Detroit Stars in Low Winter Sun
AMC’s newest drama has gritty Motown as a setting
Published: March 27, 2013
When seeking out a long-term relationship, wisdom has held that you do your research up front and, to his credit, Chris Mundy did just that. The Hollywood producer chose not to simply accept the national storylines and stereotypes about Detroit as fact. He came to experience the city for himself.
Man, did he ever.
Last year, on his first visit here, he checked in for five days at the MGM Grand Detroit. When he returned a month or so later, he stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in the Millender Center. On the third trip he made the Atheneum (a-THEEN-ee-um or AH-the-NEE-um, depending upon how Detroit you are) Suite Hotel his command center, residing there five straight weeks. In all, Mundy made seven separate Detroit expeditions, totaling nearly three months. “We’re doing our best to get it right, you know?” he asserts.
Mundy is writer and executive producer of Hollywood’s latest attempt to capture our town’s funky gestalt and make it the backdrop for a prime-time TV series: Low Winter Sun, the intense new police drama scheduled to premiere on AMC this summer.
The Americanized version of a 2006 British miniseries that won the U.K.’s Royal Television Society Award as best drama serial, Low Winter Sun is a tale of murder, corruption and cover-ups swirling around the Detroit Police Department. AMC released its first-look trailer for the series online last week, evoking comparisons to such outstanding former dramas as The Shield and The Wire. When brooding, morally bankrupt Det. Frank Agnew (portrayed by Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty) kills a fellow officer, he believes he has committed the perfect crime. Of course he hasn’t, and the fallout from his felony drags him deep into Detroit’s evil underworld. Lennie James, already a darling of AMC viewers for his work in the first episode of the network’s monster hit The Walking Dead, co-stars as Joe, another detective who becomes his partner in crime — in many ways.
Strong also starred in the original version of the series. The addition of James brings an inevitable layer of racial tension to the story. (Strong and James, two accomplished British actors tapped to play Detroit cops — we must be classier than we think.) The cast also includes familiar faces Erika Alexander (Living Single), Billy Lush (Chicago Code) and veteran actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who earned his MFA at Wayne State and appears as squad leader Lt. George Torrance in the pilot. Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer for most of Spike Lee’s movies who has emerged as an in-demand director, directed the Low Winter Sun pilot shot here last fall and may return for other episodes.
Low Winter Sun has a 10-episode commitment from AMC. Mundy, who cemented his TV stature as executive producer of Criminal Minds and co-executive producer of Cold Case, will return to Detroit again next month to reshoot a few cosmetic scenes in the pilot, then begin production on the remaining nine episodes beginning April 29, 2013.
It’s déjà vu all over again
You may recall that we recently had our collective civic hearts broken by another Motown-based TV cop drama — Detroit 1-8-7, which opened on ABC last year to positive reviews, but received the cancellation ax after just one season. Low Winter Sun, however, is being co-produced by AMC, the current “Tiffany Network” of cable and home to such landmark successes as Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels and the Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad; Low Winter Sun is expected to replace Breaking Bad when its five-season run ends this summer.
Such a track record of quality assures — well, nothing, since no one can predict what viewers will embrace — but Low Winter Sun at least will have a supportive environment in which to develop.
“Endemol [the British studio that also co-produces Hell on Wheels with AMC] and Chris Mundy have produced a beautiful pilot with an incredible cast led by the insanely talented Mark Strong,” Joel Stillerman, AMC’s executive vice president of original programming, said in a statement. “We’re thrilled to be moving forward with this compelling new drama and look forward to returning to Detroit for production on the first season.”
“Look forward to returning to Detroit …”; when’s the last time you read those words?
“I wanted to set it in Detroit and seal a sense of place,” Mundy explains on the phone from Los Angeles. “I always thought [the show] was a lot about second chances, what people are willing to do to get a second chance, and I wanted the backdrop to reflect the same thing; the pride and hope, the perseverance of a place — and I like Detroit because Detroit has that, as I’ve seen.”
Mundy admits, though, that he knew very little about his chosen city going in, hence the many reconnaissance missions, prior to production. “I treated it with broad strokes when I decided to set it there,” he says. “I was actually lucky enough to have a few different cops who really took me under their wing and showed me the city.
“I think the biggest revelation to me is, many outsiders think of Detroit as very urban, when to me in a lot of ways it’s very Midwestern. It spreads, like Midwestern cities do, with big buildings and wide avenues, and to me that’s very evocative. I’m from the Midwest originally, and there’s a quality about the city that was easy for me to tap into. And I didn’t realize how beautiful the infrastructure of Detroit was. Some of the buildings are so much nicer than I expected, then there’s a bunch that are so much worse than I expected.”
Mundy depicts both sides in the pilot. Agnew lives across the street from a city block vacant, except for one ramshackle two-story house that clearly escaped Detroit’s demolition crusade. Conversely, there’s a scene with Agnew on the roof of the ornate Wayne County Building that provides a beautifully panoramic view of downtown.
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