Frank Spotnitz interview: Hunted, the BBC cancellation, The X-Files, and more...
On the eve of Hunted's final episode airing on the BBC, we chatted to its creator about the HBO spin-off, The X-Files, and more...
Frank Spotnitz's eight-part spy drama Hunted, starring Melissa George as Sam Hunter, a female spy in the Jason Bourne mould, comes to an end on the BBC tomorrow evening.
Originally a co-production between the Beeb and HBO, it was announced last week that the BBC would not be renewing Hunted due to it not reaching the desired viewer figures, but that HBO was to develop a spin-off based around Sam Hunter. In the divorce settlement, so to speak, Spotnitz and HBO were given custody of Sam's character, but the new show will have to be just that, a different incarnation of Spotnitz's stylish, slightly bonkers vision of the life of a private-sector spook.
We chatted to Spotnitz about the process of moving from Hollywood to the UK to make Hunted, the public response, the BBC cancellation, and his plans for the Sam Hunter spin-off. Being Den of Geek, obviously we couldn't not also check in on the status of The X-Files' third film, and the possibility of a small-screen return for Mulder and Scully...
You followed some of the audience reaction to the first episode of Hunted on Twitter didn’t you?
That’s a brave move…
[Laughs] I can take it, I’m strong.
There’s always that one snarky comment or offhand remark that needles though isn’t there? Was there any specific criticism that got to you?
Well it’s funny. No, I can’t think that there were any specific remarks that have stuck in my memory thank goodness, but you can read a thousand nice things and then there’s the one or two nasty ones that really hurt and the nice ones just go right past. You know, I think I’ve learned that’s just the nature of discourse and not to be too bothered by it.
Moving from Hollywood to the UK, you’ll have noticed the sizeable difference in TV budgets. Were there things you wanted to do with Hunted but couldn’t because of money constraints?
Well, in the beginning I was looking at a pretty major rewrite of the script because we just didn’t have the resources. Actually when HBO came on, it doubled our budget so we were actually able to do pretty much everything I wanted to do. Not that I wasn’t pushing against the budget every week, I was, and in truth we probably went a little over, but I’d say it was one of the best financed British productions ever, outside of a costume drama. We had a pretty healthy budget.
It shows, especially in the first episode with those fantastic locations…
That was really exciting for me. To be able to go to Morocco, and write those scenes for Scotland and then actually go there and take it outside of London. I think you can tell the difference, the audience can tell the difference, so that was really exciting to do.
There’s been some talk, whether it has any basis in truth, of the UK/US collaboration having been “creatively stifling”. Was that your experience or is that just hot air?
No, I mean I know where that perception is coming from, but that wasn’t the case at all. I had a fantastic relationship with both broadcasters both with the BBC and HBO and honestly, they saw eye-to-eye on their notes throughout the series.
I think what’s being talked about there is that Hunted is going to go on in another form after this year without the BBC, and when you make the decision to go forward just with HBO, it means you can go full-throttle for that audience, and you don’t need to be concerned with serving the general audience. So I think it’s a liberating move but it’s not an indication of frustration in any way with the BBC, who were great.
Tell us more about the new Hunted we’re going to see from HBO then, are you keeping the name, the same settings, the cast?
Well, I know it’s going to have Sam Hunter in it! [laughs] Actually, I have a pretty good idea where we’re going and what we’re going to do but I’m not free to say just yet. I’ll be saying something in the near future on that.
Respecting that, am I right that you won't have acces to some elements of Hunted because of the departure from the BBC?
Yeah, it’ll be a different series. It has to be a different series. That’s where the risks of co-productions come back and change your plans unexpectedly sometimes. Because of losing the BBC as a partner, we had to do a different show, we couldn’t do the same show we did this year.
So will you be taking more advantage of HBO’s reputation for nudity and violence now?
I don’t think so, no. I think that the storytelling we did this year was one long serialised arc and I don’t think we have to follow that form now, so that’s the kind of difference in format I’m interested in.
When did you first hear the BBC announcement that they wouldn’t be continuing with the show?
Well, it’s been weeks, but it was a discussion. We were trying to see if there were terms we could reach where we could still continue with the co-production, but it just didn’t work out.
I’ve just watched episode eight and with all its revelations and things coming full circle from episode one, it made for very rewarding viewing by the end.
Thank you very much, I’m delighted to hear that.
So we’re chuffed that HBO will be taking it on.
Thank you, me too. I’m very, very happy about it.
You said in a previous interview, “Americans will watch British people, if they’re spies” presumably thinking about John Le Carré and Bond etc. How far were you making Hunted for a US audience?
Well, first I should say I said that with a smile in my voice, you know.
Americans are famous for not watching other people’s television, and pretty much just watching American television, which puts the rest of the world at a huge disadvantage economically, because the rest of the world buys American television, but Americans, until recently, wouldn’t buy television from anybody else. I was very interested in breaking through that wall and finding a way to get more European television in America, and not just in a niche, not just on PBS - which is great by the way, I love PBS and fully support it - but I wanted to reach a wider audience with European talent and storytelling and I thought the spy genre is something where Americans are used to seeing spies with British accents, you know, John Le Carré and James Bond, take your pick, The Saint, there are many excellent adventures so that was very much in my mind.
Having said that, I was also fully aware that you can’t do a show in Britain, and certainly for the BBC, and have it not be a British show. It has to have that integrity, it has to be designed for this audience first and if it isn’t then this audience is going to smell it and nobody likes that. Nobody wants something that’s been jury-rigged for commercial purposes, it has to have artistic and creative integrity and I wanted to please the British audience first.
Would you call Sam Hunter’s emotional unavailability a kind of British character trait then? A version of the stiff upper lip cliché?
I didn’t really look at it as being particularly British to be honest. I mean, my starting point with the series was, you know, ‘If Jason Bourne was a real person, what would he be like and how would he have got that way?’, and I just thought probably, that if you’re someone who lies and kills for a living, then you’re pretty damaged.
It becomes - as you'll know, having seen all eight episodes - the things that happened to Sam as a child that are now catching up to her are really the centre of the series. She’s going to have to go back and face these traumatic events if she wants to stay alive. I thought, that’s so ironic, because for a character like Sam it’s easier for her to kill people than to go back and look at her childhood traumas, so that was in my mind more than any cultural stereotypes.
Do you think if Sam was less of a snow maiden, viewers would have found her easier to make an emotional connection with, and you may have kept a wider UK audience?
I don’t know. I think the audience the show found really connected with it, and I’m really pleased with the reception the show’s got. I think the ratings were good but not great, and it was just one of those calls, we just didn’t have a commanding argument in our favour to make the case for renewal. But I don’t know, I think that was sort of the character she needed to be and it wouldn’t have been truthful to soften her up just to win a larger audience.
I have to ask this. I read that you deliberately didn’t use certain real-life spy gadgets in Hunted so that it didn’t become, in your words, "silly". How then do you explain the six foot rabbit in episode six?
The rabbit? I thought that was very funny. To me, that was very funny. The darkness of that, having that poor man dressed in a rabbit suit, yeah there were many times in the writers’ room - I developed these episodes with three fabulous British writers for six months - and we were crying with laughter at some things in that series. [Laughing] To us, they were very, very funny.
There is a dark sense of humour running through the show isn’t there? I loved the Communist being beaten to death with a statue of Karl Marx…
Yes! The Karl Marx thing, and then you know, when Fowkes retrieves the shoe…
Hassan’s boot, which he then keeps on his desk!
Yes, from the place where they’re incinerating the body. We thought we were very funny at least.
Do you think some people just didn’t get the jokes?
You did at least.
Something that struck me about Hunted, which may explain why some viewers found it hard to follow, was how even very late on, even in the final two episodes, a number of new characters were being introduced in each episode. Even in episodes seven and eight, we were still meeting people for the first time. Were you laying the ground for future series by doing that?
Absolutely, and I think that will be one of the things in the changed format, the spin-off, is that I’ll be eager to reward those who’ve seen this series and give them the answers that those last two episodes demand.
Just between you and me, that woman on the bridge in episode eight… is Sam’s mother really dead?
Oh, I can’t say. [Laughing] "Just between you and me", you’re funny. Oh, you’ll have to watch, you’ll have to watch.
Okay, we will.
SPOILER WARNING ENDS
You mentioned being pleased with the audience the show found. The BBC non-renewal statement said that Hunted “…hasn’t found the mainstream audience it was hoped”. How important was reaching a mainstream audience to you?
You know, it’s one of those things that you don’t really get to decide. I always want to reach as many people as I possibly can, and I think I was spoiled by the experience of The X-Files because we got to tell exactly the stories we wanted to tell and we reached huge audiences all around the world but that’s not something anybody can predict. You just make the show you love and put everything you have into it and you just hope for the best, and a lot of it is luck too, a lot of it is stuff you just can’t possibly anticipate.
Going back to the online response, did you find the comparisons to shows like Spooks or Homeland fair or frustrating?
I understand totally why people make those comparisons, though I don’t think they’re particularly valid comparisons. I mean, I don’t think Hunted is anything like either one of those shows, nor was it ever intended to be. When we started out, Spooks was still on the air and nobody had any idea that it was going off, it was 2009 that I first started writing Hunted. And with Homeland, we’d already shot and edited the first two episodes of Hunted before I even saw Homeland, so the audience’s perception of these things is not in sync with how long it actually takes to develop a TV series.
If you wouldn’t compare Hunted to those two shows then, is there another touchstone you would compare it to?
Well I really tried to make it unlike anything that I had seen because I do love the genre so much - and by the way, I love Spooks and Homeland too. I tried really hard to honour some of the shows I loved, like Mission: Impossible or I Spy or James Bond or the Bourne movies, but not to ape them. I think there are deliberate nods and winks to those franchises in the show, but I tried very much to make it feel like its own unique self.
What kind of nods are you talking about? Were there specific shots or scenes in which you’ve paid homage to those earlier shows?
I think that the opening of episode one feels very Mission: Impossible. It’s similar because it’s twist after twist after twist in the very beginning in Tangier, and the idea of going to Tangier at all was sort of Jason Bourne. I Spy was this phenomenal series in the sixties where they amazingly travelled all over the world on locations, and then, James Bond for me is the greatest cinematic spy and just casts a shadow that no one will ever completely escape, and happily so.
All of those characters and movies and TV series were in the back of my mind, but I was always trying to find a way to do it differently or reflect the character of Sam. I think that the perfect story has the character and plot intertwined, you know? That story can only be happening to that character, and there were many things I think about this first series that I hadn’t seen before. I hadn’t seen a character quite like her before, and I hadn’t seen a world that was quite the same world as the one in which she operated, so it just created a whole bunch of interesting dramatic questions for us to answer.
Are more exotic locations in the pipeline for the HBO Hunted spin-off then?
Yes. Yes. I mean, none of that’s been decided as I speak to you today, but that’s definitely my ambition.
Hunted’s cynicism was a really defining feature with this first series wasn't it? Its suspicion of corporations and capitalism and the moral murkiness of it all. There’s no sense that anybody’s doing anything good, ever.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I hate to say it, but I think that’s pretty much the way I feel [laughing].
To me, it makes goodness all the more moving, when you set it against an assessment that honest and that bleak of the way that most of the world operates. Because I do believe that there are good people in the world who want to do good things, and I’m enormously moved by those people, so I think it just sort of heightens the heroism of somebody like Sam, to see her do good knowing that there’s no reward for it, knowing that in fact you pay a cost for doing the right thing.
Can I just move on to The X-Files briefly, just as we’re running out of time. We're as keen as you are for The X-Files film trilogy to finally be completed. Do you have a script for the third film in place?
No. No I don’t. I mean I’ve known for many years what I would like the movie to be and I’ve been talking to Chris Carter about it for many years, but there is no script.
Is it still the big alien invasion movie you want to do?
Yes, it’s the climax of the alien colonisation story that began the series.
Do you foresee The X-Files ever pulling a Star Trek and returning to the small screen in a different incarnation?
I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I mean, I don’t think I would have anything to do with it but you know, for better or for worse, these things are titles of big corporations , like Star Trek belongs to Paramount and The X-Files belongs to Twentieth Century Fox and it’s a huge asset in their libraries so I can’t imagine they would let it sit languishing forever.
Mulder and Scully: The College Years?
Anything could happen. I just hope that if they do it, they do it well, that’s my only request.
Returning to Hunted, what do you think you learnt making it that you’ll take into future work?
Oh well, this was my first production in Europe and the way television is made here is completely different from the way it’s made in Hollywood. The whole thing was a huge learning experience and I got to work with so many amazing people. The actors I think are second to none in this country, the crew is incredibly dedicated and talented and the directors I had, starting with SJ Clarkson, who did the first two and ending with Dan Percival, who did the last two. You learn something by working with great people, so it was a great experience.
We haven’t scared you off then, you’re going to stick around in the UK?
I’m not going anywhere, not yet anyway!
Frank Spotnitz, thank you very much!
Hunted’s series one finale airs on BBC One this Thursday at 9pm and the series one DVD and Blu Ray is being released by Entertainment One on Monday the 26th of November.