Sullivan Stapleton, Philip Winchester
The story is one of intrigue and espionage and concerns a “charismatic former U.S. Special Forces operative who joins forces with a stealth military unit” to thwart the attack of a sinister and crafty international terrorist group. Section 20 is the code name of this elite military unit within the British government. Its job is to obliterate the threat of high risk targets.
Recently, I spoke with Percival by phone from London as he was putting the finishing touches on the series’ final two episodes of the season. We discussed what it took to bring Chris Ryan’s Strike Back novel to the small screen first as a U.K. series and now as a hit show in the U.S.
What did you work on prior to Strike Back?
I did a movie [for HBO] about five years ago called Dirty War, and before that I was a documentary film maker. And since that - well, between that and this - I wrote and directed an original series for BT America called, The State Within, which is a political thriller based in Washington.
So political thrillers [have] been my kind of [show] for a long time. It’s not all I do but there’s sort of a direct correlation between terrorism and Strike Back which is much more entertainment based, but nonetheless probably grounded in far more reality then the show makes apparent and certainly inspired by the real world.
Terrorism is a sensitive topic these days. Did this fact present additional challenges in telling the story?
The war on terror, which has essentially been going on since the two planes flew into the Twin Towers, continues in modified form every day. And it’s very rare that the world of Strike Back is portrayed - what I mean by that - it’s not the intelligence war so much as the military war in the war on terror which gets portrayed in the manner in which we’re able to do it.
It’s just fantastic. I mean, it’s like the Cold War that generated a whole series of movies and novels and TV shows that weren’t necessarily specifically about spies and spying but were inspired by that era of paranoia.
We’ve now made [this] into a different era of paranoia and fear which is the global network of terrorism. I spent a lot of time making documentaries before I started making dramas, working with intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s interesting how you’ve used that knowledge to create your own story using the Chris Ryan novel as your jumping off point.
Yes, the Chris Ryan novel. There’s only one book, Strike Back, and from that we extrapolated the TV series. We’ve taken the notional idea of Section 20, which is what he created. Section 20 is actually based on a [British] military intelligence organization called The Increment, which is functional in the world today in a very similar way [that] Section 20 is.
But we’re not supposed to know about that. I mean, every once in a while it becomes massively public like the attack on Bin Laden’s compound. We all see it. We all see what goes on but the real story and a very interesting story is not just the capturing of Bin Laden but the computer data and the files that they took from that place will be informing a thousand other operations that are happening right now around the world. And that’s the world in which Strike Back inhabits.
What were some of the challenges in adapting the novel for television?
In terms of this season, we didn’t do any adaptation work at all. It was a completely original series but based on the notional ideas that Chris Ryan created in his original Strike Back book.
The first season in the UK was very much an adaptation of the book and we kind of modernized it into the War in Iraq. But the story was of a man who committed an appalling sin in battle where he didn’t kill a child and it led to the death of his unit.
[He] took on the burden of that crime himself, as it were, as he saw it, as he perceived it, and only discovered later in life that actually he wasn’t the person responsible and [it] becomes a mission of vengeance to find out the truth about what really happened to him and what ruined his life.
That was the story of the book. That was essentially the backbone of the original series and the characters in the book we adapted to television. But in a sense, the first series was a springboard by which we kind of created a template for [one] that could evolve into a bigger series - and that’s what HBO saw when they saw our mini series. They went, “Wow, we could really work with this. We could really do something interesting.”
You have a very attractive cast, Not only are they physically appealing, they are charismatic in other ways, as well. For instance, I think Scott (played by Sullivan Stapleton) is a man every woman wants and every guy wants to be.
One of the lovely things working with HBO and Sky is they don’t need to cast stars. They can find stars. So, you know, there was a huge international trawl for actors. And, of course, Sullivan Stapleton is Australian playing an American and Philip Winchester [who plays Michael Stonebridge] is an American playing a Brit. He’s a Montana boy.
Really? You can't tell at all. But I’m wondering, how can you prevent a charming rogue like Scott from becoming a parody of himself?
I think deep in the human psyche is the need for the white knight. I mean, I’m probably over intellectualizing this but why does the character work?
Why do we actually adore [Scott] for his roguishness and all his non-PC-ness. When you first meet him in the first episode you think he’s a whoring, careless, money grabbing, carefree man.
As you get to know him, you understand his nobility, and when you see him in the second episode carry the child through the hotel, it’s a very genuine thing and, of course, that’s what breaks people’s hearts.
So you have to keep a character like that in check in the sense that Scott can’t be totally unreconstructed. He’s got to have values that make him good at what he does, that make him want to be a fighter for the right reasons and not for no reason.
The characters of Scott and Michael Stonebridge work really well together. But they’re also very different.
Yes, in life as on the screen too. To be honest we’ve cast guys who are not a million miles away from [their characters]. We spend months and months and months screen testing and putting combinations of actors together and seeing who spoke to us. Who came to life.
I think it’s always a huge challenge to create a double act, which was the ambition of Strike Back. I think there are constant checks and balances there as well. And as the series evolves, the character evolve and also get their own episodes. They have a fantastic chemistry.
When they work as soldiers together, as a two man team, or as part of a bigger team, it’s just electric to watch them. It’s a joy.
How did you and (X-Files alum) Frank Spotnitz get together for this project?
I’d done the initial outline when HBO came on board, it’s essentially a British show but we wanted to introduce an American character. We wanted to bring an American lead writer into the show to work with me. And the team rather liked it.
Frank happened to be in London. I wanted to meet him anyway. I loved that he came aboard and helped us transform [the story]. I think Frank and I share a great deal of the same sentiments and both of us are sort of obsessed with the world of conspiracy and global politics so we really clicked.
You filmed in many different places, exotic locales, which added a lot of texture and atmosphere to the show. As a director, what was the most difficult aspect of pulling up stakes to do these location shoots?
Well, you know, doing any kind of show this size is logistically enormous. You’re working in foreign countries [with] foreign crews. You have to sort of carry everything with you. South Africa, which is where we shot the first half of the series, is a very film friendly part of the world.
I mean, they have amazing resources and crews there.We use South Africa for Kuala Lumpur [and] India for Sudan. It’s just a massive logistical challenge to find ethnically the right look for everything you’re doing.
I’m very familiar with all these countries. I filmed and I’ve made documentaries all over the world and especially in India and the Middle East and Africa. So I have a deep knowledge of those parts of the world and what they look like.
The location filming is a joy when you’re trying to achieve shows at this scale on a budget because it’s much, much smaller. The South African Film Commission is amazingly accommodating. There are not many places in the world that you could take over four city blocks and have them let you do that.
One last question: Strike Back is the first scripted series for Cinemax. Is there a certain responsibility in being the first?
Yes. But if I lay awake - if I thought about it all the time I’d never sleep. I think you’ve just got to go out and make your film the best you can, and hopefully it’ll find it’s audience. I’m just passionate all the way through about telling these stories as well as we possibly can.