Howard Overman (‘Misfits’) interview

Coming to E4 this autumn, Misfits is a darkly comic drama about a group of teenagers trying to live their lives in an ordinary British town. But after a freak storm, the gang end up with superpowers – but these unlikely ‘superheroes’ are not your traditional, lantern-jawed, virtuous good guys. Indeed, rather than helping the police, they’re more likely to have been ‘helping them with their enquiries’. Writer Howard Overman explains all…

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Misfits has an intriguing concept. What’s it all about?

“It’s about five teenagers who are doing community service, who are struck by a supernatural storm and develop superpowers.”

Do the five central characters have to use their superpowers to fight evil?

“They kind of do, but the point of the show is really that the world doesn’t always break down into these neat categories of good versus evil. Our kids are all convicted criminals, after all, and they party hard and all the rest of it. So they’re quite unconventional heroes, but their fundamental nature is good. What they find themselves battling is their own personal issues, and a world that has become much more complicated by their powers.

“It’s more about that than battling some evil force that wants to take over the world – although the final episode is a kind of bigger climax. And it’s also about the people close to them who might suddenly have discovered powers, from friends to step-dads. It’s more about that than the ideas of a stereotypical nemesis who wants to take over the world. The series plays on the whole nature of antisocial behaviour and teen behaviour and what’s right and what’s wrong, rather than it being about good and evil.”

Where did the idea for the show come from?

“Do you remember shows in the 80s like The A-Team and Knight Rider; all those shows where it was really easy to be a hero? You just wandered round and solved people’s problems, and the world was very clear cut and there were goodies and baddies? For a while I’d wanted to do something a bit more complex, where the heroes are more likely to be arrested. No-one trusts them, and when they try to do good, people misinterpret it anyway. So I wanted to do something about unlikely heroes, and from that, I started thinking about teenagers and the whole demonisation thing and hoodies and antisocial behaviour.

“I suppose it just popped into my head, “Who are the most unlikely heroes?” and I came up with a bunch of kids doing community service. It’s about a bunch of outsiders who suddenly have to look at their place in the world. This is very much about them coming to terms with their powers. By the end of the series there have been a number of heroic acts, but they don’t instantly become superheroes. They’re not running out donning masks and capes and things.”

Are you making a point about how we demonise teenagers with this series? Are you saying we’re too judgmental about that generation?

“I think that’s sort of in the DNA of the show. We don’t ever really discuss it in the show. The middle England attitude towards teenagers has been well-documented, and this isn’t the sort of show where we make overtly political points, so I think it’s more that it’s in the premise of the show.

“To be fair, these kids aren’t angels, they’ve all been found guilty of what they did. They’re kids who got up to what a lot of us did as teenagers, but they maybe pushed it a bit more or just got caught. They’re not outrageous, but they’re not angelic either. They’re not feral kids, they’re not mean and nasty, they’re not mugging or stabbing people, but they might be from slightly the wrong side of the tracks.”

It’s both dramatic and darkly comic, isn’t it?

“Yeah, the idea is that we have real, genuine moments of emotion, but they are often in quite bizarre circumstances, because of the nature of the superhero spin on these stories. But you should feel caught up with these characters, and feel their emotional distress as well as hopefully finding things funny.”

Who’s the series aimed at?

“The main characters are teenagers, but I’m hoping it’s a show that a wide selection of people enjoy, from comic book fans to people who watch shows like Skins, to people who watch Heroes. I think this is a very British spin on the superhero genre. You remember that film Shaun Of The Dead? That was a very British take on a zombie movie. I always saw this as a very British take on the superhero genre.

“Their powers aren’t that great, and they’re not model citizens and so on. It doesn’t take itself as seriously as something like Heroes does; it’s a bit more tongue-in-cheek. I’m hoping the appeal is quite broad, from people who like these science fiction, supernatural shows through to people who like comedy, and then you’ve got a teen drama element too.”

You’re writing about teenagers. As a 36-year-old, how do you write characters of that age?

“I think it’s just about making sure you remember what it was like, and draw on how you felt as a teenager. I don’t think having your heart broken now as an 18-year-old is any different from how it felt when we were 18. I think it’s about just remembering what it was like. And I think these days we all grow up so much more slowly than we used to.

“I still enjoy much the same things that I did in my early 20s, so it’s not like that much has changed. And once you’ve got the characters, you get into a zone with them and you hear their voice and think about how they’d react in any given situation. And when we got the actors on board I did sessions with all the actors to make sure they were happy with the dialogue.”

Yeah, because language is one thing that will have changed since you were a teenager. Did you find yourself eavesdropping on kids on buses and that sort of thing?

“Yeah. As a writer you find yourself listening in to what people say anyway. Some of the rudest phrases I’ve put in the dialogue are things I’ve heard people say walking down the street. There’s one in particular that I heard about four or five years ago and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to put it in, because it’s such a disgusting phrase. I scribble things down all the time. And once all the cast was in place, we spent a couple of days just going through all their lines with them, just to check it all felt real. Obviously it can’t be too teen-speak, because we want the appeal to be pretty broad. But hopefully we’ve ended up with something that sounds pretty authentic.”

Filming has started on the series. That must be quite exciting, to see your vision becoming a reality?

“There’s always that terrifying moment when you sit down to watch the rushes for the first time, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. But they’ve done an absolutely fantastic job with it. And I have to say the five leads are fantastic, I’m really happy with the choices. They’re spot-on.”