Writing Eve

Writing Eve

February 24, 2022

The Writers Room

As Killing Eve returns for a fourth and final season, head writers Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Emerald Fennell, Suzanne Heathcote and Laura Neal discuss their time working on the hit spy thriller and reveal which character they all loved writing.

Whether it’s the compelling dynamics between its lead characters, its darkly comic humour, the fashion or the number of glamorous locations, there’s no denying Killing Eve is a global phenomenon.

Since 2018, the spy thriller based on Luke Jenning’s novels has pitted Sandra Oh’s intelligence officer Eve Polastri against Jodie Comer’s psychopathic, charismatic assassin Villanelle in a deadly, globe-trotting game of cat and mouse, with the characters forming a unique obsession with each other along the way. The series is produced by Sid Gentle Films.

Behind the scenes, the series has championed a unique writing model via which a new head writer has led each season. Hot on the heels of her award-winning series Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge created and wrote season one. She then passed the baton to Emerald Fennell, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Promising Young Woman who is also recognisable on screen for her portrayal of Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown.

Season three was led by Suzanne Heathcote, whose credits include Fear the Walking Dead. And now, as Killing Eve returns for its fourth and final season– launching this Sunday on BBC America before landing in the UK on BBC iPlayer on Monday – Laura Neal (Sex Education) has had the unenviable task of bringing the show to its conclusion.

Here, Waller-Bridge,  Fennell, Heathcote and Neal all discuss how they came to the series, the challenges they faced and what they think of the show’s unique writing structure.

Eve is a bored, whip-smart, pay-grade security services operative whose desk-bound job doesn’t fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. Villanelle is an elegant, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. Killing Eve follows these two fiercely intelligent women, equally obsessed with each other, as they go head-to-head in an epic game of cat and mouse.

How did you join Killing Eve?
I’d been writing TV for the past few years and had done a couple of sitcoms, but the first was a full-on ensemble sitcom, Crashing, and the second one was Fleabag, which balanced humour and darkness in a way that really appeals to me and was something I always wanted to do. When Sally Woodward Gentle from Sid Gentle Films approached me with Luke Jennings’ novellas, I was so surprised because I thought I was just considered a comedy writer. Luckily, she saw beyond that and said, ‘No, these are dramatic novels but we would like them to have a different, more humorous slant.’ She generously gave me a shot at it, and the rest is history.

How important was it to you to have two strong female lead roles?
Well, it certainly feels important and it just mainly feels really refreshing and a bit of a relief to be able to see that relationship play out. It’s exciting when you don’t have a blueprint for that sort of thing. Of course, there were lots of references from other shows that we could draw on, but it was actually the small details of the female psyche that were the fun bits, and because ostensibly it’s the same, it’s the same set up [as it would be if the leads were men]. It’s just the details that make it different; it’s how these women would do something in a way that men probably wouldn’t, and that to me is new and fresh.

What makes Killing Eve unique for you?
Killing Eve is unique because these two characters crossing each other’s paths feels unusual, as they are in such different times in their lives and such different places in the world and they come from such a different place in the beginning of the show. One of them is a psychopathic female assassin living it up in Paris and the other one is an ever so slightly depressed and bored woman in London in a job that she doesn’t like, and they kind of set each other on fire. The kind of cat-and-mouse aspect with females isn’t that common. Also, the fun we had playing with the heightened elements of the show, allowing them to be humorous as well as it being a thriller, is unusual, I hope in a good way. So I guess it’s just a very unusual game of cat and mouse.

Season two picks up just 36 seconds after the end of the final episode of season one. Villanelle has disappeared and Eve has no idea if the woman she stabbed is alive or dead. Eve has to find Villanelle before someone else does – but she’s not the only person looking for her.

How did you come to join the series?
I was part of the writers room initially and then later was asked to step into the lead writer’s role.

What were your first discussions about how the previous season finished and how you wanted to continue the story?
We always wanted to pick it up directly after [Eve stabbed Villanelle]. So many thrillers skip the recovery and the aftermath, but on a show like Killing Eve, that is the stuff that’s horrifying and real. For Eve, that dreadful journey home, having to hide the knife in the sanitary bin in the ladies loo in a panic, having to look her husband in the eye – these are the things that made it feel like a nightmare. And for Villanelle, we wanted to show she was not immortal – an important realisation for her, too, that she could be hurt and vulnerable and need to use all her skills to save herself.

How did maintain the specific style and tone of the show while bringing your own ideas to it?
Luke and Phoebe did such a masterful job of creating this world, so all of the truly hard work was done. It’s a very fine line tonally – surreal but grounded, funny and dark, sexy and terrifying – so it was incredibly important to maintain that tone. I’m a horror nut, so I think I brought a little bit more of a horror feel. Villanelle getting trapped in a dollhouse and slitting a man’s throat in the Amsterdam window dressed as a pig come to mind.

How did you want to build the relationship between Eve and Villanelle?
The question was always ‘who is killing Eve?’ Is it the crushing boredom of domesticity? Is it Villanelle? Is it Carolyn [Martens, played by Fiona Shaw] and the world of espionage? But in the end, the answer is Eve. Eve’s obsession means she is always putting her hand closer and closer to the flame to feel the burn. The two women have always felt like water going down a plug hole, being sucked down together, unable to stop it, and not wanting to.

Which other characters did you enjoy writing for?
All of them! Carolyn, Kenny, Konstantin – all a joy. You also get the pure pleasure of the guest stars. Zoë Wanamaker shouting, ‘Now I’m the cunny left holding this shitcake!’ was a highlight. It’s always a dream to get medieval swearwords in there.

How involved were you in other aspects of production?
I’m fairly obsessed with costume and hair and make-up, so I was pretty specific there. It’s so much a part of who these women are and how they see themselves and communicate.

Where there any notable challenges that you faced?
It was incredible but we were very low on time as the season air date got pushed forward, so the writing schedule was fairly punishing. There was quite a lot of scraping mould off fridge cheese at 4am and crying in the shower.

In season three, Villanelle is an assassin without a job, while Eve is hiding in plain sight. When a shocking and personal death sets them on a collision course yet again, the journey back to each other will cost both of them friends, family and allegiances.

How did you come to join the series?
My manager in LA called me and asked if I would be interested in meeting the team for the head writer position on Killing Eve. My answer was a resounding and instant ‘Yes!’ and it went from there.

What were your first discussions about how the previous season finished and how you wanted to continue the story?
We felt we had to honour what had happened to the characters in a real way. Both had been changed irreversibly by what had been done to them and by them, so we had to start their journeys from that place.

How did you run the writers room and work with other writers on the show?
I like a very collaborative room where we’re all working together. We would look at each main character and the arc we wanted to build for them over the season. From that, we’d break the episodes down, tracking the character journeys within them.

Which other characters did you enjoy writing for?
I’ll always be in love with Carolyn. She’s a joy to write.

Where there any notable challenges that you faced?
It’s always hard taking over someone else’s creation, trying to maintain what’s come before while also bringing something new to it. With a story like this that centres on these two women and their dangerous addiction to one another, it can be a challenge finding new avenues to take them down while remaining true to the characters.

What moments or scenes stand out from your time running Killing Eve?
The baby in the bin! [In episode three.]

What considerations did you have to make about ending your season and passing the baton to the next lead writer?
You want to make sure you’ve left as many possibilities open to the next writer as possible, without dictating where they should go.

After the season three finale, Eve, Villanelle and Carolyn are in very different places. Eve is on a revenge mission, while Villanelle has found a brand new community in an attempt to prove she’s not a ‘monster.’ Meanwhile, Carolyn goes to extraordinary lengths to continue to chase down shadowy organisation The Twelve.

How did you come to join the series?
I was a huge fan of Killing Eve, and of Phoebe, when it came out and I went on a personal crusade to join the writing team. My determination/hassling paid off when I got a job on season three, for which I ended up writing two episodes and co-writing the finale. I loved the experience of writing for those iconic characters, and when the producers asked me to take the reins for season four, I couldn’t say no.

What were your first discussions about how the previous season finished and how you wanted to continue the story?
The first conversation we had in the season four writers room was really from a fan standpoint; about the elements we loved in seasons one to three and how we could weave those things through season four. Regarding the bridge scene at the end of season three, everyone has a fantastically different interpretation of it and what it means for those two women. For me, the most exciting springing-off points were that Villanelle is ready to change and Eve has finally embraced the darkness inside of her.

How did you seek to maintain the specific style and tone of the show, yet bring your own ideas to it?
Part of the reason I love writing for the show is because its style and tone is a snug fit for mine. I never felt like I had to adapt my writing to fit the show; rather, it allows me to let loose in a way that feels very freeing. Every so often, I had to rein in my more ridiculous ideas – such as Villanelle running a pub quiz team – but generally my tastes and that of the show’s are aligned.

How did you want to build the relationship between Eve and Villanelle?
For the final season, it felt important to drill down to the core of their relationship. What is it about these two women that pulls them together time and time again? Is it as simple as each of them wanting what the other has? Or are they cosmically fated? What’s the nature of the charge between them? Of course, part of the joy of their relationship is its ambiguity, but I think it’s right that the final season goes as close to answering some of those questions as we’ve ever come.

How did you run the writers room and work with other writers on the show?
For me, being in the writers room is the most enjoyable part of the process. Who wouldn’t want to talk about their favourite TV show day in day out for four months? I was lucky to have a brilliant writing team who feel as passionate about the show as I do, who care deeply about these characters and their journeys and whose senses of humour range from dark, to surreal, to plain depraved.

Which other characters did you enjoy writing for?
It’s always fun writing for Carolyn. Fiona’s delivery of a non-sequitur is unrivalled. There are also some new characters this season who we had a great time conceiving. Some of my favourites are a mortician with assassin potential, a demonstrative Cuban sandwich seller, and a pair of loved-up hikers…

How involved were you in other aspects of production?
I was involved in the other aspects of production throughout. The final locations, costumes and all the other ingredients are the results of many months of discussions with our talented heads of departments and their teams. The creative process flows both ways, and those discussions often inspire and elevate the scripts. Sometimes seeing a costume or a location really changes how you write a scene.

Did you face any notable challenges?
It’s an obvious one, but Covid. There were huge production challenges, which naturally had an impact on the writing. My priority, and the priority of the whole team, was to retain the scale and ambition that viewers associate with the show. We had to come up with some creative solutions, but I think we’ve pulled it off.

What moments or scenes stand out from your time running Killing Eve?
I have so many favourite scenes, none of which I can talk about! One of them includes an unlikely kitchen implement, another will make you see Carolyn very differently and another will make you want to check under your bed before you go to sleept. Of course, shooting the final scene of the show was very special. It just so happened to be the last scene we shot on the very last day of the shoot, which made it even more emotional. I’ll never forget that.

What are your thoughts on the ‘new head writer per season’ method?
I feel privileged to be last in a line of incredibly talented women who have spearheaded the show. For me, part of what makes Killing Eve special is that each season has a different flavour. I love that the unique voice and way of seeing the world of each lead writer is woven into the fabric of every season.

What can you tell us about bringing the show to its conclusion and the way it ends. Did you feel any pressure or responsibility, for example, to meet fan expectations?
Of course! I feel a huge responsibility to the audience, the fans and, most importantly, the characters themselves. Myself and the writing team, along with the actors, discussed what feels like every conceivable ending. Even at script stage, I wrote several different versions, but ultimately I settled on the one that felt truest to these extraordinary characters. I hope the audience will feel the same level of emotion watching it as I did writing it.

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