Nature Versus Nurture: Q&A With The Creators of Orphan Black

10 years an orphan; the story of how the makers of BBC America's Orphan Black struggled for a decade to make the show.

“we didn’t set out to write and create something about clones”

A troubled woman named Sarah arrives on an anonymous train platform. She’s on the run and desperate. She spots a woman on the platform who, oddly, appears to be taking off her shoes, her jacket (which she neatly folds) and setting down her purse.  The woman turns—revealing a face eerily identical to Sarah’s own—and then jumps in front of a passing train. In a split-second decision, Sarah steals her purse, her identity and all the baggage that comes with it.

Such is the epic opening few minutes of Orphan Black, BBC America’s latest foray into scripted TV, a science fiction series that’s riding positive reviews and the titanic performance of a lead actor who plays multiple roles—all of them clones. “From the writing side of things, it’s rich psychological territory,” says show co-creator Graeme Manson. “The nature versus nurture question, looking at someone who is genetically or physically identical to you in the mirror and yet you’re completely different people…what that does to your sense of self?”

“to answer this big question in a two-and-a-half hour format proved to be extremely difficult”

The show seems a perfect fit in our current embarrassment-of-riches TV era, as if it were hatched in response to shows like Homeland and The Americans, which feature strong female leads and densely layered scripted plots. However, co-creators Fawcett and Manson have been thinking about, tinkering with, shelving, un-shelving, and finally throwing themselves into the creation of Orphan Black for a decade. This has truly been a labor of love, one that’s taken a journey almost as wild as Sarah’s…

John instructing on set. Image Credit: Steve Wilkie for BBC America

John instructing on set.
Image Credit: Steve Wilkie for BBC America

The casting of Canadian actor Tatiana Maslany was one of many crucial aspects of this show that the creators got absolutely right. It’s tough enough to credibly play multiple characters, let alone one character playing another character (as Tatiana must play Sarah, who is British, playing Beth, who is American), let alone myriad other iterations of their clones, from Katja (an unnerved German), Cosima (American student) and Alison (an uptight soccer mom). “I think it was extremely challenging for her,” says Fawcett. “But Tatiana has mad skills, and watching her develop these characters is really an astonishing thing.”

The Connectivist spoke with Graeme and John about the long, winding road from inspiration to premiere, the shows that inspired them, and how they infused new DNA into the clone genre.

So when did you guys decide to team up and make the show?

Graeme:

It’s a long-standing project. John pitched it to me way back in 2003 but we didn’t set out to write and create something about clones, we ended up there after we started asking questions about the opening sequence, where someone sees their identical twin kill themselves on the tracks.

“A lot of my favorite things at that time were really cool cable shows”

John:

That was a decade ago but Graeme and I had been friends for a while and at the time we were working together on something minor. We liked the experience and so said ‘let’s come up with something.’ The concept began life as a feature film – not as a television series. But we were trying to answer this big question in a two-and-a-half hour format, which proved to be extremely difficult and frustrating.

Graeme:

And we pushed it around for a couple of years, then we just had to put it on a shelf, but we just couldn’t contain it.

Graeme looks on during filming. Image Credit: Steve Wilkie

Graeme looks on during filming.
Image Credit: Steve Wilkie

John:

Yeah, Graeme and I were buddies and we’d wind up getting together for drinks, or end up seeing each other and hanging out and the concept would always come up. We’d always say ‘we should really figure this out.’ Until Graeme, in early 2008, said, ‘Hey, do you think this would be a good TV series? Maybe this would solve our problems.’

 ”Everything changed in that last decade”

Even though the duo had decided to create a TV show in favor of film, it wasn’t until Graeme went to teach at the Canadian Film Centre that they seized the opportunity to realize their long loved concept. He was given a small class of students and told to treat them like a writer’s room.

Graeme:

I called John right away and I said, ‘Hey maybe this is our chance to actually try and think about this as a TV series now.’

John:

Everything changed in that last decade. By the time you called me, I realized I was actually watching more television than I was watching features anymore. A lot of my favorite things at that time were really cool cable shows.

So what shows were the two of you watching at the time that inspired you at the time?

John:

I was in the middle of Lost and I was excited about that kind of what the f*ck is going on angle. And of course, because I’m a big sci-fi fan, I was just absolutely going crazy for Battlestar Gallactica. From a humor point of view, I was attached to Six Feet Under. The tone of the first two seasons was amazing. That felt like me. We both just love dark humor, and I knew Graeme was extremely good at writing it.

Image Credit: Steve Wilkie

Image Credit: Steve Wilkie for BBC America

It must have been a hell of a challenge for Tatiana to grasp all of these roles and tones in the show?

John:

Every time she’s on screen she’s someone else and she’s not Tatiana. You know? Like some actors are just themselves, just varying shades of themselves. She’s never been that kind of actor. Casting her was a sigh of relief because we knew we were making a show that utterly relied on the talents and the believability of the lead.

Graeme:

Tatiana is a very experienced improviser as well. She toured with an improv company for ages so her audition process was a lot of fun because she can switch gears quickly and she treated the whole thing like an exercise in theatre sports. When she came on that 2-day audition extravaganza we had, she actually rollerbladed in, and then she was helping the other actors with their lines while we were waiting in between scenes. She was running lines with the other girls that were auditioning for the same part.

The fun thing about Tatiana is that she’s a little method-y, eh! So if you’re going to be shooting with Sarah then you’re basically going to be hanging out with Sarah all day. You’re not hanging out with Tatiana. She’s doing the voice, she’s doing the whole thing, she’s doing the walk and then if she goes off and to become Allison then you’re hanging out with Alison all day. I have to say that my favorite clone to hang out with all day is Cosima (the tattooed, eccentric science geek).

This is a beloved project that you guys have been thinking of for the last decade. We loved Lost as well but we’d remiss if we didn’t ask you how far along you have the plot line figured out? Do you have the end or are you just making up it as you go along?

John:

A bit of both. We’ve got a big picture sense I think we know where we ultimately want things to go.

Graeme:

We know what we have a few big steps and important points that we need to hit. We’re not lost, so to speak, but we loved Lost.

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