Democracy in action
DQ heads to Brussels, home of the EU, to watch filming of Parlement (Parliament), a drama about youth, commitment and making a difference in a post-Brexit world.
It’s a typically sunny but freezing winter day in the administrative quarter of Brussels when an unusually restless crowd loaded with waffles and filming equipment lands on the seventh floor of the building that houses the European Economic and Social Committee.
The penultimate day of shooting comedy-drama Parlement (Parliament) for France Télévisions’ digital platform France.tv has just kicked off, this time a few blocks away from the European Parliament’s main building.
“Shooting a series inside the European Parliament is not really common. We had some convincing to do,” says Cinétévé producer Thomas Saignes. “We needed to persuade them that the team behind it was serious, that the talent was right and that the intention was also right. It was a long process but we were lucky that the secretary general agreed to meet with us and open the door.”
Balanced between office comedy and psychodrama, the 10-part series follows Samy – a young, overconfident parliamentary assistant who is clueless and prejudiced – arriving at his new job a few days after the Brexit referendum in 2016. As they get ready to film, cast and crew are startled to discover a crazy coincidence: the actual agenda of the day at the European Parliament features a citizens’ initiative addressing the same under-represented topic the fictional lead character of the series fights against – the cruel practice of finning (removing the fin from a shark and discarding the rest of the animal back into the ocean).
On his first day, Samy accidentally raises his hand and must take up a report about finning, but he hasn’t got a clue about the subject or how he can get the report through the system. “To be clear, in the beginning he doesn’t even give a dime, but he is taken into the machinery of the bureaucracy and over the course of the series, it will become his personal fight as he puts everything at stake – his personal interests, his dignity, his time, his love life – to pass this report,” Saignes explains.
Leading actor and French comedian Xavier Lacaille admits his background studying law helped him to better relate to this role, even though the only costume he has to wear is Samy’s work suit. He demonstrates how he walks without touching his heels on the floor to bring out the clumsiness of the character and to appear taller than he is.
Having lived in the US for several years, Lacaille also needed to find his French accent again when speaking English. “It’s not a huge thing, but for the first few days of shooting it was tricky because you need to keep the same accent throughout,” he says.
The idea for Parlement came from two people who both have strong personal connections to the subject matter – producer Fabienne Servan Schreiber, CEO of Cinétévé, whose husband served as an MEP, and writer Noé Debré, who was born and raised across the street from the EU headquarters in Strasbourg. They shared the same passion for the institution and, having had insider experience of it, had long thought the European Parliament was an interesting arena for fiction, although broadcasters appeared hard to persuade.
“They found it almost repulsive, because they thought it was boring as a subject and some of them perhaps had the fear that it would be Euro-bashing because it is political satire,” Saignes recalls.
After discussions about the show with a French pay TV service and American platforms were dropped, his own intuition pointed towards a European coproduction, with France.tv airing the series alongside Belgium’s BeTV and Germany’s WDR. It will debut on France.tv this Thursday.
“I knew we had to make it international to the core, with a European writers room and a European cast,” he continues. “But it was still difficult to convince broadcasters, until one lucky occasion. France Télévisions was launching its streaming platform so they needed an original project that would be spoken about. Then we started a long process of gathering coproducers and convincing different channels.”
All3Media’s 7Stories helped with allocating a UK co-writer, Daran Johnson, while Studio Hamburg’s CineCentrum (Germany) and Artemis (Belgium) joined as coproducers. Further funding was granted by Creative Europe’s Media fund, France’s CNC and Germany’s MFG, with France TV Distribution handling international sales. With the help of agents from five countries, the production cast actors of seven nationalities, with scripts including four languages.
Co-written by Debré, Johnson, Pierre Dorac and Maxime Calligaro, the scripts shift between a didactic, explicatory and funny take on European politics. Precision was vital – all terms and procedures had to be absolutely correct, as they would for an ER medical drama. Consultants double- and triple-checked the accuracy of all legal procedural technicalities involved.
Armando Iannucci’s political satires Veep and The Thick of It served as a source of inspiration but Saignes points out that Parlement’s approach doesn’t ape Iannucci’s razor-sharp style. “We didn’t want to make an advert for the European Union with Parlement, but we didn’t want to do any Euro-bashing either. You need to love what you laugh at – the craziness of the institution, of the bureaucracy – to be able to make fun of it in a positive way.
“Essentially, ours is a series about youth, commitment and making a difference. It is to say, don’t become frustrated by political action, by collective action, by compromise, by discussion, by convincing; there is one arena where you can make a difference, and it’s here in Brussels.”
In his adventures, Samy is joined by Rose (Liz Kingsman), a British assistant and Brexiteer just about to realise the major life decisions she needs to make post-Brexit. “Tragedy is when the heroes are aware of the drama, and comedy is when they are not – and Samy and Rose don’t have the slightest idea of the internal bureaucracy that they will be caught in,” says Jérémie Sein, who directs with Émilie Noblet. “For us, reading a script is very technical and it’s very rare to be reading and laughing at the same time. Putting a rookie in the middle of a new environment is a cliché, but our writers did it without losing the funniness or the characters.”
“When we read Parlement, the first reference that comes to mind is The Office, but we chose a handling that is a bit more sophisticated. We are not at all in a pseudo-documentary – this is actual fiction. We tried to edit it and visually imagine it sophisticatedly,” Noblet explains. “We gave ourselves freedom to film the scenes, so we have a variety of styles. The only thing that we kept is the frequent use of short focus, which works really well with comedy.”
For Sein, German and Belgian filming styles are more akin to those in Hollywood so some French naturalism was added. “We didn’t try to make everyone happy. We went towards what we knew best, which is naturalist comedy à la Français, with cold humour, and we inserted more colour and design,” he says, stressing that the union of actors from different nationalities with different approaches to acting made it crucial to cast the right talent for the two leading roles.
“Although Liz is English and Xavier is French, they had the same energy and everybody could find their style and gravitate around those two very grounded comedians. We found two good planets for the other stars to revolve around in an interesting manner – in a way, that resembles the EU flag a bit,” he laughs.
“Rose’s British sense of humour, which is very confronting to Samy, was the best cocktail ever. In terms of acting, they were both getting every shot perfect from the first take and were a pleasure to work with,” agrees Noblet.
In a corridor on the set, German star Christiane Paul says her experience of working with actors from diverse backgrounds and young directors on a low-budget series was as intriguing as the script and she found herself laughing out loud while reading it on a train, triggering curious glances from other commuters.
“I loved the wit of it and the telling of a story about the European Parliament. I believe it was time for this to happen,” says the Emmy-winning actor, who plays Ingeborg, a manipulative German political advisor described as a nightmare.
Paul’s challenge was speaking in sophisticated French – a language she barely knows. “I built my character on the French language in a way – I learned my lines phonetically and I just try to remember them. Of course, I understand what I am saying and I am really aware of what the scenes are about,” she says, describing how a French piano teacher living nearby helped her with her lines.
Her scene is up next with Lacaille and Austrian-born Lucas Englander. The latter plays Torsten, Ingeborg’s closest partner and a dark passive-aggressive character very much outside of Englander’s real-life temperament.
“It is interesting to shift into Torsten every day because my personality is much quieter than his. To fall into the shoes of someone who is so loud is a stretch. He is very sarcastic the entire time, even with people he doesn’t know well, and therefore he is misunderstood,” he says of his character.
As the crew wraps for the day, Saignes is optimistic the show will travel well, which could be the passport to more seasons – each deployed in, or dealing with, different EU zones and territories. Certain there is plenty of material for several seasons, he suggests season two could still have a Brexit component, and possibly even a quirky romantic aspect through a fling between Samy and Rose while she has to leave Brussels for the UK.
“People often say that comedy doesn’t travel well, because what is funny for the Danes, for example, is not funny for the Spaniards,” he says. “But here we felt that we had one arena that was the home of all those people and struck a chord – where you can make fun of all those people together and find a way for comedy to work well for everyone.”