‘The Veil’ And ‘Peaky Blinders’ Creator Steven Knight On His ‘Bloody Good Hit Rate’

Steven Knight likes to write himself into trouble.

The man behind some of the streaming era’s biggest prestige hits – Peaky Blinders, See, Taboo, All The Light We Cannot See – never really knows how the stories he creates will end. He likes to build a maze out of hour-long episodes, then see if he can find its exit.

With his latest series, FX’s spy thriller The Veil, Knight keeps himself guessing as the story of two undercover operatives, on the road trip from hell, try to outsmart each other in a race to stop a deadly attack on innocent civilians. It’s Thelma & Louise if Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were enemies and the cliff was a potential disaster on U.S. soil. Knight conceived the idea after a conversation with producer Denise Di Novi who told him some fascinating stories she’d heard over dinner in Paris. Their narrator had connections to the world of French Intelligence and Di Novi thought a TV show might be lurking somewhere in those brief bits of shared information.

She was right, and Knight found it with help from star/producer Elisabeth Moss, who plays Imogen Salter, an agent so good at her job that even the government agencies she works for don’t fully trust her. A shapeshifter with a muddied backstory and murky intentions, Imogen’s job is to earn the trust of a suspected terrorist played by Yumna Marwan as the two travel from Istanbul to London. All the while, competing intelligence groups led by Josh Charles and Dali Benssalah, scramble to regain control before the worst happens.

UPROXX chatted with Knight about his prolific career — including plans for more Peaky Blinders fare – his unique approach to storytelling, and why he wanted to avoid any James Bond comparisons with this spy adventure.

What was the genesis of this story? What was talked about at that dinner that made you want to write a spy thriller?

They were talking about the new challenges to intelligent services around the world, [how that] led to some friction between different organizations. So, the CIA and the DGSI, and MI6, all have their own different ways of doing things, but they’re all being forced to work together. And the fact that women in that world were treated in a particular way in different places. I just thought that was really interesting. So I went to Paris a couple of times and met some people in the French Intelligence Services, one retired, one still working, neither of whom wanted to be acknowledged. And we just talked about how things are and what the world is like. Obviously, the truth is always much weirder than anything made up.

So, I pieced together some things from what they told me. I’ve previously done research for another project with CIA operatives and a different project with MI5. And the difference between them… You go to Washington DC, you go to the Sea Catch restaurant, you have lunch and there’s a table full of CIA operatives telling you everything. Nothing that they shouldn’t, they’re telling you about experiences they’ve had in the field. It’s brilliant, and then you try that with the British and they don’t even acknowledge that MI5 exists. [They’ll say], ‘I work for a tractor company.’ The French are somewhere in between. So I found that really interesting and wanted to create this story out of the collage of bits that I was getting from people who’d done this in the real world.

Did anything shock you?

Everything. This is the thing that I think is important, I think one can get this idea that intelligence services or the state or whatever is this super-efficient, 10 steps ahead of everyone else, organization. Anything that happens, of course they planned that. [But] they’re just people doing what they can in these circumstances. I think it’s quite encouraging that they’re fallible. It’s not 1984, it’s not like everything’s been bolted down and they know exactly what’s going to happen.

You’ve got nine projects in the works at the moment. How do you prioritize the shows/movies you’re working on?

Well a few of those things, including The Veil, are things I wrote during the pandemic. The phone didn’t ring. There was no deadline. So, some of the things I came up with while it was going on. But I mean, people come to me with commissions and I also come up with stuff that I want to do. For me, the discipline is in stopping myself from doing it. Not making myself do it, because I have to get up and live a life. Everybody’s different in the way that they approach what they do, but I write what comes to me in that moment, when I’m doing it. It’s like dreaming – you just stop resisting whatever it is that’s coming.

So this is a story, there are two people in the car on the road. If I’m just getting to know who the characters are, I just let them talk to each other about whatever. And then it’s almost like I read it back and see where that’s going and often I find out things about the character from things that they’ve said. I know it sounds ridiculous, and I used to pretend that I planned everything out and had a treatment and pieces of paper, but I don’t. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m not saying I recommend it, but that’s the only way I can do it. It keeps it enjoyable. Rather than writing the scene knowing what it’s going to be about, I’m finding out something I didn’t expect.

When you think of a spy drama, you think of something complex with heavy themes. The show has that, but there’s quite a bit of humor too. How did you strike that balance?

People are quite funny, usually when they’re not meaning to be. I think it’s just finding those moments of absurdity. What I like about a lot of these characters, especially Josh, is just that glimpse that they’re aware of their own absurdity. The way he delivers his lines is brilliant. They’re all brilliant. One minute somebody can be dead, dead, dead serious, and it’s all very dramatic, but as in life, something happens and it’s completely different. One of my favorite scenes is in the Charles de Gaulle airport where the American and the French meet and they all squabble over the phone. It’s just human beings being human, men being men. So I wanted to include that. These are people. This is not James Bond.

When did you learn Elisabeth Moss had signed on, and does that change how you write when you know who you’re writing for?

We got Elisabeth Moss after I finished the first one or two episodes. When you know you’ve got Elisabeth Moss, you are laughing. It’s like you’re stepping into a Ferrari. So yeah, it did make a huge difference knowing that she was playing Imogen. And the earlier you know, the better. It’s always good to, before you even start, know who you’re writing for.

You’ve worked with some of the greats – Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, now Moss. Is there anyone you’ve worked with who you knew, no matter what was on the page, they were going to add something extra to it?

I mean all of the above. It took me a while to learn this when I first started, because when you write something, you know exactly how it should be. You can hear it, the tone of voice, you know where the pause is, you know where the emphasis is, all of that stuff. And then in the early days you go, ‘Well, that’s wrong. That’s not how it should be.’ You realize that it’s different but better than what you had in your mind. So it takes a while to learn that. I’m sensitive about the words themselves being changed, but the way that the thing unfolds and the way that the actor deals with what’s going on — sometimes it’s a total surprise, and that’s what makes it great to watch. When you hand it over to the great actors… I’ve found that really good actors don’t change stuff on the day. There’s a sort of confidence about them.

At this point in your career, how long do you hold onto a project? Are you there from beginning to end, or do you hand over the scripts and get to work on something new?

Give the scripts and let it go. Stephen Frears said, ‘Get the best people and let them do their job.’ You’re handing this thing over as part of the process. The only thing that I want to be the case is that the script is a finished object. So when you pass it on, it’s not a blueprint, it’s not a suggestion. It doesn’t need to go through the system in terms of what the content is. It needs to go through the system in terms of how do you make that happen.

Has there been a story you’ve handed off that the final product was not what you expected – in a good or a bad way?

I mean, there’s nothing I can name, but obviously, especially early in one’s career, there are things that you hand over and then when you see them, they’re not what you expected. So you have to deal with that, but I’ve been incredibly lucky with the directors and actors that I’ve worked with where it’s a bloody good hit rate. Probably 85% I’ve been really happy [with].

For something like Peaky Blinders then, which has become its own universe at this point, how difficult is it for you to let go. I’d have to think that’s one you’re especially invested in.

It’s like handing your child over to somebody you trust. I’ve been working with most of the same people for 10 years, so I know they can do the right thing. But we’re shooting in September in Birmingham. So it’s all written, and I think it’s really, really good. It ties things up… and then leads to other things.

Back to The Veil, a big draw in watching is trying to suss out each character’s motives. Since you wrote them, do you think you’re good at reading people?

Depends on the people. People who believe what they’re saying is true, even though they sort of know it isn’t, but a part of them believes it — I imagine to be a good spy, you need to be able to actually believe that’s who you are. Maybe we’re all spies. I mean, maybe we all do that. In your life you’re sort of…

Playing parts?


FX’s The Veil stream on Hulu April 30th.