It has a Booker Prize winner in novelist Hilary Mantel, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter in Peter Straughan, a Tony- and Olivier-laden leading man in Mark Rylance, and a BAFTA-winning TV director in Peter Kosminsky. But make no mistake: The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, set to hit U.S. screens on Sunday, April 5, is producer Colin Callender’s baby.
The six-part dramatization of Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies tells the story of Thomas Cromwell (Rylance), lawyer and consigliere to Henry VIII (played by Emmy-winning Homeland star Damien Lewis), at the time of the king’s struggle to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, and follows their ill-fated union, culminating in Boleyn’s execution.
The series recently aired in the U.K. to near-universal acclaim after immense prior interest and scrutiny. Callender, former long-running president of HBO Films, admits he was slightly nonplussed by the amount of attention the series garnered prerelease in the U.K. Now, in advance of its U.S. debut, Callender’s excitement is palpable. “There is nothing else like this on American TV. Nothing,” he says.
Despite the series being rich in the tangled English and European history of the time, Callender is unconcerned that American audiences, possibly less familiar with the context, might find this challenging. “The drama tells the story through the eyes of this man who has come from nowhere and somehow managed to finagle his way to the top of the Tudor court,” Callender explains. “It is dealing with the moral complexities of the exercise of power. That’s a very modern story. What Cromwell goes through, even though it is 500 years ago, is very contemporary. I think Americans will embrace it wholeheartedly and relate to it very well. In fact, when I bought the book, my first thought was, This is really going to work in America.”
Viewing figures in the U.K. were strong; almost 6 million tuned in to the first episode, a few faint-of-heart dropped out around episode 2, and the remaining four hour-long shows were watched by a stable audience of around 4 million.
Callender believes that Cromwell’s enigmatic persona is what kept viewers coming back, and compares it to other character-driven series. The fact that viewers, in general, know how the overarching story ends is no handicap to their desire to stay with what is not intended to be “easy” TV.
“The way the story is told, you don’t know how Cromwell is going to respond. It’s not about what happens in the ‘story’ next, but rather what he is going to say and what he is going to do,” Callender argues. “The appeal of Frank Underwood in House of Cards or Breaking Bad’s Walter White is about what he’s going to do next, how’s he going to react. I think that’s also true of Thomas Cromwell.”
Thomas Cromwell is the latest in a line of complicated, morally ambiguous leading men, constantly pulled between doing the right thing and doing whatever is going to keep them ahead of the game, or even alive. Cromwell fights a battle between pragmatism and idealism, aware of his own corruption, knowing he’s got to do certain things to get through the day. And, as Callender points out, not getting through the day for Thomas Cromwell involves getting his head cut off.
“The thing about characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Thomas Cromwell is that they do things you and I would not do, they do go to places that we, mere mortals, constrained by the social rules that inform most of our behavior, do not go. They break those rules,” he observes.
This type of nuanced character, dealing with social and moral complexities, is not new–see the last decade of U.S. TV, and the history of feature films. But Callender says movie studios are not making those kinds of films anymore, caught up as they are in feeding the worldwide distribution mechanisms with franchised movies aimed at younger audiences.
“Dramas are more difficult and don’t travel as well because they are dialogue-driven, whereas the big franchise movies deal with images, sound, and action. So that sort of writing, those sorts of characters and stories, have transitioned from the cinema to TV. We at HBO were right at the center of that.”
Callender spent more than 20 years at HBO, departing in 2008 and launching production company Playground in 2012 after a stint in theater production. He is currently working on a TV adaptation of The Dresser, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen.
Callender’s journey with Wolf Hall began in 2012 when he bought the rights to the books (the first two volumes of a trilogy, with the third yet to be released). Getting access to the novelist Mantel, a figure held to almost regal levels of esteem in the U.K., was far from easy. Callender sent “pleading letters” to her agent, and smilingly calls his first meeting with the novelist an “audience.”
One reason behind Callender’s success in securing the rights against many other suitors is that Mantel had seen John Adams, a film made at HBO under his auspices, and had liked the style of adaptation in that the characters do not have the benefit of hindsight.
He explains: “That is central to Wolf Hall–that the characters and the storytelling should live in the moment. Anne Boleyn doesn’t know she is going to be executed until she is going to be executed. That was very important to Hilary, as was the sense you could tell a historical story without dumbing it down, without pandering, without having to twist history to make it more understandable.”
With book option settled, Callender then went to the BBC, which was keen to broadcast the series. Then it was a question of finding the writer. With the help of U.K. coproducers Company Pictures, the Oscar-nominated writer Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Men Who Stare at Goats) was recruited. Next, Callender began to think about which actor should play the leading role and who should direct.
Which brings us to another factor Callender believes will affect Wolf Hall‘s reception in America. He says, twinkling like a Santa Claus who knows just how great the unopened presents really are: “They are going to discover Mark.”
It is not an exaggeration to say Mark Rylance occupies a godlike status in the world of theater. He has been venerated for decades, and is routinely referred to as “the best actor of his generation.” Callender says: “I thought he could be brilliant, I loved the fact he’d done a TV film for the BBC, The Government Inspector, but he hadn’t done any major TV. I thought that since Cromwell was this enigmatic mystery character, the fact Mark had no baggage and didn’t come to the screen with a preexisting persona was very useful.”
Next on Callender’s list was finding the right director. Peter Kosminsky had worked with Rylance previously on The Government Inspector and has an impressive body of work, (Warriors, The Promise, No Child of Mine) not just as a director but also as producer and writer. Callender says: “Peter’s documentary background, the dramas about politics and power that he had done before, it’s very contemporary about the issues of the moment. I thought he would bring an immediacy to the story and blow away the cobwebs that might otherwise be associated with a historical drama, and he did just that.”
As a result, and not for the first time, Callender has gathered a collection of people from a mix of theater, TV, and film backgrounds, and thrown them together.
With so many stellar and, presumably, strong-minded creative people involved, it raises the question of exactly whose creative vision is being delivered in the final product on screen. Callender, without the slightest hesitation, and in a tone bordering on reverence, says: “It is absolutely Hilary Mantel’s. We were all in service of her work.”
Callender says it is his job as producer to gather the right resources and the right people to deliver Mantel’s vision, to identify the “essential DNA” of the book and then work out how to recreate it in another form.
“It passes from hand to hand, it’s a sort of relay race,” he says. Which sounds like a kind of linear collaboration, where everyone gets to contribute talents and skills one after another. “It’s Hilary Mantel, then it’s the writer, the adaptation, then once the script is finished, it’s in the hands of the director. And Peter Kosminsky would say that once he’s on the set, he’s handing it over to the actors.”
The crucial part is to make sure everyone is “singing from the same hymn sheet.” “Because with a rocket taking off, a slight variation early on is a slight variation early on, but becomes a much larger variation later on,” he says.
Rather modestly, because one is left in no doubt as to whom is in charge here, he says: “As a producer, you’re just really making sure everyone hits the target that we actually set out to hit. So it’s very important that everyone who comes on board shares the same vision and understanding of what it’s about.”
“I knew I wanted Mark Rylance, so I didn’t take it to a network in America that would have said, ‘Mark who?’ I took it to a network who said, ‘My God, you’ve got Mark Rylance.”
An additional challenge is to ensure the process of production–the way in which the material is shot and so forth–does not subvert the ambition. “We shot it on location instead of a studio. The show would have been very, very different had those actors been acting on a sound stage instead of real buildings of the period. If the camera had not been handheld and had been steady–the process has enormous impact on what’s on the screen.” For Callender, it is all about protecting the vision.
It is an uncompromising production, and this is a reflection of Callender’s absolute commitment to adherence to the core ambition.
Being able to steer a production from start to finish is his number-one love. As president at HBO Films, particularly in his latter years there, there was less opportunity to do that. “As an executive there is only so much you can really do, you’re commissioning producers. I was hands-on, but at the end of the day, you are sitting behind a desk. The ability to see something at a nascent stage and then hand-craft it from idea through to the final marketing is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Wolf Hall may well become America’s next TV obsession, with viewers drawn from several groups. Callender believes they will all be surprised. “There’s an audience that likes Downton Abbey that will come to it because they like historical dramas. I think we are going to surprise them. There’s an audience that likes The Tudors because they like that period of history. We’re going to surprise them. And there’s an audience that likes Damien Lewis because of Homeland, and we’re going to surprise them too.” He grins: “It’s exciting.”
The first episode of Wolf Hall airs on Masterpiece/PBS on Sunday, April 5 at 10 p.m.