Utopia Series 2 Dennis Kelly Interview

Creator Dennis Kelly talked about the second series of the superb mind bending channel 4 drama Utopia. He talked in depth after a special preview screening of the first episodes of the new series about the origins of the show, it’s thought provoking themes and the unique style. He also addressed controversy surrounding the shows moments of intense violence and the question of whether there will be a third series or more…

Read the full interview transcript below: 

Q. The new series seems to blame the Network for Thatcherism?

It seemed like a good thing to do. Also I suppose the Thatcher government was a very stable government and had written it later on It would have been a Blair government. So I’m not particularly having a go at Thatcherism, though.. maybe I am. I wanted to make a conspiracy from the start, so I needed to find a short time period where a lot of event happened. I found tis ten ay period where all those events actually happened. The assassination of Mino Paccarelli, and Eric Sykes, through to Three Mile Island. That just seemed the perfect week. It just fitted. So maybe it’s all real.

Q. Where did the idea come from to open the new series with a flashback episode exploring the origins of the characters?

 When we were doing series 1 Mark and Becca kept saying the stuff in the past was quite rich and it would be great to actually see some of it. I thought oh f*ck there’s an idea here. So I thought it would be really interesting to show all of it, to get a chance to see it starting. The central ideal behind the conspiracy comes from sort of a good place. They’re trying to solve the world’s problems and actually do something about it. I’m not suggesting what they do is right. I felt if you go right back and show that you could show that. To see the sacrifices that Milner and Carvell make to do this. I realised you couldn’t have the current actors play their younger selves though because that would just be too weird.

Q. Did the flashback episode affect your view of the characters?

It’s Interesting because I was watching the rushes come through as I was still working on the later episodes. Seeing things like Milner’s relationship with Wilson Wilson fed back into what I was writing.

Q. Was it easier returning for a second series?

It feels easier to write in some ways with characters. Because once you have people inhabiting those characters it makes that part of things easier. I feel like I could just hand over a mini-series to the cast. But it’s difficult not to look back at what you’ve done before with the story and try to match it. Which is why I think it was better to go away and do something completely different with the first episode. Also you use up things in the first series, but that’s the challenge, to find new things without just reusing what worked the first time and changing it a bit to squeeze it back in. I don’t think I’ve done that too much.

Q. Is the second series less about revealing secrets and more about exploring the ideas and questions raised at the climax of the first series?

In the first series you didn’t really know what the conspiracy was. The odd thing about the first series is that you didn’t find out about the theme of population control until episode 5. I enjoy as an idea and piece of work the fact it came so late. But I mean the series didn’t really talk about that until that moment. What was nice about this series is that it can be about that rom the start. Really although the series is about characters, the concept of population control is the idea that underpins all that. The first series was also a bit twisty as well and you didn’t always know quite what was going on. So you’re faced with the idea of finding new twists. I decided not to try and just do that, although there may be one or two little surprises. It’s not quite as twisty as the first series. It’s really about seeing how The Network works, how the people fighting it get on and whether they even should be trying to fight it.

Q. The series has a very flexible moral centre, who or what do you see as the heart of the show?

I think morality is flexible and all big proper questions aren’t easily answered by the moralities we have. I like the fact it shifts for the audience and the characters. Sometimes good people do terrible things and Bad people do terrible things. Actually I look at Milner and I think she’s actually an incredibly good and interesting person. She’s the kind of person who’d be nice to go out for dinner with. It wouldn’t be nice if she wanted to kill you though, because she just f**king would!

I’m a bit woolly, lefty, intellectual and I feel like I know what going on in the world. I think I know how to answer everything. But nothing in what I believe gives me an answer to this question at the heart of the show. The population issue. I don’t know what we as a species do about it.

In 1974 when this story starts the world’s population is something like 4.5 billion. By the time we get to present day we’ve almost doubled. Not only that, the resources we use for our living standard have trebled. We’re also passing out living standards out to other people in the world who traditionally couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to them. So nothing in my politics or morality gives me an answer to this. That’s why it’s an interesting thing to talk about.

Q. How important was it to develop specifically the Milner & Carver relationship?

We talked about this a lot while I was writing the scripts. It’s a love story that isn’t a love story. There’s a line where someone says Milner loves Carvel’s brain and that it’s almost a higher form of love. It sort of what it is, but it’s more than a love story. I wanted to get the feeling that they were the two most special people on the planet. That’s what it feels like, when you fall in love it feels like there is nobody else who feels this way. In a strange way with them it’s actually true because they’re doing something that will affect all of humanity forever if they do it. It was really important to see that bond between them. It affects Jessica, Milner and Arby. The seeds planet in the 1970s affects this really peculiar family unit.

Q. Were you nervous about creating fictional stories around real life events?

 Everything that I used was an event with an existing conspiracy theory about them. The difference is the people who promote those theories believe they’re actually true. The fiction that’s applied to the same events here isn’t something we claim is real, we’re admitting it’s all fiction. We were careful about it and we thought about it but these are events that happened nearly 40 years ago. That’s part fo what we do actually we mess around a bit with reality. I didn’t have a eureka moment but it started with the realisation that the three mile island incident happened on the same day the Callahan government fell by one vote. Then you find out about the assassinations and deaths surrounding it. Once I looked at it all of that I couldn’t not use it. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t.

Q. How did you approach writing all the action scenes?

You try and write them in as much detail as possible without dong the director’s job for them. I never write specific shots. I never write the camera swoops in here because I know the director will just go f**k that. My job really is to write story in this strange form with stage direction and dialogue. So you write it with as much direction as possible but you also need to leave room for other people to bring their own thing to it. I’m not a director.

The actors are also very good at giving you feedback. They ask about things and why things are going on. Or they tell you they don’t agree with the way things are said or happening. You have a little fight about it maybe then they win. That sort of feedback is invaluable. Actors are into a character way more that I can ever be, I can be in it to a certain extent but then they’re so into it. It’s not about just doing things, if you don’t agree with something you have to fight your corner. But at the same time you have to be part of a collaborative process.  I’m constantly and pleasantly surprised by what I see, it’s usually much better than what’s in my head.

Q. There was a lot of debate about the level of violence in the first series; you haven’t shied away form that this time either. Is it essential to telling this story to have those burst of violence in it?

I think yes it is. The Network and Milner, what they’re trying to do is something they believe in so much. Milner’s question is really very simple and follows her throughout her entire life. Her question is, if I stop doing this what’s going to happen. What about the billions that live in the future that will have wars. Phosphates wil run out in about 100 to 300 years’ time. That’s great but without phosphates we don’t have food and we don’t have enough to support 8 billion or the 12 billion that will be here then. So Milner’s position is that obviously killing people is bad but what about all those other people. So I think you do need violence because you need it to tell the extremes of that story.

Q. Do you think the show may actually affect people’s feelings about having children?

I’m certainly not advocating not having kids. I think kids are great. I don’t have ids but I have nieces and nephews and they’re all nice. I wouldn’t; want us not to have them. But this is why I think it’s an interesting thing to write about because I don’t have an answer. My answer isn’t the same as theirs. I don’t think we should sterilize the world. I want to be clear about that. But there are times when Milner asks, if not this then what do we do instead?

Q. Did you always intend to make more series, because series one felt quite self-contained?

I think it was my mistake actually. A lot of people felt like it was intended to be a one off self-contained thing. But I’ve only written one other series before s it may be my naivety. I kept thinking I must have got something wrong that I didn’t let the audience know that there was another one coming up.

Q. Will there be a third series?

Yes fingers crossed there will be. Touch wood!

Q. Will the graphic novel feature again; it was a big part of the plot in the first season?

 Well it was something that there and then burned and gone in the first series. But even if it went to series three and four, it would always be there in the background because it sort of set the tone for the show. It certainly influenced the visuals of the series. In a way it’s sort of there but in subtle ways. There’ a few things in the rest of the series that hark back to it.

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