Tag Archives: Doom Patrol

Top of their game

Serial showrunners Greg Berlanti and Jed Mercurio talk about the creative processes behind some of their biggest hit series, including You and Bodyguard.

Greg Berlanti is the undisputed king of television producers. With 18 series on air or commissioned in the US in 2019, he is dominating the schedules – and streaming platforms – with shows such as DC Comics adaptations The Flash, Supergirl and Doom Patrol, crime drama Blindspot, stalker hit You (pictured above) and Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Berlanti recently spoke at Israeli television festival INTV, where he shared the stage with British showrunner Jed Mercurio, whose credits include BBC thrillers Bodyguard and Line of Duty, which concluded its fifth season last month.

Here, DQ recaps some of their conversation, which covers topics such as making a hit series, where projects come from, production challenges and surviving in the era of ‘Peak TV.’

Jed Mercurio

You can never tell if a show is going to be a hit
Jed Mercurio: In the first instance when you’re working on a show, all you can do is work on the show. You can’t think about how it’s going to perform because there are so many variables. The best thing you can do is not guess how it’s going to perform. I was obviously thrilled by how the show [Bodyguard] performed, but there are so many variables – what night it goes out, how well it’s been promoted, whether the premise captures the audience’s imagination, and we were incredibly fortunate that a lot of stuff aligned for us. After that, as the show got bigger week on week, it became surreal.
I’m used to that situation sometimes when the ratings come out and the phone doesn’t ring because the ratings are bad and no-one wants to tell me, so when they are good, people want to tell me, so my phone was ringing earlier and earlier in the morning.

Known for his superhero dramas, You marked a different direction for Berlanti
Greg Berlanti: I read the book You three or four years ago and sent it to [showrunner] Sara Gimble. I’d never done a thriller before, but given that this was a romantic story with the point of view of a stalker, I want to do it responsibly, with a female perspective. I couldn’t believe that I was so in this person’s head that I was actually kind of rooting for this relationship, the book was kind of a Rorschach test for our society and how invested we are in the relationships.

Greg Berlanti

We sold the show to Showtime, of all places. They wanted to make something that was slightly different from the book, and once they read the book they were really cool about saying you can take it somewhere else. Lifetime loved the book and the script and then we shot it and because of their launch cycle it sat in the can for a while, so it was two-and-a-half years old when they finally started to release it and it didn’t do very well. Very often in this business, the best thing you can be is an advocate, I just kept saying I really think people will enjoy the story as much as we enjoyed the book.
We were getting some [hype] but not as much as you would hope. You’ve got to be realistic and pragmatic, but at the same time it had been bought by Netflix for international distribution. By the time it had premiered in full on Lifetime, they knew they weren’t going to take it to season two, and Netflix swooped in and assured us they would do a second season. And then I started getting a flood of emails from people who knew the show had been on, and then I felt like people were really discovering the show.
I loved making the show, I love the team we put together. You want all your things to succeed. So many things I’ve done didn’t work, and it was nice that this one made the cut and survived long enough to get another chance at life; it makes me happy. Mostly you want to feel validated because you’ve been saying for so long that you really think this story should connect.

Mercurio viewed the BBC’s Bodyguard as a variation on a cop show

Bodyguard came from Mercurio’s desire to write a political series
Mercurio: Originally the idea was to do something within the political arena. The first conversations I had with the BBC was the fact they hadn’t had a political thriller for a good deal of time. I started to think about a way into that. And because of how much I like dynamic storytelling – I like real jeopardy – I didn’t want to do something about politicians rivalling for power. Once I’d worked on it a little more, I went back with the way into the story, which involved a protection officer. In the UK it’s a division of the Metropolitan Police in London who protect high-ranking politicians and diplomats, so I felt like it was a variant on a cop show, and beyond that it was about constructing the relationships, creating the tension between the bodyguard and the person he’s meant to protect and giving him a back story that potentially makes him unstable enough and vengeful enough to possibly be a threat to her.

But at the start of production, things weren’t quite going to plan
Mercurio: A couple of things happened to us that were actually quite damaging. We were all set to shoot the opening train sequence but at the end of business on the day before the shoot, they revoked the licence. [It was initially intended to be shot on a train leaving London’s Waterloo Station but permission was withrawn, leading the sequence to be shot on the Mid Norfolk Railway.] We ended up having a couple of days shutting down production. We had nothing to shoot, we had to reconceive that sequence. During shooting of the rest of the show I worked with the director on various concepts for how we would approach that when we got a suitable location. The only way we thought we could do it was not using a moving train so the whole sequence had to be rewritten, but the advantage was that we shot it at the end of the shoot. Richard Madden [who plays lead character Richard Budd] had spent months in character and felt great in character, so he wasn’t shooting it cold. We, as a unit, knew the series well, we could make decisions that were confident and well informed, which is essential when you’re up against the clock, and we were very fortunate that that particular bit of misfortune went in our favour.

Berlanti worked on DC Comics adaptations including Supergirl

Their motivation to work in multiple genres comes from the people they work with and the nature of what they want to watch on television themselves
Mercurio: For me, it’s making something that I would want to watch on TV. It’s that simple. If there’s an idea that I think, ‘I wouldn’t watch that show,’ I wouldn’t do it. Whatever it is that somehow sparks my interest is essential for two reasons. I need to be really excited by the idea, in order to spend the amount of time that I have to on it, and each season is up to two years of my life so you’ve really got to be very committed to the work. The other thing is making the assumption that if you like something, there have got to be people out there who will like it as well, and beyond that it’s trying to get an idea that has critical mass. When you start thinking about what happens at the beginning of the story is there enough of a chain reaction to take in all kinds of directions?
For the audience to connect with the premise in that first episode, they’ve got to sense that mass building, they’ve got to sense that can explode and carry them in any direction. They have to sense that something big is coming.

Berlanti: What’s allowed me to work in different genres is the people I’ve worked with. Most are experienced in different areas, but at the end of the day most of it comes down to character. What are you trying to say about that character? It can be an emotional fight two characters are having, or an action sequence. If that sequence isn’t revealing of character, it’s the first thing you can cut.

Mercurio’s Line of Duty season five came to an end in May

Despite the amount of competition television shows now face, if it’s good enough, people will see it
Berlanti: Having seen so much change since I started in the business in terms of what people think might be popular or sell, it might be naïve of me to think this, but I really believe it is just more and more about execution and how well that story is told. You want to make sure as much as possible that it’s as good as it can be, so that it can survive as the climate gets more competitive.

Mercurio: One of the things that has changed that maybe isn’t talked about so much is the relationship between viewers and the shows. As a nerdy kid who watched every episode of his favourite shows, and knew all the characters and all the actors, that was rare back then. Today, people can re-watch old seasons and it’s now justifying more intensive detail in writing, more layers in writing plots and, more importantly, it’s convinced executives [to be more ambitious]. In the past, they said it would be very episodic and simple, that people have one chance to grab it and if you don’t make it very clear to them you have a problem. Now there are opportunities where people are encouraging you to be ambitious and complex and respect the devotion of the audience.

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Doom’s day

The DC Universe streaming platform introduces a new band of superheroes in the form of Doom Patrol. April Bowlby, who plays Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, tells DQ about the ‘amazing’ experience of making the show.

Bringing a much-loved comic book character to the screen can be a daunting experience for any actor, not least when that character is part of a hugely popular group of superheroes, with fans who have been following them for more than 50 years.

That’s not been the case for April Bowlby, however, who says she has been warmly welcomed into the world of DC Comics and the on-screen DC Universe after signing up to star in Doom Patrol.

“I’m adjusting pretty well. It’s all very new to me and I have to say it’s a whole new world,” she says of the fandom connected to the comic book world. “I feel grateful to have that responsibility to represent a character that is enjoyed and has never been represented before. With that in my heart, it’s been a fabulous experience.”

Bowlby plays Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, in the 13-part series commissioned by DC’s fledgling SVoD platform DC Universe. Farr is a former actress who develops the power to stretch, shrink and grow after being exposed to a toxic gas, leading her to link up with the other members of Doom Patrol: Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Negative Man (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), with the team led by modern-day mad scientist Dr Niles Caulder, otherwise known as The Chief (Timothy Dalton).

Each of Doom Patrol’s members suffered horrible accidents that gave them superhuman abilities but also left them scarred and disfigured. Traumatised and downtrodden, the team finds purpose through The Chief, who brings them together to investigate the weirdest phenomena in existence and protect Earth from what they find.

The show’s origins can be traced back to 1963, when writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani brought the characters to life in issue 80 of My Greatest Adventure. But if there was any pressure in portraying the character, Bowlby is afforded some freedom by the fact this is the first time Elasti-Woman will be seen on screen.

“There are so many ways she could go. Luckily, I think the writers and the creators have found this beautiful balance of creative freedom and also following the [comic book writer] Grant Morrison version of the comics, which is dark and humorous. All the characters find themselves in crazy, wild and wacky situations, but they are all balanced with heart, kind of like the human condition. That’s the grounding of the show.

“To be able to play that and have it so beautifully written and honest from the heart but then to be in such strange circumstances is a real gift. And there’s nothing to follow – it’s all freeform and you can create anything you want. That’s why our show is so cool, because the stories are so wild, you do create anything you want. It’s a blessing.”

The series, which debuts on February 15, is set after the events of fellow DC Universe series Titans, picking up with these reluctant heroes after The Chief is kidnapped and they are called to action by Cyborg (Joivan Wade), who comes to them with a mission that is hard to refuse but with a warning that is hard to ignore: their lives will never be the same again.

“Throughout the season, they have to try and bring The Chief back. In each episode, you learn about a character and why they’re so broken and alienated from the world,” Bowlby explains. “Then they have to come to terms with their deepest, darkest fears – why do they function the way they do and how do they let that go so they can save the person they love? There’s this beautiful arc throughout the whole thing, and I think people can relate to that – I feel like we grow when we’re most uncomfortable, and that’s what this show is.”

Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, develops powers after being exposed to toxic gas

Doom Patrol is similar to many other superhero series in that it takes time to establish the backstory of each character and reveal how they acquired their unique abilities. Farr, Bowlby says, is a very sweet, incredibly beautiful actress who is admired by many until she is exposed to toxic gas that causes her skin to “blob out,” leading her to lock herself away from the world.

“She’s on a journey of accepting that wounded part of herself, the broken part no one wants to look at, and being like, ‘It’s OK if I have this darkness inside me – maybe we can make good of it,'” Bowlby continues. “But it’s quite a process. She resists it very much. She doesn’t want to be a superhero; she’s an antihero. She’s very selfish. She’s like, ‘I just want to stay home and eat.’ So there’s this nice evolution throughout where each character has to learn how to help and grow, which is a terribly difficult thing.”

Doom Patrol seeks to blend dark and mature themes with humour, dysfunction and the absurd, finding a balance between the broad appeal of the superhero genre with the personal conflicts affecting each of the characters. A stranger to the series until landing the part, Bowlby went back to the original 1960s comics before picking up the Morrison issues from the 1980s. “I read through those and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, this is crazy! This is dark and fun!’ Every time we get a script, it’s like, ‘What is happening?’ The characters ground it but the situations are so extreme and funky and weird. I don’t think there’s anything like it on TV.”

The members of Doom Patrol have already appeared in an episode of Titans, suitably named Doom Patrol, which doubled as a backdoor pilot for a standalone series. During her initial audition, Bowlby read for a character in Titans who didn’t even have a name at that stage. When she finally landed the part, her manager revealed she would be playing Elasti-Woman in both Titans and the Doom Patrol series.

Individual posters for the Doom Patrol characters

Bowlby is best known for starring in all six seasons of fantasy legal drama Drop Dead Diva, which aired on US cable network Lifetime between 2009 and 2014. She’s also appeared in sitcoms Two & a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.

Doom Patrol, however, was a “huge leap” for the actor. “I normally do comedy and this is the most dysfunctional, beautiful character I’ve ever played. She’s so broken but tries to cover it. She’s written so beautifully and she’s so layered. It’s been quite a process,” says Bowlby, who watched films such as The Star and Sunset Boulevard to help her capture Rita’s 1950s style. “She’s this broken, beautiful thing that hisses at the world when you try to touch her. I’ve never had so much fun!”

Filming has been “amazing,” she says, despite some 17-hour work days and the challenge of bringing five leading actors together. “But everyone has meshed so well,” the actor continues. “Everyone has a bit of their own character inside of them. It’s funny to watch because you see Diane, she is kind of Crazy Jane a little bit and I’m kind of Rita Farr. We have this joke where we’re kind of like The Breakfast Club – we are the adult, dysfunctional Breakfast Club. One of us is the brain, one of us is the princess, one of us is the basket case. I just fell in love with all these people.”

One notable challenge, aside from the make-up and special effects required to create Elasti-Woman, was an underwater scene filmed in a tank, which meant Bowlby had to work with scuba instructors to learn how to dive. “That was really cool. It’s just been a dream job,” she says. “What other job do you get to learn to scuba dive? It’s crazy. It’s been fantastic.”

Joining Titans on the DC Universe platform, Doom Patrol is part of the wider DC television landscape that features characters such as Supergirl, The Flash and Green Arrow, which appear in series on US network The CW. Like those dramas, the new show comes from Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros Television. Executive producers include Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Jeremy Carver and Sarah Schechter.

But what is it that drives the ongoing popularity of superheroes on the small screen? “I’ve been trying to figure that out because it’s all very new to me,” admits Bowlby, who says her own superpower of choice would be the ability to fly. “I think it’s a little bit of escapism. Also, every superhero is broken in a way, so there’s this relatability of being wounded in this life and then to actually have the power and the voice to speak up and change things. It really speaks to the human condition.

“Our show is so special because it is the antihero show. None of our characters want to do good with their powers. None of them want to own it, none of them want to be a part of it, except Cyborg. They’re very reluctant heroes. I think maybe people can relate to that a little bit. But there’s a magic in being able to suspend reality and imagine you could actually help people and save people.”

While entertainment and escapism are always essential factors in a superhero series, Bowlby says Doom Patrol also has a moral message at its heart. “I hope people take away that the show is about coming to terms with yourself and looking at yourself and loving your dysfunctional family and growing,” she adds. “Everyone can relate to that. Our show is also very much about loving the darkness within you.”

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