Interview with Utopia's writer Dennis Kelly
This isn't him, by the way.
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Dennis Kelly is a writer whose back catalogue includes a number of award-winning plays, the sitcom Pulling, and the musical Matilda. Here, he discusses his latest work, Channel 4's thrilling new six-part drama, Utopia.
Sum up, if you can, what Utopia is all about.
It's a really difficult thing to explain. At the heart of it is a conspiracy, and the conspiracy slowly gets unveiled during the course of the series. But the people who are involved have no idea what's going on. Often you see conspiracy thrillers involving journalists or cops, or people who are somehow in the know. I liked the idea of that sort of happening to someone who was a bit shit, like me, and wouldn't know what to do, and was completely at sea with it. So basically there's a graphic novel that's been published in the past, and there have been lots of whacked-out conspiracy theories linked to it. There are people who are fans of it, who suddenly get involved in this conspiracy, and as things slowly begin to unravel, they get thrown out of their lives. They can't contact their families or use email, and are constantly on the run, so it's a bit shit for them.
It's got a feeling of being really quite unique. Where did the idea for this come from?
Kudos came to me with an idea, and it was about a conspiracy hidden inside a graphic novel. It was very embryonic, and a bit more comic-book. I think the conspiracy was quite ‘illuminati'. What I really liked was the idea of this thing that just randomly happened to get hidden in a graphic novel. I liked some of the idea, and some of it I wanted to change. I wanted to ground it in quite a real world, and not make it superheroic or sci-fi.
Are you a fan of graphic novels?
I don't know if I'm a fan, exactly, but I like graphic novels. I know all the big ones, but I'd never say I was a fan, because there are people out there who are real fans, and that would be insulting to them, frankly. What I do like is a conspiracy. I never believe in any of them, but I like them from an aesthetic point of view. It amazes me that people genuinely believe that the moon landings didn't happen. It's incredible how many people believe that. Fiction and fact have become strangely blended in all sorts of ways. The global financial crisis and 9/11 are almost straight out of movies, they seem like works of fiction.
You've got a couple of very nasty hitmen in there. Is it fun writing characters who are so dark?
I think it must be, because I've done a few of them. The funny thing is about writing characters and material that's dark is the interesting stuff isn't the dark moments, but the bits that aren't. If you put a character in who's just unrelentingly evil, I'm not sure it would be so interesting. It's seeing the chinks in people like that, that makes it that character intriguing - I'm fascinated by our capacity to do bad things. I think, given the right circumstances, I could be an awful person, but given the right circumstances, I could be a really nice person. But I'm actually neither, I'm just a pretty average person. I'm really interested in how far we will go as humans, or how far we will be pushed. But that doesn't mean that that individual doesn't have other sides to them. I think one of the most amazing things about the human brain is it can hold two completely different contradictory truths at the same time, and for it not to explode. At the same time as doing the most appalling things, we can still believe we're good.
Two of the main protagonists amidst all the mayhem in Utopia are children. Why did you decide to do that?
It just sort of happened. There's a kind of a connection to children as you go through the series - I think it's something to do with the future. In trying to write about where we might be headed as a culture, as a nation, even as a species, the people that the future affects most are the youngest. It sounds a bit arty farty and vague, but what I was trying to write about was what might be a possible outcome for us, and that would affect young people the most. I think that's why they're there.
The script is also very funny. Is there ever a worry that that might detract from the tension?
I think people are capable of seeing something that's very tense seeing something really dark, and the next minute laughing. I think we often get really brooding dramas with no lightness, and I think we're capable of bouncing back and forth a bit. I could be very wrong about that, I guess we'll find out. I think humour is really important, because it's the most human thing we have. It's much more human than fear. Everything feels fear. Cows feel fear, but they don't tell jokes. So I find that it helps understand the characters, and helps get the audience get to a place where they might be more receptive to what's going on. Also, I'm quite an extreme person. If I want a curry, I want it really hot. Violence should be extreme and shocking, and humour should be funny. I'm not really interested in middle of the road.
You're not interested in writing the chicken korma of TV dramas.
[Laughs] You know what? I quite like a chicken korma now and again, actually. As long as it's not too sweet.
Now I don't know if we're actually talking metaphorically about TV dramas or if we're actually discussing curries.
[Laughs] Who knows? Let's talk about curries!
Once you've written the drama and handed it over, and you're watching someone else director it, is that difficult? And is the end product always different from how you'd envisioned it?
It's always difficult, and it's never, ever how you imagined it. But what you hope is that it's going to be better. And in this case it was. There were characters that I looked at and thought "That's much better than what I wrote." The direction and the actors themselves have taken something I've provided and come back with something more intricate and detailed. That's what you always hope for. The look of the piece is also brilliant, the visual style and grammar are fantastic. It's very exciting to be involved with, because it looks beautiful, and doesn't look like anything else on TV at the moment. But yeah, one of the first things you learn as a writer is it will never, ever, look the way it did in your head, so stop going on about it.
You've written comedies, thrillers, dramas, musicals, you've written for theatre and TV, you've even done a translation. How do you manage such variety?
I think I'm a slut. When I started out writing plays, at the time it was accepted that you found your voice, and that was what you wrote. But I wasn't really interested in finding a voice. As a person I'm interested in many different things - I can go and see a Shakespeare at The National or The Globe, but I can also sit down in my room and watch a comedy on TV. I can do those things as a person, so it makes no sense to me why I can't do them as a writer. I don't see the difference, really.
How proud are you of Utopia?
I'm very proud of it, really proud. I'm really curious as to what people will think of it. It's very difficult to look at it and know. Sometimes I look at it and think "There's really something there" and other times I think "I don't think anyone else is going to like this." But I'm really proud of being involved in it, I'm also really proud of the work that other people have done. I think there's been a lot of dedication to it, that has really helped. So I am really proud of it. Maybe too proud. Pride comes before a fall!
Utopia is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 10pm from 15th January.