On the run with Hanna
Eight years after the movie of the same name, Hanna reimagines the story of a young girl, raised in isolation by her mercenary father, who goes on the run from the agents attempting to take her down. DQ visits the set to see how this globe-trotting thriller came together for Amazon Prime Video.
In 2011, an all-star cast of Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana appeared in action-adventure thriller movie Hanna.With Ronan as the titular character, it centred on a girl raised in isolation by her father, who moulds her into the perfect assassin, leading her to be hunted down by a ruthless operative.
Eight years later, Hanna is returning to the screen. But rather than a blockbuster sequel or remake heading to cinemas, the story has been reimagined and expanded across eight hours of television as an original series for global streaming platform Amazon Prime Video, where it will launch on March 29.
Raised in total seclusion in remote Eastern European woodland, Hanna (played by newcomer Esme Creed-Miles) has spent all of her young life training to fight those who hunt her and her mercenary father, Erik Heller (Joel Kinnaman, Altered Carbon).
The series sees Hanna’s skills being put to the test when she and Erik are separated after being discovered by rogue CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos, Good Omens) and her team of agents. Now Hanna has no choice but to embark on a perilous journey alone across Europe as she seeks to reunite with her father and evade the dangerous agents who target them, while also confronting the physical and emotional consequences of her isolated upbringing.
From the start, Hanna – which had its world premiere at Berlinale earlier this week – is pitched very much as an origin story, as well as a partial retread of the feature film. The first episode opens 15 years in the past as Erik is seen snatching a baby from a hospital, with Marissa leading the charge for his capture. The story then picks up with Hanna as a teenager.
Naturally, the starting point for the project was the original film, which series creator and writer David Farr co-wrote with Seth Lochhead. But Farr admits he had never thought about adapting it for television until NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) executives Tom Coan and JoAnn Alfano approached him with the idea.
“It was a new thing then, this ‘television,’” he jokes. “But as soon as they said it, it was a great idea. The film didn’t end up covering something that was actually in the screenplay – and in my head – which was the whole idea of where Hanna had come from, who she was and what was behind her situation. In the end, the film was almost a fantasy about female revenge and empowerment of this young girl taking on this evil woman. It was hugely stylish, and Saoirse was amazing. But I could see a very different telling.”
As Farr explains, episode one charts a similar course to the film. But by episode two, Hanna enters fresh territory, and a whole new narrative is underway by the third instalment. “There’s an exploration of identity where you have a young woman who suddenly realises she doesn’t know who she is. You have this strong thriller narrative of people hunting her and trying to kill her, and this evokes the question of why – who am I and am I being told the truth? That can then evolve into an emotional and existential search for identity.”
The series also explores the emergence of a very odd nuclear family, comprising Hanna, Erik and Marissa, as they play out familiar family tensions inside a thriller where they all want to kill each other. “It’s that central idea of a girl trying to find out where her real family is, who she is, and that is a beautifully vulnerable and lovely story – and then you get an actress like Esme who is wonderful at playing vulnerability,” Farr notes. “It’s so captivating to watch someone genuinely not know who they are, someone who is lost. All teenagers are lost anyway. It reflects a universal experience, just in a very heightened way.”
While film remakes continue to be a big part of the television landscape, the Hanna movie presented the team at NBCUIS with an opportunity to take an existing property inside the Comcast-owned company’s vast library (the film was distributed by Comcast’s Focus Features) in a new direction. Notably, Coan felt that the fact the story takes place across multiple countries was reflective of the company itself, making him keen to push forward with the idea. Then when Farr came on board, “that’s when the project came alive,” Coan says. “It’s a great piece of IP, a wonderful concept, and then we got an amazing creator and visionary storyteller who was able to make it happen.”
Though the film was a wonderful starting point, “it wasn’t something we ever wanted to be entirely married to,” continues Coan, an executive producer on the series. “We’re not doing a strict remake of the film, we’re using it as inspiration. We’re using it as a foundation for telling our own story. IP is just an easy way to start the conversation.”
Farr and Coan are speaking to DQ in August during a break in filming as the production lands in the UK and enters its final fortnight. At this point, in scenes being filmed for episodes five and six, Hanna has broken free from her father’s grasp and made her way to England, where she is staying with Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), a friend she met in an earlier episode.
On this bright and sunny summer’s day, the crew has taken over a beautiful home in Bushey, on the outskirts of north-west London, which has been turned into Sophie’s home. Cameras, lights, monitors and dozens of rolls of cable fill the downstairs rooms while filming is taking place in the garden, where Sophie is discussing the mysterious Hanna with her friend Dan (Leo Flanagan).
In another scene filmed later on, Sophie is seemingly hesitant to let Hanna leave her house with a woman who claims she is Hanna’s mother, but the fact she is played by Enos suggests Marissa may have finally caught up with her target.
Farr says he wasn’t keen to remake the film as a series, or even write a sequel to the film, which can be “quite tricky.” But what did excite him was the opportunity to explore a new way of telling the story, with more time to dig into the characters and their backstories, though still confined within the idea of a girl coming out of a forest and not knowing who she is.
However, having adapted John le Carré novel The Night Manager for UK pubcaster the BBC and AMC in the US, the writer says reworking Hanna was “a very different experience.” He continues: “There’s way more invention in this. There was invention in The Night Manager – the second half was very different from the book – but somehow, because the characters were all there [for The Night Manager], this felt a lot more original.”
Coan describes Farr as a very fast writer, and while the latter concurs, he adds that there’s more to his process than just getting the words down. “I don’t write until I feel like I can write it really fast,” he explains. “For me, that’s the way to do it. I literally keep it in my head. I don’t tend to write down that many outlines. I hate writing beat sheets – to me they’re just deadening, awful things because once you’ve got them, you can’t get out of them, and then you’re just writing to them and it’s impossible. So what you have to have is enough in your head that you can feel it to the end. You have to know where the end is, otherwise you’re totally a mess, and that’s how you do it. And then I can write quite fast, which is really weird.”
The challenge, he says, is maintaining the tension that makes viewers watch to the end. And while Farr admits he “loathes” whodunnits, he also admires them for the way they keep viewers hooked until they discover the perpetrator of the crime. “I love thrillers because they have a little bit of that, there’s something we’re trying to find out, but the journey is an exploration of character as you do that, and that balance is the key,” he adds.
During writing, Farr held a weeklong story conference with Mika Watkins and Ingeborg Topsøe, where the story was broken and episode outlines were penned. Topsøe wrote episode five, while Watkins had also been in line to write scripts until she became showrunner of her own series, YouTube’s space horror Origin. That meant Farr ended up writing the other seven.
“One of the things we wanted to do, which we also did with directors and DOPs, was bring many more women into the world. So we had two female directors and we were going to have two female writers,” Farr says. “Once Mika had done the conference, it felt weird to bring someone else in, so in the end we decided to keep it simple.”
Overseen by lead director Sarah Adina Smith (Legion, Room 104), who helmed episodes one and two, others behind the camera include Anders Engström, Jon Jones and Amy Neil, who were able to inject their own style into their particular episodes owing to the fact they were largely filming in different locations from one another. And while Hanna the movie is heightened and even surreal in parts, the series is a more realistic and grounded thriller, according to producer Hugh Warren (Hard Sun, Thirteen). That in part is down to Smith, whose independent filmmaking background has helped shape the show’s style and tone.
Filming locations have included Morocco, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary and the UK, while Hungary also doubled for scenes set in Poland and Romania. Some small sets were built, including the cave that Hanna initially calls home, while one scene involved filming inside a lively souk in north Morocco. “That was quite hairy. We had to go guerrilla style to film,” Warren jokes.
“The story moves around. That would have been very difficult to do in the old world, and it’s still a challenge. It becomes a more complex machine and becomes about making maximum use of the budget, with decisions about production often made on that basis. One of the reasons we were in Budapest for so long is there are great tax breaks there. It’s great for us as there are areas that double for Berlin, Paris, Romania. We shot a lot of different countries in Budapest and the surrounding countryside.”
Thunderstorms in Hungary, heatwaves in Morocco and sub-zero temperatures in Slovakia meant filming conditions were rarely comfortable, while technical challenges included a hefty amount of stunt work. The script placed Creed-Miles in a number of action and fight sequences, requiring the young actor to complete a pre-shoot training programme to convincingly pull off Hanna’s moves. “She really wanted to do a lot herself,” Warren says of the show’s star. “There were days when I went to set and assumed it was the double doing these runs, and then saw it was Esme.”
As well as reuniting The Killing stars Enos and Kinnaman, the casting process saw more than 500 candidates audition for the lead role, including actors from the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. But once London-born Miles-Creed had stepped up, “there was no second choice,” says executive producer Andrew Woodhead, MD of Working Title Television, which is producing with NBCUIS. “She’s a star. She’s just got that thing.”
Coan recalls: “In the audition, we gave them two scenes to read and they got to choose the third scene. The third scene Esme chose was from the first episode, where Hanna is at the dining table with Erik and he’s drilling her on different languages. It’s not an easy scene, involving German, French and Russian, but she delivered it perfectly. Then she would go back into this entirely concocted accent she created on her own. She is this character, she’s able to fully embrace this character.”
Though Hanna’s growth and the thrilling chase led by the CIA to capture her are at the centre of the plot, themes of family run strong. It’s “not just a thriller, there’s a metaphor for family life and her coming of age,” says Warren. “I did a show called Thirteen [a BBC kidnap drama] and this reminded me of that in that she’s effectively being held captive all her life in the woods with no experience of the world. This follows that journey of her discovering the world and other people, finding herself as a teenager. So there’s a whole coming-of-age and family side you wouldn’t find in most thrillers.”
One point the executives repeat several times is the scope and breadth stories can now have on television, particularly with a partner like Amazon on board. While films may only present a snapshot of a particular issue, this can be expanded several times on the small screen.
Coan says that what makes Hanna work as a multi-territory production for a worldwide streaming service is that its story lends itself to such global ambitions. “Because the story moves between all these different places and lives in Europe, it isn’t one thing. It’s not a British show, an American show or a German show, it’s a global show,” he concludes.
“All those different points of view and ways of thinking were valid. It’s a global narrative produced in a global way. If you were trying to tell a specific story and had input from afar, it might not be as well received or there might be more conflict. But there was a wonderful synergy of everyone coming together.”