Chimerica: Interview with Michael Keillor, Director

Category: Interview

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

My first impression reading the script was that it spoke insightfully of America, Trump and the world we're in - but also had a human story about two men reconnecting and a friendship which evolves over 25 years. It’s also a thriller that jumps between two different countries which is an exciting prospect for me.

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

Lucy and I were friends before we came together on this production, but it's been fantastic working with her - she is one of the foremost writers in Britain at the moment. This is only her second or third foray into television so to collaborate with her on this story has been a fantastic process.

Could you set up the story of Chimerica for us?

Chimerica is the story of Lee Berger, a fictional photographer who took the Tank Man photograph back in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We re-join him in 2016 when he has falsified a photograph and lost his job at the New York Courier Newspaper. He then decides to go on a mission to try and discover who the Tank Man was, which takes him on a journey into the Chinese community in New York and also back to his friend Zhang Lin in Beijing.

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

One thing we found about Chimerica is the theme which stands out to you, or the ideas you take from it really depends on where you are in your own life. I think if you're a little bit younger and you understand that you can protest and you can make a difference, I think that's what in Chimerica will speak to you. I think for someone slightly older, it's that question of where the responsibility lies for change, a big theme for me was asking - when do you stand up? When do you say “enough is enough”?

I think Chimerica talks to people of a certain age, saying “You're the only person that can stand up now, there's nobody else in line behind you” - so hopefully everyone can look at that and think, “I've got something to give, I've got something to protest about.”

Can you describe your vision for the series? 

My vision for Chimerica was to make sure it didn't feel like a stage play on the screen. It’s a thriller and we want audiences to go on a thrilling ride with Lee Berger - so I am hoping to use the energy of that genre to take us through the story, but actually the drama behind it is about human interaction. It's also about the state of our politics today but hopefully if that's wrapped up in enough of an exciting story, audiences will enjoy the ride.

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?

The Tank Man is such a powerful photograph because we don't know who he is – the unknown hero of this protest. There a tremendous power in the bravery of what he did but also the mystery of his motivations, which is what Chimerica is investigating. Why protest? Why stand in front of the tank and put yourself in harm’s way – what for? This image of protest still resonates today as much as it did in 1989.

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 about the various characters’ relationships with the truth and what it means to them?

Lee comes to this story with a very strong feeling that he always tells the truth and the camera never lies, and he makes one error of judgment that takes him into the grey area which makes him question that. He spends the rest of the series trying to find out what truth is again and I think in some ways we can criticise him and think he lied and he cheated, but in some ways it's also interesting to go on that journey and think - how do we all feel about the truth? How truthful are we? I think in this day and age where news is manipulated massively on a daily basis, it's up to every one of us to question the truth and stand up when we feel it's wrong.

Mel Kincaid is a character who is steeped in truth and sees nothing but else. She is a good counterfoil to the current state of news media, and the White Knight of the series. 

Tess Kendrick deals with the truth like most of us - which is when it suits us, we'll stick to the truth, when we have to manipulate it a little bit, then we will. She's probably more pragmatic about the reality of the truth given her job in a corporate, statistically driven environment but her journey is also to find out where her line in the sand is. She's a healthy character for us to go on a journey with - there has to be a point where we all say: we need the truth, and this is not truth, this is fake.

Zhang Lin has a different relationship with the truth because he has grown up in China and had to deal with tremendous manipulation of information. The fact that the Tiananmen Square protest has been wiped from the history books and anyone born after 1990 in China is unaware of it as an event is staggering. Living in State censored China, Zhang Lin understands how the truth can be manipulated but if anything that hardens his resolve for being truthful and standing up for what he thinks is right.

Frank is a pragmatist.  He comes from the newspaper world and his idea is that, of course there's manipulation because you have to tell a story - but there's a limit to what that manipulation can be. A newspaper article can be edited, a photograph can be cropped, but you cannot just put a fake fact in there and you cannot just manipulate an image. Media frames facts in a certain way but it shouldn’t distort them.

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?

Chimerica is partly a story about protest - and it's asking all of us: Would we protest? What would we protest for? What’s the tipping point before you get involved?

Especially just now I think in more than just politics, there are lines being crossed almost every day and all of us can ask ourselves that question: When will I stand up? You might not stand in front of the tank but at least you could lift a placard and have something to say. I think that's the theme that runs through Chimerica - different characters who each have a line which gets crossed and forces them into action.

One person who stand ups and uses their voice can have a ripple effect - so I think Chimerica really is a rallying call to protest. One voice is better than none, and it can spark a revolution.

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

What's interesting is because Tiananmen Square 1989 was captured so vividly and that footage is in the public domain, to tell a story of that event without looking at the archive to me seemed foolish – so we're using as much genuine archive as possible from that time.

There were only actually a few news crews there, so we’ve tried to shoot some of our own re-enactment footage to place Lee in Tiananmen Square and mix that in with our fictional story. What we’ve discovered when we've gone back to the archive is so powerful, and even though it may look grainy and it's old footage from 1989, there's a power in that imagery and it has strength even today.

How have you worked with DOP Wojciech Szepel on the visual tone for the series you wanted to achieve?

It was really fun to sit down with Wojciech in the early stages and work out how we're going tell this story. He had great ideas for shooting with different lenses and different colour palettes for the two different countries. He’s captured both Zhang Lin's story which has a sort of realist element as he discovers the energy for protest again, and Lee Berger's story which is a bit more of a thriller with a ‘French Connection’ New York style. So we mapped out those two approaches and I left him to give us the fantastic lighting that we have Chimerica.

How has it been working with the cast?

Alessandro Nivola has been a fantastic collaborator on this project, he came in with a great enthusiasm for Lee Berger. He really understood what the character was going through, the age he was at and his position in life, and I think Alessandro's personal energy for protest and political change really informed his character in the sense of the righteousness of his quest.

It was really exciting to bring Cherry Jones into Chimerica and give her quite a meaty role with Mel Kincaid, and she has shown herself to be a chameleon who can really embody a character who's really a hero of the piece for many people. Mel is someone who really sticks by her principles all the way through and I think Cherry gives her that honesty and that heart. It's fantastic also to see someone who is slightly older play a role like the heroic journalist character, which is something we don't normally see.

Sophie Okonedo is a fantastic talent and it was interesting to have her being the main English character in this piece - which is a British production, but all of the other characters are either American or Chinese. She gave us a great balance and brought a British perspective and humour which plays especially well against her American actor partners.

Terry Chen came in to the project not speaking Mandarin and took on the challenge of playing a character who spoke in Mandarin for the majority of the scenes.  The feat he’s achieved to learn the language and then deliver a fantastically heart-warming performance as Zhang Lin, who for me is the hero of the entire piece, was really a tremendous effort.

The chance to work with a screen legend like F. Murray Abraham was something that we just couldn't turn down. He came in and really grabbed Frank the editor by the scruff of the neck and gave us a barn-storming performance.

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

A lot of the research for Chimerica came from Lucy Kirkwood and her work during the original play. What I did was try to find as much information as I could on modern China and things I didn't understand about how Beijing works – which was supported by all the other departments who have done their own in-depth research in their respective fields. Hopefully the combination of all of that is what makes Chimerica a very honest portrayal of modern China.

Can you discuss how Costume Designer Lisa Duncan and Makeup and Hair Designer Jemma Harwood have worked to create the looks of each character?

Lisa Duncan really had a big task in re-creating 1989, it was a massive undertaking to go back to Tiananmen Square and study that footage to see what the outfits were like and re-create something that felt real for us. Our principal characters were slightly more interesting because they're journalists and we could play with how they dress to create characters that we immediately knew and understood by the costume.

One of the biggest challenges for our Make-up and Hair Designer Jemma Harwood was the carnage of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I was very keen that we didn’t make it overly gory for shock value but at the same time captured the genuine horror of the event – so we worked really closely together on those scenes.

Can you talk about the design team, led by Kristian Milsted, and how they’ve recreated iconic moments in history like the Tiananmen Square protest, and modern-day New York and China?

Kristian Milsted our production designer did a tremendous job recreating New York in a back lot of a studio in Bulgaria – his team made a version of both Chinatown and Brooklyn. For Tiananmen Square we went to an airfield and we re-created part of the architecture of the square and we have used CGI to complete it. Kristian was instrumental in doing the research and pulling together ideas of what Tiananmen looked and felt like at that time. Strangely what we found watching archival footage was that what we had in our memory was not the reality of this event at all. Because it was quite a youthful protest and most of the protestors were students under the age of 21, there was a joie de vivre to the atmosphere and it almost had a festival feel to it in the build-up to the massacre – which is something that Kristian did a tremendous job in helping us capture.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through the experience of researching or filming the series?

The most interesting thing I've learnt researching and filming Chimerica was the commonality between China and the Western World. We spoke to lots of different Chinese people who've been living in Beijing and who live over here in London, and many of our cast and supporting artists as well and through those conversations you just start to realise it’s just not that different. Especially with our modern political structures we may think a lot about the sanctity of our democracy just now in the West, but it feels like we're getting closer and closer to the situation in Beijing.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

I would hope that there would at least be a better understanding of where China and the West lie as partners in the world, and the lack of difference between our societies. We're all just people in different places and we all want to stand up for things that we feel are right and fight for the things that we want from life for ourselves and our families. That for me is the main takeaway from Chimerica, our common humanity.