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.”
Dan Sefton, creator and writer of BBC miniseries Trust Me, talks about the show’s evolution into an anthology after losing its star and explains how the second season has been inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
When Jodie Whittaker was unveiled as Doctor Who’s first female lead in July 2017, it proved to be a huge boon for the team behind another BBC series starring the actor, which happened to be launching just a couple of weeks after the announcement.
Trust Me went on to draw a consolidated average of six million viewers over its four-episode run, with writer Dan Sefton’s thriller following Whittaker as a nurse who, after losing her job, steals a doctor friend’s identity to start a new life in Edinburgh.
But while Whittaker was swept up in a wave of Whovian anticipation, Sefton was left to work out how a second season of Trust Me might shape up without its lead.
“It’s one of those things that happened,” he says stoically. “Jodie was the standout in the whole of the first season. She’s a brilliant actress. We had ideas of how we could carry it on, but when it was announced she would be playing the Doctor, we realised that would be almost impossible.
“But the BBC were very keen to keep the conversation going because it had been such a big hit. So we pitched them something brand new and, luckily, they thought it was a good idea – and here we are. If this one is popular, we can keep going and dig into the dark side of medicine in lots of different ways.”
That idea of shining a light on medicine’s dark side has become a key building block for the series. Season one saw Whittaker’s Cath work in a hospital, treating patients and performing operations, having presented herself as a different – and more qualified – medic. Season two, which debuted on BBC1 this month, moves to a Glasgow hospital, where Corporal Jamie McCain (played by Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch) is recovering from a spinal injury that has left him paralysed. When patients on the ward begin to die suddenly, Jamie believes a killer is striking in the hospital – but his injuries make his investigation dangerous and difficult. John Hannah, Ashley Jensen and Richard Rankin also head the cast.
When he looked back at season one to identify a DNA or formula that he could extract and apply to season two, former doctor Sefton says he was drawn to the things people fear in hospitals.
“The whole point is these storylines are edgy and tense and you can’t believe they would actually happen,” he explains. “Season one was the story of an imposter treating you in a hospital, and some people really found it unpleasant. The idea that a healthcare professional could be a murderer and people could be killed in hospital is also a horrible idea, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. It does happen; it’s not common, but it does happen. So that was the common thread we picked up on.”
With that in mind, the story quickly became a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window transplanted to a hospital, with an immobile patient trying to snare a suspected killer. John Alexander directs the season, which is again produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal.
“I’ve always said it’s two stories at the same time, kind of like two movies,” Sefton continues. “You’ve got the thriller movie of somebody up to no good in this hospital, somebody murdering patients, and the question of who is it and can they be stopped. Then you’ve got a movie about somebody whose life has completely changed after a spinal injury. How are they going to cope, and what challenges do they face psychologically?
“It’s a tricky form because, on the one hand, a thriller is always pushing you to go to the next thing as quickly as possible. That’s a balance you have to try to strike in these shows, because you don’t want the audience to be bored. With four hours, you want to really dig into the character and work out what makes them tick. Through the whole process of writing and editing, you’re trying to keep the pace up and also to have enough time to get into his background and why he is where he is.”
The Hitchcock influence goes beyond just the story, also permeating the gothic set design –Jamie is on the James Stewart wing of the hospital, which shares its name with the frequent Hitchcock collaborator who starred in Rear Window. It can be heard, too, via the use of strings in the music. The drama also bears a touch of horror, with Sefton, who admits he’s a “massive fan” of the seminal British director, hoping to keep viewers feeling uncomfortable throughout the drama.
“Everybody doing it has just paid a little homage to him in the writing, the directing and the music, but hopefully not to the point where it’s a pastiche but an acknowledgement that Rear Window was there and this idea of somebody stuck trying to remotely sort something out is interesting,” he notes.
The fact that lead character Jamie is either in bed or largely immobile for much of the four-hour running time made the writing process tough for Sefton. Jamie’s journey to recovery is slightly accelerated to make the drama work, but the Sefton was keen to realistically depict the difficulty of overcoming a spinal injury.
“The first episode is [almost entirely] in that hospital room and we found it quite challenging because you’ve got to keep giving him interesting things to do – the idea that just reaching over and getting a glass of water is a massive challenge for someone who’s hardly moved in five or six weeks. If people buy into that small challenge being massive for this character, hopefully you’ve got an interesting thriller set up where crawling across the floor is like walking across a bridge for somebody else, or scaling a mountain. That was the idea, but it was tricky.”
In fact, Sefton highlights one such scene as a standout from the entire show. It takes place towards the end of episode one, when Jamie is forced to crawl across the floor in a desperate attempt to retrieve evidence he thinks could point to the killer.
“I think it works really well,” Sefton asserts. “It’s a combination of it being written that way, John directing it brilliantly and Alfie performing it, and then the music has the ‘Hitchcock strings.’ That’s the time I got a tingle – you felt it was playing out like one of those classic thrillers where you’ve got the building crescendo of the music. And even though he’s just crawling across the floor to grab this iPad, it’s the biggest thing. I really like that.”
Sefton says the scene works because of the combination of his script and the vision of Alexander, who directed all four episodes of this season having helmed two for the first run. But he doesn’t think the visual style of a series, which airs episode three tomorrow and is available on BBC iPlayer, is entirely down to the director, believing writers should also be encouraged to think visually.
“That’s the biggest misconception of screenwriting – that you just write the dialogue and the director does everything else,” he adds. “That’s absolutely not true. Screenwriting is all about what happens. It’s about actions, what people are doing – what they’re saying is actually quite peripheral.”
With credits including Happy Valley, Cucumber and The Five, Red Production Company has built a reputation for being a writers’ producer. DQ speaks to executive producer Nicola Shindler – and some of the A-list scribes lining up to work with her.
Among the numerous writers to have walked through the doors of Red Production Company, it’s notable how many of them have returned.
Russell T Davies first linked up with the Manchester-based outfit on Queer as Folk and returned for 2015’s Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Danny Brocklehurst got his first break on the writing team of Clocking Off, before reuniting with Red for two seasons of Ordinary Lies plus Exile, The Driver and The Five.
Meanwhile, the peerless Sally Wainwright created detective series Scott & Bailey, family drama Last Tango in Halifax and award-winning crime series Happy Valley all under the Red banner. Bill Gallagher also created Blood and Blackout before returning with Paranoid.
“We aim to make the writers’ work as good as it can be, rather than change what they want to write,” Red executive producer Nicola Shindler says of her relationship with writers at the label she founded in 1998. “It’s really an exposing thing that writers do. They have to draw ideas from themselves, they have to go to some dark or deep places and have to feel their work won’t be judged for the wrong reasons.
“It’s always about what they want to get out of it, and we have to work our arses off to get there, rather than us imposing ideas on them, which I don’t think is right.”
The development process of BBC1 medical thriller Trust Me (pictured top) is a case in point. In-demand writer Dan Sefton (Delicious, The Good Karma Hospital) had taken a spec script to Red years ago that was so extraordinary “I don’t think it will ever get made,” Shindler admits. “But we knew he was a great talent.”
Then discussions over Trust Me – about a nurse who loses her job and moves to Edinburgh where she pretends to be a doctor – began. “First of all, we tried to make it a long-running, weekly medical story-of-the-week. But with such an exceptional story, you really can’t do that,” she says of the show, which was subsequently turned into a four-part miniseries. “It’s great when you find a solution. It became a shorter-form, potentially returning format, but you could really be honest about the story Dan wanted to tell.”
Ideas come to Red in all shapes and sizes, be it in the form of a script, something scribbled onto a scrap of paper, or even the result of a casual chat.
“We’ve definitely started with the tiniest of ideas,” Shindler says, highlighting Prey, the 2014 ITV crime drama from then newcomer Chris Lunt. “The first season started when our now head of development, Richard Fee, drove past an overturned police van. He was having a meeting with Chris that morning and just started talking about it, and that was the very beginning of the first season of Prey. They used that image of an overturned police van as the beginning of a story about a man on the run. That was a tiny idea and it went to two seasons.”
But across a range of genres and writers, what makes a Red drama? Shindler describes a recipe comprising one compelling story, a dash of pace, a spoonful of reality and a pinch of humour.
“Everything we do, however dark we go, has humour,” she explains. “To me, Happy Valley was funny at times, because that’s what life is like. I really need realistic dialogue and characters I can engage with, and a really strong sense of storytelling.”
As an executive producer, Shindler is on hand throughout development of every project on Red’s books to ensure they all meet her approval. She admits she will be “all over everything,” from reading scripts, following story development and working with the producer and director to watching rushes every day and being in every edit.
“I will read every draft of every project we’re making, without doubt,” she admits. “I can’t not. We’ve now got another executive producer, which we haven’t had before. Some of my development team are exec-ing as well, so people are gradually getting their own little slates, but I will never not read everything. I actually really enjoy doing it. I don’t read books anymore, I just read my work!”
Alongside Trust Me, Red is also behind new dramas including Brocklehurst-penned duo Come Home and Safe. Of the former, a three-parter for the BBC, Shindler says: “It’s about a woman who walks out on her family and it’s a brilliant emotional exploration of a relationship, which you kind of don’t see a lot of on TV anymore. It’s really warm in the way Danny is, and has humour in it, but it puts you through the wringer in terms of this big relationship.”
Safe, meanwhile, is a spiritual sequel to The Five that again pairs Brocklehurst with author Harlan Coben, who created the story. An eight-part mystery thriller, it centres on buried secrets that come to the surface of a small community after a murder and a disappearance. The show is coproduced by Netflix and French pay TV broadcaster Canal+, and marks the first time series lead Michael C Hall (Dexter) has worked on a British show.
“It’s totally the opposite of the other Danny project,” adds Shindler, a self-confessed devotee of US musical drama My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show as far removed from Safe as one could possibly conceive. “With Harlan, it’s just such a great process. He’s brilliant on character and he’s got amazing ideas.”
Shindler and Red are also taking advantage of new opportunities in television, a result of broadcasters’ continuing focus on scripted series. But the exec adds that she’s not swayed by the amount of competition or the rising budgets on offer.
“It doesn’t really make a difference,” she says. “Everyone can tell you they want different things, but all they actually want is a really good idea, a really good script and a really good writer, and there are only so many of them. It doesn’t change my world; I’m just happy to keep on making drama.”
After landing his big break in television with 2000’s Clocking Off, Danny Brocklehurst has a long working relationship with Red – one he describes in terms of trust and honesty. “It’s just every single aspect of the relationship. From development and being in the edit to talking about casting and Nicola being brutally honest about my scripts, it’s one of total trust. There’s no game playing. Those kinds of relationships are invaluable in television.” The writer describes his latest project, Come Home, as an emotional family drama about a mother (played by Paula Malcomson) who leaves her kids. “The BBC wanted a show about a family that’s about emotions – there’s no dead bodies, no police,” he says. “It’s very much about getting to the heart of these characters and making it as complex as possible. What you want is to play around with the viewers’ emotions a bit so at different times, they’re feeling different things about the characters and perhaps blaming different people. At first, you’re very sympathetic to Greg (Christopher Eccleston), the father, but by the end of episode one, we’ve done something where you maybe change that a little bit and you’re thinking differently about him.”
Following 2016’s Sky1 drama The Five, acclaimed novelist Harlan Coben has reunited with Red and Danny Brocklehurst for Safe, a mystery set in a small community where a murder and a disappearance bring buried secrets back to the surface. “It wasn’t an idea I had for a novel,” Coben explains. “I came up with this as a TV series after we did The Five and I liked the idea of somebody missing and somebody dead, so I combined them. It will be very different, and really suspenseful and intriguing to follow two different storylines and see how they match up.” As per The Five, the story was created by Coben, with Brocklehurst as lead writer, but the US author says he’s involved in every level of production, despite being based in New York, thousands of miles from the Manchester set. “They’re showing me set designs, costuming, locations, talking about tone, how we want to shoot it. We even had a long discussion over camera lenses with the director of photography when I was there. So every aspect I try to be involved with in some way.” On working with Red, Coben says Shindler, “more than most producers I know, really does appreciate the writer,” adding: “She’s a wonderful conduit for writers, she’s a wonderful partner to have.”
With his medical background – he still walks the wards as a doctor of emergency medicine – it’s natural that Dan Sefton (pictured alongside Jodie Whittaker) finds compelling drama within hospitals. ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital, which aired earlier this year, gave the genre an Indian flavour, while Sefton’s latest series is Trust Me, a four-part thriller for the BBC. Jodie Whittaker – recently revealed as Doctor Who’s first female lead – stars as Cath, a nurse who loses her job for whistleblowing and starts a new life by stealing her best friend’s identity as a doctor. “It’s a combination of writing what you know about and people wanting to commission the stuff they feel I’ve got an additional angle on because of my work,” Sefton says, admitting he’d love to write a British version of ER. “A medical show about a doctor who’s not really a doctor is something I always found interesting, so it’s just a matter of how you find a fresh angle on something.” Sefton has also enjoyed working with Red: “They speak to you like you’re a grown-up, which is really important as a writer. I find sometimes people infantilise you a bit, but it was very much a relationship of mutual respect, which I really appreciated. There’s a lot of loyalty from writers who have worked with Red and it’s a two-way street.”
New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.
If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.
And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.
Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.
“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”
There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”
The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.
This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.
The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.
“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”
From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”
This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”
The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.
So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”
Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.
Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”
Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.
Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.
Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.
It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”
The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.
“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”
Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”
French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”
Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”
Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”
Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”
Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”
Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”
Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.
There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.
Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”
A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”
Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.
With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.
Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”
UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.
Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.
The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.
Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.
Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.
Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”
Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.
The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.
It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.
Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”
Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.
The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.
Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”
Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”
Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.
The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.
As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.
Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”
Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.
Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.
Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.
Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”
Number 9 Films is teaming up with Red Production Company on a TV adaptation of Henry James’ seminal 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the third time the novel will have been adapted for the screen, following a 1968 BBC miniseries and a 1996 feature film directed by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman.
The story focuses on Isabel Archer, a vivacious New World ingénue who leaves America for Old World Europe, keen to experience all that life has to offer. She rejects a series of marriage proposals from eager but safe lovers for a life of independence, but when she inherits an unexpected fortune that will grant her desires, she falls prey to two American ex-pat schemers, the elegant Madame Merle and the charming but cruel and calculating Gilbert Osmond. She is then lured into a marriage with unfortunate consequences.
Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films will executive produce alongside Red’s Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley). StudioCanal will handle worldwide distribution.
Karlsen said: “We have long been admirers of Nicola’s groundbreaking work in television. She has built an extraordinary company and creative team that we feel privileged to be collaborating with on our first outing into TV. We believe we share a sensibility with Nicola of being drawn towards material with complex and compelling female lead characters, which is one of the defining elements of Portrait of a Lady.”
Shindler added: “Elizabeth and Stephen have produced some of the most acclaimed and engaging feature films of recent years and I am delighted to be working with them on their first television project. Having been originally published as a monthly serial, and addressing themes of personal freedom, betrayal and modernisation, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady lends itself perfectly to the longform storytelling that only TV can offer.”
No broadcast partners have been named yet, but with the story set against the backdrop of New York, Boston, London, Florence and Rome, it lends itself to international coproduction.
James’ works have a track record of being adapted for TV and film – with The Bostonians, The Europeans, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw having also been reimagined for the screen. However, Turn of the Screw is the only one of his novels to have been adapted in recent times.
Also this week, UK broadcaster ITV commissioned two further Maigret films with Rowan Atkinson again in the title role.
ITV said: “Following huge audience appreciation and critical acclaim for Maigret Sets a Trap, which aired on ITV earlier this year and achieved a consolidated rating of 7.2 million viewers and a 28% share of the audience, writer Stewart Harcourt will adapt Night at the Crossroads from Georges Simenon’s novel. Simenon’s son, John, returns as an executive producer of the new films. The second of the new films will be Maigret in Montmartre – set, once again, against the backdrop of 1950s Paris.”
The 120-minute films will go into production in November 2016 until February 2017, and will be produced by Thompson & Thompson Productions and Georges Simenon Limited.
The films have been commissioned by controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “It’s an absolute privilege to commission two further Maigret films for ITV. We were thrilled to welcome Rowan Atkinson to the channel as Maigret. His superb performance, and the filmic execution from the production team ensured the audience greatly appreciated the first Maigret film which aired earlier this year.”
The two new films are actually the third and fourth in ITV’s Maigret series. Maigret’s Dead Man, based on Maigret et son mort, has already been filmed and will air on ITV later this year.
The recommission is also good news for BBC Worldwide, the show’s international distributor. Broadcasters including France 3, ARD Germany and TV4 Sweden have picked up the first two films.
In other news, Sonar Entertainment has entered into a first-look deal with Smokehouse Pictures, the independent production company founded by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
The first project under the new arrangement is America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, based on a serialised Huffington Post article by Steven Brill. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Making a Murderer) will adapt alongside Nicki Paluga, with Ricciardi and Demos directing.
America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker is the true story of a venerable pharmaceutical company that created a powerful drug and marketed it aggressively to children and the elderly while allegedly manipulating and hiding data about its terrible side effects. The drug company was investigated and agreed to pay more than US$2bn in penalties and settlements, but made a reported US$30bn from sales of the drug worldwide.
“We couldn’t be more excited to be in business with George and Grant and their talented team at Smokehouse,” said Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski. “Smokehouse has a stellar track record of delivering commercial and critically acclaimed content. It will be a great partner for Sonar Entertainment, as the two companies align perfectly in our approaches to premium TV programming.”
The deal is another significant step into the TV business for Smokehouse Pictures, which is better-known for its movie output (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Monuments Men, Argo, Money Monster). Other television titles coming out of Smokehouse include Ms, a miniseries about Gloria Steinem and the founding of Ms Magazine, set up at HBO, and The Studio, an ongoing series about a movie studio in the 1990s, set up at Showtime.
The deal is also a coup for Sonar, which already has a number of hotly anticipated series coming through. Current series on air, in production or slated to commence production include season two of The Shannara Chronicles, for MTV; Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, for FX and BBC One; The Son, for AMC; and Mr Mercedes with AT&T’s Audience Network for DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.
Meanwhile, Seven Network in Australia has begun production on a sequel to Blue Murder, a miniseries that aired way back in 1995 on public broadcaster ABC.
The original miniseries starred Richard Roxburgh as real-life disgraced policeman Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson. Roxburgh will again play Rogerson, who was convicted of killing university student Jamie Gao just last week. That ruling is reported to have triggered production of the sequel, which had been sitting in development for two years.
In further interesting news this week, the BBC is poised to debut its supernatural drama The Living and the Dead on its on-demand platform iPlayer. All six episodes of the show, created by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), have been available to watch since Friday (June 17). The episodes will then receive a weekly airing starting from Tuesday, June 28 at 21.00. The BBC has rolled out a similar release for Anthony Horowitz’s new drama New Blood, which became the first BBC primetime drama to debut episodes online.
Director Mark Tonderai talks to Michael Pickard about helming every episode of new Sky1 drama The Five and finding inspiration from football managers.
A former radio DJ, Mark Tonderai made his name as a director in feature films – most notably 2012 thriller House at the End of the Street, starring a then relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence (it was filmed before but released after The Hunger Games).
He’s now about to break out on the small screen after directing all 10 episodes of Sky1’s latest original drama, The Five.
The series, created by novelist Harlan Coben and with Danny Brocklehurst as lead writer, follows a group of friends who are haunted by the disappearance of a young child while he was in their care. Years later, they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
Produced by Red Production Company (Happy Valley) and distributed by StudioCanal, it stars Tom Cullen, O.T. Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
It’s rare for a TV director to helm every episode of a single show, especially one that runs to 10 parts – still an unusually high number of episodes for a British drama.
“Most people don’t do 10 episodes. It’s a real ask,” Tonderai admits. “I come from features and it’s equivalent to three films. It’s a long time to shoot – it took over 127 days. It’s a massive deal.”
The director was initially brought on board to oversee three episodes of The Five, which launches tonight, but says the material and the team around him gave him the confidence to take on the whole season.
“You are only as good as your producer, and Karen Lewis has got a wonderful way of leading – she just lets you be,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could go into battle with this lady because, if I’m honest, she’s stronger than me.’ I had the right foundations to go forward, and I thought it would really help to have one person immersed in all of the creativeness.”
In particular, Tonderai says he was drawn to the project because he could relate to the idea of a group of people who haven’t been able to move on with their lives and are in a position in life where they don’t want to be.
“I lived like that for years,” he explains. “I used to put up posters in football stadiums. The job wasn’t beneath me but I didn’t want to be putting up posters in urinals in football stadiums. I wanted to be making films. That feeling of living in limbo, stasis and ambiguous grief that the characters have is where I was. It was a form of grief. So it was a combination of the material, the personnel involved and thinking I had to go for it because I might not get an opportunity to do all 10 with this sort of platform again. Sky were fantastic about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
A self-confessed fan of Coben’s thrillers, Tonderai shared the author’s intention to replicate his page-turning plot twists on television: “My goal was I didn’t want people to go to the toilet. I want people to sit there or, if they do go to the toilet, they rush back because they want to know what happens next.
“What you get is this rollercoaster where every episode is better than the one before. By the time you get to eight, nine and 10, you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s really good. I really believe that. I’m hoping that people just hook into it.”
He also praises Brocklehurst – “a really class writer” – who was one of the key contributors to what Tonderai describes as a “perfect storm” of talent behind the scenes.
It’s that collaborative effort that resonates most with Tonderai, who believes everyone on set should work for the story, rather than any individual. “I always say to the crew, ‘You’re not working for me and I’m not working for you, we’re working for the story.’ I come into work and say, ‘We’re going to do this right and we’re going to do it from the story’s perspective.’ I don’t care who’s got an opinion. If it’s not about the story, I don’t want to hear it. That’s my philosophy.
“A lot of my inspiration for how to direct comes from football managers because they all have ways of getting the best out of their players. You need a strong philosophy and everyone has to buy into it. If they don’t, you get clashes. But if everyone does, and they know what’s going to happen and exactly how you’re going to do it, it’s OK.”
Tonderai gets a new tattoo after every job he does, this time choosing to have the words ‘Take a position’ inked on his skin. The phrase represents his directorial style on The Five, he explains, because “you have to do that in life and you have to do that when you film. You have to take a position. You can’t be mediocre, cute or middle of the road. We live in mediocrity. Take a position because if it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter.”
He adds: “Every moment in life is unique and I believe every scene should be unique. You look around and find the angles. That’s what we did with every scene, so it meant sometimes we used a whole lot of operating styles – steadicam, handheld, we used the crane a lot and filmed in widescreen as much as we could. We took a position.”
But the thing the director is most proud of? That everyone came to the wrap party. “It means everyone enjoyed the experience,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. Everybody had a really good time on it.”
As a director, Tonderai’s career has been mostly in features, with one episode of Syfy drama 12 Monkeys also to his name. And he says the changing film business in the US prompted his move into television and the opportunity to join The Five.
“House at the End of the Street made US$66m – a lot of money. It only cost US$3.5m,” he reveals. “I couldn’t make that film now. That isn’t because I couldn’t get it made – the point is I couldn’t get it distributed. The whole distribution model has changed because studios now control a lot of release dates because of their blockbusters.
“We now have global releases, whereas five years ago you had this slow roll-out. So the nature of the film business has changed. Really you only get three sorts of films being made – low-budget horror, massive blockbuster and Oscar-bait, which actually is a genre now. The latter is only triggered by actors; you’ve got to get the right actors. So I started to realise that if I didn’t adapt, I was going to starve.”
The former BBC Radio 1 DJ, who helps his actors get into character by playing music on set, first looked to the US TV market but admits that once he broke through, “I hated it because you’re basically there just to collect footage. You have four days in the edit and you just work out what you’ve done.”
That led Tonderai to leave his LA home and return to England, where he says a television director is still central to the creative process. After The Five, his next step is to have ownership of the content he’s creating, either in television or film.
“There are lots of directors but very few storytellers,” he says. “David Fincher, Ang Lee – these people are allowed to tell their own stories. It’s very hard to be in that camp –writers who direct their own stuff – and that’s the space I want to be in. You have to earn that right and you can’t do too much of other people’s work. You’ve only got so much juice in the tank as a director.”
In particular, he’s passionate about stories from Africa that reflect his own heritage and is working on a project about asylum seekers travelling from the continent to Europe.
“I’m from Africa and I’m very passionate about African stories, but they don’t get a look in because they don’t sell, especially in America,” Tonderai notes. “I’m an immigrant over there. I’m there by their grace so this idea I went to America to better myself, my position and my standing is something I really relate to. So when I see all these people coming from Africa, all they want is a better life. They’re not coming here to steal our money, our jobs or our women; they want a better life for themselves and that strikes a chord with me.”
He adds: “But you’ve got to dress it up in genre or something else so people hook into it. The best example is (Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi movie) District 9 – a fantastic film that uses allegory and metaphors to say something quite profound about Apartheid. That’s a space I would love to be in.”
Crime novelist Harlan Coben was at MipTV in Cannes this week to promote his new series The Five, created in partnership with Red Production Company for UK pay TV channel Sky1.
While in town he also took 30 minutes out of his schedule to take part in a keynote interview. Articulate and witty, he provided plenty of food for thought for would-be novelists and screenwriters in the audience.
He is, for example, refreshingly honest about his status as a writer. Asked about his influences, he expressed irritation at writers who talk as though they haven’t lived through the modern era: “Ask a lot of writers about their influences and they’ll say Milton, Shakespeare, the great philosophers, but that’s all nonsense. I was influenced as much by the old Batman series as anything, the TV shows I grew up with.”
This may explain why Coben has found it relatively easy to convert himself from a novelist (28 novels, 60 million book sales worldwide) into a TV writer: “I’ve always seen my books as quite visual – though I didn’t realise how visual you could be with TV until I started working on The Five.”
His books are also packed with dialogue, another symptom common among novelists who have grown up in the TV era. His emphasis on dialogue that works hard is another factor that has made the jump to TV achievable: “I’ve always believed dialogue has to serve more than one purpose in a book, and it’s the same for a TV show. It’s advancing the plot, but it has also got to tell you something about the character and create mood. If your dialogue isn’t doing at least two of these things, you should get rid of it.”
A lot is written about the difference between the internalised world of the novel and the way TV plot and character development are moved forward through action. But Coben focused more on the way novel-writing is a solitary occupation whereas TV is collaborative.
He enjoyed the fact that, with The Five, his original idea was refracted through the prisms of other people’s perspectives: “I planted the seed and someone else is taking care of the tree. For me, that’s exciting. It’s cool that I had this idea in Jersey where I live and now this wonderful cast, crew and production team have turned it into this glorious thing. I’m not just seeing my interpretation but a lot of people’s work.”
That said, it’s not an accident that Coben’s TV work to date has involved European partners – before The Five, he adapted one of his novels, No Second Chance, for TF1 in France
Obsessive about his work, he told delegates that Sky and TF1 were more willing to allow him to present his vision than the Hollywood system would have been: “That’s important to me. We might succeed or fail with The Five, but a least I know the end result is based on my vision.”
Cohen is unabashedly commercial and expresses annoyance with writers who say they only write for themselves: “That’s like one hand clapping, or saying I only talk to myself. What we do, books or TV, is all about communication. I chase readers/viewers because I want my stories to move them, to keep them up at night. No one wants to make a TV series that isn’t watched by anyone.”
Although he has good dialogue with his fans, he says he tries not to be too influenced by their opinions: “If a consistent message was coming back from them, I’d probably listen – but there never is. I appreciate my fans, but it’s a mistake to write by committee. We’re not as good when we try to do what people want. My job is to take fans where they don’t necessarily know they want to go. I don’t look at the data and try to respond. If I see that my books are popular in Bulgaria, I don’t add a Bulgarian character in the next one. I write about what I know. The more specific you are with your creative vision, the more universal the appeal.”
Coben focused more on the similarities between books and TV than the differences, comparing The Five to a novel on TV – with “10 chapters, and a real end, no cliffhangers – because that’s unfair on the audience. I want them to like the show enough they come back for the next one. At the end of the day, both forms come down to storytelling and that’s how it’s been since the caveman era. You tell a story; if you’re boring, someone picks up a club and kills you.”
Despite his sales success, Coben talked about the anxiety and constant self-doubt that comes with being a writer: “I’m still learning how to write novels. Part of being a writer is you’re immensely insecure and always think you suck. And every day, that brings me back… when you lose that doubt, that’s when you call it a day. Only bad writers think they’re good. You need that angst to make your stuff better.”
Continuing this theme, he advised fellow creators to avoid reading reviews on platforms like Amazon: “It’s like reading the comments section below a news story. Don’t do it!”
Aside from The Five, Coben has now launched a TV company with Red’s Nicola Shindler called Final Twist, which will make scripted shows based on his books. The first one in development is Six Years.
On working in TV, he added: “This really is the golden age. It’s never been better, there’s never been more variety and there have never been more ways of seeing it. And how lucky are we to work in this business? We get to make TV for a living! We’re not making cardboard boxes for a living. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s just so frigging cool!”
US networks are notorious for cancelling scripted series early. So there was a pleasant surprise for producers this week when CBS/Warner Bros joint venture The CW announced it is renewing all 11 of its current series. Talk about happy customers.
Launched in 2006, The CW is a bit different from the four major US networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) in that it focuses on a younger audience (18- to 34-year-olds). This is reflected in its programming line-up, which places a strong emphasis on DC Comics-originated superheroes, zombies, vampires, Armageddon and the like.
As we’ve discussed before, the top three shows on The CW are all DC Comics-based. The Flash is currently in the middle of season two and a third has now been ordered. Arrow, meanwhile, has been awarded a fifth run and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, only eight episodes into its first outing, has been granted a renewal.
The next best-rating show on The CW (in the key 18-49 demographic) is Supernatural, which is about a pair of brothers (the Winchesters) who hunt down demons, monsters and ghosts. An incredibly durable series, the new greenlight means it will be up to 12 seasons – in excess of 250 episodes. Hardly anything apart from hit procedural crime dramas go on that long, so it has proven a real stalwart of the network. Indeed, there are reports that the key cast has also signed up for season 13.
Coming in behind Supernatural is iZombie, which has been given a third season (the clue to its subject matter is in the title). After this comes The 100, which follows a group of young survivors who return to Earth from space stations approximately 100 years after a nuclear Armageddon. This one is currently drawing about 1.2 million viewers per episode and has been granted a fourth season.
The Vampire Diaries, meanwhile, has just been given an eighth season. Even more impressive is that the show spawned a spin-off called The Originals (more vampires), which has been granted a fourth season.
From here we come to the three lowest ratings performers (in terms of 18-49s). Interestingly, all three break with The CW’s successful formula of supernatural and mythology.
Jane the Virgin, for example, is an adaptation of a comic telenovela that has been gifted a third season. Reign, which has been greenlit for a fourth run, is The CW’s take on the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, bottom of the charts by some margin, is a romantic musical comedy drama that has been given the greenlight for a second outing.
Commenting on the mass renewal, The CW president Mark Pedowitz said: “The CW has become home to some of the most critically acclaimed shows on broadcast TV, with a wide array of fantastic scripted series across the week, ranging from musical comedy, to superhero action, to gritty sci-fi dramas. As we continue our strategy of more year-round original programming, picking up these 11 series for the 2016-2017 season puts us in a great position of having proven, high-quality shows to launch in the autumn as well as midseason and summer of 2017.”
A couple of obvious questions spring to mind as a result of this renewal frenzy, however. The first is why has The CW renewed the last three series when it clearly does better with supernatural/superhero shows? Well, the answer seems to be that they are the only ones in the portfolio to be produced by CBS TV Studios – and CBS has a minimum expectation that it will get to deliver three shows to the network. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has won a Golden Globe. But it must still be a concern that the CBS shows are outperformed by all the other programmes (which are, incidentally, all produced by the CW’s other partner, Warner Bros.)
Secondly, does it mean The CW is now closed to new shows for a year? Not necessarily. The network has the flexibility to commission some new shows for the summer, or maybe introduce some on shorter-runs.
Still in the US, cable network FX has ordered 10 episodes of a new drama from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. Entitled Trust, the series focuses on the story of Getty oil heir John Paul Getty III, who was kidnapped by an Italian gang in 1973. Described as a combination of dynastic saga and an examination of the corrosive power of money, it is the first Boyle project to have been greenlit since he signed a first-look deal with FX in 2014. Executive producers are Boyle, Simon Beaufoy and Christian Colson (who also signed a first-look deal with FX).
The other big story coming out of the US cable market is that AMC has ordered a 10-episode second season of its martial arts drama Into the Badlands. The renewal is no real surprise given that the six-episode first run achieved the third highest-rated first season in US cable TV history (averaging 5.6 million viewers per episode in the Live+7 ratings).
“With its deep dive into authentic martial arts, the visually stunning Into the Badlands proved to be unlike anything else on television,” said Charlie Collier, president of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. “Co-creators and showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, along with a talented team of producers, cast and crew, brought us an artfully crafted series. We’re eager to return to the world of barons and blades and spend even more time with these compelling and evolving characters across an expanded second season.”
High-concept scripted shows like Into the Badlands are playing an important role in helping US cable networks establish themselves in the international market as well. “Simultaneous to its US launch, AMC Global will premiere season two of Into the Badlands within minutes of the US broadcast,” AMC said. “AMC Global premiered season one in 125 countries simultaneous to the US premiere, and it achieved a record-breaking performance.”
In another example of the way scripted shows are used to distinguish platforms, Virgin Media UK has secured exclusive UK rights to DirecTV series Kingdom from Endemol Shine International for its on-demand service. Episodes from the first two seasons will be available to its customers from April 1. This echoes a similar deal last year when Virgin Media took exclusive UK rights to Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead for on-demand.
Finally, ITV UK has commissioned an eight-part thriller called Paranoid from Red Production Company. Indira Varma, Robert Glenister, Neil Stuke, Lesley Sharp and Kevin Doyle star in the series, which is being billed as a conspiracy thriller.
According to ITV, Paranoid (written by Bill Gallagher) “tells the story of a female GP who is murdered in a children’s playground with an abundance of eyewitnesses. A group of detectives embark on what seems to be a straightforward murder investigation, but as they delve deeper into the case they are drawn into the ever-darkening mystery, which takes them unexpectedly across Europe.”
Commenting on the show, Red’s Nicola Shindler said: “We’re really excited to be working with Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Conviction, Love Life and Lark Rise to Candleford) again. He’s created a conspiracy thriller the audience won’t be able to look away from. It’s edgy, suspenseful and hugely ambitious as filming takes place in Cheshire and Germany.”
Red’s parent company StudioCanal will distribute Paranoid internationally.
As we’ve discussed previously, there’s a growing trend in the TV business for producers to go in search of talent and ideas from theatre, film and the book world. A good example was Red Production Company’s decision to link up with author Harlan Coben on The Five, an original series for European pay TV broadcaster Sky.
The primary rationale for this is to get access to good ideas. But there is also a commercial advantage in being able to add a name like Harlan Coben to your package. Producers regularly bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough top rank writers to go round, so this is one way of sprinkling sufficient fairy dust on a project to help it pass muster with the commissioning broadcaster.
As it happens, Coben didn’t write The Five. He provided the idea, which was then turned into TV by Danny Brocklehurst (with Coben an active participant in the creative process). Potentially there’s a double benefit here. If The Five does well, Coben-backed projects have greater appeal. At the same time, Danny Brocklehurst also becomes an increasingly in-demand writer.
Anyway, the point of all this speculation is that Coben has just announced that he is launching his own independent production company in partnership with Red. Coben will be joint CEO of the new company, Final Twist Productions, alongside Red founder Nicola Shindler, with StudioCanal handling international distribution of any original content that emerges from the firm.
The new company is already in development on a series called Six Years, adapted from Coben’s bestselling novel. It tells the story of Jake, a college professor who six years earlier watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. But when Natalie’s husband is murdered and Jake goes to find her, he discovers the grieving widow is not Natalie at all, but a woman he’s never seen before. As Jake seeks to uncover the truth, his search takes him on a dark journey that puts his life at risk.
Significantly, the new firm will be based in the US and will develop “contemporary, thrilling drama for American broadcast networks.” This is a significant step both for Red and StudioCanal, both of which take pride in their European DNA.
Coben said: “Nicola and I had such a terrific experience creating The Five for Sky1. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve made. Final Twist Productions will take our American-British teamwork to the next level by bringing Nicola’s daring new outlook and producing style to the USA.”
Shindler was equally enthusiastic: “I am excited about our upcoming projects for US audiences, which will have Harlan’s characteristic blend of suspense, humour and hope.”
The race to lock in great writing talent has also seen Zodiak Rights, part of the newly enlarged Banijay Group, sign a first-look finance and distribution deal with Arise Pictures this week. Key to this deal is access to an original slate of programming created and written by Arise’s co-founder, LA-based British writer/director David Raymond (The Other Man, Sins, Absence of War).
Tim Mutimer, head of distribution at Banijay Group, said: “David is brilliant at creating original, returnable series with global appeal, and Arise comes equipped with a slate of content that perfectly aligns with the Banijay Group scripted strategy. We are delighted to be working together to utilise the international distribution channels of the newly merged group to help bring these projects to the market.”
Raymond added: “For me, the great thing here is the creative support. By collaborating with a global partner, we have been able to create a flexible commercial framework that puts the creatives first and moulds the finance plan around the project’s individual requirements. It’s liberating and gives us a platform to focus on narrative and hopefully create content that audiences are going to want to return to.”
The first series under the deal is expected to go into production later this year – details to follow.
Other interesting announcements this week include Sonar Entertainment’s decision to option the rights to bestselling graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J Tiwary. The critically acclaimed novel will be developed as a multi-part event series, with Tiwary adapting his work for TV and serving as executive producer.
The Fifth Beatle recounts the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and his effort to drive the unknown band from playing in a cellar in Liverpool to international superstardom. Epstein overcame great obstacles, being a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
Tiwary says: “Brian Epstein’s story is rich in inspiration and is set amid a backdrop of great cultural change and the legendary history of The Beatles, so an event series feels like the only way to do Brian justice. We’re going to do wonderful things with the extra creative room afforded to us and I’m thrilled to be working with Sonar to take advantage of all the exciting elements this format has to offer.”
News of the adaptation comes as another man often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – legendary producer George Martin – passed away aged 90.
Another interesting project in the works is a series about Grand Duchess Anastasia, which is being prepared for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the US. Anastasia was probably executed with the rest of the Russian royal family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But there were rumours in the following years that she had actually escaped with her life. This project supposes she did survive and went to live in Paris, where she became a spy.
The idea is from Daniel Mackey and Seth Fisher. We’ve talked about Fisher in this column previously. Having made his name as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, he moved on to co-write National Geographic Channel’s four-hour Mayflower pilgrims miniseries Saints and Strangers. In January he was also named as co-writer of Discovery Channel’s Harley & The Davidsons, a limited series about the origins of the iconic motorcycle brand. Clearly he is seen as being good at spicing up history. His partner on the new project – Mackey – is less well established. His major credit to date is web series Aim High.
There is a long history of novelists writing movie screenplays, stretching all the way to Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. But recently we’ve seen a similar trend in television. Go back a few years and most novelists wouldn’t have been tempted to try their hand at TV, but in this golden age of high-end miniseries and limited series, attitudes have changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the TV industry is taking more risks and showing more ambition in its choice of material. So books that wouldn’t have been picked up for development in the old days are now being transformed into TV. The job of adapting them doesn’t always fall to the author – but sometimes it does.
Second, authors are getting more interested in writing for TV. A few years ago, most authors would have regarded TV as too formulaic or procedural to be of any interest. But like movie talent, many now see TV as a compelling creative challenge.
There are upsides and downsides to author involvement. An obvious advantage, in the case of novel adaptation, is that they know their characters and world better than anyone. Also important is the fact they can bring the book’s fanbase with them, effectively legitimising the process by their involvement.
But there are risks. One is that they aren’t properly able to let go of their baby – insisting on including elements that would be best jettisoned for the sake of the screen. Another is that the two forms are fundamentally different. While novels delve into the inner unseen worlds of characters, TV shows are all about action and dialogue. Character development must be seen on screen.
The US TV system is quite well set up to manage this conundrum, however, because of the way it is structured around executive producers and writing rooms. So if you look a show like MTV’s Shannara, author Terry Brooks is directly engaged with the project as an executive producer but is not required to write the show for screen. In other book-based shows like Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) and American Gods (Neil Gaiman), the authors are brought in to write some episodes but are not expected to carry the entire burden of adaptation. In other words, the expertise of the author is meshed with that of hardened screenwriting professionals.
An added bonus of this approach is that it doesn’t require the author to give up their day job. Screenwriting as part of team becomes a vacation, not a career change, allowing authors to take a break from the self-imposed isolation of novel writing.
Of course, one point worth making is that most authors under the age of 60 have grown up surrounding by TV influences. So there is a visual quality to their novels and a directness to their dialogue that makes the transition to TV easier. Classic examples of authors who took to TV like ducks to water are William Boyd, who adapted his own novel Restless for TV, and Anthony Horowitz, who has built a parallel career as a novelist and screenwriter. Not to be forgotten either is Michael Connelly, who is embroiled in a TV adaptation of his crime franchise Bosch for Amazon.
Horowitz is an interesting example, having been the forerunner of the current trend for authors to write original TV stories that are not adaptations of their novels. Others to have gone down this route include David Nicholls, whose TV career has involved both classic adaptations and original works like the 2014 miniseries The 7.39, and Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer who recently created the Scandi political thriller Occupied.
Another interesting example that is sure to get a lot of attention at Mipcom next month is The Five, penned by US thriller writer Harlan Coben. Produced by StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company, The Five is a 10-part thriller that follows a group of friends united by the disappearance of another acquaintance years earlier. When the missing boy’s DNA unexpectedly turns up at the scene of a murder, the group is forced to revisit their past.
The relationship between book, film and TV isn’t completely consistent, however. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Nicholls is not writing the screen adaptation of his novel Us, despite clearly being comfortable with the TV form. And Nick Hornby’s first TV adaptation is not one of his own works but that of another author (Nina Stibbe’s book Love, Nina). Perhaps here we’re seeing a desire among authors to tread lightly in TV – not presuming that they have all the answers to adaptation.
There are also authors who have happily entered the film arena but have not yet crossed over to TV. The classic cases in point are Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and Gillian Flynn, who adapted her Gone Girl novel for the movies. Flynn is now attached to a TV adaptation of another of her novels, Sharp Objects. But on this occasion she is positioned as an executive producer rather than a writer.
Perhaps this is an example of a gifted writer who doesn’t want to be committed to a TV project for too long. Or maybe it’s recognition that the adaptation’s showrunner/writer Marti Noxon is perfectly equipped to do the project properly. Any author interested in writing their own adaptation always has to be mindful of the long-term commercial implications of that decision. Do it badly or without full attention to detail and it may kill the TV franchise earlier – or even have a negative impact on book sales.
There is, it’s worth saying, another factor that is probably driving the current trend of author to screenwriter (either as a writer of adaptations or of original ideas). This is the perceived shortage of TV writing talent in the industry. While demand for scripted shows is at an all-time high, channels are nervous about committing to projects with unproven or rising writing talent. This has created a bottleneck, with numerous ideas stuck in development for years until a bankable TV writer is available. The injection of authorial blood could be helping to break this gridlock – with producers able to leverage the author’s credibility in another field to push projects over the line. For authors this is flattering, but it needs to be approached with caution in order to protect their reputation.
Note: Interesting reading on this subject includes this interview with Salman Rushdie and this look at Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of Gone Girl.
Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.
A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.
The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.
Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.
Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.
But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.
Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.
He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.
“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.
“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”
Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.
Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”
Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.
“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”
For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.
“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”
Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.
“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”
Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.
“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”
To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”
Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”
As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.
“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”
Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.
The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.
So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.
“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”
The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.
“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”
Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.
“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”
On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”
Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”
If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.
As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.
Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.
Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.
While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.
Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.
Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”
A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.
Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”
The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.
The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.
This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.
Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”
FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”
Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.
At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.
Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.
Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.
This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.
Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.
In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”
The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”
National Geographic Channel announced a star-studded cast for its upcoming four-hour miniseries Saints and Strangers this week. The story of the Mayflower pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, it will feature the likes of Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), Michael Jibson (Hatfields & McCoys), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Natascha McElhone (Californication) and Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers).
The original script for the miniseries was written by Chip Johannessen (Homeland), with revisions by Walon Green (Killing Jesus). But the final version is in the hands of Eric Overmyer and Seth Fisher, a combination that promises a mix of experience and innovation.
Overmyer, the senior partner, has a lengthy list of credits that includes Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order and The Wire. In all of these productions, he came on board when the projects were up and running as a writer/consulting producer. However, he has also proved his ability to set up high-profile series from scratch. He was, for example, co-creator of HBO’s Treme, which explored post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. More recently, he developed the Amazon original series Bosch, pulling together talent he had worked with on The Wire, Law & Order, Treme and Boardwalk Empire (another credit).
Fisher is a different proposition. 30 years Overmyer’s junior, he is best known as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, a movie that explores a New York City family’s reactions to the sudden death of famous playwright Harold Blumenthal. Part of a new generation of can-do creative entrepreneurs, Fisher accompanied the production of Blumenthal with a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com. As the blog’s fanbase increased, Fisher launched a crowdfunding campaign that helped make Blumenthal a reality. The novelty of his approach will bring an interesting energy to the NGC project.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 (C4) in the UK has announced plans for a 12-month project aimed at developing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writing talent. C4 is working on the project with Acme Films, which will oversee a competitive development process. At the start, Acme will review a number of ideas submitted by writers for series aimed at C4 or its digital sister channel E4. Acme will choose eight for a pitch-development process. Of these, four will progress to a second phase, which will require them to write draft scripts and a series outline. This process will lead to two finalists, which will go through a further development phase with a view to creating an original series.
The initiative is called Studio4 and is part of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter, which it launched in January. The aim of the scheme is to launch the careers of five new writers from diverse backgrounds. Commenting on the scheme, C4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis said Studio4 would be an opportunity for BAME writers to “fast-track their ideas with script commissions with regular support from experienced writers, script editors and producers as well as the commissioners at Channel 4.”
In a related move, Channel 4 has also hooked up two writers from ethnic backgrounds with leading prodcos Lime Pictures and Red Production Company. Nuzhat Ali and Sharma Walfall picked up the C4 and Northumbria University Writing for Television gong at the recent Northern Writers’ Awards. As a prize, they will take up 10-month placements with Lime and Red, which will school them in script commissioning.
As part of its efforts to instil a diverse culture at the broadcaster, C4 has also appointed Nina Bhagwat as its off-screen diversity executive, while Ramy El-Bergamy has been brought in to address the issue of diversity on-screen.
Back in the US, Deadline reported this week that Criminal Minds executive producer/writer Janine Sherman Barrois has signed an overall deal at Warner Bros Television to create and develop new drama and comedy series. Barrois, whose previous credits include Third Watch and ER, is also a judge on the Writers Guild of America’s Writers Access Project, which was set up to identify diversity writers.
A more expansive version of the C4 scheme outlined above, the WGA Access project is designed to open up opportunities for writers from five categories: minorities, the disabled, women, people aged 55 and over, and gay and lesbian writers. WGA members are invited to enter a piece of material and, if they get through the judging process, their work will be presented to showrunners and other hiring executives for their consideration in the upcoming television staffing season.
Among the week’s most interesting project announcements, Virgin Produced and City Entertainment have teamed up with Johnny Depp and Christi Dembrowski’s Infinitum Nihil to produce a new drama series based on the acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals. Greg Camalier, who directed and produced the doc, will produce the television adaption, while Virgin Produced exec VP of production Rene Rigal will oversee the project alongside Infinitum Nihil’s Bobby DeLeon. Like the documentary, the series will explore the south through its “colourful characters, cultural and political history and southern gothic settings, which became a melting pot of diverse musical and cultural traditions.”
Jason Felts, CEO of Virgin Produced, said: “Greg’s film unearthed the poetic mysticism and inspired us to produce a series that utilises music and narrative in a unique and ground-breaking way. This provocative story about the rich region and pioneering artists that birthed the iconic Muscle Shoals sound fits in with Virgin’s music roots and provides an ideal opportunity to partner with Depp, Infinitum and City Entertainment.”
As yet, no writer, cast or broadcaster has been named for the project, which is part of Virgin Produced’s expansion out of film production into TV.