Domino effect

Domino effect

By Michael Pickard
October 16, 2023


Domino Day creator Lauren Sequeira, director Eva Sigurdardottir and executive producer Laurence Bowen reveal how this BBC series about a young witch marries supernatural spectacle with contemporary themes of identity and the dating world.

The world of dating apps can be fraught with risk and uncertainty at the best of times. But in BBC series Domino Day, title character Domino isn’t swiping right in her search for love – she’s hunting for her next target.

Blending coming-of-age story and supernatural drama, the six-parter introduces the young witch who is coming to terms with the extraordinary powers she possesses. But as Domino attempts to understand who she is and find more like her, a coven of witches is already tracking her, convinced they must stop her before she has the chance to destroy everything and everyone around her.

Starring Siena Kelly (Adult Material) as Domino, the show is the first original series from creator Lauren Sequeira. The writer, whose other credits include Gangs of London, wanted to tell a story about a witch with dangerous magical abilities, but where the magical world she lives in is very much rooted in modern reality – dating apps and all.

“The first 10 minutes of the pilot have pretty much been in my mind since the beginning,” she tells DQ. “No spoilers, but I wanted to present this seductive, modern dating world, and then blast the audience with genre. It announces what the show is from the get-go. From then on, it was a journey with [producer] Dancing Ledge and the BBC over four years, developing the journey Domino goes on over the series and the other characters.”

The theme of dating and relationships runs through the series, which is filmed and set in Manchester, as Domino seeks to connect to the world around her – and find men from whom she can draw the energy she needs to survive. It’s also about identity and “how we find the courage to connect when we might not have our shit together – a rite of passage for most people in their 20s,” Sequeira says. “It’s also about self-discovery and owning your inner power – and inner witch.”

Lauren Sequeira

But as Domino’s journey throws up more questions than answers, leaving her afraid of her own powers, other witches are also weighing up what exactly she might be capable of.

Coven leader Kat (Alisha Bailey) is also dealing with her own background, having denied her Obeah roots to fit into the very white magic establishment, while Sammie (Babirye Bukilwa) is an aura witch who has the ability to understand and feel others’ emotions. Geri (Poppy Lee Friar) uses telekinesis, and Gen-Z’er Jules (Molly Harris) is a potions specialist who doesn’t like to take life seriously but is forced to grow up.

Meanwhile, two men in Domino’s life are Leon (Percelle Ascott) and Silas (Sam Howard-Sneyd). The former is a human she wasn’t expecting to meet, while the latter is her witch ex-boyfriend who has a dangerous obsession with her.

“Being a lover of the supernatural genre myself, I really wanted to tell a compelling story with all those thrills, but also ground it in emotion and dating,” Sequeira explains. “I feel like the UK doesn’t do genre often, so it felt exciting to do a genre-blend show such as this and make it feel very UK. Manchester as a city really leant in to the identity of the show. One of the challenges that comes with the blending is getting that balance between magic and real-world right. Sometimes we had to scale back the magic and other times push it a bit more.”

The writer developed the project with Dancing Ledge, where she spent a year as writer-in-residence as part of the company’s mentoring scheme. Domino Day was the idea she came up with at the end of the programme, and the fact it has since been developed and produced means Sequeira is now “the poster girl” for the entire scheme,” remarks CEO and series executive producer Laurence Bowen, who has similarly worked with other first-time writers such as Tony Schumacher (The Responder), Adam Patterson & Declan Lawn (The Salisbury Poisonings) and author-turned-screenwriter Louise Doughty (Crossfire).

“It’s very much part of our DNA as a company, and Lauren is part of our tradition,” he continues. “By feeding in fresh voices and then giving them the support they need, you’ve got a great opportunity to do things that are still popular and entertaining but that can be bold, very authored and surprising as well.”

Sequeira wrote the series, while Charlene James (A Discovery of Witches) and Haleema Mirza (Secret Invasion) scripted individual episodes. “We did a few writers rooms where we really got under the show and built the characters and the rules of the world,” she says. “We then did our individual outlines and scripts. I would then always read every draft of the other writers’ episodes and feed back.

“Also being an executive producer on the show, it was important for me to work closely with the directors, Eva Sigurdardottir and Nadira Amrani, when it came to costume and music, for example.”

Siena Kelly (pictured in Adult Material) leads the cast as Domino

In terms of finding the right director to lead the drama, which is distributed internationally by Fremantle, Bowen wanted someone who could make Domino Day feel “as truthful as possible” so when the supernatural elements do come to the fore, audiences would already be embedded in the world of the show.

Sigurdardottir (Good Night, Rainbow Party) proved to be the perfect person for the job, despite her own admission that “I’m not a genre director.”

“That’s not my expertise,” she continues. “I love a good genre piece when it has something clever to say, but I’m not even the person who goes and watches something just because it’s a genre film. I’m much more of a drama director. That is where I tend to hang – and I jokingly say that my favourite thing is to make people feel a little bit uncomfortable. I love to pose the difficult questions and challenge the audience.”

The director was therefore a little surprised when she was first approached about Domino Day, but says the script “hit a nerve” thanks to the way Sequeira developed the characters and delivered the show’s message.

“The themes of identity and belonging, the dating world and that grittiness of the modern challenges of women, these are things I just really understood, so I knew why they were reaching out to me,” Sigurdardottir says. In her initial conversations with the production team, she was clear in her intention to tell a story that would stand up without the magical elements, which could then be added in to elevate the series.

Eva Sigurdardottir

“Even though Domino’s dealing with specific challenges we might not experience in our day-to-day life, I needed the audience to be able to reflect on that and to be able to see the symbolism that we were talking about,” she says. “I do really believe there are quite a few messages in the show, hidden or not. But definitely we were saying something that was more than just straight entertainment.”

In particular, Sigurdardottir resonated with the show’s question of identity and where it comes from. “The key question of the series is who are we, and what is our identity and how do we acquire it?” she says. “In Domino’s case, she doesn’t know where she originates from and is basically being told who she is. It’s something that, especially with women, we’re told what we should be, but is that a choice or is that something we are born into?

“Rather, you decide yourself, am I good or bad? Is this good or bad? Is this what I stand for? Domino has also had a quite a toxic relationship, which people might be able to relate to, and that adds to Domino’s confusion. These were things I really enjoyed opening up.”

On screen, Domino Day utilises its contemporary Manchester setting – a city where old meets new. From the opening moments of the first episode, it’s not even clear that this is a supernatural series, as the story’s magic very much comes from the characters rather than the environment around them.

“We had to ask ourselves, do we have to create a whole world of different buildings and different things? Or maybe the witch is just that girl on the bus who’s having an argument with her boyfriend,” Sigurdardottir says. “Maybe it’s the old lady at the grocery store. We wanted people to just really enjoy the magic, but also entice people like myself who aren’t the obvious audience and are going to enter the story from its humanity and then go on a crazy ride.

“It was fun to just say, ‘What if we placed it in the most normal setting and they’re young and they probably still like to go out and they probably have a lot of issues that are also just very everyday?’ But then it’s elevated because it’s life and death and it’s higher stakes.”

Filming took place over 12 weeks between March and June this year, and Sequeira tried to be on set as much as possible. Sometimes she would be rewriting scenes the night before, or even the morning of, the shoot and would be available to answer any production or scheduling queries.

“It was very hands-on,” she says. “The biggest challenge was to deliver these new scenes under pressure and time constraints, but I had a brilliant editorial team. Doing a magic genre show too, there’s always a grapple with VFX, but along with the directors, DOPs and crew, I think we’ve found a really cool visual style that feels dangerous and sexy.”

Laurence Bowen

“We’ve always been really ambitious for it because when you start watching, it is set in contemporary Manchester and it looks beautiful,” Bowen says. “You’re out clubbing, you’re in bars and it has people dating. It’s the sexy environment, but the truth is that there is this other world underneath, which is our supernatural world.”

The exec likens Domino Day to a superhero series that might open in the real world and then reveal its true form later on. “In a way, that is a reflection of the themes in the show,” he notes. “When you’ve got a central character who has only recently learned she has this magical power, she’s an innocent entering that world.

“Everything she’s learning about her heritage is incredibly negative, so the series, on one level, is really a journey for her out of self-hatred into a place of self-love. And Lauren, in charting that journey, does it in a really entertaining, dramatic, bold, high-octane way. It’s a very interesting blend of a genre supernatural show with a very intimate, authored, personal piece as well. The production values and the truth Eva’s brought to it elevate it as well.”

Bowen’s own journey to making the series also led him to dive into the social media world of ‘WitchTok,’ which has drawn billions of viewers to videos about every element of witchcraft. It’s a phenomenon Domino Day is set to tap into when it debuts on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer in 2024, but it’s by no means the focal point of a story rooted in very contemporary themes.

“As soon as we had the pilot script and started developing further scripts, we felt we had something really special,” Bowen adds. “It’s a genre show, but it’s very much set in the real world. It’s got really interesting things to say about identity, sex, genre, friendship, love and about owning your truth. But all of it is set up in Manchester in the real world so it feels very much like our world.

“Then the supernatural story takes you by surprise. That blend of the real world and very relatable themes that feel universal with something that is really original, in the way that the supernatural witch story is folded in, really excited us.”

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