Chimerica: Interview with Adrian Sturges, Producer

Category: Interview

What were your first impressions reading Lucy Kirkwood's script?

I was aware of the play and I just loved how the screenplay built on the iconic photograph of the Tank Man that we all recognise and remember. It’s a fascinating take to use that entry point to explore how that picture was created and who the man in the picture might be.

The original play was set against the Obama re-election and Lucy wanted to update it to the Trump era, which felt like a perfect opportunity to take some of the themes of the play to another level – incorporating concepts like fake news and all the other aspects that became so important in the 2016 election.

What has it been like working with Lucy on this production?

I've loved working with Lucy, I think she's such a unique writer who brings incredible presence of mind to her characters. She sets herself significant challenges in terms of wanting to write about big subjects, but with very intimate story lines, populated by real characters that are really funny as well as really emotional. She’s equally able to write older characters with very different backgrounds as she is able to capture the exuberance of youth that comes with the character of Young Lee. When we see him in Tiananmen Square in 1989 he's got a burning ambition to do something and to be there. And then the gravity of older Lee, who's in his forties, and is experiencing such different things in his life. In Chimerica we run the whole gamut of age and its problems and its joys, as well as all these other big themes like the political backdrop. It's been fascinating working with her.

Can you set up the story of Chimerica for us?

Chimerica is about a young man who, in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is witness to a student protest - one of the largest protests in history - which turned into a terrible massacre. He is one of several western photographers who was fortunate enough to take an iconic photograph of a figure we now know as the Tank Man: a lone man stood in front of a tank with two shopping bags. That picture then goes all around the world and becomes a symbol of protest, it's named one of the most influential photographs of all time. We pick up with that same photographer later in his life when he's covering the American 2016 presidential election between Clinton and Trump. He's a different man by this point, he's never quite reached the same level of success with a single photograph as he did back in ‘89. On top of that, he’s accused of manipulating one of his recent images and his integrity as a photojournalist is called into question.

At the same time, he hears a rumour from an old friend that the Tank Man may still be alive and possibly even living in New York. Lee sets out to try and find this guy, the man who symbolised so much of his hope as a young man, and who seems to him to be a symbol that really means something in the presence of rising populism in America and Europe, with Brexit in the UK and Trump in America. Lee feels like he’s living in a time where great forces are at play that seem to be wanting often to crush the individual, and the Tank Man is a person who stood up for what he believed in so memorably. This search means a lot to him personally, but he feels like it could mean a lot to the world.

What are the key themes of Chimerica?

Chimerica, in lots of ways, is about the experience of getting older – a story of how your ideals and priorities change as you age. The conflict between your own ambition and your morals – and your wish to promote a better world. This plays out in Lee’s career of journalism – where the onus is to speak truth to power but also find an entertaining and compelling story.

On a personal side, the series also looks at Lee’s romantic relationships – mainly his relationship with the savvy consumer researcher Tess, who is so different to him in many ways but is also really in tune with the bigger political shifts of business between China and America. She understands world economics in a way that Lee never would.

The one thing that drives it all is the question of how one picture can change a story. How can one moment in our lives affect us so much and affect others in such a big way? And added to that – these incredibly impactful images might not mean what we think they mean, they could have been manipulated, or taken out of context.

The series deals with our relationship to truth and how it has changed over the years, particularly due to advances in technology (photomanipulation, social media, 24-hour news cycle etc). Can you speak about the various character’s relationship with the truth and what it means to them?

One thing that’s worth highlighting up front is how, as we have been making the series, the news cycle has continued to move forward – and things like the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal became global headlines, which we were then able to incorporate into the script.

In terms of our characters and how the truth is represented for them and how that's changed:  Lee is very much an instinctive photographer, from a very young age he's gravitated towards a powerful image. His is a slightly old-school version of photojournalism, and so he's found it harder in the modern world where the expectation is for him to be more of a digital journalist.

Mel is somebody who's always been very good at getting to the crux of a story, knowing how to ask the right questions to get people to say the right thing, but also having an instinct for where the truth is. She’s a very principled person, but funny – and knows what might draw her reader to a story. She can't cope with some of the aspects of the rise of Trump but she just gets on with it and goes to work each day. She’s a survivor in that sense and because she’s a very empathetic person people are more open with her than they might be with Lee – which is why they make such a good pair.

Alex Sguerra, a young journalist working for a youth magazine, is more at home with this new digital world. She has the same kind of interest in capturing an important image, she's really fascinated by the Tank Man and looks up to Lee because of his work. She's also struggling in the shifting sands of new media and short reader attention spans.

Frank Sams, the head of news of our fictional newspaper is from a different era - and you can tell that from the way he presents himself, he's very formally attired, he's got a desk given to him by Henry Kissinger, which is his prize possession. He’s got real principles, and he's driven the newspaper's high standing for a long time. Frank has given people like Lee opportunities that launch their careers, he’s always been open to new blood but he's really struggling with the fact that now media has shifted so much there are different standards at play which are so alien to him. He’s also a Republican, which is pretty unusual for a senior newsman in this world, but one who's not very happy with the Republican presidential candidate. He’s paternal towards Lee and regards him as his protégé, so he’s desperately upset when Lee does something to jeopardize his position at the paper.

Zhang Lin was a protestor as a young man and his wife died in the Tiananmen massacre. That trauma has locked him up in some sense. He’s got a job as a teacher of English. He has a sense of humour and people gravitate towards him, but he's also quite emotionally withdrawn. It’s only during our story that the memory of his wife, prompted by Lee’s hunt for the Tank Man, relights the fire in him in some way. Living in China, his relationship with the truth is more complicated because of government censorship, so he can't access something as simple as an online video of Wham’s first concert in the country.

The image of the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square is at the centre of this narrative, why do you think it’s such a powerful photograph?

It’s really interesting to research the real photograph, especially because there were actually several versions and there were six different photographers behind them. Jeff Widener's picture is probably the most recognisable, and it has a particular kind of symmetry to it that's very interesting. The composition of the picture is really powerful in that the bottom left of the frame has this very small, vulnerable figure with two shopping bags, and then there's this enormous power of the tanks in a diagonal moving towards him. So your eye moves from this little figure to this great power, and while there’s not much else in the picture, it carries such weight.

Recreating that image for Chimerica was really interesting because we had a real tank, the same type of tank that was in Tiananmen Square. It makes a hell of a noise, it's almost like a dragon and when it revs up, it's terrifying. It makes you realise that the little figure stood in front of it, must have had an enormous weight of intention and bravery, but also a powerful sense of self sacrifice. That’s why the image is so evocative – it sums up both the seeming futility and immense courage of the figure’s choice to stand there. Especially given the context, the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s become a global symbol of protest.

What do you think the story of Chimerica shows about the power of protest, and the capacity of journalists and individual citizens to effect political change?

It’s a big question! Chimerica is not trying to necessarily provide an answer but what we hope it will do is promote discussion and thought about what protest could be, what it means for the individual to stand up to a system. All these bigger questions are at the heart of Lucy's writing in some way.

What's interesting is that Chimerica takes a real historical event but creates a whole lot of fictionalised drama around it that explores the ideas of protest and bravery; how one can deal with politics in the world of echo chambers; people being separate from politicians and feeling that the elite are against them or that their voice doesn't mean anything. All of these things that are very present in our current society. I'm less interested, personally, in stories that try to tell you how to think, but rather ones that provoke discussion.

A lot of our characters are trying to do something that's bigger than themselves. Lee is trying to tell the story of a forgotten war, when everyone is so fatigued with images of conflict – and he feels that to have an impact he has to manipulate his image. There's an interesting moral argument there about the importance of drawing attention to a worthy issue, but it’s not an egoless pursuit – Lee’s also driven by his own personal and professional ambition.

Lee does pretty reprehensible things and suffers for them - he's quite a tragic figure in many ways. Similarly, the journey of the Tank Man is a mystery, we don't know who that person was and yet he symbolises so much. One of the things that Chimerica as a series asks is - who could that person be? What would it mean if they're not who you expected them to be?

I would say that someone can symbolise an awful lot without the general public actually knowing who they are. In the west, particularly, we have this idea that we always want to know who's behind something - who is that person in that photograph? Who is that person in the painting that we find so moving? But knowing more about the subject may not necessarily illuminate the picture’s power and that's one of the things Chimerica explores.

It is not just as simple as saying - protest is important. This is why I think Lucy's getting under the skin of protest as a concept where, yes it's important, but we may want to do it for all kinds of reasons. The reason we stand up to authority maybe very moralistic or it might be quite personal, it might be both.

Can you discuss how the series will combine archival footage with re-enactments of historical moments?

We've taken quite an interesting approach to this, and we looked at quite a few other films as inspiration - recently both “Detroit” and “Jackie” made use of this technique. Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” integrated archive as well as bespoke new footage, so that was something we drew inspiration from. It’s a really interesting way to do things, especially when you've got broad historical subjects like Tiananmen Square, and the Trump/Clinton election which both feature in our story.

We worked with an archive researcher to discover what footage there was of Tiananmen - part of our story starts with Wham visiting China in '85, those scenes didn't exist in the play, but it was quite a lovely idea of Lucy's to show a really fun example of East meets West. There was a lot of footage available from that which we were keen to incorporate.

The Tiananmen Square protest was right at the beginning of rolling news so there actually was quite a lot of coverage we were able to draw on. We then built an edit of some of that material to fit with the scenes in our script, which also then informed the design of our recreation of Tiananmen. We had a massive area in an old air base near Guildford, which we dressed as Tiananmen. It had big green screens around the edges, so we could digitally add the surrounding architecture.

The challenge with archival footage is that it’s dated and shot on lower grade standard definition, with a number of different frame sizes, but we wanted to just embrace that. Our staged footage which will weave those pieces together was filmed in such a way that it matches or at least makes the transitions smooth, so you notice the fact you're skipping between different media too much, but hopefully are swept along with the story.

In terms of the rallies and the real-life political events in the 2016 US election, we see it on screens rather than re-enacting it directly. It took quite a while to get our heads round it but we found a way!

Can you tell us a bit about director Michael Keillor’s vision for the series?

I’ve known Michael socially for many years, and in the past we’ve had many conversations about Alan J. Pakula’s “All The President's Men” and the great films of the seventies which could be political, but also entertaining. That was our shared vision for this project from the outset, to draw the audience in, make them smile, make them cry but have politics at the heart of the story. Michael is a wonderful example of somebody who is experienced, but also has a real passion to tell a good story.

Can you tell us a bit about the different types of research that have gone into putting the production together?

Yes, so Lucy had done an awful lot of research around the love/hate relationship between China and America, and the economics of all that. China has lent a vast sum of money to America, but America has, especially now, very protectionist policies about some of the import/export arrangements. Especially with the rise of Trump – his administration has stated they want to try to redress the trade imbalance but also China now also sees it as an opportunity.

We also did some research on the realities of living in a monitored State, in terms of the surveillance and how the technology works when people are tracked, as well as the details of internet censorship.

We had an American journalist who consulted with us about the workings of the newspaper and how the infrastructure there might operate, and a Chinese writer/director consult on a lot of the Chinese idiom as well as a brilliant Chinese dialect specialist who worked on the translation because obviously the original play was all in English.