Tag Archives: Epix

Grace period

Co-showrunners Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris tell DQ how they plan to disrupt the traditions of crime noir in Perpetual Grace, Ltd, a 10-part series from US cable network Epix and MGM Television.

At first glance, Amazon Prime Video series Patriot has all the traditional hallmarks of a spy drama, and yet it’s so much more than that. Darkly comic, dreamy and melancholic, with more than a splash of folk music, it stands out by the way it stretches the conventions of the genre.

Steve Conrad

Now showrunner Steve Conrad is taking the same approach to crime noir with his new series Perpetual Grace, Ltd. Created with co-showrunner Bruce Terris, who also worked on Patriot, it’s a show that promises a big personality, from the themes at the heart of the story to the vivid characters and even the western aesthetics of its shooting location in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“If you picture what we do on Patriot, which is take the infrastructure of the spy genre and ask it to hold up a bunch of different fascinations, we do that with Perpetual Grace with noir,” Conrad says. “The characters are never one-dimensional. They want the pot of gold at the end of this thing, but they also desperately want the same thing as everybody else on Earth, which is peace and dignity. That’s just as important to the appetite of our characters as ill-gotten gains.

“So there will be those similarities with Patriot where the world is wide and we try to be splendid and to make a show that you’ll watch and like, but that’s not simple-minded.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd (formerly called Our Lady, Ltd) tells the story of James, a young grifter who attempts to prey upon Pastor Byron Brown, who turns out to be far more dangerous than he anticipated.

James, a disgraced firefighter played by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson, seizes a chance to reverse his life’s worsening course. But when his plan veers dangerously off track, James must call on strength and fortitude he did not know he possessed in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Pastor Byron (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) and his wife Lilian (Jacki Weaver), known to their parishioners as Ma and Pa, have used religion to bilk hundreds of innocent men and women out of their life savings. Ma, who appears at first glance to be a modest, dutiful church lady, is Pa’s willing accomplice and his counterpart in regard to potency and cruelty.

Commissioned by US premium cable channel Epix and produced by MGM Television, the series launched on Sunday. MGM is also distributing internationally.

Patriot and Perpetual Grace, Ltd both originated around the same time. Terris had been an assistant director, then a producer and a writer on Patriot and during some down time while they were trying to get that show off the ground, Terris brought the idea of Perpetual Grace, Ltd to Conrad.

Perpetual Grace, Ltd pits Jimmi Simpson (right) against Ben Kingsley

The roots of the series can be found in Terris’s desire to write a drama about identity, but not just a thriller about a case of stolen identity. “The central tension of those dramas is almost always really good surface tension but I thought that a deeper tension might be what’s underneath,” he explains. “In that way, it’s this idea that if James is someone who tries to escape problems by assuming the identity of someone else, you better make sure that person is not in worse trouble than you are. That’s the central hub of the idea that I brought to Steve. Then we just took it from there.”

James is a character who has had a run of bad luck and made some bad decisions, but still clings to the hope that he can turn his life around. But he then makes another bad decision in an attempt to fix things.

“We’re studying how out of desperation, and only facing the most desperate odds, you can actually hope to save yourself. It might become survival,” Conrad explains. “So James finds himself outmatched by the power of a man he thought was powerless, and he made a terrible mistake when he picked Byron Brown to prey on. Now he finds himself in the middle of a heavyweight fight he hadn’t prepared for, but he can’t leave the ring.

“Jimmi Simpson is just a guy with that light in his eye that I’ve been hoping to work with for a long time. The way he delivers human beings, they’re complicated but they have a simple-mindedness of purpose which is to get over and find safety somehow. He’s instantly likeable but also somehow a tremendously nuanced actor. He’s going to fit right into the way Bruce and I convey this fictional world.”

Opposite Simpson is Kingsley, who has played Ghandi, ferocious Sexy Beast gangster Don Logan and every character in between during his storied screen career. “There’s no safer bet than Sir Ben in terms of the way we are going to throw everything that humans are capable of into the course of this guy’s story,” Conrad continues. “He’s going to say and do almost everything humans say and do when they’re desperate.”

Perpetual Grace, Ltd also follows Patriot’s lead in its use of supporting characters. “Everyone gets heavy lifting in this show and they’re all material to the unravelling of the plot,” Conrad notes. “These characters find themselves having to depend on each other just to survive.”

The show launched on Epix at the weekend

Terris continues: “Coming up as a writer, Steve really mentored me, and one of the things I noticed in all of his scripts was there truly were no throwaway characters. That waiter or waitress had a story. The finest drama you can construct is one where you explore all their stories and you learn about everyone. The person you think is going to be an ‘extra’ becomes a fully fledged participant in the drama that unfolds.”

Conrad and Terris opened their writing room by first figuring out how they wanted the story to end. Once that was decided, they simply watched movies for a couple of months, making a staff writer position on the show the latest entrant for ‘best job in the world.’

“The first week is fun and then you get to the second week and you think, ‘Are we really just wasting time?’” Conrad admits. “But then we open the room and we have four writers and an assistant, and all we do is sit in a room and talk about how to most intricately and expertly convey this story in relation to films that have done this before.”

For example, Conrad talks about the moment in Al Pacino’s 1975 bank heist film Dog Day Afternoon where viewers know the robbery is going to fail, but what makes them continue to watch? Similarly, what makes viewers sit up and pay attention during high-stakes moments in 1998 crime thriller A Simple Plan?

“That sounds boring but we did this theoretical engineering of plot for months and months,” he continues. “Then we’re left with very little time to write the scripts because it’s time to turn them in, so we just write all day and night.”

Even at the moment DQ speaks to Conrad and Terris last October [2018], they are spending their days location scouting in Santa Fe before returning to their rental house to continue writing. Despite having a writers room, only they have written the scripts. “But the story’s figured out. You don’t have the blank page and you don’t bang your head on the desk,” he adds. “You just have to write it.”

L-R: Ben Kingsley as Pastor Byron Brown, Jackie Weaver as Lillian and Jimmi Simpson as James

As showrunning partners, Conrad and Terris will each write pages and then swap them for revisions, ensuring responsibilities are split equally. Terris has been on location scouts, while Conrad also picks up directing duties, helming six of the 10 episodes.

“We’re blessed in the sense that I was Steve’s first AD for many years so we had a long working relationship before we started writing together,” Terris says. “That really helps. It wasn’t like two guys who didn’t know each other very well being thrust together in this situation. We actually know each other very well.”

It’s more common for writers to become directors, rather than the other way around. Terris has found himself having to stop worrying about budgets and deadlines in order to focus on the story. “So I will instantly think, ‘You can’t write a scene on a train because nobody will let you shoot on a train.’ And Steve will have to remind me that I’m not the AD, I’m a writer – and if a scene demands that it’s set on a train, you write it,” he says. “And then later on you might have to cancel it. So it’s been hard to drop the baggage from the other side of production and let my creativity flow.”

Behind the camera, Conrad must balance the demands of multiple genres, blending camera angles that create suspense with sweeping vistas associated with westerns and the show’s Santa Fe setting.

“The challenge is making something that can cast a spell on an audience,” Terris says. “That’s just a function of making all the right decisions. You have to pick the right locations, you have to pick the right cast, then you have to work too hard and then you have to cross your fingers in editing that it all comes together.”

Then there’s the fact that Perpetual Grace, Ltd will arrive in a television landscape filled with more than 500 series in the US alone. But Conrad is unconcerned by the competition. “We’re going to try to make something very, very good. If you can accomplish that goal then there is something distinctive about that show,” he says.

Terris, in his first showrunning role, is “totally psyched” about the job. “This is a thrill for me,” he adds. “When you’re in the 11th hour or 12th hour of shooting and you’ve got one more scene and you’re exhausted, the trick is you must gather the energy to go and be excellent, and not just throw that last scene together. Demand excellence. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Back in the game

Get Shorty showrunner Davey Holmes and director Adam Arkin welcome DQ to the set of the second season of the drama, in which Chris O’Dowd’s mobster continues his assault on the Hollywood film business.

We’re often told that Hollywood appreciates a story about itself. The meta appeal of doing a film or a TV programme based on characters involved in an audiovisual production themselves would surely get the critics chattering.

Get Shorty, US premium cablenet Epix’s mob-movie caper that returns for a second season this Sunday, is designed to both embody and pastiche this.

Davey Holmes

Season one of the comedy-drama follows the story of Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd), who serves as muscle for a ruthless Nevada crime syndicate led by the fearsome Amara De Escalones (Lidia Porto). To do right by his daughter and his estranged wife, Miles moves to LA to become a movie producer – with his friend and mob colleague Louis (Sean Bridgers) in tow – laundering money through a Hollywood film. But problems arise again when Amara and her associates take an active role in proceedings. Season two sees Miles battle to realise his ambitions as a filmmaker and responsible father despite his adroitness as a criminal.

Based on Elmore Leonard’s book of the same name, Get Shorty has been adapted for TV by Shameless US scribe Davey Holmes. The show is produced by MGM Television, which also distributes, and Holmes Quality Yarns.

Along with O’Dowd, Porto and Bridgers, the cast features Ray Romano, Sarah Stiles, Megan Stevenson, Goya Robles and Carolyn Dodd. Off the back of season one’s success, Felicity Huffman and Steven Weber have been added.

Filming is well into the second half of season two when DQ visits the set at Paramount Pictures Studios in Hollywood. Director Adam Arkin has just called ‘cut’ on an umpteenth take of Louis eating cereal while talking to Miles over the phone about a YouTube self-help beauty video.

“I thought about asking for Captain Crunch, but it fucks up the roof of your mouth,” Bridgers can be heard telling the crew.

The off-camera humour is a moment of light relief in proceedings, but Bridgers’ aside is an exemplar of the tone of Get Shorty and how it sets itself out as a drama. Though both seasons are peppered with witty lines, they are subtle, with the drama ensuring audiences are captivated as much as amused.

The massacre of a rival cartel in season one is brutal, bloody and shocking, while the scenes involving Hollywood studios, distributors, producers and on- and off-screen talent often seem funny but will likely have industry viewers shifting uncomfortably in their seats in recognition of the realistic depiction of the conversations and decision-making – which is as cutthroat as the violent actions of the gangsters on show.

Arkin says the show explores the “terrain that hovers between extreme comedy and drama” like that of FX’s hit crime drama Fargo – another series that was inspired by a film but, like Get Shorty, does not simply transplant the same characters and story to the small screen. This is doubly important for Get Shorty, given that a 1995 film version starring John Travolta was also based on Leonard’s original book.

Get Shorty stars The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd as mob enforcer Miles Daly

However, the Epix series is less a mob or crime caper and more a story of reinvention, told through the prism of a criminal father.

“Stories about people who are striving for art can be quite boring, but there’s something about the soul of an artist in the body of a thug that’s interesting to me,” creator, showrunner and exec producer Holmes tells DQ during a break in rehearsal. “I love being able to explore big, tough guys who aren’t necessarily well versed at looking at and processing their own emotions and yet have vulnerabilities, human foibles and weaknesses. Instead of playing tough guys who are just tough, you play tough guys who are frail inside. Elmore Leonard’s all about that.”

This is not exclusive to Miles either. Bridgers says his character, Louis – a trigger-happy Mormon mobster – is undergoing a metamorphosis. The series, too, either by design or coincidence, is a metaphor for today’s US, which is going through a cultural and political transition, often bearing the hallmarks of a Hollywood movie.

“Louis has been operating, like we all do a bit, on autopilot. He’s stuck in this very small world with a somewhat limited world view and Miles is the one who breaks out of it,” Bridgers says. “He’s a ball of contradictions. That is American culture in a nutshell. Louis is a very American character.

“He’s very religious but he picks and chooses which tenets of that faith he’s going to adhere to – very American, that – and he’s also prone to violence: he shoots first and asks questions later. I try not to think about it too much because that analytical part of my brain will try to make sense of certain things, and I can’t. But that frees it up; anything’s possible with Louis.”

The scenes Bridgers has been filming during DQ’s visit (the second of which involves a big spoiler) have typified the duality of characters and the series’ dramatic and comedic interplay. Arkin says the reason he kept coming back to the scene of Louis munching cereal was a desire to respect Holmes’ approach to the material, and not just because he wants to “see Sean Bridgers eat five bowls of Fruit Loops before the day is up.”

Everybody Loves Raymond star Ray Romano plays film producer Rick Moreweather

“There are countless processes that everybody goes through [to translate the vision on screen]. I try to stay very attuned to the material; that’s obviously the first clue as to what direction everything wants to be going in,” he says.

“The biggest problem was finding that sweet spot, stylistically, between the comedy and the drama, knowing that both of them have to live in a consistent atmosphere. You can’t go too far, too recklessly in one direction or another.”

Holmes picks up: “The look of the show is an interesting and complicated discussion. We try to find a combination of a cinematic approach and veering away from what we think of as network TV in as many ways as possible. And yet, not jazzing up a scene visually, not drawing attention to the camera work, not a whole lot of jiggly handheld or trick shots – just trying to find that line where it’s cinematic without detracting from the scene itself.”

While stylistic fine-tuning can be arduous, it is exacerbated by the physical demands placed on cast and crew. In season one, shooting was divided between Hollywood and Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a tragicomical example of art imitating life imitating art, the crew sometimes felt like their fictional counterparts – who intermittently struggle with sandstorms, fires and gunfire.

“We went back and forth about four or five times. Just handling that and the logistics of what we were shooting and where, it did at times lead to a certain amount of vertigo as to where we were in the process,” Arkin recalls.

“In episode five of season two, about 75% takes place in one location, which was very challenging to shoot in. We’re underground, we were pumping a lot of atmospheric smoke into the location; everyone was running around in coveralls and hard hats, respirator masks.

Lidia Porto is Amara De Escalones, the fearsome boss of a crime syndicate

“It was physically very demanding. It ended up being a wonderful episode, but it came at a cost. It put the crew and cast through their paces in terms of endurance.”

Sarah Stiles, who plays Gladys, the secretary to Romano’s film producer boss Rick Moreweather, illuminates the cast’s intensity.

“We’re all a little ‘method’ on this show. But nobody’s killed anybody yet… that I know of,” she jokes. “Ray Romano is a genius at that [intense] stuff – him orbiting around the steadiness of Gladys is just delicious to play against. He cares about the project, so he stays in Rick’s neurotic voice and asks, ‘Was that ok, did this work?’ Yeah, you’re fucking awesome, get it under control Ray Romano!”

Stevenson, who plays April Quinn, a film executive and professional antagonist to Moreweather, says it is “scary how much everyone enjoys each other.”

“We were in New Mexico for the majority of the time for the new season. That was like summer camp; we were just forced to get to know each other, because none of us are from there. On the weekends, we’d go hiking together, and every night after shooting we went in the jacuzzi together. That is so beneficial for a show. If you’re not forced to get to know each other, you just go home to your life.”

Both Stiles and Stevenson concur that what attracted them to the project was the writing, and that TV is going through its golden age in terms of attracting the best on- and off-camera talent to projects. Holmes also sees the benefits of working for a cablenet rather than a US broadcast network.

“When I first got into TV, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV that I was excited about. Now there’s a lot,” he says. “It’s also lovely because there’s a very good chance you’re going to get to do the whole season, if not two seasons, while they evaluate what the audience is.

“For networks, they really appraise you week by week. I’ve been on plenty of interesting shows that did four episodes or six episodes and then they’re gone, before you’ve really even started telling the story. This show seems to be catching on… that alone is a game-changer creatively.”

As the cast settles in for another take, it feels as though Get Shorty has only just begun.

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Quebert in Quebec

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud takes the reins and actor Patrick Dempsey returns to the small screen in The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a 10-part murder-mystery series from Epix, MGM and TF1. DQ visits the set.

But for the sign that reads ‘Maine State Police Station’ and the fact the road has been closed off by police, there’s little to suggest anything is amiss on a quiet street in Quebec’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

Situated about 40 kilometres south-east of Montreal and not far from the border with Vermont, the scene is set for a police press conference. Outside an inconspicuous office building, imitation news cameras and news vans blend in with actual film equipment and transport vans, blurring the lines between the stage and the outside world. To most passers-by, it probably looks like an actual press conference is taking place.

It’s late November 2017 and the final stretch of principal photography on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, an ambitious 10-part miniseries being made by MGM Television, Barbary Films and Eagle Pictures, is under way. Based on the acclaimed second novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker, the adaptation is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy), Ben Schnetzer (Snowden), Damon Wayans Jr (Singularity) and Virginia Madsen (Sideways).

The show is set to open France’s inaugural Canneseries TV festival, screening out of competition on April 7, before airing on Epix in the US and TF1 in France. MGM will be selling rights for other territories at MipTV, shortly after the Canneseries premiere.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair director Jean-Jacques Annaud (left) with Joel Dicker (the author of the book)

The murder mystery sees Schnetzer playing Marcus Goldman, a young novelist seeking inspiration for his next book. As he arrives in New Hampshire to stay with his college professor, the titular Harry Quebert (Dempsey), the body of a teenager who disappeared more than three decades ago is discovered, implicating Quebert.

The show marks Annaud’s first foray into directing for TV. Having won an Oscar with his 1976 debut La Victoire en Chantant, he’s best known for helming a string of Hollywood features including 1986’s The Name of the Rose, 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet and 2001’s Enemy at the Gates.

Nevertheless, he has spent recent years contemplating a move to the small screen. “I saw that television was taking the lead in terms of storytelling and more mature material,” he says during a break on set. Having read Dicker’s novel two years ago, Annaud was initially offered it as a film, “but as I was turning the pages, there were so many interesting characters and so many twists in the story that I said, ‘This is the perfect moment for me to say yes to television, for a 10-episode miniseries.’

“There were also other factors: I’ve been used to rather large movies with long setups, and the idea of moving quicker is something that appeals to me.”

Annaud’s idea of “quicker” appears to be an understatement. On set, crew remark that most day’s shoots are remarkably tight and rarely go into the night. “We’re moving fast, therefore we’re moving with energy, keeping in mind that we have to tell the grand story and not worry so much about the little details, reflections in mirrors, things like that,” the director explains. “And I must say I enjoy the process immensely.

Annaud preparing for a scene with Kristine Froseth (Nola) and Patrick Dempsey (Harry Quebert)

“I was not too sure if I was going to direct all 10 episodes, but MGM insisted. And, as a matter of fact, I like being in control. I don’t know how several directors could have adjusted to know the intimacy of each character, the complexity.”

Annaud’s approach to the series has been to shoot it “like a 10-hour movie in segments.” As such, the team are block-shooting on location, rather than filming episodically. “It’s good for the budget, it’s good for the energy and it’s very efficient,” he notes.

In shooting at speed, he is reverting to a technique that he developed nearly four decades ago, while filming Paleolithic period drama Quest for Fire, which won an Oscar for best make-up. While making the 1981 film, “I could not do many shots because the make-up would be ruined, so I was shooting three cameras all the time,” he explains. “But it was three cameras with very different angles, which allows great coverage and also puts the actors in a situation where they know that if it’s good, then take one, without rehearsal, is going to be the take.

“If camera A is not good, it’s usually good on camera B or C. And that gives them great energy on the set, it’s terrific,” he adds. “[Seven Samurai director Akira] Kurosawa used to do that.”

By 10.00, the crew are keen to proceed with the day’s filming, but the weather is proving problematic. It’s supposed to be autumn in New England, so they use leaf blowers and shovels to clear snow from the set. But it is falling as fast as they can remove it. For now, they will have to wait.

Patrick Dempsey is best known for starring in Grey’s Anatomy

In the first of two scenes, Schnetzer arrives at the police station and exits a taxi, walking briskly inside while talking on his phone. The second sees him and Wayans Jr departing the station together, walking and talking as they head to the latter’s police cruiser.

“I kind of play the audience’s role within the series, so my character sees the twists to the story at the same time the audience sees them,” Schnetzer explains. “Because we’ve shot the series as a movie, it hasn’t been shot episodically, it’s almost like shooting a 500-page film. I’ve had to do a lot more work chronologically, figuring out where in the story we are now – that’s definitely been an undertaking.”

Nevertheless, the actor notes that the line between film and TV “has become much more blurred” over the past five years, “particularly with a limited series or a 10-episode miniseries, which is a great medium to adapt a novel because you don’t have to be as ruthless in what you cut.”

With Quebec doubling for New England, today’s shoot takes place in the series’ near-present-day timeline of 2008. More challenging, however, have been Harry Quebert’s 1975 flashbacks, which have required a completely different look, comprising set design, VFX and hair and make-up.

Among those adopting a period look for the series is Tessa Mossey, an emerging actor originally from Canada’s Prince Edward Island. The teenager plays young prom queen and love interest-of-sorts Jenny Quinn in the show’s flashbacks, with Victoria Clark as the present-day version of the character.

“There’s a whole other level of preparation when it comes to entering a different time period,” Mossey offers between takes. “I find, especially with a character like Jenny, that the people who were popular at that time, the music that was popular, all of that plays a such big part of her identity.

“She wants her hair to look like Farrah Fawcett’s, she wants her eyelashes to look like Twiggy’s… she has all of these people she really looks up to and whom influence her identity, which she thinks is so important to how people view her. So the time period is very influential in creating that aesthetic.”

In addition, the series employs considerable hair and make-up to age its characters. In the case of lead actor Dempsey, who is returning to television following 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, this has involved making him look both older and younger for the show’s 30-year time leaps.

“With ageing him down, what we can do is kind of limited,” explains series make-up designer Émilie Gauthier. “It’s pretty much beauty make-up and we’re going to do a little bit of VFX in post.”

Adding extra years to Dempsey has been considerably more work, however. “We understand that he’s about 35 in 1975, so he now has to be about 68,” Gauthier says. That entails about three-and-a-half hours’ worth of make-up each day. “He has one big neck piece, three other pieces on the jaw and near the nose, and then we work by hand around the eyes, with a process we call stippling.”

Beyond the hair and make-up, director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou – a frequent collaborator with Annaud – has been the one charged with creating instantly identifiable, unique visuals for the series’ time periods. “The main requirement from Jean-Jacques was to set up, visually, the two time periods straight away,” says Dreujou.

“It was most important that the viewer could see immediately what period it was, because the series is complicated as far as the flashbacks – and the flashbacks within the flashbacks – are concerned. It’s essential to know exactly where you are as soon as you see the picture, between 1975 and the other years in the film.”

Both the DoP and the director express their love for shooting in Canada, which they have now done on multiple occasions, and cite the talent and professionalism of Canuck crews in addition to the country’s generous system of tax credits.

After lunch, the temperature on set drops from -4°C (25°F) to -8°C. Schnetzer and Wayans Jr, dressed in light, autumnal jackets, thrust their hands in their pockets between takes, hopping from foot to foot in a bid to stay warm.

At least the brisk pace of filming offers some respite from the biting cold. Annaud “really knows what he wants and he gets what he wants; you just have to be prepared to do one or two takes,” remarks Wayans Jr, who plays the show’s lead investigator, Sgt Gahalowood.

“You’re always on your toes because he’s gonna move quick, he’s moving on,” he adds. “I’ve honestly never been on anything that goes this fast, but it’s a fun exercise, I like it. You don’t really have the chance to ramp up into a scene; you have to make sure that you’re there already, as much as possible.”

Annaud grins in agreement. “They feel the energy, they feel the story,” the director says, preparing for another scene. “Everybody knows they have to be good first take; the focus pullers, the actors… they know that if they don’t know their lines, they’ll look stupid, so it’s internal competition for everyone.”

Our conversation is interrupted as an out-of-breath crewman runs up to inform that it’s time to shoot. “I’m sorry,” the runner interjects, “but before it snows again, we need to get this right now.”

And with that, Annaud’s headphones slip over his ears, cameras slide into position and the director is back behind a monitor for another rapid take.

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Hollywood hitman

Get Shorty showrunner Davey Holmes tackles Elmore Leonard’s novel in a drama far removed from the 1995 movie of the same name. He tells DQ how he created the Epix series, which stars Chris O’Dowd as an hitman who lands in Hollywood.

When US cable channel Epix entered the original-drama fray, it placed commissions for three scripted series: Berlin Station, Graves and Get Shorty.

CIA-focused spy drama Berlin Station and political dramedy Graves were first off the block last autumn, scoring decent reviews from critics already weighed down by the crush of new content on which viewers can now feast. Duly, they were each given second-season renewals and are set to return this October.

Now arriving on Epix, delayed by design rather than disaster, comes Get Shorty, a 10-part comedy drama set within the world of Elmore Leonard’s fêted novel, which was previously adapted as a 1995 feature film starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito.

Davey Holmes (left) on set with Chris O’Dowd

The television landscape in the US has shifted dramatically since the series was first announced. More than 500 original scripted series are due to air in 2017, up from 454 during the previous 12 months, though that number already looks set to fall next year after several cable networks announced they were pulling back on their scripted endeavours.

A&E (Bates Motel) is pulling out of the scripted business altogether, while WGN America (Underground, Manhattan) said in May it would only focus on “cost-effective originals and reruns.” This week it announced it would become the US partner on Canadian drama Bellevue, a probable sign of the deals to come.

MTV is also reasserting its focus on youth-skewing unscripted programming, though scripted series will not be abandoned entirely, with plans to reboot Scream and Teen Wolf as anthologies, among other projects.

Get Shorty, then, could be under pressure to help lift Epix’s fortunes above those of channels that ultimately decide the original-drama business is not worth it, either to their channel identity or their bottom line.

If he is under pressure to deliver, Davey Holmes isn’t showing it. The showrunner has previously worked on Law & Order, Pushing Daisies, Awake and Shameless, and was specifically brought in by producer MGM, which also owns Epix and will distribute the series internationally, with a view to adapting Leonard’s 1990 novel.

Epix’s Get Shorty sees a new set of characters, led by Chris O’Dowd as hitman Miles

He initially passed up the offer, with other projects in the pipeline, but quickly changed his mind when he realised this show was “the one.”

“It was the easiest, most fun project to adapt and write,” Holmes says. “I just spent the whole time I was plotting it laughing with my assistant, just having a ball – and I thought, ‘If this is a sign of some sort, if it’s as fun to watch as it is to make, we’re on to something.’”

Rather than script a literal remake of the novel, however, Holmes’s plan was to start again, jettisoning the characters and the plot that had already been introduced by Barry Sonnenfeld’s Golden Globe-winning feature film.

Instead, he used anthology series Fargo as a template, taking the tone and style created by Leonard but adding a new story and fresh characters, much in the same way the FX series transplanted the sensibilities of the Coen brothers’ movie source material.

“My feeling was that Barry Sonnenfeld brought his own thing to it and that movie works, it just stands on its own,” Holmes says. “But I didn’t want to do a series with that tone. I wanted to get back to something different, a little more Coen brothers, a little darker, a little grittier – still fun, but more grounded. Sonnenfeld’s take is more broad strokes, colourful and larger than life. I wanted to ground it.”

The final result is a series that finds humour in the insecurities of a bunch of tough guys out to prove themselves in a foreign environment.

John Travolta and Rene Russo in the 1995 movie version of Get Shorty

Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) stars as Miles, a hitman from Nevada who tries to become a movie producer in Hollywood as a means to leave his criminal past behind. But instead of abandoning his former life, he accidentally brings it with him to LA, where he meets Rick (Ray Romano), a washed-up producer who becomes Miles’s guide in the land of show business.

Filming took place in both LA and Albuquerque, New Mexico, which doubled for Nevada and meant the crew were constantly flying back and forth during production. “It was crazy on a logistical level but wonderful on a creative level because they look so different,” Holmes says. “We shot scenes in Albuquerque with just desert and big wide sky off to the horizon, and can then cut to a scene in Hollywood on a studio lot. It’s creatively wonderful but it was a pain in the ass.

“It’s actually a wonderful plus when you can cut between such contrasting landscapes, and if I could boil the whole show down to one device, it’s getting invested in very different characters from different worlds and then having them collide.”

One character in particular, Miles, ended up very different to how Holmes first envisioned him after O’Dowd was cast in the lead role. The showrunner says he wanted Miles to be very different from Travolta’s Chili Palmer, who would never lash out or get his hands dirty.

“Our guy is much more menacing than Travolta, but Chris isn’t who you think of to play that guy and he did a wonderful job,” Holmes explains. “You feel the thug in this character. But it’s an Irish thug, which I hadn’t thought of until he came on. I had to learn what that was with him. We were both teaching each other.”

During the writing process, Holmes assembled a writers room to help break down the story and flesh out the characters before locking down the episodes. “Then, probably stupidly, I let the writers all go and then started rewriting everything, including my own work,” he admits. “So there was a flurry of rewrites throughout production. The upside of that is it’s helpful to have one voice glue it all together. The downside is I had to reintroduce myself to my family.”

Holmes’s first pitch to Epix was to turn Get Shorty into an anthology, but says there was too much story to tell in just 10 episodes. “There’s a high body count in the show and not everybody survives,” he explains. “Some fairly large players don’t make it through. You never know if someone’s going to be around for five minutes or five episodes, or if they’ll survive the season.”

The showrunner warns, however, that fans of the film shouldn’t expect a rerun when the series begins in the US with a double episode on August 13. “I do worry [that fans will expect the film],” he admits. “Our show turned out wonderfully so I hope they’re willing to accept something different, but it is very different from the movie. There’s no question. They’re different, the tone is different, everything has been reimagined.”

Until the launch, viewers can get a taste of the series by streaming the first three episodes from the Epix website. With largely positive reviews on social media so far, it looks set to be the hit that keeps Epix fighting among the traditional drama networks.

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Action Station

DQ speaks to the cast and creative team behind US spy drama Berlin Station, a modern-day thriller that draws parallels with the real-life case of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Richard Armitage is a long way from the Shire. While the British actor might now be best known for his role as Thorin in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy The Hobbit, the Spooks star’s new role sees him thrown back into the familiar world of espionage in 10-part drama Berlin Station.

The first original drama from US cable network Epix, the story follows Daniel Miller (Armitage) who has just arrived at the CIA foreign station in Berlin tasked with a clandestine mission to uncover the identity of an infamous whistleblower known as Thomas Shaw.

Olen Steinhauer
Olen Steinhauer

The cast also includes Michelle Forbes (The Killing), Richard Jenkins (Olive Kitteridge), Leland Orser (Ray Donovan) and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill).

It was created by bestselling spy novelist Olen Steinhauer, who executive produces alongside showrunner Bradford Winters, director Michaël Roskam, Eric Roth, Steve Golin, Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Keith Redmon and Luke Rivett.

“It’s one of my favourite genres,” Armitage says of his decision to star in the spy thriller. “When there’s a lot of stuff on the market, it’s the thing I get drawn to. It’s down to the Jason Bourne movies. I had a taste of it with Spooks and Strike Back and I was looking to do a really good television show. There’s so much out there in terms of scripts, so the criteria I put out were that I didn’t want anything that had a gimmick and that it had to feel contemporary. The spy drama seems to fit in that mould.”

Berlin Station, which debuted on October 16, doesn’t present a glamorous view of espionage, however, with the series focusing on the everyday as much as the extraordinary.

“We all agreed that a lot of the time in this genre, it tends to be a competence fetish,” Armitage explains. “Characters are either super intelligent or have this special skill set. We wanted this story to be about ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs, how far they’re stretched and how they are flawed and make mistakes. I’m sure that, for people on the front line, it’s got to be one of the most stressful jobs out there. You have to behave like a machine. But they cannot detach themselves emotionally from what’s going on.”

That the show, which is produced by Anonymous Content and distributor Paramount TV, should be grounded in reality was a concept that was quickly agreed upon by Winters and Steinhauer.

Berlin Station
Berlin Station stars Richard Armitage as a spy

“These are normal people who happen to work in the field of intelligence,” explains Winters, who came on board the series tasked with lifting Steinhauer’s story from page to screen. “They have lots of baggage. We wanted to humanise this cast of characters in a day and age that is filled with the more heroic or super-heroic side of people who are fighting the good fight. This show attempts to take a clear view of a system and the people who work within it, and to treat it respectfully in a character-based fashion. More than a desire to thrill or keep viewers on the edge of their seats was a hope to get people invested in the characters.”

The influence of the saga of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified government documents to journalists in 2013, looms large over the central storylines as Armitage’s CIA operative tracks down the enigmatic Shaw.

“The idea itself was conceived post-Snowden so it was deliberate and intentional to deal with issues that are very of the moment,” Winters reveals. “There was definitely foresight and deliberation in our plot. Where this wasn’t the case was in how things in Europe leant themselves to the story after filming began. Unfortunately, because of those terrible incidents in Paris and Brussels, it’s an example where our story will have an even greater relevance.”

Coming from a career writing novels, Steinhauer admits he faced a learning curve moving into television. “As a novelist, you have this extreme level of ownership, but you have to let that go [in TV],” he says. “At first it’s difficult, but once I saw the necessity of it when you’re in production, I became more comfortable with it. A lot of great ideas come out of it – your mind goes in directions it wouldn’t have gone if you were writing alone, so that’s a great benefit. It takes you out of your box.

Berlin Station
The series also features Michelle Forbes, star of US drama The Killing

“When you spend so long looking at words on the page, to have an actor bring their own experiences and preferences and reinterpret those words, it’s quite powerful to see that happen. They take possession of those characters and it encourages me and other writers to work that much harder to make it perfect.”

Winters reveals that working alongside Steinhauer was “a very collaborative process,” adding: “Many of the ideas and structures in the series bible definitely stayed intact but everything was fluid and malleable to serve the evolving story that we set out to tell. What we ended up with was quite different from where it started but, at its core, it was true to that essence at the heart of it. It was a healthy process.”

Production encompassed five months filming in Berlin as well as a week in the Canary Islands, which doubled for scenes set in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Panama. And while spy stories set in the German capital have traditionally focused on the Cold War period, it’s the modern-day, progressive Berlin that emerges as a central character in this drama.

“Berlin was wonderful,” Winters exclaims. “Coming from the US and given the quantity and quality of programming and cable programming in particular, you go overseas perhaps somewhat subconsciously with a sense of, ‘Let’s see how this goes.’ But it was such a delightful surprise to see the expertise of the crew and line producer who managed to get access to such wonderful locations.

Berlin Station
Hollywood’s Richard Jenkins is among the cast

“Shooting in Berlin was fantastic. It was a fun, friendly city on an admin and a creative level. The city, with its layers of history that are so visible everywhere you go, just plays wonderfully into the themes that run through the spy genre. Questions of human identity and the masks we wear were just amplified by the city – a place that has struggled with its own identity in the last century.”

Steinhauer adds: “Most people in the US have a picture of Berlin from the Cold War – grey and dilapidated. I wanted to counter that. This is an extremely colourful city and we needed to bring that out. A lot of shots are set out that way. I didn’t want some CSI thing or people devouring satellite photos. I wanted a more human element. The focus of the show is more on the job and the toll it takes. Spies are normal people who have an abnormal job. It’s hard to take for some people.”

Before production, Armitage worked with a German language coach and used Rosetta Stone recordings to perfect his German accent for lines that called for him to speak the language, while the British actor admits it was also a challenge to find the right American dialect for his character.

“I found it difficult to drop into and out of that voice so I tended to stay in it all day,” he reveals. “I stayed in character for five months! Most people I was talking to were either American or German so it just felt easier. But speaking fluent German in front of Germans was really challenging.

Bradford Winters
Bradford Winters

“Another challenge was shooting in sub-zero temperatures, as we filmed during the winter. In episode four there’s a flashback to Chechnya and it was minus 15 degrees. On The Hobbit, it was mostly too hot but this was different – your jaw freezes, so speaking in a foreign dialect is very difficult!”

Television is far from a new medium for Armitage, whose small-screen credits range from Hannibal to Cold Feet and The Vicar of Dibley, in addition to the aforementioned Spooks and Strike Back. “I want to do both TV and film,” he says, though his latest role is in the off-Broadway play Love, Love, Love. “I’ve done a lot of independent films since The Hobbit but there’s certainly some pleasure in taking something with a bit of job security, and the opportunity to develop a character over 10 episodes is really appealing. With a film of 120 minutes, there’s not enough meat on the bone. TV has changed so much. Most actors want a great TV show and then go and do a couple of movies or theatre during the break. It’s about keeping yourself visible.”

Steinhauer is also keen to do more television after landing his first show, for which he wrote three of the 10 episodes. But once the case of Thomas Shaw is unwrapped, will there be a return visit to Berlin Station?

“The characters are rich enough that you can keep them alive for years,” he says. “One of the engines of the show is that the focus is on one location, rather than one character. People can come and go. It could go on for 25 years.”

He adds: “I would like to do more TV. There are always a lot of ideas flowing around. This has showed me that I can do it and I’m not too bad at it. It’s certainly something I would try again at some point in the future.”

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Acorn TV is US growth opportunity

And Then There Were None
And Then There Were None is among the overseas shows that have been added to Acorn

Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.

However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).

This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.

Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.

Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.

Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt
Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt

Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.

Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.

Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”

Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in HBO's Ballers
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in HBO’s Ballers

Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.

Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.

HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.

HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.

The Last Ship
The Last Ship has been given a fourth run on TNT

Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.

Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.

In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”

Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”

The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name
The Last Tycoon has been adapted from the F Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name

Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”

In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.

News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.


David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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Federation backs belgian content

Unit 42
Belgian drama Unit 42 will be distributed by Federation Entertainment

The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).

Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.

Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.

Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.

Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.

Salamander sold internationally

In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.

Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.

And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.

Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.

The original Lost in Space
The original Lost in Space

Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.

Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.

Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”

Roadies hasn’t opened particularly strongly

Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.

At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.

Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”

Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).

Could House of Cards get a spin-off?
Could House of Cards get a spin-off?

Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”

The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.

In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”

Starz's Ash vs Evil Dead
Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead

The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”

Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”

The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.

Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.

The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.

The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.

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