Deep State - First taste of FOX’s spy thriller
BY Yako Molhov
FOX Networks Group (FNG) Europe and Africa is officially presenting its first scripted commission for the region during this year’s MIPCOM in Cannes. Deep State was created by Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell and will air on FOX in over 50 European and African countries. The intense, character-driven espionage thriller stars acclaimed British actor Mark Strong as Max Easton, an ex-spy who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East. Yako Molhov talks to creator and showrunner Matthew Parkhill and FNG Europe and Africa’s VP of Scripted Sara Johnson about Deep State, the main inspiration behind the story of the new series and how it became FNG’s first scripted commission for the region.
Showrunner Matthew Parkhill on set with Actor Lyne Renee on the set of Deep State, © FOX NETWORKS GROUP (UK) LIMITED All Rights Reserved
Matthew Parkhill, creator, pro- ducer, director and showrunner of “Deep State”

Matthew, Deep State was initially announced as The Nine, back in December last year. You are the creator, producer, showrunner and you will be directing some of the episodes of the series. Tell us a little bit more how the project was born and what made you change the working title?
Together with Simon Maxwell, who I have a long working relationship with, we started talking about this idea about an ex-spy being put in an impossible position where he has to choose between his new family and his old family and that was the beginning of the personal story of Mark Strong’s character, whether he can escape his past and whether he can start again. Later, I read an article about an engineering construction firm that made almost 40 billion dollars from the Iraq War and I started to think about how you guarantee those returns on an ongoing basis. And from that I started thinking about the idea of cash from chaos and spreading chaos across the world in the name of profit, and the two ideas kind of came together.

You got the personal story of Mark Strong’s character and the political story of the Deep State. That was the origin to the idea, and then in terms of the change of title: in the beginning it was called The Nine because of nine intelligence officers, and as the show started to develop, I moved away from that idea and then FOX were interested in exploring a new title, because there were other shows around with similar names. When I came up with the idea of Deep State, it was actually around the time of the US Presidential Election and once I thought about title, it allowed the show to grow and to expand in terms of what it’s about.

Once it was called Deep State, it sort of opened up all these other ideas and other things you could explore, so I think the show has become more rich as a result of the sort of times we are living in.

What was your biggest inspiration for the story?
I love stories, multi-character thrillers that have a strong emotional element and the elements of thrillers, like the twists and the turns, and the chases, and the explosions. At the center of it, there’s a story with emotion and heart and that’s what I love. And I think one of the inspirations for me was a film called Syriana which I loved and I found as a fascinating example of something that can be both intelligent and exciting and engaging and could be about something, but could also be entertaining. That was one of the films I had in my head when I started to think about how we would make me the show.

Tell us a little bit more about the main character – Max Easton. Is he like a modern James Bond or is he more like Jonathan Pine from The Night Manager?
I’m not sure he’s either of those, to be honest. He has an action element, since he’s an intelligence operative who can handle himself. What I find fascinating about him is that he is so much a broken character. Action heroes are fun but where they truly become interesting is the emotional part of them and for me Mark’s character has something in the past that has left him broken and scarred and it’s the woundedness of him that I find interesting.

I spoke to an ex-intelligence officer about this and one thing he said that really stuck in my head was “The people who do these things and lead these lives, they don’t emerge unbroken, they don’t emerge unscathed”. In that respect, Max is a more real and grounded character than maybe James Bond, there’s not really a psychological toll to what James Bond does. There is a lovely scene in the second Bourne movie, when Bourne goes back to the daughter of two people he killed in Russia and tells her they didn’t kill themselves, he wants her not to have the burden, thinking that these parents killed themselves. This scene shows that the people who do this job, it takes a toll on them and breaks them and that’s what I found fascinating about Max and something Mark does incredibly well, this sort of broken man.

How did Mark Strong come on board, he must have been very busy with the second Kingsman movie?
He has been shooting a whole bunch of stuff. It was a simple process, we just sent him a script, and he was someone we were always interested in. A lot of people have been off to him to shoot television roles. We met with him and we had chats about how I saw the show and how I wanted to do it. He is friends with Thandie Newton who was in my US show (Rogue), so he checked me out.

Karima McAdams as Leyla Toumi © FOX NETWORKS GROUP (UK) LIMITED All Rights Reserved

How much freedom do you give the actors in your projects?
I give them a lot of freedom. Joe Dempsie came up to me after a scene and said “it’s interesting working with you because other directors say this is exactly how it has to be and there’s no flexibility.” I feel like I know the story and the characters from the inside out, I know what I’m trying to achieve, therefore I know if something is not working, so I say “You know what, forget that, let’s throw that out, let’s try this”. Sometimes you work with actors who will bring things to it that you haven’t thought about and you need to be open to those moments.

There are similar themes in Rogue – one of your previous TV projects – and Deep State: about vengeance and justice, namely parents seeking justice for the death of their children. Are those the driving force in human nature?
I’m not conscious of it. I love complex thrillers with a strong emotional element to them. The one thing I would say that my female characters are something I’m very proud of, both in Rogue and in this show, we have very strong female characters. And that’s something I make conscious effort in – to make sure these characters don’t exist as sex objects or male idolized objects, that’s something this show definitely shares with Rogue, the strong female characters.

Deep State will be aired in over 50 territories and the storyline takes place in several countries. Did you take this into special consideration when writing the series and what have been the biggest challenges when shooting?
I didn’t take into account “oh, I want to do a big international thriller”. I like ambitious projects, things that can challenge me. Part of the story is about the Iranian nuclear deal, so it’s logical for part of it to be placed in Iran. Beirut was another part of the story, so when we went to Morocco, to Casablanca, we realized we can shoot both Iran and Beirut in Casablanca. But it’s the ambition of the project more than the geographical location that I think and get excited about.

In terms of challenges, I think the biggest challenge is that it’s a very ambitious show, it’s a location show, which means we don’t shoot on sound stages so that puts certain pressure on productions, because you’re always moving, but it also means when you see the episodes it feels very epic because you’re not spending 20 minutes of every episode on the same set.
Casablanca was a challenge to shoot in, it’s an interesting and quite a difficult city to shoot in, but what was amazing about it, was the spirit of the crew there was incredible. I am feeling lucky that I’ve lived through this experience; we did some crazy things, like blowing up cars and shooting in the middle of the night in the mountains. The experience of working with those crews and these people that were so dedicated, generous and spirited, that’s something I really take with me.

Sara Johnson, VP Scripted, Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa

Sara, Deep State is the first regional scripted commission for Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa. What were the qualities that you were looking for in your first series?
It’s the same qualities as you would want to find in anything: a great idea, with a very strong and passionate vision that lies behind it, which Matthew and the Endor team - Hilary Bevan Jones and Tom Nash, Robert Connolly the director – all have. Everybody had a very clear ambition and excitement about Matthew’s vision. It really works for the viewers that we know come to watch shows on our Fox channels across the region and it’s one of those series that does a very magic thing – it’s local enough to feel like it’s authentic, but it’s global enough to be big and have scale and have that Fox quality that we know our viewers expect and without doubt we want to find in anything that we commission.

The project has drama, has action – why did you decide that your first project would be in this genre and not comedy for example?
I joined in September last year, just before we commissioned this drama. Jeff Ford is the Head of the UK channels and has special responsibility for regional content across the region and this series was one of a couple projects that we put into development. As to why we didn’t choose comedy is that, across the region, comedy is not a priority in our commissioning at the moment.

What we have in Deep State is an action thriller with absolute heart and really wonderful clear character journies, and between the projects that we had that were put into development, this is the one that overwhelmingly we all agreed that we wanted to see on television, we wanted to see somebody make for us. The team that came along with it, the chemistry that happened between Matthew Endor and everybody at Fox…it just felt like the right thing. Sometimes you have to go the voice that tells you“here we go, this is the one to do.”

The action takes place in the UK, the US, the Middle East, France. Was this part of your decision to commission it since it will be aired in more than 50 territories?
The ambition for us going forward is to make sure that the series we are going to be making are not local or parochial in any way, but have that feeling of a global international brand, and complement the shows that we bring down from our parent channels over in America. Deep State is a show that naturally, through the storyline and the characters, takes place in more than one country; it’s not done cynically, it comes absolutely from the core of the idea, because it’s a series about politics and business and business profiting from chaos in the world and these are very relevant, very contemporary, very interesting topics for us and for our viewers, so they feed into our desire to have everything feel international. We commission it out of Europe and Africa, but we want the world to see it, so that is our ambition.

Joe Dempsie as Harry Clark © FOX NETWORKS GROUP (UK) LIMITED All Rights Reserved

You will be presenting Deep State at MIPCOM this October. Do you have a launch date already set and which channels will air the series?
It will be aired across the FOX channels in Europe and Africa. We are looking at a spring ’18 launch and we are very excited to be introducing it at MIPCOM. The whole channel is working incredibly hard, Matthew and the team are busy in the edit suites delivering episodes to us and it’s very exciting to be able to present it in Cannes.

Do you already have interest expressed from other broadcasters?
At this point we are absolutely concentrated on the fact that this is our show for FOX, it’s for our 50 channels across the region. Our content sales team has it on their slate and we’re very excited to see what everybody else will do with it and where it will go.

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