Last week I attended an event sponsored by the RTS. The first hour was for writers to meet with the team behind Sky Atlantic's Fortitude. The second was to watch the final season's opening episode, along with a Q&A.
The writer's session began with an overview of the series. Present were the creater and writer, Simon Donald, the MD of the production company, Patrick Spence, and the Script Producer, Ben Stoll. The show's birth and production, particularly the first season, would be enough to produce its own drama series. Patrick and Simon were honest in reflection.
Simon dreamt up the idea from an initial discovery of reading about a parasite that influences its host's behaviour. This has been something of a popular topic of late with the film The Girl with all the Gifts or The Last of Us. What's unique about this series is it begins as a conventional whodunnit but morphs into more of a horror. The Killing crossed with The Thing.
Series 1 suffered from too many characters, particularly those with their own story arcs. It was originally going to be as many as 44 but finished at 26. They had problems with no snow and had to ship it in. They had actors that said they could speak Norwegian but couldn't.
But the most interesting reflection was in their attempt to use writer's room (WR) format. This was in part an attempt to meet the challenge of completing such a large number of hours under the timeframe imposed. Unfortunatley, it didn't work. The reason given was that British writers are not trained in the WR culture, moving through the levels and apeing the showrunner.
In season 2, they used one other writer which worked well. The third season was cut to 4 episodes, so Simon wrote them all. I'm halfway through season 1. Sky Atlantic wanted a signature show for their 1.8 million subscribers. They certainly got it. It's got some distinct characters but I found it struggled with the ensemble format, despite the time allowed to be with them.
Thinking the ensemble format through, I came up with some thoughts on it. It has proven successful in several genres: comedy, soaps and drama. However, they have tended to be clustered around three unifying elements:
- Same employer
This is something Fortitude doesn't have. But it does have location. Now, location can work as a geling effect. For instance, Emmerdale or Eastenders. These soaps have the benefit of frequency. With binge watching behaviour, Fortitude can also benefit. Allowing people to get to know numerous characters quickly.
It also has a murder that links them all. In the same way as Murder on the Orient Express, even before the reveal. They're all suspects. And like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, with multiple characters all striving to get something, they're all trying to not be involved or caught. I think this golden thread would have been stronger if we'd known more about the victim. We'd have cared more.
This is something I'm tackling with in my tv series. It currently begins with a death of someone loved and it doesn't seem enough to show people being sad or reminiscing. I had resisted making this change but since I'm not going to bring him back in as a voice, I've been persuaded.
My table session was with Patrick Spence. He's MD of Fifty Fathoms. He was frank and succinct in his assessment of what it takes to be a tv writer. Write a half dozen scripts, get an agent and then you'll get some work. He reads 60 scripts a month and watches the first half an hour of all new series. Clearly, someone dedicated to doing great work. He spoke about some of the writers he knows and made some interesting observations about their differences.
I stayed for the episode and Q&A before rushing home with the flu.