The team behind Netflix thriller Safe reunite for The Stranger, based on Harlan Coben’s mystery novel. DQ visits the set to find out how they reworked the story for the screen.
A pretty, red-brick side road off Bolton town centre has, perhaps, never seen anything quite like it. Cameras, lights and lots of action for a fast-paced story of murder, intrigue and secrets that – most intriguingly – includes the first lady of comedy, Jennifer Saunders, in her first serious role.
This is the set of The Stranger, the latest Harlan Coben project with Red Production Company for Netflix, and once again the casting gives a hint at its ambition. While the team’s last project, Safe, had Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a suburban British dad whose life unravelled when his daughter went missing, The Stranger has a starry cast including Richard Armitage, Siobhan Finneran (pictured above with co-star Kadiff Kirwan), Stephen Rea, Anthony Head and Hannah John-Kamen.
Like Safe, it is set in a heightened world of suburbia where everyone lives in nice houses, and almost all of them have dark a secret. It’s a fascination of New Jersey-born writer Coben, who has sold 70 million copies of his page-turning mysteries set in a fictionalised version of his home state.
Secrets are once again at the centre of The Stranger, which debuts tomorrow and is the first of his Red coproductions (as well as Safe, they also made The Five with him for Sky) to be adapted from one of his books.
The character of the Stranger, a male in the book, is now played by young female Ant-Man & the Wasp star John-Kamen, who for the opening few episodes drops the truth on unwitting strangers. The first of them is solicitor Adam Price, played by The Hobbit actor Armitage, who is told his wife (played by Dervla Kirwan) faked a pregnancy.
The idea, says Coben, came from the discovery of places on the internet that sell fake pregnancy kits. “I read about this going on in the Dark Web and thought it was just incredible and it planted this seed in my head about what happened if you faked a pregnancy and people found out?” he says. “People think they are anonymous when they do things like this, but they are not.
“The Stranger comes into each of their lives and plants a seed that germinates into something really ugly and unexpected. Adam is an ordinary guy who is told this secret about his wife and by the end of episode one she has disappeared and he goes on this journey to discover what has happened to her.”
It is a real action adventure for former Spooks star Armitage, who claims The Stranger is one of the few shows he’s made that he would actually want to watch. “I’ve been in lots of things where I’ve loved acting in it but it’s not the kind of thing I would watch at home, but this is exactly what I would watch,” he says. “It had a brilliant script, a brilliant cast and I get to do lots of action scenes. The whole thing was a no-brainer for me.”
Saunders plays Heidi, the second of the characters to be told a secret; this time about her daughter.
“It was strange at first, not to be playing a role for laughs,” says the actor and comedian, famed for starring in Absolutely Fabulous and her comedy partnership with Dawn French. “But once we started filming and I’d done the first take, I realised it was just like normal filming, only I didn’t have to try to make people laugh. In comedy, you are normally heading for a joke – and when the director says cut, you hope the crew will laugh. Hopefully they won’t in this.”
While fans of the book will have an idea of what happens, Coben, along with scriptwriter Danny Brocklehurst (Brassic, Clocking Off, Shameless) have made so many changes that they have created something almost completely different.
“I know a lot of writers don’t like their books to be changed, but I kind of love it,” says Coben. “It works if you trust the people you are working with. The book is still there but it’s a separate entity. The fun for me is seeing how things change.
“So for the character of the cop, Johanna, played by Siobhan Finneran, I created her and then Danny changed her a little bit and then Siobhan changed her a little bit too, so she’s taken off into whole areas I never could have expected.”
Coben is intimately involved with the process from beginning to end. It starts with him and Brocklehurst, alongside producers Nicola Schindler and Richard Fee, having an intense few days of storyboarding ideas. For this production, a whole new storyline involving teenagers – Adam’s kids, who just have small roles in the book – was created, while other characters are brought in that are completely new.
“Safe did really well among younger viewers and Netflix likes shows with a teenage story and I love a teenage story, so it was cool to bring them into it,” says Coben. “We’ve also brought in Adam’s dad, played by Anthony Head.”
In addition, the mysterious character of the Stranger not only changes sex from male to female but is also given her own complicated back story, while Rea’s retired cop, Martin Killane, a client of Adam’s, is also given a much more complete history.
Brocklehurst then goes away and writes the script, staying in regular contact with Coben. “I’d say it was a strange combination of a book adaptation and an original story,” says Brocklehurst. “The start and the end of the book are very similar [to the series] but a lot of the middle section is completely new.”
The action has been transported from New Jersey to England – which means the lacrosse team is now a football one and there are fewer guns – but the story is universal. “As with Safe, you start with quite an ordinary domestic setup and an identifiable ordinary guy,” says Brocklehurst. “But things begin to unravel and you go to completely unexpected places.”
As with all Netflix shows, none of the production team have any idea how successful Safe was – only that they have been recommissioned and, as Netflix has optioned several of Coben’s books, they are hoping for more of the same.
All the writers can do is attempt to coax viewers into watching the next episode. “Of course, whoever you are doing any show for, you want to keep viewers watching. But when you do a show for Netflix, there is a real demand that viewers shouldn’t stop wanting to watch,” says Brocklehurst.
“It focuses you to have momentum building up throughout the episode and then these hooks at the end so that viewers feel like they have to watch the next one.”
Netflix original series Sex Education follows Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward high-school student who lives with his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). In season one, Otis and his friend Maeve (Emma Mackey) set up a sex clinic at school to capitalise on his talent for dishing out sex advice.
In season two, Otis’s relationship with girlfriend Ola (Patricia Allison) progresses while he must also deal with his now-strained friendship with Maeve. Meanwhile, Moordale Secondary is in the throes of a chlamydia outbreak, highlighting the need for better sex education at the school, while new kids come to town who will challenge the status quo.
The cast also includes Ncuti Gatwa, Connor Swindells, Aimee Lou Wood, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Chaneil Kular, Simone Ashley, Mimi Keene, Tanya Reynolds, Mikael Persbrandt, Jim Howick, Rakhee Thakrar, Samantha Spiro, James Purefoy and Alistair Petrie.
In this DQTV interview, executive producers Laurie Nunn, Ben Taylor and Jamie Campbell open up about the making of the show and bringing it back for a second run. Creator and writer Nunn reveals how she was brought the idea of putting a teenage sex therapist onto a school campus and then created the world of Moordale and its characters.
She also talks about how US teen series shaped the world of Sex Education, a vision shared with director Taylor, who wanted to create a “positive, warm school experience.”
The group also discuss bringing the cast together and the challenges of balancing so many characters’ stories, and tease the potential of future seasons.
Italian director Andrea De Sica has achieved global success with Netflix teen drama series Baby. He talks to DQ about the joys of working with a young creative team, what it’s like directing for Netflix and why he thinks the controversial series has been successful.
Set in Rome, Netflix’s Italian teen drama Baby tells the story of two teenage girls who lead double lives. By day, they are students at an elite high school; by night, they engage in prostitution. Premiering in November 2018, the show returned for a quick-turnaround second season last month.
For director Andrea de Sica, Baby represents his first directing role on a drama series, following his directorial debut on 2016 film Children of the Night.
As well as featuring a young cast, much of Baby’s creative team and crew are also made up of young talent. The series was created by a collective of Italian screenwriters in their mid-20s, known as The Grams, and produced by brothers Marco and Nicola de Angelis.
Working with a largely young team proved useful for 37-year-old De Sica, who points out that his colleagues’ youthfulness meant they didn’t approach the series with a “typical Italian paternalistic approach.”
“There was no ‘Come on, I’ll show you the way.’ We were all in it together trying to figure it out,” he says, adding that even the composer behind the soundtrack was just 23.
“It was hard because it was my first series, but maybe that was a good thing because I didn’t have any orthodox methods. I did it my way. Everything was new and unexpected, and that was the best part about it. It was a totally spontaneous process of writing, directing and editing.”
Taking a new approach to directing was important for De Sica who, coming from an established family in the film industry, was determined not to be too heavily influenced by his roots and to make his work completely his own.
“I wanted to forget all the cinema references and directors in my life, which were very present in my first feature, and make Baby as fresh and direct as I could,” he says.
But directing Baby was not a project De Sica could conquer alone, he adds, pointing out that the show’s themes also required a female voice to share directorial duties. This posed difficulties, however, as the controversial nature of the series made it hard to find someone willing to take it on.
“I couldn’t be the only director to do it, because Baby needed a woman too. It was impossible to direct it all by myself, but nobody else wanted to direct it. Everybody was saying, ‘You’re crazy!’ It was hard to find other directors, but at last we found one,” he says, referring to Anna Negri.
Netflix also provided the creative freedom De Sica desired for the project, which he says gave him a favourable working relationship with the streamer.
“I liked it a lot. First of all, the average age of the executives at Netflix is the same age as me, so we are at the same point in our lives. The second thing is the executives really know where they want to go, but at the same time know they should give you some freedom,” he says.
“They don’t interfere much, so we had our own rules and methods. They let us build this huge experiment, which was very risky but gave us much more freedom.”
Although the show explores controversial and sensitive themes, De Sica praises it for giving a voice to women in a way that hasn’t been done before, which he believes is one of the reasons for its success.
“We speak about female teenagers differently from [how they’ve been spoken about] before in films and television. Females were often seduced and seen as objects; now they’re becoming active. They are proper protagonists of the story and have power in the environment that oppressed them. So it’s a sense of relief, I think, for the young female audiences that they finally they have their character, their heroine. And they are not necessarily good or bad, but something in between,” he says.
While De Sica says Italian audiences were very sceptical of Baby to begin with, he believes now is a good time to be working in TV in the country given the evolution the industry is currently experiencing, particularly with regard to the rise of SVoD services.
“It is a very good moment now in Italy because of this opening by the [SVoD] platforms for a younger generation of authors, screenwriters, directors and actors, while it is easier to make shows that do not normally feature in traditional Italian television,” he says.
“What I was pitching five years ago made people look at me like I was a Martian. Now, the industry is moving and we can build a new wave of films and series. I’m very optimistic about the next 10 years for me; I see lots of things that are possible to do.
“Other productions made by Netflix and similar platforms are also run by 30-something directors. There’s no longer the usual boundary that you have to be 50 to run a TV show, as there was 10 years ago in Italy. But it’s not just about age, it’s about the quality and themes that the projects are bringing up. We can do more experiments; we can go deeper and make shows that describe realities that maybe are very local but can travel the world, like Baby.”
So what’s next on the agenda for De Sica? Just ahead of the season two launch of Baby last month, the director announced plans to make a film based on Chiara Palazzolo’s Gothic novel Non Mi Uccidere, which translates as Don’t Kill Me.
Aimed at the same young audience as Baby, Non Mi Uccidere follows the story of 19-year-old Mirta who, along with her lover, dies from a drug overdose. Mirta is resurrected alone and learns that she must eat human beings in order to continue living.
De Sica is working alongside Baby creators The Grams on the project, with writer and producer Gianni Romoli, who acquired the rights to the book, also part of the writing team. Rome-based indie Vivo Film is producing.
But first, he is returning for the third and final season of Baby, which Netflix announced earlier this month with the promise that every secret in the series will be revealed.
From the makers of Chernobyl comes Giri/Haji, a drama set between London and Tokyo that explores how a single murder affects two cities. DQ visits the set of the Netflix and BBC series.
It’s a freezing cold evening in central London, where news crews and bewildered passers-by mill around, wondering what has just happened. It is the aftermath of the Battle of Soho, the action-packed set piece that sees the multinational cast of Netflix and BBC2’s Giri/Haji taking up arms in an explosive bout of score-settling.
This violent reckoning is the climax of events set in motion by a single murder in London that shatters the fragile truce between Tokyo’s Yakuza gangs. Dispatched to investigate is careworn detective and family man Kenzo (Takehiro Hira), chosen because of the suspected involvement of his wayward brother Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka).
Once in the British capital, Kenzo is swept up into a dizzying world of uneasy alliances (with Kelly Macdonald’s lonely cop Sarah and rent boy Rodney, who actor Will Sharpe likens to “a peacock you find in a skip”) and dangerous foes (Charlie Creed-Miles’s remorseless British gangster Abbot and his weak-willed American ally Vickers, played by Justin Long). All will face the consequences of past decisions over the following eight episodes.
There’s a lot going on in Giri/Haji (which translates as Duty/Shame), from Bafta-nominated screenwriter Joe Barton (Humans). Blending Yakuza thriller and kitchen-sink drama, character study and even impressionistic animation, its very novelty proved irresistible to Macdonald, as did the opportunity to reunite with director A Child in Time director Julian Farino.
“Julian phoned me up to ask if I’d read it,” she says. “I’d been told it was a Tokyo crime story that bleeds into London, but it’s so much more than that. It takes you off on unexpected tangents. The bonds that people share are unusual and it’s constantly surprising – all the more so, given Joe knew nothing about Japanese culture when he started, but that’s the confidence of youth, I guess!”
The initial concept was a loose one dating back almost a decade, inspired by Barton’s then-girlfriend taking a masters in forensic crime science and being intrigued by a middle-aged Japanese man sitting in silence at the back of the lecture hall. “It turned out he was a detective in the Tokyo police department,” says Barton. “There was something about that image that felt very cool and mysterious – it was an interesting protagonist for a high-end crime drama I might write in eight years time…”
Sister Pictures founder Jane Featherstone (Chernobyl) was intrigued, joining Barton to work up a script commissioned, then rejected, by another broadcaster. “I think they were afraid of how the Japanese element might land,” she says. “None of us know the answer to that yet, but both BBC and Netflix were excited by doing something a bit different. Netflix was keen to have something that worked in an emerging market like Japan, while the BBC, like all public service broadcasters, needs bold ideas to stand out more than ever.”
Those ideas are embodied by an opening 25 minutes featuring neither the English language nor anglophone actors. DQ finds the man required to carry much of those first scenes seeking sanctuary (and warmth) inside Soho Square’s Huguenot church. Largely unknown outside his native Japan, Takehiro Hira is excited about a role that could make his name internationally.
“Forty-something, family person, quite demanding parents – when I first read the script, Kenzo was me,” he muses. “Detective stories in Japan are usually black and white, but Kenzo has dark sides and personal baggage, which was so refreshing. I was giving a bit more than Julian wanted at first, so it was a wonderful challenge to learn to act more minimally than is usual on Japanese television.”
Hira is supported by a stellar Japanese cast – not that the Giri/Haji team knew that while they were holding auditions. “We were completely ignorant!” laughs Farino, who split directing duties with Australian director Ben Chessell. “Masahiro Motoki [Yakuza boss Fukuhara] is one of Japan’s biggest movie stars and Yosuke is a huge name over there. I was struck by the unbelievable respect, precision and preparation of Japanese actors: they were word-perfect every time, which was humbling because not every British actor is like that.”
Thanks in part to Giri/Haji’s intentionally slippery grasp of genre, finding the tone wasn’t straightforward. “I get a lot of scripts where I feel I’ve shot them before I’ve finished reading them,” says Farino. “This was the opposite, a genuine journey – it respects the audience from the off. By degrees, you define it. Everyone has scars and moral complexity, but the pleasures were too great to make it noirish and miserable, and I didn’t want it too verité, so we didn’t go handheld.
“I describe it as a few inches off the ground, slightly heightened. [DOP] David Odd and I had never shot on such wide lenses before; we felt like we were shooting a wide shot and close-up at the same time.”
Two months filming in Japan proved a challenge both linguistically and logistically, but Farino, speaking not a word of Japanese, thrived on the experience. “It was an absolute pleasure. When you’re directing, you’re trying to get the feeling for a scene rather than hanging on the dialogue, so it felt surprisingly natural. We felt we were seeing little pockets of Tokyo you wouldn’t usually see, trying not to do the neon lights thing. It felt more like downtown Manhattan than Tokyo in the movies: washed-out browns and greys,”
“Tokyo isn’t easy to film in,” Barton adds. “In the UK, you can shut down a street for a bit and annoy everyone, but in Japan you can’t disturb people. The permissions process meant you needed a lot of time to set everything up; just finding somewhere we could put cars on a pavement was an incredible challenge. But weirdly, they’re very relaxed about firearms. In the UK, guys follow you around and lock up the gun when you’re not using it. In Japan, we filmed a gunfight in this big house and there were guns everywhere – you’d go to the toilet and there’d be one left by the sink. One actor was allowed to take one home to practice.”
The target for Giri/Haji was to stand out in a crowded landscape and break new ground for British television. “Very little British drama easily lends itself to epic,” says Featherstone. “We struggle with that in this country, but Joe found this cultural connection freed us up to think in a slightly different way about storytelling. We wouldn’t have been so brave if had been a purely British story.”
The stakes are high in Netflix’s international cat-and-mouse crime drama Criminal, with each episode comprising a single police interview. DQ interrogates the cast and creative team about the series.
If there’s a single series that demonstrates the scale of Netflix’s global ambitions, it might just be Criminal.
The crime drama has a unique premise in that each 45-minute episode takes place entirely during a police interrogation, focusing on the intense clash between detective and suspect, while the cameras are confined to the interview room, the adjoining observation room and the corridor that links them.
But what really makes the series stand out is that this 12-part procedural is set in four European countries, with three episodes each from the UK, France, Germany and Spain. Each batch is recorded in the local language, starring, written and directed by talent from the same country.
Produced by Idiotlamp Productions and launching on September 20, Criminal is overseen by British showrunners George Kay and Jim Field Smith, who wrote and directed the UK episodes, respectively, while also supervising the other countries’ creative teams.
Kay developed the concept after enjoying the constraints of writing a monologue called Double Lesson for Channel 4’s First Cut strand, while also taking inspiration from an interview he watched with a man accused of killing his stepdaughter.
“During the interview, I changed my mind [about whether he was guilty] about three or four times,” he recalls. “Jim and I have worked together since school and we’ve always loved police stuff, true crime and crime drama, and then the show kind of built out of that.”
Kay then wrote an initial script, but the premise – which goes against the grain by being extremely intimate rather than high-concept or lavish – meant it was tricky to find a home for the show. That’s where Netflix came in, with the streamer taking the potential scale of the show in a different direction by turning it into an international format.
“Initially, we were trepidatious,” Field Smith admits. “But it’s been the most amazing adventure.”
Although the project has been five years in the making, production moved at an incredible pace once Netflix came on board. Shooting began in January and wrapped in April, with each episode filmed over a week in the same studio set at the streamer’s production hub at Ciudad de la Tele, Madrid.
“We shot 12 hours of drama in four months,” Field Smith says. “That’s never happened ever, anywhere. So we went from this long period of trying to get the thing away to suddenly all guns blazing.”
Serving as a “pilot block” for the whole series, the English episodes were filmed first, featuring a core cast that includes Katherine Kelly, Lee Ingleby, Nicholas Pinnock, Mark Stanley, Rochenda Sandall and Shubham Saraf. Guest stars appearing in single episodes include David Tennant, Hayley Atwell, Youssef Kerkour and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Kay wrote all three of the English instalments, with Field Smith behind the camera, each working with the heads of departments to create the world of the show.
That then became the model for the German, French and Spanish versions that would follow, each inheriting the rules, style and tone set out by the original.
They were led by writer/director Frederic Mermoud and writers Antonin Martin-Hilbert and Mathieu Missoffe from France; director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writers Bernd Lange and Sebastian Heeg from Germany; and Spanish director Mariano Barroso and writers Alejandro Hernández and Manuel Martín Cuenca.
The lure of Netflix and the short-term commitment of a limited series meant the project was able to snare some of each country’s top acting talent, such as Nathalie Baye from France, Germany’s Peter Kurth and Inma Cuesta and Emma Suárez from Spain, in addition to the aforementioned British talent.
“It’s almost like a sort of theatrical engagement,” Field Smith says. “How many opportunities do you get as actors, writers and directors to do a show where it’s entirely about the performance? Yes, there are all these ‘constraints,’ but those constraints are there to be embraced and, actually, actively encouraged. So we were able to say to David Tennant, for example, it’s essentially more of a theatrical play experience than it is a big drama where you might be shooting two or three days across several weeks and there’s a lot of sitting around and a lot of waiting. We told them, ‘We’re going to be shooting 12 pages a day, so you better come prepared.’”
It was during the scriptwriting process that Kay and Field Smith began discussing the rules for the world that would become integral to the dynamics between the characters, their behaviour and the way the series would later be filmed.
They made an early decision that the corridor between the observation and interview rooms would be a safe space where characters could tell the truth. “So after being in this ‘theatre,’ they come out the door and would be able to say, ‘Oh, so and so’s getting on my nerves,’ or ‘I really think he did this.’ It’s just true feelings,” Kay says.
The use of CCTV footage or flashbacks and reconstructions was ruled out, while the duo were also keen to ensure the camera never left the set. “The strength of the show is that we are enclosed,” Field Smith notes. “One of the directors wanted to put the camera outside the window and see one of the detectives looking outside, but I said, ‘You can’t do it because you’ve immediately broken the rule of the space.’ So the rules emerged organically as we were making the show, rather than from us sitting down at the beginning with a list.”
Field Smith points to the second UK episode, in which Atwell plays a woman accused of murdering her sister’s boyfriend. The fact that there’s no physical evidence, crime scene photographs or any other visual aids pointing to her guilt, or otherwise, means viewers must rely on the conversation between the accused and the detective and work out themselves who is telling the truth.
“That’s when the shows is at its strongest,” the director continues. “If you’re doing a standard crime drama, the interview room scenes are often used to get as much information as possible so we can get back out on the road and have a car chase. We’re the opposite. Our car chase is in the room; our pyrotechnics come from physicality and body language and a pen simply falling off the table. We’ve both done big, flashy shows and films, and it was a really fun challenge to go the other way.”
With four variations of Criminal, Kay and Field Smith had to be wary of customs and procedures that might be different from the way things work in a UK police station. But when the show is boiled down, each episode follows the same structure – a suspect brought in for questioning by police about a crime they may or may not have committed – no matter what country it’s set in.
“That was the nub of it. So as soon as we can cut to that, finding the truth about that suspect, the grammar of it [across different countries] became pretty similar,” Kay says. “To labour on the on the differences between them was not something we wanted to do for any dramatic reason. So it all became quite a universal story.”
Field Smith picks up: “We didn’t want it to be super-real because that would, in itself, not be interesting. So we created this slightly theatrical, slightly heightened environment. On a script level, the show is technically very accurate; but on a visual level, we wanted to create our own space. We tried not to get too bogged down in what a police station in Germany would look like.”
UK actors Ingleby and Sandall are both aware of the dramatic tension police interview scenes can create, having both previously appeared in a series famed for its interrogations, BBC drama Line of Duty.
In Criminal, they play DI Tony Myerscough and DC Vanessa Warren, who each get the chance to put Tennant’s Dr Egdar Fallon and Atwell’s Stacey Doyle through the wringer in an attempt to get to the truth.
“I thought it was interesting how you don’t have any background. There are no flashbacks or preamble leading up to it – you get the information in that room,” Ingleby says. “And the writing, it’s very rare you get a scene that runs and runs – you get like two or three pages of the scene at the most. That was really thrilling for me.”
Filming in the interview room would take place in the morning, before the scene was reset to be shot from the perspective of those in the observation room.
“It’s very intense. That is the show,” says Sandall. “It’s in the third episode that you see Hugo Duffy [played by Mark Stanley] rehearsing what he’s going to do in the interview, so that feeling of immense pressure would be put on these characters because they are putting on a show. It added to the intensity of it.”
Owing to the nature of the format, the police investigations take centre stage, leaving little time for actors to develop their characters beyond their work persona. Even so, they have still managed to create power dynamics and even a hint at a romantic relationship between two officers.
“With Myerscough, I suppose he plays it by the book,” Ingleby says. “He’s very methodical compared to somebody like Paul Ottager [Pinnock], who throws the cat among the pigeons. He’s on fire in the room, but slightly less confident in his own skin.
“They’re a team and they work as a team. They have a routine. Some people, you know more about their personal life than others. But you have the work banter, which we thought was good to have going through it.”
The constraints of the series aren’t just limited to the set design or camera movements but the actors’ movements as well, with most of the sitting behind desks the majority of the time. “I do think there’s a real integrity in truth and stillness,” Sandall explains. “It’s a very brave choice to make but, as actors, obviously you’re paranoid, thinking, ‘Oh gosh, is this going to be interesting?’ But there’s a real truth in stillness. It’s a different format – it’s great.”
“I suppose at first, I thought, ‘How interesting can this be?’ But I enjoyed it,” Ingleby admits. “After the nerves of learning a massive amount of lines, you get into the rhythm. For that first week of filming, when it was Rochenda, Katherine and Hayley in the interview room, that was their world, this [observation room] was ours and then we’d swap it around for the next episode.”
Both actors are also excited by where Criminal could go beyond its first season, dreaming up new countries the show could be set in and even crossovers that could bring different countries into the same investigation.
“The ideas that could go beyond this season are huge. There is so much potential in the programme and crossovers,” Sandall adds.
With a format that carries inherent tension and the ambition to apply it to different countries, Criminal is a fascinating and thrilling exploration of the cat-and-mouse relationship between suspects and detectives, and one that Netflix has the capacity and resources to adapt across its global footprint in the years to come.
As Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance returns to the fantasy world first brought to life by Jim Henson’s 1982 feature film, DQ lifts the lid on the secrets behind making and working with the puppets that populate the land of Thra.
This is a cleaning job unlike any other. Deep in the crevices of a former kettle factory in the Berkshire countryside, the foam and latex features of an extraordinary turkey-faced monster is being wiped of snot.
It is the messier side of creating a mythical world of dictatorial evil puppets. The puss –made from a mixture of slime and breakfast cereal Weetabix – cakes the features of an evil Skeksis called The Collector who not only favours murder and intrigue but also has a tendency to leave snot all over himself, his food and his friends. He is one of the terrifying baddies in an ambitious new Netflix series based on Jim Henson’s seminal 1982 film The Dark Crystal.
“The snot can get disgusting and start to smell,” admits Toby Froud, design supervisor for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, when he meets DQ at the Henson Studios creature workshop at the company’s enormous Langley Studios in London. “We have to clean all of the puppets as much as we can. We check their heads daily and strip them down and put them back together again.”
Froud, alongside executive producer Lisa Henson, is Dark Crystal family and has garnered cult status as the baby from the 1986 film Labyrinth, which featured David Bowie. While Henson is carrying forward the work of her father Jim – the legend behind The Muppets, Fraggle Rock and Labyrinth – by producing this epic series for The Jim Henson Company, Froud is working with his parents, who helped create the original Dark Crystal world.
His concept artist father Brian envisaged Dark Crystal’s mythological land of Thra with Jim; its landscape is based on his own home in Dartmoor. A book Brian wrote to accompany the film, delving deep into the myths only touched on in the original story, has served as the bible for the new series.
Froud’s mother Wendy is also on board. She helped create the original puppets (and met Brian on the set of the original film) and the pair are working behind the scenes with their son for the series, which will go deeper into this mythical world of kind-hearted Gelflings who can share dreams with each other, evil Skeksis who drain the life force out of other beings and cheeky little Podlings who hate being washed.
While the film was set at the end of the Gelfling civilisation, with the small, friendly creatures almost all murdered by the Skeksis, the 10-part series is set generations earlier, before the epic battle to come. It focuses on three main Gelflings – Rian, Deet and Bria – who all learn that something has gone wrong in the world they know. The Dark Crystal, the source of all life on Thra, which is controlled by the power-hungry Skeksis, is malfunctioning. Separately, they hear about the desperate measures the Skeksis have taken to retain their hold on Thra.
Recreating the world of The Dark Crystal has been a long-held dream for Henson. “I’ve been wanting to do something with this for around 15 years,” she says. “It has been a great passion of mine. The original movie was such a complete fantasy world; it felt like there was a reality to it, a history.’
While filmmaking has moved on so much since the original movie was made, the ethos of the series has been to stick to what is essentially a very sophisticated version of the ancient art form of puppetry. “This is pure puppetry,” insists Henson. “I want people to get excited about puppetry again. The characters are animated from within and that gives a real unity and authenticity to their performances, which makes it different from computer animation.”
To create such a physical world is some undertaking. These puppets eat, they get messy, they fight. All their tools and weapons have been created to be particularly light, while their chairs, houses, tables, food and plates are all puppet-sized.
More than 150 puppets, which have fibreglass structures surrounded by foam and latex, have been created for the show. “Live action from real puppets is something that pushes the whole production,” says Froud. “Creating them all has been a lot of work and it is a constant process. If the puppets get knocked about, they have to be re-skinned and we also re-skin the different heads onto the skull structure to give us more characters. Trying to keep track of all the puppets is one of the hardest things to do.”
In addition, 72 sets have been created, from ornate dining rooms to dank caves, all four feet off of the ground to allow the puppeteers to stand below the set floor with their hands, covered by the puppets, in the air.
“It can get pretty crowded on set,” says Neil Sterenberg, puppeteer for the show’s hero Rian as well as a Skeksis called The Scroll Keeper. “It takes three people to operate each puppet. The lead puppeteer operates the mouth and main body movements. Another puppeteer operates the eyes and ears via a monitor while a third puppeteer works the other hand of the puppet.
“It takes a lot of manpower to make these puppets work; the whole thing is like an iceberg. When you might have four or five puppets on the set together in a scene, you’ve got at least 10 people working underneath them. But we do have a monitor close to us so we can see what we are doing.
“It is like working in a painting because the sets are so stunning. Rian has a wind machine that follows him everywhere. He’s sat around a real fire – there were fire extinguishers everywhere – and seeing the natural light frame his face is just magical.”
Being a Skeksis, which is large enough to have two puppeteers crouched inside it, is an entirely different challenge. It can take 20 minutes just to get in place. “It is like performing in a duvet,” says Sterenberg. “It can get extremely hot in there and you can only do it for an hour at a time. It is particularly challenging because you have no vision at all of what is going on; you have to depend on a monitor to show you where you are going and what you look like.”
For scenes featuring both Gelflings and Skeksis, the staging is even more complicated. The flooring for the Skeksis is two feet lower – which is why you won’t see many full-length scenes with them all together. That is where CGI has been brought in – for full-length action scenes, action that shows the puppets running and also, on occasion, for hiding puppeteers.
The Dark Crystal film was a hit from the start and, for many fans, the return to this world — the series drops this Friday – is a landmark event. The top-notch cast, all fans of the original, includes Sigourney Weaver, Helena Bonham Carter, Nathalie Emmanuel, Mark Hamill, Lena Headey, Taron Egerton, Eddie Izzard, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Alicia Vikander and Natalie Dormer.
For puppeteers like Sterenberg, who has previously worked on Star Wars, the return to the world of Jim Henson is nothing less than a dream come true. “The Dark Crystal is a film I would watch over and over again,” he says. “I was inspired by the beauty and artistry of the puppetry to enter the business. Even now, when I am in a room full of Skeksis, I think, ‘How did this happen to me?’ To be in something that inspired me is incredible.”
The first German original drama commissioned by Netflix, Dark is a family saga with a supernatural twist, set in a town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships of four families.
A success on its launch in 2017, the show’s second season landed on Netflix in June this year.
In this DQTV interview, co-creator, writer and director Boran bo Odar talks about the journey he and his showrunning partner Jantje Friese took to bring the series to television.
He also discusses the creative process behind the show, his surprise at Dark’s popularity and how they overcame writers’ block during development of season two.
Bo Odar also touches on the changing role of directors in television and explains why he’s happy the small screen puts writers into focus.
La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) became one of the most talked-about series in the world when it dropped on Netflix. DQ speaks to star Pedro Alonso about the unprecedented success of the Spanish thriller and the fate of his character, Berlin.
When Netflix announced early last year that Spanish heist thriller La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) had become its most watched non-English-language series ever, the chance to bring the show back for another outing was unsurprisingly too great to pass over.
The story, originally intended as a limited series told over two parts, followed the attempts of the mysterious Professor and his handpicked gang of criminals and thieves to infiltrate Spain’s Royal Mint and escape with €2.4bn (US$2.65bn).
Before the first footage of Parte 3 arrived, a familiar face was expected to be missing from the new season. Andrés de Fonollosa – better known by his codename, Berlin – was killed in the conclusion to the second part of the series – but his appearance in the trailer created fresh questions over the character’s role in the eight new episodes that were made available on Netflix worldwide last month.
When DQ meets Pedro Alonso, who plays Berlin, at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, the actor will not be drawn on his character’s involvement or any of the events that take place in season three. All that is known is that this time, rather than a bank heist, the group are out to rescue one of their own.
When Rio (Miguel Herrán) is captured, a distraught Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó) turns to the Professor (Álvaro Morte) for help. Armed with a bold new plan, they reunite the team to save him.
Before Netflix picked up Money Heist, which was created by Alex Piña (Vis a Vis) and first started airing on Spain’s Antena 3, there wasn’t even a plan for a third part. “It was basically a surprise. It didn’t do so well in Spain; it was average. It became a success with Netflix,” Alonso says of the show, whose first nine episodes launched on Antena 3 in May 2017, followed by a further six episodes in October that year. Money Heist was then acquired by Netflix, which edited and reformatted it, expanding it from 15 to 22 episodes that were also split across two parts. Part three was then commissioned by the streamer last year.
Nobody could have predicted the buzz around the series after it landed on the US streamer, says Alonso, describing it as an “incredible and amazing situation.” He continues: “If Alex had had the idea before, he would have created a formula to repeat it. It was amazing because the reception in Spain at the beginning was normal; the first chapter had a good reception but, after that, we went down with the public and the thing ended there. Then it went ‘boom’ in a really unexpected way.
“Today we are still seeing the size of the phenomenon. I have travelled for the whole year [promoting the show] and it’s difficult to put into perspective. We need more time to put into perspective what happened, but I am very thankful, for sure.”
Berlin stands alone among the Professor’s motley crew as arguably the most sadistic, psychopathic criminal on the team. So it’s testament to the quality of Piña and co-writer Esther Martinez Lobato’s scripts that, by the end, viewers’ sympathies lay firmly with him as he went out in a blaze of glory, sacrificing himself to allow the rest of the Salvador Dali-masked gang to escape with the money.
“He’s a bad guy, he’s a sociopath, he’s dangerous but, on the other side, he’s honest, he’s funny and he’s authentic,” says Alonso, who has also starred in fellow Spanish dramas La Embajada (The Embassy), Grand Hotel and El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time). “He’s able to cross the door of taboos and do what he wants to. He does things that in ordinary life we cannot do. For me as an actor, it has something really exciting. It’s amazing for me to see the complicity the public has with him. I love working with these kinds of contradictions. When I am going to be a sweet guy, I am terrible. With Berlin, you can go deep with this kind of game and it’s a privilege to play him.”
Watching Money Heist, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor portraying Berlin, so it’s not surprising when Alonso reveals he played a part in shaping the character. He praises Piña for listening to the actors when they made suggestions and the directors for taking risks on set.
“I remember one day I said to the first director, ‘I am going to improvise a bit. We can play safe with this role or take risks and provoke what will happen between the cast and the extras [who played the hostages].’ I pushed the expectations of Berlin as a character and when we opened this door, we began to enjoy it very much.”
Having been in the dark over his character’s fate when he signed on to the show, Alonso says one of the key revelations about Berlin and the Professor’s relationship was also something that developed during filming. “At the beginning, the Professor and I weren’t brothers. This was a conversation that started one day between Álvaro Morte and me. It was Álvaro who said we could be brothers. We rehearsed it and the energy was deeper, the possibilities were deeper and we mentioned it to the director. He said, ‘Forget it! Speak about it with the writers.’
“It was so clear to us that we said we were going to play it like we were brothers. Then this thing began to grow and one moment, they said, ‘OK, you are brothers.’ At the end of the season, I only said, ‘I love you little brother.’ But in this moment, all the crew were a family in some sense. This is proof of the surprises of the writing – but I didn’t know I was going to die.”
When it came to that final scene, all guns blazing as armed police finally infiltrate the Spanish Mint and chase down the thieves, “it was all very tense,” Alonso recalls, explaining that it was filmed at the end of an eight-month shoot. “As an actor, it was draining. It was very, very tough. There was no time to really think about how we would do the ending. We were suffocating; we were really drowning with all the extra work. I wish we would have had twice as long to do that scene, which we didn’t have unfortunately.”
However, Alonso believes the stress and strain of production on the ensemble cast brought them all together. “From the very beginning, it was very difficult to get along with each other. But we were all engaged,” he says. “We knew we had to cooperate, considering the job we had at hand. We’re all very different people but we were really enjoying it and having fun. It was very tough work, but engaging and fun. Then finally, at the end, love came out, so there was huge affection between all of us and everybody was very caring, and I think people felt that we all got along very well.”
With a fourth season of Money Heist now being geared up for production, bets are off as to Alonso’s continued involvement. “We had no expectations whatsoever that this was going to continue [this far], so I’m very happy, very thankful and grateful,” he adds. “We will see what happens next.”
German-language series How to Sell Drugs Fast (Online) starts with a question: how do you win back your girlfriend from the school drug dealer? For Moritz, played by Maximilian Mundt, the answer is clear: sell better drugs.
So begins the story of one teenager’s quest to launch a narcotics empire from his bedroom. But it’s not long before he finds himself confronted with a plethora of problems, such as meeting demand, quality control and, most importantly, not getting caught.
In this DQTV interview recorded at Canneseries, where the Netflix six-parter had its world premiere, creators Philipp Käßbohrer and Matthias Murmann reveal how a true story inspired their first fictional series.
They also talk about the visual style of the show, which blends the live action with social media pages, memes, emojis and video games to take viewers into the world of the characters and enable the story to jump between genres.
How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) is produced by BTF for Netflix.
The second Netflix original series to come out of Spain, Élite tells the story of the students of an exclusive high school, where three working-class kids have just enrolled after their academy was destroyed by an earthquake.
The clash between those who have everything and those who have nothing to lose creates the perfect storm that ultimately ends in a murder – but who is behind the crime?
In this DQTV interview recorded at Series Mania, co-creator and writer Darío Madrona reveals how the school setting was used to create a show that speaks about class beyond the financial differences between the rich and the poor.
Madrona, who created the series with Carlos Montero, also talks about working with Netflix and why grounding the story in a specific setting affords Élite a universal appeal to viewers in 190 countries around the world.
Élite is produced by Zeta Audiovisual for Netflix, with a second season launching on the streaming platform later this year.
Netflix’s acquisition of Richie Mehta’s manhunt series Delhi Crime made waves at this year’s Sundance. Here, the showrunner tells DQ why he decided to plough ahead and make the Hindi-language drama, despite having no broadcasters attached.
Richie Mehta wasn’t planning on making a TV series. The filmmaker – whose predominantly India-set movies include 2007’s Amal and 2013’s Siddharth, as well as the 2016 documentary India in a Day – was in Delhi in 2013 working on a movie script when he crossed paths with family friend Neeraj Kumar, a former commissioner for Delhi’s police force.
“He looked at my script and said, ‘Alright son, forget about this. The story you should be doing is about this gang rape on the bus,’” Mehta tells DQ.
The event in question, which forms the basis of Mehta’s seven-part series Delhi Crime, is the infamous December 2012 assault on a private bus in South Delhi, which saw a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern brutally beaten, raped, tortured and murdered by a gang of men.
The horrific crime prompted international shock and condemnation, leading to protests and riots, and forced India into a national reckoning over its treatment of women. “I was in Delhi when it happened; I saw the protests that had arisen, I saw the riots,” Mehta remembers. “It was insane. The whole country was moved.”
A week-long manhunt led to the apprehension of the men responsible. One died in custody, another – a minor at the time of the attack – was sentenced to three years in prison and the remaining four were sentenced to death by hanging.
After mulling the idea, Mehta, who is Indo-Canadian and Toronto-based (and also no relation to filmmaker Deepa Mehta), initially rejected his contact’s proposal, suggesting that a local or female filmmaker might be better placed to tell the story.
Sensing the filmmaker could be swayed, Kumar dismissed his protests. “He said, ‘I have seen your work, I think it should be you. I am going to give you some police files, I’m going to give you the verdict – which is 350 pages – and I’m going to introduce you to all the investigating officers involved, especially the woman who led the investigation, [revealing] how these six guys were caught across the country in six days with no information on them. And if you think there is a story there, I will give you the world on this.’”
Ultimately, the access proved irresistible. “They trusted me with so much information that they had never trusted anyone with,” the showrunner recalls. “As I got all these details, I realised this could be a compassionate look at law and order, done in a way that not only illuminates the issues these people face trying to do the right thing, but also how this manhunt across North India was so sprawling and so varied that each detail revealed another aspect of why this thing happened.”
With such extraordinary access, one might wonder why Mehta chose to make a drama, rather than a documentary. But he says the open doors came with caveats.
“Whenever I would meet the Delhi police and talk to them, they would say, ‘You’re not recording this, are you?’ because they could be held accountable. It’s a very media-savvy culture and they would get nailed. So I would say, ‘No, I am taking notes.’ They were telling me really intimate details about their lives, but they would say, ‘If you want to recreate it, go ahead. You can generalise this point but please don’t make it specific to me.’
“So, I realised I could actually be more truthful if I depicted it dramatically rather than with a documentary, of which there have been many. People would come from the CBC and the BBC to interview them and they would just tell them what they wanted to hear, because that was the safe thing for them.”
After opting for a dramatic approach, there was still the question of whether to make a movie or an episodic work. It was former high-ranking HBO executive David Levine who first convinced Mehta to adapt the story into a TV series, rather than a feature. (Levine stepped down as HBO’s exec VP and co-head of drama in February, after more than a decade with the pay TV network, to become Anonymous Content’s president of television.)
“He said, ‘Why don’t you go write it and then I can look at it,’” Mehta recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a TV series.’ So he said, ‘I will give you all the research material from The Wire and I will teach you how to write a series.’ And so for two years he taught me how to write a series based on that material, purely because he wanted to see this exist. He’s a wonderful person and a real collaborator.”
As the months passed, the filmmaker would send various drafts to the exec, receiving notes and rewriting accordingly. “One of the things I learned from my HBO tutelage, in a series like this, it’s that it’s the opposite of a film’s priorities,” he explains. “It’s world first, character second and plot third, which is the exact opposite of what you would do with a film.
“If you have a supermarket paperback, its plot-oriented,” he adds. “Whereas if you have a piece of literature, you have your tree trunk, which is the plot, and you have the branches, which are character digressions that add to the world. You are allowed to do that in this space, versus in a film where you are not. That became a guiding light for me. Yes, the trunk is the plot of this manhunt, but really the value of this tree is the leaves that come from the branches.”
Despite Levine’s support, broadcasters and networks – including HBO – were skittish about the prospect of taking on such a dark work. “In the West, they would say, ‘It’s Hindi language; not really for us,’” says Mehta. “And in India they said, ‘We don’t want to touch this.’ I would take it to broadcasters and they would say it was too controversial.”
With traditional TV doors closed, Mehta turned to independent financiers to tell the story, securing investment from Mumbai-based Golden Karavan and Hong Kong-based Ivanhoe Pictures (the latter of which coproduced last year’s rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians) to shoot in New Delhi.
Actor Shefali Shah (Monsoon Wedding, Juice) was tapped for the role of lead investigator Vartika Chaturvedi, with a supporting cast that includes Adil Hussain (Life of Pi, Hotel Salvation), Denzil Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Rasika Dugal (Qissa, Manto) and Rajesh Tailang (Siddharth, Selection Day). Mehta’s Canadian ties qualify the project as a Canuck coproduction, with all the series’ postproduction sound and music work having been completed in Toronto.
Heading into production with no broadcaster attached constituted a significant risk. But the gamble paid off this January when Netflix purchased global rights to the series at the Sundance Film Festival, in a landmark deal that marks the first major global rights, scripted episodic sale in the festival’s history. Such deals have been commonplace for years for feature films, but with Sundance only in its second year of hosting an independent episodic strand, the acquisition is the first of its kind.
While the first two episodes screened at Sundance under the title Delhi Crime Story, Netflix has retitled the series as simply Delhi Crime, with all seven episodes dropping globally on March 22. The streaming giant also plans to build the show into an anthology series, telling further Indian crime stories under the banner.
Simran Sethi, the streamer’s director of international originals, describes the series as “an important story told with sensitivity and responsibility,” adding: “Shows like this bring a much-needed lens to the lived reality of women around the world.”
Mehta reflects that the acquisition brings a happy ending to what was, in many respects, “a huge gamble” for his international producers. “For me, the risk was time and energy, but they rolled the dice and put in their money,” he says.
“And it was a huge risk because it was a very controversial subject and it was a big project. There were more than 200 actors, 400 locations and seven hours of content. And they were gracious enough to give me the freedom to figure it out.”
Paul Feig, the director of movies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, talks to DQ about life behind the camera, why history is the best critic and his efforts to back new voices for the screen.
As a writer, director, producer and actor across television and film, Paul Feig (pictured above) is better placed than most to judge the current blurring of the lines between the two mediums.
“We’re in a really interesting place right now, in a good way,” he tells DQ during a break from post-production on his upcoming holiday-themed feature Last Christmas. “TV’s in a great place, better than it’s been in a long time. Movies are playing catch-up a little bit sometimes but there’s still a lot of great movies.
“For me it’s just trying to figure out what is new for an audience, what’s going to surprise an audience, what will they be excited to see, what are they tired of, what don’t they want to see – it’s a never-ending question. It will never be answered by anybody that accurately. If it were, every movie that came out would be a giant hit.”
Feig jokes that he’s old enough to remember when Star Wars was an original movie, and says that despite the crowd of superheroes dominating the box office, he is always looking for the next big thing that doesn’t come from existing IP or a known franchise. “That’s what I get most excited about and I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out. What are the new ideas?”
Feig is speaking to DQ ahead of his appearance at the 2019 Banff World Media Festival in Canada, where he will give a Summit Series Keynote and be presented with the event’s Award of Excellence.
It’s that attitude to original material that has served Feig well across his career, which has seen him work on major movie titles including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy plus TV hits such as Freaks & Geeks, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men, 30 Rock, the US version of The Office and Weeds.
Among his recent major directorial projects is 2016’s female-fronted reboot of classic 1980s blockbuster Ghostbusters – and taking a fresh approach to the existing and much-loved property certainly represented a bold move for the filmmaker.
Feig says the offer to reboot Ghostbusters excited him because he thought it would be fun to put a new spin on it for today’s generation, more than 30 years after Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first battled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in New York City.
In the run-up to its release, the new film was dogged by criticism, largely relating to either its departure from and lack of relationship to the existing films or its women-led cast, leading the trailer to become the “most disliked film trailer” on YouTube.
But despite the controversy, Feig says: “I’m very proud of it. It didn’t do what we hoped it would do [at the box office] but I’m very proud of it. It keeps finding a fanbase – it’s a pretty rabid fanbase. That’s the great thing about what we do; it exists for ever. I did a bunch of movies and when they first came out, they weren’t well reviewed or well thought of and didn’t do that well, but suddenly they’ve taken on a life of their own because they eventually just get judged on their own merits. That’s why I’m always drawn to ‘recorded’ media because it just exists. You get it right once, hopefully, and there it is for people to consume.
“I am annoyed [Ghostbusters] became such a lightning rod [for criticism] but I had a ton of fun making it. That’s all that matters to me. I still like it. I don’t turn it on and go, ‘Oh, this thing.’ I run across it on TV or sometimes on a plane and watch a scene. It’s one of my babies as much as one of my other movies.”
Feig might hope history will be kinder to Ghostbusters in much the same way it has been to his early television series Freaks & Geeks, which he created, wrote and directed for US network NBC in 1999. Though 18 episodes were produced in its first season, the series was abruptly cancelled after only 12 had been shown, drawing fewer than seven million viewers.
Twenty years on, however, the story of two siblings navigating high school is regularly cited as one of the best series ever made, making it into Time magazine’s 100 Greatest Shows of All Time. It also launched the careers of actors such as Linda Cardellini (ER), James Franco (127 Hours), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother).
“You do something, you make it the best you can and the one thing you can’t control is the culture around you at that moment; you can’t control what the audience is consuming,” Feig explains. “Freaks & Geeks came out at a time when the viewing public mainly were really into watching gameshows and really into Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and all that. So I can’t control that. I don’t make gameshows, so all I can do is make the best show I can.”
He puts a lot of the Freaks & Geeks’ success down to the decision to release the show and its soundtrack on DVD and CD. “Because of that, it’s found a whole life of its own – between that and starting to show up on various second-run networks. It’s a testament to making it and getting it right. Eventually, it will either find an audience or it won’t. If time rejects it, that’s a fairer assessment of what you did then, as opposed to what the critics, audience and competition you were surrounded by dictate at that moment. If something is right and enough people think it’s good, it keeps going, and that’s good.”
For a time, Freaks & Geeks was available in the US and UK, among other territories, on Netflix, which is also home to one of Feig’s most recent projects. He is an executive producer on the streamer’s original film Someone Great, written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, in which Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays a music journalist who sets off for one last adventure with her friends following a break-up.
Though he says his main focus for his movies is the cinema – “I love the theatrical experience and it’s exciting to have a movie in the cinema and that will always be what I’m shooting for” – Feig says he is excited about the number of opportunities to find an outlet for all levels of projects these days, whatever the budget and regardless of who is behind the camera.
“When we look at Someone Great, here’s a small script that was great with a first-time director who most studios would not take a chance on,” he says. “We went to Netflix and they took the chance, they saw the potential. That’s where having Netflix is great. They’re bringing back the romantic comedy, whereas a lot of theatrical studios have stepped away from it, while ensuring anything that needs to be made gets made while opening up opportunities for new filmmakers. That’s all that really matters.
“[If a movie can’t get made] because it’s too small or the person who wants to make it doesn’t have the reputation for the studio to take a chance on them, that’s bad. The only things that shouldn’t get made are things that aren’t good enough to get made.”
But whether he’s behind the camera, in the writing room or a producer, either in television or film, Feig says his approach to picking up new projects is always the same. He asks himself a simple question: does anybody want to see this?
“When you’re looking at different projects, whether it’s something I’m going to write or it’s a script that’s brought to me, the first thing is, is it any good? And if it’s great, is this something people will want to see or is it something we can motivate them to see?”
That’s the difference between making a movie for Netflix or the cinema, he notes. Filmmakers have to draw people out of their home to see a film on the big screen, while viewers only have to turn on their television or mobile device to see what’s streaming. “That’s why picking projects is just the hardest thing in the world, and then making sure the script is great is the big thing. Beyond that, it becomes all production and casting. But it’s always about the story. If the script’s not good, all the other stuff is window dressing.”
When it comes to TV, directors such as Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) have been at the forefront of the role’s evolution, helming every episode of a serialised drama. But Feig believes that, beyond series that are often described as eight or 10-hour movies, the small screen is still a world of multiple directors.
“You just have to do it that way,” he argues. “One of the greatest moments of my career was when I did the second season of Nurse Jackie. For whatever reason, I ended up doing like eight out of 12 episodes. TV’s not supposed to do that. You don’t have time to prep. So that’s why you do it with multiple directors.”
Even so, television “is the greatest school a director can go to,” he continues. “To anybody who’s starting directing, or even a working director, do some TV, because you can experiment with different genres. That’s why, now I’m a movie director, I’m so addicted to trying different genres every time I do a movie – because I really had fun as a TV director challenging myself that way.”
Despite his multitude of roles on any given film or series, Feig says he still considers himself a director first, though he adds that whatever his title, he uses every skill he has learned along the way. Producing, he remarks, is all about finding the right people and letting them “do their thing,” with support from him, his producing partner Jessie Henderson and Dan Magnante, VP of Feig’s production company Feigco Entertainment.
It’s through Feigco and fledgling digital company Powderkeg that Feig is now using his profile to champion new voices, particularly those of female, LGBTQ and diverse filmmakers, offering support to those who have a hard time getting their stories told. He is also an ambassador for ReFrame, which promotes inclusion in Hollywood, and supports the 4% Challenge to increase the number of women directing studio movies. The initiative takes its name from the fact that just 4% of the 1,200 top-earning films released between 2007-2018 were directed by women.
“They need to be supported by those of us in the industry who have worked hard enough and been lucky enough to be able to get things made,” Feig says. “I just don’t think you can just tent yourself in. I get excited every time I see something from a new voice or from a person or group that doesn’t necessarily get to tell their stories all the time. I’ve found it so invigorating. I’m tired of my own voice in movies; I love doing it, but that’s why I’ve been doing other people’s scripts [Last Christmas comes from writers Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson while Jessica Sharzer penned 2018’s A Simple Favor].
“And then, through our company, we can empower all these other writers and directors and people to do their thing.”
Feig’s latest projects include re-teaming with A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick for WarnerMedia anthology series Love Life and musical drama Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which NBC has recently picked up to series. But he says he is particularly proud of Powderkeg six-part webseries East of La Brea, which tells the stories of two Muslim-American women living in LA.
“I want to be surprised by stuff. I want people to be able to tell their stories, because there’s such an audience out there for these stories that aren’t being told,” he adds. “East of La Brea is the type of story that need to be told, to help bring us all closer.”
Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill star Uma Thurman makes her Netflix bow in psychological horror series Chambers. The actor talks to DQ about the appeal of the drama, working with a young cast and why film is still her first love.
Uma Thurman’s career has been defined by her big-screen partnership with director Quentin Tarantino that has seen her star in seminal movies such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
However, the actor is no stranger to television, having appeared in Broadway-inspired Smash, the US adaptation of Australian series The Slap and Bravo dark comedy Imposters – and now Thurman has become the latest Hollywood star to link up with Netflix, making her debut on the global streaming platform in psychological horror Chambers.
The series stars Sivan Alyra Rose as Sasha Yazzie, a 17-year-old heart attack survivor who becomes consumed by the mystery surrounding the heart that saved her life. The closer she gets to the truth about the death of her donor, Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), the more Sasha seems to be taking on the personality of the dead woman, including the most sinister aspects.
Thurman plays Becky’s mother, Nancy, who forges a hesitant relationship with Sasha – only to find out her daughter might not be as dead as she thought. Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn is Becky’s father, Ben.
The 10-part drama, which launches worldwide tomorrow, received its international premiere last month at Series Mania in France, where Thurman revealed that a meeting with creator Leah Rachel led her to join the show.
“I met Leah, I read the pilot and I thought it was really beautiful,” the actor says. “We just hit it off. I thought she had something really special to offer and I took the great leap of faith.
“I was grabbed by the metaphor of the heart and the fact there’s a strong female energy, and the drama and the tragedy of the parent I was playing, and the relationship between her and this young woman who is struggling with her identity in a very hardcore way.”
Rachel says Chambers became a psychological horror because that was what the plot demanded. This style and tone is laid out in the trailer, which maximises those genre themes with some intense music and quick cutaways that reveal a creepy dimension to the drama.
“[The genre] is found through the story; the story requires it,” says Rachel, who wrote the series with Akela Cooper. “Dealing with the loss of a child, dealing with the loss of a sister, to me that feels like a psychological horror already. So it definitely leant itself to this in the story. It can be an extension of human behaviour and emotion, in the same way that dance and music can.”
Executive producer Jennifer Yale picks up: “With psychological horror, we were always trying to play the metaphor first and foremost – the teenage girl and how she feels somewhat out of control with her body. And in our show, she literally is out of control.
“We also wanted to play with the other characters and what they’re going through. Nancy struggling with the loss of her child, only to meet this young woman who has a piece of her child in her and then to start to see pieces of her child somewhat slip out or come through; that psychological trauma that plays with Nancy and her thinking, ‘Is this just me? Am I going crazy? Or is this actually real?’ That’s very much how we were trying to play with the horror element, through the characters.”
As a mother of three, Thurman says there is no greater fear for a parent than losing a child. “That was very compelling to me about the character,” she says of Nancy. “She’s a woman being completely tormented by grief and is also experiencing the sense of haunting. You have a stay-at-home mother who identified with herself only really as a mother and, in fact, she really didn’t know either of her children. She’s truly haunted.”
With a screen career spanning more than 30 years, Thurman says she is “excited” about the current creative explosion TV drama is enjoying, but adds: “I love film – let me not mess around! I’ve really started to nurture my own theatre career because that really is the actor’s medium, but I’m really excited about the freedom, the space to breathe and the exploration of doing television. It’s a very democratic art form; it’s available to people. But I quite desperately am first and foremost loyal to film.”
Best known for her work with auteur filmmakers, Tarantino among them, Thurman says her decision to accept parts is more often based on who the director is than the role itself. “But as far as this baptism of fire, this new medium, for me, Jennifer has more experience in television compared to us,” she says. “We really didn’t know what we were doing and had to figure it out. Jennifer is much more versed [in television].”
Yale, whose credits include Legion and Outlander, also praises Thurman’s behind-the-scenes involvement. “We were very lucky to be able to have Uma come and work on this show and bring her expertise and also her wealth of knowledge,” she says. “We had a pretty inexperienced cast and we really rose to her level because she came prepared every day. She was the best ‘first person on the call sheet’ on any show I’ve ever worked on. I cannot say enough how lucky we were to have her on the show.”
Thurman responds: “When you’re working with young people, the first thing you do is, when they call you to set, you go immediately. You get there before they do, which is basic professionalism and discipline. It’s a privilege to get to do creative narrative storytelling work of any kind. It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to get to live a creative life, and I think you pay back your team with professionalism and passion.”
But as a movie star now appearing in a Netflix series, what does Thurman think of the streaming platform’s fight for recognition for its feature-length output? “We’re in such a rapidly changing technology [landscape] that this thing is going to not even be a debate soon,” she responds. “It’s very expensive to buy a ticket and go to a movie theatre so, as much as I’d like someone to [go to the cinema], I wouldn’t want them not to experience the communication that people can have on any device. It’s pure snobbery. But I do love film so I can say people should enjoy the communication of sharing stories together in any way they can possibly achieve it.”
Rachel agrees, adding: “It’s great that art in many forms is becoming more accessible to people. Storytelling is changing and stories are being told from perspectives that are different, and I think it’s really important for everybody to be able to digest cinema. The meaning of the word ‘cinema’ might change behind it, but art is art.”
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.”
Based on the bestselling novel, Störst av Allt (Quicksand) sees a teenager put on trial for murder in the wake of a high-school shooting. DQ hears from the creative team behind Netflix’s first original Swedish drama.
The opening moments of Swedish drama Störst av Allt (Quicksand) are nothing less than chilling. From a black screen, the sound of half-a-dozen shots ring out, before the camera hovers over the bloodied bodies of the victims of a school shooting. When it comes to rest, with screams still ringing in the background, it is on Maja Norberg, sitting frozen in a chair, blood staining her jumper, a discarded rifle at her feet.
Apparently the only survivor of the horror, Maja is swiftly taken away by police, cleaned up and charged with murder. But what really happened in that room – and what was the role played by her boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman?
Over six episodes, the drama jumps back and forth between Maja’s police interrogation in the present and a past exploration of her relationship with Sebastian – how he swept her off her feet before she was seemingly corrupted by his dysfunctional lifestyle and family – until it is revealed whether she is in fact guilty of the shocking crime.
Notably, Quicksand is Netflix’s first Swedish original series, with producer FLX bagging the rights to Malin Persson Giolito’s bestselling novel amid fierce competition.
“There’s a first time for everything, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you work with a company like Netflix for the first time,” says producer Fatima Varhos (Sanctuary, Trespassing Bergman). “I was a bit worried in the beginning, because you don’t know how it could turn out, but Netflix came into Sweden and could easily see we didn’t do high-end drama with young adults in the lead. I’m sure other channels in Sweden would be delighted to show this series, but I’m not sure they would have had the courage to commission it. They wouldn’t have put as much money or trust into this as Netflix.”
Fellow producer Frida Asp (Bonusfamiljen, The Simple Heist) says Netflix recognised the need to make everything “bigger” when it came to sets, the number of extras and key scenes. “Had we made it with a Swedish broadcaster, there might have been a different way of doing it,” she continues. “This series could be broadcast on Swedish television but the method of making it would have been different. I really think it was a perfect series for Netflix and that’s why it was quite easy to work with them.”
The book attracted huge international acclaim due to its young female perspective, with the story told entirely from Maja’s point of view and carried to its conclusion with increasing tension – elements the producers wanted to keep in the series. Asp and Varhos worked with head writer Camilla Ahlgren and lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to bring the novel to the screen, while Lisa Farzaneh (Arne Dahl, Det Som Göms i Snö) also directs. “It’s very close to the book, and that was important to us,” Asp says. “It is a true gift to be able to make it into a series.”
FLX had approached Ahlgren about other projects, but the writer had been busy overseeing Swedish-Danish crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). However, when she was sent the novel, “I knew I wanted to adapt it into a TV series,” she recalls. “From the first page, I thought it was something special. I had pictures in my head and I was so grabbed by the main character. I couldn’t stop reading the book. I had an idea of how I wanted to do it, from Maja’s point of view. This is her story and I wanted to keep it that way.”
Ahlgren opened a writers room with Veronica Zacco and Alex Haridi to work on the scripts, based on the “clear idea” she had for the series. Giolito, a lawyer, was also involved, offering greater insight into the ideas and themes of the book and helping to read drafts.
But working with Netflix was no different from her experience with Swedish pubcaster SVT on The Bridge, she says. “The only difference is we had a lot of Skype meetings,” she jokes. “We had discussions but they trusted me. I also like to work with producers because they help me in my work and add things to my story and help me to do it better. It’s teamwork, and that worked very well.”
Central to the series is the love story between Maja (Hanna Ardéhn) and Sebastian (Felix Sandman), whose increasing influence over his girlfriend as their relationship develops is explored through flashbacks. “Maja is very controlled and the good girl at school,” Ahlgren says. “Suddenly, she’s with someone who can break the rules and is exciting. I can imagine her feeling that she’s now in another world. He also really needs her; she’s the only one he can rely on. One of the themes is about absent parents and dysfunctional families. That psychology is very interesting. It’s a very strong love story but there are a lot of different things in it.”
Director Sørensen was one of the producers’ first choices to steer the series, owing to his reputation for suspense dramas, and he too had read and loved the book. “It was a perfect match,” Asp says. “He has a certain method of working with actors. That made it great for both the amateurs and the experienced actors. He had a way of making it feel authentic, real and alive. He’s a brilliant director.”
Ahead of Sørensen’s appointment, just three months before production began, several key decisions had already been made. The producers decided Quicksand would be shot in the affluent Stockholm suburb of Djursholm, where the novel is set. Casting also began early: by the time Sørensen arrived, “we had seen 1,000 Majas,” Asp reveals. “When he joined, we said, ‘Here are 20 we think have potential.’ So we didn’t lose too much time because he was late joining. We had huge time pressure, but I feel we have been in control of the situation the entire time. It’s a huge project but we did the things in the right order and always felt confident in our decisions.”
Despite the number of hopefuls, only one truly stood out for the role of Maja. “Hanna has this face and with it she can express so many different kinds of emotions,” Varhos says. “We needed somebody who could do all of these faces – from so happy to extremely dark and sad – and also carry the part. She’s been in the picture every day of the shoot. She’s done an incredible job. She has incredible strength and she’s a great actor.”
Complications on set included finding a yacht that appears in episode one and filming spectacular party scenes that take place in Sebastian’s luxurious family home.
“Making parties in a way that feels real in a movie or series is really difficult,” Varhos explains. “We wanted to get the tone right, we wanted it to be realistic. Happily, the parties in the series came out great.”
Though the ending of the book stands strong in the series, which is exec produced by Pontus Edgren and Martina Håkansson, Ahlgren says it was important to keep viewers guessing over Maja’s guilt right up to the conclusion. How to achieve that was a discussion that kept the producers and writers engaged throughout the drama’s development and even during the editing process. Netflix also brought in an additional exec producer who hadn’t read the book or seen any of the scripts to cast a fresh eye over the drama.
Most importantly, however, Ahlgren believes the series will capture audiences around the world when it launches in April, with a story rooted in Swedish culture. “It has been very intense. We worked very fast but everyone was in it,” she adds. “The most exciting challenge was making the first show for Netflix. I’m proud it’s their first original Swedish series.”
While on the surface Störst av Allt (Quicksand) appears to be the cut-and-dried story of whether a high-school teenager is guilty of carrying out a killing spree, the series is far more complicated than that.
It’s that underlying complexity that drew lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to the project. “It’s a story about murder; there’s an investigation going on; it’s a heavy love story; it’s a drama about growing up; it’s a court drama; it’s a political comment on a segregated Sweden,” he explains. “But in all this, we portray a young woman pushed to take impossible choices in her young life. Finding a storytelling balance in all this is fascinating work.”
Sørensen worked closely with head writer Camilla Ahlgren to ensure that by the time he was on set, “her intentions for the story and every single scene are in my DNA.” She was also just a phone call away should he need her advice, with the script still open for rewrites deep into filming.
The director says the show presented him with a unique challenge due to the fact the novel is written like a long monologue purely from the perspective of Maja, the accused at the heart of the story. Early on, he ruled out using voiceovers to convey her inner thoughts, instead using close-ups to reveal the facial expressions that betray Maja’s true emotions.
“We wanted the camera to be as close to her, to her eyes, to her smile, to her thoughts as possible,” he says. “Maja is the focal point of our storytelling and we did not walk away from this at all. Maja is at the centre of every scene. The young actor, Hanna Ardéhn, gave an out-of-this-world performance. I am forever grateful for her courage, generosity and talent.”
Scenes were shot with two or three cameras at once, with long takes that allowed the actors an unusual amount of freedom. “The actors acted in super-realistic surroundings and were always ‘on’ camera. They should never find the camera; the camera should find them. And my DOP, Ulf Brantås, was not interested in perfect framing. He and I were interested in framing the situation.”
Sørensen’s earlier series, including Nobel and Kampen om opTungtvannet (The Heavy Water War, aka The Saboteurs) are also available on Netflix. The director says making Quicksand directly with the streamer was a “great experience,” adding: “The Netflix producers and their team were extremely well prepared. They gave excellent feedback, we had good and meaningful discussions along the way, and I really felt the series we locked was a director’s cut.”
Constantin Film producer Oliver Berben tells DQ about making Parfum (Perfume), an inventive German crime drama for ZDFneo and Netflix that uses both the book and film on which the show is based as plot points.
While book and film adaptations are key cornerstones of the television drama market, it’s rare that the existence of the source material is acknowledged within the show on which it is based.
But this is the case with German series Parfum (Perfume), with both the book and film that inspired the series appearing during the story, providing clues that help the detectives solve the mystery at the heart of this particularly gruesome crime drama.
Perfume begins with the discovery of the body of a woman on the Lower Rhine river, whose hair – pubic and axillary – have been removed. The investigators, played by Friederike Becht, Wotan Wilke Möhring and Juergen Maurer, then come across five people who knew the victim from their time at boarding school together.
It transpires that the group were interested in human scents, having been inspired by Patrick Süskind’s real-life 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. To help understand the case, the lead profiler subsequently reads the book and watches the 2006 feature adaptation that was directed by Tom Tykwer and starred Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Dustin Hoffman.
Here, producer Oliver Berben from Constantin Film breaks down the making of the series and talks about how the original book and the movie became integral to the plot of the drama.
What are the origins of the project?
The show originates from the idea of exploring, in a serial form, the fundamental premise of the novel and the movie of the same title: How far can humans be manipulated through their sense of smell? Constantin Film had acquired the film rights and produced Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the novel, which became an international success. But with the serial, we wanted to take the historical ‘story of a murderer’ to another level and transfer it to our time.
What were your first impressions of the book?
I read the novel more or less when it first came out, as a teenager, and was completely overwhelmed by it. Perfume is one of the most fascinating and obscure books I know; it’s complex and intriguing, like a strange perfume. Süskind made me – and so many other people around the world – think about odours and scents in a very different way.
How did the novel and the movie inform the series?
They both served as inspirational starting points and as a reference throughout the series. They turn out to be a key element of the investigation. The novel, in particular, forms part of the backstory of our modern-day protagonists: They read the book when they were at boarding school together in the 1990s, and it inspired them to start experimenting with smells, like Süskind’s protagonist Grenouille in the early 18th century. The profiler who investigates the actual murder case, in the present, reads the book and watches the movie in order to learn about the possible motives behind the crime.
How are they related and why did you decide to take this route, rather than a straight adaptation or remake?
Tom Tykwer’s 2006 movie is a congenial adaptation of Süskind’s novel, in every sense. We did not see the point of trying to copy or simply repeat this approach in a TV show more than a decade later. Instead, we thought it would be interesting to ask ourselves: What makes this story so fascinating and relevant to us today? How can it be translated from 18th century France to our own world, where smells and perfumes are being perceived differently but may still have the same power over people’s emotions and behaviour?
What was writer Eva Kranenburg’s process?
Eva started developing the idea for the show, the plot and the characters in close collaboration with me, and continued to write a concept that we closely discussed and worked on as a team over the course of several months. The process of writing the scripts for the six episodes was also aided by Philipp Kadelbach, the director, at a later stage.
How was the series developed with ZDFneo?
ZDFneo series are typically supervised, in the development stage, by a commissioning editor from ZDF. For Perfume, this was Günther van Endert, with whom we had worked on a number of great projects before, so there was a lot of mutual trust and understanding. Günther knew the scripts from a relatively early stage and really liked them.
When did Netflix join the show?
Netflix was on board from the very beginning. I explained the idea to Kai Finke [Netflix’s director of German-language content acquisitions and coproductions] in the early development stage and he was on board from day one. We found a deal together that could do justice to the complexity of the book, which had been translated and sold around the world, and also meet the needs of the broadcaster and a worldwide streamer on the other side.
How does Perfume stand apart from other crime series?
Perfume is unlike other crime series in that it combines a thrilling modern crime story, a deep psychodrama and a seemingly esoteric topic such as the mystical power of smell. It is also unusually original in terms of its visual and narrative style: beautiful but bleak, psychological but also extravagant, fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. We tried to create something without using existing patterns or paragons, something with its very own look and feel.
How are the detectives portrayed?
Our main character, Nadja Simon (Friederike Becht), is a young profiler. She leads the investigation but finds herself in a constant power struggle with the prosecuting attorney, Grünberg (Wotan Wilke Möhring), with whom she is having an affair. Köhler (Juergen Maurer), a detective with the local police, supports Nadja’s unorthodox investigation techniques and tries, unsuccessfully, to get closer to her.
What did director Philipp Kadelbach bring to the drama?
As a director with a clear vision and a legendary talent for working with actors, Philipp brought immense creative input to the series. Without his obsession – with every small detail as important as the entire production – Perfume would never have happened.
Where was the series filmed and how did locations influence its look?
Perfume was filmed on location at the Niederrhein, a rural/suburban region in the far west of Germany, between Cologne and the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. The landscape is mostly flat and rather bleak, characterised by potato fields and pervaded by slip roads, power poles and run-down industrial areas. But in between, you come across small spots of surprising beauty: an old castle, the ruins of something in a blooming forest, a small river, a patch of moor.
This area, with its vaguely ‘lost’ feel, was the perfect setting for our show, whose protagonists are isolated – located nowhere, so to speak. The landscape also fits the look we were trying to create, with its focus on a kind of beauty that keeps oscillating between loveliness and gloom, between perfection and devastation, between a brutal present and the nostalgic transfiguration of the past.
What were the biggest challenges in development and production and how did you overcome them?
Movie making is always a big challenge overall and it creates tangible smaller problems during each step of the development and production process. It is only with the support of an excellent team, both on the creative side and on the production side, that you can overcome these constant challenges.
Why did you think Perfume would appeal to both German and global viewers?
Now that the series has come out [it debuted in November 2018 on ZDFneo and in December worldwide on Netflix], it is very exciting for us to see that German viewers and audiences around the world are reacting so strongly to it. Perfume has turned out as we had hoped – it is unlike anything people have seen before, and it has a sort of suction effect, a tight grip. So we are not surprised but very happy that it provokes and fascinates so many people at the same time, in so many different countries.
Love, life, laughter and loss come under the microscope in family adventure drama Northern Rescue, a coproduction from Canada’s CBC and Netflix. Executive producer David Cormican tells DQ how the show meets audience demand for hopeful programming.
Amid the ongoing boom in scripted, fuelled by demand for increasingly niche shows, one genre feeling the love is family drama, on the back of titles such as This is Us and a planned reboot of celebrated 1990s series Northern Exposure.
One series looking to provide storylines and plot twists with family and adventure at its heart is 10-part Northern Rescue, which has been co-commissioned by Canada’s CBC and Netflix for international audiences.
Produced by Don Carmody Television (DCTV), the series follows John West (played by William Baldwin) who uproots his three children from the city to return to his home town, where he takes charge of the local search and rescue service, after the death of his wife.
The series explores the effect of grief on the family, as the children’s aunt, Charlotte (Kathleen Robertson), struggles to help John and his kids heal while she also copes with the loss of her sister and her own desire for a family.
Mixing episodic and serialised storylines that introduce some colourful characters from around the family’s new community, the show’s cast also includes Michelle Nolden, Michael Xavier and Peter MacNeill. Amalia Williamson, Spencer McPherson and Taylor Thorne play John’s children Maddie, Scout and Taylor, respectively.
Northern Rescue was conceived by DCTV’s David Cormican (Tokyo Trial, Between), who developed it together with co-creators Mark Bacci (Between) and Dwayne Hill (Peg + Cat). They subsequently wrote the 10-part drama, with Cormican showrunning.
“It was an exhausting experience but super rewarding, with huge learning curves,” Cormican says, “which is great and ultimately very rewarding to go from the genesis of the idea to the execution and the premiere of it.”
Between them, Bacci, Cormican and Hill adopted a “best idea wins” rule to fuel the writing process in a bid to create the most thrilling show possible for audiences, and families in particular. “It’s a nice family show – you don’t see too many of them,” says Cormican. The showrunner also executive produces alongside Bradley Walsh, who directs four episodes, Bacci, Hill and lead actor Baldwin. “I’ve got a daughter, she’s 11 now and for years I’ve been making programming that’s fairly dark and edgy, not necessarily family fare, always genre-skewing. Every time I have a show that comes out, my parents get the popcorn and sometimes it’s a little too gory for a family sit-down.
“So I wanted something I could feel proud to have my entire family and all our friends watch. It’s wholesome, hopeful programming that’s crunchy in terms of the emotions and grief we’re working through, but it’s comfort food for television viewers these days.
“We’re hunkering down with these kids, their dad and their aunt and redefining what family means, not just to us but to the characters as well. That was the idea – what is this definition of family? Because it’s very much different from the 50s and 60s, and even the 80s when I was growing up as a kid. Family is now very much who you choose as much as who’s just there.”
Though it was just a working title at the outset, the name Northern Rescue applies not only to the West family’s decision to move north and John’s job, but also to the emotional trauma the family is facing following the death of their matriarch. Every week, the series brings in guest stars as characters who need to be physically rescued, but each episode also looks at how the family is coping with their grief in an unfamiliar location.
To heighten those moments, the show also utilises flashbacks to a time when Sarah (played by Nolden) is still alive. “I hate flashbacks and voiceover as devices but we’ve used both of them in this,” Cormican admits. “It just kind of worked and leant itself naturally to it, and we do it in such a way that it motivates the story.
“We’re really seeing this story through the eyes of Maddie, the oldest daughter of the West family; we’re seeing the story through her journal and the therapy she’s having. The flashbacks happen naturally. We didn’t expect them to carry throughout as much as they have but we just leaned into it because Michelle was phenomenal and was crushing those scenes. They also opened up a new perspective to the emotional gravity our characters are experiencing.”
Bacci, Cormican and Hill wrote the series together, passing drafts between them. They also worked with several female writers to provide additional perspective, with America Olivo joining the production full-time.
“When we were breaking the season, we came up with ideas that were for season five, or season two. So now we have a big document full of ideas,” Cormican reveals. “We had an idea that the second season would be about X, season three would be about Y. Then there’s the milestones of falling in love, getting married, having a baby and a death somewhere along the way. Then there’s a divorce. We’re ticking some of those boxes.
“One of the interesting parts of Charlotte’s character is she was trying to have a child with her ex and they lost the baby. There’s a huge amount of grief in losing a child and wanting your own family, so this is an opportunity for her to become a pseudo-mother to these three children. Then we complicate it when the ex comes back to town.”
Location scouting took place in North Bay and Sudbury, two towns in northern Ontario, before scenic Parry Sound was chosen as the backdrop for the drama. “We kept looking to move scenes outside because it was so pretty,” Cormican jokes.
“The therapy sessions are a great example – we had them meeting inside in the first episodes and then we thought they should do walk-and-talks and go on hikes. One thing we didn’t know was that there’s a train going by every nine minutes – there are so many tracks in that town. So we were always like, ‘Hold for the train.’ Sometimes you work with it, but ultimately the sound team is going nuts with the tracks you give them.”
The distance from Toronto, three hours north, proved to be the biggest challenge to the production as it meant finding accommodation for the entire cast and crew on location, in the middle of the busy summer season. “It’s a town of 6,000 people that swells to 60,000 as well as us in the middle of summer. So everything was at a premium,” says Cormican, revealing that at one point they looked at buying an old cruise ship, docking it and turning it into a production village. Disappointingly, the duration of shipping times and the hours needed to have a vessel fitted for their needs proved prohibitive.
When it comes to the current demand for family drama, Cormican points to Party of Five, Northern Exposure, Heartland, This is Us, Parenthood and film The Grand Seduction as inspirations for Northern Rescue. And with Northern Exposure primed for a reboot at CBS, he believes “we’re onto something.”
“I feel like there’s an ache and a need in the world right now for hopeful family programming, grounded in a reality that’s not saccharine or precious,” Cormican adds.
There’s definitely some tear-shedding moments in this show, he notes, but there are also plenty of laughs. But while a similar show, Schitt’s Creek, plays to the zany side of the genre, Northern Rescue promises to be much more grounded in emotion, reality and truth.
With so many plot points already noted down, writing has already started on a potential second season. “We felt a little behind the eight ball this year when we got the green light, as we only had two scripts written,” Cormican adds of the show, which is due to debut on March 1. “We did it, we made it, but I’d like to not be working 21 hours a day next year!”
Channel 4’s stylish new spy thriller Traitors, starring Keeley Hawes and Michael Stuhlbarg, looks at the communist threat to Britain just after the Second World War through the eyes of a young woman. DQ joined the cast on set in London.
Imagine a Britain deeply divided over political matters, with well-founded fears of Russian government interference and its ‘special relationship’ with the US seemingly on shaky ground.
While that may be a perfect description of today’s UK, in this case it applies to a period three-quarters of a century ago in the fledgling days of the Cold War. It’s that correlation that makes Channel 4’s new thriller, Traitors, even more relevant in its portrayal of international turbulence and murky government goings-on.
Created and executive produced by playwright Bash Doran, who wrote four of its six episodes, Traitors is set during the pivotal time from the end of the Second World War up until 1948.
“The series is extremely timely as it tackles an extraordinary moment in British history that has continued to play out across the years,” explains Emma Willis, MD of Twenty Twenty Productions (part of Warner Bros International Television Production), which is producing alongside 42 for Channel 4 and Netflix, in a deal negotiated by All3Media International. “At the end of the Second World War, as is true today, the nation was divided with deeply opposing views on what Britain’s place in the world should be.
“Many of the series’ key themes are extremely relevant to today – race, gender, class inequality, the role of the welfare state, the special relationship with the US and a distrust of Russia. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why C4 commissioned the project – together with the fact it had a fantastic creator in Bash Doran and strong female leads.”
On the surface, Traitors is a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Clique’s Emma Appleton plays Feef Symonds, a naive young aristocrat who lands a job in the civil service immediately after the war, eager to make her mark rather than be married off to an earl. Actress-of-the-moment Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard, The Durrells) plays her influential boss, Priscilla Garrick, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg plays a US agent, Rowe. He quickly tries to turn Feef into a double agent, eager to root out Soviet operatives in the British government.
Executive producer Eleanor Moran laughs about the moment she approached Doran with the idea for Traitors. “It was 2013 and I was thinking politics was in a really depressing place, which is hilarious to think of now,” she says.
She’d had an idea about a female-centric period political drama with an international feel – and she had a particular female in mind. “My grandmother had this incredible experience during the war where she had a great deal of freedom,” explains Moran. “She worked in the spying business and was a codebreaker. And after the war, all of that ambition was shut down when she got married.
“I thought that moment in 1945 was incredible for women in that there was this incredible push to go back into the home, but also with the Labour [Party’s landslide general election victory] and beginning of the welfare state, the civil service offered these huge opportunities for women.” However, the ban on married women working for the service forced females to resign their jobs upon tying the knot.
On set at one of Traitors’ many London locations last summer, a church in a leafy Georgian square in Islington, Hawes is looking business-like in Priscilla Garrick’s utilitarian work suit. Sitting down for a chat in a church hall – she’s here to film a scene with Stuhlbarg in the churchyard – Hawes explains her dismay at learning of the marriage ban.
“I knew nothing about that,” she says. “The women in the civil service are being asked to go back to being housewives after spending the war being ambulance drivers. Suddenly being given the sack! It’s just terrible.
“Priscilla campaigns against the marriage ban, even though she’s not married. She is a real champion of women and really modern in that way. And when Feef comes in, Priscilla sees she’s bright.”
Traitors, which is distributed globally by All3Media International, weaves John le Carré-style spy plots into a story about women’s social struggles. It’s 1945 and the Soviet Union has replaced the Nazis as the biggest threat to global stability and democracy. But just at that moment, in September, President Truman decides to close America’s wartime spying agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services).
“We’re capturing that moment when the Soviets were trying to influence the whole of Europe and did manage to get people within British secret service to great effect,” explains Moran. “Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Rowe, who is an OSS agent, is ahead of the game and realises there is infiltration, and his job is find out how much.” It’s the era of the Cambridge Spy Ring, which would come to light several years later.
Stuhlbarg was lured to British shores by the prospect of working again with Doran – he’d been in episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Looming Tower that she’d written – and Dearbhla Walsh, who directed him in the third season of Fargo.
Rowe, explains Stuhlbarg, becomes a rogue agent after Truman’s disbanding of the OSS. The actor’s research impressed upon him the complexity of real-life OSS agents.
“Some of these men of the OSS balance a kind of integrity with an ability to lie, cheat, steal and murder,” explains Stuhlbarg. “So there’s this great juxtaposition of and being able to live with all that stuff – these are people fighting for the survival of democracy and are willing to do anything for it.
“Rowe thinks it’s essential that America has an operational intelligence agency to compete with all the other spies.”
The 17-week shoot took place last summer in studios in Cardiff, in Morocco (doubling for Egypt) and in various picturesque London spots in which real spies surely operated – the Inns of Court, Whitehall and St James’s Park. Innovation was required, too – a replica House of Commons was built at University College School in Hampstead for scenes featuring a newly elected Labour MP played by Luke Treadaway.
Ultimately, Traitors chimes with what’s going on in the world today and also delivers a period thriller about a time not often depicted in spy stories.
“It’s very much about the kind of global fight for hearts and minds, much like the way we’re going at the moment, with Russians infiltrating the US election and Brexit,” says Moran. “This is a call back to that and also a depiction of a very specific moment in British social politics.”
Launching this Christmas on BBC1 in the UK and worldwide on Netflix, the new version of Watership Down is touted as the first primetime animated drama. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss how the series originated and the challenges they faced along the way.
Watership Down is a beloved 1972 novel by Richard Adams that was first translated for the screen six years later as an iconic animated movie famed for the Art Garfunkel song Bright Eyes and with a reputation for terrifying younger viewers.
Now, 40 years after the film was first released, a new adaptation has gone back to Adams’ original text to retell the story for a new generation across four hours of television – one that promises to be much less scary.
Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they face the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stout-hearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a better society.
Stars such as James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Gemma Arterton (Clover) and Olivia Colman (Strawberry) have leant their voices to the project, which is written by Tom Bidwell, directed by Noam Murro and co-directed by Alan Short and Seamus Malone for BBC1 in the UK and Netflix worldwide. The producers are 42 and Biscuit Entertainment.
Watership Down was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Murro, Bidwell, executive producer Rory Aitken, former BBC commissioning editor Matthew Read and Larry Tanz, VP of global originals at Netflix, discussed the making of the series.
In the beginning…
Noam Murro, director: I wasn’t one of those kids who read it when I was young. I grew up in Israel and got it fairly late in life. My friend suggested I read it, and I fell in love with it. That started a quest to get the rights for it, and at the start I thought of doing it as a feature. But bringing it to 42, we decided to do it as a four-part series, as the book can be served much better. The idea wasn’t to remake the film but reimagine the book. That’s really what this was all about.
Rory Aitken, executive producer, 42: It’s been a long process, it hasn’t been easy and we ended up pioneering something because it’s the first animated primetime hour-long drama series ever made, which we didn’t know at the time. It was the most extraordinary experience because of the sheer quality [of partners], the brand and the love for the book – and everybody said yes. We rang up Matthew [Read] at the BBC and said, ‘Watership Down.’ I think he just said one word, which was ‘yes.’ We talked about writers and our first choice was Tom [Bidwell]. He said it was one of his favourite books of all time and, further down the process, it was the same with the actors. Everybody just responded like that, which was extraordinary. If it wasn’t Watership Down, it might have been almost impossible to make.
Matthew Read, former BBC drama commissioning editor: When I was a kid, everyone was into Star Wars, but Watership Down was like Star Wars to me. I went to see it at the cinema 12 times and I was really obsessed with the film. I didn’t see it as a kids’ film, I saw it as an action movie. Years later, I read the book and realised there was a very different version of Watership Down. I love the film and still do, but the book is much more about nature and solidarity. Were the BBC sitting around waiting for a big animated show? Definitely not – but the idea was if you have something good enough, we’d figure out a way. I had a genuine heartfelt enthusiasm and just tried to back them in whatever shape or form I could.
Larry Tanz, VP of global originals, Netflix: It was a bit of a leap for us as well. The project came to us in early 2015 and Noam had designs and storyboards and Rory came in with the script. But Netflix had just launched in Germany and France, and was not yet in Italy, Spain, India or the rest of Asia. It was a very different time in the company. We had never engaged in an animation project of this scope but we were thinking, ‘In a year from now, we hope to be global so what opportunities are there for global brands?’ This book is beloved not just in the UK but all over the world. I read it with my kids and, if you can execute it well, it has huge potential. The creative team, partnering with the BBC and knowing there probably would be no better place to see this show developed than at the BBC gave us confidence to go in on this multi-year journey so we have a show that will work for the service we hope to be when it comes out.
Tom Bidwell, writer: It’s one of my favourite books and favourite worlds. There’s a discrepancy between Watership Down the film and Watership Down the book, and my job is the book. It’s Richard Adams – one of the great world-builders along with JRR Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. My work was focused on how to build the myth of this world and really embrace the story, the narrative and the characters. When they offered me the project and I knew who was attached, it was an honour to work on it. It really pushes and challenges you.
Adapting the novel…
Bidwell: The structures are already evident in the novel. It’s broken into four distinct chapters, so we used those as the basis of our four episodes [screened in two parts on the BBC on December 22 and 23]. We did make a few changes: we reduced the number of characters for clarity and added more female characters [Strawberry was changed from a buck to a doe]. If I added something to the script that wasn’t in the novels and people think they remember that from the book, that’s the win of adaptation for me.
Aitken: We were making television drama and also making animation. They’re two completely distinct worlds and being television drama, there was a huge focus on getting the script absolutely right before we started anything. On an animated movie, you’d have the beginnings of the script and then you’d start on the visuals. Although we talk about how long it’s taken, including two-and-a-half years in production, people in animation would be amazed how quick that is. We’re looking at it through the prism of TV drama and there’s a completely different prism to look at it through, which is animation. They can’t believe how quickly and cheaply we did it, but in TV, everyone’s like, ‘That took a long time and was expensive.’ We sat on the divide but it served us well.
Read: I don’t know if it’s a general trend in drama or television that if you find something specific and brilliant, an audience really wants that. Ten years ago, everyone was trying to think about what the audience wants and give them something for everyone. Now, because of the way we can reach audiences, if you give people a specific version of something, they’ll come to that. We all felt we had to make the best possible version and that people would respond to that. That’s good for the book and hopefully good for the audience.
Pioneering ‘animated drama’…
Murro: None of us approached it, oddly, as animation. That’s the most important part. Yes, there’s a huge difference in the process but, at the end of the day, it’s a piece of entertainment. Part of watching the series is you forget these are bunnies very quickly and it becomes like any other movie. You sit on the edge of your seat or you cry.
Aitken: Having made films and now TV, it’s basically the opposite way round. You edit first and shoot later. It’s so expensive – any second you have of animation on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. So we’ve delivered four 50-minute episodes and there’s not one second on the floor. Every tiny thing has to be created from scratch, so there’s a vast amount of work initially to decide on the universe you’re building – what is the tone, the fear, the look – and hundreds of people then have to build that in all different ways, from production design to lighting. Essentially, you get to the point where you’re two years in and you can’t see the show but you feel the drama’s working and you say ‘go’ on the animation. Then every week you get two more scenes and you probably get to change one or two things in each of them.
Murro: Part of what made this possible is we had an unbelievable cast. We had arguably the greatest of English actors, and it makes life a lot easier when you have that talent. If it wasn’t at that level, I don’t think we’d have got this far or this deep.
Creating the world – and the rabbits…
Murro: We felt there’s a huge canvas that’s been untouched between Pixar and DreamWorks and the [Japanese director Hayao] Miyazaki and the Watership Down film itself. There were two things: one was to block it as if I was shooting in live action – the lenses and camera were very specific – but the overall look is like a diorama. You have an animal that is 3D and real in the front but, as it goes back, it becomes more painted. That, for me, was a clear direction. I don’t remember seeing it done that way.
Aitken: Animation costs are coming down and TV budgets are going up, so we caught ourselves on the nexus of the two. But we realised we couldn’t create a Pixar world because we didn’t have the money. So all of the deep backgrounds are paintings. That worked really well because we’re set in the British countryside, so a painted sky and backdrop works really well for it. We have about seven rabbits; normally in animation, you make one pink and blue and viewers know which one is which. If you want to make it realistic, the danger is you don’t know which one is which. Noam and the team did a great job because it’s just on the line. They’re such strong characters, the voices are different and they’re sufficiently different visually that you just pick them up without having to resort to making them different colours. Also, rabbits’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, and if you bring them too far to the front, they start to look like dogs or weird animals. In drama, you find emotion in characters mostly through the eyes, but rabbits’ real eyes are completely black. They don’t have pupils, so in almost any animation with animals, you get human eyes because that’s how we understand eye line and emotion.
The music of Watership Down…
Murro: It’s huge, it’s everything. Federico Jusid, who wrote the music for this, is a genius. [He completed the music] with very little time, about three months. This is a 1,000-page score! It really is a supportive emotional base and I feel incredibly fortunate to have him and this music. What we tried to do with this series is make it timeless.
Tanz: It’s also an important through line for us because a lot of people will watch the show in different languages – probably 10 different dubbed languages. One of the fun things for me on the project was localising the title and the artwork for all these different places. It’s a reminder that we have this incredible cast and a lot of people will watch that show with that cast, but a lot of people will watch in Italian or Spanish. The score is the spine that is consistent throughout that. The score is the audio layer everybody will experience around the world.
The show sparking a new trend for animated drama…
Aitken: I genuinely think it could be. Animation costs are coming down, TV budgets have gone up. I feel like we maybe accidentally pioneered something and now we’ve made all the mistakes, it would be nice to do it where we know what we’re doing!
Tanz: I would love to do more projects like this. For us, it fits in the category of it’s not a kids’ show, it’s about families watching it together and having truly a global property that already has fans around the world. The storytelling will allow millions of people to access it for the first time.