Dominic Mitchell interview: what's next for In The Flesh?

Interview Louisa Mellor 8 Jun 2014 - 23:00

We picked over the bones of In The Flesh series 2 with creator Dominic Mitchell, and found out his future plans for Roarton. Spoilers...

Warning: contains major spoilers for In The Flesh series one and two.

“Let’s stay away from labels. I don’t like labels.” In a sense, Dominic Mitchell’s In The Flesh has been fighting its labels from day one. It was a zombie drama but not really a zombie drama. It aired on the BBC Three, but it wasn’t one of the channel’s neon reality shows. It was created by a newcomer, but portrayed a world that was mature and bedded in. It was sold as a standalone mini-series but now looks as though it could run and run…

We chatted to In The Flesh’s creator, Dominic Mitchell, about labels, religion, sexuality, Morrissey posters, the ideas he couldn’t fit in to series two, and the necessity of a Christmas Special complete with Rabid attacks on carol singers. Before we got on to all that though, we had some post-finale telling off to do…

Congratulations on the Bafta! What have you done with it?

I have boringly put it on my shelf in my bedroom. We got the Television Craft award and then we got the Mini-series award so I’ve got these winking gold faces looking at me, which sometimes is a bit intimidating. A super fan of In The Flesh came to the set and gave me a little stress ball in the shape of a golden brain so I’ve put that in between the Baftas to keep my priorities right, to keep me sane.

I want to talk about bedrooms now you mention it, but before that, I’m not even sure if I’m still talking to you having watched the finale. You are a cruel, cruel man Dominic Mitchell.

Yeah, yeah, it’s…yeah. I’m sorry.

What have you got to say for yourself?

I know, I know. It had to be done unfortunately, it had to be done.

Why Amy?

Why Amy? There was all this mythology about the First Risen and the people who rose in Roarton, and because in a usual sort of show, the protagonist is always the special one, so I always thought that actually, Amy is the special one. Everyone sort of, not ignores her, but puts her to one side.

Because we didn’t want a second Rising to happen, we thought, well, how do we prove that? In the writers’ room we were like, ‘we can’t just have this monologue about how it’s not happened’. Maxine Martin needed to make it happen, because she’s got this information from Sandra that Amy was the First Risen. It just got to a point where I personally was like ‘Oh no, Amy’s going to have to die’. Amy had to die to end it and to prove the myth of the second Rising not wrong but…

A fallacy? A belief structure that was flawed?

Yeah, completely. In series one, belief structures really mess people up. We said from the beginning of series two that it was about belief. In the early episodes this series, you had the people in the pub talking about the French, and Kieren was telling them ‘Don’t believe everything that you hear’. Because in the first series, Vicar Oddie tells Bill to kill Rick so that he’ll come back just as good, we wanted to keep with that mythology, or non-mythology. I think if the First Risen had been killed and brought on a second Rising, it would have felt less In The Flesh if you get my meaning.

So you’re saying categorically that Amy was the First Risen?

Amy is the First Risen, yes.

I squared it with myself that you’d only be able to sleep at night after killing Amy so cruelly, having her stabbed in the heart just seconds after it started beating again, because you were certain she was coming back…

Well there is that bit at the end with the Halperin and Weston people who start digging up her grave… What happens afterwards, that’s up to the powers that be in the BBC [laughs]. I know what’s going to happen but it’s up to them.

I feel like there is hope, strangely, because Amy was rehumanising and there is something special about her. I have absolutely no doubt that there is something special about Amy. So for me, it’s not the end for Amy.

Phew. That is all Tumblr is going to want to hear on Sunday night. You mentioned Amy rehumanising, which is a new verb on me. The coming back to life is the genius point of series two for me - it opens up so many more possibilities for the future. When did that come to you? When did you decide your Undead were going to start rehumanising?

Early on, it was always the plan. In the In The Flesh world there was always something wrong, I thought, with the medication. I thought that Halperin and Weston rushed it into production, they really didn’t have any idea who these people were. In the flashback in episode five you see them saying, ‘They’re not ready, we need to wait’. Their experiments are quite barbaric but they needed to do that to understand these beings before they were just shipped out. I always feel like they were shipped out way, way, way too early and now, they’re rehumanising. Early on, we wanted to get to that point.

You were already planning it in series one?

Yeah, we were always going down that line. We couldn’t do it in series one, there just wasn’t space.

It was a different thing, too.

Yeah, it was a different thing, but now that we had more time, we could introduce it. I always knew that the reason Amy was getting sick is that she doesn’t actually need the medication anymore, that’s why she was experiencing those symptoms in series two.

What the rehumanising presents for you is the possibility of a very definite ending for the series at some point in the future. If it happens to everyone, then at some point, the In The Flesh world will have no more PDS sufferers?

Yeah, completely. There’s a finite number of PDS sufferers that came back as well. I think it was 144,000 that came back in 2009, so if things develop as I’m thinking that they might develop then there is definitely is a finite end I would say, about what they become and what Amy is becoming… Is she completely human? Can she die? Or is she like, as Halperin says, more of a superior species? Those questions are really tantalising to me. There definitely could be an end-end.

How far in the future do you see that happening? In an ideal world how far away would that end-end be for you?

I think to properly explore the world of In The Flesh, I’d like it to be a couple of seasons down the line. When I was doing that bible back in the day I said I wanted it to be a returnable series but with an end-point. I don’t think we could do the lead-up to that in just one episode.

Toby Whithouse had five seasons with Being Human. That seems like a decent number to me.

With any show that five series mark is the sweet spot because afterwards you start to have to repeat yourself. If there’s not enough storyline, you’re thinking, can I get more out of this?

That’s definitely not your problem though is it? Series two had so many ideas in it. I was worried initially that doubling the amount of episodes might dilute what made series one so great, but now it’s clear that series one was actually a bit of a straitjacket for you. Three episodes wasn’t enough, and now six episodes isn’t even enough.

When we were getting to the end, we were like, ‘Oh God, we’ve just got into the treatment centre!’, there’s the whole Halperin and Weston pharmaceutical industry which we’ve sort of touched upon, and Amy was rehumanising and all this stuff so when we were getting to the end, we were like ‘I wish we had eight episodes’.

Can I say two words to you? Christmas Special

A Christmas Special,yeah! Definitely, there has to be a Christmas special right? I mean, it’s always taking place in winter. Roarton is in a perpetual winter. Winter has come for that show, the White Walkers are amongst them! I think a Christmas Special would be ideal.

Sue would do a lovely turkey with all the trimmings I bet.

She would do an absolutely lovely turkey, carol singers, everything, I can see it now! Those carol singers would be attacked by Rabids but…

Don’t give it all away now!

I won’t, I won’t [laughing].

Talking about not being able to fit everything in, you told Rob, our interviewer before series two aired, that there were things you were gutted to have left out. Are you talking entire characters or plotlines for existing characters?

A bit of both really, there was a lot more of what Halperin and Weston are doing now and what’s going on in Norfolk which we wanted to get to but couldn’t. There were the people who have gone back to Norfolk as non-compliants, like Freddie, and Alex in the first series. What’s happening to him right this minute is very interesting to me.

Let’s talk about Freddie, episode three was a fantastic, contained story this year.

With episode three we wanted to have a bit of a detour and calm things down. We’d placed a lot of the main plots and the mythology, and we wanted to ground it a little bit in a story of someone that would be reflective of Kieren and Rick, and how Kieren was feeling about Rick and how he’s feeling about Simon. We thought that Freddie’s story would be perfect. From series one I was talking about how, in reality, people are going to come back from the dead, so what happens if you’re in love with someone and you die and they have to move on, mourn and you come back into their lives, so I just thought that was a fantastic little story to tell really.

It was one of those stories that sheds light on everyday human relationships, not just supernatural fantasy. People outgrow relationships, they choose between youth and maturity every day.

We were so pleased with it. Fintan Ryan and John Jackson wrote that episode fantastically well. You do come out thinking, where did those characters go? What’s going on with them? Looking back on it, there’s the whole village of Roarton, and how are they going to react after this? Where is the country going to be after this? A lot more can happen, and it’s always good to be in that situation.

Can I ask about some specific plot points and whether you’d originally planned to do a bit more with them if you’d had more time? The sheep brain idea, for instance?

I put that in series one and then we had to take it out. I always thought brains would make them feel very, very good. When PDS sufferers are in their Rabid state it’s actually not… Alex says something in series one in the group therapy he goes to, he says being a Rabid is  a better place to be and I always thought that was really interesting, the idea that there’s not a thought in your head. For Amy, that is a terrifying and awful idea, but for other PDS sufferers, it actually might not be, it might be liberating to not have to think and not have all this guilt and shame and morals and ethics going about in your head. I think the sheep brains gets them back into that sort of state of being, whilst being aware as well. There will be more sheep brains, yes!

The home-made Neurotryptaline, was that just intended as a red herring for Amy’s illness, were we supposed to think that’s what was making her sick?

No, no. That’s an interesting one, because I always thought the home-made Neurotryptaline was actually superior to the real stuff that Halperin and Weston are producing. I thought if we were going to these communes, there are eleven other communes around the country, we only saw one with Simon.

With the guitarist playing a Nirvana cover!

[Laughs] Yes, Lake Of Fire, you’ve got to get a Nirvana cover in there.

Of course, and a Morrissey poster.

We had a Morrissey poster in Simon’s room!

I know, I cheered that on screen! How much influence do you have on what goes in the characters’ bedrooms, or is that just completely the production design team?

It’s a talk. Sometimes I will be persistent and go ‘There is a Morrissey poster’

Tell me you fought for the Morrissey poster.

Yes, they knew that I was a massive Morrissey fan so Sami Khan (Art Director) agreed we’d have that. A lot of stuff is the production team. There are big talks, we’re all close, so they can ask me any questions and sometimes I’ll say ‘I didn’t even think of that, that’s amazing!’.

What about the masks in the Walker family dining room?

That’s Sami Kahn all the way down.

How about the mirrors in Kieren’s room? Was that you? Because for a lad who can’t face his own reflection at the beginning of the series, Kieren has at least three mirrors in his room, which seems excessive.

It is yeah [laughs]. I guess that’s me, there’s a lot of mirrors in series two, a lot of people looking in mirrors so that would be in the script.

How about the mountains in the GP’s office and reception?

No, I believe that is a Jim O’Hanlon note with Sami Kahn. That’s so great, but it’s not in the script, that’s Jim O’Hanlon.

Was it referencing Twin Peaks?

More The Returned, though The Returned was very Lynchian. I loved The Returned so I was like, ‘let’s play on that’. There’s a little thing in episode one, you know when Kieren is looking in the Rough Guide book and he circles a hotel in Paris and that’s the surname of the guy who created The Returned. All that little stuff that we were like, oh we’ve got to put that in.

I loved finding out about the White Zombie link to Halperin and Weston [In The Flesh’s scientists are named for the writer and director of the 1930s horror classic]. Are there other Easter Eggs that people should be freeze-framing the DVD to find?

Oh yeah, loads. When Kieren’s booking his ticket, the website he’s using is called Gosi, which is for Bela Lugosi of course, because he starred in White Zombie. God, there’s so many. I can’t think now. There are a lot of religious ones. When Simon goes to the door and knocks it’s a 12 on the door and then there’s 8:13, which is relevant to the prophesy or the non-prophesy, rather. There was a lot of religious stuff peppered about.

And you had Da Vinci’s Last Supper in episode five, when Simon goes to the disciples in that tower block.

That was in the script! God bless [director] Alice Troughton. I wrote, ‘Simon comes in and it looks like the Last Supper’ and she was like ‘Okay, that’s quite hard to do but I’ll give it a go’ and she did it fantastically well. It’s a kind of echo of it rather than anything too representational but it’s all in there.

I wanted to get on to religion because it’s a huge theme and the symbolism is all over the show as you’ve just mentioned. What is your personal relationship with the church?

I’m agnostic. Me, personally, I don’t know. I can’t say one hundred percent that God doesn’t exist and it’s all chaos and we’re here but we don’t have a reason for it, but on the other hand, I can’t say that I believe in an ancient book written when people didn’t know anything about science.

The subject of belief and how it can make you do fantastic things is really interesting to me. Believing people and believing in yourself can make you do more things than you thought possible, but belief in a certain ideology, when that ideology is non-negotiable, like the Undead Prophet’s beliefs are non-negotiable, like Bill Macey and Vicar Oddie as well, when that happens is when disaster strikes and people are capable of terrible things.

Did you feel after series one that you realised you had an audience, a young audience, and a platform on which to present political ideas about political rhetoric not being trustworthy, religious extremism being harmful and so on?

They’re subjects that fascinate me, so I think if they fascinate you then it’s always going to bleed into your work somehow. Belief systems and cults and religion and when religion breaks that person or is very detrimental to someone or the community, that always fascinated me, the big questions, the existential questions. It’s a show about zombies, but they’re Undead, we have to talk about death here, we have to talk about what goes on after death. It was a chance to talk about all those issues that fascinated me.

Can we talk about the LGBT side of the series, because I read a lovely piece recently that said In The Flesh’s characters were the best LGBT characters since Queer As Folk.

Oh wow. That’s amazing.

A Russell T Davies comparison is never a bad thing! When you write a line like “I don’t take orders from a boy who wears make-up”, you’re obviously courting those comparisons, as well as Kieren’s relationships.

It was always in the back of my mind, but it was always in my mind as well that I didn’t want it to be a massive deal. I wanted my protagonist to be… I know there’s this debate raging, is Kieren gay? Is he straight? Is he queer? and all that, and I personally hate labels: PDS sufferer, the Redeemed, Undead, Rotter… all those labels, which are put on people as well, I wanted to tackle.

Kieren just happens to fall in love with the people he falls in love with. He fell in love with Rick. With Kieren and Simon’s relationship, it’s just beginning really, they’re not in love with each other I don’t think. I think Simon is much more into Kieren than Kieren is into Simon. I think he’s intrigued and I think he fancies Simon, but it’s not like that all-encompassing Romeo and Juliet thing that we had between Kieren and Rick. Let’s stay away from labels, I don’t like labels.

Simon and Kieren got the on-screen kiss – a couple of kisses in fact – that Rick and Ren never did. Rick and Ren never got a snog in series one, why was that?

I always thought it was about their characters and how old they were. In series two, Kieren’s a bit more mature,  and he becomes more sure of himself in this series. When Kieren was alive, even though he was kind of a rebel in the village, he was very unsure of himself and of course Rick coming from the background that he did, it was very difficult for them. I kind of think, did they kiss or didn’t they kiss? I don’t think they got there. I think it was something that could have got there. I think that’s why Rick freaked out and said ‘I’m going to join the army, I’m going to do something incredibly mainstream macho to show that I’m not like that’, and I think that’s a tragedy of series one, that they didn’t get to kiss. They could have done it, they could have done it in that bloody car! But then flipping Phil came through on the Walkie Talkie, so it was a real near-miss.

In series two, Kieren was ready to take the reins and ready to kiss someone, especially when he’d seen what happened to Freddie, he was like ‘I’m just going to do it’. Of course Simon’s gay. I always imagined that Simon was gay. He wasn’t bi, he wasn’t transsexual, Simon, for me, is a gay character so he was just like ‘This is great’. Obviously there was a complication with poor Amy but she just has the worst luck.

On the subject of religion and the various labels in the relationships on the show, how has the series been going down in America from your perspective?

Critically, they’re responding to it. We get tagged with the ‘gay zombie’ thing and for me that’s totally okay, but for Americans there are some very hot-button issues, religion, sexuality… The fans that we’ve got who are American are fantastic and love it. I don’t think I’ve had any nasty, nasty Tweets from religious groups or letters yet. So that’s good. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion I think, it’s sort of like, oh well. I’d rather people loved it and people hated it rather than people were saying, ‘It’s okay’. I always want it to be an extreme. One of my favourite shows last year was Utopia and people hated that and loved it, and I loved it, but I would rather In The Flesh be a Marmite show than just an ‘it’s alright’ show.

We’ve run over time and we haven’t even had a chance to talk about Philip, the hero of series two! Quickly tell me, when did you know he was going to be a hero?

I knew from series one. Nobody liked Philip and granted he wasn’t the most sympathetic character in the world, but I loved Philip from series one and I always thought, if he was brave enough, if he let himself be true to himself, he would win the day, he would win out. It’s a tragedy at the end but I feel there’s hope. I feel there’s hope.

Dominic Mitchell, thank you very much!

Read our spoiler-filled reviews of In The Flesh series two, here.

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