Making a show about the end of the world is hard. Luckily, writer/creator Neil Cross is aiming at something smaller.
Cross’ latest TV series “Hard Sun,” now available on Hulu, follows two detectives who stumble into a sinister conspiracy that, among other things, foretells the imminent death of everyone and everything on Earth. But instead of focusing squarely on that overriding doom, “Hard Sun” looks at the potential for global chaos through the eyes of DCIs Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn) and Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess).
Cross spoke to IndieWire about how the wide-reaching stakes for the world actually make it easier to focus on the central pair’s personal stories.
“The show is never about spectacle and it’s never designed to be a Roland Emmerich thing, where we’re cutting to crowds all over the world,” Cross said. “To me, the bigger and grander the context against which the characters operate, the smaller and smaller you go and the more meaningful the subtle moments become. So I think you can get, against that backdrop, against this hard out for the entire world, you can find smaller and smaller moments and give them more and more meaning. As the cataclysm looms larger in the show, my intent and my hope is to get smaller and smaller.”
Working within the framework of a new show not only means inhabiting a new vision of London with brand new characters, but feeling out an entirely different pace to the story. The precise episode edits that Cross honed over four seasons of the hit BBC series “Luther” gave way to a first few chapters of “Hard Sun” that had much more from the page that couldn’t quite make the final aired version.
“I have a horror of writing redundancy, so everything I write is essential to the story. It was a process, and we had to make some really tough decisions about things to cut,” Cross said. “When I’m writing ‘Luther,’ when I write a script, I know to within three or four minutes [how long] the first cut is going to be because I know the rhythms of it now. I know how fast the actors walk and talk. This was very different, because there was a conscious effort to merge a whole bunch of genres. There’s a cop show in there, there’s a conspiracy thriller, there’s a little threat of science fiction.”
One tradition that does carry over between “Hard Sun” and “Luther” is a complex list of killers (or would-be killers), each with their own warped impulses and reasons for terrorizing the greater populace of London. Keeping that episode-by-episode jump between new suspects and new motivations is one the hardest things that Cross deals with when writing new episodes of both shows.
“That’s really important to me and I drive myself to excesses of lunacy trying to make that the case. Trying to give every killer a psychology and an agenda of their own without ever repeating myself. It’s really tough. Red Bull and Philip Morris, they help me through the bad times,” Cross said. “I still think of myself primarily as a novelist, so I tend to write scripts the way I’d write novels. The process by which a character comes to life, I fear to interrogate because I don’t know how it happens. And I slightly worry that if I were to learn how it happens, it would stop happening. Sometimes it can be finding the name or imagining the right item of clothing and they suddenly come to life and they start speaking on their own behalf. That’s when it’s OK. There have been times where I’ve conceived the character in an intellectual, non-emotional process and they should be great and they do not come to life on the page. I throw them away and they flutter off to that strange limbo of half-realized fictional people.”
Sometimes those killers come with very defined traits and personalities, as demonstrated by the Good Samaritan Killer that pops up in Episode 3. For Cross, that character gave the show the opportunity to wrestle with one of the only things bigger than a global apocalypse.
“I love the idea of a man challenging God,” Cross said. “I find it a thrilling idea about a man stepping out to challenge God into proving His own existence. It’s a supremely arrogant thing to do, but it makes sense in the mind of this particular character. Part of the attraction of the show is that it does give us a fictionalized version of the real world within which we’re able to tell these slightly bigger psychologies, these slightly bigger stories.”
One common thread through Cross’ work is that these series are far from cheery affairs. Protagonists go through physical, brutal attacks and have to constantly grapple with the psychological effects of losing a loved one or watching a marriage disintegrate. In a way, that’s the fuel that Cross thrives on.
“I really enjoy putting characters through hell,” Cross said with a chuckle. “I think there’s something to really enjoy about having somebody in this situation where there is no perfect choice. Where, whatever they do, to some degree is going to be wrong. Not to denigrate audiences, because I am the audience, but I just think we like to see the people we love go through hell. I don’t know if that’s admirable or if it’s cathartic or if we’re monsters, but it’s just fun.”
Of course, with that fun comes the occasional bout of writer’s block. Stepping outside the familiar framework of a hard-boiled, Sherlock Holmes-ian detective story and allowing those other elements into “Hard Sun” meant more places for the writing process to trip him up. Cross made a conscious effort not to let those sci-fi/espionage influences become rote repeats.
“I’ll never copy and paste from a similar genre. There’s a sequence in Episode 1 where Hicks and Renko are being chased by the forces of MI-5. And I couldn’t write that sequence because I didn’t know how to make it different from every other MI-5 sequence that had ever been written. I thought, ‘How do I make it different?’ Well, you change the genre. So it’s not the spy genre anymore, it’s ‘The Walking Dead.’ Of course, it’s nothing like ‘The Walking Dead,’ but opening that door freed me up to see the story in a different way,” Cross said.
No matter where the story leads, Cross wants to always bring it back to something recognizably human. For the darker elements of “Hard Sun” to work, he strives for some element of balance.
“You always want to season that with moments of ease and moments of comfort and moments of human communication, or it just does become some grindhouse nightmare. You have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Cross said. “In order to be frightened and shocked, you have to understand and feel what’s at threat. Normality is the important thing, the most boring and quotidian aspects of our lives is what’s important. Your friends and your family.”
That danger is something that Cross approached differently in his previous work as a novelist. Even though those universal emotions might come from the same place, he sees visual storytelling in TV or film (Cross also wrote the 2013 film “Mama”) as having a fundamentally different relationship with the people who experience it.
“A visual medium like television or film, it does allow you to create — I’m going to use the word ‘visceral,’ which is a cheap word, I’m sorry — these moments of visceral shock and fear. It’s very difficult to achieve that in novels. Stephen King’s managed it a few times. They both utilize different bags of tricks, different arsenals, different weapons,” Cross said.
Cross has written one “Luther” novel in addition to his eight other books. He thinks there’s room for “Hard Sun” to exist in a different medium, too.
“I think about that stuff all the time. There’s formats that I’ve never worked in before. Although I’ve been very inspired by it historically, I’ve never written a comic book or a graphic novel. I don’t even know how you do that, but I think ‘Hard Sun’ and ‘Luther’ lend themselves to that medium. And cartoons. I would love to do a ‘Hard Sun’ or ‘Luther’ cartoon,” Cross said. “Writing novels is fun, although I don’t think I could write a ‘Hard Sun’ novel. We cram so much story into an hour, I think a novel would be like 900 pages long. “
“Hard Sun” is now available to stream on Hulu.