All posts by Michael Pickard

A nation divided

A parallel-future Israel is split between religious and secular societies in Autonomies. DQ meets co-creator Ori Elon, producer Efrat Dror and broadcaster HOT’s head of production Guy Levy to hear why the dystopian drama has echoes of contemporary society.

Israeli drama Autonomies imagines a country where society is divided. Jerusalem has become completely Orthodox, while Tel Aviv is a secular state. As the series progresses, tensions between the two sides are exacerbated when a midwife reveals she switched two babies at birth seven years earlier.

However, the central theme is one that may be familiar to many living in the country. “The society of Israel is divided between secular and Orthodox religions, between Arabs and Jews, and between left and right. We have a lot of conflict,” says producer Erfrat Dror, CEO of United Studios of Israel. “The majority of people are secular and the conflict between religions and the secular is how they are serving the country. The Arabs and Jews is also a conflict and we now have an autonomy of Arabs in Israel. So it’s very relevant.

“This series is a mirror to society. If we do not look at our problems inside and try to solve them, it’s a topic that one day will be a reality.”

Ori Elon

Produced by United Studios of Israel for broadcaster HOT, the series is created and written by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky, who also directs. The cast includes Assi Cohen, Shuli Rand, Saniella Kertesz, Dana Ivgy, Tali Sharon, Rotem Sela, Yaakov Zada Daniel, Dan Kastiriano and Nir Di-Nur. Keshet International is the distributor.

Elon and Indursky have worked together for almost eight years, previously partnering on Israeli series Shtisel, which told the story of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. It ran for two seasons from 2013 on satellite platform Yes.

Autonomies was to be their next project, with the story born out of two ideas. The first was a modern Israel with a new Jewish state contained inside, while the second was inspired by the Judgment of Solomon, a story from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) that tells of two women claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings by suggesting the baby be cut in half – the non-mother was happy with this idea, whereas the real mother begged him to save the child.

“For years I had a deep connection with this story,” Elon explains, “because my grandfather was a judge in the Supreme Court of Israel and had a famous case 30 years ago, the Carolyn/Bruna case about a little girl with two parents who were fighting for custody of her. It never left him and he talked about it a lot. I became a storyteller and I can identify with both sides.”

This story of child separation and the moral and ethical dilemmas it creates takes place in a fantasy world. But “it’s not a fantasy from another planet,” Elon says. “Our series isn’t realistic, but it’s heightened.”

Guy Levy, head of production for HOT, picks up: “Some will say we’re already there [in the show’s heightened reality]. There are neighbourhoods of ultra-Orthodox people in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We are almost separated. Maybe some will say it’s dystopic, and it is, but some will say it’s the future and it will come.”

Autonomies imagines a divided Israel, with an Orthodox Jerusalem and secular Tel Aviv

Levy adds that HOT is not afraid of dealing with controversial or provocative storylines, and that it was “easy” to greenlight the series.

Dror says: “You have to be a company that has a lot of imagination and vision to do such a series. It’s brave to take the decision to do it because it’s not mainstream, it’s dark. It’s not very optimistic. But I think it’s the kind of material that cable and satellite has to do because it’s a very relevant social issue that has to be discussed in society. This is an original way to do it and while it’s between dystopia and reality, it’s time to put it on the table.”

Levy adds: “This issue in Israel is a big elephant in the room that no one talks about. Everybody sees it, everybody lives and breathes it, but nobody talks about it. The series puts everything on the table.”

If so much of the basis of Autonomies is already prevalent in real life, could the story not have been explored through a documentary? Dror says lots of factual programming already looks at issues between religious and secular societies but, by making a drama, “we have a story that you can identify with, as with Ori’s grandfather in a way of telling a story about a little girl with two families fighting for her.”

She continues: “It’s a very original way to tell the story and be emotional and identify with the characters to see the other sides of the issue. It’s for the viewer to decide who is right. It’s the modern Solomon trial.”

The show is set to air on Israel’s HOT

Elon and Indursky both coming from Orthodox Jewish families is also what makes this series unique, Levy says, adding that it might have been a very different show had the creators not been raised in a religious environment. “Their point of view is what’s interesting in this story,” he adds.

Dror describes the scripts as “poetry,” noting that Autonomies is written “sensitively and creatively to the story and the issue.”

“It’s exciting because I think it’s an important issue and they find a very good way to discuss it within the society of Israel,” she says. “I hope the public will enjoy and love it.”

The series wasn’t easy to make, however. Dror describes it as a major production, particularly in a country that has built a reputation for highly original series produced on a relatively small budget compared to the US and some European countries. “The whole industry in Israel does well handling small budgets compared to the rest of the world, and the results are often very high,” Dror says. “It’s not easy but we are proud to tell this kind of story and to have the opportunity to work with such talented writers and directors.

“Because we don’t have money, we have to create something. We work without money. We have to create ways to produce television and tell a deep story. We’re doing well because we’re hungry to create and say something to the world.”

Elon also praises the relationship between HOT and United Studios. “We came to them with a broken story about a broken reality and they didn’t try to make it sweet or make it cheaper to produce or anything like that,” he says. “They worked with us.”

The series is due to debut later this year, while Levy is already looking ahead to a potential second season. “I think it’s just the start of dealing with this story in Israel,” he says. “I hope the series will make people talk and deal with our situation in Israel.”

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Cult hit

Drawing comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, Israeli drama Harem shocked viewers with its depiction of life for women and children living with a charismatic cult leader. DQ speaks to the writing team behind the Reshet show, which has been renewed for a second season.

There are many parallels to be drawn between Israeli series Harem and The Handmaid’s Tale, the US dystopian drama praised as much for its writing and cinematography as its prescient and often harrowing plotlines.

Gadi Taub

But while the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel paints a bleak picture set in an alternative or, more worryingly, not-too-distant future, Harem is very much set in present-day Israel, raising topical and emotional questions about the existence of cults and themes of family and belonging.

Produced by Endemol Shine Israel for local broadcaster Reshet 13, the show is inspired by real-life cults in the country and around the world. In this fictional story, a charismatic mystic healer lives in large house in Tel Aviv with 20 wives, who have borne him more than 40 children.

Created and written by Anat Barzilai, Hadar Galron and Gadi Taub, who directs with Marco Carmel, Harem focuses on a 17-year-old girl who is persuaded to join her sister by the side of cult leader Shabtai Zadik (played by Alon Aboutboul) – much to the distress of her parents, who are powerless to bring their children home.

The eight-part series debuted in February this year and was screened at Series Mania in Lille, where it was selected as part of the International Panorama. Endemol Shine International handles worldwide distribution, with a second season due to air in 2019.

Harem was initially conceived as a play by Barzilai and Galron, whose interest in cults accelerated after meeting Maayan Miriam Smadar, a cult survivor who wrote a book based on her experience. Friends for many years, the writers shared a background in comedy acting but had never penned a primetime drama before, prompting Endemol Shine Israel’s head of drama Gal Zaid to bring Taub on board as head writer.

Their development of the series began by taking the point of view of parents who lose their children to a cult and discover there is nothing they can do to stop it. “That was very strong for me,” Barzilai says. “A cult is always an interesting subject, but I thought the fight between two strong families – one is a normal family, one is the family of the cult – could be very interesting.”

Harem stars Alon Aboutboul as a cult leader with multiple wives

Galron, who leaned on her religious background and her personal experiences with cults, says they particularly wanted to find out about the psychological factors involved in the appeal of such groups. “The thing with cults and religion as well is they want to offer you freedom, your salvation, but the price you pay is your freedom. It’s a catch-22.

“What we wanted to do was expose the mechanism of why women go into them. The reactions to the series that touched me were from women who had been in cults before. Women wrote to us saying that, via the series, they understood things they hadn’t understood in two or three years of treatment after being in a cult. So maybe we did manage to touch that mechanism.”

From the very beginning, authenticity was key to the development of Harem, from the real-life people who inspired the guru at the centre of the story to the way he would manipulate his ‘wives’ so that they would become dependent on his approval.

“A guru in the desert would seem far-fetched,” Galron continues. “The reason we chose this particular cult was that people identify with this because, on a smaller scale, you can find these things within families. You have battered wives, henpecked husbands, children who have been psychologically messed up by their parents – when people saw these things on screen, they could identify with them.”

Shabtai, the cult leader, is an incredibly complex character, played with a sinister edge by Aboutbol. “What the leader wants and what he’s got are not the same things,” Taub explains. “Like most cult leaders, he wants money, power, control. He’s a narcissist – only your reflection in other people’s eyes confirms your existence.

The show was inspired by real-life cults and has had a powerful impact in Israel

“It begins with you getting addicted to his ability to comfort you, but then he also does what abusers do – he is unpredictable. He makes you gradually more insecure and in need of his approval because when you do something, you don’t know if you get a prize or a punishment. You’re always dependent on a judgement you can’t foresee, calculate, emulate or fit your behaviour to.”

It was important, however, that Shabtai should be charismatic and charming, because the writers didn’t ever want the audience to dismiss the women living with him as “stupid.”

“Alon was so right for the part,” says Barzilai. “He says we ruined his life! Some people are angry at him. He lives in LA now and he says Israelis who saw the show shout at him in the street and talk to him as if he’s the character. What’s interesting is some women wrote to me on Facebook to say what made them afraid was their feeling they might have gone after him. They might have become followers, because he was so attractive to them.”

“It’s not just drama,” adds Galron. “This could happen to anyone. People beforehand thought women who went into cults must have something wrong with them or weren’t well educated. The series changed that.”

There were times when the writing team worried Harem might be too dark, after hearing from friends who said they couldn’t watch because scenes were too “horrible.” One story thread sees a cult member forced to transfer custody of her child to its non-cult member father.

“On the other hand, we also really wanted to show the element of the community,” Taub says. “There are scenes where they’re preparing sandwiches for 40 kids and when they do shopping. There’s something about this sorority, this tight-knit group of women who are mostly supportive of each other.”

Season two will see the episode count increase from eight to 12

Sharing directing duties meant Carmel shaped the visual style of the series while Taub worked closely with the actors on set. “When the person writing the screenplay directs the actors, you can tell them a lot about the underlying meanings of everything because you know every syllable in the screenplay,” Taub notes, adding that he spent lots of time in rehearsals so when they arrived on set, they were ready to shoot.

“Our budget was $200,000 per episode. The season’s budget was less than The Sopranos’ catering budget. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds good,” he jokes. “They did $5m per episode, we do $200,000. The system is completely different. You shoot by location and you have to shoot 11 minutes a day. So pre-production is key. In the way we arrange the budget, I said, ‘Let’s put more money into rehearsals so that we save time on set.’”

Taub describes writing a series with the villain at its centre as the most challenging aspect of his work on Harem. “It’s a strange thing because the centre of this solar system is not a sun, it’s a black hole,” he says. Meanwhile, the protagonist emerges as the younger sister who, coerced into joining the cult at the beginning, ends up battling against the “frightening ghoul” in charge.

“This is not Tony Soprano,” Taub adds. “Tony’s a protagonist with a complicated side but you love him, you identify with him. You do not identify with this cult leader. Hate is almost as strong a bond as empathy. You are waiting for this guy to be taken down. The most fun thing about this series is hating this guy.

“Then we made the women very empathetic because, in real cults, a lot of people are normal. If we portray them as uniquely vulnerable, creepy or stupid then the whole thing will not work. We wanted people to see that this is not a freak show, this can happen to you.”

Both Barzilai and Galron also appear on screen, with the former playing one of Shabtai’s numerous wives, Avishag.

“The first day when I came to rehearse on the set, that was the first real joyful moment I had,” admits Barzilai. “Suddenly, the world you’re writing about and talking about becomes physical and this experience was so strong.

“At my age, you don’t find a lot of roles. They’re mostly for young people. You get the mothers, those roles. But it’s a very interesting role because she has nowhere to go. She gave her soul to this man and now she has to find where her loyalty lies. She has a son and it’s very hard for her.”

Taub says the story “exploded” in Israel after hitting screens. “We were not expecting the storm,” he admits, noting that the Israeli parliament has since begun to bring legislation against cults, while charities that support cult survivors have seen budget increases after being flooded with previously unreported cases.

“The problem is, if they steal your money, rape you or abuse children then you get them,” Taub says. “If cultism itself becomes a crime, it’s very hard to tell a religious sect from a cult from a yoga class. So I really don’t think I would like to see stronger legislation against cults, but against crimes that cults do – that’s the thing. It’s very hard to enforce.”

Season two will see the episode count rise by 50%, from eight to 12 episodes, with a story Taub teases will be completely different and will focus more on daily life inside the commune.

“What people came to see and what we enjoyed writing the most was his psychological manipulation, because he’s really smart,” he says of the cult leader. “He’s like a sophisticated chess player. His only focus is on his own desire, and he never has doubts. There’s no super-ego there, none at all. He manages to ensnare and trap people around him.”

Galron adds: “If there is one thing I would like more of [in season two], it’s humour. We made 16 episodes into eight episodes in season one and a lot of the humour was eventually cut out. It’s something we’ve spoken about, because I believe humour is a way of not taking the away the weight of the drama but making it more watchable. I believe in entertaining and giving a punch to the stomach at the same time.”

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A walk down Mainstreet

Mainstreet Pictures co-MDs Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie tell DQ about making the third season of crime drama Unforgotten, the trouble with in-demand writers, and their aim to produce television people want to talk about.

Unforgotten is the quiet star of the television crime genre. It is unshowy and patient, yet each season boasts a gripping storyline, ducking and weaving until it lands an emotional right hook that can floor even the most hardened viewer.

At once about the police investigation into a historic crime and also the ‘family’ of potential suspects introduced early on, the ITV series, written by Chris Lang, keeps you guessing until DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan – played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar – piece together the clues before a devastating denouement.

Laura Mackie

The show returns for a third season this Sunday that will again see the duo delve into an emotionally charged cold case. The new season sees Alex Jennings (A Very English Scandal), Kevin McNally (Designated Survivor), Neil Morrissey (The Good Karma Hospital) and James Fleet (Indian Summers) play a close-knit group of old school friends who have stood by one another through thick and thin. But when the body of a teenage girl who went missing at the turn of the millennium is found at a building site, the four men find themselves and their relationships in the spotlight.

And though the crime at the heart of the story may be several years old, the characters also face more topical themes such as the stigma around mental health problems and the dark side of social media.

Distributed by BBC Studios, Unforgotten comes from Mainstreet Pictures, and was the first series produced by the label set up by former ITV drama heads Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes in 2013 after they both left the broadcaster. They have since gone on to produce another ITV miniseries, Paula Milne’s domestic horror HIM, while BBC drama Age Before Beauty, written by Debbie Horsfield (Poldark) and set in a Manchester beauty salon, will air this summer. They also recently won another BBC commission for Gold Digger, written by Marnie Dickens (Thirteen).

Unforgotten, however, is in that unique sweet spot. With two seasons behind it, the show is a bonafide hit – six million people watched the second run – and everyone involved in making the series now knows what the finished product should look like.

“It’s interesting with Unforgotten this year because Victoria [Fea, senior drama commissioner] has looked at all the cuts, but you do get to the point where a show knows what it is,” says Mackie. “It has its DNA and it’s a much faster process. We’ve got into the groove of what that show is and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s very much a different story but remains an emotional genre piece, particularly this year.”

Speaking to DQ inside their Holborn office in central London, it’s clear Haynes and Mackie have a lot of love for Unforgotten. “It’s our first child,” says Mackie, who notes that the third season is slightly unusual in that one director, Andy Wilson, has steered all six episodes.

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar play the detective duo at the heart of Unforgotten

But above all, “it’s a very deceptively simple format,” she says. “The clever thing about it is when Chris pitched it to us, he understood you need a satisfying whodunnit plot but he also wanted to look at society and different families and the secrets and lies within families. And that’s the format, whether it’s dealing with the characters of the age of Tom Courtenay in season one, a younger cast in season two or the suspects in season three who are all friends and it’s a slightly more notorious case. That gives it a slightly different feel.”

As Haynes notes, “it’s hard to find a gap in the crime genre without going to jazz hands or alien detectives.”

Some shows might do that, but it’s hard to imagine Cassie or Sunny breaking into song and dance midway through their investigation. Instead, it’s hard to recall a pair of more down-to-earth and unflashy detectives on screen, and the tender relationship they share is always at the heart of the drama, whatever case they are investigating. Haynes admits there’s something “rather wonderful” about the pair’s bond. “It’s very subtle and very sweet but it’s very engaging. Nicola is stunning.”

“Cassie’s an empathist – she just quietly gets on with the case and I think people have liked the fact that, in a world where there are a lot of quite noisy crime shows, this is quite a quiet show but probably better for it because it feels a bit different,” Mackie adds.

Mackie and Haynes, co-MDs of Mainstreet Pictures, both worked together at the BBC, where their credits included Cutting It and Bleak House. They then made the move to ITV, where Mackie was controller of drama and Haynes was director of drama commissioning, responsible for series including Scott & Bailey, Vera, Endeavour, Appropriate Adult, Broadchurch and Downton Abbey.

Neil Morrissey is among those starring in Unforgotten’s third season

Now five years after leaving the broadcaster, their aim at Mainstreet is to produce edgy shows that appeal to a mainstream audience. “Our ambition is to make big shows that people talk about,” Haynes says. “A lot of the shows we greenlit at ITV, that’s our taste – Downton, Broadchurch, Appropriate Adult. I love making shows for a lot of people to watch.”

Mackie picks up: “We’re both populists and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t want to do more of the same and not everything’s going to work. We did HIM; it probably wasn’t right for ITV and perhaps could have sat more comfortably on another channel, but you don’t always know. You have to go with your gut.”

Having overseen Downton’s extraordinary success both at home and around the world, the pair say they have two period dramas in development as they look for a gap in a genre that is seemingly a constant presence on British television, whether it’s The Miniaturist, Little Women and Poldark on the BBC or Victoria and the forthcoming adaptation of Vanity Fair on ITV.

“When we commissioned Downton, there was no period apart from a couple of classic adaptations – we did Wuthering Heights with Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley,” Mackie continues. “It was the era that, every autumn, we did classic adaptations. When Julian [Fellowes, Downton creator] and Carnival brought us Downton, period drama wasn’t in vogue but we really liked it. I still remember when we read that script and we said to each other, ‘I love it.’

“When we’re developing, we have to try to find something that’s so obvious, you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. They’re the best ideas, but they’re hard to find. Gold Digger has a real voice to it but that’s very much our taste; Age Before Beauty and Unforgotten too. All you can go on is your gut.”

Mackie and Haynes were responsible for commissioning mega-hit drama Downton Abbey

The duo waited three years for Horsfield to find the time in between seasons of Poldark to write Age Before Beauty. The show’s long development process exemplifies one of the biggest challenges facing UK drama, namely the reliance on a top tier of first-class writers.

But when it comes to finding writers to work with, Mackie argues you must look beyond the usual suspects. “We’ve got Debbie and Chris but people get booked up,” she says. “We had to wait for Debbie because she’s writing Poldark. So you have to look at writers of all levels. We both started as script editors, so we love finding new writers.”

The bigger difficulty, they claim, is the lack of opportunities for writers to cut their teeth on long-running serials. “When we were at ITV, there was Heartbeat and The Bill and various other things,” Mackie continues, noting that commissioners are still drawn to series that carry one author’s voice. “But new writers like Marnie are being given opportunities to write their own authored stuff. It’s not easy, but I think broadcasters are open-minded if the project is good and it’s with a company they think can support it.

“Some writers could just do with time on series, because it’s hard. But there’s always room for people coming through. You can’t just rely on the usual suspects, because they’re all too busy.”

It shouldn’t be hard to draw Lang back for a fourth season of Unforgotten, with Mackie and Haynes teasing that the writer already has a story in mind.

For Haynes, the show’s success boils down to its simplicity. “It’s an emotional story that is also a genre piece,” she says. “I’ve read every script dozens of times, watched every cut dozens of times and still have a cry.”

Mackie adds: “Because Chris wanted to write about the suspects and their lives, it does allow you to tell a family drama or the stories you don’t have room for in a traditional crime drama. Cassie and Sunny are also deceptively ordinary, and ordinary is hard to do. It’s an emotional thriller.”

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Head case

French crime drama Kepler(s) tackles themes of mental health and the Calais migrant crisis in the story of a police officer secretly struggling with multiple personality disorder who is sent to investigate the murder of a student in the port town. DQ meets the writers and producers.

There aren’t many school projects that get developed into a six-part series, are commissioned by a national broadcaster and then screened at an international television festival. Yet that’s the journey travelled by Kepler(s), the first television series from French writing partners Jean-Yves Arnaud and Yoann Legave.

In their previous lives, Legave was a journalist while Arnaud worked for NGOs. But five years ago, having moved into making short films and writing, respectively, they applied to go back to their studies and subsequently began a project to create a television series.

Kepler(s) follows the discovery of a student’s body in a migrant camp

That series was Kepler(s) and when they were introduced to EVS Productions’ Caroline Solanillas and Laurent Cevccaldi, they were given the chance to write a pilot.

“It’s crazy,” admits Legave, “but the project is crazy and it’s quite complicated, with multiple personalities and the location of the show in Calais, which is really politically hardcore at the moment.”

Solanillas says she thought the script was well written and, in particular, she was drawn to the contemporary themes that laid the foundations for a crime drama. “We like projects that focus on real topics of our world and Calais is one of these topics,” she says. “No one in France talks about it so we are the first and only series that is about migrants and refugees. Calais is a real place with all these people. It’s also a very cinematographic place.”

The titular Kepler, played by Marc Lavoine, is a cop who suffers from multiple personalities. Posted in Calais, he tries to put his life back together with his wife and daughter. But when the body of a young student is found in a migrant camp, Kepler is paired up with a young local cop named Alice, who is both his guide and a witness to his downfall.

Kepler’s different personalities are dramatised inside a dark room

During the series, which is commissioned by France 2 and distributed by France Télévisions, Kepler will uncover some truths about how refugees are exploited by a city that doesn’t want them but uses them anyway. The story also confronts themes of madness as Kepler attempts to control the ‘passengers’ in his head.

“We loved the idea that he was treating them like we treat the refugees – we need them but we imprison them,” Legave explains. “With what’s going on politically there, we think it goes well with this case.”

Kepler has three additional personalities that all clamour for control. The inspiration for the character came from the real-life case of Billy Milligan, a US citizen who was acquitted of several charges of rape after claiming insanity due to multiple personality disorder.

On screen, Kepler’s different personalities are dramatised inside a dark room, where each personality is personified by a different actor. “When a passenger takes control of the body, there’s a big black room with just light on in it and whoever is under the light has control of the body,” Legave explains. “We used that to write the show and make people understand what was going on in his head.

Marc Lavoine plays a cop who suffers from multiple personality disorder

“When it’s in his head, the different personalities are played by different actors and then Martin, who plays Kepler, found really subtle ways to indicate to the viewers which one he was when the character is out in the real world.”

It is through the eyes of Alice, Kepler’s new partner, played by Sofia Essaïdi, that viewers discover and come to terms with his condition. She’s not the only one with suspicions about Kepler’s behaviour of his reasons for being in Calais, however.

“What we found interesting about Alice is she’s a young cop, she moves to Calais and it’s a really hard situation for her,” says Legave. “We talked to cops there, NGOs, refugees and tried to have a feeling for every situation. At the beginning, she’s exhausted with the situation, with her work and as the show progresses, she will discover his madness.”

Arnaud adds: “All the cops in Calais wonder what he has done to be in Calais. It’s not a promotion, so they keep wondering what he’s done. They discover an operation has gone wrong in Paris, but they don’t know exactly what’s happened and why he’s in Calais.”

Writing together, Arnaud and Legave would individually describe how they each saw a scene before they began to write the dialogue, splitting episodes between them and then coming back to share and discuss their work together. The first two episodes were developed with broadcaster France 2 over 10 months before the show was greenlit. The next four scripts were written in just four months before shooting took place in Dunkirk and Calais between September and December 2017.

Solanillas believes French broadcasters are becoming more ambitious with drama

“The difficult part was Calais and the political situation there,” Legave says of writing the series. “When we started writing the show, the Jungle [migrant camp] was at the centre of the show, but during the writing, the police broke it up. So we had to think about what we were doing and how to represent the city. Were we ignoring the fact they dismantled it or were we writing it like it is and making a bet that it will not change that much? Shooting there is complicated, too, because there are a lot of cops.”

“Everything in this show is complicated because there are a lot of scenes, a lot of action, a lot of different places and many characters,” admits Solanillas. “For us, it was the most ambitious show we have ever done. Everything was quite difficult.”

Solanillas says French broadcasters are becoming more ambitious, and the fact France 2 boarded Kepler(s) is proof the network is stepping out of its comfort zone.

Arnaud agrees that the show deals with subjects that aren’t a natural fit for the channel. “It’s one of the first times they’re doing this, especially taking place in Calais, which isn’t the sexiest place on Earth for a French broadcaster,” he adds. “They made the difference; the pilot script was just great. They read it and said they had to do it.”

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Missing treasure

The trend for television dramas about missing children continues with The Disappearance, a French Canadian drama about a family’s grief when a young boy vanishes. DQ chats with writer Geneviève Simard and the production team behind the six-part limited series.

When French-language drama The Disappearance was dropped by its Quebec broadcaster while still in development, it could have been an early end for the six-part series about the struggle facing a family when a young boy goes missing.

CTV ordered a full series of The Disappearance when it was decided to make it in English

It’s to Productions Casablanca’s credit, however, that it persevered with the project and found a way to get it on screen – by translating it into English. Producer Joanne Forgues had the idea to switch languages and the drama was successfully resuscitated when Bell Media-owned CTV commissioned the full series.

Created and written by Normand Daneau and Geneviève Simard, The Disappearance opens on Anthony’s 10th birthday. Every year, his grandfather creates a treasure hunt for him to mark the special day, but this time he doesn’t return. Two years after the police investigation went cold, a strange event leads to the case being reopened.

The cast includes Peter Coyote (Sphere), Joanne Kelly (Warehouse 13), Neil Napier (Helix), Kevin Parent (The Calling), Judith Baribeau (21 Thunder) and Camille Sullivan (The Man in the High Castle).

By exploring the intimate relationships of a family torn apart by a missing child, Charles Ohayon, head of international sales at Productions Casablanca, says this series goes beyond other shows with a similar concept. “It’s a very human story,” he says.

Simard adds: “We’re not following the cops like in other shows. It’s really the family that we’re following. There are family secrets that bring the investigation forward.”

The Disappearance follows the reopening of the case of a missing 10-year-old boy

Simard wrote the series with Daneau, her former real-life partner, after the birth of their child. They were thinking of writing something together and began questioning what a parent’s worst nightmare would be.

“Having a child who is dead is a tragedy but not knowing where they are must create so much anguish,” she explains. “We wrote one episode and went to see Joanne. She took the project but we developed it with a French channel in Quebec, it was supposed to be in French, but after we developed three episodes with them, they changed direction [and dropped the series], so we looked elsewhere in Quebec. Then Joanne had the brilliant idea to translate it.”

Ohayon describes that decision as a “gamble,” but one that certainly paid off after NBCUniversal came on board the series, boosting its shooting budget and handling sales in France (13ème rue), the UK (Universal), the US (WGN America) and, ironically, Quebec, where it aired on Super Écran. It was also screened part of the International Panorama competition at Series Mania 2018.

“The idea was really to translate it and see if it had a chance through English Canada in terms of finding a network,” he says. “So it was a gamble to have them translate it.”

The producers cold-called CTV, who came back within a week with a positive decision. “It went very fast,” Ohayon continues. “Within a matter of weeks we signed a development deal for the next three episodes. Three months later, which is very unusual, Joanne had the green light to go into production, before the scripts were finished.”

After NBCUniversal came onboard, the show’s budget was boosted significantly

At this point, Simard admits she and Daneau had the ending in place but weren’t sure how to get there. “It’s a really complex story with a lot of twists,” she notes. “It has to be very tight so there was a lot of brainstorming. For Normand, this was his first series. I have written on others. We almost did everything together. We started writing the scripts before we knew how it would end. We wrote one episode and took it to Joanne but we never expected it to go very far. Our dream was it would air in French in Quebec.”

It was CTV that introduced The Disappearance to production giant NBCUniversal (NBCU), with Michael Edelstein, former president of NBCU International Studios calling to admit his team was in love with the project. “Then he said, ‘I have one problem – your budget is not high enough,’” OHayon recalls. “That’s the first time in 30 years I have ever heard that one. They came onboard based on scripts, the series was not even shot yet. For us in Quebec, that’s the first time this has ever happened, that a major US network would take on distribution based on scripts and not on shooting.”

Filming took place in Montreal, where the series used an original backdrop why retaining its original French flavour.

“We had cultural differences between French Canada and English Canada and also between Canada and the US, so we had to try and put that all in a melting pot and come up with something that pleases the three cultures,” Ohayon says. “I would say we won most of the battles. Once we explained and discussed it, we were able to agree on most things. Sometimes they had very good points and we went along with their suggestions and vice versa. It worked very well in the end.”

In Quebec, OHaylon says there is a constant creative struggle to produce content for eight million French-speaking people surrounded by 300 million English speakers.

“The only way for us to survive is to be strong, creative and innovative and that’s what happens – and we do it with very little amounts of money,” he notes, comparing budgets of between C$500,000 [US$378,000] and C$700,000 per hour in French Canada compared with C$2.2m and C$2.6m in English Canada.

“Why? Because English-language productions can be sold and exported around the world. The French language we have cannot be exported as easily, even in France, because it’s not the same French. It’s a very limited market. The revenues for broadcasters are decreasing so there’s a limited amount of money, yet they want more. So budgets are going down but everything within the budget is increasing because of union agreements, whether it’s writers, directors or crew. So we struggle to survive.”

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Love is Blind

Finnish comedy-drama Blind Donna sees its titular character embark on a search for love, and nothing – not even her blindness – will stop her. Producer Liisa Akimof and screenwriters Heikki Kujanpää and Mikko Reitala tell DQ about the “risky business” of marrying comedy and disability.

Though its title might suggest otherwise, Finnish comedy-drama Blind Donna is not just about a woman who has lost her sight. Instead, Donna’s blindness is very much a side story to the main focus of the 10-part series – her search for love.

The story opens with Donna, played by sighted actor Alina Tomnikov (wearing contact lenses), on the morning after a party she hosted with her husband. When she discovers certain objects are missing around their house, she realises he has left her. Refusing to be overcome with sadness, she decides to find the man of her dreams. Meanwhile, her best friend Mira (Essi Hellen) does everything she can to help, but usually only succeeds in ruining everything.

“The series is not about being blind. It’s about looking for love,” explains Mikko Reitala, who wrote the series with director Heikki Kujanpää. “In our first episode, Donna is living together with her partner but he suddenly leaves and Donna is left alone in her house for the first time blind – she wasn’t born blind. But despite all her problems and her grief, she wants to find a new man. Even if she has to live in darkness, she doesn’t give up.”

Blind Donna stars Alina Tomnikov

One early scene involves Donna attempting to ward off two Good Samaritans as they try to help her across a busy road, while we also see her in nightclubs and on dates as she pursues the perfect man.

“Actually, her main flaw is not blindness but that she’s too over-confident,” Reitala says, noting the lead character’s determination to be independent, despite the scrapes and embarrassing situations in which she finds herself.

Kujanpää adds: “Her blindness is symbolic, of course, but it also has lots of possibilities for comedy. It’s a risky business but we’re not laughing at her.”

The writers spent five years developing the series, produced by Production House for Finland’s YLE and Norway’s NRK, before its debut in January this year. Having known each other for more than 30 years since they both studied as actors, Reitala and Kujanpää brainstormed the story and pieced together the outline before producer Liisa Akimof joined the project four years ago when a first draft was already in place.

The show follows Donna as she seeks the perfect man

“In Nordic countries and Europe, we have a peaceful democracy for the most part and gender equality,” Kujanpää notes. “That’s potent for comedy writers because young girls [Donna in this case] can do whatever they like, and that’s good. They can go to a bar looking for sex. But then we had to raise the stakes – she’s blind.”

The series was originally planned as 12 half-hour episodes, later reduced to 10. To get a sense of how to film it, the team produced a 12-minute pilot in summer 2016 to determine what viewers should see when they watch the drama from Donna’s perspective – should it be a black screen, or something else?

“We didn’t want people to feel pity for her – this is not a social drama,” Akimof says. “So we also tested the aesthetic of the show to make it a little bit easier to watch so the audience can feel the romantic comedy.”

Using Donna’s perspective was one way director Kujanpää sought to inject humour into series. “People are used to the point-of-view technique, so when you do it with a blind person, there’s some irony in it,” he notes. “It’s funny.”

The series was made for Nordic channels YLE and NRK

One of the ways the show reminds the audience of Donna’s blindness is by literally keeping viewers in the dark at the start of each episode, opening to a black screen with only audio to tell them what’s going on.

Filming for the series took place in Helsinki, where the production team secured the use of a large house that they rented for the duration of the five-month shoot, which also doubled as a production base. “Then we just searched for certain locations we needed in the series, but basically we were in this old house with different rooms and a beautiful garden,” says Akimof. “It was perfect.”

The creators of the €1.4million (US$1.65m) series, which was also backed by the Finnish Film Foundation, now hope Blind Donna will travel internationally, either in its original form or as a format. The series was screened in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and is distributed by YLE.

“We really believe our concept is understood everywhere. It’s universal,” Kujanpää concludes. “This kind of comedy takes corny elements of the romantic comedy genre but we make it this way mainly because of our main character. That’s what comedy has to do to be good – it has to be full of embarrassment.”

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Right on the Money

La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) is a certified phenomenon after Netflix revealed it was the streamer’s biggest non-English-language series ever. DQ hears from creator Alex Pina and writer Esther Martinez Lobato about making the Spanish heist drama.

When Netflix published its earnings statement for the first quarter of 2018, there were plenty of headline figures. Revenue growth of 43% year-on-year, the fastest in its streaming history; more than seven million new subscribers worldwide; and confirmation of a US$8bn content budget for the year ahead that would be spent on a dizzying array of series, films, unscripted series, documentaries and comedy specials.

The same period also saw the launch of new series including The End of the F****** World and Altered Carbon, plus the return of shows such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Santa Clarita Diet and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

And while Netflix continues to expand its production line of international originals, among them Brazil’s O Mecanismo (The Mechanism) from Narcos creator José Padilha, the report also noted, with little fanfare, that Spanish drama El Casa de Papel (Money Heist) had become the most watched non-English-language series on Netflix. Quite a feat when you consider Narcos, Babylon Berlin, Fauda, Suburra, Generation War and Rita are among the slew of international shows available on the streaming platform.

The series, one story split across two seasons (or ‘parts’), first aired on Spain’s Antena 3 in May 2017. It tells the story of the mysterious Professor, played by Álvaro Morte, who assembles a crack team of criminals with one goal – to break into the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid and print €2.4bn (US$2.8bn).

Alex Pina

Creator Alex Pina says he was keen to bring the heist genre, a constant in the big-screen world, to television but admits getting the project off the ground was a bumpy road.

“The TV channel wasn’t convinced,” he says. “And we were producing so many chapters with only one heist, which takes place in the 15th minute of the first chapter. There were 1,000 minutes of fiction, 137 hours of action, and we wanted to make it very fluid, so the only solution was to use flashbacks.

“With all these flashbacks, we wanted to tell the story and make it authentic, with lots of action and events one after the other, twists and turns. This is something that made it unique and such an addictive TV show.”

Another problem was that the heist genre is largely aimed at male cinema-goers – so how did the writers look to draw female viewers to the series? The answer lay in telling the story largely from a female perspective.

“Last year we saw an explosion of female narratives,” says Esther Martinez Lobato, screenwriter and executive producer. “More TV shows are having female main characters. The most difficult decision we had to make was to find the perfect protagonist, which we found in Tokyo [played by Úrsula Corberó]. She’s a very important character. She’s a loser at the beginning and had nothing to lose, and then she meets the Professor. That’s how we wanted to approach the male presence. But the female characters go beyond Tokyo.”

The other most notable female characters are Raquel (Itziar Ituño), the police officer who leads the investigation into the heist and unwittingly becomes close to the Professor; and Monica, an employee at the Royal Mint who is initially held among the hostages but becomes involved with one of her captors, Denver (Jaime Lorente).

Álvaro Morte as the Professor, mastermind of the heist at the centre of the show

“We have the perfect heist, that’s the motive of the series, but it’s something very masculine so we wanted to provide feminine perspective,” Pina says. “Raquel’s story is very powerful, very romantic. She controls the heist from the police point of view and she deals with gender violence in her life [following an abusive relationship with her ex-husband]. On the other hand, we have Tokyo. We also have Monica. She has a lot of male-related problems and all of this takes place within the perfect heist. There are four main female characters [including fellow gang member Nairobi] and it works very well. We also intended to enhance the genre with some hybrids. One of most powerful romantic stories could happen between the Professor and the inspector, the mastermind of the police operation. It was something we wanted to exploit and it has worked.”

Those who struggle to put pen to paper should take heart when Lobato admits it took a month to write the first five lines of the series. The writer, who was already working with Pina on Spanish prison drama Vis a Vis (Locked Up), says El Casa de Papel was “a leap into the unknown.”

“We didn’t know what we were embarking on,” she says. “We started to work on a small thing, we ended it, the actors went home. All the sets were destroyed. Then Netflix picked up the series and, starting from a very small TV show, we saw how it was growing exponentially. Everything we did, we did with love. We were just trying to make something entertaining and good to watch.”

Throughout its 15 chapters (re-edited into 22 on Netflix), the series is notable for its fast-paced twists and turns as it juggles competing – and rising – tensions inside and outside the Royal Mint, where the robbers and the police both face a race against time to achieve their aims. Pina says his ambition was to create a “frantic” TV show, noting: “We didn’t want it to get boring, so we wanted to give reasons for the audience to stay with us and keep watching the show. That’s why every five or 10 minutes, lots of powerful things happen. We wanted to open up the series and the plot, even though it was developing in a closed space.”

Úrsula Corberó as Tokyo, one of several prominent female characters

More important than the plot, however, is the band of morally ambiguous characters – all given city codenames, like Tokyo – at the centre of the story. While on the surface this appears to be a story of good versus evil, pitting the police against a group of career criminals, characters on both sides of the fence are not as you initially perceive them to be.

“All the characters, they are anti-heroes, antagonists. And as the plot develops, the audience realises they are very relatable,” says Pina. “That’s how the audience becomes addicted to the characters, because of the way they are developed. There’s no good or bad; it’s up to the audience to decide. Taking the audience from one side of the moral spectrum to another also marks the success of the series.”

It is arguably Berlin (Pedro Alonso), in particular, who changes the most, shifting from the crazed ringleader inside the Royal Mint and the Professor’s right-hand man to become one of the series’ most loved characters.

“People ask me how can you create a character who is so likeable but who started being so oppressing,” Lobato says, noting the character’s initial treatment of the hostages. “The audience can understand depth of character because it develops over a number of episodes. We’re trying to cover the whole moral spectrum and turn good people evil and vice versa. Tokyo starts as an anti-hero and becomes a lovely girl. Monica starts as a secretary and by the end she has a gun in her hand. That’s what makes the series so entertaining.”

The drama was originally ordered by Spain’s Antena 3

It’s an approach that is employed for every character in the series, with shades of light and dark applied to each so they are both relatable and immoral at various moments of the series, from the scheming yet charismatic Professor and the strong yet vulnerable Raquel to each member of the gang holed up inside the Royal Mint.

“We spent a lot of time to find how Nairobi [Alba Flores] speaks and Berlin walks – all those details that construct the identity and DNA of the show,” Pina says. “They’re multi-dimensional characters, they’re always changing and are complementary to one another. That’s what makes the audience stay with the characters and why we present them in another light. We provide a poetic dimension to allow them to develop throughout the plot. If we have a violent character, we want to add some tenderness.”

Lobato picks up: “One of the things we kept in mind when we started work every day was the audience. They are smart and are consuming more fiction. They are becoming experts. Before, we were asking ourselves if the audience was watching TV, but now the question has changed. They choose what to see, so that has affected our choices as well.”

The show’s two-part structure was born out of financial necessity, Pina reveals, admitting “we didn’t have a lot of money.” Production was split between shooting scenes featuring the Professor and the police with one unit and events inside the Royal Mint with another.

The show’s third season will air next year

“That’s how it was viable,” Pina says. “It was created in five months. We started writing and each week we delivered the script. Production was a race against the clock.”

While seasons one and two make up one complete story – earning a Golden Nymph award for best drama TV series at the Monte Carlo Television Festival earlier this month – with a solid resolution to the events that have taken place during the series, Netflix has ordered a third season that will see the Professor develop new heists. It is set to air in 2019.

And when it comes to potential spin-offs, Pina says that’s for the streamer to discuss. “They’re very happy with it and believe it has lots of possibilities,” he says. “They believe that either Berlin or Tokyo can have their own universe, but I don’t have any more information. It could possibly work back in time; it could be a prequel.

“Berlin is going to appear in the third season,” Pina adds. “Berlin will have a big universe before the heist because he was already a professional robber. La Casa de Papel is the end of his story but we have lots to tell about him.”

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Into The Pit

The writer and the executive producer behind Turkish crime drama Çukur (The Pit) tell DQ about the series, which mixes themes of love, family and community in the story of a man who returns to his old neighbourhood to become head of a criminal clan.

Turkish drama Çukur (The Pit) tells the story of Yamaç, a young man from the influential Koçova family that rules over Çukur, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Istanbul. When he meets Sena, they fall in love and get married – but when the family he thought he had left behind comes between them, Sena follows Yamaç back to Çukur where he takes up his new role as head of the family.

Produced by Ay Yapim and distributed internationally by Inter Medya, the drama stars Aras Bulut Iynemli as Yamaç, with Dilan Çiçek Deniz as Sena. It is due to return for a second season on Turkey’s Show TV this autumn.

Following Çukur’s official international launch at MipTV this spring, Inter Medya has sold the series into Northern Iraq, Afghanistan and Georgia. It is also set to air in Chile.

Here, scriptwriter Gökhan Horzum and executive producer Yamac Okur tell DQ about making the series.

Gökhan Horzum

How would you describe the story?
Gökhan Horzum, scriptwriter: The Pit is basically the story of a family. This family does not just include the mother, father and children. It is a neighbourhood based on values such as fraternity, solidarity and unconditional commitment. The neighbourhood earns its money from crime. The focus is on a young man who is trying to protect his family; who does everything to protect his family. Although the genre is seen as crime, it is blended with romance, excitement, intrigue and a dose of comedy.

What are the key elements of the show?
Horzum: The story is based on a father whose past is full of conflict. He has paved his way through crime and is not afraid to commit acts of violence for his family and community. He raises his sons so that one day they can replace him. However, the youngest son refuses to be a part of this life, and leaves the house. But what happens if this son has to return to seize the inheritance?
A woman who comes from a traumatic family, all alone and dishevelled, meets a man who really loves her for the first time and falls in love. She has to leave behind the life she knows and go with the love of her life so he can become the leader of a criminal family.
A lonely man plans revenge on someone who has abandoned him all his life. As time matures, he takes action. But what happens when he finds out that everything he thought was right until today has a completely different background and, in addition, meets his childhood love?

Tell us about your writing process.
Horzum: At first, I searched for pictures of contrast. A modern figure who plays punk or rock on stage in a bar; and another, traditional, figure holding prayer beads, with a typical Turkish suit – a man who everyone calls the ‘father.’ Then I tried to find ‘injured’ characters. These are characters who still carry scars from various traumas.
Even if it seems that they are pursuing a common goal, they only pursue their own goals. I’ve tried to bring those who have wounds together with those who have misplaced them. Then I stepped into their shoes and tried to intervene as little as possible.

How are the storylines featuring the Koçova family and Yamaç and Sena intertwined?
Horzum: Initially, Yamaç was a man who was away from his family and played rock music in a bar at the weekend. He did not know what to expect from life. He met Sena. They fell in love and clung to each other. Sena has no roots, while Yamaç rejects his roots – until the day he finds out that his family is on the verge of disappearing, so Yamaç has to return, taking Sena with him. If all went well, they have would left, but that doesn’t happen. They both fall into the ‘pit.’

Yamac Okur

How did you work with the director to create the style of the series?
Yamac Okur, executive producer: We had worked with the director, Sinan Ozturk, previously on our TV series Insider. He was the director of the second unit. The Pit is his first TV series as a director. At the beginning, we had the general story of the first season and the scripts for four episodes. Each year there are more than 100 TV series produced in Turkey; only a dozen of them are successful enough to finish a season. The duration of one episode in Turkey is approximately 120 to 130 minutes. So our first aim is to attract the audience to the show and then make them to stay with it by having a fast rhythm and fast editing with lots of cuts. We watched more than 1,000 auditions and at the end we cast the most talented actors who would work best for the characters. Our team is also very talented. Composer Toygar Isikli, editor Serdar Cakular, DoP Tolga Kutluay and art director Oya Koseoglu, who we worked previously (The Insider, Karadayi, Ezel), contributed a lot towards making a unique style for The Pit.

Where was the series filmed and what do the locations bring to the show?
Okur: Our main locations are in Ayvansaray and Balat, some of the oldest and most authentic neighbourhoods in Istanbul. This location choice brings the feeling of reality to the show. But we also used various locations in different parts of Istanbul. Most of the locations are real locations.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Okur: The biggest challenge is to finish shooting on time. With two units, we shoot five or six days a week for one episode. Two editors also work simultaneously. With a high production quality for a show like The Pit, you have to work with the most talented actors and crew in order to meet deadlines.

The Pit will return for a second season on Turkey’s Show TV this autumn

How does The Pit offer a fresh take on the gangster genre?
Okur: The family is at the centre of our story. Gökhan created very strong characters that are very real. The characters and the story are all fictitious, but most of the audience thought the characters were real.

How does the series compare to other Turkish dramas? What new risks did you take for a local series?
Okur: Most Turkish series use a lot of music, and so do we. Our composer, Toygar Isıkli, composed great songs, but this time we also worked with different singers who also composed songs for us. Because of the content, we used a lot of Turkish rap music and also local folk songs. Throughout the year, our songs are always at the top of music lists.
We had a lot of action scenes. We continued our relationship with our action director Ugur Yildiran (who is also one of our actors, playing Kemal). He created a Turkish style of action. In particular, having youngsters running on the rooftops was a great idea, and that worked very well in the show.

Why does the series appeal to an international audience?
Okur: I believe that if a TV series is successful in Turkey, most of the time it will also appeal to a foreign audience. Our plan is simple: to be successful in the local market. The Turkish audience also represents a great portion of the foreign audience.

What are you working on next?
Okur: We are working on the second seasons of The Pit and Stiletto Vendetta, and new TV series are on their way. We will also produce more films next year.

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Boom town

Norwegian period drama Lykkeland (State of Happiness) dramatises the true story of the country’s oil boom in 1969. Writer Mette B Bølstad and executive producer Synnøve Hørsdal tell DQ about the origins of the series and how they avoided it becoming a history lesson.

A short stroll between offices located on the banks of the Akerselva, which runs through the Norwegian capital of Oslo, proved fortuitous for screenwriter Mette M Bølstad. Before lunch, she had finished working for Monster Scripted on NRK drama Nobel, for which she would later win the best TV drama script award at the Goteborg Film Festival. After lunch, she made the quick walk next door to Maipo Film, where she agreed to write long-gestating series Lykkeland (State of Happiness).

That was in spring 2015. Three years later, Lykkeland is among the hottest new dramas coming out of Scandinavia, having scooped two awards at the inaugural Canneseries event in April this year – best music and best screenplay, with writer Bølstad again picking up the prize.

Based on the real events that changed a nation, Lykkeland is set in the summer of 1969 in the small Norwegian coastal town of Stavanger. International oil companies have been test-drilling for years, but nothing has been found and they are in the process of leaving. Phillips Petroleum, however, is contracted to drill a final hole – and on Christmas Eve 1969, the gas flare at the oil rig Ocean Viking is lit. The largest oil basin in history has been discovered, and everything is about to change.

“The story is about the oil that came to Norway,” Bølstad explains. “In a way, it’s about the beginning of modern society, so the characters are young, they’re in their early 20s. It’s a poor place. There’s not a lot of work. It’s going down. So it’s kind of like a treasure hunt in a Klondike town. It feels almost like an old Western.”

Lykkeland producer Synnøve Hørsdal at this yera’s Canneseries

Lykkeland has been in development, in one form or another, for the best part of a decade, based on an idea by Maipo CEO Synnøve Hørsdal and Siv Rajendram Eliassen. But when Bølstad joined the project, it accelerated towards production. Filming wrapped in December last year at the end of a 105-day shoot and, after the first two episodes debuted in Cannes this month, it will launch on Norwegian broadcaster NRK this autumn. DR Sales is handling international distribution.

“We had talked about it and I was very interested in the subject matter, and also because I quite like doing television,” Bølstad says of joining the series, having worked with Hørsdal on various projects previously. “You know this is something you’re going to live with for three years, at least, so it needs to be something that’s appealing – and that has to be the subject matter, not the way in which you tell the story. That’s just the job. But I thought this was something I wanted to know about, so I could spend a lot of time on it. It was the combination of being at Maipo and working with something I wanted to do.”

The series follows the stories of four main characters – the town mayor’s secretary, a diver, an American lawyer and a woman from a deeply religious family – and how their lives are transformed, for better or worse, by the oil strike.

But Hørsdal plays down any descriptions of Lykkeland as Norway’s Mad Men, owing to its 1960s setting and fashion, noting that his series plays closer to the characters and the universal dilemmas they face.

“The main thing is that we don’t do anything that isn’t affected by the oil,” she says. “We don’t have scenes that are not linked to the oil. The main thing is that you don’t do a backdrop story – it’s not playing out in front of the coal miners’ strike. You need to be part of it. You need to move the world in that way.

The drama focuses on how oil changed Norway

“It was difficult to do young people like that and put them in important arenas without it being a construction. So that was quite a big job in the beginning. It was just getting them in the right place so it made sense, and then you could start telling the story.”

Set in the coastal town of Stavanger, it is a story specific to its setting and time. The series attempts to balance the family stories with what was happening in wider society during that period, without making it overly political and, most importantly, preventing the eight-part drama from becoming a history lesson.

“It is such an elegant way of having a drama in a historical setting without it being a history lesson or being too political,” says Hørsdal. “It is about the choices you make that matter, that your vote matters and it’s you as individuals who make the society you live in. It’s not someone else. Somewhere down there, this is the message. At this time, at that place, it was a bit easier to see that some of the choices they made had a tremendous impact on the rest of Norway. And different choices could have been made as well; things could have been really different.”

Around a third of the production was filmed on location in Stavanger, where the producers wanted to capture the unique landscapes and the town’s specific dialect. Further exterior and interior scenes were captured in Oslo and further afield in Belgium.

“It’s not a show that has one location we always go back to, so we jump quite a lot,” Hørsdal explains. “The line producer and the production manager spent two months working out the schedule. We have done TV before but nothing as big as this.”

Lykkeland’s creators emphasise that, despite the shared time period, the show is not ‘Norway’s Mad Men’

Filming also took place on a real oil rig in a fjord close to Bergen, further up the coast, before it was to be taken away for recycling. Visual effects then placed it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We had to change some of the crew because some of them had vertigo and it was tough to get up onto the rig,” Hørsdal reveals. “For me personally, shooting in Stavanger and the landscape where it actually took place was one of the biggest moments. I really felt like it was the real thing.”

Season one runs from 1969 until 1972, while a potential season two, which is already in development, is set to jump forward five years to 1977.

“Mette is already writing season two,” says Hørsdal, who envisions the series reaching the present day over five seasons. “She’s a fantastic writer to work with. She’s extremely good at taking a specific scene or setting and making it relevant to the characters.”

She adds: “We’re ready for season two. We started developing it quite a while ago. The way this drama is made is moulded. We can go into production quite quickly and we’re really ready to do another season. There’s lots more material.”

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Double act

From the creators and executive producers of Castle comes crime procedural Take Two, starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian.

Bilson (Hart of Dixie) stars as Sam Swift, the former star of a hit cop series who suffers a breakdown and heads to rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she begins to shadow private investigator Eddie Valetik (Cibrian, Rosewood) to research a potential comeback role.

Though Eddie resents babysitting Sam, she uses her acting skills to prove herself surprisingly valuable.

In this DQTV video, Miller and Marlowe talk about how the series mixes a case-of-the-week structure with lightly serialised elements that allow viewers to learn more about the central pair.

They also reveal the international route Take Two took to win a commission and discuss why procedurals are still in fashion despite the rise of serialised storytelling.

In addition, cast members Aliyah O’Brien (Detective Christine Rollins) and Xavier de Guzman (Roberto ‘Berto’ Vasquez) offer their take on their characters and the appeal of the series.

Take Two is produced by Tandem Productions and MilMar Pictures in coproduction with ABC Studios for ABC in the US, Germany’s VOX and France 2. It is distributed by StudioCanal.

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Special delivery

From explosions and gunfights to a simple rain shower, special effects can be found in every scene of a television drama. DQ visits SFX experts Artem to discover some of the secrets of the trade.

The explosions are deafening. Three people are walking together across a small patch of grass, surrounded by a cacophony of booms, bangs and crashes as fire and smoke fill the air around them.

The ‘battlefield’ recreation is the climax of a stunning display of special effects created and performed by the team at Artem. The crowd that gathered for the 30-year-old company’s open-day demonstration also saw willing volunteers punch through ‘concrete’ walls, reproduced with a highly realistic material called Softcrete; have a ‘glass’ vase smashed over their head; and shot, leaving blood packs to empty their contents through puncture wounds in their clothes created by remote-controlled detonations.

UK viewers will already have seen some of Artem’s work on screen, with the company having contributed effects to shows such as Sky’s supernatural series The Enfield Haunting, BBC true crime drama Rillington Place and ITV’s domestic drama Him. The firm also created an exploding Christmas pudding for a festive episode of BBC period drama Call the Midwife.

Many examples of Artem’s work are also on display around its West London workshop, from a towering model of Master Chief from the Xbox Halo games to robotic versions of Brian the Robot and the Churchill dogs from some well-known insurance adverts.

A gunfire demonstration at Artem’s recent open evening

Particularly impressive are the items found in the sculpting and moulding department, where there are exquisitely detailed bricks made from foam, propane tanks that can be lifted with one hand and marmalade sandwiches that featured in recent big-screen hit Paddington 2.

On a nearby table are a prosthetic heart, brains and a piece of a lung. There is also a full-scale model of a corpse from Macbeth, the 2015 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Michael Fassbender.

Leading the demonstration is Artem CEO Mike Kelt, who puts himself in the firing line by accompanying two visitors through the battlefield experience.

Kelt and his fellow company founders Simon Taylor and Stan Mitchell formed the business after leaving the SFX department at the BBC, where they had learned their craft –everything from prosthetics to fire and explosions. Initially planning to focus on television, the company soon started working on commercials and has since moved into film, live events, music videos, games and visitor attractions.

Their recent work includes building a full-size replica of one of the panels of the Elgin Marbles for FX drama Trust, making a sculpture for a Google ad, and using its ‘rollover rig’ (pictured top) – which can turn a set upside down – to film the music video for Lily Allen’s recently released single Lost My Mind.

A member of the Artem team operates Churchill, star of an insurer’s ad campaign

Artem – whose motto is Ars est celare artem (Art is to conceal art) – was also involved in forthcoming BBC1 drama Bodyguard, which sees Richard Madden play protector to Keeley Hawes’s home secretary in a six-part action drama created by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty).

“That was quite fun,” Kelt reveals. “We did various things. One of the more interesting and challenging things in the script was a bomb goes off in an auditorium, and they wanted to have people very close to it. We built a section of the stage that was breakable and we put all the pyrotechnics below that, so when it went off, the stage erupted. They wanted it to be quite realistic, so it’s not just a big fireball – it’s a more a high-explosive dust cloud. We set that off and it was great.

“There’s also a sequence where they’re in an armoured limousine with two-inch-thick glass. It’s very difficult to puncture that with a real bullet unless you keep hitting the very same spot, but they didn’t want to damage the glass. In fact, it wasn’t an armoured car at all. It was just an ordinary car, so we had to come up with the means of firing something at it that made it look like the glass had shattered. So that was quite interesting. It was all physical effects – making a little robot to run around defusing bombs and that sort of thing.”

Despite both the advancement of and demand for SFX in television today, Kelt notes that budgets haven’t improved greatly, though he adds there is interest from the US in making series in the UK and taking advantage of local effects houses.

“An awful lot of things you end up doing are things you wouldn’t realise are effects when you watch the show,” says Kelt. “You might make a rain effect but you don’t want the audience to know it’s a rain effect. You just want them to accept it’s rain. That’s actually quite a challenge because you can do it badly if you want to. However, you’re doing it, you always want a challenge. Rain is something most people would think isn’t fun, but I look at it and think, ‘What exactly do we want, how should it feel and look and how can we make that happen in a good way?’ That’s what I like to do.”

Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes in Bodyguard

Artem employs 33 people full-time, with more on standby throughout the year, while it also has a second workshop in Glasgow, Scotland. But with SFX increasingly advanced and in greater demand, Kelt highlights a lack of skilled people available to work on Artem’s projects.

“The industry has expanded and there’s more stuff being done, but people have retired and the BBC isn’t there training people as it used to,” he says. “There is an issue about training and experience, so very often you’ll be working on a production and they really don’t know what is required, or they’re not sure. So you have to be very flexible and help, but it’s nice to be involved in that and come up with solutions.”

Internally, Kelt and his partners are helping to ensure those coming up through the company will be able to take it forward when those who have been there from the start head into retirement. Before then, however, he is still looking at ways to expand Artem in the UK and internationally.

“It could grow a lot bigger than it is if people wanted it to,” he adds. “It would be nice to have branches in Manchester and Cardiff, and maybe even something abroad. It’s getting out of the small company mindset and into the big company mindset. It would also be quite nice to have a training arm because very few people do training in this industry and I think there’s a real need for it.”

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Making Melrose

Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.

Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.

Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.

The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.

In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose

The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”

There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.

“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.

For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.

“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.

The Sky Atlantic and Showtime series also stars Hugo Weaving

“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”

The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.

“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”

One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.

Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.

The show comprises five episodes, covering the five Patrick Melrose books

“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”

Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.

“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.

“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.

“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”

Get Out’s Allison Williams is part of the ensemble cast

Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.

“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.

“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”

Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”

The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”

Patrick Melrose is directed by Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror)

“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”

Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”

Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”

Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.

“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”

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A Blueprint for Scandal

Former EastEnders showrunner Dominic Treadwell-Collins talks to DQ about bringing together Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw for A Very English Scandal, the first production from Blueprint Television.

If there’s such a thing as an easy commission, A Very English Scandal might be it. Take a previously untold story based on a bestselling book and add writer Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Cucumber), throw in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and add Hugh Grant (Notting Hill, Love Actually) in the lead role and it’s little wonder the BBC quickly commissioned the three-part drama.

The person who pulled the project together is Dominic Treadwell-Collins, best known as a two-time showrunner on EastEnders. Treadwell-Collins left the British soap in 2016 to set up Blueprint Television, the small-screen arm of film producer Blueprint Pictures, which was recently behind Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

“It’s nice that this is the first thing for me after EastEnders,” Treadwell-Collins says, joking that he was “broken” by the time he left the show. “I just needed to get into a bit of development and pause a bit. Even then, we got this greenlit within nine months. What I set up to do with A Very English Scandal was mix someone like Russell – an amazing TV writer – with Stephen Frears, an amazing film director, because that’s the way a lot of TV is going at the moment. It feels like we’ve achieved that.”

A Very English Scandal, which is coproduced with Amazon Prime Video in the US, tells the shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. In his first television role since the 1990s, Grant plays disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, who in 1979 was tried but acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw).

A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw

The drama begins in the late 1960s when homosexuality had recently been decriminalised. Thorpe, leader of the Liberal party, fears his career is at risk as long as former lover Scott is around. Thorpe schemes and deceives – until he can see only one way to silence Scott for good. Thorpe’s trial changed society forever, illuminating the darkest secrets of the establishment.

Blueprint had picked up the rights to Preston’s novel before Treadwell-Collins joined the company, so he had some reading material to hand during his three-week break between leaving EastEnders and joining the fledgling production company, which is backed by Sony Pictures Television, the distributor of the miniseries. But what he expected be a “dry political scandal” surprised him with its funny and farcical tone, its unbelievable-but-true plotlines and the human relationship at its core.

Working with a public broadcaster, in this case the BBC, meant every detail in the script had to be scrutinised and backed up by three different sources. But that hasn’t stopped the series attracting as many headlines now as the scandal did 40 years ago, with some claiming the show represents certain characters unfairly. Police have also reopened the case of the failed assassination after discovering a key suspect, previously thought to have died, is still alive.

“That’s always part and parcel of doing factual drama,” Treadwell-Collins notes of the controversy surrounding the way some real-life figures have been portrayed. “That’s always going to happen. The thing we’ve been very firm about from the beginning was it’s A Very English Scandal based on the book by John Preston. That is our primary source material and, because his book has been out there in the public domain, we haven’t deviated from that.”

Director Stephen Frears on set, with producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins (in glasses) behind

But it remains the case that factual drama is riding the crest of a popularity wave on television, with recent hits including American Crime Story’s focus on the OJ Simpson trial and then the assassination of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, British crime drama Little Boy Blue and Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country.

“There’s something quite nice about having the authenticity and also truth being stranger than fiction,” Treadwell-Collins says. “They just bring you in and there’s a huge appetite for stories but particularly true stories that people don’t know about. That’s what’s exciting.”

Within a large ensemble cast that also features Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Monica Dolan, Adrian Scarborough and Jason Watkins, it is Grant and Whishaw’s partnership that carries the drama through Thorpe and Scott’s relationship, from early infatuation to bitter conclusion, while the tone rises and falls between humour and farce and tender emotional moments.

That balancing act could only have been managed by one writer, says Treadwell-Collins, who immediately took the project to Davies. “He was the first person I went to, the only person I went to, because Russell has that tone of jauntiness and then can punch you in the stomach with emotion, and that’s what it needed,” he explains, adding that the writer initially turned the project down. “He’d heard of the Jeremy Thorpe story but said he was too busy. I sent him the book anyway and he emailed me two days later and I’d got him. He’d read the first few pages and thought, ‘I’ve got to do this. I don’t want anyone else to do this story.’

“Russell got that balance just right and putting him with Stephen, he’s such a human director. He’s added these private moments of Jeremy, such as when he’s looking in the mirror before he goes to face a hoard of journalists, and he really made you feel Norman and Jeremy’s story all the way through. That’s what has chimed with the audience.”

Grant, as MP Jeremy Thorpe, receives direction from Frears

Frears, who would give notes on each script, spent lots of time with Davies talking over the central relationship between Thorpe and Scott, speaking to people whose lives were affected by the story. The production team also met relatives of the characters in an effort to present fully rounded portraits of the characters on screen.

Grant and Whishaw also did their own research and spent time rehearsing with Frears before committing their performances to camera. Grant even learned to play the violin for a scene in episode one in which Thorpe performs for Scott alongside Thorpe’s mother (Hodge) on the piano. The actor shared the view of Treadwell-Collins, Davies and Frears that his performance should not be an imitation of Thorpe, and that he should instead try to embody the real-life politician.

Filming took place around the UK, from Wales and Devon to London and the Home Counties surrounding the capital. The interiors of the Houses of Parliament were recreated at Manchester Town Hall, while a Devon beach doubled for California.

For Treadwell-Collins, making the series was a far cry from his experience on EastEnders. The long-running soap airs four times a week, has a cast of more than 40 actors and employs hundreds of crew, with Treadwell-Collins on call 24/7 in case any problems arose.

“It was insane, I loved it, but you’ve got to love a show like that to run it properly,” he recalls, adding that he is now enjoying building his own slate of dramas. These include “other scandals,” an adaptation of chatshow host Graham Norton’s novel Holding and an adaptation of Israeli drama Fauda, to which Blueprint has secured the remake rights.

Whishaw plays Norman Scott, the former lover Thorpe wanted dead

The producer has also teamed up with Grantchester writer Daisy Coulam for what he describes as “a period female Bond series with a bit of Hollywood sparkle,” while he also plans to reinvent the British period drama for the 21st century.

A Very English Scandal, which is available on BBC iPlayer and launches on Amazon in the US on June 29, could be a tough act to follow, however, both in terms of its A-list creative talent and the five-star reviews it has received. But Treadwell-Collins remains undaunted.

“What’s been nice for our first Blueprint Television production is it’s Russell T Davies, Stephen Frears, Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant,” he concludes. “We’re putting our flag in and saying this is the mark of quality we will keep to.

“We’re not just going to make something for the sake of making television or just looking at it as the fact we’re making money. Everything we believe in and we love. That’s the way Blueprint make their films and the way we’re making television. It’s a really exciting place to be.”

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Liberté Égalité Nudité

Characters lose their privacy – and their clothes – in French drama Nu (Nude), set in a near-future France where a new law dictates that everyone must be naked. DQ chats to the cast and creative team behind the series about its unusual setting and the real-world issues at its heart.

Science-fiction series have dealt with a gamut of themes and visions of the future, from space travel and life-changing technologies to dystopian societies and alternative histories. But it’s hard to recall a show that posits a world in which everyone has been forced to discard their clothes and go about their lives stark naked.

That’s the very idea put forward in Nu (Nude), a 10×30′ French drama commissioned by OTT platform OCS. Set in 2026, it takes place in a world where a radical change in the law sees everyone living naked in a pacified and peaceful France.

So far so unlikely, yet the show’s premise was inspired by reality. Series creator Olivier Fox, a Parisian, lives close to where several people were shot during the November 2015 terrorist attack on the French capital – and on seeing the aftermath, when swathes of police and military officials decamped to the streets, he looked for a way to remove the threat of similar attacks in the future.

“Then I had the strange idea that everyone is naked, as a way to improve security and have less violence on the streets,” Fox tells DQ. “It was a way to take all the fear and anger away – this is the French response to violence. The US response was The Purge [a film franchise in which all crimes, including murder, are legal for one night a year].”

In this particular future, however, the UK remains fully clothed as a result of Brexit.

Satya Dusaugey plays a police officer who wakes from a coma to find nudity enforced by law

Of course, the fact everybody is naked is a metaphor for the issues at the heart of the series. How much do we need to know about everybody? How far would society go to protect itself from harm?

“For me, it’s about tolerance,” Fox says. “Do we have to know everything about everybody? Do we have to keep secrets? To avoid terrorism, we have to know everything about everybody and know what they do. Maybe if we were naked and if people could see everything, maybe there would be less violence. Maybe it would improve security.”

Fox shared his idea with Arnaud Figaret, a producer at Capa Drama (Versailles, Braquo), who backed the show. “I love it,” Figaret says of Nu’s concept. “We are always looking for writers who are thinking outside the box. This is really out of the box and that’s why it was exciting to do. But we wouldn’t have done it if it was just naked people; it was more interesting because it had meaning about dictatorship in French society. It had to make sense, otherwise it’s just showing people naked and we wouldn’t have lasted two episodes.”

Fox wrote the first draft of Nu in March 2016, with shooting beginning the following September in the town of Montévrain on the outskirts of Paris. The production schedule was completed in just 24 days, with up to 12 minutes of on-screen material recorded each day.

Featuring full nudity in every episode, it was always going to be a challenge to find a platform willing to broadcast the series, with traditional broadcasters such as TF1 and France Télévisions unlikely to greenlight such a programme. Thankfully, however, OCS opted to snap it up. The deal with the streamer gave the creative team total freedom to make the show they wanted, though it came with a modest budget of €100,000 per episode, which informed the tight filming schedule.

The idea for the show came to Olivier Fox after terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015

“If it was airing on a channel like TF1 or the BBC in primetime, the nudity would probably be a problem but OCS is an OTT platform that has subscribers who are watching Game of Thrones and stuff like that,” explains Figaret. “There’s no sex, just nudity. We didn’t want any because we didn’t want any confusion – it’s a regular show but they’re naked. There’s nothing that should make people feel uncomfortable. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to watch it. It’s not something that comes to you. You have to look for the show.”

If finding a broadcaster represented the first hurdle, the second must surely have been amassing a cast willing to bare all on camera. But while Fox admits he thought the prospect would be “impossible,” he adds: “We sent all the scripts to the agents and had a very good response from them. All the actors knew they would be naked. We had some well-known actors wanting to do it too, which was very surprising for us.”

Figaret picks up: “The quality of the writing meant people understood this show was not just about being naked. We thought it would be very difficult but we had actors who have been on stage and acted naked and didn’t mind doing it as long as it had some meaning. It was very strange but easy to cast. Everybody was just excited about doing something different.”

Taking up the lead roles are Satya Dusaugey and Malya Roman, who play police officers investigating the mystery at the centre of the story. In this new, nude world, tensions begin to rise with the discovery of a man found murdered – and fully clothed.

Sent to investigate is Roman’s Lucie, a young inspector who teams up with her ex-partner, Frank Fish (Dusaugey), who has just woken up from an eight-year coma that began when everyone was still wearing clothes. A Fish out of water, you might say.

The series was shot in just 24 days

Nu is Roman’s first television role, something she describes as “very scary but a great experience.” She admits she found the idea of the show “a bit crazy” but loved Fox’s scripts. “I thought it was an unusual way to show naked bodies on TV and not in a sexual way,” she says.

In the series, sold internationally by Newen Distribution, Lucie is a supporter of France’s new ‘transparency’ laws – an attitude that puts her at odds with Frank, who is struggling to adjust to his new world.

“At first she really thinks it will help society and make a better world,” Roman says. “But as the story goes, she realises it’s not that easy or true or real. So she realises that it’s not as good as she thought. There are many questions in this. How far are you willing to go for the truth and transparency? Myself, I think a world where everybody is naked would be awful. I like my privacy.”

In contrast to Lucie, Frank was a man who, until his accident, enjoyed power and loved nobody but himself, Dusaugey says. “Then he’s completely lost in this new world. He wants to go back to his life before. He doesn’t want to adapt to this new society.

“Lucie is the opposite of him. She’s very authentic and honest. She wants to know the truth and thinks this new society is the truth. These two characters are going to change but in two different directions.”

No prizes for guessing what ‘vetements non’ means

Dusaugey says the first moments on set were “difficult, but after 10 minutes you forget it,” adding that after three weeks, it was “boring” to see naked bodies. “What I learned on this show was it’s not sexual. The body is not very exciting for me. I like that there’s clothing in the world. You have something to take off when you are with your girlfriend. It’s not very nice to see every day. After several days, to be naked was like wearing a costume.”

Roman agrees the first scene on camera was awkward, but adds: “Everybody was so kind and respectful so everybody was like, ‘OK, I’m going naked.’ It was easy to forget my own body but difficult to act natural in front of my naked partners. It was crazy but fun.”

Looking back, Roman says there is one scene that was particularly memorable: “I was in a forest naked and I was very cold. It was raining and that moment will stay in my head for the rest of my life. If there’s one image I’ll keep, it’s me looking at myself naked in the middle of the woods.”

Fox is under no illusions that Nu, which launches this Thursday, will stand apart from anything else on television. “It’s so different from anything else we have seen,” he concludes. “You see all the operations during the investigation but they’re naked. But what we tried to do was make a real show with real story and real characters. It’s something you have never seen before.”

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Palace life

As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.

For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.

The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+  series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.

The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.

The 10-part final season of Versailles begins tonight in the UK on BBC2

“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”

That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.

“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.

“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”

Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.

Big-budget drama Versailles’ international success caught its makers by surprise

“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.

“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”

Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”

But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.

The costume choices for Versailles involved a great deal of in-depth research by Madeline Fontaine

“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”

When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.

“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”

Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”

Fontaine was careful that characters’ costume changes evolved in stages

The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.

“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”

Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.

“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.

Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, had a huge impact on the arts

“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”

Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.

With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”

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Midsomer love-in

Airing in more than 200 countries, Midsomer Murders is celebrating its 20th season on television this year. DQ visits the set of the popular crime drama, which boasts some of the strangest deaths on screen.

At its heart, Midsomer Murders can be described as a traditional murder mystery – but there’s nothing orthodox about the way the show’s plethora of victims meet their grisly end. The long-running British drama, which ushers in a remarkable 20th season in 2018, has seen victims drown in a cauldron of soup, electrocuted while riding an exercise bike and poisoned by a tropical frog.

Even more bizarre was the death of a woman crushed by a wheel of cheese, while another killing was the work of a headless horseman. One man died after being hit by bottles of vintage wine while he was pinned to the ground as a human target.

But that’s part of the charm of the long-running series, which delicately blends stories of serious crimes and its light-hearted tone to concoct an antidote to the darker, more brutal crime series on television.

It also continues to strike a chord around the world, with the new season of the ITV series already picked up by ABC (Australia), DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), SVT (Sweden), VRT (Belgium), Sky (New Zealand) and Acorn Media (US). LA 7 (Italy), Fox (Portugal), RSI (Switzerland), ZDF (Germany) and France TV, meanwhile, have renewed their long-running deals for the show with distributor All3Media International.

“My personal favourite was [season 16’s] Wild Harvest, where a man is tied to a tree, covered in truffle oil and eaten alive by wild boar,” reveals leading actor Neil Dudgeon, who has played DCI John Barnaby for the last seven years. “It’s not the sort of thing where you think, ‘That could have been me.’ It’s a really twisted and bizarre way of killing someone but it’s kind of fun. We’ve never gone in with people getting bashed over the head with a shovel. Mostly the writers try to come up with the most exotic deaths they can, which I think is part of the fun of the show.”

Midsomer Murders stars Neil Dudgeon and Nick Hendrix during filming

It is a sunny June 2017 day at a secluded building, surrounded by woods, on the outskirts of north-west London when DQ finds the Midsomer cast and crew preparing to shoot the final scenes of season 20’s third episode, Drawing Dead, which centres on a comic-book convention featuring scores of new superheroes imagined by writer Jeff Povey. There are no capes or masks here, however, as DCI Barnaby and DS Jamie Winter (played by Nick Hendrix) have joined new pathologist Dr Fleur Perkins (Annette Badland) in the lab to discuss her forensic findings after examining the latest victim’s body.

“We generally finish in the police station and mortuary, which is a good thing because it usually just involves me and Nick explaining the plot to each other,” Dudgeon jokes. “On odd occasions, we’ve had to do the police station stuff at the beginning of the episode, which is a bit of a car crash because we haven’t been to any of the locations, we haven’t seen any of the murder scene or met the other characters. We’re just explaining something we’ve barely got a handle on. So doing it at the end is much preferred.

“We’ve spent most of the last two weeks on a lovely village green with a big marquee and various stalls and stands with extras all dressed up as new superheroes we’ve invented for the purpose of the show. All these people come to this village where they celebrate all things comics and this terrible thing happens. Then while we’re on the trail, somebody else bites the dust.”

Dudgeon describes Midsomer, set in the fictional eponymous county, as a police show that’s less about the police and more about the characters the detectives meet during their investigation, each with something to hide. “Everybody’s got secrets but only one person is lying about the fact they’re actually the murderer, and that feeds Barnaby’s interest in all of the characters,” the actor explains. “I’ve always liked that the police aren’t very interesting. [Creator] Betty Willingale’s idea was for an antidote to the police shows of the time where it was about having an interesting policeman, whereas this is not – he’s not an interesting policeman, he’s happily married, goes out to work and investigates murders, then goes home and puts his feet up.”

Dudgeon joined the series to replace original star John Nettles, who played DCI Tom Barnaby (John Barnaby’s cousin, owing to the fact the series is known as Inspector Barnaby in many overseas territories) for 13 seasons. Between them, they have worked alongside several partners, with Hendrix joining the main cast ahead of season 19. His move to Midsomer came as the actor sought to step into a leading role, having previously appeared in The Crown and Marcella.

Dudgeon says his favourite death in the series is in season 16 when a man is eaten alive by a wild boar

“It’s a fun job and every episode’s different – every four weeks you get a new group of actors, a new story, locations and fun things to do,” Hendrix says. “It has to have jeopardy but, whereas in a gritty drama I’d jump out of the way of something, hit my head and knock myself out, in this I’m face-down in manure. This particular season is quite a lot funnier and the producers have encouraged us to embrace that tongue-in-cheek humour a little bit more. There is a line, because it’s still murder, it’s still crime, but they’ve embraced that fun side of it, which is what I think people love about the show.”

For executive producer Jonathan Fisher, who joined the Bentley Productions show in September 2016, Midsomer Murders is underscored by its great sense of theatricality, best seen in the various deaths invented for the show. He’s also keen to keep pushing the idiosyncrasies of the characters that appear in each episode to create an eccentric, larger-than-life ensemble.

Early in the development of each episode, Fisher will meet with the writer to discuss story ideas, usually beginning with the world the episode is set in. As well as a comic-book convention, season 20’s six episodes include a monastery that has been converted into a brewery, a chocolatier and somewhere the producer describes as a cross between a circus and a pig farm.

“We like to have a specific world per episode,” he says. “We try not to repeat where possible and we’ve got Ian Strachan, the coproducer who has been on the show for 18 years, who’s fantastic at identifying what we’ve done before. He’s a great source of knowledge for us.”

But that’s just the starting point for creating what Fisher stresses are very tautly plotted murder mysteries, each with nine or 10 potential suspects. “It’s harder than people think to get that right because they’ve all got to stay in play until the denouement at the end, so you can’t just eliminate one by one. Then we try to add some characteristic Midsomer flair and colour where possible.”

Midsomer Murders originally starred John Nettles (left), who exited the show after 13 seasons, and Daniel Casey, who left in season seven

With the trend for gritty and often brutally violent crime dramas on screen, it’s Midsomer that provides a “refreshing” alternative, Fisher believes, describing the show in terms of its escapist quality and sense of joy. “The crime drama genre is pretty crowded at the moment and we’re really set apart from that in the fun of what we do,” he continues. “At all times, murders are taking place but the thing about Midsomer is those murders can be fantastically theatrical and elaborate, and that’s something we pride ourselves on.

“I can reveal one death from season 20 – we’re going to do our first ever ‘death by chocolate.’ So our poor victim is going to have his head encased in chocolate and made to look like an Easter egg, which I think will be really good fun. The challenge for me is to get the deaths as colourful and imaginative as possible, but everything has to be underscored by an emotional truth. So we allow our killers to kill in these theatrical ways but, ultimately, come the denouement at the end, the motive has to have some emotional truth to it.”

As Dr Perkins, Badland joins the cast this season playing a pathologist she describes as a strong lady who knows her own mind and enjoys winding up DCI Barnaby and DS Winter. But she admits that she tries not to get too attached to any of the characters or guest cast members, as she doesn’t usually see them on set unless they’ve met an untimely end.

“I meet characters at the read through and then they’re dead by the time I see them again,” she deadpans. “So they’re lying on a slab or somewhere uncomfortable in the countryside. Usually they’re cold, tired, grumpy or laughing, or it’s a double for the body. That is odd because I come in and do my four or five days in a [shooting] block but the crime’s happened, so you don’t have an emotional journey. You don’t have those connections. You come in and work – she works it out.”

Fleur’s arrival is a step change for Midsomer, with Fisher explaining that those behind the show wanted to move away from the romantic frisson between previous pathologists and the detective duo, instead casting a more established actress to shake-up proceedings. “She’s got some fantastic, acerbic putdowns so I think she’s going to bring a new energy to the show,” he says of Badland’s arrival. “The scenes we’ve shot with her have been fantastic, a real treat.”

The series will have run for 122 episodes by the end of season 20, with 333 deaths up to the end of season 19 (the producers wouldn’t confirm how many more there will be this season). Nevertheless, the show’s longevity continues to surprise Dudgeon, who first signed up not knowing how many episodes he would be involved in. “It’s all got a bit out of control and it goes on and on,” he says. “They keep saying they want more and I’m powerless to resist.”

Similarly, Fisher believes there’s no reason why Midsomer can’t run for another 20 years. “The thing about Midsomer is it has a timeless quality to it, so while new trends will come and go, Midsomer remains constant and at the top of its game,” he says. “The fans love it and keep coming back to it. People do forget Midsomer is a relatively large county, so the death rate is not ridiculously high, but obviously that’s the running joke and we’re fine with that. We’ve far from run out of murder methods. There’s plenty left to go.”

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All American

In Paramount Network original series American Woman, Alicia Silverstone, Mena Suvari and Jennifer Bartels fight for their independence in 1970s LA. DQ talks to Bartels about the dramedy’s contemporary parallels and the trio of women at its heart, and discovers an alternative use of mushroom soup.

As part of the promotion for her forthcoming dramedy American Woman, actor Jennifer Bartels spent a day updating Wikipedia articles to highlight the recently revealed statistic that only 16% of the online encyclopaedia’s editors identify as women. The event is part of a campaign to empower women to raise their voices – a key theme in the Paramount Network series.

Inspired by the real-life upbringing of Kyle Richards, a star of reality series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, American Woman follows Bonnie (Alicia Silverstone), an unconventional mother struggling to raise her two daughters after leaving her husband in 1970s LA. Bonnie also comes to rely on the help of her two best friends, Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and Diana (Bartels), as they each discover their own brand of independence in a glamorous and ever-changing world.

From watching the first three episodes – the series debuts in the US on June 7 – it’s clear many of the issues in the 70s-set show are still in play four decades later, most notably surrounding Bartels’ character Diana, a bank worker trying to fulfil her ambitions in a male-dominated environment.

L-R: American Woman stars Jennifer Bartels, Mena Suvari and Alicia Silverstone

“Try working twice as hard for half the recognition and a quarter of the pay,” she tells Bonnie, as Silverstone’s character sets out to stand on her own two feet after leaving her cheating husband.

Bartels is in no doubt that many of the messages in American Woman transcend time. “1975 was a while ago but, after playing Diana and being where we are now socially, you realise so many things have changed but so many things haven’t,” she says. “I think I learned a lot. I learned about sexual harassment in the workplace and how in the 1970s it wasn’t even regarded as a real issue. So to think it now actually is, it’s cool to think of where we’ve come as women and as a society, but there are a lot of things that unfortunately need work. It’s eye-opening to see how far we’ve come but how far we have to go.”

That need for change is even more apparent today, following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that were born out of the sexual harassment scandal that swept through Hollywood last year. It was a big first step, Bartels says, but she admits more work needs to be done.

“It was really wonderful, brave and honest for women especially, and under-represented people, to come up and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me,’ and to be heard. That’s the biggest first step, but we can’t just sit with that and say, ‘OK, now we’re good, right?’ It’s something that continually needs work to create awareness so we don’t go back to that. But even as an actress in this industry, it feels like we’re walking into a new space and it feels a little more equal and a little more safe, which is great.”

Bartels was coming off ABC comedy Broken, which she co-wrote and executive produced, when she was invited to audition for the role of Diana. With Silverstone and executive producer John Wells (The West Wing, ER, Shameless) already attached and the chance to play in the 1970s, it was an opportunity the actor didn’t want to miss. John Wells Productions is behind the series in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television.

“I come from theatre and I do a lot of comedy so this is a nice stretch for me in the sense that I haven’t really flexed this muscle as much as others,” she says. “So I went in and read and it went very well, and then it kind of happened. We shot the pilot at the end of 2016 and shot and wrapped the show last summer, so it’s been a while. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, things shifted in Hollywood last year so it is so timely. It has a nice relevance to it.”

Bartels says she clicked with Silverstone (Clueless) and Suvari (American Beauty) straight away, and it’s that chemistry that holds the series together. The central premise may concern Bonnie’s journey into independence, but the 12-part show looks at all three women and how they overcome the problems they face.

Within the triumvirate, Diana immediately stands apart. Initially seemingly stuffy, boring and uptight, she portrays herself as a powerful working woman. But as the opening episodes unfold, this appearance unravels to reveal someone struggling to impose herself.

“At first, you’re like, ‘She’s strong, she’s independent, she’s assertive but aggressive,’ but I think it’s out of necessity,” Bartels explains. “There are times maybe she doesn’t want to be that way, she doesn’t want to have to work. She sells herself on the idea that she has to, so she’s going to do it and she enjoys it. But I think there are a lot of motives behind the ‘why’ and why she has to do this for her life.

Bartels plays Diana, who goes from stuffy and uptight to jumping into a pool from a rooftop

“Over time, you find everyone’s struggling to find their voice or their footing in this time period, especially as three single women. It’s interesting to see where Diana goes. It was so wonderful that they trusted me to take this character. Expect a lot of interesting choices, sexy choices. I think Diana becomes a little more comfortable in her own skin, but she has to lose herself a little bit to find that.”

The moment she loses herself can be pinpointed to a scene in episode three where, at a house party and desperate to prove she can be fun, Diana mixes cocaine and quaaludes with lots of alcohol.

“When we meet her in the pilot episode, she’s in a shell like an onion and by the third episode, you start to peel off these really luscious layers of her character,” Bartels says. “There’s a lot of pain there, and reckless behaviour usually comes out of trying to escape pain or worry. So we start to see a little more of what she’s willing to do to prove she is fun, and a lot of times it goes overboard. She really is an honest woman that’s trying to play the game the best she can in a world where the game is so unfair.”

That episode also has a standout moment for Bartels as Diana climbs onto a roof to deliver a monologue, before plunging into the swimming pool below, surfacing and immediately vomiting – in reality spewing out cold mushroom soup – in front of the watching crowd of partygoers.

“The pool scene was great. Just as an actress, it was so cool,” she says. “You crawl up eight feet and there’s a man that held me and rigged me in. He wore a blanket over himself and sat up on the roof. I do this monologue and then the stunt double actually jumped off the roof. So when it cuts back to me, I had to jump into the pool from the edge, put vomit in my mouth, swim underwater and then pop up out of the pool, swim with the stuff in my mouth, then vomit and hoist myself out. We did this take about 20 times. They made it look so fun, and it was fun. It was also a bit of an orchestrated dance to get that shot, but I’m so pleased with it. It really opens up a new layer to my character.”

American Beauty star Suvari as Kathleen

As the series progresses, Diana’s character is enhanced by her connections away from Bonnie and Kathleen, as viewers learn more about her relationship with her mother and her boss.

“There’s also some really provocative stuff they wrote for Diana that really challenged me. I felt really supported and safe to do it and I was really pleased in how it turned out, so it was great from an acting perspective,” Bartels reveals. “Diana starts off as this buttoned-up working woman and she ends up taking us for a ride and maybe losing a few buttons.”

As for the actor herself, Bartels is taking the initiative and writing her own projects that she hopes to use to create awareness of social issues and women issues. Whether she stars in those projects is not a concern, so long as she does work people can relate to.

“I also think it’s important to not wait as an actor but to write and create your own opportunities for the things you believe in or for your voice, because this town is hard. So the more hands you have in the pot, the more opportunities you have to create change – the change you want to see,” she says.

“Part of being an actor is having a voice to create change. Over the last few years, even before the movement of last year, I realised becoming more comfortable in my own skin has leant itself to realising the things I really want to tackle and write about or be attached to. That’s being relatable and inspiring others, especially women and people who have dealt with some hard stuff in life. It’s something that has really inspired me to keep going and hopefully make a difference for others.”

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Sweet success

Having turned her own novel Sweetbitter into a six-part drama for US premium cable network Starz, Stephanie Danler tells DQ about the adaptation process and why television today is following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens.

From the moment US cable network Starz revealed it was developing a six-part drama called Sweetbitter, it’s fair to say the production has been on the fast track to broadcast. That first announcement came in July 2017, three months before the series got the greenlight last October. Filming wrapped before Christmas and the show subsequently launched on air earlier this month.

Stephanie Danler

Seeing the show’s debut marked the end of a whirlwind few months for Stephanie Danler, the author of the book on which the show is based and an executive producer on the series. She also wrote two of the six episodes, including the pilot, and has been heavily involved in its development alongside showrunner Stu Zicherman (The Americans, The Affair) and Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Starz distributes the show, which is now also available in the UK and Germany, after Amazon added Starzplay to its Prime Video Channels line-up, alongside other series such as Vida and Boss. 

It wasn’t the author’s original intention to shepherd the project into production but she admits her fingerprints are all over it, having worked with Zicherman to rewrite every script to ensure continuity.

“I originally thought I would take the money and go back to writing novels but it was an opportunity to transition into a screenwriter and producer and I thought I would be an idiot to turn down a free education in television making, especially from the calibre of people I was working with,” Danler tells DQ. “Who wouldn’t want to learn from Plan B or Stu Vickerman, or from the executives at Starz? I approached it as a free PhD.”

Sweetbitter follows 22-year-old Tess (played by British actor Ella Purnell) who, shortly after arriving in New York City, lands a job at a celebrated downtown restaurant. Swiftly introduced to the world of drugs, alcohol, love, lust, dive bars and fine dining, she learns to navigate the chaotically alluring yet punishing life she has stumbled upon.

Sweetbitter stars Ella Purnell, who recently starred in Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence

This coming-of-age story is set against the rich and grimy backdrop of exclusive restaurants, conjuring a non-stop and high-adrenaline world evoking the possibility, beauty and fragility of being young and adrift.

Danler wrote the novel, which is largely based on her own experience, during her two years at graduate school. She moved to New York to become a writer but quickly fell in love with the restaurant industry, in a head-over-heels fashion similar to Tess in the series. Then after seven years working in the city, she went back to school and wrote Sweetbitter, which she says is based on characters and events from different restaurants where she worked, in locations as diverse as California, Colorado, Ohio and New York.

“I think that what I fell in love with was the tasting,” she says. “Before this education, I just consumed. I drank to drink and ate quickly and thoughtlessly. Once you start paying attention to what you eat and drink, it intensifies every experience in your life. It’s a really beautiful, sensual way to live.”

That intensity immediately comes across in the series, from the way the characters taste wine and her co-workers teach Ella how her palette works (creating the mantra “sweet, sour, salty, bitter”), to how the camera lovingly gazes at the cornucopia of dishes being served in the restaurant.

Danler in discussion on set with director Richard Shepard (left) and exec producer Stuart Zicherman

Danler had never considered her book being remade for television, however. “I didn’t watch TV, I’d never read a script. I really knew nothing about it,” she admits. “I had a lot of studying to do and I still do. I’m a good student and I like to understand the medium I’m working in. It was entirely new for me. The prose is so dense in Sweetbitter that if someone had even asked me, I would have said it was impossible to adapt it.”

The author is adamant that the series, and the book before it, was not intended to be an exposé of the restaurant industry and the sex, drugs and backstabbing that may go on behind the kitchen doors. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s never been about that,” she says. “It’s about this girl growing up to be a woman. It’s her first taste of being a person and she’s landed in the place that will shape her. So once I got involved [in the series], there was never anything gratuitous. Everything was essential to the storytelling. We weren’t manufacturing soap opera drama but letting the natural drama drive the story.”

With the first season comprising six half-hours of television, Danler found the sense of pacing to be most problematic when writing the pilot. In a novel, the author can skip over details with a single sentence, but viewers watching the TV show want to understand how Tess came to leave her Midwest home and arrive in New York. Subsequently, the entire first season takes place during Tess’s training period at the restaurant as she learns about the intricacies of the industry and the myriad characters that now surround her.

“The first season is really concerned with how you fit into this family, how you figure out how to live in New York and what it’s like to be lonely,” Danler says, comparing it to the prologue of a novel. “Television is really novelistic now. Our first season sets up a lot and it pays off a lot but we didn’t want to take our characters from zero to 60 in three hours. It felt really unnatural if, all of a sudden, she was doing a ton of drugs and was out drinking every night and really well established in this world. It feels impossible, actually.

“So we treated it like a prologue. I do think the great television dramas operate in a novelistic fashion, especially like a 19th century novel. The way Charles Dickens and Henry James serialised their novels so chapters came out every week is an apt comparison to what television is doing now.”

As well as Starz, the series is now available on Starzplay in Germany and the UK via Amazon Channels

At the heart of the story is Tess, a wide-eyed ingénue trying to adjust to her new surroundings. “We’re finally in an age where you can see complex or unlikeable women on TV and not immediately change the channel, which wasn’t always the case,” says Danler, who describes the lead character as sincere – a quality she says is often missing from cable television. “It’s very much about dark, damaged characters or hyper self-aware characters who know what their flaws are. We are with a girl who hasn’t accumulated her damage yet and we’re watching that. But she’s really honest. It’s sometimes hard to write a character who believes what people say to her and doesn’t lie herself. It’s really rare and I think it makes her unique in the landscape.”

With the book based on her own experiences, Danler’s life has been fictionalised twice now, though the writer says she was keen that Tess become Purnell’s own creation – a cousin to the Tess in the original novel. “I didn’t realise how the actors were going to own those roles and how the characters would change completely based on what I was learning from the actors,” she notes. “That was really interesting but can be really scary.”

Ultimately, Danler’s goal is to create an ensemble drama where the focus shifts from Tess, Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Jake (Tom Sturridge), who form a love triangle in season one, to other characters in the series, “from the dishwashers in the kitchen to a guest that comes in and spends $1,500 on a bottle of wine,” Danler adds. “So we’re back in the writers room for season two and we’re really excited.

“We still have some more story to cover in the book but we definitely have a ton of freedom in season two. We have 10 episodes so we do get to go off-book while still finishing this story about corruption and redemption. We still have more to tell about Tess but I know there’s a way to do it while exploring the restaurant as a whole.”

 

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Going it Anone

Japanese producer Hisashi Tsugiya has reunited with the writer behind Mother and Woman for Nippon TV’s latest drama series, Anone. He tells DQ about the show’s origins and how its fantasy elements set it apart from their previous collaborations.

As a leading producer at Japan’s Nippon TV, Hisashi Tsugiya (pictured above) is credited with making a new drama series every year since 2004 while working alongside some of the country’s leading directors, writers and actors.

Most notably, he has produced every drama for scriptwriter Yuji Sakamoto, alongside award-winning director Nobuo Mizuta. These include Mother, Woman – My Life for My Children and their latest collaboration, 10-part series Anone.

With Nippon TV celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, Tsugiya tells DQ more about Anone and offers his insights into the Japanese television drama industry.

‘Fake’ is the theme at the heart of Nippon TV’s Anone

How would you describe the story of Anone?
This is a story about the pseudo mother-daughter relationship between a lead character who was abandoned by her parents and grew up in an orphanage, and a widow who wanted to become a mother but was not able to. ‘Fake’ is the main theme of the drama, and one way we consider this concept is through the widow who used to run a print shop with her now-deceased husband. After her husband’s passing, she discovers a huge sum of fake paper currency underneath the floor of her print shop. So we juxtaposed their encounter with the discovery of the fake cash to shed light on how human life is not about money. This is a story about finding what is truly important in life.

What is the origin of the story?
Anone is written by Yuji Sakamoto, who is also the screenwriter of Mother and Woman – My Life for My Children. After Mother, Sakamoto and I discussed a story about fake money. There’s a tendency to imagine a crime or suspense story when people hear ‘fake money,’ but Anone is not about that. It’s about how fake things are controlling humans. Sakamoto and I had many conversations about how we could use fake money to depict human nature, lifestyle and values instead of crime and suspense.

What does the title mean and how does it reflect the story?
Anone is a word similar to ‘and,’ ‘by the way,’ or ‘let me tell you something’ in English, and it implies there is something that will come immediately after.

Tell us about your partnership with writer Yuji Sakamoto and director Nobuo Mizuta. How do you all work together?
We don’t really sit and discuss what we are going to produce next. It’s more like having dinner together and talking about current affairs such as recent crimes, or things in the world that infuriate us. Suddenly we find ourselves saying that the topic we just discussed would be a good drama. That’s how we come up with ideas. Both Mother [about a woman who helps an abused girl] and Woman [which depicts a single mother’s struggle against poverty] were born out of Sakamoto’s anger towards society. There’s no way anybody can create a story on something they don’t feel genuinely about, and Sakamoto is someone who can pen a story only if it’s based on what he feels. It has to come from his emotions.

The team behind Anone were also responsible for fellow Nippon drama Mother

How would you describe the development process behind the show?
The first episode takes the longest to write, and then we have subsequent discussions about certain parts of the story to flesh out scenarios and situations. The process of creating the characters, from the lead to the supporting ones, also involves conversations. Then I entrust everything to Sakamoto for about one month and he develops the plot. His first draft is usually enormous. This is also the stage where we begin to visualise who to cast – the lead character, types of encounters and relationships we will need down the line, the necessary acting skills and the preferred physical appearances.
Mizuta has his own views and ideas of what he wants to do based on what he sees in the world, and it requires a tremendous amount of talent to take a story on paper and put it into visual form. But Mizuta is a cut above the rest and I always marvel at how brilliantly he handles everything. Mizuta respects Sakamoto’s scripts and has the skills to do them justice, so they continue to work together from one project to another.

Where was the series filmed and how do the locations fit into the story?
This drama’s theme is ‘fake,’ so we wanted the geographical aspect not to be realistic as well. Places like Tokyo or Yokohama are real and that’s why we didn’t use them. We looked instead for cities and rural locations that look familiar but left the exact location vague. The print shop is set deep in Kawasaki but the oceanfront, with all those concrete breakwaters, which in the drama is within walking distance, is actually in Fuji. The wind turbines are also far off in Kashima, but they too are within walking distance in the story. What you’ll always notice, though, throughout the drama are the blue skies and ocean.

Woman – My Life for My Children, which like Anone has a strong family focus

How does Anone compare or contrast with Mother and Woman?
Fundamentally, Anone is similar to Mother and Woman in that they share the theme of family and what it is all about. The difference with Anone is that it has a slight fantasy element. In the first episode, the main character flashes back to a past memory that turns out to be fake. What happened was too painful, so her brain altered it into a fun memory, and in order to depict these scenes, we used fantasy elements. In episode four, it is revealed that Anone (the widow)’s baby had died before being born, but she believes she actually gave birth to a girl and still has conversations with her. Fantasy elements expand the artistic possibilities of dramas and this is something we couldn’t do with Mother and Woman, which is what makes Anone different.

How would you describe the state of Japanese television drama?
This is a difficult question. Television is rapidly diversifying but people’s demand to see dramas within that platform is declining. A while ago, there was one TV set in the house and people gathered around it to watch programmes together. Japan is finally seeing the growth of dramas streamed online and more people are watching on their smartphones whenever and wherever they want. This situation influences the stories we show but in this fast-changing environment, at times we just have to put content out there and see how the result will be. It can be quite challenging, but I believe Japan is at a turning point.

In what ways are Japanese dramas evolving amid the huge number of series being produced around the world?
Dramas don’t really change, in my opinion. Athletes, for example, can join the national championships, win and qualify for the Olympics, but as they go from one stage to the next, they don’t really change their playing style and training methods, right? Much in the same way, Japanese dramas don’t really change just because they want to go overseas. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be Japanese dramas. That’s why I don’t think they will be evolving that much.
Japanese dramas are being localised overseas, but I don’t think it’s because people are so interested in our country’s culture or want to enjoy our scenery. People the world over are beginning to feel as one. No matter which country you’re from, the way people think, how they feel, what touches them, what makes them sad, are all the same. Dramas that depict how people’s emotions are universal have a better chance of succeeding globally.

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Do the robot

As sci-fi drama Humans enters its third season, movement choreographer Dan O’Neill reveals the new challenges he faces turning the show’s expanding cast into its iconic ‘synths.’

If the cameras are rolling on the set of Channel 4 and AMC’s sci-fi drama Humans, the chances are that Dan O’Neill will be there too. Each season, the movement choreographer is responsible for turning actors into the robotic ‘synths’ central to the show’s premise.

But what started out as a relatively small cast of synths in season one, which debuted back in 2015, has grown dramatically in season three, now airing in the UK and launching in the US on June 4.

To complicate matters further, the synths are no longer all at the same juncture in terms of their emotional or physical capability. Following the mass synth awakening at the end of season two, millions of androids are now able to think and feel, just like the original ‘synth family’ of remaining members Mia (Gemma Chan), Niska (Emily Berrington) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah).

Dan O’Neill

Meanwhile, season three also introduces a new breed of synths, collectively called ‘orange eyes’ (earlier models have green eyes), which are advanced versions of the original models but without the prospect of them being hacked or gaining consciousness – or so they say.

“In the original season, we had the family of these bespoke synths and then the background synths, who have now become conscious too,” O’Neill explains. “Now there’s been a relaunch of new synths, so that was a real challenge for me this time around because not only did I have to flesh out what a newly sentient AI would be like, but also what would this new product would be like.

“We took a decision to make the new ones simpler, plainer and more clearly robots in their costume and make-up. Everyone’s played into this idea that this new product, being so clearly a synthetic that there’s no way it could pass off as a human, there’s no way it could be corrupted or hacked. So we created something very standard, very identifiable, so it means we’ve got these various layers of AI and consciousness, which has been loads of fun to explore.”

O’Neill compares the ‘green eyes’ synths, those with consciousness at this point in the story, to teenagers, whose personalities are being shaped by their experiences and knowledge of the world they find themselves in.

“But certainly in terms of physicality, all of us creatively have had to work really hard to get these distinct nuances between three types of AI wandering around, if you include Gemma, Emily and Ivanno,” he explains. “So there’s lots of layers. It’s the third season. It’s great to still have so many challenges being set by [the writers] Jon [Brackley] and Sam [Vincent].”

Before each season, O’Neill takes charge of what he calls ‘Synth School’ – casting auditions for groups of 20 people at a time who are put through their paces as he teaches them the basics of becoming synths, covering how they stand, talk, walk, run and interact. For season three, he saw up to 350 people, including many returning actors whose characters had survived the first two seasons.

Humans centres on androids, known as ‘synths,’ gaining conciousness

“It isn’t just about movement, it’s about the look, and the make-up and costume departments have a big say in that, so we agree on this consistent look and feel to it,” he explains. “Then some of those people were selected to be orange eyes, so I had to make up a whole new workshop process to teach them to be different from the standard original green eyes. So that’s all a bit complicated.”

Synth School starts up to six weeks before shooting begins, and O’Neill also held individual sessions with new leading actors Holly Earl (who plays Agnes), Ukweli Roach (Anatole) and Dino Fetscher (Stanley).

Original cast members Chan, Berrington, Jeremiah and Ruth Bradley (as Karen Voss) also returned to “brush up” on their synth skills. “They’ve been away doing other things, doing plays, waving their arms about, expressing things with their faces and generally acting,” O’Neill jokes, “so I get them back in the room. They say it takes a while but, once they get it back, it’s like an old friend. They’re astonishing, those original synths who helped me create this stuff and have been on board since. They just come to work every day and are just a joy.

“When we started, we didn’t know what we were making. I remember Gemma after day one said two things to me: ‘I can’t do anything else but worry about being a robot. I’m not acting, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all,’ and, ‘I’m not going to be a character. I’m just going to be this dead machine.’ I told her she was the most interesting thing I’d seen in such a long time because I don’t know what’s going on behind the eyes. That’s been the real power these actors have found. That’s the thing they have shown me with the movement. It’s not stuck on, it’s inhabited.”

O’Neill working with Humans star Gemma Chan on set

O’Neill says the hardest part about becoming a synth is walking, the challenge of which is to remove any individuality and remain consistent. “It seems so simple but there’s loads of little tells that we do that we don’t want to see a machine do,” he explains. “And finding emotion without being able to express it in ways one would normally use is also tough.”

On set, cast and crew shoot four pages a day on average – four minutes of screen time – and O’Neill notes that the ambition and scale of season three has been ramped up beyond anything seen in the show before.

“There are literally hundreds of synths in the show. But despite that ambition, bigger action and bigger set pieces, we still achieved it on time because the actors are good at what they do,” O’Neill says. “We don’t need to work out how to get in and out of a car anymore, we’ve done that. Over the years we’ve ticked off walking down the stairs without looking and other thing synths can do. Sometimes you get some very complicated takes where there are special effects that may take a while but they’re always ready, always off book. They’re a great team.”

There has been one unlikely new skill for the synth actors to get to grips with,  however. Season three features a scene set in a bar that becomes a popular hangout for both humans and robots, calling for synth dancing. “I did it as one of my improvs in the very early development stage before we started filming season one,” O’Neill says. “I did a whole improv based on going out for a night with synths and what would happen. So we’ve got a flash of that.”

Season three is airing in the UK now and will launch in the US next month

Being on set every day, O’Neill also works closely with the directors to ensure the synths keep to the specific movements that have been established over the first two seasons. This means he can jump in and suggest scenes be reshot if something isn’t quite right. But that’s a judgement call, he admits. “If it’s 18.30 and you’ve got half an hour left and they want to grab another setup, obviously you think, ‘We can live with that, they’ll cut round it or won’t use it.’ So you can’t be precious but, at the same time, you have to be as adaptable as possible within the boundaries of making TV drama. It’s not like working in the theatre or the movies, you don’t get that indulgence.”

But the attention to the detail of the synth’s movements is one of the reasons O’Neill thinks the eight-part drama is credible, which has translated into its popularity in the UK, the US and around the world.

“The quality of the people who come now to casting —–dancers, movement specialists, choreographers – all kinds of people have started coming just to have the experience of it and be on the show,” adds O’Neill, who is also working on Sky1 street-racing drama Curfew. “It means the quality of the standby artists is fantastic. I hope it’s flawless. They’re really committed and they really enjoy being part of a process. For me, that’s a real strength of a show. Without that care and detail they bring, it would lose its credibility. It’s been a gift as a choreographer to work on the show.”

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