The Original 'Lost': Crusoe TV's Latest Island Adventure

With the immense success of Disney’s adaptation of their theme park ride Pirates of the Caribbean into a mega-blockbuster film franchise, it’s no surprise that Hollywood studio and network execs are all about adding some swashbuckling and adventure yarns to their development slates. NBC is even going back to classic literature, yes actual books, for programming inspiration as evidenced in their lavish new series Crusoe.

Based on and following the same basic premise of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale, the series follows Crusoe embarking on an adventure by sea from England to his eventual shipwreck on a remote island for more than two decades. Weaving together his remembrances of home and family with his current life escaping cannibals and pirates, Crusoe is actually the first UK commissioned production for the U.S. network in 40 years. The 13-episode series debuts October 17th at 8:00 p.m. and stars Philip Winchester (Flyboys) as Robinson Crusoe, Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) as Jeremiah Blackthorn, Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) as James Crusoe, and Tongayi Chirisa as Friday.

But do today’s audiences (outside of Masterpiece Classics fans) really want to invest their time in watching a literary based period piece? If there aren’t million dollar visual effects and Johnny Depp, will finicky audiences care? Executive Producer, Jeffrey Hayes says yes.

“Well hopefully everybody knows the Robinson Crusoe story,” Hayes offers. “They know about a man on an island, a man who’s desperate to get off that island and the adventures that he has to face. So you start with that as the foundation and that’s what you’re being true to in a sense when anybody asks about the novel. And then from there you have to go into your action adventure series. You have to create characters. You have to create a back-story. You have to create a love story. You just try and give it as many layers as you possibly can and contemporize it in a way that’s going to appeal to a broad audience for television.

"I think that we’ve managed to accomplish that on a number of levels, particularly as far as the back-story that includes Sam (Neill) and Susannah, Crusoe’s wife, and his father, who is played by Sean Bean and this group of remembrances that actually dovetail into real-time towards the end of the first 13 episodes. I think that we’ve struck a good balance actually in being true to the book and providing a substantial piece of entertainment.”

Hayes emphasizes that Crusoe is not a dry retelling of the story and they’ve worked hard to make changes that energize the piece as a whole.

“We do take a bit of a dramatic license in terms of how we approach this character and the way that he exists on the island with his partner, Friday It’s definitely grounded in the book but after that we bring it into a more contemporary tone as far as a period drama is concerned.”

And Crusoe doesn’t hold back on the action either. Robinson is barely settled on the island when he encounters pirates, mutineers and more. Hayes says that while the series has no intention of making the island a revolving door of guest appearances (i.e. the Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island), there are plenty of fresh faces for the hero and his buddy Friday to contend with.

“Pirates, mutineers and cannibals present a danger to Crusoe and to Friday. We also have a Spanish character named Santana (Joaquim De Almeida) who was part of the Guarda Costa [or Spanish Guard], who is a bad guy in our two-hour premiere episode. He manages to return to the island and he’s been redeemed. He helps Crusoe and Friday fight the cannibals. We have quite an interesting tapestry of various characters of the period coming through the island over a period of time. The mutineers, for instance, they stay on the island because their ship is actually wrecked on the reef. And while they repair it, they’re there for an arc of about four or five episodes and we draw on them for stories as we go through that arc.”

But aside from the external challenges, the series really lives and dies squarely on the shoulders of its leading man, Philip Winchester. It’s his portrayal of Crusoe that gives the series its pluck and energy, which is surprising since this is the actor’s first starring role of such scale. American born, the actor had been touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a production of King Lear when he auditioned for Crusoe in London last year.

“It’s one of those roles that everybody wants to get, especially all the guys,” Winchester explains. “To play Robinson Crusoe, to be able to sword fight and tell this great tale, and travel all over the place, as we have, would be such an amazing opportunity. So everyone [at the audition] was very nervous and very excited all at the same time. And then as I try to do with auditions, it’s kind of like golf - I try and hit the shot and forget about it. I try and do an audition and forget about it. Otherwise you worry about it so much. And I got a phone call a couple weeks later saying, it looks like they’d like to have another meeting and they’d like to test you. I think it went on for a couple weeks. We did a couple tests and then we retested. And then I was out having dinner with a friend because I couldn’t do anything. It was consuming everything. I just could not stop thinking about this show. And while we were at dinner - I got the phone call,” he beams.

The production started in England for the flashback sequences of Robinson’s 17th century life which includes his love Susannah Crusoe (Anna Walton) and his family friend (an eventual enemy) Jeremiah Blackthorn (Neill).

For Neill, Blackthorn is another opportunity for the talented actor to craft a unique period villain, such as his recent oily turn as Cardinal Wolsey in The Tudors. “I’ve been (lurching) a bit towards the bad guy end of the spectrum lately and I’m not sure if that reflects something about me or not,” Neill laughs. “But they’re a lot of fun to play and I’m really enjoying Blackthorn because he’s a guy that has many, many layers to him. He’s a conflict guy. His predominant passion is greed and a lot of us can relate to that, couldn’t we? You can see unfortunately the effects of greed on the world in these last few weeks. But he’s a fun guy to play and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Production then moved to South Africa for the island stories, which in itself became a huge adventure. “I don’t think we really knew what we were in for when we started in York, England because York was this nice meandering drama that we were doing,” Winchester explains. “We were riding horses and meeting people in pubs, and having conversations. When we got to South Africa, I think it really came out of the blue just how many stunts and how much stuff we would be doing!

"We actually had some crazy things happen while we were filming. South Africa had the biggest storm they’ve ever had in 100 years come through and it destroyed some of our sets so there’s been a lot of physical demand on everyone - not just the actors - but on the crew, on the grips, mechanic team, everybody. I think the biggest challenge that we’ve had so far is just the physical and the emotional stamina because we’ve had so much to shoot in such a short amount of time.”

Running, fighting, swordplay, you name it and Winchester says they’ve had him do it in this series. But he’s thrilled that the many facets of Crusoe are being explored.

“It can get dull watching a guy on an island build a shelter and get a fire going, and going hunting every episode. It wouldn’t be entertaining. What I’ve really tried to do and what I think we’ve stuck to is that Robinson Crusoe is the same character but he’s telling different tales or different things are happening to him. Robinson Crusoe has to go through the emotional journey of what he’s going to do about seeing cannibals and if he’s going to interfere with the cannibals. There’s also the amount of pressure that he’s living with and the stresses of everyday life of surviving, so to have something it live for -a wife and a family - it gives him a real drive.”

With only an initial order of 13 episodes, the question of course is whether or not the series will end with Crusoe returning home. Hayes only offers, “You’ll see that as it evolves over the course of the 13, there’s plenty of room to move as far as storytelling is concerned back in London. And without giving away anything as far as the Blackthorn character is concerned, he does come to the island and he does leave. We feel like we’ve had some very strong success in telling stories just with our two main characters (Crusoe and Friday), let alone all the other characters that we’ve brought to the island. The island is a very big, unexplored island and who knows what else lurks in the jungles out there?”

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