Rome – During a recent visit to Rome I got a glimpse into what exactly Netflix would be bringing to our screens over the next few months.
One of those sneak peeks included a look at the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage as well as the opportunity to chat to actress and director Lucy Liu, and writer and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker.
The very first episode of the second season of the show was directed by Lucy and written by Cheo.
In season two of the popular superhero series Cage (Mike Colter) becomes a hero and celebrity in Harlem after clearing his name…but now he faces a new threat. Cheo revealed in a tweet on 7 March that all the episodes of the second season would be named after Pete Rock & CL Smooth songs – in keeping with the shows homage to '90s hip-hop and soul.
But what exactly is the secret recipe behind the success of the show that caused Netflix to crash for about 2 hours during the release of its first season? Making it the first show to ever do so.
Lucy explains; "The show has all of your senses being tingled. When you watch Luke Cage…you taste it…you can smell it…it’s not just a visual thing. You are being stimulated in all ways. There’s a flavour to the show that’s very specific and that you don’t find in any other show. I think that’s very inherent in the culture outside of just the music and everything else. That’s a very specific thing. We’re not hiding from that culture. Which I love. Because a lot of people try to make it more commercial. We don’t."
ON WORKING TOGETHER
According to Lucy her agent first approached her about the show and once she heard that Cheo was involved she instantly said she wanted to join the project.
"We got on Skype and we had a creative conversation with all of his (Cheo’s) writers and producers in the room and they asked me very good questions. Like, how can we make the stunts more visceral? How would you do that? How would you approach talking to actors and making that connection? What I suggested, from what I knew about the show and from my own experience, was something that connected with them.
"For me…I really like to see actors together in a room. I don’t want to see cutaways…and different footage. I want to see them connected and working together because you get a very different reaction when you see actors on at the same time. Everyone had to be on at the same time and the camera was rolling and it really creates an excitement and energy that you can’t get if you are just doing coverage. You have to be connected to everything in a scene. It creates a different kind of acting, that’s what I think."
Cheo agrees and says his bond with Lucy comes from working together before on shows like the crime drama series, Southland: "That was exactly what we experienced together on the set of Southland. It was the same kind of rules on Southland because it was shot in a very documentary style. You didn’t always know where the camera was. Things would move so quickly and if you were late on set you’d miss the scene. So I knew because of those experiences and having written for Lucy on that show and watching her interactions on the set – that she was just immediately going to get that with our show. That shared experiences definitely helped. I think it was really valuable."
(Cheo Hodari Coker on set with Mike Colter. Photo: David Lee/Netflix)
ON HOW TO CAPTURE THE STORY
According to Lucy the ideas start flowing from the first moment she picks up the script. "When I read a script I immediately make notes the first time I read it because that’s the first clear thoughts you have before going back and forgetting some of the ideas that you have. Sometimes you think of something as a close-up from the beginning or you see it as a wide-shot until a certain point when you want to move in.
"It’s sort of that idea of Italian directing way back when they had the cameras on a wide-shot the whole time. Isabella Rossellini once spoke about Italian cinema and she was talking about how her father [Roberto Rossellini] would always do these beautiful wide-shots and people wanted to know why he decided on doing mostly wide-shots and she said it was because they honestly had very little budget – so they always kept it on a wide because they had to. I think there was something cinematic about that."
She adds; "You’re trusting the audience and the audience is leaning in almost a little bit more because they want to hear what you have to say because you’re not right there in their face and when you do go into their face it better be something that you really want them to see and understand and feel but not until then. You know when someone goes around a corner and the audience sort of leans to the side…that’s what I want."
(Lucy Liu attends the Luke Cage season 2 premiere. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage/Getty Images)
With the migration of high quality productions from the big screen to the small screen comes both big challenges and great opportunities.
For Lucy this shift offers the opportunity to tell stories that previously maybe wouldn’t have seen the light; "There’s firstly not enough roles for women and not enough roles for minorities. There isn’t much diversity. Hollywood has changed because the budgets have changed. They need to make money and they're losing money on these other smaller films. So it’s gone from either huge blockbusters or you’re making it for $10. You know what I mean? It’s very difficult, so a lot have gone to SVOD (Subscription Video on demand) and other ways to show their work. Because ultimately what you want to do is share your work."
Cheo echoes this sentiment and likens it to the shift cinema saw in the 70s when studio films underwent a dramatic change; "Ultimately people want authenticity. When you think about The Godfather and what Francis Ford Coppola did. He was part of the new wave of Hollywood filmmaking. Back then conventional wisdom was always that mob movies didn’t work…that they were awful. But none of the directors or writers came from the Italian-American experience. Because there were so few Italian-American directors. Then came Coppola and he brought a flavour to it and authenticity. There were things he added to the film…like letting his father do the music…and the scene with the sandwiches…little things from his childhood…it just hit a vein and all of a sudden things changed.
"And you’re seeing that again now with what we’re doing with Luke Cage and what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther. People want authentic experiences. Not only are you seeing that on a cultural level but you’re also seeing female directors directing females in action movies because again there’s going to be nuances that they are going to bring to the story. But at the same time that shouldn’t be something that locks you in.
"People should be allowed to tell any story they want but at the same time I think that it’s important to acknowledge the fact that people that hadn’t had an opportunity until this point should now be getting this opportunity. All Hollywood cares about is ‘green’ anyway. As long as it’s working it just helps open things up for people that have never had the opportunity to tell these stories in the first place.”
(Cheo Hodari Coker and Mustafa Shakir on set of Luke Cage. Photo: Cara Howe/Netflix)
ON GOING GLOBAL
Similarly a lot of African-American projects never went outside the borders of the USA mostly just because the decision-makers believed they wouldn’t be of interest to a global audience, says Cheo. This however has changed in recent years with the introduction of global TV services like Netflix.
“It used to be that you had to prove yourself in one place and then if it was such an overwhelming success that would give you the opportunity to go to one half of the world and then if you could achieve success there you could go to the other half of the world,” Cheo explains.
He adds; “Because black culture and music is so kind of like specific the whole notion was…they would say…black doesn’t travel. So there were pieces of African-American content that wouldn’t cross-over. But that changes if you open up to the entire world and hit it simultaneously, as we are able to do with Netflix. It allows you to avoid artificial barriers and get past stereotypes in order to deliver a show like this uncut around the world. It allows people to discover it on their own terms.
“Like when we disrupted Netflix with the release of season 1 of Luke Cage when the show came out and the service shut down because around the world there was enough interest and simultaneously and it overloaded things. Everybody in the world was more interested than people thought in this one thing. That’s the perfect storm.”
Luke Cage season 2 is available on Netflix now. Click here to watch it.
Channel24’s trip to Rome was sponsored by Netflix.