Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.
For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.
Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.
To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.
The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.
Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.
Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.
Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.
Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.
The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.
Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.
The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.
The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.
Comedy drama Kim Kong retells an unbelievable and compelling true story for French broadcaster Arte. Thomas Bourguignon from producer Kwaï Productions tells DQ about the series.
It’s a story stranger than fiction: a movie director is kidnapped by a foreign dictator and ordered to make a new version of King Kong that will bring glory to his country.
And yet the premise of French comedy drama Kim Kong is based on an unlikely true story.
The series follows Mathieu Stannis, a bitter and frustrated director who, while shooting a mindless action flick in Asia, is abducted by spies from a neighbouring country. Enraged by his country’s abysmal movie production industry, the despot wants the French filmmaker to helm a new adaptation of classic monster movie King Kong that will glorify his regime.
Faced with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the dictator, Mathieu’s life now depends on the success of the film.
The series has a strong pedigree, coming from the firm behind political drama Baron Noir, Kwaï Productions. Armance coproduces the show for French broadcaster Arte, while FremantleMedia International distributes.
Here, producer Thomas Bourguignon from Kwaï tells DQ about the story that inspired the series and the challenges he faced in production.
What were the origins of the series?
The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s. The leader at that time asked him to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which is called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie.
We wanted to look at this kind of story and make a show not about North Korea but about dictatorship and the freedom to be creative, and how you can create when you’re trapped like this.
Our other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel, because it’s also about a guy who’s kidnapped by a fan and he has to rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. So there were two sources of inspiration. We wanted to make this story not about a specific regime or specific country but about every country, every regime and every type of creator. It’s really about creativity and constraints.
How do you balance the comedy and drama?
The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end but it’s dramatic as in movies like Gold Rush, MASH or The Ladykillers. The ground is very serious but we build several distortions that make comedy. It’s a question of life and death but we wanted to have elements where you can do nothing but laugh. The situation is always serious and asks the main character, played by Jonathan Lambert, to be very serious. So everyone around him acts strangely but he is very straight. The conflict between his straightness and the strangeness around him creates the humour.
How was the show developed with the network?
We wrote two or three pitches describing the plot, the main characters, our sources of inspiration and what we wanted to speak about. We also discussed the work of a screenwriter in the world of broadcasters. Sometimes you are confronted by a situation when the broadcaster asks you to cut things and change things. It was funny to tell to Arte we were going to talk about broadcasters – they found it very satirical. Arte is one of the most creative channels in France so we were very at ease with them. We always worked with Arte because we were sure it was not something for other broadcasters – it was a question of format and spirit. It was a new kind of comedy for Arte too because this kind of comedy isn’t on TV.
How would you describe the writing process?
There were two writers: Simon Jablonka at the beginning, and then we hired Alex Le Sec. It was written very quickly – we knew where we wanted to go and we were precise about what kind of comedy we wanted to make. The question was more about the drama because we were asking ourselves, ‘Are people going to continue to laugh if we kill someone off?’ We also wanted to be very clear that the show was not about North Korea; it’s about a fictional country. So we had to ask ourselves a lot of questions about the language the characters should speak in this place.
For a while we wanted everyone to speak in English because that’s the convention when you see an American movie, with everyone speaking English even though the action takes place in Germany or Turkey or wherever. But Arte were very clear they wanted it to be shot in French and another language because they are a Franco-German channel, so it was important for them to promote the French language.
In the end we decided to let them speak in Chinese, as the action takes place in Asia and it’s a common language for the region – but it’s not about China either. It was easy for us to say it’s filmed in Chinese and it was also easier for casting to find Chinese-speaking actors in France because we have a big community of Chinese people in Paris.
We spent a long time casting, as there are not a lot of French movies shot with Chinese actors. We were not sure we could find anyone, so we started the casting very early in the process, even before the scripts were finished, to be sure to find them in France.
Arte was excited by our casting. The majority of the actors are Chinese-speakers, but not all of them. The ones who weren’t Chinese had to learn the language phonetically and it was a long process; they had to be trained by Chinese teachers. Frédéric Chau, who plays Choi Han Sung, and Christophe Tek, who plays the dictator, are not Chinese speakers, so they had to learn everything by heart. It was difficult for them but they did it very well. It was a real challenge for them and for the director to direct in Chinese too.
How did the writers work with the director to create the look of the show?
We made a mood board with the director, Stephen Cafiero. He’s a young director; it was the first time we worked with him and the first time he worked with Arte. He had done a very good family comedy before and I saw some of the commercials he had done as well.
It was interesting for us because we had to create a whole world that doesn’t exist – the clothes, the set decoration, everything had to be invented. So he collected lots of images from lots of different regimes, from Russia to China, Korea to Cambodia, and we created the look of our regime using the mood board.
We decided to mainly shoot in the studio because it’s a movie about movies and creation, so we wanted to control the look of the movie. We shot 90% in the studio in Paris, where we built the sets.
As our country doesn’t exist, we wanted to create our own look. It was not in Cambodia, Thailand or South Korea, it was not in China. We never found the right country because they were either too modern, too old or too specific. It didn’t correspond to what we dreamed of, so we decided to make it in France in a studio. The exteriors were filmed in Thailand.
After we finished shooting, we erased everything we didn’t want in the frame, using lots of special effects to erase houses that weren’t on our mood board. That took a lot of work in post-production.
What were the biggest challenges?
In addition to the casting and the language, finding out where we were going to shoot was also challenging. At one point we thought we were going to shoot in Kazakhstan because because we found very interesting locations there and we thought we could cast people from Central Asia. [Kazakh capital] Astana is an amazing city but it is very difficult to shoot there because Kazakhstan’s president is not very democratic. We scouted across the world looking for a set for a long time before finally shooting in Paris!
Our King Kong is very small – that’s part of the problem for the director in the movie because the camera is very old, it’s shot in 16mm and the crew is very inefficient. And he has to shoot something, because the dictator has told him, ‘Either you shoot something or we shoot you.’ So the tension between the reality and what the dictator wants makes the comedy of it.
What new stories are being told in France?
This is something quite new; something that would have once been impossible. We first had this idea years ago, before Simon and I decided now would be a good time to try it. We were finishing Baron Noir and I said I would like to make a comedy about politics. It’s something that couldn’t have been done four or five years ago, but there have been many changes in France and broadcasters are more open-minded than before. They know the audience want something new, something different. They are watching series on different platforms. It’s a good time for producers and creators.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adam Price’s first major TV project brought the machinations of a coalition government to Danish screens with Borgen, which picked up an International Bafta during its three-season run.
Now he is taking on religion in Ride Upon the Storm, with two seasons of the show already commissioned by Denmark’s DR and Arte France.
Sitting alongside star Lars Mikkelsen, Price tells DQ how he hopes to address the big questions of life and religion in the show, which ostensibly focuses on the family of Mikkelsen’s priest Johannes, his wife and, in particular, their two sons, who each choose different religious paths.
Ride Upon the Storm is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal.
From a pair of mystery dramas and the introduction of the ‘female Columbo’ to the story of a film director forced to make a new version of King Kong for a power-mad dictator, French drama is set to enjoy a breakout year. DQ casts its eye over some of the new series coming to the small screen.
Baron Noir season two The ‘French House of Cards’ returns. Produced by Kwai for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Why was Baron Noir season one so successful around the world?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: Politics is back – and even if Baron Noir is about French politicians, it deals with the same problems every politician has to face. That’s the reason the show reaches a global audience. The style of the series also had a great impact. Baron Noir is a thriller, a very tense drama with a cinematographic style, a dramaturgy you can’t escape, and editing that makes it as addictive as possible. The performance of the actors is also astonishing. It’s a universal story of revenge, which is one of the most powerful motivations in a drama.
How does season two move the story forward? We shot season two during the French presidential and legislative elections. No one is capable of predicting what is going to happen, so we have decided to follow our own story. What’s important is that the preoccupations and the big picture of the politicians’ lives are accurate and realistic, whoever is running the country in real life. So in season two, Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis) is elected president and Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad, pictured) is her special advisor. But democracy is threatened by two evil forces: jihadism and the far right. Our two lead characters become ever more divided and separate from each other and fight to save the republic.
What are the biggest challenges in producing the series? We started shooting with four scripts out of eight, because of the availability of the cast. It was a challenging race to have the final scripts ready to shoot and keep the quality.
Zone Blanche (Black Spot) A local sheriff seeks the truth about a mysterious town. Produced by Ego Productions and Be-Films for France 2 and distributed by AB International Distribution.
Where did the idea for Black Spot come from?
Series creator Mathieu Missoffe: Based on initial conversations with producer Vincent Mouluquet, I originally set out to build a strong mystery set in an isolated place that would feel familiar and strange at the same time. We knew this had to be a very visual show to stand out, so we moved away from traditional urban crime shows, instead focusing on a small, colourful community surrounded by hostile and untamed nature. This is how our fictitious town of Villefranche came to life, a place that has its own rules and atmosphere, with a blend of influences ranging from Twin Peaks to Nordic noir.
What is the style or tone of the series? The show borrows from different genres to create its own unique identity. It doesn’t shy away from gritty crime scenes, but we twisted familiar crime show elements by adding a western movie look and occasionally flirting with fantasy as far as the surrounding nature is concerned. A slight touch of comedy is also part of the mix – a necessary addition to create the kind of entertainment we feel is relevant for today’s general audience.
How is French drama evolving? The good news is that most of the old taboos that used to drag down French fiction have now collapsed. Politics and religion are back on the map, while darker and edgier stories are gaining traction. It’s definitely an exciting time, with our traditional realistic auteur shows now able to coexist with series that are trying to open new doors in entertainment with exotic locations, big-budget coproductions or new genres. At the same time, talents in front of and behind the camera are finally crossing over between film and television, resulting in even more opportunities.
Capitaine Marleau (Chief Inspector Marleau) A ‘female Columbo’ tackles crime with her own offbeat methods. Produced by Passion Films for France 3 and distributed by France TV Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer Gaspard de Chavagnac: Our lead actor Corinne Masiero (far left) first portrayed Capitaine Marleau in French miniseries Entre Vents et Marées (Between Winds and Tides), directed by Josée Dayan. She played the part with such wit and originality that we immediately decided to pitch France 3 the character as the heroine of a new cop series. The network did not hesitate long before ordering a 90-minute pilot.
How was the series developed with France 3? After the success of the pilot, written by Elsa Marpeau and again directed by Josée Dayan, France 3 agreed to develop two more episodes and then three others. We are currently producing the second season.
How did you cast the series? As Masiero was not very well known, we sought famous guest stars for each episode. Gérard Depardieu agreed to appear in the first episode, followed by other actors familiar to French viewers – including Victoria Abril, Muriel Robin, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pierre Arditi. The result was an average of 4.3 million viewers for our first four episodes.
La Forêt (The Forest) A small town is gripped by fear when people begin to disappear in a mysterious forest. Produced by Carma Films for France 3 and distributed by About Premium Content (APC).
Tell us about the show.
APC founder and joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart: The Forest is a modern crime series with a gripping story set against a mysterious background. An audience-friendly thriller at heart, it does not, however, shy away from social themes, setting out to provide a realistic portrayal of issues surrounding today’s youth.
How would you describe the writing process? Contrary to the current writers room trend, The Forest was written by a single screenwriter, Delinda Jacobs. She came to us with a very precise idea of what the show would look like and the commissioning channel, which wanted to modernise its line-up, was very supportive from the start.
What was the biggest challenge during production? The biggest challenge for us was finding the right actors. We wanted the story to feel real, with life-like characters and true emotions, so we spent a lot of time looking for people who were able to convey this feeling to the audience. We think we found the right team with Alexia Barlier (pictured left, 13 Hours), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Samuel Labarthe (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) for the main roles.
What new stories are being told in French drama? French drama has always had a social focus and a taste for realistic and intimate stories. What’s changing is that there is now a new appeal for modern narrative forms, new genres and writing techniques. The Forest is definitely part of that movement, keeping in line with parts of the French cinematic tradition but opening up to new and highly effective ways of telling stories.
Les Témoins (Witnesses) season two The return of the atmospheric crime thriller. Produced by Cinétévé for France 2 and distributed by Newen Distribution.
Why was Witnesses season one so successful around the world?
Director Hervé Hadmar: The plot, the atmosphere and detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier, below right). The audience just wants to know who this woman is.
How does season two move the story forward?Witnesses is, of course, the story of Sandra. In season one, she has learned that the ‘ideal family’ does not exist. Her husband is not Prince Charming – and Sandra herself is not so perfect. At the beginning of season two, she’s living alone with her two daughters. She still believes in love, of course, but has to ask herself, ‘Is love the greatest danger?’ As for the main plot, it centres on unravelling what happened to 15 men who are found dead, totally frozen, on a bus. It emerges that they all loved the same woman, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot, below left). Who is Catherine Keemer? Is she responsible for their deaths? Season two explores the relationship between Sandra and Catherine.
How would you describe your directing process? I do not fight against the ‘principe de réalité’ – pressures of time or accidental events. I’m trying to use those little incidents, bad weather, for example, to create something new. I have learned to be excited by asking myself, ‘What the hell is going to happen today?’
What is the style or tone of the show? A Nordic noir with a delicate, strange and almost hypnotic atmosphere.
How is French drama evolving? With more mature themes and artistic values. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience is very important. We have learned to take risks but there is still a lot of progress to make. For that, let’s hope success will continue to knock on our doors.
Transferts (Transfer) Five years after a man drowns, his mind is transferred into someone else’s body. But at a time when ‘transfers’ are outlawed, he must live undercover to avoid detection. Produced by Filmagine, Be-Films and Panama Productions for Arte, and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer/co-writer Patrick Benedek: The series grew out of my friendship with Claude Scasso. For a while we’d been wanting to make a thrilling sci-fi series, aware that in France, at the time, no network wanted to go down that road. It was very liberating for me – I could give free rein to all my beginner’s mistakes! I didn’t imagine for a minute that the project would see the light of day.
How would you describe the writing process? Claude and I worked on the conception and construction of episodes together, in meetings and with notes. We spent entire days projecting ourselves into our characters and our universe – with a creative purpose but also with a keen critical eye on each other’s proposals – until we got that exhilarating feeling that we had something. That’s the advantage of knowing each other well, of not having an oversized ego and of being a team. After that, Claude would write a first draft of the treatments, which I would then rework. Finally, he would go over what I wrote, and I would go over what he did, until we were both satisfied.
What were the biggest challenges during production? In France, it’s always the same problem – do as much as possible as well as possible with the little financial resources we have. This means always knowing how to get the most out of your resources; knowing how to distribute them while maintaining your artistic vision.
Kim Kong While filming in Asia, a director is kidnapped by a neighbouring dictatorship and ordered to make a new version of King Kong. Produced by Kwai and Armance for Arte and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
What are the origins of the series?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and told to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which was called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie. The other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel with a similar theme, being about an author who’s kidnapped by an deranged fan and forced rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. But our story is not about a specific regime or specific country; it’s really about creativity and constraints.
How do you balance the drama with elements of comedy?The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end, but in a similar style to movies like Gold Rush, M.A.S.H. or The Ladykillers. The subject is very serious and dramatic but we build in several contradictions that create comedy. It’s a question of life and death but the director has to deal with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the leader, so there are lots of elements where you can do nothing but laugh.
What was the biggest challenge? Mostly the casting and the language (with the show being filmed in French and Chinese). But also working out where we were going to shoot. As our dictatorship doesn’t exist in real life, we looked for a location for months before deciding to film 90% of the series in a studio in Paris.
A family of priests are at the centre of Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), Danish writer Adam Price’s follow-up to political drama Borgen.
From a topic that may not immediately seem the most exciting – coalition politics in Denmark – Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured above) crafted a captivating drama that gripped audiences around the world. And now, turning his attention to religion in the forthcoming Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), the writer is hoping lightning will strike for a second time.
The series reunites Price with producer Camilla Hammerich and Danish broadcaster DR to tell the story of a family of Danish priests. While one son has followed his father into the priesthood, his brother has chosen another path.
The cast is headed by Lars Mikkelsen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as the parents, with Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen as their grown-up sons.
“I can think of no other broadcaster in Denmark that would be willing to tell a story that is as tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative as this will be,” Price says. “My last show dealt with politics and I thought, ‘Where do I move from this?’ You can [take inspiration from] so many emotions as a writer – the emotion for this show is definitely curiosity.
“In the times we are living in now, it’s almost more political to write about religion than about politics – because when we’re talking about integration, immigration, social issues, geopolitics and terrorism, we are in fact dealing with religious issues. It is one of the great topics of our time.”
It’s the family at the centre of the story through which such issues are explored. “If you want a compelling story, you need to tell it from the point of view of the characters,” says Price. “It would be very difficult to talk about religion from too aloof a position, to talk about great ideas, religious history. It’s too big. You need to pull it down to a human level. The characters must always be at the heart of the story.”
DR is producing Ride Upon the Storm as a coproduction with French-German network Arte and SAM le Français, in association with distributor StudioCanal. The series, which is being filmed in Denmark and Spain, will debut this fall with 10 episodes, while DR has already ordered a second 10-episode season scheduled to air in autumn 2018.
Alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen is regularly held up as one of the TV dramas that brought Danish – and Scandinavian – drama front and centre on the world stage.
“Nobody ever thought Borgen would travel or moderately interest an audience because, when you pitch the series, everybody should be running away screaming,” Price jokes of its niche political content. “Religion is definitely just as difficult a main topic as politics, but if you have captivating character stories then you can talk about all the difficult things on top of that. That was the way we told the stories of Borgen so I’m delving into the same bag of tricks. I hope it will still work.”
With the show in development for two-and-a-half years, Price spent six months working on Ride Upon the Storm by himself before setting up a small writers room, just as he did with Borgen, which was penned by just three writers for the first two seasons. Staff writers Karina Dam and Poul Berg joined Price in writing the first 14 episodes across Ride Upon the Storm’s two planned seasons, while Price and Dam are completing the final six episodes together.
The writers room, however, was more than just a collaborative effort. Price explains: “It was very important for me to have different attitudes of faith in the writers room – Karina is a Christian, Poul is probably an agnostic and I guess I am a non-believer myself, but a very curious one. It’s important in a show
like this that we take religion and faith extremely seriously.
“I’m not here to make people not believe, and the show is also not there to make people believe. What we really want with the show, apart from telling hopefully compelling, character-driven stories about faith and religion, is to make viewers wonder about
faith and religious issues and to make people discuss them.”
As the head writer, Price is typically hands-on across the entire project, overseeing up to six drafts of each script before they are approved for shooting. “I try to sketch out the full season because we need to know what we are moving towards so we don’t invent the world anew every time we storyline and pitch an episode,” he says. “It’s very important to know the end point on the map, so that while we can make many interesting and meaningful detours, there is a very clear course set for the whole story.
“The actors know the characters’ mid-points and end points in the season. We discuss that vividly with them every time we meet. If a character is to suffer a nervous breakdown in two or three episodes’ time, the actor has a right to know so they can build up to that moment and it won’t be a steep mountain to climb in the actual episode. It’s so important that we can see small traits of [such a plot point] in the way the character behaves a few episodes in advance.”
Research is another part of Price’s writing process, but he says it’s important not to become “lost” in details that can limit creativity in the writers room. A priest has also been on hand as a religious advisor, sitting in the room once a month to listen to pitches for the next block of episodes.
“With reference to Borgen, it’s one thing to step on a person’s political beliefs, but it’s another entirely to step on their religious faith,” Price explains. “We need to know when we’re stepping on any toes; we can’t step too wildly and in all directions without researching or planning quite thoroughly. This is definitely territory where people can be very upset. It can and will probably happen.”
After the success of Borgen, which ran on DR for three seasons and starred Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister, Price admits he tries not to concern himself with the expectations over his follow-up series, which is coproduced by the SAM label founded by Price, fellow writer Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) and producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (A Royal Affair) in 2014.
Also on SAM’s slate is Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface), a hostage drama for Denmark’s Kanal 5, and Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a radio station-focused show that launched in March on TV2 Charlie. The company also has projects in development in Denmark and the UK, as well as the US with HBO and AMC.
“The Danish industry has changed – it has become much more international,” Price says. “We should just be grateful that we’re able to finance these shows with big countries in Europe and across the world.
“Now they know our shows – and if we can do something as good as The Killing, they want to be a part of it. That’s a great privilege because it allows us to tell even more ambitious stories. We are standing on the shoulders of our own success, which is very demanding but also a great privilege.”
French drama is evolving at an increasing pace, but while broadcasters and producers are widening their international horizons, the most dramatic changes are taking place at home.
Change is afoot in France, but while landmark international coproductions might be grabbing the headlines, traditional ciné movies and crime procedurals are being replaced by serialised dramas and a gamut of new genres on screen.
Tetra Media Fiction producer Emmanuel Daucé says French drama is in the middle of a revolution that dates back 10 years to when broadcasters shifted their focus from TV movies to series, inspired by the work of US premium cable network HBO.
Gritty crime dramas such as Braquo and Spiral subsequently broke through to the international market, and more producers are now trying to follow their lead as France seeks to capitalise on the increasing demand for global drama series.
One example is The Young Pope, which sees pay TV network Canal+ join forces with HBO and Sky to tell the controversial story of the beginning of Pope Pius XIII’s pontificate. The cast is headed by Jude Law and Diane Keaton, while all eight episodes will be directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.
“It was HBO series, which not many people watched in France, that changed everything,” Daucé explains. “Telling stories through images is so important in France that we needed a cultural validation that TV could be interesting, and HBO helped a lot.”
Stéphane Drouet, producer and co-founder of MakingProd, says he is developing series for “almost every broadcaster,” as well as producing season three of cop show Cherif for France 2.
“Networks are still looking for self-contained episodes, but more and more they’re looking for serialised drama,” he adds. “Broadchurch did really well on France 2 and it may have accelerated the need for this kind of programme. They realised it would really work in primetime in France.
“Of course, there are still cop dramas. It’s a format that still works so well. But for a lot of years it was mainly procedural – now it’s more serialised, which is a good thing, and it also opens the door to more serialised dramas that aren’t about cops.”
Paris-based Ego Productions is behind TF1 series Alice Nevers, which will begin production on its 13th season this autumn, while new drama Zone Blanche, commissioned by France Télévisions, will begin shooting in April 2016. Ego is also responsible for the French adaptation of UK drama Doc Martin, which ran for four seasons on TF1.
Executive producer Pascal Wyn says French drama is playing catch-up to other territories by trying to broaden the international appeal of its stories, in the face of traditional series that still prove popular among domestic viewers.
“At the moment, the TV drama business is trying to create a revolution,” he explains. “French TV producers all want to make French television better and more international, as in Sweden, Germany and, of course, the USA. French producers want to make programmes with international appeal.
“Broadcasters say they are looking for new stories, but in fact they are very suspicious of new programmes because traditional French drama always works.”
Another factor behind the changing face of the country’s TV drama, according to Endemol France MD Nicholas Coppermann, is the decreasing reliance on US series. As long-term output deals for series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, House and NCIS come to an end or the shows are cancelled, primetime slots are opening up for domestic series.
“The channels used US dramas as primetime shows and it was very difficult to compete using French scripted drama,” Coppermann says. “Although there are some very good US series now, they aren’t as mainstream or coherent with French tastes.
“The channels that previously thought it was expensive and risky to pay for local drama compared with US series now feel they need some strong local pieces. They are also ready to buy more series. All this combines to create a much more favourable environment for French writers, producers, actors and directors.”
Endemol label Leonis Productions was responsible for telemovie L’Emprise, which told the true story of a woman who was acquitted of killing her abusive husband. Coppermann says the project represented a leap of faith for TF1, which he says was rewarded with the highest-rating French drama since 2007, attracting 8.6 million viewers (and 9.8 million after seven days).
The film, which debuted in January, has since been sold to Antenna 3 in Spain.
“Our drama business is up and running and we recently signed a deal for a procedural with TF1, as well as a thriller miniseries called Le Domaine for M6,” Coppermann adds. “It is penned by writer/director Hervé Hadmar, who was behind the huge French hit Les Témoins (aka Witnesses), a drama that made quite some noise because it was sold to Channel 4 in the UK before its debut in France, which is quite rare.
“TF1 used to be sceptical about miniseries, but it’s more open to them now. There’s a movement towards more serialised miniseries in France because it’s easier to grip the audience’s attention with those. However, the main free-to-air channels still need some self-contained shows. So both those genres are required at the moment.
“Canal+ wants more miniseries because it wants to create an event with every show. I think it has come to realise that its returning series, no matter how good, are not making so much noise, so it needs to bring back miniseries. TF1 has a slot for procedurals on Thursday and it wants that to be strong, but it’s also open to miniseries. The time of ‘no serialised shows,’ which was making things complicated for the French creative community, is now behind us, so there’s room for all kinds of dramas.”
Canal+ is currently preparing for the fall launch of Versailles, a 10-part historical drama created by Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft and produced by Capa Drama, Incendo and Zodiak Fiction.
But what is the cause of France’s late arrival to serialised series? Daucé says television in France has struggled to escape the shadow of cinema but, as in other territories, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the small screen. In particular, he credits another Canal+ series – breakout supernatural drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned) – for helping to improve the reputation of television series in France.
“Viewers weren’t very familiar with the format,” he says. “This is because of the importance of cinema in France. The biggest recent hit in France was Les Revenants. This is a brilliant TV series but its strength lies in its cinematic qualities. The filmmaking is brilliant. It was produced by Haut et Court, a production company that makes feature films, and was created by filmmaker Fabrice Gobert, not by someone from TV.
“Now, slowly, TV series in France are receiving hype. It’s only very recently that viewers and people in the industry have started to take more of an interest in television. There are two worlds in France — cinema and TV, and there’s still some friction between the two.”
Tetra Media Fiction’s slate includes period drama Un Village Français (pictured top), which will air its sixth season this autumn on France 3, with a seventh and final season due to begin production by the end of the year. It is also producing Les Hommes de l’Ombre, a political drama now in its third season on France 2.
Daucé adds that broadcasters are also now more open-minded about the type of series they broadcast. “Canal+ helped a lot, again with Les Revenants,” he explains. “This is a genre we never have usually. When I started Un Village Français, I was told period dramas were too difficult to produce and cost too much. But there have been a lot of period dramas since.
“Now we are, in a way, in a revolution of the way we think about TV series. Our problem is that for a long time we didn’t make TV series. We now have producers and writers who specialise in making them but this is still pretty new for us.”
With this shift in focus to television drama, the industry will only become more experienced, and this expertise will be boosted further by the surge of international coproductions being built in France.
In June, Canal+ and Swedish public broadcaster SVT unveiled Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), the first ever French-Swedish drama copro. It follows a French detective who is sent to the far north of Sweden to investigate the murder of a French citizen.
Created by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and based on an idea by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, it is produced by Atlantique Productions, Nice Drama and Filmpool Nord. The cast includes Leïla Bekhti and Gustaf Hammarsten.
Atlantique has also partnered with Keshet UK, the London-based production arm of Israeli distributor Keshet International, to develop English-language drama Crater Lake. The eight-part series, created by Ron Leshem, is described as a “life-affirming, character-driven show about death.”
Oliver Bibas, MD at Atlantique, says: “People are more and more aware of international coproduction opportunities. Canal+ has a strategy to do more coproductions. It is also focused on French drama, but there is a place for coproduction. It’s the same for Arte, and now we’re seeing what will be the next move for France Télévisions, which should also step up in this area.”
Bibas says Atlantique is now developing series it wouldn’t have considered as recently as two or three years ago. In particular, the company is remaking Django, a spaghetti western from the 1960s, and is also on board the reboot of science-fiction series Metal Hurlant with producer Jamie Mathieson. “They’re not something we would have done previously but because of online platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Canal Play, there are so many new outlets that you can go deeper into a niche genre, which wasn’t the case three or four years ago,” he says.
“We’re trying to get some more niche shows into development. Western and sci-fi are not traditional genres for scripted drama in France. But we feel that when we’re pitching shows to the networks, there is an appetite for this. The market is changing – there’s new demand from networks, and you have to find shows that are in line with our times.”
In fact, Netflix is already in production on its first French-langauge drama, Marseille, with Gerard Depardieu playing the lead role of the city’s mayor in a political story of power, corruption and redemption.
Created and written by Dan Franck, the eight-part series is produced by Federation Entertainment and will launch on Netflix in 2016.
Franco-German network Arte epitomises the change in attitude towards drama among French broadcasters. Switching from
TV movies to serialised programmes, it was among the first to import European shows, most notably Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing) and Borgen, plus Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans).
The channel is now forging ahead with its coproduction strategy. Launching this autumn is Occupied, a 10-part political thriller based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbø and developed with Norway’s TV2.
It has also partnered with Denmark’s DR and Borgen creator Adam Price on a new faith-based series called Herrens veje (aka Rides Upon the Storm).
Alexandre Piel, Arte’s deputy head of drama in charge of international acquisitions and coproductions, says he’s not sure if what is happening in French drama is a revolution but admits the landscape is changing fast.
“Our behaviours have completely changed in the last five years,” he says. “We jumped from 90- to 52-minute slots; from mainly standalone collections to serial dramas. That’s a major change.
“Canal+ was one of the first to establish the strategy. Arte followed and we were very much open to European content as a pioneer channel. Now everyone has an eye on European content.
“From international acquisitions to French content, the standards have changed and everyone has to cope with it. Then we have to see in the coming months – in terms of international distribution and coproduction – if it’s a major change or just a short-term change.”
Arte’s coproduction strategy began with it working as a minor partner on Occupied, before co-developing Herrens veje. It is also onboard sci-fi drama Trepalium. Piel hopes Arte’s next copro will be a French project on which the network can take the lead.
He adds that Arte is open to new ideas, as it doesn’t want to run the same sort of shows that air on other channels.
“It means more risk-taking but the idea is to jump on originality, creativity and innovation, and to be able to offer something more audacious,” he says. “That’s really the keyword in terms of ambition.
“There are a lot of projects on the market. There are plenty of series but some are quite similar. I feel there’s less difference, creativity and innovation than a few years ago, but that’s normal. The industry is restructuring so we need new and different projects and a different way to work altogether.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of pre-buys on series including Wolf Hall, Indian Summers and Danish series Norskov. We’re trying to understand the way some channels and producers are working so we can work with them in the future.”
Meanwhile, MakingProd is developing Destination Mars, about an expedition to the red planet, with Russia’s Star Media, Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Poland’s Synergy Films. It is also producing Salazar, a period coproduction with Spain’s Plano a Plano and distributor Eccho Rights.
But while Drouet acknowledges that international coproductions are gaining traction, he says networks are still predominantly focused on homegrown drama.
“French drama is becoming more and more attractive for partners and producers, so we have a lot of people coming to us saying they would like to make international coproductions,” he says. “A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible but now it is, and it shows the success of TV drama in France.
“There will always be a strong demand for domestic drama but even now the pure French TV series are getting better and better. And even if it’s a purely French series, we have interest now from foreign countries to get shows like The Returned or Witnesses. It shows there’s a new era of TV series in France.
“Even though the shows are taking place in France and are spoken in French, now they interest foreign markets more and more because the stories we tell are more international and more universal.”
Bibas agrees that domestic drama is still the model in France. “We have a very traditional setup,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s fault – this is the way the French system has been for the past 20 years – but now more and more producers and networks are opening up a bit to something that is more modern in terms of French drama, and it’s a very good thing. We’re on the right track but it takes time to change the market.”