Sundance Channel, launched in 1996, is more than independent film these days. Inspired by the success of sister cable network AMC, Sundance Channel executive vice president and general manager Sarah Barnett has led a push into original scripted fare in recent years with mini-series like Carlos, Restless, and Appropriate Adult.
“There is risk. Scripted is more expensive. But people who work at Sundance are very naturally enthusiastic about launching this network fully and going after really exciting, bold, risk-taking scripted products,” says Barnett, a Brit who came to Sundance Channel by way of the BBC, starting as a marketing executive before moving into her current position in 2009. “Everyone here is really pumped about moving into scripted in a big way.”
The coming months will see the Sundance Channel premieres of Top of the Lake and Rectify. Well received at the recent Television Critics Association Press Tour, both projects screened at the Sundance Film Festival this month, and Top of the Lake will make its on-air debut March 18, with Rectify to follow April 22.
Top of the Lake is a seven-part, New Zealand-set mini-series that centers on the search for a 12-year-old girl who has gone missing. Directed by Oscar winner Jane Campion, who also co-wrote the scripts with Gerard Lee, the mini-series stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for her work with Campion 20 years ago on The Piano.
Rectify is a drama series that finds a man being released from prison after spending almost 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend—it’s new DNA evidence that makes him a free man. Ray McKinnon, who has acted in series like Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy and picked up an Oscar for The Accountant, a short he directed, is the creative force behind this show.
Executive-produced by the team behind Breaking Bad, Rectify is Sundance Channel’s first wholly owned scripted series. Previously, Sundance Channel’s scripted fare has been attained through co-producing deals or acquisitions.
And there are more scripted series to come. For the first time ever, Sundance Channel currently has a full development slate underway. Robert Redford, the man behind all things Sundance, and Laura Michalchyshyn are producing Valentines, based on the short story collection of the same name by Icelandic-born author (and Time Warner executive) Olaf Olafsson. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci, Steve Buscemi, and Wren Arthur are working on Behind the Sun, a drama about a Malibu-based family. Other potential series deal with stories ranging from a frustrated suburbanite who starts life over by faking his own death to a man who embarks on a new life after completing sex reassignment surgery.
“We want to tell stories that don’t patronize our viewers, and we believe that there is a great appetite by a sizable and growing number of people in this country to deeply engage with the way a story is told and really dig in,” Barnett says.
Co.Create recently spoke with Barnett about the process of bringing scripted series to Sundance Channel as well as The Writer’s Room, a just-announced unscripted series that will take viewers into the writer’s rooms of TVs top shows for an unvarnished look at the creative process.
Co.Create: How did Jane Campion and Top of the Lake come to Sundance Channel?
Barnett: I think you get the offer to work with someone like Jane Campion, and you jump at it. I loved The Piano, but I’ve also always just loved her. She’s kind of salty and funny and honest and amazing. We read the script at an early stage, and I give credit to Christian Vesper, who’s my head of development. He came across this script, and we read it and then pretty quickly we were convinced it was something that we had to be part of, wanted to co-produce with the BBC.
Christian actually went to Sydney for a week to hang out with Jane and Gerard [Lee], the co-writer, and develop the script further. It’s such a layered story, and it’s so beautifully told. I think Jane really enjoyed the opportunity to work on the bigger canvas that television affords, and she really beautifully married in this piece so much of what we all love about her cinematic vision with the story that played out.
It’s a seven-episode mini-series, but could Top of the Lake evolve into something more?
Well, right now it’s definitely conceived as a seven-part piece, and that’s actually how I was thinking of it. This is nothing I’ve spoken to anyone about, not even to Jane Campion, but I do think there are actually some ingredients here that are set up potentially for a bigger story. The place and the character of Robin played by Elisabeth Moss, I think, are extraordinary. But there are no plans on anyone’s part right now for it to be anything other than a mini-series. I’m just speculating and fantasizing with you frankly.
There was a time when you might not be able to get a television show set in a remote region of New Zealand on the air.
That’s true. It’s a pioneering moment in storytelling on television where I think audiences are just going with great stories and are very willing to embrace and be led to new places.
I saw screeners of the first two episodes of Rectify, and I was drawn in by Aden Young’s portrayal of Daniel Holden, who is shell-shocked when he is released from prison after nearly 20 years on death row and doesn’t seem to know how to even begin to adjust to regular life. He doesn’t even speak very much. He is a unique character, especially as a lead.
I’m absolutely biased. It’s hard for me to talk objectively about this show, but I think that there’s a breathtaking lyricism to the way story is told. There’s this amazing narrative event at the beginning, which is this guy that’s been on death row is released after 19 years, and there’s something extraordinarily dramatic about that.
Then what I love is there’s a truthfulness to the experience of how somebody would adjust, how somebody would actually re-engage with life after all that time. And who is this guy? There’s the question of whether he did it or didn’t. It’s not answered in the first season. But more than that, there’s also the question of just who is Daniel Holden? Who is this person? Even if he didn’t do it, he’s been death row for 19 years, what does that do to a person? How do they come out and learn to re-engage in a world where your family is triumphantly relieved but underneath that also confused and anxious and unknowing about how to accommodate this lost son/stranger into their midst? And then there are the other ripples of Daniel’s return in terms of the politics of a small town and a community. I think it’s an incredibly rich scenario. There’s so much story to explore. Ray [McKinnon] has painted such psychologically believable and layered characters this show could go anywhere really.
Can you take me through the process of how Rectify got on the air?
Actually, the show was pitched to AMC and developed at AMC several years ago. So Ray wrote the initial pilot script a long time ago, and AMC didn’t go forward with it. But it was known within this company. Quite early on, when I actually first got this job, Ed Carroll, my boss [the chief operating officer of AMC Networks], said, "Read this script. What do you think?" I read it, and I was like, "Wow. This is absolutely amazing." But at that time we weren’t at a position to know how to make it. We didn’t have a scripted strategy. We were doing these co-productions, but as time went by and we put into a place a plan and a budget for scripted, it actually felt in a way quite easy to decide to do Rectify.
Having known this amazing script was just sitting there waiting to be made, you must have been thrilled to finally be able to get to work on the project.
Totally. We worked with Ray to reconfigure it somewhat because he had written it awhile previously, and our model is to actually not pilot but to go straight to a six-episode season order. So Ray had structured the format for the first season to be 10 or 13 episodes. Ray very quickly realized that the six episodes was a really interesting creative opportunity for him, and he shifted it quite significantly and decided to make the whole first season just the first seven days of Daniel Holden’s release. So it allowed him to really tell a textured, emotional, immediate, visceral story about that first week of Daniel’s release. I think as an artist Ray was actually freed up and excited about the way in which the format for the first season shifted for him.
If you look at the most successful television series in the last 15 years, they’ve mostly been from cable networks that were willing to give showrunners an enormous amount of creative freedom. Is Sundance Channel willing to do the same?
Yeah. We’ve drawn such inspiration from what Sundance as a bigger brand has done in the areas of filmmaking and what Redford has always believed in, which is a singular vision is a really interesting thing. Rectify is very much Ray McKinnon’s vision.
TV is, as we all know, a different medium to film and necessitates a different kind of collaboration, but I think that certainly for us, respecting and protecting creative ideas and creative vision is always going to be important. And actually I don’t know if you were at TCA, but you may want to see the news that we announced at the weekend about a show called The Writer’s Room, which is an unscripted show.
Yes, I did hear about it. That’s the show in which you will take us into the writer’s rooms of various television shows. I would love it if you could get into the writer’s room of Dexter now that it is supposedly in its final season. I would be curious to see what it’s like for the writers to try to wrap up a series.
That’s a really good idea. I think that we’ll have almost an embarrassment of riches because that show is about, for us, the way these writers, these visionaries, these makers, these creators, they’re kind of…We want to make them the rock stars of today because they are telling these amazing stories, and we don’t want The Writer’s Room to be a polite roundtable in any way. We really hope that it will be very raw and very honest, and very unaffected, just showcasing what actually happens, who these people are, how visions take form, how they get wrestled with, all of that stuff.
I know you haven’t gone into production yet, but do you think the showrunners are going to be open to letting you observe what happens in the writer’s room? It’s not always pretty.
It’s too early to say. We haven’t really begun the casting process in earnest. I think it’s good for the shows. To some extent, you can certainly see it as great publicity for them and writers…How do I put this? They’re not easily contained. Writers are going to say what they want to say, and that could make for great television.
You are charging into scripted programming with a full development slate, but unscripted shows like Push Girls and All on the Line are also part of the mix on Sundance Channel. Going forward, are you striving to find a balance between scripted and unscripted?
It’s a balance, and I think that’s true of so many cable networks right now. It used to be the case, even a year or two ago, that people would sometimes say to me, my bosses would sometimes say to me, "Well, name a network that’s successful in both scripted and unscripted on the cable landscape." I haven’t heard that question for a while. I think everybody is realizing that you can cross genres. It’s just about great storytelling, scripted or unscripted. And just as the Sundance Film Festival continues to break new ground with both documentaries and with narrative features, I think a mixed network will continue to do both with some sort of shared DNA. The words we use, words like daring and risk taking and different. We never want to be copycats.
What are some of your favorite TV shows these days?
I missed Downton Abbey’s premiere, which I kicked myself for. I totally forgot, but I watch that show. I just love it. It’s just fun. And I’ve watched every episode of Homeland if not live then later, and I love Girls, although I’m probably several decades too old for it. I think [Lena Dunham] is amazing. She’s a really great voice. I so admire her courage, and I don’t mean that in a patronizing way. Someone came to see my house, and I had just decorated, and said my choices were very brave. [She laughs.] I don’t mean Lena’s courageous in that kind of way. I think she’s really cool. I think she’s really smart. She’s great. And then I love Louie for the experimentation. I love Louie for how it pushes boundaries. I also really like Wilfred on FX.
What it is like to actually work in television at this time when there are opportunities to break new ground and do interesting things rather than follow the tried-and-true formulas that were long in place?
I do pinch myself. I mean, particularly this last year or so since we’ve been making Rectify. We have a pretty lean team here, so I’ve been probably more involved with the nitty-gritty and day-to-day of Rectify than someone in my position would normally be. Professionally, I think’s it’s the right way to go, and personally, I just find it so wildly fulfilling, intellectually and emotionally, to have the opportunity to work with people like Ray McKinnon and Jane Campion.