All posts by DQ

Hot stuff

Six-part drama Hard Sun is described as a pre-apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.

While investigating the death of a computer hacker, partners and enemies Charlie Hicks and Elaine Renko inadvertently stumble upon proof that the world is facing certain destruction in five years.

Pursued by ruthless security service operatives, who are willing to kill them in order to keep them silent, they must protect themselves and those they love while ensuring a new breed of murderers, abusers, serial killers and cult leaders face justice.

In this DQTV video, writer/creator Neil Cross (Luther) and executive producer Kate Harwood discuss making the series, which centres on the relationship between two detectives who stand morally and ethically opposed to each other.

Stars Agyness Deyn (Renko), Jim Sturgess (Hicks) and Nikki Amuka-Bird (Grace) also reveal more about the conflicted and complex relationships between their characters and the appeal of starring in a show written by Cross, who also talks about his writing process.

Hard Sun is produced by Euston Films for BBC1 and Hulu and distributed by FremantleMedia International. 

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Making McMafia

McMafia stars James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) as Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia history.

Alex has spent his life trying to escape his family’s criminal past, but finds himself forced to confront his values as he struggles against the lure of corruption.

In this DQTV interview, co-creators Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) discuss how they worked together to turn Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book into a global drama set in a world where the mob is no longer confined to one location.

They also talk about casting Norton in the lead role and how they wanted to capture the same authenticity and tone laid out in Glenny’s book.

McMafia is produced by Cuba Pictures for BBC1 and AMC and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

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Six of the best: Frith Tiplady

The executive producer of dramas including Peaky Blinders, Fortitude and Ripper Street chooses a mixture of British and US dramas – including one that has been stuck in her mind for the past 20 years.

A one-off drama in 1995, based on Jane Austen’s novel, it flipped a switch with period drama in that it was filmed in a very raw way. You could feel the countryside, the mud and the repression. It felt less reverential than any period drama I’d seen before. Amanda Roots was fantastic as lead character Anne Elliot. A lot of women’s lives are quiet, and Persuasion portrayed a quiet woman brilliantly. It’s also very romantic. It was revelatory to me; it spoke to me as a person but also felt fresh production-wise, and when you can do something fresh with a story that’s more than 200 years old, that’s exciting. I watch it yearly; it’s a beautiful piece of work.

Brideshead Revisited
I only recently watched this, so this is not a backwards glance. It’s a new discovery for me and it’s extraordinary. It’s the norm now, but the fact Granada [now part of ITV] made something of that scale and breadth and which cost zillions of pounds in the early 1980s seems extraordinary. To have done it about this family struggling with alcoholism, repressed homosexuality and their relationship with religion is remarkable. I’m not sure we could make it today. In this world of SVoD, you discover things you’ve never seen – we should all watch these amazing dramas and discover why we do it.

Mad Men
As an exploration of a construct of a person and human want, Mad Men is brilliant. Don Draper as a character is an amazing creation and against that backdrop, you’ve got Peggy and Joan being awesome females. Then you’ve got the restriction of the 1950s, so for me it’s the perfect exploration of masculinity and what that means to men and women. It’s just joyous and sexy.

Sex & the City
It’s perfect entertainment drama TV. I genuinely believe it made an impact on the world. People talk about television that makes noise, but Sex & the City made women embrace the importance of their female friendships and become more honest about their sexual selves. Despite the show appearing to be a comedy, for my generation it either reflected ourselves like never before or we became more like the characters. So while it’s dressed up as something frivolous, there’s a truth to it that really needed saying. It’s why Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale then made a splash – considering women are a massive part of the audience, it’s rare for stories to reflect the struggles of the world we’re in or the lives we lead.

ER (also pictured top) is the perfect long-running television series. I just lived and breathed it. It has that perfect mix of long-running serial and episodic story-of-the-week. There were key characters you knew were messy and imperfect but who worked really hard; but also episodic stories that ripped your heart out. It has that mix of tension and comedy, and you never knew what you were going to get in each episode. It managed to be formulaic without being formulaic. I genuinely don’t know how they did that. I kept on being surprising and I just loved it.

Our Friends in the North
I haven’t seen it for 20 years since it came out, but to this day there are scenes I can recall in my head. It was a brilliant exploration of humanity through characters’ lives and Daniel Craig, as Geordie, made me sob. The depiction of the messiness of people’s lives and the struggle between family and being your own person and work and passion and making money was nailed in an extraordinary way. If something sticks in your mind 20 years later without re-watching it, that’s got to be up there as one of the best.

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Revisiting Romper

Coming 16 years after the ground-breaking and controversial film of the same name, Australian drama Romper Stomper follows a new generation of the activist right, their anti-fascist counterparts and three young Lebanese Muslims caught up in the conflict.

The six-part thriller, airing on streamer Stan, brings the battle of opposing views into a modern-day context in which hard-right agitators have traded swastikas for the southern cross. Told from multiple points of view, it deals with political and social issues and highlights the shift of extremism from the fringes to the suburbs.

In this DQTV interview, writer/director Geoffrey Wright and producer John Edwards discuss how the project was delivered in little more than a year and why the chance to look back at the original film was an opportunity to break new ground in Australian television.

Meanwhile, Stan chief content officer Nick Forward explains why the show was a good fit for the streaming platform, which saw record-breaking ratings when the series dropped at the beginning of this month.

The ensemble cast includes Lachy Hulme, David Wenham, Jacqueline McKenzie, Dan Wyllie, Toby Wallace, Lily Sullivan, Sophie Lowe, Nicole Chamounn and Julian Maroun.

Romper Stomper is produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond for Stan and is distributed internationally by DCD Rights.

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Fact file: Monster

Norwegian drama Monster takes the hunt for a serial killer to the northernmost part of the country. Producer Lasse Greve Alsos tells DQ six things we need to know about the show, which is produced by broadcaster NRK and distributed by DRG. International buyers include US premium cable channel Starz, SBS in Australia, Russia’s Spike and Canal Plus in France.

Lasse Greve Alsos

1. The title is based on a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said whoever fights monsters should see to it that they do not become a monster in the process. Knowing this, you then understand it’s not so much about the serial killer our two detectives – local police officer Hedda Gilbert and young hotshot detective Joel Dreyer – are trying to catch, but about the detectives themselves. They’re on the hunt for a serial killer but it becomes more about them – particularly Hedda, as this is happening in her home town and the hunt becomes personal. By episode three, when more brutal murders are discovered, their investigation starts to spin out of control.

2. I was working in the NRK drama department and we were looking for some family friendly series. Then [Monster creator] Hans Christian Storrøsten walked through my door with the draft for the first episode. It was well written but not what we were looking for. Three weeks later, he came back with episode two. It was even better. So I gave him some money to write episode three, which he returned with a month later. We were all sold. It was the best project, and we just had to cancel our ideas about making a family friendly show. But because he was a newcomer, I thought I needed a director who could do this with him. We made a list of directors we would approach and Anne Sewitsky [Homesick] was at the top

Monster stars newcomer Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes as Hedda

3. Hans wrote the scripts in a very particular way; it was like reading a book. We liked the atmosphere he’d created but he wrote that everything takes place in the woods. We were looking for locations all over the north that fitted his scripts and we loved the roughness of the location, despite the lack of trees that were in the script. What we discovered with Anne was that actually this open landscape gives the drama a different sense of claustrophobia – there’s nowhere to hide. We liked the feeling of going the opposite way to the original intentions.

4. Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, who plays Joel, is a big star in both Norway and Denmark. He studied in Denmark so he speaks Danish fluently as well. Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes (Hedda) is a newcomer. We took a lot of time casting her role. We knew we would see a lot of Hedda in this show so we needed someone we wouldn’t be bored by, and you could watch Ingvild over and over again. I think she will be a really big star in Norway.

The series ‘preserves the core values of Nordic noir’

5. The biggest challenge of the series was the logistics of getting to our location. It’s as far away from Oslo as Italy is, so it was hard and both time- and money-consuming. We filmed in September to December 2015 and February to April 2016. In September winter can arrive early, so when we first arrived the local people told us we might have two or three days where we couldn’t leave the hotel because there would be a white-out. That would mean we couldn’t drive our cars to locations because the road would be blocked with snow. But we had some luck and were very well prepared. The day after shooting finished, the snow came.

6. We’ve preserved the core values of Nordic noir. A lot of people in Scandinavian countries now want to move on from Nordic noir but one of the things we wanted to do was speak to those core values, use them and go further, because there is so much good in the genre. It’s full of psychology and atmosphere and these are perfect for TV drama. Why abandon them? And as our head of drama pitched it, it also has the most incredible nude scene you will ever see, but it has nothing to do with sex – it’s about two old men fighting.

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Fact file: Iskander

A rookie cop is transferred to French Guiana where she must team up with a local detective to solve the brutal murder of a couple and the kidnapping of their son in four-part drama Maroni (Iskander). Mademoiselle Films producer Aurélie Meimon tells DQ six things we need to know about French miniseries.

Aurelie Meimon

1. Iskander is the journey of Chloé, a young, fresh district cop who is sent to join an investigation unit in French Guiana. She comes from France and doesn’t know anything about her new home. When she gets there, she meets her dark and mysterious partner, Dialo. He doesn’t take her seriously but they have to work together quickly because a couple have been murdered and their son has disappeared. Iskander is a dive into the mysticism and specificities of this territory from the point of view of a French girl who thinks it is just another part of France. She discovers that this isn’t the case. Her perspective of life will be changed through this investigation, which starts in the capital city of Cayenne and ends up in the heart of the rainforest.

2. Working with Love My TV producer Noor Sadar, we wanted to explore French territories and French identity, and to question what French culture is and what it means to be French. So it’s interesting to explore that through a territory that belongs to France but is 4,000 miles away. We thought we could talk about France but not directly. As a crime story, the narrative moves very quickly and we can talk about communities and how you can be culturally different but still belong to France.

Iskander tells the story of a young cop who is sent to join an investigation unit in French Guiana

3. I’ve read books by Aurélien Molas and was a fan of his style, so we contacted him and asked him to think about writing a crime story set in French Guiana. He came back with the idea of a rookie cop teaming up with a partner and discovering life there. We talked a lot with Aurélien about the story, the style of the series and who the main characters would be. We made a series bible and gave that to Arte. They were very excited by the project so they commissioned it. We then took Aurélien straight to French Guiana because we knew we had an ‘Arte budget,’ which is a bit less than it would be at one of the big networks like TF1 or France Télévisions. We took Aurelien to the territory so he could build a story that fits with the reality, the locations and our production boundaries. We wanted him to immerse himself. You can’t imagine what it’s like – nature is everywhere.

4. Everything was shot in French Guiana. We partnered with a local producer and built a village inside the forest to keep it very organic. We had seven weeks of prep before shooting and 33 days in production – and when you’re shooting in the forest in 39-degree heat, it’s complicated! But we had a fantastic team. We designed the production to avoid the rainy season so we didn’t get so much rain, and shot in small villages where people had never seen anyone from TV or anyone from France so we had to be careful and respectful of that. It was a very exciting adventure.

Stéphane Caillard stars as Chloé

5. Casting came very easily. The director, Olivier Abbou, knew he wanted Stéphane [Caillard] as Chloé and Adama [Niane, pictured top] to play Dialo. The great thing about Arte is you can produce very different fiction from other networks, and that means you can have the actors you want because they are often excited about shooting for Arte. We organised readings beforehand and they worked on the script with the director. We wanted them to immerse themselves in their characters.

6. Produced by Mademoiselle Films and Love My TV, Iskander is a four-part miniseries for Arte, airing in early 2018. We chose Lagardère as our distributor because we wanted to do a premium show that could travel. We wanted to do something bold and different from other French productions.

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A taste of Sweden

Swedish period drama Vår Tid är Nu (The Restaurant) begins in 1945 with celebrations to mark the end of the Second World War. At Djurgårdskällaren, a high-end restaurant run by the Löander family in the heart of Stockholm, oldest son Gustaf (played by Mattias Nordkvist) has managed to keep the restaurant afloat by somewhat dubious means and intends to carry on down that path.

But when middle son Peter (Adam Lundgren) returns home from the war, he discovers changes are needed to keep the business from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, a brief encounter with kitchen hand Calle (Charlie Gustafsson) leads to untold consequences for daughter Nina (Hedda Stiernstedt), who has designs on opening a nightclub in the restaurant banquet hall.

In this video, stars Hedda Rehnberg (Suzanne) and Gustafsson reveal how the mix of drama and comedy drew them to the project, which has filmed two seasons and has been recommissioned for a third.

They also describe the “bold” decision made by broadcaster SVT to heavily invest in an epic period drama that charts the growth of the Swedish welfare state and discuss why it stands out against the ever-popular Nordic Noir crime series.

The Restaurant is produced by Jarowskij for SVT and Viaplay and distributed internationally by Banijay Rights.

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The stuff Dreams are made of

Matthew Graham, the writer behind the first episode of Electric Dreams, the 10-part anthology series based on the works of acclaimed author Philip K Dick, tells DQ about his favourite scene from The Hood Maker, which is based on the short story of the same name.

Matthew Graham

The Hood Maker takes place somewhere in the future. There has been a global disaster that has resulted in technology moving backwards – there is clearly no internet, while power and transportation are limited. The world we see is a relatively oppressive one, and the natural disaster that reduced our electrical power and cut off our telecommunications also gave rise to mutation – some are born with telepathic ability, the ‘teeps.’

The Anti-Immunity Bill has just been passed, allowing the police, known as Clearance in the story, to use teeps to read the minds of suspects, even against their will. As a lot of governments and institutions do, they justify it by saying if you’re not guilty of anything, you have nothing to hide. However, a mysterious man known as the Hood Maker begins sending out hoods that block teeps from reading the mind of the person wearing them.

Very early on, I wanted to have a scene where we see the oppressive power of the teeps and how it’s being used. The first person wearing a hood, Rathbone (played by Tom Mothersdale), is arrested, brought into the police station and strapped to a chair. Initially he is interrogated by a Clearance officer called Ross (Richard Madden). Even though Ross comes in and interrogates him quite hard, as you imagine a cop would do, there’s also a reluctance in Ross, the sense that he is saying, ‘It would be easier for you if you just told me what you know, rather than letting me bring a teep in to read your mind.’

L-R: Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden and Tom Mothersdale in the interrogation scene

Then a teep called Honor, played by Holliday Granger, comes in. Because Rathbone has resisted having his mind read, Honor forces his mind open. But I wanted it to be a process like ransacking a house; I didn’t want it to be neat and gentle. I wanted it to be like rummaging through someone’s drawers and throwing things over your shoulder.

She wants him to give up the names of his accomplices but he’s buried them deep in the back of his mind, and what you put in the back of your mind are the things you don’t want people to know. Things start coming out about him being bullied, about having a sexual fixation on his mum – things he feels really ashamed of.

I came up with this idea that Rathbone uses the phrase ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ as a mantra he repeats over and over again, like putting up a wall. Then I thought it would be cool if it became a battle of minds and will. Honor starts repeating her own mantra but she’s perverted it and made it more subservient, repeating ‘The slow black dog bows before the regal fox.’ Gradually she twists him round. At the end, when she does get the names from him, he is left spent, like the victim of an assault. He’s crying and broken.

Grainger plays a ‘teep,’ or telepath

The director, Julian Jarrold, brought two things to the scene that weren’t in the script. One was a suggestion that we have Ross watching this process, with the audience seeing his discomfort. Ross is a non-teep, so to anyone who’s not a mind-reader, this process looks unpleasant and creepy.

The second thing we did on the day they were filming, after talking to Holliday, was putting in that the process of mind-reading makes Honor cry. In a way, it’s a painful process for the teeps as well as the people being read. Holliday actually came in to rehearse that scene before filming and she started crying for real, so we ran with it.

In this scene, it was very much the writer, the director and the actors working together to build up the layers. Everyone had a part to play, which is why I think the scene works really well. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the story.

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Diversity down under

Chris Irvine, head of production and commercial at SBS, takes DQ inside the Australian broadcaster to reveal its drama strategy, his thoughts on the scripted television business and how he is developing new series in partnership with head of drama Sue Masters.

How would you describe your current drama strategy?
Sue Masters, head of scripted, and I have been working together on SBS’s drama strategy for the past couple of years. SBS is one of the smaller commissioning networks in Australia and our ability to commission drama is limited by the size of our content budgets. However, we have made a commitment to commission three four-part drama series a year. Four-parters have worked really well for our schedule and we are likely to continue to develop to that model.
It’s also a model that makes economic sense for SBS, owing not simply to the production costs themselves but also to the associated increased marketing expenses that come with longer-running franchises.

Chris Irvine

What has been your biggest success?
We have enjoyed significant success with our four-part series strategy. The Principal (produced by Essential Media) was the progenitor of the model and we have since commissioned Deep Water (Blackfella Films), The Sunshine Kings (Easy Tiger), Safe Harbour (Matchbox Pictures, pictured top) and Dead Lucky (Subtext Pictures). They are all four-parters, and there are more on the horizon.

How would you describe the current state of the television drama industry?
Much has already been written of the fact we are living in a golden age of TV drama. Our ability to commission drama is fuelled by invaluable partnerships with Screen Australia – the federal government screen agency, which is also the custodian of Australia’s screen tax subsidy – and state agencies, plus increasingly competitive distribution advances made against the value of rest-of-world sales.

What’s the greatest challenge facing your business?
SBS has a charter mandate to explore, appreciate and celebrate diversity and showcase content that contributes to a cohesive society. That mandate provides a laser focus for our commissioning strategy, but it is sometimes a hard target to hit. We make a substantial investment in our development slate to make sure we’re always commissioning to that charter focus.

The Sunshine Kings has been commissioned as part of SBS’s four-part series strategy

What are the biggest changes affecting the drama business?
In Australia there is a shallow pool of experienced writing talent and directors, and the demand on their time is compounded by the lure of the big UK and US shows. We have a responsibility to develop the next generation of Australian creative talent, and through SBS’s diversity lens we have a responsibility to develop and escalate careers of writing and directing talent, and screen professionals generally, from underrepresented backgrounds.
SBS has implemented a diversity talent escalator programme to escalate the careers of diverse screen practitioners. Australia is an incredibly diverse society and we ultimately want to commission filmmakers to make shows that are representative of the Australian audience that watches them.

What’s your coproduction strategy and what obstacles do you face?
SBS is absolutely open to the possibility of co-commissioning with international networks. Given the increasing pressure on ‘traditional’ sources of drama funding in Australia – the pressures on the Screen Australia budgets, for example, have never been more acute – finding ways to co-commission and coproduce drama are likely to be paramount to the longevity of our commissioning strategy.
The challenge we face is that while we develop projects across a broad range of themes and genres, everything we make needs also to respond to our charter mandate. As such, we are looking for opportunities to develop as well as commission shows with international partners, so they can develop organically to fit both schedules.

Forthcoming drama Deep Water is being made by Blackfella Films

Tell us about your development process.
Development is a key pillar of our drama strategy and we have a policy of developing to a 3:1 ratio: for every three shows we develop, only one will be greenlit for production. Drama requires a substantial level of investment, both from a direct financial perspective and the weeks, months and sometimes years involved in realising a show’s potential.
For SBS, a drama series also has to hit a very specific tone and respond to our charter mandate to explore, celebrate and appreciate diversity; to shine a light on the fault lines of society and explore social cohesion in all its forms. And that’s a hard brief to execute without veering into worthy or didactic content. We will spend time and money on development to make sure we’re backing the very best projects – rather than the ones that might be ‘ready.’

How early do you join a producer or writer in development?
There is no hard-and-fast rule to this, but we generally board a project at the very beginning. For the most part, we will develop a production team to engage writers and so on, but we do have an in-house development team that will work directly with writers too.

Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky is another four-parter

What role do you play in development and into production?
We are very hands-on. For us, drama commissioning is a partnership in every sense of the word. Sue Masters executive produces all our drama commissions, and our development team will work with producers and writers across initial research, treatments and all draft scripts. We play an active role in the story room.

How has your development process changed over the last few years?
It’s much more structured that it was previously. We are constantly on the lookout for ideas and projects that can explore Australia’s multicultural society in new and engaging ways. Diversity is in our DNA so we naturally want the most diverse slate of projects possible. I cannot imagine SBS has ever enjoyed a more robust slate of drama projects in development than it currently has.

How will things be different five years from now?
We are already seeing the seismic contribution the on-demand platforms have made to the drama production landscape. Our hope is that the increased volume of drama content being produced continues its current trajectory and that we see a commensurate growth in the next generation of talented Australian writers, directors and producers from more diverse backgrounds.

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Drama with bite

Juda is a low-life gambler hustling a living in the murky depths of the criminal underworld. But after winning big in a high-stakes poker game, his luck runs out when he is robbed and bitten by a seductive vampiress.

Unbeknown to her, she has drunk Jewish blood and begun her own path to mortality, therefore facing a race against time to kill Juda and save herself or save him and risk everything.

Zion Baruch, creator and star of the series, and director Meni Yaish, reveal how they were inspired by films such as Blade and Interview with a Vampire and filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino to bring this gothic horror to life.

They also consider why Israeli dramas have had such an impact on the global stage in recent years

Juda is produced by United Studios of Israel for HOT and is distributed by Banijay Rights.

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Medical marvel

Brazilian hospital drama Bajo Presión (Under Pressure) takes the medical genre to new levels of authenticity, using real-life stories and filming at a disused hospital. DQ hears from creator Jorge Furtado and artistic director Andrucha Waddington about producing this ‘genuinely Brazilian’ series.

For all the talk that nobody watches linear television these days, ignoring traditional schedules to catch up in their own time, one series has proven beyond doubt it is still possible for a family – heck, a nation – to share the experience of watching a drama series together.

When it first aired in July, Brazilian medical drama Bajo Presión (Under Pressure) attracted an astonishing 44 million viewers. At a time when there are more ways to watch television and more shows to watch than ever before, five out of 10 households across the country tuned in to Globo’s fast-paced series, set in a run-down hospital in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.

Coproduced by Globo and Conspiração and distributed by Globo International, the nine-part series follows a team of doctors torn between their personal conflicts, the difficulties of their profession and the surprising dramas behind each patient as they attempt to save lives.

Here, creator Jorge Furtado and artistic director Andrucha Waddington, who also directed a movie that preceded the series, tell DQ about the origins and production of the show.

L-R: Jorge Furtado, director Mini Kerti and Andrucha Waddington

How would you describe the story of Under Pressure?
Jorge Furtado: The series is about a very real story of urgency – life and death. It’s about the lives of the doctors and staff at a public hospital in the suburbs of Rio. It’s about each of the characters – and the two leading roles, of course – and their relationships as the story moves forward.
The curious part is that the two leads are most likely their own worst enemies: Evandro [Julio Andrade, Above Justice] is haunted by the ghost of his deceased wife. Carolina [Marjorie Estiano, Dangerous Liaisons] suffered a traumatic experience during her childhood and still struggles with the consequences. She still carries the self-inflicted marks and bruises on her body. The climax for these two characters is when they are able to finally deal with the skeletons in their closets.

Why were you interested in telling a story set in a hospital?
Furtado: The idea for Under Pressure came from the movie with the same name, which was originally envisioned by director Mini Kerti, freely inspired by the book Sob Pressão – A Rotina de Guerra de um Médico Brasileiro (loosely translated as Under Pressure – A Brazilian Doctor’s War Routine), written by Dr Márcio Maranhão.
But what really interested me was how important it was to bring pressing issues to our audience’s attention. I went to medical school for four years, back in the 1970s [along with Dr Maranhão], but I decided to give it up because it was not my true calling. When you get to the fourth year of medical school, which is when you spend the most time at the hospital, you see people dying right in front of you every day.
One day when we were at the hospital, there was a child screaming with pain in the waiting room. Márcio took a look at him and said it was probably appendicitis. So he asked the doctors why they wouldn’t prioritise the kid’s case. A doctor answered: “We don’t have any cotton compress.” I saw the boy begging us to do something and realised that our role was to make television.

Why is the series described as ‘genuinely Brazilian?’ Which elements make it unique to Brazil?
Furtado: Each episode brings to light different problems of life in Brazil that challenge the medical staff. The series is about our shortcomings and realities, and it always conveys important messages of public utility: wear condoms, AIDS is making a comeback, don’t drink and drive, always wear a helmet and so on.
This series is not just about doctors investigating diseases. The disease is the final straw. The main focus is on the personal drama lived by these doctors while facing the harsh reality and pain of the patients.

Under Pressure attracted a whopping 44 million viewers when it first aired in Brazil

What research did you carry out?
Furtado: All of the patients’ stories in the show are based on actual cases. They came from conversations with Dr Maranhão, who worked as a consultant while we were shooting, and from a lot of reading and visits to Rio hospitals to gather information.
The most incredible story we came across was about a woman who survived being shot in the heart with a rifle. When we asked the doctors how that was possible, they simply said: “We have no clue.”
The research process was very inspiring for us to create the stories. There were days when we’d leave the field with more than 10 new stories for the series.

How would you describe the writing process?
Furtado: Antonio Prata, Marcio Alemão, Lucas Paraizo and I wrote the series using a lot of research, and conversations with several different doctors, especially Dr Maranhão, as well as the many visits to hospitals.

Describe the visual style.
Andrucha Waddington: We aimed for realism, with most of the show being filmed in a real hospital. When we were searching for a location, we found out about Hospital Nossa Senhora das Dores, in Rio de Janeiro, which has the perfect structure and only uses 20% of its capacity. A huge wing is empty, and using it as our location did not interfere with the hospital’s operation in any way. We filmed 75% of Under Pressure there. Additionally, some scenes were filmed in other locations, where the personal lives of the medical team go on.
The photography, art direction, makeup and wardrobe all serve dramaturgy, helping to translate the personality of the professionals who are part of the ER’s chaotic environment. At the same time, we have the guidance of a medical team supervised by Dr Maranhão, our consultant for the series as well as the movie.

The hyper-authentic medical show is distributed by Globo International

What were the biggest challenges in development and production?
Furtado: Our goal is to always balance drama and hope, while showing how hard the doctors work to save a patient, even with all the difficulties and obstacles – all while trying to bring as much realism as possible to a fictional series.
Andrucha is an extreme perfectionist, which helps set the tone for the plot. The surgery filming time, for example, is handled very carefully. And there are also the prostheses that he had made. It’s all very realistic, including the location. The fact it was shot in an actual hospital makes all the difference.

How is Brazilian drama evolving and what new stories are you able to tell?
Furtado: I’m very optimistic about how audiovisual drama production is progressing in Brazil. I don’t think we have ever had such a diverse range of narratives, themes, accents and genders. There is a little bit of everything for every taste and need; the hard part is finding the right audience for films and series. The various platforms, wide-ranging media and technological amenities ultimately leverage the production and demand for audiovisual content. I believe all of this is very positive. Nowadays, there’s no excuse not to make a series.
Waddington: Brazil is full of stories that are unique, rich, happy and full of drama. The more Brazilian the stories featured in drama pieces, the deeper and more cosmopolitan they become.

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Robot wars

Russian drama Better Than Us explores a near future where humans share their daily lives with robots – and the ethical dilemmas those relationships throw up. Creator Alexander Kessel tells DQ how this world was created and why science-fiction is enjoying a resurgence.

The first murder by a robot sends shockwaves through a near-future Moscow in Russian sci-fi thriller Better Than Us.

The series sees forensic scientist Georgy, who has a robot assistant, caught up in the groundbreaking crime that raises ethical questions to match the high drama that plays out in this stylised story.

The 16-part series is produced by Yellow, Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, and distributed by Yellow, Black and White. It is due to air next year on Channel One Russia.

Here, Alexander Kessel, series creator and CEO of Sputnik Vostok, tells DQ how the show was brought to the screen.

Alexander Kessel at this year’s MipDrama Screenings

What’s the story behind Better Than Us?
Our story centres on a family torn apart by some complex events. Georgy Safronov, a former prominent surgeon, our protagonist, tries desperately to win back his family, his job and his happy past but with little success: his ex-wife and two children are going to leave for Australia and reside there. It all takes place in a near future. We recognise our world, but there are also some innovations you and I are yet to see. The only things that are typically sci-fi in the universe of the series are androids. They are mainly helpers, but also sometimes companions and even lovers. But then there is Arisa, an android of an unknown origin with a big secret that forces other secrets to be uncovered too.

What was your inspiration for the series?
Obviously, there is a pile of sci-fi books everybody has read in childhood. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick – names known worldwide. But then there are also big sci-fi writers from my Soviet childhood who are probably only famous in Eastern Europe, who came up with a deeper philosophical and metaphorical sci-fi tradition because they had to create their ideas under state censorship. The Strougatski brothers, Bulgarian Agop Melkonyan and Pole Stanislav Lem are among them.

How did you develop the show for the network?
In 2012 we started developing the story with our team at Sputnik Vostok Production, and then in one year we shared the script of the pilot episode with every potential partner in our market. That is how we teamed up with Yellow, Black and White, who joined the project by funding the production of the pilot at the end of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, we wrote the script, and this is when Channel One confirmed their interest in show by signing an agreement. We started production in 2016 and were still shooting when we took part in this year’s MipDrama Screening in Cannes and in Séries Mania in Paris.

Are there any parallels or reflections of Russian culture or society?
Absolutely. We tried to hide, below the surface, key problems of today’s life in Russia: corruption, social disintegration, extreme radical forces and general dehumanisation due to overall consumerism. But the show has many elements of everyday Russian life, we also made an effort to tell our story in rather universal way so that viewers in other countries would watch something they don’t think of primarily as a Russian story. It could happen in any megapolis on Earth. That is why, by the way, you won’t see recognisable Moscow landmarks in the show.

Android Arisa is played by Paulina Andreeva

What ethical questions do you raise in the series and why did you want to answer these?
The agenda is both local and global. People who watched the pilot episode kept asking me if Arisa was going evolve into a human. But the core question is not sci-fi driven, it is instead about basic ethics: will human characters be able to stay human? There is a saying I like to refer to: ‘To find happiness, love people, not things; use things, not people.’ I think we are all now at a critical point of having confused both. It is a pretty common idea that I totally share – I wish we turned to each other, leaned on each other and valued direct human contact more than our gadgets and social networking, which in reality often lead to separation and loneliness.

How would you describe the writing process?
Enormously challenging! We had to start from the beginning twice, inviting new writers on board for the second attempt.

Who are the lead actors and who do they play?
Casting was done extremely carefully. Kirill Käro plays Georgy, and his wife Alla is portrayed by Olga Lomonosova. Eldar Kalimulin, a gifted young actor, plays their son. Android Arisa, both deus ex machina and femme fatale in one, is brilliantly performed by Paulina Andreeva, whose acting is superhuman.

How did you create the show’s stylised look?
We agreed that we would not use high-end, fantastical products. Every item that reflects the future is either a soon-to-be-realeased product or an existing innovative prototype. There are a dozen or more technologies of this kind in the series: bracelet communicators, foldable screens, transparent gadget bodies, active projections and so on. In addition, our future city environment is a bit more friendly than our streets today. There are no traffic jams, while there is more space. Many surfaces are screens and some images are holographic. Androids – which exist in various forms like, let’s say, smartphones – are the principal feature of this universe: they define the style a lot by their packaging, their clothes, their movement and their voices.

Better Than Us follows the aftermath of the first robot committed by a robot

How did you create the robots in the series?
The director, Andrey Dzhunkovsky, created a combined technique that includes the use of plastic, costumes and CGI.

What are the challenges of writing and producing a sci-fi series?
The major challenge is, of course, to observe the proper balance between rather widely appealing drama and its sci-fi wrapping, and not to get too seduced by the sci-fi world while creating it.

What were the biggest problems you faced, either creatively or in production?
The script took us too long. We had to rewrite it for many reasons – first creative ones then production ones.

Where was the series filmed and how did you use real locations within the show?
All the locations are in Moscow. However, we didn’t want Moscow to be recognised, so we looked for contemporary and stylish city skylines where we could add some CGI elements afterwards.

Why is sci-fi proving to be a big trend in worldwide TV drama?
I think people like to have a chance to watch the future world, to taste it, to check if what they fantasise about themselves coincides with someone’s else vision. It is very entertaining and even soothing to find that the dilemmas people face in fictional worlds are still the same as ours. It is a pure form of escapism. People all over the world need it.

What are you working on next?
We are currently finishing principal shooting of eight-episode musical Up to the Sun, which is set in the late 1970s. We have 24 episodes of melodrama From Hate to Love in production, and 17 episodes of comedy The New Person. But our biggest aspiration today is the launch of English-language coproduction Blue Blood: Eight Days of Summer, an eight-episode historical coming-of-age drama, as well as other English-language developments that we are speaking to partners, broadcasters and coproducers about.

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Korea opportunities

Korean dramas provided the basis for two US series this year, with ABC shows Somewhere Between and The Good Doctor both taking their inspiration from a country that is prolific in its output of scripted content. Here, DQ picks out some new Korean series that are also ripe for acquisition and adaptation.

Emergency Couple
A divorced couple reignite their feelings for each other when they become interns at the same hospital years later. Produced by Dragon Studio for tvN and distributed by CJ E&M.

Why were you interested in telling this story?
Director Chul-gyu Kim: I chose the story because it added a pleasant romantic comedy element to a medical drama genre that could turn out to be a heavy and serious story. The story seemed like one that could give audiences balanced enjoyment.

How was Emergency Couple developed for the network?
At the time, tvN was oriented mostly towards young and active people. The network was embarking on a strategy to broaden its demographic, and our story fitted in well with that strategy in that it can appeal to all audiences.

The show switches between two timelines – how did you tackle that?
For the scenes in the past when the couple were together, we focused on their emotions. For the present, social environments, roles and positions were added on top of their emotions and they were harmoniously depicted.

How would you describe the writing process?
We carried out thorough research and tried our best to reflect reality in the hospital. We collected as much medical information as possible and also gathered diverse ideas from people who work in the industry.

Why were Song Ji-Hyo and Choi Jin-Hyuk picked to star in the show?
Both are talents who can express earnestness and brightness, which are important to starring in a melodrama.

A thriller in which a prosecutor who is unable to feel emotion begins to uncover corruption within his office. Produced by Dragon Studio for tvN and distributed by CJ E&M.

Why did you want the lead character, Shi-Mok (Cho Seung-woo), to lack emotion?
Producer Jae-hyun So: Being unable to feel any sort of emotion is a big flaw and is abnormal. We wanted to contrast this with the other ‘normal’ characters in the story. Doctors who save lives, prosecutors who convict criminals – they need to have an underlying love for humanity. However, we set up a character without emotions because we wanted to portray someone who would pursue the truth and not be swayed by personal greed, not to mention justice or love for humanity.

Tell us about the show’s visual style.
In the development stage, our camera, art and casting teams came together and decided to make the show look cold and emotionless. We shot tight angles, getting very close to the actors to better capture their emotions. The actors’ expressions seemed much more real this way.

Where was Stranger filmed and what does this bring to the show?
We filmed the show in Incheon, South Korea, but the story was inspired by the Seobu District Prosecution Office. All the houses, bathrooms and crime scenes were all filmed on set. We tried our best to make it look real. The prosecution office on the set was built after tours of real-life offices and we referred to videos and documentaries about how the prosecution operates.

What were the biggest challenges in development or production?
As the whole drama was made before it began airing, there were limitations to receiving viewer feedback. However, we could elevate the perfection in post-production with editing, mixing, CGI and music.

How is K-drama evolving and what new stories are you able to tell?
Audiences now seem to prefer dramas with a unique concept – storylines that are different from any others, regardless of the genre. In addition, successful shows reflect Korean sentiment and social atmosphere.

Band of Sisters
A ‘womance’ that depicts the friendship between a group of women out for revenge after they each lose something following a car crash. Produced by SBS and FNC Add Culture for SBS and distributed by SBS International.

How would you describe the writing process?
Producer Younghoon Choi: Traditionally, Korean weekend drama series feature the story of an extended family. However, I wanted to introduce some fresh and dramatic devices and settings, with younger main characters and three villains. I emphasised the confrontation between good and evil and abandoned the clichés of a Cinderella story or a success story. I wanted to have characters attack each other and defend themselves in each episode, like a game, and I upgraded the clichés of a birth secret, false romance, betrayal and conspiracy, and utilised them colourfully.

How did you create the style of the series?
I wanted something between American soap operas and cinematic TV series. It was difficult to keep it low budget and high quality while producing and directing a 50-episode series. So for the first 10 episodes, I shot at 24fps to maintain the cinematic look and later I shot at 30fps. Also, I used three cameras for every episode to reduce the shooting time and capture various shots.

What were the biggest challenges in production?
The overwhelming volume – 50 70-minute episodes – was the most burdensome. It was challenging to control the rhythm of the story from the beginning until the end. I tried to make the scene transition quick, but at the same time tried to make the story flow naturally. I constantly interacted with the actors while shooting, and held enough rehearsals before shooting so they could act smoothly. I enjoyed experimenting with various genres – this series has elements of comedy, thriller, action, romance and even horror.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
Band of Sisters features a clear confrontation between good and evil. The story development is fast and the situation changes quickly, not allowing the viewers to feel bored. Moreover, romantic scenes and touching family stories are a bonus.

Questionable Victory
A wrongly convicted death row inmate escapes from prison to save the life of his friend’s sister. Produced by SBS and RaemongRaein for SBS and distributed by SBS International.

Where did the story come from?
Producer Kyungsoo Shin (pictured): I was interested in stories about people who waste their youth in prison after being falsely accused of a crime. In 2000, a taxi driver was stabbed to death and the first witness, a 15-year-old delivery boy, was accused of murder. He was recently released from prison at the age of 32, after his innocence was proved in a retrial and the real perpetrator emerged. Nothing can compensate the time such people spend in prison. I wanted to make a story where the wrongly charged individual solves the case by himself. The writing began in 2016 and the casting began this July. Pre-production kicked off in August and shooting is now underway.

How would you describe the show’s tone?
This is close to a serious drama, but I’m adding some humour at some points so it doesn’t become too serious. Unexpected, natural comedy or a funny situation will prevent the series from becoming too serious.

What makes Questionable Victory stand out from other Korean dramas?
I try not to make emotional scenes too deep or too long. Questionable Victory will stand out because it gives a light touch to such scenes. But to find out if this difference becomes a strength, I’ll have to wait until the editing finishes.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
The story is easily approachable even for foreign viewers. A story of a falsely charged man trying to solve his problem by himself, about jailbreak and a detective, is easy to understand. Also, the main character is humble and has his faults, so viewers will feel comfortable with him.

An action drama about two brothers and the ill-fated choices they make, due to air in November. Produced by Drama House and Kim Jong Hak Productions for JTBC and distributed by JTBC Content Hub.

What did you find appealing about Untouchable?
Producer Cho Jun Hyoung: It’s not just a tale of two brothers, but a complex family story. Initially, it may seem like [main character] Joon’s journey to avenge his wife’s death is the central plot, but his internal struggle is the real arc of the story. As he faces the disgraceful history of his family, his deep hatred for his monstrous father and brother grows. But he is conflicted by the desire to forgive them because they are his family. Audiences today can connect with this complicated and delicately told father-son conflict, magnified through dramatic settings. It is directed by the charismatic Cho Nam Gook and written by Choi Jin Won, known for his dense writing style.

Why would this series appeal to international viewers?
It may sound weird to say that this is a story about family when a brother is seeking revenge for his wife’s death and the plot includes a struggle against immense power. But as you get into the story, you will see that it’s something we can relate to, because we all experience life as a family in some way. We are telling a story that can draw the sympathy of not only people living in Korea but around the world.

How would you describe the state of Korean drama?
The K-drama industry is enjoying an increased number of networks and timeslots. Correspondingly, there is a flood of new shows being produced, and many of the major networks are preparing to open a new slot for drama. The result is a more competitive environment for us. JTBC is home to a diverse genre of stories such as Woman of Dignity, Strong Girl, Man X Man and Hello, My Twenties!. Our main priority is to discover and deliver fresh stories and subject matter.

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Drama of Biblical proportions

A Belgian drama inspired by the Ten Commandments sees a modern-day Moses commit a string of gruesome crimes. DQ leans more about the series – 13 Geboden (13 Commandments) – from director Maarten Moerkerke.

The story of Moses is no stranger to screen adaptations, but 13 Geboden (13 Commandments) takes the Biblical tale and gives it a grisly modern-day twist.

The Belgian series follows a string of horrendous crimes committed in an apparent attempt to lift society out of a state of immorality. Meanwhile, a soon-to-retire police officer and his ambitious young partner get caught up in the impossible hunt for the perpetrator, who becomes increasingly popular despite his cruel retribution for the people he believes have sinned.

Produced by Menuen for Flemish broadcaster VTM, the show is distributed internationally by Canada’s Attraction Distribution. It is due to air next year.

Here, director Maarten Moerkerke, who was also part of the writing team, tells DQ more about the series, his role in its development and how the show reflects the excesses of modern society.

What is the story behind 13 Commandments?
Maarten Moerkerke: Inspired by the Ten Commandments, a modern-day Moses starts committing a series of gruesome crimes in order to jolt society’s conscience and restore its moral values. The fact that he can’t kill anyone (the Fifth Commandment) doesn’t inhibit him to punish determinedly and fiercely. The seemingly impossible hunt for the perpetrator is led by Peter, a 60-year-old inspector who just returns from a career break due to a burnout, and Vicky, a rookie inspector who had to leave the SWAT team after a car accident that left her mother in a coma. As the investigation unfolds, Moses gains popularity, despite the atrocity of his crimes,  and then they catch him – or at least they think they do.

Why did you join the project?
I only got involved as a director late in the process of development but I immediately liked the idea very much, as I saw the possibilities to refer to our contemporary society, its growing populism and the anonymous cry for instant justice on social networks and in online comments on popular news sites.

Maarten Moerkerke (left) on set with star Dirk Van Dijck

Why do you think this series stands out among the number of other crime dramas on television?
The originality lies within de development of the story and the characters. It starts out as a regular, almost cliché, crime drama: an older cop, a new younger, female colleague, a serial criminal… And, of course, there’s the obvious conceptual link to the movie Seven, to which one of the cops refers at a crime scene. But as the story evolves it becomes much more complex. There’s the unpredictable path of the crimes, their impact on the personal lives of Peter and Vicky, who have their own crosses to bear, and how it all melts down. It’s not a typical whodunnit story but rather it becomes the tale of two people who try to catch a criminal who confronts them, through his crimes, with the mess in their own personal lives.

How did you influence the development of the series?
When I first read the drafts, they were much more predictable and almost formatted, tackling one commandment per episode. The focus was on ‘Moses’ and the complexity of his crimes and, above all, it was constructed as a whodunnit. I convinced the network that it wouldn’t work, certainly not with 13 episodes, as viewers would get bored. So we changed the focus from Moses to Peter and, more importantly, Vicky. We almost recreated her with a different background, less clichéd and with much more depth. That gave us the tools to tell the story in a much less predictable way. Another huge turnaround was that the viewers know, well before the end of the series, who Moses really is. This knowledge gives the last episodes a real boost as the story shifts into a totally different direction.

13 Commandments shares a similar premise to David Fincher’s Seven

What is the message behind the show and how does it reflect or mirror contemporary society?
Moses’ acts automatically imply a certain view of contemporary society, as his crimes point out that certain values are diminishing or have completely vanished. First of all, Moses is not a religious fanatic; he uses the Ten Commandments rather as a cultural, widespread reference – a manifest, so to speak. He wants to give the public an easy, well-known explanation for his deeds. And furthermore, most of the Ten commandments are still a moral code, even for atheists – no killing, no lying, no adultery, honour your parents, no stealing, honesty… So he may have a point that some of these moral codes have been hollowed out in our modern times where people store their parents in care homes, work seven days a week and try to survive in a world that seems to turn faster than ever.
As sane people, we can never accept his violent reaction to this so-called moral depravation. But what if he proves beyond any doubt to the general public that someone who’s leading a normal lifeis an active paedophile? And what if that reveal sparkles a medieval witch hunt? And so we’re back at the instant cry for ‘justice’ on social media. Populism and right-wing politics have never been so popular.

How would you describe the writing process?
We did a thorough makeover of the original scripts with a new team of four writers. We only had four months until the start of the shoot, so it was quite hectic, as I prepared the shoot as a director and at the same time co-wrote the shooting scripts. We all knew what had to be done, and although we didn’t have all the shooting scripts by the start of filming, everyone at that time – cast, crew, production and the network – had enough confidence in the project, so the shoot was intense but rewarding.

Tell us about the lead actors.
Peter and Vicky are played by Dirk Van Dijck and Marie Vinck. I had previously worked with Dirk and when the project was proposed to me, I contacted him immediately. He was my only option to play Peter. It didn’t take long to convince him, although we had long discussions about his character and the direction I would take in the rewrites of the screenplay. But there was faith and friendship. I knew it would be a huge task for him but he took it very seriously – he even lived for five months in the town of Aalst, where we were shooting – and he delivered tremendously.
As for Marie, it was more complicated because Vicky was completely different in the original screenplays. I really had to convince her that we would transform her character completely in a more gripping, compelling way. But once she was in, she lived to the job and played Vicky exactly as I imagined her.

The drama will hit screens next year

Is there a way you like to work with actors, either in rehearsal or on set?
On 13 Commandments, there really wasn’t much time to rehearse as I was still writing during preproduction. But we had open discussions about the characters, and the advantage of the ongoing writing process was that I still could shape the characters or the scenes till the last moment. There was a lot of trust during the shoot, for which I was very grateful, although it was a huge responsibility at the same time. We even did scenes from the last episodes without any script or context. We all just leaped – it was scary but it felt right.

How did you create the look of the series?
The network insisted on a look that wasn’t too dark, literally, but that was never our intention anyway. Anton Mertens, the DOP, suggested a dirty look in which we wouldn’t hide anything in the darkness but rather show it all, albeit in a very explicit, stylised light. We both loved the photography in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The combination of warm and cold light in one composition would be something we would use a lot. Mertens really did a great job in creating the right atmosphere for a society, or rather an environment, where our Moses could thrive.

Where was the series filmed and how did you use real locations within the show?
The series was originally set in Antwerp but I relocated the shoot to Aalst, a smaller city with fewer landmarks and a very specific vibe. It has a more industrial character with a factory in the centre of the city – a very visual concept that fitted our view of Moses’ society. We shot the whole series, with a few exceptions, over there and used mostly real locations, or we constructed sets within real locations.

What are you working on next?
I am finishing the series I shot right after 13 Commandments. It’s called The Gang of Jan De Lichte, a story that takes place in Flanders around 1740. In between, I also shot my first feature, Verborgen Verlangen, a feel-good movie that will be released this month.

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Drawing a blank

What do you do if you can’t trust anyone, least of all yourself?

That’s the dilemma at the heart of Tabula Rasa, a nine-part drama about a young woman with amnesia who is locked up in a secure psychiatric hospital. A police officer believes she was the last person to see a man before he vanished, and won’t allow her release until he is found.

In order to solve the puzzle, Mie has to reconstruct her lost memories and find her way back through the dark labyrinth of her recent past. The more she remembers, the more she starts to distrust not only the people around her, but also herself.

Showrunner Malin-Sarah Gozin and actor Veerle Baetens, who is also among the series’ writers, reveal the origins of the story and talk about how the show was developed.

Gozin also talks about her role on the Flemish-language show, why viewers are drawn to stories featuring unreliable narrators and plans to turn Tabula Rasa in to an anthology series.

Tabula Rasa is produced by Caviar for VRT-owned Één and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.

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A-nother Word

Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.

The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.

What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.

The A Word centres on an autistic boy Joe (Max Vento) and his family

But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!

The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.

Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”

The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.

Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie play Joe’s parents

“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”

For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.

“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”

One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.

The series also features former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston

“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.

“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”

The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.

Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.

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Trial of the century

Set immediately after the Second World War, Tokyo Trial follows the 11 judges from allied nations who were called to Tokyo to preside over landmark legal proceedings that would determine the fates of 28 Pacific military and political leaders charged as war criminals.

The four-part miniseries, set over two-and-a-half years, follows the judges’ struggle to reach verdicts for each of the accused while finding a balance between political, professional and personal conflicts.

Here, executive producer David Cormican reveals how the series – which mixes authentic footage with scripted scenes based on extensive research – was developed for Japanese broadcaster NHK, with Netflix picking up international rights.

He also describes the challenge of recreating post-war Japan on set in Lithuania and finding costumes for a cast of thousands.

Tokyo Trial is produced by NHK, Don Carmody Productions and FATT Productions in association with Netflix, and is distributed by Entertainment One.

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Guardian angels

Brazilian drama Conselho Tutelar (Guardian Council) bypasses the country’s telenovela traditions with series set within a government department focusing on child welfare. Producer Carlos De Andrade reveals how it dramatises stories straight from the headlines.

Newspaper headlines have long prodived inspiration for television dramas, a trend highlighted by the current spate of true crime series airing around the world.

But Conselho Tutelar (Guardian Council) has found a new way to dramatise real-life stories and shed light on an area of life that viewers may not be so familiar with.

Based on the work of a real government department, the series follows a group of people tasked with protecting the rights of children and adolescents, often going far beyond the call of duty to support those in their care. But they must do this in a world full of bureaucracy, precarious working conditions and political decisions that affect their every move.

Produced by Rio de Janeiro-based Visom Digital, Guardian Council launched on TV Record in 2014, with season two following in 2016. Season three is due to air next year.

Here, executive producer Carlos De Andrade reveals the inspiration for the series and the challenge of pushing this Brazilian series away from the country’s telenovela traditions.

Carlos De Andrade

What is the story of Guardian Council?
De Andrade: Entirely based on true stories, Guardian Council is a procedural drama that follows two deputies, Sereno and Cesar, who are elected by their own communities to oversee and enforce children and adolescents’ welfare.
These two guardians are joined by psychologist Ester and  social worker Lidia, and have to fight against poor working conditions and the system’s bureaucracy and politics, which often focus on anything else except the true welfare of the children.
Cases of physical and psychological abuse, neglect and abandonment are at the core of these true stories, and the characters’ personal lives get entangled with their dedication to the job. All of the barriers they face in their everyday procedures are overcome by their passion and personal commitment.
Guardian Councils are federal government institutions supported by cities, with elected deputies, created to enforce the Childhood and Adolescence Statute, known as ECA. This is a rulebook of procedures, laws and rights applying to Brazilian children and adolescents.

Why has the show proven to be a hit with viewers?
Shows based on true stories relate to the public very effectively. Our story supply comes from headlines that, unfortunately, are endless and increasingly gruesome.
Besides that, being broadcast on a free-to-air channel, we work with stories that usually end on a high note – but despite their heroic nature, the characters still have human faults and failures, making them three-dimensional and credible.
One interesting aspect of our show is that we have generally avoided household names [in the cast], but they are still excellent actors. That again lent us credibility, which helped the show immensely.

All of the stories featured in Guardian Council are based on real-life accounts

What was the inspiration behind the series?
Although Guardian Council is not a police show, French movie Polisse [2011] was our main inspiration. The depth of the characters and the crudeness of their interaction with their job helped us to improve the tone of our show. The lack of technological apparatus on show in that movie also related better to our reality than the traditional US procedurals.
When designing the series, we also looked at two American dramas I am a fan of: House and Law & Order: SVU. The prologue, the two-story episode structure and the protagonists’ drama arcs were inspired by House, while the attitude of SVU’s protagonists and their interaction with their own bureaucracy and politics influenced our characters.

How was the series developed with the network?
TV Record was the obvious choice as a network for our show and we only pitched to them once. It might have been beginner’s luck, as we struck the deal at the pitch, but we knew the channel’s history and their focus on family and social awareness.
At the end of our presentation to the drama commissioners, programming head Marcelo Silva stood up and said that he knew all about the work and importance of the Guardian Councils, as two of his four children were adopted. Then we knew we had a deal.
TV Record ended up giving us the graveyard slot – we debuted on a Monday at 23.30. One thing is for sure, they never expected the show to triple their average audience and reach a 17% market share with all the announcers asking to be placed in our slot. The success meant that before we aired the fifth episode of season one, we already had a second and third season.

The drama is heading into its third season

How would you describe the writing process?
I met a guardian, Heber Boscoli, who was recording some music at my studios and he told me stories and spoke of a service that I, as a conscious citizen, should have known about but didn’t. I needed to tell this to the world, and a fictional series for TV was the right vehicle to calcify this knowledge into people’s minds. [Series creator and writer] Marco Borges was writing a music docuseries with me but the financing was not yet in place and I asked him to meet with Heber. I gave him the four main characters and he gave them names, a persona and a universe to exist in. Marco is a natural and he immediately dove into that landscape and wrote a pilot episode. It was all there. We pitched with that and 12 other synopses. With that and an interview with Heber, we landed the deal.
Marco put together a fabulous writers room and, with the constant guidance of TV Record’s Janaína Ávila, brought in Mariana Vielmond, Bruno Passeri, Chris Gomes and Bosco Brasil. The team worked for four months non-stop and created a 14-episode series.
Looking for a way to relate to audiences beyond our borders, we brought in a script doctor from UK. Eva Klaver, a writer with credits for Universal Pictures, helped us trim the edges in our stories and give them a broader perspective.
To our surprise, while we were at work, the network had a poor experience with a similar deal and decided to revise our agreement. They asked us to reduce the show to five episodes, to be presented from Monday through Friday and at a later date than firstly requested. We adjusted the stories to reflect a possible end by the fifth episode, but one extra episode was added following Guardian Council’s success, so we now have 15 episodes divided across three seasons.

What is the style or tone of the series?
It’s as raw as possible without being graphic or aggressive to viewers. Record has a strong Christian audience so we had some limits, but we knew that all along. Working on an episodic procedural drama, it was a challenge to make the show look unique. I designed the technical aspects of the series to have a cinematic look with strong colours, as we are in the tropics, and also to have a somewhat dirty look that matched the subject we would be dealing with.

The guardians of the title are tasked with protecting vulnerable youngsters in Brazil

Where was it filmed and how do you use the locations in the story?
We did not want to shoot in studios, as this would have given the series a novela feel. So we shot all three seasons on location at an old campus ground, close to the TV Record studios in Rio de Janeiro. We used the life experience of those walls, floors, ceilings and furniture to lend us a sense of truthfulness that could be used in the narratives. We also filmed in houses, shelters, hospitals and schools with their own histories, and we believe the audience has responded to each and every observance to detail from our end.

What have been the biggest challenges in production?
We deal with real stories about real people, and sometimes the proposed perspectives can reveal touchy issues and create friction within the Guardian Councils and their regulatory body, the Ministry of Human Rights. Despite their public support for the show, we still have to deal with susceptibilities in the institution and maintain a friendly environment when we expose a flaw in the system.
Another challenge was maintaining continuity throughout three seasons spanning three years of a rapidly growing market and three different cinematographers. We also had to deal with a plethora of changes at the network and work in a regulatory environment where they hold a minority stake in our show but are also its primary exhibitor. Record is our partner and NBCUniversal is our Latin American distributor. This is a potential battlefield that has been graciously paved by a very accommodating NBCU, flexible network management and us. It has been a true balance of power aiming at a higher goal, the show.

The series airs on TV Record

How would you describe the state of Brazilian drama?
Brazil has set a number of landmarks in novela productions over the years. Our stories travel the world and are acclaimed abroad for their technical quality and artistry. However, novelas are open stories, written while they are being played and adjusted according to audience acclaim. It is a drama factory, not quite a business for independent producers to venture in. They have open budgets; the TV studios have to employ artists and writers for long periods of time and that is hard for even the strongest independent production company to endure.
But well-budgeted drama series have started to prove themselves, so now we have excellent Brazilian drama productions on all premium channels and most movie-based pay TV networks.
OTT is also breathing new life into our drama world. If you consider that one of Netflix’s most watched foreign-language dramas is Brazil’s 3%, and that Narcos was created and is run by Brazilian director Jose Padilha, you will come to the conclusion that we are not doing so badly when it comes to fictional series.

What are you working on next?
TV is the most important mass-communication vehicle there is and I believe in using it to communicate relevant social subjects coated by entertainment – and nothing sticks better than the vicarious life offered by good drama stories and acting.
Visom has been funded to develop two new series: a historical drama called Gangs of Rio and a road series on human trafficking called The Nortons. Besides that, Visom has presented a new series to TV Record called Love is a Stranger, a different police procedural series with a greater drama arc and dealing with the universal theme of domestic violence. All three series are based on true stories and we are looking for coproduction partners to team up with us to take these ventures beyond our borders.

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Fairy Godmother

Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star attraction in Cannes when she attended Mipcom to promote her forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother. DQ was on hand to hear how she helped develop the series, how she transformed herself for the role and why she has now returned to the medium where her screen career began.

She won an Oscar for her dazzling turn in big-screen musical Chicago and has starred alongside Tom Hanks and George Clooney in films such as The Terminal, Ocean’s Twelve, The Mask of Zorro and Brit comedy Dad’s Army.

Now Catherine Zeta-Jones’s career has come full circle. After beginning in theatre, her big break came with British TV drama Darling Buds of May before she moved to films. But now she’s back on the small screen, first with FX drama Feud, which aired earlier this year, and now as the lead in Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.

Zeta-Jones plays real-life drug lord Griselda Blanco, a pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade who built a drug distribution network spanning the US and was suspected of ordering more than 200 murders.

The Asylum Entertainment production is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro. A+E Networks holds worldwide distribution rights.

Zeta-Jones last week added some star power to Mipcom in Cannes, where she spoke about the project alongside Patrick Vien, executive MD of international at A+E Networks, and Tanya Lopez, senior VP of original movies and miniseries at A+E-owned Lifetime.

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco was a vicious, brutal character – and that’s why Zeta-Jones wanted to play her on screen…
Catherine Zeta-Jones: What drew me to this role was a desire to get inside the skin of such a woman with all those qualities. Usually in drama school they say you have to find some thread of yourself that you can put into a character. Well, this is not that at all and that’s what made it so interesting. A woman came from nowhere, literally the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and became the most revered, powerful, feared woman in the drug business, dominated by ruthless men. How did that happen? Who was this woman? So to be able to get deep into that character, get under her skin, is something I personally had’t had the chance to do in a long time.
For me, this movie [reignited] my love of acting. This is what it’s about. It’s all very good to be playing ingenues; it’s all very good and flattering to have your character’s name preceded by ‘the beautiful, sexy woman walks in, her name is …’ – but I always go, ‘Aw, shit’ because I know that’s way too much time in hair and make-up. With Griselda, I was able to let all that go and find the woman, find out who this woman was. [I had to] humanise her in a way that was unfathomable but certainly not to homogenise her or find some sympathetic quality to her, because I don’t think she had one. That’s why I thank A+E and Lifetime, because it would be very easy to homogenise and rose-tint this character and story, and I was adamant about that. I said, “Please, Tanya, let me loose,” and she said, “Go girl.” [Griselda] was everything I thought she would be for me as an actor – deep, dark, emotional, dangerous. [She is] unsympathetic in a way but, for some weird reason, I think our audience will connect with her or at least understand her.

Cocaine Godmother embodies what a Lifetime movie should be…
Tanya Lopez: The message I want everyone to hear is we’re telling stories about strong, smart and, in some ways – and I really feel this about Griselda – badass women, with high production values and exceptional talent. That’s where, as far as we’re concerned at Lifetime, the movies are evolving to and we’re reaching for. On this particular movie, part of it was shot in Colombia, in Medellín, and the idea of us spreading out and shooting these movies in other parts of the world is very important.

The actor reveals she underwent a physical transformation for the role

TV movies can bring an audience to stories that may be lost as low-budget features, and give actors the chance to bring stories they’re passionate about…
Patrick Vien: We’re living in such an extraordinary period of television where the gates have been blown wide open for a group of artists who, if you go back 15 some years, might have been more about the motion picture business. If you’ve ever worked in a company that has a motion picture division and a television division, there is that absolute rivalry between the two. What’s brilliant about television is it started at a moment in time when Kevin Costner joined our company with Hatfield & McCoys and we saw many other projects – True Detective is another example – where suddenly [film talent] was coming into the marketplace.
The golden age of television is made that much more golden by talents such as Catherine who come to us to realise projects that we can bring to vast audiences through the medium of television. This film simply puts us in the league we want to be in. Everybody uses this phrase ‘premium content.’ Having Catherine at our side and this project in our stable means we are solidifying A+E Networks’ position on a global scale as a premium content provider.

For all her bad traits, Zeta-Jones found something strangely likeable about Griselda Blanco…
Zeta-Jones: There are so many qualities about her that are normally just bad, just not right but, as a woman, there’s something sadistically fantastic and admirable about where she came from and how she was literally the boss in a very dangerous man’s world. You’ve got to give it to her. I know in some of our early conversations, it was like, ‘How do we humanise Griselda? How do we make people relate to Griselda?’ I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, as bad as she is, I’m going to make people kinda like her.’ Whatever she did, the violence and the murders she’s associated with and eventually charged with, and eventually assented for, I kind of like her. It’s a very sick, dark sense of humour I’ve been hiding all my life and now it’s come out in Griselda.

Zeta-Jones (second from left) in The Darling Buds of May

The stigma of actors moving between television, film and theatre that once existed has now been broken…
Zeta-Jones: I was stuck in the theatre actor box – it wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV. That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television]; they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.

The star underwent a huge physical transformation to play Griselda Blanco and relished immersing herself in the character…
Zeta-Jones: Griselda had a very specific face. It was a very interesting face. I didn’t want to do a caricature so that people who never even knew who Griselda Blanco was would see a picture of her and say, ‘She’s not very good, she looks nothing like her.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get under the skin of this woman. But I wanted to have a transformation – I gained weight, I put my back out the week after I finished shooting. I’m an ex-dancer so I always have a straight back, but my pelvis was forward, I was hunched, I was a bit like a man – if I had balls, I’d grab them from time to time. So that whole transformation was something I lived through every day.
I love my husband and my kids but I was so glad to be on my own on location, to immerse myself in this woman. So I pretty much was walking around feeling like Griselda for the whole length of the shoot, and then I put my back out. But I don’t care – it was worth it. I wanted to let it all hang out. Griselda didn’t care; she thought she was beautiful. She was a movie star, starring in her own movie, and she didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I wanted to have that attitude, that mentality, not to do a caricature of the mugshot people only ever see of her. She was glamorous, she was a bit of a recluse, she was a shopaholic, she was an addict. Everything in excess. She had rooms of clothes, bags, shoes and she never went out – only to kill people. It was a fascinating character to immerse myself in, very liberating. I didn’t care that my eyes were puffy, I was really hoping I was having a puffy day on the shoot.

Cocaine Godmother is written by David McKenna and directed by Guillermo Navarro

Her career has now gone full circle – “a wonderful circle” – as she returns to the medium that made her name…
Zeta-Jones: I’d only done theatre before and then I was cast in [ITV drama] The Darling Buds of May. We did six hours for two years with our legend of a television actor, Sir David Jason. That was the first thing I did on screen. I was a complete unknown and, within an hour of television, my life changed completely. Then I was in France doing films with Philippe de Broca and Édouard Molinaro. Then I went to the States and auditioned for a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing was really coming to fruition. But I was cast in the TV version of Titanic. All I wanted was to be Kate Winslet opposite Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio] – I wasn’t, but I took the TV version of Titanic. Cut to Steven Spielberg watching it on Sunday night and he casts me in The Legend of Zorro.
Next time I come back onto TV, it’s the biggest stroke of luck because I got to work with the best people I’ve ever worked with in my career, and it’s Griselda, it’s Cocaine Godmother. I feel very happy, lucky and blessed to be back in a medium which I felt very comfortable in, at home in, and what was really the start of my career. Even though I did theatre since I was nine years old in Britain and played leads in West End shows, I was completely anonymous, so it was The Darling Buds of May that opened up my world to TV and film. I’m very happy to be in a medium I feel very comfortable in.

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Back from the dead

After working together on Israeli spy drama False Flag, executive producers Maria Feldman and Oded Ruskin reunited for Absentia.

Castle alum Stana Katic plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who has been missing, presumed dead, for six years. In her absence, her husband remarried and his new wife is raising Emily’s child. But when she’s found alive, she doesn’t remember anything and must live in this new reality. As the show progresses, evidence emerges that suggests she’s not as innocent as she seems.

The series, which is airing on Sony Pictures Television Networks-owned AXN channels around the world, mixes thriller, horror and mystery elements but at its base is a family drama.

In this DQTV interview, Ruskin describes his directing style and how he works with actors to get the best performances on screen, while Feldman recalls the rapid speed at which the production came together.

Absentia is produced and distributed by Sony Pictures Television.

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