How The Creators Of “Orphan Black” Manage All Those Clones

Orphan Black creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett dig into the secrets of keeping an audience guessing while making a complex narrative work. Hint: Having really good actors helps.

How The Creators Of “Orphan Black” Manage All Those Clones
[Photos: Steve Wilkie for BBC America]

The second season of the BBC America show Orphan Black moved with such breakneck speed that it’s hard to remember everything that happened. Allegiances were switched, motives were made clearer, people who were good guys were really bad guys and vice versa. Fans also found out a lot more about the nefarious DYAD Corporation and the experiment that brought Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) and her clone sisters to life. Oh, and in the finale we were introduced to an entire new set of clones, who were militarized males that all looked like creepy cult follower Mark Rollins (Ari Millen).


Graeme Manson and John Fawcett created, and write, the complicated world of Orphan Black, and before the show’s third season premiere this month they sat with Co.Create to talk about how they wrangle two sets of clones, including how to tell an actor he’s going to be the “new Tatiana.”

Co.Create: When you guys finished season two by introducing the “Castor” line of male clones, did you ever think, “Okay, let’s kind of step back, slow down, and see what’s going on,” or did you just say, “Let’s just put pedal to the metal here and see where we go with it.”?

Graeme Manson: Sometimes we say it would be nice to slow down, but we don’t end up doing it very often.

John Fawcett: I think a lot of shows get forced into slowing down, just because of the material, and frankly we probably should be slowing down, and a lot of time that would be exciting and fun to do but it just never happens. If we left the foot off the gas for too long it doesn’t feel like our show, and we can do it for character moments and beats, and those are great moments of relief, but it’s great that the audience is on edge because they know that they’re going to get slapped in the face every time we do that.

Is there any concern that fans will lose track of the story or where the characters stand and how do you manage that?

GM: You know, we demand a lot out of our audience, and our audience likes to be on their toes. They like to watch it to pay attention, plus we have a regime where–for instance, we’re going through in terms of editing right now–where we go through and ask, “Okay, is it clear? Am I following it?” and we have different people watching it at different steps, right John?


JF: I think it’s always a priority. We don’t want to lose people. We want to tell a clear story, and make the mystery as compelling and interesting as possible. It’s a complicated story, you know. There are more layers to it this season than there has been. It’s challenging for us too, to tell a complicated story in as simple a way as possible.

GM: Part of the formula is to give the right amount of answers, you know, to make elements clear along the way so that it’s not just one long extended question, you’ve got to answer 50 pieces.

Was the idea of having a line of male clones one you had from the beginning? Was the point of having Ari be there because he would eventually play all of these clones, or did you discover, at some point, that he could do kind of what Tatiana does?

JF: There are two answers to that. One is, yes, we knew that there needed to be male clones, that that was part of the puzzle that we needed to answer to go forward to answer the rest of the puzzle, that was going to be a surprise for the audience. But the other part of it was, no, we didn’t know who we wanted the male clone to be. We talk about many different things, one of the possible solutions being it was a character that we hadn’t seen before, and hadn’t embedded into the story, that it would be just someone that we would just spring on the audience. But we realized that that just wasn’t really our show and that wasn’t as mysterious or as exciting as we wanted it to be, and we felt that it was better if the character was already embedded in the fabric of the show, and that wouldn’t it be a cool reveal if we found the right person, so I think we had known for a long time that we needed Castor.

GM: We also discovered, during the season that Ari was really good and we didn’t want to kill him, and then those things sort of combined into the decision, “Hey, maybe that’s the guy that’s going to tie it all together.”

JF: It was a combination of us looking for the answer and then making our own discovery that the guy that we had cast to play Mark, who was supposed to be killed, terminated halfway through the season, was a way better actor and a much more interesting complex actor than we had originally thought.


I mean there was no thought of making like Art or Paul, or one of the other male characters, into the line of clones?

JF: No. We thought about everything.

GM: If it was a possibility, we thought about it.


GM: Too obvious.

When you go to Ari and you say, “Hey, you’re basically going to be the male version of Tatiana,” what’s his reaction?


GM: “Holy shit.”

JK: I think he shat himself.

GM: I actually made the phone call, and yeah, I think he shat himself, but he took it very seriously right out of the gate, and he came to see some of the technical aspects of shooting a clone scene, so he had a couple of episodes at the end of the season to sort of sink into the idea of what he was going to do next year.

JF: We really didn’t give him much time to think too much about it prior to releasing the script for episode 10. I mean he had maybe an episode to go, “Okay.” We told him, I think, when we were shooting episode nine.

What kind of stamina or skills does an actor need to do a clone scene, where you’re acting two, three, or four sides of a scene and everything is going to be stitched together digitally later?

JF: The first element of it isn’t anything new to actors, it’s: play a different character, and come up with a different character that is different enough that the audience can see the difference, and something that doesn’t just register with changed hair or some wardrobe, that there is a tangible difference in the character. That comes from the writing room, that comes from the actor, and that’s what actors do. To pull it off, to a large degree of reality, to do it extremely well, that’s a very different skill set, but there’s a bunch of different weird technical skills that either you’re good at or you’re not. It’s like some actors are good at hitting marks and some aren’t. Some actors are good at repeating a performance again, their continuity is consistent repeatedly. We just happened to wind up with Tatiana, who can kind of do both; she can freewheel incredibly well, where if you want something that’s not in the script, or you want her to improvise, she will do that in a flash, and she’ll do it extremely well, but she’s also very, very conscious of her technical performance, and certainly when it comes to working with motion control cameras, or any of the highly technical routines that we’ve put her through, she just kind of gets it, really understands it. She understands eyelines and continuity and gets how to work her performance insides, sometimes, those very rigid technical guidelines.


GM: There’s also the ability, with the motion control system that we use, for the actor to step out from in front of the camera, go behind the monitors, and watch the composite image played back, so that they can see themselves playing against themselves so that they can make those subtle changes to a performance to better reflect the other side of it.

So the motion-controlled camera is playing the part of the other clones that are in the scene? Explain what you guys do with this.

JF: Well basically, as we’re building a clone shot, let’s say, for example, that there’s three girls in the scene, there’s Sarah, Cosima, and Alison, as we’re shooting this we’re building the shot in layers. So she’ll start as Sarah, she’ll do her Sarah layer, and then she’ll go change, she’ll do her Alison layer. What Graeme is saying is that any time when she’s playing off herself, and we’re building a clone shot like that, she can go back to our monitor station and watch the playback, and she can see how the shots are lining up, so there’s a very rigid timing for where, you know, she has to look exactly at this right time. If she wants to capture the eyes of Alison, when she plays Sarah, she wants us to connect that look, she’s got to look at exactly the right second, so within those very rigid guidelines she can see, “Okay, my timing, if I want to do this other little cool thing that I want to do, I can fit it in here.”

And that’s not a place where Tatiana can improvise.

JF: Yeah. Absolutely, because the dialogue flows no matter what. The dialogue, in a way, is kind of the template and the rhythm and structure of the scene, and then we use the dialogue track as it is first recorded as a template for the rest of the scene, so when she gets to do her Alison past, in the dialogue that’s being played into her headset, or into her earbud, the parts where the Alison dialogue has been recorded by one of the stand-ins, or by her acting double, Catherine, that’s been removed, so there’s actually a dead gap in the dialogue and Tatiana hears it in her headpiece, so that’s the gap she has to fill in with Alison’s voice.

What do you think is the part of that kind of performance that it’s very underrated, that they both do so well?


GM: Well I think that the visual effects are seamless, and we work really hard, John works really hard, especially, to make sure that they’re invisible, so I think that we do a good job of really covering up the incredible technical performance that’s going down, people might miss that because if the show is working, nobody is thinking it’s the same girl acting against herself.

JF: Sometimes, as a director, because I’ve got my eye on so many different things, including the clock a lot of the time, that you don’t see a lot of the small things that she does, and those are the things that when you get into an edit suite and you’re no longer looking at the clock, and you’re no longer thinking about what that dude’s doing, or what the light’s doing, or what the camera’s doing, you’re just looking at the performance, the amazing detail that’s in there sometimes is pretty mind blowing, and so what you wind up with is this very rich, complex, emotional performance that she does in multiplicity where it’s not just Sarah, it’s Alison, it’s Cosima, it’s Rachel, it’s Helena, it’s all these things. These women, these characters are the reason why people watch our show. I think we’ve got a cool mystery, I do. I’m proud of our show. I think Graeme and I kick ass as much as we can in telling a compelling mystery, but at the end of the day Tat, and that performance, and those characters, are what people want to see because you believe them, and that’s hard enough to do for an actor doing one character, let alone five.

But now you’re doing it twice, you know, with two different actors. What will viewers have to keep track of in their mind this season?

JF: I think that people have come to the point where they realize that Graeme and I cannot be trusted, so I think we’re untrustworthy couple of people because we’re fucking with the audience a lot, and not like fucking with them in a mean-spirited kind of way, like things are quite well planned for us, but we like to not let people feel like they’re on stable ground often, and we like the idea of the audience going, “Here’s a bad guy, now let’s go shine the light in their closet and find out what’s actually good about them,” or vice versa, and take a character that you absolutely loathe and actually kind of gain sympathy for them. I think that that’s a really fascinating journey in representing different, very layered, and cool characters that you just haven’t seen before.

GM: The character revelations are really part of our long game, and then, you know, the episode-to-episode and the act-to-act pacing of the show that we like, that’s something that we wanted, that’s how pitched the show. We pitched it as, “We want to tell a story that keeps pulling the rug out from under the audience,” so it’s really the show that we set out to do.

JF: And it’s got a breakneck speed, and frankly we’re comfortable at that speed.