Eva Green as Vanessa and John Logan behind the scenes on Penny Dreadful

Rory Kinear as the creature and John Logan behind the scenes on Penny Dreadful

John Logan and Eva Green behind the scenes on Penny Dreadful

Fill 1
Fill 1
April 09, 2015
In The Mix

Penny Wise

For a top screenwriter, a love of the lurid fiction of Victorian England led to Showtime's Penny Dreadful.

Mike Flaherty

John Logan's career as a playwright and screenwriter - along with a Tony Award and three Oscar nominations - is the stuff that MFA dreams are made of.

Yet, he admits, that didn't — couldn't — quite prepare him for his current gig, the singularly demanding job of series showrunner.

In Dublin, Ireland, he's in the thick of shooting season two of Showtime's period horror drama, Penny Dreadful, which he created and also executive-produces. "It's like a three-ring circus — hopefully in a productive way," he says of life on the soundstages.

"The learning curve is huge," he continues. "I was unprepared for the temporal challenges that thrust themselves upon you when you're filming one episode, editing another from three months ago — and prepping something that's going to be shot in two weeks. It requires such mental agility to put those different hats on and take them off as you walk from building to building."

Penny Dreadful's 10-episode second season, which premieres May 3 and which Logan wrote after squeezing in the screenplay for the next Bond film, (Spectre), has two more episodes than the first.

As his expansive resume attests (an Emmy nomination for his script for the HBO telepic RKO 281 and film scripts including Skyfall, Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Hugo), putting words on the page has never been a challenge

"If I [were to] ever write a novel, this is it," he says, aptly enough, as the title of his current project alludes to the melodramatic pulp novels-by-installment that were popular in Victorian England, which is also the show's setting.

"The form of those novels — the way they were written and marketed and consumed — has resonance for me."

Logan first found inspiration for the series some 10 years ago during a spate of concentrated reading of the period, including the novels of Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, along with the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth.

Eventually, he recalls, "I found Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and was very moved by it. I began to spin around in that world."

The writer took a somewhat stealthy path with his brainstorm, keeping his agent in the dark as he met with development executive (and now Penny Dreadful supervising producer) Chris King.

The pair worked on the concept for a year before Logan sat down with Sam Mendes, now an executive producer (Pippa Harris is also an exec producer). Once he signed on, Logan started writing in earnest.

Finally, he recalls, "I walked into my agent's office one day, put the scripts for the first two episodes on his desk and said, 'Here's a series I want to do.'"

The plan — a good one, it turns out — was to take the project to Showtime. Network president David Nevins green-lit the first season, agreeing to allow Logan the time to write all of the episodes before heading into production

But the series didn't really take off, Logan says, until he crafted the character of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a woman who is both of her time and peculiarly attuned to the spiritual, restricted by the mores of her society and tortured by actual demons.

"Literally and figuratively corseted" is how he puts it,

"For a passionate human being to be so constrained by society, by what her sex could and couldn't do at that time, was incredibly interesting to me."

Positing the question "Who is Vanessa Ives?" as the story's subtextual engine, he says, opened it up to a serial structure. "It wasn't a psychodrama about one incident that shaped this character — it was a world, a society and a lot of influences. And a lot of characters, real and fictional, came to orbit around her."

He decided early on that he wanted Green to play Vanessa. The two had not previously met, though like Logan, she had worked in the Bond universe (as Vesper Lynd in 2006's Casino Royale).

"I knew that I needed an actor of singular courage and vision," he says, And besides her porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed allure, Logan says, "She's whip-smart." In charting the show's narrative course, he says, "That's where I had to start — with those eyes, that face and that soul."

Logan says he "wooed" Green for months before finally persuading her to take a detour from her flourishing movie career. Since then, he's stopped at her trailer first thing every shooting day, "to keep me honest and to make sure that we're telling the same story."

For her part, Green says the collaboration with Logan is the closest she's had with a writer.

"He's very open and takes the time to listen," she says, noting, "I send him lots of images, like paintings, photographs, anything that could inspire a scene." Equally important for her is Logan's focused shepherding of the show. "A TV series is very ambitious and a long commitment, so what is great is that he knows where he's going."

Logan's boss has been similarly impressed. "It's been pretty seamless for him," Nevins says. "Of course, there have been skills he's had to learn to become a leader of a very large crew, but he's been preparing for it his entire career."

That prep work — for example, he sketched out the storylines for the first three seasons way back in the pitching stage — provided a ready-made template for season two. Speaking of which, Logan explains, "The first season was about putting the pieces on the chessboard, and now I get to play with them."

Joining Green in that macabre, sometimes gruesome play is Josh Hartnett (The Black Dahlia) as Ethan Chandler, an adventurer and, yes, an American werewolf in London; Timothy Dalton (another Bond alum) as explorer Sir Malcolm Murray; and Rory Kinnear (also of Skyfall) as the creature from Shelley's Frankenstein, one of a handful of characters Logan has reconceived for the series,

"All these characters can break your heart in one scene and repel you in the next," Logan observes.

He's reluctant to give too much away, of course, but does reveal that this season his core characters "aren't the hunters — they're the hunted."

Knowing, as any good writer does, the importance of what one doesn't say, Logan concludes: "Consider your appetite whetted."

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