Chimerica: Interview with writer Lucy Kirkwood

Category: Press Pack Article

How did you approach returning to Chimerica, adapting your original script into a screenplay but also including new material?

It was what had happened in politics since I wrote the play in 2013 that really convinced me there was something to be gained in adapting the play. Brexit and the Trump election in particular complicated the play’s assumptions that Western democracy is a superior system in a way that was really interesting to me. It gave me a reason to go back to it, to have that argument with myself, in the way lots of us have, I think.

To generalise massively, we look at China and we think, “That's not a democracy and therefore it's inferior,” and there are certainly some ways in which that lack of democracy is manifested that are indefensible, such as the abuse of human rights. When I wrote the original play, I'd tried to be even-handed but because those abuses are such a weighty issue, and the image of a man with bloody feet is such a powerful one, the idea that Western democracies are capable of horrific abuses too had less traction. But Trump and his mandate are vivid enough to make that counterpoint more strongly I think. It’s awful to use these dramaturgy terms to describe reality, but he became an important antagonist.

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

We were looking for a director who could handle both the thriller elements and the more personal storylines. As well as the geo-political storylines, at its heart this is a story about a friendship between two men, and as a viewer myself I am more interested in relationships than explosions – though I do love an explosion!  Michael is incredibly gifted at working across the many different registers of the show and has a brilliantly cinematic sensibility which was another thing we really wanted to incorporate - a lot of our references for this were films like The Parallax View and All The President's Men.  Michael’s quite rare in that he’s able to direct both war zones and bad dates with equal aplomb, and always with subtlety, wit and artistry.

What are some of the key themes you want to explore with this project?

Lee as a character is very much a Trojan horse for me to interrogate what it means to be on the Left in the West right now.  I think for lots of people that will be buried under quite a lot of other stuff but that's for me the spine of the story, a man who is convinced he is on the side of the angels having his illusions stripped away until he is confronted with his own violence and failure. But, of course from his point of view he thinks he’s on a “right on” crusade, and he’s as charming and gorgeous as Alessandro makes him, which is very.

Alessandro said to me, jokingly, that his most common line in the show is "Sorry" and I hadn't noticed that, but it seemed really apposite because right now – as someone on the Left – I feel like our perennial position is to feel guilty, apologise and carry on as we were. And while it’s not as simple as elite liberal metropolitans drinking champagne out of mason jars in Shoreditch, the failure of Labour in this country and the Democrats in the States, and of the parts of the electorate who consider themselves Liberal in both countries, to genuinely give a shit that they have been leaving large parts of the population behind, economically and culturally, for a generation now has pushed us to unstable, extreme, reactionary places politically. No-one else will notice this but for me it was important that Lee spends most of his working life outside of his own country – he’s disconnected from it when the story starts, I think, in the way his ex, Leila, isn’t. You can see that in the brilliant set design of his apartment – this is a transitory man. And of course he’s transitory because he’s been doing brilliant, important work overseas. And that disconnection doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does make him myopic. He doesn’t see the juggernaut of that election coming (it’s easy to forget now how completely convinced everyone was that it was going for Clinton), in the way I never saw Brexit coming, even though all the signs were there.

Most of all he's an anti-hero really, because up until the end of the story, he never stops to truly consider whether he is in the right to be searching for the Tank Man. Lee doesn't give a lot of thought to whether it will be good or bad for the man if he’s actually found.

Has your perspective changed on anything that Chimerica deals with since it was originally performed in 2013?

Yes, enormously. The extent to which Western democracy proved to be vulnerable to demagoguery really blindsided me in 2016. Many drafts of the original play were written in the afterglow of idealism rewarded by the election of Obama – in fact some early drafts were set around that 2008 election, that’s how long I was writing it for. There was always a tension around that idealism, but I think in the screen version there is an even greater disillusionment with the Left – with myself, too. Similarly, the contradictions in Chinese politics have grown even more complex. Xi Jinping has been a great agent of positive change as well as an agent of corruption. The abuse of human rights endures and in some ways has gotten worse, but they are also tackling issues like climate change with far more commitment than the West, and as Ming Xiaoli says, the rate of that vast nation’s development from famine to feast has been quite dazzling. I come at most things from an anti-capitalist perspective, that's what the play was informed by and that’s what the screen version is informed by. So it's interesting for me to watch China’s huge leap forward. The pollution in both versions is an expression of how fast and much the economy is growing. My personal view is that it's not worth your economy growing if the health of your citizens is suffering in such a profound way, but what has changed is that the Chinese government are now dealing with it. The measures might be inadequate and the ideology that caused it might remain the same but they're not ignoring it.

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

The research was really important. In some ways I feel like I've been researching this story for a long, long, long time, especially because the screen version is deeply informed by the research that Lyndsey Turner, the director of the stage play, and I undertook when we were creating the original production. Lyndsey’s influence on the whole thing is really immense, as a result of her incisive dramaturgy and the work we did together the first time around and the conversations we had during the adaptation. Going back into it, I did many of the same things again: talking to people, watching things, reading things, meeting people.

A brilliant filmmaker and novelist called Xiaolu Guo was a consultant for us on the scripts and provided invaluable insight and feedback. Throughout the whole production we had a brilliant director's assistant Leiah Yvonne Kwong - she was an amazing linchpin between our translator who was also a very helpful voice himself, and the dialect coach and me. She's Hong Kong born and really conscious of how people speak – the difference in speech between people from different backgrounds or classes and all those things. There was a triangulation where we were just constantly road-testing every single word, every single line and asking, “Is that a phrase that someone who is middle-aged and middle class in Beijing would use right now?” The script was constantly pressure tested from the beginning and throughout.

I am also really grateful for the help of our actors - we were lucky enough to have a lot of the cast from the original stage production in the screen production. David Tse (playing Pengsi) especially was incredibly helpful and generous with his thoughts and notes. I think what you have to do when you're writing about another culture is go into it with as much respect and conscientiousness as possible But we have to be able to try and connect with people beyond our own borders, to tell those stories. I hope anyone of Chinese origin watching will understand that we worked ferociously for accuracy and authenticity, and from a place of respect.

And the same goes for the Americans, of course, because I'm not American either! In the UK we're all so immersed in American culture from birth, I think, so it felt an easier dialect to ventriloquise, but I know even with the play, directors are still sending me corrections 5 years on! Toilet tank slipped by instead of cistern, for example, for years. I had a lot of conversations with Alessandro and Cherry (Jones) with them pointing out to me where something was not a turn of phrase that Americans would use. We had a big conversation for example about whether Lee would ever refer to Senator Dubecki as “Maria”, given her status, and though Pengsi’s workplace was assiduously called “The Glorious City Flower Store” for years and years, because I thought Americans didn’t use the word “shop”, it turns out that floristry is one of the few areas in which they do! With language there’s often a tiny slippage between accuracy and authenticity – and you're just constantly striving for both.

The other person we had loads of help from was Richard Cohen who is a Washington Post journalist - he read all the scripts and he was really fantastic in advising us and very forthright about places where he felt something was a bit tired or familiar as a trope. I was very grateful for his generosity and wit in how he dealt with us.

The image of the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square is at the centre of the narrative. Why do you think it's such a powerful photograph?

It's an image that has a powerful economy of story-telling because you have the enormous, antagonist tank and the single heroic man on his own with what looks like domestic shopping. So the dynamic is clear but there are questions too - what's in the shopping bags? This man's just done this extraordinarily brave thing and he looks like he's done it without any planning or consideration. It looks like a moment of true bravery because it's not something he’s thought about, he’s not considered how it might appear to other people, it’s not self-conscious. Right now in this moment we are increasingly self-conscious as a culture, all of us are. How we look in real life and especially on the internet is really important, I don't mean that in a craven way but it’s how we get jobs, it's how we meet lovers, it's how we do all sorts of things. And I think, particularly now, a man who's done something without any thought of the image he creates - and in doing so he's created one of the most striking images of the 20th century - it gives me shivers.

It’s true bravery because given what had just happened in the previous 48 hours during that protest and massacre, I wouldn't have taken the bet they weren't going just run me over. Also the fact that that there was someone there – multiple photographers in fact - to capture that moment at this extraordinary angle is also remarkable.

And then there's one nerdy answer to that which is about geometry and about the composition of the photograph from an artistic point of view, the sort of isosceles triangle of it is really interesting. And I think the fact the Tank Man has his back to us is a huge part of it too. One thing that's quite interesting that the story touches on is how in the West we're actually used to the subject of the photograph being in the middle of the frame – and if you look at it like that, it's the tank that's the subject. But it’s the Tank Man that draws your eye, the fact he’s off centre, the white of his shirt - just graphically, those things really sing out like the little red buoy in Turner’s painting Helvoetsluys.

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?

I think if you asked Lee he would say that he's dedicated to the truth and I think, to some extent, that wouldn't be a lie. He's dedicated his life to covering atrocities around the world and we find him in a moment of frustration because although he's sending back pictures of what's happening in Syria and has been doing work like that for a long time, he's finding it increasingly difficult to get that on the front page. It gets buried on page six and as we flick past it eating our breakfast we go, “Oh, that's shit” and carry on going. That's a very broad description of our relationship with the news nowadays, but not totally off the mark I don’t think. So for Lee that’s a frustration – it’s one thing for the truth to be suppressed, and quite another for it to be published but ignored, inert. But I would also say he's someone in a deceptive relationship with his sense of himself and his relationship with the truth is somewhat zealous and unforgiving –he’s convinced that he's on the right side, he believes what he's doing is a worthy mission even he causes profound violence. He’s not unlike those people that say, “I just need to be honest with you” before they say something really hurtful.

Mel has been working as a journalist longer than Lee, and something that Lee does in the first episode violates a code which she has upheld assiduously for decades: for her there is no spectrum of truth. Something is true or it's not true in journalism. If I was defending Lee I might be tempted to argue that the binary is less clear in photography than it is in words but I would also understand Mel's position that that is just simply unforgivable to fabricate a photograph. She, like Frank, is a guardian of truth, particularly at a time when journalists were and continue to be under attack from Trump. His whole administration has been dedicated to undermining the integrity of journalism and I find that horrifying. In Frank and Mel we see the media weathering this assault with integrity and grace and a profound commitment to continuing to tell the truth in the most hostile of climates. For them, it's the worst possible moment for Lee to do something unethical because everyone else is working their arse off to be above reproach.

Tess is referred to as Margaret Thatcher at various points through the first episode and I think that her truth when we meet her is very much related to: does it or does it not make money? I don't think she makes many moral enquiries of herself when we meet her but I don't think she's a liar, I think she's quite brutally truthful in fact. But like all of us, she is in denial about certain things, and I really enjoy how different departments of the production come together to add layers of subtext in that vein – for example  there's a dinner she shows up to with Lee and she says she hasn't come there for sex, but she's wearing a dress which belies that to my mind. I think she's quite good at those kinds of lies where she is in charge of the narrative and won't allow for the fact that her actions reveal sometimes contrary things.

Zhang Lin has been in a period of hibernation since 1989 and the death of his wife in the Tiananmen massacre. He's been living a cauterised life; he's gone to ground to some extent, not sought to remarry, got by on teaching jobs that he's very good at and gets some satisfaction out of, but he has gone from being in a very political situation to being completely depoliticised. There's no duplicity about that but there is a certain amount of denial and we watch that erupt in the first episode. The lid that's been on that pressure cooker of denial blows off for him and that dictates the rest of his story.

And Trump and Brexit were both results, to some extent, of the lie implicit in nostalgia, so that runs through the whole thing, I think. Like a lot of my work, it’s about the present’s relationship to the past, and how time and memory and sentiment and manipulation create distortions in that relationship. But ’89 is interesting because it’s a pre-digital time, the potential for manipulation, certainly undetectable manipulation, was much lower then – and that’s all there in the difference between digital cameras and old school SLRs, the digital world Lee lives in when we meet him in Syria versus the very lo-fi picture library he has to trawl through in his investigations. There's also a tiny little shot of Frank smelling the newsprint in episode one. How much longer newsprint will survive is a really interesting question. That nostalgia is seductive but not uncomplicated - nostalgia for the old days also means nostalgia for sexism and racism and people getting secondary lung cancer from being in an office where everyone smoked. So that’s a form of lie too.

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?

As a gesture it's a paean to protest, especially in the face of its diminished reputation as a method of change. I was very struck last year hearing Adam Curtis, the documentarian, talk about how individualistic it is to expect that just because you gave up your Saturday to go to one march you should be outraged when your demands are not met - which is a massive paraphrasing of a much more erudite thesis, which I both agree with and would counter with the observation that protest is being challenged in the West not only by our failing belief in it, but perhaps more by the way it is increasingly criminalised and neutered by the State. Our cities have been designed in ways that are intended to shut down protest and make it difficult or impossible, and unless we keep challenging it, the right to express discontent with your government and your leaders will be eroded.

What I hope we have made in the face of this is a love letter to the power of protest and what Michael's [Keillor] done beautifully in the opening scenes of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is capture the energy and thrill of being gathered with lots of other people to express the same emotion, the same thought. And I decided quite early on that I didn’t mind if that was sentimental and simplistic, I wanted it to be an aspirational portrait of people stepping beyond the individual, into the collective. For me Lee's downfall is that he focuses on an individual rather than looking at the entire picture - he's not as interested in what happened before the Tank Man became ‘the’ Tank Man.

How has it been working with the cast?

We were very blessed to get such an extraordinary group of people together to tell our story. What I especially loved about Alessandro was that he instinctively understood and wasn't afraid of the moral ambivalence in Lee. He’s also got rather brilliant comic timing, and a producer’s head which was extraordinarily helpful. He thinks about the whole thing, not just his own part, the entire time, and it’s a wonderful gift to have a lead who takes such responsibility for the show as whole, while still delivering such a magnetic, detailed, tender performance.

Cherry Jones is who I want to be when I grow up. I've long admired her work on stage, she's a Broadway goddess. She's a charming, clever, elegant Southern belle who doesn't take any shit but has impeccable manners. That was a change from the play because the character of Mel was originally a man played – excellently - by Sean Gilder, but when I came back to it a couple of years later there was something about the combination of these two men on this quest that made it feel very dated to me, and made the whole thing feel iterative of older films, not modern. For various reasons, including reading about the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin I just thought “This should be a woman”. Cherry was in my head for a very long time and I thought we’d never get her so I was over the moon when she actually agreed to do it.

The wonderful Sophie Okonedo plays all the contradictions in Tess so beautifully – she makes her whip smart and sharp and witty, but also shows us so deftly the way all her insecurities and vulnerabilities sit close to the surface of her skin – she is a grown woman still working herself out and Sophie makes the journey she goes on so involving, I think. Sophie's got beautiful comic timing and the energy between her and Alessandro was really gorgeous, they really found a modern screwball tone in all the right places which was exactly the His Girl Friday feel I was aspiring towards in the writing. She's the voice of moral complexity in the film, of compromise and grey areas, but she plays it with such charm just so goddamn charming – she’s not an angel as a character, but I think there's a danger that you just fall in love with her a bit too much.

Terry Chen played Zhang Lin, a role which Benedict Wong had in the original stage production. Those are big shoes to fill and Terry more than filled them and made the role entirely his own. He's got that deeply cinematic gift where his face appears on screen and you just want to fall into him, you can’t take your eyes off him, and without him saying a word you understand everything that’s running through his head. As a writer I love it when the actor and the director and the cinematographer take the storytelling out of my hands and show me something that might be latent in the script, but is unwritten, it just thrills me. There's this quiet wit to Zhang Lin in Terry’s hands, a kindness and thoughtfulness, but most of all this pulsing, steady integrity. Mandarin is not his first language and the way he managed to deliver such an incredible performance in a foreign tongue is something I'm completely in awe of.

F. Murray Abraham is simply a legendary actor. He is someone who really relishes words which I was really grateful for because Frank as a character is incredibly verbose and has quite a lot of big speeches. To hear those speeches spoken by Murray is like hearing a nursery rhyme played on a Stradivarius. He gives Frank a steely integrity and makes him a man of great feeling without ever making it sentimental which is what I especially loved about his performance. Frank has a long-standing emotional relationship with Lee and you don’t ever doubt that he has a sort of love for this man, but he's also uncompromising. He considers himself first and foremost a guardian of the truth, and F. Murray brought how seriously Frank takes that role out beautifully.

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

Michael and I spent an awful lot of time talking through the scripts before he went into the shoot so one of the things that's lovely for me is that his vision for the series feels very aligned to my vision for the series. I think we share a taste, and that's a great starting position. He's also got this extraordinarily cinematic eye. He's brilliant with the actors, and the calmest presence on set I think I've ever witnessed. He's got this quiet, thoughtful but nonetheless, titanium presence on set which has kept everyone safe. Because we were trying to do something quite ambitious and I think that lots of people were either not acting in their first language or they were trying to pretend that they were in New York when they were actually in Canary Wharf - and he just really held the whole thing together. That comes through in the clarity and the verve with which he's delivered the story, because the crew and the cast were able to trust him so profoundly.