The All-Female Writers Team Behind "Killing Eve"

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen April 27, 2020
Suzanne Heathcote on set of "Killing Eve" with Dame Harriet Walter

Suzanne Heathcote on set of Killing Eve with Dame Harriet Walter

Des Willie/BBCA

The comedy-thriller Killing Eve revolves around the intense psychosexual relationship between two women: American-raised MI5 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and the unpredictable but charming Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Based on a series of novellas by Luke Jennings, the show is created by an all-female writing team. Golden Globe-winning Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote and executive produced the show’s first season. Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed her debut film, Promising Young Woman, took over for season two, and now Suzanne Heathcote (Fear the Walking Dead, See) has taken over the job to complete the current third season. We spoke to her about the writing of Killing Eve.

You are a playwright and have written a number of plays, including Plot 10, Unspoken, Taken, So., I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile. What was it like to transition to television like Fear the Walking Dead and now also See and Killing Eve?

I really enjoyed the transition actually. I had been writing for a long time in London and New York and it was actually through a play that I had written that I got my first TV job. I started on a show in development for HBO and I loved the writers’ room and I still love it. Before I was a playwright, I was an actor and there is something about being an actor in the theater where you are part of a community and that is something I really missed writing in isolation. So, I love the writers’ room and really thrive in that environment. I also really love visual storytelling. There is something really refreshing and exciting to me about it, because even though you have freedom in theater, you also have massive restrictions obviously. There was something about having a change in these restrictions that felt very liberating. Also, I love Los Angeles and have family in California, so it was a transition I really enjoyed.

There is a lot of talk about women writing for women and creating female characters. What is it that female writers get that male writers might not get about women? If anything at all.

It is so interesting that question because I am just in the process of reading a book right now, which is from the 1960s in the UK and it is a female author and she has written mainly male characters and has written them brilliantly. There is something about the female psyche, which is rarer to find in male characters in the same way. But I think it partly has something to do with the way that women have been represented previously. So, I think that because so many movies and TV shows in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s were about the male gaze and seen from the male perspective that the female characters were not always fully rounded. I think it is as much an influence of that than anything else. So, you think of what you have seen previously, and it is not that women can write women and men cannot, I have read stuff from people of both sexes where the female characters don’t feel fully fleshed out. But of course, women have a tendency to flesh female characters out more because they tend to relate to the characters they are writing to some degree. I just think it has to do with really understanding how women have been represented previously. Often it is not intentionally often but people think about existing movies and TV shows and without realizing it the woman is the wife of someone or the friend of someone without having any more discernible characteristics than that – and we are so used to that being the norm.

Can you talk about taking over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Emerald Fennel? What kind of preparation work did you do for writing season three of Killing Eve?

As I was meeting for the show initially, I had read all the scripts. They were just finishing shooting season two and so I read that, and I watched a very early cut of the season. Emerald and I had a long conversation. It is such a specific job that to have had two people, who have done it before is invaluable because they lived it and they understand it and get the challenges. They also knew the areas that are really just great fun. They had really been through that experience. Emerald was great and incredibly encouraging and supportive. Phoebe was a great resource throughout. She would read the scripts and I could turn to her any time I had any questions or wanted to run something past her about the character or something. It is great to have the person who created the characters for the screen to talk to (obviously Luke Jennings initiated the characters). Laura Neal, who is now taking over and doing season four, worked with me on this season and she was the last person I saw for a drink before the lockdown and she will have access to Phoebe as well but I really want to repay the support that I had and I think it is so important that we have supported each other and want each other to succeed. That is what is really terrific about this situation and what is so positive about it.

You are all actors too. Does this add another dimension to your work as writers?

It is a strange coincidence. Emerald and Phoebe are acting currently. I have not acted in a long time. The background of being an actor has definitely informed my writing. I tend to go in character first with my writing and I think that is very much having trained classically as an actor and that is always the starting point for me. It is the people that I am writing, and I will read the lines out loud to myself. I like to write lines that actors enjoy saying so I will always try to write it like that. There is a rhythm to what I write because I want them to enjoy themselves. I want them to look at the script and be really infused.

Sandra Oh said that you are writing from a much more classic dramatic point of view and the character is in a much darker dramatic place. Also, you were exploring the themes of family. Do you agree with her observation?

Yes, I think that is true. I feel you really have to look at what was handed to you story-wise. I could not ignore the enormity of what happened in the first two seasons. Eve has committed two enormous acts of violence in a very short space of time and her life has been decimated. I could not ignore that. I personally felt I had to honor what had passed and so to do that we are in different waters. The characters are different now than they were in season one. They have changed because of what they have been through. I think this season it was really about peeling back the layers of the characters and going deeper with them and understanding, who they were. That inevitably brings themes of family and home and that is something that really interests me.

When did you meet Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, who play Eve and Villanelle? And how do you ensure that you keep the magic between them in season three?

I met them very early on. I met them both in Los Angeles in January 2019 just when I was starting. Obviously, I continued to have a very in-depth dialogue with them throughout the season. With Villanelle and Eve, it is really about honoring what happened in their relationship and remain true to that. In the writers’ room, we felt that it was an addiction that relationship and something that I can certainly relate to. It is a relationship that you know is not good for you but at the same time you can’t carve out completely. In season two they are trying to forge their way without the other, but as soon as Villanelle knows that Eve is alive and Eve knows that Villanelle is close, something in them is reignited. It is really about them coming to terms with what that relationship means for them.

When you work on a show like Killing Eve how many are involved in the writers’ room and as a head writer do you give assignments?

There were four other writers and they were all female. In the UK it is not dissimilar to the US, but the writers’ room doesn’t work quite as long and varies from show to show. Before the weekend, I will ask them to think of interesting ways of killing someone and they all come back in Monday and we will all pitch ideas to each other and then I assign the various episodes to the various writers so that they can take ownership of their episode as it was being broken. We used to do that on Fear of the Walking Dead, and I prefer that – that I really know the episode that I am writing as it is being broken.

How do you make sure you are on the same page?

That is part of the job of who you choose initially and really talking to the writers prior, reading their work prior, and hearing their views on the show and the characters. But until you sit down together, you don’t always know how it will work. We were very fortunate with this room. I had in-depth conversations with all of them about the scripts they were writing and when notes came in, I would talk to them in detail and that was one of the advantages of it being season three. We got people who were genuine fans of the show and who really want to write for it at this point. The thing you have to watch out for is that you have an understanding for the show and the world and at the same time, you are not afraid to take it somewhere new. My biggest challenge was remaining true to the characters and the world that was created before but at the same time, it has to feel like we are treading on a new ground where we are taking the characters in that world. I think it is just about talking about this to the other writers and saying – this is where I really feel it goes and hearing their take on it. Sometimes you are going to get better ideas from them than your own original idea and you are building this together and through building it together, you are automatically on the same page because you are feeding each other with your ideas.