Global uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to shape the stories we see on television for years to come, according to a top Scottish TV producer.
Richard Brown, executive producer for hit HBO series True Detective and the TV adaptation of Catch 22, believes that the behavioural and socio-political changes of 2020 are bound to have an impact – even if we don’t yet have a full grasp of what they are.
Speaking ahead of an appearance as a keynote speaker in the online version of XpoNorth, Scotland’s creative industries conference, the Stranraer-born producer said that it was clear that television would reflect a “pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus world”.
“It’ll be hard to write stories in the contemporary moment because we don’t yet understand it,” he said. “My friends who write Succession have written the third season, but now they’re having to rethink it.
“A lot of the behaviours and elements of the story won’t feel relevant anymore because there’ll be changes in the world that they didn’t comprehend when writing the show.”
For now, Richard himself intends to observe and pay attention to the ways in which the world is changing, as well as focusing on stories from the recent past.
“January 2020 already feels like ancient history,” he added. “Telling stories that help to point towards the contemporary moment is going to be something that we can all do.
“One thing is for sure – I don’t think anyone is going to want to watch near-future dystopia. We don’t want to see any more Black Mirror, because we’re living in it.”
Society’s structure has come under the microscope throughout the coronavirus crisis.
And Richard believes big political and social ideas have already been finding their way into mainstream entertainment.
He said: “Last year the three things that were the biggest hits in American culture, if not global culture, were Parasite on the high-brow end, Succession, which is sort of middle-brow, and Joker. What occurred to me about all three things is that they’re basically about the same thing. They’re all dealing with unsustainable inequality.
“I’m always on the lookout for ways to introduce ideas like that, whilst also bearing in mind what Billy Wilder the great American film director said: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you!’
“Nobody wants to be lectured to, so you have to find ways to introduce ideas into stories that are also entertaining.”
New York-based Richard, whose mum lives in Stirling and dad lives in Ayrshire, has been watching the UK response to coronavirus from afar and has plenty of praise for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The world’s been watching Britain- Boris Johnson is absurd and the only voice of reason in British politics has been Nicola Sturgeon over the past few months.
“What’s fascinating is that my mother is very much pro-independence, but my father’s the opposite, and even he’s come to the conclusion that, outside the nationalism of Nicola, she’s the only competent politician in Britain.
“That was impressive to hear come out of the mouth of my father, who I disagree with about everything!”
As well as the pandemic, the world is seeing the Black Lives Matter movement rise in strength with mass protests across the globe following the death of George Floyd.
Richard has experienced US police violence first-hand while at demonstrations with his family, and hopes that the moment is going to lead to a “real reckoning.”
“It’s been astonishing to see the level of solidarity of all sorts of different people,” he said. “It feels like the tent is growing in terms of pushback and resistance to some of the structural problems in America.
“What I’ve personally witnessed that a person in my privileged position doesn’t often get to witness is the extent of the police violence and brutality.
“I’ve watched over the last days police deliberately instigate violence. I got pepper sprayed myself for asking the police to stop beating a teenage girl.
“It’s incredible, I haven’t seen any single case of a protester exacerbating a violent incident, but I’ve seen hundreds of the opposite, which is disconcerting.
“The only positive thing you might say is that hopefully structural change could come out of this.”
America is now very much home for Richard, 49, who was raised in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway.
But he retains a Scottish twang to his accent, and a deep pride in his roots.
“No matter where I’ve gone over the years, you tell people you’re Scottish and they want to take you home to meet their families and make you dinner,” he laughed.
“It’s very strange, Scots have an extraordinarily positive image in the world.”
Working on Outlaw King brought him back to his homeland, having worked alongside the film’s director David Mackenzie on a previous project.
“He told me he’d always wanted to do a Robert the Bruce film and we thought it was the perfect time to do it,” Richard recalled.
“Some of the themes and ideas in it are relevant to the modern moment, as well as being a great story on their own.
“We went as deep as we could into the history to try and be as accurate as it was possible to be, although obviously 12th century history’s a mystery, as David used to say!
“It was a pleasure to shoot and see parts of the country I hadn’t seen before, especially doing it on such a big scale.”
Richard’s speciality is TV with a more cinematic feel, creating a series by thinking of it as a film divided up into several parts rather than a set of distinct episodes with differing directors and story arcs.
When asked if he’d want to bring a series like True Detective to Scotland, he certainly seems keen.
“It’d be great, nothing better! Then that way I get to come home, work, and spend more time with my family. On a selfish level I’d like that.”
For now, though, the closest he’ll get to coming home is appearing as a keynote speaker at this year’s XpoNorth.
Due to the pandemic, it won’t be held in Inverness as usual, but will be a fully online event.
As someone who left Scotland as a teenager to seek out creative avenues, Richard hopes to be able to give people access points into industries or worlds that can seem inaccessible.
“As a kid in Scotland I had no idea that the entertainment business was open to someone like me. I had no way of knowing that,” he said.
“I ended up getting into it by luck, by chance. It would’ve been great had there been ways to have access to people that were in it to explain to me their journeys and their stories and how things worked.”
Richard’s keen interest in film and TV was sparked by loans from Hillhead Library in Glasgow, where he lived with his mum in his early teens.
“I’d grown up in Dumfries and Galloway and in the town I lived in there was really no access to culture. I started devouring every film I could get my hands on, and every record. I self-educated.
“It was exciting to be in Glasgow where there was music and guitar shops, libraries, bookshops, record shops, haircuts, girls and life! I came from a very small town with limited access to anything, frankly. It was quite exciting.”
The bright lights of Glasgow whet Richard’s appetite and soon London was calling.
Indeed, one of the first places he went to when he arrived was Ladbroke Grove, the home of The Clash, in search of his punk rock heroes.
It was that search which led to a chance encounter with Island Records chief Chris Blackwell, with Richard managing to wangle himself a job as a talent spotter – partly thanks to the Jimmy Cliff t-shirt he was wearing.
He appeared to have found his calling, with Massive Attack and The Cranberries among the acts he was involved in signing.
His career eventually led him to the US and the TV industry, where he now has his own production company.
“It’s strange how it all linked up from that, just following my interests.”
TV’s star power
Richard has worked with several top Hollywood stars as more big names gravitate towards TV.
True Detective has featured Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell and Mahershala Ali, while George Clooney starred in Catch 22.
“It’s a pleasure to work with great actors, ” Richard said. If you’re a producer, storyteller, filmmaker, there’s probably nothing more exciting than watching a great actor at work and bringing a thing to life.
“At a certain point, you get a little bit inured to the fame or star aspect of it – it’s just part of how this industry works.
“That said, working with George Clooney was quite an extraordinary experience because he’s not received in the world like a movie star, he’s received like a world leader.
“To see the effect he has on people is quite powerful. And he’s a good guy, incredibly charming and decent. To see the power of someone like him is quite astonishing.”
Richard recalled shooting Catch 22 in Sardinia while Clooney was being courted by the Democrats to run against Donald Trump for president.
“That was quite something, for the actor you’re working with. He’s got this quality; he understands people and he’s decent.
“At the same time someone like Clooney, not many people have said no to him in 25 years.
“There’s something complex about that if you’re in a position of power, where you’re surrounded by sycophancy. There’s a question of how that affects you or how that affects your choices.
“In my opinion, George is someone who hasn’t been negatively affected by that. He’s got a very clear sense of who he is and what he wants and what’s important. It was a thrill to work so closely with him.”
Brad Pitt is high on the list of names that Richard would love to work with in the future.
As well as being a “wonderful actor”, Richard is impressed by his support for young, up and coming filmmakers.
“I think he’s the last of the great movie stars other than Clooney, he has extraordinary charisma.
“I’d also be very excited to work with Michael B. Jordan, he’s very special. His breakout film Fruitvale Station, which he did after he did The Wire as a kid, is one of the many films that sadly foreshadows the moment we’re in now in the sense that it’s about a police killing.
“Generally, what you’re always looking for is the actor who’s right. It was every bit as exciting to watch Christopher Abbot come to life as Yossarian in Catch 22 as it was to watch Matthew McConaughey come to life as Rust Cohle in True Detective.
“Chris is a wonderful actor and, in my opinion, will have one of the most significant careers of any current actor. Right now, he’s just stepping into his moment and to watch that was very exciting.”
XpoNorth 2020 Digital Edition takes place on Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th June 2020. Delegates can register to attend for free here: https://bit.ly/XpoNorth2020
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