Literary and cinematic roots run deep in Showtime’s new psychosexual horror series Penny Dreadful, which debuts in May with an episode helmed by The Orphanage director Juan Antonio Bayona. Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Harry Treadaway star in the show created by Oscar-nominated scribe John Logan and exec produced by Sam Mendes which crosses the mythologies of iconic horror figures from Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dorian Gray lore in a Victorian England setting. “We wanted to pay respects to the mythology but bring them to a new level,” said Bayona of the show’s twisty take on well-known stories and characters.
Coincidentally, another thread connects the Penny Dreadful gang in front of and behind the camera. “There’s a lot of James Bond on this show: John wrote Skyfall, Sam directed it, Eva was in Casino Royale – I said to someone, I think I’m being groomed for the next Bond movie,” said Hartnett at a Q&A following the premiere of Penny Dreadful’s first episode Sunday at SXSW. Hartnett plays American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, who is recruited by Sir Malcolm (Dalton, a former 007 himself) and the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Green) for a supernatural mission in London. The gothic series is one of a handful of television projects highlighted this year in SXSW’s new programming slate devoted to episodic /TV content.
Bayona is best known for helming 2007 horror feature The Orphanage and 2011’s The Impossible. Directing the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful’s 8-episode order for Showtime, “I felt I was delivering something not complete, which is a strange feeling for a director,” he told the SXSW audience. Bayona’s cinematic leanings set a strong stylistic tone for the series which takes viewers into the gritty streets and tenements of Victorian England and, in one sequence in the episode, into a vampire’s lair beneath an opium den. Universal and Hammer horror film classics and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are some of the influences on the project which was created on spec by Logan.
It’s Bayona’s first TV project and long shots, practical sets, and rich cinematography lend a cinematic feel to the first episode which screened in SXSW’s Vimeo Theater. “For me it was about being truthful to the emotions and psychology of the story, so we decided to create a story that used the least CG as possible,” he said. “One of the things I’m most proud of is I tried to do long scenes without dialogue, because you get used to it when you watch TV. It’s the same with the long takes.”
Shooting for a premium cable audience has its other advantages. “You can have the character say f*ck,” said Hartnett.
Penny Dreadful also stars Reeve Carney, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear, and British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, CBE, who steals his scene in the series pilot as an eccentric Egyptologist. Penny Dreadful premieres May 11.