It is easy to see how Greg Brenman stays true to his maxim of being nice to everyone he meets. Warm, confident and possessing a dry sense of humour, he speaks easily and eloquently about his work as Producer on massive successes like Billy Elliot, Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street, to the audience at the Q&A organized by the Oxford Broadcasting Association. I caught up with Brenman afterwards to talk to him more about his role as Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed miniseries, The Honourable Woman.
The show follows acting powerhouse Maggie Gyllenhaal in her portrayal of Nessa Stein, an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman who inherits her father’s arms business but repurposes it to lay data cables in the West Bank in her efforts to work towards peace in the Middle East. When the Palestinian businessman who was to take up the contract is killed, and Kasim, the son of a close friend of Nessa’s is kidnapped, she is hurled into a political and emotional storm.
Using the Arab-Israeli conflict as the backdrop to Nessa Stein’s story was a controversial decision, but Brenman asserts that Hugo Blick, the show’s writer/director was sure of his vision and heavily researched every aspect of the script: “Really, what he wanted to do was two things: tell a very, very particular story about someone’s internal conflict and find a kind of macro-conflict to mirror that. He was always very clear what he wanted it to be about.”
“How careful were we about the actual material? Very.”
“It was incredibly well researched by him, and by me in hindsight. As we were going along we’d talk to people from there, we’d spent time on the West Bank, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv – didn’t go to Gaza, but spoke to a lot of people who had. I think the fact that it seemed to go down as well as it did is testament to how much work he’d done on it.”
The show does present a very even-handed account of the conflict, and Brenman credits Blick’s talent and work ethic for this result: “I think it’s because he doesn’t take short-cuts. I think he really marinades himself in the flavours of the area and the flavours of the conflict. He is very bright, very studious and while we were filming he was reading books about acts of terrorism and acts of reconciliation and totally focused on what we were doing.” Yet Brenman asserts that the show never wanted to promote a specific opinion about the conflict or take a side: “I think he didn’t want to be didactic, polemical and kind of shove anything down. I think he feels you have to be humble in that material and feel that you are raising conversation points and promoting debate, I don’t think you can be tub-thumping about it.”
Last month, Maggie Gyllenhaal was awarded with a Golden Globe for her performance on the show. Hugo Blick has stated previously that before shooting began, Gyllenhaal “still had a bridge to cross in her attitude towards film and towards television.” Brenman confirmed that Gyllenhaal was less than confident ahead of the first day on set: “She flipped when she saw the schedule. In film, you would traditionally shoot two to three minutes a day; in TV you would shoot, four to five to six, seven minutes a day and because she is in so many scenes I think she realized she was going to have to keep in her head 8 hours of material and shoot a huge amount.”
“She came to me a couple of days prior to film, and said, ‘I can’t do this – it’s impossible’, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve just got to do it. Be liberated by the fact that you can’t control it.’ Actually, she loved the speed. There’s something quite liberating about working slightly quicker and having momentum.”
The Honourable Woman has been lauded by many for its portrayal of female characters. Not only is Gyllenhaal’s character real and complex, every episode of the show successfully completes the Bechdel test: “If you look at all the main characters really, all the main strong characters are women. The one guy who did really well slept his way to the top. So Stephen Rea [his character] got his position of responsibility by allowing himself to be fucked by his boss. He [Blick] was purposefully doing it; he was purposefully flipping it all, all the time because he loved writing for women, and felt he just wanted to give them all the kudos, integrity, power that they deserve and was valid, and not play that kind of stereotypical gender thing that goes on.”
The Honourable Woman has now been picked up by Netflix in the USA, and Brenman believes that there is a lot to be said for platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and the effect they have on the quality of television: “Netflix is expanding massively, and Amazon Prime is expanding massively, and everyone is driving business through content. The brilliant thing about Netflix, and I’m sure you’re all aware of it, is changed narrative structure on TV. So on one night they will release 13 episodes of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, or whatever else the new show happens to be, and they want everyone to binge, they want you to be able to sit down and watch one to thirteen episodes every weekend.”
“That means you don’t want episodic story telling, you want a big story like The Honourable Woman.”
“Now the moment you do that, that’s really exciting for a writer, because of the writers you can attract to TV like Steve Knight [Peaky Blinders, Dirty Pretty Things]. You go to them and say ‘I’m doing a cop show and every episode has got it’s own beginning, middle, end and story, you can shuffle the pack, there’s no real serial development’, they’ll go ‘Sorry, I’m not really interested, thank you.’ But if you say come do Peaky Blinders, it’s six hours in Series 1, you can take a character on this huge journey and maybe come back for more; or on The Honourable Woman, you can tell this one big story over 8 hours and you can go to someone like Maggie Gyllenhaal and say: ‘Read this, you’ll never get offered this’ – well you don’t say it – but she knows that there is not a film that has that kind of character development, that trajectory, that lateral breadth of narrative.”
Brenman goes on to describe how platforms like Netflix have stretched the canvas onto which creatives now have room to create their masterpieces: “BBC 2 has adopted this. In the last 18 months they’ve had The Honourable Woman, Peaky Blinders, The Fall, Wolf Hall – these things which are fantastic long-form shows, and that’s why I think TV is where it’s at, and that’s why I don’t do film anymore. It’s way more interesting as a producer, and narrative is just way more interesting.”