TV - Tin Star

Tin Star is a new drama starring Tim Roth, coming to Sky Atlantic next month. Read an interview with the series writer/creator Rowan Joffe...

After starting a new life with his beloved wife and children in the peace and quiet of the remote Rocky Mountains, police chief Jim Worth (BAFTA award winner Tim Roth) finally feels he has found the life he was searching for.

However, the tranquillity is short-lived as the arrival of huge numbers of workers from a new oil refinery leads to a wave of drugs, prostitution and organised crime. Shockingly, this coincides with the horrific murder of one of Jim's family. His obsessive quest to find the truth behind this mysterious killing drives a revelatory story about love, corruption, grief and the all-consuming nature of revenge. Reigniting behaviour from his dark past, his journey leads to a personal battle with a long-buried demon that will not just defeat his enemies but threatens to destroy those he loves most.

Writer and creator of the series, Rowan Joffe commented: “With a background of movie screenwriting, it’s been an ambition of mine to author an epic piece of cinema in a long-series format. To me this means a certain kind of dramatic landscape, classical themes of illicit love, familial corruption, grief and all-consuming revenge as well as characters of a particular stature on dangerous, labyrinthine journeys of discovery."

Find out more about the series from Rowan Joffe in this interview with him, thanks to Sky Atlantic.

Tell us about Tin Star. Where did the idea come from and what does it mean to you?

Tin Star has been about five years in the making, I think – I’m uncertain because it’s been so long. I remember getting a call from an exec producer at Kudos, because I’d been working in cinema for six or seven years, saying to me, “Can we lure you back into television?” The producer said Sky Atlantic was looking for filmmakers with distinctive voices for its original productions. The idea of being able to create something like that was very attractive because as a writer for mainstream Hollywood movies there are a lot of constraints, and ultimately you’ve got to make your money back by putting bums on seats. But what’s going on in television today is that studios are interested in creating shows that get critical attention – they want shows that are really, really good. That’s why this resurgence of really original filmmaking is occurring in television.

How would you sum up the show?

If I had to boil it down to its essence I would say Tin Star is a crime drama. It’s about the police chief of a small town in the Rocky Mountains, who is an alcoholic struggling to stay sober in order to be a good man, father and husband and protect his family from a mysterious threat. This is a threat neither he nor anyone else understands until it’s discovered it is something that has come back to haunt him from his past, when he was a morally compromised, violent cop addicted to drink and drugs. In order to face down this threat, he has to again become the person he used to be – the person he moved to this beautiful little mountain town in Canada to escape from. The shadow side of himself.

Tell us about Jim and Jack [Tim Roth's characters]. Do you see them as separate characters or two sides of one personality?

I think it’s important writers write about something they want to write about and care about. I am fascinated by addiction, in particular the idea of representing an alcoholic character not in ways they are conventionally seen on screen but instead like Jekyll and Hyde – someone who is one kind of man when sober and another when he drinks. When a true alcoholic drinks something happens neurochemically, morally and emotionally – it completely transforms them as a person. I first became interested in this reading stories about real undercover cops, especially British ones – guys that were doing drug deals and getting addicted to the drugs they were dealing with, and how the personas they had created were partly fuelled by their heavy drinking and their addictions, which in time numbed their feelings of confusion and guilt. These were often married men having affairs, or being forced to cross a moral or criminal line in the course of duty. So I put all of that together and came up with the idea of Jim being the sober man, the good man, the husband, the father, the small town police chief and Jack being not just the persona that he created as an undercover cop but the man he becomes when he drinks.

What made you choose Canada as the location for the series?

In the early stages of developing the show I read an article about a town in Canada called Fort McMurray, which at that time was known as Fort McMoney. It was relatively small and there wasn’t much crime, but when tar sands oil became profitable, the oil companies moved into the area. They needed workers, those workers needed a place to live, and so the town became quickly overrun – it became a place where they would spend their hundred-grand-a-year salaries. These were young men cut off from their wives and kids, away from home for long periods of time, relatively immature in the ways of the world. And they wanted to get their rocks off. So suddenly the town is full of drugs, prostitution and gambling, and I was fascinated by that as the backdrop for a crime thriller. It seemed to me that as that was actually going on at the time Canada was the best place to set the story. It also gave us spectacular natural wilderness as a backdrop, so not only do you have the town itself being corrupted but you have the landscape being polluted too.

That’s a bit different to a lot of people’s preconceptions of Canada…

Canada has a reputation with many people for being morally upstanding but also a bit boring. But its oil industry is massive and is only going to get bigger with Trump opening the XL Pipeline. It’s the source of an enormous amount of revenue and also an enormous amount of civil strife because it means building pipelines through First Nations communities. So if you peel back the label on the Canadian maple syrup bottle and look at some of the things that are going on, it is absolutely right for a crime drama.

High River itself was perfect [as a filming location] because most of it was built between 1930 and 1979, so it has a feeling of a town preserved in aspic. You’re reminded as you walk around of the iconic small towns of films from A History of Violence through to Fargo. It has little cinemas, a small Chinese takeaway, it has red brick banks, its streets are perfectly clean and well manicured. It has a funeral home you couldn’t have drawn more succinctly or poignantly in a comic book. It has the feel of a Western town because that’s what it was – it was a town established by cowmen and ranchers.

How important do you think that First Nations element is to the story?

Well, telling the First Nations story as truthfully as we could was one of the big challenges. I really wanted to do it because I read a book called The Inconvenient Indian, an account of the history of the relationship between various Canadian governments and its indigenous people, and it’s harrowing. Immediately there were stories I wanted to tell within that but because this isn’t a historical piece, the challenge became how we could represent the First Nations communities in a way that we understand, showing that they are traumatised by what has been done to them over the past 100-150 years. So we came up with a storyline that we felt did that. It wasn’t just a bunch of British writers in Clerkenwell thinking about how to extrapolate a story from a book they read, though. I had the privilege of working with a First Nations actress called Michelle Thrush, who is a celebrated and respected spokesperson for the First Nations community. I shared the story with her in its early incarnation and received a lot of feedback on ways to make it truthful both to her community and her own experiences as a First Nations woman. I really hope that has come across in the story. It’s a crime drama, it’s a thriller, it’s not primarily a political piece or a racial piece, but all of those elements make for great characters. And great, truthful characters make for a much more compelling thriller.

In terms of casting, how difficult was it to get someone like Tim Roth on board?

Casting is a perfect example of stuff you don’t have control over, but at the same time you have got a distinct vision. It’s really odd how those two different forces, what you want and the reality, come together, and they really came together on Tin Star in exactly the same way they’ve come together on my last three films. Like how Colin Firth was my first choice to play Nicole Kidman’s husband in Before I Go to Sleep, and I was laughed at as he’d won an Oscar® and had just been nominated for another and was at the peak of his career. So we went to everyone but Colin and somehow we ended up with Colin, and it was the same thing with Tim. He was one of our very first picks for the role of Jim, but I thought “Ahhh we’ll never get Tim” and pursued other possibilities. Then one day, I was writing in a really strange retro 1960s hotel in Joshua Tree and got an email saying “Tim’s read the script and wants to meet you tomorrow morning”. I remember that night I couldn’t get any sleep and I drove through the desert all the way from Los Angeles to Pasadena to meet Tim at his local restaurant. We got Tim because in some weird way it was meant to be. The reason I say it in that way is because I don’t know how else to account for it.

Did he meet your expectations?

He far exceeded them. He is a witty character and a clever, enormously instinctive and challenging actor. He won’t do or say anything that doesn’t feel real – I would have to rewrite for him to make sure everything rang absolutely true. That’s how he raised the bar of the show, because it takes you to some quite violent places and it takes characters into areas of their life that are painful or frightening.

What do you think are the best things he brings to the role?

What Tim brought to Tin Star was dark comedy. There’s irreverence and some cheeky throwaway moments that actually make key events much more moving. Comedy and drama work really well together, they enhance one another. I didn’t want to make something worthily dark or miserablist. As a viewer I want to watch something that’s going to transport me out of my life, scare the shit out of me and move me deeply, but not depress me. Tim’s one of our main weapons in the war against things being boring. He also brought a truthfulness that I do think is quite rare, especially in TV.

What makes you say that? What are the key differences between working in television to working in film?

In cinema there are many filmmakers that strive for a real authenticity and honesty. It’s not that common in television because it has only recently begun en masse to try to take advantage of limitless creative horizons and be not just good TV but better than cinema. The thing television allows is the chance to develop a character in a story that’s over 10 hours. It’s like reading a fat Russian novel, you get to know the characters in a way that you don’t with cinema. In cinema, a screenwriter and director can only ever afford to give you a glimpse, a taste, a moment, everything is shrunk down. Film is very reductive and that is in itself an art form and can be beautiful but you have the opposite opportunity in television. TV allows me as a screenwriter to be much more like a novelist than I’ve ever been able to so the reason Tim’s performance stands out in Tin Star is because he is bringing years and years of ambition and skill as a cinema actor into television and you can see it on screen.

Image - Sky Atlantic

All episodes of Tin Star are available 7 September exclusively on Sky Atlantic and TV streaming service NOW TV.
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