Building Citadel

Building Citadel

By Michael Pickard
April 26, 2023


US spy thriller Citadel is the first of a planned series of interconnected stories set around the world. Showrunner David Weil tells DQ about developing the drama and his collaboration on the ambitious, action-packed global franchise with partners in India and Italy.

From breaking out with an episode of the rebooted Twilight Zone anthology in 2020 to creating or co-creating a trio of his own series – Prime Video’s futuristic anthology Solos, Apple TV+’s sci-fi adventure Invasion and two seasons of Prime’s 70s crime drama Hunters – David Weil has traversed numerous themes and genres in his burgeoning career.

Yet it is Citadel, another Prime Video series, that he describes as his biggest and most exciting project to date.

The show takes its name from a mysterious global spy organisation tasked with upholding the safety and security of all people around the world. But when Citadel is destroyed by shadowy syndicate Manticore, elite agents Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) have their memories wiped as they narrowly escape with their lives.

Eight years later, living under a new identity and unaware of his past, Mason is tracked down by former Citadel colleague Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), who needs his help to stop Manticore establishing a new world order. Mason then seeks out Nadia, and the pair embark on a mission that takes them around the world in a bid to stop Manticore – all while uncovering the secrets of their own past and their relationship.

David Weil

“I always try to do a number of things at once, just because as a writer, you never know which project is going to go and you never know when it’s going to go, so I always love to have as many creative irons in the fire as possible,” Weil tells DQ. “We finished production on Hunters season two while Citadel was starting up, so there’s often overlap between projects, but it’s such a different canvas to play on, in such a different world. And that’s what I love. I love each thing I do to try to flex a different creative muscle, to play in a different genre.”

If there are any through lines between his various projects, Weil says it might be the notion of duality, reflected by characters who have alter-egos, harbour secrets or are at war with themselves in some way.

“Those are the stories that intrigue me most,” he says. “And though they’re very varied in terms of genre, scope and scale, that is at least the narrative through line for each piece.”

The characters at the centre of Citadel certainly share those characteristics, in a fun and thrilling story that blends mystery, romance and jaw-dropping action sequences – not least in the opening, pre-credits sequence in episode one that puts viewers into the middle of a dramatic gunfight aboard a speeding bullet train.

“I had such fun creating and writing that scene because I wanted it to be a microcosm of what Citadel as a whole would be and what you can expect,” Weil says. “It’s like a symphony of sorts, where every instrument is played. There is incredible seduction, great production value and design and there’s the emotional storytelling between these two spies. We get to see the love affair at the heart of the piece, and then we get this delicious action set piece that’s unlike anything we often see on TV.

“There is so much content to consume that you’re really fighting for attention, you’re fighting for eyeballs. So it’s always so vital in the first few minutes to do the unexpected, to pull the rug out from under the audience so they know they’re in good narrative hands, good creative hands, and that they want to come along for this ride.”

But while a feature film might be able to sustain that frenetic pace over two hours, telling this story over six episodes – released weekly on Prime Video from this Friday – allowed Weil to ensure the characters, and the viewers, can take a breath every now and again. Notably, after that high-octane opening scene, the story picks up eight years later, with Mason, now known as loving husband and father Kyle Conroy, living his best life in rural Oregon until Orlick arrives to fill in the blanks in his memory.

Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas star as a pair of spies who previously worked for the titular Citadel but have had their memories wiped

“The beauty of doing this as a longform series, versus Bond, Bourne or Mission: Impossible, is we get to go home with these spies,” Weil says. “We get to see the world of spycraft that we don’t often get to see on screen. And as an audience, you need that release and that relief. If you get too much of the action, it becomes less special. Balance is key to any sort of narrative success.”

Balance can also be found in Mason and Nadia’s shared journey to rediscover their past selves, though they each approach it in different ways. Mason, for example, is trying to find out his true identity, while Nadia is disguising herself by hiding the truth from other people, including Mason.

Citadel also uses flashbacks to show viewers how Mason and Nadia first met, and to reveal more secrets about the central characters and how the truth compares to what they might be telling each other in the present.

“They have very disparate journeys, even though they’re racing toward the same destination, and that just creates great conflict,” Weil says. “You can tell there’s a beautiful heartbeat of romance and attraction between these two people. And what makes it so dramatically ironic is that Mason Kane is now Kyle Conroy, and Kyle Conroy is married. So there’s this very bizarre love triangle at the centre of this piece, where there is a marriage that’s intact and yet also clearly Mason had been in love with this other woman, so how do they navigate that? There are all kinds of very interesting moral questions at play. But clearly, there’s more than meets the eye to this central relationship between Mason and Nadia.”

Stanley Tucci plays Bernard Orlick, one of their CItadel colleagues

It was Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, who first had an idea to create a “global tapestry” of interconnected stories told in different languages and set around the world. She then took the idea to AGBO, the production company led by Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers: Endgame), and they concluded that the spy genre would be the best arena for such an ambitious project.

Weil, who has an overall deal with Amazon Studios, was then approached 18 months ago by Salke and Amazon Studios head of television Vernon Sanders to come on board and lead the project – a role that would also give him oversight over upcoming Citadel series being developed in India and Italy.

“When I came on, it was really about honing these characters and ensuring it was always character-first and character-forward,” the showrunner explains. “Great television is complex characters and a story that can be followed, and that isn’t too dense, that isn’t too complex or bogged down in MacGuffins or minutiae. So together we built what Citadel is and fell in love with these characters of Nadia and Mason, Orlick and Dahlia [Archer, the UK ambassador to the US, played by Lesley Manville]. But really we always tried to have our North Star be this relationship between Mason and Nadia at the centre of the piece.”

As TV sequels and spin-offs become increasingly tied to their origin series, with characters, plot points and backstories connected within a shared ‘universe’ – see Marvel series, the Arrowverse, CSI, Law & Order, The Net and many more – Citadel stands apart in that this global franchise has been created from the bottom up, with plans for multiple series from the outset rather than based on the success of the first show.

As Weil was creating Citadel US, work was simultaneously underway on Italian and Indian versions, utilising the creativity of dozens of people from around the world to build the mythology behind the series. Filming is underway on both Citadel Italy, which stars Matilda De Angelis (The Undoing) and is coproduced by Cattleya (Gomorrah), and Citadel India, fronted by Varun Dhawan and led by creator duo Raj & DK’s D2R Films.

Lesley Manville as Dahlia Archer, the UK ambassador to the US

Every other week, Weil would join a global writers room where his writing team and those from Italy and India would get together, break story, discuss character backgrounds and share ideas for where they are heading.

“Each of these series may have slightly different tones,” he says. “They come from different creators, after all. But I serve as a sort of gatekeeper of the Citadel mythology to ensure that even though we celebrate the differences, we also have enough similarities and enough connective tissue that it feels like one cohesive cinematic universe.”

Weil says building Citadel line by line was “frightening because of its great ambition.” But starting from a blank page, the team was able to design the expansive and unique world of the show without being beholden to any previous storylines or plot points.

That approach will change if Citadel continues for future seasons – but a global Citadel summit held at Amazon Studios’ Culver City base some months ago laid out the blueprint for where the show will go next and how characters could collide in each iteration.

“It’s such a balance because each series and each season of a series must stand on its own and must be rewarding to an audience,” the showrunner notes. “We hope that an audience watches every series within the Citadel universe, but you don’t need to do that to be able to enjoy the story. There are great rewards for the fans who do watch the US series and the Italian and Indian series, but you don’t need to. I always start with what is best for our series. But you have to be so open.”

The writers of the three Citadel series have ideas for how the various characters may cross paths

As a showrunner, Weil likes to start a writers room with a destination or certain guideposts mapped out and then works with the writing team to fill out character details and the twists and turns they’ll face during the season, always operating a policy of ‘best idea wins.’

“It doesn’t matter who it comes from, whether it comes from myself or the writers or even on set, from the incredible actors or the director or the crew – anybody who has an idea to make this better, it’s so welcome,” he says. “We work in collaboration, and every series is stronger because of that collaboration. But the writers room is key to that, being able to exchange ideas, to debate, to discuss, and also to organise a room with people from many different experiences and backgrounds so that we can have authenticity in the storytelling.

“What is unique with Citadel is that there’s not one singular voice. Myself and the Russos, with our Indian creative team, with the Italian creative team, we’re all working together at the same time to construct this grand IP.”

It all means Citadel is “unlike anything I’ve done before,” Weil adds. “Being a creator and a showrunner is such a lonely job. You never get to work with other creators or showrunners. So getting this chance to work with global partners, global showrunners and creators, it’s incredible. It’s really just something special.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,