Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.
Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.
Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.
The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.
In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.
The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”
There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.
“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.
For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.
“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.
“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”
The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.
“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”
One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.
Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.
“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”
Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.
“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.
“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.
“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”
Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.
“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.
“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”
Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”
The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”
“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”
Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”
Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”
Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.
“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”
Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies lead a perilous journey into the frozen unknown in historical horror The Terror. The actors, director Edward Berger and co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh tell DQ about making the 10-part event series.
No one survived the Arctic expedition led by HMS Terror and HMS Erebus to chart the Northwest Passage, that much is certain. More than 100 men – officers and crew – died when their ships became ice-locked in the frozen waters, leaving them to fend for themselves in the inhospitable and unforgiving environment.
Inspired by this true story, and Dan Simmons’ book on the doomed exploratory voyage, US cable network AMC imagines those aboard the ships fighting for survival against the treacherous conditions, their fellow sailors and a mysterious predator in 10-part event series The Terror.
The drama stars Jared Harris (Mad Men) as Francis Crozier, captain of HMS Terror and second in command of the expedition behind Sir John Franklin (Game of Thrones’ Ciarán Hinds).
Tobias Menzies (Outlander) also stars as Captain James Fitzjames, with Paul Ready (Cuffs) as Dr Harry Goodsir, Adam Nagaitis (Suffragette) as Cornelius Hickey, Nive Nielsen (The New World) as Lady Silence, Ian Hart (Neverland) as Thomas Blanky and Trystan Gravelle (Mr Selfridge) as Henry Collins.
Filmed in Budapest, The Terror comes from co-showrunners David Kajganich (True Story, A Bigger Splash) and Soo Hugh (The Whispers, The Killing), who executive produce with Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Alexandra Milchan, Scott Lambert and Guymon Casady. The series is produced by Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360. AMC Studios is the distributor.
Kajganich had been “obsessed” by the real events behind the story and scored an advance copy of Simmons’ book, hoping to adapt it as a feature film. Looking back now, though, he admits it would have been “drastic” to cut so much from the story to ensure it fitted a two-hour running time.
“It’s such an amazing combination of character drama and genre, and you don’t get those projects very often,” he says. “Even in Hollywood, it’s rare a book this good and this spooky and wonderful and a weird mix of genres comes along. There are certainly things in the book that were unfilmmable but what we found is where there’s a will, there’s a way. Everything we wanted to shoot we found a way to do it. People came to this knowing it would exhaust them but it would be fun in the most enjoyable, aggressively creative way.”
But when the project crossed over to television, Kajganich knew he couldn’t do it on his own. “When I met Soo, I knew in 25 seconds this was the best I could hope for,” he says. Hugh jokes: “We got married knowing very little about one another but it worked. We missed the courtship.”
Working with four others in the writers room, they broke stories together and split up the episodes. But as present-day excavations uncovered more secrets about the fates of the Erebus and Terror, the scripts continued to evolve right up until they were committed to film. That meant the showrunners found themselves doing a lot of rewriting, long after the other writers had moved on to other projects.
Kajganich says: “We talked a lot about every character and when is the moment that they realised they’d stepped from a high adventure story into a horror movie. It’s different for every character and some characters never cross that line, either because they never see the world that way or they refuse to. And that speaks to the warmth of these people. They thought they were going to live, most of them until the very end. They brought with them their ingenuity, their humour, their humanity. We wanted those things to be more important than any plot demands of a horror show, so we wanted to make sure the characters were driving the genre elements of the show, that it didn’t get out of hand and start leading the characters around.
Hugh adds: “A lot of the horror elements, aside from the creature, are fact. We knew there was scurvy aboard, we knew there was at least some blood poisoning, we knew there was botchalism, so in terms of the horror foundations, it was all there. We didn’t have to make that stuff up, it’s real.”
Directing three episodes is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, Patrick Melrose), who says he was immediately fascinated by the script, which portrayed a world he knew nothing about.
“I read it and thought, ‘This is great. How in the hell do I do this?’” he admits. “I knew we would do everything in the studio and then to figure out how to make it was really difficult, challenging and scary.
“I remember in July 2016, we flew to Budapest and stood in this black-hole studio. This was where they were supposed to die and eat each other but there was nothing there. It’s just scary because you don’t know how it’s going to look.”
Meetings followed between his DOP Florian Hoffmeister, production designer Jonathan McKinstry and costume designer Annie Symons, after which Berger retreated to spend two months designing storyboards. Then when he returned to Budapest, the world of The Terror was starting to take shape.
“Suddenly there’s a ship in the studio and there’s ice all around it,” he says. “There’s 100 people sewing costumes and you suddenly realise it’s becoming a reality.”
Budapest is well regarded among filmmakers for its good crews, support system and tax breaks, but the location also held a special significance on The Terror, as it was also where executive producer Scott directed The Martian.
“The Martian is basically the same idea [as The Terror] – a guy on Mars, all shot in a studio, and we said OK, it worked for Mars, let’s do it for the Arctic,” says Berger, who describes Scott as the “godfather” of the series.
“He was the inspiration for a lot of things, starting with [1979 sci-fi classic] Alien. It’s a similar story to Alien – a movie that very much inspired this down to quotes or certain scenes. There’s a scene in the beginning where one of the sailors spits blood and so it’s a homage to Alien. So he’s the spiritual godfather for Dave, Soo and I for this in terms of story and script. But he was very hands off in production. He left us to it.”
The series, which airs outside the US in 28 territories on Amazon Prime Video, is presented with a desaturated, bluish look to heighten the sense of cold and loneliness felt by the sailors stranded in the Arctic. But early in filming during the Hungarian winter, relatively few effects were needed to portray the cold surroundings, owing to the frosty temperatures inside the studio.
“In the beginning it was freezing cold,” recalls Harris, who describes the crew as the “rock stars” of their day. “They saved themselves a lot of money because our breath was misting up as it would come out. Those ships looked amazing and each of the decks was its own separate set, on its own sound stage, and the ice stage looked amazing so it was exciting to be there. They would have shot in the Arctic if the cameras wouldn’t have frozen.
“We also had an understanding of the claustrophobia. You start to imagine they would have spent all this time in this one space, locked in the ice for a year-and-a-half but on board these ships for between five and seven years.
Menzies adds: “Often there was no acting needed because once you got a crew and all the actors in, it was absolutely jammed. And one of the things the creators of this show have done brilliantly is really evoking a lot of those details of what it was like to be close to each other, the physical realities. Imagine the smell! If we can take an audience some way into what that would have been like, it’s going to be a rich experience.”
That experience will be all the richer if viewers stick with the show through its entire run, with cast and crew highlighting the slow pace of the series, which focuses on the characters and their increasingly strained relationships as they come to terms with the perilous situation they find themselves in.
“The pacing of this show could not have existed five or 10 years ago, because we are standing on the shoulders of some great television that really has taught audiences to wait and you will be rewarded,” Hugh says. “The last three episodes, thankfully, AMC supported us so they’re longer than the traditional format and when you see them you’ll understand why. It’s a different experience. It almost feels like a standalone movie. It’s an epic.”
Menzies agrees. “I’m very excited by the slow-burn nature of what we’ve made,” he says. “It will reward attention and people staying in it – and I feel, story-wise, that reaches deeper places than if it’s too ‘surface’ and too quick and too cokey in its rhythms. But that’s the kind of storytelling I like so I tend to be drawn to those projects.”
Ultimately, Berger says The Terror is proof of what can happen when writers are allowed to dream. “What I learned from the American writing is almost anything you can imagine, anything you can write, you can also film,” he says. “Growing up in Germany, you’re limited in your resources. So these kinds of ideas you never dare to dream. You just shut them out of your mind. So that’s why when I read the first script I thought, ‘How am I going to do this? How do you shoot that?’ I’ve never read something like that in Germany. It’s not as liberated or free in terms of fantasy.”
Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.
On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.
The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.
The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.
“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.
“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.
“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”
In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.
“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.
“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”
Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.
“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’
“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.
Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.
“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”
FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.