Taking Alias Grace from page to screen

With production just wrapped on the six-part miniseries, Noreen Halpern talks pitching Netflix, mammoth crews and top-to-bottom Canadian productions.

02-23-12noreen-halpernWith 71 cast members, 26 stunt performers and a crew count that peaked at 250, Alias Grace is a Canadian TV project of rare magnitude.

Shooting on the six-part miniseries, a co-commission from CBC and Netflix, wrapped last week after a three-month filming stint that took its stacked cast (Sarah Gadon, Anna Paquin, Paul Gross) and crew across various locations in Ontario.

Written by Sarah Polley, who optioned the rights to Margaret Atwood’s novel years previously, and directed by Mary Harron, the project tells the true story of a young Irish immigrant, Grace Marks, who is convicted of the brutal murder of her employer and his lover. Atwood’s novel, released in 1996, is set in Canada in the 1840s.

Polley first brought the project to Halfire Entertainment’s Noreen Halpern (pictured) nearly three years ago with a clear memo: we will only make this if we can put together the appropriate financing.

“This came down to, could we make the sale we needed in the U.S. or the U.K.,” Halpern told Playback Daily on set at Toronto’s Revival Studio. In the early development stages, Halpern said there were discussions about potentially making Alias as a Canada/England coproduction. However, this idea apparently went out the window when Sarah Gadon, the first actor the casting team saw, auditioned for the role. When the casting team saw that Gadon could convincingly pull off the 16-year-old heroine Grace Marks, Halpern said they realized the rest of the cast would fall into place around her.

Next came the sale they needed.

With CBC already on board, Halpern, Polley and Harron headed to L.A. to pitch the project to potential partners. The trio spent a full day in Halpern’s backyard rehearsing the pitch, which focused on the contemporary relevance of the story to modern audiences. Halpern said the pitch was influenced by the podcast “Serial” and the OJ Simpson trial – the former for the ‘did-they-didn’t-they-do-it?’ argument it raises, and the latter for the societal divisions it revealed.

The first of nine meetings was with Netflix’s Elizabeth Bradley (VP, content) and Angela Jones (‎director, business and legal affairs, content acquisition), who understood the pitch straight away, said Halpern.

Coming out of the meeting, Halpern said they knew the SVOD was the right partner for the miniseries. Three days later – after taking the remaining eight meetings – they had an offer from Netflix. At the time, the project was the first co-commission between CBC and Netflix. The series is a 10-out-of-10 Canadian production, despite the involvement of Netflix.

Partnerships such as this are an example of the positive impact of that over-worn expression “Peak TV,” said Halpern.

“Everyone’s tired of hearing about the golden age of television, but what’s great is a show that’s only six episodes can get made,” said Halpern.

“We’re approaching this like it’s a big feature film – one director, one editor,” said Halpern, adding that most of the department heads come from movies, as opposed to television.

Along the way, David Cronenberg was added to the cast alongside Zachary Levi (Chuck), Edward Holcroft (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Kerr Logan (Game of Thrones) and Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini and Doyle). Atwood, too, will make a cameo.

With filming now complete, Alias is headed into a lengthy post-production stint, with the producers scheduled to deliver in June 2017. At this stage a premiere date has not yet been set, though fall 2017 or January 2018 are likely. When it does launch, series will debut simultaneously on Netflix (excluding Canada) and CBC. CBC did not disclose the budget for the production.

Alias Grace is produced by Polley and DJ Carson and exec produced by Polley, Harron and Halpern.