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Palace life

As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.

For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.

The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+  series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.

The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.

The 10-part final season of Versailles begins tonight in the UK on BBC2

“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”

That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.

“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.

“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”

Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.

Big-budget drama Versailles’ international success caught its makers by surprise

“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.

“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”

Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”

But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.

The costume choices for Versailles involved a great deal of in-depth research by Madeline Fontaine

“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”

When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.

“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”

Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”

Fontaine was careful that characters’ costume changes evolved in stages

The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.

“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”

Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.

“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.

Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, had a huge impact on the arts

“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”

Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.

With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”

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Pitch black

Swedish noir Modus is back for a second season, with a cast that now includes Kim Cattrall as the US president. DQ visits the Stockholm set to find out why this drama has global appeal.

TV drama doesn’t get any more glamorous than this. We are crouching in Stygian semi-darkness beside the monitor in a dingy corridor at the Swedish Defence Ministry in Stockholm. We can barely see our hands in front of our faces.

To add to the sense of doom and gloom, the windows are blacked out. Suddenly, with no warning, out of the gloaming come marching two very scary-looking, thickset heavies in smart suits wielding machine guns. They are clearly not here to sing Happy Birthday to anyone.

Unsurprisingly, this is the set of a Nordic noir offering – and this one is literally noir.

Melinda Kinnaman and Henrik Norlén return to lead the cast

Ever since the magnetic Danish crime story Forbrydelsen (The Killing) broke through internationally, winning a Bafta in the UK in 2011, and was immediately followed by the overseas success of series such as Borgen, The Bridge, Beck and the Swedish version of Wallander, Scandi dramas have been drawing huge and passionate audiences everywhere.

DQ is in Stockholm observing the filming of the newest such series to make waves globally. We are watching the white-knuckle denouement of the second season of Swedish drama Modus. Broadcast last year, the first season made a major impact around the world.

Its co-star Henrik Norlen, who has also appeared in such well-regarded Scandi dramas as Beck, Stockholm East, My Skinny Sister and Hotel, takes a break between scenes of this intense series to consider why Nordic noir has struck such an international chord.

“I think it’s because there is a lot going on behind these characters. They’re not just policeman or criminal profilers – they are also people. They have great depth.

“You get to go inside their head and see what they’re thinking. These dramas are also a bit darker than British or American series. It is a tradition in Nordic countries of telling stories that are dark, mystic and pagan.

“People from all over the world used to come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means Abba and Volvo.’ Now they come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means The Killing, The Bridge and Modus.’ Of course, Modus is better than all of them!”

In the second season of Modus the leading duo are an item

Tobias Åström, the line producer on Modus, chips in: “In the past at television trade fairs, the only thing people wanted to see at the Swedish stall was what meatballs we had. Now they come up and ask, ‘What programme can you give me?’”

The second season of Modus is an eight-part adaptation by the Emmy-winning Danish screenwriters Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe of Madam President, the novel by the bestselling Norwegian crime author (and former Minister of Justice) Anne Holt.

Holt’s work coheres with the sepulchral prevailing mood of Nordic Noir. As the British crime writer Val McDermid has observed, “Anne Holt is the latest crime writer to reveal how truly dark it gets in Scandinavia.”

In this gripping season, intuitive Swedish criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik (played by Melinda Kinnaman, My Life as a Dog) and compassionate detective Chief Ingvar Nymann (Norlén), both returning from season one, are now an item.

But the pair, who made a big splash when they first appeared together in the widely acclaimed first season, have little time to enjoy their life together as they are immediately plunged into another life-or-death investigation. They have to scramble when the first ever female US President, Helen Tyler (Kim Cattrall, Sex & the City), is kidnapped during a state visit to Sweden.

As the US and Swedish authorities struggle to rescue the president and indulge in a bitter blame game, Inger is reluctantly forced to work closely with her former mentor, the Machiavellian FBI director Warren Schifford (Greg Wise, The Crown). When the details of their troubled shared past slowly start to emerge, Inger’s entire mental stability is put at risk.

Melinda Kinnaman returns as Swedish criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik

A coproduction from SVoD platform C More, TV4 Sweden, Miso Film Sweden and FremantleMedia International, the second season of Modus makes for a compelling tale of revenge, recrimination and retribution. It is due to premiere on C More later this year before airing on TV4.

British actor Wise is delighted to be dipping his toe into Nordic noir for the first time with Modus. He says what distinguishes this kind of piece is its willingness to treat its audience with respect. “What I’ve really enjoyed about working on this drama is the time spent developing the story and the characters,” he says.

“Very often, programme makers rush through their storytelling because they don’t trust the audience to get it. Things have to happen very fast – cut, cut, cut. Those productions imagine that we are the MTV generation and have memories like goldfish.”

But, continues the actor, who has also had leading roles in such memorable British dramas as Sense and Sensibility, The Outcast, Cranford and Madame Bovary, “viewers of Scandi dramas are really given time to invest in their relationship with the characters. They are allowed a proper glimpse into another world. It’s like the slow food revolution” – only in television.

International audiences are also attracted by the strangeness of the universe conjured up by shows such as Modus. Cecilia Bornebusch, the show’s production designer, comments: “It’s more exciting as a viewer if you don’t really understand what’s going on and you have to read between the lines. It’s more enticing than your own language because it seems exotic.

“Also, I think in Scandinavia we are very good at portraying relationships. We have never had great problems with war, so we have had other things to write about, like relationship difficulties. That’s in our blood.”

Like all the best Scandi dramas, Modus depicts a heightened world. Åström, who has also worked on The Bridge and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, reflects: “As in fairytales, in Nordic noir you draw on things from the margins. Normal people are greyer than the characters in drama. So when you tell a story in a drama, you can make it more colourful than real life.”

But, he adds with a smile, “Of course, in reality Sweden is not that dangerous a place. It does not have a serial killer hiding in every bush. Have you ever been to Ystad, where Wallander is set? It’s so quiet in reality. If that drama were true, there would be no one left in that town!”

Modus also employs another of Scandinavia’s great resources: its pellucid natural light. Bornebusch observes: “The Nordic light is wonderful. The light in Southern Europe is earthier, whereas we are influenced by the snow and the winter. It’s always so dark here – that’s why we like bright colours.”

In addition, the drama makes tremendous use of its Swedish backdrops. Wise remarks: “One of the really appealing things about Modus is that it shows the world how beautiful Stockholm is. It’s a stunning city. But it’s also a place full of secret tunnels that people have forgotten about.”

The city’s duality mirrors a key theme in this season: the contrast between our private and public faces. Holt has written several more novels about Inger, and the production team are eager to make further series tracking this fascinating and complex character.

But, equally, they are well aware that the best way to maintain the audience’s interest is to keep Modus fresh.

“If we made another season,” Åström concludes, “we would want to make sure that we could add something to it. We wouldn’t want to just keep milking the same cow and producing the same milk.

“We would want to make a new flavour – like banana!”

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‘Tis the season for renewals

Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run
Matt DIllon starred in the first season of Wayward Pines but will not feature in the second run

This summer, critics couldn’t decide whether M Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge’s 10-part mystery-thriller Wayward Pines qualified as a hit. But the show’s host network Fox has now answered that question by giving the production a second season.

Fox Broadcasting Company’s entertainment president David Madden said: “Wayward Pines was a huge hit for us. We were absolutely blown away by the mysterious and surprising world that Night and his team created, and the twisting-and-turning storytelling that drew viewers in from day one. Season two is going to take the suspense, the vision of the future and the haunting character drama to whole new levels.”

A same-day audience of three to four million wasn’t especially impressive. But Fox has crunched the numbers and come up with the following analysis: “Season one of Wayward Pines ranked as summer 2015’s number-one broadcast scripted series among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.2/8 in the key demo. The series – about a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in a sleepy town, and the shocking results of his investigation – ranked among summer 2015’s top 10 broadcast programmes overall among adults 18-49. It earned a multiplatform average audience of 9.4 million, which represents a +145% increase versus its Live+Same Day audience – the largest multiplatform lift versus Live+Same Day ever for a Fox drama.”

According to Fox, the second season will pick up in the wake of season one, when a new arrival in Wayward Pines finds himself in the middle of a serious rebellion, as the residents battle over how to preserve the endangered human race. Season one stars Matt Dillon and Toby Jones will not return, so there will be a lot of interest in who gets cast as the new lead.

Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season
Showtime has extended Homeland into a sixth season as its fifth finishes strongly

This week has also seen renewals for Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair. This confirms our hunch that Homeland had done enough in season five to warrant a renewal, though the announcement has come later than expected.

Season five is finishing strongly, which appears to vindicate the decision to move central character Carrie (played by Claire Danes) to Berlin. Co-creator Alex Gansa has suggested that this could be the model going forward, with each season placing Carrie in a new geographic location.

There was also a renewal this week for NBC’s The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as a criminal mastermind working with the FBI. The drama, which will go into season four, averages a same-day of audience of around seven million. It’s also popular internationally, featuring on networks such as Sky Living and TF1 in France.

The timing of the announcement makes this an early renewal for the show, and creator Jon Bokencamp says he has known about The Blacklist’s return for a while. Speaking in a podcast interview this week, he commented: “We knew about that a while ago. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep quiet. But yes, we’re renewed through to the fourth season. Hopefully we don’t tank that out – we’ve got a lot of story to tell.”

The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal
The Blacklist, starring James Spader, has been given an early renewal on NBC

Back at Fox, one show that is certain to get a renewal is breakout hit Empire, which is now in the middle of its second run. However, the new season has been bumpy ride, akin to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. After opening to 16 million viewers (22.5 million when you add in the multiplatform/time-shifted figures), the music industry-based show dropped as low as 9.2 million (same-day rating) for episode nine. Episode 10 saw a bounceback (11.8 million) but the underlying critical narrative suggests the show has lost its way slightly.

The biggest complaint seems to be that this year’s plots and characters lack authenticity, with USA Today summing it up like this: “On social media, fans are griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (‘cartoon garbage,’ sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in (one) episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor. There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, from Chris Rock to Ludacris.”

Having said all this, Empire is still the strongest US network show by far. To put it in perspective, its rating among the all-important 18-49 demo far exceeds that of new shows such as Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico. So a renewal is as certain as anything can be in this life.

Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of 'difficult second album' syndrome
Empire is likely to return despite enduring the TV equivalent of a ‘difficult second album’

A likely beneficiary of its success is Rosewood, which airs straight after Empire. Having seen its ratings boosted as a result of Empire’s strong lead-in, it’s another show that is pretty much guaranteed a return.

Continuing on this topic, this week provided a superb example of the impact that a strong lead-in can have on a title’s ratings. Until recently, AMC’s Into the Badlands had been benefiting from airing directly after The Walking Dead. But with the latter now on a winter break, Badlands has seen its audience plummet. Same-day ratings for the first four episodes of the show go like this: 6.4 million, 4.8 million, 5.2 million, 2.4 million – the latter figure being the first week in which it didn’t have a boost from The Walking Dead.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for Badlands. It’s possible that, without TWD in the schedule, fans of the futuristic martial arts show have decided to record it and watch it another time (maybe earlier the next day). The real test of whether the show has managed to build a loyal audience will come with Live + 3 Day or Live + 7 Day ratings. That said, even at its new lower level, it’s still a strong shout for a renewal.

Moving away from renewals, this week saw the launch of a show that may soon be talked about as the latest Scandinavian hit.

Gasmamman: Scandinavia's next big hit?
Gasmamman: Scandinavia’s next big hit?

Gasmamman (Mother Goose) is being described as Sweden’s answer to Breaking Bad. The story follows a mother-of-three who takes over the family’s illegal marijuana business after her husband is shot in a drug deal gone wrong.

The Endemol Shine-produced show is currently airing on pay TV platform C-More and will shift to Kanal 5 in spring 2016.

In an interview with Reuters, lead actress Alexandra Rapaport said: “When we pitched this we talked about it being a kind of Erin Brockovich meets Breaking Bad. The Bridge and The Killing were big inspirations for us. But I think we also add some humour to it, which is why we compare it to Breaking Bad.”

The Reuters report says the show’s producers plan to make four seasons in total.

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