Billie Piper in PENNY DREADFUL - Season 1 | ©2014 Showtime

Billie Piper in PENNY DREADFUL - Season 1 | ©2014 Showtime

Put together Victorian England in 1891, add an expatriate American sharpshooter (Josh Hartnett) attached to a traveling Wild West show, an ambitious spiritualist (Eva Green), a monster hunter (Timothy Dalton) and Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and assorted other supernatural entities, make it very scary and sexy, and you’ve got Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL, which premieres its eight-episode first season Sunday, May 11 at 10 PM.

PENNY DREADFUL is the first television series created by the prolific John Logan, who won a Tony Award for his stage play RED. His screenplays for GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR and HUGO were nominated for Oscars; other movie credits include ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, STAR TREK: NEMESIS and the James Bond film SKYFALL.

Logan participates in Showtime’s Q&A panel for PENNY DREADFUL and the Television Critics Association, then remains afterward for follow-up discussion.

ASSIGNMENT X: What can you tell us about the genesis of PENNY DREADFUL?

JOHN LOGAN: Well, we don’t want to give too much away. I had no interest in writing a horror piece originally, but I grew up loving monsters. I’m just a total monster geek. When I was a kid, I had the Aurora monster model [kits] and I would make them. And I loved the Universal horror movies and the Hammer movies and I just had an affinity for them. But about ten years ago, I was reading a lot of romantic poetry … it started with Wordsworth and it led me to Mary Shelley and I read FRANKENSTEIN again. And I was just very provoked by it. I was very disturbed by it, because it’s a deeply disturbing, human book. And I started thinking about the themes and why, almost two hundred years after it was written, are we still reading FRANKENSTEIN? I think it’s because the monsters break my heart. Personally speaking, growing up as a gay man before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was like to feel different, to feel alienated, to feel not like everyone else. But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was. So I was really just thinking about that theme. And gradually I remembered the old Universal horror movies of the Forties, where all of a sudden they would start mixing and matching the Wolfman with Dracula, with Frankenstein. And I thought, “I wonder if there’s a way to do that now and to take the characters seriously?” And that’s how it all began.

AX: Are you trying to make PENNY DREADFUL different from the various versions of FRANKSTEIN, DRACULA, et al that have come before?

LOGAN: Well, I’m not actually concerned with it being different; I’m concerned with it being uniquely itself, and if that’s like other things or not like other things, that’s all well and good. People have been having sort of mixing and melding these characters – fictional characters, historical characters – for a long time. And starting from the second generation of Universal horror movies where, as I said, you went from Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman to suddenly bringing them all together, from that comes a sort of frisson, a sort of excitement of building things. The important thing for me is, the core of the story is a completely fictional story about two characters [Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler and Green’s Vanessa Ives]. And I think part of the fun of the series is how we weave in the myths of the Dracula origin story, or Frankenstein or Dorian Gray or any of the other creatures that may be coming in later seasons. For any TV series or any story, you’re starting from a blank canvas and you have to educate the audience for how you’re telling this particular story. And it involves elements that are very familiar to some people, from FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA or DORIAN GRAY, and some that are completely I hope are unique.

AX: Have you invented any new creatures or entities for this?

LOGAN: Oh, yes, yes, yes. There’s a great deal of invention and a great deal of what I like to call “divergence from the sacred texts,” if you will. Some purists might be shocked every now and then. But that’s sort of the fun of it.

AX: How did you come to cast Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler?

LOGAN: Because Josh, to me, is an incredibly focused actor. He’s very intense. And quite honestly, he’s got great eyes. You can see things in his eyes, and all the characters in PENNY DREADFUL – they’re angels and they’re devils, they’re monsters and they’re saints, all mixed together. And Josh allows such compassion and such intensity to come through his eyes, and Ethan Chandler is a handsome American. He is a hero, in a way. And Josh just brings that walking into a room.

AX: Who are some of the other actors and characters?

LOGAN: In broad strokes, the big four are Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler, who Eva and Josh play. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, who is an African explorer based on Sir Richard Burton and Stanley Baker and some of the other [real-life] explorers. Harry Treadaway plays Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who is probably the most like the character in the book. Reeve Carney plays Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s great novel. Billie Piper plays a woman named Brona Croft, a fictional creation, a good Belfast girl like [those from] my family who gets embroiled with Ethan’s character and some other characters. Danny Sapani plays Sembene, who is sort of an ally of Sir Malcolm’s from his African exploring days, and that’s the general ensemble.

AX: Who are some of your key design staff?

LOGAN: I could go on for an hour about the people involved. I’ve never done TV before and this is very new to me, and Josh and Eva have been very patient with my learning curse. The only thing I’ve discovered is, I wrote the first eight hours and other people make it come to life. Gabriela Pescucci does the costumes, Nick Dudman [designs the] prosthetics makeup, Jonathan McKinstry, [set decorator] Philip Murphy – all the department heads are sort of embracing something new, because this is our first season. I hope every one of them has the same sense of authorship I have. Certainly when we talk about the characters, the characters have evolved just in our discussions about them.

We’ve had some dinners where we talked about where these characters can go. So I would sit with Eva and Josh and say, “Okay, tell me about Vanessa Ives. Tell me about where you think she might go. And we talked a lot about Ethan’s back story, where we could go with the character. And because it’s our first year, we’re sort of paralleling what the characters are doing, which is like they are building a family, and we’re building a family with all the other actors, designers and people working the crew. So far, a happy family.

AX: How much research did you do in order to write PENNY DREADFUL?

LOGAN: After a while, you just reach what I call critical mass. Which is, you have to take the time to do the research, and you have to allow it to take its own time. Researching PENNY DREADFUL was not only researching 1891London, it was researching all the characters, all the versions, all the mythology, all this occultism, putting it all together, and it was endless research and all of that. But for me, I’ve been doing it long enough that I just reach a point where I say, “Okay, I know it. I know the research and I can forget about it and just concentrate on the drama.” Because it’s very important to have the research and just put it beside you.

AX: The story is set in London, but you’re actually shooting in Dublin …

LOGAN: Well, a little bit of both. We ended up in Dublin, because we got much better Victorian London than we did in London, and the logistics of filming in Dublin are much more friendly to the fast pace of a TV show. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in the fact that I live down the street from where Oscar Wilde lived in the town where Bram Stoker wrote DRACULA. So I think the ghosts sort of linger.

AX: Are you headquartered at Ardmore Studios outside Dublin, or in Dublin itself?

LOGAN: It’s in Ardmore. But we do a lot of location in all of it, with the mountains, with central Dublin, all over. The little PENNY DREADFUL trucks go hither and yon in Dublin town.

AX: Are there any parts of Dublin that haven’t worked?

LOGAN: I thought we would use the River Liffey for theThames more than we have been able to. But other than that …

AX: At what point did the “penny dreadful” element come into it?

LOGAN: No, it was a title that just came to me. Because I knew of course what penny dreadfuls were [thriller and horror fiction of the Victorian era] and I just thought it was an arresting title and I just thought there was a sort of synergy to the idea that this thing that brought gothic literature into people’s homes is in fact what we’re doing with the show.

AX: Can you talk about the difference between working on a TV series and working on a feature film script?

LOGAN: Well, the form is very different, but my job is the same. Every morning I wake up, whether it’s to work on Bond or PENNY DREADFUL or a musical or play, which is write the best and most honest story I can, appropriate to what that form is. So I guess when I go into PENNY DREADFUL, I know I have the luxury of time ahead of me, so that the storytelling rhythms are appropriate to an hour, and then to eight hours and hopefully to many seasons, whereas in a play or a movie, you kind of know what your boundaries are. So it’s a little more existential, in that I know how far I can go within this box, so I want to fill it completely, but with television, there’s no end to the box, and so we keep going. So that was a very interesting thing to explore.

AX: Are you concerned at all about crafting a scare?

LOGAN: Yes. It’s a unique art form. Like any of the technical things, like how do you craft an action sequence, how do you craft a love scene, how do you do a sex scene, how do you do a scare – they’re all different animals, they’re all in different cages in the zoo, and you have to approach them differently. The advantage I have is I spent so long developing the first two episodes with [director] Juan Bayona, who’s brilliant about the understanding of building suspense, when you [provide] an audience with a jolt or a scare or something provocative, and I learned a lot from Juan about the methodology of it. Plus a lifetime of watching Hitchcock, a lifetime of loving horror movies. I think it’s sort of ingrained now. It’s very hard to do.

AX: What are his views on building a scare?

LOGAN: His raison d’etre, his cri de Coeur, was that, to be frightening, it has to be true. So you take the time to make it true. You make sure the audience knows who the people are, what they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it. You don’t just go for the cheap scare effect, because that gets into territory that we’re not interested in doing. So the aspiration is to do the best possible version of that.

AX: Does having been so much immersed in the Bond film in the U.K. been any help in absorbing Victorian England?

LOGAN: Yeah. My last four movies actually shot in London, and my plays all premiere there, so I’m deeply at home in London. Other than here, it’s my home. So I’m deeply aware of it. Certainly, shooting SKYFALL there, every second in London informs PENNY DREADFUL, so it was very helpful. Also walking around the actual streets – walking the Thames or the East End or walking across one of theThamesRiver bridges – it’s all part of a mood, it’s still all palpably there. Even all these years later, you can still see the Victorian era.

AX: Do you have any other projects going on we should know about?

LOGAN: Well, I’m working on the new Bond and I have my first musical going into production. It’s called THE LAST SHIP. Sting wrote the music and lyrics and we open out of town inChicago and hopefully coming to Broadway in October.

AX: Some shows like AMERICAN HORROR STORY and TRUE DETECTIVE are conceived as anthology series, where each season is a closed-ended story, but it sounds like PENNY DREADFUL will be one ongoing arc …

LOGAN: Yes. I mean, it’s up to the good graces of Showtime. I love novels, but I’m not a novelist. I’m just a dramatist, which means I write lines for actors. That’s all I have ever wanted to do. That’s all I ever want to do. But something about the luxury of time and the nuance you can bring to characters over time [in a television series] has been very exciting to explore, so I’ve envisioned well into the future for many, many years. I’ve imagined where these characters are going to go, but I’m also discovering it with the actors.

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Article: Interview with PENNY DREADFUL creator John Logan

 

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