Monthly Archives: October 2014

Screen savers: the untold story of US TV’s showrunners

They are the new masters of TV, a bunch of jelly-bean-eating hotshots who have ushered in a golden age. But what do showrunners actually do? Andrew Collins on a film that goes behind the scenes at everything from Boardwalk Empire to The Good Wife

‘Be entertaining’ … the writers’ room on Men of a Certain Age, featured in the new It’s a truism that TV is now better than the movies. So where does that leave Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show? It’s a movie about TV. Specifically, it’s the first feature-length documentary to take us inside the inner sanctums of critically acclaimed and commercially successful US series like The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy, Bones, House of Lies and Boardwalk Empire.

The difference between the American and the British way of making TV drama is no more than the placement of an apostrophe. In the US, it’s all about the writers’ room. In the UK, it’s the writer’s room. Both methodologies are romanticised: the Showrunners film caffeinated, air-conditioned detention centre in Burbank where story arcs are “broken” and whiteboards incrementally filled by salaried Buffy fans juggling stress balls; and the shed at the bottom of an Oxfordshire garden in which a tortured author taps out every syllable of an eight-part masterpiece based on his own novel to the strains of Radio 3 until called in for supper. Perhaps it’s no wonder we mythologise the US system.

Ignoring the old saw about letting light in upon magic, Showrunners points an awed spotlight on to a species previously granted tongue-tied anonymity in a pre-internet age. As Tara Bennett, the author of the film’s companion book, writes: “Who would have ever thought that the pale, weary, self-deprecating talents plunking tirelessly on their abused keyboards would become the pin-up faces for the modern era’s latest Golden Age?”

The documentary’s director is Des Doyle, a voluble, black-T-shirted Dubliner who, after 12 years pulling focus in the camera department on everything from dragon apocalypse Reign of Fire to Barry Levinson’s sectarian wigmaking romp An Everlasting Piece, decided in 2010 to make a film of his own. A growing fascination for big, millennial, creator-led US shows like The X-Files, Buffy and Lost gave him his subject. “I’d waited diligently for a documentary to come along to explain exactly what a ‘showrunner’ did,” he says. “But it never did.”

For the next two years, Doyle and his modest crew stalked Los Angeles collecting firsthand testimony from almost 30 American showrunners – Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica) – resulting in a blockbusting nature documentary in which mostly white, male, 40-50-something showrunners are glimpsed in their natural habitat, feeding as a group on jelly beans and ideas.

Terence Winter established himself by writing for televisual motherlode The Sopranos on HBO and graduated to running his own show, Boardwalk, for the same creatively empowering network. “I’m one of those people who buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions,” he says, explaining why he loves Doyle’s documentary: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and get a look behind that curtain.” He laments the fact that he rarely gets the chance to swap notes with fellow showrunners. “For the most part, the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Since the job description isn’t even an above-the-line accreditation (you’ll see “created by” or “executive producer” scroll past in the opening credits, but never “showrunner”) what does it actually entail? In reality, you guard the creative vision while acting as a lightning rod for all production issues. Jane Espenson, who ran Battlestar spin-off Caprica, reckons “a showrunner has to have a bit of dictator in them”. Her former boss Ron Moore likens the job to being “a forest manager – I manage the forest, but someone else is out there dealing with all these trees, pruning them every day”. Winter says they’re “part psychologist, part motivational speaker. You’re a host at a dinner party trying to get everybody to open up a little bit.” Hart Hanson, avuncular creator of the long-running Bones, adds: “Most, but not all, have terrible posture.”

On Boardwalk, which after five grandly slow-burning seasons has just reached its finale, Winter ran his writers’ room just as David Chase had done on The Sopranos, with a sign on the wall based on a Chase dictum: “Be entertaining.” Averaging about five writers at any given time, he’d come in with “a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go” and lead a process that involved “a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression. To the untrained ear, it may sound like a bunch of people bullshitting, but those are the things that get made into TV shows.”

For instance, the Brooklyn house Winter grew up in had fallen into a state of disrepair (“I was always embarrassed of it as a child”). When his mother, who still lived in it, passed away, he fixed up the entire house before selling it. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I was really doing was repairing my childhood.” In the writers’ room somebody said: “That would be a great story for Nucky.” That’s the show’s flawed lead, played by Steve Buscemi. Fans will recall that Nucky does the same thing in season one, episode seven. “He also burns the house down,” Winter laughs. “I didn’t do that.”

Doyle’s film is full of similar firsthand insight. Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife team behind The Good Wife, credit their success to “the fact we don’t have resentful spouses at home”. On the subject of social-media interaction with fans, the heavily tattooed Steven S DeKnight, showrunner of Spartacus, recalls: “I’ve gotten into a dust-up twice where I found out later I was actually in a yelling match with, like, a 12-year-old.” Hart Hanson muses: “There’s a very small portion of the audience who think they know how the soup is made and give you advice on how much salt to put in it. I think they should be ignored.”

Female showrunners remain rare, although the likes of Shonda Rimes (Scandal), Espenson and Dee Johnson (Nashville) are making a difference. According to a 2012- 13 study by San Diego State University, women still only account for 24% of US “series creators” (it’s 34% for writers). Janet Tamaro, showrunner of TNT’s female buddy crime series Rizzoli & Isles, observes in the film: “Some people – both male and female – have an easier time being told what to do by a man.” When staffing his room, Winter abides by the law of what he calls “hangability – these are people you gotta want to hang out with”. He used six female writers on Boardwalk.

The British showrunner is even rarer, due to shorter series and tighter budgets, although Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), Neil Cross (Luther) and Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) are taking the baton from Russell T Davies and his successor at Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, who emulate the American model. At an Edinburgh TV Festival session in August, ITV’s new drama controller Victoria Fea dampened buccaneering fantasies about become the showrunner on a British series: “We have lots of authors in this country who sit in their garrets and write in splendid isolation. That doesn’t necessarily go with running a production meeting.”

Winter, a fan of everything from The Singing Detective to The Hour, has better news. “Whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Watch the trailer here:

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is available to purchase from Friday at

Andrew Collins – The Guardian, Tuesday 28 October 2014

Box office only one indicator of Australian film industry success

We are great at making stories whether it is behind or in front of the camera. I want to encourage us all to look up for a moment, and see the value of this work in positioning Australia internationally.

As chief executive of Screen Australia I get around the globe a bit. When I have attended international markets, I am repeatedly told how talented we Australians are as storytellers – actors, directors, producers and crews – often by the world’s most influential players. I wonder sometimes whether back home we get just how respected and recognised our screen industry is on the world stage.

In the past few weeks there has been debate about the disappointing recent box office for Australian films. Stalwart supporters like Margaret Pomeranz have been championing the films in the face of industry critics. While we always aspire for commercial success for our films, this is a hugely challenging exhibition environment for independent film internationally, lining up alongside the huge budgets and marketing clout of blockbusters; and it should be noted box office is only one measure of success. Our film industry pays back crucial cultural dividends and the legacy of great Australian films can resonate forever.

Much of the recent debates have tended to focus within our borders. I also want to encourage us all to look up for a moment, and see the value of this work in positioning Australia internationally. From the 1980s when the image of Aussie larrikinism in on-screen portrayals like Crocodile Dundee formed some unusual views of daily life in Australia, to the more diverse offerings of today, our stories continue to resonate. The Sapphires left us wanting to sing and dance with the first indigenous girl group; Australia paid tribute to the harsh yet magical country we live in, INXS celebrated the lives and the music of our iconic rock legends, Jabbed taught us about the diverse stances on the hotly debated topic of immunisation and Charlie’s Country took us on a poignant journey into the extraordinary cultures of Arnhem Land.

Charlie’s Country’s lead actor, David Gulpilil received a rare accolade as the first indigenous person to win Best Actor award in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film was just one of 11 Australian feature films invited to screen at Cannes this year. In total 13 Australian films were invited this year to the top five international festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance – selected from an intensely competitive field to feature at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.

In the past few years we have had 11 top-rating Australian TV drama series sell their format to the US. BAFTA and EMMY award-winning Top of the Lake, high rating drama The Slap based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and innovative drama Secrets & Lies have all demonstrated our ability to produce quality stories with wide appeal.

Earlier this year multiplatform project #7 Days Later became the fourth project in five years involving an Australian company to take home a International Digital Emmy Award.

What does this tell us? We are great at making stories whether it is behind or in front of the camera, for the big, small and mobile screen. Our skilled practitioners in front of and behind the camera are frequently recognised for their expertise – beyond the obvious Cate, Hugh, Russell and Nicole, we also have Catherine Martin picking up two Oscars for Costume design of The Great Gatsby, contribution from local VFX company Rising Sun on Oscar winner Gravity, Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel just complete his much anticipated Macbeth and Angelina Jolie choosing our country and crew to make her directorial debut film, Unbroken. This does so much to profile Australia to the world and to communicate who we are and what we are capable of.

Cate Blanchett in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards said “there is just so much talent in Australia and Michael Wilkinson, CM and I are just the tip of the iceberg”. My job is to support and celebrate the whole iceberg.

Many would not know that five of the 10 top grossing films at the international box office last year starred Australians – from Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3 to the Hemsworths in The Hunger Games and Thor.

We often see a full circle – emerging talent grow, make the leap to the world stage to then return and tell our stories in Australian voices, such as Russell Crowe going from Neighbours to Gladiator to directing The Water Diviner back in Australia.

Beyond the economic benefits of the $2.2 billion revenue the screen sector has contributed to the economy (2011/12 ABS survey), and beyond the obvious cultural dividends of seeing our own stories reflected back to us on screen, this international success is another key reason our screen industry matters.

It’s a cliche to say we punch above our weight – what we should all celebrate is how much this does for our profile on the world stage.

Graeme Mason is chief executive of Screen Australia – SMH – October 26, 2014

Kiwi Post-Production House: From Epics to Micro-Budget Works

Of the five Peter Jackson companies in Wellington, Park Road Post wins the prize for the snazziest HQ.

As each company started up, it took over warehouses or other spaces available in the suburb of Miramar. But Park Road, which debuted with 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” was built from the ground up. The massive building includes two large mixing theaters (where editors can sit next to mixers, and music and dialogue editors have their station); a smaller pre-mix room; three DCI projected DI/Grading theaters and a large picture department alongside the sound department.

There is also a 170-seat screening room with art-deco figures in deep blue and gold (one worker described it as “Hearst style,” a reference to Hearst Castle in San Simeon) and twinkling stars of Southern Hemisphere on the ceiling.

Starting in 1941, the New Zealand government oversaw post-production for local filmmakers, via its National Film Unit. But it decided a decade ago to sell the facilities to Australia. Jackson realized the loss of services and infrastructure could be a fatal blow to the country’s film industry. So Park Road was born.

Park Road does 40 projects a year, handling post-production on works ranging from big-budget pieces like “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Master and Commander,” to micro-budget local films, as well as documentaries and restoration work.

“We don’t think of it as a business first. It’s about creating something great,” says g.m. Cameron Harland.

He adds that their constant challenge is to look and sound better, to make tech advancements and upgrades. But supervising senior re-recording mixer Michael Hedges adds: “The enemy to good sound is to worry about technology. You have to worry about what’s on the screen. Technology has to match that.” The staff also includes five toppers: Dean Watkins, head of production; Vicki Jackways, marketing; Louise Baker, corporate services; Amy Shand, picture; and John Neill, sound. PRP generally sends Phil Oatley (head of technology) and Ian Bidgood (technical director and color scientist) to NAB.

The Park Road team has been going to places including Los Angeles to lure production to NZ. Any pushback from Hollywood? No, says Harland, “because you can’t hard-sell something like this. You let the work speaks for itself.”

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Weta Workshop is Made Up of Wellington’s Eclectic, Equal-Rights Designers

Weta Workshop is the oldest of Peter Jackson’s five companies, and the hardest to define. And that’s the way they like it.

Richard Taylor, who runs Weta Workshop with his wife, Tania Rodger, believes in creative diversity. He has won Oscars in three categories: two for makeup, two in visual effects and one for costume design. It reflects his philosophy, “We can only survive if we innovate every day.” The company built 48,000 individual items (props, costumes, etc.) for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. For the “Hobbit” trio, the team produced 11,862 prosthetics, with 5,493 of these just for the Dwarves. Approximately 4 tons of silicone was used to make facial prosthetics for all the characters. In the past year, WW has worked on 30 projects, including six films, plus numerous TV shows and videogames. “It adds to the tapestry of our staff’s lives,” says Taylor. “It’s added to the richness.” Recent projects include the final “Hobbit” film; costuming and prosthetics for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”; designs for “Godzilla” and “Hercules”; merchandise for “DOTA 2”; and materials for films based in China, Hungary, India and the United States.

In association with ITV and Pukeko Pictures, WW is working on the TV relaunch of “Thunderbirds.” There will be 26 half-hours to bow in 2015; scripts are written in the U.S., with voices recorded in the U.K., filming miniatures in New Zealand and animation in Taiwan.

Jackson is a third shareholder in the company, with Taylor and Rodger as the management and creative force behind it. Taylor is managing director.

During Variety’s visit, WW staffers were working on museum installations, a sculpture garden, film projects and books (designed and written inhouse, with 16 published so far). Conducting Variety on a tour through the multi-level maze of workshops, Taylor introduces each space matter-of-factly: “This is the sword- grinding room; this is the sculpting department; this is the paint department,” and he points out machines that do robotic 3D milling, printing, laser-cutting, plasma- cutting and foam latex, urethane casting and riveting machines. “We built machines that can build components,” he says simply.

There is a room devoted to facial castings, with walls lined with face masks: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” actors, Meryl Streep, Vincent Price and dozens of others.

It may be matter-of-fact to him, but to a visitor, it seems like a labyrinth designed for people with ADD: Diverse, high-energy and magical. Asked how many square feet/meters in the building, Taylor laughs, “Oh, I have no idea.” When Taylor started on 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Weta Workshop had a staff of 158, only 38 of whom had any film experience.

He promotes the “Jack and Jill of all trades” mentality. There is a roughly 50-50 split of men and women among the core crew of 55. That’s also true when the staff is augmented to work on multiple projects, with the additions ranging from 70 to 240.

Taylor is proud that no one had formal training. Some are first-time sculptors he trained. And he’s also self-taught: He started sculpting margarine, then moved on to clay.There is also Weta Cave, a shop that sells objects and offers a $20 tour of the workshop. It’s the only public access to the five companies. Taylor says it was inspired “by watching busloads of people looking at this old dilapidated warehouse. I couldn’t stand it,” so he wanted to give them a positive connection.

Among other key staffers at Weta Workshop: General manager David Wilks, Workshop supervisor Rob Gillies, head of production Grant Bensley, head of design Rik Athorne, head of consumer products Mike Gonzales, head of tourism Jake Downing and executive assistant to Taylor plus g.m. Ri Streeter.

Rodger also supervises the Roxy theater, a refurbished cinema in the Miramar neighborhood that shows first-run films and classics. Taylor describes the interior as “sci-fi deco with a Rockefeller twist” (as in Rockefeller Center).

Weta Workshop also designs and produces collectibles with 500-800 copies of each piece, having made 1 million in all over the years. “It’s a tiny collectors market,” he says, but enough that “it lets us do fine-art sculpting for a living.” Enough to justify the cost, “but I would probably do them anyway. You’re interacting with the fans.

Fans is almost a misnomer. These are people who are driven by a love of literature, the arts and creativity.” Many of them go to seven or eight conventions a year.

He appreciates the Oscars he and the others at Wellington have won because the wins are an exclamation mark to their work. “It’s endorsing our team and showing that we have a showing that we have a place in the world.” New Zealand definitely has a place in the world, and as the Weta brand expands, its global footprint gets even larger and more impressive.

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Peter Jackson’s Companies Offer Every Step for Filmmakers

In the past two decades, Peter Jackson and his team have created five companies to service every aspect of filmmaking. These are among the most accomplished but misunderstood film companies in the world.

That’s because each was started without any hoopla. Ever since Jackson’s 1994 “Heavenly Creatures,” his films have gotten more ambitious, creatively and technically. So these companies were created to meet the needs of Jackson and the growing film industry in New Zealand. And after they were born, each started working immediately.

Even though filmmakers such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have been enthusiastic collaborators, many in the industry are confused about the structures and goals there.

Aside from Weta Digital, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, there are four other companies: Weta Workshop, Park Road Post Production, Stone Street Studios and Portsmouth Road film-equipment company.

The various toppers, with typical Kiwi humor, sat down in Wellington with Variety to dispel some misperceptions.

  1. The five companies are not designed solely to work on Jackson’s films. In the past year, for example, Park Road worked on 40 projects; Weta Workshop contributed to 30.
  2. They are not just for blockbusters. With Jackson’s six Tolkien films and Cameron’s “Avatar” franchise, the companies have gotten typecast. But this year their workload included lots of TV, a documentary, a $100,000 NZ indie and film restoration.
  3. They can handle every aspect of a production, but the soup-to-nuts approach is not required. Each of the five companies can be responsible for its specialty (design, editing, sound, VFX, etc.) throughout the life of a project — or can contribute just a few weeks’ work. The five sometimes work together, but often separately.

4 It’s not necessary to relocate. The companies in Wellington have recently worked on productions based in India, South Africa, China and the U.S. For “Tintin,” they connected daily with Spielberg, who was in the Aegean.

Park Road Post general manager Cameron Harland sums it up: “We want people to know that New Zealand is open for business.” Weta Digital: Peter Jackson’s VFX Company is About ‘Immersive Filmmaking’ Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014 Joe Letteri, the company’s director and senior visual effects supervisor, flanked by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson Weta Digital is observing its 20th anniversary this year, but the celebration is low- key, because the team is too busy to rest on its laurels.

Top priorities include “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” the culmination of 17 years and six films in the J.R.R. Tolkien canon; “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” slated to bow in 2016; and the upcoming “Avatar” films. Then on to other projects, both large and small.

Peter Jackson has five companies in Wellington, but Weta Digital is the best known, thanks to its visual-effects breakthrough creations such as Gollum, Caesar, Smaug and the Na’vis.

Joe Letteri, the company’s director and senior visual effects supervisor, says, “If we can shoot it live-action, great. If not, we’ll do it digitally.” (Letteri is in the above photo, flanked by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.) The company’s executive producer David Conley adds that Weta Digital is unlike traditional visual-effects houses. “We try to give filmmakers a comfortable space to make their own movie. We don’t want them to feel trapped by the process. We don’t tell you how to shoot the movie; we help you get to where you want to go.” The tools are constantly evolving. Techniques for creating Gollum got much more sophisticated between the 2001 “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” and the first “Hobbit” film. As a sign of the growth, the company created 24 digital characters for the first “Hobbit,” and about 60 for the second. The third film, still in progress, will be a quantum leap above that.

Though the tools are different, Letteri says that the team — including VFX supervisors Dan Lemmon, Eric Saindon and Guy Williams — uses the same process as 20 years ago: “We meet every day. We run this like a film set, with dailies, constantly revising stuff. Everything is reassembled in new ways, using new techniques, but it’s traditional: It’s story-driven, and it’s about characters.”

Weta Digital was founded by Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk to create 14 effects for the 1994 “Heavenly Creatures.” Two years later, they created a then- astonishing 400 effects for “The Frighteners.” In the past two decades, the company credits include the six Tolkien movies, “King Kong,” “Avatar,” and this year’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the final “Hobbit.” The company, 75% owned by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, employs about 800-1,000 individuals, depending on the number of projects. It’s located in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, in seven reconverted buildings, including a former home for wayward girls, a one-time dairy and record-pressing studio. All of these buildings are connected to each other, and linked to Jackson’s other four companies via a private fiber loop.

One example of Weta’s work in character development is dragon Smaug’s wings in the first “Hobbit,” which became like hands for the second. Weta Digital and Jackson liked the idea of giving Smaug the ability to hold onto the platforms and pillars in Erebor.

One breakthrough was the invention of Massive software for the 2001 “LOTR.” Massive enabled crowd movement in which each person or creature has a “brain.” So 200 horses can gallop together, but each will have distinct movements, and that gave credibility to the epic battle scenes.

The motion-capture creation of Gollum was another turning point.

Human and creature faces were challenging since there are so many interconnected facial muscles, not to mention skin colors and textures.

The key came in designing King Kong for the 2005 film. Computer artists designed a gorilla’s skeleton, then added a muscle system, then fat and tissue, skin, skin color, then fur. The next target was to do the same with humans, which happened with the 2009 “Avatar.” The Weta team are quick to dispel actors’ fear that they will be digitally replaced.

Letteri says of Andy Serkis’ performances, “We took what he did and heightened it.” To create the Na’vi version of Sam Worthington, the Weta team asked themselves, “Can we match the performance and get Sam’s eyes, expression, appearance and emotions?” The answer was yes, and there will be more breakthroughs on the next three “Avatar” films. And, on the creature side, Benedict Cumberbatch worked with them to create the physical and vocal characterization of Smaug.

Conley adds that Weta wants to enhance, not replace, the actual performances and below-the-line work (ranging from design to visual effects).

“We like to work with designers and have them build the costume, for example, so we can understand their intent and things like how the fabric moves. We never change their vision; we just give a digital interpretation of their vision.” Though the digital world can be confusing to many, Weta Digital folks say it’s all about collaborating with filmmakers and giving them new tools.

Letteri dubs it “immersive filmmaking.”

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Take more risks in British TV drama, says Charles Dance

Charles Dance
Dance in ITV’s dramatisation of the 1666 Great Fire of London, The Great Fire. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/Ecosse Films/ITV

It is fair to call Charles Dance a veteran of UK television. His four decades of screen credits include some of the most critically acclaimed dramas, from Jewel in the Crown and Rebecca to Bleak House and Game of Thrones. Yet having worked through what he calls “the golden age” of British TV in the 80s, he is firm in one belief – that the current state of television in this country is shamefully bleak.

“We need to look to our laurels a bit with television in this country”, he said. “ I don’t think enough risks are being taken in drama television in the UK and I think a lot of programme makers are underestimating the intelligence of the viewing public, basing it all on ratings. Just because 12 million people watch a pile of reality TV shit about something or other, that doesn’t mean that’s the only type of programme you make.

“There’s great swathes of people now who don’t watch any British television, because there’s nothing there worth watching.”

Such a damning condemnation of the current state of British television comes just as Dance’s latest television project, ITV’s dramatisation of the 1666 Great Fire of London, makes its television debut this Thursday. The four-part drama was written by ITV’s political correspondent, Tom Bradby, with Dance playing the fictional villain, the King’s ruthless intelligence officer Lord Denton.

Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones
After four years playing Tywin Lannister in the hugely successful American production Game of Thrones, Dance is vocal about what British television needs. Photograph: Damien Elliott/Game of Thrones

Yet, after four years playing the vicious Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy show that has been one of the biggest success stories in television in recent years, the opulent American production has made the 67-year-old lament the days when British television led the creative agenda.

“We used to have this reputation in Britain of having the finest television in the world and it was, for a long time,” said Dance. “America, for a long time, would look at what was going on on this side of the Atlantic, at quality television like Brideshead Revisited and the Jewel in the Crown – well now it’s the other way around.”

The problem, he says, lies in the unwillingness to financially invest in drama and says recent attempts by British television to emulate American hits have come across as nothing more than “an am-dram performance”.

“We are not amateurs so that’s not good enough,” Dance continued, getting increasingly more irate. “And certainly the BBC seem to be more interested in real estate than new drama.”

Indeed, the actor is adamant that if the original plans for Game of Thrones, a show filmed in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, to be a co-production with the BBC had gone ahead, “they would have pulled the plug after two seasons.”

“You know what would have happened, they wouldn’t have spent enough money,” he added. “What I see happening a lot of the time in this country is we spend 100 and try and make it look like a thousand. And a lot of the time, we don’t pull it off. American networks like HBO spend money and they spend it in the right way.”

Dance’s solution is simple. “We have to take risks in British television” he said. “It has to stop playing to the lowest common denominator and patronising people. And I’m certainly not the only actor who thinks British television needs a bit of a kick up the arse.”

The Great Fire
Dance praised the ambition of The Great Fire where parts of the set were burnt to the ground. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/Ecosse Films/ITV

Nonetheless, he saluted the “ambition” of The Great Fire, which saw ITV spend more than £1m on a purpose built set of restoration-era London, only to burn it to to the ground in the filming of the four-part drama.

Despite admitting the prospect of playing yet another villain was “quite tedious”, it was a personal interest in the period of Charles II’s return to the throne and the conspiracy theories that abounded around the events of 1666 that eventually convinced Dance to put aside his dislike for “those dreadful periwigs” and accept the role, alongside Broadchurch star Andrew Buchan and Danny Mays, who plays famous diarist Samuel Pepys. He revelled in the interesting parallels between the state of politics then and now.

Dance said: “I think it’s a great era in history. There had been this sterile period after Charles I’s decapitation, the Cromwellian rather severe and puritanical era whcih was very dull for a lot of people. Then the monarchy was restored and there was this great feeling of optimism. But Charles II just turned out to be this louche party animal who was completely out of touch. It was a bit like, in my mind anyway, the day that Tony Blair swept into power and the piece of grey flannel that had been flying from the national flagpole was pulled down and this big smily, ‘everything’s going to be alright figure took charge’.” Trailing off with a deep laugh, he added: “Little did we know…”

However, his recent years working on Game of Thrones, a show rife with sexually explicit scenes, clearly had an impact on the actor who bemoaned the absence of the illustrious libertine, the Earl of Rochester, from the new drama.

“It’s quite a tame portrayal of Charles II’s court, which was actually quite sordid,” said Dance. “ I’m surprised Rochester doesn’t appear somewhere in there, swanning around, behaving appallingly and quoting vulgar poems. I would have liked it to have been a lot raunchier.”

The Guardian,

$2 million-plus pledged for Oz docs

In a single, extraordinary day more than $2 million in donations was pledged to seven Australian feature-length documentaries on Wednesday. The scale of the financial support stunned the organisers of the first Good Pitch Australia event, which aids social impact documentaries.

Equally surprised were the recipients. “I am speechless,” said producer Marguerite Grey, who is collaborating with director Belinda Mason on Constance on the Edge,which looks at the struggles of a Sudanese refugee, Constance Okot, and her six children in Wagga Wagga. The docu was the biggest single recipient with pledges of more than $500,000 for the production and an initial outreach strategy which includes hosted regional film screenings and education and training resources.

Screen Australia provided $15,000 for research and development in March and in September Screen NSW gave $10,000 for filming a trailer for Good Pitch and for broadcasters to help secure project finance. However the ABC and SBS rejected the producer’s initial requests for investment, stating the project did not suit their programming priorities.

Grey was overwhelmed by the responses to their Good Pitch presentation from the philanthropic foundations, private philanthropists and corporate foundations who were among the audience of 300 at the Opera House.

“Following our seven-minute pitch, Susan Mackinnon from Documentary Australia Foundation, who is executive producer of Constance on the Edge, kicked off the table discussion by announcing philanthropic support of $100,000 had already been pledged. A foundation on our table generously added $25,000 and then someone at a microphone said they represented two donors who had pledged $50,000 – all within a few minutes.

“Then a man stepped up and pledged $200,000 to audible gasps from many in the room including Constance, and it kept going from there. It was as though Susan had struck a match and our funding took off like a grass fire. Many people including other filmmakers made very personal pledges for a range of amounts, $1,000, $20,000, $5,000, with some saying it was because they understood the difficulties of being an Australian with a refugee background. Suddenly our struggle to stay in production had ended and we knew we could make our film.”

Good Pitch is the international documentary forum devised by BRITDOC and Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Good Pitch Australia is an initiative of Shark Island Institute and Documentary Australia Foundation.

More than 150 grants were made by philanthropic foundations and individual donors on the day. Among those who committed their support are NAB, The Fledgling Fund, Australian Women Donor’s Network, GetUp, YMCA, The Funding Network, The Caledonia Foundation, White Ribbon, The Westpac Group, The George Institute for Global Health, Diabetes Australia, Inside Film, Dumbo Feather, Lock The Gate, Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, AIME, the Sydney Film Festival, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Chicago Media Project, Impact Partners, Philanthropy Australia, Pro Bono Australia, Documentary Australia Foundation and the Shark Island Institute.

By Don Groves INSIDEFILM [Fri 10/10/2014]

More Here;


Move over, Morse: female TV detectives are on the case now

From DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect to The Killing’s Sarah Lund and Gillian
Anderson in The Fall, female sleuths have transformed crime drama, creating a richer brand of whodunit

Tough and tender: Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, a show British television changed in 1991, when DCI Jane Tennison (steadying herself outside the door, taking a deep breath, fixing a cool expression on to her face) walked into an incident room filled with a sneering, jeering, sniggering, lewd, matey, loyal band of detectives who were almost all male: a rugby team of lads, incredulous that someone in a skirt was to take charge of a murder investigation, humiliated by having a woman boss. The drama of who killed and mutilated the female victims ran alongside the drama of a woman battling in a man’s world: how could Tennison withstand the hostility and outright bullying of her colleagues and bosses, and at the same time manage her private life? She had to be tougher than the men at work and still soft and tender at home, placating her lover, apologising to him, cooking for him, compartmentalising her world, though of course the boundaries kept crumbling and collapsing. In the lonely spaces in between, she stood in corridors, visibly collecting herself for the next fight; she smoked ravenously. She was her own battleground.

Produced by a woman (Sally Head), written by a woman (Lynda La Plante) and starring a woman (Helen Mirren), Prime Suspect turned the familiar detective show inside out, dismantling the world that had become so familiar on TV, where maverick male detectives were the experts and women usually the victims – the abandoned body, the mutilated object on the floor, legs splayed and throat cut and dead eyes staring up at us, the clue that needed solving. It was an exhilarating spectacle of female assertiveness and protest, and of its bitter personal cost.

Twenty-three years later, the lonely figure of Jane Tennison has been joined by a thickening crowd of other women; an exception has become a trend. Female detective dramas have almost become their own genre. Move over Poirot, Wexford, that helped to redefine TV crime drama.

Morse, Frost, Bergerac et al – for many of whom time barely seems to pass, and whom experience does not scar – to make way for Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson (The Fall, which is returning next month), Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Miller, (Broadchurch, the second series of which is scheduled for 2015), Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones’s DCs Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey (Scott & Bailey, the fourth series of which started last month), Vicky McClure’s DC Kate Fleming (Line of Duty), Sarah Lancashire’s Sgt Catherine Cawood (Happy Valley),Brenda Blethyn’s DCI Vera Stanhope (Vera). And let’s not forget Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund (The Killing) and Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén (The Bridge). Women are solving crimes now; women are exploring our terrors, doubts and anxieties for us. And very terrific and odd women they are.

Brilliance: The Bridge’s Saga Norén, played by Sofia Helin, is among the new wave of For this female cast often bring their own psychodramas into the traditional whodunnit, making it rich and bleak and murkily complicated. They are themselves mysteries; they resist easy solutions and the dynamic momentum of plot, which drives forward in spite of the repeated tugs of red herrings, and gets tangled up in the downward pull of character, in the labyrinths of memory, sadness, anger and guilt.

Fictional detectives are often loners, but being women makes them doubly alone.

Many thrillers are about good and evil, but these thrillers are about being human, flawed and in trouble. They make us care not only about the outcome – the satisfying narrative click is still there, if sometimes a bit muffled – but also about the characters. We identify with them, fear for them, want them to be happy, know they won’t be, want to own their shirts, or jumpers, or coats. For a while they are more real than our reality.

The Killing, which was in the front line of the new female-led detective series, had a plot that was addictive and yet creaked with inconsistencies. It was assembled from hefty building blocks of misdirection. But flowing around these, washing through every crack in the investigation, was the intimate stuff of ordinary life: the slow and terrifying unfolding of grief, the aftermath of horror, the grubby and impressionistic portrait of a city, streets half-seen through car windows, where the rain falls and light doesn’t come and the fog shrouds buildings in strangeness. And at the heart of this was Lund, little and pale and stern, and most wonderfully grumpy. Wearing that genre-redefining female TV detectives

jumper that spawned a thousand copies, chewing that gum, not speaking when expected, making mistakes and never apologising, letting down her boyfriend, letting down her son, behaving terribly, not smiling, not explaining, not agreeing, not listening, not being womanly. Not a good girl at all, but an intractable, unstoppable force.

Gender changes meaning. If Sarah Lund had been Sean Lund, her behaviour wouldn’t be particularly remarkable or taboo-breaking. Not being there for her son, arriving at family occasions late or not at all, being curt: that’s what men with important jobs do all the time. It is easier for them to break the rules, since they made them in the first place; indeed, the rule-breaking, the violence and the hard drinking seem part of what makes them effective detectives. Women’s behaviour, by contrast, is judged against the norm of their male colleagues: it can never be invisible, never taken for granted. And for a woman to behave as a man often does sets up a conflict in the viewer as well – we want her to be like this, but we also don’t because she’s swinging a wrecking ball through her life. Some of the most nerve-racking moments of the series involved not the tracking of the murderer but the moments when Lund’s jaw clenched and we knew she was about to do something that she might not regret but that we partly would. Her demented pluckiness radicalised the plot.

Demented pluckiness … Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in The Killing.

If The Bridge’s Norén had been played by a man, everything would have changed: the moment when she walks up to a stranger in a bar, for instance, asking if he wants sex, would not give us the same frisson of discomfort and delight. A male would not have set us alight as Norén did with her social blindness, her brilliance, her role as truth-teller and, in the end, as the conscience of a drama that investigates the murky world of crime and exposes fault lines in society and in the self.

Happy Valley’s Sergeant Cawood is doubly an outsider, because Cawood is not just a female police officer but a grandmother – not so young any more, or glamorous, but bashed about by life and now on a journey that will take her back into her own past.

This is a series written by a woman, Sally Wainwright, that – through one extraordinary ordinary woman – can examine decades of damage in a family and a community. While it has a dynamic story, it also bores down through the strata of guilt and love and grief and failure. Happy Valley is superbly made and beautifully acted, especially by Lancashire, whose face is etched with a life of sorrow and endurance, and whose character is so encumbered by baggage that the series almost resembles a high-quality misery memoir in uniform, or a female northern gothic (the music in the opening credits is very like the music from the southern gothic detective series Justified). Cawood is the sister of a heroin addict; her daughter was raped, had a child by the rapist, committed suicide, and this in turn broke up Cawood’s marriage. Her ex-husband has remarried but they still sleep together. And this is before episode one has even begun. She has so much on her mind, no wonder she forgets to call for backup when going down into a dark cellar alone. These female detective dramas are a very Protestant genre: people carry burdens they will never shake off; character is an accretion of memory and guilt.

When a male detective spits in the hair of DC Fleming in Line of Duty, it matters that a man is spitting at a woman. It makes it perverse as well as ugly. When DCI Gibson, in The Fall, examines the body of a sexually abused and murdered woman, it makes all the difference that a woman is looking at a woman – that a living woman is touching a dead woman’s body, staring at the wounds, imagining what took place. A woman is hunting a serial rapist of women, and there is an intimacy between the worlds of the living and the dead, a connection.

Fetishised: Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall is subject to The Fall explores notions of femaleness and sexual violence and it does so in a way that is powerfully unsettling and sometimes queasy-making. The camera lingers on its central character: her strongly beautiful profile and the full curve of her lips; her sleek hair, her gorgeous silk shirts (almost as iconic as Lund’s jumper), her shapely calves, the way she looks as she swims, as she undresses. She is itemised, fetishised, turned into a body, watched and assessed. It can feel that the way the serial killer watches his victims is eerily replicated by the way the camera watches Gibson. She complicates this by her own sexual behaviour; aloof, icy, sexually passionate without being warm, she uses men the way that men traditionally use women. She turns them into objects, the way that women are turned into objects by the male gaze or, at the other end of the spectrum, by the rapist.

Gibson, like Tennison or Lund, destabilises the traditional whodunnit. Fictional male detectives in the past have often been robust figures of competence, standing at the some lingering camera work. centre of the plot, from where they make sense of the incomprehensible, turn chaos into order, join up the clues to find the criminal, restore normality. But we no longer have such a belief in authority (the “Evening, all” of Dixon of Dock Green), in disinterested genius or in absolute answers. The world we live in now is more tentative, contingent and compromised; the doctor, the priest and the detective can’t solve everything. The lover won’t come like a knight on a charger to rescue the woman in distress (in fact, it’s better to beware the lover). We have only ourselves to depend on. We are our own redeemers because there is no God, though there is still Freud, and the notion of Manichean good and evil has been replaced by things that are murkier and less comforting. The Fall, or Broadchurch, or Happy Valley or Line of Duty are not neatly resolved; lives have been wrecked and grief cannot be assuaged. It uses the old tropes to make new meanings. There can’t be happy endings any more. Female detectives represent this new kind of reality because they often become implicated in the stories they are trying to make sense of. Women, however defended they are and strong, have a vulnerability about them simply because of their gender.

This porousness of boundaries is at the heart of Broadchurch. Colman’s heart-wrenchingly touching DS Miller seems at first a more traditional female character than her fictional colleagues. For a start, she isn’t in charge but subordinate to David Tennant’s Alec Hardy. Hardy is the brooding, silent, complicated one with the tragic backstory, while Miller seems to have a life of domestic stability, almost a stereotype were it not for the poignancy Colman brings to the role. Miller is happily married and has a son; her manner is practical and motherly. She puts warming mugs of tea into Hardy’s thin, cold hands, comforts people, responds with instinctive kindness to the sorrow of others. But (spoiler alert) it turns out that the horror they are trying to hunt down is inside her own home, her bed, her heart; she’s been lying night after night beside a paedophile and murderer.

Heart-wrenching … Olivia Colman brings poignancy to the role of DS Ellie Miller in For in this female world, the detective is also a victim. The walls between the professional and private worlds collapse and this allows the viewer to identify with the character, as we can never identify with the expert, the invulnerable or the flawless. Few of TV’s female detectives become enduring staples in the way of Morse, Broadchurch. Wexford and the rest – perhaps because the pressure of the women’s interior worlds must always explode outwards. They cannot be the stable centre of a drama lasting years or decades.

Perhaps Scott & Bailey will prove the exception to this rule of loneliness and instability: a complicated and intimate female friendship and working partnership lies at the heart of the show (which was created by women and written, again, by Wainwright) and this friendship is the foundation for its success and staying power.

There might be frictions and rivalries, but the two detectives share secrets and a wry humour, drink pints of beer and glasses of wine together, bring humanity and wit to a world of poverty and gruesome murder. The two of them and their female boss normalise female authority in a way that a woman alone cannot.

Detective novels recently have been full of unreliable narrators. Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep are two of the most interesting examples of the linear form of a whodunnit being derailed by the narrative voice; there have been thrillers told by characters suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, desperately trying to keep the pieces of their world in place and making a coherent picture out of fragments. The slipperiness of memory and the self-deceptions of the mind compromise the notion of an absolute truth. (I write psychological thrillers with my husband, Sean French, under the name of Nicci French: when we chose to have a female psychotherapist, Frieda Klein, as the protagonist of our series, it was because we felt a detective of the mind could more satisfyingly explore contemporary anxieties and because a woman is always in some sense an outsider, who does not and cannot belong to the old world order.) In the same way, many of the new female-detective dramas challenge the familiar realism of the genre – and of course realism is a style like any other, that lays a template over the mess of life and gives the fictional illusion of order and completion. Female detectives tend to bring instability into a story because they are always on the margins, having to negotiate in a man’s world and refreshing a complacent genre with a new self-awareness.

I bought The Fall as a box set (the phrase “binge-watching” has just been added to the Oxford Dictionary), having read reviews that were almost unanimous in their acclaim. But I couldn’t hurtle through it. Halfway into the first savage episode I started to cover my eyes, looking through my fingers and then not looking at all.

Finally, I had to turn it off and for many months couldn’t return to it, because I had been so unnerved and horrified by the level of cruelty towards women. The serial rapist and killer watches his chosen victim, follows her, toys with her, tortures and obliterates her; we do not see her as a subject in her own world, but as an object – the  object he has chosen. These slow, drawn-out scenes are intercut with scenes in which Gibson has sex. And just as the rapist toys with and tortures his victim, so the camera toys with the viewer, giving agonising moments of hope before the final extinction.

The Fall powerfully explores sexual violence and the way in which serial rapists and killers eroticise power and death, but there’s a very fine line between exploring violence and male misogyny and simply portraying, even enacting it. I couldn’t work out if it was feminist or almost pornographic in its visceral depictions of degradation and sexual horror. Perhaps it is both – and perhaps that’s why it is so powerfully disturbing. But I wonder if the series could have got away with its portrayal of the sexual torture of women if it hadn’t had a strong professional woman at its centre.

Did Anderson’s DCI Gibson legitimise the portrayal of sexual horror?

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that thrillers were about making women suffer. In a recent piece in the New Statesman, the actor Doon Mackichan passionately attacks mainstream TV drama and film for feeding the culture that sees violence against women as entertainment. She writes that she will no longer act in any drama with a storyline involving “violence against women”, unless it has a radical feminist agenda.

She is partly echoing what the thriller writer and reviewer Jessica Mann wrote in hernow famous diatribe against sadistic misogyny in contemporary crime fiction, in which “young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive”. And she adds that female writers are as guilty as their male colleagues.

I’m writing as one of those women increasingly troubled by the violence in our genre.

It’s a fine line, a grey area, a slippery slope. In Happy Valley, we see a young woman kidnapped, brutalised, sexually assaulted and drugged in a series of extended sequences across six episodes. We are immersed in a world of suffering. Mackichan wants dramas that do not involve violence against women. But the world is full of misogynist violence and art will always be drawn to areas of darkness and trouble.

Look at fairytales: even little children need a safe way to explore horror and cruelty.

Women do suffer and women are raped, and while it’s a fine line to tread between what is justified and what is gratuitous, at least now there are a great many brilliant, strong, determined, heroic women detectives in fiction – if not yet in fact – who can help them.

Women saving women.

Women saving themselves.

Nicci Gerrard – The Observer, Sunday 5 October 2014