Following BBC4’s transmission of the final episode of Amber last night, co-creator and producer of the show Paul Duane shares some insights into its creation.
Amber was commissioned back in late 2009 by the Drama department of RTE. 2009 is quite a while in television terms. Nordic Noir didn’t exist then (I watched The Killing sometime in mid-2010 I think); Mad Men and Breaking Bad had just completed their second seasons and The Walking Dead hadn’t yet shambled onto the screen.
Myself and Rob Cawley had started our company Screenworks the previous year, and our first real commissions were a couple of web dramas for RTE’s online drama strand Storyland. It was while we were in the middle of preparing to shoot these that a member of Rob’s family went missing, last seen near a well-known coastal suicide spot.
The following months are difficult to remember clearly now. We managed to deliver the web series as we’d agreed, but Rob spent every weekend and many weekdays engaged in a full-scale search that took in the entire Western shoreline of Ireland. I stayed in the office and answered the phones, dealing with business as usual, but it was a deeply strange and awful time for everybody, no matter how tangentially involved.
The web dramas were well received, and they’d given us an ongoing working relationship with the RTE Drama department, so when we were asked to come to them with some series ideas we were ready with a couple of interesting, solid but probably uninspired shows, whose template was pretty clearly based on already successful crime drama series. They asked us to dig deeper – come to them with something that really mattered to us, something that could be a television event, something unprecedented.
It’s good to be challenged. It’s very good to be asked to do something that only you can do, something that isn’t cookie-cutter TV designed to fill up the spaces between the ad breaks.
We sat at a circular wooden table outdoors by the RTE canteen and talked. What was fresh in our minds? A missing person story. But the storyline shouldn’t be about cops, an investigation, a search – the series would reflect our own understanding of how life works. It would be structured like ripples going outward on a still lake, with the missing person as the event that’s caused the ripples. Each episode would be a ripple further out, as this one person’s disappearance affected people further and further from the family concerned.
First the mother – then the father – then a friend of the family – then a complete stranger. Four stories, each complete in itself, linked by one awful, mysterious event at their centre. This was what became Amber.
It didn’t sound like anything we’d seen on television before. It would also exact an emotional toll on Rob to write about a subject so close to home without either falling short of it, or – an equally great fear for both of us – exploiting it.
The storyline of Amber bears little resemblance to the real events that inspired it, but every moment and character has a corresponding reality against which we measured it. The process of turning a tragedy into a piece of fiction was, I think, part of Rob’s way of processing the terrible thing that he and his loved ones had just gone through.
For my part, I just tried to be a dispassionate arbiter. I’d just made a documentary feature, Barbaric Genius, and was in the middle of completing another, Very Extremely Dangerous. To put together a successful documentary you need a combination of ethics and art. This was also a key element of Amber. If the story started to stray too far in the direction of feeling like ‘crime telly’, I tried to gently push it back towards the reality it was rooted in. But there weren’t many times when that happened.
The real challenge was to make the complex, interlocking storylines of each episode work together. The way we had decided to tell the story – with time doubling back on itself in each episode, showing us events we’d previously seen but from a different viewpoint, ensuring that by the end, the audience were the only ones in full possession of the facts – was a nightmare to work with. The walls of the office were covered in charts and maps that we referred to as we storylined. Because, yes, we hadn’t even started writing the scripts at this stage – we were still just writing the storyline…
Once we’d nailed how to tell the story, and moved to script, we were able to bring in the terrifically talented Dublin playwright Gary Duggan to share the burden, and things started to move a bit quicker. But the core dedication to the underlying truths of the story remained.
Should I mention the ending? I suppose, as long as the reader is aware that the following paragraph contains SPOILERS FOR THE END OF AMBER.
One of the first things we decided, when drawing up the overall story structure, was that there would be no explanation for Amber’s disappearance. None. We, the writers, would know, and nobody else. Not even the commissioning editors who were paying for it would know. This, you have to understand, is a little unusual in television drama. But to their eternal credit, the commissioning editors Jane Gogan and David Crean agreed with our idea, and didn’t get cold feet about it. They understood that we weren’t making a cop show or a murder show, we were making a drama that had a point and a core reason to exist, and that it would try to communicate a deep understanding, learnt the hard way, of the realities of grief and loss.
END OF SPOILERS
So that’s how it was conceived. The production process isn’t interesting to write about, particularly. We found a simpatico director with vast experience, Thaddeus O’Sullivan. We found our locations among the desolate office blocks and apartment complexes that had sprung up during the boom and sat, half-tenanted, now owned by the Irish taxpayers. NAMAland.
We found a brilliant cast who inhabited their characters even when the experience was draining and traumatic (Eva Birthistle, who plays Sarah, instructed her agent once the shoot had finished “Don’t bring me any roles with crying involved for a long while, please.”). We hired the best editor in the country, Tony Cranstoun, because who else has cut documentaries with the great Paul Watson as well as comedies like The Royle Family as well as dramas like Queer as Folk? Nobody else.
And we made Amber.
And the finished series was in some ways more than what was on paper. As emigration rates and suicide rates swelled, as missing persons posters bloomed on lampposts and telegraph poles, living in Ireland at that time was a grim business. In some way, the awful, grim sense of loss that settled over Ireland in 2009 and for the years that followed had seeped into the series. Rob had designed it to feel that way but somehow I didn’t notice until it was all assembled.
And as we watched the final shots of episode four, the last sighting of Amber, I felt the series had become an elegy to a generation that was slipping away, disappearing completely, and to all their lost hopes.
There was a long quiet period then as the show waited to air in Ireland. It travelled all over the world, however, selling to the USA, Brazil, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, etc. We heard reports of Amber sightings in faraway places. Since this was something that also happens in the show itself, it felt a little strange.
Finally it screened in Ireland in the winter of 2014, causing a bit of a stir. Of that, I can only say that it proved the statement “it’s not what your press clippings say, it’s how much they weigh, that counts.” I’d extend that to cover tweets.
The seismic twitter meltdown around #Amber was felt far away in Los Angeles, and brought the show to attention over there. Next thing you know, FAMOUS HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS NAME REDACTED is on the phone to our director Thaddeus, asking him to ‘helm’ her next film, and we’re talking to PRODUCER OF MASSIVELY EXPENSIVE SCIENCE FICTION BLOCKBUSTER NAME REDACTED as he asks us to develop series ideas for his company. This was not the expected result of making an uncompromisingly difficult and emotionally harrowing low-budget Irish drama series but Amber has been a very strange journey, and it doesn’t look as if it’s over yet.
Amber will be released on DVD on Monday June 30th. Until then, it’s available on iPlayer.