Eye of the storm

Eye of the storm

By Michael Pickard
February 27, 2024


Writer Peter A Dowling and executive producers Julie Gardner and Lachlan MacKinnon take DQ aboard ITV’s upcoming thriller Red Eye to discuss making this locked-room mystery, filming on a plane and the importance of authentic representation.

If Agatha Christie had written a modern-day thriller set on board a flight from London to Beijing, the makers of ITV series Red Eye hope it might have looked something like their six-part drama.

Blending political drama with conspiracy thriller, from the cabin of the plane to the streets of Whitehall in the heart of Westminster, the series introduces Dr Matthew Nolan (Richard Armitage), who arrives home from Beijing after being involved in a car crash and is immediately arrested at Heathrow Airport.

He is accused of the murder of a woman who was in the car he crashed, and despite claiming he was alone, he is ordered to return to China to face charges. Joining him for the flight is DC Hana Li (Jing Lusi), a no-nonsense London officer immediately resentful at her long-haul baggage.

When a death occurs in flight, DC Li puts it down to foul play. But further deaths confirm Nolan is in danger, and Hana finds herself in the middle of an escalating conspiracy. Supporting her on the ground are her journalist sister Jess (Jemma Moore), who also finds herself in danger, and Madeline Delaney (Lesley Sharp), the head of MI5, who risks her career to help Hana, keep Nolan alive and expose an international conspiracy between China and her own government.

“I grew up in a working-class house in Wales, and the great joy of my childhood was watching thrillers. It’s what I grew up on, the greats of Cracker and Prime Suspect,” Bad Wolf executive producer Julie Gardner (I Hate Suzie, Doctor Who) tells DQ. “So it’s like a modern-day Agatha Christie mixed with a conspiracy theory. Frankly, it’s catnip for me.”

Red Eye stars Jing Lusi as DC Hana Li alongside Richard Armitage as Dr Matthew Nolan

Launching this spring, the series is the first television drama from creator Peter A Dowling, who writes with Jingan Young. Kieran Hawkes directs all episodes, with Sony Pictures Television handling international sales.

Dowling, a British writer living in the US, had previously been in development with Bad Wolf on projects on both sides of the Atlantic that utilised his credentials in high-octane thrillers matched with his Mancunian sensibility that keeps the action grounded.

“That’s one of Pete’s USPs, because he’s so well versed in the thriller genre. He knows how to have that motor through the whole piece. But there are some incredibly touching scenes between our lead characters, in the plane and on the ground,” says fellow Bad Wolf EP Lachlan MacKinnon (The Winter King, A Discovery of Witches). “It’s something Pete and Kieran worked very closely on because we were blessed with the fact that we could get Kieran to direct all six episodes.

“Part of it is grounding it in a world that feels real, because sometimes you do see some thrillers where you can just see there’s been a lot of creative excitement and suddenly it’s like a discotheque or something. From a visual style point of view, there were lots of serious conversations about how we actually stay engaged and have that real kinetic sense of movement up there when you are trapped.”

Hawkes and DOP Oli Russell also take viewers into parts of the plane not usually visible to paying passengers, such as the crew quarters, the cargo hold and telemetry systems.

Julie Gardner

“You really get around the plane. There are two very serious filmmakers in Oli and Kieran,” MacKinnon continues. “But there are also hilarious moments. There’s a part in the script that involves a bit of turbulence, and that involved the camera operators twerking. It’s phenomenal when you see it in the finished piece.”

Dowling is no stranger to thrillers set on planes, following his 2005 feature Flightplan, which stars Jodie Foster. In fact, his first paid writing job was working on animation scripts for a German cartoon series, so he sees his relationship with TV now coming full circle – something he attributes to shifts in Hollywood that mean thrillers like Flightplan have fallen out of favour in the feature-length world and landed on the small screen.

“While Hollywood was trying to outdo itself with spectacle, TV was catering to an audience who still cared about intelligent, human thrillers done well,” he says. “Flightplan, even with Jodie Foster as the lead, would not get made by a studio today. It would be done like Red Eye as a limited series.”

Dowling and Gardner had previously worked with ITV on a show about a murder investigation on a nuclear submarine, only to see BBC series Vigil go into production at the same time. But invigorated by being able to let his characters “talk” across a longer running time, he was keen to reunite with both partners on a new idea. That led him to Red Eye, which brings together his love of a locked-room mystery and Gardner’s own fondness for Christie whodunnits.

“We just combined those ideas: multiple murders on a plane that can’t land. It really was that simple,” he says. “But it truly only creatively came to life when we decided that it should be a red-eye flight to Beijing, because who better to escort a prisoner than a Chinese-British police officer for whom China is the last place she ever wants to go back to? And the rest flowed from there. Who is a prisoner she would despise? What is he accused of doing?

“And once the idea of DC Hana Li was landed as our anchor, the chance to make a show that truly embraced an Asian actress in the lead role of a major show, apparently for the first time in British history, was just too fresh, exciting and undeniable to ignore, and I knew that if it excited me that much then that’s what I had to write.”

Lachlan MacKinnon

Dowling’s experience on Flightplan gave him a head start when it came to writing Red Eye, though he originally asked if he could set it in space. “Once that was rejected, I said, ‘Well, it has to at least be on an plane,’” he recalls.

“What I knew from Flightplan is the inner workings of a plane – the spaces, the roles of the crew. And so I could work in that world convincingly. I’m also an avid thriller reader and watcher and know every twist and reversal from every movie or book I’ve read, so I felt very comfortable combining them.

“Probably the biggest lesson I learned from Flightplan though was, having done it, knowing that I could sustain a certain number of hours in a locked room at 30,000 feet. I had a sense of how much of that pressure cooker an audience could tolerate before needing to breathe and follow characters off the plane.”

Filming on the plane took place in a warehouse on the outskirts of London, where a decommissioned Boeing 737 could be transformed and refitted to meet any production requirements and ensure as much authenticity as possible without being 36,000 feet in the air. Stansted Airport was used as the setting for some interior terminal scenes.

“One thing we’ve learned over the years from these kinds of shows is the closer you stick to reality, [the more] it has that smell of authenticity, so it’s something we wanted to really kind of run with,” MacKinnon says. “But we were basically in a warehouse, on an airfield, and just keeping the doors closed to stop all the rest of the planes outside. Your only challenge is to deal with the claustrophobia of it, but you’ve also got the issues with having 150 extras to fill the plane.”

Working with production designer Alice Norris, the plane scenes took up the first six weeks of production. But despite fears the actors would find the setting oppressive, the opposite turned out to be true.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, Lachlan, everyone’s going to get cabin fever. Everyone’s going to go completely Lord of the Flies.’ And actually it was the reverse,” Gardner says. “I was getting calls from Jing Lusi and Richard Armitage who were like, ‘We’re really sad to be leaving the plane. It’s like we’re leaving our home. We don’t want to go.’”

Peter A Dowling

Then when the story lands in Beijing, the Chinese capital was replicated on the streets of Bermondsey, south London.

“That’s something we tackled in the production process itself, but also in post-production with VFX and with sound effects,” MacKinnon reveals. “Our sound designer was in touch with Beijing to make sure he had the right fire engines, police cars and things, just so you do give that different feel that only Beijing has.

“Similarly, for example, we are in a hotel in Beijing so we made sure we had extras to come in and do the voices for the atmosphere in the sound mix. We worked with a bunch of Asian actors, and it just helps with the belief that you are in Beijing when you hear Chinese voices in the background, instead of Cockney. You’re just looking at every level of the production, from the beginning to the end, to make it feel like it is Beijing.”

Bad Wolf also worked with a counterterrorism advisor to make sure the MI5 side of the story stood up to scrutiny, while Young, who wrote episode four, acted as a cultural consultant across the series. Lusi and Moore would also be invited to contribute their thoughts to ensure authenticity in parts of their characters’ lives.

“Jing was such a great choice for the role. We were just really lucky she was the person who we really wanted to be the lead, and she read the scripts and loved them and invested in them as well,” MacKinnon says about casting the star. “Also just the fact that it’s the first time, in a long time, an Asian actor has been number one on the call sheet – it was a big thing for her as well, in terms of representation.”

Echoing Dowling and Gardner’s clash with Vigil, it was only last year that another plane-set thriller, Apple TV+’s Hijack, was released. Gardner says she “adored” that series, which has since been renewed for a second season, and even watched it in one sitting.

Jodie Foster in 2005 film Flightplan, another plane-set thriller written by Dowling

“The comedy point to make is we shot on the same plane as Hijack,” she says. But the plain difference between the two shows is Red Eye doesn’t involve a hijack, where terrorists have taken over the plane.

“For us, the plane is a setting because it’s a murder mystery in a contained space, so it’s very different,” she says. “We’re different enough, but the huge, joyful success of Hijack shows what we’re trying to do here is create hugely entertaining pieces. I used to adore watching thrillers with my mum because we would be puzzling it out, and it’s just so enjoyable. So that’s what we’re going for, but where the Hijack question was ‘how does he get out of this?’ our question here is ‘what happened on this specific night, who’s guilty and why?’”

But there are some elements all thrillers need to keep viewers hooked until the conclusion.

“On top of taking time to establish characters an audience will care about, the secret to a good thriller is to constantly make your audience lean in with curiosity and anticipation,” Dowling says. “Never make the mistake of letting them get ahead of your characters unless you plan to pull the rug, and what they expected is not what you give them.

“I’ve always come at these things by posing a question,” he adds. “How can this happen? Why is this happening? There’s always something the audience wants answering. That way they can enjoy the not knowing and the puzzling of the clues and crumbs until the truth is revealed, and hopefully it isn’t what any of them guessed.”

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