From show creator/executive producer/writer John Logan, the new Showtime drama series Penny Dreadful (premiering on May 11th) is a psychological horror series set in Victorian England that re-imagines literature’s most terrifying characters in a whole new light. The groundbreaking vision of this world and the individuals who inhabit it promises to redefine the genre. The show stars Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway, Reeve Carney and Billie Piper.
During the Showtime portion of the TCA Press Tour, John Logan talked about the genesis of this project, how sexuality will be explored, the process they went through for finding the look of these characters, how the characters will weave together, which creature was the most fun for him to write, and how he’s envisioned this story well into the future. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN LOGAN: I had no interest in writing a horror piece, originally. I grew up loving monsters. I’m just a total monster geek. When I was a kid, I had the Aurora monster models, and I would make them. I loved the Universal horror movies and the Hammer movies. I just had an affinity for them. But about 10 years ago, I was reading a lot of romantic poetry. It started with Wordsworth and led me to Mary Shelley. 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 200 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 to feel different, to feel alienated and 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 ‘40s where, all of a sudden, they would start mixing and matching the Wolfman with Dracula and with Frankenstein. I thought, “I wonder if there’s a way to do that now and to take the characters seriously.” And that was how it all began.
How will sexuality be explored in this series?
LOGAN: Part of the motivation of what makes us a human being is how we respond erotically to the world around us, and it’s just as true for these characters, as everything else. One of the reasons that it’s so liberating to work on Showtime and to work in paid cable is that, in my very first discussions with Sam Mendes, we talked about, “Why do we want to tell this story?” We can tell it without gloss of years of television shows and movies and different novelizations. We can go back to those sacred, essential texts and try to treat them with a granular reality. And Juan Bayona, our great director for the first two episodes, talked about how, for something to be frightening, it has to be true. That became my watchcry, and that’s just as true for the most exalted and generous acts of the character, as for the most monstrous and depraved. That’s true for blood. It’s true for sex. We’re trying to really grapple with these characters, in all of their extremes, sexually as well as in terms of violence and psychology.
What can you tell us about the make-up or the creative and technical processes that you’ve achieved here to get the look of the show?
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. The thing that I’ve discovered is that I wrote the first eight hours, and then other people make it come to life. Gabriela Pescucci does the costumes. Nick Dudman does the prosthetic make-up. All of the department heads are embracing something new because this is our first season. We’re right in the middle of filming it, and we’re all creating it anew. 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. So, we’re charting our way.
Can you talk about the power of repressed emotions and if that is a good springboard for some of this?
LOGAN: I think that’s good drama. Whether you’re writing a horror show or a James Bond film, I think what bubbles beneath is interesting characterization. The colors that emerge through storytelling is what a dramatist does. There’s always got to be something bubbling underneath that will erupt, at some point. We’re dealing with a very specific era. The Victorian Era was a highly specialized era. And why I chose to set the show then was not because it’s a cool visual to bring these characters together, but because there’s something about the Victorian Era that reminds me of right now. They were on the cusp of a modern world. The agrarian economy has been replaced by industrial economy. They’re looking across the ocean to Germany and America. They were grappling with the very elemental question of what it is to be human, with Darwinism and evolution.
I sit down at my computer today, and I feel exactly the same way. I don’t understand any of the new world that’s zooming toward us. So, the fact that they were on a cusp of a modern age is why I chose to set it then. I think we’re on the cusp of the same thing now, and it’s frightening and there’s dissonance and there’s excitement about uncharted waters. So, what we try to do with all the characters is pull them out of where they are comfortable and send them into uncharted waters because, to me, that’s what makes good drama.
How will Vanessa (Eva Green) and Ethan (Josh Hartnett) be weaving in with the stories of the different historical creatures?
LOGAN: I’ve never done TV before. I needed a lot of help. I’ve talked to a lot of people about what this magnificent beast is and how it works, and one of the most useful things ever was something David Nevins said to me. He said that, essentially, all television shows are about a family. He always talked about The Brady Bunch. I liken it to the bridge crew of the Enterprise. And to me, that’s exactly what the first season of Penny Dreadful is about. It’s about building a family. So, we go into the story through Josh’s character, who’s an American. He’s our way into this world. He meets Eva’s character, and then Tim Dalton’s character.
And gradually, as the season progresses, they become more reliant on each other, more like a highly dysfunctional Irish family. When I started working on it, I didn’t want to just write a Frankenstein story or a Dracula story or a Dorian Gray story. That’s why I created the characters that Eva and Josh play to be the centerpiece of the story. I wanted a fictional story that was completely unknown to the audience, so there wouldn’t be any sense of familiarity, of us playing on the tropes of what we’ve done before. And by going into it from their perspective, it allowed me to look at the characters that I’ve known and loved since I was eight, from a new perspective. What I’m hoping is that genre fans, like me and the Comic-Con geeks, will recognize that we love the fact that we’re playing in a familiar world, but we’re playing with it differently because we’re coming in with a whole new narrative, involving these characters.
What was it like to craft some creatures like Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, and find your version of them?
LOGAN: It was a long process because we’re discovering it, at the same time. I went in with no preconceived notions, other than I wanted Frankenstein’s creature to harken back to what Mary Shelley wrote. But then, it was months and months and months of pre-production with Nick Dudman, who is doing our prosthetics and our special make-up effects, to figure out what that character is. What I found particularly rewarding about that is working from the inside out. It’s not about, “How do we do a frightening vampire? How do we do a disturbing creature?” Instead, it’s about deciding, “What is the purpose of the drama? What does this character feel? How do we manifest that physically?” I wanted iconic figures. I wanted figures that you’re going to want to buy an action figure of. I wanted them to be strong and striking, but particularly appropriate to what we were doing. So far, I couldn’t be more delighted.
Which creature was the most fun for you to write?
LOGAN: Frankenstein’s creature was the most fun for me to write because, when I read Frankenstein, I wept. I literally cried, reading about the pathos and suffering of that poor, misunderstood, vengeful monstrous creature. And because I was led to it through poetry, I also embraced poetry in the series. We have great sheaves of it. For a writer in the contemporary world, coming off of Skyfall with a certain kind of vocabulary, to then go into the world of romantic literature and write a scene where Josh and Eva sit in a room for 10 minutes and talk with a certain exultation of the language because of the period was, for me, the most fun I have ever had. And every day on the set, I enjoy watching them twist and turn and find the nuances.
Who are some of the other characters in this story?
LOGAN: In broad strokes, the big four are Vanessa Ives (Green), Ethan Chandler (Hartnett), Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton), who is an African explorer based on Sir Richard Burton and Stanley Baker, and some of the other explorers, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who is probably the most like the character in the book out of all the literary characters. Reeve Carney plays Dorian Gray, from Oscar Wilde’s great novel. Billie Piper plays a woman named Brona Croft, who is a fictional creation. She’s a good Belfast girl that gets embroiled with Ethan and some other characters, and Danny Sapani plays Sembene, who is an ally of Sir Malcolm’s from his African exploring days. That’s the general ensemble.
Are you planning on more than one season of an ongoing story?
LOGAN: Yes, but 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. But, there’s something about the luxury of time and the nuance you can bring to characters over time that 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.
Penny Dreadful premieres on Showtime on May 11th.