One of the most critically beloved new shows on cable, Showtime's Penny Dreadful is written start to finish by Skyfall and Hugo screenwriter John Logan and produced by Sam Mendes, with Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Hartnett in the leading roles. The Victorian Gothic mash-up features characters pulled from Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray and other, stranger texts, but the key to Logan's obsession with monsters is his sympathy for them. He has a harder job in pre-production this year than last: Showtime president David Nevins liked the show so much that he renewed it for a longer (ten-episode) season two. In the runup to Sunday night's season one finale, Logan explains how Disneyland, romantic poetry and classic horror stories gave rise to one truly original series.
Where did you first start talking about Penny Dreadful?
This is completely true: after about 10 years of thinking about this and not telling anyone, not my partner, not my agent, I was with my friend Chris King, who's a producer on the show, and we were at Disneyland, and we were standing in line and I said, "I have an idea for a TV show." And as any writer will tell you, when you first say that out loud, it's a really treacherous moment, and Chris really loved it and really got behind and then I had to go to Sam. I've known Sam for years and I know his sensibility. He's a stand-up guy, and he said, "Let's do this together."
What was it about Disneyland that freed you to make that pronouncement?
We were in line for Space Mountain and there was this wonderful incoherent joy about being able to speak about such dark things in such a bright place.
How did you decide have all these famous horror characters meet each other?
It's something I'd been thinking about for a long time. I was reading a lot of Romantic poetry, particularly Wordsworth, and that led me to Byron, Shelley and Keats and eventually to re-reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which I hadn't read since I was a kid, and it just shocked me how powerful it was and how moving it was. And I just started thinking about that, and the themes that Mary Shelley plays with. If you read the binary narrative of Frankenstein, the question you have to emerge with is "Who is the monster, Victor Frankenstein or the monster he creates?" And the duality therein I thought was really interesting.
So, I began to think about various iterations of that and I read Dracula, sort of immediately, and then I went into a study of Gothic literature, and I was staggered to find that in that period of about 1890 to 1900, there was this great paroxysm of horror literature—you had Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Island of Doctor Moreau, War of the Worlds, all within a 10-year span. And all the writers cross-pollinated. I thought that was really fascinating. It reminded me of the second generation of Universal horror films where Universal suddenly started mixing and matching the Wolfman and the Mummy and Dracula and Frankenstein and I thought it would be a really interesting thing to pursue.
Narratively it was just fascinating—the way those characters spark off each other, I thought, could be dramatic. I didn't start off with them, actually—I started with Vanessa Ives, the character that Eva Green plays. And I just began to build that character, and her as story evolved, I thought about which elements of the classic text could come into it, and what eventually emerged was Frankenstein and his creature and Dorian Gray refracting off of parts of the Dracula story.
It's definitely a rich seam—I know people have compared the show toAlan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels, which work from a similar premise, albeit in different ways.
Absolutely. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where he takes the Arthur Conan Doyle canon and mixes it with Sigmund Freud. And there's a long and very happy tradition. I love Alan Moore's book; that was obviously an influence. I'm very happy to be part of that tradition.
You said you're interested in exploring characters—why choose monsters? Why not write your version of Six Feet Under?
I just love monsters. I've always loved monsters. When I was a kid I built models in my bedroom and I watched horror movies and read horror comic books; I've always loved monsters. Only as I've grown up have I realized that the affection I have for them is a kinship.
Growing up as a gay man, before it was as socially acceptable as it might be now, I knew what it was to feel different from other people, to have a secret and to be frightened of it—even as I knew that the very thing that made me different made me who I was. I think all the characters grapple with a version of that, with a version of exceptionality. Can they come to peace with that thing that marks them as alien to their families and their loved ones? It was very personal to me, which is why I was so committed to writing all of it.
That's a really interesting reason.
There's a strong sort of outlaw tradition of queer response to horror. It's a growing trend and a growing sociological and literary school of thought. The gay response to horror literature is very much en vogue currently and I hope I'm part of that tradition.
How have the actors interacted with the writing? Did you have it all finished before production started or could you sort of wing it when you saw what people were doing?
I wrote all of it before we went into production. I'd never written a show before so I felt like I should do my job as a writer. It varies from character to character and person to person. I wrote Vanessa Ives for Eva, it had to be Eva green. Every day the first thing I would do is go over to her trailer and talk to her. She's sort of my muse.
But all the actors have become pretty invested in their characters and my door is always open to say, "Let's talk about this." If a line doesn't sound good coming out of your mouth, tell me why and let's find a way through it. Tim was very active in discussing scenes. He comes at it from a very literary standpoint. Josh was very interested in the character's backstory. Harry Treadaway, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, was just delighted to have those words flowing out with such eloquence. It was a great process with all of them and now that I know their voices and and now that I have those voices in my head, it's made writing a lot more straightforward for me. I look for ways to challenge them as both characters and actors and I look for ways to satisfy them as both characters and actors.