ORPHAN BLACK Creators John Fawcett And Graeme Manson Talk Origins And Clones

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
It was back in late 2012 that Twitch first caught wind of upcoming BBC America original series Orphan Black, which will air here in Canada on Space. It was of particular interest for a number of reasons. First, any time someone aims to put a new character driven, intelligent scifi thriller on television it's worth paying attention. And, second, the creative team included a pair of local genre heroes, the show having been created by Ginger Snaps director John Fawcett and Cube screenwriter Graeme Manson. I had the chance to visit the set and speak with both about their latest creation and with the show due to hit the air this coming Saturday now seems the perfect time to share.

Please note: Fawcett and Manson both refer extensively to the opening sequence of the show, which BBC America has released as an early promo and which you can find embedded below.


Twitch speaks with John Fawcett:

Twitch: I understand that you and Graeme had the idea for this quite some time back. Where did this start for you?

John Fawcett: You know, it started back ... Graeme and I have known each other for a long time and a good while back we were working together on a little TV movie that we were kind of thrown together on. It wasn't anything that we had come up with ourselves, it was a gig for somebody else. But we were finally working together in a professional way so we started talking about other things that we might want to do together.

I have always been into genre stuff, Graeme not so much. I had a bunch of ideas and I kept pitching him stuff that he wouldn't go for. They just weren't his thing. But I had this very basic idea, basically the opening scene of Orphan Black. A girl gets off a train and sees herself across the platform, her doppelganger, commit suicide in front of a train. And the girl steals her identity. I went, "Wouldn't this be cool?" And I pitched that to Graeme to try and get him interested. As soon as you pitch that opening, the opening of the pilot, it's cool. It makes you ask, "What is this?" And he was into that.

The emphasis at first was to make a feature film out of it, but we worked on that for a couple years and just couldn't crack it. We couldn't figure out what it was as a film. We knew it was clones but we couldn't figure out what the answer was, especially not in a two, two and a half hour format. And so it languished for a while until Graeme came to me in 2008 and said, "Hey, I've been thinking about this. Maybe we should do it as a TV series, instead." And I was open to that, for sure. My priorities had shifted a little bit, from making feature films to television, because in the last decade television had just completely changed.

I think there's been a really interesting paradigm shift within the time span of your career. When you were making Ginger Snaps everybody wanted to do features and there was this bias that if somebody was doing television it was because they couldn't do a feature. Where now with the rise of HBO and Showtime and all the premium cable networks and more producers taking the British model of creator driven, tight story arcs we've ended up in a place where the hit rate is now a lot better on television when it comes to complex storytelling than it is in features.

JF: I completely agree. And there are so many outlets for doing it, right? So through that decade my priorities completely shifted. I made my last feature [The Dark] in 2004 / 2005 and wasn't particularly successful with it and it just got to be a big bummer. And I wasn't making very much money. So it just got to be ... [sighs].

So, when Graeme suggested this as a series I went, "Shit, yeah. Let's do it." I wanted to make scifi. I knew that the concept of clones in itself was a scifi premise and I wanted to make scifi. And I wanted to make a serialized show. Because the shows that I'm drawn to are not just about the genre and fantastic stuff but has a lot of mystery, suspense and thriller elements and the shows that are a longer story, with each episode being a new chapter. You're left at the end of one chapter wondering what's going to happen next and where the show's going to go. I think that's the kind of storytelling I like best, I like the feel of not knowing where this is going to go. This is going to make some left turns. And if the left turns start to become predictable then hopefully we stop making them and start doing something else. That's the idea. That it has a sort of rabbit hole mystery to it.

When you're developing something like this, is there a point where you and Graeme sit down and talk about what's actually, technically possible or are you just running with the ideas? Where in the creative process do you start limiting yourself to, "We need to be thinking of this many episodes, how do we do an arc that's going to close at the end of that but also be open to continue on if it works?" And, given that you have an actor playing multiple roles, there are things that are technically possible now that wouldn't have been when you started working on this.

JF: Yeah, that's true. A lot of the motion control stuff that we've been doing and the state of VFX technology at the moment ... But in the end, ultimately, there's still an old school approach to doing clone stuff, with one actor playing two or three different parts. Even though there is some cool technology and you can put thing together with this new technology you still are reliant on an actor who can perform this to a believable degree.

For us, the point of our clones is that they're very different characters. One actor playing a bunch of different roles and every character is very diverse. You want to feel that they're all very individualistic. So, really, it doesn't matter how much cool shit you do if you don't have an actor who can pull that off. That was always the fear, that was the thing. We were like, "Oh my god, we've got to cast this. We've got to kill ourselves casting this or else this is dead."

What was the process like finding Tatiana Maslany? I know you'd worked with her before when she was a fair bit younger. Did you already have a hunch she could do it?

JF: I had, yeah, in Ginger Snaps 2. You know, it's funny. When we were creating and developing the show I didn't have a face on Sarah. There wasn't a specific actor, there never was. I kind of purposefully didn't attach a face to that character so that when it came to casting I could remain open.

But Tatiana ... no, I didn't think of her originally. Because Tatiana was seventeen, maybe sixteen, when I worked with her on Ginger Snaps. And you just don't immediately go, "Oh, yeah." I'd run into her a few times and I always thought she still looks super young. One of my fears going in, when everyone was saying, "Tatiana's awesome," was whether she felt old enough because she has to believably play a detective, she has to have a six or seven year old daughter, she's a mother ... but in the end she just came in and auditioned and played all these different roles and just blew everyone's mind.

So. At the end of a three, three and a half month process of casting, there obviously was no one else. There was no other choice. She annihilated everybody. Which is great, because it alleviated all those fears about the show becoming absurd. You don't want people to laugh because it's bad.


Twitch speaks with Graeme Manson

Twitch: Have things been smooth so far? Are you feeling good?

Graeme Manson: Ah, yeah. Right up until now. [laughs] We had a three script head start on the season and now we're shooting episode six and gearing up for the charge through the last three, which are up against the wire.

Let's start with you in the same place I started with John, on the origins of it because I knew it is something that brewed for a long time.

GM: Yeah, it did. It was 2003, I think, that was the first time that John said to me, "Wouldn't it be cool if you got off the train and stood on the train platform and looked across the tracks and you saw yourself. Identical. And in the moment where your eyes met, you saw fear. And then your identical jumps in front of a train." Though with John it's always like, "There's this super hot chick, no TWO super hot chicks and they're ass kicking underdogs!" But, yeah. I went, "Yeah, that's a killer scene but what's the story?" And he said, "Dude, that's your job."

We went back and forth on the story for a long time. That story led us to the concept of clones, not the other way around. The idea of the opening, what was that? John didn't know it was clones. We got to the idea of clones because twins didn't go far enough. Twins turned into stories we'd seen before, those scenarios that are built more around impersonating or switching personalities, that kind of thing. There is some pretty great twins stuff, though - we're huge Dead Ringers fans - and that creepiness informed us from the beginning. We wanted it to be thrilling.

We share a lot of the same taste, especially in terms of black humor when it comes to horror and scifi, thriller stuff. We were both ... I think at the time Memento was out. And the pace of Memento was something we wanted. We're not a chopped up narrative like Memento but we wanted that pace and that drive, that sense of constantly not knowing what's coming. That's what we were going for.

It seems as a writer this premise gives you so many places you can go. You can jump into really basic elements of human nature, what are our parameters physically versus other influences and getting into the ethics of technology that people really are messing with.

GM: Absolutely! The ethics of the technology is very interesting but if it's not explored through the psychology of the characters discovering that they're clones, all the damage that would do to your sense of self and individuality, all of those nature / nurture questions and the exponential identity crisis that clones give us, if you're not really building the characters around that then the science isn't interesting. Then you're just in a lab, finding your way to the big, dark lab. And we're not that interested in the big, dark lab. We do know what's behind the curtain but we don't want to get there for a long time.

To a certain degree, just given your connection to Cube, you're going to have a lot of people saying, "Oh, this is really interesting, looking at this next to Splice." It seems like you and Vincenzo started from a somewhat common starting point and then pushed in very different directions with it.

GM: Oh, I was very aware of Splice while we were working on this. I read it multiple times while Vince was working on it. It's a taste thing, for sure. We shared a lot of the same tastes. What I really brought to Cube was the existential, the angst, because I like that in characters. I find that the scariest part of those kinds of mysteries, those unanswerable questions, that kind of paranoia.

The subject matter of what people are doing with genetics and why, there's disturbing stuff there. And I think people understand it enough to think maybe they should be afraid of it but they don't really know why, even, which you see in the debate around genetically modified foods.

GM: Absolutely. And single use seed stock from these big agro-business companies. This is where all of our experiments with genetics and eugenics began, they began with animal husbandry. It is eugenics, animal husbandry, and that's where it all started. It's, bizarrely, the real start of human civilization. So how does civilization fall? We destroy our original concepts.

For you as a writer, when working on something like this and knowing that you've got multiple characters being played by the same person, what does that present to you? There must be some challenges very specific to that as well as some things that are really pretty exciting.

GM: Totally. In terms of the characterization, it really pushes you to make them extra distinct for the actor to play them. For someone like Tatiana, who loves layers and can really portray layers, that's really great.

What you're gunning for is the audience completely forgetting that this is one actor playing multiple roles, so really making them distinct and delineating them is even more important than what makes them similar. It's more interesting, what makes them different. But also what makes them so similar is really fun mechanically, it's really fun plot wise, because you can do all the things identical twins used to get away with in high school, making out with each other's girlfriends and boyfriends. So that kind of plot stuff with the clones is really fun and something we really embraced, forcing them to impersonate each other and step into each others' shoes. And then the character of Sarah is a chameleon, she's a con artist to begin with, so she's good at it.

And then you give that to an actor like Tat who can go, "Okay, I'm Clone A impersonating Clone B and I have to fool all these people." It's Sarah impersonating Beth, she has to fool all the people in Beth's life. She has to fool cops. And yet the audience has to see under the guise, the audience has to see Sarah bobbing and weaving and scared and on the verge of losing it all the time. It's where we get a lot of our tension. It's super complex to play but Tat's amazing at playing all of that.

I would assume one of the challenges here as well is how much you reveal how quickly. Do you have it mapped out? Do you know, "This is where we want to get to and in a perfect world it'll take this long."

GM: We have end points but not arcs. Well, partial arcs, I guess. We do know where we're going. We know what it is, what the conspiracy is. And we certainly knew the shape of our first season, as well as the big revelations that are a Season Two revelation or a Season Three revelation. But you've got to get there first. You can't reveal too much, though, or else you don't have any place to go and that's when things get silly. I think it would be a relief if you could tell mere there was going to be three seasons and each one was going to be ten episodes but it's not going to happen like that. So you've got to keep it open enough to react.

Orphan Black premieres March 30 on BBC America and Space in Canada.
Around the Internet:
  • In the know

    Todd, this is a clear case of theft of intellectual property. Every one screams about it until they can benefit from it. The idea that was stolen is now rendered useless because even if changed it looks like the rip off vs. the other way around. I will tell you I have bee in the business for a long time and have been ripped off enough to know when it happens, if indeed it did happen and what can be done about it. Calling out the thieves is an effective way to deal with it. There is NO DOUBT that this was not Graemes idea. This script was shopped around Hollywood for years, it started its life at WB and moved through different agents and management. Hundreds of people read this script. It has been emailed around and like all of these things has a life of its own once it leaves the writers domain. This isn't the first script this writer has had stolen BTW. If Graeme has the balls to stand up in front of the world and categorically deny that the specifics that the writer put into this script that had personal meanings and could not be randomly or coincidentally duplicated then let's put him to the test. I have absolute certainty that he can not. So when you go to carry some ones water for them You might want to pack a little more ammo than the weak a, b, c put up or shut up student response.

  • In the know

    Todd, no sour grapes pal just facts. No possibility for parallel development with this kind of synergy. You my friend are talking out of your azz. It is not my decision to take this to court but if it went your hero would lose. And I do have the facts my friend. Why don't you ask your guy where he got the Idea from. Huh? Seriously.

  • What exactly makes Graeme "my boy"? I'd never met him before this interview, have had the one conversation with him months ago and have never had contact with him since. If you were half the pro you claim to be you'd have at least the basic understanding of how unit publicity works to know that. I have no horse in this race. You, however ... I have no idea what you are because you're being very careful to just snipe away from a distance behind a veil of anonymity.

    Why on earth would I take you seriously? You're making thin accusations without providing any basis in fact whatsoever. You're not addressing at all the clear requirements of chain of title that have to be met before something goes into production. You're also somehow overlooking the very clear and simple protections offered by international copyright law that would be available to the writer of the project you're talking about should what you're saying be true. And if it were emailed around the industry there would be a clear and obvious trail that would lead back to the original source. It would be dead simple to prove in court.

    Further, you say yourself it's not your decision to take anything to court. So what is it to you? You're clearly not the writer of this supposed project. And yet here you are, without identifying yourself, accusing someone of stealing not just this but multiple other projects. And you say I'm talking out of my ass? You clearly have a personal axe to grind against Graeme and are going about it in the least professional, most childish, most cowardly way possible.

    I don't give a rat's ass about Graeme one way or the other, frankly. I have no feelings about him whatsoever. But I will tell you this. Not only do I have zero respect for people who hide behind a thin veneer of anonymity while throwing stones at other people, I have active contempt for them. Which means I have active contempt for you and the cowardly way you conduct yourself in public. So, yes, put up or shut up. And that means, at minimum, that if you intend to continue to use the public forum that I maintain and pay for to slander another working professional rather than handling whatever dispute you may have in a proper, professional manner then you can damn well man up and declare your own identity and stake in this. Either that or just take your act elsewhere or I simply ban your entire IP range.

  • And, incidentally, if you want to remain anonymous, using an email address which is also your name when registering an account isn't the best way to do it. So, hey there, Randy Roberts. Are you based in Doylestown, PA yourself, or is that just your ISP?

  • In the know

    Todd, it only took a few hot comment exchanges for you to do something unethical? Speakes volumes. I stand by every word and clearly this isn't the forum.

  • Yeah, I see how firmly you stand by your words, scurrying off to hide the moment your name is attached to them. Tell me, Randy, are you one of the Randy Roberts listed on the IMDB, which I find unlikely? Or are you just the cranky displaced Texan who spends his time trolling screenwriting contest message boards?

    As for my ethics, there's nothing unethical about finding out who I'm talking to. That's called 'journalism'. And you're no source I'm required to protect, you're just some guy being a dick - and by 'being a dick' I mean 'committing libel' - in my message boards.

  • First, nobody here deleted anything. You may have just been blocked by the Disqus spam filter for some reason.

    Second, there is such a thing as parallel development, where people come across the same basic concept independently.

    Third, unless you can demonstrate that a) what you're saying is true and b) that John and Graeme somehow had access to this script and took the idea from it, then what you're doing here boils down to sour grapes in the best case and libel at the worst. If you have a case, take them to court.

  • In the know

    OH and BTW. I have a bullet proof chain of evidence to the original idea that passes through some very big production companies, agents and management. So please, please challenge me on this one. John and Graeme are you listening? I didn't write the original but I know who did and it makes me hopping mad at the absolute callous theft that this represents. You should be ashamed.

  • In the know

    well since the moderator decided to omit my last post. I'll try something different. I have the original script that this series was based/stolen from. If anyone wants to know more please post here and I'll answer. The script pre dates any reference that John and Graeme refer to. It is so much more that any possible coincidence. John and Graeme care to comment?

  • in the know

    The script, to be exact was called "1984 Girls". Ever read it or hear about it? Just wondering.

  • Too much in the know

    So John and Graeme, where ddi the original inspiration come from. Did you think this up by yourselves or read it in somebody else's script and rip them off? Just wondering because I read this exact idea 5 years ago in a script competition and neither of your manes was connected with it. I'd love to hear more about the "creative" process. Care to share?

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