More than a decade after Alex Rider first appeared on the big screen in Stormbreaker, the teen spy is transitioning to television in a series named after the character.
Created by author Anthony Horowitz, the eight-part drama is based on the second Alex Rider novel, Point Blanc, and sees Alex discover his late uncle was a spy who had been secretly training him his whole life. Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps, where he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school.
In this DQTV interview, Horowitz and Jill Green, CEO of Eleventh Hour Films, recall the unique genesis of the project, which was fully financed by Sony Pictures Television before a broadcaster had come on board.
The husband-and-wife team also talk about how the series blends action and adventure with a coming-of-age story, and why Horowitz didn’t want to adapt his own novels, with Guy Burt (The Bletchley Circle) stepping in to write the scripts.
Alex Rider is produced by Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television, which also distributes the series.
Buyers include Amazon Prime Video (UK), Viaplay (Sweden, Denmark and Norway), Movistar+ (Spain), Kinopoisk HD (Russia), Nova (Greece), DSmart (Turkey), StarzPlay across the Middle East and North Africa, Showmax across sub-Saharan Africa, TVNZ (New Zealand), Sony Liv (India), Korea Telecom (South Korea) and U-Next (Japan). Sony-owned AXN will broadcast Alex Rider in multiple European territories, including Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Anthony Horowitz’s teen super spy Alex Rider is coming to television in an eight-part series drawn from the writer’s hit novel series. DQ went back to school to visit the set.
In a hazy, smoke-filled school corridor, a blond-haired teenager is hurtling down a passageway. Shadows dance on the dimly lit walls as he charges along, his jacket lifting behind him, while a camera positioned on a moving platform captures him in full flight.
It’s not clear what he’s running from – or to – but the arrival on set of a group of ‘agents’ carrying guns suggest this isn’t your average school day. But then, since he was recruited by a shadowy government agency to work as a spy, no day has quite been the same in the life of Alex Rider.
Fifteen years after Anthony Horowitz’s literary character made the leap to the big screen in 2006’s Stormbreaker, Alex Rider will land on the small screen in an eight-part adventure of the same name produced by Eleventh Hour Films (EHF) and Sony Pictures Television (SPT).
Taking its lead from Horowitz’s second Rider novel, Point Blanc, the series sees the teenager learn that his recently deceased uncle, who unbeknown to him was a secret agent, had been surreptitiously training him his whole life to follow in his footsteps.
Then when clandestine MI6 offshoot The Department calls Alex up, the reluctant spy is sent undercover to the Point Blanc Academy, deep in the French Alps. Here he must uncover the sinister truth behind this exclusive boarding school, which is home to the troubled children of parents who run successful global businesses.
Otto Farrant stars as Rider, with Brenock O’Connor as his best friend Tom. At The Department, Stephen Dillane plays Alan Blunt, while Vicky McClure is his second-in-command, Mrs Jones, and Ace Bhatti is John Crawley.
Unusually, the series has been financed and produced without a commissioning broadcaster, with distributor SPT now shopping the coming-of-age drama worldwide for a 2020 broadcast. Horowitz previously partnered with EHF – where his wife, Jill Green, is CEO – on crime dramas Foyle’s War and New Blood, and exec producer Eve Gutierrez says she had been tracking the availability of his Alex Rider novels for some time.
“The world has changed so much since Stormbreaker that we realised there is now this huge TV landscape opening up and a desire for things that are more ambitious,” Gutierrez explains on the school set where Alex and Tom both attend lessons.
“That coincided with the rights situation clarifying itself and us being able to then start conversations more seriously with Anthony about what we might do with it and how it might evolve for the screen.”
As well as admiring the books’ story of an ordinary person becoming a hero, Gutierrez noted the popularity of series such as Stranger Things, in which children and teenagers are forced into adult situations, and saw an opportunity to bring the young spy to TV.
Whereas the books are predominantly aimed at a young-adult audience, however, writer Guy Burt has endeavoured to broaden Alex Rider’s appeal to viewers beyond that demographic. To emphasise the point that this isn’t a kids’ series, Austrian director Andreas Prochaska (Das Boot) was brought in to lead the show’s visual style alongside second-block director Christopher Smith.
“The books are written very much from Alex’s point of view, while the other characters are very peripheral in his world,” Gutierrez notes.
“So we have opened up all the other characters that exist in his world, particularly the characters who work at The Department, played by Vicky and Stephen, and also Jack, the girl who shares Alex and his uncle’s home and was a nanny when she originally joined them. She’s more a housekeeper to them now and provides a 20-something point of view of the world.”
The intensive six-month shoot began in March 2019 on location in the Romanian mountains, which doubled for the French Alps and the location of the Point Blanc academy.
The site was so remote that cast and crew had to use skidoos to reach the set, while the first few weeks of shooting involved several action-packed stunts, including a sequence from the book where Alex snowboards down the mountain on an ironing board.
“I was seriously intimidated by the prospect of bringing this sequence to life in Romania, a country I’d never shot in before,” admits series producer Matt Chaplin. “This iconic sequence was first up in the entire shoot, the first thing Otto had to do.
“We very quickly identified Romania as the place to do it. They have a film-friendly infrastructure, the right climate and topography, and had the right location to use as the basis for Point Blanc, which we are enhancing with effects.
“Then we set about figuring out how we would get 100 people up to the top of the mountain, shoot safely and then get them down again. The Romanian people we were working with were just brilliant. I’d go back there in a heartbeat.”
Filming then resumed in London for five months, in locations including Bermondsey, Crouch End, the South Bank and the Shard. Hornsey Town Hall was used for interiors of Point Blanc.
To find the right actor to play Alex, the production team embarked on an extensive search across the UK, scouring schools, drama groups and theatre schools. All the leading candidates were seen at least twice by the casting team, with the role open to candidates from anywhere and of any ethnicity. “We even had a girl turn up to the open casting demanding to know why Alex Rider couldn’t be a girl,” says Chaplin. “It’s a valid question.”
Eventually, Farrant (Mrs Wilson, The White Queen) was selected for the role, with the producers convinced he could convey the emotional depth required to take Alex from an ordinary boy to an extraordinary hero across the series.
Speaking during a break in production, Farrant describes a vigorous week filming stunts at the West London school location for the climactic eighth episode. A demanding training regime before shooting started, incorporating running, Tae Kwon-do and Israeli martial art Krav Maga, has kept him in good stead for the gruelling schedule.
“It’s been a real test of endurance,” Farrant admits. “It’s a big job; it’s not something I’ve done before so it’s been really useful to take that [training] experience and put that into the work. I hope that reflects on screen.”
Farrant puts Alex’s literary popularity down to his relatability. “He’s a normal kid – he goes to parties, he has trouble with girls. He’s just a typical teenager,” he says.
“Then you throw in this world of espionage he has to navigate and he’s out of his depth. He really has to dig deep to essentially save the world. That is such a cool and epic story. I don’t think we’re telling a story of someone who has it easy, we’re telling a story of someone who really has to fight to save himself and save his friends.”
Part of Farrant’s task has been the aforementioned emotional journey, as Alex confronts the loss of his uncle, as well as lying to his friends and seeing his two worlds collide. “So you do see the struggle he goes through as a kid, becoming a man throughout all this turmoil,” he continues.
“He has to dig deep to find out who he is and how he fits into this world and the world of spies. He has to readjust throughout the series. That’s why it’s interesting to watch.”
British Olympic snowboarder Billy Morgan doubled for Farrant in some of the iron-boarding scenes, though the actor says he has tried to do as many stunts as the production team would let him. However, insurance practicalities prevented him from later joining Morgan on the slopes.
“I’m happy to do them and I love doing them. It’s a welcome relief from some of the more intense emotional sides of the character,” Farrant explains. “It’s actually quite cathartic doing those stunts. Mostly, I’ve done my own stunts bar some big hits and the snowboarding, because there’s some big hits in the snowboarding. Those guys were insane!”
Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend Tom has been given a beefed-up role in comparison to the books, where he doesn’t feature until further down the line. “There wasn’t a great deal on the page, so one of Guy’s fantastic contributions to this is that Tom is essentially his character,” says Gutierrez. “The relationship between Tom and Alex is one of my favourite things in the show.”
Tom is one of the few people to know about Alex’s double life, providing someone to whom the title character can reveal his worries about his covert activities.
“He’s definitely there to support Alex going through whatever it is he’s going through,” says O’Connor, best known for playing Olly in Game of Thrones. “From a human standpoint, Tom’s best mate loses an uncle very early on in the story. If your best mate at 16 loses his parental guardian, it’s a horrendous trauma, so that’s what Tom’s role is in the early part, to be the support to that, and then there happens to be some spy stuff along the way.”
It’s not all deep and meaningful, however. “For the first couple of episodes, all I do is pop up occasionally, say something sarcastic and then disappear again,” he jokes.
“It’s been such an easy ride for me. It gets messy – you don’t get to be friends with a super spy and get away with it. But I really love Tom, he’s exactly like I was at 16. He thinks he’s cool as hell and really isn’t. Tom’s very relatable to me; there’s very little acting required.”
The other person to learn about Alex’s secret spy games is Jack Starbright, played by Ronke Adekoluejo (Been So Long). Arriving in the UK from the US to study, she becomes a housekeeper in the Rider household, growing up alongside Alex.
In the beginning, Alex lies to Jack about his new role, struggling with the deception that comes with his secret life. She puts their changing relationship down to his growing pains as a teenager, until she learns there’s something bigger behind it.
“Obviously, discovering he’s a spy is a bit much to handle,” Adekoluejo says. “It doesn’t quite make sense. There was a child before and now there’s a spy. She definitely doesn’t approve. It’s a very dangerous profession!”
Keeping her role in the series quiet proved to be her own secret mission, particularly when she began borrowing the novels from her younger brother. But Adekoluejo says his excitement, and that of her younger, female cousins, means she is now even more thrilled to be a part of the show.
“We all have the desire to be the best version of ourselves and to save the day, whether it’s our own day, our family day or the world,” she says of the reasons for title character’s popularity. “So because Alex is so ordinary and very much a representation of us in our day-to-day lives, when you see him go on to become a super spy and save all these people, even though you might not admit it, you think you could do it too.”
With a dozen Alex Rider novels to draw from – the 13th will be published in 2020 – Gutierrez says there’s hope the series can run for several seasons. And as superhero films and series continue to dominate the screen, there’s something refreshing about watching Alex Rider save the world. “It’s so normal,” O’Connor adds.
“He’s just a normal kid in a normal school – and then he fights a supervillain!”
Have you met Mrs Jones? Best known for starring roles in Shane Meadows’ gritty This is England franchise and Jed Mercurio’s hard-hitting police corruption series Line of Duty, Vicky McClure doesn’t often get to introduce younger members of her family to her work.
So when the opportunity to star in Alex Rider came along, she immediately sought the advice of her 11-year-old nephew.
“I wasn’t familiar with the books, just because I’m not the demographic to have read them. But I asked my nephew and he knew exactly what they were,” McClure tells DQ on set, her hair in rollers ahead of the day’s shoot. “He’s been on a school trip while I’m shooting this where the theme was Alex Rider, so he was a big reason for doing this. I don’t think he’s really ever been able to watch anything I’m in because the majority of what I do is fairly dark. And the success of the books and the writers and the involvement of everyone in it – it seemed really exciting.”
McClure plays Mrs Jones, second-in-command of The Department, the shady organisation that recruits Alex. The actor describes her character as “very headstrong and probably slightly frustrated with certain decisions that get made.” Her relationship with Alex, however, is less business and more personal, with Mrs Jones adopting a nurturing role towards the teen spy.
“She does have this concern for him,” McClure says. “If it was an adult they were putting in that position, I don’t think she’d feel quite the same, but there’s a history there as to why she’s concerned for Alex’s welfare. He’s a child and he’s being put into situations and scenarios that are really dangerous, and part of the reason he’s in those positions is because of her part in The Department. There’s that element of responsibility.”
McClure says she always likes to push her characters’ hairstyles and costumes to the extreme, hence the rollers, so that she can change her appearance between series while remaining believable.
“[Line of Duty’s] Kate Fleming has got quite a distinct look, Lol [in This is England] has quite a distinct look, and it was the same for my character in [fact-based single drama] Mother’s Day,” she explains. “All these different roles I’ve done all have quite distinctive looks, so I’m always up for making sure there’s something to play with. Mrs Jones is very suited so I’m in predominantly in suits, which is fine by me.”
But why does she think Anthony Horowitz’s young hero appeals to so many readers, particularly youngsters? McClure points to the chance to escape reality within the pages of the novels, which also offer adventure, excitement and some humour.
“The scripts and the writing are brilliant – it’s a page-turner – and you could see there’s something we can all play with,” she says. “It doesn’t have to have blood and guts everywhere to make it exciting. It can still be exciting without those elements in it, so it’s quite safe but, in the same breath, there is violence, there are fights. There’s a lot at stake.”
While some say young people are no longer watching TV, the global success of series like Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars has turned that theory on its head. DQ explores how series are driving youth audiences back to the box.
Attracting elusive youth audiences has always been high on the TV industry’s to-do list. But as more and more youngsters turn their backs on traditional forms of viewing, the debate around how to win their attention has intensified.
Indeed, you very quickly get a sense of how serious the issue has become when you realise that Channel 4 in the UK – long regarded as a radical, alternative network – has an average viewer age of 55. In the US, The CW, AMC and FX all average 40-plus, despite being home to cross-generational favourites like The Flash, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story respectively.
From the perspective of scripted content, the first obvious question is whether TV drama can play a role in pulling young audiences back in the direction of traditional viewing platforms.
George Ormond, co-founder of indie producer The Forge and executive producer of C4’s school-set drama Ackley Bridge, believes so: “With Ackley Bridge, we set out to make a show that would attract a broad, multigenerational audience but would also bring the younger audience that is so hard to attract to linear TV.
“We did well on both counts. The show has lots of young fans that connected with it, but also the broader audience.”
Ackley Bridge is set in a multicultural school in Yorkshire, explains Ormond: “This felt like a great world to set a show in; contemporary, muscular, and unexplored on television. We wanted to make a show that would smack you between the eyes with surprising, untold stories that feel very modern.”
Key to ensuring younger audiences bought into the show was getting the right tone of voice, he adds. “We knew the show needed to offer something original: a strong premise and surprising, engaging and addictive stories that are outrageous and contemporary but unpatronising. It is sometimes provocative, always irreverent, never worthy. And it has heart.”
Another show that attempts to appeal to the youth demo as part of a broader audience is You Me Her, a romantic comedy that debuted on AT&T’s Audience Network in 2016 and has been renewed for a third season. In this case, the story revolves around Jack and Emma, a married, 30-something couple whose love for each other is being undermined by their fading sex life. To reinvigorate their relationship, they hire Izzy, a 25-year-old college student and part-time escort. The three develop romantic feelings for each other – creating the unfamiliar (for TV) dynamic of a polyamorous relationship.
Creator John Scott Shepherd says the life-stage difference between the older couple and Izzy gives the show “an interesting, schizophrenic feel,” adding: “It allows us to explore issues around relationship choices but also to see the world from Izzy’s younger perspective. She lives downtown and shares an apartment with her friend Nina. So the show is recognisable as a romcom but also appeals to a younger, progressive audience because it deals with sexuality and romance in a fluid way.”
You Me Her, which airs on Netflix outside the US, has built up a strong following on social media – which Shepherd believes is to do with the show’s authentic tone. “It fits with the younger generation’s belief that you should follow your bliss. It’s OK to live how you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”
While Ackley Bridge and You Me Her are examples of shows that are bringing down the average age of cross-demographic networks, many broadcasters choose to position youth dramas on channels specifically targeted at a younger audience. The classic example of this is Skins, an exuberant drama that ran for seven seasons from 2007 to 2013 on C4’s youth channel E4. But a more recent example is Clique, commissioned for the BBC’s online youth channel BBC3 and made by Skins producer Balloon Entertainment.
Balloon head of development Dave Evans says show creator Jess Brittain “wanted to write a show about female friendships and how they survive – or don’t survive – through major transitions. University can be an exhilarating time for change but it can also be a hard place to survive, to learn what you want to do.”
The show is a thriller, which is unusual, says Evans, because “university-set drama tends to sit in a comedic space – such Fresh Meat or Dear White People. But with Clique we wanted to hit the heart of the experience with more dramatic firepower.”
In terms of how you grab this audience’s attention, Evans says: “It’s about getting onto young people’s radar. Attention-grabbing scenes are useful in that if people are saying, ‘Oh wow did you see that bit when…’ or making animated GIFs, it’s more likely to hook in new viewers. That said, a young audience won’t stay unless the drama grabs them outside of all the flash and bang.”
Ironically, there are occasions when youth drama can have an ‘ageing up’ impact. German kids’ channel KIKA, for example, recently commissioned Five2Twelve (pictured top) as a way of appealing to a slightly older audience. Speaking to DQ, producer Marcus Roth says the show “plays in the 20.00 slot and deals with more mature editorial themes.”
Five2Twelve centres on five teenage boys who have all been in trouble with the police. “The courts give them one last chance to escape detention by sending them to a boot camp in the Bavarian Alps,” says director Niklas Weise. “Here they have to cope with the challenges of everyday life and learn how to get on with each other. Although most kids haven’t been on the wrong side of the law, they will recognise the issues.”
Like their counterparts, Weise and Roth say the biggest challenge is getting the language right – but that this also requires a supportive broadcaster. “The youth audience is quick to see anything fake or artificial, so you need to talk to them in a way that is authentic,” Weise adds. “But this also requires a broadcaster that is willing to support the vision you have for the project.”
While the success or failure of a youth drama generally comes down to the relatability of the story and characters, it also helps if the producer or broadcaster can give the audience a sense of ownership over the production. In the case of hit Nordic youth series Skam (Shame), for example, originating broadcaster NRK launched the show via its website, a move that helped the show build up a strong online community.
Here, the focus of the story was high-school students attempting to deal with classic teen issues. The first season, which premiered in September 2015, focused on relationship difficulties, loneliness, identity and belonging. Subsequent series have addressed feminism, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, mental health and cyberbullying.
All of this was supported by fresh digital content that was published on the NRK website each day to maintain a connection with the audience. Other social media-savvy shows include Freeform’s cult youth drama Pretty Little Liars, as well as the aforementioned Ackley Bridge. “We did a big push on Snapchat,” says Ormond, “and ran a parallel, specially shot Snapchat strand that involved Snaps being released from characters at key points throughout each episode, as well as between episodes and in ad breaks.”
This raises another key question: how can digital media be harnessed in other ways? Komixx Entertainment has sought out youth source material in the digital realm. “With the explosion of digital platforms and social media, some social influencers now hold arguably more power than traditional celebrities,” says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, Komixx group chief creative officer and head of film and TV. “This is relevant for young-adult adaptations, as [viewers of these shows] are digital natives, having grown up with social media networks.”
This led Komixx to back The Kissing Booth, a feature-length Netflix commission based on a teen novel sensation by Beth Reekles. “Beth was 15 when she self-published this book but it went on to generate more than 19 million reads on [online storytelling community] Wattpad,” says Cole-Bulgin. “We optioned the book because we could see that her connection with and understanding of the audience would prove a great starting point for a television production.”
The decision to make the film for Netflix, rather than a TV network, is interesting. Broadcasters may want to reach youth audiences, but producers also need to take a view on what is best for the long-term prospects of their property. In the case of The Kissing Booth, “SVoD was an obvious choice for us because that was where the youth audience have been going,” says Cole-Bulgin. “If we had this particular property for a more traditional channel, I think we’d have lost a lot of the audience.”
While Komixx adapted a digitally self-published work with The Kissing Booth, there is – still – a market for youth series based on traditional book properties. Komixx has optioned the rights to adapt Robert Muchamore’s best-selling young adult novel series Cherub into a TV drama, while The CW in the US is airing an Archie Comics adaptation called Riverdale (see box).
Elsewhere, Eleventh Hour Films is embarking on an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, with UK broadcaster ITV as a partner. Jill Green, founder and CEO of the prodco, says: “Alex has a core audience of eight- to 15-year-olds but our aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. We’re inspired by Stranger Things, which appealed to adults and kids.”
Reasons to feel positive about the project are varied, says Green: “The books have now sold 16 million copies worldwide. Alex Rider is known in more than 30 countries, and fans all over the world have been asking for a new dramatisation. There’s an official website and Anthony Horowitz has his own website and a Twitter platform where he engages with fans. It’s also worth noting that many 20- to 30-year-olds grew up with the books.”
Alex Rider has, in fact, had a previous outing as a movie in 2006. So why does it make sense to revive the franchise on the small screen? “TV now has the ambition, the scale, the technology and the budgets to do justice to Alex Rider,” says Green. “We’re writing it for a generation that thrives on box sets and binge-viewing.”
On the merits of free TV vs SVoD, Green adds: “We are very happy to be working with ITV but there’s no reason this series can’t go on to become a signature show on SVoD. A gripping story and great characters will always attract an audience. Whatever the platform, standout ideas and story come first.”
Riverdale Rundown The CW’s hit youth series Riverdale is based on Archie Comics characters originally created in the 1940s.
Show creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a lifelong fan but he admits there were “a lot of discussions about how the show might work for a modern audience. We knew there was a lot of wish-fulfilment and aspiration attached to the central group of characters, but the real breakthrough came when we decided to add a mystery genre element to the show. There’s a darkness and subversiveness to the show that has appealed to audiences and differentiates it from One Tree Hill or Beverly Hills 90210.”
Key to getting the show right was casting, says Aguirre-Sacasa, to the extent that “we wouldn’t have made the show if we hadn’t got the perfect cast. Great casting is what connects the audience to the characters. You can aim for it, but it’s not easy to get right, and when you do it’s a kind of alchemy.”
Asked whether he takes social media into account, he says: “Everyone in TV is trying to do what they can to make their show stand out – but we didn’t specifically look for people with a large fanbase. The only cast member who really had that was Cole Sprouse (star of Zack & Cody, pictured above left in Riverdale) but he was in the show because he fought for, and is perfect as, Jughead Jones.”
The CW is known for its youthful profile, but Riverdale, which returns for a second season this autumn, sits slightly apart from some of its big-hitting network siblings because it’s not a superhero show. “I think the execs at the network recognise that it’s good to have all different kinds of shows for fans to get passionate about,” says Aguirre-Sacasa.
In terms of feeding that passion, he says youthful shows inevitably include a social media component. “We did some live tweeting involving the cast,and I think that gets the fans really excited. We also know – because the show airs on Netflix outside the US – that there’s a global fanbase for Riverdale who love the whole Americana, US high-school kind of world.”
Eleventh Hour Films executive producer and head of talent Eve Gutierrez reveals why one scene from BBC drama New Blood gave her cause to hold her breath.
There’s one on every production – that one scene that embodies the spirit of the entire show. A moment so key that it will often dictate the selection of director and HoDs [heads of departments], and set a precedent for how the whole shoot will be executed. A scene that starts with meticulous planning and preparation, allocated just the right amount of money and time in the production schedule, soon inspires an unexpected determination, a bloody-mindedness and finally a full-blown obsession in the entire cast and crew.
On New Blood, our investigative series for BBC1, the scene in question acted as the climax of the characters’ first case. It sealed the friendship between the two lead characters and (literally) pushed our two relatively inexperienced actors into free fall.
On the page, creator Anthony Horowitz made the scene feel simple: just two characters, a few lines of dialogue – and a jump. As the action played out on the rooftop of a London hotel, it was clear this scene was anything but simple, requiring the characters to jump into the hotel’s swimming pool more than a dozen floors below.
It’s surprising how few outdoor pools there are. Even fewer of which are anywhere that would visually feel like London and fewer still that are next to high-rise buildings. In fact, it turned out there is only one – the pool at the Oasis Sports Centre on Tottenham Court Road. And, luckily for us, they were open to the idea of us shooting in their pool at night.
Obviously we would not be asking stunt performers or actors to actually jump off an incredibly tall building and free-fall in to a pool below, so it was clear from the outset that we would need not one location but two. The pool would provide the landing moment but the rooftop and POV of the pool would need to be achieved somewhere else.
Our production base in Dagenham, at LondonEast Business Park, provided a rooftop of the right height and shape to shoot the dialogue part of the scene against a green screen and for our stunt team, helmed by stunt coordinator Tony Lucken, to cheat an impressive jump over the side of the building onto a mountain of boxes. And with the magic of visual effects from VFX supervisor Sascha Fromeyer, we were well on our way to building an impressive sequence.
All that was left was the need to shoot our two actors plunging into the pool with enough force that it was believable they had jumped from a great height – to achieve the ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ moment that encapsulated the relationship between our characters.
Just two things lay between us and the successful completion of our scene, and neither were elements that we could control or influence. The first was the weather. Rain would most definitely stop play. The folk at the Oasis Sports Centre were very clear about that – and the forecast was for intermittent showers all day and all night.
The second was the fact we would be shooting in a location right next to Waterloo Bridge in the afternoon before moving over to Tottenham Court Road to access the pool after it had closed to the public, on the same evening of the Million Mask March when supporters of hacking collective Anonymous were due to march from Trafalgar Square to Westminster. At the very least, gridlock was predicted, with the media speculating on whether there would be chaos and violence on the streets.
For most of the afternoon, I paced about in the rain, alternating between the weather app on my iPhone and Twitter for news of what was happening on the march.
Finally it was time to move the unit, and it was here that transport captain Andy Blackburn and his team of drivers came into their element. I’m a born-and-bred Londoner, but their pre-planned route of back roads managed to make even me dizzy. It got us clear of the march, across the river and through Soho in 20 minutes – just as the clouds parted and the rain stopped.
Our director, Anthony Philipson, and the camera team headed up by DoP Rasmus Arrildt were prepped and set in record time. The grip department had built a tower for the actors to safely jump from, the underwater camera was in place and we all collectively held our breath as our actors were counted down to jump from what felt like a great height…
There was a big splash but, to our horror, they both immediately floated to the surface. On camera it looked like they had barely broken the line of the water, let alone plunged to the depths that would sell a jump from an impossible height. It turned out that both the wetsuits the actors were wearing under their costumes and the costumes themselves floated.
The actors immediately shed the wetsuits (luckily it was a freakishly mild November night) whilst the costume department hacked into their clothing to try and remove anywhere that pockets of air could gather. And with just moments to spare, we were reset to achieve the all-important shot – and it was miraculously ‘scene complete.’
Paula Cuddy, creative director of Eleventh Hour Films, discusses the essential ingredients that are needed to make event television.
The idea of swathes of the population gathered round the TV at home, all watching the same thing at the same time, seems to belong to a bygone era in this age of time- shifted viewing and box-set TV bingeing.
VoD platforms are seeing year-on-year growth and have claimed the event TV experience. With the ‘auto-play next episode’ nudge reeling us in, as night turns to day we’ve watched the complete season in one sitting and are desperate for more. But let’s not forget that the terrestrial channels have led the way before the world of VoD, and no doubt will continue to find ways to deliver for a mainstream audience now well versed in the box-set world.
Dramas such as Five Days, Criminal Justice and Collision were successful ‘must-see’ TV events stripped across a single week, and Broadchurch (pictured top) captured the audience as ‘appointment-to-view’ and increased its ratings with catch-up.
BBC iPlayer recently kept the full series of Apple Tree Yard and Taboo available as a box set for 30 days after transmission of the final episode, giving those who missed out on the night the opportunity to watch and, for others, the chance to watch again.
Apple Tree Yard received two million requests on iPlayer for its first episode. Certainly, on my packed commuter train into London, it seemed the top viewing choice for numerous women transitioning between the school run and their jobs in the city.
While we may be viewing at different times, if we’re gripped we are talking about it and telling others, urging them to watch and as the word spreads the event is happening – consumption goes up.
Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s hit police corruption drama, got the nation talking across three seasons and its well-earned payback is a move from BBC2 to BBC1, where you imagine it will build on the audience already amassed and reach new converts who may not have tuned into BBC2.
For the fourth season, now on air, the producers have cleverly cast a British Hollywood star, Thandie Newton, and likewise in the new season of the anthology drama series Safe House, Eleventh Hour Films has cast Stephen Moyer of True Blood fame, returning home to the UK to star in an event drama for ITV.
Brilliant actors who generate not only newsprint but have followers on Instagram and Twitter are now highly desirable. Social media spreads the word and ultimately hooks in more viewers. And movie stars are stepping out of the multiplex and lighting up the small screen.
Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are the leads of HBO’s new limited series Big Little Lies (pitcured top). Julia Stiles will star in Sky Atlantic’s new drama Riviera from the Academy Award-winning writer/director Neil Jordan, and then there’s US TV stars such as Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks in Tin Star or Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake, directed by Jane Campion (The Piano). Tom Hardy has his own TV show in Taboo.
Netflix were smart when commissioning their original drama House of Cards, casting Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood – and then the extra fairy dust of hiring a Hollywood movie director, David Fincher, who brought cinematic kudos and flair to the small screen, making for a big-screen experience. All from the comfort of your own home.
Event drama can transport an audience to far-flung places, global landscapes, different cultures and worlds, whether it be in Narcos, The Bridge or Game of Thrones. The appetite for big, epic and international is clearly out there and wanted by the market and the audience – particularly best-selling books written by household names, whether that is John Le Carré with The Night Manager and, coming next, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or The Strike Series penned by JK Rowling (under her pen name Robert Galbraith), and the ultimate period drama in The Crown, talked about as the most expensive TV drama ever made.
But what The Crown proves is that whilst it is truly an ‘event,’ fabulously lavish and pleasing to the eye, taking us into the epic drama that lies behind the doors of Number 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, ultimately at heart it’s a story about family – and we can all relate to that. Characters and story are the backbone of drama and without them there’s no event.
In September 2016, the BBC announced that it had commissioned three event dramas based on JK Rowling’s crime novels, which she publishes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. This week, HBO announced it had also come on board for the US and Canada.
The three dramas are being produced by Rowling’s UK-based company Brontë Film & TV, which previously adapted her novel The Casual Vacancy for the BBC and HBO. They will star Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, a battle-scarred war veteran who is now a private detective. All told, nine hours of television will be extracted from the three books: The Cuckoo’s Calling (3×60’), The Silkworm (2×60’) and Career of Evil (2×60’).
Commenting on his casting, Burke said: “I’m overjoyed to be immersing myself in the role of Cormoran Strike, who is as complex as he is larger than life. I know I’m joining an extraordinary team of people on a series that, for me, is peppered with moments of real emotional depth and meticulously grounded in the page-turning momentum of these novels. Cormoran Strike’s world is rich and raw.”
JK Rowling added: “I’m thrilled about the casting of Tom Burke, a massively talented actor who’ll bring the character to perfect life. Strike is pure joy to write and I can’t wait to see Tom play him.”
Also this week, US cable channel Spike TV acquired a six-part drama about the Waco siege that left 76 people dead in 1993. Waco is a Weinstein television production and is based on the events surrounding the two-month siege of a cult headquarters in Texas, which ended in tragedy when the FBI stormed the complex. The show will start production early next year and is being written by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.
This is not the only project Spike and The Weinstein Company are working on. Also coming up are Time: The Kalief Bowder Story and The Mist, slated for 2017. The latter is based on a Stephen King story.
Cults are becoming something of a theme in the US scripted business. Recently, we reported that Vince Gilligan and HBO had joined forces on a scripted series about the Jonestown massacre, while Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) has been attracting critical acclaim for his role in Hulu’s cult-based drama The Path.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has handed a straight-to-series order to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and The Weinstein Company. The show will be Weiner’s first project since Mad Men finished its seven-season run on AMC last year, and is reported by Deadline to have a budget of around US$70m.
Details on the new eight-part show are sparse, but it is believed to be a contemporary anthology series set in multiple locations around the world. Weiner is reported as saying: “In a time when there are so many options for entertainment, it’s been tremendous to see how [Amazon Studios boss] Roy Price and Amazon have taken centre stage by distinguishing themselves through bold choices.”
Elsewhere, indie producer Eleventh Hour Films has signed a coproduction deal with Luti Media to develop a slate of distinctive, exciting and original television dramas. Jill Green, MD of EHF and producer of hit dramas including Safe House, Foyle’s War, New Blood and Vexed, has teamed up with Luti Fagbenle, the founder of Luti Media, an award-winning production company known for music videos for artists such as Zayn Malik, Rita Ora, One Direction and Kanye West.
The intention is to pool their expertise to develop a slate of projects – both fiction and non-fiction – and work with some of the most exciting up-and-coming talent in the entertainment industry.
The partnership has already secured its first script commission with Channel 4, in the form of Laylah and the Universe, a comedy drama penned by actor/writer/director O-T Fagbenle (who recently played one of the leads in Sky1 drama The Five). They are also working with Director X on a music-driven project.
Green said: “Luti and I are very excited to produce content that will push boundaries, resonate with different broadcasters and attract a large, diverse audience. Our skill sets are very different and I know we’ll make a formidable team.”
Luti Fagbenle added: “We are blown away by the prospect of working with Jill Green and EHF. I know that this partnership – with our background in producing high-end visuals and understanding of youth and music culture combined with their enormous wealth of experience in television – will produce some distinctive work.”
While there haven’t been many new commissions this week, there have been a few interesting stories on the finance and development front. One doing the rounds is that BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) is close to doing a £50m (US$60.9m) deal with Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment to create a portfolio of high-end dramas.
If the deal comes off, it won’t be the first time BBCWW and Access have come together. In August, they backed the launch of Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell’s new production company House Productions, which plans to build a slate of television and feature films. BBCWW took a 25% stake in House and will act as the company’s global distributor. Should the Access deal go through, the plan would be for BBCWW to act as distributor for any shows Greenlit by Access.
Also notable this week is the news that the Paris-based Series Mania Coproduction Forum has created a €50,000 prize for the best TV series project in development – available from 2017. The Coproduction Forum, which will take place from April 18 to 21 next year, chooses around 15 projects seeking additional financing, which are then presented to more than 400 decision-makers from some of the world’s leading production companies and broadcasters.
“Since its beginnings, the Series Mania Coproduction Forum has set out to identify ambitious projects with international distribution potential. Through this prize, we want to make this aid more concrete by putting a spotlight on and giving a significant financial boost to the writing of the winning project,” said Laurence Herszberg, MD of Series Mania.
On the acquisition front this week, Canadian broadcaster Quebecor has acquired the thriller series Shooter from Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing. The show, which is based on a 2007 movie of the same name, stars Ryan Phillippe as a US Army-trained sniper who is coaxed back into action after learning of a plot to kill the president.
“This gripping series has everything our audiences look for: great acting, superb production values and a compelling, binge-worthy story,” commented Yann Paquet, VP of acquisitions and partnerships at Quebecor Content.
The show is due to launch on USA Network in the US on November 15.
After 15 years writing Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz is back on television with crime thriller New Blood. He tells DQ why there’s nothing like it on television.
Investigative drama New Blood broke new ground last week when it became the first primetime drama to launch on the BBC’s on-demand service iPlayer before its linear broadcast.
And with streaming platforms perhaps now representing the best way to reach new and younger viewers who no longer adhere to traditional television schedules, series creator Anthony Horowitz was more than happy to push the show online ahead of its BBC1 debut tonight.
“I want to write for young people rather than their parents,” says Horowitz, who wrote ITV drama Foyle’s War for 15 years until it ended last January. “Foyle’s War has been a fantastic ride – I’ve loved every minute of doing it. But it did occur to me that a great chunk of viewers weren’t seeing my work. Also, having written the Alex Rider spy novels, I’m meeting people who read my work as kids and are now in their 20s and 30s, and I want to write for them again.
“When I write, I don’t think, ‘This is for young people’ and then write in a certain way. What’s happened with this show is because it has two 25-year-olds in the lead – everything has come from that.”
New Blood executive producer Jill Green, MD of Eleventh Hour Films and Horowitz’s wife, agrees: “It’s great for us because (there’s a lack of) shows that appeal to younger viewers. It’s edited in a very different way, the music is very different too.”
The seven-part series shows London through the eyes of two outsiders, Stefan and Rash, junior investigators for the Serious Fraud Office and the police respectively, who are brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases.
Young men frustrated with life and trying to find their feet in their professional and personal lives, they team up to become a formidable crime-solving duo as they take on the uber rich and powerful.
And central to the series are Mark Strepan and Ben Tavassoli, who play Polish Stefan and British-Iranian Rash respectively. “Mark has Polish ancestry and Ben is half-Iranian so they fit their characters to a T,” Horowitz says. “Every actor I’ve ever worked with has, to a certain extent, made the character their own. They found them and created them. When I started writing this show I was never sure, if I wrote a line, which character should say it. But now I know exactly who’s going to say what – and that’s partly down to them.
“Working on Foyle’s War, I loved working with Michael Kitchen but if he walked out of the car to the office, that was classed as an action sequence. Now we’ve got people running across London, jumping off buildings, getting punched and getting tied up and put into a car that spins eight times.”
Green continues: “In one scene, they argue about jumping off a hotel roof into a swimming pool and eventually say, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’ They’re in their 20s, why not? They literally dive off into a swimming pool. These guys are physical. The amount of things (Horowitz) puts them through has been extraordinary and they love it.”
Casting for the leads wasn’t straightforward, however, with several actors in the running for both parts until Strepan and Tavassoli found instant chemistry during the auditions.
“We saw an enormous number of people,” admits Horowitz. “It was always a question of whether we were going to cheat. Could we really cast British-Iranian and British-Polish? Or would we get a British guy who could do a Polish accent? We then found these two guys but what clinched it wasn’t the individual auditions, it was when we put them together.”
Green explains: “At the last moment we had four Rash’s and four Stefan’s so we interchanged them together, looking for the right combination, and it was about that chemistry. It was very real.”
It’s that chemistry that will also make the difference between New Blood being a success or a failure. But Horowitz says he hopes the show has managed to tell serious stories in a serious world with two light-hearted characters at the centre.
“I’m thrilled by their performance,” he adds. “I’ve been around for a long time but these two guys, they’re at the beginning of their careers and I’m so excited to see whether it goes well for them. They’re very likeable.”
From the opening scenes of the first episode, it’s clear Stefan and Rash aren’t the only characters central to New Blood. From Stefan’s bike ride to work into the City to the quick cuts between shots of the capital’s iconic landmarks, the backdrop of London looms large over the series.
“Jill hasn’t forgiven me for setting it in London,” Horowitz quips when asked of the production challenges of filming in the city. “But when you see the show, London is the third character. It’s a really attractive view of London. We tried to find something that isn’t tourist London, isn’t Disney London. It’s real London and it’s energised London. The number of cranes and building sites and traffic jams and roadworks – that’s the London we live in.”
It was a difference experience for Green. “If you’re not doing a US movie on a Tom Cruise budget, don’t try to film in London,” she says. “It’s not a city that’s interested in filmmaking because it’s got terrorism, security and other bigger issues. It was really hard. And because we were 95% location and we had to do some really difficult action sequences, most people didn’t want us around and sometimes they wouldn’t play ball. City Airport shut us down because pilots complained they could see lights from an explosion we were filming in a wasteland that was quite near the airport.
“It’s hard and expensive. The sequence where the guys jump off the roof was shot over three days in three different places. That’s expensive. When you’re doing big action, which has got to have a high production value, you can’t skimp on that. But when you’re doing it in London as well, that’s tough. But it does look and feel like London.”
Horowitz and Green first met when they both were working in advertising. They later took different paths into television and it was only after a decade that Horowitz’s writing started to be developed for the screen by Greenlit Productions and now Eleventh Hour Films – both established by Green, the latter in 2010.
“Why should Jill produce shows for other people and I write shows for other people when we can do it together and control and own the shows?” argues Horowitz. “We’ve done that now for Foyle’s War, Injustice, Collision, Menace and New Blood.”
“We’re very privileged to get Ant’s work and it makes us work 300% harder because the responsibility is huge,” explains Green, whose other credits include ITV thriller Safe House. “There’s no deal (with him) but I know if we don’t take Anthony’s ideas – and we don’t always agree – then somebody else might. But the scripts are wonderful, which is always the best place to start.
“We can be quite rigorous with each other but there’s a fantastic shorthand between us and I do think we work very well together. I think the best work we’ve done has been together, rather than apart. We can problem solve together as well, which you have to do.”
New Blood could be the pair’s best collaboration yet. With music from Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge and a new visual take on London, Horowitz claims “there’s nothing on British television like it – in terms of tone, look, editing, the youth of the two lead actors – it’s really different. It’s very American in some ways in the pacing and ambition of it, and I hope people simply enjoy it.
“It’s not about naked dead women being found tied up in alleyways, it’s not about that sort of brutality and darkness, which I’m not knocking, but I think we’ve now had enough of that. Here is a show that’s got a bit more of a smile. It’s serious when it needs to be, it’s dangerous when it needs to be but isn’t rubbing your face in the underbelly of life. It’s got murder and death but what it hasn’t got is that grubbiness.”