Arguably the most acclaimed entry of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Carlos,” played outside of competition.
The reason was simple: At 5 1/2 hours, director Olivier Assayas’ dramatization of the life of Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal had been commissioned as a three-part miniseries for French television. And the response was telling — proof that the format can achieve artistic excellence, even in the eyes of the world’s toughest critics.
You certainly wouldn’t get any argument on that count from the writers who make their living working in miniseries, using the extra running time to develop characters and story arcs with a depth that simply isn’t possible in a two-hour feature film.
“It’s a less plot-driven medium,” says Bruce McKenna, a writer and producer on HBO’s 10-part World War II miniseries “The Pacific.” “You can go down blind alleys and then loop back two or three episodes later for the payoff. It’s much more character-based that way, which makes it more satisfying to audiences willing to invest in those characters.”
Adds Nick Willing, who wrote and directed Syfy’s “Alice,” a futuristic reimagining of the Lewis Carroll stories: “It’s a unique medium because you’re able to do quite a big thing and give it its own flavor. When you’re writing for film or episodic television, there’s a much more established structure. Miniseries give you the freedom to try new and different ways of telling a story.”
How miniseries writers choose to tell these stories often depends on the length of the format. “Alice” ran at 180 minutes, broadcast over two nights, which, for Willing, meant ending the first episode with a “big, massive payoff” that set up enough questions to bring audiences back for the second night.
“It’s like writing two feature films,” Willing says. “At the end of the first one, you really want to spin the whole thing on its head.”
But sometimes, writers don’t know how their work will be formatted. The BBC-produced period drama “Return to Cranford” was commissioned as two 90-minute episodes for broadcast in the U.K. When it was shown in the U.S., it was re-edited and televised in three one-hour installments. In such a case, “Cranford” writer Heidi Thomas says, you have to look at the overall picture and not worry about a precise structure.
“What is absolutely key is to give the whole piece a heart, a truth and a dynamic of its own,” says Thomas, who’s currently working on a miniseries revival of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” “It’s an extraordinary medium to write for because there is time to get to know the players in the drama. It’s not just about witnessing their actions from without, but savoring their experiences from within.”
Fellow Brit Sandy Welch, who most recently adapted “Emma” and, in 2006, “Jane Eyre,” for the BBC, also cherishes the format for the time it allows to explore aspects of the books that wouldn’t fit into a two-hour film.
“Though ‘Emma’ is an intimate story with fewer characters than many classics, there is a backstory that is essential to convey,” Welch says. “(Author Jane) Austen sets the scene before commencement, and there is usually a darkish secret in the background, and it’s important to make the audience aware of this in an organic way.”
But the luxury of added time can also provide challenges when trying to find the story’s focus. McKenna originally conceived “The Pacific” as a 13-episode series with five main characters. Series producer Tom Hanks looked at the initial scripts and told McKenna it was simply too unwieldy to work. McKenna and the writers reconvened and cut the episode count from 13 to 10 and deleted two of the main characters.
“You get tricked into thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got all the time in the world. Let’s make the canvas even bigger,’ ” McKenna says. “The discipline of making it 10 hours made it so much stronger.”
Maintaining that discipline while using a writing staff comes with its own set of challenges, too. Whereas Bill Gallagher wrote all six episodes of AMC’s “The Prisoner” and Willing scripted “Alice” by himself, “The Pacific” was assembled by a team of eight writers.
“You have to know what each episode is going to say and where you need to go and then hire writers to facilitate that one vision,” McKenna says. “They bring new ideas, too, things you don’t expect. But you have to make sure those ideas are within a certain set of boundaries.”
Willing, who has written both features and miniseries, agrees that boundaries are important. Added time should not be confused with flabby storytelling.
“I tried to cut ‘Alice’ to two hours … and after a week, I gave up,” Willing says. “Miniseries have to be fast-moving and punchy and filled with emotion and turning points. You can’t dawdle or your audience will reach for the remote.”