This is a somewhat strange interview.
At the end of July at the Television Critics Association press tour, I sat down with Howard Overman and Johnny Capps to discuss their new BBC America drama Atlantis. At the time, the show was still early in production and all I’d seen was a three-minute clip reel.
The drama, a blending of traditional Greek mythology, history, time travel and fantasy archetypes starring Jack Donnelly, Mark Addy and Jemima Rooper, premiered in September on The UK’s BBC One and in October on Canada’s Space, but it doesn’t launch until this Saturday (November 23) in the States.
“Atlantis” was a success and has been ordered for a second season, but I still haven’t seen an episode of “Atlantis.” That isn’t the way I normally conduct interviews, so my conversation with the creators is full of random and speculative intellectual queries mixed with obvious plot-based stuff that I’m pretty sure would have been self-evident if I’d watched for a couple hours. Apologies. I think it’s still an interesting chat with the creators, but I don’t have a clue if these were the questions I’d ask today.
And speaking of that odd time warp, there’s an even stranger thing in the second half of the interview, in which I talked with Overman about the American adaptation of his British smash “Misfits,” which he had been working on with “The O.C.” mastermind Josh Schwartz. In late July, that project hadn’t been mentioned for a long while, but Overman insisted it was still alive, albeit in a bit of limbo because Schwartz had recently moved his Fake Empire banner from Warner Brothers TV to ABC Studios.
We talked a lot about the approach that he had taken to the American version of the edgy superhero dramedy, but there’s one problem: Since late July, Schwartz and Fake Empire have ceased to be involved with “Misfits,” so all of the specifics have become largely moot.
However, I liked that part of the conversation, because it gave insight into an interesting process, so I’ve left that portion of the Q&A, but I’ve added a few words from Schwartz on the parting of ways.
Anyway, click through for the full conversation with Capps and Overman, with the “Atlantis” stuff on the first page and the “Misfits” stuff and Schwartz comment on the second page.
HitFix: I’ve obviously only seen clips, but it feels — and I don’t mean this as an insult — like you guys threw as many things as you could possibly think of into a blender and just had fun seeing what you could do with it. How much was that sorta the approach that you guys had?
Howard Overman: That was the exact approach, actually.
Johnny Capps: Absolutely. We got a very large blender out and threw a large book of Greek mythology in.
Howard Overman: The starting point was Greek mythology, but then we played fast-and-lose with where we access people, where we meet them. Some of the characters got bits of the heroes merged together. Perseus, Jason, all of those sorta character we merged into one. It was never meant to be historically accurate. It’s not a historically accurate portrayal of myths, but where we can be faithful we are. But you meet characters before they’re maybe the people of legend, so who’s to say that Medusa wasn’t a young girl wandering around before she got the snakes on her head? You can have fun with it and it’s what works dramatically. I don’t think people would appreciate it if we told it very faithfully, but it was dull and uninteresting.
Johnny Capps: And also, they’re myths. These are stories and there are so many different interpretations of them that we feel that we’re quite at liberty to have fun with them. And to us, Greek mythology is very dark and those stories are dark and we wanted to go to those dark places, but at the same time we wanted to counterbalance that with a sense of fun and humor and a big heart, so we wanted to create these characters that were humorous and an audience would like to come back and visit and be with them. That was important to have that counterbalance, wasn’t it? In the darkness, there’s lots of humor and fun.
HitFix: You mentioned the things that you can change, but what is canon? What are the things that you can’t screw around with?
Howard Overman: That’s a very good question and I have no idea what the answer is.
HitFix: Is anything sacred? Or give that this is all oral tradition can you take it anywhere?
Johnny Capps: When you’re reinventing, you have to treat them with respect, I think. You have to treat the stories with a bit of respect, whilst you’re having fun with them. Is there an area that you can’t? No, I don’t think there is. Obviously, there’s content which is really dark and really sexualized, which you don’t kinda want to go there, but I think apart from that, we’re pretty fast and loose, aren’t we?
Howard Overman: I think the thing is, with that sort of question, is I could say to you now, “Oh right, the one thing we won’t mess with is ‘X'” and then…
HitFix: And then Season 5…
Howard Overman: Yeah, Season 5 and I’m talking to you on the phone and I’m saying, “You know I said I would never mess with ‘X’? Well, I’ve messed with it. It’s now ‘Y.'”
HitFix: So many of these stories, when they were originally conceived, they were framed as explanations for unexplainable things in life, for broader themes, etc. Is there any of that still left? Is there any allegorical value left?
Johnny Capps: Absolutely, and I think that’s really important to us. Each episode of “Atlantis” is like a mini action-adventure movie. There’s darkness, but there’s fun and there’s a heart to it. But also central to that, there’s always an interesting moral dilemma. Like you said, the Greek legends allow you to explore those moral questions and I think to us that’s really important, that the audience does go on an interesting emotional journey, where they do question their own morality and I think that’s essential to good storytelling.
Howard Overman: But also, in terms of the allegories, there are things like we have Pandora’s Box and Pandora’s Box is all about man being inquisitive and that still features in our episode. We very much use those notions.
HitFix: And you guys said on the panel that The Gods are not characters here. What does taking them out of the equation do for the story?
Johnny Capps: I think it makes the world feel more modern and the audience can relate to it more, because religion is used as something that the people fear and that the people in power use to manipulate the people and I think that’s true of society now and we like that kind of parallel.
Howard Overman: And also, we just want it to feel very real and the city of Atlantis feels like a real city. Even though it’s a mystical, magical place, it has to feel real and I think as soon as you’ve got the Gods there standing in the crowds, the whole thing just doesn’t feel real. They talk about the Gods punishing us if the crops fail, but again, it’s that thing where there are still cultures now that believe that Gods act in that sorta way. And some people believe it and some people are more skeptical and some go, “You can’t do that, the Gods will punish us!” and the other people think, “No, I’m gonna do it.” And that’s what’s interesting about it. Characters have moral choices to make.
HitFix: But this is a world in which there’s magic, but no Godly magic?
Johnny Capps: I think that it’s a world of magic and I think that we have the concept that people are touched by the Gods, so we have our own kind of demigod theory that we play around with in the first season, but it’s very much that people are touched by the Gods, rather than that they are demigods. Poseidon is a very important character even though you never see him in the show in that we have the image of the bull and the bullhorns are very important and we’re sorta tipping a wink to the audience saying that The Earth-Shaker will have his way one day. One day, we all know what’s gonna happen to Atlantis. So to us, the Gods are important in that respect, but not in a sense that they interact with our characters in a physical sense.
Howard Overman: We reference people who have been cursed by the Gods. So they’re a sorta mystical presence and sorta unseen and you meet the victims of the Gods, if you like, but you never meet the Gods themselves.
HitFix: One thing we didn’t get a sense of from the clips is that the main character is apparently a time traveler of sorts?
Howard Overman: He’s not a time traveler. He starts off in the contemporary world and he’s searching for his dad and his dad was lost at sea and as part of that, he ends up being sucked through a portal into Atlantis and then we are in our world and we never go back. He realizes that he is from that world. That’s why in the contemporary world, he can’t put his finger on it, but never fit in, he didn’t feel at home there and he was always searching for something. His father took him somewhere to escape persecution and there’s an element in that of why Jason was taken away and then he’s sorta being drawn back and it’s about his fate and his destiny in the world of Atlantis.
HitFix: Does he come equipped with any knowledge or awareness of Greek mythology?
Howard Overman: He’s got little bits. He very much represents the audience. So when he meets Medusa, he’s like, “Medusa?” and he’s asking, “Is that a common name?” And some things, like he’s heard of the Minotaur, but he thought it was just a story and then he’s like, “That actually exists?” And all those sort of things. He has passing knowledge and sometimes he’s too slow to put the pieces together. He’s obviously heard of things like Pandora’s Box, but doesn’t know what it does. He’s got small bits of knowledge which will kind of reflect how much a lot of the audience knows.
Johnny Capps: And what we know.
HitFix: So it’s not enough knowledge for him to know, for example, the trick to getting through the Labyrinth? Or something like that?
Howard Overman: No, he just knows that there’s certain things he must do. What would be a good example without giving anything away?
Johnny Capps: He doesn’t use that knowledge in a cynical way and he only occasionally voices those moments and as a viewer, you will sorta forget that he’s lived in our time as the series on. It’s not an important part of the format, but occasionally he is aware of certain things.
HitFix: If you weren’t going to go full-on meta and dive in, why was it important to use that modernity as an introduction?
Johnny Capps: Because we wanted a character that the audience would relate to and see the world through the eyes of somebody that we understand emotionally and to us, that was important.
Howard Overman: And, especially as a writer, you’ve got your person who is discovering the world for your audience. If he was fun ancient Greece, then it’s almost impossible to write, because he wouldn’t ask the questions that need asking. So it really helps you access that world, because he’s looking around going, “What are they doing? What’s this?” And you need that character who’s new to the world in order to explain it to our audience.
HitFix: But he’s not going around the whole time talking in modern slang and confusing everybody?
Howard Overman: No, because when he gets there in the first episode, things click into place for him.
Johnny Capps: His sense of not-belonging, suddenly he feels like he belongs.
Howard Overman: This just feels quite natural to him after a while and suddenly things make sense and it’s that weird thing of going to a mystical place where you’re thinking, “My God, this is all really strange, but why do I feel at home here?”
HitFix: When you went in to pitch this, did you have “Atlantis” as your title already?
HitFix: And were people initially terrified that this meant an entire underwater show and world?
Howard Overman: The BBC, when we first mentioned it, it was just one of the first things we said: It’s not underwater. It’s just impossible to make. But when we talk about Medusa and the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Medusa, actually the whole of Atlantis has this sort of Sword of Damocles hanging over it in the sense that we know at some point that it could fall into the sea and people talk about Poseidon the Earth-Shaker shaking the city until it sinks into the sea and all of that sort of thing. So we know that that there is this dark future for it, if you like.
HitFix: Is that that part of the endgame for the series?
Howard Overman: We’ve obviously got a longterm vision and hopefully run for a lot of series, but we’ve always got that sorta looming over us and the city and we might change our mind.
HitFix: But that’s a story that you guys want to tell? Because when people hear the name “Atlantis,” that’s something they’re likely to want.
Howard Overman: Exactly.
Johnny Capps: But not for many, many years hopefully.
HitFix: Is there a difference in how British sci-fi is perceived today as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago?
Johnny Capps: I think as program-makers, when we originally pitched “Hex,” for example, nobody was making high-concept shows in the UK. “Doctor Who” hadn’t even been relaunched at that point and the only home for high-concept shows at that point really was Sky. We couldn’t take “Hex” to any other channel because they just wouldn’t make it and once we were making “Hex” and when the first season of “Hex” went out, “Doctor Who” was reborn and Russell did this phenomenal job with it and that made it possible for program-makers like myself to then start pitching high-concept shows to all the channels, because everybody went, “Actually, high-concept shows do work.”
Howard Overman: It opened so many doors, “Doctor Who.”
Johnny Capps: And that changed the way we pitched shows, because we could then suddenly go to every channel and pitch an action-adventure, fantasy, high-concept show.
Howard Overman: No one was looking. Even things like “Life on Mars.” “Life on Mars” hung around for 10 years of people going, “What is this?” And then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, this is a great idea.” It’s strange, because suddenly the floodgates opened.
HitFix: Was there a specific stigma that the genre was working against?
Howard Overman: You know what it is? The word “sci-fi” freaks people out. Someone described “Misfits” and he said, “‘Misfits’ is like sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi” and it’s almost its tagline. People are very afraid. If you say it’s sci-fi, they’re a bit like, “Hmmm… ” I suppose there’s sorta high fantasy, isn’t there and there are maybe worlds that are almost too fantastical to take the audience to and people struggle with that. But you can have elements of sci-fi set in a South London housing project and everything else can feel normal then you’ve just got a particular element. Mostly, I think it’s about making the stories and the characters likable. We had a rule, actually, on “Misfits” and it was similar for “Atlantis,” that the story should almost work no matter where you are and what’s going on and without the magic. What’s the emotional-core story you’re trying to tell? And that serves us well in “Atlantis” as well. There’s stories about friendship, love, destiny, fate, all of those big things.
[Continue to Page 2 for Overman’s discussion of his attempts to bring “Misfits” to The States. Remember that this interview took place in July and things have changed, as Josh Schwartz explains.]
HitFix: Might as well ask: So where does the American “Misfits” stand at this point?
Howard Overman: Well, the script’s written and I keep being told that it is gonna get made, but who knows?
HitFix: And this is still you and Josh Schwartz?
Howard Overman: Yup. Yup. He’s still on it, but he moved away from Warner Brothers and I think it’s probably being worked out what will exactly happen to it?
HitFix: What were the challenges of adapting it?
Howard Overman: You know what? There weren’t many challenges, because it is really similar to our pilot. It’s slightly less rude, but not massively. It was just literally that they had a few line tweaks. It was the easiest writing gig I have ever had. One of the things that was interesting is they wanted me to put a new beginning on it, so there’s a little montage at the beginning and then we gave it to someone and they said, “Yeah, we love it all, except this new beginning bit. What’s that doing on there?” So I think that will probably go. It’s remarkably faithful.
HitFix: Did you guys approach it as something that would have to be on a premium cable network, an HBO or a Showtime or a Starz? You couldn’t get away with the British “Misfits” content on an American network or even on something like FX.
Howard Overman: The frontrunners for it were… What’s the hybrid where a lot of Josh Schwartz’s stuff plays out? What’s that channel called?
HitFix: That would be The CW.
Howard Overman: Yeah, that was it initially. But there were some cable channels. We never conceived it going for a network anyway. I think that the leeway, especially on cable channels, if you look at how violent and gory “The Walking Dead” is, I do think there’s been a shift.
HitFix: But there are still language issues on an AMC or FX and “Misfits” had a lot of bad language.
Howard Overman: Yeah, but for me, taking out some swear words is not a dealbreaker. That’s how kids talk in the bit of London where it was set. That’s just how they talk. If you relocate it to America, you want it how the kids talk there. I don’t think you should necessarily force swearing. You’ve just gotta got go with what feels natural to the place it’s set.
HitFix: But there’s also sex and nudity. Really, The CW would have been a tough fit.
Howard Overman: You’re probably more familiar with what’s on each particular challenge.
HitFix: It’s a tough balance. The networks that it seems like a better bet with demographically wouldn’t let you swear or nudity or any of the darker stuff, while the networks that would let you have that stuff, usually don’t do stuff about teenagers or superpowers.
Howard Overman: We’ll see. It’s in the hands of the Gods, as they say.
HitFix: But this isn’t a project that’s gone into turnaround and nobody’s thinking about it?
Howard Overman: I think the biggest thing that’s probably affecting it is Josh leaving Warner Brothers, because Warner Brothers effectively owns the script and the project and I’m not sure they’ve quite worked out what Josh’s involvement would be. To be honest, I try and focus on the things I can affect and being so busy on “Atlantis,” I don’t really worry about what’s going on with that sort of thing, because I can’t affect it.
HitFix: So you wouldn’t want to be hands-on with that project if it moved forward?
Howard Overman: No, I wouldn’t be. We’re doing Atlantis and me, Johnny and Julian [Murphy] have started a new production company, so that’s where all my focus will be, on “Atlantis” and we have other shows that we’re developing. So no, I won’t be involved.
[UPDATE – 11/22/13: Josh Schwartz tells me, “I am not involved any longer, sadly, since I’m no longer at WB. We couldn’t get the money we needed to make the show properly and I was concerned about not being able to deliver a ‘Misfits’ at the level that original fans had come to expect. Howard is a super genius and I am a huge fan of the show and would rather enjoy the original ‘Misfits’ rather than be responsible for delivering a version that wasn’t up to par!”]
HitFix: And what is brand of the production company?
Johnny Capps: Well, we’ve called ourselves Urban Myth Films and I think we make shows that we love watching, so obviously a lot of the stuff that we’re making is high-concept. We’re never… I say “never,” but we probably will now that I’ve said it, but to make a gritty, naturalistic kitchen sink soap, we probably wouldn’t do that. It’s not kinda something that interests us. Genre pieces really interest us. Action-adventure is a key area that we will develop for.
Howard Overman: We all like that sort of escapist drama. I’m a massive fans of things like “The Walking Dead” and love those sort of shows and I can’t see us doing a sort of police procedural, because I think there are so many of them out there and as a writer and I think for you guys and sorta execs and creators, it doesn’t hold that much appeal, but if you found a spin and a new way on a cop show, then suddenly you’re interested. Yeah, it’s just stuff that you would watch and is entertaining.
Johnny Capps: And I think it will be stuff that works in the global market as well. We would never just create something that would work in Britain. “Atlantis,” we wanted it to have a broad appeal to a global audience. Nothing that we make would be for a quintessential English audience. We want to dominant the world, basically, don’t we? We want to take over over the worlds. We’re going to shaved heads and little Mandarin collars and white cats, just the three of us.
HitFix: “Atlantis” is a co-production with BBC America. Is there any allure for you guys in coming over and doing straight-up for American TV?
Johnny Capps: I think so, yeah. We chose to work with BBC America because just get on with them. They’re great. They’re really creative, they’re very like-minded and it’s a fantastic relationship and that appealed to us. Would we come straight over here and make a show? Yeah, definitely, if we came up with the right idea.
Howard Overman: We only started the company in January and this is our first show and so we have been completely focused on “Atlantis,” but now we’re getting a bit freer and we’ve got other show we’re gonna start writing and other writers we want to work with. Yeah, I think it’s just the right idea. I wouldn’t specifically set out like, “Right. We need to make a show in America.” If we had an idea where we thought, “That can only be set in America,” then you’d do it, but we wouldn’t do it just for the sake of thinking, “Well, that’s a market we should try and tap into.” It always, I think, has to be about “What’s a great idea for a TV show?”
HitFix: It’s just if you felt you had an idea that maybe required a bit more money or maybe required 13 episodes to tell a story or something…
Johnny Capps: Having lots of money for a show isn’t such an allure for us, because we’ve worked on such low-budget things at the beginning of our careers that we know how to make the money work. Our speciality is sort of making a little bit of money go a long way and I think that’s key to us. The more money you get, the more execs you get, the more people want to stick their fingers in. I think that we’re in a unique position where we can work with people that get what we want and are good, objective voices. That’s the great thing about BBC America, is that they’re great co-producers because they like what we do and we connect on a creative level and that’s sorta what we want. We’d much rather go with somebody who had less money, but understood our vision, rather than just going for a massive budget and just having a lot of hassle.
HitFix: I just feel like America TV has stolen so many British actors, but we haven’t taken so many British writer-creators so far.
Howard Overman: I think it’s partly because there are a lot of opportunities at the moment in the UK. It would be a different discussion if America were the only place commissioning the type of shows that we wanted to make and I wanted to write, we’d have to come. But because we can do it out of England now and we know that system better…
Johnny Capps: And it’s going to change dramatically. Now the government have introduced this tax incentive for program-makers in the UK. More product is going to be made and actually what’s going to happen is I could quite easily see a cable channel wanting us to make a show for them, but to make it in the UK, because you can get more bang for you buck, to quote an American expression.
“Atlantis” premieres on BBC America on Saturday (November 23) night at 9 p.m.