Why The Five can compete with US big hitters

Sky 1 is soon to air The Five, an ambitious 10-part thriller based on an original script by novelist Harlan Coben. Produced by Red Production Company, it tells the story of four friends haunted by the disappearance of a five-year-old child, twenty years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder. Here we go behind the scenes with Red founder Nicola Shindler.
 

The Five cast


StudioCanal-owned Red Production Company is one of the best drama producers in the business. From Queer As Folk to Danny and the Human Zoo, Happy Valley to Last Tango In Halifax, its output is virtually unparalleled among UK indies.

That said, its latest production – The Five – is a new departure for the company, says Red founder and executive producer Nicola Shindler.

“For a start, it is 10 episodes, which is longer than anything we’ve ever done before,” she says. “And it is also stylistically different. When we went in to see Sky, they said they wanted us to make something really compelling…that would be like reading a great novel, the kind of story that would keep you up all night.”

If you want a TV show that resonates like a novel then who better to approach for an idea than a novelist? “We didn’t want to adapt a novel for the screen,” stresses Shindler, “but we did draw up a list of novelists that we wanted to talk to about the possibility of coming up with an original idea. Top of our list was Harlan Coben, a writer we all loved. So I contacted him and he was back in touch within the hour. He suggested an idea straight away that we really liked – and that became The Five.”
 

Harlan CobenHarlan Coben 

Shindler says Coben is “an exceptional guy” who transitioned from novel to TV effortlessly. “He learned quicker than I expected. Throughout the process he was totally involved in everything from casting and scripts to the music and editing.”

Having said all that, it would have been a big risk to allow a screenwriting novice loose on such a big project – even if that novice has sold more than 60 million books worldwide and regularly appears at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. So Shindler brought in Danny Brocklehurst (Clocking Off, Shameless, Ordinary Lies and more) to work alongside Coben.

“I’ve worked with Danny a lot so I knew he could tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “The initial challenge was that Harlan and Danny had both only ever worked alone before The Five. But I thought they’d be a good fit and that proved to be the case. They were both intrigued by the collaborative process.”

In terms of approach, Brocklehurst wrote the scripts based on Coben’s idea and story, “but Harlan never stepped back from the process,” says Shindler. “What helped a lot was that he told us how The Five’s story ended during our first conversation. Then, as the script development progressed, we’d contact him and say ‘we need more action here’ or ‘something more visual there’ and he’d come up with great ideas immediately.”

The other key player in developing The Five, says Shindler, was director Mark Tonderai, whose previous credits include the 2012 psycho thriller House at the End of the Street and TV series 12 Monkeys. “Mark has a beautiful cinematic eye and a great thriller sensibility. He found so many ways to visually enhance the story without it ever being style over content.”

Tonderai was keen to direct all ten episodes of the show, a commitment that is still quite rare in the TV business. “A few shows have moved that way,” says Shindler, “such as BBC drama The Missing (directed by Tom Shankland). It’s challenging because it is very exhausting for directors to work 15 hours a day and then prep the next episode. But the benefit is that you get a single creative vision across the series. Sometimes, as a producer, you can be a bit anxious when a second director comes in who has a different approach. And actors love the fact they are only getting one set of notes.”
 

The Five
 

In terms of making it work without turning Tonderai into a physical wreck, Shindler said the production was set up with a longer prep time between each filming block (which typically included two or three episodes). In terms of his approach to the job, she recalls how he would take extra shots during each filming block in case they might be of use at a later stage of the story.

The shoot itself took place from January to October 2015 around Liverpool and The Wirral. During the shoot, Red rented 4,000sq ft of space at the Liverpool Innovation Park for use as a production office. Out on location, the production team was spotted at Albert Dock, Hope Street in the city centre and the Cunard Building, which doubled up as a police station. 

Liverpool’s Film Office manager, Lynn Saunders, said: “It was a huge coup for the city to be selected as the main filming location for what is set to be one of Sky One’s flagship dramas.

“We had fantastic feedback from the production team regarding their Liverpool experience, with the choice of locations and the fact there was a dedicated Film Office on hand to help them out when needed really standing out for them.

“It has been a great boost to our local economy and we look forward to seeing the finished product on our screens in the next couple of weeks.”

 

Liverpool


A lot of Red’s production work takes place in locations that are easy to reach from its HQ at MediaCityUK in Salford, Manchester. But The Five is not intended to have any overt northern England connections. “It’s very much its own animal,” says Shindler. “The story is set in a fictional UK town with a cast that doesn’t have any particular connection with the North. We could have taken this anywhere but Mark [Tonderai] came over from the US and found everything he wanted locally. Liverpool gave us so many options because it has fantastic period and modern architecture. We used a wonderful house (called WestMorland) that had been on the factual TV series Grand Designs.”

In terms of the pacing of the show, Shindler says 10 episodes required “extra plotting in the middle compared to the shorter runs we’re used to. One story didn’t suffice. The advantage, however, was that we were able to spend more time exploring the four central characters and the way they had been affected by the loss of the child. In their own ways, all four of them had taken on jobs that were the result of their guilt (doctor, lawyer, police officer, homeless accommodation manager). Their guilt had also made it difficult for them to form relationships.”

As for the look of the show, it is a long way from the gritty and grounded approach that Red takes with shows like Happy Valley. “Being part of StudioCanal and working for Sky, we’re aiming to do more dramas that compete with the US imports. So The Five has more of a big budget glossy sheen to it.”

In practice, this meant “more equipment, more time spent on stunts, lots of cranes, more extras, more set dressing”. The cinematographer on the series was Tico Poulakakis, whose previous production credits also include 12 Monkeys, while the camera equipment was provided by Panavision Europe. Says Shindler: “The series was shot in widescreen, which makes it look fantastic. I think that will make a big impact on the audience.”

Liverpool

Shindler didn’t want The Five to look like any other British drama, which explains the choice of director, cinematographer and production designer (Lisa Soper, who worked with Tonderai on House At The End Of The Street). However, one area where Red did favour continuity was editing. Here, the work was led by Paulo Pandolpho (Banana, Cucumber) and Celia Haining (Hit and Miss).

Another area where Red turned to a proven partner was in the choice of Dean Forster as stunt co-ordinator. Among Forster’s many film and TV credits are Red productions such as Scott & Bailey and Last Tango In Halifax.

Explaining the emphasis on creating the TV equivalent of a compulsive page-turner, Shindler says it is partly down to the hyper-competitive nature of the scripted TV market. With so many shows vying for attention, one of the producer’s biggest challenges is persuading people to keep coming back. “I know from my own viewing I don’t always stick with a show, even if it is well-produced. But if there is a compelling hook it can be enough to persuade me to give the next episode a chance.”

Also important, she says, was creating a show that fit the growing trend towards binge viewing – with audiences increasingly likely to watch several episodes of a show back to back. Shindler hints that Sky 1 is going to do something interesting with the scheduling of the show.

This may suggest it is going to replicate SVOD platforms and US cable channels, which have been releasing all episodes or batches of episodes in one go. Or it may mean that the channel is going to run the first few episodes on consecutive nights to build and sustain viewer interest. But Shindler won’t be drawn on details – so you’ll just have to wait until Sky is ready to reveal all.

Picture courtesy of Red Production Company. Featuring actors Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani who star in the series’ four key roles.

 



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