COPPER is the first original series made by BBC America (as opposed to those it acquires from the BBC). Premiering Sunday August 19 at 10 PM, COPPER is set in the dangerous Five Points neighborhood of New York in 1864. Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) is a police detective there, who relies on his erstwhile Union Army buddies, wealthy Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) and Dr. Matthew Freeman (Eto Essandoh), as well as fellow detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), in solving crimes.
The series is executive-produced by Barry Levinson and co-creator Tom Fontana, who previously collaborated on the long-running and acclaimed series HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS and OZ. Levinson is also a prolific writer, producer and director of feature films. He won the 1988 Best Director Oscar for RAIN MAN. Other notable feature credits include DINER, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM and BUGSY, and he’s currently one of the executive producers on Showtime’s THE BORGIAS, which is preparing to go into its third season.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, Levinson takes some time to talk about his newest TV venture.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did you particularly want to make another TV series right now, or was COPPER such an attractive project that it drew you in?
BARRY LEVINSON: We [Levinson’s production company] have various things over the years that we’ve done. I mean, I did [the telefilm YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, about Jack Kevorkian] for HBO. So I just go where we can develop certain projects. Whether it be television or features, I don’t think it makes any difference. I think you just go where you can tell a good story.
AX: Is there any difference in creating the first scripted piece for BBC America and for either a broadcast network or a cable network more established in doing original dramatic content?
LEVINSON: Well, I think what’s fascinating in this regard was that here is the BBC [BBC America’s British parent], excited to do a piece about America and its history, where [American] networks would be much more reluctant to go down that road. So the idea that what we might consider this foreign company is fascinated by this story of what America was at that time and the upheaval of it all and the characters that can be played out and a lot of the subject matter that was going on in terms of moving toward the end of the Civil War. So it has been a very fun road to go down, that you can explore all these things that explain where we are today and where we were – you see where we have some of the problems today that still exist. It’s an interesting world and [there is] enormous support from the BBC.
AX: How involved are you on a daily basis with COPPER’s production?
LEVINSON: In the beginning, more so, especially in the first three, four episodes, to get it on its feet, [so that] everybody knows what’s going on, everybody’s up to speed for what takes place. And then at that point, the various directors, the actors now know where they are, and then I spend more time in the post-production side of it, dealing with how we’re going to deal with music, what kind of music and the evolution of that.
AX: In addition to your executive producer duties, do you do any writing or directing on COPPER?
LEVINSON: No, I don’t do any of the writing and directing. Tom [Fontana] and our writers handle [creating the scripts]. And I could not direct because of the show being done in Canada with tax incentives – I wasn’t allowed to. So I would just be there, working with the directors and talking about things, until, as I say, three, four episodes in is when those directors really knew the ins and outs of it all.
AX: Do you see any thematic similarities with any of your previous works, particularly HOMICIDE?
LEVINSON: I never really look to find any comparisons or similarities. I don’t spend the time on that. I just go where we’ve got good characters and interesting story. And I love the setting of it, because I think it really speaks to where we are in many ways. All of those issues keep coming up in a modern way today, and we haven’t gotten past it all, but you see where we are, where we are and where we were.
AX: Is the historical aspect what you like best about COPPER?
LEVINSON: I’m very intrigued by that, yeah. I think it’s really fascinating in how it plays out. But the big thing with any kind of historical piece is not to become where you feel like everybody is posing and it’s sort of “important.” What you want to say is, look, those people were flesh and blood and alive and crude and dignified and everything that exists in life. They weren’t cardboard cutouts of the past. So you try to do it with a robustness and flesh and blood characters.
[The period] is explored throughout the episodes in terms of how the police functioned back then. That’s part of the interest of it all. There’s a little thing that [comes up in a later episode] in terms of forensics, which didn’t really exist then, trying to decide whether this person had been involved in a murder, and they were testing blood. And there’s a different smell between human blood and animal blood. I said to Tom, “Where did you find that?” And he said, “Well, I found this pamphlet from 1858 from some doctor who did some tests.” So it existed. And I thought, well, that’s really fascinating to an audience. You [think], here they go, stumbling in the dark way back when, and they were beginning to understand that which would apply to police procedural work. And I think some of that is fun within the context of our storytelling and the world that we are involved in.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that you can talk about at this time?
LEVINSON: I have a thing that I [directed] called THE BAY, which Lionsgate releases in early November, which is an ecological suspense thriller that I did really very inexpensively, shot it all with very low-end digital cameras. It’s really an unusual piece, sort of frightening, deals with a lot of ecological issues that go on at the same time. We’re not so beholden to that, but it’s a lot of real science that creates a fairly frightening feature.
AX Are there any similarities to SPHERE, the underwater science-fiction film you did based on Michael Crichton’s book?
LEVINSON: No, that’s very different. Originally, I was approached about doing a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, which is forty percent dead. I find it fascinating that nobody seems to care that it’s forty percent dead. There were a couple of terrific documentaries about it, [but] everybody goes on [without cleaning up the bay]. And I said, “No, I don’t want to do it.” But I thinking about it, I thought, “Well, I can take all of that science and put it into a theatrical piece like it’s a documentary and it could really unnerve you, good suspense, frightening, and yet it’s got ninety percent science behind it all.” So that’s what intrigued me about that [project].
AX: Anything else you would particularly like people to know about COPPER at present?
LEVINSON: Let people tune in and see for themselves.
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Article:Exclusive Interview with COPPER executive producer Barry Levinson