“The development season is a fool’s errand,” exclaims Marty Adelstein, who recently formed Tomorrow Studios, a shingle under ITV Studios U.S. to develop scripted series. A founding partner at Endeavor and on-the-lot TV producer at 20th Century Fox TV, the industry vet was referring to the edgy cop series Aquarius — and his hard-won liberation from the red tape that often clogs the development process at a TV network, notably the unnecessary script notes and the labor-intensive pilot processs. The show stars David Duchovny as an L.A. cop trailing Charles Manson in 1967, and it’s one of a growing number series to go straight from script to production thanks to foreign distributors that raise financing via regional sale licenses. In the case of Aquarius, ITV Studios Global Entertainment is the distributor. NBC took the U.S. license and will premiere the show early next year.
And in a day and age when there are more outlets for product and less money, circumventing the pilot process is an attractive alternative for TV creators. Series creator John McNamara gave the script to Adelstein, who had two notes. They developed the script for FX with Adelstein producing, but when ITV came aboard, the duo soon attached Duchovny and “there were many suitors” says McNamara.
“The key was try to separate the hype from reality,” McNamara says of the ensuingbidding war. “We both knew (NBC Entertainment chairman) Bob Greenblatt very well. He said ‘Thirteen episodes on the air, I’ll sign the deal today. Here is the license fee.’ It wasn’t huge, but he promised little creative interference. He told us there was a limited amount of items we couldn’t do because of the FCC. ‘Beyond that I’m not gonna tell you to get Charles Manson a dog or to make Duchovny’s cop nicer,’ he said.”
While the 1976 Tim Gries TV film Helter Skelter is often referred to as the Citizen Kane of Charles Manson projects, Hollywood, for the most part, has shied away from glamorizing the serial killer — until this year. In addition to Aquarius, there was a limited Manson series in development at Fox with writer Bret Easton Ellis and Rob Zombie directing as well as Roxwell Films’ plans to adapt the tome The Family about the murder mastermind’s life leading to the 1969 LaBianca-Tate killings, with American Psycho screenwriter Guinevere Turner attached.
“Everything is cyclical,” Adelstein says of the town’s latest appetite for Manson. “When I did Prison Break, it wasn’t that it was unique — it was unique in itself — but it was the right time for a prison show.”
Says McNamara about conceiving the project, “I thought of this idea of an older cop during the 1960s and how a 45-year old would see hippies. Then, what if he was paired with a Narc who is 22? That (concept) was three years of thinking for me. Then one day, it came to me while I was in my garage: I need the guy who ruined the ‘60s to bring them together: Charles Manson.” McNamara originally pitched the project as a quintet of novels to Adelstein, who convinced the writer otherwise. “I told John that he’s going to miss the music – it’s such a big part of the era,” says Adelstein.
In Aquarius, Duchovny plays Los Angeles police sergeant Sam Hodiak, who partners with an undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon). From the enticing, unreleased trailer that ITV cut for MIPCOM, Hodiak is another peg in the evolution of Duchovny as the sublime, wry leading man (Californication creator Tom Kapinos once pointed out the actor’s appeal by saying that “girls want him, but guys don’t begrudge him.”) Hodiak possess the deadpan of Californication’s Hank Moody and the no-shit guy attitude of Fox Mulder from The X-Files. In the trailer, he receives a phone call from a mother whose daughter is missing, lost in a sea of hippies. We see Hodiak submerging into a drug-infused orgy in the Hollywood Hills, a familiar stomping ground for Moody, but this time Duchovny’s new alter ego wants to get physical. Says Shafe to Hodiak, “I don’t want to be the bait so you can be bashing skulls.” We soon learn that the missing girl took off with this guy, a hairy charismatic beaut who strums a guitar.
McNamara and Adelstein say landing Duchovny was not as hard as they’d been led to believe. “It was the easiest experience in terms of getting an actor involved,” says Adelstein.
“One meeting,” adds McNamara, who has tracked the actor’s career since the kid pic Beethoven and was further blown away by Duchovny’s portrayal of a TV showrunner-in-crisis in 2006’s The TV Set, which McNamara says “David nailed, playing (the part) of God.”
“I originally wrote the part with a (1967) Lee Marvin in mind and David knows that,” adds McNamara. The duo signed Duchovny in October 2013 and the NBC deal for Aquarius closed in February.
Aquarius starts off by focusing on the early crimes of Manson – attempted murder, rape, arrested robbery; two years from the LaBianca-Tate murders. McNamara’s plan is to have each season focus on six months of Manson’s life. “I know that the last season in the last episode will end with Manson in 1983,” hints the exec producer. Speculating from Manson’s timeline, 1983 was the year when his musical mentor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, drowned in Marina del Rey. Wilson had been a champion of Manson’s songwriting. The year also marks the time when Manson released his music album White Rasta from jail.
Throwing himself into researching the era, McNamara specifically chose not to visit Manson in jail, even though Adelstein was open to the idea.
“He’s not the guy he was in 1967. He’s a complete creature of his fame and it would be like trying to visit Charlie Chaplin at the end of his life and asking him what it would be like when he was poor,” says McNamara. The TV creator found a significant amount of material on Manson prior to his murder spree as his desires to be a rock star were thoroughly documented. Of all the interesting tidbits that stood out for McNamara about Manson: “His favorite book was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. He read it 1,000 times.”
The Networks Are Now The Titanic
With his newfound freedom to execute script-to-series productions as the head of Tomorrow Studios, Adelstein is finally relishing a development process he conceived some time ago, before the industry was ready. After a decade as an on-the-lot network producer, Adelstein was fatigued. “Networks are limiting in what you can do,” he noted. “There are people over you telling you what you’re allowed to do and buy.”
A former client of Adelstein’s from Endeavor turned him on to ITV Studios Global Entertainment during a London trip.
“I sat down, met everyone at ITV and they very much wanted to be in the scripted business. They were very hungry for it and literally funded me, and told me ‘Whatever you want to do as long as it makes financial sense for us to distribute it.’ They’re so nimble and the studio networks are like the Titanic in a sphere where there are more outlets for series.”
He added, “ITV hasn’t operated out of fear, which I love. Everyone else operates out of fear. For ITV to pick up a deficit on show like Aquarius showed me a level commitment that I’ve never seen before.”
ITV Studios’ U.S. outpost had signed pacts with unscripted producers in the past, and the mothership studio has acquired a number of independent production companies in the reality space, but Tomorrow is ITV US Group’s first major scripted pact Adelstein has seven projects in various stages at ITV with a TV show production in Sweden and another in China which will feature a local and an American star.
“I would rather ignore development season and put projects together the right way rather than being at a studio developing 13 things, where one of them is getting made and three of them are not,” he said.