Alex Rider is the name of the hero of writer Anthony Horowitz’s phenomenally successful YA book series, which has sold a combined total of over twenty million copies all over the world.
ALEX RIDER is also the title of the new series about the character, currently streaming its first season, and renewed for a second, on Amazon and IMDBtv. Otto Farrant plays Alex, a normal London adolescent being raised by his Uncle Ian (Andrew Buchan). When Ian is murdered, Alex discovers to his shock that his relative wasn’t a banker, but rather a secret agent. The clandestine British government group that employed Ian presses Alex to go undercover for them, and soon he becomes a spy himself.
Season 1 of ALEX RIDER is primarily based on the second book in the series, POINT BLANC, with teleplays by Guy Burt. Alex is sent to impersonate a wealthy, dissolute youth in order to infiltrate the mysterious, isolated private school of the title. Students have been graduating with alarming differences from when they were first sent there by fed-up parents.
Horowitz, a Londoner himself, has a succession of hits in both literature and television. He has bestsellers for adults in the MAGPIE MURDERS and THE WORD IS MURDER series of books, along with his James Bond novels (sanctioned by the Ian Fleming estate) and Sherlock Holmes creations. Horowitz’s television creations include the much-lauded FOYLE’S WAR and COLLISION. He got his TV writing start on the third season of ROBIN OF SHERWOOD. Horowitz, an executive producer on ALEX RIDER, is married to fellow EP Jill Green, who is the head of Eleventh Hour Films.
Over two exclusive interviews, one a sit-down at the Content LA event in Los Angeles and one an overseas phone call, Horowitz discusses the ALEX RIDER series.
ASSIGNMENT X: There had been a feature film adaptation, 2006’s STORMBREAKER, of your first Alex Rider book, for which you wrote the screenplay. Do you feel that ALEX RIDER is better suited to adaptation as a TV series than as a film?
ANTHONY HOROWITZ: In the present climate, almost certainly yes, because nowadays, most of the intelligent movies are being made for television, and I don’t think it would be very easy to compete with the vast budgets and scope of, for example, the Marvel action films. Added to which, having eight hours in which to tell our story allows us to look much more deeply at Alex and his world, and to do more things.
AX: Do you feel that it gives it more time to have the flavor of the book? That is, you can use anything as a template, but if you rush it too much, it doesn’t resemble the original.
HOROWITZ: Funnily enough, it’s the other way round, actually. POINT BLANC, the second of the ALEX RIDER books, is quite a short book, and because it’s one of the earlier ones, it’s more YA, it’s slightly more juvenile. As the books continued, they got darker, and Alex became more mature, and all the things that happened to him obviously changed him and made him a deeper and a more thinking sort of person. Because we had eight hours to tell this story, we had to look at all the other characters in it – Blunt [played by Stephen Dillane], the head of MI-6, Mrs. Jones [played by Vicky McClure], his Number Two, Jack [played by Ronke Adekoluejo], the housekeeper who looks after Alex, Ian Rider, the uncle who is killed, and even Yassin Gregorovich [Thomas Levin], the assassin. All these characters had to be given greater weight, and greater thought, and given more stories of their own. So, in a way, that made it different from the book. Instead of extending the action of the chasing or the shooting, we extended the emotion and the humanity and the thinking.
AX: Is the first season of ALEX RIDER a fairly straightforward adaptation of POINT BLANC, or is it more of an amalgamation?
HOROWITZ: It has elements of STORMBREAKER in it, because we did have to explain the origin of Alex, and how and why he became a spy, the death of his uncle, and his realization that he’s been lied to all his life. So that is built into certainly the first two episodes, but throughout the show. That’s a big part of it. But other than that, I think what Guy Burt, the writer, has done very well, is to expand POINT BLANC, and to make differences, whilst remaining very true to the spirit and to the story of the book.
AX: Why did you decide to hire a writer not yourself to do it?
HOROWITZ: For two reasons. The first was that I was working on NIGHT SHADE at the same time as the television show was being developed, and I couldn’t possibly write a double dose of Alex at the same time, NIGHT SHADE being the thirteenth novel, incidentally. And secondly, following after my experiences with STORMBREAKER, I really thought that a fresh pair of eyes would be a good idea. I won’t say that I had got STORMBREAKER wrong, because I think there was a lot that was right in STORMBREAKER, but it seemed to me that, fifteen years later than that, a new approach was necessary, and therefore, going to a new writer was a sensible idea.
AX: Why did you decide to do ALEX RIDER as a TV series at this time?
HOROWITZ: I didn’t decide it. Sony Productions were very keen to make it, and came to me, and said that they would actually make the show without a sale, which is unheard-of, to actually invest the many millions of dollars that would be required to make an eight-part TV series, with a film cinematic standard. They would take onboard the entire cost of that, without a sale. And that show of faith persuaded me that it was worth doing it. Plus, of course, the production company involved with Sony was Eleventh Hour Films, which is run by Jill Green, to whom I am married, so that gave me an extra sense of security. The point being that I was nervous of getting it wrong, and had to trust the people making it.
AX: Why did you start the ALEX RIDER series with POINT BLANC, rather than the very first book?
HOROWITZ: Mainly for legal reasons. The rights to STORM BREAKER, although they have reverted to me, there is some question as to certain scenes in the book as to who actually owns them, and so it was safer to begin with the second book and to move on from there. Elements of the back story have been brought in – how did Alex Rider become a spy, and what happened to his uncle? And they are different from what happened in the film. We had to tread carefully.
AX: What is the timeframe between the books? Not the amount of time that you take the time to write them, but obviously, Alex is not now in his twenties …
HOROWITZ: If you try to work out the timeline of the ALEX RIDER books, you will go mad. Because Alex was fourteen years and two months old when he was created in April, 1999. In the last book, NIGHT SHADE, he is fifteen and three months old, and we are in 2020. So his life is quite complicated to set out. For me, what I’ve done I think in the books is, the world has moved on sixteen years. Alex has moved on one-and-a-half years. There are plenty of precedents for these sorts of things. I thought it was interesting at the very beginning, that J.K. Rowling decided to make Harry [Potter] get one year older with every book. So, by the time the books finished, he was well into his late teens, and that worked very well. But it wouldn’t have worked for Alex, because what I was interested in was a child in an adult world, and what it was like to be out of your depth.
Also, as a writer, I’ve always been interested in the in-between years, when you’re neither a child nor an adult, but sort of lost in the middle of it, and that’s sort of fourteen and fifteen. I think it’s interesting that in the TV show, Otto Farrant, as you can check out quite easily online, is actually twenty-four. He looks a lot younger, and we’re very careful in the scripts never to say what age the main character is. He’s a schoolboy, he’s at school, he’s in uniform, and he doesn’t drive a car, and he doesn’t have a steady girlfriend, so he is young, but his age isn’t determined.
AX: Well, in the Bond films, if they were actually tracking James Bond’s age, he’d be too old to be in the field …
HOROWITZ: Well, yes, but the films have the advantage of having changed actors five times, so they could always regenerate like a Time Lord. We can’t really do that. If we go on to make more ALEX RIDER, I would hope that we would keep Otto throughout. That remains to be seen. Incidentally, in the books, Bond does have a timeline that sort of works, from CASINO ROYALE, all the way through to THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. There is a definite progression, and a getting older, and things happen to him that change him, and that has a cumulative effect. As it does with the ALEX RIDER books. As I say, the Bond novels take place over ten years, Alex Rider over just one. Busy year.
AX: You’ve said elsewhere that series adapter Guy Burt suggested that Alex have a gun, and you vetoed that …
HOROWITZ: It was one of the very few occasions where I [vetoed something]. I had two hats on throughout the production. I was an EP, so I was in my usual TV writing mode of looking at the scripts, and agreeing to things, but I also had to remember that I was the author of the books, and I had a duty both to the kids who read those books, particularly the younger kids, and also to the teachers, and the librarians, and the parents, who expected certain things from those books. So, for example, the use of profanity is one thing that I stamped out very quickly. Alex doesn’t swear. When I gave that note, it was not as an EP. As an EP, I didn’t really care. But as the author of the books, it is just the case that Alex shouldn’t swear. In fact, he does have one or two mild expletives, and I was cautious, but at the same time, because he is a slightly older character than in the books, I went with that. But the other thing that was absolutely sacrosanct to me was that Alex would not, at any time in that first series, have a gun. Because in the books, that’s exactly the point. He spends many, many books, wanting a gun, and wondering why he can’t have a gun, and when he eventually does get a gun, he realizes that a gun is not something that he particularly wants to have in his hand. In America, guns are a big deal. But in England, it’s much more cut and dried. People do not have guns. Alex is fifteen in the show. So, it would be quite wrong for him to have a gun. Also, the Alex Rider books are entertainment. They’re not actually about killing people, and guns are rather lethal.
AX: Apart from Alex never having a gun, were there any things that Guy Burt came up with where you said, “Don’t do that,” or any things that he came up with that you thought, “Gee, I wish I’d done that”?
HOROWITZ: Both. I didn’t want him talking about his sexuality, his relationships, because I thought it would undermine his attractiveness to every age. Kids eight to thirteen, I think, are not interested. So that’s two examples of things where I said, “Can you please pull back from that?” And Guy, to do him credit, didn’t argue, he understood, and did pull back.
Things that he did, which are great – he’s given Alex a friendship with a boy called Tom [played by Brenock O’Connor], who turns up in the books, but he’s made Tom into such a wonderful character that now I’m writing the new Alex Rider novels, I’m writing Guy’s version of Tom. I think also Alex’s relationship with Jack is really well-drawn, better than in the books, and again, that helps me with the future novels. So yeah, in terms of character, in terms of tone, in terms of an understanding of that world, of young people in school, Guy has brought an awful lot to the party.
AX: Andreas Prochaska directed the first four episodes of Season 1, and Christopher Smith directed the second four …
HOROWITZ: Chris Smith made SEVERANCE, one of the most wonderful horror films I’ve ever seen, inventive, tongue-in-cheek, that manages to be horrific as well as thrilling and quite funny. Andreas had come in, in the beginning, and had styled the show, and had been very closely involved in the development of the series. He of course had cast the show, so that’s why Chris was the second director in chronological order. Chris came in later, although to be fair, the two weeks of principal photography was done by Chris, because they were shooting the skiing sequences, snowboarding sequences [for the final episodes], and for the weather, they had to go abroad at the beginning of March. They’re both wonderful directors.
AX: In terms of the production situation, where your primary funding source is also your primary studio, how is that?
HOROWITZ: It’s absolutely wonderful. Sony have been fantastic, stalwart, completely supportive, and non-intrusive. It’s almost miraculous. I’ve worked on TV projects in America where the notes have made me weep, the quantity of them and sometimes the quality of them, and the number of different voices. On this one, it has been very much Eleventh Hour Films. Andreas Prochaska, the director [of the first four episodes], has given notes, but the execs have been invisible. There is a scary side to that as well, which is, if the show doesn’t work for any reason, we can’t point the finger at somebody and blame them. It is our responsibility to get it right. But in terms of the creative journey, it’s been fantastic, almost unbelievable.
AX: How and when did ALEX RIDER get to Amazon?
HOROWITZ: I came out to Los Angeles, and we pitched the show to all the major platforms, of course, and I have to say that the response was uniformly good. I mean, Sony were very happy with the responses that everybody gave. We had some really good screenings, and great questions, a lot of excitement and interest. The actual business decision I cannot comment on, other than Amazon was keen from the start, and took it.
AX: Were any adjustments made for them?
HOROWITZ: Very few. I think that it is important to recognize that they are more than a platform for us; they are going to be creative partners for second season. They are, I’m sure, going to be much more involved, of course. And there were a few things that they were involved in – questions of pace, largely, and of clarity. I think it is true to say that an American audience has slightly different expectations than an English audience, so certain things had to be addressed, but they were pretty small in the scheme of things, there were no creative difficulties whatsoever.
AX: What are you working on now?
HOROWITZ: I’ve adapted my novel MAGPIE MURDERS into a six-part television series, which is being done next year. We have the broadcaster [PBS Masterpiece and Britbox], we have the budget, we have the stars. What we don’t have is the ability to shoot. My novel, MOONFLOWER MURDERS, the sequel to MAGPIE MURDERS, came out in August, which is a very big deal for me, because MAGPIE MURDERS was something of a breakthrough for me in the U.S.A. And I’m about to write another Hawthorne novel, the third one [in the detective series that begins with THE WORD IS MURDER].
AX: And what would you most like people to know about the ALEX RIDER TV series?
HOROWITZ: Otto Farrant is such an intelligent young actor. He’s a very ordinary kid, and I think that really works well. I’m not saying his looks are ordinary – he’s handsome enough, but he’s not a superhero. I could not have been happier with Otto Farrant as Alex. I think he is a major star in the making. I would say that’s also true of Brenock O’Connor. In the books, Tom is a tiny character, but he’s very much larger in the TV series, and he is utterly wonderful, as is Vicky McClure, who has a huge fan base as a result of LINE OF DUTY.
The show was a total pleasure to make. I should also add that the response to the show in England has been phenomenal, in terms of the press, who are usually quite snippy about my work, have been almost without exception, have given us wonderful reviews. But more than that, social media has been hot and excited. Seeing it finally on the screen, very much as I always hoped it would be, I think – I hope, anyway – that we’ve got it right. It’s a very difficult act, to be true to the books, to embrace a young audience and not alienate them, whilst at the same time drawing in an adult audience, and yet not patronizing them. It’s difficult. But I think we’ve have pulled it off.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with ALEX RIDER executive producer and creator on Season 1 of the Amazon Prime series