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The Great Tom Fontana

By ✉ webmaster@lesbellesaffiches.com

Story available in french here

Tom Fontana © IMDB

Netflix and HBO are both household names, whose budgets and visual design over the past few years have at times surpassed even those of the big screen. Some shows, such as the iconic Twin Peaks, have proved so popular that they are being remade decades after they were last broadcast. Behind the overwhelming success of the television series phenomenon sits producer and visionary Tom Fontana, who wrote the very first HBO TV series, Oz, in 1997. This was far from the first TV project for Fontana, whose 80s creations St Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street served as stepping stones to Oz's immense success. So what makes the perfect Fontana TV series? Dark characters, harsh realism, intrigue, and plot twists: all mixed in with inspired acting. To better understand the success of the current crop of TV heavyweights, and to quiz him on his future projects, we spoke to the maestro himself. Introduction So what happens on a typical Tom Fontana day? "I get up around 5am and make myself some tea. I drink a lot of tea! Then I sit at my desk and write, write, and then write until I should stop. But you know, the urge to write always creeps up on you. Before I go to bed at night, I'm already thinking about what I'm going to write the following day. Normally, the scene I think about at night is the last dream I have in the morning. That's why I wake up so early, so I don't forget the dream !" That's the introductions out of the way. Chapter I

Having a great cast is perhaps one of the keys to a successful series: "When we made Oz, we had a low budget, but I was lucky enough to be working with a very dedicated group of actors". The greatest example of this commitment is undoubtedly Eamonn Walker, who portrayed Kareem Said, the leader of the black Muslims. At a time when all Muslims were seen as bloodthirsty terrorists, Fontana dug deeper into the subject to create a much more true to life character.

"Black Muslims are predominant in our prisons, but like your average American, I knew little about Islamic culture beyond Arabian Nights! (laughs), and so I started by reading the Quran, then I re-read The Bible. In the first season of Oz, when you hear Eamonn preaching, you could just as easily be listening to any American preacher. I wanted to create a common ground between Said and the audience. Being authentic as an imam became an obsession for Eamonn. He would go to mosques and pray with Muslims. He learned a lot from it. As with Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) and his son, it is important that a character is neither totally positive nor totally negative"

This last phrase pretty much sums up Fontana's approach to writing. His commitment to producing true-to-life fiction could well be a product of his younger days, as he grew up watching series such as the iconic 60s show The Twilight Zone, which mixed the ordinary with the extraordinary. Other films which marked his formative years were Dr Strangelove, The Graduate and Romeo and Juliet, all of which are stories of personal dramas leading to uncontrollable chain reactions. Chapter II Aside from great writing, what are the reasons behind the worldwide success of the new wave of US series? "I think HBO has a higher regard for their audience. When people spend money on a cable subscription, the network understands the importance of respecting the viewer by producing high quality shows with diverse programming". To achieve this quality and variety, HBO more or less gave free rein to the trio of Tom Fontana, Alan Ball, and David Chase, respectively responsible for Oz, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos, three shows which changed the way people perceived TV. Alan Ball, when describing Six Feet Under, said that it was a series "for people who don't like TV". With these shows, TV characters for the first time began to gain depth and complexity. Suspense was woven into the plot, with end-of-episode cliff-hangers becoming the talk of school playgrounds and office canteens. Chapter III Be it the Oz tattoo logo, The Soprano's gun-shaped "R", or the solitary tree of Six Feet Under, it is important not to underestimate the role played by the visual aspect of these hit shows. Fontana is a big poster aficionado, with a penchant for true cult hits like Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan's Daughter, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. These classic hand-painted posters are similar to the work of Paul Brooks Davis, a theatrical illustrator who Fontana holds in high regard, and whose work has appeared in films produced by the likes of Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, Lee Daniels, and Rob Cohen. Fontana's eclectic tastes also extend to the Polish version of the poster for the film "African Queen", whose creators were artistic visionaries in their own way. And what about the modern stuff? While he is not a fan of the "George Clooney face-to-face Brad Pitt like Mount Rushmore" style of advertising, he does approve of some of the more modern works, such as Game of Thrones. Could this simply be loyalty to the HBO brand? Epilogue And what about the future? Tom's fan base expanded to cover an even wider international audience when he was contacted by the French TV channel, Canal+, to produce Borgia: Faith and Fear, featuring the stellar performance of Marc Duret in the role of Cardinal Guillaume Briçonnet, but also Isolda Dychauk playing Lucrezia Borgia, Mark Ryder portraying a great Cesare Borgia, Stanley Weber as Juan Borgia and John Doman as the Pope Alexander VI. The collaboration proved fruitful: "Canal+ and Atlantique understood the story I wanted to make". The success of this project means that audiences across the globe are even more impatient than ever to see what he has in store for them next. There is little doubt that he is watching the success enjoyed by the latest batch of top TV series from afar. That said, his return to our screens is not likely to happen without careful preparation, and it would seem the Fontana faithful have a lengthy wait ahead of them; "I'm developing three projects at the same time. I can't tell you much except that they will stir up more trouble than Oz!" Perhaps the answers will appear in his next dream...