Big bangs for small change: bringing back “The Wrong Mans” on a budget

The following first appeared in Broadcast Magazine in Dec 2014

“Write what you know”. That’s the old adage, isn’t it?

“Don’t blame us, we just wrote it.”

Happily, for most of us, the list of things we know doesn’t include accidentally kidnapping the nephew of a Chinese underworld boss; being chased down the A329 to Bracknell by a helicopter gunship; or jumping off a 30-foot-high railway bridge into a moving freight train. Unhappily for me, those were precisely some of the challenges presented by James Corden and Mathew Baynton’s scripts for the first series of The Wrong Mans (currently available on iPlayer). They had ignored the hell out of the old adage.

But then the worst possible thing happened: we pulled it off. We’d made a Comedy/Thriller on a budget that was Laughable/Terrifying. So news of a second series commission was bittersweet. Bigger laughs please! Bigger explosions! Bigger audiences! Same money!

The Wrong Mans Season 2
If you do this with your hands, it looks like you know what you’re doing.

There are days where I wonder what on earth we were thinking. Days where I’m crouched in the hull of a Lithuanian cargo plane trying to figure out how not to decapitate a stuntman on a motorbike (solution: ask them to duck); or trying to approximate a US maximum security prison in downtown Johannesburg (solution: just film in a real prison – they’re not short on those sadly); or avoiding being bitten by a Black Mamba in an abandoned mineshaft (solution: send the location manager down first).

“Off you go, Elliot. Good luck.”

We had wondered how we could start again, after everything Sam and Phil went through in the first go-around. After much navel-gazing with the boys – along with the rest of The Wrong Mans hive mind, co-writer Tom Basden and script editor Jeremy Dyson – it became clear that the only way to make the new series fresh and satisfying, was strangely not to start anew but instead to continue where we left off. However, this time, instead of the danger coming to Sam and Phil, they find themselves a long way from home and decide to wade into deeper waters of their own accord. This gave us license to open up the show to a whole new set of environments and scenarios. It meant filming abroad. It meant finding an exciting and authentic new cast. It meant once again setting out to achieve a little too much for very much too little.

Texas in the heart of South Africa.

So it was in May of this year I found myself, inadequately dressed, on the edge of the Kalahari, scouting locations for our new unaffordable adventure. Although the new series is not set in South Africa, the pick-and-mix of different visuals and resources we needed – from the aforementioned tunnels and prisons to remote desert roads and Slovenian chemical factories – brought us to the eclectic environs of Johannesburg. There, with the assistance of an enthusiastic local crew base, the generosity and welcoming attitude of the South African DTI, and – let’s be honest – a pretty fantastic exchange rate, we found we were able to execute our ambitious plan. But we had saved our most exciting, exotic location for last, as we returned to the UK and brought the show to Bracknell to film its finale. (The show’s finale, that is. As far as I’m aware, Bracknell’s still in one piece).

For all the production headaches, the low-points, the compromises, the sleepless nights (having a new baby in the middle of post doesn’t help), there is one big upside to having two writers who cook up all this impossible stuff: those writers are also the actors, and that means payback. Because of course it might be fun to sit in a warm room and write a scene that involves jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet. But then at some point you’ve got to act out that scene. In the back of a plane. At 10,000 feet.

And, ideally, jump out of it.

The new series of The Wrong Mans premieres Dec 22nd on BBC Two. In the USA, it premieres on Hulu on Dec 24th. Be sure to watch the trailer.

Series 1 of The Wrong Mans is currently available on iPlayer in the UK and on Hulu in the USA.

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