Writer Pielmeier wanted to create a "triple-layered story." (Egon Endrenyi / Starz Original )
At first glance, the miniseries "The Pillars of the Earth," "Downton Abbey" and "Carlos" have nothing in common. OK, maybe at second glance as well. Set in 12th century England, "Pillars" is awash in warring royals, corrupt priests and suffering peasants. "Downton" examines how uncivil a civil society can be, set in a great house in Great Britain just before the Great War. "Carlos" tracks down one of the 20th century's most infamous terrorists.
But despite their obvious differences, all three share some common ground, other than the accolades they've received. Each show's writer clearly felt a passion for his subject that's conveyed with every frame. And each had to work out how to best navigate his story in order to serve the extended-yet-finite miniseries format. Here are the disparate ways they went about it.
"The Pillars of the Earth," John Pielmeier
With two dozen television movies and miniseries to his credit, John Pielmeier knows the terrain. While following the structure of Ken Follett's bestselling historical novel, Pielmeier had the liberty to shape the action to the needs of the screen. "You have to condense 1,000 pages," he notes. "You can't do that in eight hours."
Pielmeier decided to make the hero Jack, the young sculptor, rather than the book's central figure, the noble monk Prior Philip. "I think Jack's much more relatable to 21st century television audiences," he says. In addition, "I wanted to make it very much of a triple-layered story: the royals, the workers and the monks. So I added a lot of the royal story."
He added a good amount of bloodshed too. "Many of the deaths that happened in it are my creations," he says gleefully. "I had a good time killing people off and finding creative ways to do it." He also came up with the elaborate self-mutilation that Ian McShane's Bishop performs as penance for his myriad misdeeds.
But while Pielmeier meted out punishments to all the evildoers, he didn't judge any of them. "I got to play God within a very strict structure. I had to follow Ken Follett's book pretty closely. But I just so enjoyed all of the characters. That's what gave me the inspiration, which gives me the freedom. It's about falling in love with these people." He wasn't the only one; the Starz miniseries was nominated for a Golden Globe this year.
"Carlos." Olivier Assayas
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was first approached by producer Daniel Leconte to make a 90-minute TV movie about the French apprehending the famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Sudan. "Daniel had already hired a journalist, Stephen Smith, who had done research on Carlos. He gave me that material. It was amazing and bigger than life," Assayas says via email from Paris. He soon realized the more interesting story was that of Carlos himself. He also knew that the story could not be contained in 90 minutes.
Airing on Sundance Channel, the resulting 51/2-hour epic spans many continents and decades. We meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, code name Carlos, in his early days as an avowed pro-Palestinian militant. We follow him through his terrorist attacks and bungles, and end with the drunk, bloated mercenary caught in Sudan.
Assayas, who both directs and writes all his films (and here shares the writing credit with Dan Franck), had never written anything based on real life. "You have to be very careful when working with real people because the viewers will take it for granted that you kept it as close to possible to the truth. You must use fact after fact. The portrait comes out of these facts." He considers the story to be "85% factual and 15% fiction that makes the narrative work." It was a winning combination, taking this year's Golden Globe for best miniseries or motion picture made for television.
"Downton Abbey," Julian Fellowes
The 2001 film "Gosford Park," which exposed the intrigues within a country estate, garnered an Oscar for writer Julian Fellowes. So when producer Gareth Neame asked him to consider revisiting Gosford territory for television, Fellowes was a bit put off. "You've had a big success with something and then you think, 'Oh, God, I don't want to look as if I'm dragging out last year's frock,'" Fellowes says. Fortunately for PBS viewers, the idea grew on him.
"Downton Abbey" centers on the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and those who serve them. When a distant male cousin becomes heir to their magnificent estate, all kinds of machinations ensue. To the horror of Crawleys and servants alike, the heir is a middle-class lawyer and, worse, a progressive thinker. With that setup, "You've got all the conflicts of the world to come, the world that's past and the people in the middle," Fellowes says. All under one grand roof.
The kernel of the story was based in fact. Years earlier, an acquaintance of Fellowes had become an unlikely heir and was brought to his future estate to live. "He had this relationship with the daughters of the previous earl who couldn't inherit. So all of that is taken from life." Fellowes thought the story had possibilities because "it would be so bizarre to modern thinking. Everyone would say, 'This is outrageous!' which is always a good place to start."