Best known for its factual output, Raw TV’s latest is a big budget US drama. but, Dimitri Doganis tells Jon Creamer, story is just story
At the time of this interview, Raw TV’s founder Dimitri Doganis is ensconced at Molinare putting the finishing touches to Harley and the Davidsons, a three part drama about the founding fathers of iconic American motorcycle brand, Harley Davidson for Raw’s parent company Discovery.
It’s Raw TV’s biggest scripted show by far and a big budget drama bet for an indie perhaps best known for its long running factual shows like Gold Rush.
But it’s not so much of a leap, says Doganis. “This is our first big US mini series but we have done one-offs in the UK” including Cyberbully starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams as well as drama/doc hybrids like Blackout. “And we have a significant film slate in the wake of The Imposter [Raw’s successful theatrical doc).”
But there was still a lot to grasp, he says. “For me personally it has been a fantastic learning curve. What we did of course was find and partner with really great experienced people to make sure that learning curve wasn’t at the expense of the project itself.”
Whether it’s factual or drama or something in between “story is story,” he says. “What was the most powerful thing abou t the experience for me was that sense in which everything comes down to the strength of the story and the strength of the characters.”
Big budget drama, says Doganis, is just the next logical step for the now 15 year old company that was acquired by Discovery back in 2014. “Bart [Layton, Raw’s co founder] and I had always wanted to do it. We both come from factual and documentary backgrounds but that has never been the limit of our ambition.” And he says, a lot of Raw’s factual output is inspired by film. “We’ve take a lot of those ambitions and those sensibilities and applied it to factual storytelling.” Locked Up Abroad and The Imposter are examples. “It doesn’t feel like a leap into the unknown. It feels like the next step on a continuous journey and one which feels very natural.”
And inevitable given the huge wealth of stuff in the development bank. “Many of the projects we’re developing in the scripted space are based on true stories. After The Imposter we realised we had this huge repository of fantastic stories many of which been developed as possible factual programmes that could work in the scripted space. It has felt like a continuum of ideas generation and creative thought that really goes back to our very early days.”
And blurring the boundaries of genre is what Raw has always done, he says “We’ve always tried to ignore the artificial boundaries between genre” because “innovation comes from taking either people or methods from one discipline and applying them to another.”
The success of the company has come from resolutely following its creative rather than commercial nose, says Doganis. “Bart and I have never believed that you chase the money. We believe if you do good work the money should chase you. It’s almost a mental jujitsu you have to do. Running a production company requires you to live with financial risk as an ambient hum. We have always taken refuge in the notion that if you do great work there will be a way in which you can make a living from that. We have never done a project because we thought it would make us money.”
Even Gold Rush, now on episode 137 and counting, started as a way to tell the story of the death of the American dream after the financial meltdown of 2008, he says. “It grew in to something else because of the way we told the story but it didn’t start with ‘hey we should have a long running American reality TV series that would finance other things.’”
Risk is essential for success, says Doganis “partly because you never know where the next long running series is going to come from. You have to keep trying new things and taking risks otherwise you’re just rehashing old things. I’m not remotely interested in rehashing things other people have done before.”
And that means following the instincts of Raw’s staff rather than calculating what the market wants. “Trying to second guess broadcasters has not been a particularly good development strategy for us. What’s been more productive is finding stories we are passionate about and finding characters we are fascinated by. We can be a bit unworldly in that way.”
That’s despite Raw being part of a very large business since its acquisition by Discovery two years ago. But the Discovery deal has been a big positive says Doganis. Not least in aiding its move into drama. “They have trusted us with big projects like Harley and the Davidsons. They have been fantastic in being encouraging of our scripted ambitions” and importantly “The deal was shaped in a way that wasn’t driven by our profit margins, it was driven by the success of the shows we made and it enabled us to keep doing the thing we’d been doing since we set up which was to try to tell great stories about characters that feel relevant to an audience.”
CV Doganis started out in 24-hour TV news, as a producer and cameraman, going on to make current affairs shows and docs as a freelance producer and director for the BBC, C4 and C5. He set up Raw in 2001 with a small development deal from Channel 4. Initially he continued to direct docs alongside running the company but since 2004 he has concentrated on running Raw and exec-ing on much of Raw’s output including producing theatrical doc The Imposter. Raw’s shows include Banged Up Abroad, Race for the Whitehouse, Goldrush, Cyberbully and Blackout
Ed Moore was the DoP on the latest series of Red Dwarf and was charged with creating a sci fi movie look for a multicam sitcom
What did you want to do with the new series?
I grew up watching the show and always loved the dark, colourful sci-fi world it existed in. It looked like no other comedy show. I wanted to keep the DNA of those early series - my pitch to Doug [Naylor – producer, writer, director] was “let’s make it look like Aliens; but it just happens to have jokes”.
So a ‘big budget sci fi’ look rather than ‘studio sitcom’, how did you achieve this?
Sci-fi can be dark and moody and that’s not always at ease with the tendency in comedy to overlight performers – we tried to balance that out with some sequences being played almost in silhouette, whilst others felt brighter. Always keeping in mind that these characters inhabit a ship that’s millions of years old and mostly broken.
Production design and locations were critical too – designers Julian Fullalove and Keith Dunne did amazing work with our regular sets and the daunting task of producing new spaceships, bases, moons etc every week. We even built an entire 1920s American street set the length of the studio for one episode.
I was fortunate to have the amazing Trevelyan Oliver as my “A” camera operator who not only did phenomenal work on locations, but led a team of four operators on our live record nights. Shooting simultaneously with four cameras can be compromising in terms of getting the ideal shots as you’re constantly dodging each other and all the sound kit, but they found ways to keep the style going. There were some impressive Steadicam-style tracking shots performed with 150kg camera and pedestal reversing at high speed around labyrinthine spaceship corridors with a team of camera assistants frantically keeping the cables flowing...
What did you shoot on?
After testing several cameras, the Arri Alexa proved to capture the high saturation look with the least fuss. To make them work in a studio environment we had them on ‘TV studio’ style pedestals for quick repositioning and height adjustment, and every camera had a 24-290mm zoom so any camera could get any shot. On location we switched to Cooke 5i primes and had a Movi gimbal on standby for tracking shots.
What were your references?
I particularly looked at Red Dwarf’s 4th, 5th and 6th series (beautifully lit by John Pomphrey), along with a whole bunch of sci-fi. Aliens, Battlestar Galactica and various incarnations of Star Trek.
How did you use lighting? We needed to create a lot of different looks very swiftly, so I tried to use as many lights as possible with remotely controllable attributes.
I stole the fantastic lighting console programmer Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn from the world of theatre and with a rig full of Arri Skypanels, Robe ColorSpots and over a kilometre of LED ribbon we were able to change the look of all our sets instantly.
It also enabled a bunch of effects for the inevitable red (and blue...) alerts which could be fired off live. We could play the same corridors as being on different decks by changing accent colours, and projected circulation fan effects gave a sense of churning movement throughout our ship.
I was well supported by Simon Roose and the team at Pinewood MBS lighting.
What technical challenges did you face?
The trickiest was keeping that low-key, backlight sci-fi look whilst shooting with four cameras. A really cool backlight on one camera is a horrible front light for a camera shooting in the other direction.
And with four leads constantly playing off each other whilst wandering the set you need to keep plenty of tricks up your sleeve to keep them in the right side of Stygian gloom...
Writer Daisy Goodwin and exec producer Damien Timmer explain how they created ITV’s drama about Victoria’s early years as queen
Daisy Goodwin is the creator and producer of a long list of returning popular factual formats from Grand Designs to Escape to the Country. After quitting TV to write a series of historical novels she’s now returned to the small screen, this time as the screenwriter behind ITV’s big budget drama based on Queen Victoria’s first years as monarch. Goodwin and exec producer Damien Timmer explain how the show came about
Is it difficult to go from factual producer to drama writer? DG I read history at university and my plan was always to make historical docs. Then I got sidetracked and ended up making popular TV formats. I’ve worked across the piece but my career has all been about telling stories, it’s just that the modes have changed.
How did you come to screenwriting? DG I wrote a couple of novels based in the 19th century and my last novel had Queen Victoria as a character and I got more and more engaged with her. When I quit Silver River and decided to write full time I thought I would write another novel about Victoria but as I was doing my research I realised it was really the stuff of drama.
Was it a difficult transition from novels to scripts? DG Although I hadn’t written a drama before I did 100 years ago go to film school in New York. I always found writing dialogue the easiest thing when writing my novels and screenwriting for some reason feels very natural - once I figured out how to use Final Draft. Also because I’m very familiar with the material I’m not scared of it either. I know what I think is important and what is not, what I can do and not do and still remain true to the facts. Having said that I did have help. I was lucky to work with Mammoth and Damien and Rebecca. I’ve learned so much from them.
What’s your take on the story? DG My take on it is ‘teenager becomes queen’. I have a teenage daughter and she’s a handful so what would it be like if tomorrow she became the most powerful woman in the world? That was a compelling notion and a great place to start a drama from. It centres on the first few years of Victoria’s reign. It starts with the day she becomes Queen. It’s really about her struggle to assert herself and break free of her mother and her mother’s adviser John Conroy and to show the world that she is capable of being queen. There were a lot of people who thought that maybe the crown should have gone to the next man in line, her uncle the Duke of Cumberland. It was quite a fluid situation. It was not the slam dunk we might expect now.
How crucial was the casting? DG Casting Victoria was the biggest hurdle. My biggest thought was she must be very small and we must get the sense that she’s this tiny girl at the centre of a forest of old men. That has come thorough very clearly. You really get the sense that this is not the way things were intended to be so she has to work hard to assert herself.
What about the world she inhabits? DG We wanted to get over in the script and the production that Britain was not an empire at that point. It was a nation on the up. It’s got entrepreneurial and scientific development but it has third world poverty too. It’s a really volcanic place. There were lots of carriages and chandeliers and things we expect from royal life but we’ve also tried as much as we can to show this is a moment of huge technological and social change. This is a world that’s in ferment. It’s not a Jane Austen world of bonnets and balls.
What is the show’s look? DT The first series is in the early years of Victoria’s reign. When people think of the Victorian era they think of a style that tends to be lots of dark wood, forbidding and rather severe and very ornate. But when she comes to the throne the Regency style is still very present. It’s a colorful, romantic style and that’s a lovely backdrop to this teenage queen.
How was Buckingham Palace created? DT Rather than build standalone sets, production designer Michael Howells built a big expanse on the ground floor so we could have completely free movement. We could take the camera from the throne room to a ballroom to private areas and huge ceremonial rooms and it’s all connected. A lot of it had ceilings so once you were inside you really were in this early 19th century palace. We based ourselves in Yorkshire which worked really well. The majority of the action is in Buckingham Palace and we very quickly had a model of a combination of a big studio build at the Yorkshire Studios and location filming in other grand spaces around Yorkshire.
The eight-part series follows the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign as she ascends the throne at the age of 18. It is created and written by ex factual producer and now novelist Daisy Goodwin, in her screenwriting debut.
Broadcaster ITV Production Mammoth Screen Creator and writer Daisy Goodwin Executive producers Dan McCulloch, Damien Timmer, Daisy Goodwin Producer Paul Frift Lead director Tom Vaughan Development Rebecca Keane Composer Martin Phipps Production designer Michael Howells Distributor ITV Studios Global Entertainment Cast Queen Victoria – Jenna Coleman; Prince Albert – Tom Hughes; Rufus Sewell – Lord Melbourne; Alex Jennings; Paul Rhys; Peter Firth; Catherine Flemming; Eve Myles; Adrian Schiller; Nichola McAuliffe; Daniela Holtz; Nell Hudson; Tommy-Lawrence Knight; Nigel Lindsay; Alice Orr-Ewing