As the showrunner for AMC’s “Low Winter Sun,” Chris Mundy’s got a tough job. It’s not just that he dared to take a 2006 award-winning British show and reboot it for an American audience, moving it from the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, to the dysfunctional U.S. city of Detroit. But he even lured the same lead actor—Mark Strong—to play an American version of the character he portrayed in the original show. Will it be the same? Can he capture the same magic? Or even make it better? To be sure, this dark and gritty crime drama, which premiered Sun night, takes plenty of risks, not the least of which is introducing its main protagonist as a murderer from the get-go. But Mundy told us he’s banking on audiences appreciating deep characters navigating a dangerous world that hits all the crime-genre buttons. “We want it to feel like a real character piece, but we want it to be a ride too—so that’s the balance,” he told us. An edited version of the interview follows:
CableFAX: What made you choose Detroit as the new backdrop for this reboot of a British story?
Mundy: I wanted the place to reflect the same struggles as the people… And after spending a bunch of time in Detroit—I’m from the Midwest originally—I connected to it. It was easy. It made sense to me on a visceral level. And it just seemed like the most pure version of what I was hoping to go for. It’s so funny now. Looking back, this show couldn’t exist anywhere else. It’s so part of the DNA of the show now.
CableFAX: You’re obviously using Detroit’s geography in a big way. Do you think about that a lot when you’re deciding where to set the various set-pieces.
Mundy: I know the city. It’s very strange how well I know that city now. But you know, the scenes are the scenes. We aren’t like, “Well, we want to shoot this, so let’s contrive a scene to get there.” But first of all, everywhere you point the camera in that city is interesting, so that helps… We’re almost never on our stages… So we’re always out in the world, and it just creates a life going on.
CableFAX: Does that make it harder to shoot this show?
Mundy: Well, in one way it makes it easier. To shoot a daylight exterior is easier because there’s not a lot of pre-lighting. What makes it hard is that if there’s a big company move from one location to another, that’s a big move. There are loading trucks. We’re making three moves a day and shooting this stuff, and that starts to wear folks out.
CableFAX: What’s the fascination with gritty, crime-based dramas out there right now, especially on cable? And do you worry about distinguishing this show from all the other crime shows out there?
Mundy: No. I feel like the answer should be yes. But with us, I feel like we’ve really tried to figure out what the show is, who these people are and just sort of dig as deep into them as we possibly can. And I think because of that, our show is naturally going to be different than the others.
CableFAX: And what is it about the crime genre that interests you and seems to resonate?
Mundy: I think it’s just the extremes. I think there’s obviously life and death all the time. But I think it’s the extremes of human behavior and the blurry line of morality between supposedly good people and supposedly bad people. There are all sorts of stories you could tell. You could be doing a political story. But when there’s life and death too, and you’re exploring those things that are very human, then it’s naturally heightened… We want it to feel like a real character piece, but we want it to be a ride too—so that’s the balance. By episode four, we really change our storytelling a bit, and we feel like we have the room to do it. In six, we change it a bit again. So we feel like once we get a foothold in the world, we want to expand it a bit every time, so it feels more like an exploration of these people than it does just a crime story.
CableFAX: What’s the character dynamic you’re going for?
Mundy: For us, we’re trying to get at the heart of the Frank character especially and to understand why he’s still there. Why he was able to be talked into doing this horrible thing at the beginning? What is it about him? So it’s really—without putting him into therapy—it’s him figuring a lot of that stuff out.
CableFAX: They always tell you to have your protagonist “save the cat” at the beginning so the audience likes him or her—but you’ve done the exact opposite.
Mundy: I know, I know, I know. It is a challenge.
CableFAX: It’s always risky, right?
Mundy: Well, Mark came up to me in the middle of filming episode nine and said “Wow, he’s getting a bit out there isn’t he?” And I said “Yeah, he is.” We really have put Mark and Lennie [Lennie James, who plays Joe Geddes] through the ringer. But really, everybody. I don’t care if someone is likeable or unlikeable. I care if they’re interesting or not. If everyone likes him, but he’s not interesting, I’m not going to watch that show.
CableFAX: Well, anti-heroes are hot on TV right now. But on the other hand, it has spurred debate over whether it’s becoming overkill.
Mundy: I’m not interested in someone who is bad for badness’ sake… We introduced a character that Frank can talk a little bit more emotionally with, which is good because obviously he can’t share this secret with anybody but Geddes. So he’s not going to share the secret obviously… but it’s making sure that we get glimpses of this person before all of this happened because we meet him at the absolute worst point in his life. So without going into all sorts of flashbacks, which we don’t want to do, how do we illuminate it so you understand both? There’s such a deep empathy with him in the way he plays the character, and the way he looks. He conveys so much of that without you having to write a bunch of lines to fill in gaps.
CableFAX: Talk about using the same actor from the British version of the show. That’s almost unprecedented. Did you ever consider anyone else for the lead role?
Mundy: Yeah. We were seriously considering casting someone else.
CableFAX: So it was never a given that he would take the role with the American version.
Mundy: No, no. In fact, it took a while to finally come around to the notion. I had a conversation with him, and he said, “Look, I don’t really see them the same. I think they share a core dignity, but that’s it.” My thing was like, “I’d love to work with Mark Strong. We can’t have him do this because he’s done it but…” And then realizing that I was really stupid and coming around to it. We talked to a lot of different people, and Mark was just the best person. I don’t think it’s ever been done before… I don’t remember the same actor taking on the same role like this.
CableFAX: So do you think you’ll get a Season 2?
Mundy: I hope it’s good news, and I hope it’s earlier than later. But honestly, I have no idea. I know they’re happy with it, which is great. And we’re happy with it and proud of it. That goes a long way, but hopefully people will watch it. We’re talking a lot about Season 2, and we refer to it a lot. Or we’re just jinxing ourselves like crazy.