Showrunner Alice Birch On Rebooting ‘Dead Ringers’ With Rachel Weisz

David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychological thriller is now a six-episode Amazon (AMZN) Prime series starring Rachel Weisz as twin OBGYNs Elliot and Beverly Mantle.

Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers.’ Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

In 1988 David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller Dead Ringers both captivated and horrified audiences. The film starred Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists, Elliot and Beverly, who were in turn based on real-life twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus. Cronenberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Norman Snider, drew on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s Twins, a fictionalized version of the Marcus brothers. Now, like with so much compelling content, Dead Ringers has returned, transformed into a six-episode limited series for Prime Video, with Rachel Weisz as OBGYNs Elliot and Beverly Mantle. 

The idea for the remake, which takes inspiration but not exact details from Cronenberg’s film, came from Weisz but was put into action by screenwriter and playwright Alice Birch. Best known for adapting Normal People and Conversations With Friends for Hulu, Birch came onboard as creator and showrunner, marking her first time in the role. She worked in tandem with Weisz, who joined the writers room every day as the series was coming to fruition. 

“She was not there as the actor,” Birch recalls. “She was incredibly generous. And that was a really incredible thing because when we were writing for her she’s been part of the conversation, which came through when we were on the set.” 

The series, which premieres on Prime Video April 21, takes a different journey than the film, but it’s just as uncanny and odd. Here Birch discusses remaking a classic film, pushing the boundaries of what to show in the medical scenes and creating two distinct characters for the twins.

How did you come to be the person tasked with remaking Dead Ringers?

It was Rachel’s idea. She had always been a fan of the Cronenberg film and she was trying to find stories that had a central female relationship. She had the idea that this might be a good film to do gender flip. She took it to [production company] Annapurna, who thought it was interesting, and they got the rights. And then they came to me. I hadn’t seen the film before. So that was an experience. I watched it a few times and thought it was extraordinary and singular and twisted and amazing. But that central relationship definitely had the potential for this kind of six hours. Plus, the opportunity to write two parts for Rachel Weisz felt like a good way to begin. 

So it was always intended as a gender flipped version?

Yeah. It was always a fact of the project.

Is this an adaptation of the film or the book the film was based on? 

It’s the film. I’ve read the book and I read about the real twins. But the film was the thing that I looked at the most. It’s definitely not a remake. It’s sort of like a great grandchild of the film. There’s lots that we took, that felt really interesting to us and like it would work in long-form storytelling. But we still built these characters from the ground up.

Britne Oldford (l) and Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers.’ Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

Was there anything in particular you felt you had to bring from the film into the series? 

The central relationship and how deeply codependent they are. It’s really intense. The film is so strange and it’s unnerving and it’s uncanny. And it’s quite aspirational as well—they’re having quite a lot of fun at the beginning. They’re enjoying their lives. The medical background was something that we knew we wanted, but we wanted to expand that and we wanted to make them obstetricians, as well as gynecologists, which is obviously a big shift from the film. 

And then the character of Genevieve [played by Britne Oldford]. The idea of a doctor falling in love with a patient and that patient being the person who’s in the middle of their dynamic. I really wanted to write that kind of meet cute in the doctor’s surgery. I thought that was really fascinating.

Did you speak with Cronenberg?

No, no. I think when he gave the rights, it was like, “Here you go.” Which is lovely. And I think that allowed us to run free.

What sort of research did you do for the show beyond watching the film?

Before we started the writers room, Rachel and I spoke to some OB-GYN who were working in New York. And we spoke to some twins. And then during the writers room we had lots of experts come in. We had embryologists, endocrinologists. We had a scientist who works in longevity who is working on technologies that would treat death as a preventable disease. People who do gene editing. We had lots of experts on set, as well. It was so, so fascinating. 

Rachel Weisz in ‘Dead Ringers.’ Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

How did you determine how graphic to make the medical scenes?

I totally understand why you’re asking that question. It’s following what feels right to us and what we’re interested in. It was always written in the script. The childbirth scenes were written in quite a detailed way to be clear about what we’re seeing. And similarly with the miscarriage or other things like that. Sean Durkin, the director for [episodes] one and two, and co-director of seven, he had a really clear vision on how he was going to shoot those. The prosthetics team was involved and the makeup team was involved and VFX were involved. It was creative and technical discussions going into that, but it was really following what we felt was interesting and right.

It seems important to show aspects of women’s health, like miscarriages and birth, onscreen.

I think we are so used to consuming violence onscreen and death onscreen. And that’s great. I’m totally here for it. But childbirth and women’s bodies—these things happen all the time and we almost never see it on screen.

Was it a challenge to create the two very distinct personalities for Beverly and Elliot?

Yes, although it was a really good one. Doing that with the actor is wonderful because you can have a conversation and get a sense of what she’s excited by and what feels right to her. Writing two distinct voices for one actor to play, that was such a wonderful challenge. What Cronenberg does so brilliantly in the film, and Jeremy Irons does in his performances, is it’s not good and evil. That was a groundbreaking new way to tell a story of twins. They’re so complex. So we wanted to build two equally psychologically complex and very different characters. Watching Rachel do that on the set every day, so effortlessly, was just extraordinary.

Why do you think we’re so fascinated by twins?

Freud calls it the most uncanny thing of all. The idea of the double and meeting yourself. We met twins, and I know quite a few identical twins, and nobody I’ve met is anywhere near like these women. We really turn the dial up. That was a lot of fun.

Without spoiling anything, did you always have a clear idea of where you wanted this story to end up?

Yeah, I always knew how it was going to end. From the very, very early discussions, it felt like, “Yeah, that was the place where it needed to end.” And then it’s, “How do you get there?” So I didn’t know the whole arc. I didn’t understand each beat of how we were going to get there. But I also knew I wanted to begin in a very specific place. It wasn’t all mapped out in my head, but I had quite a clear sense of the final scene. Showrunner Alice Birch On Rebooting ‘Dead Ringers’ With Rachel Weisz