‘The Lazarus Project’: Interview With Creator Joe Barton Who Talks Time Loops, COVID & Saving The World!

Post by:
14 Jun 22

Last week, I had the chance to sit down with screenwriter Joe Barton, the man behind the critically acclaimed series ‘Giri/Haji’, about his brilliant new time-looping sci-fi drama, ‘The Lazarus Project’, which premieres this Thursday on Sky Max and NOW.

About ‘The Lazarus Project’

‘The Lazarus Project’ is a riveting series that speaks directly to our uncertain times and to our desire to take charge of what is beyond our control. It is a moving story of love and fate within a compelling, blistering action thriller that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats – all shot through with Joe Barton’s trademark dark humour.

When George (Paapa Essiedu – ‘I May Destroy You’, ‘Gangs of London’) wakes up one day and finds himself reliving a day from months ago, he thinks he’s lost his mind. All of his recent milestones have been undone, including his success at work and his marriage to the love of his life Sarah (Charly Clive – ‘Pure’). Worst of all, he seems to be the only one who has noticed what’s happened.

That is until he meets Archie (Anjli Mohindra – ‘Vigil’, ‘Bodyguard’), who recruits George for the Lazarus Project – a secret organisation that has harnessed the ability to turn back time every time the world is at threat of extinction. Like George, those who work at Lazarus are the few people on earth with the ability to remember the events that are undone when time goes back. Alongside colleagues Archie, standoffish Shiv (Rudi Dharmalingam – ‘Wakefield’, ‘The Split’), and their steely leader Wes (Caroline Quentin – ‘Dickensian’, ‘Bridgerton’) George works to prevent global catastrophe – including trying to track down the formidable Rebrov (Tom Burke – ‘Strike’, ‘War and Peace’), a wanted criminal intent on detonating a nuclear warhead and destroying the world.

Then a freak accident harms someone close to George. Lazarus won’t let him turn back time to undo it – unless there is the threat of global extinction. Now George must choose to stay loyal or go rogue, as he is faced with the question: if you had the power to rewrite your past, what would you sacrifice to do it…?

Interview with creator Joe Barton about ‘The Lazarus Project’

WARNING – There are some mild spoilers in here for episode one (although they are alluded to in the synopsis above as well!), but if you want to go in totally blind, read this after you’ve watched the first episode!

Geektown: It’s lovely to be able to talk to you about your new show, which weirdly, I actually saw the first episode of back in December last year.

Joe Barton: Oh, wow. Okay.

Geektown: It was still called ‘Extinction’ back then, and I saw a very early version of it and was completely blown away. I just thought it was superb. I’ve been waiting for the rest of it to start to turn up, and it kept on getting pushed back and I was like, damn it. I really like the concept of it. It’s such an interesting idea. Where did the idea for the story come from?

Joe: Well, I suppose the actual narrative story, once I’d come up with, I guess, the overview idea of a team who undo extinction-level events and have a time machine, and it works with a checkpoint and all of that, once we’d built the world, I think it was just like, how do we tell an intimate character story within this big science fiction framework.

Because there were different ways that we could have gone with it. Once you have that idea, the worlds are always ending and these people use time travel to stop it. There’s the Michael Bay version of it. There’s the art house. There’s Lars von Trier’s version or whatever. Do you know what I mean? There are a million possibilities, even with that idea, and I think we just wanted to find the human story within that. And that idea of, well, telling the story about a normal person that finds herself in this extraordinary world. And I think it’s about, almost the first three-quarters of the first episode is told in the, as you would expect, he’s a normal guy. He finds out he’s got this extraordinary ability. He’s bought into this group. And he becomes an agent. And it’s super, and it’s fun and he’s on missions and it’s great!

And then the thing we decided to do with that was, I think makes it, I hope, more interesting is that moral story. His partner gets hit by a bin lorry the day after the checkpoint. Which means that he has essentially a year to turn back time and save her life. But of course, they don’t turn back time for one person… and that’s the moral question, the philosophical question at the heart of it. Is one person’s life important enough to turn back time? And The Lazarus Project say it’s not. And George says it is. And he has to essentially end the world or try and bring about an extinction event to force them to turn back time. And instantly that’s the human story. And that’s actually the interesting part of it I think.

Geektown: Yeah. And the way you approach that, not only with George, but reinforcing it with the other characters as you go through the episodes as well, I found really interesting. That also relates to the “villain”, Rebrov played by Tom Burke, as you start to see the motivations behind him. How do you approach that character more three-dimensional rather than just being, “I want to kill everything!”

Joe: Yeah, you have to have the desire to do that I think essentially. You can just have a villain who is moustache-twirling. But the best villains are ones that we, at the very least, understand even, or even sympathise with. ‘Black Panther’ I think is a good recent example of a villain that they did a good job of being like, no, this is why he’s doing it. You’re like, oh, okay, I get it.

With any character essentially, the more three-dimensional you can make them, the better you’re doing your job as a writer or a filmmaker, a TV maker or anything. That’s just always true. And so particularly for this, when it is on the surface a big sci-fi action thing, and you have a baddie, and it’s like, okay, well… it’s just more interesting. I personally just find it more interesting to know him and to know why he’s doing it. And then you get an amazing actor like Tom Burke, who just imbibes that character and brings so much to it. I just think your job as a writer is to create something that’s satisfying for the audience. And I think it’s more satisfying for the audience to do that, to let them into that character’s mind a little bit more.

Geektown: Yeah. With all the characters on the show, you’ve got a very interesting mix of people. I know you’ve created them all, but do you have a particular favourite that you enjoy writing for more than anybody else?

Joe: Oh God… I like them all! I mean, it’s a boring answer I guess, but all of them were such a pleasure because they were cast so well. And by the time you are writing for Paapa or Anjli or Caroline Quentin or whoever… Brian Gleeson pops up in it. All these amazing actors who I love, that was really a pleasure.

I wanted to do a thing where it’s a gang show in a way. Even the characters who aren’t the main characters, but you’ve got characters like Greta or The Dane or Blake who make up The Lazarus Project. It was always really fun writing little scenes for them to interact with. There’s a scene between Archie and The Dane, which I really loved. There’s a whole discussion about Schrodinger’s cat or Pavlov’s dog or something. There are little funny scenes, which I really love writing, which are always group scenes. I like the ones where they’re all there and they’re just all bouncing off each other because they’re just a funny bunch of people.

Geektown: Yeah, they are. It’s such a good cast. When you are writing it, do you have particular people in mind for this? I guess when you start you don’t know who’s going to be playing these roles. So, do you have a vision in your head of who that character, or who might play them?

Joe: Yes and no. I mean, I think you certainly have potentials. Do you know what I mean? I’ve only written a couple of times specifically for an actor, once or twice. But this one, again, I’m trying to remember at what point, because there’s always quite a lot of writing to be done even after the actors are cast. So I don’t know if there’s anyone specific. Certainly, I said very early on I wanted to cast Paapa. And you do. You make little lists, and you send them to people. It’s just a fun part.

There’s so much of making a show which is very boring and stressful. But one of the exciting bits is casting it. And it’s like, oh, let’s not talk about the tax rebate if we film it, let’s talk about who could we cast! That’s the fun conversation. So you do, you always do a list. And the producers want to read it, and Sky wants to read it and all that stuff.

So yeah. Early on I’d seen Paapa in ‘I May Destroy You’ and in ‘Gangs of London’, and I was just like, this guy’s just magnetic. He’s fucking brilliant. You just can’t stop watching him. And he was sympathetic and hilarious and tragic and all of these things. So that was really exciting for me when he agreed to even read it and look at it. I was like, “yes, this is amazing!” So that was a very satisfying moment for me. Yeah.

Geektown: It is a wonderful cast. It’s interesting seeing Caroline Quentin in there as the boss character. Because I think she’s more known for slightly more comedic stuff. Like you say, there are some very funny scenes in there, but it’s interesting having her in that role. I think she really nails it as well.

Joe: Yeah. She’s brilliant. Again, I love when people cast comedians or people that are known more for comedy in more dramatic roles. Jim Carrey in that film he did whose name I can’t remember, with Kate Winslet [it was ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’]. You know the one. And that’s why casting directors are a very unsung role in the industry. We had Jill Trevellick, who did ours, and she’s brilliant. It was that thing, the boss of the group, it’s potentially is a boring part. You’d have to have someone come in and just give it something. I think originally, the very early versions of it, it was a bearded man in his sixties or whatever. And then it was like, ah, let’s get someone interesting and someone playing against type slightly and someone that’s funny and all that stuff. So yeah, I’ve always loved Caroline in everything I’ve seen her in. And she’s just this amazing presence and national treasure. So yeah, it was great that she agreed.

Geektown: Yeah. It’s wonderful casting throughout. Going back to the story side, how did you come up with the specific set of time rules that you used on the series?

Joe: I guess, it was inspired by checkpoints. So the idea originally was “what if the world had ended?” And it came from reading articles about near misses, nuclear war near misses, like the Cuban missile crisis, or a Russian submarine almost launching nuclear weapons but decides not to at the last minute. All these things that have happened are quite terrifying, real-life things.

And I was like, it’s just weird that we haven’t accidentally annihilated ourselves! Our propensity for catastrophe and disaster generally as a species. So that idea became, okay, well, what if it had happened? And what if someone had come in and undone it? Okay, great, so that’s a time travel action show. That’s exciting. Bet someone would make that!

But you have to put restrictions on it. You have to come up with rules or else it’s just a free for all. So they have a time machine, but it only goes back a certain amount of time because otherwise, they’re too powerful. And then it was like, oh, it only goes back a certain amount of time, so what? It’s two months or three months? Then it was that, okay, what if there’s a checkpoint?

So it’s dependent on, if a nuclear bomb goes off six months into your allotted year, fine. If it goes off a day after the start of the checkpoint, then that’s trickier. And that becomes a challenge and it becomes rules. Then as soon as we’d come up with the idea of – at most, you can go back a year, it’s then but you could only go back to the same day. Then you’ve created this barrier, this invisible line between the 30th of June and the 1st of July. Everything that’s happened up to that point is set in stone. You can’t undo that. Everything after that, for a while, you can.

So that’s where that core idea of, well, if something happens on the first day of the checkpoint, you have a year to undo it. And instantly then you’ve created a ticking clock. You’ve created drama. You’ve created all of these things. And you can do something with that. It’s new as well, you’re not just doing ‘Groundhog Day’ again or you’re not just doing whatever. So yeah, it came organically out of just the nature of the world that was building.

Geektown: Was there any particular reason you picked the 1st of July as being the checkpoint day?

Joe: Originally it was the 21st of July, which is my eldest son’s birthday, but it needs to be the first of the month because it’s just going to be too complicated if it’s like… You know what I mean? So I just thought, I’ll make it the 1st of July.

Geektown: I did wonder whether it was somebody’s birthday! Outside of when they actually reset time, which is well signposted on the show, it jumps backwards as you’re showing things in flashback. When you are writing it, is it quite difficult keeping the timelines straight? I wondered is there a big whiteboard somewhere with lines going to things?

Joe: No, there isn’t. We don’t have the classic murderer’s cork board of string and stuff! And I feel like maybe we should have done. There was a spreadsheet somewhere. Which Callum, our first script editor, made and was very impressive. I don’t have a very analytical mind. I’m very unorganised. So it was a challenge. It really was a challenge. And it was just a case of trying to keep it all in your head.

The actual plot itself is quite linear. From the second episode, it’s all about George wanting to make time go backwards. And we realised that was actually a problem. Because we actually sold a time loop show, and from episode two, there were potentially no time loops in it… So we were like, “shit, we need to find ways of getting more time loops in there!” We came back and added flashbacks, and there are time loops in the flashbacks.

Episode five was the most complicated one in terms of, you’ve got, in a flashback, you have a character realising that their life has changed several times. And then they get… I can’t even talk about it, it’s too complicated! I would have notes written down. But it even got to the point I think, we filmed it and in the edit, we realised “Oh shit, that’s actually, we need six months between that!” So we had to go and we had to re-edit some scenes and stuff. So yeah, things slip through the net of comprehension.

Geektown: Yeah. It’s one of those things that you have to be so careful when you’re playing around with time, I guess, that you are not leaving massive plot holes somewhere that you can fall into?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the fear!

Geektown: You managed to get in a lot of gags and stuff. I mean, not out-and-out gags, but there’s a lot of jokes that pop up, particularly in the opening episode. There’s a great line about, “why didn’t you stop COVID?” Actually, when did you start writing this, was that in the middle of COVID?

Joe: No, no. Years before. It’s been around for a while. The idea is about six years old I think. So yeah, it was spooky in a way. It was surreal because we’d been planning it for so long. Obviously, the first episode’s all about a pandemic. To find ourselves actually making it in a pandemic was… I’m trying to think what the emotion of it was. It wasn’t disappointing. I was like, fucking really, is this really happening?

It was very surreal. I mean, the thing was in development for so long that the world-ending event actually took place! And we filmed it in the very deepest lockdown. Everyone very masked up and social distancing. And it was just surreal. And there’s stuff later on in the series about Russia and Ukraine, which we’ve had to go and change because it’s too… And that was written years ago!

But basically, at the beginning, we sat down and said “well, what are ways that the world could end?” And I think a lot of people have been like, God, it’s crazy that you wrote about a pandemic and now one’s happening. But that was always going to happen. Pandemics have happened before and they’ll happen again. And it was just a matter of time. And it was our bad luck to have to live through it.

The same with Russia and Ukraine. If you’ve been looking at this stuff, it’s been bubbling up for years. So I don’t know, the problem was to come out with stuff that seemed like it was on the cards. And then it’s all just fucking happened!

Geektown: Yeah. I mean, if you keep an eye out for it, that stuff is all around, the potential world-ending events… Which is slightly worrying! One last question for you, which we ask everyone. If you had the opportunity to work on any TV series, something from the past, something present or some future genre you maybe haven’t worked in, what would it be?

Joe: Oh man… I think I’m at that age now, and my kids are at that age, where I’m trying to find stuff that my children can watch. And they haven’t been able to watch anything. My kids are dangerously obsessed with the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise. Addicted t the concept of dinosaurs, particularly my youngest. My oldest as well. And there’s a show called ‘Jurassic Park: Camp Cretaceous’, which is like a children’s Jurassic Park. And it’s actually, I would say at the moment, that’s the best Jurassic Park storytelling. I haven’t seen the new film, so can’t say.

Geektown: Yes. I’ve been told that. It’s got four or five seasons I think. They’re actually wrapping it, but I’ve been told has been really, really good.

Joe: It’s really good.

Geektown: And they whip them out as well! I mean, it was every six months or so, a new season dropped, it’s ridiculous.

Joe: So fast! Yeah. And so I’ve watched a lot of that. So maybe that. Or like, I still think an actual Jurassic Park TV series maybe, that would be quite cool. Or something like it. I remember a comic book because I loved those films as well when I was a kid. I was eight when the first one came out. And there was a comic book that was set after the first film but before the second film. It was all about these army teams that went onto the island to find raptor eggs or something. I was like, oh, that would be great. So maybe that.

‘The Lazarus Project’ is written/created by Joe Barton, and directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, internationally acclaimed director of the Prime Video series ‘Beat’. The series was commissioned by Gabriel Silver, Director of Commissioning for Drama at Sky Studios for Zai Bennett, Managing Director of Content at Sky UK. The series is executive produced by Joe Barton, Paul Gilbert for Sky Studios, and Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy for Urban Myth Films. Urban Myth Films is producing in association with Sky Studios. Adam Knopf is the producer. NBCUniversal Global Distribution will handle international sales of the series on behalf of Sky Studios.

The Lazarus Project‘ Season 1 premieres Thursday, 16th June 2022 on Sky Max and NOW, will all episodes On Demand.