Having worked on all three seasons of HBO’s Westworld, location manager Mandi Dillin talks to DQ about finding the real-world settings used in the science-fiction epic.
Until production was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, locations manager Mandi Dillin was scouting venues across LA and its world-famous Sunset Strip for Amazon Prime Video’s forthcoming drama Daisy Jones & The Six.
Based on the novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid and produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, the show charts the rise of a fictional 1970s rock band to become one of the most successful groups of all time, before splitting at the height of their fame.
“I’m very excited for this project. It’s so different from anything else I’ve done,” Dillin tells DQ from her home in LA. “It’s A Star is Born meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and we’re ready to go shooting on the Sunset Strip and in all these cool clubs. It was going to be such a fantastically beautiful project – and it is still happening, it’s just a matter of when. I feel like I’m playing human Twister where I have one hand on all of my crew, a leg on the locations, another hand on my vendors. I’m just trying to keep everybody warm until we get the green light.”
In a career stretching back over a decade, Dillin has worked on features including the first and third Iron Man movies, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained and Interstellar. Her TV credits include Transparent and I Love Dick.
“My process is the same in terms of how I work [in film and television] but, by default, the process for each project is different just because I’m working with a different producer and a different production designer, and they might have a way they like to do things,” she says.
“The one big difference on Daisy Jones, for example, is we have all the scripts for the entire season [before filming begins], which is becoming a lot more rare. On a lot of projects, you might get an outline at the beginning of the season and then a script 10 days before you start shooting that episode, which is terrifying, depending on the project. In television, you get that script and you’re off to the races, trying to find the best possible locations you can get within that period of time.
“But on this Amazon project, because we had everything in advance, we were able to put together a general lookbook for the entire season and know if there are locations we’re going back to and what’s happening in the future. So if I find something really great, we save it for that, rather than front-loading the beginning of the series. Every project has its own little idiosyncrasies we have to adjust to.”
Since Westworld’s pilot in 2014, Dillin has worked with creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on all three seasons of the HBO science-fiction series, which has amazed and challenged viewers with its story of a Wild West-inspired theme park whose guests’ every desire is fulfilled by its population of android hosts – whose journey to self-awareness leads to revolt. Season three concluded this week and is available in the UK on Sky Boxsets, NowTV and digital download. A fourth run has already been confirmed by HBO.
As well as its storyline and starry cast – which includes Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright – Westworld has become particularly well known for the utilising the desert landscapes of Utah and Arizona as the grounds for the park. But in season three, like the story itself, the locations were dramatically different, with the sentient hosts escaping the park and finding themselves in a future LA.
“What was really exciting for me and the viewers is we’re now in a whole new world,” Dillin explains. “It’s almost like a different show – because we’re in this urban environment, it feels so different. At the end of each season, there’s little rumblings about what could be coming, and Jonah (Nolan) had talked about this future world, so we knew it was coming.
“I joke that I’m always working on Westworld – even now when I’m scouting for 1970s LA – because my scouts will bring me a file or show me an address that might be great for the next season of Westworld or something in Westworld, I don’t know what. I have a Westworld folder on my computer where I just throw in anything that could possibly work for whatever season of Westworld. The exciting thing is that it really could be anything.”
Though parts of the visually dynamic third season were filmed in Singapore and Spain, it was still mostly filmed around LA, with just four days spent shooting in Spain and a week in Singapore.
“It’s 90% LA,” Dillin admits. “We really cherry-pick the locations we use on our foreign units and we pepper those in throughout the entire season, so you might see a little bit of Singapore in each episode but the amount of time filming in Singapore versus filming in LA is very small. That’s a testament to our creative mojo, that we go and get the big locations that really help sell this world we’re trying to create and fill it in with locations in LA.”
“In terms of aesthetic, anything goes for season three because we’re talking about a fictional future city, so we were able to really look at anything and everything that just looked cool,” she says. “Even though we do feature a lot of modern buildings, both in Singapore and LA, there was a pre-Second World War element that Jonah wanted to embrace as well. In one episode, Dolores [Wood] and Charlotte Hale [Tessa Thompson] meet in this beautiful hotel lobby, which is a 1920s building in LA.
“In another, there’s a beautiful costume party that’s also set in a 1920s building in downtown LA. Then you have that juxtaposed with the lobby of [fictional AI company] Incite, which is a combination of three buildings in LA and one in Singapore. It’s been great to combine the new and the old from different cities in the world to create our aesthetic for season three.”
Unsurprisingly, the amount of location work in Westworld means very little of the series is filmed in a studio, with Dillin noting that studio time has decreased with every season. Previously, the interiors of the Westworld park, plus the corporate offices and labs, were shot on stages. But as the storyline has evolved, the locations have played a greater role in production.
“Even in season three, we did not go to stage for the labs. In episode two, when we see Maeve [Newton] come to life and she’s walking through the labs, we actually had to build them on location because it made so much more sense than trying to rebuild that on stage. In my head, season three was about 96% on location. We started 80% on location, so it was already a massive amount.”
While season three is a glimpse into the future, the first two seasons took viewers back to the Wild West as the story played out across the vast Westworld park that took in Utah’s Castle Valley, Dead Horse Point State Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area – home to Lake Powell across the border in Arizona – and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.
More than just a key filming location, Utah is also where Nolan and Joy first wrote the series. “When they first started to brainstorm, they were at a resort in Utah. So from the very beginning, Jonah had wanted Utah, because that was where the project was created,” Dillin says. “Where else do you see the best western landscapes? We were 100% in Utah in season one, and mostly in season two. We had one day in Lake Powell [for the second run] – that was it. Those are the best untainted landscapes we could find for the stories we were trying to tell.”
Working with natural landscapes, Dillin was always forced to question which part of the Westworld park a certain area might belong to, noting that each section of the park had its own look. For example, Sweetwater, the small town at the centre of the park, has a traditional western look, but the further out visitors go, the landscape becomes darker and more treacherous.
“We wanted to make sure we were showing the different parts of the park visually, so you could look at one frame and know where you are in the park,” she says. “It’s the same for looking at these modern spaces. And in terms of our world-building, the exciting thing about creating a future world is nothing is really off limits. We’re combining these very modern buildings with pre-Second World War spaces in LA and also some colonial buildings in Singapore.”
Dillin’s film and TV career is notable for her relationships with the Nolan brothers – Westworld’s Jonathan and film director Christopher (Inception, Interstellar, the Batman trilogy). While both are known for telling ambitious stories in unique worlds, Dillin says she prefers working in TV where she has more time to bring them to life.
“The difference is that with Inception and Interstellar, we have two hours to tell our story; with Westworld, we have eight to 10 hours to tell our story,” she says. “I personally prefer working on large-scale episodic television because you have more time for the story to play out and you can create more in general. You can create a rich world where the viewer can really settle in. And for a project like Westworld, that’s important.
“I do enjoy working with the other Nolan,” she jokes about her work with Christopher, adding: “The visuals on his movies are equally stunning. He’s a gifted filmmaker who can tell his story in two or three hours.
“It’s challenging to be concise and successful with a feature. We can stretch our legs in television and I enjoy it. It might be quicker, it might be a 100-metre dash instead of a sprint, but I really enjoy being able to settle in and participate in the world-building over more episodes.”
Based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed novels, HBO and BBC drama His Dark Materials aims to set a new benchmark for fantasy series. The cast and writer Jack Thorne reveal their approach to writing and filming the adaptation.
Fantasy novels have always proved popular source material for films and TV series, but the unprecedented success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has sent the genre into overdrive in recent years, with commissioners around the world looking to land their own fantasy epic that can match the majesty of the George RR Martin adaptation.
Recent book-to-screen fantasy titles have included MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks’ novel series, and Starz drama American Gods, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman.
The streamers have also been getting in on the act. Amazon, which spent big on adapting Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens earlier this year, is taking its spending to the next level with its series version of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Netflix, meanwhile, is taking a major swing in the genre with The Witcher. Starring Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books, the show will be released later this year.
Now, after Game of Thrones concluded with its eighth season earlier this year and with prequel House of the Dragon on its way, HBO is aiming to set a new benchmark in the genre with an ambitious series adaptation of Philip Pullman novel trilogy His Dark Materials, coproduced with UK pubcaster BBC1.
Debuting in the UK this Sunday and stateside the day after, the first season of the series – a second run of which is already in production – is based on the first book in the series, Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass).
Unfolding across eight one-hour episodes, made by New Line Cinema and Bad Wolf (A Discovery of Witches), His Dark Materials is set in an alternative reality that features multiple parallel universes, with some worlds more like our own than others. The story centres on a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a world where all humans have talking animal companions known as dæmons, which are the physical manifestation of the human soul.
The first season follows Lyra, who lives with other orphans alongside scholars at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College, as she discovers a secret involving her uncle, Lord Asriel, and the villainous Mrs Coulter. After Lyra’s friend goes missing, she leaves Jordan College and embarks on a dangerous journey, uncovering links between a spate of child kidnappings and a mysterious substance known as Dust.
As adaptations go, there is little fantasy IP more revered than Pullman’s young-adult trilogy. And after the enormous disappointment surrounding the most recent screen outing based on the books – 2007 movie flop The Golden Compass – fans of the novels will be hoping for much better from the BBC and HBO.
The daunting task of penning the adaptation has been taken on by prolific British screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne, whose most recent TV credits include Channel 4 drama miniseries Kiri and The Accident. The latter premiered on the UK broadcaster last week.
Thorne admits that when he was initially approached about the project, his first thought was to “run for the hills.” As well as being wary of the huge pressure of living up to the source material, he was just months away from the opening of his West End version of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter & The Cursed Child and also had a pregnant wife to think about.
However, clearly a fan of Pullman’s work, Thorne soon changed his mind. “They’re just so perfect, these books, and the idea of anyone else doing them… I would’ve been insanely jealous,” he says.
The hard work then began, with Thorne returning to the trilogy he had previously read twice and consuming all three books over the course of four days. He then met with exec producer Jane Tranter, co-founder of Wales-based Bad Wolf, and agreed to board the project.
After that, Thorne and Tranter discussed their plans for the series with Pullman, keen to be as faithful to his work as possible. “The important thing we said from the very moment we met Philip was, ‘We want to tell this story,’” Thorne says. “I wanted to disappear; I didn’t want to be visible as a writer. I wanted to represent the soul of the books as well as I possibly could.
“Where we’ve added stuff or changed stuff, it’s been because we either thought that there was something we could do a bit differently to fit the screen a bit more, or because we were aware that we were going on a longer journey with this and maybe there were elements from later in the books that we could bring forward and help make our story sing.”
In one of many revelations offering an idea of the level of perfectionism applied to the project, Thorne says the first episode went through a whopping 46 drafts. “We went down a lot of wrong corridors, and sat in those corridors and wept,” he jokes.
“These books are monstrously good. When you’re given an adaptation, there are two forms. There are ones where you go, ‘There’s a seed of something brilliant here that I can play with and make work.’ And there are other ones where you go, ‘My job is just to get this as close to [the original] as possible on the screen.’
“I do think these books are perfect. And when you’re given perfection, that’s scary as shit.”
The cast of His Dark Materials provides further evidence of the scale of this series, with the production able to attract internationally recognisable actors including James McAvoy (Split), Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Clarke Peters (The Wire) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
Many viewers will recognise British-Spanish actor Dafne Keen, who stars as Lyra, from her remarkable turn as young mutant Laura in 2017 X-Men movie Logan.
The 14-year-old reveals that she didn’t expect to land the part following her first audition, which took place when her face was swollen from a jellyfish sting. But a subsequent audition alongside Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter, gave her a better feel for the character. And despite Keen being quite physically different from Pullman’s description of a blonde, curly-haired Lyra, the young actor believes they share many personality traits.
“We’re very nutty, both of us, very curious, quite loud and quite cheeky,” says Keen, who admits to feeling the pressure of portraying such a beloved character. “You tell yourself that you don’t think about that, but you genuinely do think about it. In your brain, you’re going, ‘Oh my God, someone save me!’
“When I was doing it, I was thinking there would probably be people who would be like, ‘This girl’s terrible, I hate her, she’s not doing it justice,’” Keen continues, before adding – like a true millennial – “sorry, not sorry.”
Sat alongside Keen is Wilson, who assures her young co-star that her concerns are unfounded. Recalling that she “knew instantly that [Keen] was the one” for the role upon that first shared audition, Wilson says: “She brought such an amazing energy that I thought, ‘I’ve got to put some of that into my performance.’ She’s totally at one with herself and there’s an animal side to her, which has got to be what Mrs Coulter was like when she was young… I’m taking notes from her.”
Keen and Wilson share plenty of screen time, with Mrs Coulter initially presenting herself to Lyra as a kindly benefactor before her true nature starts to be revealed. For those familiar with the books, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on casting choice for Mrs Coulter than Wilson, who previously excelled as a character with a very dark side in the shape of Alice in Luther, the BBC detective series starring Idris Elba.
Far from being concerned about her “evil” Mrs Coulter frightening young viewers, Wilson identifies a surprising benefit: “My nieces and nephews won’t want me to babysit again, and I’m OK with that,” she jokes.
Revealing that she was instantly attracted to the character, Wilson notes: “She’s so mysterious, unknowable and constantly unpredictable, and that’s why it’s such a joy to play. She’s a master manipulator and she knows what she’s doing. She’s incredibly intelligent and driven and she knows what she wants.”
Despite the well-documented failings of 2007’s The Golden Compass, one area in which it did succeed was in its recreation of Pullman’s dæmons, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Describing the creatures as “fundamental to every scene,” Wilson is confident this production has brought them to life equally well, while Peters, who plays The Master of Jordan College, is full of praise for the artists behind the dæmons. “What was awesome about it was the puppeteers and the way they served us as actors,” he says.
One scene from episode one sees The Master interacting with a dæmon in the form of a leopard. “It could have just been a puppet, but the puppeteer made it breathe and moved it around so it would get comfortable,” says the actor, best known for playing detective Lester Freamon in seminal HBO drama The Wire. “The face of the puppet looks so awesome that you didn’t know whether you were really looking at a leopard or not. So the experience of acting with something that, in the past, would have just been in your imagination was supported by wonderful technicians.”
One of the main criticisms of The Golden Compass movie was the extent to which it shied away from the religious themes in the source material, with Pullman’s trilogy offering a barely veiled criticism of Catholicism.
Executive producer Tranter insists that no punches have been pulled in this adaptation. “We planned to adapt the books as the books were written, so we will go to the heights of the discourse that the books go to,” she says.
“One of the beauties of working for the BBC and HBO is that no-one is fearful. In fact, everyone is embracing of the journey the books go on. You don’t work for the BBC and HBO and do a vanilla adaptation that cuts through the middle and doesn’t tackle, right from the get-go, every note that the trilogy has got to sound.”
Thorne, meanwhile, believes the themes of His Dark Materials are now more relevant than ever. Speaking on the day Extinction Rebellion protestors were controversially removed from central London streets, he says: “We live in scary times. There’s so much in Philip’s book that’s about where we’re at now, even more than when he first wrote it.
“The thing that I most admire about his telling is that there’s an obvious story to be told – Asriel’s story – and he doesn’t tell it; he tells Lyra’s. That choice between following the person who’s intent on greatness, Asriel, and abandoning that in order to follow the person intent on goodness, in Lyra, is such a bold and brilliant choice.”
He also compares Lyra to young climate change activist Greta Thunberg, noting: “There are quite a lot of similarities there.”
Sounding wise beyond her years, Keen agrees that her character is a strong role model. “What’s really relevant is that Lyra is growing up in a world of men, in a college, which is basically what is happening to any girl in 2019,” she notes.
“The most amazing thing about Lyra, and what every single girl should take from her, is don’t be scared – go out there and be yourself. Because if you are a force of nature, which is what Lyra is, you will make yourself seen and heard.”
Having won multiple awards for playing royalty on screen, Helen Mirren reigns once again in four-part miniseries Catherine the Great.
Providing a glimpse into the world of one of the most powerful female monarchs in history, the drama focuses on Catherine’s passionate affair with general Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), overcoming their adversaries to build Russia’s reputation as one of the great European powers of the 18th century.
In this DQTV video, writer Nigel Williams talks about how he first discovered the story of Catherine the Great and reuniting with Mirren after their 2005 Emmy-winning historical drama Elizabeth I.
He also discusses his adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, writing period dramas and his tips for aspiring writers.
Catherine the Great is produced by Origin Pictures and New Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution.
Dame Helen Mirren is no stranger to portraying royalty on screen. But as she reveals, it was after an off-the-cuff remark that she found herself playing the title role in Sky and HBO miniseries Catherine the Great.
It takes a special actor to play one of the greatest and longest-reigning monarchs in history, and a vast, experienced cast and crew to support her.
Dame Helen Mirren is at her imperious best as the titular Russian empress in four-parter Catherine the Great. A combination of heavyweight co-stars and lavish production values and locations help to tell the story to startling effect.
The miniseries – the third in HBO and Sky Atlantic’s global partnership after The Young Pope and Chernobyl – is produced by Origin Pictures and New Pictures and was filmed largely in Lithuania and Latvia, where existing buildings were taken over to recreate 18th century Russian palaces and offices as well as Catherine’s apartment.
The production also gained access to several real palaces, including the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, which – combined with a big-budget costume department – helped Mirren get into character.
“We shot mostly in Lithuania but we also had the incredible privilege and advantage of shooting in Catherine’s palace in Russia,” she says. “And really, it did make such a difference. Of course, one can get into character in a studio, but to stand in those rooms that Catherine stood in, wearing those dresses, was an amazing experience. I do love a big dress, I must say! I’ve never got over my six-year-old self’s love of dressing up.
“Every now and again, in between takes, I would go wandering off so that I could just be alone in a room and think and feel. Oh my God, to look out of a window I knew she’d looked out of – that’s unbeatable.
“The palaces were actually destroyed in the Second World War, but the Russians did an amazing job of restoring them, and that is one of the great privileges of this job – to spend time really investing in a role.”
Catherine the Great’s story focuses on the later years of Catherine’s life, in which she ruled Russia alone after a coup in 1762 that led to the death of her bullying and drunken husband, Emperor Peter III. German by birth, Catherine became one of Russia’s longest-reigning monarchs, ruling as empress until 1796 and never remarrying.
“It would have been wonderful to have played the whole arc of her life but, of course, you can’t because you’d have to do it with two different actresses,” Mirren says. “At my end of life, we had to explore the latter end of her life.
“But that was the period in her life when she truly became ‘the Great’ when it came to extending the Russian empire, and the way she managed her power, so actually that worked out well.”
The series came about after Mirren was asked in an interview whom she would like to play next and – partly because of a lack of anything else to say, and partly because she had genuinely read up a lot on her life – found herself naming Catherine the Great.
Producer David Johnson saw the quote and immediately set about creating the project with scripts from Nigel Williams, who previously worked with Mirren on two-part miniseries Elizabeth I in 2005.
Mirren was surprised but thrilled to find herself being offered the role after such a flippant comment. She says: “I’m half Russian so I have always been curious about Catherine and, of course, any women in history who have had extraordinary lives, who have experienced enormous success, who have been powerful, obviously they are going to be interesting roles to play. So there was always a fascination for me.
“I very rarely have an answer when people ask me what role I’d like to play, because often the best roles are the ones that take you by surprise. But I did foolishly say Catherine the Great, and my dear producer rushed off to get the deal done, which completely took me by surprise. You have to be careful what you wish for. Next time I will answer, ‘I don’t know!’”
Catherine had many detractors, including her own son, Paul, who tried to denigrate her with false rumours about a voracious sexual appetite for not just men but also horses. Yet most historians believe Catherine had only a few partners, with whom she was entirely monogamous, and the series focuses particularly on her long relationship with Grigory Potemkin (played by Australian actor Jason Clarke), her right-hand military man.
As Potemkin was very often on the battlefield, their relationship was carried out through many love letters, which still exist today.
“I did do research,” says Mirren. “You can’t go into a role like this without reading up on the history. I read her books, they’re all on my mantlepiece – six very thick tomes.
“But the most valuable was just a sense of her life and her personality through reading her letters, though not all of them, as she was an incredibly prolific letter writer. They are very readable. The language is not dense.
“What was great to see was that Catherine had good wit and liked to have a laugh, which we tried to show at moments in the series. She wasn’t an uptight person and you can feel this through her letters, where there is a wonderful immediacy.
“They’re funny and full of observations about life that means in some ways you can almost read them as if they were written by a contemporary woman. Catherine was certainly a figure who was ahead of her time, so I think it was important to bring this to the role.”
Indeed, many of the scenes in the series, distributed by Sky Vision, show Catherine being flirty, cheeky or simply frivolous, especially during the dinner parties and balls she was so fond of throwing. Going by the tone of the letters, Williams managed to recreate a stye of talking that was not too fussy despite the period nature of the piece.
“I loved Nigel’s work on Elizabeth I and I think he’s a brilliant writer of period dialogue,” says Mirren. “He makes the language formal but very speakable.”
But beyond the light-hearted nature of her social life, Catherine is also seen as a fierce leader, and a liberal one: she wanted to reform the country and was a a patron of the arts, literature and education. Her art collection now forms the basis of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Having played two British monarchs previously (as the title character in miniseries Elizabeth I and winning an Oscar for portraying Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen), how does this one compare? “They don’t compare!” the actor insists. “I felt there was a similarity between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II in that they both felt pre-ordained for this role. The present Queen feels in her heart, I think, that God put her there and therefore she has a responsibility to God to fulfil this role. I think she and Elizabeth I had a great deal in common in that they both had that same attitude and feeling.
“I don’t think Catherine felt like that. Like Elizabeth I, she lived a very long life in an unbelievably precarious situation always. She managed always to negotiate and manoeuvre, when at any moment she could have been deposed and executed.
“But she took the throne, she wasn’t given it. And I think she took it because she knew that she, above all the people she saw around her, had the capabilities and the energy and the politics.
“In a sense, she was more like Winston Churchill, before the Second World War, knowing he was the only one who had the heart to do this thing. She was a masterful politician. I hope her legacy is that she was an extraordinary leader.”
The co-creators, writers and directors behind HBO’s Israeli drama Our Boys talk about the complex and delicate journey they undertook to dramatise and examine the tragic real-life events that led to war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel – were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas militants, sending shockwaves across Israel. The burned body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, was later found in a forest, leading to weeks of riots in the city.
These events, which left Jewish and Arab communities alike shaken and furious and led to the outbreak of war in Gaza, have now been dramatised in HBO limited series Our Boys. The 10-part drama follows the investigation into Khdeir’s murder, led by Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), an agent from the internal terror division of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency), while the parents of the slain teenager begin their long and anguished journey toward justice and consolation.
A coproduction between HBO and Keshet Studios, Our Boys is produced by Movie Plus and distributed globally by Keshet International. It was created by Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment), Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) and Tawfik Abu Wael (Thirst), who all also write and direct.
Apart from Simon, all the characters featured in the series are based on real people involved in the events.
Here, Levi, Cedar, Wael and lead actor Elkabetz take DQ into the development, writing and production of the series, detailing how they pulled the story together for television and the challenges they faced along the way.
Why was this a story that you wanted to tell on television?
Hagai Levi: I remember the summer of 2014 very well. It was a historic summer. For two-and-a-half weeks, I, like everyone, believed that perhaps the boys would be found alive. I remember where I was when their bodies were found. On July 2, the morning of my birthday (which, as usual, I try to ignore), word quickly spread about an Arab teenager from Shoafat whose body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest. Moments after the shock, another rumour spreads: the boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was murdered by his family because he was a homosexual. The force of my repression arises again: I am amazed at how readily I accept this theory, the extent to which I refuse to believe that the murder could be at the hands of Jews.
From here on, everything happened so fast: sweeping Palestinian riots in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, rockets fired at southern Israel, the bombing of Gaza. Within a week, all the boys were almost forgotten because the war began. I felt that what happened that summer was a story that had to be told. We are artists who make artistic choices but, in this specific case, I found it far more interesting to delve into my own self and not what had been done to me; to dig deep inside in hopes of finding answers that were not too upsetting.
How was the series developed with HBO? Joseph Cedar: In the spring of 2016, Hagai invited me to join him on this show he had already begun developing with Noah Stollman. The mandate from HBO was to find a story that captures the essence of what had happened in Israel in the dramatic and violent summer of 2014.
Tell us how you developed the story. Cedar: After months of research, we finally agreed on the story we felt had the potential to touch – if not fully capture – the endlessly complicated chain of events that led to a full-blown war in the Gaza Strip, one that still reverberates today on many levels in Israeli and Palestinian society. The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, told from the separate perspectives of all the key real-life characters involved, was that story. Shlomi Elkabetz: While Hagai, Joseph and Tawfik were writing Simon, we were talking about him on a daily basis for a few months before we shot the series. What really struck me was that this guy is hunting for the truth. He knows that what he’s looking for is something he will not like, and I was fascinated by this conflict – of somebody who knows that what he finds will designate his own end. In that sense, he is looking for his own death. The reality of the story and the truth he is going to find is something that is going to define him as a murderer, in a way. Because finding the people who killed Muhammad Abu Khdeir means to find the murderer within yourself, and that is something very challenging in acting and storytelling. The process was absolutely fascinating.
How did you represent both sides? Cedar: It quickly became evident we needed a Palestinian partner to tell the Palestinian side of the story. Both Hagai and I are acutely sensitive to external storytelling that tends to become culturally exotic or sensational. Tawfik Abu Wael was the first and only Palestinian partner we considered. Ever since his first film, Atash (Thirst), I have felt Tawfik’s work combines a rare poetic sensibility with an unflinching look at harsh realities. This precise blend also defines our ambition for this show. Tawfik Abu Wael: Joseph and Hagai wanted to give a significant voice to the Palestinian story so reached out to me to write and direct the Palestinian part of the series. Working with them was fascinating and challenging. They’re like two scientists, brilliant and thorough. As an artist from the margins of society, I had to re-invent myself within the demands of the job. It was a profound and infinite creative process, diving into all the layers of the story, with all the tension and difficulty it creates, where they ‘represent’ the Israeli side of the story and I represent the Palestinian side. Eventually, our loyalties were always towards what was more human and towards the artistic truth of the story. That was the common basis of our work.
Why did you choose to mix documentary and dramatisation? Levi: It was very clear from the beginning this was going to be our style. The idea was to create a unifying world where you don’t reveal what is documentary and what isn’t. It was also important for us that the abducted kids and their families would not be characters in the series. That was a decision we made, perhaps because we were too close to them and I didn’t feel comfortable with it. Cedar: We are reminding the audience that this is all real. In that sense, Our Boys is not at all like other Israeli shows, such as Fauda. When the riots broke out in Jerusalem after the bodies of the three Jewish teenagers were found, there were tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating on the streets, but there was no way for us to put this on the screen without using this kind of documentary footage that says, ‘This is real.’ We had some obligation to put that on screen.
Episode one begins with the three Israeli teenagers being kidnapped, but the rest of the series focuses on the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and subsequent investigation and trial. Why did you make that decision? Levi: This is a big issue and we discussed it at length. We were drawn to understanding the perpetrators of this murder more than we were interested in understanding the victimhood of our side, and there are two reasons for this. One is that we are on this wheel, where one act causes another. This has been going for years; this is our life. You can stop this wheel anywhere and it’s pretty much the same story. It’s a story of pain turning into revenge.
For us, both dramatically and politically, understanding the aggression is crucial. Understanding the victimhood is not uninteresting, but it’s easier to automatically sympathise with characters who are feeling pain. Focusing on the victimhood creates more acts of revenge. Focusing on the aggression, at least as I see it, speaks to trying to stop it. If you watch further into the series, you’ll find out the perpetrators of this horrible act are so far from anything that anyone would expect. Cedar: It’s easy to say they were extremists, but they’re not. They are just like us. So we tried to understand how this could happen – could it be us? Could it be our children? This is what interests us.
How would you describe the writing and directing process? Levi: I have been a showrunner for many years, so I’m used to cooperating and collaborating with others and then taking the best you can get, and dealing with all of the fights. For [Cedar and Wael], this was their first television experience. Cedar: We argued out every tiny detail as if it were the heart of the show and as if our entire personal and professional identities were resting on the outcome of every argument. Nothing was too small to fight over. But by fighting over ideas, abstract notions and vague opinions tend to crystallise and become distinct. Wael: I reinvented myself into this different process of working, of working with other people. I needed to argue all the time to defend and fight for things I believed. The good thing is that we all had the patience to listen to each other, to fight but not to hit each other. And, like they say in football, everything stayed on the field. Cedar: Tawfik wrote and directed the Palestinian line of this series. I directed the Jewish line of this series. Some scenes had both Palestinian and Jewish characters on set, so it was a bit like a boxing ring – I would coach my Jewish actors on one side of the ring, he would coach his actors on his side. Then they would meet in the middle, and nothing would work!
What were the key elements of the story you wanted to include? Levi: It was very important to us to not make this conflict entertainment. It was also important to us to be responsible and not to use people who are still living with this tragedy – it’s still very fresh, it was only five years ago – to make something fun. The main facts around the crime itself are always true. We invented some personal stories, but not the main story. Wael: It’s a true story; we did a lot of research, but it is a personal interpretation of that truth. Yes, I invented a few things for the drama. The main conflict is that you want to write a good story for all the world to enjoy but, on the other hand, you want to retain the dignity of the people concerned.
How did you overcome challenges in production? Wael: What made it all possible was those people behind the series – its creators who knew how to contain the story’s complexity; the producer who knew how to run everything smoothly, professionally and with endless humanity; the actors who played complex roles and who each gave their time and talent to the series; the cinematographer and two editors who knew how to maintain a distilled form of art while working with three different directors in a charged political story; and all the chiefs and technical crew who worked very hard to make this series what it turned out to be.
What are your ambitions for the series and what do you hope viewers take away from the story? Levi: As a writer, I want to deal with issues that are close to me – issues of introspection. That summer was very shocking to me personally. Something about that time had a great effect on me; it broke and disturbed me. As a former Orthodox Jew, I think that doing soul-searching is something that is really typical of us, and when I write and create a story, there is a certain ethic to which I am committed. I hope the series sparks the right kind of debate.
After eight seasons and 73 episodes, HBO’s epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones has come to an end.
The series debuted in April 2011 and aired in 207 territories. Over the course of its run, it filmed in 10 countries, including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Spain, Croatia, Iceland, the US, Canada and Scotland.
Northern Ireland was home to 49 locations alone, with Titanic Studios used for the interior sets of Winterfell, Castle Black, the High Hall of the Eyrie, the Sky Cells in the Eyrie, the Hall of Faces, the House of Black and White, the Great Sept of Baelor, and the throne rooms in both the Great Pyramid of Meereen and King’s Landing.
The series used 12,986 extras in the country and 2,000 Northern Ireland crew members across the series’ eight seasons. Overall, the show totalled 105,846 days of work for extras across all seasons and countries.
In this DQTV interview, executive producer Frank Doelger looks back on his “extraordinary experience” making the series, which he says has broken the mould for cinematic storytelling while also successfully combining elements of fantasy and reality to create a cohesive drama.
He also praised the team behind the scenes that put the show together, often with three or four units filming on different continents at the same time, and reveals his surprise at learning how the series would end.
Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.
The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.
Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.
It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.
The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.
Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.
However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.
On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.
The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.
The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.
“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”
The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.
“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.
“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”
Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.
The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.
Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.
“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”
Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”
Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.
For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.
“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”
Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.
“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”
Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.
Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”
The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.
“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”
But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”
Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.
“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”
The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.
Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.
Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.
Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.
The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.
It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?
Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”
Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”
Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.
“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”
The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.
Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.
Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.
Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”
While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”
He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”
The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.
“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”
“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”
The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”
This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.
“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”
But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.
“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.
“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”
Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”
“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”
One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.
Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”
Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”
This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.
“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”
Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.
“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”
With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.
But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”
It’s been seven years since Netflix first broke into original programming, transforming the way viewers watch drama forever. But how has the arrival of streaming platforms changed the way stories are told? In this special report, DQ explores storytelling in the digital age.
Times have changed. It’s been less than a decade since Netflix entered the original content business, first picking up Norwegian dramedy Lilyhammer for launch in 2012 and then releasing its first US series, House of Cards, the following year.
In that short space of time, the rise of streaming platforms around the world has changed the way we watch television, evolving the medium beyond all recognition. From families gathering around the box every evening to watch whatever the schedulers had planned, hundreds of series from across the globe are now available at the touch of a button – or the swipe of a finger across a tablet or smartphone.
Where once TV shows would be furiously debated and examined by friends and co-workers the day after transmission, water-cooler moments are now reserved for only the most buzz-worthy series. In many cases, it’s best not to talk about a series at all, lest you spoil it for someone who hasn’t caught up.
Yet while technology has dramatically changed the viewing experience for audiences, how have writers, producers and directors altered the way they tell stories on the small screen?
Some of the obvious changes to the way stories are now told have to do with structure and format. The traditional 60-minute running time, or 42 minutes for commercial networks, no longer applies as streamers do not have to fill a particular slot, allowing episodes the freedom to run to a time that suits the story. With shows like Homecoming on Amazon and Netflix’s Russian Doll, dramas are also embracing the half-hour model usually reserved for comedies.
With many VoD platforms being funded by subscriptions, the need to produce commercial-friendly series has also been removed, giving writers freedom to tell the stories they feel passionate about.
That opportunity to maintain their creative vision, without interference from coproducers, financiers, advertisers or other interested parties, might also explain why some high-profile showrunners have made the move to digital outlets. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) have all signed deals with Netflix, while Neil Gaiman (Good Omens), Melanie Marnich (Big Love), Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) have joined Amazon Studios.
Traditional broadcasters are also embracing change, under the threat of completely losing pace with their digital rivals. It’s no wonder freedom of creativity is now something demanded by creators and afforded to them by networks, as it not only allows writers to do their best work but also ensures the vision behind a series remains intact. When hearing a pitch for a new show, Netflix executives want to know who the creative lead is, to ensure the same person is driving the programme from conception through production.
“I have had a lot of luck in general as a storyteller, because in all the series I have written I never had editors who change too many lines or are very aggressive in the edit,” says Lucia Puenzo, the showrunner and director of Chilean drama La Jauría (The Pack). “On the contrary: I have absolute freedom in my scripts because I have a group of producers who accompany me and who can give their opinion but will respect my position if I do not agree with what they think in relation to the script.”
Puenzo has partnered with Oscar-winning producer Fabula (A Fantastic Woman) on the eight-part series, which follows a specialist police force investigating the suspected sexual assault of a student by her teacher. The TVN series is distributed by Fremantle.
“Our creative freedom began with the six months spent writing this series and continued into the shoot, with the choice of equipment, the cast and how to film,” Puenzo says. “In general, projects with less interference have more coherence. In series that are interfered with, almost as if they were an advertising client, they begin to lose a piece of their personality and become more pasteurised. That was not the case with La Jauría, which has a lot of personality that comes from being able to imagine it, from the beginning, with a lot of creative freedom.”
Hakan Lindhee, writer and director of Swedish political drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle), agrees that new platforms and viewing habits give creators the chance to dig much deeper into story. His series, produced by Fundament Film for Nordic streamer Viaplay and distributed by DRG, follows an ambitious politician who must balance the demands of his family with those of of his day job, while keeping numerous skeletons in his closet as he bids to become prime minister.
“You can really talk seriously to the audience,” Lindhee says of contemporary drama. “I think there is a great need for that. Many people with families, and those without, don’t really go to the cinema anymore but they have the same needs as always in history – to listen to interesting stories about life. Now TV drama has the same importance as good literature, and we always need good and interesting stories about life and how we live our lives.”
Audience is also front of mind for Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian serial drama The Heights, who says the distance between creators and viewers is shrinking, allowing writers to jump straight into complex storylines without the need for extensive introductions and exposition.
“The curtain has been pulled back a bit on television being this mystical box in the living room, which gives you a shorthand with the audience,” he explains. “The connection is so strong, you can really cut through to the truth of things. As a storyteller, your goal is always connection. [The new landscape] helps you create great stories that connect to the audience because they’re aware of the format, and I enjoy that.
“The other advantage of this disruption of the medium is this idea of variety. It’s not necessarily that the rules have been thrown out of the window, but you can interrogate the rules and traditions of storytelling. Like anything, you have to know the rules to break them, and often you come back to your core principles. But it’s a very fulfilling time to ask big questions about how we tell stories.”
When it comes to the types of stories being told, the traditional shackles of procedural dramas have been thrown off. No longer do stories, in the main, have to live within the realms of cops, doctors and lawyers. With so much drama being produced around the world, broadcasters have had to become braver in the series they commission, backing more specific or niche stories and genres that might not have had a look-in previously.
In turn, series that might have been considered niche on a traditional, local broadcaster – Netflix’s horror series The Haunting of Hill House (pictured top) or sci-fi mystery The OA, for example – can become global sensations. A drama might only attract a small audience in one country, but multiply that by more than 190 territories and you quickly have a hit.
“It’s difficult sometimes to make niche programming in Australia because we have a smaller population, if you’re just looking at a traditional domestic broadcaster,” Clarke says. “Whereas you can make a show for a streaming service that is niche because you will find that niche all over the world. That’s really great for the people who are in that niche to begin with. And if you’re not, you can find that content and expand your horizons a little bit. We’re all asking questions and trying to find the answers – and I think most people are enjoying the ride. I certainly am.”
On the whole, writers don’t set out to make bingeable television. Whether series are episodic or serialised, scripts are always written in the hope that viewers will automatically want to see the next one. If they don’t, well, that’s a problem.
Even so, Clarke says everyone in television is aware their shows will likely end up on a streaming platform one day, where the end credits of each episode are accompanied by a clock counting down the seconds until the next instalment automatically begins.
“It’s in the back of your mind, even if you’re doing the most traditional commission ever. Somewhere, it’s going to end up on a platform, so there’s no doubt every show is influenced by that at the moment,” he says, adding that when it comes to storylines, the challenge is to stay ahead of the audience. “It’s nice to deal with a sophisticated television audience. There’s no cheating any more, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure because people really have an option to change the channel, the screen, the room. It does push you really to try to create great stuff.”
Diederick Santer, executive producer of British crime drama Grantchester, also believes dramas can now be more sophisticated. “You tend to worry less about doing endless repeats [of plot points] or states of play within an episode,” he notes.
Grantchester, the ITV drama from Kudos and Endemol Shine International, is procedural in its nature, pairing a local vicar with a detective to solve crimes in every episode. Yet like many case-of-the-week dramas produced today, there are overarching storylines that run through entire seasons. Santer says these serialised elements are important for viewers to see characters grow and to understand that actions in one episode will have consequences later on.
“What we realised in season one of Grantchester is if we’re letting characters send someone to prison every week and that happens six times, that would have a consequence in terms of how you felt,” he notes. “You have to see episodic TV more cumulatively, like the characters are real people.”
By now it is a well-trodden line that television is the new novel, with serialised dramas telling one story in episodic chapters across eight or 10 hours. That in turn offers writers and actors the chance to dive deeper into characters, themes and situations that would otherwise have been glossed over in a 90-minute feature film – certainly one of the factors that has seen television draw on- and off-camera talent away from cinema.
“We joke that it’s a strange hybrid that sits between television and film,” director Claire McCarthy says of BBC and TVNZ drama The Luminaries, which is based on Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. “It’s an epic tale. To be the director across six episodes is a unique, authored experience. I’ve been viewing it like a three or four-hour movie as opposed to TV, which is moving to such a dynamic stage. TV is so bold. You can challenge characters to do things with story, the way it’s being told, and I find it really rewarding being so involved in the process.”
The Luminaries, from Working Title Television, Southern Light Films and distributor Fremantle, is set in 19th century New Zealand and follows young adventurer Anna Wetherell as she begins a new life in a story of love, murder and revenge. “I think there’s something unique about this,” McCarthy continues. “Our characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and go on an emotional journey that only TV would allow us to do. There’s some really exciting things coming out on TV that are good benchmarks for us, such as Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects. People want an experience. They want all things cinema would get in the privacy of their own home.”
Yet for all the clamour for serialised dramas, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest viewers still like good old-fashioned procedural stories that contain a beginning, middle and end within the space of an hour, and where it doesn’t matter if viewers miss an episode or two because they can easily return to the characters and the world where the story takes place.
“I think of shows like Chicago Fire, or Chicago Med, where I can pop in and out whenever I want, and those shows are incredibly successful,” says Christina Jennings, CEO of Canadian producer Shaftesbury Films. “There’s a huge appetite for that more standalone content. There’s something about it that’s very schedule-friendly – you can watch it in the daytime, in primetime, access prime, late night, it doesn’t matter.
“On the other side, you have Netflix and Amazon bringing us these big-budget, high-concept, highly serialised dramas. These platforms have just created a new opportunity for a different type of content, and Netflix still wants the other type as well. It’s quite happy to take everything.”
Shaftesbury’s next project, Departure, is a six-part thriller commissioned by Canada’s Global and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Starring Archie Panjabi and Christopher Plummer, it follows the disappearance of a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean and the investigator (played by The Good Wife’s Panjabi) brought in to solve the mystery.
“I don’t know that content’s going to change,” muses Jennings. “The world retains a huge appetite for great content, great characters, great story. Whether that’s standalone or it’s highly serialised, it doesn’t matter. What we’re going to see is how broadcasters work together and how those partnerships are going to become stronger, in effect, to counter what’s going on with the big global guys. I think we’re going to see more of those broadcast partnerships in a big way.”
Similarly, writer Paul Marquess believes stories haven’t changed as much as the means by which television productions are funded and watched. “I remember being at a Fremantle conference 15 years ago and they were talking about how the internet was coming and how funding models were going to change,” he recalls. “We were in this room and about 250 drama producers from all around the world were asked how we would deal with the challenge. I remember saying that it wasn’t our problem, because it doesn’t matter whether you watch them on analogue television or they come by carrier pigeon, people love stories. I don’t think fundamentally that’s changed at all.”
Marquess does recognise the polarisation between serialised and episodic series, however, and says crime dramas have become increasingly illogical as they attempt to incorporate elements from other genres, like fantasy or the supernatural, and play with timelines. “I think my shows have to be logical,” he says. “You have to look at it at the end and think it all made sense.”
Marquess, whose credits include The Bill and improvised crime drama Suspects, is currently overseeing procedural London Kills for US streamer Acorn TV. Distributed by Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, the show follows a team of top detectives solving murders across the city.
Sarah-Louise Hawkins, a writer on the series alongside Marquess, admits that like many writers, she was initially worried about the explosion of content in recent years and the impact it would have on the industry. “It felt like just anyone could put anything up and you wonder if the good stuff will get lost in the crowd, but actually what’s happened is it’s gone the other way,” she says. “There’s so much almost homemade material that the stuff that has real thought and care put into it shines even more now. It’s more important than ever to tell well-crafted, well-thought-out stories.”
But with all the opportunities now for creatives working in television, surely there are some disadvantages to the content boom? Not so, according to Steve Thompson, whose writing credits include Sherlock. He is now the showrunner on Vienna Blood, a three-part crime drama produced by Endor Productions for ORF Austria and ZDF Germany, distributed by Red Arrow Studios International. Set in 1906 Vienna and based on the novels by Frank Tallis, the series sees a psychoanalyst team up with a detective to solve a series of grisly murders in a time before the advent of DNA or forensic science.
Next up for Thompson is Leonardo, a series commissioned by Italy’s Rai, Germany’s ZDF and France Télévisions to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance figure. “I’m sure there are some disadvantages but I don’t know what they are,” Thompson says of the changing nature of television drama. “At the moment, it feels as if the industry has exploded and the number of opportunities for me personally is increasing every day. This year I’m getting to work on Vienna Blood with the Austrians but as soon as I finish that, I’m making a show in Italy. Both of those shows are in the English language because [the producers] want to show them worldwide. So because their market is becoming more international, it means they want to employ a British writer. The opportunities are huge.
“Of course, there’s a huge weight of television and nobody can watch everything. But it’s a great time, it’s a golden time to be a television writer,” he continues. “When I was a kid, television was the poor relation of movies. The relationship’s been completely reversed. It’s a great time to be a television writer.”
Overtaken by the financial clout and global reach of streaming services, domestic broadcasters have largely been left in the wake of their digital rivals and are now struggling to catch up. The launch of new platforms such as BritBox – already available in the US and now due to arrive in the UK – is one way of trying to claw back viewers who now watch TV on their own schedule, while broadcast alliances of the type Jennings alluded to, such as the triumvirate behind Leonardo, mark an attempt by networks to pool their resources to finance high-end drama series that focus on universally appealing stories.
In Belgium, broadcasters have long been keen on unique and innovative stories, but it is only in the past couple of years that the country’s challenging, often thought-provoking series have come to global attention, having been picked up by streaming services such as Netflix or non-English-language platform Walter Presents.
“If you look back at the series we’ve made, our broadcasters have been making the kind of stuff that platforms are calling ‘edgy’ for quite some time, and it has not been discovered yet because it’s Flemish language,” explains Eyeworks Film producer Peter Bouckaert, who says Belgian creatives’ sophistication when it comes inventing new stories is thanks in part to the country’s funding system.
Scripted series need the support of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s Media Fund, which has a remit to support innovation and new talent. As Bouckaert explains, the fund is the first port of call for any new production, even before it is taken to a network commissioner.
“It’s a collaboration, which is actually built on questions such as, ‘Are we creating innovation? Are we bringing something new? Are we not repeating ourselves?’ Innovation is built into the financing system,” he says. “If you look at other territories where it’s just a commissioning editor deciding, decisions are built on risk-evasion. Do you stick with genres that are known or copy proven successes? People very quickly got used to new forms of storytelling, new genres or genres that were considered niche that are now not niche at all, and the use of different languages.”
Bouckaert’s latest series is De Twaalf (The Twelve), a character-driven crime mystery that follows a jury tasked with determining the fate of a woman facing a double murder charge. It is produced by Eyeworks for Één and distributed by Federation Entertainment.
Ultimately, the producer believes the biggest change in the new age of TV has not been the arrival of Netflix or the digitisation of television, but the broader fact that people can now watch whatever they like whenever they want. “That’s the driving force when we talk about innovation,” he argues. “It’s the driving force for public broadcasters, who are not stepping away from linear broadcasting but extending their broadcasting model towards binge-viewing, catch-up and other variations. Netflix is also turning more into a broadcaster because they’re choosing when they launch which series and at what pace – the full season at once or episode by episode. That’s what broadcasters have been doing all along.”
The danger, Bouckaert adds, is the risk that programme-makers could now be confronted with a show similar to their own from another country – one they might never have heard of before series became so accessible around the world. “All of a sudden, a small series in Portugal could be quite close to ours and could kill an original idea,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve come upon but it is a real possibility.”
Fuelled by the emergence of streaming platforms that put story first, worldwide audiences and huge financial might, there has never been a better time for those in the business to tell the stories they want to tell, in whatever shape or form they might take.
Maria Carmargo, the lead writer of Brazilian drama Harassment, about a group of women who stand up to the doctor who sexually abused them, sums up the changing nature of storytelling by suggesting that the challenge is always to find the best way to tell a story, regardless of where or how it will be watched.
“The formats, platforms and the behaviour of the audience all enter the equation, in addition to the story itself, its nature and internal demands,” she says. “Many questions are being asked, and questions are always a powerful fuel for dramaturgy.”
L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) is one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year. Director Saverio Costanzo tells DQ how he steered the ambitious period drama, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel, for Italian broadcaster Rai and US cable network HBO.
Since the project was first announced in February 2016, anticipation has been building for L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend). Not only does it mark the continuance of Italian broadcaster Rai’s expansive drama ambitions, it is also a rare example of a foreign-language series commissioned by US cable network HBO. Then there’s the fact it is based on the bestselling novel by Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian novelist operating under a pseudonym.
Interestingly, Ferrante has been a key member of the development team behind the series, corresponding with director Saverio Costanzo by email. She is also listed as a writer on the first four episodes, alongside Costanzo, Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci.
Based on the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quadrilogy, the story opens with Elena Greco (aka Lenù) who, after discovering her long-time best friend has disappeared without a trace, starts to write the story of their friendship. From her first meeting with Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, at school in 1950, she goes on to cover more than 60 years of their lives, describing Lila as both her best friend and worst enemy.
Set in Naples, the Italian-language series stars Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as the young versions of Lenù and Lila, while Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play teenage the pair in their teens.
My Brilliant Friend is an HBO-Rai Fiction and TimVision series, produced by Wildside and Fandango. The producers are Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside and Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in coproduction with Umedia. Fremantle is the distributor.
The series launches on HBO this Sunday and on Italian streamer TimVision on November 27.
Here, Costanzo, director of all eight episodes, tells DQ how the series came together and discusses the challenges of casting more than 150 actors and 5,000 extras and filming across southern Italy on vast sets totalling 215,000 sq ft.
How did you first join the project?
I was contacted by the publishing house because, among other suggestions, Elena Ferrante mentioned my name. I didn’t search out this beautiful story; it was looking for me. I feel very fortunate.
What was the appeal of directing the series?
Ferrante’s story possesses the fundamental features for a film narrated in episodes: great characters who are facing a deep and exciting dramatic reality; plot twists that are never announced, but almost invisible, which film enlarges like a magnifying glass, building the tale of a life piece by piece; and a perfect synthesis of the epic and the tragic.
What are your thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s novel? What were the core elements needed in the series?
The real challenge was to succeed in narrating the epic story of a friendship. Friendship is an exchange of love where the boundaries between rights and duties are much more blurred compared with the love between a couple or the love of one’s children. It’s a free exchange and a much more lively one, where roles are mixed together and overlapping. The friendship between Lila and Lenù is a romantic dance that occasionally takes on the form of a very violent struggle. It’s two bodies chasing each other and overlapping, but stubbornly following the same rhythm, with the shared purpose of becoming complete persons, one by means of the other.
How involved were you in the adaptation process?
I wrote the first three episodes in one go, following the narration of the original text. Then, following a blueprint that the author agreed with and accepted, we wrote the rest of the scripts together with the screenwriters.
What was your experience working with Ferrante and having the original author so involved in the adaptation?
She supported and helped us whenever the turns the screenplays were taking didn’t agree with the book. Every so often, she worked on some original dialogue in an extraordinarily convincing way. She has an impressive talent for cinematic writing, a sense of scene that is not self-evident for someone writing literature.
What is your directing style? How did you bring that to this production?
Provided that my approach [as a director] remains the same, I adapt my style each time to the story of the film I am making, to the needs of the story I am telling. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, I was thinking of a classical story where the camera would be almost invisible. The director’s ego, or the director’s character, should never make an appearance in the scene, but rather should let the narration of the story be as fluid as possible. This act of mimesis was the most difficult to achieve.
How did you use the book to inform your direction?
I let myself be inspired by the literary weight of the original text. I concentrated on setting up the scenes, on the nuances of the acting and on the picture, so that every shot could include the same tension and fullness that makes the pages of the book come alive.
How did you work with the cast, both before and during production? What kind of performances did you look for?
I’m always looking for authenticity, depth and gravitas. The greatest risk was to become generic and focused on motives. We engaged in a long period of rehearsals with the little girls in order to give them a strong awareness of the story and characters. We tried and retried until, once they arrived on the set, they could enjoy the adventure of the story with a strong awareness of who Lila and Elena are. We managed to do an even more specific job with the teenage girls. For six months, they were working every day in a workshop where all of the cast rehearsed the scenes. In this way, they learned to use their voices, bodies and emotions, while at the same time we built a strong and consistent working team. I’m very proud of all of them.
Tell us about casting the lead actors.
We held open casting sessions; thousands of children came. We tried out more than 9,000 people to find the four protagonists. We were helped by the city of Naples, which is like an open-air theatre: everyone is capable of playing a part there, everyone is a great actor. But we were lucky to have such developed characters that were well described by the author. For this reason, once we found ourselves in front of the protagonists, we understood immediately that they were the ones for us. When what you’re looking for is clear to you, it’s much easier to find it.
What kind of Naples is presented in the series? Where did you film and how did you use real locations and studio sets?
Most of the locations were reconstructed in the studio. It was impossible to film in Naples at the real sites, because the city has changed too much since the 1950s. We reconstructed the neighbourhood 20km away from Naples, basing it on a community in the outskirts that the author started from in order to imagine her neighbourhood. We never tried to be only literal, though. We started out from a real piece of data and adapted it to our dramatic needs. Reconstruction added great value: in cinema, a cardboard wall is often more real than a cement one – an imagined city, rather than a real one.
How did you balance working for Rai, TimVision and HBO? Did they have specific demands or needs for their audiences?
Miraculously, all the networks involved in the production had a strong artistic vision. Nowadays, television series are showing they can elevate their discourse to the same level as film. To give you an example, in our first meeting with the team from HBO, the very first question that they asked me was whether the series would be performed in Neapolitan dialect. I said yes, but I asked why on Earth this was so important to them, since their audience would have to read the subtitles anyway, and they answered that it was because they wanted an authentic piece of work. From that point on, it was a wonderfully shared job with the same artistic purpose.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, either in development or production?
When you’re directing a series, it takes many weeks of work. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, there were 29 of them, and the hardest part was staying concentrated and focused for that long. Furthermore, our backdrop had to seem ‘lived in’ each time, and even a simple dialogue scene with two people involved at least 200 extras. Keeping the magnitude and the ambition of the project under control was important.
How does the series stand out against the huge number of series being made around the world?
I wouldn’t know. I tried to maintain a classic linear form of narration. Maybe My Brilliant Friend is simpler than other series that try out more original forms of narration, but maybe it’s exactly this timeless aspect that makes it distinct and, hopefully, attractive.
What are your plans for making a second season based on the next Ferrante novel?
If I don’t get fired, I’ll be happy to finish the entire tetralogy.
Hagai Levi, creator of Israeli drama Be Tipul (In Treatment) and co-creator of US drama The Affair, tells DQ about his latest project, his approach to storytelling and returning “home” to HBO.
It has been 10 years since HBO first launched In Treatment, the psychotherapy drama based on the much-adapted Israeli format Be Tipul (pictured above).
The original series, which ran between 2005 and 2008 on cable platform HOT, has spawned copycats around the world and was among the pioneers in the ongoing wave of interest in Israeli drama that has made original dramas such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War), False Flag and Fauda household names.
It’s fitting, then, that a decade on, Be Tipul creator Hagai Levi is relishing the opportunity to return “home” to HBO for his latest project.
The 10-episode, as-yet-untitled series is based on a true story and follows the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants. Two days later, the burned body of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem is found in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
In the days that follow, an agent of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency) investigates the murder, while the parents of the slain teenager begin their quest for justice and consolation.
HBO has partnered with Keshet International for the series, which Levi created with filmmaker Joseph Cedar plus Tawfik Abu Wael and Noah Stollman (Pillars of Smoke). Cedar and Abu Wael also direct, with filming on location in Jerusalem due to be completed in September.
Retelling the events that led to the outbreak of war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the drama follows the investigation into Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder and tells the story of all those involved, Jews and Arabs alike.
“We are focusing on the investigation of this story, which was quite shocking, but it should be said that it’s rare,” Levi explains, noting that the story is told from three points of view – the family, one of the killers and the investigator. “We know Palestinian terror, it’s obvious. They are fighting for their state. But Jewish terror, or these kinds of hate crimes, are much more rare. So it was quite shocking for the Jewish population. We are following the investigation, the interrogation, the courtroom, everything.
“But of course, it’s not a courtroom drama. It exposes a lot of layers in Israeli society and it’s also about understanding the nature of hate crime – you see it everywhere, not just in Israel, and what are the necessary conditions? There are so many layers needed to create hate crime. So we are showing the Palestinian side, the Israeli side and, in the middle, Shin Bet are investigating the whole thing.”
The series has been developed over the past three years, with Levi linking up with Oscar-nominated director Cedar (Beaufort, Footnote) and Palestinian partner Abu Wael, who writes and directs the Arab-set elements.
“It’s very interesting, but the partnership means it just takes time,” Levi admits. “Basically I’m in charge as a kind of showrunner. We have some other writers writing the scripts, and Joseph is a director-showrunner. We’re assembling material together, rewriting it ourselves. It’s complicated.”
From the beginning, however, it has been an HBO show, with former head of programming Michael Lombardo taking the initial lead on the Hebrew-language drama, which together with Italian series My Brilliant Friend notes a shift in the US premium cablenet’s appetite for foreign-language drama.
“They’re trying to do these things, which is great,” Levi says. “Instead of remaking them, just show it. People seem more open to watching foreign languages and are more used to seeing subtitles. So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse; it was the best of both worlds. We have a nice budget compared to Israeli budgets, but a very low budget compared to US series. But for us it’s great, and I can do it in my own language with my own sensitivities. Since In Treatment, HBO has been a home for me. It’s the best place I know.”
In the US, Golden Globe winner Levi is arguably best known as the co-creator of Showtime drama The Affair, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson and now into its fourth season. Before The Affair, however, he was an executive producer on HBO’s remake of Be Tipul. Another 16 versions of the series have been produced in countries including Canada, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.
“The best thing about In Treatment is the option of the word ‘remake’ didn’t exist, it never happened in Israel,” Levi reveals. “So I was just doing my thing, and because we have very low budgets, we had to make something where the budget wasn’t an issue. The worst thing is when you have a low budget and you try to make a big thing, and then it looks rubbish. But the nice thing about In Treatment is it’s been shot the same everywhere. That’s my taste as a writer and director; I like two people talking.
“Whenever I have more than two people in the room, I’m nervous,” he says, emphasising his preference for dialogue and the relationships and moral dilemmas that characterise both Be Tipul and The Affair. “If you think about In Treatment, the main story is a therapist who’s in love with their patient, and vice versa. In The Affair, it’s about betrayal. So it’s always like that. I don’t see anything more interesting in the world than that.
“I remember watching House of Cards, just one episode. I couldn’t watch more – I hated it. But the main problem was they didn’t have any moral issues because they are not moral to start with. They’re cynical, bad people so where is the conflict? Where is the drama?”
Levi is now developing two more projects. The first is a remake of Scenes from a Marriage, the 1973 Swedish miniseries that starred Ingmar Bergman. Produced by Filmlance International and Media Res, it’s the first time a Bergman property has ever been remade. “That was the most influential piece of my career – that was the inspiration for In Treatment and a lot of things I did,” Levi says of the original show. “When I did The Affair, we watched it again. So when the family of Bergman approached me a couple of years ago and asked me to do the remake, it’s complicated, it’s hard, it’s very dangerous and frightening, but that’s my next project.”
The writer/director will also pick up a movie he has written, The Girl Who Learned How to Kneel, based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish author whose diaries recounted the persecution of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.
Before then, his Summer 2014 Project, to give it its working title, has the best of both worlds – Israeli creativity fuelled by a US premium cable channel – though Levi admits he hasn’t got the same budget as other HBO series like Game of Thrones or Westworld.
But Israel is well known for producing drama on a shoestring budget, building a reputation for original concepts and unexpected twists and turns.
“The equation is quite simple. If you have less money, you have more time,” Levi says. “In the US, you have to write a whole season in half a year. That’s fast, much too fast. You cannot write 13 or 15 episodes in half a year. It’s crazy. But in Israel, no one pays, so you can take the time.
“Then if you are very successful, you don’t make money. The limit is very low. You still have to struggle to pay the rent, so you better do what you want, what comes from your heart. It’s not a business. You’re more creative, you’re more personal. You’re more innovative. You work more as an artist than as a business.”
The success of Israeli drama internationally has led some to ditch this successful formula, though. “I see people trying to make something in order to sell,” Levi says. “They think about it while they’re writing and it’s not a great thing. It could spoil the industry.”
As season two of HBO’s Westworld draws to a close, co-creators and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan discuss making the series, rebooting the Western genre and their fascination with the mind-bending themes at the heart of the drama.
With overlapping timelines, dozens of characters and a premise built on mysterious and complex technology, Westworld might seem a daunting proposition for the more casual TV viewer.
Set in a colossal Wild West-themed amusement park for the super-rich, where guests’ darkest desires are fulfilled by hyper-realistic android ‘hosts,’ the HBO series has demanded its audience’s full attention from the start, trusting viewers to keep track as the rug is constantly pulled from beneath their feet by a succession of twists and reveals.
Among the many surprises of season one, the most significant was perhaps the revelation that two main characters – William and the Man in Black – were in fact the same person, depicted at two different ages.
Season two, the finale of which aired on HBO in the US last night and hits UK screens on Sky Atlantic this evening, has kept the intrigue flowing, exploring the newly sentient hosts’ quest for freedom while simultaneously taking viewers deeper into the origins of the park and its key characters.
It has also revealed the existence of at least two more parks run by the shady Delos corporation, with a British India-based location referred to as The Raj and the previously-hinted-at Shogun World, set during the Edo period of feudal Japan.
Lisa Joy, co-creator and co-showrunner of Westworld alongside husband Jonathan Nolan, admits there is “a lot of complexity” to the show’s “puzzle-like structure” but adds that, this time around, the show has “played the timeline stuff cards up.”
“Each season, the questions that we tee up, we do try to have an answer for all of them. We do intend to answer the questions we set up,” says Joy, whose previous TV credits include Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice.
Nolan, who has worked with his brother Christopher on blockbuster movies such as Interstellar and the Christian Bale-led Batman trilogy, adds: “We do this in part because it’s the kind of show we would like to watch, which is why it’s layered and complex.”
He compares Westworld’s weaving narrative to the film noir structure. “You start at the end and then figure out the way to the beginning. And you have the classic noir protagonist in Bernard [Jeffrey Wright], who has forgotten something important.”
It’s an approach that has at times made it necessary to withhold information from the cast – which includes big-name stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden – to “keep the story as fresh and present for them as possible.”
Ahead of season one, even acting royalty like Hopkins, who plays Westworld co-founder and park director Robert Ford, reportedly had to battle to get access to complete scripts. Wood, meanwhile, was largely kept in the dark over revelations about her character Dolores, a host who exhibits different personalities throughout the show.
“We didn’t really tell Evan anything, as we wanted her to be sort of stranded in her character’s situation, guessing what the larger story was,” Nolan says.
For season two, however, the tables were turned, with Wood being given a clearer picture of the overall story while Wright – whose character, Bernard, discovers late in season one that he is not human but a host based on the park’s other co-founder – was tasked with reacting to developments along the way.
“This season we sat down with Evan and laid out the story; for Jeffrey, we explained we weren’t going to tell him anything,” Nolan reveals.
Joy adds: “We’re lucky enough to have this tremendous cast and crew who I think are as invested in protecting the story and their character arcs as we are. So it’s actually not that hard to keep things under wraps, as we have such wonderful collaborators.”
The Wild West-themed park in which much of the action plays out sees Westworld straddle the dual genres of Western and science fiction. And while it might seem a curious combination, it’s not without precedent, following in the footsteps of the short-lived but hugely popular series Firefly as well as movies Back to the Future Part III, Cowboys & Aliens and, of course, the 1973 Westworld film on which the show is based, written and directed by Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton.
“We were fascinated by the idea of this moribund genre,” Nolan says of the Western element. “The most terrifying part of launching the show was that half of it was this dead genre. Even when Crichton wrote the original film, the Western period was on its way out.
“But I think for him and for us it’s a genre that is so consistent; its rules are so simple. There are some phenomenal movies and they all have this underlying structure, which is an investigation of good and evil, free will. It’s a fascinating genre.”
“The idea of good vs evil is really quite binary – the black hat and the white hat – and what we’re trying to do is delve deeper and deeper into character, and eventually you see that everything is shades of grey,” says Joy.
The Western setting also allows for some stunning cinematography. Much of the exterior shots in the show, produced by HBO Entertainment, Kilter Films, JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and Warner Bros Television, are filmed in Utah, making use of awe-inspiring locations such as Castle Valley to illustrate the enormous scale of the Westworld park.
The expansion this season into Shogun World, meanwhile, saw Nolan and Joy draw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker known for such titles as Seven Samurai. “We had a lot of conversations about what the look and feel of that should be,” Nolan says. “We were riffing on Kurosawa, so we went back and looked at all of his films to see if there was a signature film stock or a signature aspect ratio, anything we could play with. Kurosawa was restless; he moved back and forth between black and white and colour, he moved back and forth between different aspect ratios.”
This led to increased experimentation in filming methods, with parts of Westworld being shot on anamorphic film. “When you use anamorphic lenses, your bokeh and your focus roll off in a very beautiful way and it just has a totally different, very beautiful texture to it,” Nolan explains.
The showrunner adds that the different techniques are used to suggest to the audience that things aren’t quite what they seem. “By the finale, you realise that that’s our gentle way of putting you in a virtual space,” he notes.
What proved most attractive to Nolan and Joy, however, was the opportunity to explore the themes inherent in a show about androids gaining sentience, particularly free will and the implications of artificial intelligence.
After Abrams had come to them with the idea of remaking Westworld – initially as a film before later suggesting a TV series – Nolan says the pair realised it was “everything we’re interested in and everything we’re talking about right now, in terms of artificial realities and artificial intelligence and consciousness, and human nature, which I’ve always been fascinated by – memory and morality and all this stuff that we’re made of. Looking at it from the perspective of a set of creatures made in our image was just kind of irresistible.
“My point on artificial intelligence is I’m not really sure why anyone would be writing about anything other than artificial intelligence right now. [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry would be very disappointed we’re not already there, but it does feel like we are stumbling into it a bit now. I think we’ve just got a few years left until AI shows up and tells us to stop writing about it!
“We were endlessly interested with exploring what it would be like to have an artificial consciousness – how you would perceive and understand time, how you would perceive memory. From the beginning, we said that this would be a show about the emergence of a new form of life on Earth – and that’s not a short story.”
Westworld, distributed by Warner Bros Television Distribution, also examines free will from the point of view of both the hosts and the humans, with several episode titles referring to philosophical concepts relating to free will, and the question of whether it truly exists for anybody.
Season one finale The Bicameral Mind takes its name from a term coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who proffered the idea of two separate minds within every individual – one that gives instructions and another that performs them. Jaynes discussed how consciousness comes from breaking down the wall between the two by exposing the individual to new stimuli.
And tonight’s finale is called The Passenger, alluding to the notion that the conscious mind is just that: a passenger in a vehicle being driven by the subconscious, to which we are all slaves.
Nolan’s position is unequivocal. “As far as we can tell, free will is an illusion,” he says. “If you think about the beginning of The Simpsons, where Maggie has the little fake steering wheel, that’s consciousness. Marge is at the wheel; we don’t get to talk to her. We’re Maggie, looking out the window and imagining we’re making the decisions – and most of the empirical evidence suggests that we aren’t.”
Joy adds: “Humans can be reduced to some rather elementary building blocks. When you start to think about the drives that humans have, sometimes we find that we are maybe simpler than we thought, more manipulable.”
Profound stuff, and viewers can expect more in season three, which received the green light soon after the second run’s premiere. The ending of season two teases the prospect of major changes to come, with the show poised to spend more time outside its amusement parks.
“One of the things we’re excited about is the third season is our world, and we now have the fun-slash-terrifying challenge of building out what the real world looks like,” Nolan says.
Quashing any suggestion that the pair are making it up as they go along, Joy reveals that she has had an ending in mind since day one. “When we were writing the pilot, I pitched a scene to end the entire series on, and so far we have not deviated from liking that scene. As a writer, you never want to tempt a smiting from the TV gods, so I would never venture to guess how many seasons we will live for. But I do think there are tentpole moments we are trying to work towards, and hopefully we will reach our ending in the time we have.”
From Hulu’s The Path and the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story to upcoming series Waco and Raven, TV dramas about cults have caught the zeitgeist. DQ takes a closer look at this trend.
Television dramas about cults have always been good business in the US, a country with a seemingly unique affinity for fringe religious groups – part of the reason for the colonisation of the Americas, from the Puritans at the very beginning to the Mormons and, later, Scientology.
Recent years have seen the trend increase, with more dramas and comedies using cults as a theme. Sociologists have conjectured that the uncertainties in the US over the past few years regarding security, race, the economy and the growth of secularism have all contributed to an interest in cults, which can provide the easily influenced with a sense of belonging and belief in a higher power.
Recently, the truly unhinged American Horror Story: Cult, which debuted on FX in July, even used the election of Donald J Trump as president for a backdrop to the world of cults.
Star Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse) plays the deranged, would-be galactic overlord Kai Anderson in the show, additionally essaying a quartet of notorious cult leaders, namely Jim Jones (Jonestown), Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), Charles Manson (The Manson Family) and David Koresh (Waco).
Peters also portrays Andy Warhol and a particularly low-rent ‘version’ of Jesus Christ in the show.
Back in season one of American Horror Story (2011), episode two (Home Invasion) dealt with a Manson Family-style killing re-enacted in the present day.
In the world of SVoD, two shows use cults as themes: Hulu’s The Path (started 2016) and Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015).
Now heading to its third season, Jessica Goldberg’s The Path revolves around the fictional cult of Meyerism, which, to some commentators, bears a resemblance to Scientology (denied by Goldberg) in its hierarchy and antipathy to apostates and non-believers, who are called Ignorant Systemites (IS) in the show.
A slow burn, The Path has a solid cast, including Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) and Michelle Monaghan (True Detective, Patriot’s Day). Season three drops in the US on January 7.
On a lighter note, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Kimmy Schmidt deals with the titular character’s life in New York City after 15 years imprisonment in an Indiana bunker by cultist Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver).
Played to critical acclaim by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids), the effervescent Schmidt’s efforts to build a new life in the big city has proved a hit with viewers and reviewers alike, with season four ordered for 2018.
As Spike TV rebrands as Paramount TV next year, January 24 will see the launch of their flagship drama Waco.
The star-laden miniseries recounts the true story of the infamous 1993 ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect led by David Koresh, which resulted in 82 deaths after a 51-day siege ended with a deadly shoot-out and fire.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) plays Koresh, with Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) as his wife Rachel, Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire, Midnight Special) as FBI Negotiator Gary Noesner, Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, National Treasure) as Judy Scheider-Koresh (apparently a ‘chattel-wife’ of Koresh) and John Leguizamo (Bloodline, John Wick I & II) as Robert Rodriquez, an FBI agent who infiltrated Koresh’s compound and warned against the raid.
Looking ahead, the 2018/19 television season will see the launch of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s HBO limited series Raven, based on Tim Reiterman’s definitive 1982 book about the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, when charismatic cult leader Jim Jones arranged the murder of visiting investigative journalists and a US congressman, then proceeded to kill himself and more than 900 followers (including 276 children) with cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
This led to the phrase ‘Drinking the Kool Aid’ being used for people or groups who succumb to peer pressure and follow a doomed idea.
There is no word on casting yet, but Gilligan has an extensive repertory company of talented actors who he can no doubt call on for the show.
Jonestown has been the subject of numerous documentaries and some dramas (Jonestown, 2013 and Jonestown: Paradise Lost in 2007), most notably the 1980 CBS miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, when the late Powers Boothe provided an Emmy-winning performance as Jones, which will be a tough act to follow.
Such was the notoriety of the Jonestown Massacre that the events have been immortalised in song by popular groups, including rockers Manowar (Guyana – Cult of the Damned, 1999), new-wave combo The Vapors (Jimmy Jones, 1981) and probably, most surprisingly, smooth pop/soul merchants Hot Chocolate (Mindless Boogie, 1979).
On the flipside, Charles Manson claimed inspiration for his followers’ 1969 killing spree from the Beatles’ White Album, particularly the songs Piggies, Helter Skelter and Blackbird.
Recent years have also seen other series that have used cults or religious sects as subject matter, including NBC’s short-lived David Duchovny (The X-Files/Californication) series Aquarius (2015/16), in which he played FBI investigator Sam Hodiak in pursuit of Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones)’s Charles Manson.
Serving multiple life sentences for murder, Manson died on November 19 this year.
Also worthy of mention is Kevin Williamson (Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek)’s The Following (Fox, 2013-15, pictured top), with Kevin Bacon (I Love Dick, Black Mass) as a former FBI agent pitted against James Purefoy (Rome, Hap & Leonard) as his serial killer cult-leading adversary.
Incidentally, post-Weinstein scandal, Quentin Tarantino has now sold his Manson Family script to Sony for a possible 2019 cinema release.
HBO’s Big Love (2006-11) concerned itself with a polygamous family belonging to an extreme Mormon sect in Utah, with a cast including the late Bill Paxton (Training Day, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as the husband of four wives and the recently deceased Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks, The Avengers) as a self-proclaimed prophet and cult leader.
And then, of course, there’s the evil Tuttle Cult in the classic first season of True Detective.
We’ve seen cults make appearances in CSI (the Heaven’s Gate suicides forming the basis for the episode Shooting Stars in 2005) and Mad Men (Roger Sterling’s daughter Margaret joining a cult/commune in the final season).
In the UK, cults and extreme religious sects are less openly in evidence. With the exception of this year’s ISIS miniseries The State (Peter Kosminsky – Wolf Hall), you have to go all the way back to the 90s for dramas specifically about the subject.
In 1993, Jonathan Pryce (Taboo, Game of Thrones) starred as the real-life apocalyptic 19th century prophet John Wroe in four-parter Mr Wroe’s Virgins (BBC2), an early directing gig for Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire).
Two years later, BBC2 aired Signs & Wonders, a four-part drama where Jodhi May (Genius, Last of the Mohicans) is ensnared by a religious cult, prompting her mother, played by Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), to hire de-programmer James Earl Jones (Stars Wars) to rescue her. A strong cast was rounded out by David Warner (Ripper Street, Wallander) and Donald Pleasance (Halloween, The Great Escape).
Returning to the present day, with Waco, The Path, Kimmy Schmidt and Raven further down the road, viewers won’t be short of cult TV to watch in 2018.
DQ meets stars Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger on the set of Strike, which introduces JK Rowling’s dogged detective Cormoran Strike in three new crime dramas produced for the BBC and HBO.
When it comes to iconic television fashion, there are few better examples than Sherlock’s deerstalker hat and the knitted jumpers donned by The Killing’s Sarah Lund, while every incarnation of the Time Lord in Doctor Who has their own unique and memorable style.
Next to join TV drama’s sartorial wall of fame could well be Cormoran Strike’s thick grey woollen coat, which is likely to become the must-have garment this winter following the launch of Strike, BBC1’s adaptations of the three crime novels written by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, famously published under the guise of her pen name Robert Galbraith.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, a three-part miniseries that launched in UK last Sunday, introduces private detective Strike, a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds. When a young model falls to her death from a Mayfair balcony, her brother asks Strike to investigate, unconvinced that she took her own life.
Two-parter The Silkworm will follow, with Strike set to explore the death of a novelist who is found brutally murdered, apparently to silence him from publishing a tell-all book about everyone he knows.
Then later this year comes Career of Evil, a grittier, darker two-parter that opens when a woman’s severed leg is delivered to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. With the police investigating a suspect who Strike is sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands as more horrendous acts occur.
When DQ visits the set of The Silkworm in March this year, Strike and Robin are inside their shared office as the former returns from a gruesome crime scene. A packet of Yorkshire Tea can be found in the kitchen area, while a map and notes are pinned up on one wall. There are business cards scattered about, an old filing system in another corner and an ashtray filled with cigarette ends on a table.
Two cameras are rolling, one focused on Holliday Grainger sitting behind a desk as Robin, when Tom Burke’s Strike comes in, wearing that soon-to-be iconic grey coat. There are plants on the nearby windowsill, while a desk lamp is on next to the computer. The scene is repeated several times and, after a short break, filming resumes with new angles and a tighter focus on the stars’ faces.
The office set, with an authentic backdrop of London’s Denmark Street lit up outside the windows, is the only one that is shared across all three adaptations, while the production took great effort to film on location – and in the exact places Rowling describes in the novels.
It’s also that sense of place that helps to give each story its own identity, with producer Jackie Larkin explaining that each story is set in a different world.
“The first one is the fashion world – Mayfair and Chelsea,” she says. “The second is about the publishing and literary world. That’s a lot around west London. For book three, we did manage to have a very interesting chase sequence all over Soho one Sunday evening, locking off Frith Street and Old Compton Road.
“The shoot has been 80% location, 20% studio. It’s been great – we have had very good access. In book three, some of that happens up north so we really felt we had to go to Barrow-in-Furness. And the third book is a road movie; it’s very much about trying to find who delivered the severed leg. So that brought us to Catford, to Bow, to Whitechapel.”
Another key landmark is The Tottenham pub, a staple of London’s bustling Oxford Street but recently renamed after a change of ownership. That meant finding another location for Strike’s preferred watering hole, in this case The Duke of York in nearby Fitzrovia, and redressing it as The Tottenham. “It’s a small, intimate pub. It feels exactly like the place Strike would be. It feels like The Tottenham in the book,” Larkin says.
Sold globally by Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Strike is produced by Rowling’s Brontë Film & Television in coproduction with HBO-owned cablenet Cinemax, and the author, who is an executive producer, has been extremely involved in the development of the series and can often be found on set during key scenes.
“She’s actually amazing,” Larkin enthuses about the author. “She comes to our read-throughs and feeds into the script. She’s so supportive of the writers and her notes are so insightful for all of us. She has the most amazing notes on character – it’s wonderful for us because she’s created them and we want to get them right.”
That’s not to say the scriptwriters – Ben Richards on The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm and Tom Edge for Career of Evil – haven’t made some departures from the stories Rowling first put on the page. “There are times when, simply because of the sheer volume of the books, to get it into two hours you have to make some trims or simplify some plot stuff. But I don’t think you would ever look at it and say, ‘I don’t recognise the book in this,’” Larkin says. “The books are such great source material that you want to try and fit as much of them into that two or three hours as you can.”
When Strike and Robin first meet in The Cuckoo’s Calling, there’s an awkwardness in the air. He’s forgotten he’d hired a temp, while she arrives at the worst possible moment. But very quickly she makes herself indispensable – and the pair become inseparable by the end of the first story.
“They’re the heart and soul of the show, such wonderful, intelligent actors,” Larkin says of Burke and Grainger, who also won the approval of Rowling. “Tom was cast before I came on board and he fits the character so well. Then we cast Holliday a couple of weeks later. She is Robin. Ruth [Kenley-Letts], our executive producer, had an idea of who would play Strike and her instinct was absolutely right. The broadcasters loved him. And we didn’t see many people for Robin.”
War & Peace star Burke says that while reading the books, he was struck by how Strike is always eating, putting this down to the character being a fragile man looking for comfort in curries and beer. That need for comfort also comes through in his clothing, particularly his ever-present coat, which also reflects the fact Strike is constantly on the move through the three stories.
Being hidden beneath the large coat gave Burke extra time to bulk up for the role, with the actor taking up weightlifting and increasing his food intake. “I wanted to look like somebody who did drink pints regularly,” he jokes.
Besides his look, Burke had to perfect Strike’s voice, settling on a London accent with some added Cornish notes in a nod to where the character grew up. “That’s how most people sound nowadays – a lot of people just sound London and then you hear a tiny little thing [that hints at their background],” he says. “He has moved all around. It wouldn’t have been right to make him properly Cornish or properly London.”
Then there’s the prosthetic leg Strike was fitted with after losing half his right leg in a bomb explosion, which led to him being discharged from the army. “I was not stressing about it initially but I did think, ‘I need to get that right,’” Burke says of perfecting Strike’s walking pattern. “I spent a good day with this chap who was also military and has the same thing. Sometimes I just put on the sock they use on the stump, this rubbery kind of thing, and the tightness of it slightly slows your knee. That’s what you see [in Strike’s walk].”
In contrast, Grainger (The Borgias) didn’t have to look far for her inspiration to play Robin. “It’s funny, I have heard someone say there’s a lot of Jo [Rowling] in Robin – and when I read the book, I thought she was just like me, and every woman I speak to thinks Robin’s just like her,” the actor says. “I think that’s the great thing about Robin – she’s got all the likeable qualities you want to have. She’s compassionate, brave, practical, intelligent. Nice girl! I was a massive Harry Potter geek but I’d never read them until I got the part. Then I read them all in a week.
“It’s an interesting journey, as Robin’s just a layman when she starts and so she’s learning on the job, but there’s not a sense that Strike patronises her. There’s mutual respect. It’s not the usual competition you get because it’s a different balance from most detective dramas.”
While Strike and Robin share a close working partnership, there’s also a deeper connection that threatens to spill over into romance – though the actors decline to reveal whether viewers will see them hook up on screen.
“In a lot of shows like this, there’s an ‘are they/aren’t they’ thing, and I just think they are,” Burke admits. “There’s something there from the beginning and it’s a permanent blur in their periphery. It’s not like Mulder and Scully [in The X-Files], where you think they’re not but then maybe they are. It’s always there. I don’t know [whether they will]. You surrender to whatever she’s [Rowling] going to do.”
The show’s stars also share a lot of trust on the set of Strike, something they say is down to the fact they have lifted the characters they play directly from the page. “Tom feels like he’s on the same page as Jo on Strike and I feel like I was with Robin and, therefore, you are with each other because I know my idea of Strike is his idea of Strike,” Grainger explains. “When you trust you’re both thinking along the same lines, it makes decisions on set very easy. There isn’t really one to be made most of the time.”
Whether Strike and Robin do finally get together will be down to Rowling, who is currently working on the fourth book in the series, Lethal White. Until then, Burke and Grainger are left to contemplate viewers’ reactions to a show that Rowling fans will have been looking forward to with as much anticipation as a new Harry Potter novel.
Damon Lindelof looks back at three seasons of The Leftovers after the HBO drama finished earlier this year.
He tells DQ about why he was drawn to Tom Perrotta’s book for a TV adaptation, how he worked with the author to create the critically acclaimed series and why the show was reset in a new location when the book’s story was exhausted by the end of the first season.
Lindelof, whose credits also include big screen blockbusters Star Trek: Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, discusses why fear and anxiety are key to his writing process and what differences he sees between working between film and television.
The writer also looks back on hit series Lost and reveals what lessons he learned from the show, which ran for six seasons on US network ABC.
Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have ruffled some feathers by revealing their plans for life after Westeros. Stephen Arnell analyses their proposal for a new alternative-history drama about the Civil War.
The announcement by HBO of Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss’s new alternative-history drama Confederate has generated headlines.
With the final, truncated six-episode season of GoT still a year off, Benioff and Weiss (pictured above, Benioff on the right) appear to have lost no time in lining up their next project for the cablenet.
Coming off the back of their successful world-building in GoT, Confederate presents another scenario where the duo can create their vision of a complex society from the ground up.
According to HBO’s press release, the show “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
Tackling an original concept without source material (differing in this regard from GoT), Benioff and Weiss obviously believe in giving themselves enough time to map out the story in a considered fashion, especially now they have reportedly relinquished any role in the many mooted GoT spin-off series and movies.
The subject matter of Confederate is inherently controversial and the pair have already responded to the criticism they have faced since the series was announced by drawing attention to the fact that their writing partners – Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)– are black.
In an interview with Vulture, Spellman commented on the genesis of the show: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.” But in acknowledging this, he also said: “As people of colour and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”
Tramble Spellman continued: “There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With The Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”
In the same interview, Weiss stated: “It goes without saying [that] slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. That sin is still with us in many ways. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”
British actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) echoed the thoughts of some on social media that African-American and non-US Black performers may well boycott Confederate. On hearing the announcement of the show, Harewood commented on Twitter: “Good luck finding black actors for this project.”
The current polarised situation in the US recently led Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein to opine that the country was experiencing a ‘Cold Civil War,’ which gives some idea of the background to the furore surrounding Confederate.
Meanwhile, the arguments over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in the southern states continue to rage, with sporadic acts of violence, illustrating the toxic atmosphere into which Confederate will launch.
Last December, TNT dropped Civil, its planned take on a contemporary US civil war, due to concerns that it may have felt “too close to home,” given the agitated mood of the US after the election of Donald Trump as president.
With the recent reboot of Roots (History), the movie Free State of Jones (2016) and 2015’s miniseries The Book of Negroes (BET), Confederate’s depiction of a fictional modern-day slave society could be viewed as insensitive, if not regressive – depending on how the material is handled.
Although blindsided by the immediate reaction to Confederate, Benioff and Weiss must now be fully aware that they will be under intense scrutiny and are presumably cognisant of the pitfalls that lie ahead of them.
Although alternative-history TV adaptations such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) have become increasingly popular, the subject of the slave-owning South either winning the Civil War or remaining in a stalemate with the North has proved understandably contentious in terms of TV and film, although it has spawned a cottage industry of novels.
The granddaddy of these was Mackinlay Kantor’s 1961 If The South Had Won the Civil War, which led to a slew of American Civil War alt-history books from writers including Alex Scarrow, Larry Niven and Stephen L Carter.
The lack of a source novel of critical repute for Confederate leaves Benioff and Weiss relatively exposed – there’s no original author to use as a shield.
Confederate’s closest comparator is 2004’s low-budget feature-length mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee).
Written and directed by occasional Spike Lee co-writer Kevin Willmott, CSA combines jet-black humour and social commentary to explore what life would be like in the present day if the rebel South had won the Civil War.
Due to the biting satire of the movie, which includes mock online Slave Auctions and racist TV adverts, it has been rarely shown outside festivals and IFC, but is available on DVD.
Aside from CSA, there are two US dramas that have a passing resemblance to some of Confederate’s themes: HBO’s 1997 parodic The Second Civil War and Amerika, an ABC miniseries from 1987.
Penned by Martyn Burke (The Pentagon Wars, Pirates of Silicon Valley) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins/Small Soldiers), The Second Civil War played the setup of a US “overrun” by immigrants and refugees pretty much for satirical laughs, although one wonders what kind of reception the TV movie would receive if shown today.
Amerika was a much more serious proposition, centring on a Soviet EMP attack on the US that disables all computer equipment and electronic communications followed by the subsequent turmoil when the country faces occupation, division and possible nuclear extinction as resistance to the Russians grows.
Playing over seven consecutive nights and apparently attracting up to 100 million viewers during its run, Amerika is a curious relic of the 1980s late Cold War era, although some may find in the series an element of prophecy, bearing in mind the cyber-wars currently being waged across the world.
Possible alternate outcomes to the Civil War were tackled in a broader fashion in TV series including The Time Tunnel and The Wild Wild West, while action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter improbably gave the author of The Gettysburg Address a side-line in slaying the undead.
As Confederate has yet to reach script stage, the burden of expectation the show faces is perhaps unfair – but could HBO in effect be ‘lancing the boil’ by announcing it so far ahead of its likely 2019 transmission date?
One potentially major problem will be in the marketing of the show. Back in 2015 the first season of The Man in the High Castle’s ad campaign proved extremely controversial and Nazi and Imperial Japan-themed subway ads in NY had to be pulled.
How will HBO promote Confederate? It’s going to be an unenviable challenge, but HBO has always prided itself on its ability and willingness to break new ground.
Violence and sex have become common features of TV drama – but are these often graphic depictions key to the success of a show?
Violence and, to a lesser extent, sex have always been core constituents of TV drama. But both have become more visible on our screens in recent years. Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Daredevil and American Horror Story are all examples of the new ultra-violent era of TV drama. And when it comes to sex, series like Westworld, Versailles, Orange is the New Black, The Girlfriend Experience and The Affair give a new meaning to the phrase ‘TV exposure.’
The key reason for this shift has been the growing influence of premium pay TV and SVoD services, which have created trigger factors that push producers and broadcasters towards more graphic and intense depictions of violence and sex.
The first such factor is an ‘anything goes’ attitude on channels that have little need to concern themselves over offending mainstream audiences or losing family-oriented advertisers. Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include The X-Files and Medici: Masters of Florence, says: “The freedom to use graphic content is an advantage pay TV broadcasters know they have over more tightly regulated free-to-air channels. So it’s something they encourage producers to use if appropriate.”
This licence to shock is reinforced by the fact violence, in particular, seems to sell. Corporately, it’s evident in Disney’s contemporary offering, which encompasses everything from princesses to The Punisher. It can also be seen in the steady progress of US pay TV network Starz, which lagged a long way behind HBO and Showtime before it began upping its sex and violence quotient with shows like Spartacus, Power and Black Sails.
At an individual show level, franchises like AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and FX’s American Horror Story (pictured top) also do well in terms of ratings. In this intensely competitive era, the performance of these series must seem like an open invitation for content creators to depict murder, mayhem and eroticism in ever more imaginative ways.
Both of these drivers towards sex and violence are energised further by the growing number of auteur writers and directors crossing over from film into TV. If you are HBO, for example, you don’t hire the world’s greatest gangster movie director, Martin Scorsese, to direct Boardwalk Empire and then ask him to tone down the violence.
“There’s no question the big TV series viewing experience has come to replace movies in a lot of ways,” says Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks. “So the kind of content people used to buy a ticket for, they now watch at home. Movies became very creative with violence and TV is doing the same.”
The impact of SVoD and pay TV services doesn’t stop with their own schedules, however. The graphic content they produce is so widely available across legal and illegal on-demand channels that it inevitably influences the work producers do for more mainstream platforms.
Frith Tiplady, co-MD of Tiger Aspect Drama – the company behind the BBC’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders – sums it up neatly: “For audiences, violence on free TV can look pretty tame when put up against shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Obviously, there are broadcasting guidelines to stop metropolitan creatives getting carried away, but there is an inevitable pressure to try to increase excitement levels when making shows for more mainstream broadcasters.”
The result is some pretty strong stuff on free TV. In the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV attracted criticism for scheduling crime drama Paranoid so close to the 21.00 watershed. The series depicted a woman being knifed to death in a playground in front of her child. UK pubcaster the BBC, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the more graphic shows it has aired, such as the sexually explicit Versailles (BBC2) and the visceral Tom Hardy drama Taboo (BBC1). The latter show includes a supernaturally instigated rape and a variety of gruesome deaths more typically found on pay TV.
Of course, if you listen to creators talking about graphic content, they don’t frame it in terms of the commercial benefits. Instead, they generally stress its significance as a storytelling device.
Quizzed about Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner, showrunner Kurt Sutter told a press event that “the violence, as absurd as it could be on Sons, always came from an organic place and it was never done in a vacuum. To every violent act, there were ramifications. There are ways to portray violence that don’t make it openly gratuitous.”
Tiplady points to how the violence in Peaky Blinders has its roots in character and situation: “These are men who have come back from the First World War with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ferocity is linked to their experience. But even then they have a moral code.”
Skybound Entertainment’s David Alpert takes a similar line with his company’s zombie mega-hit The Walking Dead. “Violence is part of the landscape of this show, but we certainly don’t look to be gratuitous. I’m a fan of the genre, so I’m always interested in a new or innovative zombie kill, but we’re never aiming to be gross just for the sake of
The irony with The Walking Dead, of course, is that 90% of the violence – humans dispatching zombies – doesn’t draw any reaction. It’s only when humans kill humans that the social media airwaves turn blue: “The big talking point for us recently was the introduction of villain Negan, and the way he killed fan-favourite Glenn [graphically bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire].
“Our take on this was that we needed an explosive and violent introduction for Negan to show our hero Rick Grimes being cowed. Rick being powerless was something fans hadn’t seen before, so we needed to make it seem believable.”
While A&E’s Vien agrees “TV needs to be more mindful than the movies about the depiction of violence,” he adds: “I don’t think these great shows are guilty of being gratuitous. What we’re seeing is a back and forth between creative expression and the market as viewers shift from the movies to big scripted. Would we be better off if we toned it down? Maybe. Will there be creative modifications? It’s hard to predict.”
Either way, this creative energy around violence raises a couple of big questions. First, is the heightened depiction of violence and sex really necessary to the success of a show, or is the appearance of success outlined above simply incidental? And second, is viewing such content bad for us as individuals and as a society?
On the first point, Big Light’s Spotnitz says: “Graphic content can certainly be a distraction from the storytelling. We were given licence with Medici to go quite far but in the end we didn’t feel the need, and came out with a great show.”
This doesn’t mean violence is never appropriate, Spotnitz adds, but it does mean writers and producers should interrogate its narrative purpose. Tiplady agrees, pointing out that women working on the Peaky Blinders production team had a clear voice when it came to determining the way Polly Shelby’s rape would be depicted in the show. Helen McCrory, who plays Polly, has also commented on the sequence, noting that it provided the foundation for an entire season’s worth of character exploration.
This may explain why sex scenes on TV often come entangled with conflict or tension. Rape, or the suggestion of it, has featured in Game of Thrones, Taboo and even the BBC’s Sunday night show Poldark. Elsewhere, sex is often portrayed in the context of prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience) or forbidden lust (see the incest subplot in Taboo). Of course, there are times when this kind of subject matter is of social significance. Some observers, for example, suggest Showtime drama series The Affair has taken the quality of debate about consensual sex to a new level.
On violence, Lisa Chatfield, head of scripted development at Pukeko Pictures, says writers and producers would do well to remember “the implication and suggestion of violence can often be more intriguing and suspenseful than its graphic depiction.” Violence is used sparingly yet still to powerful effect in The Missing season two, for example, in which the depravity of the villain lies in the fear of what he might do.
Circling back to the issue of commercial potential, it’s also worth noting that less graphic sex and violence can be beneficial when it comes to international distribution. A&E’s Vien warns against overstating this point, however, in case it drives the market towards mediocrity: “Different markets have different tastes – but you can finesse that in the editing room. I don’t think the right response to this is to try and come up with a generalised acceptable level of sex and violence. The creative process doesn’t work like that.”
On the broader social point, it’s easy to come across as humourless or puritanical when discussing TV violence. But there is academic and educational research that suggests a link between TV violence and the desensitisation of children. TV violence has also been linked to what academics call ‘mean world syndrome,’ namely the way negative depictions on TV can make people disproportionately suspicious and fearful of the world.
Like the drinks and fast-food sectors, the TV industry is quite good at swerving the debate about its responsibility for the world in which we live, but maybe it should pause to reflect.
Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.
Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.
As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.
Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.
Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.
Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.
British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.
The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.
A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.
Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.
The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss discussed on-set disasters, character deaths, celeb cameos and plans for life after the fantasy series during a keynote chat in Austin.
Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss set the scene for one of the most anticipated series finales in TV history during a discussion at the South by Southwest festival.
The duo filled to capacity the Austin Convention Center’s 2,400-person main ballroom for a Q&A, moderated by GoT stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (who play Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, respectively, in the show), that was for the most part loose and playful.
Nevertheless, the talk revealed a few news items for hardcore fans – notably that GoT’s final season will consist of just six episodes, and that the forthcoming seventh season will see musician Ed Sheeran make a cameo appearance.
Topics ran the gamut from Benioff and Weiss’s favourite on-screen deaths to tales of on-set disasters. Discussing the show’s controversial portrayal of women, Weiss said the writers had been drawn to the strong and complex portrayal of female characters in George RR Martin’s books, the source material for the series, from the start.
“We realised it’s an awful world this story takes place in, but there were more compelling female characters in the books who had agency, who were out there,” Weiss said. “They weren’t secondary to anybody – they weren’t anybody’s women or wives. They had their own storylines in this world. It seemed like a very actress-centric show from the source material.”
Elsewhere, Benioff expressed exasperation at the prospect of trying to stop spoilers leaking out each season, given the show’s huge cast and crew. “Even the CIA can’t keep information private, so how can we do it?” he joked, adding that, ultimately, it is up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to spoil the show’s revelations. “I’m not someone who reads the last page of a book first,” he said.
The showrunners also revealed that GoT’s four writers had argued over who would get to write what for the drama’s final season. “We have two of the writers on the staff, and the four of us get together in a room and break down [the story],” Weiss said. “Usually it takes two minutes to decide. This time it took 18 emails back and forth, because we realised it was the last time we’d be doing the show.”
He added that Dave Hill, who began writing for the show on season five, would pen the final season’s premiere.
Benioff said the aim for the drama – which returns to HBO for season seven on July 16 – from the beginning had been essentially “to tell a 70-hour movie.” He added that he was “relatively happy that we’ve managed to keep everyone together and tell it the way we want to.”
As for the post-GoT future, Weiss said his focus was entirely on finishing the series. “We’ve discussed things but, honestly, this show is a 24/7 thing,” he said, adding jokingly that his only real plan was “sitting in a cool, dark room for two months” once the show wrapped.