Managing expectations

Managing expectations

October 6, 2016

In production

DQ sits down with Stephen and Simon Cornwell, co-CEOs of The Ink Factory, to look back at their Emmy-winning drama The Night Manager and discuss how they hope to follow its success.

If 2016 proves to be a vintage year for television drama, one series that helped to raise the bar was The Night Manager.

The six-part adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy novel starred Tom Hiddleston as former British soldier Jonathan Pine, who is recruited as a spy to infiltrate the inner circle of lethal arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).

Directed by Susanne Bier, the cast also included Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki and David Harewood.

The series was an immediate hit for UK broadcaster BBC1 on its February 21 debut, with an average (overnight) audience of 6.3 million tuning in each week, while 1.6 million (Live+3) tuned in for the first episode on US cable network AMC – a jump of 70% from overnight figures.

Distributor IMG has since sold the show around the world including to Amazon Prime in the UK, US and Japan, France TV and Chinese VoD platform Youku Tudou.

Bier subsequently won an Emmy for Best Director of a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, while Victor Reyes was also celebrating a win for Outstanding Music Composition. Hiddleston, Laurie, Colman and writer David Farr were all nominated, and additional Golden Globe and Bafta nods surely await in 2017.

The series was produced by The Ink Factory, which is run by le Carré’s sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell (pictured right and left respectively above). They have so far resisted talk of turning The Night Manager, which was a standalone book, into a returning series and have instead returned to their father’s work for their next TV project – an adaption of his 1963 Cold War thriller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) will write the series, which is being coproduced with Paramount TV and Character 7.

Speaking to DQ, Stephen and Simon look back on the success of The Night Manager – their first TV project – and discuss how they hope to stand out in the increasingly competitive world of television drama.

Did you know you were creating something special from the outset?
Stephen: It became special very early on. When David [Farr] first came on board, it immediately began to feel shockingly organic. We had very positive momentum every step of the way.
Simon: It worked really well. Hugh [Laurie] came on board really early, Tom [Hiddleston] followed rapidly after that and then Susanne [Bier] joined. Once we had a really good start to the script, an incredible cast and brilliant director, all the rest of it started to slot together. It was a long shoot in lots of countries and it was hot – that all sounds lovely, but at 46C in the middle of the night on your 14th hour, you feel it’s hard work.

Tom Hiddleston on set with Susanne Bier (far right)

How did Hugh and Tom become involved?
Simon: Hugh is genuinely passionate about the book. He tells a story that he and I met and he basically said he would do anything to be involved [he once tried to buy the rights to the book]. It’s a great story but it is actually true – that’s exactly what he said!
Stephen: It was almost like something he was compelled to be involved in. Originally he wanted to be Pine but then it migrated very organically to Roper. And then Tom was very close behind. Tom was a le Carré fan anyway and became a fan of both the script and the book. He really enjoyed the idea of being opposite Hugh. They are older and younger versions of each other in lots of ways so they were good for those two roles.

What did you see in Susanne that you felt would merge well with David’s scripts and your ambitions for the series?
Simon: Susanne’s storytelling is very much storytelling through character, through relationships, and The Night Manager – while it’s a great story and an important and relevant plot – is a very simple plot. Tom goes into the bad guy’s lair and brings him out – that’s basically the plot! But it’s on multiple levels with different relationships and that’s what Susanne uses to tell stories. She was exactly the right person to do it. She’d never done television before and she was unsure about doing television as an Oscar-winning filmmaker [she won an Oscar in 2011 for In a Better World]. But very quickly she approached it as if films are short stories, while this was a novel.
Stephen: She’s a phenomenal director of camera, she has a very distinct authorship and there was something incredibly dynamic about the way she directed. At the same time, there is a female voice in there that is really interesting. Le Carré’s worlds are traditionally quite male, with men talking in rooms to one another, and she really elevated the love story and relationship components and female characters. The whole emotional level rose in a very accessible way so you really connected with those characters in a really compelling way that, for a thriller, is a really unusual thing. That was part of the magic of The Night Manager – it had this character engagement.

The main cast from left: Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Laurie
The main cast, from left: Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Laurie

Olivia Colman’s intelligence officer Angela Burr is a man in the book. Why did you decide to change the character?
Stephen: It was an interesting evolution. It really emerged after that first hour had been written and when we began speaking to US broadcasters. In those conversations as we pitched the story, we had the early drafts of the script and it suddenly became apparent Burr could be a woman and that it would be really interesting and add another female voice to the show. Olivia was ideal vision of that. By the middle of the series, she’s really the emotional heart of the story – and when she gives that speech about Roper’s involvement in chemical attacks in Iraq, she’s the soul and the conscience of the piece.

Was there one piece of the shoot that you’re most proud of, or that was most challenging?
Simon: The explosions – you only get to do them once! We had a wonderful special-effects guy, Pau Costa, and he realised we had enough space to do something that was quite big and he went for it. It’s really good. You can do amazing things digitally, but actually doing it gives you a real sense of it and it’s very dramatic. People will be surprised by the amount of fire and brimstone that was real. Yes, we did bits of digital duplication to beef it up. When we blew up a row of trucks at the end, we only really blew up one truck – but we really did blow it up and then we duplicated the explosion. It was all real. We had six or eight cameras covering it, a couple of which burned up in the explosion! There’s one great shot in there from a camera that burned up that we still managed to get from the memory stick. Other big undertakings for us were building Roper’s camp, which was shot in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and Roper’s lair [filmed in Mallorca] was just stunning. Some of the choreography that went into the series when you have to time people getting up from the dinner table and walking around with a helicopter flying overhead, it just shows the logistics of managing a shot like that. Like a lot of Suzanne’s directing, it looks incredibly fluid and organic and then you actually think about those shots as a piece of choreography and they’re incredibly complicated. It’s virtuoso directing in the truest sense.

How do you now hope to follow the success of The Night Manager?
Simon: For us, doing big TV has been fabulous at every level, whether it’s attracting great storytellers, great writers, amazing directors and actors… We have major film stars coming to us saying they want to be in the next TV show we do. And lots of film stars are thinking that way [about TV] too. Tom had done TV before but not for a long while, and he found it truly fulfilling to round out a character across a six-hour format. Essentially it’s a six-hour film. There were days we were shooting scenes from four episodes so it was absolutely constructed like a film. It was a military operation going from place to place – you couldn’t shoot in Mallorca and then pop back to Switzerland, as much fun as that would have been!
Stephen: What’s happening in television is a very exciting convergence of possibility and audience. It works enormously well to tell a certain kind of story; there is no prohibition. I don’t see a division of mediums [between film and television], it’s longer-form narrative and it’s a different way of telling stories. Cinema has a totally different experience. A really interesting question now that television is so strong is: what defines cinema? If we can figure out what pure cinema is, there’s a lot of potential, but how do you justify bringing people together in a shared collective experience and make that unique?

How do you choose the writers you work with, and are you looking to work with new writers?
Stephen: David Farr, who is a phenomenal writer, had done Spooks, Hanna, lots of theatre, and was someone we really wanted to work with and had spoken to before about other things.
Simon: We work on both sides of the Atlantic and there’s a desperate shortage of great writing on each – no news there. But in the US, there’s a deeper pool, without question. In the UK, we are working now with a pretty good range of writers including Simon Beaufoy, Sir Ronald Harwood and Bill Moynihan. There are Oscar-winning screenwriters at one end and, at the other, we’re now working with a couple of very smart younger writers. We have a responsibility to work with younger writers and find the right projects to bring them on. Also, if you give younger writers very strong IP to work with, just in terms of taking that to broadcasters, it works well.
Stephen: There’s a relatively small group of established brilliant writers in the UK. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of them. We’re trying to find emerging talent below them and if we can enable and work with them, it speaks to the future. With acting talent, there’s now really no division between television and film writing. There’s barely a top US writer who isn’t interested in writing in longer form. You can talk to anyone about anything and one of the lucky things about the le Carré IP is that it’s introduced us to a lot of people at a high level and we get access to a lot of interesting talent, and that’s only building. We want to use those relationships in really interesting ways.

What are the challenges facing the drama industry?
Simon: We need to be more international in outlook. That’s partly about producers being more international, but also broadcasters. International coproductions are great for broadcasters because essentially you can pay for a fraction of the budget and get something that’s really quite big. But it means you have to be ready to work with international partners. It means the UK isn’t always the centre of the world, and sometimes that’s a bit of a mind shift.
Stephen: Obviously it’s a time of extraordinary possibility, which is very exciting. The flip side of that is a lot of people are rushing into that space and there’s a lot of drama being made – a lot of excellent drama. A lot of things are very good right now so the interesting challenge is how to take those opportunities and do something exceptional enough to be noticed. It’s a very high bar, you’re pushing towards excellence.

How will storytelling change in the future?
Simon: One of the strengths of The Night Manager, although it’s modern and contemporary in lots of ways, is that it’s actually a very traditional piece of storytelling. It was our first piece and quite a voyage of discovery. Having known how big it would have been, we would have done more additional content.
Stephen: We see ourselves as a storytelling company, so we have to be excited and interested about where narrative is going. Contrary to the ‘miserablists,’ we feel there’s a more engaged, literate, exciting audience in the future and it’s getting smarter, more global and more diverse. How you tell stories that remain relevant for that audience within the context of new media is really exciting. That’s where the future sits, and you constantly need to be thinking about it.

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