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Invisible Chains: AMC Brings "The Prisoner" to Comic-Con

"You only think you're free."

Now that the crazed fan-demonium of Comic-Con '09 has finally died down, this might be an opportune time to praise AMC for offering up a classy and intelligent presentation for their upcoming remake of the landmark sci-fi series The Prisoner. AMC's six-hour mini-series version of The Prisoner will air over three consecutive nights in November, and judging from the nine-minute preview screened during the panel, it has the potential to be one of the most talked-about television events of the Fall season.

Candidly speaking, I went into panel with a great deal of skepticism after having read an extremely mediocre pilot script several years ago. What a splendid surprise it was to discover then how the project has evolved in the capable hands of writer Bill Gallagher (BBC's Conviction), who talked at length during the panel about the challenges of adapting such a complex work. However unlike that early draft I read (which oddly enough seemed to resemble Christopher McQuarrie's upcoming NBC series Persons Unknown more than Patrick McGoohan's cult classic) this 're-imagining' of The Prisoner appears to have captured the unique blend of surrealism and existential paranoia that made the original so memorable.

Joining Gallagher on stage for the panel were AMC's VP of Production Vlad Wolynetz, alongside series stars Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ), Lenny James (Jericho) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd).

Moderated by producer/director Robert Meyer Burnett (Free Enterprise), the thoughtful discussion (detailed below) managed to cover a wide range of topics, including Jim Caviezel's daunting task of stepping into the shoes of McGoohan as Number Six, as well as his experience working with series co-star Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings) who takes on the role of Six's nemesis, the mysterious Number Two.

What follows is a complete transcript of the entire panel for The Prisoner, along with the nine-minute preview clip and full video for the panel.

The panel began with a brief introduction by Rob Meyer Burnett, followed by the nine-minute preview reel:

Robert Meyer Burnett: [The] Prisoner is one of the most influential television shows ever created. We feel its reverberations in The X-Files, LOST, it's even name-checked on The Simpsons. Now, AMC, known for their shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men [applause] ...they've really done some bold moves in terms of episodic television and for them to take on The Prisoner -- they're probably the best network to make this show. So what we're gonna do, we're gonna show you a 9-minute reel of material. And then I'm gonna bring up some of the cast, and some people from AMC and we're gonna do a conversation about the show, the making of the show. And then at the end of the presentation we have an exclusive clip from the show that stars Ian McKellen. So without further adieu let's start the nine-minute reel and you will see your first glimpse of The Prisoner.

The Prisoner: Exclusive Preview from Comic-Con:

RMB: I think we should start by asking Bill Gallagher, the screenwriter who boldly re-imagined the series, how did it begin, how did you start?

Bill Gallagher: [It] started because Grenada Television, I got a call, I was walking home one evening, I got a call, 'would you like to do a remake of the the Prisoner?' And I was so shocked by this thought, that I had to walk down this little alley way, I found myself in this dark little alleyway, talking to this guy i didn't know about redoing The Prisoner. And what came back to me was, you know I won't claim to be a great dedicated fan of The Prisoner all through my life, but what happened was, I remembered when i saw it as a child, and I didn't understand it, but I feel at the time it absolutely haunted me in ways I couldn't comprehend and it had an impact on me that didn't go away. It stayed with me for a long time and when I was asked, that came back to me very powerfully and, you know, it was an opportunity I just couldn't say no to. And it was that that I wanted to go after, that feeling of a drama that speaks to our unconscious, a drama that doesn't do what all the other dramas do on television. It was such a unique opportunity I couldn't say no, so I said yes. And then I got terrified.

RMB: Now Vlad, [how] did AMC decide, yes, we are going to do The Prisoner?

Vlad Wolynetz: Well, I remember coming in for the initial pitch [and] I was actually kind of terrified by the idea. Terrified by the idea of touching something that was so emotionally bound to so many people, each of whom have a really individual take on what it means to the person. The emotional investment is very intense and a little intimidating. But we were in a position, after having done Mad Men, and we had just done the Breaking Bad pilot at that point, where everything we did was about men in dissent-- dissenting with their surroundings, whether its Don Draper, or whether it's Walter White. And we had the wonderful, wonderful advantage of being able to swing for the fences, with the things that we do. We needed to become distinct in a hurry. A lot of other great TV companies build their models over time and gradually find their voice. We had to clear our throat really quickly and scream it out loud and The Prisoner was the perfect vehicle for it.

RMB: Jim, the new Number Six, were you familiar with show, with the old original series? And when you were cast, did you go back and watch the original?

Jim Caviezel: No, we're still working on it right now, and I never want to be accused of copying anybody, especially Patrick McGoohan. It's a remake, but this is more of a recreation of it. It keeps the spirit of the old, but these are different times we're living in. and when my agent Brian Mann brought me the material, I actually was going to shoot another movie, but there was a glitch in the financing, and he says, you gotta read this -- so I read a couple of the episodes and said those are amazing. [And then] he said, 'here's two more and they are even better.' And it just was really a no-brainer to want to be a part of this project. It's such a part of what's going on in the world today.

RMB: Jamie, your character, you play Number Two's son. Now one of the different, interesting things that's happening with this show is that Number Two's family play a big role. Now what was it like for you? Were you familiar with the original show?

Jamie Campbell Bower: Yeah, I was aware of the original show actually. When I was at school, I had this teacher show it to us when i was about 13 or 12, and so I was aware of the idea of this show, on what it was focused on [and] I remember when I read the script. I'm dyslexic, so when i read things, I'm a bit detached. When I got the script for The Prisoner, I remember going through the first sides I got for the audition and just being really moved. Particularly by the idea of family focused upon in the show... that really struck a chord with me.

RMB: And what is your character's number?

Bower: 11-12.

RMB: Now, Lenny, you are a denizen of the Village. Talk about your involvement. First of all, what is your character's number?

Lenny James: I am 147, and everybody tries to figure what their numbers mean about them. And they do. But they don't. Ponder that one. I was like everybody else. When the idea of doing this new reworking of the The Prisoner came along, it's one of those things where if you get the chance to do it, you can't say no. And they did a very sneaky thing with us, which is, they told us it was a six part series and they only sent us five scripts. Know what I mean? So you've gotta do the job to find out how it ends. So that's how I ended up being involved.

RMB: One of the really interesting things about this adaptation is that it was shot in Africa. It was shot in Namibia and it was shot in Cape Town...

Gallagher: [I] wanted to create this environment where there was absolutely no possibility of physical escape. So I created this environment where there was miles and miles and miles of desert, and miles and miles and miles of mountains. Because I wanted Six to very quickly face the prospect that he wasn't going to get out of here physically. So the question would go from where am I? Where is the village? To what is the village? .. and having done that... we found this place called Swakopmund in Namibia... We found this little German settlement that was built in 1910, and when you go there you want to escape... But it was perfect...

RMB: Vlad, talk about how everybody went a little mad in their own way during the shoot.

Wolynetz: If there's a thing that this production has in common with the original, it is that everyone here has danced along the precipice of madness while making this thing. Trying to unravel what Patrick McGoohan's original intent has bedeviled people for 40 years, and it sure as hell has bedeviled us for the last two... And in the process we have created our own cascade of fiascos in the making of a wonderful film...

RMB: Was it easy when you're out there [in the deserts of Swakopmund] to put yourself in Six's mindset, Jim?

Caviezel: I was just trying to survive, you know. Three or four of the biggest films I've ever done have just been murder. I remember saying to my friend, John, I said, 'this is murder.' And he said, 'Well I guess it's gonna be really good then.' Swakopmund is an extraordinary town.

RMB: Lenny, any crazy stories?

James: There's lots of crazy stories, but I can't tell you any of them, because I'll get sued... It was a lot like... a kind of phrase that went across the cast and crew while we were shooting it... Anything that was slightly strange, unexplainable, or out-of-the-ordinary, and we would say, 'That was very village.' And Swakopmund was very Village.

RMB: Bill, in the 40 years the since original series [our culture] has changed tremendously. [How] did that affect the philosophy of the new Prisoner?

Gallagher: I think the first thing I want to say is, what comes to mind is, Patrick McGoohan said when they rolled the final credits on his series, rather then having a 'The End' card, the card should say 'The Beginning.' The reason he said that is because he claimed that we continue to be prisoners of society... And I found this quote a long time after I had written the script, but it kind of describes what i was after: McGoohan said, "You still want to know its message? The most dangerous thing in the world is an attitude of the mind." And I found that fascinating so when i started on my version of The Prisoner I knew I couldn't compete with what Patrick McGoohan had done, so I had to respond to it.

And I wasn't really interested in what I think of as the kind of superficial things like surveillance and conspiracy, as interesting as those things are. And they are a part of the series. I was interested in what has happened to us since then. McGoohan's version was about the assertion of the individual and freedom from the class society, freedom from authority. And I was interested in what has happened since then and one way of looking at it is that the individual is king. We are all kind of desperately asserting our own individuality. And I was interested in, well, what are the costs of that? How does that effect us? And what if rather than being under surveillance, what if we were under observation? And what if that observation tells us something about ourselves? What if that degree of individualism and selfish is dangerous? What if it's reaching a breaking point?

And that was the underlying premise of my approach to the The Prisoner. So yes, there's surveillance. There's surveillance in the village. There's surveillance in our world. But what if it's about more than that? What if it's about what's going on inside of us? What if it's a kind of evolutionary change that isn't so good for us. So that was my approach to those kind of things. So yes it has contemporary references, just as McGoohan's Prisoner did. But it also has universal themes in it. And so that was my approach to it. To respond to it rather than to repeat it.

RMB: Vlad, was Patrick McGoohan aware of the show? And did he give it his blessing?

Wolynetz: He was aware of the show. I spoke to him, which was a pretty interesting phone conversation... we had actually hoped very much to get him in the show, for a small part. This was not too long before he passed away... He asked, "Who is playing Six?" [I said] Jim Caveziel is playing him. [McGoohan responded]: "Oh, Mel loves him, he'll be great... You know... I should be playing Two... but Ian will be pretty good." [Laughter] So he seemed very enthusiastic.

RMB: Well, Jim, I think at the core of The Prisoner is always Six's struggle against Two, and you got Gandalf, you got Magneto. How do you go up against a character like that? And how was it working with Sir Ian McKellen?

Caviezel: Well, you listen a lot if you're smart. He has great wisdom as an actor. He made me better. And you know, just listening to what Bill was saying about surveillance... I happened to be in a motorcycle accident last week and I'm thinking, here I am in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, having a great time, and then I'm in an ambulance. And then a lady asks me, so do you want us to check you out? And I'm thinking no, because if you do that then my name goes into a system and I don't really feel that messed up... And then I woke up in the morning and wham! 50 phone calls on my cell phone... and just how something like that gets translated to Jim Cavaziel in a hospital and Jim Caveziel is dead, and I was thinking about here I am now at Comic-Con, explaining it to you... and how in one second... You know, when I have a glass of wine now, I have one of those breathers that I put in my car to make sure I'm not over the limit because the next day it's gonna be-- 'Jesus was busted for drunk driving.' [Laughter]

RMB: Jamie, what was it like having Magneto as your father?

Campbell Bower: Pretty cool. It was such a pleasure working with Ian. He is one of the finest actors who has ever lived and I feel so blessed to be able to learn from someone of that caliber. And he really helped me grow and develop not only as an actor but as a person, to find out what I want to become. Because he's such a gentlemen, he has this grace about him. so unforced. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I'm forcing myself to become graceful. Amazing. Just a lovely, lovely guy. And we're still close and I still see him London, which is lovely...

James: He's alright... [Laughter] He's not as tall as he thinks he is... No, seriously, one of the things that was fantastic about the whole situation is that pretty soon he's just another member of the cast. He doesn't walk around expecting to be treated any differently. And we had a really, really interesting story to tell. I think one of the reasons that The Prisoner was so successful and had such longevity, and people have been trying to do a new version of it, is it's a really, really fantastic story... it's a very simple, straightforward premise-- a man retires from his job and wakes up the next morning , and he's in a place called the Village he can't escape from, and he doesn't know if he's a alive or dead, doesn't know if this is purgatory or a grave or a prison.

And although it's called The Prisoner, one of the things that is fantastic about the version that Bill has written this time around is that you are following the big battle between Two and Six, but there's also the lives of the other prisoners. And I play a guy called 147 and he's kind of a local taxi driver, and his journey is very interesting in his relations with Six because he's a man who is totally content with his life in the Village. Until he meets Six, and Six has to wake him up. And if the people in the Village say don't go over that wall, 147 is the guy who is gonna not go over that wall. He's not the guy who's gonna peak over... and how many of us have that kind of feeling in life as well? So you're following lots of different people's versions of what is their prison, and how Six kind of wakes everybody up to their situation.

RMB: Back to Vlad and Bill. What were some of the biggest challenges to re-imagining the story for modern audiences? Obviously we see Rover in the clip... How much of the old show did you retain?

Wolynetz: Rover was probably one of the greatest debates that went on and on and on.. Rover was hotly debated, [but] ultimately it's the same Rover, although we have added a couple of things. You saw him get super-massive and there are a couple of other things he does that will hopefully surprise you... Ultimately you have to respect the original, but you can't be afraid of it or intimidated by it. You are making a new film. We are making our Prisoner.

Gallagher: One of the things I would say about the presence of the original in this version is that, McGoohan said, above all else, it's an entertainment, it's a ride. So I wanted to have fun with that, to have fun with those elements in the original. So sometimes there are elements in the story, there are are little hints of old episodes that are part of our episodes... but also there are things like, in one episode Six goes to a place called 'Escape Resort' and when you get there, it's like the original Prisoner, people are dressed like the original Prisoner, so it was having some fun with it... little lines of dialogue, little moments of character, constantly kind of dipping back into the original. And one of the decisions I made early on was about Number Two.

In the original series, it was a great idea that every week there was another Number Two. The idea was that every week Six sees off the authority figure, so they replace him with another authority figure. But I thought, what happens if he stays through the whole series and we get to know him more and more and we see his moral challenges. And then what if he's got a family? Because it would be easy enough to create a dictator, a kind of two-dimensional dictator. But what about his story? About his journey? Why is he doing it and what are the costs to him...? To give Number Two his own moral challenges throughout the series and then of course, the upside of that is, if you've got a big part like that, you get to get an actor like Ian Mckellen. So we were constantly looking back to the original to make decisions... They made that decision, what decision are we going to make?

RMB: Jim, what was it like when you were working with Ian? Where you have this escalating battle of wits between these two men...? Did it get more and more tense as it went along? And did you like each other by the end?

Caviezel: I still hate him. He's so good. You know it all starts with the writing. Bill Gallagher here wrote something very special, and then Ian McKellen wanted me for the project and I remember sitting in rehearsal saying to Ian... he says, 'How are you feeling?' And I said, 'I am incredibly nervous and very scared.' And he said, 'Oh, darling, that never leaves.' [Laughter] So I felt a great comradeship with him. What was exciting about this piece, and it was never intended to be this way, is that I always felt like we were playing form behind. In other words, it was like in 48 hours we had to put this material together and, Vlad, I thought we were making Mad Men... I mean, we are the 'mad men.' I was a bit nervous and didn't know if it was any good. I couldn't feel it. I felt like the ball was coming and I couldn't see it, and I think that energy... Ian mentioned to me, just keep using it. And of course we had a great cast. Lenny and Jamie here are brilliant actors, and so I felt like I was surrounded by people who were going to make me better. So I think this is going to be something very, very special.

RMB: Jamie... The Prisoner was a show that came out of the 1960s. What do you think that it means for audiences today? What would you hope that the audiences would take away from this new adaptation?

Campbell Bower: Well, to begin with, I think particularly in England at the moment, there's a lot of stuff on television that you don't really have to think about. It's background stuff. You can be making some tea, and you can understand what's going on without even looking at the screen, or listening even. It just goes in like a sponge. And i think with this, it's so clever, that you have to watch and I don't think that you can not watch. It draws you in so much. And one of the things that I really hope it does is just make people try and understand what it is that they are seeing. And to try and listen and be involved in the story... and this is a really great story... in the 60s it was stuff that people could relate to in the 60s. We're in 2009, it's stuff that people can relate to now.

RMB: Lenny... in our post-9/11 world, there's a lot of craziness. Does the new show reflect our modern era?

James: I think you're in a situation with this one where it's written very much of the time now... yes, it's a post-9/11 project because that's there now. It's in our senses. People are much more aware... of the fragility of ourselves but also how much we're now connected, so much to each other across the world now, we're... but also I think that what Bill said is absolutely right as well. First and foremost it's a piece of entertainment... it's a real kind of page-turner and has what's exciting about a page turner, it makes you sweat... I guarantee you are not going to know what happens next. And you trying to guess what happens next is half the fun of watching The Prisoner because you're not going to know... you're gonna freak!

RMB: Bill, you were talking about, this isn't really a political piece?

Gallagher: Not politics in that politicians kind of way. When I thought about it, it would feel to me less, if it were a piece about blame. About them plotting against us. That's in it... and that's interesting in itself, but there's more that's interesting... You know, and I include myself in this, I think in recent years we've become more selfish. We all want more, and we live by fixes, both here in and in the Village... The hero of our story wants to get away, but what does he want to get away from?

So that seems to me to be more than politics if that makes sense. And, you know, the series is episodic and there's one big story that runs through it, but each episode has it's own thematic concerns, so we look at education, we look at family, we look at love, we look at fate, we look at community, but it's how we look at those things, how we look at them in the Village. What is eduction in the Village? And what does that tell us about our ideas of education?

So politics, conspiracy, surveillance, all those things crank the story along. There is surveillance in the Village, but it's not surveillance as you might think... So it's just constantly trying to push it. As Lenny said, how do we do this so we don't know what's going on and what's going to happen next? It's going to be mind-bending, mind-boggling... and you know, the other thing is that in all of this, it's just a simple story about a man who doesn't feel like he belongs.

RMB: Vlad, how is AMC going to air the show?

Wolynetz: It's going to be on three consecutive nights... there are episodic breaks in the middle, but its going to run across two hours... But it's extremely well-paced for two hours. [And] what I'm most proud of from a technical level... the aesthetic of The Prisoner is absolutely stunning... We have a great cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister, who just shot the hell out of that place. You're going to see things that don't belong on television in the sense of the size of the box. These are beautiful, beautiful cinematic vista shots that really sell home all the dramatic ideas we've been talking about... wonderful stuff.

Caviezel: [Just as] Vlad said, to me it's a six hour movie with two intermissions, same director, shot on 35mm, in beautiful scope. I remember Mel Gibson first mentioned something to me about The Prisoner. I asked him about Patrick McGoohan when we were talking about Braveheart. So when this came to me, I remember thinking that this is really going to be a challenge. It's that feeling you have where you think you might fail. And at that point, it's like this is something that I gotta do. These types of projects come around, not very often. So I feel that what we've done is very special. I really believe, coming this fall, you'll never see anything like this on television. This is very unusual. You don't know where the story is going to go. And I'm glad I was a part of it...

If that weren't enough, you can watch the full video of the entire Prisoner panel from this weekend at Comic-Con (thanks to the good folks at AMC) below:

The Prisoner Comic-Con Panel:

The Prisoner launches in November on AMC.

Written and reported by Mark DiFruscio


J.P. said…
I had no idea that Ian McKellen was in this. Very cool. AMC is really stepping up their game.

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