With the ease of accessing full seasons of TV on streaming platforms today and the boom of ambitious original programming across a cornucopia of new outlets, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the current landscape of episodic storytelling is booming—perhaps even out of control, some would argue.
But! As screenwriter R.T. Thorne contends, television “has begun to tell the stories I think our favorite films used to tell.” And on the heels of awards season, scripted series veteran Wendy Calhoun (writer/producer, Prodigal Son; Empire) moderated the 2023 Film Independent Director’s Close-Up session “Small Screen, Big Picture,” highlighting the 2023 Spirit Award nominees for Best New Scripted Series.
Featured on the panel were the creators of some of the most exciting projects that have hit the small screen within the past year, including: Soo Hugh, creator of Pachinko; Annmarie Morais, showrunner and co-creator of The Porter, alongside Thorne, a director and executive producer on the show; and Station Eleven creator Patrick Somerville.
Hugh spoke about what inspired her to tell the story of Pachinko, based on Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel of the same name about a Korean family relocating to Japan in the early 2oth century. What, exactly, made her want to tell this story?
“For me, it was such a personal experience. It spoke to my family and my family history. It felt like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring that story to life.” Acknowledging that bringing productions to life are a difficult and time-consuming process, Hugh nevertheless found what she called the “undeniability factor” with the project and therefore took the chance.
For Thorne, making The Porter was an opportunity to dive into Black Canadian history. The series focuses on the real life story of the Black railway porters who ultimately went on to create Canada’s first labor union.
Said Thorne: “The exposure to the idea of the porters is simply through a lot of old movies. We didn’t really get taught a lot of this history where I’m from—across Canada, especially. So to be able to delve into this world of these people and these communities that radically changed our working life across North America was an opportunity I didn’t want to let go.” He wanted to ensure audiences understood how these porters “provided the seeds for the civil rights movement,” noting, “We’re definitely standing on their shoulders.”
Somerville–the voice behind HBO’s limited series Station Eleven, based on the 2014 post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel–shared that unlike other post apocalyptic stories, Station didn’t seem to dwell on the continuing acts of violence and pain that would happen as our systems collapsed” but instead posed interesting questions about “the failures of our systems today” and “what might be opened up as an opportunity after a collapse like that.”
He noted that the story, involving survivors of a devastating virus, is one of rebuilding. For Somerville it was exciting to imagine the different perspectives and possibilities that would come from the fall of civilization.
Morais reinforced the importance of telling a story that history has thus far denied, and which sorely deserved re-telling. Thorne echoed Morais’ sentiments: “For me, it was really important for us to dive into the lives of these people [the porters]. From the get go, all of us as a team, we said hey we’re going to look at this piece of history. And yes, we’re going to tell the story of these Black men forming the first Black work union,” but also explore all facets of the characters’ lives.
The goal, Morais said, was to showcase “how art influences them, how it touches and moves them. We’re not just telling this one event and how it is a reaction to racist society.”
What was it like to experience the COVID-19 pandemic while making Station Eleven? Somerville said that although the show was naturally impacted, when pitching the show it helped that it “[it] was a post-apocalyptic film about joy–that was the spirit infusing even the first [few] episodes.” In Somerville’s words, Station Eleven is “about rebuilding and hope and what are the microscopic connections between individuals and strangers that we need to have happen in order to hold onto each other and survive.”
Hugh shared about her entry into television. At the time, Hugh was pursuing feature writing and had essentially dismissed TV. Until… “I read this pilot for The Killing and it really was this experience of like where have I been all these years?” Stating that after serving as a staff writer on the AMC original, Hugh caught the TV bug for good.
“I’m a strong, strong believer that television is the way to go,” she said. Us too!
To watch the full panel and check out the full conversation of the Best International Film Award nominees, purchase a series pass here and get access to all other 2023 DCU online and in-person sessions as well.
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