer kept on sending photos and suggestions of actresses but they weren’t what I was looking for. A friend suggested someone like Charlotte Rampling, and I was like, ‘Yes exactly.’ Then they asked her and she read the script and she liked it.”

Hoppe wrote the series on his own, with additional support from writer Nanna Westh (Friheden, Arvingerne), who assisted with some drafts. But before he sits down to write the scripts, he says he likes to know where the story is heading, but not exactly how it will end. “Then you figure out how to get there along the way,” he explains, noting that he uses particular milestones through the series to make sure he is taking the story along the right path.

“With The Killing, we made an overall outline and then wrote three episodes that we went back and forth on to make them work,” Hoppe recalls. “Then we wrote one episode at a time. In this case, probably because there’s been so much time in development, I worked mostly on the first couple of episodes and then wrote the rest of the series in a couple of drafts so I knew what would happen.

British actor Charlotte Rampling plays another investigator

“Because it’s a complicated story with different timelines, it’s nice to go back and forth and put something in here or change something there to make it work better. In this case, they didn’t start shooting until everything was written. When we did The Killing, they started to shoot episode one when we had only finished writing episode three.”

DNA was shot entirely on location, taking in landscapes and backdrops in Denmark, France and the Czech Republic. Hoppe says he likes to visit the set, but doesn’t like to interfere once the directors – in this case Kasper Gaardsøe (The Team) and Roni Ezra (The New Nurses) – are committing his scripts to film.

“It’s difficult because every time I go on set they all have a million questions,” he jokes. “So I realise it may be a good idea to stick around because it’s so much more under my skin because I’ve breathed this for years. Some things they can discuss and then they ask me. It’s helpful in that respect and useful. But I shouldn’t be there to dictate what people should do because you need to trust people. You expect people to be talented and do their best and in order to do their best, they must have freedom to do the best they can.”

But does the series carry the Nordic noir traditions that have characterised many Danish – and Scandinavian – crime series since The Killing burst onto television screens?

“Nordic noir was something somebody used to describe what we did with The Killing,” Hoppe explains. “That was maybe the first time I heard that expression. It was not our ambition to make something that we could call Nordic noir, I never called it that. When we did The Killing, we liked it to be dark and rainy. I did not feel that I needed that in this. You could say thematically it’s dark, it’s about abducted children, but it’s not filmed in the dark.

World on Fire’s Zofia Wichlacz is also among the cast

“With DNA, we did not try to force it into darkness. I really like the fact that there are so many places in the story. It’s set in so many different places and in so many different environments. That feels like a colourful thing to me. When the production designer put up all the photos of places they could shoot and locations from the northern parts of Denmark to the Czech Republic, it just felt very rich. So I wouldn’t call it Nordic noir.”

When the story reaches its conclusion, the writer hopes to have raised questions about how the good things people do, such as adopting children, can become corrupted when money becomes involved.

“Life has become a commodity in a way nowadays, it’s almost like it’s a human right to have a child,” Hoppe says. “I’m not trying to say what’s right and what’s wrong. Things are not really black and white in these areas. But you need to think about what is right and what is good for a child and how they’re brought up.

“Does it matter if your genes are related to your parents or is it more important that your parent is your real parent? That has a lot to do with identity and where you come from and how you connect with the world, and that’s an issue that is brought up a lot in DNA.”

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All guns blazing

On the set of Sky1 original drama Bulletproof, stars and co-creators Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters discuss the relationship at the heart of the series and explain how its action-packed stories make it stand out in the crowded crime genre.

On a quiet weekday lunchtime in central London, the world-famous Fabric nightclub is undergoing something of a transformation. Outside, new signs have been installed to rebrand the underground venue as Prometheus, while crew members are carrying equipment and cables between the numerous levels and twisting staircases.

It’s in the basement, beneath the ambient glow of blue and pink neon lights, that scenes from the second season of UK crime drama Bulletproof are being filmed. Series co-creators and stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters are in character as detectives Aaron Bishop and Ronnie Pike respectively, sitting on one side of a table and drinking glasses of what appears to be champagne.

Launching in May 2018, the series became Sky1’s biggest drama of that year, with childhood friends Bishop and Pike – the former grew up in foster homes and on the streets, while the latter comes from a high-achieving middle-class family – working together inside the National Crime Agency where they deal with serious organised crime while putting their family and friendships to the test.

Produced by Vertigo Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, Bulletproof was quickly recommissioned following the conclusion of its first run, and filming on season two began in February last year. When DQ visits the set, it’s day 69, with the shoot having already taken in scenes on location in Amsterdam and Malta, which doubles for Cyprus. Today, two cameras are in play, one focusing on Clarke and the other side on to Walters.

Ashley Walters (let) and Noel Clarke filming in London nightclub Fabric

Season two, expanded from six to eight episodes, aims to have more of an international feel, with the drama also moving away from its episodic format to focus more on one serialised story. Stunts and locations have all been scaled up from season one, and while Bulletproof has never shied away from a bit of action, that greater ambition is particularly evident in car chases filmed through the streets of Amsterdam.

Back in London, as the sounds of a train passing overhead rumble through the foundations, the cameras are re-set on Mikey (Ben Tavassoli). Sitting opposite Bishop and Pike, the character is the nephew of a Cypriot crime family the undercover detectives are attempting to infiltrate.

Throughout its first season, Bulletproof stood out for its buddy-cop humour, high-octane action sequences and the chemistry between its two leads – factors that saw the series picked up by US network The CW.

“What makes the show different is you have a level of action a lot of shows don’t have,” Clarke explains during a break from filming. “That’s one of the things that makes it stand out, as well as the humour and the chemistry we bring to it as the two main characters. For me, whether it’s a day where both of us are having banter with each other or it’s an action-packed day, every day is enjoyable.”

“There isn’t another show like this on UK TV,” says Walters. “From the beginning, we’ve always said this cannot be your standard UK cop drama. We want it on the same scale as Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. That’s what we’ve always been reaching for. We’re not doing Miss Marple! This is some real stuff. So it’s always been this way for us, it’s what we’ve always wanted. We’re always mindful, when we’re going through scripts or concepts and ideas, that we always keep that element in there. It’s one of the things that sets us aside from everything else.”

Clarke and Walters promise an action-packed season two

Also differentiating the show from its genre peers are Clarke and Walters themselves, with former Doctor Who star Clarke noting: “Once you put both of us in it, immediately there’s a show with two black male leads. You then sit down and think, ‘Should we be proud we did it, or should everyone else be ashamed it hadn’t been done before?’

“Then once we are doing it, there’s things we can say. We can be in the woods together and one of us can say, ‘You know, we always get killed in the woods first.’ It’s funny because, in a lot of films over the years, when there’s a group of friends including a black guy, it became a running joke within the ether that the black man would die first. So when there’s two of us in the woods, we can say stuff like that. If it was a pair of people of different colours, you probably couldn’t say that. You can’t always make those in-jokes, and that’s what sets us apart.”

Having created Bulletproof with Nick Love (The Football Factory), the actors are extensively involved in the development and plotting of the series. While Clarke is a regular writer and director, with films like Kidulthood to his name, Walters also stepped in to co-write an episode this season.

They joke that a lot of their lines are improvised. “We don’t really pay attention to the script, unless we’ve written the episode ourselves,” Clarke says. “We’re in the story room, we storyline and we’re there all the time, so we know the story from A to B. Our script supervisor has a nightmare. She says, ‘Are you going to say this here?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say, to be honest.’”

The duo’s confidence in ad-libbing stems from the fact they helped create the characters themselves. “It’s easy for us because we know the characters inside and out,” says Walters, who also stars in Top Boy, the UK crime drama series recently revived by Netflix via a helping hand from hip-hop star Drake. “We created them. Working together as long as we have, we get the timing. We know when the other person is going to speak and when they’re not; we know each other’s facial expressions. So, for us, it’s simple. For the other actors, they’ve been learning their lines and we just throw the pages out of the window.”

The leading duo improvise much of their dialogue

Clarke, himself an avid film and TV viewer, says he was confident Bulletproof would find an audience because it’s the kind of show that was missing from the schedules, yet one no one wanted to make. “It was one of those things where [even though UK viewers] eat up Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, Miami Vice and all those titles, we flick on [detective series] Inspector Morse. Why are we not doing that sort of stuff?

“Years ago, we almost did it in our very British way – The Professionals, The Sweeney. Those shows had a different edge because they were very ‘geezerish.’ But it was always the case I felt people, especially working-class people, needed to see a show that represented them. They come home after a hard day’s work and [want to find something they relate to]. Part of the success of the show and the reason people talk about it is they feel it is theirs, they have ownership of it and can relate to us. We’re tangible. That’s an important thing.”

Discussing his move into writing, Walters says it’s something he had always wanted to do, with the process leading him to start his own production company. “But I’ve always understood how much of your time it takes and how disciplined you have to be, and in season one I didn’t think I was ready to do it,” he adds. “This time around, I took on the responsibility of co-writing one of the episodes, which was fun. I’m enjoying that – I hope I can do it a bit more.”

It was Love’s idea to pursue the undercover storyline in season two, with around 12 people gathering together for an initial two-week writing room that broke down the story. After a fortnight’s break, they reconvened for a further week to finish the outlines. “It’s a process. Some of them are very young, diverse writers coming through who would probably never have got a look-in. But because it’s our show, we’re involved in making sure they’re in the room,” Clarke explains. “You need all the people in the room just to question things, just to interrogate things. That’s how we do it.”

Set a year after season one, Bulletproof returns with a new action-packed story that promises to push Bishop and Pike’s friendship to the extreme. “Bishop really wants to focus on bringing people down and being a real lonesome person. He relies heavily on Pike, probably more than he knows, but of course Pike’s got a family,” Clarke says.

“He has a wife and kids, so he’s being pulled from pillar to post, especially after last season. His daughter was kidnapped at one stage, so his wife is still reeling from all of that stuff. That stress is there. Bishop doesn’t really understand that. So that’s how they’re tested a little bit. Bishop pulls them further and further undercover and Pike’s a little reticent at first.”

It’s the relationship between the two leading characters that Clarke and Walters believe viewers have responded to the most, with both actors saying they are now recognised more for Bulletproof than any of their previous roles.

“You know you’ve created something when people stop mentioning Kidulthood or Doctor Who,” says Clarke. “I really believe in the way people have invested in the characters – and not just us two but the extended team. You could just have an episode where we’re just staking a place out and have that banter and people would buy into it because of the relationship with the two guys. That was the prime thing we wanted [in season two], and we wanted to make sure the action levels stayed up, which they have. Everyone will be really happy with season two.”

“We were quietly confident [about the show’s success], but there’s always a part of you that thinks, ‘Are people going to love it?’” Walters adds. “We both come from huge shows like Doctor Who and Top Boy – stuff people will never forget, it never dies. The first inkling I had that this show was good was that people stopped talking about Top Boy. For five or six years, I’ve just had Top Boy. I have been working on other stuff, but now it’s fully Bulletproof. People just love it and we’re very happy.”

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Class war

DQ travels back to the 19th century to the set of Belgravia, a six-part drama that sees families tested and secrets revealed, created and produced by the team behind Downton Abbey.

A stone’s throw from Dorney Lake, the home of the 2012 Olympic rowing event on the outskirts of Windsor, sits Dorney Court, one of England’s finest Tudor homes.

Dating back more than 500 years, it’s a great deal smaller than Highclere Castle, which doubled as Downton Abbey in the series of the same name. But it’s just as picturesque, which perhaps explains why it’s one of the settings used in Belgravia, the latest period drama from Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

Julian Fellowes

Based on the novel by Fellowes, Belgravia is described as a story of secrets and scandals among the upper echelons of London society. It begins in 1815 with a class clash between the old money Brockenhursts and nouveau riche Trenchards. Edmund Bellasis, son of the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst, had an affair and was possibly married to Sophia, daughter of James and Anne Trenchard. He dies in battle, before she discovers she is pregnant and then dies in childbirth.

Fast-forward to 1841 and their son, Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), begins to cause a stir as the two families discover they have a grandson – and a potential heir who not everyone is delighted to meet. Other characters, such as John Bellasis and Oliver Trenchard, are keen to stand in Charles’s way.

The ensemble cast features Tamsin Greig (Anne Trenchard), Philip Glenister (James Trenchard), Harriet Walter (Lady Brockenhurst), Tom Wilkinson (the Earl of Brockenhurst), James Fleet (Stephen Bellasis), Alice Eve (Susan Trenchard), Tara Fitzgerald (Lady Templemore), Ella Purnell (Lady Maria Grey), Richard Goulding (Oliver Trenchard), Adam James (John Bellasis), Paul Ritter (Turton) and Saskia Reeves (Ellis).

On set, extras dressed in bonnets and top hats are preparing to film scenes from episode four outside the 12th century Church of St James the Less, its tower looming over Dorney Court. Proceedings are led by the uninterested and uninspiring Reverend Bellasis (Fleet), the younger brother of the Earl of Brockenhurst who spends most of his time gambling and losing the family’s money.

“He’s a very poor vicar; he’s a snob and he’s lazy,” Fleet jokes. “I feel so sorry for his poor wife [played by Diana Hardcastle], who is one of the tragic stories of the whole series. He’s not very nice at all. He gets worse, if anything. He abandons morality completely by episode six.”

James Fleet as Stephen Bellasis in Belgravia

Best known for comedic roles in 1994 film Four Weddings & a Funeral and TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, Fleet says the Belgravia script was a “page-turner,” comparing the story to something from Charles Dickens. “It’s like all the great stories – it’s the lost child, the two lovers denied. It’s got romance. Stephen has a difficult relationship with his brother – I’m very jealous of him and I can’t get my hands on the money. Because he’s the elder brother, he gets everything and I get nothing,” the actor says of his character.

Walter admits she wasn’t “yearning” to get back into a corset, having previously starred in period dramas The Spanish Princess, Downton Abbey and films such as The Young Victoria. But the chance to reunite with Fellowes, and the strength of the characters that populate Belgravia, meant she was drawn towards the series.

As Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, she plays a character suffering terrible grief that has brought her closer to her husband. But the discovery that she has a grandson also brings her together with Anne Trenchard, and their rivalry epitomises many of the themes of the series, including wealth, class and inequality.

“To a modern audience, it’s going to be very hard to perceive any difference between Tamsin’s character and mine,” Walter says, referring to their differing statuses. “The indications have got to come from the way we behave to one another, rather than in an obvious thing like she’s got a garish colour dress. Because Tamsin and I are getting along very well, I keep having to kick myself and remember to be snooty towards her, because we have an obvious companionship in many ways in the story.”

Walter says the story will be very recognisable to modern audiences. “They’re essentially in love, in hate, in desperation. They’re all human emotions busting out of all these restrictions.”

Harriet Walter plays Lady Brockenhurst

Meanwhile, if there is a villain of the piece, it might just be John Bellasis, a man who is out to protect his inheritance from a stranger who could be the true heir to the Brockenhurst estate. But things aren’t quite that simple, according to James, who plays the character.

“I’m often attracted to these characters because they’re sort of conflicted,” he says. “From his point of view, I understand fully his instinctive self-preservation. The life that he imagines he’s going to live is suddenly jeopardised quite dramatically, and he goes to all the lengths available to try to maintain his trajectory to his entitled future.

“Throughout the series, he begins to piece the the jigsaw together and work out exactly who this Charles Pope is. It’s a huge inheritance he’s set to lose.”

Love also confuses matters for John, as he is arranged to be married to Lady Maria Grey (Purnell) but has an affair with Susan Trenchard (Eve). “I don’t want to say that he’s ruthless and callous; he’s just a gentleman of a certain entitlement and was behaving in the way men of his class and education and upbringing would,” says James. “People also love a baddie, don’t they? He’s certainly the cad of the piece.”

While Belgravia will inevitably draw comparisons to Downton, producer Colin Wratten (Killing Eve) is keen to put clear water between the two series, which are set some 100 years apart.

Tamsin Greig as Anne Trenchard alongside Philip Glenister (right) as James Trenchard

“Julian writes about class, but here, for the first time, we have aristocracy and industrialists living side by side,” he says. “Unlike Downton, which has a precinct of the house and the family, we have different families. It’s a big ensemble of 65 cast members. As the story ebbs and flows, we go to all those different places, from Manchester and the cotton mills to London’s East End docks.”

Belgravia sees Fellowes reunite with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, the executive chairman of production company Carnival Films (Jamestown, The Last Kingdom), which is producing the series for both ITV in the UK and US cable channel Epix, with NBCUniversal Global Distribution shopping the series overseas.

“He writes quite traditional romantic stories that have really not been fashionable for a long time,” Neame says of Oscar-winning screenwriter Fellowes. “I don’t think many other people are doing those, and what we found with Downton is that people around the world absolutely love those quite simple ‘will they/won’t they?’ stories. The more quintessentially English something is – British class, snobbism or the comedy of manners that he writes about – it really does travel and people understand it.

“Wherever human beings are, they have always organised themselves in hierarchical structures. So going into this, the Downtown movie and then doing [Fellowes and Neame’s forthcoming HBO show] The Gilded Age, we realised that a lot of the things that really interest him as a writer are much more commercial and more clearly understood by people than perhaps we would have imagined.

Gareth Neame

“The other thing about it is this is an adaptation but it’s an adaptation of a modern novel [set in the past]. A lot of adaptations are still made of novels of period, which are perhaps constricted by a plot that was laid down 250 years ago. But we have free rein to tell quite contemporary stories within a period setting.”

Fellowes had written all six scripts by the time pre-production started, giving the crew a generous head start before filming began last April. In addition to its huge cast, Belgravia features 107 different sets and was filmed across 75 shooting days over 15 weeks. Locations include the Bath Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Hampton Court, Chatham Royal Naval Docks and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, as well as Somerset House in central London.

Production designer Donal Woods, whose credits include Cranford, Downton and Jamestown, immediately found he was not allowed to film in the real Belgravia, an area of London that is home to a dozen embassies and borders Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. As such, the production team decided to recreate Belgravia through a mixture of set builds and other locations.

“We’ve recreated a lot of rooms – 107 location sets in 15 weeks [of prep], which is longer than they normally give you for a TV series,” he says. “We’ve got some sets at Twickenham Studios, but the search was really finding those locations, making it work within the schedule and still fitting the story, the characters and the period. We are moving around the country.

“This Georgian and early Victorian period was much sparer [than Downton]. There was less clutter and fewer ornaments. Rooms were simpler but still had a very stylish kind of interior decoration. We’re very lucky in this country that we still have beautiful country houses and rooms that are protected and still look the part.”

Similarly, costume designer James Keast (The House of Elliot, Mr Selfridge) had his work cut out, with the unenviable task of dressing 65 main cast members and more than 2,000 extras, who shared and reused around 900 outfits to ensure as much money as possible was available to spend on the principals.

Parts of the series were filmed on location at settings including London’s Somerset House

“There’s at least 1,000 costumes across everybody. For the top 25 [characters], I’ve made as much as possible because, when you read the script, if it’s a specific scene, they need a specific costume that will fit in with what the set looks like. One of the interesting things is if it is a period production, you know we will be using a lot of houses like Dorney Court. So from the colours of those houses, you’ll know the tones and fabrics to use.

“The biggest challenge is that in real life, a lot of these characters wouldn’t have had a huge wardrobe. But in terms of TV and film, you have to see passage of time, you have to see it’s a different day, so you have to change people and find enough costumes for everybody.”

Another challenge is differentiating the locations enough so viewers can recognise what they are watching, instead of moving from one room with gilt frames to another. Director John Alexander and cinematographer Dale Elena McCready chose to shoot locations with varying styles to help that process.

“In the Brockenhurst house, we shoot that much wider and get more scale from that as opposed to the Trenchards,” Wratten says. “When you’re telling the story, you don’t want to get lost in where you are, or the costumes either. James and Donal are constantly making sure we don’t have someone going into a room or getting into a carriage with a costume that’s either going to clash terribly with the fabrics or the upholstery.”

Unlike the long-running Downton, Belgravia was conceived as a “finely plotted” limited series, with Neame echoing Wratten’s belief that it stands apart from his previous hits. “There are elements of Downton in it because it’s period and it’s Fellowes writing and the themes that interest him, but it’s very different,” he adds. “I don’t see why Downton fans wouldn’t like this, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a claim that it’s another Downton. It isn’t, it is quite different.”

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Magical mystery tour

How I Met Your Mother actor Jason Segel reflects on the “magical mid-life crisis” that led to him writing, directing and starring in AMC’s reflective, offbeat and surreal adventure Dispatches from Elsewhere.

By way of an introduction to a new television series, it is certainly eye-catching and unique. Before the opening credits of Dispatches from Elsewhere, Richard E Grant stares down the camera to unroll two minutes of exposition about lead character Peter, detailing the life of this lonely, submissive, routine-driven office worker.

Then when the story begins and Peter calls the number on a flyer for the Jejune Institute, he receives details of a time and place at which to take part in a mysterious initiation, leading him to take a leap of faith – one that changes his whole outlook on life.

While Grant’s character, Octavio, serves as the audience’s guide through the series, Jason Segel’s Peter is one of four ordinary people who are brought together when they stumble upon a puzzle hidden behind the veil of everyday life. As Peter, Janice (Sally Field), Simone (Eve Lindley) and Fredwynn (Outkast’s André Benjamin) begin to accept the mysterious ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere,’ they find a world filled with possibility and magic.

“I would say it’s the closest I could come to my version of The Wizard of Oz,” explains Segel, who also created and wrote the series.  “Those four people go on a quest to find a missing girl and, in the process, try to find themselves, find community and find some of the magic that gets lost. Every Roald Dahl or Harry Potter book, they’re all built on the same idea that we have this hidden desire that someone is going to show up and say we’re meant for more. We all wish that, and this show scratches that itch.”

Segel jokes that the idea came from a “magical midlife crisis.” Having begun working in the film and TV business when he was 17, the actor broke through with a starring role in Judd Apatow’s short-lived NBC comedy Freaks & Geeks, before appearing in movies such as Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote) and I Love You Man. Meanwhile, he also starred in CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which ran for nine seasons until 2014.

“One of the side effects of being so, so lucky, which I was, was I didn’t have to do much thinking about who I was and why I was doing any of this during that decade,” he says. “The first thing I wrote, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I wrote from my guts and I wrote it with a complete lack of strategy because I was young and I didn’t know any better. It was the work of somebody who didn’t know things were difficult or there had to be a plan or anything like that.”

Segel describes Apatow as his mentor, with the Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin filmmaker having taught him how to write and encouraged him to pursue his ideas. “He said to me, ‘Jason, you’re a weird dude, and the only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material.’ It was the best piece of advice I ever got,” Segel recalls.

“I wrote my first movie when I was 24 years old. From the moment that movie was made, that same year, I got How I Met Your Mother, and I had a decade of things being fairly easy in terms of getting jobs and what would come next.”

L-R: Dispatches from Elsewhere’s four main characters are played by Sally Field, André Benjamin, Jason Segel and Eve Lindley

Now 40, Segel had an “artistic check-in” after How I Met Your Mother ended, with no idea of what he would do next. But it was a San Francisco social experiment called Games of Nonchalance that would inspire his next major project. Wanting to pitch a screen idea based on the experiment, Segel called its creator, Jeff Hull, the “real-life Willy Wonka,” but was immediately hung up on.

“I was so confused, it was so cryptic. Then about a month later, I got an email with a location and a time in San Francisco,” he says. “I showed up and it was a hotel. I walk into the hotel, they said, ‘Mr Segel, we’ve been expecting you,’ and I went to this hotel room and there was a card waiting for me with another time for the next day, a location and a note that said, ‘No one is going to make you feel stupid.’ I thought, ‘Oh, these people understand what all of our fears are like.’

“I showed up the next day and I was basically put through the induction that you see in episode one of the TV show. At the end, I got another email that said, ‘We were watching you. You have divine nonchalance, and we’re giving you the rights to this project.’ That was how this all started, and it stayed equally as weird up until this moment.”

Segel originally conceived the project as a movie, but when he realised he was more interested in the characters than the central plot device – the hunt for a missing girl – he turned to television, with each episode profiling a particular character.

The show was inspired by a social experiment in San Francisco

“The thing that really cracked the series open for me was when I cracked the structure,” he explains. “The adventure story, you can craft a million different ways, but the structure of this was very, very difficult. Once I figured out it was about who pulls a flyer and why, immediately what came into my mind was The Wizard of Oz. It’s four people, they can each need different things and be on the same journey to attain them and do it together. That was when that was when the show started to make sense for me.”

Another piece of advice Segel received from Apatow was that “everything happens in casting,” which means you write a part as best you can and then, after an actor has been cast in the role, you rewrite it with that actor in mind. Field plays Janice, who is searching for a sense of identity, while Benjamin is conspiracy theorist Fredwynn who can’t build relationships with other people.

Meanwhile, Simone struggles with the feelings of belonging and acceptance. Segel says Mr Robot star Lindley had the part from the moment she auditioned.

“She gave this audition that was so much more complicated and nuanced than I ever could have written. Then I just wrote towards her,” Segel says. “I tried to get to know her as much as I could. I picked her brain as much as I could.

“There’s some very explosive and emotional scenes between Simone and Peter as the series goes on and I can write them as best I can imagine them, but I don’t know Eve Lindley’s life. I don’t know what it might be like for a trans woman to be in a complicated relationship. So I was really lucky to have actors who were willing to tell me and show me and experiment with me and fight with me on screen. It really brings life to the show.”

How I Met Your Mother star Segel created and wrote the series

Segel is speaking in Berlin, where the series had its world premiere at Berlinale last month, before its debut in the US on cable channel AMC. Shot in Philadelphia, it is produced by AMC Studios and also marks Segel’s first directing credit, having helmed episode one.

He says he is inspired by filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, whose work is similarly surreal yet grounded in real life. “There’s so much being done about extraordinary people,” he says. “But what if you are coming to terms with [the fact] you’re just like everybody else? That’s what I’m going through. That’s what the show is about. It’s what we’re all going through in a moment-to-moment basis. We’re all coming to terms that we’re in this together.”

Being writer, actor and director on the project meant “the game of telephone” was removed for Segel, who says it would have been impossible to try and explain the tone of the show. “I had never wanted to direct before because everything that I wrote, I felt like one of my friends or somebody could direct it better. So I never wanted to do it out of pride. This was the first time that I wrote something where I felt like I personally should direct it.”

Beyond the adventure storyline, Dispatches from Elsewhere also uniquely blends themes of age, gender, sexuality, identity and race by telling a story about how four disparate people are more alike than they – or we – might think.

Richard E Grant’s character is the audience’s guide through the series

“The show, at its heart, is a challenge of empathy, to present people who seem like completely disparate types – and I challenge you at the beginning of each episode to think this person [featured in that episodes] is you,” Segel says.

“If we’ve done our job, by the end of the series, you recognise yourself in all of those characters. I feel as though that was why I wrote the show, because we’re being told we’re so different and we should be scared of each other and hate each other, or stick to your own group. If you carry that far enough, you end up the king of your own kingdom of one. I was interested to break down those walls.”

Segel says he sometimes wishes his career had been given to him on a plate, instead of the actor selecting his work more carefully. But like the characters in Dispatches from Elsewhere who embark on an adventure in an attempt to find what is missing in their lives, that has never been his story.

“That’s not what my career has ever been like, at least in terms of stuff that I wanted to do,” he adds. “While it’s harder this way, I do get to have the sense that when I make something from my guts, I feel like I’ve done what I imagine a real artist does.”

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In development

Ex Machina creator Alex Garland considers the notion of free will and the power of big tech in eight-part thriller Devs, his first television series.

Alex Garland first found fame as the author of The Beach, the novel that inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring movie of the same name and saw a generation of backpackers search for paradise in Thailand.

More recently, however, he has evolved into an accomplished screenwriter and director, most notably in science fiction, where his credits have included Ex Machina and Annihilation. He also wrote zombie horror 28 Days Later and space-set Sunshine (both of which were directed by Danny Boyle), adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the big screen and penned comic book adaptation Dredd.

Alex Garland

Garland’s latest project is equally ambitious, beautifully constructed and brimming with far-reaching ideas, but this time lands on television. For his small-screen debut, Garland has written and directed Devs, an eight-part multidimensional tech thriller that stars Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman and Alison Pill.

The limited series focuses on a young software engineer named Lily Chan (Mizuno), who works for Amaya, a cutting-edge tech company whose buildings sit in vast swathes of forest in Silicon Valley. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), Lily suspects foul play and begins to investigate. She quickly realises that all roads lead to Forest (Offerman), Amaya’s enigmatic CEO, and Devs, the company’s secret development division where Sergei recently began work alongside Katie (Pill).

But beyond the thriller structure of the storyline, Devs is an in-depth exploration of quantum computing, reality, intellectual espionage and paranoia, the latter dramatised by a giant statue of a toddler that towers over the Amaya campus, its eyes constantly watching over those who work there.

Garland says several things inspired the series. “One of them was really simple. It was just about this weird idea called determinism, which is that everything that happens is a result – cause and effect – so that ends up leading to a place where we lose free will,” he tells DQ. “That’s a strange idea because we’re all sure that we’ve got free will, but the argument [against it] is actually very strong. So there was something interesting about that.

“Then there was the arrival of this really spectacular new form of computing called quantum computing that has immense potential locked within it, and then I suppose a bit of nervousness about the scale and power of the big tech companies.”

Devs stars Sonoya Mizuno as Lily Chan

All of those topics are wrapped around a thriller in which Lily looks for answers into the disappearance – and supposed suicide – of her boyfriend. “It is fundamentally a murder mystery and, in the process of trying to figure out the reasons for this murder, that’s when all this other stuff begins to unfold,” Garland says.

From the first two episodes, all his ideas are thrown into play, from the power and cultish appeal of Offerman’s Forest to the work of the secretive Devs department, which takes place in an incredible cube-like structure. Viewers’ heads may well spin initially, with Garland likening his creative process to having a one-man argument.

“I think about the issues and try to understand the science and the philosophy and try to come to some kind of conclusion,” he says of developing the series. “I’m not really thinking about story at all. I’m really just struggling to understand and get my head around these themes. Some of them are quite straightforward and some are actually really complicated, and they’re so complicated that you can’t make them simple. You just need to dive in and do your best.

“Then, after I’ve been really obsessing about a subject, suddenly, a story just appears – it literally could be while I’m doing the washing up. I’m thinking about what I’m doing to get some bit of dirt off a plate and, suddenly, a whole story pops into my head. It’s weird. It’s not very thought through. I can remember in the old days I was constantly writing story ideas down on cigarette papers because that was the only bit of paper I’d have on me. Then I’d have this huge collection of Rizlas with little scribbles on them in my wallet.”

While some of the themes covered in the series (not to mention the work undertaken by the Devs team) are certainly complex, Garland says his intention is not to challenge viewers but to challenge himself. “I’m trying to make it as clear and exciting and elegant as I possibly can,” he says. “But the issue is if you simplify some of the science, you end up making the science false; and if you make science false then any philosophical implications also become false. Then you think, well, what’s the point? It’s not about trying to throw down a gauntlet.”

Nick Offerman plays Forest, CEO of tech company Amaya

He goes on to describe Devs as a companion piece to Ex Machina, his 2014 film about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is given the chance to evaluate the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid robot (Alicia Vikander). But Garland admits this correlation won’t become clear until later in the series.

“In some respects, it just gets stranger and stranger and goes deeper and deeper down this weird rabbit hole,” Garland says. “The film I worked on before, [2018 Netflix release] Annihilation, was effectively like a hallucination in the form of a film, and everything in it works via metaphor and some dreamy, trippy state. This is not like that. This is much more like Ex Machina; it’s grounded in its own walls and it stays within those lines. But those lines then do take it to a very strange place.”

Central to the series is Lily, who viewers follow on her journey to discover what really happened to Sergei. “I wanted her to be an unusual female lead and to have some qualities about her that were elusive and hard to pin down in a particular way,” says Garland, who reunites with Mizuno after the Japanese actor appeared in both Ex Machina and Annihilation.

“Often what happens in mainstream storytelling is everybody involved in it wants the audience to like the characters in a particular kind of way. When they test films and somebody says the character is unlikeable, that freaks everybody out and they’ll start reshooting and recasting. It’s not that Lily’s unlikeable – I think she’s very likeable – but she’s not conventionally likeable. She’s not likeable in a mainstream way, and I knew that Sonoya would be a good fit for that. It’s just in her wheelhouse.”

As for Offerman, Forest is far removed from the actor’s previous comedic roles, most notably as Ron Swanson in sitcom Parks & Recreation. Here he’s a laid-back, messianic figure sporting long hair and an impressive beard who leads the employees of Amaya with notably coded statements. When Sergei asks what he will be doing for Devs, for example, Forest replies: “I’m not going to tell you. I won’t need to. Just sit, read code. Take your time, and don’t worry. You’re going to figure it out. I know you are.”

The show is driven by themes including determinism and quantum computing

Garland says Forest was designed with the intention of avoiding commentary on any one real-life leader of a big tech firm. “I wasn’t interested in saying anything particularly about [Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs or other people like him, [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or whoever it happened to be,” he says.

“I wanted him to have some of the qualities of those guys, the slightly cultish vibe they create around them, but also to have his own particular warmth and tragedy and very human stuff. Often when we think about those guys, we don’t think about warmth, we think about other things – power and hypnotic or cold personalities – and I didn’t want Forest to be like that.”

Writing a TV series has much more in common with penning a novel than it does a film script, Garland argues, describing features as “economic and contained,” like a long short story or novella. “If you really wanted to film a novel, you’d end up with an eight-hour story, and that’s what Devs is,” he says. “Years and years ago, I worked as a novelist so I did think it was like this, but it’s also like film in most other ways because you have to stand on a set and figure out where to point the camera and then figure out where to cut together the images.”

But it was the opportunity to collaborate that led him to move away from novels and towards the screen. “A novel, you write on your own in a room. And a movie, you write as part of a large team,” he says. “As soon as I started doing it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

The creative team behind Devs is made up of some of Garland’s frequent collaborators: composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day and VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. The Insects – screen composers Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk – also worked on the soundtrack, which bounces between jazz-inspired riffs, booming robotic chords and soaring choral themes.

Garland on the Ex Machina set with Alicia Vikander

Garland describes working with his core team as “getting the band back together,” having sounded them out early in the writing process to ensure they were available and willing to sign on. But while he has his own clear ideas about how he wants the show to look, he says he’s also very open-minded when it comes to the thoughts of those around him.

One notable aspect of Devs is the production design, with the muted tones of Lily’s apartment juxtaposed with the gold, metallic and reflective surfaces of the Devs facility, the centrepiece of Amaya that stands like a concrete temple in a woodland clearing. Offerman’s Forest breaks down the design: “A lead Faraday shield, a 13-yard-thick concrete shell, then a gold mesh, then an eight-yard vacuum seal, totally unbroken, then the labs and the core – the machine.”

The labs appear within a cube inside the building, appearing as if floating by electromagnetism, with a hovering elevator transporting workers through the vacuum seal from the outside to the inner chamber.

“I’ve never done any project with Mark and Michelle where they haven’t done something that has elevated any of the ideas I’ve had. Having clear ideas about what you think it should be doesn’t mean other people can’t have better ideas, so I always try to recognise ideas when they come around,” Garland says. “One of the things I have seen sometimes before with directors was people being very closed-minded and not able to hear what the people around them were suggesting, and that usually was to the detriment of the film.”

Produced by FX Productions, the show is exec produced by Garland alongside Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich of DNA TV, as well as Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Garrett Basch of Scott Rudin Productions.

Natalie Portman in Garland’s critically acclaimed 2018 film Annihilation

The show was filmed in Ealing Studios in London and Space Studios in Manchester, England, with location work in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California. Garland says it was a dream to film at Ealing, having grown up with the studio’s famed comedies, and describes Space as an “absolutely stunning new studio” that fulfilled his needs for an enormous stage in which to build the Devs facility.

“We needed an unusually huge sound stage and we were lucky that one happened to be built that we could have access to,” he says. “The Devs’ cube, where the sharp end of the sci-fi stuff happens, that was all one 360-degree se, so the space we needed was cavernous, like an aircraft hangar.

“If you imagine the cube is about the height of a two-storey building, we built the middle section and then made that 360. So if we want a wide-angle lens of the glass elevator floating across a vacuum seal, there’s a VFX addition that happens for the top and bottom. But if you’re on a tighter lens, then it can all be in camera.”

With the series launching in the US tomorrow on FX on Hulu and coming to BBC2 in April, Garland hopes viewers will enjoy the ride. “It’s a strange thriller that moves with a weird propulsion but also includes some really interesting ideas that have been presented by science and philosophy and offers them up in an intriguing manner,” he adds. “All of that notwithstanding, I just hope people like it.”

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Illuminating drama

A starry cast lights up the screen in The Luminaries, a BBC and TVNZ coproduction based on Eleanor Catton’s award-winning novel. The author, who has adapted her own work, and director Claire McCarthy tell DQ about transforming the book for television.

Among the literary prizes handed out for novels, the Man Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious, recognising the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.

When Eleanor Catton scooped the award in 2013 for her book The Luminaries, she became the youngest winner in the prize’s history, while it was also the longest ever winning novel, coming in at 832 pages. In addition, she was only the second New Zealander to win, beating 151 novelists who submitted their work that year.

The chairman of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described it as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast… a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster,’ but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.”

It was only a matter of time, then, before it would be brought to television, although it is not an exaggeration to say the book has undergone a huge transformation to reach the small screen. Overseeing the process has been Catton herself, who has written the six-part series for BBC2 in the UK and TVNZ in New Zealand. It is produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films, with Fremantle distributing.

A 19th century tale of adventure and mystery set on the Wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, the story is described as an epic story of love, murder and revenge.

Eva Green (left) and Eve Hewson in The Luminaries

In a unique structure, the book sets out events from the perspective of multiple characters, whereas the series focuses on defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life. There she meets the radiant Emery Staines, an encounter that triggers a strange kind of magic that neither can explain. As they fall in love, driven together and apart by fateful coincidence, these star-crossed lovers begin to wonder: do we make our fortunes, or do our fortunes make us?

Eve Hewson (The Knick) and Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) lead the cast as Anna and Lydia Wells, respectively, alongside Himesh Patel (The Aeronauts) as Emery Staines, Ewen Leslie (The Cry) as Crosbie Wells and Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) as Francis Carver.

Working Title Television MD Andrew Woodhead had scored rights to the novel before it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but Catton says it was never part of the conversation that she would adapt it herself.

“He began sending it to various people [scriptwriters] to read and everybody probably read the first few pages and said, ‘Absolutely not,’” she says. “In some ways it’s quite a niche project. It’s a New Zealand setting, it has this astrological superstructure. It’s not a historical story in any way, it’s entirely invented, so it’s not as if you can research it.

“So as more and more people turned it down, months were passing and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just started seeing it in my head. Amazingly, he said, ‘Why don’t you give it a go and see what happens?’ At the start of pre-production, I was up to 61 final drafts of the first episode. It must be at least double that now – and the first ever script bears almost no resemblance at all to the finished episode.”

In the book, Catton wanted each person’s perspective to interpret the plot as a different kind of story – one person sees a murder mystery, another a heist gone wrong and, for Anna and Emery, it’s a love story. But to make it work on screen, the writer upended the entire structure to focus on Anna and Lydia’s relationship.

Himesh Patel, star of Danny Boyle movie Yesterday, also features among the cast

“The challenge was always how can we make the more experimental and original elements of the story work,” she explains. “There’s a very strong magical subplot in the book but we needed to figure out how to translate it to the screen. There’s an extended courtroom scene at the end where you’re offered a choice between a magical, impossible but quite romantic story, or something logical and plausible but maybe less romantic, and you have to choose. That’s much harder on screen, because seeing is believing.

“Bringing it back to the two women was a choice about focusing the drama on this essential question of do you make your fortune or does your fortune determine who you are. Anna’s relationship with Lydia in the show, more so than in the book, is a seduction. There’s a sense of them testing one another and not being entirely honest with one another. It’s such an enormous cast, we could have taken any number of avenues. But the moment we cast these amazing women, every time they do a scene together, I’m just like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Doubling up her duties as an exec producer meant Catton was heavily involved throughout the series, not least in casting. She praises Green for being the first to sign on when she could have waited to see who she would be playing against. “It was something I felt really strongly about, but I really was so pleased with who we cast,” she says. “I don’t feel like there’s a weak link in there. It’s actually very distracting because they’re all so good looking, enigmatic and such interesting actors.”

Behind the camera is Claire McCarthy (Ophelia), who is revelling in bringing 1860s New Zealand to the screen. “It’s such a rich world, and a world we haven’t really seen before,” she says.

The series, the director explains, dances a fine line between genre – period, fantasy and astrological – while almost lampooning a Victorian sensation novel. Those stories were popular in the same period and introduced outlandish plot lines in often familiar domestic settings.

Claire McCarthy

“In our retelling, the challenge has been about streamlining it, because it’s such a hefty tome,” she continues. “If we didn’t have Eleanor writing the scripts, I don’t think it would have been as subversive a retelling. She’s almost told it from the inside out.”

McCarthy has been working with production designer Felicity Abbot and cinematographer Vincent Baker to define the visual aesthetics and style of the show and reveal the story from Anna’s perspective. “There’s a sensual quality about the show but there’s also these kinds of genre elements – murder mystery and treachery, betrayal and these kinds of big, dramatic themes,” she says.

“So there’s a pace to the way the story unfolds. The story’s quite densely woven so it’s also working out how we can keep the viewer clearly inside the story, but also working out where we want them to fit inside the mystery.”

On set in New Zealand, McCarthy has found herself surrounded by many of the crew members and landscapes that were integral to making feature films such as The Piano, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles. So while a lot of The Luminaries is filmed on location, the production team also built the central town of Hokitika, where the story plays out.

“We decided on this 360-degree set in this mud bowl; it’s quite visceral and rugged,” the director says. “We really wanted it to feel like it was a living, breathing frontier town, right at the edge of the world. We built some sets for practical reasons and just to support the elaborate sequences we do have. We also have a large on-location set down in the real Hokitika on South Island, which has a very specific landscape and mountain range. The skies and the waters are really one of a kind.”

McCarthy jokes that the series is a “strange hybrid” between television and film. “It’s an epic tale,” she adds. “To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story and the way it’s being told. Cinema can be more conservative. I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process. I really hope the audience likes it.”

For Catton, bringing The Luminaries to the screen has been “extraordinary, it’s such a dream come true.” She adds: “It’s almost like a new version of the book, it’s almost completely reimagined. So I hope there will be something for everyone.”

Grilling Eve
Eve Hewson is used to playing dramatic roles, with parts in TV series The Knick and feature films Robin Hood, Bridge of Spies and Papillon. Yet as Anna Wetherell in The Luminaries, she takes the lead in a series that has put her through her paces. “It’s been non-stop. It’s really intense, emotional and physical, but I’m really proud of it,” she says.

With Eleanor Catton adapting her own novel, Hewson says the series offers viewers a chance to see a different version of the same story. “It’s a smart and interesting adaptation,” she says. “Eleanor’s writing is genius, and in a TV series we have all these characters and the time to make the relationships distinct.

“What’s beautiful about the story is it’s a period piece, it’s mystical and wonderful and imaginative but it’s also the story of what women go through today and what they went through back then,” the actor continues. “There have been a lot of conversations about how we approach it and the way it’s dignified and truthful. We keep it true to the character and story.”

Hewson says she has been surprised by the number of women on the crew, which is led by director Claire McCarthy, describing the atmosphere on set as “nurturing.” She also says how nice it has been to be supported by a women director as she takes on Anna’s “very dark journey.” She explains: “I don’t know if it would have been the same if we’d had a male director by my side. There’s a closeness and I know I’m protected by her. We could have certain conversations about things that happen to women.”

The Irish actor also questions whether The Luminaries, and Anna’s story in particular, would have been dramatised for television if it were set in the present day, noting how much more palatable certain subjects are to audiences if they are placed in another time.

“There’s some weird thing about period dramas. Because it’s so far away, the audience accepts what happened to women more easily than accepting it’s happening today. Anna is a prostitute in the book but it’s much harder to get a six-part series on the BBC about prostitutes living in our time right now. For some reason, it’s more acceptable in a period drama.

“I just hope people connect with it and they feel what we all felt when we read the scripts. I hope they fall in love with the characters and Anna and they enjoy themselves. I hope we have made an entertaining show. Even though it’s well written and directed and the acting’s great, I hope people are still entertained. That’s the joy of TV.”

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United Stateless

Hollywood star Cate Blanchett discusses the six-year journey to bring Australian drama Stateless to the screen and explains why more broadcasters need to open up to this type of ‘elephant in the room’ storytelling.

In a screen career spanning 30 years, two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett has so far avoided the scrum of film stars, writers and directors moving from film to the small screen in the age of streaming platforms. That’s about to change.

In April, she will be seen starring in 1970s-set Miss America on US platform Hulu. But before then, she brings a “passion project” to TV in the shape of Stateless, a six-part drama she co-created, executive produces and also co-stars in alongside Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad), Asher Keddie (The Cry), Fayssal Bazzi (The Commons), Marta Dusseldorp (A Place to Call Home) and Dominic West (The Affair).

“About six years ago, it started in my kitchen,” Blanchett says, speaking on stage at Content London at the end of last year. “I was talking to an old school friend of mine, Elise McCredie, about a story I was really just gripped by that I’d heard in 2008 about a German-Australian citizen, Cornelia Rau, an air hostess who, through a series of mishaps, ended up in an on-shore detention centre in Australia.

“She fell through the cracks of the mental health system, the immigration system and the criminal justice system. This story stayed with me. I thought, ‘Is this a film?’ I’m not interested in biopics; I’ve made enough of them. We talked for hours, not just about this particular story but as a jumping-off point to use the story as a metaphor for a system gone mad.”

They then brought screenwriter and director Tony Ayres (Nowhere Boys, Glitch), who was then at Matchbox Pictures and now runs Tony Ayres Productions, into the conversation and started developing the idea as a series. “Now here we are six years later. It’s definitely a passion project – it hasn’t been easy,” the Australian actor continues. “At its heart, it deals with a refugee story, but it’s about four quite different people. And when we hit on that format of having four very different lives, we thought it was a really combustible idea.”

Cate Blanchett as Pat in Stateless

The four main characters, whose lives intersect at a detention centre in the Australian desert, are an air hostess with mental health problems who escapes from a cult, an Afghan refugee saving his family, an Australian father escaping a dead-end job, and a bureaucrat trying to contain a national scandal. Each is struggling to deal with an immigration system that is struggling itself.

Co-created by Blanchett, McCredie and Ayres, Stateless is written by showrunner McCredie and Belinda Chayko and directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse. The series is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Dirty Films for Australia’s ABC, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

In TV terms, six years developing a single project is entirely realistic, but Blanchett says it took particular perseverance to see this story into production.

“As soon as you mentioned the word refugee, doors closed – quite literally for refugees, but also the doors of various television executives. They would say, ‘Hmm, interesting, brave,’ and then that’s about as far as the conversation goes,” Blanchett reveals.

“But we kept returning to it because every six months we’d go deeper into the story and find that there were more resonances. Where the power of the story really lies is, with each passing month and passing year, it became increasingly relevant. What Tony kept talking about was that, as much as it deals with fractured lives, it also, more importantly and more profoundly, talks about a system that’s gone mad.

“I look around the world and, no matter what country I’m in, what country I’m reading about, I’m thinking, ‘This system is not working.’ Anyone who comes into contact with a system, whether it be a political system, immigration system, mental health system or criminal justice system, it is quite mad. And when you get close to madness, whether it’s personally or systematically, it removes us from our best selves.

Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie, who ends up in a detention centre after escaping a cult

“That’s a place that we have deeply found ourselves, certainly in the West, but I think globally, and that is kind of the umbrella this human story sits under. In a way, it couldn’t be a better time for this story to be to be told.”

Alastair McKinnon, MD of NBCU-owned Matchbox, came to the project in an unusual way in that he was working at ABC’s drama department when Cate and Tony first pitched Stateless to the broadcaster.

“If Cate Blanchett comes in to pitch something to your network, you have to fight every urge to just scream ‘Yes!’ But it was more of a conversation. It was a four-parter then, and we were talking about some of the challenges of financing four parts and how it had a different structure in terms of the characters’ perspectives and the way the story was told,” McKinnon recalls. “We kept talking and we talked about it being six [episodes]. We were totally on board at that point.”

The conversation then turned to financing a project with a challenging subject matter that couldn’t be pitched with just one line. Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation contributed to the budget, with NBCU picking up international rights to the series. McKinnon then moved to Matchbox. “I’ve been able to be on that journey from the beginning on the broadcaster side all the way through to the company side, so it’s been a real treat,” he enthuses.

Jeff Wachtel, president of NBCUniversal International Studios, agrees with Blanchett that a project deemed to be ‘worthy’ is an “anathema” to some networks. So with ABC already backing the series, he was keen to add his support.

“It was the fact that someone in Australia had already said yes, it was Cate in her advocacy, and then a lot for me, personally, is the script,” he explains. “I’m in awe of great writers. That ability to capture concept and language and emotion together is just spectacular. The execution and the writing was so wonderful, and then we brought in wonderful directors.”

Fayssal Bazzi (left) plays Afghan refugee Ameer, while Claude Jabbour is Farid

In developing the series, McCredie carried out “meticulous” research, while Blanchett’s own work with United Nations refugee agency UNHCR meant she had had personal experience of meeting resettled refugees and asylum seekers.

“The whole story really came to life when we alighted on an article about a trauma specialist who had gone to Papa New Guinea, where the offshore processing of asylum seekers and refugees continues to take place,” she says. “He went in to deal with the PTSD – not of the detainees, but of the guards. We thought it was fascinating and horrifying that he had never seen such profound, sustained, systemic PTSD in any group of people – and he had [witnessed the impact of] so many different incursions globally.”

This idea led to Courtney’s character, Cam, winning a job as a guard at the detention centre that also becomes home to Strahovski’s Sofie, who lands there after escaping a cult led by a married couple (Blanchett and West). Bazzi plays refugee Ameer, while Keddie’s bureaucrat Clare is trying to break a glass ceiling and comes in to manage the media attention attracted by the centre.

“Ameer was a teacher in Afghanistan, but realises it’s not the safest place for him and his family so they have to flee,” Bazzi says of his character. “When we first meet Ameer in episode one, he and his family are on an island country trying to get to Australia by boat, and drama ensues. So you follow his journey trying to make it to Australia and then what happens in detention and how that unfolds.”

The actor had to learn to speak Dari, a form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, for lines exchanged between Ameer, his wife and their two children. “Luckily for me, the beautiful girl playing my oldest daughter, her father is a Dari teacher and translator,” he reveals. “Because she was only 15 when we started, when we were filming he came everywhere with us, so I had my teacher with me at all times.”

Blanchett describes the casting process as a “call to arms” for actors who wanted to be part of something she refers to as “elephant in the room” programming – that which tackles a subject people might not want to talk about.

Dominic West as Gordon, husband of Blanchett’s Pat

“This wasn’t a big-paying job, but Dominic [West], for instance, we spoke and he was totally there,” she says. “It’s a sense of, ‘Finally we can we can talk about this,’ because I do think the world is having a massive, massive problem with nuance and with grey areas, but that is the place the drama actually exists.

“When you do ‘elephant in the room’ programming, it does create conversation, and that’s what drama really should do. I love zombies; I love vampires. The Walking Dead’s one of my all-time favourite series. My husband [writer and director Andrew Carlton] philosophises about the power and the metaphor of The Walking Dead. A really good series [gets] people talking and asking questions and, in the end, that’s what I think what Stateless does.”

While it might have seemed logical for Blanchett to star as Sofie, the actor says she’s happy to “die on page nine” in a great role as part of an interesting project.

“That’s never been my process and probably an easy route for this would have been for me to play the Sofie character, but it didn’t seem right – particularly when Yvonne came into the mix,” she continues. “She was just absolutely right for the role. I wasn’t hiding, weeping in the toilet saying, ‘Why?’

“But, equally, I was very happy to put my money where my mouth was and be in it if it helped shepherd it in. So playing Pat, who’s the surrogate mother in this in the same way that Dominic’s character is the surrogate father for Sofie, was great. It was really pleasurable. When my husband and I were running the Sydney Theatre Company, it was a great joy for me to produce the work of others because the world knows how much talent there is in Australia.”

Filming took place in Port Augusta, north of Adelaide in South Australia, where there was once a real detention centre. The crew weren’t allowed to use the now disused centre, however, so had to built one from scratch, with VFX providing extensions beyond what was physically built.

Jai Courtney also features, portraying detention centre guard Cam

“Adelaide is where a lot of refugees had been resettled. The majority of the extras we got had, at one point, been in a detention centre or refugee centre around the world,” Bazzi says.

“On my first day on set, I was greeted by all the Afghan elders who did a ceremony for me and welcomed me as their representative for this story. It was such a beautiful experience to meet all these amazing people and see what it meant to them to have representation, and to show that people do care about the hardships they’ve been through. Finally, they can they can share that with the world.”

Sadly, as Blanchett alludes, these hardships are continuing today, which is why dramas such as Stateless are needed to confront the ‘elephant in the room.’ Maybe after Stateless, more broadcasters will be willing to take similar risks to bring these stories to the screen.

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Once upon a time in Vienna

Delve into the mind of Sigmund Freud as Austria’s ORF and Netflix partner for an eight-part series that sees the young doctor test out his unconventional theories while solving a murder conspiracy in 1890s Vienna.

Upon hearing the name Sigmund Freud, one might imagine a man with round, black-rimmed glasses and a neat, white beard, perhaps puffing on a cigar or sitting behind a desk, making notes while listening to a patient. For more than a century, the esteemed academic and neurologist, who founded the practice of psychoanalysis, has long influenced the medical world – and psychology and psychiatry in particular – with his theories on the unconscious, dreams, sexual behaviour and ego.

Now, 80 years after the doctor’s death, television viewers are to be given an insight into his early life in Freud, a thriller set against the backdrop of extravagant 1890s Vienna, famous for its decadence and the dark underbelly of its high society.

It’s a city where mysterious murders and political intrigue clash as the young psychoanalyst, played by Robert Finster, finds his revolutionary theories are met with strong opposition from his colleagues and wider Austrian society. But when he meets war veteran and policeman Alfred Kiss (Georg Freidrich) and notorious medium Fleur Salomé (Ella Rumpf), Freud unwittingly becomes part of an investigation into a murderous conspiracy.

The German-language series, coproduced by Austria’s ORF and global streamer Netflix, comes from writers Marvin Kren, who also directs, Benjamin Hessler and Stefan Brunner, all of whom were intrigued by the idea of placing a young Freud at the centre of a crime thriller.

“There’s this mysterious thing about Freud,” says Kren, who previously worked with Hessler on German gangster drama 4 Blocks. “I’m from Vienna; I was raised here and there’s no other city in Europe where Freud could have had his career because Vienna has a very strange culture and he’s a strange person.

Freud co-writer and director Marvin Kren (seated) with actors Robert Finster, Ella Rumpf and Georg Friedrich

“Viennese people are full of contrasts. They are funny and evil at the same time, and I think this is what kept Freud going in the search of the human soul, because of the Viennese soul. I was very interested to dig deep into Vienna at the end of the 19th century, to catch the atmosphere of this time.”

Acknowledging that Freud has now become something of a parody of himself – often being the subject of satirical cartoons or the source of sexual jokes – Hessler says the writers wanted to approach the psychoanalyst from a fresh perspective, presenting him as a hugely ambitious, revolutionary thinker at the start of his career.

“He was intensely conscious of himself, of the image he wanted to present to the world after [his death],” he says. “Even as a young man, he would imagine the house he was born in receiving a plaque saying ‘Freud was born here.’ He wanted to become a legend and he was very convinced he would. That’s an interesting character – but what was that character like before he achieved his goal?”

That Freud was hugely controlling over his image and perception might have proven to be a stumbling block to the writing team, as he destroyed all his work, letters and papers from the period on which the series focuses. But, in fact, this gave them some welcome creative freedom. So what was the young Freud actually like?

“Full of coke! He’s full of coke and not a person you want to trust,” says Kren. “He’s restless, he’s nervous, he’s full of instinct. He does everything to reach his goals but not because he is an egocentric person. He needs a position in Vienna because he doesn’t have a rich family behind him. That’s the person we start with – someone who fights for his ideas because he believes in them. And he needs people to believe in them to get recognition and money.”

Finster stars as a young Sigmund Freud

Freud is just one part of the show, however. Other key figures include Fleur Salomé, a necromancer and medium who enjoys the fineries of Viennese high society. She brings to the series a discussion of the occult and how it might blend or clash with Freud’s ideas about the subconscious. Then there’s the crime story and the introduction of Kiss, who discovers various murders around the city.

A less imaginitive show might use the premise of a tired and weary police officer, struggling to crack the case, reluctantly turning to an unlikely figure and their controversial methods to solve the killings. But the Freud writers were keen to avoid this “pedestrian” scenario.

“In that case, the revolutionary aspect would lie in the character of Kiss, who would be progressive enough to ask this crazy doctor, who talks about the subconscious, for help. That’s not what we wanted to do,” Hessler explains. “In our series, Freud sees an opportunity to achieve fame and recognition. He uses the situation more than Kiss tries to use him to solve the cases, and then a whole other dynamic takes over and it turns into something very different.”

Early footage of the series – produced by Satel Film and Bavaria Fiction and distributed by ZDF Enterprises – suggests a haunting, horror-tinged quality to the drama, which the writers say blends a historic backdrop with very modern storytelling, music and camera movements. “The whole world has their clichéd images of our city and we take all those images and do a crazy horror show with it,” Kren says. “We’ve made a new cocktail.”

Central to the look of the show has been production designer Verena Wagner (Willkommen Österreich), who was able to make use of far more material detailing Vienna in the 1890s than the writers could to uncover Freud’s life in the same period.

Set designer Verena Wagner (right) with production designer assistant Attila Plangger

“We found books that say Vienna was a very dark, rotten and dirty city and that brown was a very prominent colour – even houses were painted brown or dark grey,” she explains. “It must have been a completely different Vienna from the one we know now.”

Filming mostly took place in Prague, which doubled for Vienna, with the production team using the gothic Czech city’s castles and chateaus. Interiors, which were often exquisitely decorated, were built on sound stages, such as those for Freud’s flat and some of the larger Viennese homes.

“The time for sound stage usage was limited so we had to come up with ways for multiple uses of our sets,” Wagner says. “So Marvin and I talked about how people who lived in Vienna wanted to be individual but there was also a desire to be fashionable. They tried to be in with the crowd. So we took the first flat and just changed it a little bit each time for the others. We started with Freud’s flat, so there’s something of his home in every other flat. But if you watch the show, you will not recognise it. It’s in your subconscious!”

To write the series, Kren, Hessler and Brunner held several sessions together before splitting up to pen their individual episodes. Director Kren then left the writing group to begin pre-production.

“To call [having the director in the writers room] helpful would be underselling it,” Hessler says of Kren’s dual role. “The whole process relies on that. When we make up stuff together, I don’t think of Marvin as the director and potential enemy of the writer. He’s just my creative partner. Of course, his expertise and his knowledge of what is possible and what he wants to do is massively helpful and really guides the process.”

Freidrich as policeman Alfred Kiss

Kren also took the lead in discussions with ORF and Netflix, leaving the writers to be able to shape the series without interference. “Marvin is such a great creative partner because he knows my neurotic and sensitive writer’s soul and knows what to shield me from in the discussions he has and the limitations he’s fighting against,” Hessler adds.

While clashes between a public broadcaster in ORF and a global streaming platform such as Netflix might seem inevitable, Kren says both were extremely relaxed about the series, affording him “absolute creative freedom.” ORF’s intention to air Freud in primetime when it launches in Austria in the spring meant there were some discussions about the amount of sex and violence featured, and this will be reflected in slightly different edits for each. Netflix will then follow with its own worldwide roll-out.

As a director, Kren took some inspiration from his work on 4 Blocks, the German drama about a Lebanese crime family operating in Berlin that first aired on TNT Serie in 2017, taking an approach that allows him to work freely with the camera and the actors in a 360-degree setting.

“I don’t want to worry too much about lighting,” he jokes. “I just need the actors’ energy. I work with them for two months [before filming] with our acting coach, Giles Foreman, who has worked on five of my movies. He’s a big influence for me and my creative work and, with him, we develop all the important scenes and really dig deep into the heart of the characters and find combinations. We try to make ‘art explosions’ on the set.”

Kren also likes to work with new actors, something he has continued with Freud’s relatively unknown star Finster (My Brother’s Keeper). The director says Finster has brought a “certain dynamic” to the series, skilfully portraying both the light and dark shades of Freud’s complex personality. “It’s spectacular to watch,” he adds. “I’m very interested to see how people will react to him. He does a magnificent job.”

Ella Rumpf plays medium Fleur Salomé

The eight-episode series was shot across 86 days, with production wrapping in June. Wagner says her job was made trickier by the language barrier she faced in the Czech Republic, though the toughest moment came on the final day of shooting, when torrential rain twice postponed filming.

“You could not do anything. We were really dependent on the weather and it was raining cats and dogs,” she says. “We were filming in a canal and the water was rising. You can’t do anything about it and you feel helpless. The rest of the time, the preparation was wild and we had a tough schedule, but it was all really good. When it ended, I was really sad. Everything was great and you forget the bad things very quickly.”

In the writers room, the biggest challenges came at the start of development, when the trio considered how to bring explanations of Freud’s scientific theories into the drama as seamlessly as possible, without either leaving the audience confused or filling the script with clunky paragraphs of exposition.

“The subconscious, the id and the superego are ideas most people are thinly aware of, but many people aren’t aware of them at all,” Hessler says.

“What had to be achieved in the first episode was to explain that to the audience and have them understand what Freud’s theory is and what about it was so groundbreaking at the time. You can have him explain it in Freudian terms, which is very difficult to follow and quite boring and dry. In the end, I found a metaphorical way for him to explain it, so I was very happy.

“Another thing that turned out to be very complicated was Freud’s family structure, which was incredibly strange. He was married to his own sister-in-law – his wife’s brother was married to Freud’s sister – which isn’t something you see everyday and was quite difficult to reveal to the audience without it being explanatory.”

Kren in discussion with Finster and DOP Markus Nestroy

However, it is those complicated family dynamics that ground the series away from the central crime stories. “The show is very tense and there are a lot of dark, creepy moments. When he’s together with his family, you can breathe a little,” Kren notes.

Freud and his theories are no strangers to television drama. Other historical crime series, such as US series The Alienist and British-made Vienna Blood, have similarly explored the use of his theories to profile and track criminals, while Poirot’s David Suchet portrayed the psychoanalyst in a 1984 six-part BBC biopic.

However, ORF and Netflix’s show is the first to imagine how a revolutionary young Freud might have been received when he first began to pitch his new ideas and how 1890s Vienna might have reacted to him.

It also stands out because, as Kren concludes, “it’s made by Austrians. We Austrians breathe Freud from the first moments we walk on the Viennese streets. It’s here; it’s in our genes.”

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Lucky Strike

It survived one cancellation, but now the end really is nigh for Strike Back as the action thriller returns for its final mission. Showrunner Jack Lothian tells DQ how he hopes to keep viewers’ pulses racing up until its conclusion.

When it was first commissioned in 2009, Strike Back was hailed as a “truly uncompromising, compelling action drama.”

At that time, commissioning broadcaster Sky was best known as a home for US drama in the UK, airing shows such as 24 and Lost. But Strike Back marked the start of an ambitious new emphasis on homegrown scripted series that was fuelled by other shows including Mad Dogs, The Take and Thorne.

Originally based on Chris Ryan’s novel of the same name, it follows the missions of Section 20, an elite, multinational, covert special ops team that travels around the globe fighting a vast web of interconnected criminal and terrorist activity.

Now, over a decade later, Strike Back is returning for an eighth and final season – a run that, barring its short-lived cancellation in 2015 after season five’s Strike Back: Legacy and its swift resurrection the following year, has seen the explosive series become a mainstay in the Sky1 schedule.

The series has also aired in the US on HBO-owned Cinemax, which came on board as a coproducer for its first original series in the second season, Strike Back: Project Dawn, and later aired the first season as a prequel called Strike Back: Origins.

Strike Back showrunner Jack Lothian on set with actor Alin Sumarwata

While a cancellation doesn’t always mean a show is dead and buried in today’s television landscape, with plenty of canned shows finding their way back to the schedules, this eighth season, subtitled Vendetta, will see Section 20 reunite for one final mission – which promises to be their most dangerous yet.

The kidnapping of a British scientist leads Section 20 into a conspiracy involving the development of a biochemical weapon, taking them to the world of the Albanian mafia in the Balkans, the colourful parades of Venice and on to Tel Aviv. They battle street gangs and corrupt property developers and also face enemies past and present. And when a terror attack rocks a European city, the team realise there are even darker forces at work.

Novin (Alin Sumarwata), Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson), Mac (Warren Brown) and Chetri (Varada Sethu) all return alongside commanding officer Colonel Alexander Coltrane (Jamie Bamber), while guest stars include Ivana Miličević (Banshee) and Alec Secăreanu (Baptiste).

Showrunner Jack Lothian could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu, having been a writer on Legacy when Strike Back was first cancelled. Now, with a second chance to conclude the series, he says he was able to take some gambles with the plot and the characters that might not have happened if it were set to return.

“I suppose the gold standard for TV is Blake’s 7, when they killed them all off in the final scene,” he jokes. “That’s always on the table.”

Finding the story for any season of Strike Back is led by its filming location, with Vendetta filmed entirely in Croatia.

Disused warehouses have been key filming locations for Strike Back down the years

“When we work out where we’re going to film, we start to dig into the area and see what sort of places it can double for, what’s the military activity there and what’s the criminal activity,” Lothian explains. “In the same way we filmed in Malaysia last season [Strike Back: Revolution], that informed who the enemy was and what the mission was. We also look ahead to the sort of threats that are just around the corner, in terms of something that would require a black ops unit to go in, rather than just normal military or police.”

Experts are a big part of the development process, advising on the kinds of contemporary topics and global dangers the show wants to address, though Strike Back is never weighed down by characters putting the world to rights.

“We’re not a show that sits around and discusses some of the weighty issues. The plot pretty much happens on the move,” Lothian says of the fast-paced series, which jumps from one action set piece to the next without giving the characters, or the audience, much time to catch their breath.

“There are certain things that are always kept off the table because I feel like we couldn’t do them justice in the way that we’d want to. It often comes down to some sort of rising threat, and as a starting point, the idea of bioterrorism or an unknown out there is quite exciting.”

Character development is explored through the prism of the often-unique circumstances in which the members of Section 20 find themselves. But just as Jack Bauer experiences in US thriller 24, the clock is always ticking.

L-R: The show’s stars include Daniel MacPherson, Warren Brown and Alin Sumarwata

Coming up with enough story to fill 10 hours of airtime is “definitely the hardest thing, because it chews through story like nothing else,” Lothian admits. “On a different show, the entire first episode [of this season] could have been three or four episodes. When the show came back [after Legacy, with season six’s Retribution], I really wanted to have this compression of action where you just try not to stop. Hopefully, by the end of it, the audience is exhausted in the best way possible.

“Because we are an action show – and it’s a unique thing to be able to do on TV, to be able to go full speed and try to keep it going – that’s very much the philosophy of the show, just to see how much we can we can squeeze into each episode.”

That approach to storytelling means Strike Back stands apart from anything else on television, with Lothian inspired by his love of 1980s action movies. “There are some military and action shows out there but, certainly with our budget and the timescale we have to shoot, we make things hard for ourselves in terms of all the things we try to do,” he says.

“But it does make the show unique. Before I even joined the show, the thing I loved about it was it felt like nothing else. It’s unashamedly in love with action and everything that comes with that.”

The scripts are written with the locations in mind, before stunt and military advisors suggest how particular scenes might be filmed, or offer alternatives if they’re a leap too far even for Strike Back. One idea featuring a van loaded with chemical weapons was vetoed because “it just isn’t feasible,” Lothian recalls, highlighting the show’s attempts to always keep one foot in reality.

Jamie Bamber (left) plays Colonel Alexander Coltrane

“We certainly try to keep some sort of basis that what happens is mostly plausible, in the same way something like what Bad Boys does is plausible. Whether it would happen is another thing,” Lothian says.

“These soldiers are meant to be the best of the best, but drama happens when something goes wrong so it’s always tricky to put them in situations where something goes wrong and it’s not because they’re being bad soldiers. That’s always an obstacle you have to face. How do things go wrong without then seeming incompetent?”

As the showrunner, Lothian writes for all the episodes based on storylines he has created with other writers and producers from Left Bank Pictures. He also works with costumes – “I had a thing against hats for a while but the costume designer convinced me to loosen up” – locations and the art department. “We’re lucky to have a great crew and everyone’s really top-notch in what they do, so it’s just about making sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” he adds.

Shooting each season takes up to six months, with five weeks allocated for each two-episode block. A second unit is often in operation, meaning the crew will be filming two things at once in the same location in an attempt to get through all the material.

Croatia offered a variety of locations to the crew, from urban and rural areas to the coast, as well as the prerequisite number of disused factories and warehouses for backdrops to the numerous firefights that take place in each episode.

This season was filmed in Croatia

“What I’m always surprised about is, wherever we go, there are so many disused factories and warehouses that we can blow up,” Lothian says. “I must have seen hundreds now. It was a running joke that, in the final episode, they’re finally going to meet the person whose warehouses they’ve been blowing up. All he wants is for them to stop blowing up his warehouses.”

Another challenge in writing the series is plot escalation – if you start with the search for a bio weapon, where will the story be by episode 10? But this final season takes a different tack, finding time for some quieter moments between the stunts and explosions. “The mid-season episodes are quite interesting and quite unlike anything Strike Back has done before, where we do take our foot off the pedal and go off in different directions. That was a lot of fun to do,” Lothian says.

The writer, whose other credits include Doc Martin and Shameless, says one thing he has learned on Strike Back is that your heroes are always defined by your villains. “We’ve been lucky over the years, with [actors] Michelle Yeoh and last year with Alec Newman, and we have been lucky to have some really good, strong villains,” he says. “Something I’m proud of is that we have three-dimensional villains who you can almost root for. One of the joys of the show is being able to do that.”

Having started working on the show with Strike Back: Legacy, how does Lothian see the drama’s own legacy as it comes to an end? “Before I joined the show, I didn’t realise how smart and funny it was. I had this preconceived notion of it, and I think a lot of people still do. Last season, we did a continuous one-take sequence in a shanty town where the team were under attack so technically and, story-wise, it was a real challenge and something we were all really proud of. It’s a hidden gem.

“One thing people always say when they tune in for the first time is, ‘I didn’t realise the show was like that.’ It is a fun action show, but it’s got a bit of heart and it’s got some drama.”

As for its future, “as Sean Connery might say, never say never again,” Lothian concludes. “Whether I’ll be involved or not, I don’t know. But the idea of the British and Americans working together, it’s a solid buddy-movie franchise so I like to think it’ll come back someday.”

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Berlin calling

With television now well and truly matching the star power of the movie business, DQ runs the rule over the TV series getting red-carpet premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival, which kicks off today.  

As the Berlin International Film Festival, aka the Berlinale, begins today, the red carpet will be rolled out for screen stars from all over the world. But it’s not just the movies that will be celebrated over the next 11 days.

For the past few years, television has played an increasingly important and visible part of the annual event, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2020. This year will be no different, with eight series – from Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the UK and the US – enjoying world or international premieres.

The Berlinale Series strand will introduce shows that feature representations of various communities, sexual identities and new perspectives on the world today, while the selection also plays vividly with ideas of television style, structure and tone.

Dispatches from Elsewhere comes from How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel

First up will be Dispatches from Elsewhere, the AMC series starring Jason Segel, Eve Lindley, Sally Field, André Benjamin and Richard E Grant. Creator Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) also co-directs the series, in which an enigmatic institute promises a chosen few an escape from everyday life into a world full of beauty and magic. But is this a game, an alternative reality or a conspiracy? And what are those taking part risking?

Dark Austrian drama Freud, meanwhile, transports viewers to 1886 Vienna, where a young Sigmund Freud (Robert Finster) – restless, high on cocaine and striving for recognition – embarks on a nerve-wracking, hypnotic trip into the depths of the human soul with a mysterious medium and a traumatised policeman. Directed by Marvin Kren (4 Blocks) for Austria’s ORF and Netflix, the show’s cast also includes Ella Rumpf, Georg Friedrich, Christoph Krutzler, Brigitte Kren, Anja Kling, Philipp Hochmair and Noah Saavedra.

Canada’s C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married) is set in 1970s Quebec

From Canada is C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married), which is set in Quebec in 1974. The drama tells the story of two couples who send their kids off to camp for three weeks. With their children away, things quickly turn uncomfortable for the couples and cracks start to appear in the facades of their relationships. The series was created by François Létourneau, who also stars alongside Patrice Robitaille, Marilyn Castonguay, Karine Gonthier-Hyndman and Sophie Desmarais. Joanne Forgues is the showrunner on the programme, which  was commissioned by Radio-Canada Télé and Tou.Tv Extra.

British entry Trigonometry focuses on a couple who take in a lodger. The trio fall in love together and start up a three-way relationship – but can it possibly work out? The BBC and HBO Max series was created by Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods, with Thalissa Teixeira, Gary Carr and Ariane Labed playing the central trio. Athina Rachel Tsangari and Stella Corradi are the directors.

Also due to premiere at Berlinale is the second season of Australian drama Mystery Road, which has added The Bridge star Sofia Helin to its cast. The ABC series, created by Ivan Sen, opens when a headless corpse is found floating by the shore of a remote outback town. As if this weren’t mysterious enough, Detective Swan and his colleague Fran have to contend with protests against the excavation of an Indigenous site. And then another body turns up. Aaron Pedersen returns as Detective Swan, alongside actors Jada Alberts and Callan Mulvey. The directors are Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair.

British drama Trigonometry centres on a three-way relationship

Shortform drama Sex, from Denmark’s TV2, comprises six episodes with a total running time of 77 minutes and will be screened in its entirety at the festival. Created by Clara Mendes and directed by Amalie Næesby Fick, the show follows Catherine, a call-centre worker giving advice on sex and love but at a loss herself. After a kiss, she wants more from her colleague Selma. Her boyfriend Simon feels that what’s little is actually plenty. But what if that’s not enough? The cast includes Asta Kamma August, Jonathan Bergholdt Jørgensen, Nina Terese Rask and Sara Fanta Traore.

Stateless, another drama from ABC Australia, boasts an all-star cast led by Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie, Fayssal Bazzi, Dominic West and Cate Blanchett, who co-creates and executive produces the six-part series. Directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse, it tells the story of four strangers whose lives collide at an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert. Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres co-created the series alongside Blanchett.

Yvonne Strahovski in Stateless

The final premiere will be Netflix’s upcoming musical drama The Eddy (pictured top), created by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials) and Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, who is also the lead director on the series. Bandleader Elliot is improvising his way through a complex score of problems: his Parisian jazz club The Eddy isn’t doing too well, while ruthless debt collectors are breathing down his neck – and then his teenage daughter Julie arrives from New York. The cast features André Holland, Joanna Kulig, Amandla Stenberg, Tahar Rahim, Leila Bekhti, Adil Dehbi and Benjamin Biolay.

Themes of macabre humour, female sexuality and an interconnected world will be on display through the eight shows, while the increasing trend for actors to be more deeply involved in series creation and development – notably Blanchett (Stateless) and Segel (Dispatches from Elsewhere) – is also apparent.

At a time when the distinction between movies and television is increasingly blurred, the focus Berlinale places on series marks it out from other film festivals around the world, though other events are now also pushing the small screen into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, numerous other screenings will also take place at the city’s Zoo Palast, with shows including Ukraine’s Hide & Seek,  Czech drama The Sleepers, Brazilian series Where My Heart Is, UK/New Zealand coproduction The Luminaries and Australia’s Total Control among them.

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