A city planning document might not seem like a promising place to find inspiration for a new season of a fantasy horror series – but John Logan, the Tony winning, Oscar-nominated writer of Gladiator and The Aviator has never been a typical Hollywood figure. Despite being L.A.-born and bred, he isn’t one for the party lifestyle that some of his contemporaries in the industry enjoy. He doesn’t drink – “the idea of losing control is anathema to me” – and is at his happiest walking in the countryside around his house. “I’m joyously anonymous,” Logan says.
And eschewing glamorous events means he has plenty of time to pore over a 1937 LA city council traffic study, from which the idea for Penny Dreadful: City of Angels sprang.
“The past has always been something that excited me as a writer,” Logan explains. “I thought this was a unique opportunity to look at where we are on the basis of where we were, and how the decisions we made in 1938 are still rippling through the world today. The freeways are the lifeblood of L.A., [but] it was very dry research.”
Yet City of Angels is anything but dry – a supernatural thriller circling around a Mexican-American family, a Nazi-sympathising German immigrant played by Rory Kinnear, and the battle between Santa Muerte – the guide of the dead – and her sister, the evil demoness Magda – played with stunning dexterity by Natalie Dormer in a number of different guises as she hides among her mortal victims. So where do the freeways fit in?
Logan’s passion for the project is clear as he describes the original 1930s plans, which included roads running through Bel Air and Beverly Hills – two still-wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods. “None of those freeways were ever built, [but they were] in South Central, and East L.A. You can’t tell a story of the history of Los Angeles without talking about the freeways. And you can’t tell the story of the freeway without talking about the communities that were displaced. That’s where the idea of writing about a Mexican-American family really came from.”
And yet, while the aim is no doubt noble, any attempt from a white writer to address issues of racial injustice is bound to attract some criticism, especially in writing characters of different ethnicities. It is an issue Logan has sympathy with, even as he dismisses the very notion of cultural appropriation.
“I categorically reject the idea that artists cannot speak in voices other than their own,” Logan says emphatically. “The balkanization of the imagination is a very, very dangerous thing. Writers and performers and singers have to be able to dream very freely. And sometimes that takes you to places away from yourself, otherwise we’re into a very anaemic and cannibalistic cultural landscape.
“But having said that, verisimilitude is important. I didn’t pretend to be an expert on Mexican-American culture. I brought experts in. I hired Latino writers and directors and production designers. My producing partner, Michael Aguilar, is Latino. And finally I went to José Rivera, a wonderful playwright and screenwriter, who wrote one of our episodes, and asked him to do a pass through all 10. Just to say what’s not authentic, what doesn’t ring true. So philosophically, I completely reject the idea of there being any such thing as cultural appropriation. But the practical matter as a responsible human being, you have to be careful and cautious and work.”
Lest Trump-supporting Americans think they have an ally in the culture war, it’s worth considering Logan’s background. A gay man, brought up in the 1960s by strongly religious yet supportive parents, he has been horrified by the turn American politics has taken over the past five years. And while religion, and specifically Mexican folklore, is a huge part of his latest project, faith is not something he has ever embraced. “It presents very interesting opportunities for a heightened magical realism,” Logan explains. But as anything other than a storytelling device, Logan has little time for it.
“I grew up with a very complicated view towards what religion is,” he says. “It was always fraught with social politics in my family. When people turn against science and facts, for faith, that’s a treacherous road. Faith and belief is a deep human need, but it’s not real in any objective sense as far as I’m concerned. Human beings have to accept the consequences of how they behave. Any fig leaf that an established religion, or even a folklore religion, offers, is dangerous.”
So with cultural appropriation and religion both dismissed, Logan is set for cancellation by all sides of America’s partisan politics.
It was that deep sense of division, of a country running out of control, that prompted his desire to look back at the past of his home city. “Like many people, I naively assumed that a sort of secular liberal humanism was the coin of the realm,” Logan says. “And then everything began to change, so, so shockingly. I felt helpless. And I wanted to say something about it as a writer. I was struck by the parallels between what I see going on in the world now, and what was happening in a very particular time in Los Angeles’ story.
“You’re seeing a worldwide resurgence of dangerous political extremism, and atomistic nationalism and irresponsible political demagoguery. And in this country, a particularly virulent form of racism, demonization of ethnic communities, the Mexican community. And all of that was very much in the air in late 30s in Los Angeles. Like many writers, starting with Shakespeare, the idea of examining the present through the lens of the past has always been something that really excited me.”
Shakespeare often crops up in our conversation. Logan describes the first time he saw Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet as the “liminal event” of his life, which sparked a lifelong love of theatre, London and, perhaps surprisingly, drew him towards genre projects such as Star Trek (he wrote the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, a dream come true as the TV series was his favorite show as a child), James Bond and Penny Dreadful – a CV one might not expect of a lauded playwright.
“I was living in San Pedro, California, and my dad, who loves literature and was raised in Belfast on real poetry, made me sit down and watch a movie with him. And I didn’t want to do it, because who wants to sit with dad and watch a movie when it’s a nice Saturday and you wanna go out and play? But it was Olivier and Hamlet, and those two-and-a-half hours changed my life.
“On one hand, it has the genre elements that I loved – ghosts that were scary and the greatest sword fights ever put on screen – but it has this other thing. And that other thing was Shakespeare, the poetry and the character. And I became, at eight years old, obsessed with Shakespeare. It led me to the theatre and once I was in it, I suddenly knew the place I was meant to be my whole life, because I felt comfortable. I was an asthmatic child, I was gay. Our family moved all the time. So I didn’t have friends from childhood. But, doing a high-school show, I felt I had a tribe, and that has not changed from from that day.”
Logan is worried about the future of theatre once the pandemic passes – but he is slightly more optimistic than most. “I look at history, when London theatres were closed repeatedly in the Jacobean era for plagues,” he says. “They always came back with incredible robustness. Creators and the audience are desperate for new stories and new interaction. Because what’s amazing about theatre and what I miss so desperately now is the art form, where everyone’s breathing in the same way, when everyone’s holding their breath at the same time. That to me is the most sacred moment I could possibly imagine. Film and TV are beautiful, but they’re zombie art forms. Once something is done, it exists that way, unchanging. What makes theatre so exciting is every performance is different.
“Any event like this, that stops train of progress for a second and allows people to think about how they interact with their work with their family, with their loved ones and community, is an incredibly valuable thing,” he says. “We’ve learned something important about touch, about human interaction on a primal level. I hope it will make people more responsive to the occasional whisper and the occasional bit of poetry and the occasional walk outside for no reason without their iPhones.”
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from July 1.
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