International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.
The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.
But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?
Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.
The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.
“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”
Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.
Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.
That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.
“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).
“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”
Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.
“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”
Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.
Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.
Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”
Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.
“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”
Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”
Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “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 you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”
Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.
Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.
Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”
The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”
Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.
Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.
The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.
Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.
“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.
“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”
Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”
Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”
Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”