Behind the Scenes With Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern on ‘War of the Worlds’

War of the Worlds Urban Myth
Joss Barratt / Urban Myth Films

“To carry a secret is a great thing,” says Gabriel Byrne, reflecting on his latest role. “You never have to show the secret, because the audience knows it… and they’ll do the work for you in that situation.”

The actor was doing press rounds for a new, and very loose adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” from Urban MythCanal Plus, Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa, AGC Television, and Studiocanal – a powerful combination – which updates H.G. Wells’ alien invasion novel by grounding the story in the here-and-now and by focusing more on character than on spectacle.

Functioning instead as a survival thriller set in both England and France, the eight-episode series follows a diverse group living in the aftermath of a cataclysmic attack that has wiped out most life on Earth.

Written and created by BAFTA winner Howard Overman (“Misfits”) and produced by Urban Myth Films, the sci-fi drama hopes to foreground the characters’ struggles  — and secrets – alongside the requisite genre elements.

Because, as Byrne sees it, “[The show’s] aliens are almost metaphorical. They could be climate change, or the nuclear apocalypse or the unpredictability of war – they’re all of those things.”

Variety attended a recent junket in Paris, and can offer the following take-aways from the event.

International Appeal

This €25 million ($27.5 million), eight-episode series comes courtesy of Canal Plus and Fox which have Europe and Africa rights. AGC is distributing  in North America and co-distributing with Studiocanal in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Fox is selling it in Europe.

Set to broadcast in France later this month, “War of the Worlds” bears an equally international cast.

Alongside Byrne, the show features Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton Abbey”), Léa Drucker (“The Bureau”), Natasha Little (“Silent Witness”), Daisy Edgar Jones (“Cold Feet”), Stéphane Caillard (“Marseille”), Adel Bencherif (“A Prophet”) and Guillaume Gouix (“The Returned”), with Belgian filmmaker Gilles Coulier spearheading the first four episodes, and director Richard Clark (“Versailles”) overseeing the rest.

For many in the cast, the show’s cross-border nature held significant appeal.

“It was incredibly liberating and exciting to work with a multi-national team, as opposed to just an English one,” says Elizabeth McGovern. “The nature of this story suits this international scope, and it was so stimulating to be directed by a Belgian filmmaker while working with an Irish actor alongside a French crew.”

Whereas for Léa Drucker, who performs in her native tongue, “I think it’s interesting that it’s international, because this [inciting] attack has equalizing effect. No matter if you’re a powerful figure or a migrant already in survival mode, everyone ends up on the same ground.”

Gabriel Byrne agrees, and hopes that this partially French language series can make greater inroads into predominantly English-speaking markets.

“Whether you’re in Belgium, France, Ireland or Spain, you’re getting American culture, and with those films and series come American perspectives and values. That rarely happens the other way on a similar scale,” says Byrne.

“[Certain] audiences are rarely exposed to the perspectives of other countries,” he continues. “But ‘War of the Worlds’ is a truly international story that involves human beings as opposed to stereotyped nationalities… and I think that’s the power of this kind of production. Europe has as much to say as America does.”

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© Joss Barratt / Urban Myth Films

The Here and Now

After spending so many years in period garb, McGovern was particularly enthused to work on a project set in the present day.

“I can’t tell you what fun that was, just to be in a pair of tight jeans and to roll around in dirt. I loved getting my nails dirty. It was freeing,” she laughs.

“With all these period pieces, I do sometimes feel like I’m in a straightjacket. As a woman, so little of the time you have a voice, and these [characters I played] didn’t. They had to operate in such self effacing ways, so to be in a contemporary story, where I am wearing jeans and calling the shots – sometimes – it felt so satisfying.”

Indeed, show’s modern setting is what drew in creator Howard Overman right from the start.

“I wanted to do a modern adaption of the work. I wasn’t really interested in adapting the historical novel [so I used the framework of] an alien invasion to explore would that could mean for us today,” says Overman.

That meant mining existing sources of tension from the here-and-now, which for Overman included the refugee crisis, climate change and Brexit.

“We’re a very divided country at the moment,” says the English writer. “The country’s almost turned on itself. As soon as we see difference we become suspicious of it; it’s very tribal. We were very interested in this idea of difference… that will become apparent as the series goes on, and we’ll learn that we’re maybe not so different from the aliens.”

A Loose Adaptation

Historically, “War of the Worlds” has always been a property that channeled the cultural unease of its day.  When H.G. Wells wrote his Victorian era novel, he had colonialism on the mind; when Orson Welles performed his infamous 1938 radio play, he did so as a commentary on the dangers of mass communication, while Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film was filled with imagery evocative of 9/11.

So Canal Plus series producer Fabrice de la Patellière was unfazed when he learned that the BBC was planning its own, 1898-set mini-series adaption.

“This is ‘War of the Worlds’ adapted for the world of 2020,” says de la Patellière, head of drama at Canal Plus. “That was the bet, to do this as a multi-season narrative and not as a one-off limited series.  We took the concept of the book, and used it as a launch pad into a series that could run several seasons.”

The creative team has begun early work on a possible Season 2, with the plans to further develop the series’ distinct voice.

“We always talk about it as ‘low-fi sci-fi,’” says producer Johnny Capps. “It’s a sci-fi concept explored in very realistic setting. We were very ruthless in the set and costume design, even in picking Gilles Coulier as the director.”

Capps continues: “We were offered a lot of genre directors that were brilliant at action but not necessarily performance, but for us, our “War of the Worlds” was about well-observed performances. So that’s why we picked Gilles…. Our benchmark all the time is, ‘Does it feel real? Does we relate, and does it feel visceral?’ and that is more important than creating a fantastic sci-fi world.”

An Eerie Quiet

When Coulier joined the project, he needed to figure how best to bend, but not break, the codes of the genre.

“You are still making a sci-fi show,” says the filmmaker. “People are going to watch “War of the Worlds” with certain expectations, so we had to play with the rules of that while trying keep other elements very realistic and honest. That was something very important in shaping the performances and visual approach – to try to make it as real as possible.”

Of course, certain events – like, say, an alien attack that wipes out most life on earth – required a bit of poetic license, but even then, the creative team tried to come up with unexpected solutions.

“We didn’t go for a post-apocalyptic world where there’s a lot of fires and creatures wandering around,” notes Coulier. “Instead, everybody just dropped where they were. In a very strange way, it felt very comforting. It’s just silence.”

Overman furthers: “We didn’t want a post-apocalyptic feel with rubble and all that. We wanted the cities to look as they do now, and that’s very important in terms of getting inside the characters’ heads. If you look out your window and the city still looks the same, it’s a stranger experience, because your life has totally changed but outside it’s all very still and familiar.”

And the fact that attack in Ep. 1 takes down phone reception worldwide? “It’s a relief,” laughs Overman.

”As a writer, mobile phones and social media are a pain in the ass. You find yourself constantly coming up with convoluted reasons why characters can’t immediately call for help. When you take away all these comforts, you start to focus on what really interests you. Your phone won’t save you… you’re on your own here. There’s no help, and I think that’s interesting.”

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© Joss Barratt / Urban Myth Films