Colin Callender‘s first producing effort, a nine-hour TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production of The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby launched UK’s Channel 4 and won him his first Emmy in 1983. After a stint as an independent producer in his native Britain, Callender joined HBO where he shepherded films and miniseries like Angels In America, John Adams, Maria Full Of Grace and American Splendor to the tune of 104 Emmy Awards, 29 Golden Globes, 3 Oscars, and top awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Since leaving HBO in 2008, he has kept a low profile. Having started his career in theater, as stage manager at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Callender returned to his roots and built a theater slate during a break from television because of a three-year non-compete with HBO. His first play ever as a producer was Nora Ephron‘s Lucky Guy starring Tom Hanks, which was a hit last year. A year later, he is probably the busiest Broadway producer at the moment with three high-profile shows, Hedwig And The Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris, which already is sizzling at the boxoffice, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina and Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth in his New York debut. Callender also has teamed with J.K. Rowling and British theater producer Sonia Friedman for an original stage play for UK theatre based on the Harry Potter stories.
Callender re-started his TV career with the launch of his company Playground in 2012. In less than two years, he has received five orders, for series Dracula at NBC, limited/mini-series and The Missing at Starz, where he has a deal, and BBC, and for adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis at BBC and Masterpiece Theater. He also is developing Kenneth Lonergan’s mini-series adaptation of Howards End and Chris Hampton’s series adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, both for the BBC. Callender landed two best movie/miniseries Golden Globes nominations for The White Queen and Dancing On The Edge, which garnered a total of six noms and one win, for Dancing‘s Jacqueline Bisset.
In the first in-depth interview since starting the new phase of his career, Callender discusses his newly found status as a top Broadway producer and the resurgence of live entertainment and stage dramas, how he convinced J.K. Rowling to take Harry Potter to the stage, his strategy in television, how the marketplace has changed over the past three decades, what’s the status of The White Queen sequel and a second season of Dracula and his plans for the future of Playground.
DEADLINE: How did Lucky Guy come to Broadway?
I knew I wanted to produce it. I had read the scripts that Nora Ephron had written as a movie about Mike McAlary. We were never able to make it at HBO because we couldn’t cast it properly and when I left I called Nora and said, “Look, I actually think that the movie industry has changed. It’s very unlikely that you’d be able to make this as a movie. I actually think it’s a play.” We spoke for several hours, she was in the middle of doing the Julia Child movie (Julie & Julia), she was flying to L.A. the next day and she said, “Look, I’m going to L.A. for a couple of weeks on the Julia Child’s; let me think about it and I’ll call you when I get back.” And then about ten days later she called me and she said, “We were snowed in (this was January); I never went to L.A. and I sat down with a typewriter and I’ve written the play. Do you want to read it?” And, the rest from there on, of course, unfolded, and it opened last year with Tom Hanks and sadly Nora wasn’t around to be there for opening night. But it was very much the play that she wanted.
DEADLINE: With the success on stage, is there a chance for the project to become a film the way Ephron had first intended?
There are no immediate plans. There have been conversations about it but there’s no immediate plan at the present.
DEADLINE: You’ve followed up Lucky Guy with three high-profile plays featuring big names this year. What is behind the rapid expansion?
I’ve had a long association with the theater over the years but I had never produced a play and it was something that I’d always wanted to do. Casa Valentina, funny enough, was something that I also had looked at as a possible movie but it never came together and I approached Harvey about writing it for the stage and he got very excited by the idea of it. I think that there’s a certain sort of risk-taking, drama that explores ideas which, in some senses, could only be done on the stage these days. The movies moved away from dramas, and I think that I’m very excited by the opportunity to take smart writing that takes risks and see it on stage. It’s exciting to see that engagement between the audience and the playwright. And I think that oddly in this digital world that we live in — it’s not an accident that right now music concerts are selling out like crazy. I think people want the intimacy in the engagement of sitting in a theater with people and seeing something happen live and engage in that. I think that could be a very powerful experience.
DEADLINE: You also have a Harry Potter play in the works in the UK.
Sonia Friedman, the English producer, and I are developing together with J. K. Rowling. It’s not going to be a play based on the books per se; it will obviously be about Harry but it’s a new story from J. K. Rowling that hasn’t been told before and it will sort of explore the emotional life of Harry in a way that it’ll be different from what was in fact in the books or in the films.
DEADLINE: Rowling is notoriously protective of her work and her characters. How did you convince her to do another chapter of the Harry Potter franchise with you?
She had been approached by a lot of people. They had talked about doing big event shows and musicals and so on and so forth. When Sonia and I approached her it seemed as though it was the first time someone had really talked to her about how one could be an intimate drama on the stage that would explore a side of Harry that hadn’t been seen before. And I think she responded to the possibilities of what could be done on stage and she has embraced it fully and is working with us. It’s very exciting.
DEADLINE: How involved is she in the process?
Well, we’re right at the beginning of the process, but she is centrally involved.
DEADLINE: Is there already interest from Broadway?
There’s no writer or director attached yet so it’s too early to be talking about theaters and so on.
DEADLINE: What about a screen adaptation?
I don’t know. That’s certainly not the intent at the moment. It is to create a play that uniquely takes advantage of the intimacy and the immediacy of what you can do with a play with a live audience. So it’s not going to be a big special effects play. It’s an intimate personal drama about the boy who lived under the stairs.
DEADLINE: You launched your new TV production company Playground almost thirty years after you started your first one, The Callender Co. How has the British TV landscape changed over that time?
Well, my career has sort of been characterized by taking advantage of the changes in the marketplace, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. When I started producing it was right at the beginning Channel 4 in England. Nicholas Nickelby which was my first credit as a producer was Contract 001 at Channel 4 — that was the start of independent production in England and the emergence of an independent sector. And then, of course, going to HBO and being there for the birth of pay television and the way that evolved and changed the landscape. And now, in this new digital landscape, this sort of international marketplace, it’s come full circle, and I wanted to take advantage of my talent relations on both sides of the Atlantic. But at heart, I’m really interested in this marriage of theater, film and television and I think what happened in the UK and obviously is happening here is that there’s a convergence of talent kind of moving between the different disciplines and I find that very exciting. I find it very invigorating having Ken Lonergan, who’s an established, Pulitzer-nominated playwright doing Howards End, or Chris Hampton who’s won an Oscar writing a TV series, or having an actor like Mark Rylance, who is probably England’s leading theater actor, in the lead in Wolf Hall.
One of the things that’s different about London and the English market is that theater and film and television are all based in London. It’s not quite the same as in the States where if the playwright here wants a successful TV or film career, they’re whisked away by Hollywood.
DEADLINE: Since you are so interested in the crossover between stage and TV, you must be intrigued by the success of NBC’s The Sound of Music. Is bringing stage productions to TV as event programming something that you’re looking to do and have you spoken with NBC?
Not specifically. I have, over the years brought an enormous number of plays to television starting obviously with Nicholas Nickelby and then things like Angels In America or in Wit with Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols. So, yes, I do find that very interesting and I’m sure that down the road there will be plays that I’ll want to do that way.
DEADLINE: All of your greenlighted projects to date, The White Queen, Dancing On The Edge, Dracula, The Wolf Hall and The Missing, have had an American network partner in Starz, NBC, PBS. Is this the model you’re building your business on?
Yes, as I said I think the first thing is this drawing together of talent from theater, film and television and then the intent is to produce smart dramas that have a very distinct point of view and that use the best talent from both sides of the Atlantic. When I did Nicholas Nickelby originally, that was a co-production between the new Channel 4, Polygram in Europe and Mobil Oil in America, and I have been involved in working on co-productions for years on both sides of the Atlantic and that’s very much at the core of what Playground is doing. So marrying, finding projects that can be co-produced and can be produced using the very best talent from both sides of the Atlantic that’s absolutely right at the center of what Playground is doing.
DEADLINE: Are you pursuing a similar path with your two new projects, Howards End and Dangerous Liaisons? Do you have U.S. networks for them yet?
No, at the moment both Howards End and Dangerous Liaisons are both being developed with the BBC and they’re being written as we speak. When we have a script and when the moment’s right, we’ll begin conversations over here with potential partners.
DEADLINE: You have a lot of business with Starz where you have a deal. How has it been you are reuniting with Chris Albrecht, with whom you worked at HBO?
Obviously Chris and I have a great relationship. Starz, is in a startup mode and in some sense it’s building its business and it’s fun to be part of that but I have a — I’m not exclusively with Starz and Dracula obviously is with NBC and Wolf Hall is with Masterpiece Theater so not everything is going to be right for Starz.
What is the status of The White Queen proposed sequel The White Princess at Starz?
The White Queen in many ways it is representative of the sort of drama that I’m talking about. The books by Philippa Gregory were best sellers and they specifically told the story of history from the point of view of women. So the characters who were normally seen in center stage were sort of off camera and the characters who were normally secondary characters in the background, in this case the women, were foreground. That is Philippa Gregory’s approach to writing the history of this period and we fully embraced that and the results spoke for themselves because the show delivered an enormous audience of women for Starz. The second limited series, The White Princess, is being written as we speak. It’s a continuation of the story again told from the women caught up in historical events and told from their point of view.
DEADLINE: What do you think are the prospects to see a second season of Dracula?
We’re waiting to hear from NBC; I don’t know. It was a lot of fun to make; Jonathan Rhys Myers was fantastic.
Logistically, where are you based and how do you commute?
We moved back to New York about two years ago because of two things. One is because, as I said, right at the center of Playground is this notion of working on both sides of the Atlantic and taking advantage of this as a unique kind of relations that I have both in London and over here. And the second thing is that since the theater was such an important part of what I wanted to do, New York is obviously the capital of theater. And so we’re based in New York and I spend my time between New York, London, and Los Angeles.
DEADLINE: What is next for Playground? Are you looking to expand into producing features?
I think that’s so particularly exciting about this moment in time is all the new platforms that are now existing, the Netflixes and the Hulus and Amazons and so and so forth; I mean they are really doing what pay TV was doing twenty years ago. So a show like Dancing On The Edge gets to have a digital life after it’s playing on Starz. I think what’s exciting is how these new platforms are providing more opportunities both for first-run programming on the one hand but also for second plays for shows that have appeared first either on traditional broadcast or on cable. I’m obviously in discussions with them all, and I think the prospects there are very exciting particularly for British drama which can now reach audiences that are much greater than ever before.
DEADLINE: Are you planning to stay independent? There has been a slew of acquisitions of independent production companies in the past few years.
At the moment I’m focusing first and foremost on building a slate and I think there are a lot of exciting possibilities down the road. I think that the marketplace has changed in many dramatic ways but actually in some sense it’s remained the same because the challenge of creating quality programming is the same, and I’ve always thought that if you follow the great material everything else will fall in to place. So as an independent my principal focus is finding great dramas — the fact that this season I’ve got two series and three plays, that’s what I find exciting creatively. It’s the ability to move between these different forms but nonetheless still bring to bear a sense of great storytelling. So I think where Playground is heading is deeper into that marriage between stage, film and television, with the increasing number of people in the film business working in television, obviously something that we were very influential in starting and doing at HBO. And I think that that’s the focus of where I see the company moving forward, continuing to explore that intersection of all that talent.