John Logan is the three-time Oscar-nominated writer behind Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo and Skyfall, among other features, and is also penning the new James Bond movie.
As a playwright and movie scribe of some repute, the move to TV was not top of Logan’s to-do list – and yet he is the man behind the much-anticipated drama Penny Dreadful, which sees some of the most iconic literary horror characters reimagined in a dark gothic TV thriller.
“This was an idea I’d been thinking about for ten years – I’ve never done TV before, I’d always needed the right idea,” he says of the eight-part drama for US premium cabler Showtime and UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic. “It came when I was reading a lot of romantic poetry, which led me to Mary Shelly and Frankenstein and then read Dracula and Dorian Grey. It struck me how disturbing it was when you go back to the source material.”
The resulting show is described by Showtime as a psychosexual thriller. Logan says it is an “adult family drama… but not for a family audience”.
Alongside Logan, several of the cast have James Bond connections. Bond girl Eva Green (Casino Royale) is the female lead and Timothy Dalton, who played the suave British secret agent in two movies, also stars. Quantum of Solace and Skyfall actor Rory Kinnear makes an appearance. Skyfall director Sam Mendes is an executive producer. The cast also includes Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down) and Billie Piper (Doctor Who).
Frankenstein, Dorian Grey and Dracula are among the famous characters to appear alongside new creations from Logan in the story as it unfolds in Victorian London.
“The deeper I got, the more I realised there was so much material from that era,” he says. “There are so many famous fictional characters, but the real spine is the new ones, and it then becomes about how the classic characters weave into them.”
The series is dark in tone as well as in its portrayal of the English capital of the Victorian era. “It is literally and figuratively dark. I am drawn to complex, flawed characters, and I think [audiences] are also – the philosophical thrust is that we are all monsters and can all feel alienated, flawed, cursed,” says Logan. “There is nothing like this [on TV], and the way I have approached it is to take it very seriously – it’s not camp, there’s no knowing wink. I took it very seriously, in the same way as if writing for Bond.”
Penny Dreadful is being distributed by CBS Studios International, which started shopping it globally at MIPTV earlier this month.
Despite its period setting Logan says the story has a contemporary relevance. “Horror is about trying to codify our fears, in Victorian times industry was starting to emerge over agriculture and the US and Germany were emerging as global powers. Now America is looking out at a changing world.”
The finished show has a definite edge while seeking a mainstream audience, he adds: “It is in the supernatural world but is an exercise in how the genre can be broadened and we want the broadest audience possible, but the audience deserves to be provoked, and we want to be as provocative as Mary Shelley was in her era.”
The producers: Desert Wolf Productions, Neal Street Productions
The distributor: CBS Studios International
The broadcasters: Showtime (US), Sky Atlantic (UK)