There were days, as War of the Worlds showrunner and writer Howard Overman walked through deserted London streets while working on the screenplays for the second season, that he felt as if his fiction had come true. That aliens had, indeed, attacked and wiped out most of humanity. All the more so given that season two pursues a plotline involving Gabriel Byrne’s scientist Bill exploring the idea of retaliating via an artificial virus, riffing off H.G. Wells’ original ending.
“Sometimes I didn’t see another person,” he recalls. “It was really weird to be writing about a virus in the middle of a global pandemic. It was quite creepy and really resonated.”
Surreally, War of the Worlds benefitted from shooting season two during lockdown. “We’re filming a post-apocalyptic world with empty streets, and we don’t want planes in the sky, and usually we take them all out with CGI,” Overman notes. “But obviously filming during lockdown, the streets were all empty, and there were no planes. And so it was one of those strange situations where it worked for us.”
He counts his blessings they were able to film at all, raising his hat to everyone involved in making that happen, including crew members in England, France and Wales doing long days in masks and other PPE. The ghostly world they inherited also allowed the show to go where they never had before. “You usually film a lot in people’s flats or in buildings, but obviously those locations were much harder because of the situation with COVID. But actually, what it meant we could do was film in places like cinemas, because they were all shut, or shopping centres, which we would never usually have access to. Normally filming in places like that would be very expensive, or very busy, and we’d have to film at night. So it opened up some interesting possibilities.”
After the briefest of teases at the end of season one, the new run allows us a closer look at the aliens and their tech. Stunning CGI inserts huge, horseshoe-shaped ships into the London skyline, though their interiors remain rather decrepit. “We wanted to do sci-fi that felt very real, harking back to the rules they put in for Star Wars, that metal rusts even in space. I just wasn’t interested in shiny white. I think that’s probably how tech will look. Things get beaten up and scratched.”
The same went for the murderous robodogs the aliens deploy, “partly because high tech generally looks a bit rubbish on screen,” Overman says. While they are largely realised with CGI, there are a few life-size models, so folks can wrestle with them. Not the smallest-budget show in the world, they can’t compete with the likes of Netflix, but make their money go a long way on screen. “We were never going to do huge battles involving hundreds of extras. We wanted to tell intimate, intense, personal stories, but the CGI is obviously massively improved, as has the cost of doing it.”
Some of the best stuff goes back to basics. “It’s a testament to the directors that we try and be as cinematic as we can, working hard to make sure the locations look good, and the way we film, holding long shots. I never really think about the money when I’m writing.”
As for the science that Byrne’s Bill and Léa Drucker’s Catherine dispense, Overman says he briefly outlines what the plot needs, and his brainiac producer and business partner Julian Murphy fills out the details. “He’s really, really clever and reads these books that I just don’t understand, then he breaks it down for me. It’s quite useful, because if I understand it, I kind of figure, well, the viewers will. So he does a summary, I break it down, then he goes back over it to check the science.”
Overman has always preferred the human element of science fiction to the whiz-bangery, pointing to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. “Even though it was sort of about an alien invasion, it was really about the love of a mother for her daughter.”
That’s how he chose to tackle Wells. The brand recognition is a bonus, as is the fact that the book was out of copyright, so they could use the title for free. As for the renewed interest in sci-fi in recent years, he doffs his cap to another Brit. “We all owe a debt to Russell T. Davis, when he relaunched Doctor Who and it was a big success. There wasn’t much science fiction on British TV at that time.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is another great example of a well-known idea about a dark future set five minutes from now that posits the worst, then eerily appears to have manifested in reality, he says. “Obviously, it predated, sort of, what happened in America. And I think that those sorts of things are quite interesting. If you try and do a very realistic show based in this time period, you get bogged down in a fight between the people who are actually fighting those causes now. Doing it in a science fiction way gives you more freedom.”
Despite all the doom and gloom he portrays in War of the Worlds, Overman remains steadfastly optimistic about our future, much to his wife’s annoyance. “She’s always telling me I should worry more, but I struggle. I live a really nice life. Despite what everyone says, I think that the world is probably a better place than it was even 50 years ago.”
For now, he’s just focused on improving his newly taken up golf game, but there is one technological advance that worries him. It’s not space travel and invading aliens. “I’m pessimistic about small things like social media. I don’t think it’s very good for everyone. And I don’t like how much people look at their phones.”
Good job the show got rid of them, and the internet, then.
Follow the author @SARussellwords
See the Australian premiere of War Of The Worlds Season 2 on SBS and SBS On Demand from August 18. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each Wednesday, and also air on SBS at 9.30pm. Season 1 is streaming now at SBS On Demand. The series is also subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic for SBS On Demand.
Watch the first episode of Season 2 on On Demand now:
Here's where it all began in season one: