Tag Archives: Anna Winger

Just one more

In the age of binge-watching, what makes a compelling drama that demands viewers watch the next episode immediately? DQ speaks to a host of writers to find out how they keep audiences hooked to the very end.

By now, the effects of the television streaming revolution are well known: there are more shows than ever, in more genres – and without the confines of a weekly schedule, viewers can and do binge multiple episodes in one sitting.

But what has been the effect of this changing landscape on writers in the business? Have they changed their approach to storytelling accordingly, knowing viewers may watch weekly or binge an entire season at once?

One of the best recent examples of a drama series that unashamedly draws viewers in with a plot full of twists and turns and demands watching more than a single episode in one go is Safe, the eight-part Netflix series starring Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a father searching for his missing daughter. During the course of the story, Hall’s Tom discovers revelations that turn the local community upside down as the truth behind a decades-old scandal is uncovered.

It’s exactly the kind of show you would expect from creator Harlan Coben, the bestselling US novelist known for writing fast-paced, gripping thrillers. He has since applied the same formula to the small screen, first in Sky1 drama The Five and more recently with Safe, which landed on Netflix in May.

On both series, Coben has worked alongside British writer Danny Brocklehurst and Red Production Company to craft the closed-ended stories, with Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Come Home) then leading the scriptwriting process.

Michael C Hall in Safe, written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst for Netflix

“For me, it’s always about the human angle. That’s the only thing I can ever really connect with,” Brocklehurst says when asked what makes compelling drama. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to make my stuff have an emotional core. Even with the stuff I do with Harlan, although it’s quite fast-paced and hooky and we’re looking for those twists all the time, I do try to get the audience invested in the characters.

“There can be a really good mystery at the heart of something, there can be a whodunnit or whatever that keeps people watching, but in the end, what people really like are the characters and the world, and that’s what you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about up front.”

A show like Safe is markedly different from Come Home, an emotional, character-led three-parter that explores the impact of a mother’s decision to leave her family. From the outset, Safe was designed to be binge-watched, the TV equivalent of one of Coben’s novels.

“The only problem with that is people expect that pace all the time,” Brocklehurst admits. “For example, in another series you might think about whether an episode could be a little slower or you might go off on a tangent for a bit, but what you’ve got to do is keep moving forward and servicing the plot. You want people to invest in the characters, but once you’ve set yourself up as a thriller that will have lots of twists and is going to keep surprising and wrong-footing the audience, you’ve got to keep that going as well.

“It’s like running a very elaborate relay race – you just keep passing the baton from episode to episode, hoping that people are compelled by the mystery, like the characters and want to get to the end.”

Deutschland 86, the hotly anticipated sequel to Anna and Joerg Winger’s Deutschland 85

Like Coben, Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger also comes from a book-writing background and she agrees that propulsive storytelling – the ‘bingeability’ factor – is very novelistic. “Harlan’s books are definitely like that and I think we aim for that with this kind of television,” Winger says. “It is a different way to write. You’re not writing something that’s going to end easily. You need to load the gun at the beginning of a series – you get into the mindset of really pushing it and it’s exciting.”

Winger, who is putting the finishing touches to Cold War drama Deutschland 83’s sequel Deutschland 86 ahead of its debut this autumn, says some of her favourite shows, such as The Wire and Friday Night Lights, blend soap opera elements with societal themes and issues. “That multi-layered storytelling is what I’m most interested in. Friday Night Lights is officially about American football but it’s about everything in society, from race and class to health insurance,” she explains. “That’s something I try to do in Deutschland – to give it two levels at the same time. For people who are interested in history and politics, it’s all there but it’s also just a great adventure story about these characters.

“Then there are shows like Doctor Foster that take place out of time and place. It had no location. It strips away all of that – no history, no politics, no location. It’s all about the intense experience of this character, and it’s so propulsive. I watched the whole thing at once.”

Daragh Carville, the writer of forthcoming ITV crime drama The Bay, shares Winger’s affinity for shows that mix genre and family drama. “Something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos where it’s both a crime drama and a family drama, that’s the sweet spot I really respond to,” he says. “It needs to have a narrative drive that comes from a combination of character and genre. Tone is really important. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of the impact of tonality where something is terrifying and funny at the same time. Something can be edge-of-your-seat exhilarating but also deeper, emotional and truthful.”

A show like Danish/Swedish crime drama Broen/Bron (The Bridge) epitomises the fine balance between character and plot, presenting characters that viewers want to watch and a storyline that compels them to get to the end of each of its four seasons.

Camilla Ahlgren says the likes of Killing Eve are ‘showing a different way of telling a story’

“It’s important that the characters are affected by what’s happening around them, that you can draw in personal stories sometimes,” explains Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of the Scandinavian hit. “I also think The Bridge is like a whodunnit: we have red herrings and the audience has to work out who the murderer is and you’re trying to surprise them. It’s a balance you have to work with. In the fourth season there were such strong personal stories for [lead characters] Saga and Henrik, so we could spend a little more time with them and not only the case.”

Except in the case of shows specifically made for bingeing, like Safe, Ahlgren says writers never consider whether viewers will watch episodes weekly or in one go. “We don’t even think the whole world is going to watch,” she jokes. “We try to find stories we like and find interesting. The Bridge is sometimes over the top or larger than life as well, so we try to do things we haven’t seen before or try to surprise the audience – in a good way.

“Often when I enjoy something, it’s the characters I’m looking for. I like Happy Valley very much; there are strong characters and it’s realistic. Shows like Killing Eve are something new, showing a different way of telling a story, with strong women and humour in it. I like the characters. That’s important for me.”

David Nicholls, the author and screenwriter behind Sky Atlantic drama Patrick Melrose, says all of the really compelling TV dramas come down to difficult characters – “characters who are complicated and not always likeable and are often quite wicked, insensitive, immoral and unpleasant,” he says. “I think I find that much more compelling than a hero’s recurring adventures. I like things to be gritty, tricky and painful.”

Nicholls confesses he’s “not a big binge-watcher,” and says he has rarely completed a series that runs to as many as seven seasons. “To me, often it’s like not finishing a novel,” he explains. “You get a little bit bored towards the end, episodes seem repetitive and you know the ending’s going to be anti-climactic and disappointing, so I’m constantly bailing on TV shows. The ones I’ve stuck with often have tricky characters with virtuoso performances at their centre.”

Breaking Bad, which Patrick Melrose writer David Nicholls says gripped him ‘like a novel’

The one exception, Nicholls admits, is Breaking Bad, which did grip him like a great novel. “So many other long-running series I’ve just bailed quite quickly because they get repetitive. But Breaking Bad I didn’t really feel that, I just sucked it up. Game of Thrones is my other great vice. Those are the two that keep me occupied.”

For Chris Lang, creator and writer of ITV historic crime drama Unforgotten (pictured top), the key to a compelling drama can be found at a more emotional level. “Truthfulness is what I seek in TV,” he says. “I’m looking for a truthfulness, honesty and insight into the human condition that surprises you. I’m also looking for believability, but not always. I want to be transported and heightened.”

Lang picks out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a series that is “constantly surprising and absolutely compelling.” He also highlights Billions, which he describes as “heightened but with brilliant dialogue and challenging,” while Happy Valley and Broken are both populated with “superb characters, all characterised by honesty.”

Echoing Lang, Keeping Faith creator and writer Matthew Hall believes compelling drama comes down to the emotional conflict inside the central characters. The more lead characters can be pulled in different directions and the more impossible choices they are confronted with, the more interesting they are, he says, adding: “That’s just a fundamental rule of drama.”

Hall says his two favourite drama series are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, which he describes as “domestic dramas about people who ultimately just want their family to be happy and provided for. But life has conspired to make them do outrageous and impossible things to maintain that domestic stability. All the most successful TV dramas are about family in one way or another because that’s our universal experience.

Keeping Faith creator Matthew Hall says emotional conflict is key to compelling drama

“We love each other and hate each other with extreme passion, often at the same time. That’s what I wanted to inject into Keeping Faith, so Faith [who is searching for her missing husband and played by Eve Myles] married into this extended family and they both love her and hate her. The process of dramatisation is your central characters all have to have something huge at stake in the central narrative.”

Plot is also key, of course. Each season of Unforgotten opens with the discovery of a body and two detectives tasked with bringing the culprits to book. There are also a handful of seemingly unrelated characters who, through the course of the story, are each revealed to have been connected with the victim, with Lang expertly building the tension until the reveal at the season’s end.

“The plot is the device to open the story, and you have to get it right,” the writer says. “It’s one of the things that pulls people through. But I don’t use it to hang the characters on. Instead, I use it to explore interesting dynamics within families. There are endlessly interesting stories to tell in a dysfunctional family.”

Describing the process of piecing together a story as “Darwinian,” Lang continues: “It’s a to and fro relationship between character and narrative – it evolves, it’s not created. The characters and the plot emerge slowly. You go back to one or the other and keep doing that until you’re working through the episodes.”

Anna Winger

Hall, meanwhile, compares the construction of a story to chiselling out a statue. “There’s a finished work in there somewhere, you’ve just got to discover it,” he says.

There remains a debate, however, over the extent to which a drama should rely on plot devices like cliffhangers or red herrings to keep audiences gripped as the show carries them along to its conclusion. “If you’re making something for Netflix or Amazon, the ‘bingeability’ factor is significant,” Winger says. “In the past there were cliffhangers that made you come back the next week, but it’s not quite the same as that. It’s almost as if you have the luxury to write a whole story, a really long movie, because you know your audience will keep watching it, while we didn’t have that opportunity before.”

Carville says cliffhangers are needed but stresses that an “organic” structure is key to any successful drama. “Really what we want is to tell human stories and explore character,” he says. “They way you do that is through structure and a kind of narrative that has forward dynamics to it. Cliffhangers are really just turning points in the story and they always have to be emotional.”

Plot devices are “absolutely invaluable,” according to Hall, “but the point is they’re of secondary significance. If you just manufacture them, they’re not powerful, but if they’re motivated through the story, they work and become powerful.”

Brocklehurst, however, warns against the use of endings that cheat viewers in some way. “You’re always trying to play fair with the story you’re telling and not just suddenly creating a massive cheating hook just because you need something to make people watch the next one,” he notes.

Ultimately, the trick for writers is to “write something you want to watch,” Winger sums up. “The most important thing as a writer is that you want to write the next episode. You want to know what happens next and to just go down a rabbit hole with these stories.”

And if the writer wants to know what happens next, there’s a good chance viewers will too. How they watch it, however, is up to them.

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Cold War heats up

First airing on RTL in Germany, Deutschland 83 became a worldwide sensation as audiences became gripped by the story of an East German spy’s attempts to uncover a plot – and keep his identity secret – in West Berlin.

Co-creator Anna Winger, who is also the head writer, tells DQ how she shared the labour of showrunning with husband Jörg Winger and how she used her background as a novelist to plot her first television drama.

Deutschland 83 is produced by UFA Fiction and distributed by FremantleMedia International.

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Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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German writers raise their game

Germany’s leading broadcasters have always spent heavily on TV drama. But until recently there was a feeling that their work was too domestic in character to travel.

Shows like Generation War and Deutschland 83 have changed that perception. This week, we shine a light on the writers who are driving Germany’s TV exports.

kolditzStefan Kolditz studied theatre in Berlin then taught in universities until 2002. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote numerous projects for theatre, film and television. After honing his TV skills with classic German dramas such as Tatort and Polizeiruf 110, he had a major breakthrough in 2014 with the UFA/ZDF miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War). He followed this with an acclaimed adaptation of Bruno Aptiz’s classic novel Naked among Wolves, which aired on ARD and is distributed internationally by Global Screen. More recent projects include the film biopic Paula and TV movies for pubcasters ZDF (Ein Mann Unter Verdacht) and ARD (Mutter Reicht’s Jetzt). He has also managed to fit in two new episodes of Tatort.

annette-hessAnnette Hess studied playwriting in the 1990s in Berlin and then worked at ARD in various executive roles. Her life as a screenwriter began in earnest at the start of the last decade, with TV movie credits for her previous employer. Like Kolditz, she cut her teeth on long-running scripted franchises like SOKO (Cologne) and Polizeiruf 110. However, the big turning point came in 2010 with the acclaimed drama series Weissensee, which has now run for three seasons (one every two years). Since then, she has had another big hit with Ku’damm 56, a ZDF series about female emancipation in the 1950s. The UFA-produced show was good enough to secure a follow up called Ku’damm 59, which is now in the works. In 2016, Hess also wrote episodes of Der Kommissar Und Das Meer, a ZDF crime series that has been running since 2007.

philipp-jessenPhilipp Jessen is a new voice to TV having previously worked as the editor of online newspaper service Stern.de. His TV debut came in 2016 with Giftschrank, which has been described as a cross between House of Cards and Kir Royal. The series, which in English translates roughly as Poison Cabinet, goes behind the scenes at a glossy tabloid-style magazine. Joachim Kosack, producer and MD at UFA Fiction, said of the show: “I have rarely seen a script that is so captivating from the first to the last page. Giftschrank gives a fascinating insight into tabloid journalism. High tension is not only the inner view, but also the ever-recurring question of morality in journalism. You get a sense of how editorial works. It is sharp, entertaining and wise.”

thewingersJoerg & Anna Winger burst onto the scene with Deutschland 83, a Cold War drama that aired on RTL in Germany and has attracted a lot of attention internationally. The two  are now working on a sequel called Deutschland 86, which will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018 before airing on RTL. Anna Winger is actually from the US, making her part of a growing trend for foreign writers to get involved in German series (others include Paula Milne and Rachael Turk). She is also developing a series for BBC America set in contemporary Berlin.

dorotheeschon1Dorothee Schön grew up in Bonn then studied film in Munich. She has written a number of TV movies and is another to have contributed to the Tatort juggernaut. After two decades working on TV movies, her next big project is a UFA-produced miniseries for ARD called Charité. A six-parter, the show tells the story of Berlin’s legendary Charité hospital, which many credit with inventing modern medical research. Schon is also lined up to write a miniseries for UFA called The Porsche Saga, which is based on a book about the car manufacturer by Stefan Aust and Thomas Ammann.

tomtykwerTom Tykwer is writing Babylon Berlin with Hendrik Handleoegten and Achim Von Borries for a 2017 launch on Sky Deutschland. The lavish period piece will focus on life in 1920s Berlin. Writer/director Tykwer is best known for his movies, which include Run Lola Run, Perfume and Cloud Atlas. It’s not clear yet whether this is the start of a career in TV or a one-off project.

silberChristoph Silber wrote Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, a period piece about the rivalry between Adi and Rudi Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma. A British-German producer, director and writer based in LA, Silber has been working across film and TV since the start of the last decade. Like many of his counterparts, he has written episodes of Tatort. Among his better-known TV movies is Das Wunder von Kärnten (written with Thorsten Wettcke), which tells the true story of a three-year-old girl from Austria, who fell into the lake behind her parents’ house in 1998 and had been underwater for 30 minutes before being found. A young cardiovascular surgeon takes up the seemingly hopeless fight for the young girl’s life, and remarkably saves her. More recently, Silber has been working on the miniseries Honigfrauen, which will see the light of day on ZDF in 2017. Set in 1986, it tells the story of two young women who go on holiday to Hungary’s Lake Balaton from East Germany.

basedow-photo-ardthorsten-janderRolf Basedow is one of a team of writers who scripted Beta Film’s NSU Germany History X, a series about far-right German nationalists produced this year. Active in the TV business since the 1970s, he has contributed to dramas like Tatort and has also written series such as Sperling and the acclaimed 10-part series Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (2010), which looked at the interplay of police and gangsters in Berlin. Following NSU, he is back to writing TV movies including Zielfahnder: Flucht in die Karpaten.

jan-bergerJan Berger had a major international hit with The Physician, which was directed by Philipp Stolzl. The Berger/Stolzl combination has subsequently come to be regarded as something of a dream ticket. The pair reteamed for Beta Film’s updated version of western adventure Winnetou and are also working with UFA Fiction on a TV biopic of magicians Siegfried and Roy.

niki-steinNiki Stein and Hark Bohm are writing Hitler, a high-end drama series from Beta Film that will air on RTL and has been sold to French broadcaster TF1. The 10-hour event series is based on the biography Hitler’s First War by the internationally renowned historian Thomas Weber and will “shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history,” according to Beta Film. Stein (pictured), another Tatort alumnus, has written numerous TV movies. One of his best-known works is the 2012 TV movie Rommel, about the famed Second World War general. The film attracted controversy, so it will be interesting to see how Stein handles this subject.

marcterjungMarc Terjung and Benedikt Gollhardt created the hit Sat1 comedy series Danni Lowinski, about a hairdresser who becomes an unconventional lawyer. The German series ran for five seasons and spawned a Dutch adaptation. Terjung (pictured) also created comedy series Edel & Starck and has written for SOKO. After working on legal dramedy Danni Lowinski, he wrote Josephine Klick – Allein Unter Cops, about a female police officer who moves from a small town to Berlin, whereupon she encounters resistance from her new colleagues.

friese-jantje-01Jantje Friese recently secured the job of writing Dark, Netflix’s first German original series. The 10-part show, directed by Baran bo Odar, is set in a German town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. Friese studied in Munich then started her career as a commercials director. Subsequently she went into production and writing. Together with Odar, she wrote the film Who Am I?, a well-received political/cyber thriller.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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Deutschland duo discuss national differences

Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.

On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.

The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.

Married duo Joerg and Anna Winger co-created Deutschland 83
Married duo Joerg and Anna Winger co-created Deutschland 83

The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.

“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.

“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.

“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”

The show launched on SundanceTV in the US last month
The show launched on SundanceTV in the US last month

In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.

“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.

“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”

Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.

“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’

Berger: 'I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid'
Berger: ‘I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid’

“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.

Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.

“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”

FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.

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