I was wowed by the opening episode of Thirteen last week and I really wanted to talk to writer, Marnie Dickens, about the project. It was such an emotional, interesting, tense and multi-layered drama that I wanted to ask her about how she constructed it all, and, of course, about the central character – Ivy Moxam – who emerged from the tiny room she had been kept in for 13 years against her will into a much-changed world. I enjoy talking to writers – you can really dig into a subject and they’re always interesting – and it was a real treat to talk to Marnie, one of this country’s rising stars. Over the jump she talks about Ivy, the show and some really interesting behind-the-scenes writer stuff about process and getting a story from page to screen.
The Killing Times: Where did you get the idea for Thirteen from?
Marnie Dickens: Obviously there has been lots of real-life stories, but it wasn’t so much that was what the springboard was… people tend to be more interested in people’s time in captivity, but for me I was much more interested in what happens next and how a person re-enters a world that they’ve been kept away from for so long. So I really started with that idea and built the show around that.
TKT: I want to talk to you a bit about identity. A lot of crime dramas show their main characters undergo a transformation in rites of passages kind of stories, but Ivy’s story sees her almost start off from scratch. It seems to me that kidnapping and forced confinement strips away one’s identity, and erases what happened to a person before that. Can you talk a bit about Ivy and her identity?
MD: You put it very well. The thing with Ivy is that she’s been frozen in time as a 13-year-old, so when she comes out in episode one she has to scramble around for her identity. She tries to be all things to be all people – in the family home she’s the young daughter, and then with Tim almost a young girlfriend, and then with the police it’s interesting because she looks to them to see how they interact with each other to try to understand how to be a grown woman. She looks at DS Merchant almost how to be an adult. She flips between them because she doesn’t have a concrete one herself, and that is a big part of the journey for Ivy during the series – trying to rediscover who she is.
TKT: It’s interesting, because you mention the police characters – one of them is highly suspicious of Ivy, and the other is highly sympathetic and desperate to help her. And we’re like that too – we’re sympathetic to her because of the hardships she’s been through but then we’re plunged into this kind of tug-of-war, not knowing if she says who she is. Can you tell us why you made the decision to do this?
MD: I think it felt very natural and fitted the character. Because she had been away for such a long period of time, there were going to have to be questions about her reappearance. This was one of the initial pole we built the whole drama around – this question about identity and is what she’s saying the truth. It just became a very interesting way to write the character because it meant that there were so many different layers to what Ivy was saying. We were so lucky to get someone as great as Jodie [Comer] because she’s always playing about six different things, and often a lot of it isn’t clear to the audience yet because there’s a lot more to come. So it felt like a naturally dramatic question – is this person who she says she is?
TKT: Did you mean to start this off as a thriller? Or was it something else in its early gestation period?
MD: It always went hand in hand. It was always a thriller because that’s the genre I enjoy reading and I enjoy writing, but I never wanted her not to be believable or someone you care about. So I wanted to have this thriller spine, which kept the audience – hopefully – guessing and on the edge of their seats, and equally a proper relationship drama where you care about the characters.
TKT: The peripheral characters are interesting because it seemed to me watching the first episode that Ivy was actually quite neutral, almost passive, and everyone else around her was trying to get her to be what they wanted her to be…
MD: That’s absolutely right, and you were spot-on in your review. It’s exactly that. Everyone is putting stuff onto her, so she’s almost translucent.
TKT: I’m interested in the writing process… is this the way you build suspense: have a central character who knows the real truth, and then the rest of the cast frantically guessing, coming up with their own version of that truth?
MD: It’s funny because it struck us very strongly at the very first read through when Jodie spoke, she actually doesn’t have that much dialogue, certainly not in the first couple of episodes. Part of that is from the help we’ve had from our psychologist advisor, who told us Ivy wouldn’t be the most verbose person coming out of that situation and also, dramatically, it was a good way to show everyone’s agendas when it came to Ivy. But it really does come down to the fact that you need to have an actress who can pull off so much with so little.
TKT: You mentioned layers earlier, and there seems to be layers galore here that will be peeled back as the episodes go by. Can you tell us about the layering process in a thriller like this? Do you like to start at the end and work backwards, for instance?
MD: I did know how and when it was going to end, so I did have an end point. I know some writers find it as they go along, and find that approach quite liberating. But I needed to know exactly what was going to happen in the end. Once I knew that, I worked chronologically through each episode. The way I do it is work with my script editor, my boss – it’s not just me claiming all the glory! – and I like to work story by story. So I started with Ivy and the thriller spine. Essentially that story, the thriller story, and the police investigation, is always going to deliver the biggest twists and turns. That’s the genre driver. Once I had that in place, everything around it felt like hard and knotty – clues and plants and things like that. But when it came to the characters and what was going to happen to them it felt like a treat when I came to it, because it was all relationship stuff. The stakes were raised because of the genre spine.
TKT: One of the things I really liked about how the believable the characters were, and how their relationships have developed since Ivy’s kidnapping. Can you talk to us about her mum, her dad, her sister’s development?
MD: There were separate timelines for them in the 13 years since she had been gone. Obviously what had happened to Ivy was very different. I wanted to know – and the actors needed to know – what the characters had been doing since she had been gone. It’s a long time to stay grief-stricken and looking for Ivy. That’s fairly unbelievable you sustain that for 13 years. So it was about working out what the key moments in that time period were. For Christina and Angus it was his affair with Sophia and how it impacted their marriage and then what happened to him and Emma’s relationship. You get the sense that their father-and-daughter relationship has been just as damaged as him and Christina’s. Once I knew that I wanted Angus out of the house, it was just then about working out the layers around that.
TKT: Did you have an idea in your head who was going to play Ivy?
MD: No, I never did. I know that some writers write with specific actors in mind, but I just think you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you do that. It’s also quite limiting, because sometimes actors get cast for the same thing because they’re good at it, so if you imagine you want this person because they’re really good at something then it might be more interesting if you go for someone who doesn’t traditionally do that. I find it better to write the character as a real person, who’s not an actor. With Ivy it was the most important part, so if we got the wrong person it wouldn’t have worked. I loved Jodie from My Mad Fat Diary and also Remember Me, and quite early on she was brought into the mix when we were compiling our fantasy list of actresses to play Ivy. She is younger than Ivy – she’s 22, I think – but in the end that worked really well, because she has a kind of childlike face to her that really does work for the character. When I saw her on the casting tapes, I just thought she was incredible, especially the audition. She did a scene with her and the character Tim and it moved me to tears. I asked my boss if it was narcissistic to cry at your own prose, but I wasn’t crying at the writing, it was Jodie’s performance. I feel so lucky to have her as part of the show.
TKT: As a young writer, can you tell us the process of getting something from page to screen?
MD: It didn’t feel any harder because I’m younger. I mean, it’s difficult because I only experience things as I experience them. So I had the idea in 2013, and I’ve been told that from then to now has been quite a quick process, although it hasn’t felt that quick. Because it was a serial drama, it required a lot of top-heavy planning, so we were working and re-working the serial pitch document a lot before we even got an episode one script commission. Often with series drama, you don’t have to work everything out to the letter. With this we did. It was very unexpected at the time because I was writing episode two, and then they told us BBC3 wanted it. It’s hard to get anything made in TV, so I just feel lucky, but the process didn’t feel hard. Other people have told me that three years is quick.
TKT: I’m intrigued by your new project Forty Elephants, about a female gang operating in 20th century Soho. Can you tell us at what stage that is and how that’s going?
MD: That’s in with the BBC and is at script stage, and it’s one of the first scripts I’ve ever written. It has gone through lots of changes since, but it’s a bit of a passion project of mine. It’s so hard to think what will ‘go’ next. It’s very hard to guess – in TV, it’s never the things you guess that get momentum. I’ve written something recently that I’m excited about, which is a feminist, deep period drama. When I say deep, I mean deep history – it goes to the BC period. Ancient, ancient history, but feels modern. I’m excited about that and it’s getting some momentum. I just want to write more shows.
Interview by Paul Hirons (@Son_Of_Ray)
Thirteen continues on BBC3, every Sunday. Episode one is on BBC2 on Sunday 6th March, 10pm
For our episode one review, go here