Tag Archives: Jonathan Cavendish

Waiting in the wings

The Fall scribe Allan Cubitt and Imaginarium Studios co-founder Jonathan Cavendish have teamed up for the BBC’s latest period drama, Death & Nightingales – a project a long time in the making, they tell DQ.

Movies and TV dramas almost always take a long time to make it from conception to premiere, but few projects can hold a candle to the BBC’s forthcoming period drama Death & Nightingales in that regard. Producer Jonathan Cavendish first optioned the 1992 novel of the same name by Eugene McCabe 20 years ago and is only now getting close to realising his ambition of seeing the book on screen.

“For a long time, I wanted to make it as a movie and had various film directors involved,” Cavendish says. “You never think it won’t happen as a producer. I’ve had things that have taken 10 or 15 years, and although this is probably the longest I always feel there’s a right time for everything.”

One of the problems of adapting the book for the big screen was that it is split into three parts, set over a 24-hour period in 1885 in which a Northern Irish woman decides to use her 23rd birthday to escape her difficult relationship with a landowning stepfather with the aid of a charming suitor. A discussion with writer and director Allan Cubitt (The Fall, The Hound of the Baskervilles) helped break the deadlock. “Allan had previously worked on an adaptation of it as a movie and we thought it would work well as a three-part television series with him adapting and directing and all the feature-film qualities of shooting, art direction and performance,” Cavendish says.

Jamie Dornan and Ann Skelly in Death & Nightingales

The tense, emotional, family drama – produced by Imaginarium and Soho Moon for BBC2 and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International – is something of a departure for Cubitt following his work on RTÉ and BBC2 crime thriller The Fall. But with a love of the source material and a lifelong keenness to work on as broad a range of projects as possible, it proved a good fit. “Post The Fall, when the BBC asked what I wanted to do next, I thought maybe a three-part TV adaptation would be a good way of tackling the book,” Cubitt says. “I would always look to do something very different rather than more of the same. I’ve never been particularly easy to pigeonhole; I want to vary the kind of material I produce.”

But there was some continuity from Cubitt’s last drama, most notably in the location (Northern Ireland) and the return of Jamie Dornan, who played serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall and now stars as Liam Ward, the man looking to help Ann Skelly’s Beth escape from her stepfather, Billy (Matthew Rhys).

“Jamie was always on the cards. It was a question of whether he could do it,” Cubitt says. “Casting is always critical, but it’s particularly vital when you’re attempting to bring a book to the screen that the casting feels right for not only the screenplay but also the novel. Jamie is great to work with, he’s easy to have around on set. The more I developed the character and slightly changed it from the source material, the more it became a part that Jamie could do brilliantly.

“I’ve always admired Matthew as an actor. He’s not from Northern Ireland but he has a great ear for different accents. He’s the sort of actor that wouldn’t say yes to a part if he didn’t think he could pull it off, and he’s been brilliant.

“Ann was different; she was somebody I wasn’t familiar with and Jamie mentioned her to me. She self-taped [her audition] at first and had a brilliant quality about her. She’s not unknown, but lots of people won’t know her and I think she’s exceptional. I’m incredibly excited about her and her performance.”

Above: Producer Jonathan Cavendish (left) and writer Allan Cubitt on location

Competition is fierce in scripted, with star names from the film world and big budgets from the streamers abounding. Casting can be key to cutting through, particularly with someone like Dornan – best known for starring in the 50 Shades of Grey movies – but that’s easier said than done.

“There’s so much stuff that’s really good that there’s no point trying to do something unless you’re thrilled with it. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of so-so television being made and now there’s much less,” says Cavendish. “When you make these shorter-length shows, the problem is getting the actors. We were very lucky to get Matt and Jamie, because people of that calibre are often tied into very long shows.

“But I love television, and three or four parts is a very good format because companies like the BBC can really compete at that length. They struggle to do so over eight or 10 hours, where the streamer budgets are so gigantic. The BBC can really excel with pieces like this and we’re thrilled to be working with them on it.”

Cubitt says his usual writing process is “quite complex,” starting with an area of interest and then a prolonged “laborious, meticulous” period of reading and researching around the subject and note-taking with an eye on potential scenes, characters and narrative arcs. A detailed treatment will follow, with input from producers and experts to refine plot and character. “I don’t really script until I’ve got that in place – the actual scripting will go quite quickly and be a pleasure compared with the development process, if the treatment holds up,” he says.

But how does this change when it’s an adaptation of an existing work like Death & Nightingales? “The process is different because although I can research and investigate the materials, my starting point is Eugene’s novel,” Cubitt says. “In a sense, I’m cutting into the research that he’s done and making use of that. Eugene’s a dramatist so his dialogue has great quality. His idiom in Death & Nightingales is fantastic, so a lot of the time it’s about staying faithful to what he has created, but not in a slavish way.

Matthew Rhys, star of The Americans, also features in the drama

“There is a complex process of transformation that goes on, and any adaptation involves a reinterpretation and recreation of material. You tend to end up concentrating more tightly on central characters when you come to filmmaking as opposed to the novel, where you might take a digression with a secondary or peripheral character.

“There is a kind of pressure. When I was adapting Tolstoy, that was real pressure. Can I really create scenes for Tolstoy?” Cubitt continues, referring to his 2000 miniseries version of Anna Karenina. “You have to find a way of capturing it and putting it on film. I’ve used different techniques to achieve that – we have some voiceover, but there’s something close to a soliloquy going on in the piece, which I think worked really well. I work on the basis that I’m not violating the text; the text remains and hopefully it will give the text a second life, a second audience.”

The challenges of production ranged from the unusual to the all too common. A particularly warm summer made sunstroke a problem, for Dornan in particular, during filming – not an issue one would expect to encounter filming outside Belfast. Finding a suitable location for Billy Winter’s home also posed a challenge, before the National Trust’s Spring Hill house came to the rescue. “The difficult thing is finding beautiful, unspoilt houses. Mainly they’ve been bought by people and modernised,” Cavendish says. “It was no coincidence the main location was a National Trust place that has been lovingly conserved and restored.”

For Cavendish, it’s been worth the wait. And with the current ongoing political debate about the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the production has actually turned out to be quite timely.

“It’s an amazing book with an extraordinary device of action over a 24-hour period,” he says. “It is also the best examination of the origin story of modern Ireland that I know. Viewers will understand how modern Northern Ireland became what it is without it being a history lesson. It’s an extraordinary character study in a tribal, political environment so it’s absolutely nicely timed.”

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What’s comes after the ‘golden age’ of drama?

The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?

It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.

Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.

Rebecca Eaton
PBS Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton

With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.

Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.

“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?

“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”

In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.

“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”

One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey has already concluded on ITV in the UK and will soon end on PBS

Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.

Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.

“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”

The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.

“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”

The Last Kingdom
Carnival Films’ The Last Kingdom has aired in the US and the UK and will return for a second season

Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.

“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.

“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made use of technological advances pioneered by The Imaginarium Studios

The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.

“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”

Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.

“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”

Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”

For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.

“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”

Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”

On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”

Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.

“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”

The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.

Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.

“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”

Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.

“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.

“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.

“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”

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