Keeping it in the family
Showrunner Peter McKenna looks back on making his Dublin-set crime family drama Kin and assesses the new confidence of Irish television storytelling.
There are not many writers who would turn down the opportunity to write a television drama about anything they wanted. So when David Davoli, president of television at US production company Bron Studios, put that very offer to Peter McKenna, the Irish screenwriter knew exactly what he wanted to do.
“David said, ‘Just go write whatever you want,’” McKenna recalls. “I wanted to write a story about a family of criminals in Ireland and he goes, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s go.’ They gave me a blank slate and he supported me all the way.”
The result is Kin, an eight-part series that blends family conflict and gangland rivalries with an ensemble cast boasting some of the country’s biggest acting talents. It debuted this year on Ireland’s RTÉ, AMC+ in the US and Nordic streamer Viaplay.
Creator and showrunner McKenna has already written two episodes of a potential second season – he is eagerly awaiting an official green light – but he is in no doubt that show has struck a chord with viewers following the triumphs and tragedies of the Kinsella clan, a local crime family in Dublin that embarks on a gangland war with the international Cunningham cartel. The series has been described as one of Ireland’s best dramas of recent years, while 500,000 people tuned in to watch the season finale.
“We don’t make an awful lot of drama in Ireland that’s set in Ireland, so it’s not often we get to see stories about ourselves with Irish actors,” McKenna says of the show’s success. “We also seem in Ireland to have an obsession with gangland figures. We treat gangsters like you treat people from [constructed reality shows] The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea. They become almost reality stars, and we follow their stories. We have a different relationship with gangsters and criminals and there’s a huge appetite for it in Ireland.
“It also looks good. Sometimes a problem we’ve had in Ireland is we haven’t had the same resources as American or UK shows. Kin has its flaws but what it did well was it looks really nice. The production design, the way it was lit, the quality of the acting made it feel by like a premium product. All of those things grabbed the attention of people. Some people didn’t like it. Some people felt it was too slow and found they preferred more of the gangster and less of the family. But by and large, it did very well.”
Supported by Davoli (The Defeated) and fellow Bron executive Samatha Thomas (Jessica Jones), McKenna found his vision for the series and his creative voice was protected at all times, allowing him to truly write the show he wanted to make.
“Whatever you wanted they would sort and they were nothing but supportive,” he tells DQ. “I’m at this 25 years working on all kinds of things, developing shows that don’t get made, and you dream of this moment where an exec at an American studio will say, ‘Go make what you want to make.’ You’re almost suspicious of it because it’s too good to be true, but it wasn’t. They were really good.”
But why was writing about a criminal family his dream show? A family, he says, is the perfect construct within which to explore a range of emotional and psychological stories, while he was also inspired by articles exploring the celebrity surrounding criminals in Ireland.
“Like everyone else, I would read the articles in the paper, I would know the nicknames, I would have a passing knowledge [of them],” he explains. “But when you begin to dig into the material, you realise how much trauma they have in their life – a brother killed, a sister died of an overdose, a father in jail. For all the glamour in the Instagram life, the money and the buzz and the Goodfellas swagger, their lives are built on trauma.”
In an attempt to stand out from other gangster series, however, McKenna wanted Kin to show the emotional consequences of the lives his characters lead. As a result, the series asks what it feels like to be responsible for someone’s death, or how you feel when someone in your family takes another life?
“What I decided to do when writing the show was not spend so much time in the planning of robberies or whatever, but spend time on the fall-out of everything,” he says. “Let the events happen quite quickly – we don’t need to see the police, the set up or how the gang do it – and then let’s look at what it means. What are the emotional consequences? How does that affect everyone? How does it affect families when you go to jail? This conflict between family and crime allowed me to do that.”
At the centre of the series is Amanda (Clare Dunne), who marries into the Kinsella family and initially keeps to the outskirts of their criminal activities. But when her son Jamie is killed by a Cunningham associate, she begins to wield increasingly more power as she strives for revenge. In contrast, Michael (Charlie Cox) is fresh out of prison and seeking to mend his ways in an attempt to rebuild his relationship with his daughter, while reluctant leader Frank (Aidan Gillen) is attempting to hold everything together.
Alongside break-out star Dunne (Herself), Cox (Daredevil) and Gillen (Game of Thrones), the stellar cast also features Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones), Sam Keeley (The Cured), Emmett J Scanlan (Peaky Blinders), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Outlander) and newcomer Yasmin Seky.
“It’s completely Amanda’s story,” McKenna says “You see her journey stepping up into the family and then begin to take over the family. We’d always felt her journey was a little like Michael Corleone. There’s a scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone says, ‘That’s my family, it’s not me.’ And there’s a scene in episode one where Amanda’s arguing with her son and she says, ‘What I do is different.’ By the end, she’s absolutely at the centre of it.
“We’d always said Amanda’s journey was from light to dark, that was her journey across all the series. Then Michael’s journey is slightly different. His journey is from darkness to light. It’s more emotional. He’s someone who’s going on a journey towards redemption. He’s done lots of bad things and had lots of trauma in his life and he’s trying to make amends but gets drawn back into it. But Amanda goes on the biggest journey, because the rest of them are already criminals. She’s not really. Once the show gets up and running, her decisions and her actions are what drives everything forward.”
Then there’s Eamon Cunningham (Hinds), the show’s antagonist and the Goliath to the Kinsellas’ David – a feud that takes its cue from real events in Ireland.
“What I tried to do was paint him so he’s not just the gangster you see in every show, to give him a different life and a back story,” McKenna says. “We tried to do more with that character so he didn’t just feel like a growling baddie all the time. Particularly because we had an actor of Ciarán’s brilliance, the more you give him, the more he’ll do with it. I also felt like, ‘Who knows when I’ll get to write for Ciarán Hinds again?’”
McKenna’s writing credits include episodes of Around the World in 80 Days, The Last Kingdom, The Gloaming and The Musketeers, while he was previously showrunner of Irish crime drama Red Rock, overseeing episodes that were shot in just two days and producing up to 50 hours of television a year.
In his experience, showrunners would be lead writers who are also executive producers, while producers would still take charge of decisions surrounding production and casting.
“But in this instance, with an American company and Sam, who had worked with loads of showrunners on Marvel shows, they were pushing me. They let me make decisions,” McKenna reveals. “We would discuss casting and they signed off on everything. They never argued, unless it was a bad decision, and then Sam would say in a very polite way, ‘What about this…?’
“They pushed me to make all the decisions to do with locations, to do with clothes. Every day I was on set and when I was writing, I would write on set. If there were questions, they would come to me. That’s not to say I got everything right. I got things wrong, but in terms of showrunning experience, they absolutely empowered me. I was in post-production all the time. It was a dream experience for a writer.”
Produced by Bron and UK-based Headline Pictures, with Bron also distributing the series worldwide, Kin was shot on location across Dublin at a time when Ireland was in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic at the end of 2020 and the start of this year.
Wearing masks and being tested two or three times a week, filming took place in empty streets under directors Diarmuid Goggins (Bulletproof) and Tessa Hoffe (Wayne). A school gym was used to recreate a hospital, while Shannon Airport stood in for both Dublin Airport and a Spanish airport. The hotel Eamon Cunningham owns and lives in was a venue the cast and crew had full access too, owing to the relatively few visitors staying there otherwise.
“The funeral in episode three was meant to be a big episode,” McKenna says. “But in episode two, when Amanda’s in the car, she says, ‘I don’t want anyone at the funeral, just close family and friends’ – that’s because of Covid. We just couldn’t risk a line of extras coming past and shaking the hands of our key cast members. I had to rewrite that and build it into the story.”
As he now considers a second season of Kin, McKenna is honest and self-critical in his assessment of some aspects of the series. He admits the pacing of its early episodes, which focus on the death of a young boy and a family consumed by grief, is too slow, while the balance of emotion and plot isn’t quite right.
“Sometimes because I wanted to do a character-driven show, I allowed the pace of the show to slow down, and I would be much more careful to get the balance right, to make sure the beats are propulsive and make sure there’s enough action there while not losing the emotional stuff,” he notes. “Perhaps I veered a lot towards character and neglected to make sure it had enough of the excitement and dynamism of a gangland show.
“I would also be careful not to have too many archetypes again, to make the characters more ambiguous or nuanced and not like an Irish version of something you’ve seen many times before.”
“There is a new confidence,” McKenna observes. “There’s incredible talent in terms of writers, crew and cast, and it’s great to have the opportunity to showcase that on an international stage. Considering the talent we have in terms of actors, Ireland has been slow to get out there and it’s great to have a show that is being shown all around the world, that has been shown on Viaplay in northern Europe and in America on AMC. I really feel fortunate to have the opportunity.”
The writer feared that to make what felt like a premium show, he would have to do it outside Ireland. “But I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” he says. “Normal People was incredible, a show made in Ireland with Irish filmmakers and Irish story. It was as good as any TV show anywhere. When you see people doing that, it makes you more confident you can follow in that path in some way and make a show that can stand on its own two feet.
“We’ll see more and more Irish show yet because there is the talent there to do it. I would find inspiration in looking at Irish writers like Sharon Horgan [Motherland, Catastrophe], and when you see somebody from Ireland going and do something, that provides the inspiration to go and try it yourself and see what you can do.”
tagged in: Aidan Gillen, AMC, Around the World in 80 Days, Bron Studios, Charlie Cox, Ciarán Hinds, Clare Dunne, David Davoli, Derry Girls, Emmett J Scanlan, Ireland, Kin, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Normal People, Peter McKenna, RTÉ, Sam Keeley, Samatha Thomas, The Gloaming, The Last Kingdom, The Musketeers, Viaplay, Yasmin Seky