Interview: ‘Fortitude’ creator Simon Donald discusses his chilling Pivot mystery

On Thursday (January 29), Pivot premieres the intriguing new Arctic Circle mystery “Fortitude.”

Now you have the better part of the day to figure out where Pivot is hiding on your TV dial.

“Fortitude” is set in a chilly and alien world in which both the characters and the ice hide secrets.

Featuring a strong cast led by Richard Dormer, Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Jessica Raine and Sienna Guillory, “Fortitude” was created by scribe Simon Donald, whose credits include the original incarnation of “Low Winter Sun.”

At TCA Press Tour earlier this month, Donald and I sat down over a couple pints and discussed “Fortitude,” starting with its brutal opening scene. We talked about the decision not to have Tucci do a Scottish accent, the drama's environmental message and the hints at horror or supernatural elements.

It's a good conversation about a good show.

Check out the Q&A…

HitFix: I want to start with the first scene, that brutal scene with the shooting of the polar bear. It doesn”t necessarily seem like it is really a part of mystery that we go into as we go along.

Simon Donald: It isn”t yet.

HitFix: Why was that where you wanted to start this series?

Simon Donald: It”s a really important fundamental piece of history to the story which gradually becomes connected to all the other stories as the thing unfolds. And it felt like a very strong – it”s such a fantastic image. The black organic sand with the tumbling ice flows spilled across it and the bear and the man. It”s such a strong opening image and it is fundamental, of course, to the story as you learn more and more. That”s why it”s up there, it”s up front.

HitFix: Was there a specific case or incident where something like this occurred that you used as inspiration or did you just like the idea of it?

Simon Donald: There”s more to what you see there than you understand when you first see it. But I found the whole “character” of polar bear, if you like, incredibly useful in this world, in this story. It”s a thing without mercy and, quite strangely in the animal kingdom, it's something that with most apex predators kill their prey before they eat it. Lions will kill a wildebeest before they set out tearing it apart. A polar bear doesn”t because it lives where nothing can hurt it. So it immediately starts eating when it grabs you, basically, which is a terrifying idea. This is a world where people are in the food chain. They”re not necessarily at the top of the food chain. So that bear is important for all those different reasons. 

HitFix: It seems to me that polar bears have been kind of misappropriated by Coca Cola and by Christmas and we”ve come to find them lovable. Do you feel like you”re taking polar bears back for their actual status as, as you say, apex predator?

Simon Donald: Yeah. There was a piece of wildlife footage that I watched not all that long ago. It was a Scottish cameraman, Gordon [Buchanan] and he”s in a perspex box in the Arctic. He might even be on Svalbard. And he”s a cameraman and he”s in there and he shot the polar bear. And the polar bear gets his scent and the polar bear comes over and starts banging on this box. And he”s shooting it from very close-up perspex. And you can see in his face something that you, as a human being, you never really see anywhere else which is, “I am going to eat you. If I can get hold of you I will eat you.” You know, “I don”t feel sorry for you. I don”t have any feelings about you. There”s no compassion or connection here. I”m gonna eat you.” I think that, as a truth, is as interesting as, you know, the other images of polar bear.

HitFix: I like the idea that this is not nature out of control. This is nature the way that nature is actually supposed to be.

Simon Donald: That”s right.

HitFix: So it”s not like, you know, when “Jaws” gets revenge and we start anthropomorphizing.

Simon Donald: Yeah, yeah. No, this place, they outnumber people three to two on Svalbard. Three thousand bears, 2000 people is the population ratio at Svalbard. And the idea that things nearby can grab you and take you, you know, is really terrifying. Living in a place where that”s part of your everyday reality. There”s a shot you”ve probably seen of a little girl that goes through the supermarket with a hunting rifle. You go shopping, you take a hunting rifle for the journey. It”s not for the supermarket. It”s for there and back. If you go outside the limits of the town you must take a gun with you. You must take a hunting rifle because they”re after us. And also they”re being driven closer and closer to the towns because of what”s happening in their environment. The sea ice is not frozen for long enough periods for them to get all their hunting done to build up the fat reserves that they need. Because the sea ice is melting. They can”t use it as a platform to hunt seals which is how they live. So they”re having to change their behavior. Cannibalism is one of the things that seems to be becoming an issue for research. Why are bears eating bears? You know again that”s something psychotic in a species, in a population when that becomes a habit.

HitFix: Now there is a sub-genre of people living in these forbidden or inhumane places. Have you read the graphic novel “Whiteout,” for example?

Simon Donald: I know it from…

HitFix: There was a movie with Kate Beckinsale…

Simon Donald: Don”t think I”ve read it, no.

HitFix: How about the Werner Herzog movie “The End of the World?”

Simon Donald: Oh yeah I love Herzog in general and I did see that and it”s an interesting variation where we go. I found it to be informative. I think something that isn”t all that related, well it is related and it's an inspiration and just one of my favorite movies is “The Thing.” You know, the claustrophobic pressure cooker is fierce and hot because of human behavior, but the environment”s frozen and deadly because of the location and temperature. I love that. I think there”s something about those high contrasts that I find exciting when I”m writing stuff and I love to bring out.

HitFix: And they all also bring up the big question of “What is the kind of person who would be wanting to live in this place?”

Simon Donald: I think people who go and live there are already strong personalities let”s say. Quite a lot of people are on the run from themselves, you know, from things they”ve done or from human company, from civilized human company, from things that people know about them. This place is a bit of a whirlpool, a maelstrom of that kind of lost soul. But also people are very stubborn and very individualistic and very self-reliant. Self-reliance is really important as a sort of ethos in Svalbard. You have to look after yourself because nobody else will. It”s kind of a test whether or not you”re gonna survive here. And survival of the fittest is another thing that kind of comes into the way I think about this world. If you can”t look after yourself in Svalbard you're back to the mainland. There”s no income support. There”s no welfare at all. They won”t have it. They won”t establish it. There”s no prenatal care. There”s no hospice care, end of life care. So you”re not allowed to give birth there and you”re not allowed to die there literally.

HitFix: Okay and I loved that. When you hear something like that do you immediately file that away. Like, “Okay, I”m gonna use that someday.”

Simon Donald: I didn”t know it about this place until we went there and researched it. We went there for other reasons. We went there because the permafrost, because of the university, because of the little world that we knew was the kind of place we were looking for. And just talking to people there, we were aghast when we hear this. And the cop we spoke to was very funny. He was Norwegian and spoke quite good English but you”d occasionally get things a bit muddled up. He said, “No, if someone here is ill then it is my duty to have them exited.” We were like. “What do you mean?” And this PR went, “No, no, 'exiled.'” And he want, “Oh yes, 'exiled.'” They”re delivered a blue letter like Henry gets. Actually I made up the blueness of it but originally you”re informed by the authorities, “You have to leave Svalbard. You”re unwell, you”re alcoholic, you”ve lost your job, you”re unfit.” All these things will get you thrown off the mainland so you get exiled.

HitFix: So behavioral issues? Like basic behavioral, not like illegal behavior?

Simon Donald: Basic behavior, yeah. If you are alcoholic and it”s something that is noticed and comes to the attention of the authorities they”ll send you home because it”s so easy to die there. If you fell? There”s a scene later on where Henry who is an alcoholic and who”s dying of liver cancer falls asleep in the snow. And Jules finds him, the young mom. And she”s furious with him because you can”t behave like that in this place. She knows this place is more dangerous than anywhere else she”s ever lived and she”s from England. Yeah, the rules of the town were utterly fascinating. You know you can”t be buried there because disease doesn”t die in permafrost. So in the public graveyard there, there are bodies from 80, 90 years ago who have died of an influenza epidemic. And the influenza”s still down in the permafrost, the bacteria”s there. They exhumed some corpses and examined them, did a post mortem on them, the scientists did. And they”ve never seen the state of human lungs in people who had been killed by this particular flu strain because everybody else had decomposed. And they found them in Svalbard. They did a postmortem examination on them. The scientists said they”ve never seen anything like it.

HitFix: So was this like the 1918 influenza epidemic?

Simon Donald: Yes. And they said their lungs looked as though they”d been shotgunned. So all that, for me, is already tumbling into the little world I”m cooking up for the story. And I just want bits of these different strands off of play your own together.

HitFix: Under those circumstances how bare bones was what you had before you went and started wandering around and learning these things?

Simon Donald: This is a tricky one simply because this is a huge spoiler. Because this was a kind of central idea that I don”t bring out in the light until quite later on in the show. That was the reason I was looking for this world to bring this idea into. A lot of this other stuff is just a wonderful coincidence that you find. Also I think when you”re researching your antenna are up looking for all of this stuff. There”s probably a lot of stuff I thought like, “That's completely f***ed, what am I going to do with that?”  But, you know, the stuff that sticks, the stuff that”s in the show is the distilled gold… [He pauses and thinks on the metaphor.] Not distilled gold.

HitFix: I like it now as I think about it. [“That's a horrible mixed metaphor,” he protests.] It”s a mixed metaphor but I like it. Take, for example, the couple infidelity, the partner swapping. I assume that”s another thing that you would have presumably discovered when you there.

Simon Donald: That was really, really interesting in that we went in the dark months, the first time we went – myself, Patrick Spence and a script editor. I had one script or I think maybe it was just the treatment and we were wondering if this was the place to set the story. And we got up there and it”s pitch dark – darker than this 24 hours a day for two or three weeks through the middle of the winter. We knew it was going to be dark. We assumed that this would be depressing and gloomy and people would be kind of burdened by this awful cold, dark, nightmarish, bleak world. And it was the absolute opposite. They loved it. It”s their favorite time of the year. There”s no tourists. They”re on their own. It”s like there”s a strange intimate party going on in Svalbard for three weeks of darkness. It”s really, really peculiar. And I”ve never been anywhere like that. I”ve never encountered that before. And I wanted that vibe in the show as well, that sense that these people connect in a subterranean, intimate way to deal with this place.

HitFix: And who is sort of frank enough to tell you these things? Who feels comfortable enough?

Simon Donald: Three people of not all that many that we actually sat down and interviewed. Actually I think after the person told me, it became a question that I just managed to slip into the conversation. They weren”t embarrassed by it. And one of them was a research scientist and one of them was a coal miner. I can”t remember who the third was, but there was a third as well, somebody in our hotel, I think. So it was kind of like the identity of this place is, “We're proud of how close we get.” The wind chimes I made up. Well, I think the wind chimes blowing off…

HitFix: It does seem like it wouldn”t be necessarily all that useful.

Simon Donald: You have to take them down when the weather forecast is not wind chime friendly, which is rather a lot of the time when the wind blows up there. The weather changes incredibly quickly because it comes off the Arctic Ocean. 

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HitFix: Had you actually already sold this pitch when you were able to go over there and research or was it just on spec before that?

Simon Donald: Oh God, I think we”d sold it. It was the easiest… The strangest thing is happening in television. Five years ago I wouldn”t have pitched this. I wouldn”t have got into the BBC for instance and said, “I've got an idea for an investigative dark thriller, a psychological thriller set in the Arctic. They would have gone, “Don”t be ridiculous, get out of here.” So from “I would never even pitch this,” to this was the most eagerly embraced pitch idea I”ve ever presented. It was extraordinary. That”s because television has changed. That”s because the audience are sophisticated and the authored, highly complex drama is our ambition and the audience”s want. It”s really changed. It started with David Chase. It started with “The Sopranos.” It continues. I mean America is the envy of the world. “Breaking Bad” is one of the most successful human artistic creations of the 21st century. Do you know what I mean? And that”s allowing us ambitious writers to suddenly be able to bring these things to the public.

HitFix: But even David Chase and Vince Gilligan didn”t get to go off and write it all by themselves which is more frequently in the thinking of a British model I guess.

Simon Donald: Yes. The models are shifting. The British model is moving more towards an American model. I mean the ambition, Sky Atlantic”s ambition for this is an American ambition, is an American scale. I don”t know of a British show that”s allowed to countenance this kind of ambition in my life.

HitFix: And at what point does someone say the word Pivot to you? And what is your reaction, then, when someone says the word Pivot to you?

Simon Donald: I knew them from Participant. I knew that they were quite idiosyncratic in their commitment to stuff with a science core, science ingredient, social issues, social conscience. You know there”s a sort of an ambition to provoke discussion about important issues. It was great. It was really attractive. And as soon as I knew they were part of the discussion I felt very safe about the relationship and they've been absolutely committed to what I”ve done. They haven”t wanted any change of direction. They kind of love the strands that match up with their ambition.

HitFix: Did they come in before or after the casting?

Simon Donald: They came in after.

HitFix: So Stanley Tucci, did you always imagine the British investigator being actually American?

Simon Donald: No.

HitFix: Okay.

Simon Donald: Once we started casting it became clear to me that this world was able to accommodate people from everywhere. Morton was originally written as a Scottish detective, who worked in London. But that”s just writing, you give them an identity. What Stanley brings to it, I wouldn”t ask Stanley to impersonate a Scotsman. It would be… I don”t know maybe he”s…

HitFix: He may be fantastic.

Simon Donald: He might be fantastic, but it would be a slightly pointless exercise and it would put shackles on some of his skills probably because he”s such a finely tuned, complex performer. I don”t want him to worry about “I must be Scottish all the time” as well. Elena, the character of Elena is written Spanish. As soon as we got Veronica – I shouldn”t say stuff like this but it”s absolutely true. As soon as Verónica Echegui walked into the casting room we went oh my God, that”s absolutely what we”re after. That luminosity is just – it”s really rare, you know. You see that very, very rarely. She”s astonishing and she”s Spanish. So Elena can be Spanish. She absolutely can. The mining community we”ve made Irish because one of the first pieces of casting was an Irish actor. We thought, “Well let”s go Irish with these guys because it”s one of those like you get in New Hampshire or in Nova Scotia.” You get immigrant groups that bring one skill set to a locale – miners or whalers was another one we thought going. So we just started casting them Irish. And that applies right across the world we”ve got.

HitFix: In the first three episodes at least, everyone just takes as a matter of course that this British guy is actually American or British-delivered guy is actually an American. Is there a line in episode four or five that covers over things or do you just sort of let it slide and go, “Okay, this is what it is.”

Simon Donald: Nope. We don”t let it slide. There is a significant and very important revelation from Morton about why he is who he is that utterly addresses that question that I think changes our understanding in a really good way. Again it”s quite a big spoiler. He does say in the first thing he”s been a crash investigator, he was a crash investigator for the FBI. Let that sit. What”s he talking about? And that becomes part of his story. We follow things up. I mean as a writer I”ve never done as much plate spinning across stories and, you know, that whole thing about how telling a thriller, one part of it is about revealing and withholding information and what you want the audience to be half aware they”re understanding but not fully grasping it because you want the payoff later on. But you want them equipped for that payoff and that”s quite a technical process. But I”ve never been in one that”s as complicated at this.

HitFix: Talk a bit about the science and sort of the idea that Yes, this is a murder mystery. Yes this is a thriller. But do you view it also to some degree as a message drama? Or is that just something people either are going to pick up in the background and not worry about it.

Simon Donald: The latter, largely. I”m not comfortable with message drama particularly because it”s such a limited small box for such a big project. I think that the science that I”ve brought into the show with Vincent and with Natalie and with things that start to develop in story, starts to intertwine and complement with the thriller investigation, the murder investigation quite densely and importantly. They”re interconnected. That”s important that they”re interconnected. It”s not just that”s another loose thread that we don”t know what to do with.

HitFix: It”s still interesting that that was how the Pivot executive introduced to this, talking about the real science and the environmental message. And I was like, “Huh. I was thinking of it as a thriller. You know you put something nutritious into the bottom of my murder mystery.”

Simon Donald: Well they”re connected. The Arctic, communities in the Arctic, are on the cusp of huge change and the change is environmental. And the change is the consequence of human behavior. And there”s an unforeseen consequence but we”re responsible for it and we”re gonna have to deal with the consequences of it. And that theme is intertwined with human thriller behavior if you like. True to human psychology. Why did that man get killed? One of the things, Frank Sutter goes out to have an affair with Elena Ledesma and the consequences are disastrous for his child as we see in episode one. This child is now being pulled into the research center to be treated for frostbite in a hyperbaric oxygen machine. And those are already, you know, adultery has brought us into the lab, which is a little crystallization of what we”re doing right across the whole show.

HitFix: So how nefarious are we supposed to feel like the research center is? Because it”s an alien environment within an alien environment.

Simon Donald: Yeah, I think that”s the nature of those places. It reminded me of the moment in “The Exorcist” when the kid is taken into the huge big MRI scanner and it”s viciously inhuman. It”s there to treat and help, but it terrified her as much as the thing that”s going on in her head terrifies her.

HitFix: Like the spinal tap is the moment that people remember being the most harrowing moment there and that”s just a medical procedure. So you mentioned “The Thing” earlier. You mentioned “The Exorcist” there. Is there a part of you that has that instinct that wants to sort of make this supernatural, have the supernatural there?

Simon Donald: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. That”s kind of important. I love the tropes of supernatural horror. I mean “The Exorcist,” if her head didn”t revolve you could say that”s all psychological. Maybe the levitating bed's a bit of a giveaway as well.

HitFix: There are complications to the theory.

Simon Donald: Yeah, but we were very careful. Everything that happens with this will finally yield to a rational scientific explanation. Although when you”re experiencing it as a viewer you might think, “I”m some kind of horror world where unnamable things forces are at play that we don”t understand and might well be supernatural but they”re not supernatural.” We don”t do any supernatural.

HitFix: Because there”s just sort of the moments which this story could – pardon the pun – pivot and become, you know, a horrible virus story or the mammoth comes to life story.

Simon Donald: The mammoth comes to life. I don”t go there! Trust me. You know, I don”t think it ended up in the cut but the kids that find the dead thing, in the cut originally we had, I think we heard their voices and they were saying, “It”s a monster. How”d it get here? It fell out of the sky.” And I want the audience to be going, “What”s that? A monster that fell out of the sky.” But sensible people think, “No, no, that's something that”s come out in permafrost,” because it's flattened. So one of the kids was going, “It's flat  because it fell out of the airplane or a spaceship.” And that is all about audiences are incredibly sophisticated about genre and saying to them, you know, “I”m giving you an element of this, enjoy it. Get the hackles coming up the back of your neck about it.” But I”m not at the end of the day going to go, “They”re all ghosts. It”s all supernatural.” Because that”s a complete cop-out. 

HitFix: I don”t know if it”s a cop-out. It”s just an entirely different show.

Simon Donald: Yes.

HitFix: No I was curious because it really does feel like it could be any one of, you know, 30 different shows in the last handful of episodes.

Simon Donald: Well I think that”s again what we”re allowed to do now that was a lot more difficult four or five years ago is play in different genres. This isn”t a police procedural. It's got cops at the heart of it, but the characters as cops, rather than just as procedural functionaries. And it”s got horror in it. It”s got corruption themes. It”s got, “Is this about a giant economic scam that somebody is perpetrating in this place and somebody”s killed in order to silence?” stuff.

“Fortitude” premieres on Thursday, January 29 on Pivot.