Chimerica: Interview with Colin Callender, Exec Producer

Category: Interview

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

I first saw Chimerica on the stage, and it was an extraordinary production, and absolutely mesmerizing. For two reasons: one is because Lucy's writing is so vibrant, witty and energetic, and secondly because it's unusual to find a play that deals with the sorts of contemporary themes in such a provocative but also entertaining way. That marriage of being smart and provocative but also fiercely entertaining is really a trademark of Lucy's work.

Can you tell us about how various elements of the creative team and the production came together?

When Lucy wrote Chimerica originally it was set against the Obama/Romney election in America now more than six years ago. One of the exciting things about the adaptation of Chimerica is that we brought it up to date, and we set it against the Donald Trump/ Hillary Clinton election campaign. In a wonderful way all the themes that were already in Lucy's work suddenly came into much sharper focus because of the issues and the tone of that election campaign and Trump's presidency.

What's it been like working with Lucy Kirkwood on this production?

Working with Lucy has been a total joy. She is a consummate professional but above all else she understands that producing a television drama is in part a collaborative process. You have to walk a fine line between on the one hand wanting to hold your inner vision of it and not have that undermined, but on the other hand real life kicks in and you have to deal with running times and scenes that go over in length and so forth. There's an element of constant reinvention of one's work through the whole process. You write it first of all as a writer and then it's shot, and you have to make certain changes to make it filmable. So it's rewritten for the actual process of filming and then you sort of rewrite it in post-production when you're in the editing room, and she's been wonderful through all steps along the way.

Set up the story of Chimerica for us.

There were six photographs taken of the young student protesting in Tiananmen Square by six different photographers. Chimerica imagines a fictional photographer who actually took the photograph who then decides for reasons of his own that he wants to go back and try find the Tank Man. In the adaptation for television, Lucy has added a component to the story which is quite wonderful - which is that our central character Lee has taken an iconic photograph of the civil war in Syria which hits the front pages. And it's then discovered that he actually digitally altered the photograph. As a consequence, his reputation and his journalistic integrity is completely undermined, so he has to try and reclaim his professional dignity and reputation - and that's the journey that he embarks on in the series.

What are the key themes of the piece that stood out to you?

Setting the drama against the backdrop of the Clinton/Trump election, gave many of the themes that were already in Lucy's work an added resonance. Things like the power of the image and how a single image can impact people's feelings, which is right at the core of Chimerica, come into sharper focus when you start thinking about real news versus fake news and the fact that you can digitally alter photographs. Today – everyone can be a photojournalist because they've got a cell phone with a camera in it. So what it means to be a photojournalist has changed.

If you remember the days of the Vietnam War, the iconic photograph of the Vietnamese prisoner being shot through the head, or more recently that awful photograph of the young Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach. These images embody in a particular moment a whole larger issue that the public very often hasn't really paid attention to. So these images can change the way people think and feel about the world. And now with digital photography and everyone having cell phones, it's interesting to see whether that continues to be the case or whether that changes.

One of the themes in Lucy's writing also addresses the whole notion of protest. In the States that couldn't be more timely when you think about how Trump has accused the NFL players of somehow being unpatriotic by using their freedom of speech to express their feelings about various things that are going on within the African American community in America. So the whole notion of what constitutes protest and what's appropriate and what isn't, and how do you protest? These issues - certainly in America - are very much of the moment.

The story of Chimerica is the story of this young man holding up a whole column of tanks – an act of either utter bravery or maybe in the moment completely a spontaneous act that only after the fact is deemed to be brave. But those sorts of actions and what leads to them is right at the core of Lucy's story.

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

The image of the student standing in front of the tanks, I think brings to mind the biblical story of David and Goliath - the whole idea of one man standing up to powers way beyond him. That’s why that image is so powerful and I think it begs the question as a viewer: “What would you have done then? Would you have had the courage to stand in front of that tank or not?”

I think it does really embody and capture the whole nature of protest and all the challenges and issues around protest. And I think it does ask the viewer to think about what it would be like to be that man.

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

At the centre of Lucy's story is the story of Lee, a photojournalist who has over the years been celebrated for having shot some iconic photographs. What happens at the beginning of our story is that we discover that he has digitally altered one of the photographs for which he's become famous. As a consequence, his reputation as a photojournalist is undermined. I think that what is so interesting about the whole nature of fake news and real news, is that there was in the past a sort of pact between the reader and the newspaper, or of the viewer and the TV newsman. That somehow there was a pact of trust that what they were telling you was as near the truth as can be - even if they were telling us something from a particular political perspective. What's happened today is that trust has been completely eroded and as a consequence, people don't trust anymore that what they're being told is objectively true. And the breakdown of that pact between the press and the public is a real threat to the security of our democracy - particularly in America where it's gone to quite extreme places.

Mel is a wonderfully interesting character. To some extent she is a news woman from an age gone by, and she has a very strong moral code, but she is a newshound at heart.  Even though she expresses indignation at what Lee has done, at the end of the day, she can't help herself and she's drawn to find the story. The line which journalists cross or don't cross in an effort to get the story and the moral conflict of how far you go to get a story is at the heart of Chimerica. It asks the question of what compromises people are prepared to make along the way in terms of their own values in getting that story, and Mel embodies that conflict.

What's fascinating about Lucy's writing is each character has a slightly different relationship to the truth. Tess is in the business of selling a credit card company to the public and she will do what she has to - come what may. She's much more pragmatic and much less worried about the sort of moral ambivalence about some of the images that she might use - she just wants to market the shit out of her work.

One of the really exciting and different aspects of this drama is that we explore what it's like to live in China today. I've never seen that before on the screen. And some of the most powerful moments of the drama are about that experience. Zhang Lin is caught between two worlds. Lee coming to see him in Beijing forces him to revisit the past, and he's caught between that world in which there was hope and aspirations for democracy and freedom – and the present when those hopes have evaporated.

Frank is a bit like Mel in the sense that he's from another era, a world of journalism dominated almost entirely by men. He is used to the cut and thrust of the news-room but he takes a very high-minded stance about what Lee has done. However I think he protests a bit too much, I think the truth is that Frank, along the way has probably made all sorts of compromises and cut certain corners to get a great story. Even though he's not actually admitting it to himself.

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?

The image of the Tank Man is symbolic of protest in several ways. First of all, it's a symbol of one man facing up to authoritarian power. And by its very nature it symbolises the idea that one man can, or one woman can make a difference – which is right at the heart of why that image is so powerful.

The other thing is that it shows the power of the image, and how a single image can change the public's view of the world or give them a deeper understanding of an issue that they didn't have before. We’ve seen it before with similar iconic images which somehow break through all the noise and move people emotionally in a way that newsprint and any number of talk shows don't do.

Can you discuss the cast and how they embody their respective roles?

The character of Lee is a glorious mix of paradoxical characteristics. There's an innocence to him, there's a sort of moral indignation at the core of who he is that drives him. There's also an ego and a need to be respected both professionally but also personally - and all of those things are brilliantly embodied in Alessandro’s performance. He manages to do all of these things all at the same time and give the character real life - it's a glorious performance.

What's interesting about working with an actress like Cherry Jones is that she just needs to stand in front of the camera and she's a fully dimensional character without saying anything at all. You just know she's the real thing. So with a character like Mel where you only learn things about her along the way, you've still got to like her and be invested in her as a character from the start, so an actress of her stature and of her calibre is essential. Cherry’s depth imbues a character like Mel with a whole life - even if we don't fully know what that life is in the beginning. It makes her role and her character more appealing and interesting.

There is a mischief to Sophie Okonedo that is utterly captivating, but also a fierce intelligence. The combination of the two are irresistible, she's wonderfully cast in this.

Terry Chen is a revelation. First of all, it’s rare to have a Chinese character take centre stage in a drama. And secondly Terry plays a character who is going through an emotional crisis and is caught up in his own demons - and he manages to do that with the sort of charm that makes us empathise with him effortlessly. A lot of his dialogue is in Mandarin, so for an English-speaking audience we don't necessarily get the full nuance of what he's saying despite the subtitles but the performance alone is so emotional that you're with him every time we see him.

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

At its core Chimerica is a thriller set in New York and Beijing. One of Michael’s great accomplishments is that he's directed this very taught thriller but also managed to make it a character drama - so the thriller grows out of character, and it's the combination of those two things that elevate this series to a new level.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

I think Chimerica works at many levels, and the audience is offered up several things which are unusual, and that they maybe haven't seen before. Unquestionably one of those things is insight into and a view of modern-day China – we rarely, if ever, see that on the screen and that alone is reason enough to watch the show.

The other thing this series offers is a perspective on the power of the image and what that means. It forces you to ask certain questions about the images you’re being shown in the media you consume, and there’s a deeper understanding and literacy that emerges out of watching the drama.

Above all - this is smart entertainment.