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A Conversation with Orphan Black Showrunner Graeme Manson

Orphan Black logo

Orphan Black is the story of a woman who watches herself die.

Wait, that’s not quite it.

Orphan Black is the story of a mother struggling to connect with her child. Or is that two mothers? Or three? Four mothers? Two Children? Hm.

Orphan Black is the story of eight clones, living together, under one roof… No, wait, that’s also wrong.

Developed for television by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett and airing on BBC America in the US, and Space in Canada, Orphan Black explores questions of choice, identity, free will, technological progress and freedom and belief, in a setting and with a cast which make every beat intense and every conversation as terse, or endearing, or incredulously aware of itself as it needs to be. Orphan Black is a story that asks the question, “What would you do if you knew, in your heart, in your mind, in your very being, that you were unique, original, you… and then found out that you weren’t quite as you as you thought you were?”

I recently got the opportunity to have a talk with head writer and co-showrunner Graeme Manson about the philosophical concepts, world events, and other wells from which he draws in order to craft the arc or Orphan Black‘s story. Why don’t we let him tell you what it’s all about:

[ad#rightpost]Editor’s Note: Certain portions of the interview are SPOILERS if you have not seen all of the first season. Normally I would “white” out the pertinent bits but the pertinent bits are so pervasive and integral to the discussion that they’re out for everyone to see. So. You have been warned. -Widge

Wolven: Hi Graeme.

Graeme Manson: Hi Damien. How’re you doin’?

W: Doin’ well, how ’bout yourself?

GM: Good, I just need coffee and am pourin’ myself a cup and I will sit down.

W: Well that’s a– That is a fun coincidence.

[Both laugh]

GM: Where you at? Are you in LA?

W: Well Need Coffee is spread pretty much everywhere. We’re in what you [and William Gibson] might call a “post-geographical location” …Not a huge outfit, but widespread.

GM: Sure.

W: Well I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me to today; I know you’re very very busy and, having just finished the season, things are probably only going to get busier after a brief lull, so I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I do appreciate it.

GM: Actually, I’ve had my lull, and I’m back in the room with, uh, six writers.

W: Wow. Right back into it. Fantastic. I have just a small tradition–Monty Python-esque: For the record, can you give us your Name, Quest, and Favourite Colour?

GM: My quest. My Quest… Uh… My name is Oliver Graeme Bennet Manson; My quest… is to find… the finest roast lamb and bitter greens ever served; and my favourite colour is blue.

[Both Laugh]

GM: Aquamarine.

W: That’s a fine quest. That is a fine quest.

GM: Yes, I love my roast lamb.

W: That’s a great thing to love, honestly; I’m a big fan of it, myself. Now, from what I hear, when John Fawcett first brought you the idea for Orphan Black, you weren’t completely on board, but something about it really grabbed you and stuck with you. What was that thing? What was it about the idea for this that really pulled you in and finally got you on board with this 100%?

GM: Well I guess it was the fact that it wasn’t really an idea for a series, yet, or even a feature, which is what we were looking for, at the time. It was that opening scene, which is essentially what John pitched me. The opening scene: “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If a girl got off a train and she saw herself across the tracks; their eyes meet and, in that moment, the double commits suicide?” And that got us going, “Okay who was that? Was it a twin?” And twins exhausted themselves kind of quickly and that led us to clones. We didn’t start trying to write a clone show. John had this very directorly, visual idea, and then when I was like, “Okay, well, so what’s the story?” That’s when he was like, “Why do you think I’m talkin’ to you?”

W: I mean that’s an extraordinarily compelling idea, and having watched the episode it does just… arrest you, and draw you in, pretty much immediately. So I can understand why he would pitched that to you–That Scene First.

GM: Yeah, and we tried to… Well, originally we were thinking of it as a feature, and we tried, over the course of a couple of years, to make it work, and I don’t think we ever got a draft? We just couldn’t figure out how to finish it. So we shelved it for a while, until we considered it as a TV series, because all around us TV was changing. And it kind of started with like Six Feet Under, and Dexter, and The Sopranos.

W: Yeah.

GM: And things like that really were where we thought, “Whoa, that’s what we need to get to the bottom of this thing.”

W: Yeah, you got some serious depth going in there, I can tell you that. In the ideas and the bits and pieces– and I definitely want to get into some of the deeper ideas that you guys have going on in the show, but just as a brief aside, for those who might not know in the audience, as co-creator and co-showrunner, what are your duties on the set? What are your duties for the show? What does that encompass for you?

GM: Of John and my’s partnership, I’m the writer half, and he’s the the director half. So it’s a really good partnership because we overlap yet delineate our duties. Whereas I’m working really heavily upfront with the writers, right now, and John drops into the writer’s room and acts a kind of an outside ear, where we work for a while–then he drops in and we pitch him what we’re doing. And then I coordinate the writers and the writing throughout production, while John directs and coordinates incoming directors. We both split sort of “production duties,” but John has a large hand in overseeing the post-production, whereas I have a hand in overseeing, at least from a writing perspective, the pre-production.

W: That seems like it would take a lot of trust and knowledge of each other to make that really work well, together. Have you guys worked extensively together in the past? Do you know each other outside of the business, or do you just find yourselves really comfortable with each other?

GM: No, we’re buddies. Our friendship goes back fifteen years. But yeah, we have worked together; we’ve worked together on a couple of things, and have always been batting about projects that we could work on together, on something original that we could do. We share taste, to a large degree, and where we differ is the tension that–I think–that feeds the juice. The push and pull tends to be where our tastes differ–but in general, we share a very similar taste, particularly our dark humour. And that taste is broad, and that’s why the show has a very complex tone–and the fact that we both understand each other and know what we’re talking about when–you know you can get lost in a complex tone. But the fact that we can be dark and scary and a bit– not “intellectual,” but a bit heavy? –all at the same time?

W: Yeah.

GM: It’s part of the soup that we really like. And the fact that both BBC America and Space are behind the tone of the show, and they were behind us doing a show with this tone that’s really quite complex and hard to describe [Laughs] I think is the luckiest coup for us, in this whole process.

W: No, you’re absolutely right. It works out very well that they seem to be getting what you guys want to be doing, and they seem to be giving you the space in which to do it. And, again, I’m personally very grateful for that, as well, as a fan of the show, and I know that as a creative team, you guys must be relieved to have that kind of space available to you.

GM: Yeah, it is good, you know. So far so good, on being allowed to–it’s not free reign, but we’re given a lot of trust in terms of the stuff that we want to do, and some of the bolder and the crazier and the shocking things that we like to do.

W: Yeah.

GM: And we don’t… We have more support than resistance, which is where you want to be.

W: Yeah, absolutely. Now, speaking of some of the more shocking and the deeper ideas in the show: Your work definitely speaks for itself on a very eloquent level, and one of the things it does seem to be saying throughout is that there’s this kind of distrust of the Human Enhancement, Transhumanist, or H+ movements, out in the world. Would you say that’s an accurate statement?

GM: I would say… No. That… I think those movements are…philosophically I don’t think they’re that dangerous, or anything like that, or that they’re not–there’s no “Corporate Agenda” there, as much. You know, I think the “Neolution” concept, for us, is an interesting philosophy, and it raises a lot of questions about evolution and “interfering” with evolution, but it’s on an individual level?

W: Yeah.

Transhumanism h+

GM: And I think that where our conspiracy gets dangerous is when it becomes corporate and policy. So I would say that the more dangerous side is the gene-patenting, Monsanto, mono-cropping, agra-business type of thing. That’s what keeps me up at night.

W: That I think shows very clearly, especially in the season finale when we get to the point where Cosima and Delphine find the Patent in her genetic code, and that kind of–at that point, once you kind of see the corporate structure standing behind Leekie, who previously we kind of thought was just this Individual Mad Scientist, but who seems to have this much vaster network and machinery behind him, that, I think, is where–

GM: Yeah.

W: — where what you’re saying starts to really, really shine through.

GM: Yeah, and if the Dyad Institute is really the Dyad Group of companies, then how much power does Leekie really have?

W: Exactly.

GM: Those are the kinds of things that we’ll be getting into in season two.

W: Fantastic. So, you would then see, potentially, that there could be some kind of benefit to the work that’s being done. Would you–and I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory–but are we gonna see anything with Cosima and Delphine starting to be more proactive in the kinds of work that they’re doing? So far they’ve been somewhat reactionary, out of necessity, trying to save everybody’s lives. Are they going to take any more direct steps in the future, that might be putting to use the kinds of understanding and technology that they–especially the two of them–have available to them?

GM: I think that the work that they end of doing is quite personal, especially because Cosima’s directly invested in it. Obviously, it’s their health and, as they’re clones that face health problems, may or may not have direct consequences for all of them. So, whether or not Rachel is the sort of Corporate Big Bad, she may well be facing some of the same dangers as the others, obviously, simply because of their biology. Also, I think that the mystery of why Sarah was the one who was able to conceive is also an important issue on their radar.

W: Yes: what sets Sarah apart?

GM: Yeah, why Sarah is the one who has been able to have a child. Which makes her intensely important, and therefore the child.

W: Yeah.

GM: And you know, it’s, in terms of companies like Monsanto or whoever too, they put their Good Works out front, y’know?

W: Absolutely.

GM: It’s like, “Here we are, trying to cure world hunger, but if you wind up with your mono crop in our fields by accident, we’ll sue the shit out of you.”

W: Exactly. That’s one of the biggest news items coming out from them…in that regard, actually. It’s like, “Oh no, you accidentally got some cross-pollination from our home-grown wheat. Oh no, oh well, I guess that’s ours, and now everything you’ve ever grown is now ours.

GM: Yeah, and the interesting thing is not just what happens when their cloned wheat escapes, but what happens when a wild type invades their cloned wheat?

W: Yeah, what kinds of mutations?

GM: Yeah, they can’t stand that.

W: Exactly.

GM: I find that very interesting, and that’s talked about a lot less. That’s what they hate: They’re trying to control nature, and they can’t, ultimately.

W: Yeah, and I think that’s something that shows through in your treatment of the Clone Gang on the show. There’s all of this meticulous effort to control all of this very, very precise alteration of specific genes, and then there’s all of this vast unpredictability that comes in, when they actually interact with each other–and the outside world. And that vast unpredictability is even then tried to be dampened down by the monitors. And that can’t work either.

GM: Yeah. I mean, that is Sarah. She is chance. She’s the contingency to this experiment, where A) She’s off the radar, B) At some point in her history, that zygote split. That was contingency, that was pure chance, nobody foresaw that. Nobody foresaw the fact that there was going to be twins and that those twins would disappear, and then nobody can foresee Sarah’s personality, which is insurrectionist and impulsive so that they can’t–

W: Hm.

GM: –She always takes a hard left and does what’s unexpected, and works about her gut, and that’s the unpredictability factor that I like about her character.

Cube (1997)
The gloriously mental Cube (1997). Recommended viewing.

W: Yeah, and in that vein… you’ve talked a lot about questions of identity and free will, especially in Cube, and previous, and those things are pretty well known within the science fiction world–but you guys seem to have made a conscious choice to explore them as deeply as possible with the clone angle. Is there anything else, in that regard, that you are hoping to say in terms of free will, in terms of identity, in terms of what it means to be an individual? Are there going to be other elements that you bring into this to really highlight these ideas?

GM: Yeah, there will be. The thing that we cottoned onto very early in a story about clones is that the character-driven questions of identity are exponential, you know?

W: Yes.

GM: We have a show where–we don’t wanna wear out the conceit, but we can meet new clones. And each time you meet them, they’re a new person, they’re entirely an individual, shaped by their own environment, discovering a shared biology. But we’ve always been more interested in their differences than their similarities. As I think anybody would be who met their own clone.

W: Absolutely.

GM: Immediately, you would wanna like, piss on your own territory. That’s what I think. Right? [laughs]

W: [laughing] Yes.

GM: But in terms of new themes, I don’t know, not exactly. We’re just constantly rotating that globe and looking at it from a different character point of view. And Rachel’s going to have a very different point of view, as the least “familial” of them all, because she’s sort of raised within this corporate environment. Almost like raised “communally”–

W: Yes [chuckles]

GM: –within the least communal human structure. You know what I mean?

W: Yeah, The Corporation-Raised Child.

GM: Yeah [chuckles] So I think we’re gonna see some very interesting ideas about identity through her, because she’s ruthless.

W: Yes.

GM: And we don’t want her to be a pushover. We don’t want her story of self-revelation or self-realisation to be like, for instance, like Helena’s at all.

W: Right.

Helena from Orphan Black

GM: Whereas we we ended up just loving Helena’s story, and just loving the humanity that Tat [Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany] brought to that character.

W: Yeah, no, she was absolutely fantastic, all the way around this season, and you guys are really, really lucky to have her, if I might say. She is utterly fantastic, in all ways, and brings so much to each and every one of those characters.

GM: And she’s just a joy to work with, I gotta say. She works so hard, and we will say to anyone that our show would suck if we had an actor who didn’t have her skills.

[Both laugh]

GM: Like, we knew it. We knew it was All In or Nothing. I mean literally, the show was cast-contingent. So, if we didn’t find her, I don’t think we would have got the show; if we couldn’t have got the networks to agree that “Yeah, you found her.”

W: Well, Fantastic Job, on that score. Well, Graeme, I want to thank you, again, for taking your time to talk to me today, for coming out of the writer’s room and spending some time with me, and talking about these ideas. You’ve got a fantastic show, and I can’t wait to see what you guys do in the upcoming season. I’m gonna let you get back into the writer’s room and do what you do, and do it well. So, thank you, very, very much.

GM: Appreciate it, Damien. I look forward to reading the article.

And that was that. I want to once again thank Graeme Manson for the time out of his busy schedule, and everyone at both Temple Street Productions and Ink Media Corporation for their time and effort in making this interview happen.

Orphan Black Season One is out on DVD from BBC Home Video on July 16th (click here to pre-order), but until then, you can follow Orphan Black on Twitter.