Q&A: Simon Chinn on making Netflix’s hostage series “Captive”

Just in time for the holiday binge-watching season, Netflix is releasing an eight-part documentary series about the world of hostage negotiations. Produced by cousins Simon and Jonathan Chinn’s Lightbox and exec ...
December 5, 2016

Just in time for the holiday binge-watching season, Netflix is releasing an eight-part documentary series about the world of hostage negotiations.

Produced by cousins Simon and Jonathan Chinn’s Lightbox and exec produced by The Bourne Identity filmmaker Doug Liman, Captive debuts on the streaming service Dec. 9.

The series is part of a wave of high-end documentary series that streamers and cable networks are clamoring to produce following the success of Netflix’s true-crime series Making A Murderer around the same time last year.

However, unlike the mostly lo-fi MurdererCaptive revels in the slick camerawork and Hollywood-type re-enactments that producer Simon Chinn has become known for in the feature world with docs such as Man on Wire, The Imposter and Project Nim

Originally developed for another network, Lightbox brought it to Netflix after realizing the show’s global-scope and thriller-style treatment of its subject would be ideal for the platform.

Each episode looks at a different hostage taking from all sides, interviewing victims, their families, perpetrators as well as the lawyers and authorities involved in high-stakes negotiations. The first, “Prison Riot” (pictured), revisits the 1993 riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Lucasville, Ohio. Meanwhile, the second, “The Cola Kidnap” (pictured), recounts the 1991 kidnapping and ransom of Brazil-based Coca-Cola executive Corinne Coffin.

Other episodes focuses on a British couple kidnapped by Somali pirates, the 2001 kidnapping of Christian missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham by Abu-Sayyaf militants in the Philippines and the 2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Most episodes involved multiple location shoots around the globe, with budgets approaching the kind that Chinn is used to working with in the feature world. Directors on the series include Nadav Schirman, Jesse Vile, Ursula MacFarlane, Zara Hayes, David Belton and Nick Green.

Lightbox’s slate also includes a second season of investigative series The Traffickers for Fusion, a feature doc about the 1992 Los Angeles riots for National Geographic Channel, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston doc and the child-refugee series War Child for Channel 4. The company also has 16 other projects in paid development for UK and U.S. broadcasters.

Ahead of Captive‘s premiere, realscreen spoke with Chinn about making the series, bringing Hollywood A-lister Liman on board and the surging market for high-end doc series.

What was the idea behind doing a series about hostage takings?
From the war on terror to the war on drugs and crime, the thing that excited us about it the most was the complexity and ambiguity inherent in every hostage crisis. Everyone in a hostage negotiation is pursuing their own agenda and those agendas are often not entirely pure. The people usually pursuing pure agendas are the families of the loved ones, but there are a lot of politics involved. We were very intrigued by that idea and I think Netflix was absolutely keen to embrace that complexity in a way that, I dare say, other broadcasters may not had been.

The best way to describe our ambitions is that we were going to bring the production values, the sensibility and the creative approach behind the kind of feature docs I’m known for to a series model. We wanted to do something that felt elevated in terms of storytelling and craft. The other thing was the global scope. We very much wanted the series to be a snapshot of the world of modern conflict in the broadest sense.

How big is your focus on series versus feature docs?
Big. I have a small feature docs label called Red Box Films, which has been around since Man On Wire. It was always deliberately small because I never had any desire to do feature docs in any particular volume. Now I have a company called Lightbox, which is a partnership with my cousin who lives in L.A., Jonathan Chinn. The strategy was to take advantage of all the opportunities to do premium documentary content in different ways, partly as a result of the streaming services, but not exclusively. We’re also working with Nat Geo on a feature doc about the L.A. riots.

The world of documentary has happily changed. I don’t want to say we’re going through a golden age – things are always a tiny bit precarious ­– but in documentary things are in rude health. I didn’t want to limit myself to theatrical docs because the opportunity for success in theatrical docs has always been and will remain small.

What was it like working with Netflix?
Broadly speaking, they let us do what we wanted to do. They were very keen to hear our vision in terms of the way we wanted to produce the show, the directors we wanted to bring on board, the specific ideas we had about how we were going to make the show. They came over to London and we sat with them for a morning and articulated our vision pretty clearly and they were happy. At that point they let us get on with it.

We spoke to them every week. They gave us excellent notes. Their notes were, I would say, light touch. They were supportive. When they didn’t think something worked, we were generally in agreement. Creatively it was a positive experience. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on the quote-unquote TV side.

Why bring Doug Liman on board as executive producer?
One of the things that is a little bit of a requirement for Netflix is to bring some A-list Hollywood talent onto the project that got it, was passionate about it and was going to get involved creatively. We are represented by CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and they suggested Doug.

He came on board during our discussions with Netflix and was immediately passionate about the subject matter. It’s on the money for him in terms of his filmmaking interests. He was very drawn to the idea of a series where we were just as interested in the hostage takers as the hostages. I think he likes the idea of the anti-hero in storytelling and part of our goal in every episode was, either directly or indirectly, to represent the kidnapper’s perspective and not take sides, as it were.

Would you say it’s necessary to have an A-list name when taking a project to Netflix?
In terms of Netflix, having the director of The Bourne Identity on the project with his sensibility in telling stories in the thriller-esque genre was exciting to them. It was important to them for this project as it was ambitious in terms of the budget and what not. I don’t know if every project needs an A-list talent attached.

How much of your business is focused on premium-type doc series such as Captive?
We have a small handful of similar shows in active development. We’re developing a whole range of stuff. I’m not sure that you can necessarily grow a business from this kind of premium show. We’re about to embark on a second season of The Traffickers for Fusion. It’s actually a slightly different show with the same host and a similar creative approach. That is probably half the budget of the Netflix series, but production values are very high.

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