Drama fit for a king
Costing US$30m to make and promising to push the boundaries of TV drama, Versailles is one of the most hotly anticipated period pieces in recent memory. DQ goes behind the scenes as the Louis XIV epic wraps its debut season.
Five years in the making, one of Europe’s most expensive and daring new dramas is about to be unleashed by France. Aptly, it’s called Versailles.
But despite its royal heritage, this is no regular French drama production. The €27m (US$29.7m) series – commissioned by French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ under its Création Originale drama strategy – surprises in more ways than one.
The 80% French-funded series is created and scripted by British duo Simon Mirren (Without a Trace, Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, The Escape Artist). They weren’t the project’s first showrunners. After a few false starts, and following the departure of André and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Mirren and Wolstencroft joined two years ago via Anne Thomopoulos (Band of Brothers, Rome, Borgia, Black Box), who is exec producing the drama together with Claude Chelli (Braquo) of Newen-owned Capa Drama.
Canal+ greenlit the show in January 2014, before French coproducer Zodiak France funded a writers room in LA and production finally began last August, with filming wrapping in early March this year.
As it turns out, Mirren and Wolstencroft were destined for the part. Wolstencroft says he got the call from Mirren as he left a butcher’s in Brooklyn. “Simon phoned me and said, ‘Mate, do you know anything about Louis XIV and Versailles?’ ‘Well, I did study him at Cambridge and he is my specialist subject,’ I replied.”
Wolstencroft was tutored by historian Peter Burke, a Louis XIV expert who shared the research for his books on the monarch with his Cambridge students. He recalls: “At college I remember thinking this would be a brilliant movie but that it would never happen.”
While it’s nothing new for French productions to be scripted and shot in English, it’s certainly a bold step when the subject in question is so quintessentially French. Versailles will be dubbed into French, with Canal+ viewers given the choice of either language when the series launches this fall. But the approach has raised French eyebrows, with its English-speaking Louis XIV, played by British actor George Blagden (Vikings), in particular, proving controversial.
Making the show in English was a “very buccaneer, brave thing to do,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s clearly important in terms of its historical veracity to have a French version, but to film in English is bold and wonderful. Three billion people in the world speak English, so let’s take this story to the maximum audience, like the Americans do. The whole point is that the story exists on its own terms – it’s English-language, international entertainment.”
Chelli is similarly dismissive of the concerns: “Louis is married to a Spanish woman, his brother’s wife is English and his mother is a quarter Italian, so it’s not really just a French story but a European one.”
It was Chelli who first pitched the idea to Canal+ five years ago, after a visit to the Palace of Versailles’ central Hall of Mirrors left him wondering why no one had made a drama about France’s longest-serving monarch. “The guy’s incredible; he invented everything from architecture to fashion, music, ballet, haute cuisine – the lot,” Chelli says of Louis XIV. “It’s a long story, but here we are five years later with great showrunners and great stories.”
Canal+ is very clear about why it backed the production. “Versailles was a great subject for us in the first place, but we didn’t want to do another conventional historical series,” says Pierre Saint André, manager of French drama and coproductions for Création Originale at Canal+, which is headed by Fabrice de la Patellière. “We love Borgia, which aired on Canal+, but we wanted to do something different.”
Audiences for pay TV channels make it possible to take creative risks that their broad-reach, free-to-air terrestrial counterparts often cannot, especially in France, says Saint André. “For Canal+ as a pay TV channel in France doing original programming, it had to be something different, a distinctive approach and a fresh take on a specific story.”
The project was high budget from the start and needed coproduction partners. “We’re French producers and we don’t do productions of this scope, so it took some time to get the production together creatively and financially,” says Chelli.
Associate producer Aude Albano, of Zodiak France, adds: “Beyond bringing partners together, the big challenge of producing a major historical drama that looks beautiful and rich on screen is that it needs a lot of money.”
Chelli agrees: “It would have been impossible to do without the right funding, given the magnitude of the set and the rest of the production. If it had just been down to French money, we would have done it in a few months. With Versailles, you expect something beautiful – in terms of both the palace and the people. If you didn’t have the money, it would look ridiculous.”
The production’s grand scale also played a part in the appointment of French director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint Laurent, Headwinds) to direct the drama’s first two episodes. “He was on the same wavelength as all of us in trying to do something new and unique with the show,” says Saint André.
The series starts in 1667 with a 28-year-old Louis XIV. The palace itself is still a hunting lodge, and war is raging. The king has left Paris and relocated his court to Versailles to establish absolute power over rebel French nobles. “Versailles was basically a political project, but Louis XIV also wanted to build the most beautiful palace in the world, so that’s what he did,” says Chelli.
A central theme of Versailles is the relationship between Louis XIV and his gay younger brother Philippe, a heroic warrior played by Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, Privates). Philippe’s wife Harriette – sister to Charles II of England and one of Louis’ lovers – dies at the start of the series, soon after the death of the French monarch’s mother.
“It was a blow for Louis and the end of his innocence,” says Chelli. “He had to grow up and face the next step in his history. We’re telling a universal story of two brothers who love their mother. It’s about becoming a man. There’s nothing specifically French about it, and hopefully the viewers will relate.”
The drama is anything but a slavish retelling of the period, with the copro partners and showrunners not interested in delivering a history lesson. “This is a piece of drama and we’re taking a few liberties with dates and events. We’re inventing something that could have happened,” says Chelli. Albano adds: “We were obsessed by airing a very modern take on this part of history, and that’s why it’s also great to have non-French writers on the show, who are free from self-censorship.”
Saint André agrees: “That’s what was very convincing in Simon and David’s approach. They delivered what a French writer perhaps wouldn’t have dared do. But this was the liberty we needed for Versailles. We don’t want to specialise in historical dramas. We’re looking for contemporary stories and series, so it had to be different and modern, visually and in its storytelling – and I think Versailles succeeds in both aspects.”
Wolstencroft says he’s using Versailles’ history as a lens to view the modern world. “I’m a historian and I love France, but I often don‘t agree with the way history is perceived. It’s true of Britain, too, where there’s this kind of preserved taxidermy. True history is a living, breathing moment in time and everyone remembers it differently. Versailles is the birth of France as a superpower in Europe, the birth of fashion and haute cuisine, of architecture being used by a ruler – it’s a bit like the beginning of New Labour, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and there are parallels all the way through.”
Then there’s Versailles the brand. “It’s the first global brand,” says Wolstencroft. “Most people don’t know about France or Louis XIV, but they do know about Versailles. It’s like the original Nike symbol or the world’s first Superbowl spot. Everyone had heard about it, and it grew and grew to become a shop window and a place to manipulate politicians, as well as the centre of culture.”
Applying the US scriptwriter-showrunner model has also helped deliver a singular vision and give authorship to the series in a market driven by the producer-director model. “It’s useful to have this streamlined creative process, because it meant we could keep our eyes on the prize, which is quite hard when you have the infrastructure that we have and the expectations of what a period drama should be,” explains Wolstencroft. “We had to stop ourselves from going into Downton or Masterpiece territory.”
Versailles is anything but, and Mirren and Wolstencroft deliver a blinder at the end of episode one.
Wolstencroft suggests France’s next step should be to “empower writers to understand the basics of production.”
“Even among those writing for UK TV, there are people who don’t know how to make a scene better, or don’t feel empowered to do so,” he says. “They might have opinions but keep them to themselves. The writer-producer model in the US is very empowering because it means authorship. It’s the opposite of how it works in France, with the director of a show usually being its originator. It may threaten the pillars of established power but, actually, you get better stories at the end of it, so everybody wins – as the US has demonstrated.”
Versailles’ modern approach is reinforced by contemporary electronic music and pared-back hairstyles and makeup, eschewing the huge wigs and chalky faces of the period. “We watch UK shows here and everyone loves Downton Abbey,” says Chelli, “but this is not Downton. We’ve tried to do something different. Versailles is shot in a different way. It’s more modern, the music is mostly electronic and the entire production looks much more contemporary than Downton and some of the other classic period pieces.”
The visually lavish production, however, is certainly in keeping with the period, benefiting from advice by Versailles experts to capture the historical context.
Alongside accessing French subsidies, the production’s French base was important in terms of location and the top local technical production skill the show required, says Chelli. “We really wanted to do it in Paris, even if it was much more expensive than, say, doing it in Hungary. The palace is near Paris, and we built the set here. For us it’s a way to tell the world that a French production can do as much as any other.”
A huge recreation of Versailles was built by set designer Katia Wyszkop (Potiche, Van Gogh) at the Studio de Bry just outside Paris, where much of the production is shot. Top costume designer Madeline Fontaine (Amélie) oversaw the transformation of 2,500 metres of fabric to the tune of more than €200,000, while the inclusion of Louis XIV-style coaches and horses cost €3,500 per day. As well as the core members of the cast, there were 220 extras and a menagerie of animals including wolves, eagles and pigs.
Versailles’ coproduction model has deliberately avoided too many partners. “We didn’t want to have too much input from different sources,” says Chelli. “It’s not a very simple partnership, because of Canada and the showrunners, but we’d rather choose the right partners and do what we want before offering it to the public.”
Eighty percent of the budget is French, with 60% coming from Canal+ and French public subsidies, including from Région Île-de-France, where production took place, plus coproducer Zodiak Media in exchange for worldwide distribution rights to the show outside of Canada.
The project’s Canadian coproducer Incendo has a 20% stake, and has brought Canadian pay channel Super Channel on board. Incendo is now overseeing the post-production phase, which runs from March to August, including a second commercial 10×44’ cut for the broader-reach free-to-air channels to help finance the pay TV version.
“Part of the attraction for the Canadian market is the French version that’s already paid for,” says Incendo’s Ian Whitehead, Canadian producer for the show. Canada is also fielding two actors, Tygh Runyan and Evan Williams, as well as movie director Daniel Roby, who helmed the final three episodes and for whom Versailles marks a TV debut.
Whitehead sees an advantage in having a clear lead broadcaster in the form of Canal+, adding that if a big US partner had been brought in right away, the process could have taken far longer. “To have more independence was a risk for everyone, but I think there’s going to be a big pay-off, because it’s a clear vision,” he says.
The production is nevertheless charting new territory, and with it come a few inevitable challenges. “Essentially it’s a big ask for everyone,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s the translation issue – not just linguistically but culturally. It’s a hybrid. It’s the first time it’s ever been done and the first experience for everyone. We’re like the first people on the Moon, in a way. There was no rehearsal. You discover Easter eggs as you go – some good, some bad; some useful, some challenging. The goal for everyone at every stage was making the story better, because that’s what matters, and the emotion.”
Finding actors was another early challenge, adds Chelli. This was resolved with a predominantly British cast, featuring mostly young and up-and-coming actors. “We didn’t want to do a Euro-pudding and we didn’t want lots of accents. David Wolstencroft was adamant about that,” he says. Ten of the drama’s 18-strong main cast are from the UK, complemented by four from France, two from Canada and a pair from Switzerland, including Anatole Taubman (Quantum of Solace) as the evil Moncourt.
“The good thing about working with young actors,” says Saint André, “is that when the story starts all the characters are in their 20s, which is somewhat unusual. It’s normally about old kings trying to keep the balance of power.”
For Whitehead, one of the distinctive features of Versailles as a slice of French history done in the English language “is that it actually crystallises where things are at with television now.”
“Had this been a less ambitious show, it might have been completely financed by Canal+. It would have had Canal+’s extraordinary production values, but maybe it would have had remakes or been dubbed into English versions for other broadcasters,” he says.
“Here, it’s fallen to all of us as producers to make something much more global. We’re taking in the vision Canal+ has for its own channel and combining it with what, for example, a North American audience would expect. And we’re doing that on what should be a French-language show. That’s something unique compared with dramas about any other period.”
Versailles forms the centrepiece of Zodiak Rights’ sales catalogue at this year’s MipTV, where it is premiering to buyers internationally. Caroline Torrance, Zodiak’s head of international scripted, says there have already been strong expressions of interest, although the decision was taken not to confirm any buyers in advance in order to get the best deal and platform for the show.
“It’s one of the most expensive European dramas ever made, but it’s taking the period drama into another space,” says Torrance. “The showrunners and Canal+ want to push boundaries. They don’t want just another period drama – and neither do audiences. It’s very important for Canal+ to do groundbreaking drama, and doing it in English will resonate with markets like the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.”
As for how Canal+’s French viewers will react when Versailles launches this fall, Saint André says: “We’ll see. Yes, we’re pushing the envelope, but our French subscribers watch tons of US and European shows that have been dubbed into French. We did it with Borgia and with Spotless.”
Development of a second season has already started, although Canal+ has yet to greenlight it. “If you’re doing these big, 10-episode series, you would want to be able to follow up without too long a delay between seasons,” says Torrance.
And there’s clearly much more story to tell. “Louis XIV is the longest-serving monarch in history,” says Wolstencroft. “I don’t want to scare the actors or anything, but there are so many phases of Louis’ life, and this is just the beginning. This is him revving up – he’s only around 30 at the end of season one. He died when he was 75, and we could go all the way to the revolution. This is only act one.”