Tag Archives: Strike Back

Lucky Strike

It survived one cancellation, but now the end really is nigh for Strike Back as the action thriller returns for its final mission. Showrunner Jack Lothian tells DQ how he hopes to keep viewers’ pulses racing up until its conclusion.

When it was first commissioned in 2009, Strike Back was hailed as a “truly uncompromising, compelling action drama.”

At that time, commissioning broadcaster Sky was best known as a home for US drama in the UK, airing shows such as 24 and Lost. But Strike Back marked the start of an ambitious new emphasis on homegrown scripted series that was fuelled by other shows including Mad Dogs, The Take and Thorne.

Originally based on Chris Ryan’s novel of the same name, it follows the missions of Section 20, an elite, multinational, covert special ops team that travels around the globe fighting a vast web of interconnected criminal and terrorist activity.

Now, over a decade later, Strike Back is returning for an eighth and final season – a run that, barring its short-lived cancellation in 2015 after season five’s Strike Back: Legacy and its swift resurrection the following year, has seen the explosive series become a mainstay in the Sky1 schedule.

The series has also aired in the US on HBO-owned Cinemax, which came on board as a coproducer for its first original series in the second season, Strike Back: Project Dawn, and later aired the first season as a prequel called Strike Back: Origins.

Strike Back showrunner Jack Lothian on set with actor Alin Sumarwata

While a cancellation doesn’t always mean a show is dead and buried in today’s television landscape, with plenty of canned shows finding their way back to the schedules, this eighth season, subtitled Vendetta, will see Section 20 reunite for one final mission – which promises to be their most dangerous yet.

The kidnapping of a British scientist leads Section 20 into a conspiracy involving the development of a biochemical weapon, taking them to the world of the Albanian mafia in the Balkans, the colourful parades of Venice and on to Tel Aviv. They battle street gangs and corrupt property developers and also face enemies past and present. And when a terror attack rocks a European city, the team realise there are even darker forces at work.

Novin (Alin Sumarwata), Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson), Mac (Warren Brown) and Chetri (Varada Sethu) all return alongside commanding officer Colonel Alexander Coltrane (Jamie Bamber), while guest stars include Ivana Miličević (Banshee) and Alec Secăreanu (Baptiste).

Showrunner Jack Lothian could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu, having been a writer on Legacy when Strike Back was first cancelled. Now, with a second chance to conclude the series, he says he was able to take some gambles with the plot and the characters that might not have happened if it were set to return.

“I suppose the gold standard for TV is Blake’s 7, when they killed them all off in the final scene,” he jokes. “That’s always on the table.”

Finding the story for any season of Strike Back is led by its filming location, with Vendetta filmed entirely in Croatia.

Disused warehouses have been key filming locations for Strike Back down the years

“When we work out where we’re going to film, we start to dig into the area and see what sort of places it can double for, what’s the military activity there and what’s the criminal activity,” Lothian explains. “In the same way we filmed in Malaysia last season [Strike Back: Revolution], that informed who the enemy was and what the mission was. We also look ahead to the sort of threats that are just around the corner, in terms of something that would require a black ops unit to go in, rather than just normal military or police.”

Experts are a big part of the development process, advising on the kinds of contemporary topics and global dangers the show wants to address, though Strike Back is never weighed down by characters putting the world to rights.

“We’re not a show that sits around and discusses some of the weighty issues. The plot pretty much happens on the move,” Lothian says of the fast-paced series, which jumps from one action set piece to the next without giving the characters, or the audience, much time to catch their breath.

“There are certain things that are always kept off the table because I feel like we couldn’t do them justice in the way that we’d want to. It often comes down to some sort of rising threat, and as a starting point, the idea of bioterrorism or an unknown out there is quite exciting.”

Character development is explored through the prism of the often-unique circumstances in which the members of Section 20 find themselves. But just as Jack Bauer experiences in US thriller 24, the clock is always ticking.

L-R: The show’s stars include Daniel MacPherson, Warren Brown and Alin Sumarwata

Coming up with enough story to fill 10 hours of airtime is “definitely the hardest thing, because it chews through story like nothing else,” Lothian admits. “On a different show, the entire first episode [of this season] could have been three or four episodes. When the show came back [after Legacy, with season six’s Retribution], I really wanted to have this compression of action where you just try not to stop. Hopefully, by the end of it, the audience is exhausted in the best way possible.

“Because we are an action show – and it’s a unique thing to be able to do on TV, to be able to go full speed and try to keep it going – that’s very much the philosophy of the show, just to see how much we can we can squeeze into each episode.”

That approach to storytelling means Strike Back stands apart from anything else on television, with Lothian inspired by his love of 1980s action movies. “There are some military and action shows out there but, certainly with our budget and the timescale we have to shoot, we make things hard for ourselves in terms of all the things we try to do,” he says.

“But it does make the show unique. Before I even joined the show, the thing I loved about it was it felt like nothing else. It’s unashamedly in love with action and everything that comes with that.”

The scripts are written with the locations in mind, before stunt and military advisors suggest how particular scenes might be filmed, or offer alternatives if they’re a leap too far even for Strike Back. One idea featuring a van loaded with chemical weapons was vetoed because “it just isn’t feasible,” Lothian recalls, highlighting the show’s attempts to always keep one foot in reality.

Jamie Bamber (left) plays Colonel Alexander Coltrane

“We certainly try to keep some sort of basis that what happens is mostly plausible, in the same way something like what Bad Boys does is plausible. Whether it would happen is another thing,” Lothian says.

“These soldiers are meant to be the best of the best, but drama happens when something goes wrong so it’s always tricky to put them in situations where something goes wrong and it’s not because they’re being bad soldiers. That’s always an obstacle you have to face. How do things go wrong without then seeming incompetent?”

As the showrunner, Lothian writes for all the episodes based on storylines he has created with other writers and producers from Left Bank Pictures. He also works with costumes – “I had a thing against hats for a while but the costume designer convinced me to loosen up” – locations and the art department. “We’re lucky to have a great crew and everyone’s really top-notch in what they do, so it’s just about making sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” he adds.

Shooting each season takes up to six months, with five weeks allocated for each two-episode block. A second unit is often in operation, meaning the crew will be filming two things at once in the same location in an attempt to get through all the material.

Croatia offered a variety of locations to the crew, from urban and rural areas to the coast, as well as the prerequisite number of disused factories and warehouses for backdrops to the numerous firefights that take place in each episode.

This season was filmed in Croatia

“What I’m always surprised about is, wherever we go, there are so many disused factories and warehouses that we can blow up,” Lothian says. “I must have seen hundreds now. It was a running joke that, in the final episode, they’re finally going to meet the person whose warehouses they’ve been blowing up. All he wants is for them to stop blowing up his warehouses.”

Another challenge in writing the series is plot escalation – if you start with the search for a bio weapon, where will the story be by episode 10? But this final season takes a different tack, finding time for some quieter moments between the stunts and explosions. “The mid-season episodes are quite interesting and quite unlike anything Strike Back has done before, where we do take our foot off the pedal and go off in different directions. That was a lot of fun to do,” Lothian says.

The writer, whose other credits include Doc Martin and Shameless, says one thing he has learned on Strike Back is that your heroes are always defined by your villains. “We’ve been lucky over the years, with [actors] Michelle Yeoh and last year with Alec Newman, and we have been lucky to have some really good, strong villains,” he says. “Something I’m proud of is that we have three-dimensional villains who you can almost root for. One of the joys of the show is being able to do that.”

Having started working on the show with Strike Back: Legacy, how does Lothian see the drama’s own legacy as it comes to an end? “Before I joined the show, I didn’t realise how smart and funny it was. I had this preconceived notion of it, and I think a lot of people still do. Last season, we did a continuous one-take sequence in a shanty town where the team were under attack so technically and, story-wise, it was a real challenge and something we were all really proud of. It’s a hidden gem.

“One thing people always say when they tune in for the first time is, ‘I didn’t realise the show was like that.’ It is a fun action show, but it’s got a bit of heart and it’s got some drama.”

As for its future, “as Sean Connery might say, never say never again,” Lothian concludes. “Whether I’ll be involved or not, I don’t know. But the idea of the British and Americans working together, it’s a solid buddy-movie franchise so I like to think it’ll come back someday.”

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Knockout locations

Kenton Oxley, CEO of Knockout Production Services, reveals how locations were sought for the seventh season of Sky and Cinemax action drama Strike Back, which was filmed in Malaysia.

Kenton Oxley

The process of finding the perfect locations for any drama production is a fantastic experience, but when producer Left Bank Pictures approached us with a view to filming Strike Back season seven in Malaysia, we found the sheer number of locations needed for the script exploded, just like the drama itself.

With approximately 100 unique locations used – within an intense schedule – we ensured the cast and crew filmed in the most beautiful, grimy, secluded and dense locations in Malaysia.

Filming revolved around Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor and the surrounding jungle. With the intense heat (40°C in the shade) and 90% humidity, filming was a challenge, but worth it when you watch the series. Malaysia delivered in spades.

We provided a detailed analysis of Strike Back’s infrastructure needs, based on the powerful and action-packed script. We have a great team on the ground in Malaysia, alongside 17 other global locations, so we were spoiled for location choice. Along with the rustic street locations, various dark and secluded warehouses where shootouts would take place and jungle territory, there were many settings that had to stand out and make a particular impact.

One of these was for the entrance of Colonel Coltrane, played by Jamie Bamber. The scene was shot on the rooftop of Menara KH’s Heli Bar, with the beautifully imposing Petronas Towers in the background. The location became the backdrop for the official Strike Back 7 press photography (pictured top) and Colonel Coltrane enjoyed an introduction like no other – from a venue on top of the world.

Filming locations included the jungle, where the crew encountered an enormous snake

Another location with gravitas is the missile warehouse, packed with technology and power. The location chosen was in Port Klang, approximately 350 kilometres from Johor. The humid and varied jungle scenes were shot in Hulu Langat and the street scenes were set in Armenian Street, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Penang.

The variety of locations needed proved intense, but our Malaysian location manager, Shan Iman, and our local line producer, Zurina Ramli, have extensive experience and knowledge as well as a database of locations. To add to this, we worked with the film commission in Johor and engaged local scouts, providing thousands of pictures of potential sites.

Working from the script, we sent back a potential locations document and awaited the director and producers’ choices. It was then over to us to secure permission from the location, government and local authorities to get releases and, finally, contract the location.

Sometimes this is straightforward. In developing markets, people embrace the idea, but dealing with individuals, big and small corporations, government bodies, local councils and associations while also educating proprietors and owners about the process and contractual commitment for filming is time-consuming.

The production also involved shooting in urban environments

With locations secured, we looked to logistics. For example, when we shot in a densely populated block of flats, we obtained permission from the flat owner, their neighbours and their neighbourhood association. Following this, we informed the local council about road closures. And because Strike Back involved firearms, chase scenes and explosions, we needed to inform the Royal Malaysia Police too.

As well as getting through all this red tape, we hired security to help with road diversions, while health and safety support was required in extremely remote locations in addition to basic amenities like power, water and waste management. We had to ensure complete independence and self-sufficiency. It was hugely satisfying to achieve.

Accomplishing this is challenging when local wildlife can be lethal. Ensuring medical kits include anti-venom for all local snake species, among other life-saving medication, is crucial. Every eventuality is covered, from medical emergencies through to evacuation procedures. Other than coming face-to-face with a huge boa constrictor on location in the jungle (humanely caught by our on-set snake handler), I’m pleased to say the drama was left to the script.

Our most challenging location was a recently closed shopping mall. Simply powering up the air conditioning was a massive task. Complexities of property ownership added complications, but the location was needed and it was just another day at the office for us.

The Strike Back cast ready to take to the skies in a helicopter

In contrast, a favourite filming location loved by all was Penang. It is a stunning city; a very welcoming environment that delivers as an amazing shooting location.

Left Bank Pictures executive producer Sharon Hughff agrees that the locations delivered: “When Left Bank Pictures embarked upon filming Strike Back in Malaysia, the creative challenges were immense. Not only were we looking to stage ambitious, complicated action set pieces, but Malaysia had to double for Goa, Indonesia and Hong Kong

“The beauty of the landscape, from the jungles around Johor Bahru to the neon futuristic cityscape of Kuala Lumpur all made for an incredible backdrop that exceeded our expectations and made for an epic on-screen production value.”

One of our aims at Knockout is for the locations to stay in the viewer’s mind after they watch the series. Certainly, one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I enjoyed seeing develop was at Sg Pendas, Johor, featuring a seaplane take fire as it flies over the immense lake. It is a stunning sequence with a stunning backdrop. For me, that’s what pre-production is all about – ensuring the great script and cast is supported by the best crew, infrastructure and locations in the world.

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China opens up to outside influences

The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou
The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou

About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.

This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.

Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide
Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide

There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.

Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”

Left Bank Pictures' reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast
Left Bank Pictures’ reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast

Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.

Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.

The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”

Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”

Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.

Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case
Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case

In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.

Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.

Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.

Pitch could perform better on a new network
Pitch could perform better on a new network

With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.

If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.

Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am
Aussie comedy Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am resulted from a Fresh Blood pitch

The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.

Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”

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