Fool’s gold

Fool’s gold

By Michael Pickard
January 4, 2024

The Writers Room

Fool Me Once marks the fifth collaboration between novelist Harlan Coben and screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst. They tell DQ about their partnership behind the Netflix series and how they try to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

He’s written 35 bestselling novels and created a dozen television series – based on both original ideas and his books – but even Harlan Coben isn’t immune from imposter syndrome.

“It’s part of being a writer. It never goes away,” he tells DQ. “It’s hard for me to be confident. That said, the reaction to Fool Me Once has been the strongest for any of the series we’ve done so far.”

Harlan Coben

Fool Me Once is the latest Coben series commissioned by Netflix UK, following in the footsteps of Safe, The Stranger and Stay Close, and it has a notable fan in the streamer’s scripted chief Anne Mensah, who said at a recent screening that it was her favourite collaboration with the author yet.

Launching worldwide on Netflix on New Year’s Day, it is based on his book of the same name and stars Michelle Keegan (Brassic, Our Girl) as Maya, an ex-army captain who watches a baby monitor in disbelief as her husband Joe (Coben regular Richard Armitage) seemingly plays with their two-year-old daughter – two weeks after he was brutally murdered.

Desperate for answers, she must face up to secrets in her own past while also confronting Joe’s powerful, wealthy family – including his mother Judith (Joanna Lumley).

Meanwhile, Detective Sami Kierce (Adeel Akhtar) leads the investigation into Joe’s murder while dealing with secrets of his own, and Maya’s niece Abby (Danya Griver) and nephew Daniel (Daniel Burt) search for answers about their mother’s unsolved murder months earlier.

“We’ve always had a great cast and I think this one is a little special with Michelle Keegan in a major starring role, and having Joanna Lumley, which is like having royalty,” Coben jokes. “Richard Armitage is back again and Adeel Akhtar has long been one of my favourite actors. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time, so I’m excited about that.”

But Armitage isn’t the only familiar face reuniting with Coben on Fool Me Once. Like his previous Netflix UK series, and Sky’s 2016 drama The Five (also commissioned by Mensah), he once again teamed up with head writer Danny Brocklehurst and executive producers Nicola Shindler and Richard Fee to bring his story to the screen. Shindler-led Quay Street Productions is the producer.

Michelle Keegan (right) leads the cast of Fool Me Once, which also stars Joanna Lumley (left)

“I’ve written a lot of shows in other countries and other places with other people, but it’s rare to have a team that you really trust, that you really know you share a vision with, and we’re all after the same thing,” he says. “Danny and I have worked together a lot. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so we can fill in those gaps maybe a little better. But we’re always just trying to get better at what we’re doing.”

Coben says Shindler had long pushed him to adapt Fool Me Once, but it had previously been unworkable due to a rights issue. Then when plans to turn it into a feature film failed to materialise and the rights returned to Coben, Shindler made sure they didn’t miss out a second time. “And I think she was right,” the author says.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes to the novel during the adaptation process. For one, the action is transplanted from New Jersey to Manchester and the surrounding area, while the focus on Maya in the book is broadened to include more characters – including a new story for Akhtar’s Detective Kierce.

“My own philosophy is that a novel’s a novel and a TV show’s a TV show,” Coben says. “The worst adaptations are the ones that really worry they’re not being true to the novel, that they have to stay slavishly devoted to the novel.

“Novels are more interior. Something that works well in a novel may not work well for TV and vice versa. So I when I do an adaptation, my thought is what’s going to make it the best TV series, whether it keeps close to the book or not. What I found is that by changing the locations, it makes it fresher for me. I think why these particular shows have worked so well for Netflix is it’s a hybrid. You can see the American DNA and you can see the British DNA. That combination has worked really well for us.”

Adeel Akhtar’s Detective Kierce investigates a murder – but is the ‘victim’ really dead?

But it’s the primary focus on Maya that also makes Fool Me Once stand apart from his previous series, which have tended to focus on several families or characters drawn together by a typically twisty-turny plot.

“Michelle had to do more than any actor I’ve ever had on a show has had to do. She really had to carry the load, and she was a delight and delivered from beginning to end,” says Coben of the actor, who has previously worked with Brocklehurst on Brassic and Australia-set period drama Ten Pound Poms.

“I knew Michelle’s work a bit from Danny, but for the first few days I was nervous. Could she handle this role? This is a big step up, and I think the country is going to be really surprised at how good she is in this,” he says. “It’s a tough role because you’re a tough combat helicopter pilot and you’ve lost your husband, you’re on your own. So there are all these different things she has to go through as an actress, and she’s also funny in it. She’s a terrific actress. I couldn’t be more pleased with her.”

Though Maya might be at the centre of the mystery unravelling in Fool Me Once, Coben also wants every character in the show to have the potential to be the star of their own series.

“Whether it’s Richard Armitage as Joe, Joanna Lumley as Judith or Emmett Scanlan’s Shane, I know enough about those people in my head and enough about those actors that I could just make a show called the Emmett Scanlan Show or whatever,” he says. “In this case, the main one we did that with was Adeel Akhtar. His role in the book is pretty much a straight cop, but now he has a whole side plot involving him getting married and having health issues.

The Netflix thriller also stars Hollyoaks alumnus Emmett Scanlan

“When you have an actor like Adeel Akhtar, you also want to give them more. It’s one of the fun things about casting really great actors. I have to make sure I’m giving them lines that I’m proud for them to deliver.”

Coming back for another Coben project, Brocklehurst says that while they don’t get any easier, there is now a shorthand between the execs about how create a television thriller with all the cliffhangers and hooks that fans of Coben’s novels have come to expect.

“Harlan openly says he wants to keep people up as late as he can because you get to the end of the chapter and you want to read the next chapter – and that’s how we design the TV shows,” he says. “I guess a lot of people design TV shows that way because you’ve got to have a big hook at the end of each episode to keep people coming back. But we work really hard. In eight episodes, I don’t think there’s a weak end-of-episode hook. The hardest thing is that eight episodes is quite a lot [of time] to keep plates spinning and keep the plot twisting, and although you do have the book to fall back on, there are quite a lot of changes for the TV series.”

The start, the setup and the ending of the novel have largely remained intact, though a lot of changes have been made to the intervening story. Brocklehurst notes that the focus on Maya also made it “a little bit harder” to maintain momentum in Fool Me One, while a lot of early discussions between the execs centred on how to expand other characters and bring them further into the story.

Danny Brocklehurst

It would be then down to him to lead the writing team, which on this occasion featured Charlotte Coben, Tom Farrelly, Nina Metivier and Yemi Oyefuwa.

“Me, Richard, Nicola and Harlan storyline it all. We’re a very tight unit and we bounce things around and there’s a map drawn of the series that’s pretty tight. It’s a very elaborate document,” he reveals. “Then I’ll generally do episodes one, two, seven and eight, so then the other episodes, we say to the other writers, ‘This is what we need from this episode.’

“That doesn’t mean there’s not room for them to bring themselves to it and to invent things, but you do have to stick to those plot points because it’s quite rigid in terms of where you’ve got to start and where you go to.”

That’s because all those plot points have been painstakingly worked out to ensure viewers can go on a thrilling ride that plays with their emotions, but doesn’t leave them feel cheated by the show’s conclusion.

“We try our hardest to never lie to the audience, so once you get to the end of it, you could go right back to the start if you so wished and watch it again with a careful eye and everything would make sense,” Brocklehurst says. “We don’t lie to the audience. We don’t show them false flashbacks or anything like that, like some dramas do. We always play fair but obviously you’re playing with audience perception as you go through the show.”

Across the series, Coben is involved in casting and location decisions, as well as outlining the story as part of the “core four” creative team, before Brocklehurst takes over scriptwriting duties. Coben will then also have a hand in rewrites.

“Danny’s best bits are to do the actual screenplay aspects, while the bits I’m probably stronger at are the story bits, making sure the story is landing, making sure we’re putting it in the right order, that sort of thing,” Coben says. “But we overlap now where I’m doing this and he’s doing that. I just think we’ve gotten to know each other’s minds pretty well so it all works together.”

This creative collaboration also means Coben’s work for television stands apart from his role as a novelist, where he largely operates alone.

“The comparison I often use is when I write a novel, I feel like I’m a tennis player or a golfer, right? I won Wimbledon. I won the Masters. I’m alone. I get the trophy,” he adds. “When I work with these people, I feel like I’m captain of a World Cup team. I don’t care who scores. I don’t care how we do it. I want to win and I want to celebrate as a team with all of us. We’re all here to help each other out.”

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