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The Lazarus Project | “Season 2 is a Time Travel Story” – An Interview with Joe Barton

Deep in production on The Lazarus Project Season 2, creator Joe Barton looks to the future of his ambitiously mind-bending sci-fi series.

In the year 2020, lockdown provided a time we all never thought we’d have – and banked on never having – to discover hidden gems on our ever-present streaming services. And in a way, what makes these services so special, is the hopeful promise to find something we’d otherwise never encounter, if only we had the time to really commit.

When you’ve heard the phrase, “hidden gem” as many times as rabid Spurs fan, showrunner, and prolific writer, Joe Barton has, it might just force you to neck your favorite cough syrup just to feel something. Giri/Haji was a BBC/Netflix and English/Japanese crime procedural starring Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) and Takerhiro Hira (Sekigahara, Snake Eyes), it’s the hidden gem in question here. It introduced me to Joe, who’s since co-written alien-adjacent drama Encounter for Amazon Prime Video, YA series Half Bad: The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself for Netflix, and is working on the next Cloverfield film.

I met Joe digitally during this time, I got used to his now well-known and apparently unorthodox representation as a writer, that being his tattoo sleeves and well-trimmed hair. But when I catch up with him this time his eyes are a little baggier, his voice still upbeat although a little more tired. It’s been a few months… and usually, we convene in a mentor/mentee capacity, however, today we’re talking about his mind-bending sci-fi for Sky, starring Paapa Essiedu (Men, I May Destroy You), The Lazarus Project.

It’s so interesting, it’s funny how similar it is to Tenet. But it has all the things that the film really missed, like an emotionally intricate story and real characters. You don’t ever forget about how the characters have to figure out a new emotional navigation system.

You’re shooting season 2 now, right? 

Yes, right now. As we speak.

George stands in an ornate room with a chandelier behind his head.
George (Paapa Essiedu) in The Lazarus Project. Essiedu received BAFTA and Emmy Award nominations for his role in the 2020 black comedy/drama I May Destroy You. | Sky, 2022.

Making Sense of The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus Project sees George (Paapa Essiedu), an app developer with a talent for pattern recognition, recruited by a secret government agency that prevents mass extinction events with the technology to turn back time. The first season premiered in the UK summer of 2022 and to some genuine critical acclaim (The Guardian called it a “fun, stylish brain-scrambler.”). The series is emotional in nature, its spine is built on the real-world effects on the mind and the body, while the scale is reduced for secondary scope. What would otherwise be another “save the world” adventure has been endowed with another edge entirely.

Every tiny moment is inescapable, in weight or as a plot pivot. 

How much time did you spend writing the first season versus the second?

Well… less time. The first series was long. I had years, Sky would commission a lot of scripts [along] with greenlighting the series, they have a very thorough process. I wrote about five episodes before the series went through and we wrote them over years and years really. By the time we started filming, all the scripts were finished. [Of] course, there are rewrites and such but the second series is much more condensed.

I only wrote two episodes as early drafts before we started. We had two months between greenlight and [the] first shoot day, no time. No time at all… We’re still not finished, we’ve been shooting for three weeks now and the first six episodes are shot. There were several drafts.

Archie leans back against a bar. She's wearing an evening dress.
Jaded MI5 agent Archie (Anjli Mohindra) in The Lazarus Project. Mohindra might be familiar to Doctor Who fans as Rani Chandra in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and more recently as the Queen of the Skithra in the 2020 Doctor Who story ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.’ | Sky, 2022.

You’re writing as you’re shooting?

Yeah, so some are too long or we run out of money, we work it out as we go. It’s difficult because it’s a time travel story. The usual practical things like actor schedules and stuff, they’re all coming back but the schedules are tricky. [Anjli Mohindra, who plays George’s way into the Lazarus Project, Archie] broke her leg. Her stuff moved because she can’t walk. She’ll be fine but – it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever been involved in.

Anjli is my personal favorite on the show. I haven’t had a chance to tell you how strong it is. Season 1, I mean. It’s a very strong piece. In terms of British TV, it’s exactly what I want to see but is never really there. In terms of how it feels, how it looks, and how the characters move, it’s sci-fi but it’s so character-driven, so emotionally charged. It’s so interesting, it’s funny how similar it is to Tenet. But it has all the things that the film really missed, like an emotionally intricate story and real characters. You don’t ever forget about how the characters have to figure out their emotional navigation system. All this in mind, schedules, studio requirements, how do you make a plan for this to just work and make sense, when someone asks you on set, “What’s going on right now?” How do you tell them? 

It’s difficult. I mean, I have the script. Lots of notes laying around to make sense of it. The timelines, the events. I have a script editor who explains everything in prose in documents to everybody else. They explain everything. The scripts have interior, house, day plus the year and the strand it is and what timeline it’s set in.

Every character has different versions, 2012 Janet, young Janet, [and] old Janet. We explain it to the actors anyway. It’s fucking… we just try. It’s important. It’s for costume as well – if it’s wrong, it just looks silly.

Do you have a key? A legend? A timeline? Can I see?

(He raises crumbled pieces of paper, of sparse jottings and lines drawn together, it’s no different than my Japanese scribbles at university. I’m astounded by how simple it is.)

The Nurofen I’ve been necking to get through it. The headaches I get. We’re still writing. The more you film the more you constrain yourself. As time goes on the options get slimmer and slimmer.

George stands with his back to the camera as a nuclear explosion silhouettes him against the sky.
George (Paapa Essiedu) watches a nuclear blast in The Lazarus Project. | Sky, 2022.

Looking Ahead to The Lazarus Project Season 2

With Season 1 you had time to think about the ending and it’s just the start so you can play with the concept, but in The Lazarus Project Season 2, you’re expected to push that. How do you develop and go further with a concept like this?

Season 1 was a time loop story. Season 2 is a time travel story. Before they could go back to the checkpoint and they could only go back a year. Whereas in this, it’s about characters being able to travel back, [and] the dangers of time travel. We changed the storytelling parameters in that way. Trying to think of the most interesting version of it.

Originally it was going to be the three-week loop we see in the final episode of Season 1, we moved that up, ran out of stories, and had to re-think [Season] 2. The challenge, like everything, is to make it more interesting and exciting.

That’s fascinating, that was my favorite episode. It was nihilistic in a lot of ways. You can do anything right? Especially with a concept like that but you chose that one thing that no one would ever do, an ex machina that no one could solve. 

I liked it, it made it into a Groundhog Day thing, I like the idea of characters going crazy in a three-week loop.

How did you do research for this? Especially with The Lazarus Project Season 2, moving through time and considering the theories, it’s a militaristic kind of show, about covert ops and governments, and nuclear warfare, how did that process change from the two seasons?

I try and avoid physics whenever possible. Time travel doesn’t exist yet, [and] probably never will. Most writers just Google stuff. 

The show takes poetic license and allows itself to exist in a made-up space. If you could go back to the 1st of July because of a special magic off-screen button, what would you do?

Same as a cop show, no one wants to see the reality of someone solving a crime, it’s paperwork and bureaucracy. I don’t like the thought of watching Bruce Willis doing a risk assessment at the end of Die Hard. For as long as possible, science is to be confirmed. That’s our placeholder.

A glass cell is visible through the bars where Dennis Rebrov stands waiting.
Dennis Rebrov (Tom Burke) languishes behind bars in The Lazarus Project. Burke is signed up for an unknown role in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road prequel, Furiosa. | Sky, 2022.

You have the whole sequence of Paapa (George) walking into the building and the music is going, it’s doing the cool sci-fi thing. There is a cinematic rule book of ‘here’s the thing that does the thing.’ But exactly as you said, it’s an off-screen button, no one thinks of stealing or destroying it. Is that something you thought about adding? 

Season 2 gets into that; we see behind the curtain. There’s a rival group to the Lazarus Project. I think in this show we’re walking a tightrope over a giant chasm called a plothole. It’s about managing a balancing act between logic and story. 

Joe Barton wears a white T-shirt and stands outside with trees in the background.
Writer and producer Joe Barton, creator of The Lazarus Project and the critically acclaimed Giri/Haji. | Photo by Alice Newbury.

Two seasons of a very complicated show. I don’t wanna push you too far but… how many seasons would you expect?

I don’t know, I only see until the end of Season 2, I want my motivation to be artistic, another season would be good, [but] there are still intriguing questions about the way it’s ending. It takes a lot out of me, we’ll get Season 2 done. Hopefully, it’s good. Hopefully, people like it. Just gotta survive first.

Quickly, talk to me about sci-fi. I saw Encounter, which is a different kind of sci-fi, you know the doors will close in a film. You know you can find the circle. Are you interested in delving deep into this genre on TV? Doing more?

I don’t think about genre too much. I like stories. I think about characters. I like sci-fi and there’s a wide range that comes under the banner like Solaris or Robocop

Don’t think I’ve ever heard those in the same sentence.

Together at last.

The Lazarus Project is available via Sky and Sky Max for UK viewers, while it will premiere on TNT in 2023 in North America. The Lazarus Project Season 2? Well, that’ll depend on Joe’s next few weeks.

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Award-winning screenwriter, director, and writer based in South London, Levi’s known for series and shorts, Visions of a Vivid Life and The Smell of Cut Grass. They write fiction and non-fiction work, essays, short stories and articles for Film Inquiry, Literally Stories, The Independent, Femini Magazine, and Clone Corridor. Levi is also an avid climber and published photographer.

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