Projects that may slip under radar, but deserve a peek
Looking back and judging all the miniseries and telepics shown in the past Emmy season is a much more daunting task than say, picking the contenders in the comedy skein category. Here are some of the lesser-hyped titles that deserve another look in this highly competitive field:
“We Were the Mulvaneys”
“The book hit a primal nerve in me,” says Robert M. Sertner, executive producer of the telepic adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ book, which he developed after seeing it singled out on “Oprah.” “And I think what’s happening is it’s attaining that same primal nerve in the people who are watching the film.
“Many of the (Oprah Book Club) novels tend to be very dark stories, and in trying to develop them we always look for elements that you can latch on to, that are uplifting,” continues Sertner, who tapped scribe Joyce Eliason to bring “humanity, accessibility, and a softness” to the project. (The project had originated at Showtime with two different writers attached.)
“It’s a dream team with a phenomenal cast and a phenomenal director,” he says about Peter Werner, who directs a seamless ensemble cast in a richly textured ’70s drama that tells of the deconstruction of the once-tight-knit Mulvaneys.
The family struggles to resolve issues and renew its strength after a schoolmate rapes the clan’s only daughter (Tammy Blanchard) and the father (Beau Bridges) succumbs to a terminal illness.
Oates also had her hand in the Lifetime project, lending herself to a conference call with Sertner, Werner and the cast to help further develop the characters and their relationships. Later, the filmmakers scrapped the movie’s original voiceover, which they say wasn’t working, and crafted one from Oates’ words in the book, which, says Sertner, “gives the film its literary feel.”
Long before George Butler’s award-winning docu “Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” hit the fest circuits, talk of a feature exploring the life and times of the famed British explorer was circulating around Hollywood. Coincidentally, a few months after the docu’s release, A&E premiered “Shackleton,” a lavish two-parter.
“One of the reasons why I — along with (director-writer) Charles Sturridge and (producer) Selwyn Roberts — wanted to do ‘Shackleton’ as a miniseries was to tell the complete story,” explains A&E VP of film and dramatic arts programming Delia Fine, who served as executive producer on the drama about the savvy explorer who led three expeditions to the South Pole before and during WWI.
“You get a chance to understand the characters, and the urgency for Shackleton gets set up. You also get to meet his crew before they all disappear under their winter gear,” says Fine. The story by Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”) also finds time to explore Shackleton’s family and personal life, including a few expeditions to his mistress’s home.
Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson were reportedly contenders for a “Shackleton” feature, but it was Kenneth Branagh whom Sturridge had in mind for his project. The British thesp showed interest before the script was written and went on to give the project much of its weight. Fine, who had followed the project for years before it landed at A&E, supported Branagh from the start.
“Watching him become Ernest Shackleton was an extraordinary process,” she says. “There’s no question in my mind that the finished performance was one of the greatest things he’s ever done.”
“The Laramie Project,” HBO; “The Matthew Shepard Story,”NBC
HBO and NBC presented two very different but equally engrossing takes on the story of the brutal murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
“‘The Laramie Project’ talks about where the country is at this moment in history, about how we as a society are dealing with one another,” says Moises Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay and directed an all-star cast in HBO’s retelling, which focused on the Laramie community’s reaction to the tragedy.
Particularly powerful are Christina Ricci; Laura Linney; and Terry Kinney, who as dad Dennis Shepard nearly steals the thunder from this impressive cast with a courtroom speech that unapologetically hits the audience in its heart.
Under Roger Spottiswoode’s careful direction, Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston give riveting performances as the Shepards in “The Matthew Shepard Story.” The NBC drama’s POV is told by the couple, who shake their initial angry reaction to news of their son’s gruesome death and open their hearts and ask for mercy in sparing their son’s killers from a possible death sentence.
“Stockard drives the consciousness of the movie, and Sam carries it across the finish line,” says executive producer Ed Gernon. “The pulse of that story of what Judy and Dennis were about — the core of their experience — has been faithfully achieved in a large measure because of the heart and soul of those two wonderful artists.”
“Collected Stories,” “Masterpiece Theater: Othello” PBS
After fruitless attempts to gain feature interest in “Collected Stories,” Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies crafted his play into a critically acclaimed PBS telepic. The pressure-cooker drama traces the arc of a creative relationship between a lauded English professor (Linda Lavin) and her eager grad student protege (Samantha Mathis). The relationship hits turbulence after the student’s career takes flight with a novel whose story is a bit too familiar for her esteemed mentor.
“It’s truly a great piece of material,” says director and executive producer Gil Cates, who after catching “Collected Stories'” ’97 Off Broadway debut championed the play for a West Coast run and then a faithful TV adaptation. “Donald is a wonderful writer, and Linda and Samantha should be commended for bringing his textured dialogue to life.”
“It would be wonderful if the actors were recognized,” adds Marguiles when broached about possible Emmy considerations. “I would take that as a personal triumph if they were.”
Also worthy of Emmy consideration is PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater: Othello,” directed by Geoffrey Sax from a devilishly delightful script by Emmy-winning writer Andrew Davies (“House of Cards,” “Pride and Prejudice”), who updates the classic as a TV police-procedural thriller.
“Because of its universal themes — jealousy, envy, but also nobler qualities like bravery, idealism, love — it certainly has Emmy potential — that is if the jury thinks its high ambitions have been realized,” says Davies. “It certainly aims a lot higher than most TV movies — it aspires to tragedy.”
“Sins of the Father,” FX
“I read it and thought it would make an extraordinarily compelling story,” says “Sins of the Father” executive producer and Artisan Pictures CEO Robert Cooper about Pamela Colloff’s Texas Monthly article, which inspired the film.
Critics praised director Robert Dornhelm and scribe John Pielmeier’s timely drama for its sociopolitical content as well as entertainment value when it bowed on FX in January.
“Sins” stars Richard Jenkins as former Birmingham Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry and Tom Sizemore as his son Tom, who is torn between his loyalties to his father and dealing with the elder Cherry’s presumed involvement in a 1963 racially motivated church bombing that killed four young African-American girls.
” ‘Sins of the Father’ is not a lecture piece nor a medicinal piece — it’s really compelling drama,” says Cooper. “It’s a father-son story that’s surprising in the way it reveals itself. And then you realize, this isn’t just about one father and one son — it’s about all of us, about America. It’s a parallel story, but it’s the same story, and that is huge. And to deal with how we dealt with civil rights in America 40 years ago, dealing with it with the drama and the conflict of a father and son is pretty amazing, compelling entertainment.”