Tag Archives: Better Than Us

Steppe change

Writing for DQ, Alexandra Modestova, director general of Russian film and television consultancy Expocontent, explains how series such as The Road to Calvary and An Ordinary Woman are leading the rise in female-led dramas in the country.

Alexandra Modestova

The global market has started to open up to Russian drama. As stories have focused on the domestic market for the past 10 years, Russian series were known to offer traditional values – strong, powerful men who rule the world and drive the story, and women filling mostly secondary roles.

But times are changing. Since top Russian producers now focus on the global market and make series intended for worldwide audiences, they have to adapt the way Russian women are seen and presented by local television.

Female-led shows where women drive the story have begun appearing over the past few years, and that’s quite a step forward for the local industry. Among the most recent examples are Mata Hari, Mathilde, Ekaterina (pictured top), Sophia, The Road to Calvary, Better than Us and An Ordinary Woman.

The latter is a compelling example of another major change for Russian female characters: they can now be complex. Produced by Look Film and 1-2-3 Production for TV3, An Ordinary Woman centres on a married woman with two kids and a small flower shop. It turns out she is secretly running a prostitution network to fully cover her family’s needs, which her husband is incapable of doing. That might seem a radical way to help one’s family, but the story carries a great deal of irony and deep thought, depicting a strong woman in a world of weaker men.

An Ordinary Woman follows a mother who secretly runs a prostitution ring

The heroine is a mother of two daughters and a caring wife, yet she can be cynical, cold-headed, even cruel in her secret (but very real) life. She is a complicated, independently minded woman who has flaws and doesn’t fit into that typical kind of ‘perfect’ female characters who are too good to play by their own rules. So the title is significant – any ‘ordinary’ woman watching the series in any part of the world shares her character and complexities, her flaws and private thoughts. It’s no surprise that the series was immediately picked up by an international distributor, Cineflix Rights.

The series may seem to broadcast a new message for the local audience, but in fact women have always been strong in Russia, so it’s not only down to contemporary stories.

Several period dramas from Russia television and radio revolve around female leads based on real women in different times and circumstances. Ekaterina tells the story of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. She arrives in the country as a young girl and becomes the most powerful woman in Europe. Another drama, Sophia, is dedicated to the first influential woman in Russian history, Sophia Palaiologina, grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, who managed to survive in a harsh world filled with conspiracies. She supported the integration of a divided country and helped to push out invaders and build the Kremlin in Moscow.

These memorable heroines make their own way in a male-dominated world. They are smart and decisive enough to hold power and influence during periods when this was extremely unusual for women. These productions provide accurate historical context but with a modern look, so these women are similar at their core to women today: ambitious, intelligent, independent, passionate and imperfect.

The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy

Other compelling examples of shows where women dare live, feel and make mistakes are The Road to Calvary (NTV Broadcasting Company, distributed internationally by Dori Media) and Mathilde (Rock Films). The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy and follows Russian intellectuals through the revolution of 1917 and the Soviet era, telling the story of two sisters. Here an absolute classic is reinvented by and for a younger generation. The young still read classic literature but nowadays they need to look at the story through a different lens.

Mathilde, presented at Mipcom in Cannes last year with support from Made in Russia, tells a classical love story: the last Russian emperor and his affair with an attractive ballerina. Again, it shows a woman full of passion who follows her desires boldly. The whole world is against her but she is able to stand up to it.

It seems that science fiction is also seen as a place for women. Better Than Us, from Yellow Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, centres on an android who seems to have her own thoughts and intentions, and looks at the impact she has on the humans around her. She is perfectly beautiful, yet any evil intentions towards her end badly for any potential offender. The series has just been acquired by Netflix from Start Video, the rights holder, and will become the first Netflix Original from Russia.

Better Than Us will be the first Netflix Original from Russia

The android woman is played by Paulina Andreeva, a rising star of Russian TV and cinema. She also plays the lead female role in Method, a series by Sreda that was among the first Russian projects acquired by Netflix. Andreeva appears as an ambitious young law enforcement graduate who is taken on as a trainee by a famous detective, her idol. But his methods of tracking down dangerous criminals and maniacs aren’t anything like she imagined.

The past few years have seen a range of high-end shows from Russia that are driven by female leads. Although there may not be many of these yet, the Russian TV industry is going international and following global trends. This includes the necessity to let women have a distinct voice and fair representation on the screen. These days fair means complex. Like real women and like the new, younger audience, female characters have to live life on their own terms. The choices they make may be different – they might be married or single, a tender mother or child-free, a successful business woman or a housewife, even a criminal, or a combination of all these.

The main point is it’s their own choice.

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Robot wars

Russian drama Better Than Us explores a near future where humans share their daily lives with robots – and the ethical dilemmas those relationships throw up. Creator Alexander Kessel tells DQ how this world was created and why science-fiction is enjoying a resurgence.

The first murder by a robot sends shockwaves through a near-future Moscow in Russian sci-fi thriller Better Than Us.

The series sees forensic scientist Georgy, who has a robot assistant, caught up in the groundbreaking crime that raises ethical questions to match the high drama that plays out in this stylised story.

The 16-part series is produced by Yellow, Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, and distributed by Yellow, Black and White. It is due to air next year on Channel One Russia.

Here, Alexander Kessel, series creator and CEO of Sputnik Vostok, tells DQ how the show was brought to the screen.

Alexander Kessel at this year’s MipDrama Screenings

What’s the story behind Better Than Us?
Our story centres on a family torn apart by some complex events. Georgy Safronov, a former prominent surgeon, our protagonist, tries desperately to win back his family, his job and his happy past but with little success: his ex-wife and two children are going to leave for Australia and reside there. It all takes place in a near future. We recognise our world, but there are also some innovations you and I are yet to see. The only things that are typically sci-fi in the universe of the series are androids. They are mainly helpers, but also sometimes companions and even lovers. But then there is Arisa, an android of an unknown origin with a big secret that forces other secrets to be uncovered too.

What was your inspiration for the series?
Obviously, there is a pile of sci-fi books everybody has read in childhood. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick – names known worldwide. But then there are also big sci-fi writers from my Soviet childhood who are probably only famous in Eastern Europe, who came up with a deeper philosophical and metaphorical sci-fi tradition because they had to create their ideas under state censorship. The Strougatski brothers, Bulgarian Agop Melkonyan and Pole Stanislav Lem are among them.

How did you develop the show for the network?
In 2012 we started developing the story with our team at Sputnik Vostok Production, and then in one year we shared the script of the pilot episode with every potential partner in our market. That is how we teamed up with Yellow, Black and White, who joined the project by funding the production of the pilot at the end of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, we wrote the script, and this is when Channel One confirmed their interest in show by signing an agreement. We started production in 2016 and were still shooting when we took part in this year’s MipDrama Screening in Cannes and in Séries Mania in Paris.

Are there any parallels or reflections of Russian culture or society?
Absolutely. We tried to hide, below the surface, key problems of today’s life in Russia: corruption, social disintegration, extreme radical forces and general dehumanisation due to overall consumerism. But the show has many elements of everyday Russian life, we also made an effort to tell our story in rather universal way so that viewers in other countries would watch something they don’t think of primarily as a Russian story. It could happen in any megapolis on Earth. That is why, by the way, you won’t see recognisable Moscow landmarks in the show.

Android Arisa is played by Paulina Andreeva

What ethical questions do you raise in the series and why did you want to answer these?
The agenda is both local and global. People who watched the pilot episode kept asking me if Arisa was going evolve into a human. But the core question is not sci-fi driven, it is instead about basic ethics: will human characters be able to stay human? There is a saying I like to refer to: ‘To find happiness, love people, not things; use things, not people.’ I think we are all now at a critical point of having confused both. It is a pretty common idea that I totally share – I wish we turned to each other, leaned on each other and valued direct human contact more than our gadgets and social networking, which in reality often lead to separation and loneliness.

How would you describe the writing process?
Enormously challenging! We had to start from the beginning twice, inviting new writers on board for the second attempt.

Who are the lead actors and who do they play?
Casting was done extremely carefully. Kirill Käro plays Georgy, and his wife Alla is portrayed by Olga Lomonosova. Eldar Kalimulin, a gifted young actor, plays their son. Android Arisa, both deus ex machina and femme fatale in one, is brilliantly performed by Paulina Andreeva, whose acting is superhuman.

How did you create the show’s stylised look?
We agreed that we would not use high-end, fantastical products. Every item that reflects the future is either a soon-to-be-realeased product or an existing innovative prototype. There are a dozen or more technologies of this kind in the series: bracelet communicators, foldable screens, transparent gadget bodies, active projections and so on. In addition, our future city environment is a bit more friendly than our streets today. There are no traffic jams, while there is more space. Many surfaces are screens and some images are holographic. Androids – which exist in various forms like, let’s say, smartphones – are the principal feature of this universe: they define the style a lot by their packaging, their clothes, their movement and their voices.

Better Than Us follows the aftermath of the first robot committed by a robot

How did you create the robots in the series?
The director, Andrey Dzhunkovsky, created a combined technique that includes the use of plastic, costumes and CGI.

What are the challenges of writing and producing a sci-fi series?
The major challenge is, of course, to observe the proper balance between rather widely appealing drama and its sci-fi wrapping, and not to get too seduced by the sci-fi world while creating it.

What were the biggest problems you faced, either creatively or in production?
The script took us too long. We had to rewrite it for many reasons – first creative ones then production ones.

Where was the series filmed and how did you use real locations within the show?
All the locations are in Moscow. However, we didn’t want Moscow to be recognised, so we looked for contemporary and stylish city skylines where we could add some CGI elements afterwards.

Why is sci-fi proving to be a big trend in worldwide TV drama?
I think people like to have a chance to watch the future world, to taste it, to check if what they fantasise about themselves coincides with someone’s else vision. It is very entertaining and even soothing to find that the dilemmas people face in fictional worlds are still the same as ours. It is a pure form of escapism. People all over the world need it.

What are you working on next?
We are currently finishing principal shooting of eight-episode musical Up to the Sun, which is set in the late 1970s. We have 24 episodes of melodrama From Hate to Love in production, and 17 episodes of comedy The New Person. But our biggest aspiration today is the launch of English-language coproduction Blue Blood: Eight Days of Summer, an eight-episode historical coming-of-age drama, as well as other English-language developments that we are speaking to partners, broadcasters and coproducers about.

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The Cannes selection

Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.

In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.

Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.

There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.

This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.

Expectations are high for forthcoming German series Babylon Berlin

The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.

So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.

All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.

There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.

The Ride Upon the Storm main cast (L-R): Lars Mikkelsen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen

There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.

The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).

Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.

Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”

Russia’s The Territory follows the investigation into a set of ritualistic murders

Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.

The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”

A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.

“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”

Missions is about a voyage to the red planet gone awry

The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.

All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”

In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.

Fearless stars Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory

Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.

Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.

Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.

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