Things are really starting to heat up for Simon Donald. His last show, "Low Winter Sun," was a two-part miniseries that aired on the U.K.'s Channel 4 and became a series on AMC. His new show, "Fortitude," represents a considerable step forward for the producer.
The show is set in a small town in the Arctic Circle — the northernmost civilized town on the planet. As Donald says, Fortitude's a town where, if anything terrible happens, there's no cavalry coming — you're on your own.
When Donald recently came by The Frame studios, host John Horn asked him about the changing nature of television, polar bears, and the genre-melding ambition of "Fortitude."
This show is unbelievably ambitious in terms of its look, its production design, the scope of the story — everything about this is ambitious. Did it grow to become that way, or was your goal almost to make a feature film and put it into the television format?
There were two stages, really. Originally, I had in my head a fairly small horror film idea that I was thinking of setting in the wilds of Siberia, in a deserted Russian gulag. And that was just so uncommercial that there was no chance that anybody on the planet would ever make it.
But when I pitched it to Patrick Spence, the co-executive producer on this, he said, "Well, why don't we use that idea and build a whole series? Take it to Sky Atlantic, they're looking for big, ambitious projects." And it provided us with a seed from which the whole series could grow.
One of the things that is striking in the pilot of the show is that people do not appear to be as they seem, that somebody who, in another setting, would appear to be trustworthy and reliable, might not actually be that. It almost seems as if you're creating characters for whom the audience has very specific expectations and then you want to subvert them in the most radical way.
I love doing that. It's what draws me to specific dramatic situations. The main ambition I have when I set out writing anything is that I want to write something I've never seen before; I want to write something that leaves you wide-eyed and open-mouthed because it takes recognizable characters into places that you've never seen before.
And this is an absolute gift for that kind of work, you know? It's a pressure cooker, and a crucible. And it's an extreme landscape and a wonderful background, both psychological and physical. We really lucked out in how this all came together.
Are there other shows or even movies that you were thinking about where you have this desolate world, high production value, small town, beautiful scenery, and this web of mysteries slowly being revealed?
No. [laughs] Again, I really deliberately and carefully set out to not go to places and shows that I've loved and enjoyed myself. So one of the huge attractions for me was that this is a fresh world to explore.
But there are a couple of movies that were in my head very early on that made me think, This is going to be great fun. Movies like John Carpenter's "The Thing," with the isolation, the crucible nature of the little weather station those guys are trapped on, being trapped in the freezing cold — that was one of the early ones, but apart from that I tried to get to new places all the time.
Not the original film for "Insomnia?"
Ah, well, that's a really interesting film. It's a great film. You know, there's a little bit of that in it, yes, you've caught me out there. That whole insomniac feel of wall-to-wall, 24-hour daylight. The most interesting thing when we researched it was that I went to [the Norwegian archipelago] Svalbard during the winter months, when it was 24-hour darkness. And I thought that when we got to this place, it would be gloomy, depressed, desolate, down-spirited. But it was absolutely the opposite, and that was a really interesting discovery. The people who lived there loved it when it went dark.
But you're also talking about a part of the world and a daylight/darkness pattern that is home to horror movies. So were you thinking about that as well, the way that light and dark could play into the more genre aspects of the story you're trying to tell?
Yes, absolutely, and again, what's really exciting about working in television these days is the boundaries of genre have become porous, and you can take an audience into something that feels like one genre but has elements of another. You can play with the audience's awareness of different genres, which is just such fun.
You can have them thinking, I'm watching a police procedural in a small town, but, oh my goodness, this is becoming a horror movie. I didn't expect that, that makes it scarier. I love the place for that, as well.
The show will be presented in the U.S. on Pivot, which is owned by Participant Media, a company that has a great reputation for doing programming with some sort of social relevance that means something beyond the entertainment itself. Is there a component to this show that you think is socially relevant?
Absolutely, and that's why Pivot is a great partner for us in this project. As well as the location and the scientific, natural world giving us a psychological backdrop to a thriller, the thriller allows us to go into this world where really interesting changes are happening in the real environment, and they're beginning to expose causes and suggestions for why these things are happening.
In the opening episode, the scientist who arrives there is starting to investigate what's happening in the polar bear population. Svalbard has the highest polar bear population of anywhere in the Arctic. There are 3,000 bears and 2,000 people, so that's a lot of apex predators walking around with no fencing. He's arriving because — and this is all based on research and fact — there are changes happening in this predator population in the Arctic that might have to do with change in climate or other factors that he's also there to investigate.
There's a scene of a young girl shopping at a grocery store, and in her cart she has a gun the way a kid in Southern California might have an umbrella. Guns and being constantly vigilant for the intrusion of the natural world into the man-made world are on everybody's mind, every minute of the day.
There's nowhere else like that. When we stayed in Svalbard we were walking back from the restaurant on the main street to the hotel, which is about 400 yards away, and it was pitch dark. The journey involved going across a bit of snowy wasteland, and when we left the restaurant they said, "Be careful. Bears use that as a shortcut across town, and you won't hear them coming."
And they're the most terrifying predators, polar bears. One of the things that I discovered that makes the hairs come out the back of your neck is that they don't kill their prey before they eat it. When lions kill wildebeests it's because wildebeests can actually injure them. Nothing can hurt a polar bear, so it grabs you and then it eats you alive.
And you actually put that in the show itself.
We do, yes.
Your last show, "Low Winter Sun," aired on AMC, which is a very big and established network. This show is on Pivot, which has only been on the air for a year and a half. Does that change what you think the show has to prove, or the audience it might reach? How are those dynamics different?
I'm not sure if you think about it that way while you're writing it or thinking about it. Although Pivot is a less well-established and smaller channel, I had bigger ambition for this than I did for "Low Winter Sun."
With the popularity in streaming TV and watching shows online, does it even really matter where a show airs?
That's the issue, isn't it? The way we're consuming television is in such flux and such revolution at the moment that all the old verities and certitudes are up for challenge.
Do you know how far into the future this show goes? In other words, how far out have you mapped all of the intertwined mysteries on the show? You must know in your own mind how they reveal themselves. But, as a creator, how far out do you have to think about revealing these stories?
I'm pretty sure I know where we're going up to the end of season two. Again, one of the things that's interesting about this TV show is the continuity between seasons. Television used to be made quite amnesiac, where there's a new season with a fresh slate, even though you'd recognize the characters.
The world of television doesn't do that any more; audiences are much more sophisticated than that. You have to have something that evolves across the seasons, and I think we certainly have that to the end of season two.
"Fortitude" premieres Jan. 29 at 10 p.m. on Pivot.