The often horrific but fabulously intense ride that has been the first season of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” comes to a stop this Sunday with its first sesaon finale but, oh, what a wonderful collection of eight episodes it has been.
Out series creator John Logan, who penned every episode, has built a compelling Victorian world that draws upon such classic literature and iconic characters as “Frankenstein’s” Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, “The Picture Of Dorian Gray’s” Dorian Gray and “Dracula’s” Mina Harker as well as an appearance by Abraham Van Helsing. The horror series stars Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Reeve Carney and Harry Treadaway.
In preparation for the season finale airing this Sunday, I grabbed some time with Logan to talk about constructing this unique and compelling world, how much sexuality is at play here (we’ve seen Carney’s Dorian Gray in an orgy with men and women as well as locking lips and shedding clothes with Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler) and the marvel that is Eva Green, who is regularly giving jaw-dropping performances in the role of Vanessa Ives.
How is it for you to kind of create that world especially when you’re pulling from a lot of different texts and characters? Was it an easy thing for you or was it something that was more challenging than you could have expected?
John Logan: It was very challenging because every time you go into a subculture as a writer it’s a bit of total emersion, whether it’s ancient Rome in “Gladiator” or aviation for Howard Hughes, ‘The Aviator.’ You have to get up and really go in deep. And once I decided I was going to set this story in the Victorian era, I had years of work to do and I’d been thinking about the idea for well over ten years so I’d been trying to do it and I started with history, with just reading everything I could get my hands on. I’ve shot a lot of movies in London and spent a lot of time there.
Once the basic historical, sociological, economic, military groundwork of Victorian England was somewhat burned in my mind, I had to go into the text. I had to go to Frankenstein, Dracula and Dorian Gray in a very, sort of, deep way. So it was a fair amount of work just to get the language in my head. And for me, that’s the most important thing, the audience, whether it’s film, TV, or theatre, need to be instructed on how they’re to listen to the piece and every work has its own vocabulary. So I spent most of my time reading poetry and reading Victorian poetry and Romantic poetry so I could get the rhythms, the cadences of the words in my head.
I would’ve guessed you were a Brit just from the worlds you’ve created. Do you get that? Do you consider that a compliment?
JL: Well, yes. I do. And I’m Irish too. My parents were both born in Belfast. I was actually born in San Diego, but all the Logans and Crofts are scattered through Northern Ireland. My initial attraction to anything to do with the Arts was Shakespeare and that’s what led me into everything I do today. So I’ve always had a real affection for England and for the language and for the literary history.
I was at the panel at TCA several months ago and I remember you talking about how you related to the Frankenstein monster a little bit as being a gay man. Can you talk again about why you felt that way?
JL: Well, that’s the reason I’m doing it really. I’ve reached this sort of lucky position in my life where I only have to work on projects that are of personal importance to me, that touch me in some way. And it was about ten years ago when I started reading all the Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley, which led me to ‘Frankenstein’ I was appraising my life and thinking about it, and what struck me so much about Frankenstein was how moved I was by the creature.
I get a feeling of alienation and what is essentially a quest for love. And I always loved horror movies and those figures and so I started asking myself, why? Is there a sensationalism of it, the love of the strange? What gradually emerged as I started working on ‘Penny Dreadful’ was it, for me, had to do with being a gay man.
And when I was realizing I was gay in high school, it wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now to be gay. And so I was living in New Jersey and on the weekends I’d go into the city and see Broadway shows, see theatre, run with friends. And walking to the Village…this would be 1976, 77, 78…it was a very strange and forbidden and attractive world. And I knew in my bones that to walk through that doorway to what I knew I was and what I knew I was attracted me would mark me as different from my family, my friends and it was a profound thought to think about whether you embrace that thing that makes you different or whether you shun it. And that’s really where ‘Penny Dreadful’ came from.
All the characters in one way or another, not only the creature that Rory Kineear plays, are grappling with questions of individuality, facing the very demons that can perhaps torment them, but also the demons that empower us. And that’s why I worked on it so long. That’s why I’m writing every episode. That’s why I’m there every day on the set. It’s a very personal story to me.
Vanessa has a great line in episode six where she says, ‘there are things in all of us that can never be unleashed.’ It could be a dark, sinister thing but it also could be what you’re talking about. We all have these fears of what we are inside and that we’re the only ones. Is that what you’re going for?
JL: Well, especially with Vanessa because I built the show around that character. I didn’t build it around Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, I built it around Vanessa Ives, who as a woman in 1891 London, was literally and figuratively corseted and constrained and put into a box of propriety. And the thing inside her rebels against that. So she, for me, and the reason the show is built around that character is because for me, she most clearly manifests that duality of the terror of the darkness and the empowering freedom it can also give you.
I have to admit that I’m just awestruck with how good Eva is in the role of Vanessa.
JL: She’s my muse. She’s my touchstone. I talk to her all the time. Before we started filming, she and I got together in London and read every episode out loud and talked about it. And now that we’re in season two I’m keeping my finger on her pulse because she’s the one that draws me again into the story.
With the kiss between Ethan and Dorian, a part of me was disappointed that we didn’t see more in the subsequent episodes and we don’t really know what happened after that kiss or anything. But my first question is just about the sexuality of it and is it even about sexuality?
JL: Well I don’t want to speak prescriptive or define anything to much to an audience member, I think my job is to present provocative questions, people come up with their own interpretations. Certainly it’s imperative to remember in 1891 London, the word homosexual didn’t exist. The sexual framework we except so readily now simply didn’t exist. So there was more of a sense of freedom in moving around a sexual landscape, if you will.
People didn’t necessarily define themselves in the way we would define ourselves now. They wouldn’t have to put a label on themselves and limit their behavior to that…and that carries through for homosexuality as well as for matters of commerce, as well as for prostitution, which 1891 wasn’t just [what it] is now, it was more free-flowing exchange of goods for services. So first of all, that’s the psychological landscape the characters are function within. And beyond that, there is an attraction between animals. And all of these characters in one way are animals, and that attraction can express itself through sexuality, through romance, through the intellectual discourse, through shared fantasy.
Talk about Brona Croft a little bit. I mean, her cough is getting worse and worse. What will see as we reach the end of the season?
JL: I don’t want to give anything away but I think that the poignant thing about Ethan and Brona is that her end is predestined. That he knows she’s going to die because of all the episodes…what’s more powerful than a lost cause? And I think all the characters, one way or another, is grasping for any bit of simple happiness they can find even if they know that those attempts are ultimately going to be futile.
John, will you be writing all of season two like you did season one?
JL: Yes, I’ve written up to episode eight already so I’m deep into it. I couldn’t imagine for a second having the generosity of spirit to let someone else put words in these characters mouths.
I usually ask people this question when we’re watching season two but since you’re currently writing season two, what did you learn from season one?
JL: That’s a profoundly great question. I first learned a lot about the job of running a show, which I’d never done before and how you actually, essentially a movie, every two weeks and the logistic of production. I learned that the most useful thing to me is learning how the actors speak. Having spent six months with these actors, I know how they respond and I know what areas are strengths for them and what areas I want to challenge them and the characters. So it’s interesting watching the spark between certain characters wondering, ‘would it be interesting if we did this…?’ So the most useful thing to me, as a writer, is hearing Harry Treadway, hearing Eva Green, hearing Tim Dalton and then having them around in my head.
What have you been working on theatre-wise?
JL: I’m in Chicago. I’ve written the book for ‘The Last Ship,’ which is the musical (inspired by Grammy winner, Sting) that Joe Mantello is directing and we’re in previews now at the Bank of America theatre so we open next week. We run for a month or so here and then be coming to Broadway in October.
And with so much going on, how much sleep to you get a night, John, because you seem to be kind of doing everything?
JL: Well, I’ve never been a big sleeper but my trick is I go to bed very early and I get up very early. So I manage to get a lot of writing done before I have to go to whatever I’m doing. I mean, the only problem now is when you’re doing theatre it’s mostly late nights and I’m in Chicago with previews for ‘The Last Ship.’ Very late nights and then notes and then up early in the morning. But soon I will get some rest.
“Penny Dreadful’s” first season finale airs Sunday at 10pm on Showtime.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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