If aliens attacked tomorrow and life as we know it was destroyed, how would we cope? What would it tell us about each other, and more importantly, about ourselves?
That's the central premise of BAFTA-winning writer Howard Overman (Misfits)'s update to the iconic tale of humanity under attack, War of the Worlds. There's less emphasis on the intergalactic invaders (though they get some screen time, don't you worry about that), and more on the individual's response to the catastrophe: just like H. G. Wells’ aliens, Overman says, mankind has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it views as inferior or different.
The drama series is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
It’s a timeless concept, that idea of intergalactic invasion. What made you want to revisit it? And why now?
I'd had an idea in mind for an alien invasion type of story, and then War of the Worlds came out of copyright. The rules are that you can use a title if the author died more than 70 years ago. H.G. Wells died in 1946, so suddenly you could use that title.
It's quite hard to get sci-fi off the ground in Britain and Europe and I just thought, "Well, if I hang it off this iconic title then I think my chances of actually getting this idea made are much better!" So I stole the title, really, and stuck it on an idea that I already had! But no, it's the first and most iconic alien invasion story, so what better title to use?! Everyone's heard of it and it's one of those books which has been infinitely adaptable because it speaks to whatever the fears are at the time. When H.G. Wells first did it, obviously it was about colonisation. And then when it was done in 1930s, it was the way of the (in)famous radio broadcast by Orson Welles, in the shadow of the rise of fascism in Europe. And then when Spielberg did it, it was in the aftermath of 9/11.
So whatever the fears are at the time, it seems to very much speak to those. And it's interesting, when I did the press launch when it was starting in Europe – obviously it was before Coronavirus – it was taking place in the middle of Brexit. So all the journalists were like, “Oh, is this a commentary on Brexit?” And I'm sure now, because Corona has superseded everything, it will be, “Oh, is this a commentary on and fears about Corona!?”
It speaks to the fears at the time so it's infinitely adaptable. I'm sure someone else will do another version, in 20 years’ time, when we're all worried about something different and it will be like, "Oh, it's a commentary on that." So it's interesting. And I think that makes it quite rich. I'm not particularly fussed how or why people engage with the show, as long as they engage with it. And you can bring your own perspective to it. Obviously that's fine.
Ha, I was going to ask about Brexit and the era of Trump now as well. I guess you've just spoken to it, but you're not over egging any political metaphors in the story. You’re leaning very heavily into the actions of the individual.
I think we're all caught between some choices and dilemmas. I wanted it to work on that very human, small scale. I mean, you can't get much bigger title than ‘War of the Worlds’, but actually what I wanted to do was bring in very small scale telling. It’s not the massive pitch battles between spacecraft and tanks, like Independence Day. It was much more personal and about really difficult decisions that we would face as individuals.
I imagine you’ve spent time pondering what you might do, if the aliens come to earth right now?
You know, I have. A lot. When I first talked about the idea to the guys at (French TV channel) Canal+, I was with them in their office and we were just talking about like, as a bunch of like university educated, middle class guys who've never had to fight in wars, or do anything like that. We were discussing, if one of us has to go downstairs and kill somebody, in a very real way because there'd been an alien invasion and we need to get out... who could do it?
One of the story strands actually came from that idea, since I was in Paris for the meeting, and we were saying, "Well, if that happens now, what do we do?" And I said, "Oh, well, I'd walk to the Channel Tunnel, try and get through the Channel Tunnel to get back to my family." And that's exactly what one of the characters does. I wanted it to feel very intimate and real and small character journeys across this huge backdrop.
"That sense of not knowing, is terrifying for us."
It's an intimate way to tell such a big story, but you do have those moments of spectacle, too. I was intrigued at what point you felt you had to ‘reveal’ the invaders, and what kind of conversation went on about how much to show. You know, that thing of ‘Spielberg and the shark’. How much is too much to show, and what should it look like? Let me in on some of those conversations.
Yeah, it’s exactly what you mentioned, the unseen shark in Jaws. And that was very much our thing, to show snippets to start with before revealing them. Also we wanted very much it to be in keeping with the real world circumstances. Obviously in the world at the moment, we have 24-hour news, everything is videoed on phones, we've got constant access to the internet and global information, but once that's stripped away? We are at a loss. The information flow stops.
When you haven't even got radio, and what you know is only what you see. The sphere of your knowledge goes from being global, 24/7 communications, to just what's in front of your eyes, or if you bump into someone, it’s what they tell you. And that's it, that's all your information.
That very much fits in to the Spielberg model, I guess, of keeping things back and placing our viewers in the same position as our characters. That, "Oh my God, I don't know what's around the corner. I don't know what they are. I don't know what's going on." And that sense of not knowing, I think is terrifying for us.
This is an international drama with multilingual scenes. How did you go about casting the parts?
When I start writing, I don't really have specific cast in mind, because the chances are they won't be available. You can think, "I want so-and-so," and they've signed an option for two years to work on a different show. I've always been a big Gabriel Byrne fan. Miller's Crossing is one of my favourite films. As soon as it came through that he was available, obviously he very much became my first choice. And then you look to build ... I have a fairly open mind because you've just got to see who's out there.
People think there's some magical process. But generally it's who nails it. It's as simple as that, quite often. I mean with people like Gabriel, obviously they don't come in and read, you just know their work and know they can do it and try and get them on board. But for the lesser known people, it's just like, someone comes in and reads for it and gives a great audition and then they get cast, basically.
Can you give us insights into the spectacle of the shooting? I don't know how much is CGI or not, but how exactly do you shoot scenes like those we see ‘in London’, showing the scale of devastation?
Well, lots of it isn't shot in London. Some of it is, but the team is really good at making these big scale shows, and they work with a really good CGI team who do all the map drawings, which makes it look so realistic. In fact I probably can't pick out the bits which are London and the bits which aren't. Unless you're there on the day and know exactly where they filmed it, then it's difficult. And I think that's a testament to the crew and everyone who works on the show.
The truth is, it's difficult to film in London. Obviously there have been real terrorist attacks, and for one scene, we were filming on a bridge and there are very strict rules about people carrying guns and things on bridges in London, for understandable reasons. But you just have to work within the limits. And with CGI, there's a lot you can do in terms of adding backgrounds and painting London in to something which isn't London, which enables you to give a show real scale and this feeling of space. And I think the shots of the observatory in Grenoble, that isn’t CGI, that's a real place, but it looked space age and really weird and striking up there on the top of the Alps. And it's, I don't know, 3,000 metres up or something. And that was a great location to find and use, because it just gives it this cinematic quality.
And there’s another season in the works?
Yup, yup, yup. We’re working on it. It's already been commissioned, and I'm halfway through writing, I've done episodes one to four, and I'm just about to start on episode five. Obviously when we will start filming it is another matter. We were due to start filming this summer, so hopefully, fingers crossed, everything will calm down and everyone will be well and healthy and we're going to do it. But obviously there's no filming happening anywhere at the moment, so we just have to wait and see what happens.
I know you originated the idea that eventually became Future Man
Yes, I wrote that a long time ago, and I worked on a show called Misfits at the time. And I'd just taken a bit of time off from that and I thought, "I'm going to quickly write a film." I wrote a film and sold it in America, but the film didn't get made, but then it got turned into Future Man. But I haven't been that involved. I mean I obviously wrote the original script, but then it got bought by Sony and a producer called Matt Tolmach. And then Seth Rogen made it. I've never actually watched it. Not through any sour grapes, but when you've written something and then someone else takes it over... quite often, you’re deep into something else and don't get around to watching the final thing. And obviously, War of the Worlds is taking up a lot of time as it’s made by my company so I'm involved in editing it and all the rest of it.
There’s a sci-fi thread coming through in your work recently. Are you a big fan of the genre?
No, not really.
I dip in and out of it really. I mean, even though I've written quite a bit of it, I just tend to go through waves of what I'm interested in. Sometimes it's sci-fi or fantasy, and then it's sometimes it's hyper real stuff. The thing is, I've written period dramas and things like that, but obviously not everything you write gets made, and therefore you get known for the stuff that gets made. And then you think, "Oh, well actually I really wanted to write something else." But quite often it's just what happens to get picked up by people. And once you get known for doing a certain thing, then maybe more of that stuff gets picked up. But no, I just write whatever interests me at the time really.
So at the moment, it seems you’re quite deep into War of the Worlds, writing the new season? And, obviously, waiting out the pandemic?
Yeah, just doing series two. For me this whole lockdown thing, I'm used to being shut in a room, on my own, writing, so it hasn't really changed my working patterns. And I'm in the middle of the show, so I'm just writing away. It's interesting how everyone else is going, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm stuck in a room on my own." I'm like, "Well, I've been self-isolating for the last 15 years”. During my working days. So yeah, just busy on that. I haven't had a chance to look any new ideas for ages so I'm looking forward to getting through this and then maybe doing something new.
War of the Worlds double episode will premiere at 8.30pm Thursday 9 July on SBS and will continue weekly at 9:30pm from Thursday 16 July. Episodes will be available on SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast. The series will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic for SBS On Demand. Start watching at SBS On Demand now: