AMC’s new series LOW WINTER SUN, Sundays at 10 PM, is based on the 2006 British miniseries of the same name.Detroit homicide detective Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, reprising his role from the original, which took place in Scotland) is persuaded by fellow detective Joe Geddes (Lennie James) to help Joe murder his corrupt partner and make it look like a suicide. However, things start to unravel quickly. First, there’s a body in the trunk of the dead partner’s car, second, it turns out that Joe and the deceased are both under investigation by Internal Affairs, and third, Frank is assigned to investigate the murders.
Chris Mundy, an American, is show runner and one of the executive producers for AMC’s LOW WINTER SUN. During the Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton hotel, he sits down to discuss his serialized crime thriller.
ASSIGNMENT X: What does the title LOW WINTER SUN mean?
CHRIS MUNDY: I didn’t title it, Simon Donald who did the original did, and I love the title, but I get zero credit for it. Te way I had it explained, or at least the explanation I like, is that there are times of the year in the winter when the sun is so low in the sky that it’s blinding and you can’t find your way forward. And I figure this has a lot of characters that are just muddling forward really kind of blindly through a series of lousy decisions.
AX: You were recently on another AMC series HELL ON WHEELS, which changed show runners this season. Did you leave HELL ON WHEELS for LOW WINTER SUN, or did you leave as part of the regime change?
MUNDY: I left because of this. I had already written this when I went to HELL ON WHEELS. So I was in this position of waiting to see if they were going to pick up the pilot, but also needing and wanting to work. And luckily, at the time, they were looking for somebody else to come on HELL ON WHEELS, and it was the same network and same studio. I met with all the folks involved and we all kind of clicked, so it was a perfect job in the interim while I was waiting on LOW WINTER SUN.
AX: Before WHEELS, you were a writer/executive producer on CRIMINAL MINDS. That also concerns law enforcement and murder, but it’s a very different style. Did any of your work on that inform anything on LOW WINTER SUN, or would you say they’re sort of two different genres within the genre?
MUNDY: They’re sort of two different genres within the genre. On a practical level, it helped me learn how to run a large operation and what works and what doesn’t. That was really instructive. And then I think the thing we did really well on CRIMINAL MINDS, especially starting from Season 2 on, is any time we thought there was a model of what the show could be, we would break it, just to make sure we didn’t get stuck in a rut of having the exact same thing. And so even though this is a different genre, reminding yourself that you don’t want to just repeat something episode to episode just the way scenes play and structurally, it was really helpful in that way.
AX: How closed-ended is this first season of LOW WINTER SUN?
MUNDY: I want all of the questions of this season answered. I feel like that’s a really important thing. We’re making a promise to folks at the beginning and we want to make sure we don’t break it.
AX: Your leading man Mark Strong was also the star of the original British LOW WINTER SUN. Did you request him, were you told he was interested …?
MUNDY: I was told he was interested, and honestly, I’m the dummy that at first was sort of nervous about it, because my initial reaction was, “Oh, wow, I would love to work with Mark Strong. Obviously, we can’t have him do this because he’s done it, but God, I would love to work with him sometime.” And then I wised up a little bit and started realizing [the original was three] episodes – it’s not like a character he played for five years. And then I had a conversation with him. I asked him if he was worried [about playing Frank again], and he said, “I don’t really see them as the same person. Obviously, they would both look like me and I think they’d share a core dignity, but besides that, their life experiences to this point were completely different and the makeup of the cities are completely different and the reasons they’re doing the job would be completely different.” And so he was immediately able to differentiate the two, which helped me imagine it a lot better. We were talking about that and we were talking about these other people and possibly other people doing it. They were all really talented people, and I just kept thinking, “Well, but Mark is so good and it would be crazy not to take an opportunity to work with him.” So thank God I didn’t blow it.
AX: Lennie James is another English actor playing a Detroit native for you …
MUNDY: It was really funny. When I first saw Lennie read, I didn’t know he was British, because he read on tape, he didn’t come in. And then I realized after the fact, “Oh, wait, that’s the guy that just did LINE OF DUTY,” the British series that he had done that he was just brilliant in. So no, it never bothered me at all, I never thought twice about it.
AX: Now, does race play a part in the story, or was Joe Geddes written to be played by anybody?
MUNDY: He was always written to be black. And race plays a part – you can’t do a show set inDetroit without race being a factor. It’s a city that’s eighty-five percent African-American, it’s a police force that’s fifty, sixty percent African-American. So there’s no gigantic global political point we’re trying to make, it just is what it is. The makeup of that precinct would be a mixture of white and black and Middle Eastern, because there’s a huge Muslim population in Detroit, the largest in the country. So it would be irresponsible of us to not have that be, and there’s a feeling of that that pervades so much of that city, but we’re not making a speech, we’re just letting these people walk around in the world.
AX: What appeals to you about the story of LOW WINTER SUN?
MUNDY: I think what’s interesting is, because you see them do this terrible thing right at the beginning, there’s a built-in tension to everything that happens afterwards. And for us, if you start to think about it, it’s like, “Okay, Frank just killed someone because of his connection to this woman, but he doesn’t even know this woman particularly well at this point. We need to get to the heart of that emotionally. How did that happen? He’s a really good cop, he’s done this thing, how did he get talked into it?” We tried to dig into that reality really quickly. For us, it’s in the midst of this hopefully exciting ride, it’s really emotionally trying to get to the core of asking a lot of questions for him. It’s like, “How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why am I staying in this place? Why am I putting my life on the line for this place?” So we’re really trying to dig into that emotional heart at the same time all these fast and furious kinds of things are happening.
AX: Is part of what’s going on over the first season’s ten episodes unraveling the mystery of how Frank got to the point where we meet him at the beginning of the series?
MUNDY: There’s a quick flashback in the pilot, and there’s a flashback in Episode Three, and then there are no more flashbacks. You have to figure things out in real time. One thing I really loved about the original and which I thought is so good is, it just starts and you’re in the middle of it. I really like that feeling that you’re sort of always off-balance, and so we’re trusting that the viewers are smart enough and savvy enough to really catch up to all this stuff and to feel like they’re living in real time in figuring it out, so we don’t have to explain a whole lot, because I think the people who watch are hopefully going to get it.
AX: Did you choose Detroit as a setting, or did AMC want to make the show there?
MUNDY: No, I chose Detroit. I think we talked about it pretty early on, when I was talking to AMC, because I wanted a city that reflected the same sort of dilemmas that the characters have, which is looking for some sort of second chance, or what they’re willing to do, and I wanted the backdrop to resonate, and it was pretty quickly the choice.
AX: Did you have much experience of Detroit before doing LOW WINTER SUN?
MUNDY: No. I spent a bunch of time there before I wrote it, but that was really doing research on it. I had a perception as an outsider, and then that perception changed as I got there and was lucky enough to have a bunch of people show me the ins and outs of it. But my knowledge of it continues to grow.
AX: ABC shot their police drama DETROIT 1-8-7 there not too long ago. Was any of that production infrastructure still there for you to use?
MUNDY: Some. David Zabel, who ran DETROIT 1-8-7, is somebody I know pretty well who’s been really helpful and nice. When I was first going to do research, he was somebody I called and talked to and he introduced me to a few people. And then there’s a decent film community there, because they do a lot of shooting, so there are a couple people on our crew that were on [DETROIT 1-8-7]. They’re filming TRANSFORMERS there now, Ryan Gosling just directed a movie there, so there are always a few things going at once. But the 1-8-7 folks have been helpful and we overlapped with them on some folks.
AX: Do you have a special fondness for the crime genre? HELL ON WHEELS isn’t exactly crime genre, but it has a lot of people shooting at each other.
MUNDY: Honestly, I’ve done a lot of different stuff, and I come out of journalism –
I wrote for the Rolling Stone for eleven years. And then I accidentally started doing this, and now I’ve done this for longer than that. Obviously, heightened drama, there’s built-in life or death stakes all the time, and there’s a natural reason why we’re drawn to that. And there are extremes you can get to in terms of human behavior that are suited for that. So I think that’s why people have traditionally really liked it. It’s certainly why I like it, it’s certainly why it’s fun to write at times. But the thing I wrote before I was working with AMC, I wrote a script about a college basketball program under investigation. That’s why I started talking to AMC in the first place. So I think there are all sorts of things you can write.
I think the more moral ambiguity you can get to, the more interesting things are, the more realistic it is, and also the more subtext you bring to all of the scenes. There are so many people lying to each other in big ways and small ways over the course of this season of this show, and we’ll sit with the writers and watch the cuts and be like, “Okay, we’ve got to be – he or she needs to be a better liar in that scene” [laughs]. There are so many levels of deception, and those scenes are so much fun to write.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on we should know about?
MUNDY: No. We’ll do post[-production] and all of that. I finished a novel a short time ago, called BLOWING UP THE FREEDOM TRAIN. I’m still working on getting it out. I might try to start another book or I might write a movie. I don’t even know. But this is everything right now.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about LOW WINTER SUN?
MUNDY: I’m sure you talk to a lot of people [who say that they] become little families on these shows, and it probably sometimes seems sincere and sometimes it’s insincere, but [LOW WINTER SUN has] been the nicest, closest group of people, from the actors to the writers to the producers to our production designer Ruth [Ammon], to our d.p. Patrick [Murguia], who’s just brilliant. It’s been the closest-knit group of people doing one thing that I’ve ever gotten to be around. It’s been the way I always imagined it could be sometimes, so it’s been great.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with LOW WINTER SUN executive producer Chris Mundy