All posts by Michael Pickard

Being Frankie

With Canadian mystery drama Frankie Drake Mysteries back for a third season, getting into character isn’t only down to the period costumes, star Lauren Lee Smith reveals.

With its charming blend of crime, mystery and the iconic backdrop of the 1920s, Frankie Drake Mysteries has pulled in viewers worldwide since it launched in 2017.

The Canadian-UK coproduction follows the adventures of Frankie (Lauren Lee Smith) and her partner Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley) at Drake Private Detectives, Toronto’s only all-female detective agency, as they fight crime in the age of flyboys, gangsters, rum-runners and speakeasies.

In the third season, which launched in September, Frankie faces a family secret while the 10 hour-long episodes also bring her and her detective team – completed by Rebecca Liddiard as Mary Shaw and Sharron Matthews as Flo – into the world of British aristocrats, illegal boxing, political fundraisers and the supernatural. The show is produced by Shaftesbury for the CBC in Canada and UKTV, with Kew Media Distribution handling global sales.

When DQ meets Smith in London, she has arrived to film the first scenes of the new run, which will feature exterior shots of the British capital that will then be merged with footage filmed on interior sets recorded back in Toronto.

Lauren Lee Smith’s Frankie sports a new look in the show’s third season

Talking about returning to the show, she says: “It’s amazing. I feel very fortunate first of all, because you just never know in TV if you are still employed or not, which is a little crazy, but it’s been an incredible journey. Season one is always great because it’s filled with so much excitement. And then season two, we all sort of eased into it a little bit and we knew what we were doing. It was like coming back to school after summer vacation.

“Now, in season three, we’re all really, really excited to see what’s in store. It’s also nice because we shoot 10 episodes for five months and then we’re off for seven months. So by the time we get back to shooting, everyone’s excited to get back at it. So I’m just really looking forward to it and we’re excited to get back to hanging out with the girls and finding Frankie again, and pretending to be way more badass than I really am.”

In London, Frankie is meeting some friends – and bumps into Agatha Christie – when she stumbles upon a case to solve. Then when she returns to Toronto, she reunites with her team for further mysteries. Smith says the show is moving up a gear this time out, with more in-depth puzzles to solve and bigger action sequences.

“We’re going to amp it up a bit,” she continues. “Something I always really liked is that people said season one was like we were trying to create a female Indiana Jones vibe, and that’s a great way to look at the show. We’re bringing a little bit more of the action adventure for season three.”

The 1920s-set show is produced by Shaftesbury

The Vancouver native – who has previously appeared in series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Listener, The L Word and This Life – says she has fallen in love with the outgoing, physical and fearless Frankie, who she describes as a superhero. Smith works with a boxing trainer for several months before filming starts to help her feel “super tough,” something that has become especially valuable as she prepares for the extra stunts and action in the new batch of episodes.

“But even just for me, to physically find Frankie, I found it really useful to have the boxing training,” she says. “You stand differently, walk differently. It’s just different, and it’s hardcore training. I do I find that it helps me to find the character. I would never in my life wake up in the morning like, ‘I’m gonna go train hardcore for the next two hours, five days a week.’ Not in a million years! But I love to have an excuse to do that.”

Over the first two seasons, Smith says Frankie has slowly let her guard down and allowed more people into her life, not least the three women who work alongside her at Drake Private Detectives. The female ensemble leading the show is one reason why the actor describes going to work every day as a “joy,” adding: “It’s amazing to be able to go to work with these three women who I genuinely adore and who are so talented. It definitely makes sense for the show, because it’s a little much to just have Frankie being able to handle everything. It’s not realistic; and for women in general, it’s a nice message to see these four women who aren’t at each other’s throats.”

Of course, one of the defining features of the series is its 1920s setting, with Frankie Drake Mysteries bringing all the razzle-dazzle of the jazz age to the screen. The hairstyling, make-up and costumes are more than just window dressing, however, with Smith reaping the benefits in her performance.

Frankie Drake Mysteries is led by a female ensemble cast

“You instantly hold yourself differently – you completely transform yourself [in costume],” she says. “So the team do an incredible job with that and also with the sets they build. I have no idea how they do it. I feel like we go home from work and these magic elves come in and turn run-down old studios into these beautiful sets, and they miraculously do it overnight. They change every episode, every day sometimes. Often we come on the set and we feel like we’ve been transported back in time.”

The actor also highlights a lightness of tone to the show that invites the whole family to sit down together and find comfort in the procedural series – a factor that has won it fans around the world. Among the international networks that carry the series is US cable channel Ovation.

“It’s a really great backdrop that we have, being early 1920s. It’s a fascinating time, and for women in particular. Women in Canada had just received the right to vote and, because of the war efforts that they were a part of, there was a newfound respect for women and a new freedom that women were experiencing in the flapper era.

“It’s a really interesting setting for a series. And then to have these four women who are so different, combined with the fact you know you’re going to get a fun, interesting mystery, it’s a really good combination. It leaves a lot of room to see where the show is going and where we can take it next. There are always mysteries to be solved. Hopefully we get to solve a lot more.”

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Task master

For Icelandic drama Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir juggled writing, directing, producing and acting. She tells DQ how she did it.

In 2018, a short film from Iceland travelled around the world, playing to audiences in destinations including Lübeck, Helsinki, Berlin, Barcelona, Athens and at home in Reykjavik.

Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After) was a six-minute clip in which a woman’s attempt to give her husband a ‘personal’ birthday present becomes rather complicated. But the end credits didn’t mean the end of the story, as the film was always intended as a taster for a six-part drama of the same name created by writer, director, producer and star Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir.

“I had written all the scripts for the TV series but then I did the short film to show the Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic broadcaster RUV, which are funding this,” Magnúsdóttir tells DQ after a screening of the show at French TV festival Série Series. “I did a short to show them that this is what I want to do – ‘this is the tone.’ Some people do trailers, but sometimes they are just like music videos.”

When interest in the film grew, Magnúsdóttir put it out on the festival circuit. The full series, produced by Zik Zak Productions and Cubs Productions, was subsequently picked up for international distribution by Denmark’s REinvent Studios.

“So it worked out great,” she says. “This is a dramedy with a very raw look at Icelandic reality, and I found out through the film that people were not ready for this much rawness. But that was good. I was like, ‘OK, I have to pull back a little in the series without losing what I want to say.’”

Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir took multi-tasking to the extreme with her series Happily Never After

That rawness comes from the subject at the heart of Happily Never After: divorce. Magnúsdóttir plays 38-year-old Karen, a marriage counsellor and mother-of-three whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. Suddenly single, she must say goodbye to her dreams of perfect family life, while offering advice to her clients now seems absurd.

The idea for the series first came to Magnúsdóttir when several of her friends were going through divorces, many because of infidelity. “But it was not always the man [who had cheated on his partner], sometimes it was the woman and

they have kids and families and stuff like that,” she explains. “This is interesting because you get so egocentric; all your feelings come out and you sometimes hate the person you loved two months ago, and it’s very, very emotional. There’s a lot of drama.”

When Magnúsdóttir herself went through divorce, she paused her writing to ensure the series didn’t become too personal, noting: “This story is not about me.” When she picked up the project again, Magnúsdóttir decided to inject some more humour into the storyline. Divorce, she says, is a process that can bring out the worst in people, but there’s also humour to be found in the situation.

Those lighter moments are present in Happily Never After’s scripts and the actors’ performances, while the camera acts as a fly on the wall, capturing every aspect of Karen’s emotional turmoil as if it were another person in the room. For much of the first episode, she is forced to put off confronting her husband about his affair by a series of family events that only serve to build the tension within both Karen and the audience waiting for the inevitable clash.

After graduating as an actor, Magnúsdóttir worked for several years in theatre, alongside taking TV and film roles in Iceland. “In Iceland, when you’re an actor, you’re not just a film actor – you do everything,” she says.

The show focuses on a woman whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity and they file for divorce

With ambitions to direct, she learned that many directors in Iceland write their own scripts, so she enrolled at Vancouver Film School to study screenwriting. Upon returning to her homeland, she immediately made a short, “non-budget” film, Playing With Balls, about a group of older lesbians who become intrigued by a young couple and one woman who decides to act on her desires. “I owe a lot of favours for this short film,” she says. “I didn’t want to get funding because I wanted to know if I could do it, and if I failed nobody would know.”

But the film proved so successful that it was screened at festivals in Toronto and Reykjavik. Another short film, Cubs, followed and again travelled beyond Iceland.

“So then I knew I had a voice, I had something,” she says. “I knew people wanted to watch what I want to show. When I started writing Happily Never After, it was my first time writing in a certain genre for a certain demographic. But because I was trying to write for someone else, it wasn’t that good. I just threw it away. Then I decided I was only going to write what I wanted to write. If nobody likes it, that’s that.”

But until the short film version of Happily Never After, essentially the first scene of episode one, proved to be incredibly popular, there weren’t many people interested in producing the series, “so I had to produce it myself because, at the time, Scandinavian noir was very popular – and nobody dies in my series,” Magnúsdóttir says of adding producer to a list of responsibilities that also included star, writer and director. “People were like, ‘This is not really what people want.’ That’s why I did the short to show what I wanted to do. It was not a burden to be in all these roles – I like to produce and write.

“This is my baby. I’m going to do two more seasons, and we’re starting to develop the next one. But this is not how I want to work [forever]. I want to be more focused on one [job] but this one is special and I had to do it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been made.”

Karen arrives on screens at a time when there are many great female characters populating dramas from around the world. But Magnúsdóttir believes this one is different. “For me as a woman and an actress, I find too often these characters are ‘strong females.’ That’s good, but sometimes they have very manly characteristics and lack what a woman has,” she says. “You can be a strong woman but you don’t have to behave like a man. There needs to be more variety in how you show women on TV. Karen is a mother and a couples counsellor, a friend and a wife – what we all are. We’re good at some things, not so good at other things.

Magnúsdóttir has plans for two further seasons of the drama

“I wanted to create a female character that is strong but with all the complexity women have, just like men. Men are not flawless; I like flaws. They’re what make people interesting, not just on TV but in daily life too. If you meet a ‘perfect’ person, they are most definitely not perfect. They will have a skeleton in their closet. Perfect is boring.”

It’s in her characters’ flaws, as well as the subject matter, that Magnúsdóttir finds the humour that is sprinkled through the series. And while she concedes the process of divorce is “very dramatic and traumatic,” she says stepping back from it reveals how “eccentric and strange” people can become.

“It’s not a comedy, it’s just a situation that can be fun,” she notes. “But as the season goes on, it becomes more dramatic because it’s also about loneliness. This woman has always done everything in her life with a partner, with her kid, but now every other weekend, the so-called ‘Daddy weekends,’ she has to be with herself all day long, and she hasn’t ever done that. It’s interesting because she’s really good at her job, but in her own life, she can’t really grasp the advice she gives everyone else.”

Once in production, Magnúsdóttir stuck to the script, which allowed her to focus on directing and acting. She also passed the producing baton to Birgitta Björnsdóttir. And despite having a hand in every part of the project, like all TV series, Happily Never After was also a extremely collaborative affair. “This project is so much more than just me. It’s a TV series. If it was all about me, I could just film myself on Facebook,” she says.

Magnúsdóttir’s other credits include writing on Icelandic neo-noir thriller Stella Blomkvist and directing episodes of The Minister, an eight-part series about an unorthodox politician’s rise to power, starring Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped).

Though taking on four different roles in Happily Never After might be an extreme way to showcase her talents, Magnúsdóttir is clear she won’t stop moving between different roles on future productions.

“In the end, I really love working with people,” she concludes. “It’s different if you’re a director, producer or actor, and it’s nice also for me as a filmmaker to see the process from different points of view.

“When you’re an actor, you don’t really know what’s going on. But as a producer, you get all the complaints. And as a director, you have to answer all kinds of questions, and I like that. I like all these kinds of roles.”

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Specially maid

Spanish series Arde Madrid imagines the relationship between Hollywood star Ava Gardner and Argentine dictator Juan Perón, as revealed through the eyes of a maid and a chauffeur. DQ meets writers and directors Paco León and Anna R Costa.

In television drama, sometimes perspective is everything, whether you follow the story through the eyes of the lead characters or take in the viewpoints of an ensemble of people each witnessing or experiencing the same, often life-shattering event.

But in the case of Spanish drama Arde Madrid, that perspective comes from a particularly unusual source.

Set in early 1960s Madrid, when the country was in the grip of General Franco’s dictatorship, the series focuses on the real-life friendship between Hollywood movie star Ava Gardner and Juan Perón, the Argentine dictator-in-exile, who each had a home in the same apartment building. However, the story unfolds from the view of Gardner’s maid and chauffeur.

Ana Mari (played by Inma Cuesta) is a loyal, conservative soul who teaches young ladies how to be good housewives and mothers. So when she is asked to work as a maid for Ava Gardner to spy on her for the government, she doesn’t think twice.

Arde Madrid centres on the maid and chauffeur who work for Hollywood star Ava Gardner (played by Debi Mazar, right)

However, to complete the task, she and Ava’s chauffeur Manolo (Paco León) have to pose as husband and wife – a job made more difficult by the fact Monolo is her complete opposite.

So begins Ana Mari’s education on the life of a Hollywood megastar, whether it is her all-night parties that rob neighbour Perón of his sleep or bringing a drunk Ava back to life after late nights dancing at Madrid’s hippest nightclubs. And in all the turmoil, Ana Mari barely notices she is beginning to fall for Manolo.

The eight-part half-hour drama comes from writing team León and Anna R Costa, who began to develop the story after hearing an anecdote about how Gardner shared a stormy, tempestuous relationship with her neighbour Perón.

“The lead roles are fictitious but the nucleus of the series is historical fact,” Costa says, before León continues: “We wanted to be very clear that we weren’t making a biopic. Quite the opposite – we wanted the point of view of the servants. Everything is experienced through their eyes.”

Filmed in black and white, the show stars Paco León as chauffeur Manolo

It’s a decision that means Gardner, portrayed by Debi Mazar, doesn’t feature too heavily in the series, instead mainly appearing through her interaction with Ana Mari and Manolo.

León and Costa wrote and directed the series, while León’s on-screen role added an extra layer to his involvement. He took the lead behind the camera, while Costa carried the weight of the writing process.

“It was complicated,” he admits. “I’ve directed and acted before so to have to do this together as a couple was a new, challenging experience. We both agreed that if I had done this alone, it could have been done but it wouldn’t have been as good.

“As directors, we talk about what is written all the time and it goes back and forth. It’s true there are moments when you have to compromise but also when we have the same thoughts. They’re great moments to have.”

The most watched series on Movistar+ in 2018 following its release last November, the series balances drama and comedy, which comes naturally to León, an actor known for comedy roles before stepping into dramas La Peste (The Plague) and La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers).

Inma Cuesta as Gardner’s maid Ana Mari

“It comes naturally to me, as a comedian, that comedy is the genre is the way of combining all other genres the series has – thriller, drama, historical,” he says. “The perfect way is to use comedy to combine all of that.”

The comedic sensibilities of the series are heightened by the fact it was shot in black and white. “In the beginning, it was a little complicated and we had a couple of discussions to convince everyone,” León says. “The arguments was that it was suitable for the time because we have memories of photographs and films of that period, so you’re immediately catapulted into those times.

“There are so many series around now, we thought it was best to set ourselves apart with black and white. It facilitated things like wardrobe choices greatly. It’s a class aspect, a time aspect. Obviously, the budget for makeup and wardrobe was tight, and when you have 200 people on set, it helped enormously with that.”

Costa continues: “The colour adds to confusion when you have mass scenes with a lot of people like in the last episode, where there’s a flamenco dancing scene. It’s one take for two-and-a-half minutes like a [Goodfellas director Martin] Scorsese walkthrough. You learn to visualise the set in black and white, knowing how it will turn out.”

León pictured alongside Anna R Costa, with whom he wrote and directed the show

The unusual story and its fresh perspective, blend of humour and drama and unusual visual palette helped attract the interest of Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+, which commissioned and produced the series. Beta Films handles international sales, while the show also screened at Berlinale earlier this year.

“It’s unique and original,” says Domingo Corral, head of original fiction at Movistar+. “Telling the story from the point of view of the servants was something that made the proposal very original. When we approach a story, we want to see a way to tell it that hasn’t been told before. That’s one of the key things when we choose a project.

“In this world where there are so many shows, when you find something that stands out, that helps a lot. It has a lot of pace and rhythm, it goes very quickly and, at the same time, people can trace the characters and the context of the period. Another thing that’s important is it’s not just a show, it’s also a brand and an experience. If you weren’t watching and experiencing it, you were missing something, and these factors all contributed to making the show a success.”

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Life-changing television

On the back of an extensive film career, NCIS star Maria Bello tells DQ why she has come to love working in television and reveals the secret to the long-running US crime drama’s global success.

In an acting career spanning more than 25 years, Maria Bello has thrived on the big screen. Despite early turns in television series such as Mr & Mrs Smith, ER, Touch and the lead role in the short-lived US remake of iconic British drama Prime Suspect, she is primarily known for appearing in movies including Coyote Ugly, A History of Violence, The Cooler, World Trade Centre and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

But in 2017, she joined the cast of long-running crime procedural NCIS, then in its 15th season, and the actor says the decision has changed her life, both on screen and off.

“I really have come to love television and particularly acting on television,” she tells DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “There’s something thrilling about quickly seeing the finished product. We do a film and maybe it’s like a year, even two years sometimes, before it comes out. We shoot an episode [of NCIS] in eight days –eight days to shoot an hour of television. Usually in a two-hour film, it might take 90 days. So I like that quick pace.

“I’ve also always been such a traveller and adventurer, and that’s why I was really drawn to films – I’ve worked all over the world. What I found in the last couple of years committing to a TV show that’s in my backyard, in LA, was the beauty that comes with staying in one place for a little bit. Going to the same place every day with the same people who I really enjoy being with and working with, it’s a whole new side of my personality that I didn’t know existed, which is this love of security and having a grounded space to go to.”

Maria Bello as Jack Sloane in NCIS

A spin-off from military legal drama JAG, NCIS debuted on CBS in 2003 with weekly stories about a team of special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigation Service’s major case response team, which investigates crimes involving navy or marine officers. Now in its 17th season, which launched this month, the team is led by the ever-present Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), supported by an evolving ensemble of characters that currently includes Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard (David McCallum), Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) and Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzer).

Since season 15, that roster has included Bello’s Jack Sloane, an NCIS senior special agent and operational psychologist who specialises in profiling.

“What I really liked about Jack was she was on an equal footing with Gibbs,” Bello says. “She doesn’t work for him, he doesn’t work for her. So they really are colleagues and help each other a lot, and you’ll see over the next few seasons that our relationship deepens. It’s really fun playing with Mark Harmon too. He’s genuinely a really fun, solid guy.”

Joining such an established series “was so easeful from the first minute I met the producers and two showrunners, Frank Cardea and George Schenck, who were such kind people,” she says. “And then meeting Mark, he’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet. He’s the real captain of the football team and makes sure everybody who is there wants to be there. We’re all pretty grateful every day. That makes for a great work environment.”

While many crime procedurals place most of their focus on the show’s crime-of-the-week storyline, NCIS stands out for its greater emphasis on character development – something Bello believes has ensured the series remains among the most watched on US television.

“The secret to our show’s success is how much the characters love each other and their relationships,” she says. “Yes, they’re really smart and good at solving crimes. We have really great writers, so they’re interesting crimes pulled from the headlines. But it’s about the relationships between these characters. They’re a real family and they really care about each other. I think the audience feels that.”

This extends to collaboration behind the scenes, where Bello says the cast are encouraged to bring ideas for their characters to the writers. “We go to them with ideas, they come to us with ideas,” she says. “It’s also very improvisational on the set. If we want to add lines, change lines, there’s never an issue with it. They really trust us as actors. They trust that we know our characters maybe better than they do and they’re always up for new ideas.”

Bello describes her NCIS castmates, including Mark Harmon (centre) and Joe Spano, as being like a family

This season will also see Bello direct for the first time, with the star scheduled to helm an episode of NCIS in February. “It’s exciting. Rocky is one of our great directors and he’s also my cast mate, so I’ll shadow him and two other gentlemen I really like. They’re giving me that great opportunity and I can’t wait for it.

“I’ve been asked [to direct] before and I’ve thought about it. But this is the first time I feel that I actually really want to do it. I really trust my crew and they trust me, and I think I’m a really good leader but really chill as well. I feel like those people make the best directors – if you have a strong vision but you’re also very chill person. So I think that’ll work.”

Between 1997 and 1998, Bello appeared in 25 episodes of medical drama ER, joining at the end of season three as Dr Anna Del Amico and becoming a series regular through season four. The hit show was one of her first jobs, and Bello remembers herself as “such a wild child. “I had just started working in the industry so I was a little immature at the time,” she recalls. “In retrospect, I would have stayed on that show [for longer] but I wanted to do so many things and wanted to do movies. I’m happy about the rich career I’ve had, but now I would have appreciated that [time on ER] more.”

The actor is equally effusive about her time on Prime Suspect, the American reimagining of the British series of the same name. Bello played Detective Jane Timoney, a take on the original’s Jane Tennison, the character made famous by Helen Mirren. However, after opening to low ratings of around six million viewers (small by 2011’s pre-Netflix standards), the series lost its primetime slot and was cancelled after its initial 13-episode order.

Before NCIS, Bello was best known for her roles in movies such as A History of Violence

Still, Bello has fond memories of the experience. “I loved that show. I loved doing it, I loved being on it. I loved the writing, I loved the character,” she says. “People say now they feel it was ahead of its time in the US, that maybe they weren’t open to having this strong woman who had a really edgy personality. Maybe America wasn’t ready for that. I don’t know why it didn’t work in the states but I sure loved my experience on it.”

The actor, who is also a keen activist, says working in movies has been a “gift,” offering her the chance to move from job to job, never knowing where she might be in six months’ time.

“I loved living that way. There was something exhilarating about not knowing,” she says. “So I didn’t know if I could take a traditional job, to commit for three years, to be in one place, to work for 10 months a year, and I was a bit nervous about it. But I have to tell you, the gifts I have received from doing it, I feel much more rounded than I ever have in my life because of that.

“There’s something about structure and security I never knew was sexy, and it’s really fucking sexy. I enjoy it. I feel like I’ve been able to be more creative in the other things I’m doing by being on this particular show and having a place to go every day with people I really like.”

With NCIS unlikely to lose its place among the most popular drama series on US network television any time soon and Bello looking forward to doubling up her role by stepping behind the camera, this is a partnership that could run and run.

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Dangerous new world

An eclectic group of characters must face their own fears and flaws – as well as aliens – in The War of the Worlds, a modern update of HG Wells’ iconic story for France’s Canal+ and Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa.

For five seasons until 2013, British drama Misfits told the story of a group of young offenders brought together after they each gain superpowers following a strange electrical storm – ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

Now, Misfits creator Howard Overman has applied the same concept to HG Wells’ classic 1897 story The War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade the Earth, leading to widespread devastation and destruction.

Howard Overman

Like the 2005 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, but in contrast to an upcoming BBC adaptation set at the time Wells first published the story, Overman has placed The War of the Worlds in the present day to ask his characters what they would be willing to do to survive.

The eight-part series begins when astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, confirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, however, mankind is all but wiped out, with only pockets of humanity left in an eerily deserted world.

The drama follows the destinies of a handful of survivors, all dealing with the sudden exodus, the loss of their loved ones and all that once gave meaning to their lives as they try to understand the reasons behind this unfathomable invasion.

Described as a unique marriage of human drama and science fiction, the show uses Wells’ story as a starting point before Overman takes it in an entirely new direction to explore human emotion during an unprecedented event, asking how people’s relationships and circumstances change when they are faced with the end of the world.

“I wanted to explore the idea that, just like HG Wells’ aliens, humanity has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it sees as inferior or different,” Overman says. “This new interpretation of Wells’ cult novel focuses on the subtleties of human relationships, between, say, parents and children, couples, or complete strangers. The alien attack and its repercussions bring out the characters’ deepest vulnerabilities as they try to navigate this dangerous new world.”

Intriguingly, for large parts of the series, the alien is out there but can only be seen through snatched glimpses, allowing viewers’ own minds to perceive the horror confronting the characters.

But there are also lighter moments, with the extreme events facing the planet also lending themselves to stories of love, courage and hope, as well as themes of prejudice, responsibility and guilt.

Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Byrne in Canal+ and Fox Networks Group’s War of the Worlds

“Throughout the episodes, the series juxtaposes these contrasting ideas as the characters become increasingly complex,” continues Overman, who produces with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (both Merlin, Atlantis). “Cinematic and full of the mystery and intrigue that are found in the best works of science fiction, this series is both character- and action-driven.

“Our War of the Worlds is essentially a story about humanity. If aliens were to attack tomorrow, and life as we know it were destroyed, what would we do to survive? What would it teach us about other people – and, above all, about ourselves?”

The bilingual series, with characters speaking English and French, was suitably shot on both sides of the English Channel, with two units simultaneously filming four episodes at once over a period of 16 weeks. Actors jumped between scenes from different episodes, while directors Gilles Coulier (De Dag) and Richard Clark (Versailles) guided and supported them to ensure continuity across all eight episodes.

Filming took place in the Welsh cities of Cardiff and Newport as well as in London, France’s Charleville-Mézières and the Alps. Real settings such as the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy were also used for the drama, which is produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with AGC Television and distributed by StudioCanal.

Among those battling the aliens are Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Adel Bencherif, Stephen Campbell Moore, Natasha Little, Stéphane Caillard, Guillaume Gouix and Daisy Edgar Jones.

Overman’s version of the classic story unfolds in France and the UK

Byrne (The Usual Suspects) plays Bill Ward, a committed eminent neuroscientist who will do anything to win back the woman he loves, McGovern’s Helen Brown, Bill’s ex-wife whose long-held convictions are rocked by the out-of-this-world events.

Byrne agrees with Overman when he says aliens are not the main focus of the series, which instead tells the story of humans in extreme conditions and deprived of the comfort and safety they used to take for granted. “As a scientist, Bill tries to gather together all the indecipherable clues from another world, to try to come up with a solution,” he says of his character. “As a man, he does everything he can to get back together with his ex-wife, despite the chaos they are living in.”

Describing his role as “very physical and emotionally intense,” Byrne says the project was more challenging than he anticipated. “I had to adapt to the specifics of this series – the way it was filmed, mainly, with two teams working simultaneously. We were constantly switching from one to the other, going back and forth between film sets. Under those conditions, it’s a challenge to maintain continuity, both in action and emotion.”

As McGovern explains, the series opens when Bill is trying to repair his and Helen’s marriage, with the alien invasion then throwing them back together.

“What I really loved about this project was Howard’s desire to talk about the destinies of ordinary people faced with a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth as we know it.” the Downton Abbey star explains. “He skilfully depicts our priorities, who we are, and the meaning of our relationships in a world that may be ending. That’s what I liked. He’s really interested in the characters. For me, that is far more fascinating than watching aliens from outer space attack us.”

Léa Drucker is among the French-speaking actors in the show, which brings the story into the present

Similarly, Drucker (Le Bureau des Légendes) was enticed by the opportunity to play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. “I have never worked in sci-fi. I like the realistic approach – that’s how the directors wanted it. We’re not superheroes fighting aliens,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of action, but the whole story is very thoughtful.”

Her character, Catherine Durand, is a scientist working at an observatory in the Alps, a loner driven by a desire to discover something extraordinary. But when she’s plunged into a state of war, she’s completely overwhelmed.

To prepare for the series, Drucker studied archival footage and images of war, and also visited the Tate Britain gallery in London to look at photographs by renowned war photojournalist Don McCullin. “To me, The War of the Worlds is first and foremost about war,” she adds. “It’s a humanistic series, but also a very harsh series. The world it depicts is rough and brutal, and the aliens aren’t the only reason for it. These extraterrestrials force us to question who we are as humans.”

But while the spectacle of the alien invasion will undoubtedly take centre stage, it’s the challenges the characters face in a modern setting that the creators hope will focus the minds of viewers.

“I think this story is particularly relevant today,” says McGovern. “Because of climate change and all that’s happening in the world now, we’ve lost confidence in our dominant position. We live with this constant anxiety: Is life on Earth about to end? What does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as a species? What’s really important? What isn’t?

“By placing this contemporary reality in the imaginary context of science fiction, The War of the Worlds invites us to think about our lives and what they mean today.”

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Love and war

Jonah Hauer-King and Zofia Wichłacz, two of the stars of Peter Bowker’s war drama World on Fire, talk about the tangled relationship between their characters and how the series balances epic action scenes with emotional storylines.

BBC series World on Fire, Peter Bowker’s ambitious attempt to dramatise the Second World War, zooms in on the ordinary people across Europe affected by the conflict.

Central to the story is a love triangle between translator Harry Chase, played by Jonah Hauer-King, who begins episode one declaring his love for factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) in Manchester.

Fast-forward several months to the summer of 1939 and Harry is working at the British Embassy in the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he falls for waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz).

As the Nazi threat spreads across Europe, Kasia must choose between love and fighting for her country, while Harry searches for his place in the world and Lois seizes new opportunities as the war unfolds. Harry’s mother Robina (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s pacifist father Douglas (Sean Bean) also find their lives upturned, while outspoken American journalist Nancy (Helen Hunt) finds herself in mortal danger.

Through these characters and their stories, Bowker’s seven-part, multilingual series puts a human face on the first year of the Second World War, capturing the lives of people across Europe and exploring how they are all connected, from Manchester to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and the beaches of Dunkirk.

Jonah Hauer-King as Harry in World on Fire

“What’s exciting about the show and what’s challenging is we don’t have a central protagonist. There are a lot of stories here and what’s cool is you’re being shown a world that tells you that a war connects everyone,” Hauer-King tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “You have Poles, people from England and people from Germany and France and they’re all connected. They’re all part of these massive, scary events that are unfolding. So we’re at the heart of it in a way, but you feel part of a sort of strange TV family because you’re telling the story together.”

Viewers first meet Harry and Lois in Manchester, where they interrupt a Blackshirts rally and suffer for their protests. His mother takes a dim view of his relationship with a lowly factory girl, while Robina also chastises Douglas, a man still bearing the scars of his experience in the First World War. Then when Harry reappears in Warsaw several months later on the eve of war, he is in a relationship with Kasia. When the first bombs drop, he offers to marry her in a bid to help her escape to England.

“When we meet him, you become aware that he has a girlfriend, a first love, back home. But pretty quickly, he’s in Poland and we see that he’s gone down the route of falling in love with two people, which is not something I would recommend,” Hauer-King (Little Women) explains. “So he finds himself in this not very good situation. But in terms of him and Kasia, they have a really passionate and strong connection. Sometimes you meet someone that just immediately feels very exciting and very vital. Then the war comes.”

Those first scenes run just long enough to establish the characters before the action begins, windows shattering and roofs collapsing as German planes bomb Warsaw. “It’s just beautiful that we had those few scenes before the war, so we could show the joy and the life of these young people. Because after that, there’s just war,” Wichłacz (Amok) adds.

One of the Polish actor’s first ever acting jobs was in Warsaw 44, a film that chartered love and friendship during an operation led by the Polish underground resistance to liberate the city from occupation. Five years later, she’s starring in a British series that reveals what ordinary Poles experienced during those first days of war.

Zofia Wichłacz plays Polish waitress Kasia, who falls in love with Harry

“I knew this would be something completely different, so I was interested in doing it as well and telling a very interesting story,” she says. “The character, I fell in love with her.”

Similarly, Hauer-King has previously appeared in Ashes in the Snow, a movie about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. “But when you read a script, often you’re really looking at the character and the journey they’re going on,” he explains. “I would do 10 Second World War movies if they all felt different, complex and unique in their own way. There are infinite stories within wars – and actually, that’s partly the point of this series. It’s trying to say there are different sides, different families, different nationalities and people are affected and changed in all kinds of ways. It’s not told as a binary, good-versus-bad story.”

Wichłacz describes Kasia as “a fighter” who loses everything and then battles to win it all back. “So this kind of journey is really exciting,” she says. “I get to play someone who seeks power that she’s lost before.”

In an ensemble drama without a leading protagonist, does Harry stand out as the hero? Hauer-King believes Bowker doesn’t write heroes, instead filling his dramas with a cast of complicated characters. “And that’s exciting because that’s real life,” he says. “The challenge for me was that Harry, despite putting himself in this difficult position, would be a hero in another series.

“There’s parts of him that relate to that, because he is compassionate, brave and has a lot of warmth in him, but he’s deeply flawed and has a lot to learn. He’s by no means a hero. That was exciting because it felt real and also gives your character somewhere to go. It’s fun looking at the journey and seeing the way a character changes over a period of time. That’s what Pete’s really good at – all of the characters go from one place to another. It’s a good acting challenge.”

The ensemble cast also features Sean Bean and Lesley Manville

The cast spent 10 days together in Prague before shooting began, with the Czech city doubling for some of the major locations portrayed in the series. Lead director Adam Smith would also find room in the schedule for as much rehearsal time as possible.

“TV schedules are crazy but he was very good and respectful that he wanted, even on the day [of filming], to try to have a bit of time to ourselves and with him before the 200 crew come in,” Hauer-King says.

Wichłacz continues: “Every day was different. But I always felt so secure and safe on set because, with each of the directors, I felt a great connection. We had four directors [Smith, Chanya Button, Andy Wilson and Thomas Napper]. Everyone was just amazing – amazing crew, amazing DOPs. And even if you’re shooting scenes with explosions but then the next scene is a very intimate emotional scene, I always felt like we had time or however long I needed to focus or to rehearse. It felt really special.”

Hauer-King says the show – produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment – features a  “huge range of storytelling techniques,” from the epic set pieces that present a key moment from the war in each episode to the quieter, personal moments shared between characters, whether in England, Poland, France or Germany.

“That’s fun as an actor because you’re flexing different acting muscles,” he says. “It very much keeps you on your toes because, as we know, there’s often no kind of rhyme or reason to a TV filming schedule. One day you’re running through explosions and the next you’re in bed with someone and it’s a very different scenario.”

The actor describes it as a “genuine privilege” to work alongside such established and esteemed actors as Hunt, Bean and Manville.

“There was a scene with Lesley in episode seven where it was so exciting to watch someone like her,” he says. “I’m really young, I’m pretty inexperienced, so to watch someone like that who is such a master felt like a genuine privilege. You have to remember to act yourself sometimes.”

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Must CEE TV

With a number of drama productions from Central and Eastern Europe drawing critical acclaim in recent years, DQ finds out what’s coming next from the region and why it’s ripe for a breakout international hit.

While Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and Spain have been among the hottest territories for drama in recent years, a number of ambitious productions both in front of and behind the camera mean series coming out of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) now demand closer attention.

Over the past decade, the region’s drama output has earned plaudits on the back of HBO Europe’s original production strategy, which has led to a number of notable series – Hořící Keř (Burning Bush, 2013) and Pustina (Wasteland, 2016) from the Czech Republic; Hungarian crime drama Aranyélet (Golden Life, 2015), based on Finnish series Helppo Elämä; Wataha (The Pack, 2014), Pakt (The Pact, 2015) and Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights, 2018) from Poland; and Romania’s Umbre (Shadows, 2014) and Hackerville (2018).

Earlier this year also saw the launch of the first HBO Adria series in the shape of Success, a Croatian drama about four strangers bound together by a violent event. But while HBO continues to ramp up its own activities, it is by no means the only company that is pushing the limits of the region’s creativity.

Czech drama series Pustina (Wasteland) aired on HBO Europe

One of the most ambitious projects coming out of CEE is The Pleasure Principle, which is billed as the first international production between three countries in the region – Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

The 10-hour series, produced by Apple Film Production and distributed by Beta Film, sees police investigators from each country work together after female body parts are discovered in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, in a cross-border inquiry that leads to shady businessmen, lawyers for sale, corrupt politicians, professional killers and traces of a common past. Canal+ Poland, Czech Television and Russia’s Star Media are also on board the series.

Series producer and director Dariusz Jabłoński says it was his ambition to create a universal crime thriller using local talent and crew. Set across 10 days in the three cities, the project used different teams to make the drama in each country, all under the supervision of Jabłoński.

“We have wonderful roles for the greatest actors of every country and, after a very deep casting process that I personally attended, we have chosen the best actors. Nobody refused us,” he says. “Then we started to think about shooting. Usually, when you make films that take place in different countries, you use one crew. But we wanted to show the differences between these three countries and, because of that, we chose a more challenging path by using completely local crews.

“So every country is shot by a different DOP who created the lighting for their own city. Warsaw is rather grey, all steel and glass. Prague is more bourgeois, with yellow and beige. Odessa is green and blue like the sea. All of them came with a simple idea that was different from the others, so I didn’t have much to supervise to keep everything balanced.”

Poland’s Wataha (The Pack), another HBO Europe original

The team communicated in the common language of English across the 120-day shoot, with filming being completed in one country before moving to the next. “We didn’t make any compromise over quality. It was shot in 8K with two, sometimes four, cameras, cranes and every technical tool at our disposal,” Jabłoński says. “I hope this show will not only be exciting for the viewers but also present the technical facilities of our countries.”

Russian drama Storm, meanwhile, sees respected police detective Gradov turn to crime – and murder – to find the money to pay for his terminally ill wife’s medical treatment. When his colleague, Osokin, begins to suspect Gradov is behind a string of crimes, he becomes determined to expose him.

Produced and distributed by Yellow, Black and White (YBW) for streamer start.ru and directed by Boris Khlebnikov (An Ordinary Woman), the series focuses on a complex group of characters and the choices they make.

“It is a wholly original story that writer/director Natalia Meschaninova came up with,” explains YBW creative producer Irina Sosnovaya. “The goal we set with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context of contemporary Russia. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write a social drama we would be excited to follow.”

The rise of streaming platforms is fuelling the drama boom in the region, Sosnovaya says, with creators no longer bound by the restrictions of major TV channels. Daria Bondarenko, YBW’s head of international development, distribution and coproductions, picks up: “Digital services allow authors to be uncompromising, to be bold and to take risks without looking back, so that’s where the cream of Russian talent gravitates towards. Directors, writers and actors now work on the digital series with as much freedom as they allow.

Magdalena Cieślak

“Just 10 years ago, Russia was an unknown and unexplored market. Nowadays things have changed tremendously: we see more and more shows that travel globally, some of them awarded and recognised at prestigious TV festivals. Every new pickup of a Russian show outside our local market is a big success for the entire industry; it is the recognition that makes us noticeable as a film-producing country.”

Shifting west of Russia, TVP1 series Our Century marks the first period drama to come from producer Endemol Shine Poland (ESP). Based on the book by Albena Grabowska, it follows the fortunes of the multi-generational Winny family, woven through the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

Magdalena Cieślak, head of scripted at ESP, says she and her fellow creative producer on the show, Małgosia Retei, “were immediately taken by the story when we read the three-part novel back in 2016.”

She continues: “It was nearly a thousand pages of gripping literature, which we believed could serve as the basis for a great script. It took us some time, though, to convince the broadcaster, as period dramas seemed a very costly and risky genre at that time. What helped us was the involvement of one of the best Polish screenwriters, Ilona Łepkowska, who supervised the script development and ensured the project we pitched to TVP1 was outstanding in terms of storytelling.”

Other talent involved includes director Piotr Trzaskalski, DOP Witold Płóciennik and actors Kinga Preis, Jan Wieczorkowski and Olaf Lubaszenko.

The story begins in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and ends in modern times, covering almost 100 years of Polish history. Against this backdrop plays the story of one family whose lives are full of hidden secrets, passion, love, sacrifice and complicated relationships.

Certain book characters were cut to allow for greater focus on some of the more distinctive family members, while new scenes were created for the adaptation, which blends drama and tragedy with touches of comedy and some fantastical, dreamlike sequences that relate to one character’s ability to see the future.

Our Century is the first period drama from producer Endemol Shine Poland

Cieślak says shows like Our Century feed Poland’s current demand for homegrown series while also showcasing the “outstanding” quality achievable by the local production industry.

“Polish viewers prefer local stories and 80% of the dramas on air are created and produced locally,” she adds. “To find new ideas that will entrance the audience, we need to invest in local talent, beginning with script writing and development. Over the last two years, we have also seen more book adaptations making it to screen, so we are watching the publishing market very closely and searching for adaptation opportunities.”

Over in Croatia, the third and final season of Novine (The Paper), made by producer Drugi Plan for local broadcaster HRT and Israeli distributor Keshet International, is currently in production. Set in a busy newspaper office, the series presents a cocktail of political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal, with its characters navigating the blurred lines of morality and integrity. After exploring the media in season one and politics in season two, season three moves to the judiciary.

“If we take into consideration the size of the country and its capacity in terms of cinematography, and a specific language, we can say that Croatian high-end drama production is doing really well in European and even global terms,” says Nebojsa Taraba, producer of The Paper and creative director at Drugi Plan. “The Paper is globally available on Netflix, and HBO aired its first series from the Adria region this year, Success, which is also produced by us.

“There’s a lot being done in neighbouring Serbia – supposedly there are as many as 20 projects in different stages of pre-production and production, so high-end series are going through a real renaissance in the region.”

Nebojsa Taraba

When it comes to stories that will attract an audience, “there are no rules,” Taraba states. “People simply like strong stories they can relate to, regardless of the genre. People also like stories with some kind of social involvement and message. Luckily for us, or maybe unfortunately for us, the entire region of south-eastern Europe has many such stories, whether we tell them ourselves or someone else comes over and tells our stories. The best example of [the latter] is Chernobyl.”

Series like Chernobyl – made by the UK’s Sister Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and focusing on the 1986 nuclear disaster – demonstrate that success can be found in unearthing previously unknown stories that are ripe for dramatisation or setting a fictional story against a specific historical backdrop. Germany has created several successful dramas fitting this description, including Babylon Berlin, the Deutschland series and Ku’Damm 56.

The makers of Czech drama Dukla 61 took a similar approach to history after discovering the true story of a mining tragedy that led to the deaths of 108 people. The two-part miniseries, set in 1961, takes place in the town of Havířov, home to the Dukla mine. It focuses on the Šlachta family, with father Milan and son Petr working in the mine, where the highest-quality coal is a commodity sought at any cost.

Blending family drama and disaster epic, Dukla 61 was inspired by a single line in a book. The project was then developed and produced by Czech Television.

“There was a book with a short sentence about some disaster that was in 1961; there was just one sentence that they brought in many miners,” says Czech TV creative producer Michal Reitler. “We started researching and realised nobody knew about this disaster. We focused on this for six months and then we developed the scripts.”

Director David Ondříček picks up: “The main reason why it’s so successful is that it has a great screenplay and is very authentic in tone and has a lot of emotions. We tried to tell a story without words, especially towards the end.”

Russian series Storm was made for streamer start.ru

The creative team credit the movement of film writers, directors and producers to the small screen with advancing the Czech drama industry, with Ondříček noting that television was considered a “dirty word” just a decade ago. “It was a filmmakers’ community, but it’s changed a lot,” he says.

Reitler adds: “It helps that money is coming to development first, so we can work with writers and then decide what we will produce. There becomes a system of how to develop scripts, how to find the right authors and how to work with them to find a way to tell a story that is understandable locally and globally.

“Everyone asks us if there will be a new Czech wave like in film in the 1960s. We can feel something in the air but we don’t know what it is. There are a lot of new producers. Our generation of directors is in good shape. We’ll see. I can feel that we try to make very authentic and very good-quality shows.”

As streaming platforms mature and creative talent find new places to tell their stories, there is ambition in the region to see its series go on to become as globally popular as projects from other countries. But as ever, financing looms large as the inevitable barrier to the most epic projects getting off the ground.

“The challenges we face are not of a creative but a financial nature,” says Taraba, noting that a Croatian series might cost six or seven times less than one produced in neighbouring Italy or Austria. “It is only financial restrictions, or the low intensity of production, that can stop the creative momentum of the Croatian and the regional market right now. For the price of an episode of an average drama series in the UK or Germany, you can produce an entire season of a series in the range of The Paper in Croatia.”

Croatian drama The Paper airs on HRT and is also available on Netflix

On making The Pleasure Principle, Jabłoński adds: “We used all the resources from Eastern Europe and we had to combine them because no single broadcaster was able to finance this show. So thanks to this combination, each of our partners got the show for their own exploitation, but we controlled everything to deliver a good show not only for our audience but the international audience.

“This is a trial to check if this combination will bring the quality that will make a difference and break the glass ceiling we experience as filmmakers from Eastern Europe because we feel we’re not able yet to make international audiences excited. I hope that will change.”

With the quality of drama and ambitious storytelling coming out of the region, coupled with the continuing demand for series worldwide, Central and Eastern Europe is well placed to smash that glass ceiling and become the latest global drama hotspot.

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Going South

Portuguese crime drama Sul (South) places viewers in the sunlit heart of Lisbon through its stunning visuals and atmospheric soundtrack. DQ meets the cast and creative team behind the show.

A melancholic, broody soundtrack and sun-drenched, sepia-tinged lighting gives Sul (South) an instantly intriguing appearance that goes a long way towards characterising this nine-part series, one of the most ambitious ever to come out of Portugal.

Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year ahead of its domestic debut on RTP, South tells the story of a moody detective investigating the discovery of a series of corpses against the backdrop of the economic recession that hit Portugal and many other European countries so hard a decade ago. On top of that is a Lisbon setting far removed from the picture-postcard landscapes viewers might more readily associate with the city, which only adds to the appeal and charm of the show.

“South comes from the desire to bring a film noir narrative to the city we live in and we love, Lisbon,” explains showrunner, co-writer and executive producer Edgar Medina. “It’s a very special and cinematic place, but the series also presents the opportunity to discuss the effects of the recent financial crisis in the country and tell a story about a police inspector who is disappointed with life until he becomes interested in an apparent suicide case. It starts unravelling a story of crimes motivated by financial and economical reasons.

South stars Adriano Luz as Humberto, a detective tracking a serial killer

“It is also like a trip into the darker side of Lisbon. South is an attempt to bridge the world of cinema and TV and create a high-quality international drama that belongs to a specific place, a Mediterranean country, and a topic that is very recent.”

The show’s music is provided by Portuguese band Dead Combo, adding a folksy, western-inspired layer to the series and reflecting Lisbon’s mellow nature. It’s here that Humberto, a seasoned detective, must fight corruption and track down a serial killer over a long, hot, paralysing summer.

Set in July 2013, the show opens with the discovery of a female body on a dock beside the River Tagus. Nihilistic and socially awkward inspector Humberto begins the inquiry into her death.

As the country faces meltdown, both economically and meteorologically, and the government teeters on the brink of collapse, more young women are discovered murdered with increasing brutality. Humberto’s search for the truth leads him to uncover an economic and political conspiracy, all while facing up to his disenchantment with his job and his failure to maintain a family.

Jani Zhao plays Alice in the RTP series

Produced by Arquipélago Filmes for broadcaster RTP and distributed by Latido Filmes, the crime drama is directed by Ivo Ferreira, who previously teamed up with Medina on 2016 feature Cartas da Guerra (Letters from War), which was screened in competition at Berlinale the same year. This is his first TV series.

“I’m from Lisbon and this is a visit to a world and to a sombre country that is not seen by tourists. I was enthusiastic about the idea because we could actually work together to get an amazing cast and crew to do this,” Ferreira says. “It’s a portrait of the country on a personal level. We’re almost trying to understand who we are. It’s a detective story and it’s very Portuguese in the sense that it’s melancholic. So it was funny to touch on this in a TV series.

“It’s been very challenging. I joined the project later on but I knew Edgar and knew he trusted me. It was tough and intense but I brought some freshness to it that I wouldn’t have had if I had been working on it for two years.”

Medina, who co-wrote the series with Guilherme Mendonça, says a key reference for the series was life in Portugal during the economic crisis. “We really wanted to capture and portray some of the things we lived through – the disappointment, the way social services treated people, people getting evicted from their homes – and to meet all these new characters that live out of the crisis.”

Afonso Pimente’s Matilha is a con artists and thief

Adriano Luz, an experienced star known for roles in Raiva (Rage) and Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon) plays Humberto alongside a supporting cast that includes Jani Zhao (Alice), Ivo Canelas (Pastor Santoro), Afonso Pimentel (Matilha), Margarida Vila Nova (Mafalda) and Nuno Lopes (Inspector Rebelo).

Luz describes the inspector as an “anti-hero” with a wistful nature. “He’s not a very physical guy, he’s like a philosopher. The mood of the series brings us to a feeling of sadness that was very strong in the times of the economic crisis.”

As Matilha, Pimentel is a con artist and thief who commits crimes just to survive and goes on to provide some unexpected help to Humberto. “He steals Humberto’s car,” the actor reveals. “He’s got a very strong relationship with his car – it’s like an extra character – and at some point, Humberto and my character meet up and he uses this small-time crook to break the law to solve a crime. That’s how they start this relationship.”

Another figure in Humberto’s life – his “right arm” – is his police partner Alice. “Their relationship is something that attracted me right away because we have a big difference in age,” Zhao says of the role. “It seems weird, and it was interesting for me to explore that. I help Humberto all the time, because I work by the book and I’m young, so I want to do the best I can. I’m pragmatic and firm and strict. Humberto is an old guy – he has experience, he knows what he’s doing and he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s not a patient guy at all. So we find each other in that difference.”

With 80 locations around Lisbon featuring in South, the creative team were clear in their approach to shooting the Portuguese capital. “People will recognise the city but there’s something different,” the director notes.

South is produced by Arquipélago Filmes and distributed by Latido Filmes

Actor Pimentel adds: “Nowadays you see this public Lisbon that is very touristy, but this isn’t what you see in the series. It’s more the Lisbon that we know. For the people who live there, it’s nostalgic. It’s really organic, it’s really cool.”

But while the location might seem eerily alien to outsiders, the genre and the screen trope of the disillusioned cop are familiar around the world. South, says Medina, is a universal story that becomes unique through its sense of place and time.

“Portugal is a small Mediterranean country so the series brings out our culture, music and other small parts of life. At the same time, the show also has a very crude sense of humour. It is a serious crime drama but it doesn’t take the characters too seriously. They make lots of errors, they do silly stuff.”

That the series was screened in Berlin is proof South stands alongside the top-quality TV dramas now being produced around the world. All eyes will now be on Portugal to see whether the country can follow Spain’s footsteps in establishing itself as a storytelling force on the international stage.

“We come from a very small country that doesn’t have the institutions that are able to support these kinds of projects,” Medina says. “So it’s very hard. We’ve started bringing TV series to the international stage, but we’re not trying to make a series like [US crime procedural] CSI. The only way you can be successful in the international market is if you bring something that is genuine and unique. This is a starting point.”

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Fire starter

World on Fire aspires to be the definitive Second World War drama. DQ reveals how writer Peter Bowker has taken the global conflict and reduced it to a domestic level, weaving an emotionally tangled web of multi-national characters whose ordinary lives intersect through love, hope and tragedy.

“It sounds more complicated than it is,” explains writer Peter Bowker when he recalls the plot of his latest series, World on Fire. Described as an adrenaline-filled, emotionally gripping and resonant drama set during the first year of the Second World War, it follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people as they grapple with the effect of the war on their everyday lives.

But what makes the show stand out from other wartime dramas, such as HBO’s celebrated miniseries Band of Brothers, is the way it watches the conflict unfold from a multi-national perspective. Polish, French, German, American and British characters are at the heart of the seven-part series, as it charts the experiences of individuals and families facing the fall-out from war.

Bowker says it had never occurred to him to write a period piece about the consequences of military action, despite having penned Iraq War drama Occupation (2009). Yet when Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer asked him whether a Second World War drama could ever match the scale and emotional intensity of iconic documentary series World at War, an idea was planted that the writer couldn’t shake. “I turned him down a couple of times but the idea wouldn’t go away, and that’s usually a good clue that you should be writing it,” he says.

Peter Bowker

At the heart of the story is Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), a British translator who leaves home to work in Poland on the eve of the conflict. Back home in Manchester, he is romantically linked to Lois (Julia Brown) but then falls in love with Polish waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz). Sean Bean plays Lois’s father Douglas, Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother Robina and Helen Hunt is American journalist Nancy Campbell.

When conceiving the idea for the show, Bowker says he was keen to avoid the ghosts of British comedies ’Allo ’Allo and Dad’s Army. One way around them was to employ a natural use of language, with characters largely speaking their native language, rather than have everyone talking English with accents. “It just looks silly now,” he says. “I don’t think you can get away with two Germans speaking English with a German accent anymore.”

The other issue he had writing the series was to avoid some of the language used by real people during the war. “I’ve read a lot of diaries in the Imperial War Museum [in London] and it’s amazing stuff, but of course the language of the 1940s is very much, ‘Gerry is on our tail again,’ which is a kind of comedy cliché now,” he continues. “It’s finding a way to make the language sufficiently of the time yet not fall into those types of clichéd tropes.”

Bowker also looked to introduce real events in a new way, such as following shell-shocked troops on the long road to the Dunkirk beaches, rather than simply meeting them on the sand. But above all, what surprised – and reassured – him the most after reading the accounts of young Polish waitresses living in Warsaw, on the cusp of the war, was learning that the hopes and dreams, fears and worries of people were just the same as they have today.

“They talk about boys, making a decent coffee, being annoyed with their parents,” he says. “Then they say, ‘Something interesting happened today. I joined the Resistance.’ It was so reassuring because nobody’s different in time. Historically, our concerns remain the same and that was exciting and felt new.”

Shepherding the project, which is produced by Mammoth for BBC1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, alongside Timmer has been Mammoth’s exec producer Helen Ziegler, who joined while the show was still in development.

Jonah Hauer-King’s Harry is at the centre of the World on Fire story

“What grabbed me so utterly and completely is that Pete has this amazing way of making you feel like you’re absolutely there and making it incredibly immediate,” Ziegler says. “It just felt like I had honestly never seen that perspective on the war or felt like I was living and breathing it. I was with the characters and his aim of taking these ordinary lives absolutely sung off the page of the first script.”

For the most part, filming took place in the English city of Manchester and in Prague, with the Czech Republic capital doubling for Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. Then, to distinguish the various settings, production designer Paul Spriggs, lead director Adam Smith and series producer Chris Clough emphasised their architecture. Warsaw, says Ziegler, is a beautiful, glamorous city with an Art Deco style, while the show also embraces Berlin’s strong lines and Manchester’s industry and red bricks.

“It is an epic piece but we always want it to be intimate, we always want to see it through the eyes of the characters,” she says. “One of the rules of cinematic style is to be with the people whose story we’re following and see their worlds from their perspective.

Damien Timmer

“Paul, Adam and Chris found these incredible ruins and they built part of our Warsaw set within them so that we could show, as the bombing of Warsaw starts, how the city starts to crumble, and then go into the ruins and use them. It was such a clever idea, it’s such a feat. There have been lots of different creative ways to give this piece the scale it needs.”

Bold in scale, the series is also hugely ambitious. World on Fire is designed as a multi-season drama, with each season marking one year of the war. Each episode also includes a major sequence from the conflict, with season one featuring the fall of Paris in episode one, as well as the fall of Warsaw, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, among other events.

“We’re based in London but we had so many different units filming all over the place,” Timmer says. “There would be a unit filming scenes in Berlin and another in Warsaw and scenes in Manchester, and the rushes would be coming in. Sometimes you’d go from watching Lesley in Manchester to something happening in Warsaw. It did feel like the war was unfolding in real time. It was quite curious.

“There’s a lot of visual effects but we try to do as much in camera as possible. Dunkirk was at St Anne’s Beach in Blackpool. It was the end of May, beginning of June, and for complicated reasons we had no choice but to shoot it in February when we were blessed with the bluest skies, incredible sun and what could have been our Waterloo turned out to work really well. But it was massive in terms of the technical exercise.”

Confined to filming most of her scenes in Manchester and nearby Wigan, Manville plays Harry’s mother Robina, an upper-middle-class woman she describes as frosty, private and cold. Still angry at her husband’s suicide, she mellows as the drama moves forward, particularly when Harry returns with a young Polish boy who she takes into her home.

“What was really lovely to play about this character was that it’s not a complete metamorphosis, but in her own quiet way she goes on a little voyage of discovery,” the actor says. “She finds true feelings for this boy and comes to care for him deeply.

Sean Bean plays Douglas, who the actor describes as a ‘beaten man’

“She lives in this huge pile of a house, alone and doesn’t seem to have much of a life or friends. In some ways, cold as she is, deep down she’s had this desire for something to make her feel and be warm and understand things. That’s what happens. And she’s got some very dry, funny lines as well. Peter has written some choice bits of dialogue for her. It’s upmarket Hyacinth Bucket [the snobbish lead character in UK sitcom Keeping Up Appearances], in terms of the comedy. It’s not ‘ba-boom’ but it’s very dry and witty. It’s lovely. Some of the later scenes with her son are quite powerful and potent.”

Later in the series, Robina discovers Lois is pregnant with Harry’s child, while he ends up marrying Kasia to rescue her from the war. “There’s a great line from Robina,” Manville reveals. “‘If I’d know he was going to marry a Polish waitress I would have seen you [Lois] as more of a prospect.’ That’s her in a nutshell.”

Harry’s relationship with Lois also fosters a blossoming friendship with Robina and Bean’s Douglas, who Manville admits are an odd couple. “What is lovely about it is these two characters, were it not for the war and the situation of her son impregnating his daughter, they’re an unlikely match,” she says. “He’s a bus conductor and she’s a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who doesn’t work. But they certainly develop this friendship that’s really rather tender. She starts to see that underneath all the layers of class, there are people who are human beings who you can have the same conversation with. They just sound different.”

Like Robina, Douglas is a single parent, having been left along with children Lois and Tom after their mother left home. He’s also still struggling to come to terms with his experiences during the First World War. “He’s a beaten man in some ways,” says Bean. “You can still see the strong character that he once was, but he’s been battered down and demoralised by the bloodshed and the horror that he saw out there. He’s not on his own either. There were many who were seen in that way and were treated as if there was something wrong with them. They didn’t really recognise shell shock, which has such a devastating impact on so many men.”

Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother, Robina

This means that on the brink of the Second World War, working-class Douglas is a conscientious objector – a position that leaves him open to criticism from his friends and neighbours.

“He’s chosen a very hard war to be a conscientious objector in because on the surface it was quite cut and dried,” Bean explains. “He’s very brave to have done that. He gets a hard time from everyone really and when he would go out to get food, people would turn their back on him. It was a very lonely life for him and he’s just trying to do his best. He’s trying to bring his kids up the best he can and he’s still suffering, psychologically and mentally. Then he meets a woman who’s got quite a lot of money. That brings Douglas out of himself and it helps Robina as well because they’re totally different.”

During filming, many of his scenes were emotionally intense, and viewers will see Douglas fall apart when he’s left on his own. But Bean also got to spend a lot of time in a kitchen, next to a fire, having cups of tea and reading the paper, “which was great,” he jokes.

Bowker adds: “What I’m particularly interested in is informing the universal, not establishing the universal and coming down. Sean’s found me out really because all I’ve done is reduce the world to a kitchen.”

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Drama that delivers

From the writers and producer of Danish dramedy Rita comes Fred til Lands (Deliver Us), which tells the story of five people who decide to plot a murder. DQ goes behind the scenes to find out how this thriller, once developed for the US, made it to screen.

The journey to bring Danish thriller Fred til Lands (Deliver Us) to the small screen began more than a decade ago, when writers Christian Torpe and Marie Østerbye first developed the story of five normal people who, pushed to breaking point by the town bully, team up to plan his murder.

But 10 years is a long time in television, and before Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and the Nordic noir wave flooded Europe and beyond with their dark plots and moody landscapes, the writing duo were encouraged not to pitch their idea for fear viewers would find it too grim.

“Marie and I had only done comedy back then. So people just looked at us weirdly when we were talking about this show,” Torpe recalls. He had been living in LA for a couple of years by then, so took the series out to networks stateside. It landed first at Showtime and then AMC, before both cable networks passed it over.

Then when the Rita creator teamed up with that show’s producer, Jesper Morthorst, to launch Copenhagen-based Motor Productions, he bought back the rights and they took the project to Danish public broadcaster DR.

Deliver Us focuses on a town’s residents coming together to plot a murder

Torpe continues: “We knew they had an open slot in their schedule and we were like, ‘Hey guys, there’s something here that’s pretty far along in development because of its history. We have a script, we have a full bible. We know what the show is. Marie and I are available…’ and DR just jumped on board pretty much immediately.”

The story first originated from discussions between Torpe and Østerbye, who has also written on Rita, about how easy it appeared to get away with killing someone in film and television, leading them to consider how a group of people might plan and execute the perfect murder.

“There’s a natural conflict and a natural adversity that needs to be overcome that lends itself well to drama – the practical aspect of it but also the moral and ethical aspects of it,” Østerbye explains. “Then you could discover what happens to people when they cross to the dark side and they decide to take a life, and the bonds that creates. It was also fun to create characters and relationships in that sense.”

Deliver Us stands out as a risky prospect for DR, which has built its international reputation on the back of gritty and grounded crime dramas like Forbrydelsen, Broen (The Bridge) and Bedrag (Follow the Money). As well as being more heightened thematically and stylistically, through the design of lead director Louise Friedberg, it also came to the broadcaster from outside its own development system, unlike the aforementioned hits. That’s not to say it was entirely fully formed, however, with some rewriting required to transplant the plot from the US to Denmark.

“When you place it in a Danish community instead of a small US town, that does something to the show. It’s a different culture,” Torpe notes. “People have a different relationship with violence and guns and everything. So we redeveloped it for Danish purposes. That said, I do think it’s a new kind of show for DR. It’s not aiming for the realism we are used to seeing in their shows. It’s still grounded in real people in real emotional psychology, but it is slightly – maybe just 10 or 15% – heightened.

Morten Hee Andersen’s Mike (right) is the man in the crosshairs

“The story finds that extra gear that takes it away from realism, and the visual style doesn’t aim for realism either. It’s much more expressive. Louise has crafted a beautiful style. To me it has a layer of [David] Cronenberg’s A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, or The Coen Brothers’ thriller-noir world. It’s in that universe.”

Fans of Rita, the story of an unconventional teacher and single mother, may also recognise elements of dark comedy in Deliver Us, which distributor Dynamic Television has already placed with Germany’s ZDFneo. “The whole idea of ordinary people finding out they want to kill someone has a sort of absurdity to it,” Østerbye notes. “This doesn’t happen [in real life]. I don’t think Christian and I can work without any type of comedy in our scripts, but we both also wanted to do something that was more dramatic.

“As I remember it, there was a bit more religion and a bit more church-going in the American pilot – we had an opening scene where the whole town was at church. You don’t get that in Denmark, so that was something we had to change for the new setting.”

The story follows the citizens of a fictional small town who band together to plan the murder of troublesome resident Mike, who is terrorising and tormenting them in different ways. It also focuses on the human cost of such a plan, exploring why each member of the group decides to kill and how that choice affects them.

The ensemble cast includes Claus Riis Østergaard (Norskov) as town doctor Peter Dahl, who is still grieving the death of his son, Aksel, who was deliberately run over by Mike. The villain gets away with murder by claiming it was an accident, leaving Peter to take justice into his own hands.

Series creators Christian Torpe and Marie Østerbye

Lene Maria Christensen (Pros & Cons, The Legacy) plays Bibi Lorentz, who desperately wants a child but whose husband has stopped having sex with her. Bibi doesn’t know why until it is revealed that Mike is physically and psychologically torturing him. “So the guy is ruining her life not by directly threatening her but by stopping her from achieving her dream,” Torpe explains. The cast also includes Dar Salim as Milad Aziz, plus Anders Juul (Peter’s brother Martin Dahl), Mads Romer (John Nielsen) and Marijana Jankovic (Anna Nielsen).

So far, Mike sounds pretty despicable, but it was important to the writers that the character, played by Morten Hee Andersen (Ride Upon the Storm), didn’t just appear as a pantomime villain. As such, they had extensive discussions about how to ground the character to ensure he still felt real and relatable to the audience.

“I’ve been using the words sociopath and psychopath but we actually stay clear of that when we talk about him on set and with Morten because we want him to have some traces of humanity,” Torpe explains. “We talked about him as a broken human being who never learned any kind of emotional language whatsoever. Then, throughout the season, things happen where we slowly see him becoming a human being and we start adding different flavours and grey zones to him. That’s going to be a fun part of the show – to start having the audience see him in different ways. We get to see where he’s coming from and we get an idea of what shaped him, what his environment is and how he became who he is.”

Writing the series was really an exercise in justification, with Torpe and Østerbye devising reasons that would lead this band of disparate characters to want to team up to kill Mike – and, most importantly, to make the audience get behind them. “So it started off with a morbid brainstorm about what this guy could have done that would make your audience want to root for our group,” Torpe says. “Based on that, we started developing relationships and characters with the wants and needs that Mike was somehow hindering. Sometimes he’s a very physical threat; in other cases, he’s more of a mental roadblock.”

The eight-part psychological thriller reunites co-showrunners Torpe and Østerbye, who have known each other for 20 years, first partnering on comedy Maj & Charlie before working together on Rita.

Deliver Us is set to premiere on Denmark’s DR

That shared history has created a shorthand between the pair that has carried them from the writers room to the editing suite. Both admit they are spending more time overseeing the edit than might be traditional for Danish drama writers, but with three directors working across the series, they see it as an important part of their role in delivering a shared vision for the series.

“There are a lot of decisions going on in the edit, where you can suddenly decide to do a scene without the dialogue because the actors give you what you wanted without saying anything,” Østerbye says. “There are also a lot of discussions around pace, mood, music and all kinds of things you can’t really imagine when you’re writing. We have to discover the tone of the show, and we have often changed the point of view of the scene in the editing room. We sometimes decide to tell it through another character, and we can do that because the directors capture a lot of material and shoot the scenes from different angles. So we’re able to kind of make these changes as we go along.”

Throughout the story, however, the one constant is a single underlying question: even if you get away with murder, how do you live with your actions?

Speaking to DQ as filming is about to begin on the third block, Torpe says: “The thing we’re still working on is finding the appropriate mix of hope and despair in the show, because the characters need to be in deep despair to commit – or attempt to commit – something so radical. But at the same time, we need to have hope for them that they will actually get better, otherwise the audience will become disengaged. So the main challenge in this show, and what makes it fun and interesting, is finding that mix of light and dark – finding little moments of humour here and there, finding hope for the characters.”

Behind the scenes, producer Morthurst was tasked with identifying the perfect setting for Deliver Us. Filming has subsequently taken place entirely on location, with the show’s fictional town made up of three places on Funen, Denmark’s third largest island, located south-west of Copenhagen. The setting takes the name of one of those towns, Ebberup.

“We only have one set, which we built into a cafeteria. Everything else has been shot at authentic locations,” Morthurst says. “That’s a lot of work when you’re shooting for six months in places where people are living. It’s a big logistic puzzle.”

The decision to create a composite fictional town for the series goes some way to making sure the programme portrays a recognisable yet distant place where this exploration of human behaviour can play out.

“Deliver Us is completely realistic in its exploration of how it is to be a human being and how people relate to each other in small communities – and what we do with that one person who is fucking things up for everybody else,” Morthorst adds. “That’s not something we are used to seeing in Danish television. We are doing our best to get the audience close to the characters and the drama.”

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Upholding the Law

My Life is Murder star Lucy Lawless, famed for starring in Xena: Warrior Princess, tells DQ about her first lead role in an Australian drama and putting an entertaining spin on the evergreen crime genre.

At home in New Zealand, Lucy Lawless is busy planting trees. Her family are the newest owners of a tree farm and she is currently spending her time digging up the ground or discussing tractors – work that sits comfortably alongside her profile as an environmental campaigner and activist.

It’s a welcome change of pace for the actor, who is best known for playing the lead in fantasy drama Xena: Warrior Princess, having spent five busy months across the Tasman Sea earlier this year filming 10-part Australian crime drama My Life is Murder.

From her first talks about the project with producer Claire Tonkin to wrapping the production, 18 months passed by in a blur. The series subsequently debuted down under on Network Ten in July before its US launch on streamer Acorn TV. It arrives on UKTV’s Alibi channel next week.

The show was made at an “unbelievable” pace, Lawless tells DQ on the phone from New Zealand. “For me, it’s unheard of because at that point [of the first meeting], we didn’t even have a script. It was just an agreement with two women going, ‘Let’s do this.’

In My Life is Murder, Lucy Lawless (right) plays Alexa Crowe

“Then it went into development hell and eventually all the blockages cleared. We found the right writer and he was forced to write it in just 10 weeks, and then we were off to the races. It was just a magical, serendipitous thing that I would hate to do again under such rushed circumstances, but sometimes that’s how things come together.

“To come up with the idea, sell the idea, put together the production team and get it written and produced, it was remarkable. That’s all credit to Claire, [producer] Elisa Argenzio and [head writer] Tim Pye. I hitched my wagon to some really great horses.”

If it hadn’t been for the persistence of Tonkin – who was then producer CJZ’s head of drama development and is now its head of drama – Lawless might never have taken on the role of Alexa Crowe, a former police detective who is reluctantly coaxed back into investigation work to help her former colleagues solve some of their trickier cases.

The executive had sent Lawless some scripts for the show and though she thought it was a good idea, she put them aside and forgot about them. Then when the actor was in Australia to attend Sydney Pride, Tonkin sought her out again.

“I didn’t think much would come of it but we met and she was just such a pocket dynamo,” says Lawless, a true-crime fan who feasts on the many books and podcasts the genre has to offer. “She presents like a charming wallflower; she’s happy to sit back but she is a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the best possible way. I just saw so much unlimited potential in this woman and thought I was going to nab her for myself.

“I was really intrigued by it. And also, at this time in my life, I don’t want to be selling mayhem and destruction anymore. I’ve done quite a lot of it and I’m very attracted to justice. The world is pretty grim these days, so I want to give people a good time. I want to do something just because it’s fun and gorgeous, and we’re cleaning up the universe in a metaphorical way. It’s a beautiful thing to entertain just for the hell of it.”

A former cop, Alexa is drawn back into investigation work

Described as a contemporary murder mystery, My Life is Murder is a classic case-of-the-week crime drama featuring Lawless as Alexa, a complex, fearless and charismatic former cop who, despite some setbacks in her private life, can’t put down a good case when her help is called for. Through the series, her investigations take her across a picturesque Melbourne and into the worlds of male escorts, nightclub owners, high-flying business CEOs, celebrity chefs, clairvoyants and cosmetic surgeons.

Produced by CJZ and distributed by DCD Rights, the show marks Lawless’s first Australian lead. She previously had a part in Oz conspiracy thriller The Code and has also starred in US series such as Spartacus, Ash vs Evil Dead, Salem and Parks & Recreation.

“She is a sleuth but she’s a very perverse human being,” Lawless says of Alexa. “She’s not afraid to tell a lie to get to the truth. She’s apt to bend the truth, which is really fun.”

Alexa is assisted through the series by Madison Feliciano, a police data analyst played by Ebony Vagulins, and DI Kieran Hussey (Bernard Curry), who seeks unorthodox Alexa’s help when he becomes stumped by some unusual cases.

The show offers a glimmer of Alexa’s private life by suggesting in the first episode that she is still coming to terms with the death of her husband. But Lawless says the series never becomes maudlin. “You do see her in some quiet moments and when she’s alone, but she’s fortified. She has to rely on herself,” the actor says. “But she learns she’s not an island because these gorgeous people keep forcing themselves into her home and her heart and won’t leave her alone. They bring her back to life.”

Meanwhile, Lawless’s involvement in the project from the outset signals her significant role behind the scenes, with My Life is Murder also providing the star with her first executive producer credit.

Ebony Vagulans and Bernard Curry are among Lawless’s co-stars in the Australian drama

She says it’s a “mind-bending” extension to her acting job that was fine in the beginning “but at the end, the wheels have come off and I’m just trying to not trip over my tongue because the words are completely mixed up in my head.”

“It’s a pretty intense acting workload but that’s great. It’s magnificent to be challenged at this time in my career because it could be really boring if all I was doing was acting.”

Lawless is also grateful to take on a character who can live without wearing a corset, having spent six years in Xena’s iconic get-up from 1995 to 2001.

“I just want my character to wear the same trousers,” she jokes. “Give me seven of the same pants; I don’t want to change for one scene and then for another. That is the most irritating part of my job, which is really a pretty good problem to have. But there was a lot of love going around the set, a lot of respect and care. I just couldn’t be happier. I’m very grateful.”

Having spent so much of her career working in the US and at home in New Zealand, where Xena was filmed and which largely follows the industry machinations of the US system, Lawless says she was particularly conscious of learning the ropes on an Australian set.

“Australia is it’s own ball of wax. It’s not like the UK and not like America,” she explains. “The way they structure a production – people have different jobs, and job titles don’t mean the same thing, so it’s about trying to understand the flow of information. Because we were doing it in such a rush, we were scrambling more than we would have liked. But that also gives an energy, and then something fabulous accidentally happens that might not have done had you been in more control.”

When Lawless says she’s fascinated by crime and justice, she really means it. Not satiated with books and podcasts, she can often be found in a courtroom watching events unfold, whether in New Zealand or while working abroad. The actor has attended hearings in New York and Louisiana, and even went to the bail hearing of Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire sex offender.

“All human beings really like the idea of justice and finding the bad guy or girl. That’s just a human desire to protect the innocent and find justice for them,” she says. “What you learn about is the community you’re in. It’s largely about socioeconomics and how incidents of violence touch normal people’s lives. You learn about what poverty and abuse does to people.”

My Life is Murder treads a lighter path, however, with Lawless promising “the funnest romp through secret worlds.” She continues: “We go into these worlds that are opaque for most of us and get inside and solve a tasty little murder mystery in that juicy world.”

Between planting trees on her new farm and continual talk of a Xena reboot – “It would be fun to reprise it in some way. It ain’t dead yet” – the actor is also looking ahead to a potential season two of My Life is Murder. “I’m certainly thinking about it and always sending off bad ideas to the head writer,” she adds. “It’s on my mind.”

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Interview technique

The stakes are high in Netflix’s international cat-and-mouse crime drama Criminal, with each episode comprising a single police interview. DQ interrogates the cast and creative team about the series.

If there’s a single series that demonstrates the scale of Netflix’s global ambitions, it might just be Criminal.

The crime drama has a unique premise in that each 45-minute episode takes place entirely during a police interrogation, focusing on the intense clash between detective and suspect, while the cameras are confined to the interview room, the adjoining observation room and the corridor that links them.

But what really makes the series stand out is that this 12-part procedural is set in four European countries, with three episodes each from the UK, France, Germany and Spain. Each batch is recorded in the local language, starring, written and directed by talent from the same country.

Produced by Idiotlamp Productions and launching on September 20, Criminal is overseen by British showrunners George Kay and Jim Field Smith, who wrote and directed the UK episodes, respectively, while also supervising the other countries’ creative teams.

Jim Field Smith (left) and David Tennant on the Criminal set

Kay developed the concept after enjoying the constraints of writing a monologue called Double Lesson for Channel 4’s First Cut strand, while also taking inspiration from an interview he watched with a man accused of killing his stepdaughter.

“During the interview, I changed my mind [about whether he was guilty] about three or four times,” he recalls. “Jim and I have worked together since school and we’ve always loved police stuff, true crime and crime drama, and then the show kind of built out of that.”

George Kay

Kay then wrote an initial script, but the premise – which goes against the grain by being extremely intimate rather than high-concept or lavish – meant it was tricky to find a home for the show. That’s where Netflix came in, with the streamer taking the potential scale of the show in a different direction by turning it into an international format.

“Initially, we were trepidatious,” Field Smith admits. “But it’s been the most amazing adventure.”

Although the project has been five years in the making, production moved at an incredible pace once Netflix came on board. Shooting began in January and wrapped in April, with each episode filmed over a week in the same studio set at the streamer’s production hub at Ciudad de la Tele, Madrid.

“We shot 12 hours of drama in four months,” Field Smith says. “That’s never happened ever, anywhere. So we went from this long period of trying to get the thing away to suddenly all guns blazing.”

Serving as a “pilot block” for the whole series, the English episodes were filmed first, featuring a core cast that includes Katherine Kelly, Lee Ingleby, Nicholas Pinnock, Mark Stanley, Rochenda Sandall and Shubham Saraf. Guest stars appearing in single episodes include David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Youssef Kerkour and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Kay wrote all three of the English instalments, with Field Smith behind the camera, each working with the heads of departments to create the world of the show.

Captain America’s Hayley Atwell guest stars in one of the UK-set episodes

That then became the model for the German, French and Spanish versions that would follow, each inheriting the rules, style and tone set out by the original.

They were led by writer/director Frederic Mermoud and writers Antonin Martin-Hilbert and Mathieu Missoffe from France; director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writers Bernd Lange and Sebastian Heeg from Germany; and Spanish director Mariano Barroso and writers Alejandro Hernández and Manuel Martín Cuenca.

The lure of Netflix and the short-term commitment of a limited series meant the project was able to snare some of each country’s top acting talent, such as Nathalie Baye from France, Germany’s Peter Kurth and Inma Cuesta and Emma Suárez from Spain, in addition to the aforementioned British talent.

“It’s almost like a sort of theatrical engagement,” Field Smith says. “How many opportunities do you get as actors, writers and directors to do a show where it’s entirely about the performance? Yes, there are all these ‘constraints,’ but those constraints are there to be embraced and, actually, actively encouraged. So we were able to say to David Tennant, for example, it’s essentially more of a theatrical play experience than it is a big drama where you might be shooting two or three days across several weeks and there’s a lot of sitting around and a lot of waiting. We told them, ‘We’re going to be shooting 12 pages a day, so you better come prepared.’”

Each of the show’s four batches was shot in Madrid (Spanish version pictured)

It was during the scriptwriting process that Kay and Field Smith began discussing the rules for the world that would become integral to the dynamics between the characters, their behaviour and the way the series would later be filmed.

They made an early decision that the corridor between the observation and interview rooms would be a safe space where characters could tell the truth. “So after being in this ‘theatre,’ they come out the door and would be able to say, ‘Oh, so and so’s getting on my nerves,’ or ‘I really think he did this.’ It’s just true feelings,” Kay says.

The use of CCTV footage or flashbacks and reconstructions was ruled out, while the duo were also keen to ensure the camera never left the set. “The strength of the show is that we are enclosed,” Field Smith notes. “One of the directors wanted to put the camera outside the window and see one of the detectives looking outside, but I said, ‘You can’t do it because you’ve immediately broken the rule of the space.’ So the rules emerged organically as we were making the show, rather than from us sitting down at the beginning with a list.”

Field Smith points to the second UK episode, in which Atwell plays a woman accused of murdering her sister’s boyfriend. The fact that there’s no physical evidence, crime scene photographs or any other visual aids pointing to her guilt, or otherwise, means viewers must rely on the conversation between the accused and the detective and work out themselves who is telling the truth.

The production was able to attract high-profile talent including Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens)

“That’s when the shows is at its strongest,” the director continues. “If you’re doing a standard crime drama, the interview room scenes are often used to get as much information as possible so we can get back out on the road and have a car chase. We’re the opposite. Our car chase is in the room; our pyrotechnics come from physicality and body language and a pen simply falling off the table. We’ve both done big, flashy shows and films, and it was a really fun challenge to go the other way.”

With four variations of Criminal, Kay and Field Smith had to be wary of customs and procedures that might be different from the way things work in a UK police station. But when the show is boiled down, each episode follows the same structure – a suspect brought in for questioning by police about a crime they may or may not have committed – no matter what country it’s set in.

“That was the nub of it. So as soon as we can cut to that, finding the truth about that suspect, the grammar of it [across different countries] became pretty similar,” Kay says. “To labour on the on the differences between them was not something we wanted to do for any dramatic reason. So it all became quite a universal story.”

Field Smith picks up: “We didn’t want it to be super-real because that would, in itself, not be interesting. So we created this slightly theatrical, slightly heightened environment. On a script level, the show is technically very accurate; but on a visual level, we wanted to create our own space. We tried not to get too bogged down in what a police station in Germany would look like.”

Lee Ingleby (Luther, Line of Duty) plays a detective in the UK episodes

UK actors Ingleby and Sandall are both aware of the dramatic tension police interview scenes can create, having both previously appeared in a series famed for its interrogations, BBC drama Line of Duty.

In Criminal, they play DI Tony Myerscough and DC Vanessa Warren, who each get the chance to put Tennant’s Dr Egdar Fallon and Atwell’s Stacey Doyle through the wringer in an attempt to get to the truth.

“I thought it was interesting how you don’t have any background. There are no flashbacks or preamble leading up to it – you get the information in that room,” Ingleby says. “And the writing, it’s very rare you get a scene that runs and runs – you get like two or three pages of the scene at the most. That was really thrilling for me.”

Filming in the interview room would take place in the morning, before the scene was reset to be shot from the perspective of those in the observation room.

“It’s very intense. That is the show,” says Sandall. “It’s in the third episode that you see Hugo Duffy [played by Mark Stanley] rehearsing what he’s going to do in the interview, so that feeling of immense pressure would be put on these characters because they are putting on a show. It added to the intensity of it.”

Rochenda Sandall (left), another former Line of Duty star, in Criminal

Owing to the nature of the format, the police investigations take centre stage, leaving little time for actors to develop their characters beyond their work persona. Even so, they have still managed to create power dynamics and even a hint at a romantic relationship between two officers.

“With Myerscough, I suppose he plays it by the book,” Ingleby says. “He’s very methodical compared to somebody like Paul Ottager [Pinnock], who throws the cat among the pigeons. He’s on fire in the room, but slightly less confident in his own skin.

“They’re a team and they work as a team. They have a routine. Some people, you know more about their personal life than others. But you have the work banter, which we thought was good to have going through it.”

The constraints of the series aren’t just limited to the set design or camera movements but the actors’ movements as well, with most of the sitting behind desks the majority of the time. “I do think there’s a real integrity in truth and stillness,” Sandall explains. “It’s a very brave choice to make but, as actors, obviously you’re paranoid, thinking, ‘Oh gosh, is this going to be interesting?’ But there’s a real truth in stillness. It’s a different format – it’s great.”

“I suppose at first, I thought, ‘How interesting can this be?’ But I enjoyed it,” Ingleby admits. “After the nerves of learning a massive amount of lines, you get into the rhythm. For that first week of filming, when it was Rochenda, Katherine and Hayley in the interview room, that was their world, this [observation room] was ours and then we’d swap it around for the next episode.”

Both actors are also excited by where Criminal could go beyond its first season, dreaming up new countries the show could be set in and even crossovers that could bring different countries into the same investigation.

“The ideas that could go beyond this season are huge. There is so much potential in the programme and crossovers,” Sandall adds.

With a format that carries inherent tension and the ambition to apply it to different countries, Criminal is a fascinating and thrilling exploration of the cat-and-mouse relationship between suspects and detectives, and one that Netflix has the capacity and resources to adapt across its global footprint in the years to come.

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What lies beneath

Executive producer Liza Marshall, writer Mark O’Rowe and actor Mark Strong open up about the making of Sky1’s emotionally complex Temple, which is based on Norwegian drama Valkyrien.

Liza Marshall, head of Hera Pictures, and her husband, actor Mark Strong, had sat down together to watch their latest boxset, a Norwegian drama called Valkyrien. Forty-eight hours later, they were enjoying the sights of the country’s capital, Oslo, while they discussed with the show’s creator their ambition to remake the series for English-language audiences.

The result is Temple, an eight-part drama commissioned by the UK’s Sky1 that is set deep beneath London Underground station Temple, where an illegal clinic has been set up in an abandoned network of tunnels.

Strong plays Daniel, a talented surgeon whose world is turned upside down when his wife (Catherine McCormack) develops a life-threatening illness. When conventional options for treatment run out, he partners with obsessive yet surprisingly resourceful misfit Lee (Daniel Mays) to start the subterranean clinic.

They are soon joined by medical researcher Anna (Carice van Houten) to treat a variety of increasingly desperate and highly dangerous patients as Daniel’s morality is tested to the limit in a story that asks how far he is willing to go for love.

Although based on Valkyrien, Temple is less of an adaptation than it is a blend of that show’s central premise and spirit with writer Mark O’Rowe’s dynamic use of character and dark humour. Hera Pictures produces, with Sky Vision distributing internationally.

Mark Strong as surgeon Daniel in Temple, which is named after the London Tube station

Marshall, who says O’Rowe comes from the “Martin McDonaugh [In Bruges] school of writing,” agrees Temple is not a straightforward copy. “Because Mark is such a singular writer, in a way it’s a jumping off point. We’ve taken the concept and Mark’s made it his own,” she explains. “As the show develops, we’ve introduced new characters and we take Daniel, our doctor, in a slightly different direction. So both series can sit side by side. In the past, some remakes have been made almost like a translation, a very faithful remake. Ours has the spirit of the original but is something quite different.”

Temple marks playwright O’Rowe’s first TV series, having previously made films including Boy A. “It was a really brilliant piece of work and I’ve wanted work with Mark ever since,” Marshall says of the 2007 movie. “So once I got the rights to the show, he was an obvious choice because I thought his sensibility and tone would really suit the material and he really just got it and wanted to write it.”

O’Rowe describes Valkyrien as “crazy,” with a lot of story crammed into its eight episodes. However, gaps in the plot and new avenues he wanted to explore gave the writer the opportunity to create more complex and conflicted characters.

“We felt the template of the setup, who the characters were and their relationships with each other were the main things to stay close to and, at a certain point, we would have to diverge from the story of the original because there was too much packed in there,” he says.

The writing process began with a writers room designed to assist O’Rowe in the storylining, before he went away and penned all eight scripts. Another writer, DC Moore, also collaborated on the final script.

The Sky1 drama follows Daniel as he sets up an underground clinic after his wife (Catherine McCormack) becomes gravely ill

“In the beginning, there’s a deadline for the shoot – so whether I got there or not, the shoot was happening. I was under a huge amount of pressure but also inspired by the work and running on creative fuel,” O’Rowe says. “I would be writing episodes while people were sending me cuts of earlier episodes so I definitely had to keep ahead of the shoot as we came to the end of the process. As the earlier episodes were filmed and cut together, certain things we had decided on proved not to be what we wanted and we thought we’d taken a step too far. So the last couple of episodes changed the most during the writing.”

Having predominantly starred in movies during his 30-year career, with roles in Hollywood hits including Kick-Ass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty, Strong had been looking for a  new television series to dive into following his recent appearance in Fox Networks Group action thriller Deep State. “I was definitely looking for something in the TV world to grab hold of and run with, so if we were lucky enough to get a second season of Temple or even a third, it would be a wonderful thing to work on,” he says.

What attracted him to playing Daniel, Strong says, is that the character is an upstanding member of society who, by a series of increasingly desperate decisions, finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand.

“Surgeons don’t get more upstanding. He has a very happy life. He’s married, he has a daughter. They’re all very content. Life is good. Then his wife falls ill and he makes a decision to open the clinic and find a cure for her, which means he finds himself suddenly in cahoots with bank robbers, preppers [survivalists], disgruntled research people and a world he’s not been used to. So his whole world is turned upside down.

“As a character, what you’re watching is someone make a series of decisions that sometimes are ethically and morally unsound, and you have to work out whether this guy, who is essentially an everyman, cope with the most extraordinary decisions to keep his head above water.”

Daniel Mays plays Lee, who partners with Daniel to set up the clinic

According to O’Rowe, the character of Daniel marks the biggest departure from Valkyrien. In the original, Ravn (Sven Nordin) has set up a illegal clinic and is also trying to find a cure for his wife. In Temple, van Houten’s character Anna is given a beefed-up role to help Daniel. “We’re not trying to sell the lead character as this amazing medical mind, but rather have him as a normal professional up against extraordinary circumstances,” the writer says. “He’s a little less capable in this than in the original.”

Meanwhile, Marshall says Mays (Line of Duty) was her “number-one choice” to play Lee, who has an “odd couple” relationship with Daniel, while van Houten (Game of Thrones) brings an enigmatic quality to Anna, with whom Daniel shares a dubious past.

Wunmi Mosaku (Damilola: Our Loved Boy), Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty), Chloe Pirrie (The Victim) and Ryan McKen (The State) also appear. But the most interesting casting choice is Tobi King Bakare, who plays young bank robber Jamie. “He’d never acted before,” Marshall says. “We found him in a drama group in West London. He had never been on a set before he turned up for his first day at work. He’s really great. He’s now got an agent and he’s in a Netflix show [Cursed]. He’s such a nice man – he’s totally brilliant and a real discovery. [Casting director] Jina Jay did a really great job. Lily Newmark [as Eve, Daniel’s daughter] is great as well.”

Valkyrien took its name from the Oslo train station beneath which Ravn sets up his clinic. Transplanting the story to the UK, there are few better alternative locations than London, with Temple station lying on the northern embankment of the River Thames. The city is well known for its labyrinthine network of tunnels, and some that have been long abandoned and disused were reopened for the show’s production team.

“We shot a lot of the show in the closed Aldwych Tube station,” Marshall says. “There are two platforms that were once in use but beyond them are all these unfinished tunnels. They built three lift shafts and they only ever used one. So there’s all this crazy stuff under London, and the history of the city makes it a really exciting place to set the show.”

Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten also features in the series, much of which was filmed in disused parts of the London Underground network

When not filming in the real tunnels, production designer David Roger was tasked with recreating the clinic in a disused warehouse in Southall, West London. Marshall marvels at his achievement, describing the set as a faithful recreation of every curve and corner of the London Underground system.

Strong was among those who came to call the set a second home. “When you make movies, you have your nominated days, you go in, you play your scenes and you know that you’re going to be in and out,” he says. “With Temple, I was consistently shooting pretty much every day for five months. But leading a show is a real privilege and the cast we had was amazing. We all got on incredibly well, as we did with the crew, but it’s hard work, waking up at 5am and getting back home at 9pm. The days accumulate. It was tough but incredibly rewarding.”

The actor is not afraid to play a variety of characters, having also starred as “the big bad guy” in superhero movie Shazam and as a First World War officer in Sam Mendes’s upcoming feature 1917.

He’s now also stepping up his role behind the scenes, working as an executive producer on Temple. “Having done a fair bit over the last 30 years, I suddenly realised I do have a useful opinion on certain matters,” Strong says. “I was able to help out with casting and was also able to help out with dialogue a little bit, just to make it sit a little more comfortably in the mouth.

“But the most interesting thing was really realising how much work goes into these things; how much work behind the scenes. Often, as an actor, you’re brought on set to do your job and you’re not aware of how hard everybody else is working. But there’s an incredible amount of organisation required to tell a story like this, and it was a privilege to be to be able to see how is all put together.”

Strong believes Temple contains the best type of storytelling, where viewers will not be sure which way the story is heading or how they feel about the protagonist. “You judge whether what he’s doing is morally unsound or not and, hopefully, if I played it right, and if the story works properly, you’ll feel a little bit of both. You’ll get where he’s coming from and then, at other times, think what he’s doing is beyond the pale.”

Marshall sums up the series, which is already in development for a second season, by describing it as a morality tale. “It’s not a medical drama, it’s not a thriller. It’s about how far will this man go for love and, by the end of the eight hours, how many lines will he have crossed?

“Basically, quite a lot! It’s a genre-defying, rich character-led drama, and that’s what we always wanted to make.”

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Conversation starter

Ahead of the world premiere of Black Bitch, star and executive producer Rachel Griffiths takes DQ inside the themes and issues behind the Australian political drama.

It might be considered pure folly to contemplate writing a political drama in today’s unpredictable and tempestuous climate. But in Australian series Black Bitch, issues of race and gender are placed front and centre in a show that has been more than 20 years in the making.

The story introduces Indigenous woman Alex Irving (played by Deborah Mailman), who becomes a national hero when she drags a woman to safety from a gunman. She quickly comes to the attention of embattled prime minister Rachel Anderson who, besieged by infighting, opposition attacks and bad press, overrides her party to draft Alex into the Senate.

However, the political novice soon finds herself at odds with the PM, who might have a hidden motive, the party and the entire government machine. Determined to be more than a political stunt and intent on making a difference, Alex realises she will have to bring down the system from the inside.

The ABC series was co-created by actor Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under), who plays the prime minister. She says the idea – and the provocative title – first came to her when she was 27 and has been evolving ever since, inspired by two real-life events.

Black Bitch actor and executive producer Rachel Griffiths flanked by star Deborah Mailman (left) and director Rachel Perkins

The first concerned an Aboriginal woman she met while working on a documentary, who was involved in a native land title claim but received abuse for her cause and had ‘black bitch’ graffitied on her house. The second involved another Indigenous woman, an elite athlete called Nova Peris, who was encouraged to stand for election to the senate and similarly received torrents of racial abuse.

Griffiths describes herself as a “kind of big constitutional and parliamentary process wonk,” and she clearly has an extensive knowledge of and interest in politics in Australia and around the world. She has closely followed US politics since living and working there, and more recently she has been keeping an eye on the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The actor also studied gender issues and representation at university and has examined the role of women in government.

“Back in the day when I first had these ideas, this was a parliamentary thriller with intrinsic themes of race and gender,” she says. “I had the title and it was about an Indigenous senator who is helicoptered into the senate and brings down a government. That was my pitch, and it’s only gotten more relative. Our Conservative party here has barely increased its female reach, particularly in pre-selection [of candidates], and when women have been helicoptered in – able women with life experience over the apparatchik machines – they’re not always welcome at the table. So that’s all where it came from.”

Griffiths initially thought Black Bitch might be a feature film and pitched it to various people with that in mind. Eventually it landed with Blackfella Films, Australia’s “key Indigenous content creators,” responsible for films and series including Redfern Now and Deep Water.

“When I pitched it to [Blackfella co-MD] Darren Dale, they had aspirations to do a show with Indigenous leads set in the political arena,” she recalls. “It’s not something they had done before. Australia generally hasn’t really done political shows that are quite biographical. But when I pitched it, it was very much on fertile ground. It has a female lead and the title gave it a tonal pitch that was very different. Darren just loved it and he pitched it to our national broadcaster and they loved it. And here we are.”

The series is inspired by two real-life events concerning racism against Indigenous women in Australia

Griffiths says her character is motivated by a genuine desire to see change and bring about a more diverse political party, rather than simply using Alex’s appointment as a cynical ploy to remove some of the heat from her own position.

“But she’s definitely embattled by a rising right flank and is trying to head that off and surround herself by allies she feels she can rely on,” the actor explains, noting that the series also explores some of the double standards women politicians are held to.

“We show that in the constant sense that she is not legitimate, and that entitled men who are intellectually inferior to her feel that she is doing their job,” she continues. “She doesn’t come from a place of self-promotion. Women often get there through the much harder work of building consensus and bringing people along with you.”

In contrast, Alex is fighting against a parliamentary system that she discovers is slow and often painful, with big changes taking a long time. Griffiths highlights this by recalling the Australian parliament’s decision not to legislate for marriage equality but instead hold a plebiscite in the form of a voluntary national postal survey that gave Australians a say on the issue. When 61.6% of respondents supported a change to the law, a cross-party bill was subsequently passed in December 2017.

Examples such as this, as well as the instability of having five prime ministers in less than a decade, are touched on throughout the series. “But underneath that, it’s quite an impassioned plea for democracies to become more reflective of the societies they represent, to be careful with fast change, to be careful of the power of the personality-driven outsider, and it’s a cautionary tale to people spitting out the dummy when they don’t get their way first time around,” says Griffiths, who last year starred in crime drama Dead Lucky.

Griffiths with producer Miranda Dear (left) and Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale

Viewers will walk in Alex’s shoes through the drama, witnessing the political experience from her perspective as Indigenous issues such as status and land rights are also explored. “I’m definitely the antagonist,” says Griffiths. “We observe the octopuses I’m wrestling with, but it’s [Alex’s] heart, her life, her journey from outsider to insider. That’s what makes it so powerful.

“I just think it’s so exciting and relevant and interesting and goes beyond any political tropes like a [Netflix series] House of Cards. Not that that wasn’t an absolutely wonderful show, but that was done so well – we’re not making our version. This is about the underrepresented, the historically disenfranchised and badly done-by.”

Playing Alex is Mailman, the award-winning actor whose credits include Offspring, The Sapphires, Jack Irish and Mystery Road.

“She has won more actor awards down here than any other actor next to Judy Davis [Husbands and Wives, Mystery Road] and has never had a lead,” says Griffiths. “It’s such a thrill that she finally had a role that illustrates not only her tremendous breadth of talent but also using the fact that she’s one of our most likeable actors. When you have an actor you just love, people are more prepared to emotionally go further and cross into worlds with that particular actor than they thought they would go though.

“She’s got an extraordinary range but also this intimate lovability. You just love her; you feel what she’s feeling and you go with her through all her mistakes and challenges. She’s pretty extraordinary.”

Director Rachel Perkins on set

Behind the camera is director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mystery Road, Redfern Now), co-MD of Blackfella Films, who Griffiths describes as one of Australia’s most important Indigenous storytellers. Her father, Charlie Perkins, is an Indigenous statesman, “a true legend and national treasure,” so she was able to bring her own experience of Australian politics to the six-part series, which is distributed by Keshet International worldwide and in partnership with Endeavor Content in the US.

“It’s a world she knows. I think it’s almost impossible to quantify that,” Griffiths explains. “There’s nobody else who would have understood the bridge between the worlds and the balancing act that you do as an Indigenous woman director in a very male and very white-dominated industry down here. Visually, she understands the landscape and the contrast between coming from the warmth of the country into these cool Canberra, putrid, mechanistic environments.”

Filming took place in Queensland and the capital Canberra, where scenes were shot in public areas around government buildings, while some studio sets were also built in Sydney.

Coming off the back of directing feature film Ride Like a Girl, Griffiths has immersed herself in making the series, both in front of and behind the camera in her dual role as actor and executive producer. “I’ve been very involved in breaking what the show would look like, character arcs and what we’re trying to say,” she says. “I had great access to members of parliament and senators. Many women were quite open about their stories. We had a wonderful early story room with a lot of different people coming in and talking, which was just fabulous. And now we’re just starting to do that again for season two.”

With the series premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, talk of a second season is premature, but Griffiths imagines a three-season arc to the story. “I’m sure it’ll start a conversation, or a few conversations,” she adds. “It hasn’t been designed to be a social-impact service. It’s just speaking to the zeitgeist as a conversation of the time. Democracy is never something we can take for granted, and people are really awakening to that.”

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Is seeing believing?

BBC drama The Capture imagines a ‘post truth’ world where a soldier must fight for his freedom in the face of apparently damning CCTV footage. DQ visits the set and speaks to writer/director Ben Chanan.

In the brick-walled basement of a Central London property, computer screens flicker in unison. Dozens of CCTV monitors are relaying images from all parts of the city, while laptop and computer screens atop industrial-style metal desks variously display more camera footage, detailed maps or pages of complicated coding.

Nearby, a row of interview rooms are covered in soundproof cladding, with low lighting adding to the veiled atmosphere.

This is a safe house belonging to a CIA ‘dark ops’ unit, with US intelligence officials operating covertly on the streets of Britain. In the main surveillance room, Hollywood actors Famke Janssen (X-Men) as Jessica Mallory and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) as Frank Napier can be seen in an upstairs office, rehearsing an upcoming scene in front of yet more screens and computer cabinets filled with wires and flashing lights.

The setting, constructed inside a studio in West London, teases many of the themes and ideas behind The Capture, a six-part BBC1 drama described as a surveillance conspiracy thriller that examines ‘fake news’ in a world where the power and influence of the security services touches every aspect of modern life.

The show sees Callum Turner (War & Peace) play soldier Shaun Emery, whose conviction for a murder in Afghanistan is overturned because of flawed video evidence. Returning to life as a free man with his young daughter, he must soon fight for his freedom once again when damning CCTV footage surfaces after a night out in London.

The Capture centres on Callum Turner’s Shaun, who is implicated by damning CCTV footage

With DI Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger, pictured top) brought in to investigate Shaun’s case, she quickly learns that the truth can sometimes be a matter of perspective.

“We’re all a bit fascinated by this surveillance world we live in and feeling a little uneasy about how it impacts our lives,” explains executive producer Rosie Alison. “This is a show about how you interpret what you see. It’s very much about the world of fake news, post-truth and people having different perspectives on what truth is.”

“We’ve been really influenced by what’s going on in the world around us, particularly in the last two years, and this show is a response to that,” adds producer Derek Ritchie. “The public are asking questions, so we wanted to ask questions as well. We want to encourage that debate about how we think about surveillance and digital technology and how it changes us and our perspectives of ourselves.”

In a competitive situation, series coproducers Heyday Television (The Long Song) and NBCUniversal International Studios (Hannah) snapped up the The Capture when it was being shopped around, having previously explored the idea of a surveillance thriller but having come up short when it came to finding an original idea or a book on the subject that could be adapted for television. Writer/director Ben Chanan’s pilot script, however, fitted the bill.

“In came this script and I couldn’t believe my luck. Ben had been sitting on his own, coming up with a brilliantly worked-out conspiracy thriller. I rang the agent and got Ben in and love-bombed him with passion,” Alison recalls. “We said Heyday was interested in this area and it was clear he had done something brilliant, so we’ve been enablers and caretakers of Ben’s brilliance. I was very passionate from the start.”

Hollywood stars Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman play a pair of CIA agents

Tom Winchester, president of Heyday Television, picks up: “I remember thinking at the time there was a slightly fantastical element to it because it felt a little bit like one step into the future. Two years later, it just feels this is the world we inhabit and it feels incredibly current. It’s one thing writing about what’s happening now but what Ben’s done is write about what could be happening in two years’ time. That’s the magic of The Capture.”

On screen, Grainger’s DI Carey proves to be the audience’s entry point to the story as she works her way through a moral maze to discover if Shaun is guilty or innocent. But it is Shaun viewers will relate to as the everyman caught up in circumstances that run wildly beyond his control.

Fellow executive producer Tom Coan likens Shaun to Harrison Ford’s character Richard Kimble in 1993 thriller The Fugitive. “He’s that guy who could be any of us and is relatable and accessible,” he explains. “He’s not a superhero or outside the realm of everyday life. That makes it more compelling, but scarier. It could be any one of us who finds ourselves in this position.”

Filming took in a range of locations in London across 81 shooting days that ran from October last year to April. With the producers seeking a gritty-looking London over a stylised, fake or glossy appearance to ensure the series remained rooted in authenticity, sites included housing estates, prisons and playgrounds. A counterterrorism advisor was on hand during production, while Military specialists Bare Arms also provided support. In addition, the cast all spent time with police. Grainger shadowed a detective, while Turner undertook army training for his role.

“As a producer, London is pricing itself out of filming. It feels like it’s becoming prohibitively expensive,” Ritchie says. “It’s a shame because it’s an amazing place to film. As a city, it’s getting very pricey. But the personality of the city is key to the series. London’s rich pageantry is there in The Capture.”

Janssen chats with exec producer Rosie Alison between takes

Back in the CIA bunker, CCTV footage continues to roll across the room’s copious screens. But rather than use incidental stock footage, every frame has been specially filmed for the series by Mark Doman (Spooks), who spent six months creating the surveillance world around the drama.

Ritchie says Doman’s expertise lies in framing, crafting CCTV that doesn’t capture anonymous people or the show’s protagonists in the centre of the camera but often in random positions, replicating the nature of real surveillance footage.

“There are key moments that are caught on CCTV and Mark is with us filming all of that, so he works with the main units and independently of it,” he says. “When we cut to one of those shots or see it in the background, the feeling of verisimilitude you get from it has got to be perfect. That comes down to Mark’s work on the texture and feel of the images, how they feel different from the conventional drama around them. It’s been a vital creative part of the puzzle.”

While water-cooler television might largely be a thing of the past, last year’s pulsating thriller Bodyguard (another BBC series) proved drama still has the power to bring viewers together. That’s certainly what the team behind The Capture hope will happen as they open up the debate about surveillance culture.

“In this post-truth world, where we’re being constantly bombarded by information, you have sensory overload – but the one thing we feel we can believe in is what we see. That’s the last bastion,” Winchester argues. “It’s just throwing that up for conversation. How much of what you see can you trust? For me, that’s fascinating.”

Ritchie adds that the denouement to the series, which is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, is by no means clear-cut. “We want the audience to have different opinions. At the end, there’s a moral question posed and I would love it if the audience has different views on that. Everyone has a multitude of motivations and self-doubt. We’re trying to open it up for debate.”

With The Capture promising a great deal of twists and turns, viewers will do well to question whether they can believe what they see as this modern thriller unfolds.


Must watch
By Karolina Kaminska

Ben Chanan with The Capture star Callum Turner

In a world where video manipulation is becoming sleeker and fake news more prevalent, the themes of The Capture are increasingly relevant . But writer and director Ben Chanan hadn’t realised when he formulated the idea for the series that it would turn out to be so topical.

“The origins of the story go all the way back to my time in documentaries,” says Chanan, who won a Bafta in 2013 for The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes. “I made a couple that involved quite a lot of CCTV footage and video evidence. I made a doc where I was filming the Metropolitan Police; I made another doc where I was filming with some counterterrorist operatives in London and Washington and I became aware of just how integral video evidence was to our justice system.

“At the same time, I was increasingly aware, through working in TV, that video manipulation was becoming better, cheaper, easier and faster, and I started to think surely those two developments would one day collide and that would be a really interesting world for a drama to be set in.

“So that’s where it started to percolate years ago. It just took me this long, probably nine years, to actually turn that thought into a narrative and get it made.”

During those years, the concept of fake news began to enter public consciousness, but Chanan says he came up with the idea for the series much earlier.

“The funny thing about fake news in terms of how it relates to this idea is that I hadn’t really heard the term, or at least not in the way we use it now.

“When I started developing the idea – in fact, when I started writing it – suddenly Trump was elected and fake news was a big thing. It’s weirdly timely in that it certainly wasn’t designed to coincide with it; I certainly didn’t hear all the talk about fake news and then get the idea. I guess it’s a lucky coincidence.”

In light of the show’s themes, Chanan says the aim of the series is to raise the issue of what might happen if people no longer trust video evidence.

“We still tend to believe what we see on camera, but what happens if we don’t believe that anymore? What happens to the justice system? What happens to video evidence? What happens to news? Are we going to have to develop ways, like the equivalent of a watermark on a £10 note, to verify video?” the director says.

Given the relevance of the show’s themes in today’s society, will The Capture return for a second season? “I have no idea,” says Chanan. “I have to finish this one first and then take a break and see how we all feel about it.

“It certainly is a contained story. We don’t leave the story of what’s happening to Sean and why it happens and where he gets to unresolved.”

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Wolf’s pack

With six series on air, veteran writer and producer Dick Wolf talks to DQ about the changing television industry and reveals why he would tell aspiring producers to go into a different line of work.

For someone who currently has six series on air, Dick Wolf is remarkably modest. With a screen career spanning four decades, the esteemed writer and producer created the long-running Law & Order series and has had a hand in developing the ever-expanding Chicago franchise. He has also won numerous awards, including an Emmy, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dick Wolf

Yet Wolf describes himself as “the luckiest guy in the lower 48 states of the US,” believing his success has been as much about good fortune and timing as his continued backing of evergreen network procedurals at a time when streaming platforms and serialised storytelling are hogging the limelight.

“My timing was very fortunate. I got the best of it,” he says, speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. “It sounds terrible, but the crumbs are left. They don’t want anybody to make money but them, which is understandable but not invigorating.”

Wolf is referring to the on-demand giants that are busy signing up some of the biggest and brightest talents in television. Netflix has snared Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), while Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), Lena Waithe (The Chi) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) have moved in with Amazon Prime Video. But though these overall deals pay big up front, there’s little reward further down the line.

That doesn’t sit easily with Wolf, who has been rewarded over the years for the longevity of his series and their repeatability in US syndication and overseas.

“My advice [to a young producer] would be, ‘Do you have anything else you want to do?’ This business is essentially over in terms of people being able to come in, make a hit show and make a lot of money,” he says. “The streaming services want to know exactly how much [a show] is going to cost forever. So far, the deals are pretty uninteresting. So to give people advice, I’d tell them that to go and do something where there is a concrete ceiling, rather than a glass ceiling, is difficult now.”

Not tempted to move online, where a season of a network show that clocks in at between 22-25 episodes a year could mark the lifespan of a single series on Netflix or Amazon, Wolf is doubling down on his commitment to network drama.

Law & Order: SVU,  the longest-running live-action series in the US

Heading into its 21st season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) is now the longest-running live-action series in the history of US TV, while Wolf’s other series on air include Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med, plus FBI (pictured top) and its new spin-off FBI: Most Wanted. He is also hopeful a reboot of his 1990s crime drama New York Undercover will get picked up this year.

Wolf says there’s no secret formula behind his work, noting that Law & Order was taken from the headlines while FBI is much more “ripped from the zeitgeist.” The series – which centres on the unique work undertaken by the agency’s New York field office and returns to CBS for its second season this month – comes from Universal Television in association with CBS Television Studios and is distributed by CBS Studios International.

“It’s about what’s going on in the world, rather than a specific case. That’s the biggest difference between them,” Wolf continues. “Law & Order truly was ripped from the headlines. When I sold it to NBC, [then network president] Brandon Tartikoff said, ‘What’s the pitch?’ I said, ‘The front page of the New York Post.’”

Whatever his method, viewers certainly approve. “The numbers are ludicrous,” he says of the viewing figures his shows attract. “SVU, off network, draws 93 million people on the various reruns, and the reason to me is pretty apparent: closed-ended stories. We have serialised elements but the secret of the success we’ve had is audiences know you can tune in and get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end and know the bad guy is probably going to get caught. It’s going to be emotionally satisfying.”

Chicago Fire is one of three shows in Wolf’s Chicago franchise

Strong writing has also been key, Wolf notes. “It’s always the writing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got Laurence Olivier [in the cast]. If the words aren’t good, the show isn’t going to work. It really is the overwhelming element of success.”

Another reason Wolf’s shows work so well are the ensemble casts that lead them – and the opportunity to continually refresh them by introducing new characters.

“Law & Order was a six-person ensemble and, for the 20 years it was on, there were 29 actors who were regulars,” he says. “On SVU, the only one who was in the original cast that’s still there is Mariska [Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson]. So I usually see recasting as an opportunity, not a burden. But it’s never easy. People aren’t thrilled by the news [they’re being written out].”

Speaking to Wolf, it’s apparent that he plans to be in the TV business for many more years, if only to clear his head. “There are so many shows bouncing around in there,” he adds. “There could be a third FBI show that is totally different, and bringing back New York Undercover is going to be a lot of fun. I only do things I like watching.”

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Blind ambition

Swedish actor Julia Ragnarsson talks to DQ about financial thriller Fartblinda (Blinded), in which she plays a journalist tasked with investigating her married lover.

After appearing in one of the biggest films of the summer, Sweden-set horror Midsommar, Julia Ragnarsson is now leading the cast of eight-part drama Fartblinda. That the series is launching hot on the heels of director Ari Aster’s film reflects the way the two productions were filmed back-to-back, with Ragnarsson jumping from one to the other over an intense eight-month filming schedule.

In Fartblinda (known as Blinded internationally), she plays financial journalist Bea Farkas, who, in pursuit of her next scoop, detects irregularities in ST Bank’s trading department – a matter made more complicated by the fact she is having an affair with the bank’s CEO Peder Rooth (Matias Varela), a married man.

It’s in this ethical and moral malaise that much of the drama takes place, with Blinded placing financial thriller and relationship saga side by side. Ragnarsson’s Bea is a compelling character through which to follow the story, while her white blonde hair marks her out as an edgy, perhaps rebellious figure within the straight-laced newsroom.

The actor, best known for playing police trainee Olivia Rönning in Swedish drama Springfloden (Spring Tide), joined the Blinded cast just days before heading to Budapest, Hungary, to film Midsommar after she was invited to audition for the show. Filming for Blinded then began less than two weeks after Midsommar wrapped.

In Blinded, Julia Ragnarsson plays financial journalist Bea Farkas

“It was strange. I just jumped on a train and went into the audition room but I did not know what this was and hadn’t read the script. I didn’t know anything!” Ragnarsson admits of the audition process. “Matias was already cast and then the day afterwards, they said I’d got the part. It was an extremely quick process. Everything happened so fast, so I was a little nervous when we started filming. I was like, ‘Am I prepared enough for this?’ I don’t really remember a lot about the first couple of weeks, it’s just like, ‘Which country am I in? What am I doing? Why’s my hair white?’ It was very quick but extremely fun.”

Bea’s hair makes her stand out immediately, marking a stark change from Ragnarsson’s usual brunette look. To ensure continuity, a hairdresser visited the set every three weeks to ensure the actor’s natural roots didn’t begin to show through.

“It’s rare you do a big change like that. I’ve always had pretty long hair that’s a natural brown colour,” Ragnarsson says. “This was an opportunity to make a big change, but at one point my hair started falling out – it just melted. So it was interesting! But it helps a lot for a character to make a drastic change.

“I feel like in Swedish cinema and TV, you have to look like a very common or average person. We don’t do anything to stick out. They want it to be very plain, normal, low key, like it could be anyone. But in this case, they wanted to go the opposite way, which was refreshing and fun. Also, with my clothes and styling, it could be something different. There are so many shows being made, you want it to feel a bit different.”

Bea finds herself tasked with investigating her lover, bank boss Peder Rooth (Matias Varela)

The series has been adapted from economics journalist Carolina Neurath’s book of the same name, which is based on real events. However, Ragnarsson says she didn’t read the book before shooting in order to avoid that story clashing with the plot of the show. Instead, she worked alongside directors Jens Jonsson and Johan Lundin to build Bea’s character based on the scripts by Jesper Harrie, Maria Karlsson and Jonas Bonnier.

“I had the opportunity to try different things on set and was very free to try something new,” she says. “They’re extremely generous when it comes to that sort of thing. That’s what’s fun about what I do; even though it’s hectic, you have some time to play, which I think is very important.”

Produced by FLX (Quicksand, Bonusfamiljen) for Nordic streamer C More and Sweden’s TV4, Blinded also represents the first major investment in the region’s drama by distributor All3Media International. Ragnarsson believes the show has a fresh style that will make it stand out.

“It’s not a cop show, which it tends to be if you look at [other Swedish series such as] The Bridge and Wallander,” she notes. “Not a lot of people really know what is going on in the financial world. It’s very closed and secretive, even for journalists. You have to start digging to find out what’s going on.

Director Jens Jonsson (left) on set with Varela

“This is about a private, niche bank but we’re starting to see now there’s a lot of weird shit going on with bigger banks, and I think the setting is interesting. It’s about tons of money, good-looking people, greed and how far [people will] go for the sake of money, or how far you go not to get caught. It’s just as intriguing and exciting as a cop show when there’s a serial killer on the loose, but we’ve seen that many times before.”

The most interesting aspect of the show is the internal conflict troubling Bea, who wants to do her job but is also in a relationship with the person she must investigate. Flashbacks reveal the origins of the relationship between Bea and Peder, showing that their affair is not simply a short-lived fling and that they have feelings for each other – to the detriment of Peder’s wife, Sophie (Julia Dufvenius).

“So do I fuck him over and potentially reveal a huge scandal that will take my career to a whole other level, or am I going to stick with this person, even though I don’t really know if he’s lying to me or not?” Ragnarsson says. “She decides to find out if he’s lying. It’s a very thankful thing for a character to have that conflict. It’s a suspense thriller but it’s also a love story and a relationship drama. It’s not just about the bank and the newspaper and the war between them; it’s also a war between these two people who are in love and might end up hating each other.”

Filming was split between Riga, the Latvian capital, and Stockholm. But despite the rapid production process, Ragnarsson says walking the right line through the Bea’s morale maze was the most challenging aspect of filming the series.

The drama airs on C More and TV4

“I wanted the audience to understand how Bea makes this decision to start investigating and basically screw the person that she loves, and how her work and her profession are just as important as, or maybe more important than, this married man,” the actor adds. “So there are so many things that make it difficult. My challenge and my responsibility as an actor was to try to portray that.

“We’re going to see different sides to Peder, too, not just his flattery. It will be interesting to see what people think and if they’re rooting for us as a couple or they hate us both.”

Fartblinda launched with its first two episodes on C More earlier this month, before entering a weekly release schedule. TV4 will debut the drama on Monday.

“I hope this will be a nice mixture of a relationship drama together with this financial world, the investigation stuff and also the thriller elements,” Ragnarsson adds. “It gives the show some extra spice. It’s always fun to watch people in love.”

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Guest of Honour

Swedish thriller Heder (Honour) is breaking new ground in front of and behind the camera. DQ was invited to Stockholm to spend the day on the set of this women-led project.

Swedish law firm Heder is under attack. A ridiculous number of plants has been delivered to the firm’s Stockholm office in the hope of creating chaos. And unfortunately for Maria Nohra – who plays officer manager Leila in this Viaplay drama, also titled Heder (Honour) – she is the one left to clean up the mess.

The unorthodox invasion is the latest wave in a rising tide of threats and obstruction against the staff of the all-female company, which positions itself as a voice for victims of sex crimes, with lawyers who fight for justice for those who need it most. But the firm’s four partners – played by Swedish actors Alexandra Rapaport, Anja Lundqvist, Julia Dufvenius and Eva Röse – have another battle on their hands as they try to keep a fiercely guarded secret from their past that threatens to undermine their work and would spell the end for Heder should the truth be revealed.

When DQ visits the Swedish capital on day 34 of the 80-day shoot in October to watch the eight-part series being filmed inside the law firm’s offices, it’s clear the partners are upsetting the wrong people, hence the strange delivery that is confusing business that day.

But Heder’s stars aren’t just partners on screen. In fact, the series – described as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Sex & the City – is unique in that it was created by Rapaport, Lundqvist, Dufvenius and fellow actor Sofia Helin (The Bridge), who are also all exec producers. Together, they have been integral to the development and production of the series, working on the scripts and overseeing the entire project together with producer Birgitta Wännström and exec producer Calle Jansson. The show is produced by Bigster, the firm set up by Wännström, Jansson and Rapaport following their collaboration on another Swedish drama, Gåsmamman.

L-R: Heder stars Eva Röse, Anja Lundqvist, Julia Dufvenius and Alexandra Rapaport

Filming on Heder began at the end of last August and has now moved to the office sets that take up the space behind Bigster’s headquarters. As Leila tries to explain the plant deliveries, Rapaport’s Nour is not amused. But as soon as head writer and lead director Richard Holm calls “cut,” she breaks into a smile. Holm is similarly relaxed, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and headphones around his neck, as he talks to members of the crew.

In another scene, Nour, Elin (Dufvenius), Janni (Lundqvist) and Karin (Röse) are in their glass-walled central office – which comes complete with a panic room – discussing how to release some important information they obtained illegally.

Sitting on a bench outside the doors to the Heder office, Rapaport says she is “happy and excited” at how the shoot is going. “It’s really overwhelming and unreal, because we created this and it’s happening, and people are working and they get paid! It was all in our head a year ago and now it’s here. We have all eight episodes and they’re really good.

“It’s much more of a thriller than a legal drama. It’s all in there because it’s funny sometimes yet it has this big mystery. It has a heavy drive forwards. There are no dead spots. It’s really smart.”

Nour, she explains, is all about surface. “She’s quite shallow because she’s afraid of her own darkness, so she hides where she comes from, which is part of the mystery in the series. Who is she? What is her secret? She’s fighting for good, and I like that the bottom line of all this is who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator?”

Birgitta Wännström

Rapaport says the driving force behind the show was the desire of a group of friends to work together and with other women actors in the Swedish television industry who had rarely met before on screen. “And if we do meet,” she adds, “we always talk about a man or something relating to men. Now we’re relating to each other, and we’re not talking about our feelings. We’re real human beings. We’re alive.”

Now that filming is well underway, Rapaport also reflects on a tough year bringing the show into production. “We’ve been working our asses off and there have been ups and downs,” she says. “It’s not been a smooth path. But now it’s all coming to us. We struggled so hard together and got to know each other so well. Eva is fitting into this group like a hand in a glove,” she adds of Röse, who was cast later in development.

With its focus on defending the sexually abused, the drama is also extremely topical, coming as #MeToo and Time’s Up are at the forefront of the global film and television industry. Sweden has had its own movement, #Tystnadtagning (#SilenceAction), and Rapaport says there are lots of parallels between the series and the actors’ real-life experiences. For example, in the panic room, there is a wall covered with ‘dick pics’ the characters have been sent on social media.

“I’ve got dick pics on my Instagram so I said they could have one of mine,” the actor adds. “That’s the harassment we’re used to. There are a lot of parallels to real life. But not all the women in the series are nice and the men are not all bad. It’s not black and white. It’s about human beings. This is for everyone.”

There’s a sense of celebration in the air when news spreads on set that the eighth and final script has been locked down. The actors, together with writers Linn Möller, Kararina Ewers, Anna Ströman Lindblom, Katia Juras and Peter Arrhenius, the directors and Wännström have all been involved in the process, and their quest for perfection has meant ongoing discussions over the fine details of the scripts until this point. “We know if we can make it better, we have to do it, even though it upsets everyone in the crew,” Wännström says. “It makes more work for them but if it’s going to be better, it’s worth it.”

Constantly moving back and forth between the set and the Bigster offices, Wännström says that while Heder is a thriller, there’s also a deeper message hiding in plain sight. “It should be exciting, scary sometimes and very entertaining, but the issue is also there. We started way before #MeToo and it was so strange [when it happened]. It was strange that we started this project before but it was also a feeling of ‘finally,’ because it’s such an important thing for not only women but the whole of society.”

Julia Dufvenius is caught on camera

Back on set, Leila can be seen arguing with a courier in the hallway outside the Heder office when a large brown box spills out of the delivery man’s hands and opens on the floor, sending dozens of pink sex toys rolling onto the carpet – the latest malicious package to be sent to the firm.

Then, in preparation for the next scene – a pivotal moment when the four main characters realise why they have been receiving threats – all four stars can be found deep in conversation with director Holm as they discuss changing the lines they are about to record.

Holm was working with Rapaport and Wännström on Gåsmamman when they began talking about Heder. “When I heard about the cast and these four great Swedish actresses, I didn’t really know the story but I was very interested to see what they had come up with,” he says. “When we sat down and Sofia presented her idea, it was too good not to be involved in and to evolve the story with them. It’s been a great process.”

The visual style of the series, which is distributed internationally by Eccho Rights, aligns with the characters’ moods. The first three episodes were filmed using tripods, dollies, steadicams and cranes as the lawyers are introduced. But when the central plot begins to unfold and the tension rises, the camerawork becomes increasingly unsteady thanks to a switch to handheld cameras.

Working with actors who are also exec producers and have been involved throughout the production has been a boon for Holm, who says the leads have been incredibly prepared for each scene. “You don’t have to take the time to set them in the mood. They come in and they know what the scene is about, which means you can have more time to work on the guest actors and other people around it,” he explains. “It’s great because they know their characters and we’ve developed them together. Sometimes we end up in script discussions but, since three of them are also producers, they are very keen to move it forward.”

Director Richard Holm in discussion with Alexandra Rapaport and Dufvenius

With women making up 60% of Heder’s crew, female viewpoints permeate the drama. “It’s been scary to dive into a show with a female perspective and hear what they go through,” Holm adds. “We did a scene with Nour walking home and she has her keys as a knuckleduster, fearing she is being followed. A lot of women on the crew said they had done that too, and the men said, ‘Really?’ It’s been an eye-opener in a totally different way.”

Dufvenius plays Elin, a tech genius and hacker who is fearless but reckless; a recovering alcoholic wife and mother who struggles to balance the conflict between work and family. “She’s new for me, I’ve never done anything like this,” the actor says. “If a Swedish casting director had cast me, I’d be Karin because that’s mostly what I’ve been doing, those upper-class, reserved characters. She’s more warm and flips out sometimes. So she’s new for me. That’s really exciting.”

Dufvenius says working on Heder has been a “blessing,” having first worked with Lundqvist on comedy projects and a podcast. “We have to create different parts for women,” says the actor, who had also previously discussed potential collaborations with Helin. “It’s so modern, what we are doing, and I’m so happy. I thought my idea about a new area for women would end up in the theatre, so I’m so happy and surprised it’s in the TV business.

“I want it to give women a bigger arena for them to work in and behave. In the very first scripts with the writers, the women were hugging each other and we were like, ‘Do we always hug each other?’ It’s a cliché. We could just throw them away and make something different in a witty way, in a smart way, with a lot of humour. Hopefully we will entertain the public.”

Calle Jansson

In between scenes, Röse can be found singing, laughing and joking with other members of the cast and crew until the next take is ready to roll. The star of Swedish crime drama Maria Wern, she auditioned for the part of Karin as she was intrigued by the storyline and inspired by the opportunity to work with her friends. “It’s very seldom you can work with your female colleagues, because there are always men everywhere,” she says. “Me, Alex and Anja went to theatre school in the same years so we’ve been following each other since we were in our 20s, but we’ve never really worked together.

“I also know Sofia, so when I found out that I got the part, we were talking together and she gave me her blessing. She’s been very supportive and super cool. I felt very welcomed when I joined.”

Karin is a strategist and social mastermind, who finds herself hampered by her upper-class upbringing and the fact Heder is part of her mother’s own legal empire. “She’s also interesting because she’s married and she has a kid, but she doesn’t see him because he’s at boarding school. Why did she leave him like that? Why does she have all these lovers? Why is she in an open marriage? How did they get that to work, or why? She has this appearance in the office and with her posh husband, a politician, but then she has a secret life.”

Meanwhile, as Janni, Lundqvist finds herself playing the more physical member of the Heder team, with her character taking it upon herself to go after criminals while unafraid to use psychology or her sexuality to get what she wants. “She’s the doer,” the actor says. “She’s the one who goes out in the night with a torch and can open locks and has connections on the street. Usually I do more typically female characters and comic things. Janni is not so emotional – I often get very emotional parts because I’m very good at crying!”

Beyond her on-screen role, Lundqvist says making Heder has been “much more scary” than her usual jobs, as it’s the first time she has worked as an executive producer. “There’s more self-doubt but it’s much more fun,” she explains. “I’ve been longing for this, to be able to have more power and to decide what story we will tell.”

When Holm calls cut on the final scene, it brings to a close a particularly long day. On-set discussions and script changes have meant proceedings have overrun by 90 minutes, causing cast and crew to hurry home. Not everyone is quick to leave, however, as Wännström and Jansson return to the office to prep for the next day’s shoot and take a moment to watch the first trailer for the series.

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Counting Billions

It took something special for movie star Paul Giamatti to sign up for his first leading role in a TV drama. As Billions heads into its fifth season, he tells DQ about making the show and working with the “geniuses” behind it.

As one of America’s most versatile actors, Paul Giamatti has enjoyed a diverse and varied film career. He was nominated for an Oscar for sports biopic Cinderella Man and won Golden Globe for comedy drama Barney’s Version, among a list of credits that include Sideways, American Splendor and 12 Years a Slave.

Giamatti went on to earn awards and plaudits for playing John Adams, the second president of the US, in a 2008 HBO miniseries chronicling his political life and role in founding the United States. He’s also enjoyed bit-part roles in several TV series, such as Downton Abbey, 30 Rock, Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue, in which he played a character credited as ‘Man in Sleeping Bag.’

But it’s Billions, the Showtime drama that started in 2016 and plunged viewers into a game of power politics set within the world of New York high finance, that has provided the actor with his most settled and stable period on screen.

For four seasons, he has played Chuck Rhoades, initially the US attorney for the southern district of New York but later the attorney general for the state. Ruthless and with a dislike of wealthy individuals who buy their way out of trouble, he continually clashes with hedge fund boss Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis) when he is asked to investigate Bobby’s firm Axe Capital – where his psychiatrist wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) also works.

In Billions’ fourth season, Giamatti’s Chuck forms an alliance with ex-enemy Bobby (Damian Lewis)

However, season four, which launched in March this year, saw the former enemies join forces in an uneasy alliance designed to take out their rivals, including Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown). Created by showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien together with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions has been renewed for a fifth season to air in 2020.

“I’ve never really done a TV show. It’s curious,” he tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “It’s like, ‘Wow, it just keeps going.’ It’s really interesting. But these guys [Koppelman and Levien] are able to vary the thing in a really interesting way. It keeps changing, so I don’t ever feel stuck in a rut. With a lot of people, you’re really just doing the same thing over and over again.”

Giamatti says that, prior to Billions, he had always been interested in doing a TV show. But the scripts he received – mostly comedies and sitcoms – never quite piqued his interest. Then Billions landed on his desk and, after reading the first few scripts, “I thought it was kind of cool,” he says. “It was a weird, psychological crime show. It was like a chess game crime show. There was no chasing each other with guns; it was all guys in offices on phones and in restaurants making deals. But I thought it was an interesting approach to a crime show and I thought it was interesting dealing with this kind of world.”

Now, after 48 episodes, that initial cat-and-mouse chase between Chuck and Bobby has subsided for an altogether more complex, tangled relationship where characters are neither good nor bad, each residing somewhere in the large grey expanse in between. Giamatti believes this is key to the show’s success, with the writers continually pushing the story forward and not having it fall back to the dynamics laid down in episode one.

“This season was interesting and it’ll be different again next season,” he continues. “It’s a different scenario next season, but you’d have no idea where it’s actually heading. We could end up being buddies again or something. I don’t know. You never know.”

Billions has already been confirmed for a fifth season on Showtime

After so many seasons playing Chuck, has Giamatti found elements of himself starting to emerge in the character? “That’s what’s interesting; you do start to worry that there’s something about you in this character,” the actor jokes. He has enjoyed playing out the relationships between Chuck and his powerful, wealthy father, and between Chuck and Wendy, with their adventurous sex life seeing him become her ‘slave.’

“He operates in a lot of different places. The sexual stuff was interesting, actually, and I liked that he is so smart and that he’s generally more effectual than characters I usually get to play. He actually manages to get stuff done. He manages to shape his world in a way that guys I usually get to play don’t. I get to play guys who fail to do that. This guy actually does, and that’s sort of nice. He tells somebody to do something and they do it. That’s really kind of cool. I like power; I like coming in and being able to order people around, it’s sort of fun.”

If Giamatti’s roles are notable for varying in genre, period and style, that’s entirely on purpose. He says he never knows what his next move will be or what he will find appealing, adding that story is always the deciding factor.

“It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but it is true that the story has to interest me more than anything,” the actor explains. “I don’t want to be in a boring story because all that really is going to matter is the movie. And if the movie’s no good, it doesn’t matter what kind of character you played or even how good you were in it. The movie itself has got to be good, so the story has got to be interesting. That’s the main thing.”

Behind the scenes on Billions, Giamatti leaves the heavy lifting to Koppelman and Levien, who have a singular vision for the series that he doesn’t want to disrupt. “The writing is very specific. You can’t really mess around with it. That’s great, because it gives you so much that you don’t want to mess around with it. They have things plotted so carefully on this show, they don’t want to mess around either. They know what they’re doing.”

Giamatti has appeared in films such as 12 Years a Slave

Giamatti is more involved in Lodge 49, an AMC series currently in its second season, on which he is an executive producer through his company Touchy Feely Films. The show is set in Long Beach, California, where ex-surfer Sean ‘Dud’ Dudley (Wyatt Russell) joins a fraternal lodge – the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx – with the promise of beer and camaraderie that may or may not help him rediscover the idyllic life he lost following the death of his father.

It’s clear Giamatti is immensely proud of the series, and he laments the fact it has not been more widely seen despite drawing critical acclaim. “It’s an awesome show. But it’s very different from Billions. It’s not dark – I mean, it gets emotionally dark, but it’s a very optimistic show and it’s terrific. It is odd, but I think it has a really wide appeal. It’s about people in a secret society like a Masonic organisation, who don’t seem like the sort of people who would be in a Masonic organisation, but it’s really fun. It’s a lovely show.

“I do enjoy the producing side of it. My partner Dan [Carey] deals with all the less pleasant parts of it, but I got to deal with looking at the scripts, looking at the dailies, doing the casting and stuff. I got to do the fun stuff. I love to do it. He and I are very interested in genre stuff and the show is a weird genre show. I don’t know what genre it is, but it’s definitely a genre show! I enjoy science-fiction stuff and I enjoy spy stuff, so we try to get stuff like that made. We’ve got some really weird crime things and some weird science-fiction movies, so that’s what we’re interested in.”

Giamatti also executive produced WGN’s Outsiders, alongside numerous film projects, and agrees there isn’t a better time to be in the TV business, with no end of potential broadcasters or platforms eager for new content that will help them stand out from the crowd.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say TV is easier now, or whatever TV is anymore. We used to make independent films and that was nearly impossible. It was very hard to distribute the things. This is easier to do. They’re way more open to stuff.”

Heading back into production on Billions, Giamatti is looking forward to seeing where the writers will take Chuck next. And that, he says, is the show’s greatest strength.

“They are geniuses at plotting,” he adds. “They have kept the plot alive. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV but I hear they have not suffered an off-season. It’s like they haven’t had that, ‘Oh, second season didn’t go well, fourth season didn’t go well.’ I know I feel like the show just keeps getting better, so they’ve been genius for rearranging a plot.”

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Keeping it real

Oscar-winning actor Patricia Arquette talks to DQ about portraying real people in Escape at Dannemora and The Act, transforming herself for roles and her directing ambitions.

Five years ago, Patricia Arquette blew away the awards competition with her performance in Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age movie Boyhood, winning a Bafta, an Oscar and several other accolades.

This year, the actor has been swept up in the awards chatter once again – but this time it’s her small-screen work that’s earning plaudits.

Her role as Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell in Showtime’s 2018 limited series Escape at Dannemora has already earned her best actress prizes at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Monte Carlo TV Festival and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

That role has also seen her nominated for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie at next month’s Emmys, where she is also in the running for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or movie for her part as Dee Dee Blanchard in Hulu original drama The Act.

That both shows are based on true stories is just a coincidence, according to the star, who has previously appeared in TV series including CSI: Cyber, Boardwalk Empire and Medium. Arquette’s movie credits include True Romance and Stigmata, having made her screen debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in 1987.

Patricia Arquette with the Oscar she won for Boyhood

“It’s just the way these things happen,” Arquette tells DQ in Monte Carlo ahead of the Golden Nymph Awards ceremony where she would subsequently triumph. “These roles just fall into your lap. It wasn’t a plan at all. In fact, I thought I would probably take a break from doing anything that heavy again [after Tilly], but The Act was fascinating material. I wanted to do it.

“I don’t usually want to play something that’s exactly like what I just did, because that’s boring. When I look at a script, first of all, it’s got to be well written in whatever genre it is. That’s important to me. And right now, I am being picky about roles, just because it’s a lot of energy expense working, especially like that, and I’m kind of tapped out. So I have to work on something that’s going to give me a lot of energy.”

The Act, which launched on US streamer Hulu in March, is an anthology series that dramatises startling, stranger-than-fiction crime stories. In the first season, Joey King plays Gypsy Blanchard, a girl trying to escape the toxic relationship she has with her overprotective mother Dee Dee (Arquette), but her quest for independence opens up a Pandora’s box of secrets that ultimately lead to murder.

The story is based on a 2016 BuzzFeed article written by Michelle Dean titled ‘Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom To Be Murdered,’ which recalls a seemingly model parent who appeared to be taking care of her gravely ill daughter. Only she wasn’t sick at all, and Dee Dee was later found to be suffering from Munchausen by proxy, a condition characterised by a parent exaggerating or causing illness in their child.

Meanwhile, eight-hour miniseries Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller, dramatises a 2015 prison break in which two escapees, both convicted murderers, were helped by a married female prison employee who reportedly had affairs with both men. Their breakout from Clinton Correctional Facility, known as Dannemora after the local town, led to the largest manhunt in New York State history.

In Escape at Dannemora, Arquette played prison employee Tilly

Benicio Del Toro plays Richard Matt, an anomalous yet powerful force within the prison who masterminds the escape, while Paul Dano is his co-conspirator, David Sweat.

Arquette co-stars as Tilly, a working-class wife and mother who, after becoming sexually involved with both men, assists them in their escape, hiding hacksaw blades in frozen hamburger meat and agreeing to be their getaway driver.

Talking about her approach to playing real people, Arquette says she avoids any attempts at impersonation. “I definitely didn’t want to do an imitation, and it really bothers me when I see people playing people. It’s not enough to just do their physical reality,” she says. “You have to dig in deep and have something human that you’re holding on to. I don’t think you can really ever play anyone – like, really be them. You’re always playing some version of them. But my job is to kind of anchor it in some kind of real person; some structure or mechanism that makes sense.”

As for The Act, Arquette says there were “a lot of weird layers” to the controlling, manipulative Dee Dee, requiring significant research in preparation for the role.

“Even unrelated to Dee Dee and Gypsy’s story, I found this amazing documentary about a woman who had Munchausen by proxy and she was in prison because her kid died,” the actor says. “I would just watch her and she’d seem OK, and then she’d just go in and out of these fugue states. I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s really mentally ill.’ Then I ended up on chat rooms with people with Munchausen and listening to kids digging really deep about their parents who had it. So there was a lot of different research that I think helped me.

“There are a lot of layers of self-deception, and there are a lot of subconscious mechanisms and emotional underpinnings that are pushing people to make certain decisions, and that helps me to know that process. My mom was a therapist and my dad was an actor, so I think I use a lot of those elements to build people.”

Arquette alongside Joey King in Hulu drama The Act

Having piled on the pounds to play Tilly, Arquette began to lose the excess weight once filming finished – but then had to stop when she landed the role of Dee Dee. “But Dee Dee was 120 more pounds and I was like, ‘I’m not gaining 120 pounds. I will be dead on the ground,’” she says. Instead, she wore padding or extra clothes to bulk up her appearance, which also gave her the chance to escape the character when she took off her costume every evening.

After playing Dee Dee, Arquette says she has more empathy for the struggling mother. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s excusable what she did. I don’t like her. But I do think she’s seriously mentally ill and I don’t think we understand this condition at all.”

By comparison, the star says Tilly’s character is much more on the surface in terms of how she tries to manipulate both Matt and Sweat and is in turn manipulated by them. “It’s much more obvious what she’s doing, but for Dee Dee, it’s way more subterranean and self-deceiving in a whole different way. She really has such complicated mechanisms and I think she’s just mentally ill, which adds several different things.”

Escape at Dannemora, which debated on Showtime in November last year, also gave Arquette the chance to reunite with Stiller, alongside whom she starred in 1996 feature Flirting with Disaster. She describes the reunion as “awesome.” But while it was “so fun” acting with him, Stiller was “so different as a director,” she says. “He really made space for us to explore things and was really patient and was really conscious of everything – the look, the sound, the sets and the wardrobe. He was all-in all the time.”

Arquette comes from a family of actors. Her grandfather was Cliff Arquette (Dragnet) and her father Lewis Arquette (The Waltons), while her siblings include Rosanna (Desperately Seeking Susan), Alexis (Pulp Fiction), David (Scream) and Richmond (Zodiac).

The actor’s other TV credits include HBO’s Boardwalk Empire

After an early screen career dominated by feature films, she landed the lead role in NBC supernatural drama Medium in 2005, playing Allison DuBois, a medium employed as a consultant by a Phoenix district attorney’s office. The show ran on NBC for five seasons, before transferring to CBS for a further two years, and the role earned Arquette two Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nods. But unlike today when actors can switch easily between the two formats, Arquette’s decision to move to television came at a time when the small screen was still considered second class to the cinema.

“People were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re not going to work anymore in film,’” she recalls. “But I was already seeing that it was becoming harder and harder to get parts in films because they were stopping making them. They just weren’t making mid-budget movies.

“I also thought it was a cop-out. I was like, ‘Why can’t we do good work on television?’ I think that’s lame, we should be doing good work on TV. Because especially for network TV, all you have to do is watch some commercials and you don’t have to pay for it. So if you’re an elderly person, or you’re a person living in an old folks’ home or something like that, they basically get free entertainment, and why shouldn’t we be doing good free entertainment for older people or housebound people?”

Having directed two episodes of Medium, Arquette is increasingly positioning herself behind the camera, with a couple of film projects in the works. She won’t reveal the details just yet, however.

“That’s exciting, because I love other actors and I want to help them have good parts and be good in them and dig deep,” she says. “A lot of times I’ll watch things and I get really mad at the directors. I’m like, ‘Why did you keep your camera on that person’s face for so long?’ They’re uncomfortable, I can tell what they’re thinking. They’re like, ‘cut, man, cut.’ I don’t want to be seeing that when I’m watching the show. They’re not invested in this last 30 seconds of this shot or whatever. So I’m excited to get to be part of the visual language of setting something up [and overseeing] its storytelling, and that’ll be fun.”

Until then, momentum is firmly behind the star. And with two chances to bag a long-awaited Emmy at next month’s ceremony, Arquette looks certain a sought-after star in TV and film for years to come.

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