Into the wild
In Prime Video series Wilderness, Jenna Coleman stars as a woman out for revenge after an act of betrayal. Writer Marnie Dickens, director So Yong Kim and executive producer Elizabeth Kilgarriff tell DQ how they brought the six-part psychological thriller to the screen.
After a yearlong hiatus, Taylor Swift announced her comeback in 2017 with Look What You Made Me Do. A defiant, revenge-themed single, it describes the star’s personal transformation and ushered in her shift to a darker side of pop, declaring that the old Taylor is dead.
With the single being re-recorded as part of Swift’s relaunch of her Reputation album later this year, it proves to be the perfect accompaniment to the opening titles of Wilderness, a Prime Video psychological thriller based on the novel by BE Jones.
The six-part series stars Jenna Coleman as Liv, who undergoes her own transformation after learning that her supposedly fairytale marriage to husband Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is anything but when she discovers he has been having an affair. As Liv’s heartbreak turns to fury, the couple embark on a dream US road trip where Will hopes to make amends – while Liv finds that the remote landscape is the perfect place for revenge.
As the series tagline states, “Look what he made her do.”
Wilderness marks the first major series from Firebird Pictures, the production company set up by former BBC drama commissioner Elizabeth Kilgarriff in 2019. The series reunites her with writer Marnie Dickens, whose credits include BBC dramas Thirteen and Gold Digger, while Kilgarriff also previously worked with Coleman on 2018 mystery drama The Cry.
It was in the early days of Firebird Pictures that Kilgarriff was sent Jones’s novel, at a time when she and Dickens were already developing ideas together.
“I really wanted to do a domestic show that focuses on a marriage or a relationship that’s in trouble but take it out of a personal, domestic setting and put it somewhere to raise the stakes, somewhere where it’s a survival scenario, and see what would happen if there were cracks already in the relationship,” she explains.
“It just so happened that Bev’s book came out, and in that really weird, serendipitous way as often happens, that’s what she does [with the story]. She takes that familiar betrayal story and takes it on a journey, out of the known and into the unknown. There’s a brilliant twist in that book that takes you in slightly different direction and means you never know where you’re going with the story.”
Prime Video picked up the series after reading a script for episode one, which begins as Liv and Will attempt to reconnect on a road trip that takes the couple from Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon, through Yosemite and ending on a hedonistic weekend in Las Vegas.
But when they bump into Will’s colleague Cara (Ashley Benson) and her boyfriend Garth (Eric Balfour), Liv’s plans are wrecked and the four go hiking together on a journey that will change the course of all their lives.
Dickens likens the themes in Wilderness those in her previous series, which also had “messy, truthful” female characters at their heart. Liv, she says, “is this young woman who is a product of the patriarchy, who bends herself out of shape to be all things to all people. She people-pleases, which I think is a very classic female trait, and she throws herself into this marriage in a way that proves to be very damaging when it’s all a lie. Then it’s about how she finds her real voice and her true agency across the series.”
Adapting Evans’s novel, Dickens sought to honour the author’s original intentions while expanding the story to fill six hour-long episodes. “I have to take an amazing premise of these two young people, madly in love, who are outsiders in this incredible landscape, and properly dive deep into those characters,” she says. “Thematically, you’ve got love, betrayal and revenge very much front and centre of Bev’s page-turning book. Then for me, it’s about pushing the identity stuff, pushing the idea of gender and the stereotypes Liv falls in with, like the idea of the hussy, the other woman and the scarred woman. It’s just about finding the things that interest me and having the fun of exploring it further.”
Throughout, Wilderness balances heightened drama with the grounded, characterful relationships both Dickens and Kilgarriff wanted to focus on, though the writer admits this was a difficult tightrope to walk.
“We didn’t want to lose the ‘popcorn’ fun of it and the twists and turns, and the deliciousness of the heightened nature of it,” she notes. “But if it exists in a world where you don’t believe what anyone is doing, then it’s no fun at all for me as a writer or the audience, and so it was always about rooting it back in every single scene to the emotional truth of what these people would really be feeling in a heightened world.
“The way Jenna works, her process is to take you to the truth of what she’s thinking – a bit like Jodie Comer had to do as Ivy in Thirteen. She has to play multiple things at one time. People know different things, and that only gets more complicated as the series goes on. The aim of the show is to be heightened but with an emotional gut punch.”
Kilgarriff agrees that the danger with making psychological thrillers is that they’re all “thrills and spills.”
“It’s a universal story, so I imagine a lot of people will either have been through this or know somebody who has, a story of betrayal,” she says. “We wanted it to feel grounded in an emotional sense but then, of course, we wanted to heighten it slightly in terms of Liv’s decision making, where they go and what happens.
“Then once we’re in the wilderness, that’s where we can play with the idea of danger coming in many different forms, whether that’s from within your relationship or outside it because of the locations they’re in. We just felt like we could have fun with it while having this very truthful, authentic heart.”
Coleman was the “natural choice” to play Liv, Kilgarriff continues, describing her as an actor who can hold numerous layers of her character together at once – a trait viewers of The Cry will remember.
“I do think that is her genius,” the exec says. “She makes it look very easy – and she’s in nearly every scene in the show. We took her on a mad ride, she embraced it and is so good. I’m excited for the audience to see her in this role. We needed someone who is going to take the audience with her, to fall in love with her, and Oliver is brilliant as well. The two of them have fantastic chemistry on screen, which is really important for the story to work.”
“Jenna is amazing, she’s a master,” adds director So Yong Kim (Dr Death, In Between Days). “There were days, especially later in the schedule, when we’d be covering all six episodes, and she knew exactly where she was in episode four compared with episode two. It was so incredible. I don’t know how she kept track of that. Throughout 75 days of production, she only had one day when she was not needed. But even though it was so demanding for her, she could still be creative and allow her talent to come through.”
A Dickens was completing the scripts, Kilgarriff and Kim were busy planning how Wilderness would be filmed. Dramas usually split the schedule into blocks, but the numerous settings featured in the series meant it needed to be shot by location, with no time to go back if something was missing. Thankfully, the fact Dickens completed all six scripts before shooting began meant everything could be planned up front.
Interior studio work was completed in Vancouver, Canada, the outskirts of which also doubled for Yosemite. The production also visited New York, Las Vegas and Arizona – locations that couldn’t be cheated.
Asked about the biggest challenges the production faced, Kilgarriff is clear: “It was the logistics. It’s a big show. We were in Banff, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Arizona and New York – and when that train started, we were in these locations once and we had to get everything.
“The weather could be tricky, especially in the Yosemite section. We’ve got big whitewater rafting stunts, there were bears – there’s a lot of wildlife going on. It was just the scale of it and making sure we got everything we wanted when we were in those places. Marnie is amazing because we had six scripts up front and that meant we were set up to win. We’d never have been able to do it otherwise.”
Dickens picks up: “Getting permission to film in the Grand Canyon was a huge process because you have to go to the tribe and check they’re happy with everything. It’s very involved and painstaking. There was some doubling of locations because we shot the majority of things in Canada, but only an eagle eye would spot the differences between parts of Yosemite and parts of Canada we used.
“But for the really important things, for New York we’re in New York, for Arizona we were shooting there. That’s the great thing about Prime Video being so supportive – they knew what they were getting into when they greenlit the show and they backed us to the end.”
Kim jokes that she convinced Dickens and Kilgarriff to let her direct all six episodes by promising it would be “smoother” than having multiple directors steer the series. Then once she was on board, she imagined Wilderness as a blend of numerous visual elements that reflected the different genre elements – and locations – that make up the story.
In particular, she leaned on influences such as Gone Girl, Thelma & Louise and 1970s thriller Klute, as well as the marriage and relationship dynamics of Revolutionary Road and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
“If you see my film work, it’s much more intimate. Then if you see my TV directing work, it’s a wide range of genres – action, comedy, horror, dramedy and sci-fi. I felt like Wilderness really required a blending of different elements, so we tried to blend those influences together to find something completely new,” she says. “I hope we were successful.”
Some iconic landmarks also had a say in how Wilderness was shot, though Kim says it was first and foremost about having a visual structure in place and then bending it to incorporate elements of the location.
“In Las Vegas, we were very limited with what [equipment] we could have on the ground and in terms of backgrounds,” she says. “We didn’t have any control of people, so we had to be extremely careful but try to capture Las Vegas at the same time. In that way, we were ‘running and gunning’ because Kat [Westergaard, cinematographer] and I know how to do that.
“But within that, we have to put it in the context of how the overall show is going to look and make that part of our language. It was the same thing with the Grand Canyon. We could only have a specific type of gear on the cliffs. It helped that Kat and I had a shorthand in communicating, because otherwise the speed at which we had to work would not have been conducive. We had to be extremely fast and concise.”
One memorable day on set came during filming for a whitewater rafting scene near Whistler, north of Vancouver. On the first day, wide shots were captured of Coleman and Jackson-Cohen going down the river, before the day-two schedule called for close-ups of Coleman.
“We tied the raft to the shore so she wouldn’t be out on the water, and then we threw buckets of water into her face,” Kim recalls. “We didn’t have any big buckets, but we had water bottles and certain little canisters like coffee cups, so we had people on the side splashing water on her and we shot the scene like that.”
The director says it was a “huge privilege” to direct all six episodes and collaborate with Dickens and Kilgarriff, who were “so open and supportive” of the filmmaker. “I prefer working in this way so much more. It’s so rewarding,” she says. “It doesn’t happen that often because it’s very challenging for the production and the crew, but I wish it could happen more often.”
With numerous episodes ending on a cliff edge, and one character falling off one, Wilderness succeeds in driving its story forward while keeping the characters front and centre, with Liv’s occasional narration used to reveal more of her inner thoughts and feelings than her facial expressions often do. More than the twists and turns, it’s that connection to the audience that Dickens hopes will bring them along for the ride when the series debuts on Prime Video on September 15.
“Really, it’s a heightened ‘what if’ story – What if I was betrayed? What if I kept being betrayed? – and then allowing a fantasy wish fulfilment where our deepest, most twisted desires are played out in the way Liv acts,” she says. “But in real life, we can’t go around acting like Liv does. That is the thing that sets Wilderness apart. It’s a betrayal story on speed.”