Catching the Culprits
In Disney+ heist thriller Culprits, the story begins where such tales usually ends. Filmmaker J Blakeson and executive producer Stephen Garrett discuss their efforts to subvert the genre with a character-led drama focusing on a man who is pulled back into the criminal life he thought he had left behind.
With his feature debut, writer-director J Blakeson partnered with actor Gemma Arterton for The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a 2009 kidnap drama about two ex-convicts who hold a young woman hostage in the hope of winning a ransom from her wealthy father.
He went on to direct films including The 5th Wave and I Care A Lot, as well as TV miniseries Gunpowder. Now, more than a decade since their last collaboration, he has reunited with Arterton for Disney+ heist drama Culprits.
Set three years after a daring heist, the crew are scattered across the globe living separate lives and spending their stolen cash – until a mysterious assassin starts picking them off, leading the remaining gang members to reunite in the hope of keeping themselves and their loved ones alive.
In particular, the drama centres on Joe, who was recruited by Arterton’s crime boss Dianne to join her crew and now lives an idyllic, suburban life in Washington State with his fiancé, Jules, and his two children, with dreams of starting a new business. When his past catches up with him, he decides to return to London and track down Dianne.
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett stars as Joe, who is given the codename Muscle, and Arterton plays Dianne, aka Brains. The cast also includes Niamh Algar as Specialist and Kirby as Officer, with Ned Dennehy as Devil, Eddie Izzard as Vincent Hawkins, Tara Abboud as Azar, Kamel El Basha as Youssef and Kevin Vidal as Jules.
But by starting Culprits where most heist dramas end, Blakeson sought to celebrate the genre in which the series is rooted in while also seeking to continually up-end and subvert it.
“I love thrillers, and really good heist thrillers are very satisfying, but I’ve always liked ones that do something a little bit different,” Blakeson tells DQ. “I loved Reservoir Dogs, Rififi and Ocean’s 11, where there’s a little twist on it every time. I’ve been steeped in the genre ever since I started watching films and it’s such a tempting playground to play in because there’s so much comfort. You know all the tropes, you know all the moments, and there’s a temptation to not do any of them and try and do something totally different.
“But I enjoy putting them in and playing with them. Everybody gets their cheesy nickname, but we undermine our own use of the tropes and that’s fun for the audience, where they see the familiar thing but then they see the unfamiliar right next to it and it puts them on a slightly woozy path.”
With Culprits, Blakeson particularly wanted to tell a story that focused on the morality of a character, Joe, who is pretending to be someone he isn’t – but then isn’t the person he used to be either.
“He’s a man searching for who he is and who he wants to be, so the idea of that felt pretty interesting to me,” Blakeson says. “Then the genre is such a great framework to build character stories on because you immediately know what bank robberies are. You don’t need to spend 40 minutes, like at the beginning of Inception, explaining what the world is, so you have all this opportunity to play around the characters and surprise people.”
“Heists are all about plans and audiences are well trained to know that plans are only there to go wrong,” says executive producer Stephen Garrett (The Night Manager) of Character 7. “So you’ve got tension built into the DNA of a show like that.
“The other fun idea is that Joe’s name is not an accident. He just wants to be an ‘ordinary Joe.’ He just wants a simple life, and he has to go through this unbelievable set of challenges and experience appalling jeopardy in order to achieve utter banality. That’s his goal. It’s massively torturous, but hopefully thrilling for the audience.”
Blakeson first began developing the project when Garrett gave him a book, Culprits: The Heist Was Only the Beginning by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips, which led him to wonder what someone might do if they were given a life-changing sum of money and a new identity to go with it.
“Would you choose to open a bistro in Washington State? For most people, maybe not,” he says. “Or like Specialist, would you just sit down and wait for your money to be clean and be very paranoid? That idea started triggering more ideas very quickly.”
But while the book was an anthology, where each character has their own story, Blakeson quickly decided to focus on Joe, someone who might otherwise have simply been a background character to the main protagonist. Instead, viewers learn about his hopes and dreams and, if Blakeson has been successful, fall in love with him too.
“He has this very textured, emotional story and exploring a character that would normally be quite expendable was really interesting to me,” he says. “As everybody comes into it, types of character are recognisable but hopefully the way these characters actually show themselves to be people is more surprising as you go through the show. They’re not quite the heist crew that you would normally expect in a show like this.”
Focusing on Joe rather than the whole ensemble meant it was also easier to bring the eight-episode story to a firm conclusion, just as executives at Disney+ had asked for when they greenlit the series.
“They wanted it to be a limited season, a finite story that delivered utter satisfaction to the audience,” Garrett reveals. “An ensemble would have fed more into something that could have lived for two, three or four seasons and beyond.
“J and I punched the air when Disney gave us that edict because it meant we could tell an eight-hour story that, hopefully, if it works, will satisfy the audience in that very clear and increasingly unusual way.”
Writing the scripts, Blakeson led a writing room on Zoom in the middle of the Covid pandemic that included four other writers. He penned episodes one, two, three and eight, while Nadia Latif, Rose Lewenstein, James McCarthy and Alex Straker picked up the other four.
Garrett says Disney put “a lot of money” behind the show, which would also become a “university” to help offer opportunities to new and younger talents in the writers room and among the wider crew.
“We gave first jobs to people who were trying to get into the industry from disadvantaged backgrounds and had a Step Across programme, where we brought people from other industries where they clearly had the skills that would work in ours but didn’t have the wherewithal or the connections or the contacts,” he explains. “This is still not necessarily a nepotistic world, but it’s very dependent on the people you know. We wanted to create a space where without those connections, people could get a foot in the door.”
But while he was leading the writing team, Blakeson was also building a visual look book he used to share his visual ambitions for the series with second block director Claire Oakley. He mined lots of still photographs and architectural designs, filling every wall in his office with references.
He then started discussions with production designer Victor Molero, costume designer Ian Fulcher, hair and make-up designer Jacqueline Fowler and lead director of photography Philipp Blaubach on how those references could infiltrate every aspect of the show.
Notably, Blakeson decided to film the series in a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, his preferred format, to ensure Culprits stood out as “striking, bold, cinematic and colourful.” He explains: “I didn’t want it to be a grey, grungy UK crime show.”
He also shot with three different sets of lenses, one for each of the different timelines that run through the story as the action flashes back from the present day to show how the crew was brought together and how the heist went down.
“We had a very strict colour palette for each timeline, and with Victor, Ian and Jackie, we all got together and decided what those colours would be and what colours we were not allowed to use in certain timelines,” Blakeson says. “Hopefully, that gives it a cohesion and its own look and style so it doesn’t quite feel naturalistic. A lot of care and attention went into it.”
Bouncing between timelines gave Blakeson and the writing staff the chance to insert numerous “mini-cliffhangers” to keep the audience watching, while he also made a point of avoiding any characters falling into moments of exposition.
“I really hate over-explaining,” he says. “I like throwing an audience into a situation and having all these questions, and hopefully they have the wrong answers, so when they get to the right answers, they’re surprised by it.
“But when you have different timelines, it gives you one more weapon in your armoury to really mess around with information and with points of view because the flashbacks are all mostly from Joe’s point of view, but you do see other people’s points of view as well. Playing around with information is always fun for me and, hopefully, fun for the audience.”
After Disney+ gave the green light in “peak lockdown,” in 2020, filming was up and running by the following October, shooting under strict health and safety conditions for the entire 135-day schedule, which took in locations including Toronto in Canada, London and Manchester in England, Barcelona in Spain and parts of Norway.
Garrett jokes that Blakeson “unleashed turmoil” on the production team as they faced piecing together a filming schedule for a story set in seven countries. “It was staggeringly complex, but J wrote [the scripts] with relish and directed them with greater relish,” the producer says.
“Most scripts, even if they’re good scripts, aren’t that easy to read. But J’s scripts fly by and that tricks people like me into believing it’s a breeze [to make] because he creates in your head a very richly imagined world with all the detail. It’s only when you start breaking down the detail that you think, ‘Oh my God.’”
“It is not all people sitting in rooms and talking,” notes Blakeson. “In episode one, there’s very little dialogue. It’s these extended sequences of people doing stuff in various locations. It’s not like we have a Central Perk that can go back to and have conversations for 20 minutes. You have to find all those locations and they don’t really exist, so you have to build them out of other locations.
“We were a 75% location shoot, and just the details that I wanted in all of those places meant it’s hard for an art department and a production department to get all that together, make it work and make it work on time. But it is that attention to detail that makes it enjoyable and gives it the texture and a sense of foreboding that we have. The crew really stepped up and did an amazing job.”
But despite the challenges facing the production team, one of the reasons why Garrett was drawn to the project – which debuts on Disney+ in the UK on November 8 – in the first place was those details that colour Blakeson’s fresh take on a heist drama, which brings equal weight to action set pieces and emotional, characterful moments.
“It begins where most heist stories end, so you know, to some extent, it’s been successful, but you also get the impression pretty quickly that something’s also going wrong, you just don’t know what,” he adds.
“The fun of J’s writing is that every time you go back to the planning of the heist or the heist itself, it’s rather like a Rashomon effect, where you’re given new information that gives you a different perspective on what’s happened. It’s playful but in a way that hopefully makes it really satisfying for the audience.”