Creating Channel 4’s Utopia

Utopia returns this July with a second series that promises to be stronger than the first. Its creative team discusses how it was made...

Read our spoiler-free thoughts on the first two episodes of Utopia’s second series, here.

Woven into Utopia series one’s handsome game of chase was a genuine dilemma. The human population is fast outgrowing the planet’s resources. Can the inevitable be avoided, and at what cost?

The series two opener delves into that debate with characteristic daring and style. Without giving anything away, it’s a surprising and satisfying hour that fleshes out character and motive – arguably the only weak link in Utopia’s first run. As an hour of television, it’s violent, funny, often beautiful, and crammed with big ideas. In short it’s Utopia squared. Fans of series one will not be disappointed.

Improving on the first series was the challenge Utopia’s creative team set themselves this time around. Executive Producer Rebekah Wray Rogers told a recent Bafta preview screening audience “Everyone decided that this series had to be better”. Director Marc Munden, at whose feet praise for Utopia’s unique look should go, is in agreement. “During the first series we were still trying to find it. The writing was fully formed but what the series was as a piece of television, we were still trying to find. When we started the second series we knew what it was, and we were all having nervous breakdowns trying to make it better”.

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Did writer Dennis Kelly share in the mass series two nervous breakdown? “You’re faced with the idea of finding new twists or just doing something a bit different. I thought I wouldn’t try and make it too twisty – there’s probably one or two little surprises and things like that – but it’s not quite as twisty as the first one. We know what they are now so it’s really about seeing how the Network works and how the guys who are trying to fight it work, and whether they should fight it.”

Attempting not to repeat himself in series two was a preoccupation for Kelly. “What was difficult writing-wise was not to look back at what you did before and match it. You’ve got this challenge of finding new things and no just thinking, ‘that bit worked well, I’ll take that back, change it a bit and squeeze it in, which I don’t think I’ve done in the new one.”

What Kelly has done in the new one is to expand upon the moral quandary of series one. He admits “the odd thing about the first series was that you didn’t find out what the conspiracy theory really was – the population idea – until episode five. I’m glad that it came so late, but what’s difficult is that the series doesn’t talk about population control until that moment. What was nice about this series is that it can be about that straight away. That is what the entire series is about.”

Leading Utopia’s audience to a position where they can’t outright condemn baddies The Network is partly what the series two opening episode is about. As well as being an eventful, captivating thriller, Utopia’s second series opener is an exercise in empathy. It asks the drama’s audience to accept that the motives of The Network – the shady global organisation behind series one’s plot to sterilise the population – are  benevolent, even if their methods are far from it. Kelly argues that The Network’s Janus plan “sort of comes from a good place. They’re trying to solve the world’s problems. I’m not suggesting what they do is right, but they are coming from a good place.”

If not The Network’s solution to overpopulation, then what? Kelly prompts us to ask. “The question at the heart of this is one that nothing in my liberal, woolly, lefty politics gives me an answer to, nothing. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know what we do about it as a species, which is why it’s such an interesting thing to talk about.”

Does Kelly think the series has a moral centre, a single perspective we’re supposed to agree with, or is it all more flexible than that? “I think morality is flexible”, Kelly told the Bafta audience. “All big proper questions aren’t easily answered by the moralities that we have. I like the fact that it shifts and that it shifts for the characters. Sometimes good people do terrible things, and bad people do terrible things.”

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Those terrible things (a torture scene, a string of executions, a school shooting, a young girl blasting a hole in a man’s stomach you could push a loaf of bread through…) made Utopia notorious in some hysterical circles. Does Kelly think the violence is key to telling his darkly complex story? “Yes it is”, is the unequivocal answer he gives to the Bafta crowd. “[Network boss] Milner’s question is really simple, it’s one that follows her throughout her entire life, and it’s: If I stop doing this, what’s going to happen? If I stop doing this, what about the billions who live in the future that are going to have wars?’ She believes this will happen and she might be right, but when our resources run out, what is going to happen? Her constant debate is that killing these people is bad – obviously, killing people is not nice and she doesn’t want to do it – but what about all those other people? So I think you do need the violence to tell the extreme of that story”.

Something else required to match the extremes of the story was an extreme visual style. Director Marc Munden describes the first scripts for Utopia as being “so visionary I felt like it had to have a visual equivalent”. The distinctive look Munden and the production team came up with – wide, unnaturally saturated acid yellow and green landscapes, derelict stately homes filmed to look like underwater shipwrecks – was an attempt to create a world that matched Kelly’s heightened, comic-book imagination.

Fittingly for such a distinctive show, Munden’s approach to Utopia was to go against the norm. “There’s a definite colour palette which is yellow, cyan and magenta – the opposite of how you normally construct the colouring of a TV programme, which is red, blue and green. We did that through an old Technicolor process.” More than the secondary colour correction though, Utopia’s landscapes were key to the series’ look. “There was a lot of talk in the first series about whether it was about GM crops,” says Munden. “I’d felt that it needed to be embedded in the landscape, which is where those big, wide shots came from. It’s mostly the framing and choice of aspect ratio which makes it distinctive.”

Finding the atmospheric locations for Utopia’s second series would certainly have been a contributing factor in the creative team’s ‘nervous breakdown’ attempt to better what had gone before. “More than any other series I’ve ever come across,” says Executive Producer Rebekah Wray-Rogers, “Utopia goes from location to location to location because by its very nature, everybody’s on the run.” Director Munden estimates that around one hundred and thirty locations were used across series two, many of them in the North of England (Leeds, Liverpool, Bradford, Huddersfield, York, and Scarborough all provided backdrops), and beyond.

Don’t expect a Utopia coach tour anytime soon though, the show’s locations were, fittingly, built in a lab. “Everything’s doctored” says Wray-Rogers. “What you see before you isn’t necessarily how it was. There’s an awful lot of VFX and extra things added to shots to make them even more effective”. Munden adds, “There’s a lot of invisible VFX. The pyramid building in that lavender field for example, is in Huddersfield and it’s dropped in a lavender field. There are a number of locations put together. There are  a lot of composite shots to give it a heightened feel.”

The same goes for Utopia’s eerily atmospheric sound. Munden reminds the Bafta audience “What you’re hearing is not just music, there’s a lot of sound design as well. Tim Barker did the sound and there’s all sorts of other things going on, a lot of blackbirds, it’s a whole mixture of stuff. Sometimes the music comes out of the drones and Cristobal (Tapia de Veer, composer) will write his own drones as well, so it’s quite mixed up”.

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That’s not a bad description of Utopia in fact. It’s stunning, shocking, darkly funny and undeniably “quite mixed up”. Fans of the first run will have a blast with the second series. And if Channel Four grants Dennis Kelly’s wishes, with the third and even the fourth.

What we’ve seen of series two promises it will be one of the best – and certainly the best looking – things on UK TV this year. You won’t want to miss it.

Utopia series 2 starts on Channel 4 in July.

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