Writer Tony Basgallop chatted to The Custard Tv, in their podcast, about his approach to What Remains; a four-part crime drama, and one of things he actively did was to avoid procedurals and concentrate instead on character studies.
This is, I believe, what contributes towards a stand-out crime drama, because it is often the questions we as viewers ask of the story – the characters, our own lives (in reflection) and society – which pique our interest and create suspense. We’re talking the whys; the characters and their back stories/motivations, as opposed to just the “how” involved in the crime.
Many crime dramas combine both. Broadchurch looked at both angles, mainly because our protagonists were active police officers. But much of the suspense was drawn out of the character studies; looking at each resident through suspicion and trying to work out motivations and links. And, of course, the officers both had personal connections to the case. Southcliffe looked at the aftermath and back stories, as well as the media’s approach – but from the POV of a former resident, which cleverly tied that angle into the drama.
It’s the suspicion that makes these dramas so compelling, and for that to occur successfully the story is of course structured in a way that feeds information gradually – building it through the characters (as is the case in What Remains) rather than handing it out procedurally. Tony Basgallop spoke of how it was important to scrape away at who these characters were behind closed doors.
Tony wanted to write a whodunnit that ignored the boring technical and procedural stuff – which always feels like professionals merely telling the audience how they do their jobs – and instead to look at who these people are underneath.
This was very cleverly approached by our protagonist officer, Harper, retiring on the day the case is investigated. He’s drawn to keep fighting for victim Melissa’s justice, because his colleagues haven’t prioritised the case, so he goes rogue.
As a ‘bogus cop’, we get to follow him on an investigation that he’s undertaking on his own terms, minus the white coats and procedures, and as the series continues we’re set to not only learn more about the residents but Harper, too, and how he uses the case as a diversion from facing his new stage in life.
What Remains also highlights the need to consider location as an additional character. Tony considers the large house, which is split into flats that contain many of the 12 key characters, to be a 13th character.
This point is emphasised by production designer Lisa Marie Hall who, on the BBC blog, describes how her job is as much about keeping things hidden as it is about revealing visual clues.
When I first read the script I knew instinctively that the house itself was a pivotal character, as menacing and awkward as its inhabitants, and that I needed to design it to make sure the audience could never quite see the whole picture.
The eeriness created by the house, and the way the characters are filmed and revealed, are a collaboration between designers, directors and the script.
Tony described how he was partly inspired by “Dreams of A Life”; a documentary about a lady who was found dead in front of her TV after 3 years (watch it on 4od here). The fact that this sort of length of time can pass without anyone noticing that someone has ceased to be, is both sad and terrifying. Tony believes that when writing a character that is a victim, you need to respect them.
By respecting each and every character for who they were, are or who they could be is key. Yes, there will be ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and a perpetrator, but nothing is ever black and white. Everyone is a suspect (character studies), but no one is guilty (crime) until proven (by whatever procedure – “official” or “rogue”). And this is where a crime drama can really pack a punch by concentrating on character over crime [procedure].
What Remains is really strong, so far, in its exploration of a fascinating case (human nature makes us fascinated by curious cases) and the equally fascinating characters that are so close to it; a winning combination.
So next time you’re thinking of writing crime, consider the drama that can be extracted from the characters involved before getting bogged down by procedure, and consider unique ways to approach it.
What do you think of What Remains so far? Are you a fan of crime dramas that concentrate more on character studies, or do you prefer the procedural approach?
Want to come to London Screenwriters’ Festival? Use my special discount code: SOFLUID-16X to get a £23 discount!