When seeking out a long-term relationship, wisdom has held that you do your research up front and, to his credit, Chris Mundy did just that. The Hollywood producer chose not to simply accept the national storylines and stereotypes about Detroit as fact. He came to experience the city for himself.
Man, did he ever.
Last year, on his first visit here, he checked in for five days at the MGM Grand Detroit. When he returned a month or so later, he stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in the Millender Center. On the third trip he made the Atheneum (a-THEEN-ee-um or AH-the-NEE-um, depending upon how Detroit you are) Suite Hotel his command center, residing there five straight weeks. In all, Mundy made seven separate Detroit expeditions, totaling nearly three months. “We’re doing our best to get it right, you know?” he asserts.
Mundy is writer and executive producer of Hollywood’s latest attempt to capture our town’s funky gestalt and make it the backdrop for a prime-time TV series: Low Winter Sun, the intense new police drama scheduled to premiere on AMC this summer.
The Americanized version of a 2006 British miniseries that won the U.K.’s Royal Television Society Award as best drama serial, Low Winter Sun is a tale of murder, corruption and cover-ups swirling around the Detroit Police Department. AMC released its first-look trailer for the series online last week, evoking comparisons to such outstanding former dramas as The Shield and The Wire. When brooding, morally bankrupt Det. Frank Agnew (portrayed by Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty) kills a fellow officer, he believes he has committed the perfect crime. Of course he hasn’t, and the fallout from his felony drags him deep into Detroit’s evil underworld. Lennie James, already a darling of AMC viewers for his work in the first episode of the network’s monster hit The Walking Dead, co-stars as Joe, another detective who becomes his partner in crime — in many ways.
Strong also starred in the original version of the series. The addition of James brings an inevitable layer of racial tension to the story. (Strong and James, two accomplished British actors tapped to play Detroit cops — we must be classier than we think.) The cast also includes familiar faces Erika Alexander (Living Single), Billy Lush (Chicago Code) and veteran actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who earned his MFA at Wayne State and appears as squad leader Lt. George Torrance in the pilot. Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer for most of Spike Lee’s movies who has emerged as an in-demand director, directed the Low Winter Sun pilot shot here last fall and may return for other episodes.
Low Winter Sun has a 10-episode commitment from AMC. Mundy, who cemented his TV stature as executive producer of Criminal Minds and co-executive producer of Cold Case, will return to Detroit again next month to reshoot a few cosmetic scenes in the pilot, then begin production on the remaining nine episodes beginning April 29, 2013.
It’s déjà vu all over again
You may recall that we recently had our collective civic hearts broken by another Motown-based TV cop drama — Detroit 1-8-7, which opened on ABC last year to positive reviews, but received the cancellation ax after just one season. Low Winter Sun, however, is being co-produced by AMC, the current “Tiffany Network” of cable and home to such landmark successes as Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels and the Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad; Low Winter Sun is expected to replace Breaking Bad when its five-season run ends this summer.
Such a track record of quality assures — well, nothing, since no one can predict what viewers will embrace — but Low Winter Sun at least will have a supportive environment in which to develop.
“Endemol [the British studio that also co-produces Hell on Wheels with AMC] and Chris Mundy have produced a beautiful pilot with an incredible cast led by the insanely talented Mark Strong,” Joel Stillerman, AMC’s executive vice president of original programming, said in a statement. “We’re thrilled to be moving forward with this compelling new drama and look forward to returning to Detroit for production on the first season.”
“Look forward to returning to Detroit …”; when’s the last time you read those words?
“I wanted to set it in Detroit and seal a sense of place,” Mundy explains on the phone from Los Angeles. “I always thought [the show] was a lot about second chances, what people are willing to do to get a second chance, and I wanted the backdrop to reflect the same thing; the pride and hope, the perseverance of a place — and I like Detroit because Detroit has that, as I’ve seen.”
Mundy admits, though, that he knew very little about his chosen city going in, hence the many reconnaissance missions, prior to production. “I treated it with broad strokes when I decided to set it there,” he says. “I was actually lucky enough to have a few different cops who really took me under their wing and showed me the city.
“I think the biggest revelation to me is, many outsiders think of Detroit as very urban, when to me in a lot of ways it’s very Midwestern. It spreads, like Midwestern cities do, with big buildings and wide avenues, and to me that’s very evocative. I’m from the Midwest originally, and there’s a quality about the city that was easy for me to tap into. And I didn’t realize how beautiful the infrastructure of Detroit was. Some of the buildings are so much nicer than I expected, then there’s a bunch that are so much worse than I expected.”
Mundy depicts both sides in the pilot. Agnew lives across the street from a city block vacant, except for one ramshackle two-story house that clearly escaped Detroit’s demolition crusade. Conversely, there’s a scene with Agnew on the roof of the ornate Wayne County Building that provides a beautifully panoramic view of downtown.
Much of the first episode’s action is set near Greektown; bad guys stroll down Randolph Street with impunity, and the timeworn Baltimore Lunch bar on that street, site of several pivotal moments, is renamed “The International” in the script.
“It was nuts in here,” says Hilga Nada, who co-owns Baltimore Lunch with her actor son, Ted. “Me and Teddy were here morning till night. We came in at around 6 in the morning and left when they got done. It took them almost three days.”
The Baltimore staff was given an extended Thanksgiving holiday so the one-time November shoot could be accomplished — not that they could have worked anyway.
“They rented the whole parking lot and they had trucks and everything inside it,” Nada marvels. “We have two bars, and the back bar is where they put all the recordings. They took out everything I have and put their own things in here, made the bar look completely different. It was really amazing.”
The gravity of star power
Lennie James made national pop culture headlines this month for his surprise return to The Walking Dead as hardened survivor Morgan Jones, a character he hadn’t played since the show’s 2010 debut.
“The Walking Dead producers really wanted to bring Morgan back and asked would I be interested,” James relates, in his neatly trimmed South London accent. “They gave us a rough idea of when it would happen and we managed to coordinate dates. The only thing they asked was that I not tell anybody I was coming back, so I had to lie to people for 11 months, for which I apologize profusely. But now the cat’s out of the bag, so I can stop lying to my friends and family.”
His joining the cast of Low Winter Sun was far more transparent. “If you get the option and the opportunity, the things that attract me to a project are the same every single time,” he says. “It’s a really good story, it’s really well told, and it’s a character I really want to play, a guy I can learn something from playing and can do something interesting with. And, it’s a rock-solid cast.”
James says one big enticement was the opportunity to work again with Strong. “Although I’ve known Mark for a very long time, I haven’t worked with him in a good few years,” he says.
They have been in two films together, one in which they shared scenes (1999’s
Elephant Juice) and one where they didn’t (The Martins, 2001).
James opted not to watch the British version of LWS until long after he completed the pilot, “because I didn’t want there to be any crossover or muddled thinking. I wanted to come at the character clear-eyed.” However, after watching the original, which is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, he understands why Detroit was a prime choice as this show’s location.
“It’s a very specific story, told in a very specific city,” James says. “The city of Edinburgh is a big character in that production in the way I think we hope Detroit will be. The characters we are dealing with, the stories we are telling, are in some way fueled by the fact that they’re happening in a city that has the characteristics of Detroit. In the sense that it is, for want of a better phrase, a desperate city, trying both to save itself and to move forward. I think that follows a lot of the themes of Low Winter Sun in that there are characters who have made mistakes, who have suffered from bad luck, who are trying to save themselves and move forward.”
The perspective of a black man from another country who makes his living through detailed observations, coming to work in this desperate city — with a population that is more than 80 percent African-American — could be compelling. However, although he previously spent time around Detroit when he played the pimp Charlie in the bygone HBO series Hung, James is prudently noncommittal. “On one level I haven’t spent enough free time in Detroit to really comment,” he submits.
“It’s the same when I’m in Atlanta where The Walking Dead shoots, a city that has a very prolific African American persona. Again, I haven’t spent a huge amount of time there, but you do feel it and it is a very different vibe than other cities. But so far my experience in Detroit has been very much about the work I’m doing there. We set up in Greektown, and although we traveled to other locations, and on days off did our best to try and see the city that we potentially will work in for a while, I can’t in all honesty say I know enough.
“What I do know is, I suppose everything I’ve read about Detroit, all the things that people are saying now, it’s kind of become the poster city for decay and the need for renewal. How a once powerful and rich city can decline over a short space of time. White flight, black middle-class flight, all those things. So far, almost everything I’ve read about Detroit is true, and that includes its passion and desire to bounce back.”
The people make the difference, James believes. “A lot of times with the Detroit actors and crew we were working with, the people in the hotel we were staying in, the people when we went to the [Eastern] Market, or to meet the cops to do research and have barbecues with them, everybody really wanted the show to come to Detroit,” he says. “In a way, to be one of a number of film and television productions that will come in and help Detroit get back on its feet. I hope that’s what Low Winter Sun is part of.
“But ask me at the end of the next nine episodes, because by then I may feel like my feet have been on the ground long enough to make an informed comment. At the moment, I’m a newbie. I’m just sucking it all up and seeing what there is. But my early experience of Detroit is that it’s a strangely exciting city and one I‘m looking forward to working in.”
Detroit: More than just tax incentives
There is a sense of territorial pride in knowing outsiders think enough of your city to base their talent, resources and reputations here. It’s a happy diversion from convicted ex-mayors, tax-liened emergency managers and a dysfunctional school system, and it’s fun to look for familiar landmarks in the background of a series broadcast worldwide. But let’s be for real: Detroit might magically have been transformed into New Orleans, Albuquerque or the big city in a film-friendly state had it not been for the $7,544,611 in incentives granted Low Winter Sun by the state of Michigan. According to the Michigan Film
Office (MFO), the production expects
to hire 245 Michigan workers, a full-time equivalent of 148 jobs, and is projected to spend $26.4 million here in making its nine remaining episodes.
Mark Adler, owner of VAIdigital video assist company in Novi and founder of the Michigan Production Alliance, worked on the Low Winter Sun pilot as key video assist operator.
“They had a predominantly Michigan crew on the pilot, and I think you will have a predominantly Michigan crew on the series, which will shoot for 10 months,” Adler says. “I would say there will be at least a 150 [person]-Michigan crew, both on set and behind the scenes in departments like accounting, licensing and their production office.”
The incentive legislation, officially titled the Film and Digital Media Production Assistance Program, was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011. It transformed the film credits into a line-item budget appropriation and capped the state’s total contribution for all productions at $25 million annually. Through an unexpected bubble in the system, the figure was more than doubled to $58 million for fiscal 2013, which ends in October. However, Snyder has said he intends to slash it back to $25 million for fiscal 2014.
“The sad truth is, each year an appropriations committee has to decide whether they’re going to allow us to have $25 million,” says Adler. “Due to the efforts of many filmmakers who lobbied on Sen. Richardville, we were able to get an additional $25 million plus an amount, I think it was $8 million, that rolled over. That’s how we got to $58 million.”
Regardless of the number, it’s up to Margaret O’Riley to divvy it up. A veteran Republican politico who served under Gov. John Engler and helped create the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, O’Riley was appointed by Snyder to direct the MFO around Halloween 2012. She traveled to the Sundance Film Festival to explain Michigan’s confused incentive picture and reaffirm the state is still open and eager for film business.
“I was very busy meeting with producers who had Michigan connections,” O’Riley explains. “Either they had done projects here or they were from here. I was trying to get the word out about the Michigan film industry and the resources we have. I think we’re going to see projects coming here because of some of those meetings.”
No single topic engages and enrages the local film community more than the incentive program. There’s not enough money in the pot. We can’t compete with the packages of other states. We lost precious momentum when Snyder bad-mouthed filmmaking as an industry here, then approved funding reductions.
None of this comes as a shock to O’Riley. “I come to this job with 20 years of experience in economic development, and incentives have always been a source of debate,” she says. “Whether they’re for manufacturing or green energy or technology, it’s an age-old issue. But I was a little surprised that there was this whole discussion about films being supported with public dollars, because I’m so used to debating whether we should have them at all.”
The concern for Adler is, “There seems to be no strategic plan. There’s a certain amount of money, they’re bringing in films, but there’s no real plan to build infrastructure or maintain crew levels, which have fallen back to 2007 levels after hundreds left the state to find work.”
Going back to Lansing every year to ensure the incentives are still there is a long-term detriment to attracting producers, Adler believes. “These people work several years out, and they need to know,” he maintains. “They don’t want to wait until the last minute. What we would like to see from the state is a little more consistency, and some support. We hate it when the governor says negative things about the film industry because faith in the leadership goes down. Our application process is not as easy as states like Ohio and Georgia. And we’d like to get the Michigan Economic Development Corporation promoting us in a more positive way.”
LWS: Long-term thing or just a fling?
The expectations for Low Winter Sun are considerable, yet the plot suggests that the storyline could be wrapped up in a one-season arc, like the British version. Is Mundy producing a show for the short term or a long, successful run?
“You need to do both,” he says. “I think The Wire was pretty much the best show ever on television, and every one of those seasons was very much its own self-contained thing. And yet its world was big enough so you knew it was always going to keep going. So to me, that’s the goal. You want it to be satisfying for people who watch this season and not feel like they’re being eased along, but at the same time you’ve got to understand all the avenues for growth and the ways you want to keep following these people for hopefully five, six, seven seasons, as long as we can keep making it good.
“I’ve got such a deep affection for this city, I’ve got to tell you,” Mundy adds. “For everybody, it was such a special process doing this pilot. I can’t quite describe it, but everybody from the crew to the cast just attached themselves to the place in a really kind of profound way. It was great.”
Maybe he’ll need to start looking for a condo.
Jim McFarlin writes about media for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]