Alchemy hopes to strike it rich


CANNES -- When British Oscar-nominated scribe Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") set out to write a teleplay that has global warming and the destruction of the environment as its story line, he anticipated nothing but resistance and lack of cooperation from big business -- the oil industry in particular. It turned out to be the exact opposite, he recounted at a MIP meeting here this week.

But what he discovered, to his dismay, when he began the project four years ago was that broadcasters whom he thought would lunge at the chance of airing a gritty drama about the planet's crisis shrugged it off.

"It's only been four years ... but at that time many people simply didn't believe the science. Many people thought global warming was a myth," he recalls.

The miniseries "Burn Up," from L.A.-based independent Alchemy, with the U.K.'s BBC aboard as a partner, is set for completion in mid May in time for the Los Angeles Screenings. The two-part, three-hour mini stars Bradley Whitford as an oil lobbyist in Washington. He's joined by Rupert Penry-Jones ("Spooks"), who plays a morally challenged oil company CEO, and Neve Campbell ("Holly") in a tale of murder, intrigue and power players in the oil industry. The U.K. production outfit Kudos Film and TV ("Spooks") is also on board as a partner, as is Canada's Seven24.

While the original idea (which first had the U.K.'s Channel 4 attached) was to offer an actual account of how dramatically the world is changing, the reality from a purely entertainment standpoint dictated that the tale be a suspense drama with strong characters and a strong plot, Beaufoy says.

Unearthing real stories and fact-based scenarios in which to build his characters around was going to be a real challenge, he reckoned. "But I was amazed to find that when I telephoned very top people in the oil industry and asked if I could come and interview them -- not as a journalist, but as a writer of a drama -- I was shown an open door," he says. "I found that many truly powerful people in politics and in the oil business had so much they wanted to say, but only on a background basis and for a fictional drama. But many of these people are genuinely concerned about what they are seeing and hearing about the way the planet is headed and they wanted to talk off the record and not to mainstream press."

That's in fact how he developed the character of Tom O'Connell (Penry-Jones), the powerful head of a billion-dollar oil concern. He's ruthless but is also the father of a young son and a man of mixed emotions about where the Earth might be headed without intervention. "I spoke to people who shared all the emotions of O'Connell. I was quite surprised."

But what was disappointing in the early days of the project, he says, was just how hard a sell it was to get it off the ground. Carrie Stein, CEO of Alchemy, says that after Channel 4 left the project, the future for "Burn Up" looked grim. But then the BBC came aboard, and soon after that, Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," about the alarming conditions of the environment came out and it was all systems go. Broadcasters from around suddenly became interested in the project.

Alchemy is gearing up to announce major worldwide sales of the mini and will be showcasing it for U.S. nets at the next month's Screenings.