[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
WGN America is rebooting its series lineup this year, and the first drama out of the gate is Bellevue, starring Anna Paquin (True Blood), Shawn Doyle (The Expanse), and Allen Leech (Downtown Abby). The series is a terrific mix of procedural and psychological and family drama–along the lines of one of my absolute favorites (y’all know), The Killing. The first season centers around Annie Ryder (Paquin), a detective drawn into aÂ complicated, layered small-town web when transgender teen Jesse Sweetland (Sadie O’Neill) goes missing just as another mystery from her childhood resurfaces.
I spoke with series creators and executive producers Adrienne Mitchell and Jane Maggs last week about the series, and in the first part of our interview, they discuss its origin and evolution. Maggs came up with the story while studying film in Toronto. “The very original seed of the idea, the more mystical side of it, came from [a project while I was] at the Canadian Film Centre. We had to do an exercise based on, ‘Wwhat fairy tale would you modernize?’ and I did an exercise on Rumplestiltskin because I liked dark, weird fairy tales,” she says.
“And you would never know that it morphed into this, but that’s where the very first kernel came from. I did some further thinking on it and came in to talk with Janis Lundman, Adrienne’s partner at Back Alley and we talked briefly about it because I was a big fan of [one of their previous series,] Durham County and that’s how we connected.”
Mitchell says the timing was fortuitous. “We were looking for our next crime thriller along the lines of Durham County, in terms of a very serialized arc. We wanted something that had a bit more of a magical element to it. A sense of something happening in the realm of, not genre, but in the realm of the imagination,” she explains.
“I got a hold of the script and there was something really intriguing about the characters, and the mysterious presence of characters from their past and how there was a kind of an intimacy there that was very unique. And because it came from when [Annie] was a child, it had a fairy tale aspect to it that we were drawn to.”
The first season is eight episodes, and in the current climate of shorter seasons, Maggs says the story somewhat dictated that number. “[We were] feeling out the overarching story that we wanted to tell and then understanding how the personal journeys for our characters were going to take us deeper into the mystery and away from that mystery,” she says. “And [we were] paying homage to all the elements we introduced in the first episode and it felt like more than six and less than ten.”
The series has a fantastic ensemble cast, and Mitchell says signing Paquin on as the lead had a wonderful domino effect. “We had [agency] WME on board in the early stages to help us with cast. We had four scripts written and they read the first two and thought they had someone who was interested in doing a lead in a crime or detective series and that was Anna Paquin. [She] was always on our list but we thought…she’d never do this,” Mitchell recalls.
“Lo and behold, Lorenzo De Maio [at WME] was able to get it to her and her people and she really immediately took to the scripts and the material. She read the pilot and asked for the other three scripts and anything else we had and she looked at my work as a director because I was going to be the lead director.”
“We met and there was a really good connection. She seemed to really understand where we were going. Meeting with her…I could see the character in her. It was so exciting. As soon as Anna was on board, it was the ricochet effect. We were able to get a really high-caliber cast who wanted to work with her.”
Maggs says the casting also helped guide the characters. “Originally, Annie was always a very dominating lead. Once we got Allen Leech on board [as her estranged longtime love, Eddie], we realized he needed his own arc because he’s such an excellent actor and so compelling to watch and we did that before we got into actual production,” she points out.
Mitchell loved that turn of events. “It was such a collaboration. Everybody really worked through their characters with us and came up with awesome dynamics and we loved working like that with the cast,” she says. “They were really quite amazing that way.”
Along with co-creating and executive producing the show, Mitchell also directed four episodes. “Because…I’m on this way at the beginning, it [gave] me an opportunity to really work through the visuals. I would do the first block [of episodes] because it sets up the visual dynamics and what we’re working with [like] the locations. I prep as soon as I get a script, which could be three months before,” she says.
“I love this way of working where you can have as many scripts written before you start because you can prepare and create your own cinematic stamp. [You can] come up with all kinds of depth when you have some time. It’s not as easy to do when you’re writing during production. I wanted to start off [with the first two] and do the finale. I wanted to book end it.”
Bellevue premieres Tuesday on WGN America at 10 pm/9c. Here are a few sneak peeks. We’ll have more of my interview with Mitchell and Maggs over the course of the season.
[Update: WGNA has changed formats and the series is no longer streaming in the US. It is available streaming in Canada on CBC Gem.]
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