All posts by Michael Pickard

Bay watch

A family liaison officer discovers a personal connection to a missing persons case in ITV drama The Bay. DQ speaks to lead director Lee Haven Jones about filming the series, casting Morven Christie and why he believes actors are often neglected.

They are often in the background of a tragedy, offering families and individuals support at the toughest of times. Yet rarely are police family liaison officers and their sensitive role pushed to the forefront of a television drama – a surprising fact considering the range of crime series on air.

Step forward ITV drama The Bay, which stars Morven Christie (The A Word, Ordeal by Innocence) as Detective Sergeant Lisa Armstrong. Described as a fierce and hard-working family liaison officer, she is assigned to a missing persons investigation – but quickly discovers she has a personal connection to this frightened family, one that could compromise her and the investigation.

Set in the English coastal town of Morecambe, the six-part drama comes from writer Daragh Carville (Being Human) and co-creator Richard Clark. It is produced by Tall Story Pictures, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment handling distribution.

It was the location, as well as Carville’s script, that drew lead director Lee Haven Jones (Shetland, Vera) to The Bay. Haven Jones helms the first three episodes, with Robert Quinn (Home Fires) picking up the back three.

The Bay lead director Lee Haven Jones with star Morven Christie

He first read the script in March last year, describing it as a “real page-turner” that finds the balance between believable characters and narrative drive. “That’s not always the case,” he explains. “Sometimes it falls on one or the other. There’s also a fantastic central character. Lisa’s fun, feisty and flawed. There’s a fantastic reveal at the end of part one. Then in part two, there’s a moment where Lisa decides not to reveal the truth. That decision ricochets out and has unbelievable consequences as the story unfolds.”

The drama is particularly personal to Carville, who wanted to set it in Morecambe, a stone’s throw from his home in nearby Lancaster and a town literally on the edge, a classic seaside destination for holidaymakers now struggling against the availability of low-cost holidays abroad.

Haven Jones says there was never any doubt the series would be filmed in Morecambe, with interior scenes shot in Manchester. The director calls it an “under-represented” part of the world – one that he found had a cinematic scale.

Inspired by the depictions of the British seaside in film, television and photography, most notably by artists including Martin Parr and John Hinde, he says The Bay doesn’t have the “technicolour” qualities of series like Broadchurch, but does expel the British cliché that it’s ‘grim up north.’

“We’ve sprinkled it with the broadest of colour. We’re trying to impact the glamour of Morecambe,” Haven Jones says. “It’s just a fantastic place to film – the tidal estuary with the sands and finding glamour at the promenade. It’s what we don’t normally get in a seaside town in the Lake District. It’s an ideal place to film.

Christie plays family liaison officer Lisa Armstrong

“The only frustration, owing to the budget, was we couldn’t film more there. A constant refrain of mine to the producers was it’s called The Bay – we want to see the bay. I pushed to get as much of it in the drama.”

Appearing alongside Christie in the series are Jonas Armstrong (Troy), Tracie Bennett (Scott & Bailey), Lindsey Coulson (Funny Cow) and Chanel Cresswell (This is England 90), among others. Haven Jones says “the great thing” about working on The Bay has been the freedom he has been afforded by executive producer Catherine Oldfield, which included casting the ensemble drama.

“Morven read for it and I pretty much knew from the moment she started reading she was perfect for the role,” he recalls. She’s a consummate actress. I’d known of her for a while. She’s done it all. She was at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is a fantastic stage actress. She has a wealth of stage and screen experience. She’s unflappable.

“I remember a conversation with her early on where she found playing a police officer asking questions very difficult. She’s usually used to being interviewed. I said, ‘Don’t panic, you will get your chance!’”

Christie’s Lisa is the heart of the show, providing an emotional core to a drama that otherwise might seem quite procedural, with detectives attempting to solve the mystery laid out at the beginning of the story.

The drama is set in the town of Morecambe

“A lot of work I have directed has been procedural,” says Haven Jones, who is now working on the next season of Doctor Who. “The key for this project is to find it has more emotion to it; it has more heart. It’s a bit of a hybrid between a police crime procedural and family saga. That’s the USP. The police case unravels and then is solved, and all the characters you meet in the first episode are involved in some way.”

With a background as an actor himself, Haven Jones says part of his approach to directing is to focus not only on the visuals but equally the performance of the cast. “Actors are surprisingly neglected by directors,” he asserts. “The thing I’m really pleased about is the quality of the performances. We have mentioned Morven but we’ve also got Jonas and Chanel. They give emotionally charged performances that feel honest and raw to me.

“We did quite a bit of rehearsal, which is also sometimes neglected because some directors think it’s good to get that rawness of the first take [on camera]. I’m of the opinion it’s fantastic to have rehearsals because it unearths layer upon layer of that performance. You never get as much as you want, but we did have a significant amount of time here. It’s just very useful to help figure out what drives these characters and what they are concealing.”

Nothing about The Bay is high-concept, Haven Jones adds, claiming the story’s strengths are in its believability and the relatability of the characters. “They’re very ordinary folk going about their lives in an awful situation. It’s there to be identified with,” he concludes. “It’s just a cracking good story with really good actors doing their thing in a strikingly beautiful landscape.”

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Killer instinct

Danish drama Den Som Dræber (Those Who Kill) has returned for a new season, eight years after it first aired. Producer Zire Schucany talks DQ through the process of rebooting the dark crime series.

When a television drama is cancelled, it doesn’t take long for social media to become awash with messages calling for streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon to save them. Even up-and-coming rivals such as BritBox and Acorn TV have moved to resurrect series deemed prematurely canned.

Zire Schucany

Now Nordic streamer Viaplay has joined the game, following the launch of Den Som Dræber – Fanget af Mørket (Darkness – Those Who Kill). The gloomy crime drama, about a specialist police unit that deals with serial killers, first aired on Denmark’s TV2 in 2011.  Eight years later, the series has been rebooted for Viaplay with a brand new cast and format. Where the first season told five stories across 10 episodes, this new run carries one serialised tale across eight instalments.

What links the two seasons, apart from the title, is the central relationship between a detective and a criminal profiler. In this new story, police investigator Jan Michelsen is looking for 17-year-old Julie, who disappeared six months earlier, when he finds the body of a girl of a similar age. Then when another girl is reported missing, he calls in profiler Louise Bergstein to get inside the mind of a killer and help him find the two kidnapping victims.

“Work started on a sequel with TV2 but in the end they weren’t interested,” series producer Zire Schucany explains. “But Viaplay were really excited about having the first season on their platform, so they really wanted to do a second season.

“It’s a reboot; it’s quite different in every way except the fact it’s still a crime series and a ‘whydunnit.’ In all other aspects, we have rebooted everything. That was quite interesting for me to be part of because I wasn’t part of the first season.”

The change in format, from two-part stories to one serialised plot, came down to the ambition of the filmmakers to go deep inside the mind of a serial killer. “It’s not just about why it happened, we’re trying to understand their motivations,” Schucany says. “We not only see them as a serial killer, but we ask what else do they do? Who is the person behind it? That was the ambition of a serialised show. So not only do we follow the investigation but the murderer and some of the victims too.”

Having launched on Viaplay, Those Who Kill is set to air on TV3 in the Nordics

Schucany left film school in 2017 and linked up with Those Who Kill producer Miso Film in June that year, immediately joining the production, which by that stage was into the writing process led by head writer Ina Bruhn.

The starting point, she says, was introducing the police officer and the profiler into a story where viewers will know who the killer is from the outset. “Jan and Louise quite quickly understand each other. The two of them have different abilities and they need to work together. The thing about them is Jan is more optimistic in believing they can save these girls and, because he has worked this case for so long, he feels obliged towards the families. He feels an obligation to find these girls. Louise is more pessimistic because of her experiences on other cases. That’s the difference between them, but they know they need each other to find the girls.”

On screen, Kenneth M Christensen (Borgen, Arvingerne) plays Jan, with Natalie Madueño (Bedrag, Kriger) as Louise. “With this being a dark show and going into a serial killer environment, Natalie plays Louise pretty well. She played a similar character in Bedrag [Follow the Money]. She has an amazing presence – she lights up the room. Kenneth was also great to work with. They have been an amazing pair.”

Behind the camera, director Carsten Myllerup and cinematographer Eric Kress filmed all eight episodes during a five-month production period as the producers sought to ensure the series employed the same visual style through the season.

Unlike the original, the rebooted version tells a single story across eight episodes

“They did everything,” Schucany says. “It’s a handful because they have to keep the context of the story. It’s a long time to shoot and they had to structure the editing process around it. Normally, you have one director go into edit while another director is shooting. We couldn’t do that, so we had to structure the editing differently. But it feels more like a vision from one person. You feel when you watch the whole series that it’s the vision of one director. When you watch some series, you can feel it’s a new director. It’s been so fun. It was a great shoot.”

Filming took place in Copenhagen and on the outskirts of the city in an area called Greve. And although the story takes place over three weeks, the crew were forced to contend with weather ranging from snow to brilliant sunshine, while Myllerup was simultaneously shooting scenes, preparing future sequences, scouting locations and editing. “Of course, he had help,” Schucany says, “particularly in the editing. But it was our ambition to have one director and it was great.”

Following its launch last month on Viaplay, the Fremantle-distributed series will also air on TV3 across Denmark, Norway and Sweden later this year. But while there are some lighter moments in the series, the fact it was made for a streaming service without a schedule meant this version of Those Who Kill could push further into areas a traditional broadcaster might not be willing to enter. The word ‘Darkness’ isn’t part of the title for nothing.

“We’re not afraid to go into the darkness,” Schucany admits, adding that the tempo of the story also differs from other crime dramas. “It’s not very fast-paced. We took our time to go into the story and tell the story. The tempo is very different. In Denmark, when you do a crime show, you think of Nordic noir and everything is grey. We tried to a bit different and to not be afraid to go with some colours and go in a different direction.”

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Repeat offenders

Producer Maria Feldman and writer Leora Kamenetzky reveal how they tackled the unenviable task of following up the first season of Israeli thriller False Flag, in which a group of ordinary people are thrust into the limelight when they are accused of committing a high-profile crime.

How do you follow the success of False Flag? The Israeli drama was an undeniable hit when the first season launched in 2015 following a world premiere at Berlinale and a prize-winning appearance France’s Series Mania festival, receiving critical and popular acclaim.

The Hebrew-language thriller then scored a distribution deal with Fox International Channels (FIC), taking the series into more than 200 countries around the world. The deal with distributor Keshet International marked the first time FIC had acquired a non-English-language drama for its global networks.

The eight-parter, produced by Tender Productions for Keshet Broadcasting, followed five ordinary people who wake up one morning to see themselves on TV, falsely accused of kidnapping a high-ranking Iranian minister.

Maria Feldman

In February, False Flag returned to Berlin for the international premiere of its second season, which debuted in Israel last year and is now airing on Fox channels across Europe and Africa. Hulu in the US and France’s Canal+ have also picked up streaming rights to both seasons.

Adopting an anthology format, the follow-up introduces a completely new story with new characters. When an explosion during a ceremony to mark the first oil pipeline connecting Israel and Turkey is labelled as a terrorist attack by the media, three citizens who were present but disappeared around the time of the blast are named as key suspects. The ensuing investigation and media attention then throws their friends and family into the eye of the story as unexpected connections and surprising alliances begin to emerge, paving the way for mistrust and no assurances that solving the mystery will return their lives to normal.

“Only the two main characters from the investigating team are the same, so it’s a little bit like True Detective,” says writer Leora Kamenetzky, likening the format to HBO’s crime drama.

Kamenetzky came on board to write season two with producer Maria Feldman, who co-created False Flag with Amit Cohen. Feldman’s Masha TV produces season two, with Oded Ruskin returning from season one to direct all 10 episodes.

Key to the writer’s approach, however, was understanding what made season one work so well. “When Maria talked to me about writing the series, I watched the entire first season and I came up with a page describing the DNA of False Flag,” she says. “So I invented a whole new story with the same DNA. It was a success not just because of that DNA but the original story. Everybody has something to hide and we can all feel guilt about some part of our life. There are secrets we don’t want anybody to know. Then you’re blamed for something and you’re not guilty, but you’re afraid that, through the investigations, something you want to hide is going to emerge. So immediately you feel you have to do something about it.”

False Flag focuses on a group of ordinary people who find themselves accused of a major crime

Another thing that makes False Flag stand out from other dramas is the pace of the storytelling. “It’s very fast and there are multiple points of view. It’s not told just from the point of view of the investigator,” Kamenetzky continues. “We also cut to the people who are the suspects and, in a way, the spectator is put in the position of the person who knows more sometimes than the investigators themselves. They’re in this position of, ‘Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s her.’ Because of the multiple points of view, the pace is crazy and it’s a hard show to write.”

Feldman, who has also produced AXN thriller Absentia, says most Israeli series don’t make it to season two, which meant her initial thoughts were on making season one the best it could be, rather than developing a multi-season arc.

“It started with a mystery that has to end at the end of the series. You can’t keep it open, so we didn’t,” she explains. “Keshet really wanted to know if there was a season two and we said we could spread the mystery into a few seasons and delay some part of it. They said, ‘No, no, no, this story has to be told and closed.’ But if our main characters are people who have secrets and then they tell their secrets, we can’t continue with them in the second season. So that was a big challenge.”

Feldman believes that makes the series special is that the main characters are just normal people, not police officers or investigators. Season two goes further in this respect by focusing on the main suspects’ family members, who begin to question who they are living with and who they might be about to marry.

“Also, in the first season, people are suspected of being Mossad agents [working for the Israeli national intelligence agency], which is in Israel very heroic,” Kamenetzky says. “In the second season, they are suspected of being terrorists. There’s nothing to be proud of. If you’re 12 years old and your mother is suspected of being a terrorist, it doesn’t make any sense. You don’t know who you are anymore. So that was new.”

The show’s second season features a new cast and storyline

The danger of anthology series is that despite inserting a new story and new characters, they might only serve as window dressing on a show that is essentially a repeat of the first season. It’s a problem Feldman recognised, and one that also informed the decision to focus more on the families and friends standing beside the accused.

The producer says her creative partnership with Kamenetzky was very similar to the way she worked with Cohen on season one. They talked together for several months and, once they had a story in place and started working on the treatments, Kamenetzky would begin writing the scripts.

She went on to pen every script, despite attempts to bring other writers into the fold. “It’s complicated because it’s not a normal drama. It has to be fast-paced, where almost every scene from the beginning to the end changes your entire perspective. It becomes something else,” the writer says. “You must have the story moving forward all the time and also be true to the characters. It’s difficult. I got one script from one writer that was really good, but it wasn’t False Flag. It was great but it wasn’t the show.”

“It’s a very difficult series to write,” Feldman agrees. “When a person gets it and understands it, only then can they write it. If we had an American budget, we would have writers with us from the beginning breaking the story and then going and writing. But we don’t have those budgets. It’s not a series where you can give a treatment to a writer and say, ‘Go and write it.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

The international interest in a second season didn’t affect the story, writing process or production, claim Feldman and Kamenetzky, noting that the characters are “so Israeli.” But when it comes to finding locations, Feldman admits there is a perception in Israel that the show has a bigger budget than reality reflects. “People think this is such an international success, we must have more money, which isn’t the case.”

With filming completed on a Russian remake of False Flag for local broadcaster NTV, a third season of the original Israeli series has also been confirmed, with filming due to take place next year. But the co-creators of season two are already primed to overcome the biggest challenge they faced last time around.

“If we had an idea or a solution, we would say we did that in season one,” Feldman adds. “So we didn’t do it again. Everything is new in season two. But we’re going into season three and it will be like, ‘We did that in season one; we did that in season two.’ We have to do the whole thing all over again!”

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Taking Pride

The works of English author Jane Austen are the inspiration for Globo’s latest telenovela. Artistic director Fred Mayrink tells DQ about the drama and his approach to his craft.

Since the beginning of his career more than 30 years ago, Brazilian director Fred Mayrink has always placed a special emphasis on his collaboration with actors. It’s a practice that has evolved from his boyhood experiences as a stage actor when he was just nine years old, so you know he is being sincere when he says he has great respect for and is very comfortable with actors, having grown up among them. That, in turn, also ensures his cast feel relaxed on set.

But when it comes to overseeing telenovelas, he has also discovered the importance of technical direction and aesthetic movement, with emotion serving as the glue that holds everything together.

“That’s where the work of actors comes from,” he explains. “That’s why I’m so careful with cast direction, because a well-directed actor, with the right emotion, can transport you to another place. It’s what effectively touches you.”

Fred Mayrink

A common theme in telenovelas is love, and in the case of Pride & Passion, his new 100×60’ series for Brazil’s Globo, it is an emotion that can be found running through the drama. “It’s a telenovela with lots of romance and the texture of a fable, brightness and light, transporting the audience to a magical universe, with a very special enchantment that is unique to this story.”

Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the story introduces a mother who dreams of marrying her five daughters to eligible bachelors – but marriage is not a priority for them. From this short synopsis and the title, it’s not difficult to imagine how screenwriter Marcos Bernstein was inspired by the works of English author Jane Austen.

Rock Story actor Nathalia Dill stars. The cast also includes Vera Holtz (Brazil Avenue) and Thiago Lacerda (Precious Pearl).

Pride & Passion, which is produced by Globo and was launched at Natpe Miami by Globo Internacional earlier this year, marks Mayrink’s fourth period telenovela. “I love it,” he says of bringing the past back to life.

“It is a chance to shift your perspective and look into a space, a slice of time that you are not living in. Nobody has time for anything anymore and many beautiful things have been lost. Therefore, a period telenovela gives us this romantic, soft atmosphere, when time was available and we used it differently, almost in a charming manner.”

Despite its period setting, this show is extremely contemporary as a female-driven series that “portrays women as they are, as real people.” In a telenovela, however, love will always find a way.

“We speak of love today in the same way that we talked about it in 1800. Our desires, our dreams and our passion are the same as they were 200 or 300 years ago,” Mayrink explains. “Our insights have changed, our receptiveness has changed, but I am very happy to talk about those subtleties. This is a big part of the magic of this telenovela.”

Pride & Passion is set at the beginning of the 20th century

As with all telenovelas he has worked on, the director says the biggest challenge he faces is creating a dialogue with the audience by tapping into their feelings and drawing an emotional response from them.

“It is a magical moment when you can establish this connection,” he says. “There is no recipe. The challenge is to have the sensitivity, care and subtlety to realise what story you are telling and how you want to build this bridge with the audience, using your best emotions. This is the long path we have to tread for months, taking great care every day, in every scene, in each actor’s performance, costumes and lighting. The team is greatly dedicated to making this magic moment happen.”

Despite Latin America’s recent move towards shorter series, telenovelas are still as strong and popular as ever. Mayrink believes their particular approach to storytelling serves as a portrait of society, with the huge running time able to offer time and space to broach a wide range of topics and themes.

“It’s a very broad and rich product with many possibilities, and one that is constantly evolving,” he adds. “The themes are constantly being revised, new topics come up and the language changes. It is this outward perspective that brings new elements that will be worked into the telenovelas.”

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Becoming Bruna

Maria Bopp, star of Brazilian series Me Chama De Bruna (Call Me Bruna), tells DQ how the drama is breaking boundaries and leading the charge for greater female representation in television.

For three seasons, Brazilian actor Maria Bopp has played the lead role in Me Chama De Bruna (Call Me Bruna), the true story of how a middle-class girl left home and became the most famous prostitute in São Paulo.

Based on the life of Raquel Pacheco (aka Bruna Surfistinha), the Portuguese-language series follows 17-year-old Raquel as she runs away from home and heads to the city, where she finds work at a high-end brothel. When she starts sharing her experiences online, she soon finds fame.

In season three, having been through the hardest time of her life, Bruna returns stronger and convinced that a life of prostitution can help her take charge of her destiny. But when a former classmate turned journalist gets in touch, her past comes back to haunt her.

Bopp reveals that when the real Bruna left home, her ambition wasn’t to become a prostitute. She simply wanted to leave her parents’ house, get a job and control her own future. “She chose this. It’s not an obvious choice, it’s not an easy choice and she paid a price for the illusion she created. We can see this in the series,” the actor says.

Maria Bopp as Bruna Surfistinha in Call Me Bruna

While viewers see Bruna find her way in life on screen, the drama also represented Bopp’s first steps in acting. Having studied for a film degree, with dreams of directing, Bopp had been working as a script supervisor before landing the part of Bruna in the Fox Latin America series. TV Zero and Fox Networks Group are the coproducers, with Fox Networks Group Content Distribution shopping the drama overseas.

“It’s great for me, as I think you can see through the series my evolution as an actress, because I’m learning to be an actress by doing it,” she says. “I started to study [acting] after Bruna season one – I hadn’t studied it before. I can see, and viewers can too, my evolution with Bruna. She is a very different character now compared with who she was in season one. You see this girl evolve into a more mature woman later in life and becoming more confident in herself and what she wants.”

Bopp says the launch of Me Chama De Bruna shocked audiences in a country that, “even though people don’t really believe it,” has a conservative society. “Bruna was really controversial. Sex and human sexuality are still taboo,” the actor notes. “Bruna was talking openly about it on the internet and telling how it changed her life for the better. She was empowered by it. I understand people may judge this or question it, but she was there putting her face in the world and talking about these things. That’s why it was a shock. She was like a slap in the face of Brazilian hypocrites.”

However, Bopp is also keen to point out that the show isn’t just about Bruna. “We have trans women, black women, women who worked with her in another brothel. These are really different women from different origins who do sex work for different reasons. But it’s a TV show – it can’t be considered a documentary.

Bopp says the show looks at prostitution in a “non-judgemental” way

“What we do is look at prostitution in a non-judgemental way. We see it in an honest way from a different point of view. We have been successful in humanising this character. She became really controversial in Brazil and people think she’s like a robot whose only talent is sex. But we show her pain and suffering, the good and bad sides of her life. It’s a complex series.”

Me Chama De Bruna also serves as an example of how screen roles are progressing for women in Brazil, where Bopp says things are changing but “in slow steps.” She continues: “In other parts of the world, we can see this movement getting more effective, faster than Brazil. I think we are getting there, but slowly. I wish we had more different and complex roles for women that didn’t require being naked, to be honest.

“Our stories were told by men for a really long time. Now, not only are we in the leading roles, we are also producers behind the camera. This sends the message that we can be anything and we are complex figures – not only the passive wife or the sexy nurse or the prostitute. Bruna is a great role because we can show different sides of her, whereas usually prostitutes are shown as victims. I think it’s encouraging.”

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Final countdown

The world is ending. As an asteroid hurtles towards Earth, showrunner Rafael Parente and director Stefan Ruzowitzky tell DQ why Sky Deutschland original series Eight Days chose to explore the dilemmas and decisions ordinary people face in a society with no consequences.

If you woke up one morning and discovered a 40km-wide asteroid was racing towards Earth, with no one expected to survive when it strikes the heart of Europe, what would you do?

That’s the question at the heart of German drama Acht Tage (Eight Days), a gritty eight-part thriller starring Christiane Paul, Mark Waschke and Lena Klenke that asks how ordinary people face up to the reality of their mortality.

As the Horus asteroid races towards Earth at 30,000km per hour, it is expected to wipe out the whole of Europe. Then, when US nuclear missile strikes fail to knock the rock off course, the entire continent is on the run.

Rafael Parente

With each episode of this pre-apocalyptic drama counting down another day until the time of expected impact, the story focuses on several people and families living in Berlin, where they suddenly find they can break the speed limit, have wild sex, do all the drugs they want, shop with no money, forget about working and live with no consequences. All that matters in the end is how they want to spend their final days and hours  –  and how they might try to escape the asteroid’s looming shadow.

Produced by Neuesuper for Sky Deutschland, the series originated from an idea by Korbinian Dufter, who produces with Neuesuper partners Rafael Parente and Simon Amberger. It is written by showrunner Parente, Peter Kocyla and Benjamin Seiler, and directed by Oscar winner Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) and Michael Krummenacher (Wonderland). Florian Kamhuber is the creative producer, with executive producers Marcus Ammon and Frank Jastfelder. Sky Vision is handling international distribution.

While feature films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon have focused on political and military attempts to solve the crisis, from the outset Eight Days was going to focus on the way ordinary people either accept their fates or do everything they can to evade certain death.

“It’s a high-concept pitch but our idea was not to tell the story from the perspective of the people who can really do anything about it,” Parente tells DQ in Berlin, where the series received its international premiere as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days. “It’s not like somebody is flying to the asteroid and planting an A-bomb or the president in the Oval Office discussing strategies with all his generals. It’s from the perspective of people seeing this event but they can’t do anything about it.”

Eight Days looks at how ordinary people cope with an impending apocalypse

Sky Deutschland loved the idea in the pitch and picked it up, but then Parente and his co-writers were left to figure out the individual stories facing the characters in the series, who all come to intersect during the show.

Psychics teacher Uli Steiner (Waschke) and his wife Susanne (Paul), a doctor, want to flee with their children Leonie (Klenk) and Jonas (Claude Heinrich) over land to Russia, while her brother Herrmann (Fabian Hinrichs), with the help of his government contacts, tries to evacuate the family with his father Egon (Henry Hübchen) and Herrmann’s pregnant girlfriend Marion (Nora Waldstätten) to the US.

Meanwhile, Klaus Frankenberg (Devid Striesow), the father of Leonie’s girlfriend Nora, has built a bunker — but Nora wants to celebrate the last days of her life with one long party.

“There’s an asteroid and it creates a lot of tension, but then you have to create emotional stories that somehow break down all the different ways you can deal with this situation,” he continues. “We didn’t want to make a show where they’re just talking for eight hours about philosophical questions. For me, the asteroid is just a metaphor for a world where we face a major problem and politics can’t change it, like the climate crisis, the wars going on around the world and the refugee crisis. In the end, it’s about something else. It’s about what’s really important.”

Structurally, Parente says it was important that each episode contained its own story and themes, alongside the overarching serialised element of the asteroid moving increasingly closer to Earth. “There are different steps with dealing with such a thing,” he notes. “First you might have the denial phase, the aggressiveness, then at some point relief. So we have that in different episodes. In one episode we just have war going on; in another, it’s softer with more emotion.”

The show focuses on multiple separate characters whose stories converge

Known as a feature film director, Ruzowitzky decided to make the move into television in 2016. Eight Days, he says, was by far the “freshest” and most original script he read, telling a story about a society where, from the main characters to the extras in the background, every person has been stripped of their normal life.

“They are at the edge of a nervous breakdown because they know in a few days, their world is going to go down and they’re going to die, or their friends and family are going to die,” he explains. “When I first heard about it, there were no scripts but you could see right away this was very strong and you can make these characters larger than life. Because the situation is so special, you’re asking for extreme actions and reactions.”

The three writers wrote the scripts together, with Ruzowitzky and Krummenacher also giving notes. Filming then took place in blocks by location, with both directors often filming at the same time, each working on their own storylines that would then be pieced together in the edit.

“It’s very interwoven. That was very important because we didn’t just want to tell different stories,” Parente says. “You have beats from the A plot interfering with another plot. I really like that complex storytelling. With so many different stories, I think the audience can follow it. It’s something that is a lot of fun because you can create a whole world. Something like this happening would create a lot of different ways of people dealing with it. So we could go into different lives but always tell the story from the perspective of a single character.”

The Sky Deutschland drama came from an idea by producer Korbinian Dufter

The production process, which took place mostly on location in the German capital, actually made front-page news when the Gendarmenmarkt, a popular tourist destination in the Mitte area of Berlin, was turned upside down for the series to make it look like it had been the scene of major rioting. “We totally destroyed it,” Parente recalls. “People were calling me in the office, asking what is going on, is there a war going on?”

Ruzowitzky adds: “It really looked like a war scene but I think it was important we did it in Berlin and not on a stage. It wouldn’t have been that much fun.”

In the end, the show’s creators weren’t seeking to make a documentary-real take on what the end of the world would look like, instead heightening the characters and the choices they make. But they still wanted to make a series that spoke to viewers emotionally while sending them on a thrilling journey through eight hours of television. The drama launches on Sky Deutschland today.

“What we managed and what was important for me was even though the characters are flawed and make really bad decisions in this extreme situation, you like them and you can relate to them,” Ruzowitzky concludes. “You can understand why they are making these decisions and you can identify with them and have hope for them.

“I always have problems with series where everyone is an asshole – you wonder why you’re meant to watch that. Our cast and our characters, you can relate to them because you know about your own flaws and you imagine you wouldn’t make all the right decisions in a situation like that either.”

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Serial killer

Acorn TV’s London Kills will quench audience thirst for the kind of episodic, procedural storytelling that is now overshadowed by long-running serialised dramas, claim writers Paul Marquess and Sarah-Louise Hawkins plus Robert Franke of distributor ZDF Enterprises.

The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video has, in part, been responsible for television series shifting away from episodic procedural storytelling towards long-running serialised dramas. Stories no longer have to wrap up within a single episode, offering writers, directors and actors the chance to take a deep dive across 10 to 13 hours.

Yet one online platform, US streamer Acorn TV, is bucking the trend with London Kills, its second original programme and first straight-to-series commission. Acorn has ordered two five-part seasons of the British show, which dramatises the experiences of a team of top murder detectives in London, focusing on a different murder in each episode while also featuring a serialised story involving the lead detective’s missing wife.

“There’s a substantial international appetite for English-speaking crime procedurals that isn’t being catered to by the UK broadcasters. Straightforward murder-of-the-week doesn’t get commissioned anymore for various reasons,” says London Kills creator and head writer Paul Marquess, who was also responsible for Channel 5’s improvised crime drama Suspects. Acorn had bought Suspects to the US and, knowing the interest in procedural crime dramas among the platform’s Anglophile audience, Marquess pitched the streamer the idea for London Kills.

“I’ve had the title for a long time – I’ve known what the show was,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do a murder procedural in London for a long time, I like murder procedurals, I wanted to shoot in London and shoot as much of the city as I could, and so the whole thing came together. Obviously I’ve made a few cop shows in the past [such as The Bill, Crime Stories and MIT: Murder Investigation Team] but it felt like the one I wanted to make now. And they really liked it.”

L-R: Paul Marquess, Sarah-Louise Hawkins and Robert Franke

With European broadcasters also in need of episodic dramas, Acorn partnered with German distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) to finance the series, a decision ZDFE’s head of drama Robert Franke called “a no-brainer.”

“There is a demand for English-speaking crime procedurals and we’re having problems procuring these types of programmes internationally. What we said was instead of having to run around trying to find additional coproduction money, we come in and match the Acorn investment and all of a sudden we have a greenlight,” Franke recalls. “That was important because we wanted London Kills as fast as possible. It was just like all the stars aligned.”

With the commission announced in March 2018, filming began in June and the series was subsequently launched to potential international buyers with a premiere screening at C21 Media’s Content London last November. Less than 12 months on from its order, London Kills launches in the US on Acorn TV today.

“What I hear when I talk to our buyers is they say they’re looking for something that is low commitment for the viewer,” Franke says of ZDFE’s decision to back the series. “Horizontal storylines mean viewers are committed for the whole show. What we see is a lot of people like to have something they can enjoy for an episode or two, and that’s exactly what a crime procedural provides. There has been a misconception in the market about what kind of buyers are actually buying these shows. They haven’t gone away.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Marquess, who compares the current situation to a period when he worked at global production giant Fremantle and many people believed talent shows were on the wane. That, he remembers, was not long before Pop Idol first aired in the UK in 2001, with the show going on to reinvent television singing competitions around the world.

“I’ve been in television long enough to see things come and go. People really like crime-of-the-week shows and the thing about London Kills is it’s also a serial story,” he explains. “That element is low in the mix compared to other [serialised] shows, but it’s there and it connects you with the detectives. But the show does give you that weekly satisfaction that a lot of the audience really like. Anecdotally, I’m finding more and more people are saying to me they would like a beginning, middle and an end. These shows are not particularly sexy or fashionable but it doesn’t mean they’re not good and the audience doesn’t like them.”

London Kills’ first season was filmed across just 10 weeks

London Kills, a coproduction between Acorn Media Enterprises and Marquess’s PGMTV, saw the creator bring together Sarah-Louise Hawkins, Sally Tatchell and Jake Riddell to write the series, after he had written the pilot.

Having worked with Marquess on Suspects, Hawkins says she found the pilot script “absolutely compelling” and quickly began pitching potential cases to feature as the ‘story of the week’ in the writers room.

Marquess says his background in soap operas such as Coronation Street means he prefers a collaborative writing process. “I write very reluctantly. Lots of people are better writers than I am, and a problem it would take me a day to solve on my own in my office, I can solve in two minutes in a room with some good writers,” he notes.

“It was a totally crucial part of the process and it pays off in spades. The more you bring the writers into the room, the more you sit and talk together, you all know what you’re doing. Twenty years ago, I went to LA and sat in some writers rooms there and have never looked back.”

Episode one begins with the discovery of a body hanging from a tree in a park overlooking the city, while another story, penned by Hawkins, opens with a corpse found underneath a garden patio. “It turns out three years ago it was buried when it was a student house, and the detectives then unpick what happened,” she says. “Some people start with the death first, but I find if you find some kind of emotional hook, that’s the thing I have first and everything else comes after that. Also, when you’re able to work with complete freedom and someone allows you the latitude to work that way, you can see how it ends up as such an enjoyable experience,” she says of working with Marquess.

Marquess notes that these days, most television detectives are “dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky.” The team at the heart of London Kills – played by Hugo Speer (Britannia), Sharon Small (Mistresses), Bailey Patrick (Bodyguard) and Tori Allen-Martin (Unforgotten) – are decidedly lacking in fancy headgear, nor do they have any recent deaths to overcome. That’s why he says London Kills is a series that simply lives up to its title.

The show follows a ‘story of the week’ format but also features a serialised element

“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it,” he says. “Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what detectives do. And we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK murder-of-the-week series being shot at the moment that’s just that, and that is OK. People really like that.”

Marquess likes his productions to be shot hard and fast, with a single episode filmed in five days via three cameras operating at once. “I took this idea to Hugo, thinking, ‘You’re not going to want to do this.’ But Hugo loved it. He said it was like acting on the stage because the directors and actors work together, put it on its feet, we shoot it with three cameras and then we move on. It’s bloody exciting actually. I am famously impatient. I still think it’s slow! But compared to everything else, it’s an express train.”

Shooting this way offers “huge dividends,” Marquess says, including the fact actors are spared from continuous retakes. There is still that safety net of redoing a scene if it doesn’t work first time around, but otherwise the team can move swiftly on.

“We’re able to do it because the cameras are small and lightweight,” Marquess adds. “We don’t have to light it because they’re really light-sensitive. I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago but now I can. The edit is also less stressful now and more limber so you can make it work. I love it. I’m pitching shows that are bigger budget but, if I could, I’d shoot everything like this because you end up with much more electricity and energy.”

The remarkably long heatwave enjoyed by the UK last summer took its toll on the crew during filming. Marquess admits it makes the series simmer on screen, though the finished product stands in contrast to the rain-soaked London he had envisioned when he wrote the pilot. The 10-week production schedule, as opposed to the more common 30 weeks, also meant making the show was incredibly tough, but that the crew could see the finish line from the start.

“We shoot five days a week, not six or seven, so the actors get two days off to recover and learn what’s next,” he says of the schedule. “As a process, I think it works really well. We had a great building in Whitechapel where we had our production offices and our set. In each episode there’s something iconic of London, but we also shot around the East End, which is a great area to shoot in.”

From an international perspective, Franke adds that London Kills is very much in tune with what ZDFE believes is missing from the UK. “We were happy Paul was able to do something [financially] competitive with a great story that looks good. It is a show that delivers. It’s not gimmicky. It’s very straightforward and it just gives the people what they want to see.”

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Family focus

Love, life, laughter and loss come under the microscope in family adventure drama Northern Rescue, a coproduction from Canada’s CBC and Netflix. Executive producer David Cormican tells DQ how the show meets audience demand for hopeful programming.

Amid the ongoing boom in scripted, fuelled by demand for increasingly niche shows, one genre feeling the love is family drama, on the back of titles such as This is Us and a planned reboot of celebrated 1990s series Northern Exposure.

One series looking to provide storylines and plot twists with family and adventure at its heart is 10-part Northern Rescue, which has been co-commissioned by Canada’s CBC and Netflix for international audiences.

Produced by Don Carmody Television (DCTV), the series follows John West (played by William Baldwin) who uproots his three children from the city to return to his home town, where he takes charge of the local search and rescue service, after the death of his wife.

The series explores the effect of grief on the family, as the children’s aunt, Charlotte (Kathleen Robertson), struggles to help John and his kids heal while she also copes with the loss of her sister and her own desire for a family.

Mixing episodic and serialised storylines that introduce some colourful characters from around the family’s new community, the show’s cast also includes Michelle Nolden, Michael Xavier and Peter MacNeill. Amalia Williamson, Spencer McPherson and Taylor Thorne play John’s children Maddie, Scout and Taylor, respectively.

Showrunner David Cormican picks a tranquil spot to work on location

Northern Rescue was conceived by DCTV’s David Cormican (Tokyo Trial, Between), who developed it together with co-creators Mark Bacci (Between) and Dwayne Hill (Peg + Cat). They subsequently wrote the 10-part drama, with Cormican showrunning.

“It was an exhausting experience but super rewarding, with huge learning curves,” Cormican says, “which is great and ultimately very rewarding to go from the genesis of the idea to the execution and the premiere of it.”

Between them, Bacci, Cormican and Hill adopted a “best idea wins” rule to fuel the writing process in a bid to create the most thrilling show possible for audiences, and families in particular. “It’s a nice family show – you don’t see too many of them,” says Cormican. The showrunner also executive produces alongside Bradley Walsh, who directs four episodes, Bacci, Hill and lead actor Baldwin. “I’ve got a daughter, she’s 11 now and for years I’ve been making programming that’s fairly dark and edgy, not necessarily family fare, always genre-skewing. Every time I have a show that comes out, my parents get the popcorn and sometimes it’s a little too gory for a family sit-down.

“So I wanted something I could feel proud to have my entire family and all our friends watch. It’s wholesome, hopeful programming that’s crunchy in terms of the emotions and grief we’re working through, but it’s comfort food for television viewers these days.

“We’re hunkering down with these kids, their dad and their aunt and redefining what family means, not just to us but to the characters as well. That was the idea – what is this definition of family? Because it’s very much different from the 50s and 60s, and even the 80s when I was growing up as a kid. Family is now very much who you choose as much as who’s just there.”

Though it was just a working title at the outset, the name Northern Rescue applies not only to the West family’s decision to move north and John’s job, but also to the emotional trauma the family is facing following the death of their matriarch. Every week, the series brings in guest stars as characters who need to be physically rescued, but each episode also looks at how the family is coping with their grief in an unfamiliar location.

Northern Rescue stars William Baldwin as John West

To heighten those moments, the show also utilises flashbacks to a time when Sarah (played by Nolden) is still alive. “I hate flashbacks and voiceover as devices but we’ve used both of them in this,” Cormican admits. “It just kind of worked and leant itself naturally to it, and we do it in such a way that it motivates the story.

“We’re really seeing this story through the eyes of Maddie, the oldest daughter of the West family; we’re seeing the story through her journal and the therapy she’s having. The flashbacks happen naturally. We didn’t expect them to carry throughout as much as they have but we just leaned into it because Michelle was phenomenal and was crushing those scenes. They also opened up a new perspective to the emotional gravity our characters are experiencing.”

Bacci, Cormican and Hill wrote the series together, passing drafts between them. They also worked with several female writers to provide additional perspective, with America Olivo joining the production full-time.

“When we were breaking the season, we came up with ideas that were for season five, or season two. So now we have a big document full of ideas,” Cormican reveals. “We had an idea that the second season would be about X, season three would be about Y. Then there’s the milestones of falling in love, getting married, having a baby and a death somewhere along the way. Then there’s a divorce. We’re ticking some of those boxes.

“One of the interesting parts of Charlotte’s character is she was trying to have a child with her ex and they lost the baby. There’s a huge amount of grief in losing a child and wanting your own family, so this is an opportunity for her to become a pseudo-mother to these three children. Then we complicate it when the ex comes back to town.”

Location scouting took place in North Bay and Sudbury, two towns in northern Ontario, before scenic Parry Sound was chosen as the backdrop for the drama. “We kept looking to move scenes outside because it was so pretty,” Cormican jokes.

The 10-parter focuses on a search and rescue service

“The therapy sessions are a great example – we had them meeting inside in the first episodes and then we thought they should do walk-and-talks and go on hikes. One thing we didn’t know was that there’s a train going by every nine minutes – there are so many tracks in that town. So we were always like, ‘Hold for the train.’ Sometimes you work with it, but ultimately the sound team is going nuts with the tracks you give them.”

The distance from Toronto, three hours north, proved to be the biggest challenge to the production as it meant finding accommodation for the entire cast and crew on location, in the middle of the busy summer season. “It’s a town of 6,000 people that swells to 60,000 as well as us in the middle of summer. So everything was at a premium,” says Cormican, revealing that at one point they looked at buying an old cruise ship, docking it and turning it into a production village. Disappointingly, the duration of shipping times and the hours needed to have a vessel fitted for their needs proved prohibitive.

When it comes to the current demand for family drama, Cormican points to Party of Five, Northern Exposure, Heartland, This is Us, Parenthood and film The Grand Seduction as inspirations for Northern Rescue. And with Northern Exposure primed for a reboot at CBS, he believes “we’re onto something.”

“I feel like there’s an ache and a need in the world right now for hopeful family programming, grounded in a reality that’s not saccharine or precious,” Cormican adds.

There’s definitely some tear-shedding moments in this show, he notes, but there are also plenty of laughs. But while a similar show, Schitt’s Creek, plays to the zany side of the genre, Northern Rescue promises to be much more grounded in emotion, reality and truth.

With so many plot points already noted down, writing has already started on a potential second season. “We felt a little behind the eight ball this year when we got the green light, as we only had two scripts written,” Cormican adds of the show, which is due to debut on March 1. “We did it, we made it, but I’d like to not be working 21 hours a day next year!”

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Scaling new Heights

Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian ensemble drama The Heights, discusses the making of this series set in a housing tower and the challenges of launching a serial drama.

Is there a more challenging type of show to create than a serial drama, with numerous characters and storylines to introduce while ensuring they feel familiar and relatable to viewers from the outset?

That was the unenviable task facing Warren Clarke, co-creator and showrunner of Australian series The Heights. The 30-part, 30-minute drama transports viewers to the fictional inner-city neighbourhood of Arcadia Heights, exploring the relationships between the residents of the Arcadia social housing tower and the people who live in the rapidly gentrifying community that surrounds it.

Humorous, thoughtful and entertaining, the series is also driven by a diverse group of characters who tackle a range of social issues that face many Australians today. The ensemble cast includes Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires), Marcus Graham (Secret City) and Roz Hammond (Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell).

From the first episode, which launches on pubcaster the ABC tomorrow, all manner of subjects from birth, death and everything in between are dramatised as the series aims to hit the ground running, as if placing cameras into the homes and workplaces of people who are just going about their daily lives, without the drawn-out introductions and exposition seen in many long-running dramas gone by.

“You don’t want it to feel like a pilot episode. It’s that old thing of starting with episode two,” Clarke says. “It’s coming at you pretty hard and fast. We wanted it to be an episode that captures everything the show is about. It’s about love and loss, birth and death, families, and struggle and triumph, as we all face day to day.

The Heights was co-created by showrunner Warren Clarke (second from right)

“Viewers want to see characters in situ. I don’t think we need introductions the way perhaps we traditionally did in television. They’re just so savvy and know the medium so well. The curtain has been pulled back on television and storytelling so much. It’s actually really liberating as a writer because they meet you more than halfway, and that lets you just dive into the story.”

Clarke conceived the idea behind The Heights with ABC executive producer Que Minh Luu when they worked together in development roles at producer Matchbox Pictures (The Slap, Barracuda), with the pair often discussing the kind of television they wanted to make and what format it might take.

“Certainly in Australia at the time, there was a huge conversation in our industry about opportunities for emerging diverse voices and pushing the bar a little bit in terms of what we were seeing on television,” Clarke recalls. “That led to the idea of an ongoing series with a story that would always have a sense of tension. We looked at the idea of gentrification, which is a global issue that immediately speaks to ideas of the wealth divide, divided politics, separation and difference.”

The notion that there is a universality in the experiences and challenges we all face, no matter our background, religion or politics, would go on to shape the series, with a housing tower at its centre – a space where families and other groups of people from all walks of life naturally become neighbours.

“It is reflective of the world we live in, and that was what we always tried to drive towards,” Clarke says. “These are the streets we know and the stories we see. That applies to us and that will apply to a broader audience. We didn’t necessarily want to tell culturally specific stories. Characters are completely informed by a cultural point of view but while tapping into that universality. I hope that’s what pulls audiences in; that they connect to those characters no matter what community they might represent.”

The show focuses on a wide range of characters living in a tower block, including the Jafari family

The Heights is produced by Matchbox and For Pete’s Sake Productions, with NBCUniversal International Distribution handling worldwide sales. As the showrunner, Clarke was tasked with managing the logistics of the series as well as the creative side, and he believes it’s important for a series to have a “creative conduit” through which all decisions pass.

In the writers room, “it was a learning process that evolved as we went,” he says. “The key really was to have a team that could service the series as a whole,” Clarke adds, pointing to script editors Hannah Carroll Chapman, Romina Accurso, Peter Mattessi and Megan Palinkas, who ensured the multiple stories stayed on the right path.

“Then it is a question of bringing your writers in to break story and plot episodes. Sometimes you might have a writer who wants to write one of the episodes because they’ll have a point of view and an authenticity to inform that story, so you want to encourage that as much as possible. Writers rooms can sometimes be challenging, particularly when we plotted at pace, but I was predominantly in the room for the whole day, every day, to ask those questions – is this our show? Is this how our show tells this story?

“By and large, any new show is particularly tough. It has its really high moments and really low moments, but it has been a positive experience. A lot of people have come away feeling like they’ve created something that feels true to them and there’s an interesting voice there that people want to see.”

With filming taking place in Perth, Western Australia, the creative team were conscious of not locating the series in a specific part of the country. “It is Anywhere, Australia,” Clarke says. “You want the sense that Arcadia Heights could be your local neighbourhood.”

The Davies family, another group living in the tower

Once production was underway in the city, it unfolded at a rapid pace, employing nearly 100 local crew and 93 actors across speaking and extra roles. Two episodes were shot per week, with four days in the studio and then two crews working simultaneously on location on Fridays, effectively creating six shooting days in a five-day period.

Scenes were filmed with at least three, and sometimes four, cameras on operators’ shoulders, meaning they could be flexible and mobile to get as much coverage as possible and move on to the next scene without too many retakes. This, in turn, informs a gritty visual style with noticeable camera movements.

“Jim Frater, the DOP, has such a great instinct for capturing the truth of any given moment,” Clarke says of the shooting process. “It may not be a wide [shot] and two singles, it might be a close-up of someone’s hand or the empty space in a room. He’s a very visual storyteller. And because you have all the cameras in there at once, you’ve got an incredible amount of coverage. The advantage of that is that it keeps the performances agile and interesting, and you empower the acting. The actors were able to let the drama inform their performance, which would then inform how the cameras captured it.

“As we witnessed across the shoot, the camera team learned the nuances of those actors and those characters and were able to anticipate them. In many ways, it feels like a really quick shoot. If we’d shot it traditionally, it probably would have been more challenging. But because we had a visual style that allowed us to be really fluid, we could move quickly. There was definitely energy in the series, which was great to see.”

Undoubtedly the initial challenge was writing the series, once the creative team had settled on exactly what kind of show they wanted to make. When that was agreed, Clarke describes a feeling of empowerment among the writing team, which then helped them push the boundaries of traditional serial dramas.

“We were constantly trying to push and push, and the crew were so embracing of the idea of ‘let’s just knock it out of the park.’ They wanted to push as hard as us; they just believed in the show so much and that created challenges, like how much can we film in a day,” he says. “Yet they never faltered, they never complained or begrudged the idea of trying to make a great show. Everybody came to work to make a great show and was committed to doing the best work they could, which carried the show through those tricky days.”

Clarke admits that in many ways, the television landscape is saturated by content. But for creators, that presents an opportunity to tell more varied and diverse stories.

“In a world that’s challenging and where big questions are being asked politically and socially, there’s great appeal for a show that engages with its audience and isn’t afraid of those issues but also has a sense of human spirit,” he adds. “This is also a show that could bring family viewing together and I do think there’s room for that in the current television landscape. I’m like anyone, I like the gritty stuff too but there’s room for us all.”

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Matter of Flack

Anna Paquin stars in Flack, a comedy-infused drama set in the world of PR that follows an expert fixer who struggles to keep her own life together. The actor plus creator and writer Oliver Lansley and executive producer Jimmy Mulville tell DQ about the long journey to bring the series to the screen.

Anna Paquin has starred as a telepathic waitress in a town full of vampires and played a girl with supernatural powers caught in a global battle between humans and mutants. But the worlds of HBO’s True Blood and the X-Men films are a far cry from the fast-paced and cutthroat industry of PR, where the actor leads an ensemble cast in UKTV Original drama Flack.

The six-part series, produced for UKTV’s W and US network Pop TV, sees Paquin play Robyn, an American PR executive living in London who must figure out how to make the best of the bad situations in which her clients find themselves while also fighting her own personal battles. Episode one sees drinking, smoking and drug-taking Robyn trying to save the marriage of a TV chef caught with his trousers down, welcoming a new intern to the company and appalling her sister with her bad life choices, all while marking the anniversary of her mother’s death.

The cast also includes Sophie Okonedo (The Slap), Genevieve Angelson (House of Lies), Lydia Wilson (Requiem), Rebecca Benson (Game of Thrones), Arinzé Kene (Crazyhead), Marc Warren (Mad Dogs), Rufus Jones (W1A) and Rebecca Root (The Danish Girl). Max Beesley appears as the aforementioned chef, while in another episode, set entirely on a plane, The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford plays an American movie star who has been caught with compromising material on his computer.

Paquin, who is also an executive producer on the series, had been developing the drama with creator Oliver Lansley and Hat Trick Productions through her CASM Films label for more than five years before one final swing saw it land with UKTV and Pop.

Anna Paquin (far right) stars in Flack, which promises to combine high drama with plenty of humour

“It’s a pretty intense, really dark, funny and very dramatic miniseries,” she says, speaking days after the end of filming in London last summer. “It’s been something I’ve been passionate about for years and I’m really excited that it’s finally come to fruition.”

Paquin says she loves complicated characters who are also very competent in the professional aspects of their life, which describes Robyn perfectly. “She’s a really confident force to be reckoned with, even though underneath it all she’s kind of dying inside and her life is falling apart,” the actor says of her character. “I feel like so often, particularly with female protagonists, if they have independence, they don’t get to be good at anything. They’re just characters going through trauma. Whereas she’s kicking off while also having a lot of very heavy things happening on the home front and in her personal life. It’s also really funny, in a dark way that just tickles my sense of humour in all the right parts.”

Having been in the film business since she was just nine years old, working with the same publicist since she was 10, Paquin knows Flack’s environment extremely well. “Promoting my work is such an integral part of my life, so it’s a world I’m already familiar with,” she says, adding that the series does take some dramatic licence with the stories it introduces. “There’s loads of mundane normal stuff that’s part of the everyday life of a PR person. But I have watched them and been around for various scandals and seen how it’s handled. [The stories in Flack] do happen.”

Flack originated as a half-hour series that was produced as a pilot,but didn’t get picked up. Hat Trick then put it on the back-burner, before it was developed at HBO, where Paquin joined the show through her involvement in True Blood, which also aired on the US cablenet. HBO subsequently dropped the project, but Paquin remained on board. And as she began to spend more time in England after marrying her English True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer, it was decided that the series should be relocated to London.

It was at that point that executive producer and Hat Trick MD Jimmy Mulville sent the scripts to UKTV senior commissioning editor Pete Thornton, who responded positively. With more funding needed to secure the budget, US cable network Pop TV came on board and the financing jigsaw was complete. Hat Trick International is shopping the series worldwide.

The drama unfolds in the fast-paced world of PR

Though there are serialised elements that leave enough story hanging at the end of each episode to flow into the next, Flack employs a story-of-the-week structure, with plots ranging from a girl looking to change her image after finding fame on a talent show to a footballer who is worried about a salacious story getting into the papers. “It’s all about how they control these celebrities’ lives and how they keep them out of the public eye for the things they’ve done,” Mulville explains.

“It’s lifting a lid on the dark side of celebrity, showing how, when you read in a newspaper that a celebrity has just confessed to a painkiller addiction, you know it’s really cocaine, but the deal that’s done with the newspaper is to do an interview and photos and call it something else. But we know you’re doing coke, we know you’re banging hookers. Just give us total access to your life – let us trample through it for five minutes and we’ll leave you alone.”

Meanwhile, Robyn finds her own problems harder to manage than those of her clients, a theme that comes to the forefront when focusing on her mother’s death. “She’s a woman under a lot of pressure so it’s got a lot of dramatic incidents, tension and jeopardy, but Olly’s written it in such a way that the characters are slightly cynical and very funny,” Mulville continues. “They’re the kind of people you really want to hang out with because they make you laugh, but what they’re dealing with is human misery. That’s their currency. It feels very contemporary.”

The exec says he applauds UKTV for taking the risk to back the show, which he believes other channels would have felt very uneasy about supporting. “They want their dramas without jokes and don’t want their comedies to have anything dramatic. So it’s a very contemporary thing,” he adds. “This is an unusual world but the audience is familiar with the world of celebrity. This is shining a light in the dark corners of this world that the public are often kept away from. Of course, we’re doing it fictionally so we can say what the fuck we like.”

Both Paquin and Mulville highlight the rhythmic language in Lansley’s scripts, which becomes apparent during some of Robyn’s put-downs to her clients and the back-and-forth banter between her and her acerbic, foul-mouthed co-worker Eve (Wilson). “He’s not just written the scripts, he’s rewritten them, and rewritten them, and rewritten them again,” Mulville explains. “So every line tells more about a character and the story, and is often very funny and truthful. It’s writing of the highest order.”

Flack creator and writer Oliver Lansley on set

Lansley himself has been working on the series in some shape or form for the past six years. He says the starting point was a desire to write a show with a strong female protagonist, at a time when complicated male characters such as Don Draper (Mad Men) and Walter White (Breaking Bad) were dominating the small screen. That the show ended up in the PR world was down simply to the fact that Lansley, who began his career as an actor (Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story), was fascinated by the industry.

“It’s kind of a mad world. People often think PR is just white wine and air-kissing, but there’s quite a lot more to it than that,” he says. “I was attracted to putting Robyn in PR because of this idea that she would spend the day lying to people and manipulating the situation, which would make her really good at her job. But then she’d go home to her family, her boyfriend or whoever and have her own problems, but she would be expected not to use those talents of lying and cheating.”

After writing the pilot, Lansley began the script-writing process by setting up a small writers room with a number of female scribes, including a pre-Fleabag Phoebe Waller-Bridge plus Vicky Jones, Yasmine Akram and Rose Heiney, who helped come up with story ideas and offered notes on his scripts. Paquin also joined in with plot points and character beats. “That was a slight nod to a more American process that I was interested in doing, but it’s rare in the UK that you can afford a writers room,” he explains. “This show was stewing inside me so much that it flowed out quite easily when I came to write it.” All six scripts were ready when UKTV and Pop commissioned the series, though each saw some reworking before filming began last year.

Despite its dramatic setting and some of the scrapes in which Robyn and her clients find themselves, Lansley believes Flack is funny enough to justify also being called a comedy-drama, an increasingly popular sub-genre that includes hit shows like Orange is the New Black, Killing Eve and The Bisexual. “It’s in that interesting place. Like real life, the most dramatic things are often hilarious and the most hilarious things are often devastatingly tragic,” he adds. “That’s definitely the tone I like to play in. Even a show like Breaking Bad had so much humour in it. Whether you want to call it a dramedy or a comedy-drama, there are so many labels. But hopefully it’s pretty funny.”

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On the run with Hanna

Eight years after the movie of the same name, Hanna reimagines the story of a young girl, raised in isolation by her mercenary father, who goes on the run from the agents attempting to take her down. DQ visits the set to see how this globe-trotting thriller came together for Amazon Prime Video.

In 2011, an all-star cast of Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana appeared in action-adventure thriller movie Hanna.With Ronan as the titular character, it centred on a girl raised in isolation by her father, who moulds her into the perfect assassin, leading her to be hunted down by a ruthless operative.

Eight years later, Hanna is returning to the screen. But rather than a blockbuster sequel or remake heading to cinemas, the story has been reimagined and expanded across eight hours of television as an original series for global streaming platform Amazon Prime Video, where it will launch on March 29.

Raised in total seclusion in remote Eastern European woodland, Hanna (played by newcomer Esme Creed-Miles) has spent all of her young life training to fight those who hunt her and her mercenary father, Erik Heller (Joel Kinnaman, Altered Carbon).

The series sees Hanna’s skills being put to the test when she and Erik are separated after being discovered by rogue CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos, Good Omens) and her team of agents. Now Hanna has no choice but to embark on a perilous journey alone across Europe as she seeks to reunite with her father and evade the dangerous agents who target them, while also confronting the physical and emotional consequences of her isolated upbringing.

From the start, Hanna – which had its world premiere at Berlinale earlier this week – is pitched very much as an origin story, as well as a partial retread of the feature film. The first episode opens 15 years in the past as Erik is seen snatching a baby from a hospital, with Marissa leading the charge for his capture. The story then picks up with Hanna as a teenager.

Esme Creed-Miles won the lead role in Hanna after an audition process that saw 500 hopefuls

Naturally, the starting point for the project was the original film, which series creator and writer David Farr co-wrote with Seth Lochhead. But Farr admits he had never thought about adapting it for television until NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) executives Tom Coan and JoAnn Alfano approached him with the idea.

“It was a new thing then, this ‘television,’” he jokes. “But as soon as they said it, it was a great idea. The film didn’t end up covering something that was actually in the screenplay – and in my head – which was the whole idea of where Hanna had come from, who she was and what was behind her situation. In the end, the film was almost a fantasy about female revenge and empowerment of this young girl taking on this evil woman. It was hugely stylish, and Saoirse was amazing. But I could see a very different telling.”

As Farr explains, episode one charts a similar course to the film. But by episode two, Hanna enters fresh territory, and a whole new narrative is underway by the third instalment. “There’s an exploration of identity where you have a young woman who suddenly realises she doesn’t know who she is. You have this strong thriller narrative of people hunting her and trying to kill her, and this evokes the question of why – who am I and am I being told the truth? That can then evolve into an emotional and existential search for identity.”

The series also explores the emergence of a very odd nuclear family, comprising Hanna, Erik and Marissa, as they play out familiar family tensions inside a thriller where they all want to kill each other. “It’s that central idea of a girl trying to find out where her real family is, who she is, and that is a beautifully vulnerable and lovely story – and then you get an actress like Esme who is wonderful at playing vulnerability,” Farr notes. “It’s so captivating to watch someone genuinely not know who they are, someone who is lost. All teenagers are lost anyway. It reflects a universal experience, just in a very heightened way.”

While film remakes continue to be a big part of the television landscape, the Hanna movie presented the team at NBCUIS with an opportunity to take an existing property inside the Comcast-owned company’s vast library (the film was distributed by Comcast’s Focus Features) in a new direction. Notably, Coan felt that the fact the story takes place across multiple countries was reflective of the company itself, making him keen to push forward with the idea. Then when Farr came on board, “that’s when the project came alive,” Coan says. “It’s a great piece of IP, a wonderful concept, and then we got an amazing creator and visionary storyteller who was able to make it happen.”

Lead director Sarah Adina Smith (right) on location with Creed-Miles

Though the film was a wonderful starting point, “it wasn’t something we ever wanted to be entirely married to,” continues Coan, an executive producer on the series. “We’re not doing a strict remake of the film, we’re using it as inspiration. We’re using it as a foundation for telling our own story. IP is just an easy way to start the conversation.”

Farr and Coan are speaking to DQ in August during a break in filming as the production lands in the UK and enters its final fortnight. At this point, in scenes being filmed for episodes five and six, Hanna has broken free from her father’s grasp and made her way to England, where she is staying with Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), a friend she met in an earlier episode.

On this bright and sunny summer’s day, the crew has taken over a beautiful home in Bushey, on the outskirts of north-west London, which has been turned into Sophie’s home. Cameras, lights, monitors and dozens of rolls of cable fill the downstairs rooms while filming is taking place in the garden, where Sophie is discussing the mysterious Hanna with her friend Dan (Leo Flanagan).

In another scene filmed later on, Sophie is seemingly hesitant to let Hanna leave her house with a woman who claims she is Hanna’s mother, but the fact she is played by Enos suggests Marissa may have finally caught up with her target.

Farr says he wasn’t keen to remake the film as a series, or even write a sequel to the film, which can be “quite tricky.” But what did excite him was the opportunity to explore a new way of telling the story, with more time to dig into the characters and their backstories, though still confined within the idea of a girl coming out of a forest and not knowing who she is.

However, having adapted John le Carré novel The Night Manager for UK pubcaster the BBC and AMC in the US, the writer says reworking Hanna was “a very different experience.” He continues: “There’s way more invention in this. There was invention in The Night Manager – the second half was very different from the book – but somehow, because the characters were all there [for The Night Manager], this felt a lot more original.”

Joel Kinnaman (Altered Carbon) plays Hanna’s father

Coan describes Farr as a very fast writer, and while the latter concurs, he adds that there’s more to his process than just getting the words down. “I don’t write until I feel like I can write it really fast,” he explains. “For me, that’s the way to do it. I literally keep it in my head. I don’t tend to write down that many outlines. I hate writing beat sheets – to me they’re just deadening, awful things because once you’ve got them, you can’t get out of them, and then you’re just writing to them and it’s impossible. So what you have to have is enough in your head that you can feel it to the end. You have to know where the end is, otherwise you’re totally a mess, and that’s how you do it. And then I can write quite fast, which is really weird.”

The challenge, he says, is maintaining the tension that makes viewers watch to the end. And while Farr admits he “loathes” whodunnits, he also admires them for the way they keep viewers hooked until they discover the perpetrator of the crime. “I love thrillers because they have a little bit of that, there’s something we’re trying to find out, but the journey is an exploration of character as you do that, and that balance is the key,” he adds.

During writing, Farr held a weeklong story conference with Mika Watkins and Ingeborg Topsøe, where the story was broken and episode outlines were penned. Topsøe wrote episode five, while Watkins had also been in line to write scripts until she became showrunner of her own series, YouTube’s space horror Origin. That meant Farr ended up writing the other seven.

“One of the things we wanted to do, which we also did with directors and DOPs, was bring many more women into the world. So we had two female directors and we were going to have two female writers,” Farr says. “Once Mika had done the conference, it felt weird to bring someone else in, so in the end we decided to keep it simple.”

Overseen by lead director Sarah Adina Smith (Legion, Room 104), who helmed episodes one and two, others behind the camera include Anders Engström, Jon Jones and Amy Neil, who were able to inject their own style into their particular episodes owing to the fact they were largely filming in different locations from one another. And while Hanna the movie is heightened and even surreal in parts, the series is a more realistic and grounded thriller, according to producer Hugh Warren (Hard Sun, Thirteen). That in part is down to Smith, whose independent filmmaking background has helped shape the show’s style and tone.

Filming locations have included Morocco, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary and the UK, while Hungary also doubled for scenes set in Poland and Romania. Some small sets were built, including the cave that Hanna initially calls home, while one scene involved filming inside a lively souk in north Morocco. “That was quite hairy. We had to go guerrilla style to film,” Warren jokes.

Hanna has been filmed in locations all over Europe, as well as Morocco

“The story moves around. That would have been very difficult to do in the old world, and it’s still a challenge. It becomes a more complex machine and becomes about making maximum use of the budget, with decisions about production often made on that basis. One of the reasons we were in Budapest for so long is there are great tax breaks there. It’s great for us as there are areas that double for Berlin, Paris, Romania. We shot a lot of different countries in Budapest and the surrounding countryside.”

Thunderstorms in Hungary, heatwaves in Morocco and sub-zero temperatures in Slovakia meant filming conditions were rarely comfortable, while technical challenges included a hefty amount of stunt work. The script placed Creed-Miles in a number of action and fight sequences, requiring the young actor to complete a pre-shoot training programme to convincingly pull off Hanna’s moves. “She really wanted to do a lot herself,” Warren says of the show’s star. “There were days when I went to set and assumed it was the double doing these runs, and then saw it was Esme.”

As well as reuniting The Killing stars Enos and Kinnaman, the casting process saw more than 500 candidates audition for the lead role, including actors from the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. But once London-born Miles-Creed had stepped up, “there was no second choice,” says executive producer Andrew Woodhead, MD of Working Title Television, which is producing with NBCUIS. “She’s a star. She’s just got that thing.”

Coan recalls: “In the audition, we gave them two scenes to read and they got to choose the third scene. The third scene Esme chose was from the first episode, where Hanna is at the dining table with Erik and he’s drilling her on different languages. It’s not an easy scene, involving German, French and Russian, but she delivered it perfectly. Then she would go back into this entirely concocted accent she created on her own. She is this character, she’s able to fully embrace this character.”

Though Hanna’s growth and the thrilling chase led by the CIA to capture her are at the centre of the plot, themes of family run strong. It’s “not just a thriller, there’s a metaphor for family life and her coming of age,” says Warren. “I did a show called Thirteen [a BBC kidnap drama] and this reminded me of that in that she’s effectively being held captive all her life in the woods with no experience of the world. This follows that journey of her discovering the world and other people, finding herself as a teenager. So there’s a whole coming-of-age and family side you wouldn’t find in most thrillers.”

One point the executives repeat several times is the scope and breadth stories can now have on television, particularly with a partner like Amazon on board. While films may only present a snapshot of a particular issue, this can be expanded several times on the small screen.

Coan says that what makes Hanna work as a multi-territory production for a worldwide streaming service is that its story lends itself to such global ambitions. “Because the story moves between all these different places and lives in Europe, it isn’t one thing. It’s not a British show, an American show or a German show, it’s a global show,” he concludes.

“All those different points of view and ways of thinking were valid. It’s a global narrative produced in a global way. If you were trying to tell a specific story and had input from afar, it might not be as well received or there might be more conflict. But there was a wonderful synergy of everyone coming together.”

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The Missing link

The Missing star Tchéky Karyo returns as French detective Julien Baptiste in a spin-off from the hit BBC drama. DQ spends a day at the seaside to see the actor on set and find out about the making of eight-part drama Baptiste.

When DQ was first invited to spend a day at the seaside and visit the set of BBC1 drama Baptiste, it briefly conjured optimistic images of enjoying a refreshing ice-cream in the warm autumnal sunshine. As it turns out, that could not have been further from what transpired on a late October day in Kent on England’s south coast.

As a furious sea battered the stony shore, thick, gloomy clouds loomed on the horizon while the wind-worn crew battled on against the unforgiving elements. That this was the penultimate day of shooting after more than three months in production brought little comfort as stars Tchéky Karyo (pictured above), with his arm in a sling, and Tom Hollander repeatedly strolled along the beach in what was the last scene of the series, each time moving further inland to stay clear of the encroaching tide.

Earlier on, a brief respite from the weather saw director Jan Matthys take the opportunity to send up a drone and film the scene overhead, capturing the iconic White Cliffs of Dover in the background – a fortuitous decision considering the wind and rain that came shortly after the craft made its final landing.

Created and written by Harry and Jack Williams, Baptiste is a spin-off from the brothers’ BBC drama The Missing, this time putting stubborn but insightful investigator Julien Baptiste (Karyo) front and centre. When Baptiste and his wife Celia are on a visit to Amsterdam, the chief of police – who also happens to be one of Baptiste’s old girlfriends – seeks out his help due to his renowned and methodical crime-solving skills. He is then rapidly embroiled in a case that looks beyond the beautiful streets, canals and houses of Amsterdam to the seamy underworld beneath.

DirectorJan Matthys pauses for thought during filming on the beach

While both seasons of The Missing centred on a British family in crisis over a missing child, the idea behind Baptiste is to free the story from those restraints, producer John Griffin explains as filming continues on the beach at Walmer. Hence the decision to focus this spin-off, produced by Two Brothers Pictures for BBC1 in association with distributor All3Media International, on the investigator at the heart of both of those stories.

“In the first episode of this series, you meet Edward Stratton [Hollander] and it looks like a classic version of The Missing,” Griffin says. “Here’s a man desperately looking for his niece, who has gone missing. She had turned to drugs and prostitution in Amsterdam and then vanished, and he’s trying to save her. What happens at the end of the first episode is that Julien Baptiste finds her – which is the most unexpected thing you can imagine happening in a show associated with The Missing.”

The discovery leads to two big reveals at the end of the first hour, including a “massive plot twist” and a character revelation that means one person isn’t who they seem. The second episode then sees Baptiste come to the full realisation of what he has become entangled in as viewers learn this isn’t just a missing person case but a story involving people-trafficking and Romanian gangs.

“By the end of the second episode, the whole thing twists again and to some extent vindicates Baptiste’s confusion but opens up a whole other can of stuff,” Griffin continues, adding that Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine appears in episode three as an investigator from European Union law enforcement agency Europol. “She turns up and says, ‘Everybody stop. You’ve just walked all over my case that I’ve been doing very quietly for a long time. And you, sir [Baptiste], get out of my way.’ Then the whole plot spirals out of control because they’ve uncovered a hornets’ nest.

“It’s a fabulous ride. The second episode is one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. It starts on such a high note and it doesn’t stop, and then you hit another high note at the end and you go, ‘Wow, if anybody’s going to turn off now, they’re insane.’”

That the story is set almost entirely in Amsterdam, Griffin explains, is because the Williams brothers wanted to talk about the sex industry in a way viewers might easily recognise and understand. Filming, which began last July, took place in the city for three weeks, particularly around De Wallen’s red-light district where the majority of the “hero exteriors” were shot. The characteristics of the Dutch capital – narrow streets and lots of bicycles – plus the high cost of shooting there made it a tricky location for filming, prompting the majority of production to take place in Antwerp, across the Belgian border.

Tom Hollander as Edward Stratton

“It’s a nightmare. I crossed the road after lunch and caused a bicycle pile-up because I didn’t notice the bike lane,” Griffin admits. “So it’s set in Amsterdam, an expensive place to film, but a little bit of the story is set in Antwerp. There’s a great tax break in Belgium and a lot of Antwerp looks like the back streets of the old town of Amsterdam, so we rebuilt De Wallen there.

“We shot in De Wallen for real but we rebuilt the street in Antwerp so we had full control over it and could do some amazing stuff. We also went to [Belgian port city] Ghent quite a bit, which has canals.”

The decision to give Baptiste a series of his own came down to the fact that audiences “completely responded to him as a character,” Griffin says, describing him as the French version of Columbo, the iconic trenchcoat-wearing detective portrayed by Peter Falk in the long-running US TV series of the same name.

“The thing I love about the way [the Williams brothers] write for Baptiste is they use English idioms but they change them slightly, so he’ll say something like, ‘Don’t put the wrong step forward.’ It’s the wrong foot forward – he’s used the wrong word but it means the same thing, and I love that they write him like that,” Griffin adds. “He has this ability to get people off their guard and find out pieces of information they don’t think are relevant but that actually are terribly relevant, and that’s how he gets them. That’s what Columbo used to do. Julien does a similar trick on people, and he’s very human and a little bit frail.”

Behind the camera, wrapped up against the grim conditions, is director Jan Matthys, who takes charge of the second block, covering episodes four, five and six. A fan of The Missing, he had told his agent he wasn’t interested in any police shows a few months before the production team called to see if he was available for Baptiste.

“She called me and said, ‘I think you have to make an exception for this one,’” he recalls. “When I read it, it was immediately clear it’s not a procedural or classical police show but a human story. I’m very much into humanism and telling those stories, so I immediately wanted to be part of it. I’ve worked with [executive producer] Chris Aird before on [BBC crime drama] Shetland so I knew he was involved and how he takes care of his crews and directors, so that was an important thing as well.”

Taking over from Borkur Sigthorsson, Matthys was able to watch the earlier rushes and get a sense of the material shot for the first three episodes. What he noticed straight away was that Sigthorsson used a more experimental approach than his own, shooting lots of reflections and looking through windows and open doors. “So for me it was a challenge to stay close to my own way of telling stories, but it felt a bit more freeing to develop a new style and get some more stimuli,” the director says. “It took me a bit out of my comfort zone, but in a good way.”

Tchéky Karyo (far right) as Baptiste in The Missing

As the tension builds up towards the story’s resolution, the scripts also ramped up the action. Block two DOP John Lee picks up: “We carried on the style of block one, which was very long lenses, POV shots and a Scandi noir feel to it. But then we had some bigger set pieces. We had a big driving stunt scene and Tom [Hollander] climbing across rooftops, so we’ve had a lot of fun on our block. The car chase was a big challenge because we had Jessica and Tchéky in the car so we had to have three cars, including a stunt car that crashes, so we had to have multiple versions of that. It was quite complicated to work out.”

Lee is also an advocate for filming with drones, but only when they serve a purpose. “It’s a bit odd because you should do a drone shot when it’s a drone shot and you should do a helicopter shot when it’s a helicopter shot – they’re not really interchangeable,” he explains. “But on this, we couldn’t have got a helicopter as close to the actors as we wanted, so it was a drone shot. They’re so temperamental when it comes to the weather – you always worry. A bit of rain, a bit of wind and it won’t fly. But it’s amazing that we can now do a shot like that on a TV drama. We wouldn’t have been able to do it 10 years ago.”

From a producer’s point of view, Griffin says drones are “amazing” because they’re relatively quick to use and inexpensive compared with a helicopter. “The only thing I have to watch is not letting directors have a drone just because they want one,” he says, echoing Lee’s argument. “I see so much television where I think, ‘Why the drone shot?’ Make it mean something, make it worth it.”

Griffin notes that, as well as filming in Amsterdam, one of the other challenges on the series has been the need to cast a high number of international actors, owing to the fact that nearly all of the story takes place outside the UK. The production also required some underwater shooting, which first took place in Amsterdam and then continued in a tank near Brussels.

“We’ve got somebody going into the water and going under. What we couldn’t do was control safety underwater for very long, so we got a tank and did a whole sequence of somebody getting caught up with a rope around their foot and not being able to free themselves, so we had this whole thing of major jeopardy and whether they will survive,” Griffin reveals. “You’ll have to watch to find out what happens.”

Griffin hadn’t previously worked on The Missing, so had no relationship with that world or its characters before joining Baptiste, something he says has been key to helping the show find its own identity.

“That’s been a really brilliant challenge but with a character I absolutely love, who is funny, smart, unusual,” he notes. “New series are always a challenge. For me, the strongest thing that makes it feel like The Missing is what we’re doing with it musically. It has that same feel in the music and that’s having an extraordinary effect on the edit.”

That Baptiste survives the events of this season is apparent by his appearance here on the beach. And as filming concludes, you might think the character would be keen to settle for a quieter life. It’s hard to imagine, however, he would not rise to the challenge should another case – and the BBC – demand his expertise.

Checking in with Tchéky
The title of the series is his character’s name, but Tchéky Karyo is typically sincere when he says Baptiste isn’t just his show. “In the choir, I’m a lead voice but it’s a real ensemble,” he tells DQ inside a minibus that is doubling up as shelter from the unpleasant weather outside.

This drama, he explains, is a story “with great characters going through a very special journey. Baptiste is a link between them and he tries to unthread the twisted and cracked mysteries and stories and explore the dark sides of people. The brothers [writers Harry and Jack Williams] said they still have some skeletons in the closet.”

Baptiste opens six months after the conclusion of The Missing’s second season, with the former detective having undergone surgery for a brain tumour. “He’s alive and happy,” Karyo says, before adding ominously: “When we start, he’s very happy. He’s in Amsterdam with [his wife] Celia to help their daughter and son-in-law to look after their grandchild.” It’s fair to say his mood probably begins to sour when he’s called by an ex-girlfriend, Martha, who wants his help with a new case.

“She knows he’s good at this kind of mission,” the actor says. “He’s reluctant; he doesn’t really want to go back to his old life but Celia knows that it’s going to be good for him and he needs it, so she pushes him out into that investigation. It’s quite complicated. He will also have to deal with the fact his family will be in danger. He wasn’t waiting for this and it becomes really tough.”

The DNA of The Missing is there in the nature of the investigation, with Tom Hollander’s character, Edward, searching for his niece, even though there is a new story and setting. Karyo adds about Edward: “He’s a character with a lot of shadows that Baptiste feels empathy for but at the same time, he doesn’t really understand where he’s coming from, so Baptiste will have to understand what’s at stake for him.”

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Doom’s day

The DC Universe streaming platform introduces a new band of superheroes in the form of Doom Patrol. April Bowlby, who plays Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, tells DQ about the ‘amazing’ experience of making the show.

Bringing a much-loved comic book character to the screen can be a daunting experience for any actor, not least when that character is part of a hugely popular group of superheroes, with fans who have been following them for more than 50 years.

That’s not been the case for April Bowlby, however, who says she has been warmly welcomed into the world of DC Comics and the on-screen DC Universe after signing up to star in Doom Patrol.

“I’m adjusting pretty well. It’s all very new to me and I have to say it’s a whole new world,” she says of the fandom connected to the comic book world. “I feel grateful to have that responsibility to represent a character that is enjoyed and has never been represented before. With that in my heart, it’s been a fabulous experience.”

Bowlby plays Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, in the 13-part series commissioned by DC’s fledgling SVoD platform DC Universe. Farr is a former actress who develops the power to stretch, shrink and grow after being exposed to a toxic gas, leading her to link up with the other members of Doom Patrol: Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Negative Man (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), with the team led by modern-day mad scientist Dr Niles Caulder, otherwise known as The Chief (Timothy Dalton).

Each of Doom Patrol’s members suffered horrible accidents that gave them superhuman abilities but also left them scarred and disfigured. Traumatised and downtrodden, the team finds purpose through The Chief, who brings them together to investigate the weirdest phenomena in existence and protect Earth from what they find.

The show’s origins can be traced back to 1963, when writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani brought the characters to life in issue 80 of My Greatest Adventure. But if there was any pressure in portraying the character, Bowlby is afforded some freedom by the fact this is the first time Elasti-Woman will be seen on screen.

“There are so many ways she could go. Luckily, I think the writers and the creators have found this beautiful balance of creative freedom and also following the [comic book writer] Grant Morrison version of the comics, which is dark and humorous. All the characters find themselves in crazy, wild and wacky situations, but they are all balanced with heart, kind of like the human condition. That’s the grounding of the show.

“To be able to play that and have it so beautifully written and honest from the heart but then to be in such strange circumstances is a real gift. And there’s nothing to follow – it’s all freeform and you can create anything you want. That’s why our show is so cool, because the stories are so wild, you do create anything you want. It’s a blessing.”

The series, which debuts on February 15, is set after the events of fellow DC Universe series Titans, picking up with these reluctant heroes after The Chief is kidnapped and they are called to action by Cyborg (Joivan Wade), who comes to them with a mission that is hard to refuse but with a warning that is hard to ignore: their lives will never be the same again.

“Throughout the season, they have to try and bring The Chief back. In each episode, you learn about a character and why they’re so broken and alienated from the world,” Bowlby explains. “Then they have to come to terms with their deepest, darkest fears – why do they function the way they do and how do they let that go so they can save the person they love? There’s this beautiful arc throughout the whole thing, and I think people can relate to that – I feel like we grow when we’re most uncomfortable, and that’s what this show is.”

Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Woman, develops powers after being exposed to toxic gas

Doom Patrol is similar to many other superhero series in that it takes time to establish the backstory of each character and reveal how they acquired their unique abilities. Farr, Bowlby says, is a very sweet, incredibly beautiful actress who is admired by many until she is exposed to toxic gas that causes her skin to “blob out,” leading her to lock herself away from the world.

“She’s on a journey of accepting that wounded part of herself, the broken part no one wants to look at, and being like, ‘It’s OK if I have this darkness inside me – maybe we can make good of it,'” Bowlby continues. “But it’s quite a process. She resists it very much. She doesn’t want to be a superhero; she’s an antihero. She’s very selfish. She’s like, ‘I just want to stay home and eat.’ So there’s this nice evolution throughout where each character has to learn how to help and grow, which is a terribly difficult thing.”

Doom Patrol seeks to blend dark and mature themes with humour, dysfunction and the absurd, finding a balance between the broad appeal of the superhero genre with the personal conflicts affecting each of the characters. A stranger to the series until landing the part, Bowlby went back to the original 1960s comics before picking up the Morrison issues from the 1980s. “I read through those and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, this is crazy! This is dark and fun!’ Every time we get a script, it’s like, ‘What is happening?’ The characters ground it but the situations are so extreme and funky and weird. I don’t think there’s anything like it on TV.”

The members of Doom Patrol have already appeared in an episode of Titans, suitably named Doom Patrol, which doubled as a backdoor pilot for a standalone series. During her initial audition, Bowlby read for a character in Titans who didn’t even have a name at that stage. When she finally landed the part, her manager revealed she would be playing Elasti-Woman in both Titans and the Doom Patrol series.

Individual posters for the Doom Patrol characters

Bowlby is best known for starring in all six seasons of fantasy legal drama Drop Dead Diva, which aired on US cable network Lifetime between 2009 and 2014. She’s also appeared in sitcoms Two & a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.

Doom Patrol, however, was a “huge leap” for the actor. “I normally do comedy and this is the most dysfunctional, beautiful character I’ve ever played. She’s so broken but tries to cover it. She’s written so beautifully and she’s so layered. It’s been quite a process,” says Bowlby, who watched films such as The Star and Sunset Boulevard to help her capture Rita’s 1950s style. “She’s this broken, beautiful thing that hisses at the world when you try to touch her. I’ve never had so much fun!”

Filming has been “amazing,” she says, despite some 17-hour work days and the challenge of bringing five leading actors together. “But everyone has meshed so well,” the actor continues. “Everyone has a bit of their own character inside of them. It’s funny to watch because you see Diane, she is kind of Crazy Jane a little bit and I’m kind of Rita Farr. We have this joke where we’re kind of like The Breakfast Club – we are the adult, dysfunctional Breakfast Club. One of us is the brain, one of us is the princess, one of us is the basket case. I just fell in love with all these people.”

One notable challenge, aside from the make-up and special effects required to create Elasti-Woman, was an underwater scene filmed in a tank, which meant Bowlby had to work with scuba instructors to learn how to dive. “That was really cool. It’s just been a dream job,” she says. “What other job do you get to learn to scuba dive? It’s crazy. It’s been fantastic.”

Joining Titans on the DC Universe platform, Doom Patrol is part of the wider DC television landscape that features characters such as Supergirl, The Flash and Green Arrow, which appear in series on US network The CW. Like those dramas, the new show comes from Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros Television. Executive producers include Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Jeremy Carver and Sarah Schechter.

But what is it that drives the ongoing popularity of superheroes on the small screen? “I’ve been trying to figure that out because it’s all very new to me,” admits Bowlby, who says her own superpower of choice would be the ability to fly. “I think it’s a little bit of escapism. Also, every superhero is broken in a way, so there’s this relatability of being wounded in this life and then to actually have the power and the voice to speak up and change things. It really speaks to the human condition.

“Our show is so special because it is the antihero show. None of our characters want to do good with their powers. None of them want to own it, none of them want to be a part of it, except Cyborg. They’re very reluctant heroes. I think maybe people can relate to that a little bit. But there’s a magic in being able to suspend reality and imagine you could actually help people and save people.”

While entertainment and escapism are always essential factors in a superhero series, Bowlby says Doom Patrol also has a moral message at its heart. “I hope people take away that the show is about coming to terms with yourself and looking at yourself and loving your dysfunctional family and growing,” she adds. “Everyone can relate to that. Our show is also very much about loving the darkness within you.”

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Short trip home

Australian series Homecoming Queens is among the shortform dramas being screened at this week’s Berlinale event. Series producer Katia Nizic tells DQ about the origins of SBS On-demand’s first ever commission and the challenge of producing shortform content.

While shortform web series have traditionally struggled to break out among the sheer volume of longform dramas, there are many signs that this is about to change. Fuelled by the success of series such as vampire-themed Carmila and teen dramas such as Skam –both the Norwegian original on NRK and the US remake for Facebook Watch – more money than ever is being poured into the medium, with writers, directors and producers viewing the format as a way to bring their stories to the screen while showcasing their talents.

That was certainly the inspiration behind Homecoming Queens, a seven-part series commissioned by Australia’s SBS that launched in April 2018. Such is the growing interest around shortform that the drama is now among five chosen to be screened this week as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event. Others include Fat (Argentina), Gender Derby (France), Hotel Paradise (Denmark) and Stateless (Turkey/Germany).

The story of Homecoming Queens begins when, after discovering she has alopecia, children’s television presenter Michelle goes home to Brisbane and arrives on her best friend Chloë’s doorstep. Chloë, who has had her own struggle with breast cancer, welcomes her back openly at first and tries to enlist her help in ticking items off her ‘reverse bucket list,’ now that her chemotherapy has finished – but Michelle is nervous and far from ready to deal with her new illness.

L-R: Corrie Chen, Katia Nizic, Chloë Reeson and Michelle Law

Generator Pictures’ Katia Nizic was approached in February 2016 by director Corrie Chen with a two-page outline for the series created by writers Chloe Reeson and Michelle Law (who plays Michelle on screen). The idea was based on the pair’s own lives – Law suffered from alopecia, Reeson had breast cancer – and they were looking for a producer to take it on. Nizic was immediately drawn to the story and its Brisbane setting, so they got together and began workshopping the series.

By the end of that year, broadcaster SBS and Screen Australia had invested some development funding into the project. And with all seven episodes written, the pilot was shot in January 2017 in the middle of a sweltering heatwave.

“In terms of what [themes] ended up in the finished show, everything we shot in the pilot is in there,” Nizic says. “SBS really bought into it and I pushed them to make a decision in four weeks, which meant we could get on with financing the rest of the show and doing more script development with SBS.”

SBS gave the greenlight in April 2017 and pre-production began that October. “We basically ended up shooting a feature film – the whole series is 85 minutes – with about 18 months’ development. But in other ways, despite all having to work other jobs and do other writing gigs, we were working on it pretty intensely during that time. We had a lot of feedback because we had Screen Queensland, Screen Australia and SBS development support. We put the same level of care into the development as you would a film; we just knew we’d be shooting it with about half the money of a low-budget feature.”

Homecoming Queens’ episodes are between nine and 16 minutes long

Nizic says Homecoming Queens was always conceived as a shortform series, with self-contained episodes that each advanced the story to its conclusion. On a limited budget, it was also important not to cram too much story into each instalment, with episodes running between nine and 16 minutes.

“In terms of how we developed the show – the number of writers rooms and drafts and feedback we incorporated and how rigorous it was – it was no different from a television series development,” Nizic says. “In fact there may have been more scrutiny because we hadn’t done this before. We went through five or six drafts for each of our scripts in terms of feedback and rewriting. We really wanted this to be a calling card for whatever any of us wanted to do next. We also wanted to make something high quality that would look good if you put it on a TV screen.”

At the heart of the series is Chloe (Liv Hewson) and Michelle’s relationship, and how it changes over the course of the season as they learn about themselves and each other. “We had to get them to a point where their friendship had changed but potentially for the better,” Nizic says of building the story. “So in trying to reverse-engineer that, we were thinking in terms of what’s happening for them in each episode and asking how is it impacting their relationship and how is it moving it forwards or backwards, and figuring out the storylines based on that and giving each episode a beginning, middle and end. It did end up being extremely difficult, and maybe that’s why we had so many drafts.”

Yet despite the emotionally charged subject matter, Homecoming Queens delicately blends a mix of humour and drama, which Nizic credits to Reeson and Lee’s relationship as well as finding the comedy in some incredibly sad situations. “It’s not everyone’s reaction [to the situation] but it’s certainly theirs and I really liked that dark humour when I saw the initial outline for the series,” she adds. “I thought it was an interesting way to tell it and it really works, for Australian humour anyway.”

The show was the first online-only commission from SBS

In production, Nizic notes that SBS kept a keen interest in the series, owing to the fact it was its first online commission. With little room for error on a budget of A$690,000 (US$488,000), every single page of the shooting scripts was committed to film, despite the production one day facing a sudden thunderstorm that forced the crew to move locations after they were forced to evacuate the beach where they had been filming.

“Basically we had a crew of 20 to 25 on any given day and we had quite a few scenes with lots of extras,” Nizic says. “We did have small departments but we just had to choose wisely in terms of people like the art department. We had an art director who was doing all the financial stuff, was on set every day and then made us a ‘Harry Potter’ castle on the weekend. We chose people we’d all worked with before who are multi-talented and knew what kind of job it would be. It’s not that they were unpaid, it’s that they had to go above and beyond.

“There was a challenge getting what we wanted creatively because Brisbane doesn’t have a lot of studios. One of our biggest tasks was finding all the locations we needed. Mostly, we needed to film in houses, but we also got into a hospital training facility that looks like a hospital. We got into this huge bar for the drag show. If we hadn’t been able to get those locations locked down, it would have been a nightmare.”

Though a second season isn’t forthcoming, Nizic says Homecoming Queens turned out to be the show they wanted to make at the outset, pointing to shortform web series as a creative opportunity to take risks broadcasters may not want to stomach with a full-length commission.

“A web series gives an opportunity to people like me who previously just made shorts and want to show what they can do,” she adds. “We worked incredibly hard to make sure SBS were really happy with the finished project and everything went in on time. We over-delivered in terms of marketing materials. It was really important to us that this came out in the best possible light, and SBS have been really happy with it. I think they’d work with us again.”

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Go West

Swedish drama West of Liberty brings the first book in Thomas Engström’s spy series to television. DQ speaks to producer Gunnar Carlsson about making the English-language series, which is set and filmed in Berlin.

Once upon a time, the idea of an English-language Swedish drama set in Germany might have seemed impossible to realise, considering the number of potential partners involved and the logistics of pulling together such a collaboration.

But today, such considerations are water off a duck’s back to a producer like Anagram, which has offices in Sweden and Norway and has successfully completed series set as far away from Western Europe as Thailand and India.

The independent prodco’s latest series is West of Liberty, an action-packed, suspense-filled spy thriller that will receive its international premiere tomorrow as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event.

Gunnar Carlsson

The six-part drama centres on Ludwig Licht, a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who works as a freelance problem-solver and bartender in Berlin. When his old partner Clive Barner, head of the CIA’s Berlin office, asks him to come out of retirement and work a case involving Lucien Gell, the corrupt leader of whistle-blowing site Hydraleaks, Licht gets the chance to solve one last investigation.

Wotan Wilke Möhring stars as Licht, with Michelle Meadows as former Hydraleaks legal advisor Faye Morris. The cast also includes Matthew Marsh and Philipp Karner.

Produced by Lund-based Anagram for Sweden’s SVT and German broadcaster ZDF, West of Liberty is based on the first novel in Thomas Engström’s acclaimed book series. It will also air on TV2 Norway and YLE in Finland, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment distributing.

Anagram Sweden’s head of drama, Gunnar Carlsson, first came across the story when Engström’s agent gave him a copy of the book. “I read it very early and immediately I was interested in it,” he recalls. “Then I got to know this was the first of a series. We optioned them all and started work.”

The fact the story is set in Berlin was no deterrent to producing the show, with Carlsson embracing the project as the next “natural step” for a Swedish company looking to break into the international market. “It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad but doing international shows directly for the market. This is a very natural step to take,” he says.

In particular, it was the fact West of Liberty is a character-driven story, rather than a plot-heavy drama you might expect from the spy genre, that most appealed to the producer. “Of course there’s a plot there but it’s also very character-driven and this is something I liked very much,” he says. “There’s a lot of depth to the characters. So my interest in this was the characters, particularly the main character Licht, who is a former Stasi guy who double-plays with the CIA and now lives in Berlin where he runs a bar. He has a very interesting story.

West of Liberty stars Wotan Wilke Möhring as Licht

“It also has a lot of action in the plot – they’re chasing a guy who’s running a Wikileaks-like organisation who is in hiding. This was written before [Wikileaks founded Julian] Assange ended up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London but it’s quite an astonishing coincidence. It’s very contemporary.”

With Sara Heldt (The Crown Princess, The Dying Detective) and Donna Sharpe
(The Team, Teufelsberg) on writing duties, the scripts were initially penned in Swedish by Heldt before she and Sharpe translated them into English. West of Liberty’s characters come from a variety of backgrounds, so English was the common language used on screen, though characters also use their native languages where possible.

Carlsson describes Heldt as “one of the best scriptwriters we have,” having previously worked with her while he was an executive at Swedish pubcaster SVT. “She’s very good on character. She was my absolute first choice and has written most of the script [in Swedish]. Sara is Swedish and she’s fluent in English but, at the same time, it’s different [speaking English as a second language]. So before we started shooting, we looked for an English writer. My partner, Bettina Went, had worked with Donna before and she followed the scripts through the whole production.”

Behind the camera is Barbara Eder (Thank You For Bombing, Tatort), who Carlsson says has used a hand-held style to film the series. “It’s not mainstream,” he explains, noting that this technique brings a freedom to the visuals, which also incorporate natural light where possible. The acting is also very natural, adding to the cinematic tone of the drama. “This is something we wanted from the beginning when we were looking for directors who had worked a bit like that, and that’s how we found Barbara,” he continues. “She picked Carl Sundberg, the DOP, who is also used to working this way. We put together a team that could do this a bit more advanced than a mainstream show.”

The majority of filming took place in Berlin, with additional scenes shot in Cologne and Bonn in Germany as well as Malmo in Sweden. But the story is entirely set in the German capital.

The show centres on an investigation into a Wikileaks-like organisation

“This is the way international shows are done because you do it out of financial terms; you get support and have to spend money in certain areas,” Carlsson says. “Interior apartments in Berlin are shot in Malmo and so on. The beginning of the show is shot in Marrakesh, Morocco. It all starts there.”

In Germany, Anagram was supported by Hamburg-based Network Movie, a company with which Carlsson had also worked while at SVT on shows such as Bron (The Bridge). That Network Movie is owned by German network ZDF meant there was a natural connection to another broadcaster that could support the series with additional financing.

“We went to them and, together with them and the producer and their team, we started to plan how to put this together,” Carlsson says. “When you look at the style of the show, you don’t look at the countries, you look at the people. We found Barbara in Austria and Carl in Sweden. But then later on if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. It worked very well. It was quite easy. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmo and the heads of departments [HODs] we had in Germany followed on but then we had a Swedish team there. If you have the same HODs and DOP, it’s no problem [to keep the same style or tone]. Even the culture in doing stuff in Germany and Sweden doesn’t differ that much. We talk the same, we understand the same stuff. It’s very easy.”

Anagram is suitably experienced in filming Swedish dramas overseas, with credits that include Thailand-set 30 Grader i Februari (30 Degrees in February) and Delhis Vackraste Händer (The Most Beautiful Hands in Delhi), which was shot entirely in New Delhi.

In comparison, there were few challenges filming in Berlin, a relative neighbour to Malmö, the largest city in Southern Sweden and close to Anagram’s base in nearby Lund. The geographical distance was short, for example, and there was no time difference, but working between two countries simply meant things such as financial reports took a little more time. Carlsson says this can cause a two-step development process, instead of one step, “but it’s not a problem as such. Sometimes we have a time delay if you need to make quick decisions. We didn’t have this problem, but you notice it. We have made shows in Thailand and New Dehli and then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference. For us ,this was easy.

The majority of West of Liberty was shot in Berlin

“One lesson we learned working with people from other countries is even though we are very much alike, we are different. You have to adapt to the culture and not work against it. That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin. If you don’t work like that, you will have problems. As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if doing a production with partners in Europe.”

The series needed to be filmed in Berlin, however, as Engström describes the city as one of the characters in the story, demanding a level of authenticity that couldn’t be replicated in a studio or another European location. “The story couldn’t take place in a place other than Berlin because it has its traces in the Cold War, and these characters come out of that. Berlin is a very integrated part of the series,” Carlsson adds.

Engström followed West of Liberty with three more novels – South of Hell (2014), North of Paradise (2015) and East of the Abyss (2017). Writers are already working on the second book adaptation, with Carlsson in talks with potential Canadian coproduction partners, as South of Hell unfolds in Washington D.C. and rural Pennsylvania.

If the series’ success continues, Anagram will have further opportunities to flex its international coproduction muscles, with North of Paradise set in Florida and Cuba, while East of the Abyss plays out in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.

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Good timing

For years, Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s cult novel Good Omens was deemed unfilmmable – until now. Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon tell DQ how they turned this funny and fantastical story of the end of the world into a six-part TV spectacle.

When Jon Hamm signed up for a miniseries version of Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, the Mad Men star joined a team taking on what many had deemed an impossible task. “I thought it was one of the funniest, coolest books I’d ever read,” he says. “It was also, obviously, unfilmmable.”

For a long time, Gaiman would have been excused for thinking so too. He wrote the book with late fantasy author Pratchett in 1989 and it was published the following year, quickly winning a cult following.

Then came many years of failed attempts to bring about a movie adaptation, either because it was too weird, there were too many characters, or both. But in the summer of 2014, with Pratchett suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he wrote to Gaiman asking him to make Good Omens himself because he wanted to see it before he died. Sadly, it was a dream he never realised, passing away in March 2015. Gaiman knew then he had to fulfil his dear friend’s last request.

Neil Gaiman

“I feel a little bit like one of those people who manages to do something completely impossible because nobody mentions to me that it’s impossible,” showrunner Gaiman tells DQ. “I should have had a clue in retrospect, because we went to half-a-dozen of the best writers in the world over a period of a few years and asked them to do the adaptation of Good Omens and they all explained that it was probably impossible to do.

“But then Terry asked me if I would do the adaptation. Up until that point, the deal Terry and I had was that we would do something together on Good Omens or not do it at all. Here we were with Terry actually saying, ‘I can’t do it so you have to because I want to see it before I die.’ Then he died – which left me with Good Omens as a thing to see through, and I couldn’t let myself believe at that point that it would be impossible or unfilmmable because I had to give this to Terry. I was fortunate in that, at the end of writing the script, people liked it.”

Gaiman spent 18 months writing six scripts, reinventing the story for television and injecting extra excitement and surprises while trying to stay loyal to the original material – the story of a friendship between an angel and a demon who have been on Earth for too long and now want to stop the apocalypse.

Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) and David Tennant (Doctor Who, Marvel’s Jessica Jones) star as fussy angel and rare-book dealer Aziraphale and fast-living demon Crowley, respectively, who have lived on Earth since The Beginning and have become fond of the lifestyle and each other. So it’s terrible news for them when they discover that if Heaven and Hell have their way, the world will end next Saturday. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan, until it’s discovered that someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…

The series was commissioned by Amazon Prime Video and UK pubcaster BBC2, with Amazon set to premiere the six-part fantasy drama this spring before it launches on the BBC. The show is produced by Narrativia, The Blank Corporation and BBC Studios, which also distributes.

“When people are making films, there’s a lot of time spent worrying about things like tone and consistency and telling one story clearly, whereas what Good Omens does is tell multiple stories with multiple characters, albeit with Aziraphale and Crowley at the heart of it all,” explains director and executive producer Douglas Mackinnon. “It wanders off into many different paths and thoroughfares, and yet the main theme – good against evil – glues it together. When I read the script, I felt it wasn’t impossible, just quite a big challenge.”

David Tennant (left) as demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as angel Aziraphale

When it comes to adapting one of his own books for the screen, Gaiman jokes that his writing process is to say, “No, get somebody else to do it.” American Gods and Lucifer are two other series currently on air that are based on Gaiman creations. But with Good Omens, he no longer had the option to pass it on, owing to his promise to Pratchett.

With six episodes to write, he took the novel, cut it into six parts and began to explore what that might look like. Quickly, however, he found if he did it that way, neither Crowley nor Aziraphale would appear in episode three, so he ended up writing additional material featuring them both to insert into the original story. “But actually that wound up becoming incredibly important to what we were doing and encapsulated a lot of the themes and made them feel even more prevalent than they were for the rest of the series,” he says.

Gaiman admits some of his favourite bits in the book didn’t make it into the script because, ultimately, they were unfilmmable. Sequences taking place in people’s heads or conversations between a group of helmet-wearing bikers riding with the roar of their engines, for example. Other bits, however, were added in, such as a role for Mad Men star Jon Hamm as Archangel Gabriel.

“The angels were characters Terry and I had talked about, planned out and thought about a lot after we wrote the book – and had we ever done a sequel, they would have been in that more,” Gaiman says. “So I got to go and steal from the work we did back then and create four angels who aren’t anywhere in the book: Gabriel, played by Jon; Michael, played by Doon Mackichan; Paul Chahidi plays Sandalphon and Gloria Obianyo plays Uriel, and they’re wonderful – these incredible angels in very sharp suits.”

Mackinnon, whose directing credits include Sherlock, Doctor Who and Line of Duty, says working on Good Omens has been a complete collaboration with Gaiman, who has been on set for large parts of the shoot, was involved in casting and choosing every costume and, more recently, has been in the cutting room every day. He didn’t want to impose a particular style on the show, however. Anyone who’s read the book will know it has a unique tone of its own, and it was the script that subsequently informed Mackinnon’s decisions. He would also carry a copy of the book around with him during production.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm (left) plays Archangel Gabriel

“I did one or two episodes of Line of Duty and it’s a very different show, and the style presented itself for that,” he says. “This has a much more epic, cinematic feel that the storytelling in the script deserves.”

But it was the scale of the production on a daily basis that proved to be the biggest challenge for the director. “We’d seldom stay in one location for one or two days,” he says, with filming taking place in London, Oxford and South Africa over 93 days. “We had to come away with all the material each time. With 200 speaking parts, just casting that and organising it has been a massive task, and that’s been the challenge. But it’s been a wonderful challenge, really exciting and a brilliant one as well.”

Gaiman describes Good Omens as a “mammoth, gargantuan project,” but says he loved the fact that no reshoots were needed. “We went in, we got what we needed, we came away and that was amazing,” he adds.

But showrunning won’t be a role he’s likely to repeat in a hurry, if at all. “I’m very much looking forward to becoming a retired showrunner,” he quips, revealing his ambitions to create and write more television, novels, children’s books and poetry. “By the time this goes out, I will have given four years of my life to it and there are lots of other things out there that I want to do. I’ve learned so much from Douglas and from working with everybody about the minutiae of making a show like this. I think I will be much more useful in the future, as I will be able to create things and communicate to showrunners much more successfully.”

Gaiman says that, at its core, Good Omens is a book about humanity and friendship. But what he’s proudest of is that the show doesn’t feel like anything else on television, which is quite a feat considering the 500-plus dramas now on air.

“Normally, if you’re trying to describe something, you do it by comparing it to other things. You’re like, ‘Well, it’s Casablanca in space,’ or whatever,” he says. “With this, it’s not like anything else. It’s Good Omens – and when people see it, that’s what they compare it to. It is the only thing like it, for good or for evil, for success or failure. I don’t care. What I do care about is we’ve made something that feels unique, feels special and, at least to me and Douglas, feels absolutely magical.”

Assembling an ensemble
When it comes to casting, there can be few better ensembles on screen than that collated for Good Omens. With Michael Sheen and David Tennant leading off as angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, the supporting cast includes Jon Hamm (Archangel Gabriel), Miranda Richardson (Madame Tracy), Mireille Enos (War), Mark Gatiss (Harmony), Derek Jacobi (Metatron), Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub), Daniel Mays (Arthur Young), Sian Brooke (Deirdre Young), Adria Arjonoa (Anathema Device), Nina Sosanya (Sister Mary Loquacious) and David Morrissey (Captain Vincent), as well as many other notable names.

Miranda Richardson alongside fellow cast members Hamm, Sheen and Tennant

Tennant and Sheen had known each other for a while and had even appeared in a film together, 2003’s Bright Young Things, though they never acted together. But playing a pair of unlikely best friends meant they too became extremely close, sharing most of their screen time throughout the long shoot.

“We spent a lot of time sitting on park benches discussing the end of the world, what restaurant we were going to go to next or what else we’ve done that’s just fucked things up even more,” Tennant jokes, speaking at Amazon’s Prime Video Presents event in London in October. “We did know each other but we’d never worked together and you think, ‘This could be awful. What if we rub up against each other the wrong way?’ But mercifully I think we found a rhythm very quickly. If you’ve got two characters that feel completely new and instantly recognisable, that comes from the writing. You know what this really unique, odd, peculiar world is straightaway, the minute you start playing it. It was a joy.”

Sheen continues: “Whenever I think about playing the character, and this is not true of any other part I play, I only think of it in terms of me and David. I don’t think of it as just an individual character, I think of him as ‘us.’”

Richardson plays Madame Tracy, a psychic and part-time courtesan who provides a helping hand to Aziraphale and Crowley as they try to save the world from Armageddon. “Physically embodying her with all the help that any of us always gets on a production in terms of hair and make-up and costume was a lot of fun, but also because it is a performance for her. It’s huge fun and a great thing to do.”

Hamm, best known for playing Mad Men’s Don Draper for seven seasons, had read the book some time ago and was a fan of Gaiman. So when the writer emailed him about playing a character that didn’t exist in the book, he admits “it was a very easy ‘yes.’”

“I knew that whatever direction it was going to take, it was going to be excellent,” Hamm explains. “Then I saw who else was in it and I thought it was going to be fun, too. I love working over here [in the UK]. I got the chance to be over here for five or six weeks and really just play at this exciting, fun job. So it was a no-brainer for me. I was just happy to be asked.”

But how does he respond when people ask him what Good Omens is about? “I say it’s a comedy about the Apocalypse,” he adds. “That usually gets a little head cock and demands further explanation, and that’s the best way in.”

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Diplomacy rules

The true story of a heroic diplomat’s actions in the face of General Pinochet’s Chilean revolution forms the bases for Finnish period drama Invisible Heroes. Writer Tarja Kylmä and YLE executive Liselott Forsman tell DQ about developing the series.

If the challenge for television executives in today’s crowded drama landscape is to find local stories that have the potential to resonate with international audiences, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is leading the way.

Currently in production is The Paradise, a crime drama set among the ex-pat Finnish community living in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, dubbed the Finnish capital of Spain. It is due to air on YLE this autumn.

Invisible Heroes is set in the middle of the Pinochet revolution in Chile

Before then, the network has earmarked a spring launch for Invisible Heroes, a political thriller set in Chile during General Pinochet’s military coup in 1973.

Inspired by true events, the story follows the remarkable exploits of Finnish diplomat Tapani Brotherus who, while working in secret, helped secure asylum in Europe for more than 2,000 Chilean citizens whose lives were under threat.

The cast is led by Pelle Heikkilä who stars as Brotherus, Ilkka Villi as fellow diplomat Ilkka Jaamala and Sophia Heikkilä as Lysa Brotherus. Mikael Persbrandt plays Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam, while Chilean actor Cristian Carvajal and Germany’s Sönke Möhring also appear.

It’s based on a story that was “hidden for 35 years,” says Finnish screenwriter Tarja Kylmä, until a documentary about Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam gave some clues to Brotherus’ actions. A book was then published about him in 2010, which caught the interest of YLE’s head of drama Jarmo Lampela.

“One day when I was cleaning snow out of my garden and he [Lampela] just arrived with a book and said, ‘Read this, it’s wonderful. If you like it you can write it,’” Kylmä recalls, speaking to DQ at Série Series in France last year. “I read it and it’s a wonderful story. I did some interviews and found some more interesting material that was not in the book, about this great love story between two youngsters, and then I started writing.”

Owing to the source material, the story was the perfect coproduction opportunity. Finland’s Kaiho Republic partnered with Parox in Chile, with YLE commissioning the drama in association with Chilevisión. Kylmä was also paired with a Chilean writer, Manuela Infante, who was able to help with research and add an authentic Chilean voice to the story, which mostly takes place in the South American country.

“I’m the main writer so I made the big decisions about the characters, but we did have different layers because she was writing the Chilean approach and I was writing the Finns and they had to meet all the time, so it was a very good collaboration,” Kylmä says. “I loved it. Manuela’s a theatre writer so she loved the very close collaboration.”

YLE’s head of drama Jarmo Lampela and writer Tarja Kylmä

The screenwriter travelled to Chile to outline the series with Infante in November 2017, discussing the central character of Brotherus and the decisions that led to actions. She describes him as an idealistic diplomat who heads to the capital, Santiago, to make trade deals. But when the coup begins, he has to make a quick decision about whether to help hundreds of refugees escape the country, eventually securing them safe passage to Finland and East Germany while acting against Finnish policy.

“He’s told to send them away so he has to do it illegally. He might lose his job doing that so it’s a story about finding your voice and finding the courage in yourself,” Kylmä says. “After keeping them hidden from his government and Pinochet’s military forces, there’s another problem because what is he doing if he’s sending them safely to Europe? Is he making the resistance weaker? So there’s a dilemma in those people leaving. What is he doing to this country if he’s hiding them and sending them away? So it’s this battle inside him, while he’s also trying to protect his family from harm.”

The six-part series, which has been picked up for international distribution by Stockholm-based Eccho Rights, never strays far from the truth. In fact, the names of the characters are the names of real diplomats, many of whom had the chance to read the scripts. But as you might expect with any television drama, there are some fictional moments woven into the story. Kylmä says that after she completed her research, the real people involved became her characters to play with. “It has to be drama driven and not fact driven,” she notes. “It’s difficult [for the real people] when you know the wall wasn’t blue or something, but they accept it.”

Invisible Heroes is another entry into the increasingly popular trend for factual drama, alongside series such as Tokyo Trial, The Interrogation of Tony Martin and A Very English Scandal.

“It’s very important because we’re talking about refugees here and how to accept them in our country,” say Kylmä, noting the topicality of the subject. “It’s a problem for all of Europe, and suddenly we have something like this that happened in the 1970s. It’s the problems we are facing now. It’s a great trend because we can have distance but still wonder, ‘How would I have reacted in that situation? How could I have helped?’ We can face the questions in the present tense in drama.”

The period drama centres on Finnish diplomat Tapani Brotherus

The writing process took 18 months, beginning in January 2017. “It was fast. I researched and wrote, we made the outlines together [with Infante] and last spring was all out writing,” she continues. “This is like a film in six parts. I felt my role was a typical screenwriter. We cooperated with the directors — Mika Kurvinen and Alicia Scherson — and when filming started, we handed the baton to them.”

It was during trips to Chile that Kylmä was able to visit all the real locations featured in the story and grasp the mood of the country in the 1970s. There was also daily communication between Kylmä, Infante and producer Leonora González, who read scripts and gave notes. “With the time difference, you’re working two shifts because I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions,” she reveals. “When I wake up in the morning there are more questions. The DOP is Finnish and the main director but the rest of the team is Chilean. So the director has been meeting them so he knows what’s going on.”

Scriptwriting also took more time as the story features dialogue in Finnish, Spanish, Swedish and German. Kylmä wrote in Finnish, Infante wrote in Spanish and then translations were made from one to another. Then the dialogue was edited to include all languages. “We have to be honest to the language they used. They didn’t speak English in 1973 Chile,” the writer adds.

Liselott Forsman, YLE’s executive producer of international projects, comes from a background of coproductions, having worked for the Swedish arm of YLE for many years. “We coproduced everything because we had such a small budget,” she says. “But it was very easy because the Nordics were there, and also with the Baltic countries we had natural European coproduction partners.”

But when she moved to the network’s Finnish department almost six years ago, “people told me it’s not possible to coproduce in Finnish. It’s easy when you’re Swedish. Then Danish dramas started to air in countries that had never heard the Danish language before,” she says. “That was really nice. Everything was getting more international, so in the past five years it has really been a booming thing. It would have been much more difficult [to make Invisible Heroes] five years ago but now it’s exactly what everyone wants to do.”

The drama was copoduced by Finland’s Kaiho Republic and Parox in Chile

Forsman says YLE’s Lampela, who speaks Spanish, was keen to find a Spanish-language project, while Parox proved to be an exciting partner, owing to the advancing television production cultures in both Chile and Finland.

“Of course there are language problems but nothing major,” she says of production. “Things have changed in Latin America, and one thing is the acting. Usually in melodramas, the acting was very different, it was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. Now when you put actors from two cultures together you have to find the right way.”

Liisa Penttilä-Asikainen, executive producer at Kaiho Republic, adds: “Creating a series with such a global cast, and production teams from countries as different as Finland and Chile of course had its challenges. But the amazing story that we are telling brought everyone together and the input of such a culturally diverse creative group really aided us in bringing this extraordinary series of events back to life.”

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On the hunt

Fritz Lang’s classic thriller M is reimagined for television by David Schalko in M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City Hunts a Murderer). DQ met the director and the cast of the unsettling six-parter on set in Vienna.

At the time of its original release, Fritz Lang’s iconic film M was a groundbreaking piece of cinema that mixed social drama, police procedural, the criminal underworld and the hunt for a serial killer.

As such, it’s unsurprising that this 1931 classic, made during the German Expressionism period and one of the first German ‘talkies,’ is often cited as the inspiration for modern television genres. And it’s perhaps equally perplexing that there hasn’t been a television adaptation of M – until now.

M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Hunts a Murderer) isn’t a strict adaptation, however. Instead, creator and director David Schalko (Braunschlag, Alte Geld) has reimagined Lang’s feature, which saw the police, a gang of criminals, the press and other members of society search for Peter Lorre’s child killer – a character not regarded simply as a monster but as a product of the society in which he has grown up.

For M: A City Hunts a Murderer, the film’s themes have been transplanted from 1930s Berlin to modern-day Vienna, which serves as the backdrop to this series co-commissioned by Austrian public broadcaster ORF and German pay TV network RTL Crime. Produced by John Lueftner for Superfilm, it is distributed internationally by Beta Film and is due to air this year. The series will have its premiere at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event this month.

The sinister six-part thriller, written by Schalko and his wife Evi Romen, sees a capital confronted with a series of child murders, transforming the open and lively city into a society under total surveillance.

At first, the children disappear – but then bodies start to turn up, leading to a tabloid frenzy over the crime spree and the lack of action by the police. But while the ambitious Minister for the Interior tries to make his mark, the criminal underworld also steps up its search for the killer.

Udo Kier in M: A City Hunts a Murderer

The Minister is busy scheming when DQ visits the M set on a bright and sunny day of filming inside the dazzling foyer of Vienna University’s library and learning centre. Like a scene from The West Wing, he is walking and talking with The Publisher in an attempt to use the media to spread fear through the city and get a new security law passed.

“How do you remake M? Firstly, why the hell do you want to remake M? If you want to remake a masterpiece, you need a really good reason to do it,” says Klaus Lintschinger, head of television features at ORF, answering the question of why no one has done it before. However, he continues, ORF and RTL Crime did have a good reason for doing it, but only in a contemporary setting.

“David likes storytelling with a lot of characters and a lot of storylines, so the template of M offered him an opportunity to tell a really big story that affects us today,” Lintschinger explains. “It’s essentially the story of how politics tries to do the right thing but ends up doing something catastrophic. I never saw it as a remake and I never saw it as a sequel. David would refer to it as a homage, but that’s not right either. It’s a re-reading of it.”

Moving the drama to Vienna was a natural choice for Austrian filmmaker Schalko, though it was important the limited series wasn’t strictly a Viennese show once RTL Crime came on board, in what is the channel’s first original production. The German network had been looking for the right project and the “unique” M provided the right platform.

“It’s one of the best movies ever made, so if you start original production, you should start with a bang, you should start big,” says Klaus Holtmann, RTL’s executive VP of digital channels. “We couldn’t resist doing it.”

Securing rights to Lang’s film proved to be the trickiest hurdle to overcome in development, with financing from the broadcasters supported by Beta Film and tax incentives offered in Vienna and Austria.

Verena Altenberger also stars in the show, in which characters are unnamed and only referred to by their jobs or roles

Both Lintschinger and Holtmann say they signed up at the pitch stage, drawn to working with Schalko and his take on M while also understanding that they wouldn’t be able to make wide-scale changes to his vision. “It was a very creative process but if you commit to something like M, you can’t turn it into a telenovela,” Holtmann notes. “It’s still M and the core and soul is still there, and that’s why we shared the same vision.”

That vision doesn’t include a tourist’s romantic view of Vienna. Instead, the focus is on the dark side of the city and the implications of a child killer roaming the streets.

The 14-week shoot certainly embraced the influence of German Expressionism on Lang’s original, utilising unusual camera angles and shadows on the snowy landscape, often creating an atmosphere that makes it appear as if filming took place on a sound stage as opposed to on location.

Early footage of the series suggests a deeply dark and creepy tone. What adds to the eerie and unsettling style is that, like Lang’s film, none of the characters have names. They are only referred to by their job titles or roles in society, which actor Moritz Bleibtreu says mirrors what is going on in contemporary society.

“For people with power, whether it’s in business or politics or the press, there’s a big lack of empathy going on right now,” says Bleibtreu, who plays The Publisher. “It’s not about the people, it’s about the mechanisms of power and how to use them. It’s about the fact that a president isn’t simply elected, there are people who get them to that point – whether they write about them or some guy from Russia is pushing buttons and making people believe this guy is the right guy. There are always people in the background who make these things happen.

“He’s one of those guys,” Bleibtreu says of his character. “He wants power. It’s the only agenda these people have. Fuck money, money is not interesting. Power is interesting. To be able to do whatever you want, that’s power. You need money as a tool but that’s not the goal. The goal is power. That’s what makes them so dangerous and so hateable.”

Bela B Felsenheimer, an actor and musician known as the drummer in German band Die Ärtze, plays The Mystic, a rich man who is drawn into the police investigation with an apparent will to help the parents, though it’s clear he has questionable motives. “He has his own agenda,” Felsenheimer reveals. “He thinks he’s the chosen one, and he’s connected to the murder. This connection is pretty important, but I can’t reveal too much. He’s living in an all-white apartment with dolls dressed in clothes he got from the missing children, so he’s a creepy character.”

A self-confessed fan of Schalko’s work, Felsenheimer also admits to having watched Lang’s M more than 10 times – and then again when he got the part. “My character isn’t there in the film; there’s a strange guy mentioned in one scene but he doesn’t appear. Then I got the scripts and they were the most brilliant scripts I’ve ever read,” he says, comparing Schalko to Quentin Tarantino. “Every single person, even a bystander on the street, has got their own story and it’s interesting. They’re not there just to fill a space. It’s a really great TV event.”

Moritz Bleibtreu plays The Publisher

Meanwhile, Lars Eidinger and Verena Altenberger play the parents of the first murder victim. Naturally, their relationship is put under incredible strain by the loss of their daughter, and Eidinger says the way they react, in keeping with the tone of the series, is unnatural.

“David tries to ask what it means for the couple to lose the child, but more as a metaphor. They lose their future and their past,” he explains. “It’s a very complex structure and it has several layers that work metaphorically, but it is not very naturalistic. This is something I really like. They face everyday problems, but to deal with them on a different artistic level is, for me, much more inspiring.

“I was concentrating on being as truthful as possible to the moment when someone tells you your child is dead. I’m not going into the first cliche when you are crying because usually it’s not like this. Those parents become a bit insane – sometimes it means something in their lives changes so they cannot continue in the way they did, and sometimes it turns their world upside down. This is what the series is about.”

Altenberger says that while the initial focus is on the parents in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder, each episode expands to bring more characters into focus, while her own character’s darker side also emerges.

“Nobody is good or bad. Everybody is both, and sometimes that can change within a human life,” she explains. “I look for the balance in both sides of my character, and in every character in the show, to see how they react to each other. Every tiny little piece of the script matters.

“I’m pretty sure the scripts fit our society today. It’s even more than a general fear, it’s a hysterical way of accusing each other with the media and questioning something.”

As Shopgirl, Marleen Lohse reveals her character is carrying “a very deep and dark secret.” She works in a children’s store selling clothes, until she falls in love with one of the parents of the murdered children and finds a way to integrate herself into their family.

From the key characters to the bit-part players, each is “really fighting for something, and that makes it so special,” Lohse says. “Every scene has big moments. It’s about something bigger – the whole of society. Luckily I don’t carry this woman with me, but this project makes me think a lot.”

David Schalko’s tribute to a German classic

When David Schalko revisited Fritz Lang’s M four years ago, he found himself unable to forget it. But rather than simply remake the classic film for the small screen, he wanted to completely update it and add new elements to the story, such as social media, that would change the way it would be told.

He was also interested in exploring what he refers to as a “crisis” in contemporary Western democracy, considering M was released three years before the Nazis secured power in Germany.

David Schalko (left) on set with actor Lars Eidinger

“That was the idea,” Schalko says, “and also that there’s no main role or main actor – the town is the main thing. It’s something that’s very good for the series because Fritz Lang didn’t have the time to tell all the stories. Now we have the chance to tell it all, so we have more depth to the story and the characters.”

He describes the series as a puzzle that was particularly difficult to solve due to the fact that there is no protagonist at the heart of the story. Each episode also features different characters, offering new angles and perspectives on the story.

“It’s dark,” Schalko says. “We tried to make associations to German Expressionism, so you have the feeling of some things filmed in the studio with shadows, but it’s also a mixture of naturalism, which makes its own style. We hope it’s something very individual.

“That’s why I say it’s a tribute. The thing is not to be in a tennis match with Fritz Lang but to use this idea in the 21st century. It’s really a tribute to Fritz Lang’s work because I’m a big admirer. And if it’s half as good as the original, I’m happy.”

The large number of characters presented challenges in terms of both writing and the shooting process. But ultimately, Schalko says, the story isn’t about them but the kind of city they live in.

“It’s about how the children are killed but it’s not about violence,” he adds. “It’s not about how the killer is caught or who did it. It’s about the city itself. It’s not a crime story.”

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Fresh face

Grantchester has a new crime-fighting vicar. DQ speaks to executive producers Diederick Santer and Emma Kingsman-Lloyd about the challenge of replacing its leading character, while new star Tom Brittney discusses joining the series.

For any long-running series, its success can also become a curse. For while having a drama return year after year is clearly a sign of its popularity with audiences, those involved — particularly in front of the camera — can often be presented with new opportunities that very success has afforded them.

Emma Kingsman-Lloyd

So it proved with Grantchester, which returned this month for a fourth season on ITV with the unenviable task of introducing a new leading actor to replace the outgoing James Norton, who has become a household name thanks in part to playing Sidney Chambers, a vicar who teams up with a police detective to solve a number of gruesome crimes around his parish.

Since season three aired in the UK on ITV in spring 2017, more than 18 months have passed on screen, during which producers Kudos and US partner Masterpiece on PBS have been tasked with finding a way to give Norton an exit from the show while replacing Sidney with a new character.

“We knew James would come back and do some more but we knew fairly quickly he probably wouldn’t do a whole season,” recalls executive producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd.

Fellow EP and Kudos CEO Diederick Santer continues: “James loves the show. He’s just got opportunities. He wanted to do right by the show and didn’t want to say, ‘I’m gone, I’m never going to do it again.’ But he was interested in doing an exit and the idea developed from there. I think it was important to both broadcasters for continuity that there would be a passing of the baton — if there was to be a fourth season, that it wouldn’t come back cold with a new vicar and no James Norton.”

The task ahead was for series creator Daisy Coulam and her writing team to find a story, now set in 1956, that brought Norton’s charismatic, jazz-loving clergyman back to the screen, leading to a final farewell, while passing the baton to a new leading character.

“What’s really nice is in storytelling on TV, departures are opportunities,” Santer says. “It’s a great shame James is leaving the show but it provides opportunities for a great story to tell — what is it that finally moves Sidney Chambers on and who’s going to be the new vicar? Knowing that’s how the season would be enables you to tell different stories.”

Robson Green and outgoing James Norton as the crime-fighting clergyman

As it transpired, it was also an opportunity for curate Leonard Finch, played by Al Weaver, to get the chance to lead the church and even audition for the role of Detective Inspector Geordie Keating’s new partner — though he subsequently proves he’s not ready for either role.

But as Sidney prepares for his exit and Leonard takes centre stage, for a while at least, new arrival Will Davenport is eased into the series before his eventual appointment as Sidney’s replacement.

“All those concerns that viewers would have are things we explore through the episodes because we never wanted to just push Will straight into it and say, ‘This is the new character,’” Kingsman-Lloyd says. “Audiences have to come to love him in the way they did with Sidney in season one. With Len having the crux of the story in episode three gives us the chance to play with that.”

Will is initially introduced as the chaplin of Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College, where he becomes involved in a crime and first encounters Geordie, played by Robson Green. It’s not then until Sidney leaves and there’s a vacancy at the vicarage that viewers see something of the appointment process that leads him to take Sidney’s place on a permanent basis.

Diederick Santer

This won’t be a case of substituting one character for another, however, as Sidney and Will are profoundly different, meaning the new arrival will forge very different relationships with the supporting characters to those they enjoyed with his predecessor.

“It’s really interesting because the main difference with him is age,” Kingsman-Lloyd says. “He’s a few years younger than Sidney, which in the normal way of thinking wouldn’t mean anything, but in that era, it means he didn’t fight. He missed the war. Will’s attitude is very different to Geordie, who is conflicted with this younger man he doesn’t know. Very quickly he’s some use to him in his work and wants to ask him to help him out in the way Sidney did. But it’s not straightforward and Will’s not jumping straight in. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a vicar, not a policeman. We have fun with that and see their journey. We didn’t just want to parachute him in. It’s important we give time to get to know each other.”

Santer says recasting the lead role of Grantchester was not necessarily an opportunity anyone wanted — “I’d have been happy to do seven seasons with James” — but once it presented itself, it’s one they have run with. “If we didn’t have that, maybe we’d be doing an absurd story or the church would have blown up,” he jokes. “It saved us from doing something implausible to refresh the show. You never want a show like this to settle or always be the same, always repetitive, always the same tone, always the same ideas. It brings a different energy to the show.”

The hardest part of making the show, Santer adds, is getting the tone right, with the show described as a cosy, story-of-the-week crime drama, yet one containing some dark plot points and characterisation. “James Norton’s character is essentially consumed by self-hatred. He drinks and does a lot of bad things to take the pain away. It’s about post-war depression on some level and about a country at war with itself. So finding the balance between the warm, nostalgic elements and the murder, bleakness and self-hatred and we walk a line between that,” he says. “Editorially, it’s not always the easiest show to balance or get right, but in execution it tends to work well. We get great directors, great guest cast and it’s a nice place to be.”

Tom Brittney, who plays new vicar Will, didn’t watch Grantchester and made the decision not to before his audition to ensure he didn’t end up mimicking Norton’s performance or struggling under the weight of following him. That meant the actor, whose credits include Outlander and UnReal, was able to take the character as Coulam had written him and bring him to life.

Tom Brittney plays new vicar Will, a keen boxer

A rock ’n’ roll loving, motorcycle riding vicar, Will represents a new era in Grantchester, one removed from the effects of the Second World War and increasingly influenced by 1950s pop culture arriving from the US. His personality also informs his new relationship with Geordie.

“I was obviously terrified,” Brittney says of joining Grantchester, which is based on James Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries novels. “Before the show came out, this person asked, ‘Are you playing Sidney? Are you doing the same part?’ It’s like, ‘No it’s another, completely different crime-fighting vicar!’”

Coulam, who is also an executive producer, wrote a three-page backstory for Will ahead of Brittney’s final audition, which he says provided an astonishing level of character detail he’d never had before. But there was still room to inject some of his own personality. “You’ll always try and bring yourself to certain parts but this was one where his fire and his passion and his opinions were things I could relate to,” he says. “It was just written for me. I was connecting to it in a way I hadn’t done before with a character and just going with it. I’d never wanted to play a character as much as this.

The change in cast signifies the start of a new era of 1950s culture in Grantchester

“I think it was probably the fact he had this dark past, he was trying to become a better person and deal with parts of his anger and things like that. There’s probably things like that I relate to. I wasn’t a wonderful teenager and I try to be a better person as I grow older. That was one thing I could put into it.”

Ahead of filming, Brittney had to learn how to ride a motorbike, which he says was “tough” as he had never wanted to ride one before. “I do love riding them now. I didn’t think I would and it took me a while to get over the fear of coming off at 70mph down the motorway,” he admits. “So that was one thing I learned. Will gets stuck in a little bit. He loves to box. There’s some stunts in this, which was my first time of really doing some. The first time, I was like, ‘I want to do a Bourne movie now!’ You do a fight scene and you immediately want to do an action movie.”

On air in more than 130 countries thanks to distributor Endemol Shine International, Grantchester isn’t just a hit in the UK and US but has become an audience favourite around the world, with season four airing in the US later this year. Brittney says its popularity comes down to the fact that while the show is a murder mystery at its core, that element is often overshadowed by the lives of the vibrant cast of characters on screen.

“There aren’t many shows that give their characters that much to work with,” he adds. “There’s so much going on in this lovely little village that it’s not always about the murders but the lives of these people and you feel so invested in them and the relationship between Sidney and Geordie, and now Will and Geordie. They’ve written it so wonderfully, it’s more than just a murder mystery.”

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Party politics

Swedish drama Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle) mixes political intrigue with personal dilemma as an ambitious minister plots his rise to the top. Writer and director Håkan Lindhé tells DQ about creating the series, which leaves the corridors of power for an altogether more hedonistic setting.

While Nordic noir is mostly associated with dark crime dramas like Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Denmark’s Borgen managed to conjure must-watch drama from the improbable source of coalition politics, winning an International Bafta in 2014.

Now, at a time when real-life politics are often stranger than the fictional shows set in the same world, a Swedish drama depicts the challenges facing an ambitious minister as he attempts to balance his family life with the demands of his day job.

Described as an intense, character-driven drama, Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle) is a thriller that plays out over the course of several days as enterprise minister David Ehrling (Niklas Engdahl) bids to become the next prime minister, all while his press officer Lena Nilsdotter (Nanna Blondell) attempts to keep his past misdemeanours away from prying journalists (Ebba Hultkvist and Melinda Kinnaman). Meanwhile, David must also juggle the demands of his job with his family life, which is under threat of falling apart.

“I think that’s the closest reference I can think of,” writer-director Håkan Lindhé says of the comparison to Adam Price’s Borgen. “In the second half, we go into the family drama a bit more. But for me, the main conflict is not so much about David versus the political world but the conflict within himself. Will he choose his career or his family? A lot of people can relate to that – I can, at least. It’s always a struggle. Do you pick up the kids from school or go to a meeting?”

That inner struggle is visible from the outset, with David clearly reluctant to leave his family when the prime minister suddenly summons him for a press conference at which she will announce her resignation. “Eventually, the price will be extremely evident for him. It may be too high. He has to choose,” Lindhé says.

Den Inre Cirkeln (The Inner Circle) stars Niklas Engdahl

Lindhé was first approached about the project in July 2017 and began writing in September that year. Commissioned by Nordic streaming platform Viaplay, the series is inspired by former Swedish political operative Per Schlingmann’s novel I Maktens Öga (In the Eye of Power), though Lindhé says that to call the series an adaptation would be disingenuous, owing to the number of changes that have been made.

“The book had some kind of political plot but it didn’t have what you need to make an interesting drama,” he explains. “The relationships between people were not very developed. The family almost didn’t exist, and the crazy brother [the disapproving Joel Ehrling, played by Olle Sarri] didn’t exist. So there were many elements I brought to the table as I wrote it because I had to widen the picture to make a bigger story out of it.”

In particular, Lindhé says the conflict between David’s political career and his family life didn’t exist at all in the book, while he also introduced an intriguing subplot involving Russians and the controversial sale of a harbour that could derail his leadership aspirations.

“I think Per was a bit shocked when he read the first episode and saw there was a brother, a different kind of a relationship with his wife and all that,” Lindhé notes. “But he was very open-minded and let me do it my way. I’m very happy about that.”

What was clear from the outset was that Lindhé wanted to present politicians in the series as “real human beings,” unlike the two-dimensional characters often portrayed on TV who are only interested in their image. That also opened up the opportunity for viewers to see both the good and bad in David – an ordinary person in an extreme situation.

David’s plight only worsens when an old friend reminds him of past loyalties on his way to the top, while his aide discovers him in bed with another woman. “We also decided early on that it doesn’t have to be true as a whole but everything separate could happen,” the writer says, referring to the scandals that occur during the series. “All these things could happen but it’s not really based on any real events. It’s possible it could happen and we’re trying to be as authentic as we can.”

Engdahl plays politician David Ehrling, who is hoping to become prime minister

Watching the first two episodes, what is notable is the fact that they both end on a nail-biting cliffhanger, with characters left at death’s door as the credits roll. It’s a feeling of suspense that Lindhé says will run throughout the drama, echoing the tension he carried with him during the writing process as he started to outline the episodes without a clear ending in sight.

Working with fellow writers Anna Platt and Maja Winkler, who each wrote episodes alongside Lindhé, they penned the first four episodes together before Lindhé began work on the final four. It was only then, he says, that he began to grasp the feeling of where the series would go. Episodes also begin with flashbacks or, in the case of episode one, a flash forward, to give context to a theme or relationship that features in that instalment.

“I had no idea how it would end,” he admits. “I think it’s really important, to me anyway, that I don’t know the ending myself. Then it’s boring to write. I want to explore it. I had this political plot but I wanted to see where the story would take me.”

But the ending he did come to was “the only ending,” he asserts. “It felt extremely natural because one thing led to another. I always try to think what is the natural choice in that situation because if you’re living under these conditions, what would anyone do? That’s how I tried to develop stories always. I hope it also adds to the authentic feeling of it. I hope they are choices anyone would make in that situation.”

As well as writing the majority of the series, Lindhé also directed the first two episodes and the concluding trio. He says he tries not to think about directing while he is writing, in order to ensure he doesn’t limit himself by considering what may or may not be achievable in production. But once the cameras are rolling, he says it’s much easier to direct a series having written it himself, as he already knows the answers to many of the questions a non-writing director might have.

Melinda Kinnaman as Astrid

In terms of filming The Inner Circle, Lindhé says he was looking a sense of authenticity and a tone that didn’t copy the cinematic language seen in other political series like Netflix’s House of Cards. “We didn’t have any dolly shots in corridors. We tried to be as close as we could to the characters, so we’re hand-held all the way through,” he reveals. “We didn’t want to put the camera in a position where that person would never be. The general idea was we wanted to be close to the characters and the camera should try to see what is inside the characters’ heads. That was the ambition.”

The series is set against the backdrop of Almedalen, an annual event held in a large park in Visby, on the island of Gotburg off Sweden’s east coast, where huge numbers of Swedish politicans, business leaders and influencers gather for meetings and, in the evenings, to let their hair down. The often-hedonistic festival atmosphere could not have been recreated, so the production spent five long days and nights shooting exterior scenes at Almedalen in July 2018. After that, the rest of the shoot was “a walk in the park,” Lindhé says, with a mansion in northern Gotland doubling for the Ehrling family’s summer home. A week of filming also took place in Berlin.

“We wanted to get out of the corridors and offices, and Almedalen was a great arena to do this,” he notes. “It was really refreshing.”

It’s that setting and the tone of the show that the leads Lindhé to believe The Inner Circle, which is produced by Fundament Film’s Håkan Hammarén, is quite different from anything else on Swedish television. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy during a production as this time,” he says. “Hakan is one of the best producers I’ve ever met because he has that unique view of how to deal with creators. He knows the only way to make a show really good is you find someone who has a vision and you let that person fly. I hope we are doing something really fantastic, but he gave me the feeling I could fly so I’m very happy about that.”

The series, distributed internationally by DRG, is due to launch on Viaplay across Scandinavia on March 22. In the meantime, it has already been nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond prize, which recognises outstanding writing of a Nordic drama series. The winner will be announced at Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision in the next two days.

“I hope people will start to see politicians as human beings – in a good way and a bad way,” Lindhé says of the impact of the show on viewers. “They are humans when they make their decisions and we should not always believe what we see, because there is a different world behind the headlines.”

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