British housing officer turned writer Ben Richards has become known for his work on such television series as BBC’s MI-5, The Fixer and Party Animals. Now, he has created the sci-fi epic drama Outcasts, expected to air on BBC America in late 2010/early 2011, that will take viewers into a new world as it explores survival, politics, sex and the drive for power in a post-Earth era.
With Earth no longer habitable, a group of pioneers have traveled to the planet of Carpathia to begin again, giving its inhabitants a second chance to create a new and better future. Led by President Tate (Liam Cunningham) and his team – which includes Stella (Hermoine Norris), Cass (Daniel Mays) and Fleur (Amy Manson) – they’re determined to run the civilization in a democratic way, but quickly realize that may not be as possible as they’d hoped, especially with the arrival of the last known transporter, containing mysterious American Julius Berger (Eric Mabius) on board.
In this Collider exclusive interview with show creator Ben Richards, the writer talked about avoiding the pitfalls and cliches of sci-fi in creating this new world, filming in South Africa, and thinking ahead to future seasons and weaving threads into the story that will make that possible. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did Outcasts come about for you? What inspired the idea?
BEN RICHARDS: I’ve worked with Kudos, the production company that’s doing Outcasts, for quite a long time. I worked with them on a show that’s called Spooks in the U.K., but that’s called MI-5 in the States, and we were just looking for a new show. I had been reading a lot about pioneers in Australia and the colonization of Australia, and pioneers in Virginia and the early settlers in the United States, and I was fascinated by those communities and how they grew, how their politics developed, and the actual suffering of those people and the tribulations they went through. And then, I read a Stephen Hawking quote about how, if humans were to have any future at all, they would have to find their way to another planet or they would become extinct. That was cliche, but it was a whole final frontier thing. So, I thought, “What about doing pioneers in space?”
We then discussed that with Kudos, and that was how the idea came up and the BBC got very excited about it. I think they quite liked the idea of a sci-fi project, at which point I thought, “This is a sci-fi project?” Every now and again, I think, “How the hell did I get to this point?” I’m not from a particularly sci-fi background. I’m not anti sci-fi at all, but I’ve never been known as a sci-fi writer and, suddenly, I was creating a flagship BBC sci-fi show, which is terrifying sometimes. So then, we started exploring that. Sometimes maybe it’s good to have someone doing a sci-fi show who’s not actually necessarily from that background. It also means that sometimes I fall into the most elementary of traps. I think I’ve invented something completely brilliant and people go, “Yeah, no, they did that in this other show,” which I haven’t seen. Also, I use the biggest sci-fi cliches, like guns with red laser beams and all that kind of stuff. I’ve had my wrist slapped for doing that. We’ve got a very good director who’s managed to curb some of those elements.
Who are the characters that this story will follow?
RICHARDS: The way that we set it up, we have the President of the settlement, called President Tate, who’s played by Liam Cunningham, and he’s the really serious figure. He believes wholeheartedly in his vision of the future, which is logical, rational and all about the survival of the human species, and about planning in a communitarian, fair, egalitarian way. He’s set up against Julius Berger, who arrives in Episode 2 and who’s played by Eric Mabius. The battle for whose vision wins in Carpathia is the main spine of Series 1. Then, because it’s a show that is also about the security of the settlement, we have a team, called Protection and Security, who look after the protection and security of the settlement, and that’s headed by Stella Isen, who’s played by Hermione Norris. Under her, she has two younger officers, called Cass Cromwell (Daniel Mays) and Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson).
So, it’s this interplay between the security of the settlement and the politics of the settlement. In very, very crude terms, you’ve got Tate and Stella, who are the mom and dad of the show, so to speak, and then the younger guys are Cass and Fleur, and on the side, coming in to blow this all out of the water, is Julius Berger. In Episode 1, you have Mitchell Hoban, who’s played by Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica, who’s a very angry man, unhappy with the way things are going. His sidekick is Jack, who is played by Ashley Walters, who used to be in the So Solid Crew, a British hip-hop band. He’s military power and the force of the Expeditionaries, when they go out to explore the planet. They’re an armed defense. There are basically six main characters – President Tate, Stella, Cass, Fleur, Jack and Julius.
At what point did you decide to cast an American as Julius Berger? Was that something you had always been looking to do?
RICHARDS: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do for two reasons. One is to make it feel international and universal. Also, to pay tribute to the fact that sci-fi is very much an American genre. Space and the exploration of space is something so closely associated with America, it would feel odd if we didn’t have at least one token American in it. It wasn’t a decision that was necessarily made by me, and it wasn’t always definite that it would be Julius Berger who was American, although that seemed logical, in the end. We’d always had it in mind because we wanted to add an international flavor to the cast and an American was the obvious choice.
How did you decide on the look for this new settlement? Was it something you had an idea for before you found the location, or did you choose the location and then adapt the look to that?
RICHARDS: We decided on the location fairly early on. The project was funded by BBC Wales, so one of the options would have been shooting in Wales, but the problem with shooting in Wales, particularly for a UK audience, is that they quickly recognize that it’s Wales and not some other planet. That would have been a bit of a problem, so we looked at other options. We considered Canada and we considered South Africa. The big advantage of South Africa is that it’s on the same timeline, so if you’re shooting overseas, you can at least be in constant communication with the set.
We went out on an exploratory mission in South Africa and we were completely blown away by the landscape because it’s got everything. It’s got white sand dunes that have a very sci-fi feel, and it’s got these incredible mountain ranges around Cape Town, and there are so many brilliant places to shoot. Once we saw South Africa, the external location was a fairly easy choice. And then, when it came to design, we have a brilliant designer, Ed Thomas, who’s worked on Doctor Who, and he was responsible for creating the look of the place. We had loads of debates. What we didn’t want it to be was all white and gleaming, which is one of the classic sci-fi looks. We wanted it to feel quite real. These people have been there for 10 years, and out of virtually nothing, they’ve created shelter for themselves. We worked hard to make it feel both accessible, but also quite rough around the edges. We didn’t want it to be too slick. And, I think he’s done a great job of creating that slightly recycled look that it has.
Since this story picks up after these people have already been on Carpathia for awhile, how much backstory will the viewers get? Will they get to see what these people went through before?
RICHARDS: I like to flatter myself that we’ve done the exposition really well. I think we’ve told enough and left enough for there to be obvious questions that people will ask and maybe get answers to through the series, and maybe not. But, what we haven’t done is weight down the first episode with a ton of exposition. Once you start with that, you can go on and on and on with, “How long have they been there? How long did it take? When was it planned? Do they have money?” Those are all great questions, but I didn’t want to answer them all in Episode 1. So, I think we’ve done the backstory at particularly specific moments, and we’ve dramatized what’s happened through what’s happening with Jamie Bamber’s character and his plans. He plans to split from the settlement on Carpathia and start again with his team of Expeditionaries, and this causes a major crisis in Carpathian society. So, I try to tell some of the backstory through what’s happening, in that moment.
We actually contemplated – and lots of sci-fi shows use this device – doing a voice-over. We wrote them out and they were quite fun. I couldn’t be bothered to do it all with exposition, so I thought we might as well just tell people right up front about how long it was, how long they’ve been there, and how many transporters left Earth and why. When it was shot and the director showed us the first cut, he said, “Personally, I’d drop that. I think it works without that.” We all looked at it and thought it worked without it. We absolutely didn’t need that amount of information at the beginning, and hopefully we’ll be proved right.
Will viewers learn that some of these people had very different lives back on Earth?
RICHARDS: Yes, that’s a very, very big feature of Series 1. In the first episode, it’s hinted at that Cass, one of the officers, has a particularly difficult past that he’s running away from on this planet. It’s all about new opportunities and starting again, so he does. There’s a big secret attached to Fleur, which only really surfaces in Episode 8, the final episode. There’s a major catalyst for all the action in the final episode of the show. I think everyone has an element of mystery attached to them about how come they’re actually there, even for the more minor characters. With Tipper, who’s played by Michael Legge, we suggest in the first episode that he’s a bit of a low-life drug dealer, but actually it turns out that he’s there because he’s a mathematical prodigy. Originally, only about 20,000 people came to Carpathia and everyone was chosen for different reasons. Some of them were chosen because they were genetically interesting, and Tipper was chosen because he was actually a child genius and they wanted his mathematical skills. He responded to that by getting survivor guilt and becoming a drop-out.
What has happened to all of the people who weren’t selected? Are they still on Earth?
RICHARDS: The mystery of Earth is a really big deal, or we try to make it so. When I hand in scripts to the execs, they come back and say, “Yeah, this is great on this front and that front, but where is the mystery of Earth?,” and I go, “Oh, shit! The mystery of Earth. Yeah, of course.” But, that is a big deal. What’s happened to Earth? We half answer that at the end of Episode 8. Stella’s husband was left on Earth and we’re leaving it hanging as to whether he’s alive or not, or where he is, but we’re certainly suggesting that there are survivors down there.
Are you thinking ahead to future seasons and weaving those threads into the story?
RICHARDS: Yeah, definitely. There are loads and loads of hooks and cliffhangers and potential new stories. The thing about a show like this is that we have to keep the threats and the jeopardy coming, especially with this sci-fi genre. It’s a very realistic sci-fi show, so you can’t just have a bunch of aliens pitching up on another planet and trying to imprison them all. We’ve got to keep thinking of new challenges for them, and I think we’re going to be able to do that through what’s happened on Earth.
What was it that initially made you want to be a storyteller? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
RICHARDS: That’s a very interesting question. I was a novelist before I was a TV screenwriter. Actually, as a kid, I think I’d always wanted to be a writer, but never thought that I would be one. And then, when I was in my early 30’s, I’d worked as a housing officer, which probably doesn’t have an equivalent in the States. There are low-rent municipal housing projects in Britain, and I worked there for awhile. So many weird and interesting things happened that I thought, “I’m going to have to write about this.” That’s how I started writing. I wrote about the life of a housing officer in Britain, in a pretty rough area of London. Maybe it was because I’m a big-mouth and an exhibitionist, and I’m slightly egotistical. All those things have to come together for a writer.