This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Watching a thirty-eight-year-old, six foot one actor whose headshot you’d keep in a folder labelled ‘rugged chieftains’ turn into a terrified sixteen-year-old girl without a single special effect was a decisive point for The Innocents creators. That was the moment they knew their idea would work. Trying out for his part, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Game Of Thrones, The Last Kingdom) had filmed himself performing a scene in which his character is taken over by a teenage shapeshifter.
“I’ll never forget seeing his audition tape,” says writer Simon Duric. “It was heart-breaking, absolutely heart-breaking, and this is a big physical, formidable guy. We thought…yes! It can work. It can work.”
“That was the moment we thought that this crazy idea,” nods creator Hania Elkington, “could be brought to screen.”
Elkington and Duric’s crazy idea was to create a love story with a supernatural lens. They wanted to make a drama, explains Elkington, where, “if you take the supernatural element out, it’s still a great show about relationships and young love and people who are driven to do good and bad things for the people that they love.”
Netflix bought it, and throughout development, urged the pair to keep the young love story—between sixteen-year-olds Harry (Percelle Ascott) and June (Sorcha Groundsell)—front and centre. “The title The Innocents,” says Elkington, “is about the purity of their naïve love and asking whether that can survive all of these other factors.”
Those factors include absent parents, dangerous acquaintances, a road trip, an unsolved series of attacks in the Pennines, a remote research facility presided over by mysterious Dr Halvorson [Guy Pearce], and the discovery of June’s supernatural lineage from shapeshifting Nordic beserkers.
Early on, the latter was the real unknown. “We’d pitched the shapeshifting,” says Duric, “and it’s great when you’re talking about it and you can write it down on a page but then it’s got to be a reality. We always talked about trying to do as much of it with actors in performance—obviously there’s a biting point where you’ve got to go into VFX—but we knew we had to actually get the actors to do it.”
Jóhannesson’s audition tape then, was a revelation. “He did that thing that I’ve only seen young girls do,” says Elkington, demonstrating by sinking into herself and nervously tugging at the waist of her outfit. “They pull their top down, in an attempt to sort of hide this area of themselves. Just that one movement for me told my brain that it was a young girl. It was a magical moment.”
There was magic generally, says Executive Producer Elaine Pyke, in the creation of The Innocents. “These things are all about timing, and there was a certain magic about Netflix’s push into the British market, a certain magic about Hania and Simon’s ambition…”
Pyke, former Head of Drama at Sky, doesn’t think The Innocents would have been made ten years ago. “I’ve always loved genre and it used to really annoy me that it was always the Americans who were doing it and we weren’t known for it. There was always a kind of ‘nobody likes British genre’ attitude and it was total rubbish I always felt.”
We take a brief detour to bemoan the passing of other recent British genre TV, In The Flesh, The Fades… “Why did they cancel The Fades?” exclaims Pyke, “That was such a great show. “A Netflix show before its time,” adds Elkington.
Elkington and Duric’s show shares a director with The Fades in Farren Blackburn, whose team designed The Innocents’ distinctive Nordic style. Writer Duric, whose background as a storyboard artist on a host of films including Star Wars: The Force Awakens helped him to see The Innocents’ set pieces, left the visuals to the director, but did compile a ‘look book’ to help define the feel of the show.
“What’s really important, particularly with genre,” says Duric, “is tone. You’ve got to land that tone because there’s nothing worse than throwing in an abstract crazy concept if your tone’s not quite right. If you’re trying to be serious but it all starts to clash and grind, you can lose people pretty quickly.”
The Innocents aspires to the cohesion of vision and atmosphere achieved by Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In. Other visual references included Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, French zombie series The Returned, HBO’s The Leftovers, Six Feet Under’s “Alan Ball and David Lynch and anyone who does those spooky family shows,” says Elkington. “Badlands was a big one for us. True Romance in terms of the chemical connection. Bit of Bonnie And Clyde. It was a real mix and mash.”
That range of influences was key to The Innocents’ “slightly odd hybrid tone,” says Elkington. During development, she and Duric aimed for super-nature rather than the supernatural. “We wanted to tell a sensitive, coming-of-age story about empathy and transformation and fear and self-acceptance. We wanted to look at genre with a capital G and naturalise some of those elements into a family story and a romance story.”
In terms of the shapeshifting VFX, the aim was to get a “feel that looks as real as possible.” That’s another reason The Innocents would have struggled a decade ago, Elkington suggests. “To achieve the organic, natural feel to the shifting, you need insane technology that just didn’t exist ten years ago. It would have carried some eighties ‘morphing’ baggage and we’ve really tried to free ourselves from that and invent something that looks real.”
A potential pitfall with the shapeshifting premise (in which June is played by other cast members) was that, having asked the audience to invest in Harry and June’s love story, “we’d then lose our heroine for huge swathes of the drama,” says Elkington. The breakthrough, in which June’s reflection in mirrored surfaces is still her, came from a source that’s proven rich to Young Adult storytelling in the last couple of decades.
“We thought about vampires,” explains Elkington. “How vampires have no reflection because they have no soul. With a shifter, their reflection would be the soul of the person they really are. Harry might be faced with this third person, but he still sees his June. We just had to keep that emotional connection alive.”
Like vampires, mythical creatures used to illustrate countless metaphorical readings, shapeshifting brings its own symbolism. The Innocents tells a story about “connection and identity and putting yourself in someone’s skin and seeing the world through their eyes,” says Elkington. Explaining the show’s outlook, she settles on “inclusive” as the right descriptor.
The plan was also to flip some old-fashioned gender stereotypes. “Shows about superpowers have been quite male-dominated. We wanted to get away from the female character being the supportive girlfriend who loves the man through all of these terrible obstacles and reverse that dynamic,” explains Elkington.
It was key that the drama takes Harry and June’s love story seriously. “You do see love seriously at that age,” says Elkington. “It’s serious business and things are very meaningful. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. We wanted the world to feel like a real world, to keep the settings feeling real.”
Those settings are a visual foundation for The Innocents. Set in Yorkshire, London and Norway, its locations, especially a remote Nordic island just off the coast of Bergen, cast a real spell over the storytelling. The production company considered using Scotland to stand in for Norway, but then, says producer Elaine Pyke, they took a trip there.
“We realised there is nowhere like Norway. I felt very strongly that we had to shoot there, which was kind of crazy because the weather was terrible but it was just magnificent – unarguably right.”
Along with a lot of rain, the island which is home to Dr Halvorson’s mysterious “Sanctum” came with its own emotional baggage, the creators tell me. “This is all probably urban myth!” says Elkington, but “rumour has it that the island and the houses are owned by two brothers, and the third brother killed their mother on the island. I was told they can’t sell it because of this legacy so they rent it out to film productions. It’s basically haunted by family tragedy, which we’ve channelled!”
“It’s a pretty good story” nods Duric.
As a former literary agent, good stories were Elkington’s bread and butter before The Innocents was commissioned. Her experience in the job drove home quite how rare her situation is as a screenwriter with such control over her debut series. “Being a literary agent told me that this,” she gestures at the trio of her, Duric and Pyke, “just doesn’t happen. So that makes it feel extra fortunate that the right script and timing and people all collided, because it takes a bit of good fortune as well as a good idea.”
“A little bit of magic,” adds Pyke.
“And,” smiles Duric, “a whole lot of sweat and blood.”
All eight episodes of The Innocents season one are available now on Netflix. Read our spoiler-free review here.
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