Tag Archives: Fremantle

Illuminating drama

A starry cast lights up the screen in The Luminaries, a BBC and TVNZ coproduction based on Eleanor Catton’s award-winning novel. The author, who has adapted her own work, and director Claire McCarthy tell DQ about transforming the book for television.

Among the literary prizes handed out for novels, the Man Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious, recognising the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.

When Eleanor Catton scooped the award in 2013 for her book The Luminaries, she became the youngest winner in the prize’s history, while it was also the longest ever winning novel, coming in at 832 pages. In addition, she was only the second New Zealander to win, beating 151 novelists who submitted their work that year.

The chairman of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described it as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast… a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster,’ but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.”

It was only a matter of time, then, before it would be brought to television, although it is not an exaggeration to say the book has undergone a huge transformation to reach the small screen. Overseeing the process has been Catton herself, who has written the six-part series for BBC2 in the UK and TVNZ in New Zealand. It is produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films, with Fremantle distributing.

A 19th century tale of adventure and mystery set on the Wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, the story is described as an epic story of love, murder and revenge.

Eva Green (left) and Eve Hewson in The Luminaries

In a unique structure, the book sets out events from the perspective of multiple characters, whereas the series focuses on defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life. There she meets the radiant Emery Staines, an encounter that triggers a strange kind of magic that neither can explain. As they fall in love, driven together and apart by fateful coincidence, these star-crossed lovers begin to wonder: do we make our fortunes, or do our fortunes make us?

Eve Hewson (The Knick) and Eva Green (Penny Dreadful) lead the cast as Anna and Lydia Wells, respectively, alongside Himesh Patel (The Aeronauts) as Emery Staines, Ewen Leslie (The Cry) as Crosbie Wells and Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) as Francis Carver.

Working Title Television MD Andrew Woodhead had scored rights to the novel before it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but Catton says it was never part of the conversation that she would adapt it herself.

“He began sending it to various people [scriptwriters] to read and everybody probably read the first few pages and said, ‘Absolutely not,’” she says. “In some ways it’s quite a niche project. It’s a New Zealand setting, it has this astrological superstructure. It’s not a historical story in any way, it’s entirely invented, so it’s not as if you can research it.

“So as more and more people turned it down, months were passing and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just started seeing it in my head. Amazingly, he said, ‘Why don’t you give it a go and see what happens?’ At the start of pre-production, I was up to 61 final drafts of the first episode. It must be at least double that now – and the first ever script bears almost no resemblance at all to the finished episode.”

In the book, Catton wanted each person’s perspective to interpret the plot as a different kind of story – one person sees a murder mystery, another a heist gone wrong and, for Anna and Emery, it’s a love story. But to make it work on screen, the writer upended the entire structure to focus on Anna and Lydia’s relationship.

Himesh Patel, star of Danny Boyle movie Yesterday, also features among the cast

“The challenge was always how can we make the more experimental and original elements of the story work,” she explains. “There’s a very strong magical subplot in the book but we needed to figure out how to translate it to the screen. There’s an extended courtroom scene at the end where you’re offered a choice between a magical, impossible but quite romantic story, or something logical and plausible but maybe less romantic, and you have to choose. That’s much harder on screen, because seeing is believing.

“Bringing it back to the two women was a choice about focusing the drama on this essential question of do you make your fortune or does your fortune determine who you are. Anna’s relationship with Lydia in the show, more so than in the book, is a seduction. There’s a sense of them testing one another and not being entirely honest with one another. It’s such an enormous cast, we could have taken any number of avenues. But the moment we cast these amazing women, every time they do a scene together, I’m just like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Doubling up her duties as an exec producer meant Catton was heavily involved throughout the series, not least in casting. She praises Green for being the first to sign on when she could have waited to see who she would be playing against. “It was something I felt really strongly about, but I really was so pleased with who we cast,” she says. “I don’t feel like there’s a weak link in there. It’s actually very distracting because they’re all so good looking, enigmatic and such interesting actors.”

Behind the camera is Claire McCarthy (Ophelia), who is revelling in bringing 1860s New Zealand to the screen. “It’s such a rich world, and a world we haven’t really seen before,” she says.

The series, the director explains, dances a fine line between genre – period, fantasy and astrological – while almost lampooning a Victorian sensation novel. Those stories were popular in the same period and introduced outlandish plot lines in often familiar domestic settings.

Claire McCarthy

“In our retelling, the challenge has been about streamlining it, because it’s such a hefty tome,” she continues. “If we didn’t have Eleanor writing the scripts, I don’t think it would have been as subversive a retelling. She’s almost told it from the inside out.”

McCarthy has been working with production designer Felicity Abbot and cinematographer Vincent Baker to define the visual aesthetics and style of the show and reveal the story from Anna’s perspective. “There’s a sensual quality about the show but there’s also these kinds of genre elements – murder mystery and treachery, betrayal and these kinds of big, dramatic themes,” she says.

“So there’s a pace to the way the story unfolds. The story’s quite densely woven so it’s also working out how we can keep the viewer clearly inside the story, but also working out where we want them to fit inside the mystery.”

On set in New Zealand, McCarthy has found herself surrounded by many of the crew members and landscapes that were integral to making feature films such as The Piano, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles. So while a lot of The Luminaries is filmed on location, the production team also built the central town of Hokitika, where the story plays out.

“We decided on this 360-degree set in this mud bowl; it’s quite visceral and rugged,” the director says. “We really wanted it to feel like it was a living, breathing frontier town, right at the edge of the world. We built some sets for practical reasons and just to support the elaborate sequences we do have. We also have a large on-location set down in the real Hokitika on South Island, which has a very specific landscape and mountain range. The skies and the waters are really one of a kind.”

McCarthy jokes that the series is a “strange hybrid” between television and film. “It’s an epic tale,” she adds. “To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story and the way it’s being told. Cinema can be more conservative. I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process. I really hope the audience likes it.”

For Catton, bringing The Luminaries to the screen has been “extraordinary, it’s such a dream come true.” She adds: “It’s almost like a new version of the book, it’s almost completely reimagined. So I hope there will be something for everyone.”


Grilling Eve
Eve Hewson is used to playing dramatic roles, with parts in TV series The Knick and feature films Robin Hood, Bridge of Spies and Papillon. Yet as Anna Wetherell in The Luminaries, she takes the lead in a series that has put her through her paces. “It’s been non-stop. It’s really intense, emotional and physical, but I’m really proud of it,” she says.

With Eleanor Catton adapting her own novel, Hewson says the series offers viewers a chance to see a different version of the same story. “It’s a smart and interesting adaptation,” she says. “Eleanor’s writing is genius, and in a TV series we have all these characters and the time to make the relationships distinct.

“What’s beautiful about the story is it’s a period piece, it’s mystical and wonderful and imaginative but it’s also the story of what women go through today and what they went through back then,” the actor continues. “There have been a lot of conversations about how we approach it and the way it’s dignified and truthful. We keep it true to the character and story.”

Hewson says she has been surprised by the number of women on the crew, which is led by director Claire McCarthy, describing the atmosphere on set as “nurturing.” She also says how nice it has been to be supported by a women director as she takes on Anna’s “very dark journey.” She explains: “I don’t know if it would have been the same if we’d had a male director by my side. There’s a closeness and I know I’m protected by her. We could have certain conversations about things that happen to women.”

The Irish actor also questions whether The Luminaries, and Anna’s story in particular, would have been dramatised for television if it were set in the present day, noting how much more palatable certain subjects are to audiences if they are placed in another time.

“There’s some weird thing about period dramas. Because it’s so far away, the audience accepts what happened to women more easily than accepting it’s happening today. Anna is a prostitute in the book but it’s much harder to get a six-part series on the BBC about prostitutes living in our time right now. For some reason, it’s more acceptable in a period drama.

“I just hope people connect with it and they feel what we all felt when we read the scripts. I hope they fall in love with the characters and Anna and they enjoy themselves. I hope we have made an entertaining show. Even though it’s well written and directed and the acting’s great, I hope people are still entertained. That’s the joy of TV.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Welcome to Windermere

The previously untold story of how hundreds of children came to the UK from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War is dramatised in The Windermere Children, a stark and poignant film commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the summer of 1945, following the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, hundreds of orphaned Jewish refugees started new lives in the picturesque surroundings of England’s Lake District.

When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated at the end of the six-year conflict, the survivors included many Jewish children who had been separated from their families and lived through the horrendous conditions they were confronted with.

On August 14, 1945, 300 young people – of a variety of ages and backgrounds – were brought from Prague via RAF aircraft to the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windermere, where these children would spend four months together. In total, more than 700 young Jewish refugees came to England after the war.

This remarkable story is now the focus of a single drama commissioned by BBC2 in the UK and Germany’s ZDF, which airs today to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Windermere Children tells the true story of young Jewish refugees who came to the Lake District at the end of the Second World War

The 90-minute film opens when a coach full of quiet, nervous children arrives at the former factory accommodation that would become their temporary home.

Carrying only a few small possessions and the clothes on their back, they are initially hesitant about what awaits them as they are asked to line up and hand over their belongings – a process echoing their time in the camps. The subsequent sight of their own bedrooms and plentiful baskets of fresh bread is initially overwhelming.

What transpires is a story of hope and survival as a team of counsellors try to help the children come to terms with their horrifying experiences and reclaim their lives. Together, they learn English, ride bikes and play football, while revolutionary art therapy sessions reveal some of their darkest nightmares – an element fully realised by the haunting screams that fill their dormitories each evening.

“I’d heard of The Windermere Children story before but I’d never understood the importance or the audacity of the undertaking or just what a life-changing event this was,” says Patrick Holland, controller of BBC2.

“Taking hundreds of children who had experienced the very worst of humanity is capable of and using the bucolic setting of the Lakes to help restart and reset what life could be felt like a work of fiction. But it was clear this transformative story demanded to be told.

As sports coach Jock Lawrence, Game of Thrones star Iain Glen (right) is among those playing the real-life counsellors

“The Windermere Children explores the ability to start again in the darkest of times. It shows the profound positive impact one group of people had on the lives of others. It celebrates a nation welcoming the most vulnerable and allowing them to thrive.”

Writer Simon Block didn’t know the story, but was approached by producer Wall to Wall with the idea of bringing it to the screen. He says the way into the story became clear after meeting some of the real-life Windermere Children, the majority of whom were boys, and speaking to historians and researchers about what took place over those four months in 1945. Advisors included Trevor Avery and Rose Smith of the Lake District Holocaust Museum and the 45 Aid Society.

‘It was then a question of processing all that information and making sure we had a skeleton of a good story,” Block says. “However much information you have of a story that happened in real life, it still has to have the shape of a drama – but you don’t want to bend the facts to the shape. There was quite a lot of reworking to make sure we were accurate but also telling a compelling story.”

The story is led by powerful performances from young actors Marek Wroblewski (Sam Laskier), Kaceper Šwiętek (Chaim Olmer), Kuba Sprenger (Ike Alterman), Pascal Fischer (Ben Helfgott) and Jakub Jankiewicz (Salek), who all play real survivors who were brought to Windermere.

They are supported by a cast of actors also playing real people. Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist) is child psychologist Oscar Friedmann, Romola Garai (The Miniaturist) plays art therapist Marie Paneth, Tim McInnery (Strangers) is philanthropist Leonard Montefiore and Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) takes the field as sports coach Jock Lawrence.

Tim McInnery plays philanthropist Leonard Montefiore

Garai, whose father’s family emigrated to the UK from Hungary before the war, describes Paneth as a “really incredible person.” She continues: “She developed art therapy and play therapy and had worked originally with children affected by the Blitz, and that was how she was drawn into the project.

“What the film really describes brilliantly and interestingly is the understanding that people came up against the greatest tragedy of all human history and found themselves maybe not quite prepared for that. They had all these wonderful intentions but the tsunami of suffering was something I don’t think they were ready for.

“People didn’t really know what they were doing except that they understood the human experience had to be more than just survival. It also had to be happiness, and they were trying to generate that feeling in the children again, or at least suggest it could be something they were striving for. It was very moving to me. They were really courageous people who were also slightly struggling in this very difficult situation.”

Glen expresses admiration for the way The Windermere Children, which was filmed in Northern Ireland, captures the horrors of the Holocaust without showing them, with the drama absent of any flashbacks or concentration camp reenactments.

“It was really down to these young actors who managed to do it, and Michael [Samuels, director] was brilliant with them,” he says. “You wanted that suggested history without every depicting it.”

The drama’s young cast pictured alongside the real ‘Windermere Children’ they play on screen and who appear at the end of the programme

Lawrence was a retired PE teacher who offered to help the children when they arrived at Windermere. “Just being outside and being active in the beautiful surroundings was actually really vital to a lot of their recovery,” Glen says. “All the people who received the kids weren’t quite prepared with the level of trauma and how to deal with it. In a simple sense, just getting them out and active was incredibly beneficial.”

Montefiore was behind the project, persuading the British government to allow hundreds of young Jewish concentration camp survivors to come to Britain, with the project supported by donations from the British Jewish community.

“They had no family to go home to. Something had to be done, and Leonard’s the kind of guy who fights and fights until those things happen,” McInnery says of his character. “He manages to raise money and convince politicians. I have huge admiration for these people; I’m hopeless at anything like that, so it’s humbling to play someone like that – who fights so hard on behalf of other people and dedicates their lives to it.

“What everybody managed to do in the space of four months is astonishing really. With these extraordinary people, the lives they [the children] managed to have afterwards are partly down to the people who gave them such help then.”

While the film – coproduced by Warner Bros ITVP Germany and distributed by Fremantle – is moving throughout and at times nightmarish and distressing, it is particularly poignant when the Red Cross delivers news of the fate of the children’s families, with none of it being positive. But it is ultimately a hugely uplifting and hopeful story, not least in the beautifully shot finale when the main characters stand on the bank of Lake Windermere, only to morph into their older, real-life counterparts.

Prague, August 1945: Some of the 300 refugee children headed for the Lake District

“I would be instinctively cautious about doing something like that, but I felt in this situation it was absolutely merited and a way to link the past and the present,” Samuels says. “What we tried to avoid was the sense that ‘everything’s sorted out now’ in four months, which would be ludicrous. But what we’re saying is we can imagine these people have hope and they will take something away from Windermere that didn’t exist beforehand.”

Block notes that it would be too easy to downplay the amount of suffering the children went through. “It didn’t end at Windermere by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds. “We wanted to avoid patness and it wasn’t about trying to rub the audience’s nose in human misery. It’s a much more interesting story about how these children came together and built a platform for the rest of their lives. They weren’t necessarily easy [lives], but they did that and it was important to end the film on an uplifting note.”

Certainly, the survivors and their families who attended a BBC screening of the film were satisfied by what they saw.

Polish-born Arek Hersh, who spent three years in concentration camps and now lives in Leeds, said the show was “very realistic,” adding: “It made me weep a bit, from time to time, and it was a true story of what actually happened.”

Harry Olmer, a fellow Polish survivor who went on to become a dentist in Glasgow, added: “The people who portrayed us were absolutely spot on. We were seen to begin with as semi-savages and yet we were brought back into humanity. We became human beings again.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Dark tales

Known for her frequent Agatha Christie adaptations, writer Sarah Phelps reveals how she transformed Tana French’s Irish crime novels into BBC drama Dublin Murders.

Sarah Phelps is a master of the literary adaptation. Best known for her TV reworkings of Agatha Christie novels, Phelps has so far brought four of the beloved author’s stories to the BBC – The ABC Murders, Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution – with a fifth, The Pale Horse, to come.

The screenwriter, playwright and producer has also proved a dab hand at Dickens, having penned miniseries versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist as well as multiple episodes of Dickensian, again all for the BBC.

For her latest book-to-screen project, however, Phelps has turned to altogether darker and more contemporary source material, taking on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad book series.

Set, as you might have guessed, in and around the Irish capital, Dublin Murders takes its lead from the first two novels in French’s six-part collection, In the Woods and The Likeness. Made for the BBC, Irish pubcaster RTÉ and US cablenet Starz, the show takes place in 2006, centring on detective partners Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox, played by Killian Scott and Sarah Greene.

The series is produced by Euston Films, Veritas Entertainment Group and Element Pictures, with Fremantle distributing.

Dublin Murders revolves around detective partners Cassie and Rob, played by Sarah Greene and Killian Scott

Rob and Cassie are tasked with investigating the murder of a teenager Katy Devlin, whose body is found on a makeshift altar in the middle of a woodland archaeological site – the same location where, 21 years earlier, three children went missing and only one came back alive.

It’s soon revealed, however, that Rob’s connection to the case isn’t merely professional and that the troubled detective’s deeply traumatic childhood makes this a very personal investigation.

As the eight-episode drama unfolds and the partners track a killer, Cassie, too, finds herself dealing with her past, and secrets relating to the dark, mysterious history of the woods and the unusual inhabitants of the neighbouring estate – including Katy’s family – come to the fore.

While adapting two books into a single story may sound like a daunting task, Phelps says it was a natural approach to take: “Tana herself said that she’d always thought of the books as being in pairs, and when I was reading them, I thought it would be a really great idea to sort of plait them together.”

With In the Woods focusing more on Rob and The Likeness more on Cassie, Phelps wanted the “consequences” of each story to “impact on [both characters] and really intensify their relationship within the investigation.”

The show comes from serial adapter Sarah Phelps, pictured here at C21’s Content London last year

And although the series is a mashup of both books, Phelps believes the story has stayed more faithful to the source material than some of her adaptations of single titles. “I think I’ve stuck to the plot, which may surprise people who know that I like to deviate from plots as much as possible,” she jokes. “Obviously there are deviations and obviously I change things, because one of the strengths of Tana’s writing is it’s such an immersive world.

“Her books are very ‘interior’ – you get to know every single, tiny little corner of each character, because you’re in their skin. You’re in their brain, in all the tiny little fissures of their mind with all the things they really don’t want you to know. In TV, you need to show, rather than tell, so that was one of the challenges. Taking the read experience to the watched experience is always a challenge – but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

As well as adaptations, Phelps clearly has an affinity for detective stories, with Dublin Murders coming on the back of her multiple Christie works – most recently, The ABC Murders saw John Malkovich play her iconic investigator character Poirot. But what was it about French’s books that particularly appealed? “One of the things I found really exciting about them is that, within the genre of detective thrillers, they’re also modern reimaginings of really ancient tales,” she says.

“For example, In the Woods is a modern reimagining of the ancient tale of the children who go under the hill. When you peel it down to its roots… it’s infanticide – all these dark tales are invented to cover up some terrible crime.

“It was really exciting to think that this is a detective thriller, this is a murder mystery and this is also a really deep dive into the stories that we tell ourselves, that we’ve told ourselves forever. Why do we tell those stories? To keep away the beast in the dark as we huddle round the fire and hope we’re not going to die before tomorrow.”

Although set in the Irish capital, the series was largely filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The theme of darkness is something that crops up frequently as Phelps talks about the series. Discussing entering the woods as a metaphor for descending into madness, she says: “I really like the idea that there’s this place where you think it’s familiar – it’s where you pitch your tent, it’s where you go and smoke a joint, where you build a den – but actually there’s something else going on.

“I’m always really attracted to stories where we think we know everything. You’ve got electric light, a torch on your phone… but when the lights go out, what we think and what we believe is a very different story. We’re great when the lights are on; we’re rational, we’re brilliant. But you turn the lights off in a dark place – in the country – it’s really dark. And I guarantee, within a minute, you’ll be thinking all sorts of shit.”

The writer adds that she’s always keen to pursue the idea of “who we are when the lights are on and who we are when they’re turned off – when everything goes wrong, when everything stops working. Who are we then? What do we believe when we’re out in the woods and all you can hear is a creak? That’s really what this show is about.”

The show opens with a flash-forward several months into the future, featuring a desolate Rob in a difficult conversation with Cassie, their relationship apparently broken beyond repair. This time shift is indicative of things to come, with Dublin Murders frequently swapping between 2006 and 1985 to reveal more about Rob’s past.

The production team took several steps to ensure viewers would immediately know what era they were seeing without it being literally spelled out on screen or awkwardly inserted into the dialogue.

Dublin Murders will air on Starz in the US after premiering on BBC1 in the UK

Saul Dibb, who directs the first two episodes, explains: “We took the idea of two different types of film that were present in 2006 and 1985 and we tried to replicate them. One is a very common Fuji stock from 2006, which is a bit cleaner and greener, while the one from 1985 is a lot grainier.

“We tried to make it subtle as well – it wasn’t a massive change, but a lot of other incremental things in the costumes, the performances, the writing and the language. It needed to be clear without the thing of turning the dial to no colour or super colour,” adds Dibb, who also exec produces alongside Phelps, Euston Films MD Kate Harwood, Noemi Spanos, Ed Guiney, Alan Gasmer, Peter Jaysen, Elizabeth Kilgariff and Tommy Bulfin.

Phelps picks up: “The colours in the 1985 sequences always make you think of the photo of your holidays that you’ve forgotten and you find it down the back of a skirting board. There’s a shock to it – immediately, you can taste Angel Delight. It was really shocking when I first saw the rushes, like seeing something you’d forgotten you’d lost.”

Although filming largely took place in Northern Ireland capital Belfast, Dublin Murders is notable for having an almost entirely Irish cast and crew, which certainly helps achieve the authentically Irish feel its creators strived for.

“The writing feels very, very real, and what it’s showing is not a stereotypical view,” says Dibb. “Partly, the challenge was shooting in Belfast and then keeping the look consistent to Dublin, but certainly in 2006 Dublin was a very fast-moving city, and that’s what was captured in the writing.

Dublin Murders’ cast and crew are almost entirely Irish

“It was exciting to be able to say, ‘We’re going to root this story, which has these pretty extraordinary characters and situations, in a very real world, with characters that you can engage with.’”

Keen to avoid anything like “the disastrous episode when EastEnders went to Ireland, over which we should draw a thick veil,” Phelps notes: “I wanted Ireland as it’s seen through the eyes of people who absolutely know it.”

As such, she felt it important to avoid landmarks and to show a side to the country less familiar to those from elsewhere. “It’s like when you’re watching London and you see St Paul’s. For Christ’s sake, I know what I’m looking at – let’s see Peckham!

“There’s an unfamiliarity to it. You don’t really know where you are and you’ve got to trust the people who are telling you the story, your guides. You’re like Dante in the Inferno.”

Dublin Murders debuts on BBC1 tonight before hitting US screens on Starz on November 10. And while its impact on viewers is yet to be seen, Dublin Murders has already quite literally left its mark on Phelps, who reveals she has tattoos dedicated to the show. One is of a set of antlers, a recurring visual theme in the show, and the other is of a hawthorn leaf, whose back story is rather more complicated.

The writer describes watching an episode of BBC factual series Countryfile in which a man in rural Northern Ireland was protesting against plans to cut down a hawthorn tree as part of a motorway expansion. The man warned that, because of the tree’s magical properties, cutting it down would have dire consequences.

“This guy wouldn’t back off. He kept going and going – ‘You cannot do this. This hawthorn tree is a magic tree. There’s going to be chaos.’ You’d think that, at some point, he’d be carted off,” Phelps recalls.

But it turns out the man got his way, with the motorway ending up curving around the tree, because, as Phelps sees it: “At some really deep metaphysical level, every single person, from contracting to engineering and planning – high government level – at some point woke up at four o’clock in the morning and went, ‘What if he’s fucking right? What if he’s right about the hawthorn tree?’

“And I thought, ‘That’s the story [of Dublin Murders].’ We think we’re modern, we’ve got everything. But deep down, what if? What if?”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Trying on a different hat

Actor Natalie Dormer explains how working on an independent feature film and Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock encouraged her to take more control behind the camera.

Natalie Dormer’s career to date might be noted for her on-screen appearances in Game of Thrones and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but she’s also had a long-standing if less noted interest off-screen too.

It was back in 2009 that the UK actor started co-writing indie feature In Darkness with her then other half Anthony Byrne, when by her own admission she was going through “a moment of frustration” with her career over the roles she was being offered.

Fast-forward a decade or so and Dormer now has a production deal with global giant Fremantle designed to allow her to fulfil her ambitions behind the camera but also steer her career in front of it too.

“I want to push myself as a storyteller, both as an actor and behind the camera,” she says. “But as an actor I feel the only way to not be offered the same role I’ve done before is to grab the reins myself a little bit. Then once you’ve shown people you have that skill, it begets itself and hopefully the snowball starts going down the hill.”

Natalie Dormer in Foxtel and Amazon period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock

While working on thriller In Darkness, which took six years “to draft, re-draft, finance and produce,” Dormer was also acting in shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, and CBS’s Elementary, plus movie The Professor & the Madman. And it was during this period that she had the “privilege of standing next to ‘monitor village’ and working closely with directors and producers.”

“There were five or six years where I really started to think about storytelling beyond the acting talent remit and my appetite got whetted, I got a taste for it and the team camaraderie,” she says.

“I learned so much in the years of development [on In Darkness] and then the post-production process and the promotion of that,” Dormer continues, adding that the lower budget nature of the show also meant she gained experience of attracting off-screen talent without the ability to pay top dollar.

“Everyone is on a job like that out of a passion to make a statement for themselves of some sort in terms of their creative discipline.

“I learned so much that it made me hungry to continue the process. I felt part of the team, and it was really invigorating being part of that core of producers, directors and lead writers. It’s addictive – how can we improve this story?”

Dormer as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones

It has also made Dormer a much better actor, she says, because she was privy to conversations that are normally kept from on-screen ears. “I went to dinners not with actors but with editors and producers so I was surreptitiously amassing an entire skill set without even realising it.”

Dormer, who most recently starred in Foxtel and Amazon drama Picnic at Hanging Rock, adds that “without sounding wanky” she has “a natural instinct for storytelling” that also propelled her career in its current direction.

“I realised that as well as wanting to hold the harness over my own career because of the frustration with the roles I was being offered, I also got a real kick out of finding stories, pitching them, finding colleagues – and that brings me up to where I am.”

Precisely, that is a first-look production deal with Fremantle to create a slate of projects, with Dormer already working with the prodco on Vivling, a series based on the life of Gone with the Wind star Vivien Leigh.

“At a basic level I have a first-look deal with Fremantle but they also give me financial support and an infrastructure to feel supported as I develop my slate,” she says, adding that the relationship developed during filming for the prodco’s drama Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“We shot In Darkness in 2016 and I had a producer credit on that, and I had this ground-shifting experience of shooting my own indie film. Quickly after that I went onto set [on The Professor & the Madman] with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and they’d both directed so I spoke to them. Then I went to do Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia and hung out with a lot of people who were doing it and had done it – I was trying to find my centre and confidence.”

CBS’s Elementary saw Dormer as a female version of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty

Dormer admits to experiencing “some teething problems” on the Aussie show, partly because “it was such an ambitious and wonderful project” but the experience drew her together with Fremantle’s exec VP, creative director of global drama Christian Vesper.

“The amazing Christian Vesper came out to Australia to speak to me and [showrunner/director] Larysa Kondracki to help smooth out those early teething problems,” she explains. “Through him and I having conversations, we realised we were simpatico. The Fremantle ethos at the moment is being a place where talent has a home. They’re nurturing those talent deals in a way that America is more used to than we are on this side of the pond, although we are going that way.

“Fremantle has a strong desire to nurture those creative relationships,” she adds, with this ultimately leading to the deal revealed late in 2018. Dormer was already working with Fremantle on Vivling, which also has UK production company Mainstreet Pictures attached. The story will explore Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier and her Academy Award-winning performances in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, plus themes of equality, abuses of power and mental health.

Acclaimed screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Maigret, Churchill’s Secret) is on board and reportedly has access to a wealth of archive material alongside Kendra Bean’s book Vivien Leigh – An Intimate Portrait. Fremantle will hold the global distribution rights to the series, with Dormer serving as producer as well as starring.

So will Dormer’s Fremantle deal enable her to pick and choose which roles she would like to play? “Some stories might have a nice small cameo role I could play,” she explains, “and Viv is specifically a vehicle to show an acting range. On a few of the other projects, I don’t know yet. Possibly no – I’m hoping to be so busy that it won’t be possible to do them all.”

Dormer alongside Ed Skrein in feature film In Darkness

What’s clearer is that Vivling will join the growing number of shows with a strong female protagonist, a trend that is finally now making its mark. “When you turn on the TV, there are all these female-protagonist shows. It is the golden era of TV and we’re on the crest of a wave with the three-dimensional female protagonist upon us. It’s long overdue.”

Inclusivity across the board is improving, she adds, but there remains a long way to go. The hope for Dormer is that she can attract some of that talent – both known and yet to be discovered – to develop projects that reflect the passion of those working on them.

“We all like money,” she jokes, “but what I can bring to this Fremantle situation is that I know what can attract creatives to a project, and that isn’t necessarily anything to do with a bank balance.

“People have points to make about what they can do, and it’s not just actors. Across the board, directors, producers and writers get pigeon-holed just as much as acting talent.”

With almost a decade of experience both in front of and behind the camera, Dormer is now looking to use her first-hand experience to change that.

tagged in: , , ,