By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 10, 2018
Laeta Kalogridis, the showrunner of the new science-fiction series Altered Carbon - one of Netflix's most expensive original series to date - wishes she knew why people think of science fiction as a male-oriented genre.
"Because then I could say, 'Let's go attack whatever makes people think this,' " she says in a phone interview.
Growing up in the 1970s in Winter Haven, Fla., Kalogridis inhaled science fiction. Her heroes were Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury and Lois McMaster Bujold (author of The Vorkosigan Saga; Kalogridis named her second son after Bujold's hero, Miles). She revered the original Star Trek for its "underpinning of hope." She was compelled by "the human parts of science fiction," she says, "the parts that involved injustice and unfairness, and our drive toward tribalism, as contrasted with our ability to create technology, which almost always outstrips our ability to use it wisely."
In an internship at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Kalogridis was mentored by Allison Shearmur (the late producer of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and an executive producer on The Hunger Games franchise), who taught her that what she loved was what mattered.
She caught her first big break when the producer Lauren Shuler Donner hired her to write an early version of the script that eventually became X-Men (2000). "At that point, no one was going to hire a woman for X-Men," Kalogridis says. "But Lauren did. And even though it wasn't my version that ultimately got made, there wasn't a question in her mind about whether or not I could do it. That stuff interested her, so she didn't see why it shouldn't interest me."
Kalogridis had great experiences working with men: She wrote Shutter Island for Martin Scorsese and worked with James Cameron on Avatar and Terminator Genisys. But it was another woman, Cindy Holland, the vice-president of original content at Netflix, who - despite the fact that Altered Carbon is an usually ambitious undertaking that explores big ideas on enormous sets, with a huge international cast enacting complex fight and sex scenes - believed Kalogridis was the woman for the job.
Set 300 years in the future, in an interplanetary world where humans store their consciousness on "stacks" (metal discs) implanted in their necks that can be repeatedly transferred to new "skins" (bodies) for those rich enough to afford it, Altered Carbon begins with the story of Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a prisoner reanimated by a 1-per-center named Bancroft (James Purefoy) to solve a murder. It then ripples outward to address classism, sexism, racism, economic disparity, the commodification of the flesh, the misguided pursuit of physical perfection and the dangers of immortality. (Its 10-episode first season dropped on Feb. 2.)
"I felt like we were doing Wagner. It was so sweeping in scale," the Canadian actress Kristin Lehman (Motive), who plays Bancroft's wife, Miriam, says in a separate interview in a Toronto hotel. The Vancouver set was "absolutely enormous. Everything you see, we built," she continues. "Which is part of why I wanted to do it. I've made lots of economical television. Here, no expense was spared in crafting a world that people want to get lost in."
To have a woman at the helm was "inspiring," Lehman says. "I could see how hard Laeta was working. She was unapologetic about saying, 'I'm working hard.' She unapologetically did battle to make this show."
When Richard Morgan's novel Altered Carbon came out in 2002, "the ideas of digitizing consciousness, of backing someone up to the cloud, were not in common parlance," Kalogridis says. She tried to buy the rights, but producer Joel Silver had already nabbed them. He wanted to make a tween-rated film, changing the sex workers to lap dancers. When that option lapsed, Kalogridis again contacted Morgan. She didn't have Silver's money, but she did promise to keep the dystopia and its hard-R rating intact. She wrote a script, but it was "too densely packed," she says.
Then peak TV came along, and her stack was reborn.
Kalogridis speaks carefully on the subject of being a woman in the science-fiction television business. "I'm a big believer in intersectionality," she says. "The intersection of being female and a showrunner carries difficult challenges. So does the intersection of female and genre or specialeffects work. There are certain expectations placed on writers if other people have put a value on their gender. I'm aware of the hundreds of tiny differences that happen when people are seeing your gender before they see something else.
I'm also aware that I'm part of a movement, and that I stand on the shoulders of showrunners like Shonda Rhimes [Scandal], Melissa Rosenberg [Jessica Jones] and Lisa Joy [Westworld] - people who have staked their claim in the kinds of places that used to belong only to men."
All that said, Kalogridis did put her stamp on Altered Carbon, and part of "her" is her femaleness. "In the novel, my character chose the body of a 23-year-old," says Lehman, who is 45. "Laeta changed that. She wanted Miriam's point of power to be in her 40s. I thought that was really refreshing, and important to the story."
The show features what Kalogridis calls "equal-opportunity nudity," including full-frontal male nudity. She also cast black, Asian and mixed-race actors in key roles, created one important female character and increased the relevance of another.
"All my women characters are an evolution forward from the noir tradition they grow out of," she says. "But I feel like I have an edge in writing both male and female characters. The dominant culture is male, so I'm steeped in that. I don't have to spend a lot of time figuring out, 'Gosh, I wonder how guys feel,' because most every piece of art I look at invites me into that experience." She laughs. "In sharp contrast to when I was fired off [the 2007 TV series] Bionic Woman because I was told that I did not know how to write women, and was promptly replaced with a guy."
"Yeah," Kalogridis says. "For the pilot, I wrote a scene where the heroine wakes up and finds she's had body parts replaced. I was told it wasn't believable that she wouldn't panic and start screaming. I was like, 'Come on! I'm a cancer survivor. I've had six surgeries. I promise you, her first response isn't a fit of the vapours.' " The network ousted Kalogridis, and in the version that aired (the series only lasted eight episodes) the Bionic Woman freaked out. So a scene in Episode 6 of Altered Carbon, where a woman wakes up with a new body part and does not panic, felt especially sweet to write.
"If I had to pick the thing that's mattered in my career, it's having a genuine interest," Kalogridis says. "I don't want to do this stuff because it's big-budget or popular. I want to do it because I love it.
I'm a geek! I'm a fan girl, I'm very proud of that. Get me near Orlando Jones, it will not be pretty." She chuckles again.
"So if this show moves the needle even the tiniest bit - which is what good science fiction is supposed to do, hold up a mirror to existing society, imagine it through the lens of a new technology and ask, 'How can we be better?' - that's what I'm trying to do," Kalogridis sums up. "If some girl somewhere reads this and decides that she can do it too, that's all I want."
Joel Kinnaman stars in Netflix's Altered Carbon as a prisoner reanimated by a 1-per-center to solve a murder 300 years in the future. Laeta Kalogridis, whose previous writing credits include Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys, worked hard to maintain the dystopian setting and hard-R rating of Richard Morgan's 2002 novel.