All posts by David Jenkinson

Fired up

Wall-Street-lawyer-turned-showrunner Jonathan Lisco on how he aims to make the second season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire a hit by giving the slow-paced character drama space to breathe.

To work in television, you must watch a lot of television, right? Wrong. Well, that’s what Jonathan Lisco says. He enjoyed True Detective and is trying to catch up on Mad Men, but admits he’s way behind on some of his favourite series.

With the seventh and final season of Mad Men due to conclude on cable network AMC on May 17, Lisco may now have to wait for the box set to find out what happens to Don Draper after his own series, Halt and Catch Fire, won a second season order last August. It will air at the end of this month, also on AMC.

Jonathan Lisco
Jonathan Lisco
Halt and Catch Fire opens in Dallas in 1983, and depicts a fictionalised view of the personal computer revolution as three people come together to reverse-engineer the first IBM PC.

Lisco was brought onto the series as showrunner after signing an overall deal with the cable channel in July 2013.

But he confesses that, after meeting co-creators Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell, he wasn’t initially blown away by its premise.

“I wasn’t sure if it was going to work and I wasn’t sure I was the person to run it,” he says. “On its face, the show was about the cloning of the PC and that’s not something that immediately blows your hair back dramatically.

“But once I realised the show was not just about the cut-throat computer business of the early 1980s and convinced myself it was about people at war with themselves as they searched for something bigger in the world – about these geniuses or frauds who feel that there was something more out there that they can’t quite wrap their minds around – it seemed to me to not only be great fodder for storytelling but also very relevant to people today.”

Like Mad Men, which is set in a 1960s New York advertising agency, Halt and Catch Fire places huge emphasis on character development – something Lisco says could only be done at AMC.

“AMC will tolerate and encourage a slower burn than a lot of other places,” he says. “That means if you want to have moments where characters don’t speak, you can do it. You can choose those moments, earn them, and make it happen on screen.

“I feel sometimes like those are the moments that live most with audiences, those moments of intermittent vulnerability where you’re getting a window into that character. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re keeping the plot going at breakneck speed.”

Season one of Halt and Catch Fire often received critical acclaim, though viewing figures failed to reflect its promise. The series launch drew 1.19 million last June and dropped to 570,000 by the end of its 10-episode run at the beginning of August. Despite this, AMC saw enough potential in the series to bring it back for another season.

Halt and Catch Fire returns to AMC soon after the final season of Mad Men ends
Halt and Catch Fire returns to AMC soon after the final season of Mad Men ends
“It would be completely disingenuous for me to say that the network and us wouldn’t love to have artistic success alongside also being a ratings juggernaut,” says Lisco. “That’s a home run and we’d all love that. On the other hand, AMC picked up this show even when it was not a ratings juggernaut. It was widely viewed as high quality; it had a passionate core audience and they felt that it was good storytelling, and that there was more potential to come.

“So, with that in mind, they renewed it for another season. But it’s absolutely true they don’t necessarily need the kind of ratings the broadcast networks are looking for.”

With the show’s second run soon to hit TV screens, Lisco says season two offered him and his team of writers a chance to take the programme forward after establishing the characters last summer.

“In Halt and Catch Fire, the concrete plot is very important to us, but it’s much more important that the show functions on an infra-red emotional level so, before people even know it, they start to love and hate our main characters, while becoming addicted to them. That’s what we’re striving for, and while we feel like we accomplished a lot of that in season one, we’d just laid the pipe. We’d just established the world and these characters and all their wonderful facets, and I think there is an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover with them still.

“We kept a very open mind with this season, because sometimes in the room, the characters start speaking to us instead of us constructing them, and that’s when the magic really happens.”

A former lawyer, Lisco quit Wall Street after six months. “I looked ahead of me, saw all the partners at the firm, and I didn’t want to be any of them,” he says bluntly. “I felt daily like my soul was out of its socket.”

Waiting on tables in New York, he found he would often be serving the people he had been having conference calls with in his previous job. But after writing a play, he was introduced to executives at Robert de Niro’s Tribeca Film, where he sold a movie pitch.

Lisco landed his first TV job when he joined the writing staff of NYPD Blue. Co-creator Steven Bochco had read his play and offered him a job, despite the new recruit admitting he had never seen ABC’s long-running police series.

He then worked on The District, another cop drama, this time on CBS and set in Washington, DC, on which he rose through the ranks and began spending time in the editing suite.

Lisco joined Jack & Bobby, a one-season show on The WB Network about two brothers, one of whom would later become president of the United Sates, before signing a deal with 20th Century Fox that led to two projects for the Fox Network – a legal pilot called Damages and his own series, K-Ville, which focused on policing in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It ran for one season, but production shut down during the 2007/08 Writers Guild of America strike and it was later cancelled.

AMC allows the show to take a 'slower burn' approach
AMC allows the show to take a ‘slower burn’ approach
Lisco then joined TNT’s critically acclaimed cop show Southland as an executive producer for three seasons, before landing the showrunner post on Halt and Catch Fire.

“When it’s at its most exciting, there’s nothing quite like it,” says Lisco of the TV business. “The best moments come when you’re on set and you’ve written a scene that’s exactly the way you’ve seen it in your head.”

After AMC confirmed Halt and Catch Fire’s second season, Lisco rallied his staff and reopened the writing room at the end of last September.
“Everyone runs the room differently but the way I run it is to get in there and go deep, not on story but on character,” Lisco explains. “We talk on an emotional level and on a character level for a month before we actually start plotting out stories.

“Story points come up and we slap them on a card and put them on a whiteboard. Anyone who walks in there thinks we’ve all lost our minds, but what we’re really trying to understand is the vulnerability and humanity of the characters we’re creating – because if that rings false, if that doesn’t feel grounded and authentic, then whatever story we tell will ring false.”

After setting out character development, Lisco and his staff get into the first couple of episodes, but he says this only happens up to a certain stage, when individual writers are asked to go away and come up with a ‘beat sheet’ – 15 or 20 points that could make it into an episode. That will then be discussed before they’re asked to go away again and create an outline for an episode.

“It’s a very collegiate, collaborative effort but I also allow and empower the writers to be real writers and bring stuff to their colleagues in the room to be workshopped,” Lisco explains. “For me, that’s the best of both worlds because people wind up feeling a lot of ownership over what’s going on.”

Lisco also served as showrunner on Southland, TNT’s police drama set on the streets of Los Angeles that came to the end of its five season run in April 2013. Season one aired on NBC.

Having undertaken this role on two vastly different series, not only in style but also in plot, Lisco is building his experience in what he describes as “probably one of the best jobs in the world.” He’s not alone, though, with Breaking Bad’s Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein executive producing the show alongside him, Rogers, Cantwell and producer Jeff Freilick.

“It’s a shock to some writers, going from sitting by yourself in your underwear trying to crank out stories until the wee hours jacked up on coffee, to a point when suddenly you’re expected to be the head writer, a leader, and asked to oversee this hydra called a television show,” Lisco says of becoming a showrunner.

“For people who can do right brain and left brain simultaneously, it’s probably one of the best jobs in the world because you can be a chief novelist at the same time as being one of the managers.

“When I go in to showrun something, if I feel like my vision is going to be a daily battle against the vision of the creator or creators, I just don’t take the job. This is not my first rodeo so I’ve learnt that this is a disaster waiting to happen and there’s no point getting involved with it.

“Being the lead on the 100-headed monster called a television show, sometimes someone’s got to make the hard decision, and that will be me. But generally I try to manage by consensus as opposed to dictatorially because I feel like I can with these guys, because we are very like-minded in what we’re trying to achieve.”

Known as a dedicated movie channel, AMC broke the mould when it began commissioning its own scripted series. Mad Men debuted in 2007, a year before Breaking Bad, the lauded drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth kingpin.

The success of that move into original programming did not go unnoticed, with an increasing demand for dramas among cable and digital platforms, not to mention the ongoing fight among the broadcast networks for viewers each autumn.

Lisco describes the fall-out from this demand as a “double-edged sword,” drawing parallels between an increasing number of outlets for scripted series and falling labour prices.

“On the one hand, while there are more outlets for content, there is downward pressure on prices and staff numbers in general are getting smaller,” he says.

“It depends on where you are in the business. If you are in the pantheon of showrunners and you have a certain kind of reputation, there will probably always be a place for you, but it’s hard to say. The business is changing so radically every day of the week that riding the rollercoaster is just part of the fun.”

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The (new) New Wave: French drama forges ahead

Boosted by a fresh approach from the country’s broadcasters, French drama is gearing up to cross borders – this time in English.

Winds of change are blowing across France’s TV drama sector, carrying with them a new generation of producers armed with an emphatically international vision.

Having watched its Northern European neighbours grab many of the drama headlines over the past few years, France – as one of Western Europe’s ‘big five’ TV markets – has some catching up to do.

Les Revenants
Les Revenants

Fortunately, however, the groundwork has already been laid, reflected in a notable shift in broadcaster strategy, production slates, sources of funding and now a range of projects to show for it.

“France is going through a new period where there are more good producers open to the international market,” says Emmanuelle Guilbart, co-CEO of the recently launched financing and distribution company About Premium Content.

Guilbart, whose background in French broadcasting includes stints at France Télévisions and Canal+, launched the company last year together with former Zodiak Media CFO Laurent Boissel to provide alternative means of gap and deficit-financing and distribution to indie producers in France and across Europe.

The force for change has been building for some time: France has the highest number of primetime slots for US series in Europe. The habit began in 1992 and has resulted in a big shift in viewing tastes: 52’ episodes, multimillion-dollar production values and different storytelling approaches.

But with top drama budgets of around €900,000 per primetime hour, external partners and/or coproducers are necessary for French broadcasters and producers to compete effectively on the international stage, explains Sandra Ouaiss, a former director of fiction acquisitions at Canal+. Ouaiss is currently coproduction adviser at Newen Content, one of France’s largest TV production and distribution groups, which includes Capa Drama (Braquo) and Telfrance (Plus Belle La Vie).

France’s broadcast ecology supports two private networks, public broadcaster France Télévisions, a swathe of smaller DTT channels on limited budgets, and pay TV network Canal+. However, Ouaiss says free-to-air broadcasters only have so much leeway when it comes to taking creative risks, given their mainstream audiences.

Guilbart echoes this view: “It’s not a justification, but it’s sometimes easier to be bolder, edgier and more original when you work with pay TV or cable-type series. It’s a little more difficult to do this for mainstream television.”

Sandra Ouaiss
Sandra Ouaiss

It was pay TV broadcaster Canal+ that really kickstarted France’s drama revival thanks to its Création Originale strategy and the freedom to commission edgier, riskier projects, such as Haut et Court’s supernatural series Les Revenants (The Returned), and before that the crime dramas Braquo (main image) and Engrenages (Spiral).

Capa Drama’s Braquo broke new territory in French crime drama when it launched in 2009, scooping an international Emmy in 2012. It is widely considered France’s answer to The Shield, says Ouaiss, and season four is now in production.

Canal+’s strategy extended internationally with high-budget coproductions, starting with Franco-German-produced Borgia in 2011 and continued in 2013 by The Tunnel, the Franco-British remake of Scandi thriller The Bridge, coproduced alongside Sky Atlantic and Shine.

Underpinning this approach is a growing willingness from French producers to shoot projects in English, says Ouaiss, with French viewers accepting local dubs. This shift is opening doors to a greater range of high-end international projects.

Canal+’s next big drama is the €30m-budget Versailles (10×52’), made by Newen drama prodco Capa Drama, Zodiak and Canada’s Incendo. Created and written by showrunners Simon Mirren (Criminal Minds, Without a Trace) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, Escape Artist), the first two episodes are directed by movie director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint-Laurent).

“It’s an interesting example because we’re telling a piece of French history, written in English and shot in English,” says Ouaiss. “English has become the convention, and it’s not seen as a problem for a series on French history to be in English.” Think The Queen shot in French.

However, local productions have also demonstrated international potential. “It’s important to say that when we speak about ‘international’ productions, people often think English-language, à la Borgia, with a US showrunner. Actually, there are plenty of others such as Kaboul Kitchen from Chic or Les Revenants, and all those Scandinavian shows travelling everywhere, that are very local,” says Guilbart.

Moreover, the perception that it’s primarily Canal+ and Arte taking risks isn’t strictly true. Like Canal+, leading free-to-air channel TF1 has developed its own scripted strategy to compete with the US, using US showrunners and European broadcast partners on English-language productions to give it greater international heft. Projects include Crossing Lines with ProSiebenSat.1 and Taxi Brooklyn, adapted from Luc Besson’s movie Taxi.

Olivier René
Olivier René

“That’s how they can reach a €2-3m per hour budget,” says Ouaiss. “Everything comes from the broadcasters’ ambition to be able to be compared to the US series and to reach that kind of budget.”

But such risks come at a price, and not all have succeeded. “This is the business,” says Ouaiss. “You know you’ll have one big success for every five or six failures. In the US, 70% of new shows that launch each season are cancelled by the end of the year. At the end of the day, everyone learns and the failures won’t prevent them from innovating and moving forward.”

Pubcaster France2 has also broadened its coproduction slate. While the crime-lite series Death in Paradise coproduced with the BBC failed among French viewers, the channel saw good results with Franco-Belgian crime drama Les Témoins (Witnesses).

The six-part series, coproduced by France2, RTBF and Cinétévé and distributed by Newen, has already sold to Channel 4, while the US is considering a remake.

Guilbart says Witnesses demonstrates a new willingness to experiment with storytelling, moving away from the dominant tradition of closed storylines within episodes that “would make a series like Broadchurch almost impossible.”

Despite initially being considered a risk for France2, the original UK series of Broadchurch, from Shine-owned Kudos, was a hit on ITV – pulling in a 25.5% primetime share – and the French pubcaster is working on a remake called Malaterra.

France’s drama renewal is also steadily cross-fertilising movies with TV. For France this is a significant breakthrough, as film is regarded the higher art form in cultural terms, and TV content its lesser cousin.

French prodco Haut et Court, co-founded by Carole Scotta, is a prime example. The company entered into TV, taking the director-driven film model in the form of writer/director-driven series, says Scotta. The move came at “a moment when we felt the appetite for different kinds of shows was growing. Canal+ was investing more in series and Arte was starting to finance series,” she says. “We felt there was a card to play that was not the exact kind of show made before.”

Carole Scotta
Carole Scotta

The company’s first TV series was Xanadu for Arte in 2011, but it was developing The Returned for Canal+ at the same time, based on the feature film it also produced.

Although Xanadu didn’t draw in viewers, the success of The Returned has since opened many doors for Haut et Court following its international release in French, says Scotta. As well as breaking into the US market with a remake deal with A&E Networks, Haut et Court is working on new projects with the UK, Italy and Israel.

The UK project, The Last Panthers (6×60’), is co-developed with Warp Films and Sky in the UK as well as Canal+. “There’s no majority partner – we’re all equal and it’s reflected in the casting and the team,” says Scotta. The Euro heist crime drama, shot in Marseilles, Montenegro, Serbia and London and in three different languages, follows gangsters from Marseilles to Serbia and will be delivered in the final quarter of this year.

Chic Films (A Prophet) has also applied its movie background to TV drama. Lauranne Bourrachot, a producer at the company, says movie directors now consider TV as a space in which to experiment with a wider range of storytelling formats, inspired by the arrival of shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

“We discovered a whole new way of telling a story, a story that sometimes can’t fit into a 90-minute script. We thought we had to try this in France, and thank God some broadcasters began to have the same approach,” Bourrachot says.

Chic Films’ slate includes the half-hour comedy Kaboul Kitchen, made together with Scarlett Productions. Two seasons, featuring a very French, grumpy anti-hero, have so far aired on Canal+, with a third now being written. The show scooped the Grand Prize at the Seoul Drama Awards (SDA) last fall, while FremantleMedia has taken the format rights, with a UK pilot being scripted.

In common with elsewhere in Europe, French productions are being hampered by a lack of scriptwriters. Bourrachot says there was “a long gap” between series one and series two of Kaboul Kitchen. “The problem is we lack writers and available ones, and some of them are doing feature films or other series for the same broadcasters,” she adds.

Haut et Court experienced similar delays between the first and second seasons of The Returned. Fresh from his debut movie Simon Werner a Disparu, Fabrice Gobert came on board Les Revenants, taking over as the series’ showrunner, writing all the episodes and directing half of them.

“We don’t have many writers and the ones we have are also very busy, so it’s a challenge to nurture young writers and really help. With season two of The Returned, we’ve surrounded Fabrice with other writers and tried to work together,” says Scotta.

Scotta believes France is around 10 years behind the more industrial-scale US writers room model, but insists “we’re learning as fast as we can.”

Hand in hand with France’s drama renewal is a more creative approach to funding French (and international) drama. “We believe the financing of audiovisual content, especially drama, is moving and changing, and there is not one way of financing a show these days,” says Guilbart.

Unlike TV, French movies have a long association with coproduction financing. Around 40% of all French movies are coproduced or cofinanced with foreign partners, according to Olivier-René Veillon. Veillon is CEO of the regional Ile de France Film Commission, which has launched a film fund across film and TV projects open to non-French-language productions. The reason, he explains, is that “we very much believe foreign productions have to contribute to the development of new trends of international productions in France.”

Veillon continues: “Recently, all the series that benefited from subsidies from the Ile de France region were French producers with international partners. That’s very good news and absolutely new because it was not the case two to three years ago.”

Veillon’s agency is currently partnering with foreign counterparts, such as Film London in the UK, to develop strong cross-border creative partnerships through initiatives like the production exchange scheme A Tale of Two Cities.

With Netflix now on the local scene and having commissioned scripted project Marseille from Paris-based prodco Federation Entertainment, the stakes just got higher for local broadcasters.

Veillon says its arrival should force local incumbents to up their game on the original-production front, as well as shake up France’s very ‘closed’ market, protected by regulations and laws.

Producers in general also welcome new entrants like Netflix as potential new partners, although work is needed to nail down the fine print over rights and windowing. “We all need to agree to what extent content rights will be granted and how we can exploit programmes abroad,” says Bourrachot. “That will be the big question.”

Newen Content is currently developing an ambitious international drama project on the scale of Vikings, featuring talent from Europe and the US, with Capa Drama leading the project.

“We’re looking for a commissioner, but not especially in France,” says Ouaiss. ”We’re going to talk to Amazon, Netflix, Sundance and others, and it’s a typical example of the fact that there are no more geographical boundaries.”

Drama fit for a king

Costing US$30m to make and promising to push the boundaries of TV drama, Versailles is one of the most hotly anticipated period pieces in recent memory. DQ goes behind the scenes as the Louis XIV epic wraps its debut season.

Five years in the making, one of Europe’s most expensive and daring new dramas is about to be unleashed by France. Aptly, it’s called Versailles.

But despite its royal heritage, this is no regular French drama production. The €27m (US$29.7m) series – commissioned by French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ under its Création Originale drama strategy – surprises in more ways than one.

Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden's Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+
Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden’s Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+

The 80% French-funded series is created and scripted by British duo Simon Mirren (Without a Trace, Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, The Escape Artist). They weren’t the project’s first showrunners. After a few false starts, and following the departure of André and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Mirren and Wolstencroft joined two years ago via Anne Thomopoulos (Band of Brothers, Rome, Borgia, Black Box), who is exec producing the drama together with Claude Chelli (Braquo) of Newen-owned Capa Drama.

Canal+ greenlit the show in January 2014, before French coproducer Zodiak France funded a writers room in LA and production finally began last August, with filming wrapping in early March this year.

As it turns out, Mirren and Wolstencroft were destined for the part. Wolstencroft says he got the call from Mirren as he left a butcher’s in Brooklyn. “Simon phoned me and said, ‘Mate, do you know anything about Louis XIV and Versailles?’ ‘Well, I did study him at Cambridge and he is my specialist subject,’ I replied.”

Wolstencroft was tutored by historian Peter Burke, a Louis XIV expert who shared the research for his books on the monarch with his Cambridge students. He recalls: “At college I remember thinking this would be a brilliant movie but that it would never happen.”

While it’s nothing new for French productions to be scripted and shot in English, it’s certainly a bold step when the subject in question is so quintessentially French. Versailles will be dubbed into French, with Canal+ viewers given the choice of either language when the series launches this fall. But the approach has raised French eyebrows, with its English-speaking Louis XIV, played by British actor George Blagden (Vikings), in particular, proving controversial.

Simon Mirren
Simon Mirren

Making the show in English was a “very buccaneer, brave thing to do,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s clearly important in terms of its historical veracity to have a French version, but to film in English is bold and wonderful. Three billion people in the world speak English, so let’s take this story to the maximum audience, like the Americans do. The whole point is that the story exists on its own terms – it’s English-language, international entertainment.”

Chelli is similarly dismissive of the concerns: “Louis is married to a Spanish woman, his brother’s wife is English and his mother is a quarter Italian, so it’s not really just a French story but a European one.”

It was Chelli who first pitched the idea to Canal+ five years ago, after a visit to the Palace of Versailles’ central Hall of Mirrors left him wondering why no one had made a drama about France’s longest-serving monarch. “The guy’s incredible; he invented everything from architecture to fashion, music, ballet, haute cuisine – the lot,” Chelli says of Louis XIV. “It’s a long story, but here we are five years later with great showrunners and great stories.”

Canal+ is very clear about why it backed the production. “Versailles was a great subject for us in the first place, but we didn’t want to do another conventional historical series,” says Pierre Saint André, manager of French drama and coproductions for Création Originale at Canal+, which is headed by Fabrice de la Patellière. “We love Borgia, which aired on Canal+, but we wanted to do something different.”

Audiences for pay TV channels make it possible to take creative risks that their broad-reach, free-to-air terrestrial counterparts often cannot, especially in France, says Saint André. “For Canal+ as a pay TV channel in France doing original programming, it had to be something different, a distinctive approach and a fresh take on a specific story.”

David Wolstencroft
David Wolstencroft

The project was high budget from the start and needed coproduction partners. “We’re French producers and we don’t do productions of this scope, so it took some time to get the production together creatively and financially,” says Chelli.

Associate producer Aude Albano, of Zodiak France, adds: “Beyond bringing partners together, the big challenge of producing a major historical drama that looks beautiful and rich on screen is that it needs a lot of money.”

Chelli agrees: “It would have been impossible to do without the right funding, given the magnitude of the set and the rest of the production. If it had just been down to French money, we would have done it in a few months. With Versailles, you expect something beautiful – in terms of both the palace and the people. If you didn’t have the money, it would look ridiculous.”

The production’s grand scale also played a part in the appointment of French director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint Laurent, Headwinds) to direct the drama’s first two episodes. “He was on the same wavelength as all of us in trying to do something new and unique with the show,” says Saint André.

The series starts in 1667 with a 28-year-old Louis XIV. The palace itself is still a hunting lodge, and war is raging. The king has left Paris and relocated his court to Versailles to establish absolute power over rebel French nobles. “Versailles was basically a political project, but Louis XIV also wanted to build the most beautiful palace in the world, so that’s what he did,” says Chelli.

A central theme of Versailles is the relationship between Louis XIV and his gay younger brother Philippe, a heroic warrior played by Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, Privates). Philippe’s wife Harriette – sister to Charles II of England and one of Louis’ lovers – dies at the start of the series, soon after the death of the French monarch’s mother.

Caroline Torrance
Caroline Torrance

“It was a blow for Louis and the end of his innocence,” says Chelli. “He had to grow up and face the next step in his history. We’re telling a universal story of two brothers who love their mother. It’s about becoming a man. There’s nothing specifically French about it, and hopefully the viewers will relate.”

The drama is anything but a slavish retelling of the period, with the copro partners and showrunners not interested in delivering a history lesson. “This is a piece of drama and we’re taking a few liberties with dates and events. We’re inventing something that could have happened,” says Chelli. Albano adds: “We were obsessed by airing a very modern take on this part of history, and that’s why it’s also great to have non-French writers on the show, who are free from self-censorship.”

Saint André agrees: “That’s what was very convincing in Simon and David’s approach. They delivered what a French writer perhaps wouldn’t have dared do. But this was the liberty we needed for Versailles. We don’t want to specialise in historical dramas. We’re looking for contemporary stories and series, so it had to be different and modern, visually and in its storytelling – and I think Versailles succeeds in both aspects.”

Wolstencroft says he’s using Versailles’ history as a lens to view the modern world. “I’m a historian and I love France, but I often don‘t agree with the way history is perceived. It’s true of Britain, too, where there’s this kind of preserved taxidermy. True history is a living, breathing moment in time and everyone remembers it differently. Versailles is the birth of France as a superpower in Europe, the birth of fashion and haute cuisine, of architecture being used by a ruler – it’s a bit like the beginning of New Labour, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and there are parallels all the way through.”

Then there’s Versailles the brand. “It’s the first global brand,” says Wolstencroft. “Most people don’t know about France or Louis XIV, but they do know about Versailles. It’s like the original Nike symbol or the world’s first Superbowl spot. Everyone had heard about it, and it grew and grew to become a shop window and a place to manipulate politicians, as well as the centre of culture.”

Aude Albano
Aude Albano

Applying the US scriptwriter-showrunner model has also helped deliver a singular vision and give authorship to the series in a market driven by the producer-director model. “It’s useful to have this streamlined creative process, because it meant we could keep our eyes on the prize, which is quite hard when you have the infrastructure that we have and the expectations of what a period drama should be,” explains Wolstencroft. “We had to stop ourselves from going into Downton or Masterpiece territory.”

Versailles is anything but, and Mirren and Wolstencroft deliver a blinder at the end of episode one.

Wolstencroft suggests France’s next step should be to “empower writers to understand the basics of production.”

“Even among those writing for UK TV, there are people who don’t know how to make a scene better, or don’t feel empowered to do so,” he says. “They might have opinions but keep them to themselves. The writer-producer model in the US is very empowering because it means authorship. It’s the opposite of how it works in France, with the director of a show usually being its originator. It may threaten the pillars of established power but, actually, you get better stories at the end of it, so everybody wins – as the US has demonstrated.”

Versailles’ modern approach is reinforced by contemporary electronic music and pared-back hairstyles and makeup, eschewing the huge wigs and chalky faces of the period. “We watch UK shows here and everyone loves Downton Abbey,” says Chelli, “but this is not Downton. We’ve tried to do something different. Versailles is shot in a different way. It’s more modern, the music is mostly electronic and the entire production looks much more contemporary than Downton and some of the other classic period pieces.”

The visually lavish production, however, is certainly in keeping with the period, benefiting from advice by Versailles experts to capture the historical context.

Alongside accessing French subsidies, the production’s French base was important in terms of location and the top local technical production skill the show required, says Chelli. “We really wanted to do it in Paris, even if it was much more expensive than, say, doing it in Hungary. The palace is near Paris, and we built the set here. For us it’s a way to tell the world that a French production can do as much as any other.”

Versailles5A huge recreation of Versailles was built by set designer Katia Wyszkop (Potiche, Van Gogh) at the Studio de Bry just outside Paris, where much of the production is shot. Top costume designer Madeline Fontaine (Amélie) oversaw the transformation of 2,500 metres of fabric to the tune of more than €200,000, while the inclusion of Louis XIV-style coaches and horses cost €3,500 per day. As well as the core members of the cast, there were 220 extras and a menagerie of animals including wolves, eagles and pigs.

Versailles’ coproduction model has deliberately avoided too many partners. “We didn’t want to have too much input from different sources,” says Chelli. “It’s not a very simple partnership, because of Canada and the showrunners, but we’d rather choose the right partners and do what we want before offering it to the public.”

Eighty percent of the budget is French, with 60% coming from Canal+ and French public subsidies, including from Région Île-de-France, where production took place, plus coproducer Zodiak Media in exchange for worldwide distribution rights to the show outside of Canada.

The project’s Canadian coproducer Incendo has a 20% stake, and has brought Canadian pay channel Super Channel on board. Incendo is now overseeing the post-production phase, which runs from March to August, including a second commercial 10×44’ cut for the broader-reach free-to-air channels to help finance the pay TV version.

“Part of the attraction for the Canadian market is the French version that’s already paid for,” says Incendo’s Ian Whitehead, Canadian producer for the show. Canada is also fielding two actors, Tygh Runyan and Evan Williams, as well as movie director Daniel Roby, who helmed the final three episodes and for whom Versailles marks a TV debut.

Whitehead sees an advantage in having a clear lead broadcaster in the form of Canal+, adding that if a big US partner had been brought in right away, the process could have taken far longer. “To have more independence was a risk for everyone, but I think there’s going to be a big pay-off, because it’s a clear vision,” he says.

The production is nevertheless charting new territory, and with it come a few inevitable challenges. “Essentially it’s a big ask for everyone,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s the translation issue – not just linguistically but culturally. It’s a hybrid. It’s the first time it’s ever been done and the first experience for everyone. We’re like the first people on the Moon, in a way. There was no rehearsal. You discover Easter eggs as you go – some good, some bad; some useful, some challenging. The goal for everyone at every stage was making the story better, because that’s what matters, and the emotion.”

Finding actors was another early challenge, adds Chelli. This was resolved with a predominantly British cast, featuring mostly young and up-and-coming actors. “We didn’t want to do a Euro-pudding and we didn’t want lots of accents. David Wolstencroft was adamant about that,” he says. Ten of the drama’s 18-strong main cast are from the UK, complemented by four from France, two from Canada and a pair from Switzerland, including Anatole Taubman (Quantum of Solace) as the evil Moncourt.

Versailles8“The good thing about working with young actors,” says Saint André, “is that when the story starts all the characters are in their 20s, which is somewhat unusual. It’s normally about old kings trying to keep the balance of power.”

For Whitehead, one of the distinctive features of Versailles as a slice of French history done in the English language “is that it actually crystallises where things are at with television now.”

“Had this been a less ambitious show, it might have been completely financed by Canal+. It would have had Canal+’s extraordinary production values, but maybe it would have had remakes or been dubbed into English versions for other broadcasters,” he says.

“Here, it’s fallen to all of us as producers to make something much more global. We’re taking in the vision Canal+ has for its own channel and combining it with what, for example, a North American audience would expect. And we’re doing that on what should be a French-language show. That’s something unique compared with dramas about any other period.”

Versailles forms the centrepiece of Zodiak Rights’ sales catalogue at this year’s MipTV, where it is premiering to buyers internationally. Caroline Torrance, Zodiak’s head of international scripted, says there have already been strong expressions of interest, although the decision was taken not to confirm any buyers in advance in order to get the best deal and platform for the show.

“It’s one of the most expensive European dramas ever made, but it’s taking the period drama into another space,” says Torrance. “The showrunners and Canal+ want to push boundaries. They don’t want just another period drama – and neither do audiences. It’s very important for Canal+ to do groundbreaking drama, and doing it in English will resonate with markets like the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.”

As for how Canal+’s French viewers will react when Versailles launches this fall, Saint André says: “We’ll see. Yes, we’re pushing the envelope, but our French subscribers watch tons of US and European shows that have been dubbed into French. We did it with Borgia and with Spotless.”

Development of a second season has already started, although Canal+ has yet to greenlight it. “If you’re doing these big, 10-episode series, you would want to be able to follow up without too long a delay between seasons,” says Torrance.

And there’s clearly much more story to tell. “Louis XIV is the longest-serving monarch in history,” says Wolstencroft. “I don’t want to scare the actors or anything, but there are so many phases of Louis’ life, and this is just the beginning. This is him revving up – he’s only around 30 at the end of season one. He died when he was 75, and we could go all the way to the revolution. This is only act one.”

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Part 2: On the up and up

Last time out, wannabe Hollywood screenwriter Alister McDermott told DQ how the dream of writing a TV drama compelled him to say goodbye to UK life and head for the bright lights of LA. In this second part of his story, he makes a profitable stop in Sydney before the lure of California – and a seemingly endless string of Tinder dates – comes calling again. But what about that script?

After waving goodbye to Los Angeles, I landed in Sydney with a spring in my step and hope in my heart. Not particularly for my trip Down Under, but for the desire to return to Hollywood and get stuck into my movie idea.

Ali hard at work
Ali hard at work

Had I really sold everything in the UK to become a screenwriter? Was this what I was searching for and, if so, how the hell was I going to get back to LA now that I had moved to Australia? I jumped onto a Bondi-bound bus and planted myself at a mate’s place to work out my next manoeuvre. After a shower and a much-needed cup of PG Tips (finally!) my friend matter-of-factly mentioned that he had set me up with a job interview for his company. I had presumed my Skype chat of faltering funds had fallen on deaf ears, but within 24 hours of landing in Australia I sat jet lagged in a borrowed shirt and tie in Sydney’s Central Business District. The fact I’d completely blagged the job was of little or no concern. It was time to get my head down and earn some cash for my trip back to Hollywood.

Office life had never been my thing, but this job took the biscuit for new levels of work-related weirdness. For starters, the boss disappeared to India for six weeks to open a new office within days of me starting. With no work to do, I tried to look busy, walking around the office with a piece of paper and a concerned look on my face; I even became the building fire officer! This would have been the perfect job for a 17-year-old slacker looking for a full-time position watching YouTube but, alas, I was nearly 40 and the clock was most definitely ticking. I had my mind on my movie and my movie on my mind.
So I did what any respectable Pommie businessman would do in the same position: I sat down from nine to five and wrote my film treatment. What a way to make living! Did I feel guilty? Not really. Time was not on my side and I needed to strike while the iron was hot. Plus, if you’re going to employ a permanent member of staff, at least give them some work to do before you disappear to a different continent.

After 25 rewrites, 500 cups of tea and one fire drill, I finally finished what felt like the perfect treatment. Is anything ever really final when writing, though? Every day you find something that can be written differently. Sometimes you just have to draw a line and say enough is enough.

The Aussie dollars were gratefully received and went a long way to getting me out of Sydney and back on the Hollywood trail. With wages now in the bank, I booked a flight back to the UK for my brother’s wedding and enrolled on an intensive scriptwriting course.

Northampton in the winter was a far cry from Bondi, but it was a welcome pit stop to celebrate my younger brother’s marriage. Watching my topless uncle conduct ‘Oops Up Side Your Head’ with a walking stick was worth the 24-hour journey alone.

I spent the next two months ploughing through my coursework until I had finally got to grips with the art of scriptwriting. I was far from an expert, but my tutor thought I could be onto something. Maybe he said that to all the students. Either way, it was time to head back to LA and take a shot at the big time.

A friend of mine had just bought a house in Mar Vista, a hop, skip and a jump away from Venice Beach. Many of the houses around that neck of the woods had ‘guest houses,’ which basically meant a garage with a bed in it. Mine was slightly more luxurious than that, ie it also had a desk and a dog that urinated outside the door regularly. We quickly christened my new homestead ‘Fritzl’s Bunker’ and I went about the business of trying to create a movie masterpiece to wow the Hollywood glitterati.

Well, I say went about; procrastination is a funny old game. Now don’t think that I just spent my time on Venice Beach hanging around in bars, because I didn’t. Well, I sort of did, but not one ray of sunshine was caught nor a single beer drunk without a deep-seated sense of guilt. If you’re really going to power through a script, LA is one of the most difficult cities in the world in which to concentrate. There are just too many distractions in La La Land.

Giving Tinder a try
Giving Tinder a try

At the very top of the ‘let’s do anything but write’ list were the ridiculously hot women that frequent the city’s every nook and cranny. Everyone is aware of the notoriously fickle LA dating scene, and I wanted to find out exactly how horrific it could be. I was a single man with a plan; what could possibly go wrong? The fact that I lived in a garage with no job or transport was certainly going to hinder my chances somewhat – but where there’s a hinder, there’s Tinder.

The dating app was first developed in California, and the amount of Tinder-ellas in LA was truly astounding. You could be on the app 24/7 and never run out of potential matches; believe me, I tried. My lack of income, transport and garage dwelling didn’t deter many would-be suitors; in fact, I think it’s fair to say that an Englishman alone in a new city is catnip to Californian girls.

At one point I was locking down up to five dates a week. Nobody dates on the weekend – that’s for hiking and mainlining Kale. The results really were a veritable rollercoaster of expensive washouts and near misses. It’s fair to say that some dates in LA were more like a job interview than a get-to-know-you. Who wants to drink coffee on a date? The women of LA do – unless you’re paying, of course.

I’m not sure if they were expecting Hugh Grant to turn up, but if they were, I must have been quite the disappointment. Among the many good times were some unmitigated disasters. One girl even got her phone out after half a glass of wine and “simply had to go” due to a friend’s emergency. I thought that kind of stuff only happened in Friends and films, but hey, I guess we were in Hollywood.

Anyway, back to the script. So, in-between cycling to dates and paying a plethora of bills for stagnant conversations with hairdressers, the script was growing way out of proportion. I was now using a Jerry Seinfeld anti-procrastination technique of writing something every day and making a mark on a calendar as a sense of achievement. You then join the X’s until you’re finished. As my calendar caterpillar began to reach epic proportions, so did my confusion over the task in hand. What was I actually doing?

The project began to spiral out of control and I really did wonder what I had gotten myself into. Moving from an English townhouse via a Sydney office to a garage, it began to dawn on me that I really had no idea what was going on. I guess writers have as many moments of paranoia as they do clarity. Even in Los Angeles, sometimes the dark clouds overshadow the sunshine.

Funds were dwindling as the pages began to mount up, until I realised I was no longer writing a film – it was a TV show. It was just too big. There were too many characters, plots and story arcs to cram into a movie. What was looking like the longest film in the history of cinema was suddenly becoming a six-part TV series.

I also realised not only that I had accidentally written the first two episodes, but also that I’d found a way to make a second series. Not that a second series is always in the bag; we all saw what happened to Alan Partridge. I woke up and smelled the cheese. Maybe fate was again playing a part in leading me down a different path. Or maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. Probably the latter.

I had two 70-page episodes in the bag. What was I to do now? Someone needed to read this. I had to get out there and start making some moves. No man is an island, particularly when he’s eating Pot Noodle in someone’s garage, so it was time to see if I really had what it took to make it in Hollywood. This town was famous for bright lights and bullshit.

It was now my time to shine, or get flushed down the toilet.

For the third part of Alister’s story, click here, or go back to the beginning by clicking here.