Chimerica: Interview with Sophie Gardiner, Exec Producer

Category: Interview

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

I actually saw the play years ago and absolutely loved it. I was delighted with the opportunity to work on it as a screenplay adaptation with Playground – Colin Callender had already bought the rights to the play so we could begin work. Lucy’s writing works on so many levels – starting with the central image of the Tank Man – an iconic image which I have always been curious about, and in awe of the bravery of its subject. A story that really explores the making of that image is such an exciting prospect – and Lucy has updated it to include more recent politics but still kept to her central thematic concerns. She writes with great wit – and I think it’s often surprising how funny the scripts read – but what she does best above all else is embody big, interesting ideas in a very accessible, exciting, thrilling storyline.

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

As ever, the script is what opens the doors to creative and talented people. The first member of the team to come on board was Adrian Sturges, the producer – I’ve admired his work from afar for a while and he was immediately interested.

Michael is a director whose work again I've admired from afar, and also a writer – so he brings that sensibility to what is quite a complex piece, and that has been very useful. He’s worked in tandem with Lucy and Adrian and it’s been a hugely joyful process.

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

Lucy Kirkwood is absolutely one of my favourite writers. She is a very smart woman and reads things in the wider culture in a really interesting and original way, and then has the ability to turn that into a great story. She's very close to the production across the board, working as an executive producer as well. It’s just been a joy from beginning to end.

Could you set up the story of Chimerica for us?

The story of Chimerica starts in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 when our lead character, Lee, takes a photograph of the Tank Man almost accidentally. That photograph was actually taken by about six photographers in truth and this is the fictionalized story of the seventh - an imagined story of another person who took that photo and made their career on it.

We pick this up many years later in the Trump election, just at the moment where Lee has been caught manipulating one of his photographs – so his career is on the line and it looks like he's ruined it. That need to identify himself as a photojournalist of integrity, the frustration of the Trump election and everything that's going on internationally, and a piece of information about the Tank Man still possibly being alive combines to set Lee on a quest to find his most famous subject’s true identity.

That story plays out alongside the story of Zhang Lin, a friend of Lee’s from Beijing who was also involved in the protest in Tiananmen Square, and lost his wife in the massacre that followed. Zhang Lin’s life has been desperate since then, he's lost all his fervour and all his meaning. Lee's quest coincides with Zhang Lin's personal story to re-find that feeling of protest and desire to change the world, both driven by the events of 1989 but playing out decades later.

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

I think that we live in interesting times - post Brexit referendum, post Trump-election. There's a sort of sense in the world that big forces are at play, and people don’t fully understand them or know how to react.

The image of the Tank Man speaks to that symbolically, someone with seemingly no power facing off against the system. Chimerica asks the question - what do you do when you're up against ‘The Man’? What can you do? How far would you go to protect what you care for?

It looks at people who deal with those situations with such bravery, and explores what it means to find your own path to resist and fight for what you feel is right. It speaks to what you do when the world and political forces seem to be going in a direction that you don't understand or like.

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?

Actually the photograph we all know is a man standing in front of three tanks – but if you look at the wide frame, those tanks go on forever. It is a photograph of one person with just themselves, just their humanity, standing in front of the might of the military state. A moment of utter bravery.

And that has spoken for years to people all over the world, at all different stages of their lives, of one person's bravery in the face of such terrible adversity. It speaks to our desire to believe that our humanity can affect things and make the world a better place, and that photograph sums up a moment when that could have been true.

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?

It's very interesting that when Lucy first wrote this play in 2013, she explored notions of truth and what it means. If you take an image, it can mean different things to different people. By the time she's come to write the screen play for this adaptation, we've got Trump in power, the phrase "Fake News" is one we all know and we all understand – so it’s very prescient of Lucy that she spotted a really important issue in our culture before we all did and then wrote a great drama about it.

The story that the drama reveals of how the Tank Man image came to be is not the story that we all think it is. Add to that the way the world has changed – that was a pure photographic image and now you could manipulate all of it – it didn't need to have happened. Does that mean it's any more powerful of an image? Does it mean it's any less truthful an image?

It also looks at the current state of journalism - certainly in China, we know, it's not a free place for journalists to write the truth. Some of our younger characters in China don't even know the Tiananmen Square massacre happened because they can't find out about it, all of the historical records are censored. In America, Trump has come in and is beginning to change the rules about what journalists can do and should do.

So for all of our characters, the series action comes at a moment where what truth means, certainly in terms of journalism and photojournalism, is really being called into question.

For Lee, it's being called into question in his professional life - because he edited a photograph to change a story. The story was a true situation he was seeing playing out in front of him, but he didn't have a photograph to sum it up, so he edited it. It triggers a big crisis for him about what the truth means within photojournalism.

For Mel Kincaid and Frank Sams, both working for a national news outlet, they believe in the freedom of the press but are beginning to see that being eroded and they can't do anything about it. Or can they?

Zhang Lin realises that what happened in Tiananmen Square on that day when his wife died has been erased from history in his country and he has let that happen in a way, by not fighting back.

Chimerica makes us reflect on truth and journalism in surprising ways, and makes you realise that nothing is as simple as it seems. 

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?

I think what's interesting about Lucy's writing generally and this piece specifically is there is no simple answer to the questions: “What does truth mean? What does journalism mean?” They are very complicated questions with complicated answers.

It's also a piece that asks "How do we protest? What is a valid way to protest?”, right back from the original Tank Man through to our characters in the present day. Again, no simple answer.

It's a call to arms for us to all look in ourselves and see what we can do to help impact change.

Lucy's piece doesn't ever say, “If you do that, that'll change the world”, but I think it does say, “You've got do something. You've got to find a way”. You can't just let how complex and big and difficult it is mean you do nothing, because that’s how your rights become eroded.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the production so far and how have you overcome it?

The great joy of Lucy's scripts is their many layers, that each scene has multiple meanings and operates on a number of different levels. It's also a thriller, and ambitious - set in Beijing and New York. It’s an expansive piece of work - the challenge is making sure that you can hold the thriller story, represent the characters fully and the intellectual enquiry that's there all within the window of time for a television schedule. I am in awe of how all of the creative teams are managing to reach such high standards all the time, given how much is required from them on every front.

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

Lucy did a huge round of research the first time around when she was writing the play, which still underpins this version. On top of this, we’ve had consultants to ensure we’re being authentic and truthful to the reality as we’re aware that Lucy is a British writer telling American and Chinese stories. One of our consultants is the editor of a major American newspaper, and he’s been invaluable in giving us steer on that element of our story.

We also have a Chinese filmmaker now living in Britain, Xiaolu Guo, who has also worked with us on ensuring the scripts, dialogue and the world of the series is representative.

There is also other research such as trawling through archival footage and records, finding everything from clips of the Trump vs Clinton election cycle to Wham’s first concert in China in the 80s. It’s not a documentary in any way but the inclusion of this footage has grounded the show in reality and allowed us to give the audience the sense that some of these events really did happen, which then means that our fictional story can be woven through with an authenticity.

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

I've learned an awful lot from this series, but the thing that I've re-learned and I hope I keep re-learning, is the incredible bravery of people who do stand up and fight. When I went to the art department to have a look at how they were designing our recreation of Tiananmen Square, on their walls there were real photos of young people mowed down when they were just asking for their rights. It's so powerful.

I have the picture now of the Tank Man at home on the wall, and it's just that continual reminder of people all around the world who at great personal risk are trying to do something to change the world. And it's not like that's a new thought, but to keep re-learning it and to keep feeling it is important and Chimerica has done this for me.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

My hope is that audiences will find this story utterly thrilling. It is a really compelling story – “Who is the Tank Man, where is he?” - and what risks will our characters take to try and find that out? And along the way some of the ideas that the story explores might make you think again about certain things.