John Logan has done it all. The three-time Oscar nominee has written intimate dramas (“The Aviator,” “Coriolanus”), musicals (“Sweeney Todd”), historical epics (“Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai”), animated films (“Rango”) and giant blockbusters (“Skyfall” and its upcoming sequel, “Spectre”). He even started off writing TV movies before transitioning to his first TV series just last year, with Showtime’s horror hit “Penny Dreadful.”
It’s this story he likes most of all: Literary characters abound in his monster mash with equal doses of drama and scares. Logan planned out the first three seasons before committing to the series, but he’s thinking ahead even further, now that he’s in it. Below, Logan talks about learning to become a better showrunner, whether he thinks there’s a stigma associated with horror at award shows and why James Bond belongs on film — not TV.
I spoke to Josh Hartnett about Season 1 last year, and one of the things he told me was that when he was studying the character he kept coming you with questions and you wouldn’t tell him everything — that you were purposefully keeping things held back. Could you talk a little bit about that strategy and then if anything you didn’t tell Josh pertained to events that already happened, so now that you could tell us?
Right, I’m trying to think for Season 1… Yeah, I didn’t tell people that the hunt for Mina ended the way it did, with Sir Malcolm putting a bullet through her brain, and a couple of other things. That process has evolved as I’ve evolved as a showrunner. Never having done the job before, I was trying to learn which temporal reality we exist in because most of the actors — like me — were used to the two-hour time blocks, and the story had a beginning, middle and an end. So you could plan a performance through all of that, but the great joy of television is there is no end. There’s only a middle. So it’s an ongoing story and you’re living in the moment. I think for Season 1 I was overprotective of what I thought was going to happen, but now we talk very openly. “Here’s the forces of play on you now. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but yes, here’s the script, so you know what’s going to happen.” It’s been fun figuring out that process.
The way that he talked about it was very interesting, because he had a sort of smile on his face, like, “I wish I would’ve known, but it worked. So it was fine.”
It was great with Josh, particularly, because Josh does a lot of work on his character’s backstory. He kept asking me questions, and I’d say, “Here’s what I think, but I don’t really know because we might choose to come up with a different backstory for him and do an episode in Season 3 or Season 4.” So we have to be somewhat elastic about the past and the future.
Did he know he was a werewolf?
Oh, our first conversation, when I first met Josh, I said, “Okay, you’ve read the first two scripts, and now I have to tell you something: He’s a werewolf.” At which point he should’ve gotten up and walked out of the room, but to my joy he did not.
Oh, I don’t think that’s a good reason to leave.
Nor do I.
And it was fun! The way that it happened made it into a nice twist without leaving the audience with that feeling like they just got conned.
Well, that’s the trick. That’s the trick to suspense. What you learn from reading Agatha Christie or watching Alfred Hitchcock is you must play fair with your audience. That when surprises happen they should feel inevitable. The last thing you want to do is cheat an audience.
For Season 2, what has your writing process been like compared to Season 1? Is it still all you, sitting down and pumping these out, or do you have a team now?
No, it’s all me. For better or worse, it’s all me. Love it or hate it, they’re my words. And you know, it evolved. Writing the second season was different than the first, because for the years I’ve been planning this show, I charted out the first three seasons. But in the process of working on Season 1, new things occurred to me. I became excited about certain actors and their relationships, and I thought, “Ooo, I like these two actors together,” or, “These two actors would be great together,” or, “These two actors aren’t as interesting to me.” So it sort of evolved and changed as I was working on it.
In one way, it was easier to write the second season because I knew the actors’ voices. You know, I heard Eva Green in my head, or I heard Rory Kinnear in my head. I heard Tim Dalton. But in another way it was more difficult because I wanted to challenge them and myself at every step of the way so they wouldn’t feel they were playing a scene they played before; that there were new challenges and new adventures for them, new language, new spark to what they were doing.
Was there anything that popped up in Season 2 that you’d wanted to get to in Season 1, or something that you wrote into Season 2 that you thought you’d have to wait to put into Season 3?
Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, certainly I always thought that Vanessa and the Creature would be great together. And also, selfishly, they’re my favorite two characters to write. I find writing those two characters to be a particularly joyous thing. And I didn’t necessarily imagine that they would ever meet, but I thought that I had to put Eva and Rory together. I have to do this. I have to engineer this somehow because I think between them there would be magic — between the characters and the actors. I didn’t know what it would be. I didn’t know where it would lead, but I had to try it.
And Sir Malcolm came a lot from Tim. The Sir Malcolm of Season 1, the Sir Malcolm I imagined, is very austere. He’s very stentorian. But Tim Dalton is joyous and has so much humor to him. I thought I had to let some of this come out. I had to let some of this bubbling, kid-like energy express itself. So all the characters evolve sort of from my interaction with the actors to a certain extent.
Who are the new characters for Season 2, and are there any you didn’t know you’d end up putting in?
I knew the character of Evelyn Poole — who Helen McCrory played — was going to be the antagonist of this season. I’d worked with Helen twice before — once in “Hugo,” once in “Skyfall” — and I’ve seen her work on stage. She’s an amazing actress, so I went to her well over two years ago and said, “Okay. I want you to play this part. You have two scenes in the first season, but trust me, you’ll be great in the second season. You’ll be the antagonist.” We talked all about it, I told her everything I knew about the character, and, thankfully, she committed.
And she’s our antagonist. She’s deeply familiar with Vanessa’s past, for certain reasons that will become clear, and she’s a witch. She brings us to the world of the occult and the supernatural and necromancy in a very unique way. So having an actual antagonist who can speak, who can interact with the characters and assault them in different ways, was exciting, and I love Helen as an actress. She can do anything.
The other great new character is Inspector Rust, who’s a Scotland Yard inspector played by the great Doug Hodge, who sort of becomes Ethan’s nemesis. So there are a lot of antagonists I introduce this season I hope are complicated and fun to put pressure on our heroes.
Now that we know he’s a werewolf, we need someone to be looking for him.
And now that he knows he’s a werewolf. He learns that in Season 2, as well, and he’ll have to grapple with that.
You were a little hesitant to get into a TV series before this. How does it feel now that you’re in the middle of it all?
In a way, it’s more exciting because what I always hoped was that I’d find the characters deeply interesting, but I didn’t know until I’d written them, until they’d been performed, until we’d edited them, until they’d been unleashed into the world, and I find them more interesting. I find the idea of challenging them and myself in new ways to be a particularly joyous challenge and exercise. You know, I wake up every day excited to write “Penny Dreadful,” excited to produce it, excited to edit it, excited to interact with the artists around me. I find it incredibly fulfilling. I find the pace of it exhausting, but exciting. I hope I can keep doing it forever.
So as a writer, are you starting to think past the third season?
Have you made plans?
You know, the third season is bubbling now, away. I’ll start working on that seriously soon with Showtime.
Do you feel it’s important for you to wait until you get the green light to let yourself go there?
No, I can’t not go there. I mostly went there a long time ago because I love it so much.
One of the things I love about the series is it’s not your typical horror story. These characters are very relatable as outsiders, but do you think that makes it harder for some of the true horror fans to get on board with — just because they’re typically into something darker?
No. I mean, then this is not the show for them. My interaction with horror as a kid and as an adult is through kinship. When I watch Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s creature, I’m moved by him. Yes, I’m horrified by what he does and what he looks like, but I’m moved by him. I find him a part of me. And all the leading characters in “Penny Dreadful” are broken things, and they’re trying desperately to heal. I think that’s a universal story and a very powerful story. I think the platform of horror allows us to show that in a very dramatic way. And, you know, if horror fans think the show is too soft or too delicate or too slow, I would ask them to give it a chance.
On the film side of things, the horror genre is widely ignored during awards season. I feel like there might be that stigma out there for TV, too. Have you noticed that?
Honestly, I just keep my head down and do my work. I always have. And I’ve done unlikely things in the past and I’ll continue to do unlikely things, but I write what excites me and what pleases me, and if people want to get on board, that’s great. If not, that’s fine, too. I still have to write it. It’s a calling. It’s a sort of possession, if you will. It’s a demon that has to be exercised, and if some people find that entertaining or horrifying, people like it or don’t, I still have to do it.
We’re seeing more film and TV crossovers than ever before, and the film franchise you’re working on now, James Bond, has never been bigger. Do you think we’ll ever see a James Bond TV show or spinoff? Is that something that interests you now that you’re working in TV?
[laughs] I don’t know. That’s obviously something that’s up to Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson [the longtime producers of the James Bond franchise] and those people. I think Bond is in the cultural zeitgeist in such a powerful way exactly as he is, and I think he’s in the right home.
But when you’re writing the films, do you ever get an idea that makes you think, “Oh, this could work as a TV show”?
[laughs] No, no. I never think that.