All posts by Michael Pickard

Thrill seeker

Line of Duty and Bodyguard showrunner Jed Mercurio speaks to DQ about his latest project, Northern Irish crime thriller Bloodlands, and his ambitions for his recently launched production company.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, the BBC’s Line of Duty was among the TV shows forced to suspend production, with filming on the hit crime thriller’s sixth season brought to an abrupt halt. Fortunately for showrunner Jed Mercurio, however, he was still able to continue working on another crime drama that wrapped filming the week before the country went into lockdown.

Bloodlands, created by Chris Brandon with Mercurio as an executive producer, opens when a car containing a possible suicide note – and no body – is pulled out of Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Detective Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) quickly connects it to an infamous cold case with enormous personal significance.

The case relates to the investigation into a notorious and long-buried series of mysterious disappearances and Tom’s obsessive campaign to identify and unmask the semi-mythical figure behind these events, a person codenamed Goliath.

Jed Mercurio

The four-part series marks the first commission for HTM Television, the fledgling production company Mercurio launched with Hat Trick Productions (Flack, The Secret). But with the pandemic taking hold around the world, he admits “we were incredibly lucky to get [filming] in just under the wire.” For the past few months, post-production has taken place remotely ahead of the drama’s launch later this year.

“One of the effects of people working from home is we’ve got to extend our post-production strategy slightly, just because it takes a little bit longer for everyone to see the material, give notes and for those notes to be acted upon,” Mercurio explains.

“So much of post-production involves groups of people sitting together watching a cut, listening to a mix or watching a grade. Because those things aren’t possible, we’ve had to come up with solutions that involve a little bit more time being taken.”

With series like Unforgotten and Bancroft recently delving into unsolved murders, cold-case dramas have proved popular fare on the small screen of late. But what makes Bloodlands so distinctive, says Mercurio, is its Northern Irish setting and how the story plays into the country’s 30-year conflict known as The Troubles.

The cold case at the heart of the story takes Tom back to the run-up to the signing of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, which led to the end of The Troubles. When a number of controversial figures from both sides of the struggle seemingly vanished into thin air, their cases were swept under the carpet and forgotten at a time when no one wanted to rock the peace process.

With a personal interest in the case – he believes his wife was a victim of Goliath – Tom sets off to uncover the truth about Goliath and find out what really happened.

“It’s a highly contemporary thriller, but it has got one foot in the past of Northern Ireland,” Mercurio says. “As people the world over know, there was political unrest in Northern Ireland until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which has transformed Northern Ireland now into a very prosperous and peaceful part of the world.

Bloodlands stars Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt

“The drama is looking at a case that potentially could disturb that fragile peace, and our protagonist, DCI Tom Brannick, has some knowledge of a particular set of mysterious disappearances that occurred in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement.

“It’s entirely set in the present. It’s very contemporary. And it addresses some very significant and thought-provoking issues entirely through how the police and the population in Northern Ireland have to wrestle with conflicts and unsolved crimes from before 1998.”

Mercurio continues: “One of the jobs of a police officer is to keep the peace, and the other job of the police officer is to investigate crime and seek justice. It’s a real tribute to Chris’s genius that he’s come up with something that encapsulates both of them in a nutshell. Basically, James Nesbitt’s character comes across a case, some of which is pre-1998 and some of which is post-1998, so he has to tread a fine line in seeking justice while keeping the peace.

“Some things are for the greater good of keeping the peace and allowing society to return to normal, but that also leaves some people behind. People who lost loved ones, people who feel they’ve experienced events they’ll never be able to get justice for are left in an emotionally very difficult position.

“One of the things we were very careful about was not to make it so detailed about local Northern Irish politics. It was critical that we concentrated on the universal theme – that in any country or any region that enters a process of truth and reconciliation, there is that balance that has to be found between justice and keeping the peace.”

Nesbitt plays Tom, a detective working on a cold case to which he has a personal connection

Filming took place in Belfast and Strangford Lough over 10 weeks between January and March this year, with the weather providing the cast and crew with their biggest challenge. “Northern Ireland is a beautiful part of the world but the weather is very changeable,” says Mercurio. “Weather systems blow in front of the Atlantic, so you can get four seasons in one day. That’s a real challenge for filming because if you start shooting a scene and it’s driving rain and then, halfway through, it is bright sunlight and dry as a bone, it certainly doesn’t work for continuity.

“There were times when we couldn’t shoot things we wanted to because it was too windy or too wet. It just wasn’t feasible to get through the shooting day, so then we would relocate and shoot interiors. There was one day when it snowed, which really left us scratching our heads. We just had to stop for half a day until the snow melted.”

As “a proper thriller,” Bloodlands sits comfortably alongside the other series on which Mercurio has worked, complete with action sequences, jeopardy and mysteries that aren’t resolved until the very end. He first read the script a couple of years ago and says Brandon’s talent jumped off the page.

“I was really struck by Chris’s writing voice and his ability to weave characters and story together so well,” he says. Mercurio and Brandon then developed the series together until they reached a point where Cold Feet star Nesbitt, who comes from Northern Ireland, came aboard. They then secured the backing of the BBC for what would become HTM Television’s first production. The show is distributed by Hat Trick International.

“We’ve got a broad slate, but I always say we’ve got a focus on thrillers,” Mercurio says of his company. “It’s a genre I love and a genre I think the audience loves. But we are developing other things as well, and I’m confident that, over the next couple of years, we’ll see real diversity on our slate.”

L-R: Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar, newcomer Kelly Macdonald, Martin Compston and Vicky McClure

Launching the company gives Mercurio the chance to work with upcoming writers while also stepping back from the showrunner role he takes up on Line of Duty and Bodyguard, allowing producers and directors, as well as the scriptwriter, to take on creative decisions he would otherwise make himself.

“That was certainly the case with Bloodlands,” he says. “Chris Hall [The Durrells] is producing it, who I’ve worked with before [on medical drama Critical]. He’s a fantastic producer. Pete Travis [Omagh] is directing it – he’s a very experienced and very talented director.

“When I was around, what I was focusing on a good deal of the time was developing Chris Brandon’s producing skills. When we were both on set or on location, he was observing things and we were talking about them and I was encouraging him to get involved and talk to the director, the cast and the heads of department, so he developed the skill and experience that has allowed me to become a showrunner.”

HTM is also producing Trigger Point, which is written by Daniel Brierley and reunites Mercurio with Line of Duty star Vicky McClure, who plays a bomb-disposal operative pushed to breaking point during a terrorist campaign.

Filming on the sixth season of Line of Duty was suspended in March when the risk to the health and safety of cast and crew became too great. Mercurio says he has spent some of the downtime finishing the final scripts, but admits he will have to take stock of the real-world situation when production eventually resumes.

“Line of Duty is one of those series that attempts to be set in the real world, and often we refer to events in the past and dates in the past,” he adds. “Clearly anything that relates to the period of the pandemic may have an effect on what events could really have happened and how police may have gone about their work in this current climate. I think we may have to look at that.”

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Han on heart

Writer David Farr and executive producer Tom Coan tell DQ how Amazon action thriller Hanna will take viewers on a greater emotional journey in season two.

Delivered to Amazon Prime Video the week before the UK went into its coronavirus lockdown in March, Hanna’s second season was completed just on time. Launching in more than 200 countries tomorrow, it represents the kind of series – one boasting numerous global locations and a cast and crew brought together from around the world – that will be tough to make while travel restrictions remain in place.

“We are doing a lot of thinking about what [shows like Hanna] might look like and how we achieve it,” says executive producer Tom Coan. “The idea of this post-Covid world can be very confusing and overwhelming. Essentially, it’s one additional layer of health and safety we need to put into an already robust process.”

But one thing that won’t be changing is Hanna herself and the world in which she exists. “There are certain stories where [the impact of coronavirus] will be interesting. But this isn’t one of them,” says series creator and writer David Farr. “Hanna exists in its own, totally individual, strange world, which is definitely not real in any kind of conventional sense. It’s truthful, but it’s not real. We’ll be keeping well clear.”

David Farr

Hanna’s second season sees Esmé Creed-Miles return as the titular character, who was raised in isolation by her father Erik (Joel Kinnaman) and subsequently hunted down by CIA Agent Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). At the end of the first run, which debuted last year, Hanna discovered she was not the only young woman with unparalleled skill and elite training. The Utrax programme, from which she was taken as a baby, has now produced a whole contingent of highly trained teenagers whose development is about to reach the lethal “second phase.”

But while the series continues to revolve around Hanna and her view of the world, season two digs much further into her past and introduces new characters in the form of some of the other girls trained by the Utrax initiative.

“The first season was very much a coming-of-age drama. She had to learn about the world and how it worked,” says Farr, who also wrote the Joe Wright-directed film on which the series is based.

“This is much more about ‘How do I want to be in the world?’ and ‘Where do I belong?’ We develop a whole new element, which is these other trainees who did not have the fortune to be stolen. They’ve been brought up entirely by the Utrax programme and they are now about to be unleashed on the world. That bit was probably the most rewarding to explore because it was obviously something completely fresh. The film doesn’t go anywhere near that. We’re way beyond the movie now.”

Following Hanna’s escape from the Utrax facility at the end of season one, S2 opens with her back in the remote wilderness – but she’s not alone, accompanied by Clara (Yasmin Monet Prince), one of the trainees who chose to escape with her. Early scenes show their complicated relationship mirroring that between Erik and Hanna in season one, when Hanna rebelled against Erik’s instance that they live off the grid. Now Clara is pushing against the boundaries set down by Hanna, who is also coming to terms with Erik’s death.

Yasmin Monet Prince as Clara (left) alongside Esmé Creed Miles as Hanna

That’s where Marissa comes in. Having helped Hanna escape in season one, she now offers the teenager the chance to start a new life. However, Hanna instead decides travel to England, where the trainees are being kept at a countryside facility known as The Meadows.

“In the absence of Erik, she’s seeking a new home,” Farr says of the lead character. “Marissa offers one opportunity, but it was Marissa who was trying to kill her for half of season one. There are reasons why Hanna would be distrustful and why that relationship, therefore, is fragile, flawed and blows up.

“The other option, which is much darker but also more intriguing, is to think maybe she was always meant to be in this place [with the other girls]. Maybe she shouldn’t have been stolen – maybe the normality is these other girls. Beyond that, she then discovers a whole other reason to live: actually, she is here to fight.”

While season one stood Hanna against the faceless Utrax organisation, this time that threat is personified in the form of John Carmichael, played by new cast member Dermot Mulroney. Farr says he didn’t want the show to have a conventional baddie, and My Best Friend’s Wedding star Mulroney fit the bill.

“Evil projects are often run by very affable people– because why would you run an evil project with a person who looks evil? That strikes me as incredibly dumb,” the writer says. “So you hire Dermot Mulroney to run your project for you because it will feel and look better. One of the key things they’re trying to do for these girls is they’re trying to socialise them, to make them feel normal. Who better to teach than someone who looks so fabulous? There’s a gentleness to him, and it’s those nuances he does really nicely.”

Dermot Mulroney (right) joins the cast for season two

The new trainees at The Meadows are handed new identities to learn and take out into the world, and each is given a scrapbook containing lots of photos and information about their lives. This tasked script editors Ella Jones and Luke Stapleton with creating dozens of backstories for these characters, while a member of the art department assembled the detailed scrapbooks.

Especially intriguing is how the girls either adopt or rebel against these new identities, leading to discussions about religion and identity and commentary on how identities can be constructed, which is particularly pertinent in the age of social media.

“Sandy [Áine Rose Daly] and Jules [Gianna Kiehl] are two new girls. Jules is by nature a maverick, ‘brought up’ to question things. But Sandy’s ‘brought up’ to not question things, to obey and to be faithful,” Farr says. “What’s great, of course, is this is totally invented and they’ve learnt it all from a book, but they believe it, they invest in it and they make it real. Both those actresses really lent into that stuff really well. They’re a great new additions and have big roles all the way through the season.”

Having written most of season one himself, with Ingeborg Topsøe picking up one episode, Farr worked with Paul Waters, Laura Lomas, Nina Segal and Charlotte Hamblin in the writers room for season two, which is produced by Amazon Studios, NBCUniversal International Studios, Tomorrow Studios and Working Title Television.

“You have to learn how to do writers rooms. They’re quite tricky because, on one level, it’s inevitable I know more [about the show] than anyone else, but that’s not helpful at a certain point because I only know what I know,” Farr says.

Mireille Enos returns as Marissa, Hanna’s former foe from season one

“Suddenly you get someone else coming in and they find a different way into things that’s very exciting. There’s a scene Nina wrote in episode five that has a specificity around the kind of way two women talk to each other. I wouldn’t have done it that way. That was really exciting – I felt like it was taking the series somewhere.”

Admitting it was a risk to go without a traditional villain, Farr teases that there is a reason Utrax remains an organisation hidden in the shadows, with its motives and ambitions being revealed slowly.

“That’s why the Carmichael character is very important, because now that Marissa is no longer that adversarial character, you have to have something Hanna’s fighting, and that has to feel interesting and dangerous,” he says. “That was the thing I was most concerned about. How do we personify the danger and the threat and that malicious force? Can we do it subtly? Can we do it through people not knowing what it is? That was definitely the biggest challenge.”

Filmed in Hampshire and London in England, Snowdonia in Wales, Paris and Dunkirk in France and Barcelona in Spain, season two was directed by Eva Husson, Ugla Hauksdóttir and Farr, who picked up the final two episodes, marking his first time directing the show.

“I very cunningly placed them in Barcelona, which is my favourite city, so I had to do it because it would be terribly unfair of someone else to be allowed to,” he jokes. “Eva did the first section that got us to The Meadows and Ugla did The Meadows, where these girls get trained. Then I got the most conventional section – it’s a proper thriller in episodes seven and eight, where there’s a threat to the whole operation that has to be dealt with. Hanna and Marissa are on one side, Sandy is on the other and Clara is in the middle. It’s still very character-based, but there is good narrative and there’s a strong thriller ending.”

The second season’s directors include Eva Husson (centre)

Coan, NBCUniversal International Studios’ senior VP of scripted programming, praises producers Laura Hastings-Smith and Callum Devrell-Cameron, whom he says were at the coalface of the production, charged with coordinating its numerous location shoots.

“It’s a little less of a road story this year than it was in season one, but part of a pan-European thriller is going to be discovering different places,” he says. “Some of the challenges I remember were around shooting in Wales, where we were in the woods in the beginning [doubling for Romania].

“The production dates happened to overlap with a festival that happens in Wales annually, but it moves from place to place and it’s only ever in the same place every 30 years. It so happened that, in this particular year, it was at the exact place where we were supposed to shoot, so we had to accommodate for that.”

Farr says the series will take viewers to “really emotional places” this season while still boasting the “wham bam” action scenes that made season one stand out – although the latter will also take on a more intimate element thanks to some impressive hand-to-hand fight sequences. “There’s also a much broader breadth of interesting characters,” he says. “The first season is really tight and aggressive. This has got different colours and, by the end, takes us to a very emotional place.”

Coan adds: “If you want to know a little bit more about the mythology of Utrax and what it is that’s going on, and to have a closer understanding of the origin of this story, you have to tune in. If you want to see Hanna kick more ass in a new and fun ways, it’s also worth tuning in for.”

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Social animals

Swedish actor, writer and director Josephine Bornebusch tells DQ about filming feature-length drama Orca, which tells the interconnected stories of 11 isolated people during the coronavirus lockdown.

Even by the standards of other television dramas filmed during the coronavirus lockdown, the speed behind the development and production of Swedish film Orca is particularly impressive. Created by actor Josephine Bornebusch, she wrote the script in three weeks, shot it in 11 days and is now in the editing room ahead of its launch on Nordic streamer Viaplay this fall.

The catalyst behind the quick-turnaround project came when production of the Love Me star’s latest television series, musical drama Harmonica, was suspended as the pandemic began to bite in March.

Josephine Bornebusch used a variety of camera tech to create Orca

“That was a disaster,” she tells DQ. “We were in prep a week before shooting and everyone had to leave. It was really sad, but the same day I came up with this idea. I thought, if we can’t shoot anything with a normal sized crew and can’t have all the actors in the same room, can we think outside the box? So I did. We had just five people on set – me and my DOP, the second DOP, the first AD and a sound guy. Then we had one actor every single day, so they never met each other and were not in the same room [during filming].”

Reflecting the socially distanced and isolated world in which it was filmed, Orca tells the stories of 11 characters cut off from the outside world and communicating with each other by screens. The feature-length drama features a son who can’t hold his mother’s hand as she lies on her deathbed, a pregnant woman who finds love, a mother who has abandoned her family when they need her most and two friends who discover they have different feelings for each other.

Speaking from the editing room at a largely deserted Warner Bros International Television Production studios in Stockholm, Bornebusch admits the basis of Orca is not a unique idea, particularly in the wake of other lockdown dramas produced over the last few months.

“But when I started to think about it, I didn’t want to write a pandemic story,” she explains. “Everyone is so tired of talking about Covid. I wanted to tell a story about not being able to be close to the people you want to be close to. The title is based on orca whales, which are the most social animals in the world. Everyone is so depressed because it’s really hard to be on the other side of a screen. So I came up with 11 characters and their stories. Everyone is connected. It’s about grief and it’s a love story as well. It’s frustrating not to be able to be there next to each other or touch each other or hug each other, but the series is actually really intimate as well.”

Conspiracy of Silence actor Vera Vitali in Orca

Viewers will see the story play out through a mixture of viewpoints, taken from traditional cameras, phone and tablet screens. The set was rigged with four fixed cameras, while the VFX team also built an app to record the hand-held action in high definition. GoPros cameras were also used.

“It’s like being in the Big Brother house because my DOP sets up all the cameras and then she walked out of the room, the actor comes in and he’s by himself and he has cameras everywhere,” says Bornebusch. “It doesn’t really matter where he’s walking or what he’s doing because the cameras pick up everything. In the editing room, we’re cutting between the phone, the computers and also the other shots.

“It’s been another way of working because, as an actress, you’re so used to going through a scene a hundred times, moving the cameras and then doing it again. But here if you nail it, you have all the angles. Then you can move on to the next scene.”

Considering the series will air later this year, how did Bornebusch consider the story in the context of where the world might be in a few months time, as lockdowns begin to ease amid fears of a second wave of the pandemic? “That was the reason why I wanted to do it so quickly,” she says.

Writer and director Josephine Bornebusch’s credits include Love Me

“Everyone knows what we’ve been through. It’s really relatable for everyone in the world. It’s horrible what has happened and for all these people who have been sick or have had loved ones pass away, but it’s also really worrying that it could kill creativity. I felt we can’t just sit and be depressed. We need to work and we need to think outside the box and deal with it. This was probably my way of dealing with everything right now.”

Directing the series under Swedish coronavirus guidelines meant social distancing was in place at all times, and hand washing was also important. Bornebusch communicated with her downsized crew and the cast via walkie talkies, “or screaming in some cases,” she jokes. “But I think 80% of directing is in the casting process. If you cast the right people, then you should just let them loose. I went for the people I was thinking of when I wrote the script, I called them up and I said, ‘I just wrote a part for you. Are you interested in reading?’ They all did and they all signed up for it, which is unbelievable.”

The cast includes Johan Rheborg (Partisan), Gustav Lindh (Love Me), Alba August (The Perfect Patient), Peter Andersson (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Vera Vitali (Conspiracy of Silence), alongside Bornebusch herself.

One consequence of the pandemic for television productions will be the smaller crews working on set at any given time. Bornebusch says she has often wondered why crews were so large, but came to realise why everyone is so important when working on Orca.

“Sometimes in a normal production, I’ve said it myself, ‘Why are there so many? What are they doing here? Do we need all of them?’ But then you realise that yes, you do and you need more,” she says. “That’s been challenging. And for the actors, it’s been really frustrating to play against a cross [denoting where the other actor will be on the phone or computer screen] or a green screen. It’s really hard. But that’s why you need good actors, because they can pretend that someone is on the other side. I also learned good things.

Multiple cameras tell the Orca story featuring Peter Andersson

“We shot between 20 and 40 pages a day and normally you shoot four. You can actually shoot more if you’re really dedicated and if you know what you’re doing. Sometimes maybe you should add another camera so you don’t have to stop everything and move them again. If this movie is as beautiful as I think it will be, it proves that some parts of the [lockdown] process are actually good for us and we can take them with us into a normal production. But I would never, ever do it again and never, ever shoot like this if it wasn’t for coronavirus. It’s been really, really hard.”

Harmonica is set to return to production this winter, telling the story of a country music duo – “like Roxette” – who are enticed to return to the stage for a reunion tour in a bid to resurrect their career and save their marriage. Bornebusch created and wrote the series with Jonas Karlsson (The Perfect Patient). They also both direct and star as Monica and Harry respectively.

“It’s a relationship drama but it also has a lot of music,” she says. “We shot all the flashbacks and the music videos before we had to stop, so we have that. But we’re working on it and hopefully we will get started in November.”

But whatever project she is working on, whether it is Harmonica, Love Me or the numerous stories dealing with social isolation in Orca, “it’s all about the characters and the dynamics between them,” Bornebusch concludes. “I want people to feel something. I want them to cry, to laugh, to feel embarrassed and recognise themselves or their friends. I want them to feel like they are in the room with all these characters. That’s my goal.”

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Lighting the way

Eva Green, Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel speak to DQ about filming The Luminaries, a tale of love, murder, magic and revenge set in 1860s New Zealand at the height of the gold rush.

It’s a quirk of production schedules that the first scenes viewers see are sometimes the last to be filmed. Such was the case on luxurious BBC and NZTV period drama The Luminaries, but for co-stars Eve Hewson and Hamish Patel, it was a high-pressure situation.

The six-part series opens as Anna Wetherell, nearing the end of a voyage to start a new life in 1860s New Zealand, meets Emery Staines, who has plans to make his fortune during the country’s booming gold rush. There’s an instant connection between the two that informs the plot of the series, but if viewers didn’t buy their blossoming relationship, would they care what happened next?

Eva Green as Lydia with Martin Csokas as her lover Francis Carver

When we first meet them, “they’re mysteries. We don’t know anything about them,” Hewson tells DQ of the show’s central pair. “But what’s important about that first scene is we don’t know anything about these people, but we know we want them to be together, just because there is something between them and it’s such a beautifully written scene. It was really fun to play and, oddly, it was the last scene we shot together.

“We did everything else and then the last thing we did was the scene where we met. Hopefully it works. The thing with Anna and Emery is they both feel like they know each other even though they’ve never met. And it’s that feeling that drives them to try to find each other again.”

Patel continues: “We were really banking on that scene working. We were saying ‘If it doesn’t work, why do we care about these two people getting together?’ We had to make sure that we got the chemistry right. And I think we did. I hope we did.”

An epic adventure mystery, the Luminaries blends elements of a classic Western period drama with love, magic, murder and revenge. Set against New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, Anna immediately finds a romantic connection with Emery, but scheming fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) leaves a trap that means the young lovers are unable to reunite.

Eve Hewson believes her character, Anna, is not as naive as she appears

Deceived and betrayed, Anna’s fortune begins to fall and she is drawn into a blackmail plot involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud and false identity, which leaves her accused of murder and fighting for her life.

But Anna and Emery are ‘astral twins,’ which means they were born at exactly the same time and ultimately share a single destiny. When Emery disappears, Anna is left without an alibi for a murder she did not commit and the noose begins to tighten around her neck.

Produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films for BBC1 in the UK, in association with TVNZ, distributor Fremantle and Silver Reel, the cast is led by Eve Hewson (The Knick) as Anna, Himesh Patel (Yesterday) as Emery and Eva Green as Lydia. The series is written by Eleanor Catton, based on her own Booker Prize-winning novel, with Claire McCarthy directing.

After disembarking from the ship that brings her to New Zealand, Anna reveals her intentions to find gold and make her own fortune, although it’s clear there are other reasons behind her round-the-world journey to start a new life. “I really don’t think she’s as naive as you might think,” Hewson says. “I think she was running from something in England and she wanted to escape or start a new life, or run away. The idea of a young woman getting on a ship was a big deal back then so you’d have to have a very good reason why you’d leave, because you probably would never go back home. There’s a lot of things going on with her backstory that’s not what it seems in the show.”

Himesh Patel sees a “romantic drive” in Emery

Similarly, Emery’s naïvety sees him used by his new ‘friends’ and his own ambitions immediately sidetracked by his attraction to Anna. “He is letting his heart lead him because he has a really romantic drive that is quite stubborn,” Patel explains. “That’s what he’s desperately trying to hold on to, even though he’s getting tossed about by the waves, sometimes literally. I hope people enjoy how the story unfolds because he is tested quite a lot, as all the characters are. But he’s got a resolve and a romantic outlook that is so at odds with everything that happens in the story and that happens to him. It’s about whether he can hold on to that belief.”

Known for television roles in Penny Dreadful and Camelot, Green tells DQ she likes playing multi-dimensional characters, “usually strong women,” where first appearances can hide secrets or cracks underneath their facades. Lydia, whose very job is a performance, fits the bill perfectly.

“She’s such a very strong, ballsy character, very driven, very daring, and she’s a lot of fun to play because she’s always game,” Green says. “It’s quite jubilating to play her. She’s also a feminist ahead of her time. She’s a very cool character. She’s quite like the baddie at the beginning but there are a few layers. And what brings humanity is actually her love for Francis Carver [played by Martin Csokas]. That actually redeems her. She’s not just the baddie.

The 19th century mud was very real on set

“At first, Lydia’s intention is to use Anna. But Anna turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Lydia vows revenge and Anna becomes her enemy. But it’s quite a complicated relationship between the two women because you really feel they could have been friends.”

Lydia’s love for Carver stands out, not least because he isn’t her husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie). But maybe it’s all part of her game. “She’s completely blinded by her ambition and greed, doing anything to get her gold – and it’s not her gold, she stole it from her husband,” notes Green, who says she was reminded by her character of Lady Macbeth. “She’s quite a cuckoo in that way. But it’s such a tough world. She is a survivor. She feels there are no rules, she’s above the law and she can have whatever she desires no matter what the cost. She’s so driven and her hubristic nature will ultimately be her downfall.”

Catton says she spent five years writing The Luminaries and then seven years adapting it for the screen, revealing she had discarded more than 200 drafts of the first episode alone. Had she not done so, Anna might have been a minor character. But through that process, she became the audience’s perspective in this new world.

“Eleanor told me that once they decided they were going to go through Anna’s eyes everything kind of clicked into place,” Hewson says. “And when I read the script, I was like, ‘This is just fantastic.’”

The Luminaries writer Eleanor Catton (left) with director Claire McCarthy

“I read the script and then started reading the novel and was waiting for the two to converge at some point,” Patel adds. “But then as I got more of the scripts and realised the way Eleanor was adapting her own story, it was really fascinating and so brilliant. Eventually, fans of the novel will realise where our stories converge.”

The six-month shoot took place largely on a farm outside Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, where the frontier town of Hokitika was recreated in breathtaking 360º detail. Filming also took place on nearby Bethells Beach, and on South Island, where director McCarthy could capture its iconic scenery.

“We got to set on day one and it was like this town had been there the whole time,” Hewson recalls. “It was really amazing work from the production designers and I just loved getting to work every day. It was at the bottom of a hill. You could see the sea on one side and you could see Auckland in the distance. It just felt like we went down this hill in our own little time machine and got to live in that world.

“I felt like I was going back in time,” Green says. “We were in costume and it was actually very hot as well. It was very muddy, for real. We were back in Hokitika. We shot on the amazing Bethells Beach, with those caves. It was just amazing. That’s the luxury of being an actor, that you can discover amazing places. I feel blessed.”

Claire McCarthy runs through a scene with Eva Green

Filming certainly took its toll on Hewson, who says her character goes to a “very dark place. It gets really messy and horrible what she goes through,” the actor says. “That was really challenging for me, just because there’s a lot of painful subject matter and physically it was very draining to be that emotional all the time. I remember just feeling exhausted. As an actor, you want to do those parts but it’s also hard to do them. You have to go home and watch an episode of Friends.”

At a time when the world is still battling the coronavirus pandemic, the trio says The Luminaries is perfect escapist television for viewers looking to get caught up in a love story and a murder mystery.

“It’s exotic and it’s quite unknown,” Green says of the world of The Luminaries. “But also it’s a very hard environment. To be a woman in that environment was extremely hard and you needed to be super strong.”

“I genuinely think we need great stories right now to take us out of the narrative that we’re living in for a minute,” Hewson adds. “I hope that people find it as compelling as I think it is.”

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Heading East

Producer Kevin Loader and production designer Simon Bowles reveal how the empty sets of British soap EastEnders gave them the opportunity to film Alan Bennett’s acclaimed Talking Heads monologue series during the coronavirus lockdown.

For more than 35 years, British soap EastEnders has been a firm fixture in the BBC schedules. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the show to suspend production in March – and despite the Beeb subsequently airing fewer episodes per week, the series is now on a transmission break for the first time ever, with the most recent episode having aired last Tuesday.

Production is due to resume this week, but eagle-eyed viewers might find a way to return to Albert Square sooner than expected as two traditions of British television collide.

When Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama, sought a way to produce new scripted television during the UK lockdown, he turned to Alan Bennett’s acclaimed monologue series Talking Heads, which first aired in 1988 and then in 1998. Now, 10 of the 12 stories featured in those original two seasons, plus two new scripts, have been produced under social-distancing guidelines on the empty sets at BBC Elstree Studios on the outskirts of north London, otherwise known as the home of EastEnders.

“It’s been a ridiculously fast turnaround,” admits producer Kevin Loader. “From the getting the first call from Piers to delivering them was just under 10 weeks. It’s pretty extraordinary, all things considered.

“He was saying he’d love to get them on [air] in June and this was the last weekend in March. It seemed an impossible idea. But we certainly went into that weekend thinking, ‘Yes, they could be done.’”

Simon Bowles captures a Zoom meeting with the production team

Loader and production designer Simon Bowles were working together not too far away at Leavesden Studios, home of the Harry Potter films, where they were preparing the second season of Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy Avenue 5 but had to stand down when the studios were closed.

“One of the things that’s been impossible to do in lockdown is build sets. So the issue really was where the hell would we shoot them?” Loader says. “Piers said, ‘Look, EastEnders is off the air. I’m sure I can get BBC Studios Elstree to put the studios at your disposal.’

“The idea became to shoot it on the standing sets at Elstree. Without that, we probably would have had to give up straightaway. Then it was just about whether we could persuade 12 actors to do it with only a couple of weeks’ prep. From the minute they were called, the people who filmed first probably had four weeks to rehearse and learn it. Some of these monologues are over 40 minutes. That’s quite a lot.”

The iconic status of Bennett’s work – his scripts are even studied in schools – means Loader immediately told Wenger that if the writer agreed for them to be reproduced, they would have to be done so in their original running times and not cut down to fit a 30-minute timeslot.

“They had to be done word for word as classic texts, just as you would with Harold Pinter or a Samuel Beckett play, [which meant] they would come in a very odd lengths and be a scheduling nightmare,” says Loader, who produces the series with famed theatre producer Nicolas Hynter for London Theatre Company.

Jodie Comer delivers the monologue titled Her Big Chance

“To be fair, Piers and Charlotte [Moore, BBC director of content] were brilliant about that. It was in the very early weeks of the lockdown and it suddenly seemed a rather resonant thing to be doing to have these very, very concentrated, intimate texts where an actor portrays a character who’s making a confession to you of some kind, or at least trying to describe a little window in their lives at that moment.”

Bowles’ thoughts of spending time at home with his family during the lockdown quickly evaporated when he got the call from Loader. He immediately drove to BBC Elstree and enjoyed a tour of the EastEnders set with art director India Smith. Realising it might be the only time he would be on set before filming began, he had to quickly decide which backdrops would be used for each monologue and what props would be needed for each scene.

“We ended up choosing 34 different rooms from the whole world of EastEnders and went from there,” he says. “Then we had to dress these sets to be character-specific. There was a concern we would recognise the sets from EastEnders, but it’s a wonderful fusion of these two worlds – and hopefully EastEnders viewers will watch these monologues and actually spot who’s in which house, which I thought was rather fabulous and something we shouldn’t shy away from.

“But it even went down to the props as well, where I was taking objects from one house in Albert Square and putting them into a different one. The props and art directing team were like, ‘You can’t do that –that’s Phil Mitchell’s mug.’ And I’m putting it into Dot Cotton’s house!”

When it came to filming each episode, recording took place in adherence with social-distancing guidelines, which Loader says made it “a pretty strange experience” for everyone. Each monologue has one actor and one camera, but the script is split up into four or five scenes to demonstrate passage of time, either in a new location or the same one but with the actor wearing a different costume.

Gangs of London’s Lucian Msamati in Playing Sandwiches

All rehearsals were done between the directors and actors via Zoom, while hair and make-up designer Naomi Donne also conducted online make-up tutorials using kits she had sent to each actor’s house. Kristin Scott Thomas, who stars in The Hand of God, had to fit her own wig.

The day before shooting, the sets were dressed and lighted, with Bowles working alongside Smith and the EastEnders team to create a cinematic backdrop for each monologue. Then the actor would come in the following day, in some cases seeing their costumes for the first time when they shot their episode.

“Those three weeks before we shot were odd and rather intense because there was loads going on behind the scenes, but it was all happening bilaterally, with two people on Zoom talking about make-up, or a director and an actor rehearsing, or Simon working with the design team,” Loader says. “You didn’t really ever have a sense of what was going on, but you just knew it was all going on everywhere.”

Bowles continues: “ I was dressing the sets, but I couldn’t be there. They propped up an iPad on the mantlepiece of each set and I had a many hours sitting here [in my house] saying, ‘That sofa a bit further left’ and ‘Those curtains don’t work.’ With social distancing, a dining chair could be moved easily by one person. If it was a long settee, two people could move it because they were more than two metres apart.

“But smaller objects, like a heavy armchair or a piano, where you’d need a couple of people close around it, we ended up taking away walls of the sets and bringing forklift trucks in to pick them up and shuffle them around.”

Kristin Scott Thomas performs Hand of God

Working with existing sets gave Bowles a rare challenge, as he normally designs sets from scratch. “To Alan, the pieces should be about the cast members so, in his ideal world, they would be performing with a blank screen behind them so there’s nothing to distract from his words coming from their mouths,” he says.

“I had to de-dress some of the sets so you’re just left with the minimal amount. Every single picture on the wall, every cushion, every eiderdown, every settee, every bunch of flowers had to be really specific to that character and the background. Initially, I was very worried that I wouldn’t find enough specific items to address the sets but once I’d ransacked every single set and the small prop store at EastEnders, I was actually delighted.”

The original Talking Heads monologues were broadcast in two groups, with six airing in 1988 and another half-dozen in 1998. Loader says there was a discussion about inviting an older actor to play the two monologues originally recorded by the late Dame Thora Hird, but BBC coronavirus rules meant nobody over 70 could be on set. Those monologues – A Cream Cracker under the Settee (1988) and Waiting for the Telegram (1998) – were then substituted for the two new scripts.

The cast and crew are also donating their salaries to NHS charities. “So our pitch to the actors was, ‘We know you’re at home doing nothing. The BBC want these monologues, they’re brilliant texts. We’re going to not take fees and give a load of money to the NHS charities. And you’ve got three weeks to prepare,’” Loader remembers. “Within three days, we had it cast. Everybody said yes and they all turned up word-perfect on the day, which is extraordinary.”

As lockdown restrictions are lifted and TV production around the world begins to restart under strict guidelines, what are the lessons Loader and Bowles have learned as they return to work on Avenue 5?

“Zoom rehearsal probably has no future,” Loader says pointedly. “I don’t think the directors or the actors enjoyed that very much. Production meetings are also more fun in cafés than they are on Zoom. We’ll all be working in the future with smaller crews and things may take a little longer than they did until the situation changes.

“But it is also probably a lesson in how quickly you can find solutions if you have to. We’re very good in our industry at finding solutions, so this was a turbo-charged version of what we do anyway. You can work more quickly and lighter afoot than we thought in certain situations. That’ll probably be good for everyone.”

As for Talking Heads, which is distributed by BBC Studios and begins on BBC1 tomorrow, Loader believes the series marries “extraordinary” writing and performances. “The writing is exceptional. The more you look at them, the more intriguing they are,” he concludes.

“They’re very dark, some of them. They’re about the secrets human beings are carrying. And because a lot of these characters feel rather lonely and isolated, even within their marriages and their family relationships, they speak to a world in which a lot of people are feeling lonely and isolated. There will be lots to ponder and lots to enjoy. And the performances are extraordinary. I’m so moved by many of them, and they’re funny too. People who don’t know them will be amazed by them.”

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Building The Nest

Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor takes DQ inside her thrilling five-part emotional drama The Nest, which has become the biggest new drama launch on the BBC this year.

While the emergence of streaming platforms and the democratisation of choice has largely sounded the death knell for ‘water-cooler’ programming, TV drama still has the power to unite audiences. So it proved earlier this year when, stuck at home at the start of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown in March, millions of viewers tuned in to follow emotional thriller The Nest.

Its weekly roll-out on BBC1 – it wasn’t released immediately as a box set – and the storyline’s dizzying twists and turns ensured people were hooked on the story of a pact made between a wealthy couple and a teenage girl. And the word-of-mouth recommendations that followed have seen the five-part series become the broadcaster’s biggest new drama launch of the year so far. An average of nine million people have now seen the series across its 30-day catch-up window.

Penned by Bafta-winning writer Nicole Taylor (Three Girls), the story introduces Dan (Martin Compston) and Emily (Sophie Rundle, pictured above), who live in a huge waterside house just outside Glasgow and want for nothing except a baby, having tried for many years to conceive.

Nicole Taylor

By chance, they meet Kaya (Mirren Mack), a troubled 18-year-old from the other side of the city. When she agrees to carry the couple’s baby, can she give them what they’ve always wanted, or have they all embarked on a course of self-destruction?

“The idea came to me in the form of this central trio,” Taylor tells DQ. “I was really interested to see what would happen in an extreme, psychologically plausible scenario where you had a woman who was just desperate [for a baby] because of years of infertility, where, in that grief state, one starts to deploy the magical thinking of, ‘This is meant to be.’

“You pose that on the most arbitrary things just to feel like you have got some control over the narrative of your life in moments of despair. So that character of Emily made sense to me, and Kaya and Dan, they just all came to me, as did this idea of a relationship of mutual destruction.

“Whatever I’m writing about, there’s always a central question I ask myself that I don’t have an answer to but I feel has right [answers] on both sides. Though this isn’t an ‘issue’ drama in any way, I feel like surrogacy is quite an interesting one where there’s equally persuasive arguments for and against. I’m always writing about themes of class and young women and things like that. That’s where it all came from.”

Through Kaya, Taylor explores whether an 18-year-old with few prospects and working a zero-hour contract should be allowed to do something for money that is potentially life-changing. “It’s a really tricky question, but that’s what’s appealing about it as well,” the writer says. “I don’t have an answer to it, but I wanted to kick it about and get the audience kicking it about as well.”

The Nest, a fictional and very heightened story, stands in contrast to Three Girls, the multi-Bafta-winning factual drama that aired in 2017 and told the true story of three victims at the centre of a child sex abuse ring.

But there were some similarities in Taylor’s approach to both projects, namely the “tons and tons” of research she did for both – because even though the characters in The Nest were invented, “the issues are real,” she says. “Care leavers, an infertile couple… it felt like I’d done more research than is strictly necessary for a fictional piece but having done Three Girls, that’s just the way I like to do things.

Sophie Rundle and Mirren Mack in The Nest

“You’re also not going to turn up anything unexpected or interesting for the audience if you’re going into these things knowing as much as they are. You’ve got to know more than they know to write something exciting.”

The three main characters’ problems go beyond the central surrogacy plotline, with the story also highlighting a murder investigation, criminal links to Dan’s business, and Kaya’s mysterious past and her life growing up in the care system.

Taylor sought to invite the audience to sympathise with all three people at various points in the show. “If, in one act, your sympathies were all with Kaya, I was trying to turn that so, in the next act, your sympathies would be with Dan,” she explains.

“Each of them had a valid point of view I tried to render in the round, so that was really important to me. But I don’t look at my work and think, ‘Yeah, what I’m writing about is young women.’ People have said that to me, but I find all of their points of view just as valid as each other and I was just as interested in each of them.

“You’re not allowed to do it here but if you commercialise surrogacy, who is going to be offering surrogacy services? It’s going to be women who need the money. Surrogacy also offers self-esteem and real affirmation, so a vulnerable young woman like Kaya might be attracted as much by that, and by the fellowship offered and by the sense of family, as the money.

“Dan is more from Kaya’s background but Emily is dead suspicious of her motives from the get-go. I’m constantly trying to play with all these people and get you to really invest in one, only to bin them off and invest in another and then bin them off and invest in another. With Kaya, I was inviting the audience to judge her, only to wrong-foot them and get them to reflect on their earlier judgements.”

Line of Duty’s Martin Compston also stars

Though the relationship between the central trio remains at the heart of the series, Taylor also includes stories and themes of wealth, poverty, criminality, social mobility and family relationships. It all adds up to a fast-paced series bursting at the seams with story and character developments, and means viewers don’t know which way it will turn next.

“I just love a fast-burning story and I think the audience deserved it,” she says. “I’m sick of seeing things eked out over eight or 12 episodes. It’s completely unnecessary in lots of cases and, especially in a thriller, you can hint at things without spending a whole episode plodding through it.

“I have no problem with burning through story. I love doing that and I think you need to do it for a BBC hour. I felt like the audience deserves to rattle through it. You don’t have to show everything. Little threads you leave loose can give people something to think about. It makes for a richer drama as well as a pacier drama.”

Distributed by All3Media International, The Nest saw Taylor reunite with Three Girls executive producer Sue Hogg and production company Studio Lambert, who shepherded the project from script to screen. Andy de Emmony (Lucky Man) directed three episodes and Simen Alsvik (Lilyhammer) helmed the final two. Now enjoying maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Taylor remembers writing the series during her pregnancy and suffering serious illness as she hit episode four.

“I couldn’t finish the bloody thing because I was so sick. I’d got three episodes written and episode four just took months and months, so getting the thing finished was awful,” she says. “But Sue is brilliant; we’ve known each other for so long and worked together on everything. She didn’t put any pressure on me. She didn’t act like she was panicking, although she said to me retrospectively that it was pretty tense because they couldn’t schedule [filming] as they didn’t have the last two scripts.

Rundle plays a wealthy woman who turns to a surrogate after being unable to conceive

“But I got there, I finished it and then there was a new deadline of finishing episode five before giving birth! It was slightly hairy in that sense, but I always knew, in quite a lot of depth, what the story was. It had been in my head for years and years before I’d pitched it and started to write. And it’s a world I know super-well, being from Glasgow myself.”

To the surprise of fans of crime drama Line of Duty who have become used to Compston playing an English police officer, the Scottish actor uses his natural accent in The Nest, which meant he could also advise Taylor on some of the Glaswegian slang Dan might use. Similarly, Shirley Henderson, who plays Kaya’s estranged mother Siobhan, also influenced how her character appeared on screen.

“The forensic way she read the script meant she was finding details that I didn’t notice were there,” the writer says of Happy Valley star Henderson. “She was lifting things out of my subconscious because she’d read them on the page and nobody else had noticed, including me. That’s the best bet. You’re sat alone in your pyjamas for years and then, suddenly, you’re on the phone to Shirley Henderson who’s got even better ideas for the character.”

The series concludes with extremely satisfying endings for Emily, Dan and Kaya, but Taylor certainly keeps their futures and that of the newborn baby at the centre of the story in doubt right until the last few scenes. The writer says she didn’t know what that ending would be when she began writing, but she did know where she wanted to leave them emotionally.

“I knew it would be a positive outcome for Kaya. The ending isn’t necessarily what people would expect and I’m pleased to leave people with quite a happy ending,” she says. “It’s all too easy to sign off bleakly – the child goes to no one and the whole thing has been a pointless waste of time.

Mack is Kaya, the young woman paid to carry the baby

“As well as wanting to be accurate, this is television and I did want quite an emotionally engaging, satisfying, uplifting ending. And thank God it was uplifting, given when it went out. Imagine if people had invested five weeks of their early lockdown time only for the child to be lost in the system. It would have been so crap.”

Taylor admits there is plenty of scope to return to the world of The Nest, though she is not currently planning a second season. Instead, she has a new, unannounced BBC project in the works, and is writing a musical and “changing lots of nappies.”

Looking back on the show, Taylor jokes “it’s bonkers. I went for it with the story,” pointing to her previous preference for naturalistic storytelling. “I’ve never gone near anything that’s a thriller before. It’s totally beyond my realm of experience but, once I got into it, I loved it. If you’ve got these people, take them for a ride. Just go for it. If you can be truthful to the characters and keep people constantly guessing, that’s just really satisfying to watch.

“If it’s a bit bonkers, that means you’re being unpredictable. As long as it’s not at the expense of truth, I’m good with it. The whole thing was an experiment for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to write that kind of material.”

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Tackling terror

Co-creators Dani de la Torre and Alberto Marini explain how Spanish drama La Unidad (The Unit) blends hard-hitting action with complicated stories of police officers fighting against international terrorism.

After more than two years of development and writing, crime drama La Unidad (The Unit) debuted on Spain’s Movistar+ last month to become the most watched premiere in the streamer’s history.

Blending authenticity and action, the six-part thriller charts the previously unknown work of the country’s elite National Police unit in its fight against jihadist terrorism, as Spain is targeted following the arrest of the world’s most wanted terrorist leader.

Dani de la Torre

Led by Commissioner Carla Torres, the unit faces a race against time as it attempts to uncover and dismantle the threat, while members of the team also try to resolve conflicts in their personal lives.

The series, produced by Movistar+ in collaboration with Vaca Films, comes from creators Dani de la Torre and Alberto Marini and boasts a cast that is led by Nathalie Poza, Michel Noher, Marian Álvarez and Luis Zahera.

“La Unidad is a very complex series and I feel very privileged because [in developing the series] I worked with the Spanish police, one of the most professional and efficient police forces in fighting international terrorism,” says de la Torre, who also directs the show.

“We have been a part of the day-to-day work of the police and attended different operations and briefings, and we even spent time with an infiltrator. This gives the show a unique and distinctive flavour. This is a very special force, they have to work with police all over the world, because this type of terrorism is a global threat. This made the production of the show more complex, because you have to take the production to those places in order to explain how international terrorism operates.”

The director says the series also stands out because of its focus on the officers’ “normal lives,” adding: “They have to take their kids to school, they have to do the shopping, as we all do. But, at the same time, they have to chase some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. Those characters are also what makes the show special.

Alberto Marini

“You’re not going to see conventional, traditional cops where they have a dark side and either they’re violent or drink a lot. They are normal people with normal problems that will be recognisable. At the same time, they have to do this work in a very anonymous and discreet way and that makes them very special.”

Marini, who writes the series with Amèlia Mora, picks up: “We had the opportunity to meet the real men and women involved in the anti-terrorism fight. We discovered how they work and what they are like. Even if our characters are not copies of real people, they are inspired by the real professionals we met, starting with Carla, the head of the unit. The entire series is based on the collaboration with the police and the people we had the opportunity to meet.”

The pursuit of authentic characters also set up one of the key themes of story, as Marini explains. “When Dani and I had the opportunity to enter the headquarters of the anti-terrorism department in Madrid, we were surprised by the amount of Arab people working there.

“Several police officers, men and women, involved in this fight are Arabs and several are practising Muslims. We wanted to make clear that the Arab and Muslim world is a completely different thing from the jihadist world. In La Unidad, you’re not going to see a fight between the East and the West, but you’re going to see a fight between fanatics and the people who try to defend society from fanaticism, regardless of religion, culture or race.”

Filming took place over 18 weeks in Madrid, Catalonia, Melilla, Malaga and Galicia, as well as international locations such as Perpignan and Toulouse in France and Lagos and Makoko in Nigeria.

“What has been difficult from a filming standpoint is not so much the technical part but finding the balance between all the different worlds and the different characters,” says de la Torre. “We have to reflect characters speaking in a certain way and with a certain way of thinking. We have used four different languages – there is a huge variety. So putting all this together and finding the right balance has been the most challenging part.”

The writers spent a lot of time working with real anti-terrorism police

Both coming from a film background, Marini and de la Torre say working on La Unidad was a new experience. “We learned a lot. The first rule we learned was this is not a feature film. A series has a different language, a different format,” says Marini.

“It is a character-driven series, so we focused on characters and [making sure we could] enter their minds [and understand] their way of life. We took advantage of an opportunity we don’t have in feature films.”

The series debuted in Spain on May 15 and writing has already begun on a second season. Meanwhile, distributor Beta Film has shopped the show to HBO Latin America.

“In the beginning, when we were reading the scripts, we understood it was going to be something very special and immediately jumped on the project,” says Beta exec VP of international sales and acquisitions Christian Gockel. “For us, it’s an important show that right now is one of the hottest in the market, especially because it was already shot [before the coronavirus lockdown]. Everyone wants to see the show.”

A second season of La Unidad is already being written

Domingo Corral, Movistar+’s director of original production, agrees that La Unidad has the potential to travel to audiences around the world and says it stands as a marker for the kind of dramas the streamer wants to produce in the future.

“When we do a show, first we want to entertain,” he explains. “That’s the basics of any show. Once you establish that foundation, you try to build complexity. La Unidad is a good representation of that. We are trying to entertain people but, beyond that, we are trying to explain how global the world is today.

“If you think about the health crisis we are going through right now, it is something affecting everyone in the world, not just one or two countries. Unfortunately, the same applies in this case to terrorism, and that’s reflected in the series.

“The other thing that is key for us is characters. Even if our shows are very entertaining and full of action, action without strong characters or an emotional engagement with those characters is nothing. Our ambition is to make shows like this.”

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Dramatic truth

Two years after a deadly poisoning involving a nerve agent in the UK, the cast and creative team behind BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings reveal how they dramatised this real-life national emergency.

When it came to bringing to television the true story of how a father and daughter were poisoned in the English cathedral city of Salisbury, executive producer Laurence Bowen knew exactly how it should be told.

“We decided to approach this as a factual drama rather than a documentary because we felt drama would give us more freedom to explore the emotional reality of what happened to people — showing the audience how it felt to suddenly find yourself with personal responsibility for protecting the lives of Salisbury’s 60,000 inhabitants, or the reality of how it felt to be poisoned, or to be a neighbour and best friend of the Skripals and find yourself catapulted into the middle of a counter-terrorism enquiry,” he tells DQ.

“We wanted the piece to be experiential and to show the truth of how the chemical nerve attack was experienced on the ground by ordinary people, and to show how many of them responded heroically to the challenge.”

Just two years have passed since former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted with the deadly Novichok nerve agent. But if you think you know what happened, Bowen and the cast and creative team behind three-part BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings are asking viewers to think again as they tell the story of what happened in March 2018 from the perspective of those tasked with protecting the community.

Turning the spotlight on the ordinary people and public services who displayed extraordinary heroism during a national emergency, writers and former BBC journalists Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson say they didn’t want to do “the obvious thing,” which would have been to make an espionage drama.

“We were more drawn to the stories of the people who had to clean up this mess rather than the people who made it,” says Lawn. “All of the action takes place in the shadow of a spy drama, with spooks and secret agents. But it’s not about that. It’s about ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces – the people who have to clean up Salisbury and also the people who are directly affected by the attack. That’s where the drama was, that’s where the emotion was, and we were instantly drawn to it.”

The Salisbury Poisonings dramatises real events of two years ago, when an assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK went awry

Patterson admits that building trust with the real-life characters in the drama is not easy. “The first thing I would say is that factual drama is not a game. If you take on a factual drama, especially one that represents such recent events, you take on a massive responsibility to do those people justice and to tell their stories with authenticity and sensitivity,” he explains.

“We started much like we did when we made documentaries, walking around on rainy nights in Salisbury. It took a lot of time and many meetings over many months. Trust is the key word because, without trust, this project would not have happened.

“If people don’t don’t see your vision, if they don’t trust what you’re going to do with their testimony, they’re not going to talk to you. That consultation with the real people continued through the whole drama, from restarts, through scripting and through production. That’s why it is now an authentic and powerful piece of work.”

At the centre of the drama is Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health for Wiltshire County Council, who is called in by the police to ensure the community is protected from the deadly threat presented by the Novichok agent. It marks the first time Duff (Sex Education, His Dark Materials) has played a real-life figure on screen who is still alive.

“It’s kind of surreal, glorious, terrifying and a privilege all that same time to actually sit beside somebody [you’re playing],” the actor says. “It’s a challenge in terms of performance, because the requirements could be that you do an impersonation, and I wanted to avoid all of that nonsense. I just wanted to try and get the spirit of her. But what it also means is that you have to be so authentic and so true, because there’s someone who can testify against every moment. So you have to do the best job you can possibly do.”

Daszkiewicz was largely absent from the extensive media coverage that followed the incident, a fact that intrigued Duff about the person she would be playing. “When I was sent the script, I Googled her because I didn’t even remember her. There was very little to be found so, for the actor’s inner detective, it immediately whets your appetite. And as a woman, I can’t help but think lots of men in suits were recognised and she wasn’t. Adam and Declan’s scripts… the way they swell her with so much integrity was just amazing and a real gift.”

Anne Marie Duff stars as Tracy Daszkiewicz, who led efforts to protect citizens from the nerve agent used in the attack

Duff describes Daszkiewicz’s role in the events as “unimaginable.” Knowing she would be the fall guy if anything went wrong – with the potential for thousands of victims if other people came into contact with the nerve agent – “she just felt an insane amount of responsibility,” the actor continues.

“It’s joked about in the script – the whole imposter syndrome issue – because she felt that she didn’t have the smarts. People might think she didn’t come from a world in which she was a problem solver on a grand scale, and she had lots of demons, which we all understand.”

Alongside the Skripals, who both recovered from their exposure to the Novichok agent, three other people were affected by the poisoning. Police officer Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall, The War of the Worlds) and Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris, This is England ‘86) both recovered after spells in hospital, but Rowley’s partner Dawn Sturgess sadly died. Myanna Buring (The Witcher, Ripper Street), who plays her, says she wanted to remind people that Sturgess was a “real human being.”

“A lot of us remember that, in the news. she was described as homeless and a drug addict, [which meant people] dismissed her death as inevitable because of her life choices,” the actor says.

“That simply was not true. Dawn was not homeless. She was not a drug addict. She was a woman who had experienced mental health issues and knocks in life, which I think all of us can relate to. She did struggle with alcohol, but she was working really hard to turn her life around. She had a loving family, a loving partner, children and friends, and her death left this gaping wound in all of their lives.

“She was an innocent person who died because of a failed assassination attempt that was carried out in such a way that thousands of innocent lives were put at risk. What happened to Dawn, it could have been any one of us.”

Rafe Spall plays police officer Nick Bailey, who was hospitalised after exposure to the Novichok agent

Behind the camera, Saul Dibb was able to blend his experience of a decade spent making documentaries with his recent fiction work, including The Duchess, NW and Journey’s End. Describing making The Salisbury Poisonings as “the perfect marriage” and a project that is part domestic drama, part thriller, Dibb says: “All of us felt it had the potential to be more than a straightforward docudrama. It’s just extraordinarily surreal.

“It was this amazing, weird thing happening in the middle of this small British cathedral city, where, whether you were directly poisoned or not, everybody became ‘contaminated’ by this poison.”

The production was based in Bristol and the South West of England, with some scenes also filmed in Salisbury. “We did shoot some things there but we drew a line. There was not going to be a recreation of things like hazmat suits or the army on the streets of Salisbury,” Dibb says. “We set a lot of the early, pre-poisoning stuff in Salisbury and then we meticulously looked for matches [elsewhere].” Archive material from contemporary news reports was used to add another layer of authenticity.

Bowen, CEO of producer Dancing Ledge Productions, also admits there were discussions about when to release the miniseries, which foreshadows many of the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, with shops and restaurants having to close and people being told to wash their clothes and hands and wear protective equipment to minimise the risk of exposure.

The Salisbury Poisoning’s final scenes were filmed the week before the UK went into lockdown in March, before post-production work was completed remotely to deliver the show, which debuted on BBC1 last night and continues tonight and tomorrow.

“There are definite parallels between what happened in Salisbury – with the poisoning, the invisible threat, the contagion and the sense of lockdown – and today,” Bowen says. “We were extremely careful, but we felt that, with the story of Salisbury, there’s such catharsis in watching it. In the end, it’s a story about resilience and bravery and, apart from one awful tragedy with Dawn, it’s about people pulling through and coming out the other side. We felt, for all those reasons, it was timely to show it.”

That the real-life incident drew attention outside the UK means distributor Fremantle is confident the miniseries will also interest international audiences. “This series is based on true events that made headlines around the globe. While audiences will remember these headlines, they will learn a completely new side: the story of ordinary people who became heroes overnight,” says Jens Richter, Fremantle CEO of international.

“International broadcasters have been incredibly impressed by the series, which has been told with upmost care by our partners Laurence and Chris [Carey] at Dancing Ledge.”

Filled with tension as Daszkiewicz tries to contain the threat while other characters are unknowingly contaminated by the poison, the drama’s main objective is to “get under the skin of a group of people who were collateral damage to this extraordinary event,” says Dibb. “The key thing is this is a story that I don’t think can be easily pigeonholed into one thing or another. That’s one of its great strengths.”

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True romance

The search for marital bliss leads two couples along a deadly path to criminality in French-Canadian drama C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married). DQ hears about the show from stars François Létourneau and Marilyn Castonguay and director Jean-François Rivard.

From its opening scene, which begins with the discovery of four dead bodies floating face-down in a bloodied swimming pool, to interview scenes cut straight out of a documentary and the claim it is based on a book, it’s difficult to place French-Canadian drama C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married).

As the 10-part series unfolds, it seems there’s nothing conventional about this “almost true” story of the Sainte-Foy killers in the 1970s.

Blending crime and relationship drama with Coen Brothers humour, the series introduces two couples in crisis, who are confronted by their failing relationships after dropping off their children at summer camp. At a time when divorce is still taboo, their path to marital bliss leads them down a murderous path, turning ordinary suburbanites into Quebec’s most infamous criminals.

Yet it’s to the show’s credit that the characters – Gaétan and Huguette Delisle and Serge and Micheline Paquette – remain entirely endearing and likeable as they find an unhealthy way to inject some excitement into their mundane lives.

The Radio-Canada Télé series, produced by Productions Casablanca and distributed by Cineflix Rights, comes from writer François Létourneau, who also stars as Gaétan. It’s his latest partnership with director Jean-François Rivard, the pair having previously written Les Invincibles and Série Noire together. Tackling the writing alone this time out, Létourneau admits Happily Married is quite different from his previous work.

L-R: Patrice Robitaille, François Létourneau, Marilyn Castonguay and Karine Gonthier-Hyndman in Happily Married

“Maybe it’s more personal,” he says. “It’s a crazy story, rooted in some childhood memories of growing up in Sainte-Foy. My parents had a very difficult relationship. I went to summer camp and, when I came back, they announced they were getting a divorce. I could draw from my own experience, but my parents did not kill anyone – they were very nice people!”

Gaétan is a frustrated man at home and at work, where he has a seemingly important job but is always forgotten or ignored by his colleagues. This leads him to find some semblance of power through an affair with Micheline (Karine Gonthier-Hyndman), under the nose of Serge (Patrice Robitaille).

Equally frustrated is Huguette (Marilyn Castonguay), Gaétan’s pregnant wife who appears to be the perfect housewife. Huguette’s first murderous steps empower her to take charge of her husband and their friends in establishing their life of crime.

“I’m trapped in my little life,” Létourneau says of his character. “When Huguette becomes a criminal, we all follow her; and because I’m frustrated in my life, the criminality becomes a gateway to something new. It’s like that also for Micheline and Serge. We’re all a little bit trapped. Our lives are boring.

“At the beginning of the show, I felt everyone could relate to sometimes feeling trapped and that your life lacks excitement. The story starts slowly. We’re not in the criminal world, so we feel for the characters; we like them. We also chose very sympathetic actors like Patrice and Marilyn. Then afterwards we can follow their crazy story. We won’t accept everything they will do, but we know why they’re doing it. Every time in the story we kill somebody or we do something bad, there’s always a good reason, except maybe in the end. But it’s not gratuitous.”

The drama sees two seemingly ordinary couples turn to crime

Castonguay (L’Affaire Dumont) says it’s rare to see a character like Huguette on screen, mixing power with sensitivity. “She wants to be a modern wife, a modern woman and to be able to do things by herself. And she doesn’t like her husband anymore because whatever she does to be a modern woman, he always brings her back to the ground,” the actor says.

“She tries to discover new things and that’s why she goes to criminality. But it’s not her fault – it’s René [Rémi-Pierre Paquin]. He sees the ‘eye of the tiger’ in her eyes and wants her to kill someone. She tries it once and thinks she can’t do it. After that, she sees the guy she is supposed to kill again and thinks it’s a sign, so she decides to go back and kill him.”

When she auditioned for the role of Huguette, Castonguay self-recorded a tape featuring just three scenes, without having any knowledge of the overall story. But she didn’t get a call back – instead, Létourneau immediately cast her in the role.

“We see her sad with her husband and her life. She’s a nice girl. Even if she kills people, she’s still a nice girl. I think we should love her and support her,” she continues. “Before, she’s just a sheep. Micheline is powerful and free, but not Huguette is not. She’s alone and pregnant, and her husband’s having an affair with her best friend.

“After that, Micheline, Gaétan and Serge see Huguette differently and she becomes a leader. It’s an interesting road. She becomes a free woman and the leader of the group, whereas before she was just a little, scared woman. It’s the way for her to be free, to be this modern woman. It’s not the right way, but it’s the way she takes to be free. She has a real talent for it.”

François Létourneau (right), who plays Gaétan, is the show’s writer

For such a dark subject, the central premise is treated very lightly, with the aforementioned humour coming from a mixture of satire and farce. “I can’t write anything except something a little funny,” Létourneau says. “But the series is not always funny. What’s underneath is quite tragic. The comedy is there, but there are no funny lines. We’re trying to be true to the situation. In the writing, it’s delicate so the humour comes naturally.”

The rapid 65-day shoot took place in Montreal, which doubled for Sainte-Foy in Quebec, where both Létourneau and Rivard are originally from. Recreating the 1970s proved difficult on a tight budget, which was slightly more than the region’s average of C$600,000 (US$440,000) an episode.

“I knew we wouldn’t have enough money,” the writer recalls, “so when I told my producer I was writing a story in the 1970s, she said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I felt it had to take place in that period. It was a moment in Quebec where getting a divorce was complicated and rare. That’s central to my story. Now, I guess they would just split up. But when I wrote it, I tried not to add too many locations. A lot of it takes place in the houses. I tried to write something that would not be too expansive – but it was too expansive!”

Director Rivard picks up: “If the character opens a cupboard or the fridge, everything inside has to be from the 70s. When I was reading it, I was like, ‘Oh shit, oh no, oh my god.’ Everyone was like, ‘It’s just a few locations.’ But we have to dress those locations, and all the things they are using need to be made. We had such a wonderful art department – they were able to recreate those mustards, ketchups and toothpastes from the time – but that was a big challenge.”

The tight filming schedule, averaging six days per episode, meant there were limited opportunities for multiple takes, while block shooting meant scenes were filmed out of sequence to maximise the time available in each location.

Létourneau and Rivard provided a personal touch behind the camera, writing and directing all episodes respectively. “You see it from episode to episode, it’s the two same guys,” Létourneau says. “It’s not like a big series where there’s a new director every episode and there are 16 writers. I like that. It gives it a personal flavour. It’s less like an industry, it’s more like art.”

“We’ve been working together for 20 years and did our first series [Les Invincibles] the same way,” Rivard adds. “When I’m writing with François, I’m preparing at the same time. But with this one, I had all that material to get into my head and process it really quickly. If it was another writer, maybe I would fuck it up. But with François I was in the best place.”

Having received its world premiere at Berlinale earlier this year, Happily Married was recently picked up by fledgling French streamer Salto. With its off-beat tone and mix of dramatic and comedic elements, the series is sure to be universally relatable to audiences watching two couples’ frustrations with their lives, if not their murderous actions.

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Along the Road

Stars Aaron Pedersen and Sofia Helin discuss making the second season of Australian drama Mystery Road, the journey of protagonist Jay Swan and bringing Aboriginal stories to the screen.

When Swedish star Sofia Helin (The Bridge) was offered the chance to co-star alongside Aaron Pedersen in the second season of Australian drama Mystery Road, it wasn’t a difficult decision.

“I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything because I had been too busy, but then this came along,” Helin remembers. “I watched Aaron’s two films [in which he played Mystery Road’s main character before the series was created] first and I was so blown away. This man is one of our biggest actors. That’s the truth. I’ve never seen anyone doing a portrait of an alcoholic like Aaron. You have to see those two films. Then I saw the first season and my husband said, ‘I’m sorry Sofia, you need to go.’ It was not a hard decision. It was a lovely decision.”

It has been a long journey to this point for Pedersen and his character Detective Jay Swan, who first appeared in writer/director Ivan Sen’s 2013 film Mystery Road, about an Indigenous police officer who returns to the outback to investigate the murder of a young girl. He reprised the role in Sen’s 2016 follow-up Goldstone, in which Swan arrives in the eponymous town ostensibly to solve a missing-person case but ends up unravelling a web of conspiracy and lies.

Then in 2018, the character moved to television in the Mystery Road series, which is set in the time between the two films. Season one sees Swan working alongside Judy Davis’s police sergeant to solve the disappearance of two young farmhands from an outback cattle station, leading them to uncover drug trafficking and a historic injustice that threatens the fabric of the community.

Earlier this year, following its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, the second season of the atmospheric and visceral series premiered on Australian broadcaster ABC. This time, the discovery of a headless corpse leads Swan to take on a grisly case in a coastal town to be closer to his family, but he soon uncovers secrets, lies and a dangerous new enemy.

Sofia Helin as Professor Claire Sims in season two of Mystery Road

Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country) and Wayne Blair (Top End Wedding) directed the six-part series in Western Australia’s picturesque Dampier Peninsular and Broome. Its cast also includes Jada Alberts, Callan Mulvey, Tasma Walton, Rob Collins, Ngaire Pigram, Mark Mitchinson, Ursula Yovich, Rhimi Johnson, Gary Sweet, Fletcher Humphrys, Joel Jackson, John Brumpton, Eve Morey, Stan Yarramunua and Tasia Zalar.

The Bunya Productions series scooped a number of awards for its first season, most notably being named best television drama at both the Australian Academy Awards and the Logies, with Pedersen also twice scoring best actor nominations. All3Media International is the distributor.

“It’s interesting because the first film, Ivan wrote for me, and then I wanted to do a second one. But we had this chasm between the last shot of Mystery Road and the first shot of Goldstone, and a lot seemed to have happened in between,” Pedersen tells DQ about the origins of the series. “I’m standing with my family on the side of the road at the end of Mystery Road, and then Goldstone opens and I’m very drunk, being pulled over by a police officer. There’s this chasm of life that had taken place. We said, ‘Let’s put the TV series in between the two films.’

“I knew there was a lot to play with because there were a lot of questions being asked about what had happened to Jay, what the journey was and what happened to his personal life, because it looked like, at the end of Mystery Road, things were going alright [for him]. It looked like he was going to get his family back together. Then when we started Goldstone, it looked like it had fallen apart.”

With the story of Mystery Road unfolding between the films’ time periods, the challenge for Pedersen comes in taking his character to the point at which he appears in Goldstone. But the actor says every story that features Swan is also a “conversation” between the character and Australia, examining the country’s history of colonisation and brutal treatment of Aboriginal people.

The Australian drama stars Aaron Pedersen as Detective Jay Swan

“It’s about how we treat each other and how we belong in each other’s world, but how we also see ourselves in that world, whether we accept it or whether we don’t,” Pedersen explains.

“That’s a big part of it. Australia has always had a silent history and likes to not talk too much about the past, because it’s a dark history. But then, the world over, humans are like that anyway. I just love the fact that we get to have that conversation with Australia. We don’t like to force-feed people, we don’t like to signpost [issues]. I always treat my audiences intelligently, because I believe that when you do that, they see that and they take away something you would never even have thought of within the structure of the film or the TV series.

“Our stories are long overdue; they have never been told, and it’s about time. People have an appetite for it. They want to hear our side of the story. We’ve got interesting stories, and the storyline that crosses over with Sofia’s is very interesting.”

In season two of Mystery Road, Helin co-stars alongside Pedersen as Professor Claire Sims, an archaeologist carrying out a dig at a sacred site.

“If you sacrifice your home, family, life and friends – everything – and you stay in the Australian outback for months and years, you need to find something significant,” she says of her character. “In the end, she almost does everything to find something, because she gets greedy. Then she has to struggle with her conscience. It’s an interesting journey to go on.

“I imagined, ‘What if someone would come and dig up our graveyards? What would we say?’ I mean, it’s quite crazy to do that. At the same time she’s working, she has a group of protesters from the Aboriginal community around her. She thinks she’s doing the right thing and that she’s good. But she realises during the story that she’s not good, and there’s something criminal involved. The present and the past are crossing, and that puts her under pressure.”

Directors Wayne Blair (left) and Warwick Thornton on location

Pedersen describes the storyline as “brain versus heart,” with Helin’s professor using her scientific background to claim what she is doing is right, while those who have lived on the land for generations believe it’s wrong.

“With archaeological digs and with repatriation [of land to Indigenous communities] and stuff like that, there’s certainly going to be an argument for the ancestors, first and foremost,” he continues. “In past times, there’s never really been an argument for them, as somehow it belongs to the science. But then isn’t that our burial ground, doesn’t that belong to us? That was a burial ground before it became an archaeological site. I find that storyline really complicated, actually. It’s an international conversation.”

Helin says she’s never had a friendlier working environment than her three weeks filming in Broome, where she was welcomed with a traditional ceremony led by an Aboriginal community leader. Shooting was done out of chronological order, allowing Helin to fly in and complete her scenes in one block.

“The atmosphere was so friendly, so calm and so respectful – and so unstressful,” she says. “I asked the producers and the directors, ‘How do you do it?’ because it’s the ideal situation to have if you want to create something. Stress just destroys everything. I was super impressed.

“It was so hard to come back [home]. There’s something called ‘Broome Time,’ where time is not something that disappears. You don’t have to stress about everything. There’s even a line in the show that says, ‘There’s no such thing as time,’ and that’s so interesting to think about. When I got home, I started looking around, and we’re all in this prison of time. It’s crazy. The interesting thing is, even though we didn’t stress, we managed to get it done, and that was a magic trick. It was an inspiring and important cultural experience.”

Plans for another season of the show, and another film, are in the works

Meanwhile, Pedersen says there are still more things he wants to say and more conversations he wants to have via his character, meaning Mystery Road 2 won’t take Detective Swan right up to the time explored in Goldstone.

“Ivan wants to do another film. They’re already in the writing room for the third season. We’re moving forward with it,” he reveals. “There are conversations I want to have with the country. I’m trying to make the next generation live stronger and better than the last, and that’s through storytelling, because a lot of people didn’t have these stories before. Now they have them. Jay’s come alive. It was just one film at one point; now, there’s a second film, a second season, and we’re doing another film and talking about another season.

“In Goldstone, I have lost my daughter, so when we reach [that point in the series], they’ll play with the darkness of it all. And I’ll be ready for it. I don’t get tortured by it. It’s very cathartic. It’s therapy in some ways.

“I feel like if I’m giving it to people and sharing it with people, I’m not wasting my time. For some reason, a lot of people are taking something from it, and that’s the strength of art. Otherwise, you do torture yourself. I’m never tortured by my characters. My characters are very dark, but they make me very light. I feel lighter every time I do something; I feel wiser.”

With networks around the world picking up Mystery Road, Pedersen says there’s one message that needs to be shared: “Respect land, respect people,” he concludes. “That’s probably the big thing in it. That’s what we don’t do enough.”

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Dramatising Windrush

Sitting in Limbo director Stella Corradi explains how she brought to television the true story of one man’s fight to remain in the UK against the backdrop of the Windrush immigration scandal.

At one point during BBC single drama Sitting in Limbo, an immigration official tells Anthony Bryan: “It’s just routine.” Yet there is nothing routine about his story, or those of many people like him, who became caught up in the Windrush immigration scandal.

After coming to the UK when he was eight years old, Anthony decides to visit his elderly mother in Jamaica. But after filling out a passport application, he is stunned to discover there is no record of him as a British citizen, despite living and working in the country since 1965.

Faced with the uphill task of proving his British citizenship to the Immigration Office, he is forced to leave his job and unable to claim benefits. Then in the early hours of one morning, he is forcibly removed from his home and sent to a detention centre to await possible deportation.

Anthony’s experience, a true story, put him at the centre of what became known as the Windrush scandal, which takes its name from a reference to the ship that brought the first workers from Caribbean countries to the UK following the Second World War. An estimated 500,000 people arrived between 1948 and 1971.

Granted indefinite leave to remain, the new arrivals included thousands of children travelling with their parents and without documents of their own. But changes to UK immigration laws in 2012 meant those without papers were asked for evidence of their citizenship to continue working and even remain in the country.

Some were subsequently detained or deported, prompting huge criticism of the government’s “hostile environment” measures to tackle illegal immigration.

Sitting in Limbo tells the true story of Anthony Bryan, played by Patrick Robinson (second from left)

The TV retelling of Anthony’s struggle to be accepted as a British citizen, which debuts tonight, was written by his brother, Stephen S Thompson, and directed by Stella Corradi (Trigonometry). Casualty star Patrick Robinson plays Anthony, opposite Nadine Marshall (Save Me) as his partner Janet McKay-Williams.

“If you’ve been living here for 50 years and you have your whole life here, when someone tells you that you don’t, that you have no right to be here, that just has to be a mistake,” Corradi tells DQ.

“It was put to them that if they provided enough documentation to prove that his whole life was in the UK, it would somehow be resolved. But what they were asked for was almost impossible to get, like tenancy agreements from the 1970s or school records that are destroyed every few years. They targeted a certain generation that didn’t have the abilities that we might have in terms of computer research or online information, even bank account statements. Not everyone that age is online. All these things were used to take advantage of the Windrush generation.”

The director can relate to Anthony’s story through her own similar experience. Corradi was born in Italy and came to live with her grandmother in the UK when she was five.

“As I was pitching for the project, I was sorting out my Settled Status as a European citizen here [after Brexit],” she reveals. “Even though I’d been here 28 years, I had to have documentation for every month of the past five years. My daughter was born here but, because both me and my husband are European citizens, she didn’t have UK status. So until we had our Settled Status, she was basically stateless.

“When I came here as a child, I lived in Hackney [in East London] and my grandma was a musician, so I was supported by a West Indian family. I had a grandfather figure who came on the Windrush and he basically raised me. We were very close. He died a year before I started this project, but that was another thing that really connected me to it in the sense that he would have probably gone through the same thing, because I knew he didn’t have his passport. So Anthony’s story felt very close, like this could be someone from my family, or this could be any of us, really.”

The single drama is directed by Stella Corradi

The real Anthony was raised in the same area as Corradi, and they shared stories together of growing up there. “When I came over here, the Caribbean community was as British as you could get,” she remembers. “That’s the community that opened their doors for my friends, and I’d eat at their houses. For me, it was a parallel to being British. You couldn’t be more British. Everyone was shocked about the Windrush generation specifically being targeted in this hostile environment.”

Throughout the film, which is produced by Left Bank Pictures (The Crown) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, Sitting in Limbo asks questions of identity, what it means to be British and whether that notion is something more than a piece of paper.

“It’s not about who has the right, legal or illegal. It’s how you feel. It’s your identity,” Corradi says. “If you identify as British, then it’s a betrayal when you’re told you’re not. I feel British. Yes, I’m Italian. I was born in Italy, I speak Italian and I have family there, but I wouldn’t be able to have a life there. It’s a scary thought that someone thinks I should go back there, and that’s the same thing with a lot of people.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re born, there are some people who were here as children, raised here as British and are expected to go back to Jamaica where they have no connections and are just expected to fix themselves up and live a life there. It’s not only a betrayal, it’s inhumane.”

Corradi met with executive producer Lila Rawlings, who had developed the project with Thompson, and landed the directing job by demonstrating her passion for telling Anthony’s story and her vision to dramatise it in a cinematic way. “Visually, it’s quite different from other BBC1 dramas. It’s not your like typical social realist drama,” says the director, who reunited with cinematographer Rina Yang after they worked together for Channel 4 drama anthology On the Edge. Together, they agreed this wasn’t just Anthony’s story but also that of his partner Janet, who supports the family when he is unable to work and while he is detained.

Anthony’s partner Janet (played by Nadine Marshall, right) also has a key role in the story

“She has to take up the helm and she has to become very legally savvy. She gets lawyers and gets injunction against his deportation and builds this case herself,” Corradi says. “The Windrush generation are not allowed to work. They don’t have the right to claim any benefits and they don’t have rights to legal aid, so they can’t build a case to defend themselves. It’s quite a horrible system to find yourself in, but Janet managed to get it sorted. Anthony wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Janet fighting on the outside. So the film becomes a two-hander.

“Nadine Marshall, who plays Janet, is just amazing. She is phenomenal. Every single take she did was just fantastic and you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s just one of those phenomenal actresses I don’t think has been valued enough on British TV.”

As viewers follow Anthony through the immigration system, the camera successfully conveys the stress and frustration caused by the constant demand for more paperwork and a lack of answers or resolution. Corradi says series such as Mindhunter and Mr Robot inspired the numerous bleak interview and meeting scenes between Anthony and the various officials he meets, which also stand in stark contrast to the warmth and colour of the family gatherings that bookend the film.

“You get a sense of the warmth and the closeness of the family, so when he’s ripped out of that, you’re taken with him and thrown into the cold world of the detention centre,” Corradi says.

“There’s not much handheld camerawork, it’s not gritty. It’s quite smooth and cinematic, with high angles over him. It creeps in; it’s very calculated. That sounds manipulative, but it’s how we work. You [come up with a] shot list, you plan it and then you see if it works. We changed things around a lot in the edit. It was more or less a jigsaw – we were just moving bits and bobs about. You always tell the story the third time in the edit.”

Sitting in Limbo debuts on BBC1 tonight

Filming was “stressful,” the director recalls, owing to a short schedule that sometimes called for seven-and-a-half pages of the script to be completed in a single day. The drama was largely filmed on location across North London, while prison scenes were recorded at the disused Canterbury Prison in Kent and clifftop scenes outside the detention centre were filmed at island prison The Verne, in Dorset, where Anthony was actually detained.

One of the biggest challenges of producing a single drama is balancing character development with plot, with only the opening scenes to introduce Anthony and his family before he is pulled into the immigration system.

“We want to get to know them and see what normal life is like. But there is so much that happens that we did drop a few scenes from that initial 20 minutes we had to get into the drama,” Corradi explains.

“Now you get to know Anthony and the family through the struggle. You’ve got this lovely party scene first, and you feel the warmth and get a sense of the relationship and the romance. Another thing I really love about this film is the relationship between Janet and Anthony. They’re of a certain age, and you don’t see that kind of sexy romance with people of that age on TV, so it starts with them. They have gone through something difficult but they will always be close and will always be together. Not a lot of families were so lucky.”

Corradi hopes viewers will come away from the film with a connection to the family, seeing something of themselves in them and empathising with their struggle. “I want to them to put themselves in someone’s shoes and step out of that way of thinking, ‘This would never happen to me because I’m British or because I’m white.’ I want everybody to connect and say, ‘Well, what if this was our family, would we stand by this? Would we be outraged?’”

She adds: “It’s about asking ourselves those questions, but also enjoying it as a drama and being on the emotional roller coaster with them.”

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Head scratcher

Director Jorge Dorado, executive producer Ran Tellem and the cast of The Head open up about filming the Spanish-made thriller, which is set at a remote scientific laboratory in Antarctica.

For viewers emerging from the lockdowns imposed around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, there could not be a more timely moment for a series that explores themes of isolation, loneliness and claustrophobia in one of the most remote places in the world.

But that is only half the story of The Head, a Spanish-made survival thriller that blends horror, mystery and crime in a story set at a scientific research station in Antarctica. When the summer crew departs Polaris VI, 10 people are left to continue working through the long, dark winter. But six months later, the summer crew returns to find seven dead bodies, two people missing and just one survivor – who may be a murderer.

Produced and distributed by The Mediapro Studios in association with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, the international series is written by brothers David and Álex Pastor (The Occupant), who created the show. Directed by Jorge Dorado (The Pier), it features actors from six countries and a storyline that plays out in the English, Danish and Spanish languages.

“It’s a thriller but, at the same time, it’s a ‘whodunnit’ because the story unfolds in two timelines. In one of them, you follow the struggle of these 10 people trying to survive the winter and stay alive,” explains Ran Tellem, executive producer and head of international development at Mediapro. “Then, in the other timeline, it’s about a person desperately looking for his wife, hoping that she’s still alive. In order to do that, he needs to understand what has happened and who has done it – who killed all these people and why.”

Star Alexander Willaume (left) talks to director Jorge Dorado on set

Johan Berg, played by Alexander Willaume (Below the Surface), is the audience’s guide through the story. Arriving at the Polaris to take command of the summer crew, he finds most of the winter crew dead and his wife, Annika (Laura Bach, Sprinter Galore), missing. If he wants to find her alive, Johan will have to trust Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly, Mary Queen of Scots), the young doctor who is profoundly shaken and apparently the sole survivor.

When he is told police won’t arrive for several days, Johan begins his own investigation into what happened, as Maggie’s story takes him back to the final weeks of the winter where the discovery of a headless body in the snow kickstarts a bloody chain of events.

“The really cool thing about it is before you reach the last five minutes of the show, you are not going to know anything,” Tellem tells DQ. “You think you might know but we believe you have to watch it until the end to really understand the story, the logic behind it and why it was done that way.

“Unlike other shows, here you have the score of the game after 10 minutes. Johan says, ‘I have seven dead bodies. I have two missing people.’ You know what has happened. So how interesting can it be to tell you what you already know?

“What the writers have done beautifully, and what the actors and Jorge have made so powerfully, is that even if you know what happened, there are so many things to find out about each character that it becomes a thriller. The more you advance with the episodes, you feel like a blanket is closing in on you, and you want to know the truth and you want to know the answer. And the pressure mounts.”

The research lab where the show unfolds was constructed in a warehouse in Tenerife

Dorado admits he was initially worried about helming the high-concept series, not wanting it to become a formulaic thriller. That’s why he was determined to keep The Head grounded in reality, with the scripts avoiding any supernatural or sci-fi resolution to what unfolds through the six episodes.

“My goal was to work really hard to make the audience feel this is real – [to feel like] this is something that really happened in Antarctica,” he says. “I want the audience to suffer with the characters. That’s what I tried to do from the very beginning. It’s a broken story where you have to put all the pieces together like a puzzle, so I worked with Ran and the writers to work out who the characters are and the different faces they have.”

The initial idea came from former Mediapro exec David Troncoso, who had spent time in the South Pole and wanted to create a series about a group of scientists left alone in Antarctica who suddenly find a severed head belonging to one of the group and don’t know what to do next.

The series was pitched at French television event Series Mania three years ago, while the creators and co-writer Isaac Sastre spent a week in Barcelona working over the initial story, researching life in Antarctica and speaking to a Spanish scientist who had been a research station commander at the South Pole for two winters.

“When David and Alex submit a draft script, it already looks like the show,” Tellem says. “The rhythm is very precise. The descriptions are very good. You can actually see the show. When we had six of the eight episodes, luck struck me and I found my beloved Jorge. He had a very clear vision of how he wanted to shoot the show and how it should look. He wanted to build the whole base. He handled everything from the final polish of the script to the casting, the design, the directing and the editing.”

The plot revolves around the deaths and disappearances of a crew of scientists

Though the series is Spanish made, its outlook was global from the outset, reflecting the real make-up of an international research station that employs people from all over the world. First aboard the Polaris was Bach, closely followed by her on-screen husband Willaume. The cast also includes O’Donnelly, John Lynch, Tomohisa Yamashita, Richard Sammel, Chris Reilly, Sandra Andreis, Amelia Hoy, Tom Lawrence and La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) star Álvaro Morte.

Dorado wrote outlines for each character for the actors, and also outlined their relationships to the other characters, who have all worked together before and each carry their own secrets and burdens. Then, to bring the actors closer to their characters during rehearsals, he compared each one to a specific animal.

“Johan is an elephant, because he’s strong and big but goes really slow. Or you’re an eagle because you observe everything,” the director explains. “It’s a technique they use in drama school, so they liked that and understood what it means. That was a really fun part of the process. I also wanted them to feel free to introduce their countries and their cultures, so they were free to change small things in the script. I remember John Lynch was meant to say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ He said, ‘Can I say ‘I don’t give a monkey’s’ because it’s more British?’ so he changed that.”

The actors also all took part in psychological evaluations, giving answers as their characters might in an attempt to completely understand their parts  – a process that was further enhanced when they walked onto the fully realised, 2,000 square-metre set of the Polaris inside a giant warehouse on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Working with production designer Alain Bainée, Dorado wanted the station to be not just the setting of the story but also a character, much like the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.

Katharine O’Donnelly plays Mary, the sole survivor

“There is something about a place that has been built for 100 people when there’s only 10 people living there,” he says. “It’s tiny, with small corridors and small rooms but you go to the dining room and you feel the loneliness in that huge space.”

Shooting also took place aboard an oil rig, which doubled for the Polaris’s kitchen, mess hall and some corridors. Towards the end of the 12-week shoot last summer, the cast and crew moved to Iceland, where they filmed the Antarctic exteriors.

“The big advantage being in Tenerife is it’s a small place and we were all staying in the same hotel,” Tellem says. “So the feeling of community and being together was very, very strong. The hardest order the cast was given was ‘do not tan,’ because this was classic Tenerife weather. Every day, the sun was shining. The beaches are perfect but these guys are from the South Pole. You need to keep your pale skin tone. So I think the hardest thing for them was not to get a glimpse of sun. It’s the only thing they missed from Tenerife, enjoying the sun while they were in lockdown a bit earlier than the rest of us.”

Speaking about his role as Johan, who is desperately seeking answers over his wife’s disappearance, Willaume says The Head “is a very big story confined in a very little area – and I fucking love it!

“These are not police officers trying to figure things out,” he continues. “These are real people connected to the place and trying to solve a problem. Every corner he turns, there’s a new possibility, truth or lie that keeps you interested. You keep on being fed all this information about what might have happened. He has to connect the dots and, on a personal level, find his wife and his friends. There are no aliens, nothing comes in to solve it in a weird way. This is all down to the magnificent way of telling a story and keeping the audience interested. It’s a constant mindfuck.”

The Head features an international cast speaking multiple languages

Annika’s dilemma at the start of the series is being in a male-dominated field where Lynch’s character Arthur has taken credit for their previous work together. “The interesting part is the extent to which one will go to reach justice,” Bach says of her character.

“When Johan comes to find her, he’s not only finding his wife but unravelling a truth. That’s what makes this so well written and so interesting, and very different from normal crime thrillers. Everyone has got some secrets they are trying to hide. You peel back the layers and you have no idea what to expect. This is about what we do for the people we love, injustice and what we do not to reveal everything to other people. There’s so much in there for the audience.”

Lynch’s Arthur, meanwhile, is seen as the superstar of the Polaris’ winter crew. “He’s a lauded, honoured biologist,” the actor says. “He’s a fast-disappearing white male. He’s ego-driven, seedy and has tremendous intellect and charisma. There are rumours about him and younger lab assistants, but his behaviour is swept under the carpet because he keeps making discoveries.

“We find everybody is linked. It’s not the first mission they have been on together. They are all linked by past events. It’s interesting when the past is the enemy. Each character is carrying a burden from an event deep in the past, and the script delivered complexity in spades.”

Lynch, who has also appeared in The Fall and Tin Star, says the cast knew the whole story from the beginning, “which actually helped us. We knew everything about everybody.” The advantage of knowing everything about everyone, he says, is that the cast found themselves less restricted on set.

“As long as we were clear about the timeline emotionally and otherwise, we could play a little bit with it,” he adds. “We came up with moments on set that were spontaneous and added to the deeper history of my character. That’s testament to Jorge.”

Bach says the cast fed off the director’s energy. “It’s contagious,” she says. “This is a team effort, and everybody’s giving their very best in the moment. The timelines, so many characters, it all comes together. It’s so beautiful. This is storytelling at its finest and then some.”

The Head promises to complete its story before the final credits, and with most of the characters discovered dead in the first episode, there isn’t much hope for a second season. The series debuts on June 12 on OrangeTV in Spain, Hulu Japan and in 26 countries via HBO Asia. It will also air on France’s Canal+, NENT Group platforms across Scandinavia and Globoplay in Brazil.

“I would love to do a second season, which has to be a different story and can take place in the same place with the same rules, but we will need to think of a different cast and a different storyline,” Telem adds.

“The good thing about The Head, and something we insisted on when we developed the show, is viewers watching from episode one to six will not be left hanging in the air. You get all the answers to all the questions. It’s a fulfilling experience to watch to the end.”

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Make or break-up

Writer Clara Mendes and director Amalie Næsby Fick tell DQ how Danish shortform drama Sex charts a young woman’s journey through a complicated web of sexuality, gender and relationships.

For writers, the inspiration behind an idea for a series is often a personal experience. That was certainly the case for Clara Mendes, whose can trace the foundations of her six-part shortform drama Sex to a break-up she experienced when she was 22.

The series introduces Cathrine (Asta Kamma August), a young woman paralysed by conflicting emotions of confusion and desire. At home, she is in a relationship with Simon (Jonathan Bergholdt Jørgensen), who is her best friend but has lost his desire for sex. After staying late one night at the office where she works as a sex counsellor, she shares a drunken kiss with her colleague Selma (Nina Terese Rask) that leaves her torn between safe, familiar Simon and her new, exciting crush. And when Cathrine lies to protect the people she cares about, she ends up making the situation worse.

Produced by Profile Pictures for TV2 Denmark and distributed by Reinvent Studios, the drama was screened in full at Berlinale earlier this year. It marks the first series as lead writer for Mendes, who worked for Nordisk Film before joining the Danish Film School to study screenwriting in 2017.

“Two things happened when I was developing the series,” she tells DQ. “One, I was going through my first break-up. I was 22 at the time, and now I can see I was in the process of my own coming out, even though it’s not a coming-out story.

“I also became interested in the Danish sex information call centre Cathrine works at. I was fascinated by the fact it was young people in their 20s giving advice to other young people about sex, gender and body issues. Then the cliché about being better at giving advice than following your own seemed very true, and true to my own life and situation at the time.”

L-R: Sex writer Clara Mendes, producer Marta Mleczek and director Amalie Næsby Fick

While Mendes didn’t know exactly how the story would unfold when she first started writing, she was certain that Cathrine’s sexuality should not be the main focus of the series. “I knew what I was working with, and it was a fiction story, but I wasn’t fully aware of what lied behind it,” she continues.

“It would have been very nice for me growing up if, in all the stories about people being gay or bisexual, that was not the conflict of the story or something that made their friends shun them or their families cut them off. We tried to make Catrine’s fluid sexuality not the problem, but just part of the story.”

Developing the series for 18 months alongside producer Marta Mleczek, Mendes then found her creative match with director Amalie Næesby Fick, who agrees that Sex is the kind of show she wished she could have watched growing up.

“When I first read the script, it really shocked me. If this had been in my life as a reference for conversation in my life as a teenager, it would have meant the world, trying to nuance the whole language of sex and relationships and gender sexuality,” she explains.

“I also felt growing up that it was only gay characters portrayed and it was not as nuanced or fluid as sexuality really is. We wanted to do something relatable where sexuality is not a problem and where you can look up to these characters because they’re normal, relatable and cool but not out of this world.”

From the outset, Sex was always designed to be a shortform series, created in response to a call from TV2 for stories told in bite-size episodes. The format did not dictate the style or pace of the series, however, with Mendes and Næesby Fick wanting to focus on character and emotion and allowing time for the drama and humour to unfold slowly. They also paid particular attention to Cathrine’s environment, with the character living in a small apartment with Simon and working in an unremarkable call centre office.

The series centres on Cathrine (Asta Kamma August), who must choose between her boyfriend, Simon (Jonathan Bergholdt Jørgensen), and a new love interest

“That was super important for us because there are other shows in Denmark where young people are super rich, even though it’s not a part of the story,” the director says. “They just work in ordinary jobs, but they’re super rich and have a jet-setting lifestyle. That creates a distance [between the characters and the viewers], so we wanted to make it real in the sense of normal economics for young people. We also did not have makeup artist on the set, so there’s no makeup at all, only when they’re at a party – and then they did the makeup themselves.”

Central to the series is Cathrine, who features in every scene. Mendes describes her as “ordinary,” adding: “She’s full of flaws but she means the best. She has a hard time talking about the hard stuff and she’s very shy of conflict, so she avoids it all through the show.

“She has all these conflicted feelings about being rejected by her partner and being attracted to someone else. Instead of taking the bull by the horns, she avoids talking about what’s really hurting her and how much in doubt she is about everything. She’s trying to figure it out herself but she just ends up hurting everyone, including herself.”

On casting the role of Cathrine, Næesby Fick adds: “It was especially important for us to cast an actor who was very likeable, warm and humorous because the character is actually fucking up from episode one and doing many unsympathetic things – not by choice, but they just happen. Asta is just an amazing talent. It was also easy to have her in every scene because she’s so, so good.”

Like Mendes, Næesby Fick’s work on Sex marked her first on a TV drama, having previously worked in animation. She admits to being nervous at the prospect of the busy three-week shoot but says her “wonderful” team made the process stress-free.

The love triangle is completed by Selma (Nina Terese Rask, right)

“It became a very personal project for all of us,” the director continues. “It was very much about sharing different, vulnerable and funny stories from our own youth. We quickly became this unit, all of us collaborating.

“I was also nervous about how to do the sex scenes, but we made a decision that Asta would have the final cut. It’s not normally done like that, but it was very important this was a collaboration, and she’s putting so much of herself and her body into this. I was so nervous of crossing some of her own personal limits, but knowing that, in the editing room, we could just remove things if there were any problems was nice for her and for me.”

As an increasing number of productions utilise intimacy coordinators and place more emphasis on how sex scenes are filmed, Næesby Fick says Sex’s intimate moments were choreographed in detail beforehand with just the fully dressed actors and the cinematographer present so everybody knew how they would play out.

“We don’t want to objectify the body,” she adds. “We want to be with [Cathrine’s] emotions in the sex scenes. That was a very good experience for all of the actors and myself.”

Mendes emphasises that the emotion of the characters in a particular moment is more important than the sex itself. “Showing sex scenes was a natural part of the story, but it was very important for me that every sex scene had a turning point for Cathrine,” she says.

“All the emotions came out of having or not having sex. That’s the exciting thing,” Næesby Fick adds. “‘Sex’ is a very clickbait title, – ‘Relationship’ or ‘Sexual Emotions’ would be a very crappy title.”

A second season of the shortform show is in the works

Filming took place on location across Copenhagen, including at the city’s real sex-focused call centre that contributed to a lot of Mendes’s research. The most challenging element of the series wasn’t in production, however, but in ensuring that Cathrine and Simon’s relationship was one viewers would root for.

“We didn’t want to make the choice [Cathrine has between Simon and Selma] too easy,” the writer says. “They had to have a relationship that was worth fighting for, even though someone else appears exciting, new and shiny. It was hard to make that relationship believable and flawed. But we had to build all the characters so they weren’t just functions in Cathrine’s story.”

Næesby Fick says the duo faced a lot of questions about Simon’s character, largely based on an assumption that if he didn’t want sex, he must be either impotent or gay. “Those were the only two options people could think of if a guy doesn’t want to have sex, so [his character] became more important to us,” she explains.

“The thing where a guy should want to have sex all the time and a woman should want to have sex when the man wants to have sex – that whole way of thinking was important for us [to address]. When we met Jonathan, who plays Simon, he was just the right balance of having this very calm energy that Cathrine doesn’t have, while not being boring. That was the hardest part, but it was made a lot easier when we met Jonathan.”

Mendes and Næesby Fick are now planning season two, which is set to focus on Nanna (Sara Fanta Traore), Cathrine’s best friend, while Reinvent Studios is in talks to send Sex into more than 100 territories worldwide.

“I hope it’s a universal story,” Mendes says of the show’s international appeal. “That’s what we tried to make – a story about how hard relationships, close relationships and monogamous relationships are to maintain.

“Cathrine loves her boyfriend. She’s just also falling in love with someone else, and the story is about not being able to talk about the hard stuff. If she was able to share her mixed emotions, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much. That’s something we hope all audiences will take from it, as well as the part about how sexuality is fluid and complicated, not just one thing and not black or white.

“All these assumptions we have about the sexuality of men and the sexuality of women, and how the relationship and the dynamic should be between them, may be also be why it’s so hard to talk about,” Mendes adds. “We just hope people see this and maybe feel a little bit less wrong about themselves and how they’re flawed or making the wrong choices, because we also want there to be hope.”

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Testing times

Operation Buffalo writer and director Peter Duncan tells DQ how he mixed authentic detail with satirical humour to dramatise the true story of British nuclear testing in South Australia.

In Australia in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, British atomic bomb testing took place at Maralinga, a remote region of the outback in South Australia. Seven tests were carried out in total, the first four under the name Operation Buffalo, which now lends itself to the title of a six-part drama that mixes real events with fictional characters.

The series, which debuted in Australia on ABC last night and is distributed by APC, introduces Major Leo Carmichael, an Australian army engineer and Second World War hero charged with keeping the nuclear base running smoothly. But testing the world’s most dangerous weapon is not an easy task with a commanding officer who is not fit for the job; a meteorologist, Dr Eva Lloyd-George, who is starting to ask questions; and a government and press watching their every move. And it soon emerges that the land of Maralinga may not be as uninhabited as it seems.

Peter Duncan
(photo: Toby Burrows)

Operation Buffalo opens with the header, ‘This is a work of historical fiction but a lot of the really bad history actually happened,’ which serves as a nod to co-creator, writer and director Peter Duncan’s approach to developing the series along two tracks: don’t get the historical facts wrong, and keep it entertaining.

Certainly, the characters appear to be more than hapless at times and don’t immediately instil the sort of confidence you would expect from those in charge of testing deadly weapons.

“You could tell this story in a different way. You could tell it in a way that was pretty bleak and depressing,” the Rake creator tells DQ on the phone from his home in Sydney. “There was a sense, at every level, of betrayal of the Australian government by the British government – and by the Australian government of its soldiers and the First People [Aboriginal Australians who lived on land at Maralinga]. But that approach has never been in my nature; it’s not my thing.

“I had done some satire in the past in my movies and it occurred to me this was an act of madness, allowing the UK to bomb Australia, and the way the Australians administered it was pretty appalling. I turned to a film like [Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy] Dr Strangelove and thought, ‘That’s how you tell this story.’ You add personal madness into it, albeit through fictional characters, and create the circumstance for a hero [Leo Carmichael] you just throw problems at in every episode.”

Comparisons can also be made to Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s iconic, sprawling and absurd war novel that was recently adapted as a TV drama.

“That was and remains one of my favourite books. What Heller captured in his book was that madness, that this is crazy,” Duncan says. “It was front of mind. But it was still more Strangelove for me because of the look of it, though it’s not in black and white. There’s something about being out there in the desert that feeds madness.”

Duncan was approached with the idea for the series by Porchlight Films, the prodco led by Vincent Sheehan and Tanya Phegan, who created the series with Duncan. Immediately drawn to the real-life foundations of the story, Duncan wrote a pitch for the ABC, setting out his vision for a show full of laughs and one that wouldn’t be relentlessly sad.

“The ABC probably has 12 million scripts about Maralinga lurking in its filing cabinets, but they liked the fact this would be engaging television and would encourage viewers to keep watching,” he says. “In the end, they commissioned it.”

The story also chimed with Duncan’s personal history. He describes growing up in a political household with his communist grandfather and capitalist mother, who fed him alternative historical perspectives. His mother also passed on her love of spy novels, leading Duncan to develop an interest in the Cold War and espionage.

“As I grew up, I also became much more interested in history and politics generally. And at university, I became much more aware of the real history of Australia, as opposed to the history we were taught at school and the terrible afflictions that had been made to First Australians,” he recalls.

“Operation Buffalo was a perfect marriage for me in terms of this bizarre incident of nuclear bombs being dropped and how it was lied about. It was also obviously something that made me very angry. I was aware of Maralinga but I wasn’t aware of the details – and the more details I learned, the more shocking it became.”

Operation Buffalo stars Jessica De Gouw and Ewen Leslie

Describing satire as his default position, Duncan drew on influences such as Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to keep the story entertaining, without ever losing sight of the responsibility he was shouldering to ensure the show honoured the facts. The blend of those two angles created a “tricky writing process,” involving weekly story and character conferences with Sheehan and Phegan. Duncan also agreed to direct the whole series, which meant production could be planned akin to a long film.

“It’s always the case – some [writing] days were diamonds and some days were turds, but the story just got better and better,” he says. “Thankfully, the cast really embraced the scripts. There wasn’t a huge amount of debate in terms of what needed to be done. And so, directorially, I could sit down with them for as long as possible and make sure we were working on the same project. Given the quality of these actors, once I had that locked in my head, I felt pretty certain that they’d get the job done. And indeed they did.”

Ewen Leslie (The Cry, Safe Harbour) stars as Leo, with Jessica De Gouw (The Secrets She Keeps) as Eva and James Cromwell (LA Confidential, Succession) as military officer Cranky. Behind the scenes, Duncan partnered with production designer Colin Gibson (Mad Max: Fury Road) and cinematographer Martin McGrath (Rake, Les Norton).

Filming took place in several stages, beginning on location in Sydney, which doubled for parts of Adelaide. The show’s military camp was then built at a Sydney reservoir that was also the filming site of Mel Gibson war film Hacksaw Ridge, before the final two-and-a-half weeks were spent deep in the South Australian outback.

“It was glorious. It was so inspiring. There wasn’t a bad angle,” Duncan says. “But it was tough. It was very physical. I have this thing called ‘film memory,’ so when we look back on a shoot I’m saying, ‘Wow, wasn’t that great.’ If you actually dial back into the moments, all I can remember is stress. Film memory makes it more loving and comforting than it really was.

James Cromwell plays military officer Cranky

“It was just a sense of physicality. The other thing about it was I felt a great responsibility, because of the beauty of the land, the history of the land and its attachment to the local Maralinga people, to capture it creatively and ethically in a way that made everyone proud. I was constantly aware of that. It wasn’t a burden, but it was something I was carrying and I think we did the best we could.”

It’s that dedication to the historical context of the series that Duncan was most determined to maintain throughout, the writer noting a lack of public awareness of what happened at Maralinga in the 1950s and his eagerness to shine a light on those events.

“When Vincent and I were in London two years ago, we were talking to producers and agents, and no one knew about this. Then you tell them the story and they say, ‘You’re fucking kidding me?’ The sad thing is, you come back to Australia and not many more people are aware of it,” he says. “It’s a scandal, and it’s good to expose scandal.

“I also think it’s good, particularly at the moment, to question the notion of trust between nations and governments. We went to Afghanistan, a country that my country does not understand in any way, shape or form. We went to their country and we killed thousands of people, and I don’t think the Australian nation understood why we were there. I mourn the lack of debate and the lack of politicians caring to inform the people about the truth of situations.

“This was a situation in which Australian people were lied to,” Duncan adds. “To that extent, I don’t think it’s a unique situation. I hope people are aware of what’s going on in the world. Any reminder to be vigilant and to be careful what you wish for is a good thing.”

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Political ambitions

In Icelandic drama The Minister, an unconventional politician with a hidden health condition rises to become prime minister. Star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, writer Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson and director Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir tell DQ about making the series.

If viewers were delighted by the surprise announcement of a fourth season of Bafta-winning Danish political drama Borgen, their joy was tempered by the fact it isn’t due to be delivered until 2022. Before then, however, another drama is set to throw audiences into the midst of Scandinavian politics, charting one man’s unlikely rise to the role of prime minister.

That journey may be where Icelandic eight-parter The Minister veers away from Borgen, in which Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) must juggle her personal and family life with as much delicacy as coalition politics.

In The Minister, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) plays Benedikt Ríkhardsson, a maverick and an idealist with a unique take on politics who surfs a wave of popular discontent to become chairman of the Independence Party and Iceland’s prime minister.

However, Benedikt has bipolar disorder, a condition that triggers extreme mood swings from depression to mania. As his mental health progressively worsens, his team and their allies are forced to endanger both the stability of the government and their private lives as some choose to hide the illness and others abuse it.

“It’s a great role,” Ólafsson tells DQ. “First of all, there’s the aspect of Benedikt starting his political career. He hasn’t been a part of politics, even though he’s very knowledgable about it. He’s never actually been part of that machine. Another aspect is he’s a man who goes through a manic episode while in a quite powerful position in society, and we see the effects of that both on society as a whole but also his policies and the policies of his party.

“Then there’s the effect it has on his relationship with his wife, and the fact they are going to have their first child. They’ve been trying to have a baby for some time and they haven’t been able to. Those three things combined make it a very interesting role and something I really want to be a part of. Plus it’s well written, I loved the directors and everything was right.”

Jónas Margeir

The Minister, which will debut on Iceland’s RUV in September, has been seven years in the making for writers Birkir Blær Ingólfsson, Björg Magnúsdóttir and Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson, who presented the show at France’s Série Series festival in 2018.

Ingólfsson says the initial idea was to create a political drama about a man suffering from bipolar disorder. “In itself, it is an absolutely horrific condition and something to be taken quite seriously, but we thought it was also such a great embodiment of the Icelandic nation and the national soul, because we keep going up into a manic episode and down into a depression and back up again,” he explains.

“We thought this was something that was really fun to play around with while writing the show, and all these great ideas kept coming to us while we figured it out. Then we felt it was a universal theme as well and it was a good story with a brilliant character that Darri portrays wonderfully.

“We started writing this in 2013, so we’ve put a lot of work into it. What we were dealing with initially in the writers room was this character; this humble, sincere, serene man going into a manic episode while trying to face all of these really fundamental issues in politics, both domestically and internationally.

“While he’s trying to think outside the box, the legal and political system is constantly trying to put constraints on him. That was a great conflict to work with and to have as the main thread throughout the series. It was seven years of that. It was a lot of fun, and now we’re very happy it’s been brought to the screen.”

Produced by Sagafilm (Stella Blomkvist) and distributed by Cineflix Rights, The Minister’s cast also includes Aníta Briem as Benedikt’s wife and TV news station chief Steinunn Þorgeirsdóttir; Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir as Hrefna Hallgrímsdóttir, political advisor to the PM; Thor Kristjánsson as Benedikt’s party ally Hallgrímur Tómasson (Grímur); Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir as Valgerður Oddsdóttir (Vala), chair of the PM’s coalition party; and Oddur Júlíusson as TV news reporter Óttar Blöndal. Behind the camera are directors Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir (Happily Never After) and Arnór Pálmi Arnarson (Ligeglad).

Magnúsdóttir says she was intrigued by the challenge of brining Benedikt to the screen, as well as seeing the political landscape in Iceland from his unique perspective.

“I had known of the script for a long time so I was very honoured when I was asked to be one of the directors,” she says. “It’s a huge production for Iceland, so that was also exciting and challenging. I thought I would have something to say in this team and it worked out well, both with the actors and the scriptwriters.”

Magnúsdóttir’s preparation involved lots of discussions with the writers and Ólafsson about how they might present Benedikt on camera, with an ambition to externalise what is going on in his mind. “How do you show a bipolar man? You can show it by acting, but you cannot just show it by acting. It’s visual also, so we did everything to help him [on set] and in the editing room with the music composer in post-production,” she says.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson portrays the prime minister of Iceland in The Minister

At the beginning, it’s not clear Benedikt is suffering from any health problems, coming across as an idealistic outsider who threatens to shake up the political establishment. His promises lead to an improbable election win that installs him as Iceland’s prime minister. But once he is in office, the series charts the gradual escalation of a manic episode.

“We see it though his ideas, which become more irresponsible. His decisions are more rash and taken on a whim as the series progresses, so we use that as a tool to see how his mania is escalating,” Ingólfsson says. “There are also beautiful tricks done by the directors and the actors to portray that beautifully.”

Ólafsson notes of his character: “He is different and unconventional. No one close to him really knows he has the potential to become so sick, so it’s a huge surprise to everyone around him, including himself in some ways. He is hard to figure out in the beginning and, with his mania, he becomes paranoid, feels he is better than others and more daring than others and that people are holding him back.

“There are political leaders working today I am not convinced are fully sane but they have a lot of power. I can imagine being part of the establishment and having to work with someone who does not respect the rules or is a loose cannon. It could be very difficult but also very dangerous. In many ways, we explore that in the show.”

Playing a charismatic politician who walks the fine line between madness and brilliance was made doubly challenging for the actor by the fact that the eight episodes were not filmed linearly, meaning he had to bounce back and forth between Benedikt’s various states of mind.

“Usually in Iceland, and on this project, we don’t have the luxury of shooting in blocks as you would if you were shooting in the US or the UK, where you would shoot the first two episodes and the next two and the next two,” Ólafsson explains.

Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir

“We had to shoot all eight in sync, at the same time. We tried to push as much as we could from the second half [of the season] later in the schedule, but that wasn’t always possible. You have to work really closely with your directors and your script supervisor. It was really challenging, but it was a lot of fun. Good work has to challenge you, but there also has to be enjoyment. I loved it. I hope I do it justice.”

The actor was particularly mindful of avoiding stereotypes of mental illness, and bipolar disorder in particular. “It’s such an easy thing to do badly,” he says. “We really wanted to be respectful and not act according to stigmas or prejudices but, at the same time, we wanted to explore what happens when people start getting ill with it. I also love the love story between him and his wife and their family life, which is beautiful.”

The Minister marks the first project for the trio of writers, who have spent years plotting and crafting the story. “Benedikt as a character is very idealistic and he is trying to save politics from itself. But the underlying conflict in the story is that politicians don’t want to be saved by an idealist,” says Ingólfsson.

“It was a question of how you portray that through someone who is gradually escalating into mania. You have to show that with respect because it is a life-threatening illness people all over the world suffer from, but you still have to make it entertaining in the incredibly harsh setting of politics. That was the challenging part of writing the script.”

Meanwhile, the directors were tasked with ensuring Benedikt was portrayed with an even hand, showing the good and bad sides of the newly installed political leader to ensure he is not too “holy.”

“We can’t just tell a story of this illness and how this man is victimised by it,” Magnúsdóttir says. “We have to be truthful to it – it affects many people around him because he acts like a healthy person wouldn’t do.”

Magnúsdóttir’s previous project saw her write, star in, produce and direct Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), in which she plays a marriage counsellor whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s affair. This show, coupled with The Minister, gives Ólafsson the view that Icelandic drama is now branching out from crime dramas such as Trapped, The Valhalla Murders and Case, much in the way its Scandi neighbours have steered away from Nordic noir in recent years.

The team behind the show have strived to create an accurate depiction of bipolar disorder

“We’re seeing all kinds of different material we haven’t usually seen coming from Iceland, and that makes me happy,” Ólafsson admits. “It’s great we have our crime series. Trapped is something I’m really proud of but it’s also a lot of fun doing something like this, about a prime minister who has bipolar disorder and about women reevaluating their lives when they are halfway through [in Happily Never After], and so on. There are a lot of series now in development in Iceland that are really interesting. We’re going to see a lot more diversity coming out of Iceland.

“I feel the world is opening up to different series. The world is opening up to women getting older and I love that we’re now seeing, even in Hollywood, actresses who are 50 and 60 getting great roles. We need to make more stories about disabled people and involve more disabled actors. It’s really important and the audience is definitely out there.”

And when viewers watch The Minister, how should they feel about Benedikt? Ólafsson wants people to be conflicted by the character and his actions, but also to come away with a greater understanding of bipolar disorder. “People will feel sympathy not only for him but also for the people around him. That’s what I would like people to take away from it,” he says.

Ingólfsson concludes: “In politics, we invest in people by voting for them. They become our leaders and our politicians, and very often they turn out to be something different from what we expected. I suppose the viewers will have the same experience with Benedikt. You are immensely invested in him, he’s almost holy at the beginning, but then he turns out to be something other than you expected. That’s the feeling I would like the audience to experience: ‘I can’t believe I supported this guy.’”

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On the Hunt

Cheat writer Gaby Hull talks about the inspiration and writing process behind six-part drama We Hunt Together, an unconventional police thriller in which two couples begin a cat-and-mouse chase.

In his first original series, Cheat, writer Gaby Hull explored a complex psychological relationship between a university professor and her student that turns toxic.

Now, in six-parter We Hunt Together, he puts a psychological twist on two sets of relationships to elevate the show from being a traditional police thriller.

Commissioned by UKTV for its Alibi channel, We Hunt Together introduces two couples who embark on a cat-and-mouse adventure in a story of sexual attraction and emotional manipulation. On one side is Freddy (Hermione Corfield), a highly intelligent, charming woman – and possible psychopath – whose chance meeting with Baba (Dipo Ola), a compassionate yet damaged former child soldier, leads them to form a decidedly deadly duo.

Meanwhile, DS Lola Franks (Eve Myles) and DI Jackson Mendy (Babou Ceesay) must overcome issues arising from their own unconventional relationship to solve a high-profile murder case, with their differing opinions on human behaviour causing conflict.

Hull was reading Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which details the 1959 murder of four members of the same family, when the idea for We Hunt Together started to emerge.

Gaby Hull

“It starts with a terrible killing and then it flashes back and tells the story of these two killers and how they came to this moment,” he says of Capote’s book. “You spend a lot of time in their company; it treats them very objectively and invites you to identify with them on some level, and I found that very interesting. This cat-and-mouse thriller started to form in my mind, where we spend an equal amount of time with the killers and with the cops, thereby hopefully inviting a slightly different experience for the audience.

“It is very recognisably a police thriller, but there is also a relationship drama bound up in the bells and whistles of it. It’s exciting to me because there are three relationships in play. There’s the relationships within the two couples and, of course, the relationship between the two couples. Hopefully that draws the audience in and gets them to think about things in a slightly different way.”

Hull, who has also written on ITV comedy Benidorm, admits blending genres was a “tricky” process, with the series combining elements of “twisted love story, a buddy-cop movie and a cat-and-mouse thriller.” But by pushing the relationships to the forefront of the story, he hopes viewers will become fully invested in the outcome of the police investigation.

“Hopefully the audience is rooting at some point for each character, even though, at the same time, you may be repulsed by some of the things they’re doing and you may find them dark and dangerous,” he says. “You are also hopefully finding they are a surrogate for your own experience and, on some level, empathising with them despite the terrible things they’re doing.”

A running theme from the outset of the series is whether humans can be truly accountable for their actions, a point of contention that immediately puts a wedge between Lola and Jackson. Hull says he has used extreme examples to test that question, asking whether, by spending time in the company of people who commit horrendous crimes, we understand them more and may even empathise with them.

“I’ve always been very interested in free will and how accountable we are for our own actions; the myth that we are in control of our own lives when, in fact, usually it’s lots of factors beyond our control that shape our behaviour,” he says.

Babou Ceesay and Eve Myles play a detective duo in We Hunt Together

“Jackson very much believes that. He’s tired of a police force that seems to disproportionately punish young black men who look like him. He can see the system is set up to punish individuals for systemic failures, and that’s led him on this interesting journey where he no longer really believes in crime or criminals.

“Lola is very much more old school and represents the other side of that argument – that there are bad people who do bad things, and those people need to be punished. They clash very distinctly, but they also bond. They have a shared sense of humour and a bickering brother-sister relationship, so we see a lovely friendship developing at the core of it.

“I’m also interested in the idea of love interrupting cycles of dysfunction, but not necessarily romantic love,” he continues. “That’s an interesting thing that’s playing out across the series, about how loving relationships, platonic and not necessarily romantic or sentimental, can interrupt cycles of abuse and dysfunction, and how we can apply that to the criminal justice system and every area of our personal lives.”

In writing the series, which is produced and distributed by BBC Studios, Hull used these themes to build the characters, “which is not always how I go about creating characters, but I felt this story was particularly theme-driven,” he adds. “That really helped me bring those characters to life and discover how we could explore the themes through the characters’ journeys.”

Hull also knew where the characters would be at the series’ end, which helped him build the story. “That’s the way I find helpful to do it – making sure all the procedural blocks are in place along the way, making sure there are exciting hooks and exciting procedural beats that are going to bring people back, and making sure the cat-and-mouse through-line is taking us through the whole time.”

Hermione Corfield plays Freddy

According to Myles, Lola is happiest when she’s at work – until she is partnered with Jackson, who unwittingly ruffles her feathers from the start. “Through the first episode, you find her very cold, prickly and not wanting to be seen or involved in anything or connected to anybody or anything,” she says.

“Babou’s character keeps pulling her and poking her, so you find her in a vulnerable place. Through the series, you understand how she’s got there, why she is the way she is and why the relationship between Jackson and her is so difficult to make work.”

“In may ways, Jackson’s narrative doesn’t exist without Lola’s narrative,” Ceesay notes. “It’s what reveals who he is, because he’s got a specific view on life. He’s new to homicide, it’s his first murder and he’s working with someone so experienced. This is the first time he’s been able to test his theory of life, which is no one is to blame, things just happen because of whoever they are.

“So this theoretical, intellectual idea he tries to live by, all of a sudden, he’s going to be challenged by actual murders and a colleague who has no time for nonsense.”

Corfield, who plays Freddy, says her character is incredibly complex, living a chameleon-like life in which she can change her appearance to suit her surroundings. “There are so many different sides to her and she has the ability to shape-shift in whatever situation she’s in,” she says.

“What drew me to her was this survival instinct she has. Although she has traits we can’t relate to, she has a set of ideals she sticks to and morals she strongly believes. She uses her attributes to manipulate each person to get what she wants. I loved the survival element and how that fed into her life, because she’s a hustler and she’s constantly trying to weave her way around life, getting the best she can.”

Dipo Ola as Baba

Baba is working in a nightclub bathroom when he first meets Freddy, and she awakens something inside him. “As a former child soldier, to jump from doing that in the Congo to seeking refuge in the UK and working in a bar, it’s the most extreme you could get for one person,” says Ola.

“It was interesting approaching that, because I felt it was a character I wouldn’t necessarily have played at this point in my career, as he’s been through a lot more than his years suggest and that was an interesting thing to wrestle with. But they need each other. Baba likes rules and causes; there’s a cause with her, and that’s what he runs with.”

“She is quite dominant, calling the shots, but he has a quiet, strong power and she knows that, and that’s what keeps her interested,” Corfield adds. “He’s also a dark soul, because of his environment, and she’s got her own demons. They’ve both had extraordinary lives. She recognises something in him that she sees in herself but hasn’t been able to run with until she meets him.”

The first two episodes certainly deliver on both thematic and plot points, introducing the two couples’ relationships and setting the foundations for the chase in a stylish drama that moves back and forth between both pairs’ storylines. With all four individuals crossing paths early in the series, which launches on Alibi tonight, it remains to be seen how Freddy and Baba can continue to stay ahead of Lola and Jackson as their partnership takes a murderous twist.

Viewers should expect a “thrilling, edge-of-their-seat cop thriller that is elevated by the characters,” says Hull, who has also written upcoming Sky comedy Two Weeks to Live, starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams. “Hopefully it’s a fun show with entertainment value at the core of it and tries to make people laugh and cry and really just feel very excited for the next episode.”

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Mad man

After spending the first season of German wartime drama Das Boot aboard a submarine, US star Vincent Kartheiser is back on dry land for the show’s second run. But when it comes to filming, he’s still a long way from home, DQ discovers.

Vincent Kartheiser is leaning back in the booth of a stylish American diner, looking decidedly relaxed among the 1940s-era paraphernalia. But this isn’t a retro-styled restaurant and it’s not even in the US. Instead, he’s sitting in one of the sets built for the second season of German wartime drama Das Boot, a stone’s throw from the vast, sandy beaches at Formby, Liverpool, on England’s north-west coast.

“You can’t actually shoot New York for the 1940s anymore because of all the billboards and all the signage in the streets. It’s all changed anyway,” he says. “When I did Mad Men, we shot in LA. Everything’s changed so much since the 40s that even if we went to New York, we’d have to dress the street, so Manchester [in England] looked like New York and this could be in Maine, definitely. It’s odd, I’ve flown from New York to the UK to shoot New York but it also makes sense.”

The actor returns to Das Boot to reprise his role as Samuel Greenwood, who in season one is picked up by Captain Klaus Hoffmann and his U-612 crew as part of a top-secret mission. Later, we see the lawyer back in New York, where he is sought out by Hoffmann (Rick Okon), who now finds himself stranded in the US.

Kartheiser had seen Wolfgang Petersen’s iconic 1981 film, upon which the series is based, when he was in his 20s, describing it as “not an easy watch.” Then, in preparation for the role, he leaned on a book of New York Times clippings from the Second World War, as he considered his character would have learned about the conflict from news reports. “I learned very little about how submarines worked, but you know, how much does that inform my character? Very little,” he admits.

Vincent Kartheiser plays Stephan Rabold in Das Boot

“Ultimately in films, characters, for me, are about the interpersonal relationships. What is my feeling towards these people right now? What happened with them earlier and what do I hope to get from them? So that’s what I focused on. I showed up to set and I spent two days watching these very stoic, serious German soldiers and I thought, ‘I’m [Samuel’s] just going to land like a grenade and I’m just going to chew them all up.’

“The first day we were on set, they just didn’t know what to think of it! I really liked doing that. It was like walking into a fine English afternoon tea and taking your shirt off and screaming at the top of your lungs and I felt my tonal change on the project.”

In season two – which premiered on Sky Deutschland last month – Kartheiser says Samuel is less explosive this time around, though he must go someway to remove his “slimy, shifty and secretive” attitude from season one. Now back in New York, the war seems a long way away.

“When Hoffmann comes to New York, he has no-one but me, so I’m actively saving his life by sheltering him. But it’s complicated because sometimes you’re in bed with someone but how much do you trust them? He’s a hard person to get to open up and I’m the opposite; Sam just throws a million things at you. It’s a very complicated relationship.

“Hoffmann is coming from a world where all his friends are dying, all the older men around him are dead and now he’s in a town where people are worried about their love lives and about their careers and their art and are engaged in laughter and in clubs and drinking and having fun without a care in the world. There’s this guilt that you’re able to have this life while people back in your home country are suffering. He can escape it all, it’s a way out for him, so there’s a lot of built-in conflict within him.”

Kartheiser with director Matthias Glasner (left) and actor Rick Okon on the Das Boot set

Kartheiser is best known to audiences around the world as ambitious advertising executive Pete Campbell following seven seasons and more than 90 episodes in Matthew Weiner’s awards-laden Mad Men. Since the 1960s-set New York drama ended in 2015, he has appeared in Casual, Genius: Einstein, The Path, The OA and Proven Innocent.

“Mad Men was a unique experience, so in some ways nothing can compare to that,” he says of comparing the show to working in Europe on Das Boot. “The language and the dialogue was like doing Shakespeare – you did not change it, it was not up for discussion. You read it, you interpreted it, and on other projects you change every single piece of dialogue even if they don’t want you to. With this project, there’s a straightforwardness.

“What I like is that they just come right out and say, ‘Could you do this?’ or ‘Will you do that?’ They cut through all the fluff. They’re pragmatic. I don’t need all that flattering, I find it a bit distasteful to be honest with you. When it comes to production values they’re wonderful. The production values were amazing in the first season, the first opening scene it was like a US$30m movie.”

The actor admits he was “delighted” when he heard there would be a season two, with the chance to reunite with a cast and crew he now considers friends. “One of the big X factors for me was that I didn’t know the German actors and I was blown away by them. After just the first couple of days I was like, ‘This is going to be really, really good,’” he says.

The actor played Pete Campbell in acclaimed 1960s-set drama Mad Men

“This is better than what’s coming out of America right now when it comes to young talent. It was really eye-opening. So I was very thrilled that I got to come back for a second season.”

Having now worked outside the US, is he also planning to move into writing or directing? He would, he says, “but I’m not so vain as to think everyone else would want to read it,” he jokes.

“Mostly it’s just me rewriting and rewriting and then I put it away for a year-and-a-half and then read it and go, ‘This is just rubbish.’ It goes on and on. It’s funny, I’ve actually been teaching a bit of acting and it’s an interesting thing to teach because it’s such an ethereal craft, there’s nothing substantial about it really. So it’s interesting to teach it because you’re not aware how much you know about it.

“It’s been eye-opening for me and it has led me to believe that maybe somewhere down the line I want to try my hand at a larger role in the whole scope of a project. It’s intimidating but you need those things because that’s what’s life’s about – growing, learning, failing and trying.”

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The new Normal

Normal People executive producer Emma Norton and producer Catherine Magee tell DQ why the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel strikes a chord with viewers and reveal the challenges of casting the drama and creating its intimate moments.

Since its launch on BBC3 in the UK last month, Normal People has been nothing less than a smash hit, with captivating writing, directing, acting, cinematography and music making the series the standout drama of the year so far.

It has drawn five-star reviews, broken BBC iPlayer ratings, its title and characters have trended on social media, and fan accounts celebrating more minor elements of the series have also sprung up.

Success has similarly followed in the US on coproducer Hulu and on RTÉ in Ireland, where the 30-minute drama based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel is set and was produced. Viewers around the world will soon be able to tune in too, with distributor Endeavor Content having sold the show into Australia (Stan), Canada (CBC Gem), Denmark (DR), Finland (YLE), Iceland (Siminn), New Zealand (TVNZ), Norway (NRK), Russia and the CIS (Kinopoisk) and Sweden (SVT).

Starzplay will also carry the series in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Benelux, Latin America and Japan.

Emma Norton

Produced by Element Pictures, Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal, in his first television role) from the end of their school days in a small town west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. Through the 12 episodes, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Howards End), the pair weave in and out of each other’s lives, with the series exploring the beauty and complications of intimacy and young love.

The success of the show is testament to the way the production team has translated the style and tone of Rooney’s novel to the screen, helped in part by the author’s own involvement as a co-writer on six episodes and as an executive producer.

“People really connect to it – not only with Sally’s work, but people are fascinated by her,” says Element exec producer Emma Norton. “Her contribution to the show does mean there’s a really strong line between the show and the book. And beyond the writing, having her as an exec watching the episodes, it’s nice to have that reassurance from someone who’s thought about these characters for years and years.”

“It worked like a seal of approval all the way along,” producer Catherine Magee says of having Rooney present throughout production. “As soon as people knew Sally was involved, it gave us access, particularly to places like Trinity [College, where Rooney was a student] because they’re so proud of her, and of Lenny, who also went there. Trinity is often a difficult place to film in, but they were incredibly cooperative and eager for us to use Trinity and not cheat the location, so it was great at every level.”

Based in Dublin, Element had been tracking Irish writer Rooney’s work before picking up rights to Normal People with the support of the BBC, which greenlit the project as part of the original option deal.

“We did see an early version of the book, which we were thrilled to read,” Norton says. “From the beginning, we were all really drawn into this relationship between Connell and Marianne, the delicacy of how that story was told and the intimacy and the attention to detail around their emotions.

“The opportunity to tell a story which, in essence, is a love story but in an Irish setting, and in a world we knew we could tell very truthfully and authentically, was what drew us in – and Sally’s writing is inseparable from that. There’s something about how she writes that makes you feel like it’s quite simple, these little short sentences or these unadorned moments of writing. The more you dig into those, you realise just how rich the writing is, and it was a joy to adapt.”

Normal People’s central couple are played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal

Norton says the adaptation process was “quite straightforward,” with the decision to chop the story into 12 bitesize chunks, rather than half-a-dozen hour-long episodes, coming early in development.

“The only thing that was challenging within that was the little ellipses of time and story that Sally uses in the book, which are harder to translate into adaptation,” she continues. “We had fun with that, so we didn’t give ourselves any rules about how the episodes should work. Sometimes they’re linear, sometimes they’re not. It’s quite fun. We see a lot of comedies in the half-hour format, so to do a drama [like that] felt quite fresh to us, and the BBC and Hulu were very supportive in allowing us to tell the story in whatever shape was best.”

Magee had similarly read the book and had previously worked with Abrahamson on Garage, Adam & Paul and Prosperity. “I was a huge Sally fan, and Lenny and I go a long way back, So for me, it was a dream collaboration,” says the producer, who boarded the project during pre-production in December 2018.

She says the biggest consideration making the series was casting, with the scripts making her acutely aware of how Rooney’s novel is really only about two characters with some small supporting roles, most notably Connell’s mother, Lorraine (played by Sarah Greene).

Catherine Magee

“We were keen to cast not necessarily very well-known actors, and you have to feel that whoever is cast in those roles can carry it and sustain it,” she explains. “We cast Paul very quickly, actually. He was an immediate fit. He’d done no TV previously – he was just out of drama school in Dublin – but we knew as soon as we saw him that he was right. He was immediately Connell. He’s not from Dublin, which helped, and he has an emotional depth to him.”

Norton picks up: “There’s a physical strength that also fits to Connell as a sportsperson whose popularity has come through a different side to his personality; it’s not purely intellectual. Some of the people who auditioned for Connell were quite bookish, which is one side of Connell, but Paul inhabited all of it.

“He’s a very charismatic actor who immediately pulls the camera, so we were really confident about casting him. The search for Marianne was trickier; that took us quite a while. The casting director saw about 1,000 self-taped auditions – we had actors coming from the US, the UK and obviously a lot of Irish actors, so that was a tricky one. Eventually, we found Daisy and we did some chemistry reads with her and Paul. As soon as we put the two of them together, we instantly knew we had our characters.”

Magee adds: “Catherine and I virtually started crying but had to reinstate our poker faces before giving the game away completely.”

Other considerations included the drama’s locations, with Rooney’s novel set in the particular locales of Sligo, in north-western Ireland, and around Dublin and Trinity College.

But with only two major characters, Norton says part of the appeal of the story is watching Connell and Marianne realise they share a profound connection, but don’t quite know how to handle it. “It’s so interesting watching people making mistakes with something very precious but not being able to stay away from each other,” she explains.

“There’s this really compelling thing at the heart of it, which is they found something really special and they have to live their way through it to understand what it is. That’s what makes this a love story particularly deep. They don’t just fall in love and then they’re happy.”

The casting team immediately knew first-time TV actor Mescal was right for the role of Connell

In the scriptwriting process, which saw Rooney collaborate with Alice Birch (Succession) and Mark O’Rowe (Boy A), extra care was given to translating the interior aspect of the novel and how Marianne and Connell’s inner thoughts could be dramatised. Abrahamson employs a handheld style that delivers a sense of closeness and intimacy, particularly in the many silent, contemplative moments where the characters – and viewers – are allowed to pause in between dialogue scenes.

“But at the same time, he wanted to create some production value and see some of the locations like Sligo’s beaches, Trinity and Italy where it opens up,” Magee says. “Both Lenny and Hettie set out to find the intimacy in it.

“The show attracts very subtle emotional shifts with the characters, so we have to be able to really read them and observe what’s going on when often not much other than their eyes shifting is happening. The actors are both incredibly skilled in this very understated performance. The camera style is designed to get you close enough to be able to experience what they’re experiencing.”

Normal People is also notable for the numerous sex scenes that take place between Connell and Marianne, with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien working on the series to bring an authenticity to the portrayal of sex without placing any pressure or discomfort on the cast.

“It was the first time Lenny, Hattie or myself had worked with an intimacy coordinator, and it was really successful,” Magee says. “It just feels like a very mature, responsible way of approaching sex scenes. I would never do it without the coordinator again. We met Ita in the early stages of prep and discussed with her what we wanted emotionally from the scenes and what they meant. It went from that to a very practical conversation about what we wanted to happen in those scenes mechanically.

Edgar-Jones pictured during filming for the Sally Rooney adaptation

“By the time you turn up on set on the day, everybody knows exactly what’s going on. And in many ways, those days become almost the most organised days you can have. It’s very, very clear. She’s there on set with the cast and with Lenny or Hettie, and she checks in with them all the time. Sometimes she’ll speak to them on their own to make sure they’re comfortable, and she also checks in with them afterwards. It’s a very good way to work.”

For Norton, Normal People is special because of how it takes young love seriously, in a simple and understated style she describes as “really beautiful and cinematic.” So far, viewers seem to agree.

“It’s told carefully and thoughtfully and has the anxiety, the stresses, the isolation, the loneliness, the uncertainty of knowing what you want or what you should want that is so key to contemporary young experience,” she adds.

“It really shows two characters who are experiencing all of those challenges and not absolving themselves or resolving anything, in a way that means you can watch and go, ‘I know how that feels.’ That’s what that it has.”

With Element now adapting Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, the creative team will be hoping to recapture the magic that has made Normal People so popular.

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Word to the wise

Peter Bowker, creator and writer of The A Word, and director Fergus O’Brien discuss making the third season of the BBC family drama and their joy at pushing sidelined characters and stories of disability into the limelight.

Delivered to the BBC at the end of November last year, there was no risk of the third season of family drama The A Word falling foul of the production shutdown that has hampered numerous series around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other projects for creator and writer Peter Bowker and lead director Fergus O’Brien haven’t been so lucky, however. Bowker is currently writing the second season of ITV’s World on Fire, which was due to start filming in September but he now expects that to be pushed back, with leading actor Jonah Hauer-King currently mid-way through the production of Disney’s live-action movie Little Mermaid.

Fergus O’Brien highlights the importance of the show’s Lake District setting

“It starts to get complicated because they also wanted to film the first block in Spain, which doesn’t help. But I am actually writing,” Bowker tells DQ. “The one bit of certainty they’re trying to cling on to is that they will have all the scripts before they start because they want to schedule it. Availability might mean it will have to be one of those incredible jigsaws.”

Writing World on Fire, which is locked in the past, means he isn’t troubled by questions about whether he should refer to Covid-19. But for crime dramas, “all the alibis for this period of time will stack up because they’ll say, ‘I was in the house for six months.’ So every series will have to factor in a six-month spell where nobody committed crime,” he remarks. “I’m also writing a romantic comedy and there’s references to the past in it all the time and I keep thinking, ‘I’m writing something in the future and I don’t know what it’s going to be.’ Who knows?”

Meanwhile, O’Brien was due to film a block of the second season of another BBC drama, historical series Gentleman Jack, although he is now doubtful that will take place at all this year. He has, instead, returned to his documentary roots to help develop a programme charting the UK’s entire response to the pandemic.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” he says. “There’s quite a lot to keep in your head because it’s quite strict about what you can get out there and film and UGC [user-generated content], which is quite in vogue at the moment, is pretty unsatisfying.”

Peter Bowker

For now, there are no such worries for The A Word, which has won critical and audience acclaim since it first aired in 2016. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it follows the Hughes family in the Lake District, where they are struggling to raise youngest son Joe (Max Vento), who is diagnosed with autism. Now, two years on from season two, Joe is 10 and living in two places at once following the divorce of his parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby).

“It’s one of the few times the writer says, ‘I’m really glad it’s been such a long gap between seasons’ and actually means it because what it allowed us to do was move the family all into a new phase,” Bowker says of the central family, which has splintered in several directions. “Joe is now that little bit older. His next phase would be puberty, so that creates new challenges and new issues around it. Alison’s in Manchester, Paul’s in the Lakes still. We’ve got a family that’s split into two different places and a child with autism to deal with.”

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word doesn’t just focus on the central members of the family but enjoys the company of other figures, such as Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh), their father Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) and Eddie’s wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson). Bowker says a big change in season three is how the drama has begun to widen its focus further on to these characters and others with disabilities, such as Mark (Travis Smith), the son of Sophie, who works at Paul’s pub.

“The second episode is really Mark’s episode with Paul, which Fergus filmed, where Travis declares his intention to try to join the army and it becomes a story about the responsibility of those trying to encourage somebody with a disability to fulfil their potential and where you draw the line by saying, ‘That’s unrealistic’ and where you say, ‘Let that person try and fail,’ and how you then deal with that. It’s a bit of a road movie, too,” Bowker says.

Max Vento and Molly Wright as Rebecca and Joe Hughes

Distributed by Keshet International, season three sees new cast members including Julie Hesmondhalgh (Broadchurch), David Gyasi (Troy: Fall of a City) and Sarah Gordy (Call The Midwife), with Bowker calling the introduction of Gordy, who has Down’s syndrome, as one of the “joys” of the series as her character, Katie, embarks on a relationship with Ralph (Leon Harrop), who also has Down’s.

“It’s a story about a young couple trying to break away from their parents and make their way in the world,” Bowker explains. “It’s a rite of passage we’ve seen before and it’s doing that through the filter of the fact they have Down’s syndrome. I’ve tried to always flip the expectations so that it’s often about the young people with learning disabilities managing their parents’ expectations, rather than the other way around.

“Chris Eccleston gives a kind of bravura performance throughout the whole thing but his relationship with Leon and his onscreen chemistry with the Ralph character makes them just this great double act.”

Ralph and Katie share just one of the blossoming romances this season, alongside Alison and new character Ben (Gyasi) and between Paul and Sarah (Gemma Paige North), the neurotic parent of Bill, a child who has hearing difficulties. “It’s very sweet,” Bowker notes, “because I created this character of Sarah as the butt of everybody’s jokes in two seasons, so the luxury of having a third season means you can suddenly flip it and Paul sees something in her he hasn’t seen before. It’s that classic one where in the [school] sixth form you’ve spent all this time taking the piss out of this girl and then you end up going out with her.”

Sarah’s evolution through the series is one that Bowker has been able to complete with a third season of The A Word, as he has been able to play with his ensemble of characters and subvert viewers’ expectations of them along the way.

Sarah Gordy and Leon Harrop depict the relationship of a couple with Down’s syndrome

“We know what Morris’s reaction is going to be to something. We expect him to be either blundering or have a use of language that’s incredibly insensitive, and sometimes it’s nice to fight that and he shows himself to be remarkably sensitive, but you know you’re surprising the audience,” he explains. “The joy for me [this season] was running with the Ralph and Morris relationship, which we’d seen something of almost by accident in season two.

“With Joe, he is more verbal than he was, he has more speech, but he often uses that speech in a way to still keep the world at arm’s length, and that’s far more challenging for Max, the actor. When I look now at what a baby he was in the first season, it’s quite a shock to me. Everything was instinctive and you just had to play with that. Fergus is probably the first director who’s been in a director-actor relationship with him. He would ask questions, you would explain things, whereas before it was often a case of working round Max’s instincts. He’s great. He grew as an actor before your very eyes.”

“He’s an extraordinary talent,” agrees O’Brien, who had watched the first two seasons and then rewatched them while preparing to shoot season three. “The difference with him this time was he really responded to being treated like an actor and to being talked to about what he thought his character would do in that situation and giving him that status as somebody who knew his character probably better than a lot of people. He really rose to that. Max just seems to have an instinct. He would know where to be, what to bring to his face and what to do with his hands in a really interesting way and brought truth to what he was doing.”

Coming from a documentary background and fact-based dramas such as Mother’s Day and Against The Law, the director says he was mindful of respecting the style of the series, harnessing the power of the Lake District setting and finding a visual rhythm to Bowker’s writing. “Things would slow down when they needed to slow down and be still so you could really be in an emotional moment, or if it was something that deserved to have more movement and more energy, then we would bring that,” he says. “It was just working to the undulation and the writing. That’s all I wanted to try and amplify a bit more if I could.”

Divorced mum Alison (Morven Christie) and her dad Maurice (Christopher Eccleston)

That rhythm is affected by Joe’s increasing self-empowerment. In season one, he is somebody that things happen to and decisions made about. Now events play out from Joe’s point of view, meaning the show and the show’s “grammar” both moved forward this season.

O’Brien says his aim was to acknowledge Joe and make it clear he was now seeing and hearing what was going on around him, even if he wasn’t responding in the moment. “Even to just let the audience be party to wondering what that might be felt like an extra element I could bring to it.”

Directing the series was “a gift to be able to tell stories that we’re not used to seeing or points of view that we’re not used to seeing on TV,” he adds. “Working with Leon and Sarah and watching their love story, there’s a real richness to that.”

Bowker is rightly proud of writing a mainstream drama that shines a light on people and stories that are usually marginalised on television. “That’s the thing that’s most joyous for me,” he concludes. “And from Lee, Morven, Chris and Pooky [Quesnel, who plays Ralph’s mother Louise], the support the cast lend to this can’t be underestimated. My experience with actors is they’re incredibly hardworking, incredibly accommodating and when they’re responding to work they appreciate, they’re second to none in adjusting and adapting.

“Another joy was having two actors like Julie and David come in, own it and become part of the A Word family, because I like to write about families that are unconventional and find a way of being and are legitimate.”

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Off the rails

Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson brings DQ aboard his latest project, Snowpiercer, in which humanity’s last survivors live on a train that continually travels around a frozen planet Earth.

While Korean director Bong Joon-ho and his black comedy film Parasite have enjoyed a triumphant 12 months, from winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes to claiming Best Picture at the Oscars, a television adaptation of one of his earlier movies has been picking up steam.

Three-and-a-half years after TNT first ordered a pilot for a series based on Bong’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, the 10-part first season of the show of the same name is set to launch on the US cable network and around the world on Netflix. A second season has already been commissioned and is close to completion.

Set seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland, Snowpiercer finds the last 3,000 survivors on Earth living on the titular perpetually moving train, which endlessly circles the globe. Inside its 1,001 cars unfold class warfare, social injustice and the politics of survival.

While viewers isolating at home amid the coronavirus pandemic might identify with the feeling of claustrophobia that is shared among some of the train’s passengers, the devastation of the Earth and its permanent, man-made winter plays into fears about real-world climate change and how the planet is changing. It’s certainly a theme that showrunner Graeme Manson was keen to highlight, long before Covid-19 put society under lockdown.

Graeme Manson

“We are in a climate crisis and that is the fabric of the show. The backdrop is we destroyed the world with our own avarice and the last survivors of that world have gotten on this perpetually moving, existential train that can’t stop or we all perish,” he tells DQ from Vancouver, his home town and also where the series is filmed.

“Within the backdrop of climate change that underlies everything, there are also deep stories of migration, immigration, detention and class structure, the have-nots, political deception and the lies of a 1% holding on to all the power and the leverage of production and sustenance.”

The rules of the world of Snowpiercer are easily identifiable by the structure of the train, with the wealthy elite inhabiting the front end – dining-room discussions are punctured by complaints about faulty saunas – while an underclass has been created at the ‘tail,’ a series of cars at the rear that has become home to the swathes of people who fought their way onto the train just as it was starting its journey.

It’s in the tail that we first meet Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a leader and a revolutionary who is also the last homicide detective on Earth. When a murder takes place on board the train, the formidable head of hospitality Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) persuades him to leave the tail and solve the case.

Produced by Tomorrow Studios and CJ Entertainment, which was behind the original film, the show’s cast includes Alison Wright, Mickey Sumner, Susan Park, Iddo Goldberg, Katie McGuinness, Lena Hall, Annalise Basso, Sam Otto, Roberto Urbina, Sheila Vand and Jaylin Fletcher. Bong is among the executive producers of the series, which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios.

It is Andre’s voice the audience hears first, as he narrates the opening section of episode one, a beautifully animated sequence that depicts the riots that accompanied Snowpiercer’s launch before segueing into live-action footage. The opening narration is a tool shared by different characters through the series, with each episode loosely following that individual.

“We have a very big cast so it’s hard to really feature a character, but the character that speaks in the beginning has something to say during the episode,” Manson explains. “That can be a first-class character or third-class character, or someone from the tail. It adds social perspective to the class structure on the train and is something we continued through the series. It turned out to be a pretty neat device.”

Snowpiercer stars Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly

Manson, best known for co-creating award-winning Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, admits to being a big fan of the original film, which mixes action and political allegory in a post-apocalyptic world. But when he pitched to run the series, taking over from initial showrunner Josh Friedman in February 2018, Manson returned to Le Transperceneige, the French graphic novel series that inspired the movie.

“They’re filled with philosophy, existentialism and bizarre and funny situations, with leaps of imagination,” he says. “More than anything, I thought the series should be very politically charged and it should, at its core, be an action-adventure story. That’s what we did – we tried to lean into the visual flair, the themes and the action of the movie and some of the wilderness and conceptual leaps of the graphic novels and combine those.

“One of the greatest things about the film was the sense of, ‘What the hell is this train?’ Whatever door you open, you were never sure what was on the other side. We kept the graphic novel idea that the train was 1,001 cars long so we could constantly open up doors on new cars and be amazed by what we found inside.”

Joining mid-development – Friedman developed the project and wrote the original pilot that was produced but later remade – Manson took the series in a new direction, stating he had a “very strong sense of what the show should be.” But his late arrival posed a challenge when he had to find a balance between what was already in place and how he wanted to take Snowpiercer forward.

With 13 casting deals secured, he had to figure out which characters to retain, before “a lot of phone calls and in-person meetings to convince at least half of them to take on new roles in the new world.” Manson then received a vote of confidence when he was given approval to rebuild the sets that would present the vision he shared with producing director James Hawes.

Diggs plays Andre Layton, a leader and a revolutionary who is also the world’s last homicide detective

As a showrunner, Manson says he feels most comfortable in the writers room. Working in LA for the first time, he brought with him some key members of his Orphan Black team, notably producing partner Mackenzie Donaldson and his “second in command” Aubrey Nealon.

“My process begins with doing a lot of research on the world. We did a lot of research on climate science, climate change; we talked to NASA climate scientists about what would the world do if it froze and went to -117 degrees,” he says, also noting the challenge of creating the “eternal engine” that powers the train. “A perpetual-motion machine doesn’t exist but here it is on screen, so it’s about how you talk around it or when you decide to delve into the science of what might make it run.

“We peeled back the science of how the engine works slowly over the course of a couple of seasons, but the advantage of showing your cards at that pace is our VFX team, our physical effects team and our production design and art departments all have ideas about how it might really work, and those ideas came into a collective model we could work towards. I’m not saying we solved perpetual motion, but our explanation might hold water.”

Orphan Black, a science-fiction series about a woman who discovers she is a clone, was similarly rooted in science. Manson says this keeps the series grounded and the characters realistic, until you take one step forward into imagination.

“For Snowpiercer, the world the characters left behind was this world, here and now in 2020. So although we’re then taken seven years into the future, their concerns are about the world they left behind,” he continues. “After seven years, they are at the point where some people would be casting off the ways of the old world, while some people would be holding on tighter to their religion or whatever it is that keeps them moving. Moving seven years into the future also keeps everybody’s grief very raw, and that emotion and undercurrent of loss is a big character driver on Snowpiercer.”

Connelly is Melanie Cavill, the train’s head of hospitality

To create the sets of the train and numerous carriages on a studio lot in Vancouver, season one production designer Barry Robison and his team partnered with outside engineers and designers to build a modular system that would allow them to build sections of the train on modified shipping containers, which could then be linked and moved around.

“We can put five or six cars together and you can walk a character down the train from one car to another,” Manson reveals. “They’re on rubber wheels or air bags, and there are grips outside every time the train is rolling along, making it bounce and weave, so you get this kinetic feeling inside the sets. Nobody’s faking a lurch – they’re real, because they do bounce, roll and move.

“One of the real joys is the idea you never know what’s on the other side of the door. As Layton moves up the train, his eyes just grow wider at what they have up there. We have this amazing set called the Nightcar, which is the exact geographic centre of the train, and it’s essentially the train cabaret and brothel, run by Lena Hall’s character Miss Audrey, who gets to have fabulous musical numbers in this very exotic lounge car.”

One idea retained from the original pilot is known as the sub-train, a small cable car that sits beneath the carriages in-between the wheels and allows people – usually train employees – to travel quickly up and down Snowpiercer without having to pass through its hundreds of cars.

“It’s a narrative necessity,” Manson admits. “With 1,001 cars, the train is approximately 10 miles long. It’s something we talked about a lot and, when things are cut together, you begin to understand what is forgivable in terms of train geography. The more important thing is that the class geography and the design tells you where you are. The tail is like a jail, third class is like turn-of-the-century working-class tenements, second class is a little academia and a bit professional and then first class is like a Roman court or Las Vegas.”

The 1,001-carriage train encompasses the various classes of society

With the show filmed entirely in studios, VFX has been added to create the hazardous world beyond the train, particularly on the few occasions passengers do venture outside. Blue-screen technology is otherwise limited to windows and long shots of train corridors.

The coronavirus pandemic shut down post-production on season two in March with just a week left to go, but having long since wrapped on season one, the show is finally set to debut on TNT this Sunday before the first two episodes drop on Netflix on May 25. Each episode will then arrive on the streamer the day after its US premiere.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Manson says. “I’ve never been in a situation where you’re this deep into something you’ve spent two years on and it’s yet to air. But it’s even longer for the actors.

“It’s a very different world [from Orphan Black]. It’s a darker world by a shade, but one thing it does have in common is there’s a lot of heart in the show. It doesn’t actually take itself too seriously. We’re a perpetually moving train that’s 1,001 cars long. I like shows where you can be put through the wringer and on the edge of your seat through a drama and then go, ‘Wait a minute!’ A slightly ludicrous and existential premise are the most satisfying to make real and visceral.”

And as for what is coming down the line in season two, Manson jokes: “We’re definitely a train show. We’re on that train. We open up a little bit, but it’s still very much a train show.”

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