He’s the creator with more disturbing “offspring” than Victor Frankenstein – and John Logan’s a lot happier about it.
One of Hollywood’s most in-demand film screenwriters – Academy Award nominated for his scripts for Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, the scribe behind the 007 adventures Skyfall and the forthcoming Spectre, and well-known among animation and genre fans for Rango and Star Trek: Nemesis – Logan revealed that he was equally skilled in the television realm when he brought his series Victorian era horror series Penny Dreadful to Showtime, with a macabre cast that blended horror icons like Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, Dorian Gray and Stoker-style vampires with compelling new creations including the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the tortured explorer Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) and the lycanthropic Wild West sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett).
With the second season about to debut tonight on Showtime, Logan sheds a little light into the dark and shadowy world he created and provides a glimpse of the horrors ahead.
Spinoff Online: Season one of any show is often a lot of setting up of the game board, so with that accomplished tell me what got you excited about what you could do in Season Two of Penny Dreadful?
John Logan: Well, the characters are known to the audience. There’s familiarity, so all the laborious – and joyous – work of introducing the characters is done. So it allows us to immediately go into complexity. As the characters are unveiled in new ways, as new characters meet each other, as sort of the molecules start to refracting around the room in a more complicated way. So that shorthand allowed me to dive into right into the drama of the script.
Is there a through-line for Season Two?
When I was planning out the whole series, ten years ago really, just years and years of working on it, I knew that for the second season, I wanted a human antagonist. I wanted a character who could speak. Because the first season the antagonists are the vampires, who are brooding figures, mute figures of evil. But I knew I wanted someone who could speak, and in a very particular relationship with Vanessa Ives. And so I created the character of Evelyn Poole, who Helen McCrory plays. And you meet her in two episodes of Season One, and then she steps up in Season Two to become a true antagonist. Not only to Vanessa, but to everyone around her. And so this season, what I told the cast is, this season, they’re not the hunters. They’re the hunted. And so that creates pressure, and it’s pressure psychologically, supernaturally, theologically, and physically, to all of them. So there’s a sense of mounting anxiety, I think.
What were the influences for Helen’s character, mythologically, historically or literary?
English history to a large degree, because I looked at the history of witchcraft, specifically in England, which persisted in outlying areas much longer than it did in the New World, for example. So I looked at paganism. I looked at druidism. I looked at that period when sort of pagan mythology was sort of being replaced by Christian mythology. And I drew a lot from that. And I also thought about those things that frightened me, and those things that I find disquieting in some way. So for our witches, for example, what I was thinking was, “Well, what do these things look like? How do they interact with the world?”
I didn’t want them to be, you know, crones with black hats and big noses. So when I’m here in California, I hike a lot and I see rattlesnakes, and I said, “That’s the feeling I want for these witches: beautiful animals that in a moment can become something else, when you hear that rattle, when you see those fangs.” So Helen’s character came from a combination of sort of sociological, anthropological thinking, the mythology of paganism and druidism – and my own fear of rattlesnakes [laughs].
Tell me the ways in which the new conflict reveals new aspects of the characters.
Well, because the characters are facing new threats, new shards of their need and despair and anxiety are revealed. I mean, for example, Ethan and Vanessa, because they’re assaulted, come together. They’re drawn together, romantically, supernaturally, theologically, in every conceivable way. And so the characters, because the landscape has shifted, shift in their responses. So you get to see new elements of all of them, but you’re dead right in saying that the raison d’être of the show, for me, has always been characters, interesting characters, and what’s the fragility within all of them one way or another. And all the supernatural elements, the horror tropes of the show, to me, are simply the stage upon which a human drama’s placed. Even if that human drama is between a witch and a reanimated creature.
Is there a character from Season One who you got to spend more time with in Season Two?
Ethan. Ethan Chandler in the first series, the character Josh [Hartnett] plays, is an enigmatic character. You know he has some horrible past with his father. You don’t know what happened to him before you meet him. So in Season Two, he learns he’s a werewolf, for one. So he learns the manifestation of his trauma, if you will, and he has a nemesis, which is a Scotland Yard inspector named Inspector Rusk, who’s played by the great Doug Hodge. So the revelation of what he is and what he’s capable of in a very specific way in that mythology, and the external pressure applied on him allowed me to go sort of more deeply into that character.
I think we’re all anticipating a version of “The Bride.”
[Laughs] You’re anticipating correctly.
What was fun for you, rethinking that icon?
Well, believe me, it was all fun. And I thought, well, there’s a piquancy to the fact that Dr. Frankenstein murdered this woman by smothering her and then brings her back to life. And I thought, “Well, this is the first woman he’s created.” He’s created Proteus, who has killed. He’s created the Creature. And now, he’s created this beautiful woman. And he’s an awkward character when it comes to expressing sexuality or vulnerability in any way really. So it allowed me to create a very complex relationship between them, into which, of course, there is the creature, who’s expecting his bride. So in a way, it becomes a triangle. And not a traditional love triangle, but a triangle of sort of complex, attraction, repulsion simultaneously. That vague enough [laughs]?
Are there other characters from that era of Victoria literature that you’re going to be folding into Season Two?
Season Three, not Season Two.
How much of a big picture do you have planned out?
The first three seasons. After that, Season Four is a blank slate. Although now having worked with it – it’s changed, of course – that’s the great thing about working with artists – and not only the actors, but also the designers, the composer, Showtime – is you realize what you thought was a master plan is a master suggestion. And when you get into it and you see how the characters interact, you see what excites you. There are certain characters together who excite me as a writer, and there’s certain characters together who are less interesting. So it’s evolved and shifted as it’s gone on.
Who do you like putting together?
Vanessa and the Creature. Because those are two of my favorite – I’ll just be honest – those are my favorite characters to write. And I thought, they’re also two very fragile characters who have a very special kinship. And I thought the scenes together with them would be fascinating, and indeed, they’re riveting to me.
If you didn’t already know what you had a prize you had in Eva Green, you certainly learned it in Season One. She must have demonstrated that you can write just about anything, and she’ll pull it off in spades. So tell me how that influenced how you wrote for Vanessa.
It challenged me to take her further. Eva – I’ve said it before – she’s my muse when it comes to this. The character of Vanessa Ives and Eva Green is. And I start every morning on the set visiting Eva in hair and makeup and chatting. And we touch in with each other, to be honest about where we are and where we want to go. And I saw her heroism and her courage in taking on everything I had written for Season One and exceeding to a remarkable degree, that I was encouraged and inspired to write further, to write further for her. And not just in terms of harrowing terror, but in terms of grace and beauty and humor and sensitivity as well. So she continues to haunt me – Eva Green and Vanessa Ives, equally.
You’ve worked in worlds that are historical, like Gladiator, and futuristic, like Star Trek: Nemesis. This is an interesting meld of supernatural and scientific. What got you excited about the world and having these very long lived iconic notions of characters?
Well, it was two things. I grew up loving horror, feeling an alienated kid, myself, I found great kinship with them, with those who are perceived as demons or monsters or outlaws. And they’ve always moved me more than anything, more than Frankenstein’s creature scared me when I watched Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, I was moved. And so I always loved that world. It was a world I was deeply familiar with and hadn’t really gone into. And so when I opted to sort of do it and think about, “All right, how do I go into this world? And how do I set it? And who are the characters?”
I wanted to create a world that was just like our world, and to me, Victorian London in this era, in the 1890s is so much like America now. It was an empire that was crumbling day by day, bit by bit. It was a city and a country on the verge of a new age. The agrarian economy was being replaced by the industrial economy. The unquestionable might of the empire had been shaken by Germany and by America. And that seemed to me like America now, and very interesting. So I went back to the Victorian era, which is also the era that most of these books were written, with the exception of Frankenstein. And it all just sort of coalesced around sort of the gravitational pull of Vanessa Ives who’s this character that I wrote and created, and the fictional sort of characters that I chose to weave into it – the Frankenstein’s creature, Dorian Gray – were all how I could tell that story better. It could have just as easily been Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau and the Invisible Man. But those just seemed to tell that story best.
Visually the world you got to play in is sumptuous. Tell me how you expand that out for Season Two?
We get out of London, for one. And we go into new worlds because Helen McCrory plays Madame Kali, or Evelyn Poole, who lives in the world of the occult. And so her world is not a world that has to look like a Victorian world. It’s a world of necromancy and demonism. And so I was able to say to Jonathan McKinstry, our great art director, “Go in there. Give me that.” And we built a back lot this season, so we have more freedom to be outside and create our versions of Soho or Mayfair and work with more ease. So in every way, not only we’re ten hours as opposed to eight hours, it’s a broader, richer visual palette. I believe, a broader story telling palette, and I hope more complicated interactions with the characters.
How much do you share with the actors as far as their backstory, or give them a clue as to what’s ahead but leave a little story room open?
I do all of the above. I mean, the backstory I’ll talk about endlessly as much as I know it. But because part of the joy of doing television for me is there is no beginning, middle, end. There is no end, you know, until it occurs organically in the storytelling, that I’m discovering it as the actors are. And that was frustrating for some of them. They say, “Well, what happens to this character?” To which my answer’s, “Well, I don’t know what happens to this character. Let’s find out together.” But I think by now, midway through filming our second season, we’ve also embraced the fun of that, if you will; of saying, “Let’s just go on the ride.”
We still get glimmers of hope for characters. Sir Malcolm makes a very emotionally healthy choice that probably isn’t going to work out real well for him in the immediate future–
[Laughs]. He has to explain to his wife, “Yes, I shot our daughter.”
–and who knows what’s going to happen with Victor’s decision, but there’s some hope. Tell me about the importance of keeping that at the core of this dark show.
Well, I think that’s everything to me. This is a show about wounded people trying to get better. And so they have to have hope. They have to have a belief that, for all the murk of London, for all the dark, rainy days, there is sunshine ahead or they’re dramatically inert. They don’t have any ambition. They don’t have any drive to heal in some way. Whether it’s heal individually, psychologically, heal between themselves as characters. So to me, ironically, for all the despair of the show, it’s a very wide eyed show about the belief in a better world.
Penny Dreadful Season 2 debuts tonight at 10 p.m. E/P on Showtime.
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