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Finding The Soul Of Old Monsters In "Penny Dreadful"

Juan Antonio Bayona launched his career by directing the haunting haunted house feature The Orphanage, then let things that go bump in the dark behind—but he's reinvigorated by the horror genre with Showtime's new series Penny Dreadful.

For a guy with only two feature films under his belt, Juan Antonio Bayona has a strong directing resume: He was encouraged by Guillermo del Toro to direct his first feature, 2007's The Orphanage, (which del Toro also produced) a Spanish-language haunted house story of unusual dramatic heft. He followed that project up, not with another horror story, but with the Ewan McGregor/Naomi Watts disaster drama The Impossible, which told a gripping story from the 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand. Few horror filmmakers get the chance to oversee Oscar-bait dramas for their second feature, but Bayona is an unconventional horror director.

Juan Antonio BayonaImage via Wikipedia

It makes sense, then, that producers John Logan and Sam Mendes tapped Bayona to helm the first two episodes of their anticipated new Showtime series, Penny Dreadful. The show is an unconventional approach to TV horror. Built around monsters, vampires, jump-scares, and bloodletting, it doesn't compromise its scare-factor even as it tells what resembles a superhero or Mission Impossible-style team adventure story. The show stars a strong ensemble of Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Harry Treadaway as adventurers—each with ties to characters from Dracula, Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde, and other works of literature—who unite to investigate the appearance of monsters lurking below the surface of Victorian London.

"It was kind of a dream project to be able to bring back to the screen all these characters who I love," Bayona says. "I wanted to do something very fast. When you see the pilot you need to understand that this was shot in two-and-a-half-weeks—in twelve days—which is completely different from doing a film. It was a challenge, and I love challenges like that." Here's what the opportunity to work at a fast pace—after spending four years making The Impossible—with an eclectic cast of characters taught Bayona.

Let the characters lead the way

When working on a show like Penny Dreadful, which blends fantastic characters from literature with original creations like Josh Hartnett's Ethan Chandler—the leader of a touring Wild West Show in the vein of Buffalo Bill Cody—Bayona learned that the best way to build the mystery of the story was to base it on the mystery of the characters.

"It's not that easy to talk about the show, because one of the things that we talked about from the very beginning was to do something that had to be multi-layered. It's exciting—there's a lot of mystery there—but it's also a very serious take on these characters," he says. "They're the ones who lead the way. We don't serve the genre—it's the genre that's serving us. We had a very specific idea of what the driving force was of every character. Having this very specific idea, we were choosing the elements from the genre we were interested in, but the basis of everything was being realistic. (We tried) to go to the basics of the original books, and understand who these characters are, what emotions were leading them, and to be respectful as we do something different with them."

Create your own processes

Series creator John Logan has developed important projects before—he's been nominated for Oscars for writing Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo—but Bayona says that, as both of them were newcomers to television, they invented their own process for making TV on the fly. "We really didn't know what the process was, so we were creating the process as we were doing it," Bayona explains.

For Bayona, working as a director whose job is to serve someone else's vision was also a new experience. "John himself is a mystery," he says. "He really likes to keep the mystery, but we started to sew our visions together. In choosing the main actors, he was the one having meetings, always asking my opinion, but he was leading the way. He's the guy who had the show on his mind for 10 years, and I was trying to build what he has in mind on the screen."

Inventing a process for making television, coming from old film hands, sounds like an invigorating one for both Bayona and Logan. "It was a close collaboration," Bayona says. "There were a lot of talks trying to figure out what the scenes were in the story. I had a great job."

Juan Antonio Bayona on the set of Penny Dreadful

Find the soul of the source material

One of the challenges of revisiting characters like the ones from Dracula and Frankenstein is that they've been interpreted so many ways, by so many people, that it's easy to believe that there's nothing new to say about them. Even a post-modern take on some of them, that mixes the mythologies together, has been done by Alan Moore in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. With that in mind, Bayona and his collaborators had to find a way to capture their essences, without spending too much time rehashing other people's reinterpretations of those characters.

"People have seen them so many times over the years that they have kind of lost their souls to the audience," he says. "So we went back to the original books. I read all of these books when I was a kid. I loved Dracula and Frankenstein when I was a kid, and I've been reading them again and again since then. So we were all on the same page—to go back to these characters, and trying to be as respectful as we could in terms of their spirit, and in terms of the ideas—but to then go do something different, that ultimately would be respectful to the legacy of these characters."

In order to accomplish that, Bayona threw out audience expectations of who they should be. "I never was worried about the expectations of people toward these characters," he says. "I was more interested in really finding the souls of these people. All of the characters keep secrets; they're all hiding a secret, and running away from it." Secrets and running away haven't been a big part of the interpretations of the Dracula and Frankenstein stories in recent years, but Bayona and Logan didn't set out to create a show that re-tells those interpretations.

Find a new visual voice for a new medium

One of the reasons that Bayona's career has been surprising is that he's been able to reinvent himself—a horror director isn't an obvious choice for a film like The Impossible, but by freeing himself to create a new voice for a new project, he delivered something very different.

That's something he sought out to do with Penny Dreadful, as well. While he only directed the first two episodes of the season, all of the subsequent episodes were helmed by other directors, who each took on two episodes and filmed them in the style laid out by Bayona. So how do you create a visual blueprint that others can follow?

"I tried to be more free with the camera in the set. In terms of style, (the show is) completely against the things that are being done on TV right now," he says. "They all feel very hand-held, and I wanted to have the sense of doing something very classy—but at the same time, I felt more free, so I was inventing the shots on the set, which was something very interesting for me. I normally prepare the shooting before going to the set, but in this case, I felt more free, and there was this sense of immediacy."

Bayona recalls working with the directors who followed him on the project, and trying to convey the importance of that visual tone. "I tried to be as much help to the other directors as I could—I had a lot of meetings with the director of the second block of episodes, trying to explain to her why I was using the zoom in this stage, or why the camera was moving like that," he says. "For me, every section of the action has a camera position—normally on TV, you play with two or three cameras. So I tried to explain to them why I was using all these tools, and what the sense was, ultimately, in terms of storytelling."

[Photos by Jonathan Hession, Courtesy of SHOWTIME]

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