DQ gets on board with Wreck creator Ryan J Brown to talk about the success of his cruise ship-set comedy-slasher, his plans for season two and how villain Quacky Duck became a genre icon.
While Ryan J Brown might lament the number of critics who only reviewed early episodes of his comedy-horror series Wreck, there’s a part of him that’s pleased the secrets of the series have only been revealed to those who watched until the end.
That’s because a major “gear switch” in the final third of the BBC Three show means that what starts out as an epic slasher-at-sea thriller doesn’t end in the way you might expect.
Set aboard The Sacramentum cruise ship, the story follows 20-year-old new recruit Jamie as he attempts to infiltrate the crew in a bid to uncover the truth about what happened to his missing sister, who vanished from the liner on a previous voyage. But as he mixes with theatre kids, the mafia and low-paid workers below deck amid an odyssey of partying and excess, they all remain oblivious to the fact a bloodthirsty murderer is dispatching people on board.
To reveal much more would be to spoil the shocks and surprises that lie in wait, so it’s safe only to say that the action is set to shift to dry land in the upcoming second season as Jamie seeks to expose the secrets of the sinister Valorum corporation after the events on board The Sacramentum.
When DQ catches up with Brown, he’s in the final stages of writing the last two episodes of the new six-part run, with filming set to begin in Belfast in April. Director Chris Baugh returns, while Ellie Kendrick is also penning an episode.
“There’s a lot of the same cast, but lots of new characters as well,” says Brown. “I suppose a hazard of the job is that people die. I can definitely say that in season two, there’s more death in the first episode than the entirety of season one. I wanted to come back with a bang.
“We are super keen that character and story come first – that’s sometimes where horror can lose its way. Some audiences just want to watch people drop dead non-stop in the craziest, unimaginable ways. But to sustain something for TV, you need a lot more going on than that. For season one I was like, ‘Let’s set up [the world] and then in season two have a lot more blood spill because we’ve firmly established the characters.’ I’m keeping to my word – there’s a lot of death in every episode.”
While season one, which launched in October, blended the show’s slasher foundations with a dollop of mystery, Brown says season two will lean more into folk horror. A third season already in the works will take another step across the genre.
“In general, season two is the same characters we love but it’s quite a different beast in terms of where the horror’s coming from and the location,” he says. “The conspiracy broadens as well. It’s definitely darker, broodier, but still silly in parts and really warm. We’re trying to keep that balance as well.”
The road to Wreck – Brown’s first original series – has been long for the writer, beginning before the pandemic. That the BBC handed him an early recommission means his focus has been on the series for the past four years as he sought to bring horror to British television, with Brown feeling the genre is often ignored or sidelined on the small screen.
“In the UK, TV and horror have a very strange relationship,” he says. “Commissioners are weird about it. They’re very nervous about it, and that to me has never made sense because, if you look at the box office right now, horror is the guaranteed bet, consistently keeping cinema afloat.
“When we do get horror [on TV], either it’s a slow-burn gothic period drama or a slightly ambiguous contemporary series that never fully commits to horror. I don’t think we’ve ever had a slasher before, so it’s really nice to have a stab at that – pun fully intended – and try something a little different.”
Brown admits season one’s big reveal was a huge risk for the BBC to take, but it was always his intention to start the series by skewing the cruise industry through a murder mystery before changing tack.
“The cruise ship was what led it, because for horror to really leap off the page, you have to ground it in as much truth as possible, even if it’s as madcap as Wreck,” he says. “There are all these very strange things that happen on cruise liners and I wanted to get as much in there as possible, like every cruise ship has a mortuary. That in of itself is quite bizarre but allows for horror scenarios.”
Although he has been developing other projects, Brown admits he sometimes felt the effects of imposter syndrome as his peers collected credits working on other shows while his first ones came on his own series – something he describes as a baptism of fire.
He later worked with Joe Barton on Netflix drama The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself, but says jumping straight into television with his first commission was a “crazy” experience.
“The pressure was a lot but it was great. At one point I had 10 projects I’d sold or were in active development, and Wreck was always the one I thought would never happen, but it ended up being the one that did go first. It’s always the one you least expect,” he says.
“I just hope I can continue to tell strange stories. I’m going to keep pursuing the strange, because clearly the audience is there for it.”
Notably, it’s not just horror Brown is interested in but queer horror – both Jamie (Oscar Kennedy) and his colleague Vivian (Thaddea Graham) join The Sacramentum without telling their families they are gay. The writer has been delighted by the reaction to Wreck from the LGBT community in particular, as he wanted to create discussion around queer themes in the genre.
“Horror as a genre, it’s roots are queer and it always has been a queer thing,” he says. “That’s changed over the years and it’s become a toxic space in some ways. It’s been really nice exploring horror as a queer-friendly space again and making it a bit more inclusive, with equal-opportunity deaths.
“It’s really nice having people relate to these characters in this really heightened, crazy world and being able to see queer heroes in stories that aren’t about queer trauma, which tends to be what we get. Monogamy, coming out or AIDs – it’s one of the three.
“Those stories are so important and need to be told, but we need other stories where a character’s queerness is just part and parcel of them; it makes them who they are and equips them for the danger of a horror series, but it’s not leading the story. That’s something I’m happy with and want to continue with. They always say the sequel is gayer, so season two will definitely keep that up.”
Brown says a lot of work went into numerous drafts of the initial pilot script and the series bible before the BBC gave him the green light, by which time he had already mapped out the first season, so the remaining scripts flowed from there in the short time he had to finish them. What surprised him most, however, was how much the Beeb let him do what he wanted, which, in a horror show, meant sequences featuring eye gouging and a character taking a chainsaw to the head made the cut.
“I thought we’d have problems and there would be a lot of rewriting, but actually it was fine, which made me take things further, just to see what would happen,” he says. “They never once vetoed anything. It all happened very quickly, we didn’t have long, and within five months we’d written the whole thing.”
Finding the balance of comedy and horror also proved tricky, particularly when both can be so subjective in the eyes of the audience. “Knowing that you’ll never be everyone’s cup of tea just because of that fact and not worrying about it, that’s something I really learned from season one and two,” he adds.
But coming to season two, which is due to launch later this year, he found he knew his characters so well that they would automatically take him in new directions, despite Brown having a rough structure of the story he wanted to tell. “It’s kind of weird, it’s like being a paranoid schizophrenic and having all their voices in my head,” he says. “I now know how they behave in situations, so I’ll throw a scenario in there and their responses to that are often quite surprising. I’ve just had the best time writing season two.”
Brown’s role has also been expanded for season two, as he joins production company Euston Films’ Noemi Spanos and director Baugh as an executive producer on the series, which is distributed by Fremantle and will air in the US on Hulu. But even on season one, he was involved in discussions about viewing figures and, most importantly, whether the show’s antagonist – the ship’s yellow-feathered mascot Quacky Duck – should be involved in the show’s marketing.
“The duck’s only in it for four minutes, so we were umming and ahhing a lot about whether to include him in the promos and, in the end, he was in there, and I love him,” Brown says. “He’s not in season two much, but he’s made such an impact.”
It’s not a spoiler to disclose that Quacky is revealed early on as the series’ knife-wielding villain – think Scream at sea with added giant duck costume – chasing one character across the ship’s deck during the opening prologue and smashing another victim’s face with a barbell later on. Brown always wanted the ‘killer’ to be the ship’s mascot, and knew it would be an animal, though he reveals Quacky was actually a porpoise in early drafts of the series.
“For a long time we decided there was no way that wasn’t going to be absolutely terrifying, whereas a duck could plausibly be a children’s character,” he says. “But even with the duck, there were a lot of iterations to make it semi-family friendly. The first few prototypes were really nightmarish. That embodies what the cruise industry is like – this shiny, artificial family friendly image but, underneath the surface, there’s something quite rotten. That’s what I wanted to do with Quacky Duck.”
Multiple costumes were created for Quacky, with various cast members required to wear them at different points in the story – but he was never intended to become the star of the show.
“Last year we were the second most watched BBC Three show behind Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends, and you just couldn’t get two more different shows,” Brown says. “I love that we’ve got like a very serious, emotive story and then we’ve got what everyone calls ‘The Killer Duck Show,’ which it isn’t. That’s not what it is. He was a device to hook people in, but he has become the stuff of legend.”