ORPHAN BLACK Creators John Fawcett And Graeme Manson Talk Origins And Clones
Please note: Fawcett and Manson both refer extensively to the opening sequence of the show, which BBC America has released as an early promo and which you can find embedded below.
Twitch speaks with John Fawcett:
ScreenAnarchy: I understand that you and Graeme had the idea for this quite some time back. Where did this start for you?
John Fawcett: You know, it started back ... Graeme and I have known each other for a long time and a good while back we were working together on a little TV movie that we were kind of thrown together on. It wasn't anything that we had come up with ourselves, it was a gig for somebody else. But we were finally working together in a professional way so we started talking about other things that we might want to do together.
I have always been into genre stuff, Graeme not so much. I had a bunch of ideas and I kept pitching him stuff that he wouldn't go for. They just weren't his thing. But I had this very basic idea, basically the opening scene of Orphan Black. A girl gets off a train and sees herself across the platform, her doppelganger, commit suicide in front of a train. And the girl steals her identity. I went, "Wouldn't this be cool?" And I pitched that to Graeme to try and get him interested. As soon as you pitch that opening, the opening of the pilot, it's cool. It makes you ask, "What is this?" And he was into that.
The emphasis at first was to make a feature film out of it, but we worked on that for a couple years and just couldn't crack it. We couldn't figure out what it was as a film. We knew it was clones but we couldn't figure out what the answer was, especially not in a two, two and a half hour format. And so it languished for a while until Graeme came to me in 2008 and said, "Hey, I've been thinking about this. Maybe we should do it as a TV series, instead." And I was open to that, for sure. My priorities had shifted a little bit, from making feature films to television, because in the last decade television had just completely changed.
I think there's been a really interesting paradigm shift within the time span of your career. When you were making Ginger Snaps everybody wanted to do features and there was this bias that if somebody was doing television it was because they couldn't do a feature. Where now with the rise of HBO and Showtime and all the premium cable networks and more producers taking the British model of creator driven, tight story arcs we've ended up in a place where the hit rate is now a lot better on television when it comes to complex storytelling than it is in features.
JF: I completely agree. And there are so many outlets for doing it, right? So through that decade my priorities completely shifted. I made my last feature [The Dark] in 2004 / 2005 and wasn't particularly successful with it and it just got to be a big bummer. And I wasn't making very much money. So it just got to be ... [sighs].
So, when Graeme suggested this as a series I went, "Shit, yeah. Let's do it." I wanted to make scifi. I knew that the concept of clones in itself was a scifi premise and I wanted to make scifi. And I wanted to make a serialized show. Because the shows that I'm drawn to are not just about the genre and fantastic stuff but has a lot of mystery, suspense and thriller elements and the shows that are a longer story, with each episode being a new chapter. You're left at the end of one chapter wondering what's going to happen next and where the show's going to go. I think that's the kind of storytelling I like best, I like the feel of not knowing where this is going to go. This is going to make some left turns. And if the left turns start to become predictable then hopefully we stop making them and start doing something else. That's the idea. That it has a sort of rabbit hole mystery to it.
When you're developing something like this, is there a point where you and Graeme sit down and talk about what's actually, technically possible or are you just running with the ideas? Where in the creative process do you start limiting yourself to, "We need to be thinking of this many episodes, how do we do an arc that's going to close at the end of that but also be open to continue on if it works?" And, given that you have an actor playing multiple roles, there are things that are technically possible now that wouldn't have been when you started working on this.
JF: Yeah, that's true. A lot of the motion control stuff that we've been doing and the state of VFX technology at the moment ... But in the end, ultimately, there's still an old school approach to doing clone stuff, with one actor playing two or three different parts. Even though there is some cool technology and you can put thing together with this new technology you still are reliant on an actor who can perform this to a believable degree.
For us, the point of our clones is that they're very different characters. One actor playing a bunch of different roles and every character is very diverse. You want to feel that they're all very individualistic. So, really, it doesn't matter how much cool shit you do if you don't have an actor who can pull that off. That was always the fear, that was the thing. We were like, "Oh my god, we've got to cast this. We've got to kill ourselves casting this or else this is dead."
What was the process like finding Tatiana Maslany? I know you'd worked with her before when she was a fair bit younger. Did you already have a hunch she could do it?
JF: I had, yeah, in Ginger Snaps 2. You know, it's funny. When we were creating and developing the show I didn't have a face on Sarah. There wasn't a specific actor, there never was. I kind of purposefully didn't attach a face to that character so that when it came to casting I could remain open.
But Tatiana ... no, I didn't think of her originally. Because Tatiana was seventeen, maybe sixteen, when I worked with her on Ginger Snaps. And you just don't immediately go, "Oh, yeah." I'd run into her a few times and I always thought she still looks super young. One of my fears going in, when everyone was saying, "Tatiana's awesome," was whether she felt old enough because she has to believably play a detective, she has to have a six or seven year old daughter, she's a mother ... but in the end she just came in and auditioned and played all these different roles and just blew everyone's mind.
So. At the end of a three, three and a half month process of casting, there obviously was no one else. There was no other choice. She annihilated everybody. Which is great, because it alleviated all those fears about the show becoming absurd. You don't want people to laugh because it's bad.
Twitch speaks with Graeme Manson
ScreenAnarchy: Have things been smooth so far? Are you feeling good?
Graeme Manson: Ah, yeah. Right up until now. [laughs] We had a three script head start on the season and now we're shooting episode six and gearing up for the charge through the last three, which are up against the wire.
Let's start with you in the same place I started with John, on the origins of it because I knew it is something that brewed for a long time.
GM: Yeah, it did. It was 2003, I think, that was the first time that John said to me, "Wouldn't it be cool if you got off the train and stood on the train platform and looked across the tracks and you saw yourself. Identical. And in the moment where your eyes met, you saw fear. And then your identical jumps in front of a train." Though with John it's always like, "There's this super hot chick, no TWO super hot chicks and they're ass kicking underdogs!" But, yeah. I went, "Yeah, that's a killer scene but what's the story?" And he said, "Dude, that's your job."
We went back and forth on the story for a long time. That story led us to the concept of clones, not the other way around. The idea of the opening, what was that? John didn't know it was clones. We got to the idea of clones because twins didn't go far enough. Twins turned into stories we'd seen before, those scenarios that are built more around impersonating or switching personalities, that kind of thing. There is some pretty great twins stuff, though - we're huge Dead Ringers fans - and that creepiness informed us from the beginning. We wanted it to be thrilling.
We share a lot of the same taste, especially in terms of black humor when it comes to horror and scifi, thriller stuff. We were both ... I think at the time Memento was out. And the pace of Memento was something we wanted. We're not a chopped up narrative like Memento but we wanted that pace and that drive, that sense of constantly not knowing what's coming. That's what we were going for.
It seems as a writer this premise gives you so many places you can go. You can jump into really basic elements of human nature, what are our parameters physically versus other influences and getting into the ethics of technology that people really are messing with.
GM: Absolutely! The ethics of the technology is very interesting but if it's not explored through the psychology of the characters discovering that they're clones, all the damage that would do to your sense of self and individuality, all of those nature / nurture questions and the exponential identity crisis that clones give us, if you're not really building the characters around that then the science isn't interesting. Then you're just in a lab, finding your way to the big, dark lab. And we're not that interested in the big, dark lab. We do know what's behind the curtain but we don't want to get there for a long time.
To a certain degree, just given your connection to Cube, you're going to have a lot of people saying, "Oh, this is really interesting, looking at this next to Splice." It seems like you and Vincenzo started from a somewhat common starting point and then pushed in very different directions with it.
GM: Oh, I was very aware of Splice while we were working on this. I read it multiple times while Vince was working on it. It's a taste thing, for sure. We shared a lot of the same tastes. What I really brought to Cube was the existential, the angst, because I like that in characters. I find that the scariest part of those kinds of mysteries, those unanswerable questions, that kind of paranoia.
The subject matter of what people are doing with genetics and why, there's disturbing stuff there. And I think people understand it enough to think maybe they should be afraid of it but they don't really know why, even, which you see in the debate around genetically modified foods.
GM: Absolutely. And single use seed stock from these big agro-business companies. This is where all of our experiments with genetics and eugenics began, they began with animal husbandry. It is eugenics, animal husbandry, and that's where it all started. It's, bizarrely, the real start of human civilization. So how does civilization fall? We destroy our original concepts.
For you as a writer, when working on something like this and knowing that you've got multiple characters being played by the same person, what does that present to you? There must be some challenges very specific to that as well as some things that are really pretty exciting.
GM: Totally. In terms of the characterization, it really pushes you to make them extra distinct for the actor to play them. For someone like Tatiana, who loves layers and can really portray layers, that's really great.
What you're gunning for is the audience completely forgetting that this is one actor playing multiple roles, so really making them distinct and delineating them is even more important than what makes them similar. It's more interesting, what makes them different. But also what makes them so similar is really fun mechanically, it's really fun plot wise, because you can do all the things identical twins used to get away with in high school, making out with each other's girlfriends and boyfriends. So that kind of plot stuff with the clones is really fun and something we really embraced, forcing them to impersonate each other and step into each others' shoes. And then the character of Sarah is a chameleon, she's a con artist to begin with, so she's good at it.
And then you give that to an actor like Tat who can go, "Okay, I'm Clone A impersonating Clone B and I have to fool all these people." It's Sarah impersonating Beth, she has to fool all the people in Beth's life. She has to fool cops. And yet the audience has to see under the guise, the audience has to see Sarah bobbing and weaving and scared and on the verge of losing it all the time. It's where we get a lot of our tension. It's super complex to play but Tat's amazing at playing all of that.
I would assume one of the challenges here as well is how much you reveal how quickly. Do you have it mapped out? Do you know, "This is where we want to get to and in a perfect world it'll take this long."
GM: We have end points but not arcs. Well, partial arcs, I guess. We do know where we're going. We know what it is, what the conspiracy is. And we certainly knew the shape of our first season, as well as the big revelations that are a Season Two revelation or a Season Three revelation. But you've got to get there first. You can't reveal too much, though, or else you don't have any place to go and that's when things get silly. I think it would be a relief if you could tell mere there was going to be three seasons and each one was going to be ten episodes but it's not going to happen like that. So you've got to keep it open enough to react.
Orphan Black premieres March 30 on BBC America and Space in Canada.