Tag Archives: David Ellender

War on the waves

Thought working with children and animals was hard? Try a U-Boat. DQ lifts the hatch on forthcoming war drama Das Boot to find out how the series was built, more than 30 years after the iconic film that inspired it.

When HBO miniseries Band of Brothers first aired in 2001, it revolutionised the way war stories were realised on television. From executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it encapsulated the nerve-shredding tension and dynamic sound and visuals seen in their earlier big-screen collaboration, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.

More than a decade later, another series is set to change the way we watch war on television all over again. Enter Das Boot, inspired by the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated film by Wolfgang Petersen, which was based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s bestselling novel of the same name.

“This is a very big statement but I think Das Boot could potentially do the same for us now,” Bavaria Fiction’s executive producer Moritz Polter says. “Again and again, you need to reach audiences and show them what war is really like and also show them different aspects of war that one was not able to portray 10 years ago.

“One of the great things about the original movie is it showed Germans as human beings rather than just villains, and that’s something that hasn’t really been done on an international level in the television world ever since.”

Das Boot the series opens in occupied France in autumn 1942. Submarine U-612 is now ready for its maiden voyage, preparing to head into the increasingly brutal conflict with its young crewmen, including new commander Klaus Hoffmann. As the 40 young men take on their first mission, they struggle with the cramped and claustrophobic conditions of life below the surface, and their personalities are pushed to the limit as tensions rise and loyalties begin to shatter.

A scene unfolds within the claustrophobic conditions of the U-boat interior

Meanwhile, at the port of La Rochelle, navy translator Simone Strasser’s world spirals out of control as she is engulfed in a dangerous liaison and forbidden love, torn between the Resistance and her loyalty to Germany.

The origins of the Das Boot series can be traced back to Bavaria Fiction’s decision to mine some of parent company Bavaria Film’s IP. The classic 1981 movie immediately stood out, but then it was a question of how it could possibly be brought to the small screen. With ambitions to tell a serialised story set six months after the film, a pay TV partner was the natural choice and Marcus Ammon, Sky Deutschland’s senior VP of film and entertainment, was “overjoyed” at the prospect of a Das Boot drama.

“We know our history and we are aware of what happened. We are very conscious of our heritage and knew we needed to be very careful with the story we are telling, and we were from day one,” Ammon says. “But Das Boot was a perfect fit for Sky’s European drama strategy, which seeks out properties that are bold enough to play across Germany, Italy and the UK.”

Backing was then sought from an international partner that could also provide a non-German editorial voice, with Sonar Entertainment quick to sign up and put both its production and distribution capabilities into the mix.

Sonar’s David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions, counts the Das Boot film among the top 10 Second World War movies of all time. He admits part of the challenge in making the series was to create something new while respecting the heritage of the original feature. “Going into this project of eight hours and two parallel storylines, one 100% German-language and the other story split between French and English, it had to feel really authentic,” he says. “That’s the only way it could be done.”

Hollywood actor Lizzy Caplan is part of the international cast

So at the start of development, the biggest question concerned the relationship between the film and the US$32.8m series. “We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to do a remake, a sequel or something in the vein of Fargo, where basically the series is set in the same world as the film,” Polter says. “We were conscious of the fact it’s a beloved property and, especially for a German audience, it’s iconic and is part of our cultural heritage. So we didn’t want to do a remake; we wanted to create something in the world that would create a buzz for the people who know the film. They will find themselves in the world but they will not compare it to the exact characters of the movie.”

That task was handed to co-head writers Tony Saint (The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (Die Cleveren), who agreed they would have been “on a hiding to nothing” had they tried to emulate Petersen’s film.

“We had several thoughts [about the story],” says Betz. “We wanted to start the show in the time when the war changes, 1941/42, before the Battle of Stalingrad, the golden time of U-boat warfare. Then things changed and we wanted to set it in that crisis. And because Das Boot is a man’s movie somewhat, we were also thinking about female characters, as there are no female characters on the boat. So we tried to create a connection between the boat and the town of La Rochelle.”

The action within the story takes place over just a few weeks. But the eight-hour runtime afforded the writers the chance to point the series in new directions that couldn’t be explored in a feature film.

“The thing we grappled with a lot and then embraced was the reality of the U-boat situation,” reveals Saint, who describes his joy at writing ‘Ext – U-boat’ for the first time. “There is absolutely no contact between a U-boat and the people it leaves behind, so when you’re first struck with that reality, trying to construct a drama, you think, ‘What do we do here?’ Then that becomes the USP. These people cannot contact each other. So the fact they have no understanding of the other side of the story means it becomes about hope and fear and all those exciting, dramatic things we like to exploit.”

On set during a torpedo-loading scene

The connection between the two storylines is the relationship between Simone, played by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and her brother, who is aboard U-612. They grew up together in Alsace, a region that has historically changed hands between France and Germany over many years, leading the series to raise questions over nationality that will likely strike a chord with modern-day audiences.

The Resistance storyline also confronts the dilemma of who to trust in a world of fake news and propaganda – another contemporary theme. And as with any war drama, Das Boot also serves as a warning to the audience that global conflicts should never be repeated.

“Every good and serious war movie is a big warning to everyone that this should never happen again, particularly for a younger audience represented by our crew on board,” Ammon notes. “They were young and full of enthusiasm, they had their whole lives in front of them and went to a war that couldn’t be won. This is the big warning for young audiences and young people.”

Alongside Krieps, the international cast from Germany, France, UK and the US includes Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones), Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) and James D’Arcy (Marvel’s Agent Carter). Rick Okon (Tatort) plays Captain Hoffmann.

Arguably the biggest star, however, is the sub itself. Across a 105-day shoot, filming took place in Prague and Munich, with scenes featuring the U-boat shot in the harbour at La Rochelle and in Malta.

Game of Thrones’ Tom Wlaschiha in Das Boot

The internal U-Boat set, which was based in Prague and brought to life with hydraulics, took 15 weeks to build. The 45 metre-long set comprised a control room, radio room, torpedo room, petty officer’s bunks, diesel and electric engine rooms, galley, hydrophone room, conning tower and captain’s quarters. The U-boat itself, weighing 240 tonnes, took two months to refurbish before it could take to the water, with scenes off the Mediterranean coast of Malta doubling for the Atlantic Ocean.

Unsurprisingly, these scenes were the most challenging part of the production. At sea, a supply boat with a crane and a drone shadowed the submarine, which itself was wrapped with a frame to support the camera crew on board. “There were different structures on the sub so that we could move around with the handheld camera,” director Andreas Prochaska explains. “But it had to be precisely planned because we couldn’t change it once we were out at sea. We also had a mock-up [of the submarine] in a water tank at the studio in Malta. It was 40 metres long, with the stern, tower and gun for scenes where the submarine was being refuelled and given supplies from a support ship.”

If filming inside a U-boat was challenging, the production team found the right director in Prochaska, who has experience filming in confined spaces. His International Emmy-winning TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) spent its 90-minute running time inside an operating theatre.

To prepare for that film, Prochaska reveals, he researched a lot of submarine movies. But the director says going on to film in an actual sub was “a completely different cup of tea,” due to having 25 actors, a camera and lots of fog in a very confined space.

“I can be honest and say it brought me to my limits in every way,” he says. “It was challenging and rewarding; exhausting and adventurous. When I agreed to do it, I knew it would be long and rough and adventurous but I was willing to do it. Taking this challenge was simply one I had to do.”

Directing all eight episodes, Prochaska created a visual language for the two different storylines, with the scenes in La Rochelle drawing on Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho) and Paul Greengrass (the Jason Bourne movies) inspiring the action aboard the U-boat. “It was very physical, almost like a documentary,” he says of scenes on the submarine. “We tried to keep it as authentic as possible. In La Rochelle, there was much more psychological tension.”

The course Das Boot has set means it could return for a second season, either as a continuation of the story from season one or as a new story set in the same ‘universe.’ The series will premiere at the end of this year in Sky territories Germany, Austria, Italy, the UK and Ireland, with Sonar selling to the rest of the world.

Ammon concludes: “There is a story that is told to the end so there won’t be any question marks or a prompt desire to keep going. But, of course, as in every Second World War story, there are different options on the table. We are discussing that but no decision has been made yet.”

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Williams brothers plot deceitful drama

The Williams brothers
The Williams brothers’ Liars is coming to ITV

Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.

Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.

The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.

Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”

The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.

Das Boot is being adapted as a television series
Das Boot is being adapted as a television series

Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”

As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”

All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.

Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).

Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).

The Heart Goes Last
Rights to The Heart Goes Last have been picked up by MGM Television

The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.

David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”

Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.

MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.

This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s works will be reimagined in Welcome to Hitchcock

Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.

The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”

Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.

The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.

Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.

Dynasty
Dynasty is set to be reborn on The CW

Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.

This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.

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Cleopatra succeeds Tut

Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film Cleopatra, the most famous screen version of the Egyptian queen's story
Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film Cleopatra, the most famous screen version of the Egyptian queen’s story

After Tut, now comes Cleopatra. With the Egyptian boy king only recently departed from TV screens following the three-night event series on Spike TV, the girl queen is the subject of a new series being developed by feted director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and David Ellender, the former FremantleMedia exec who now operates under the Slingshot Global Media banner.

While it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between the projects, the creative sensibilities and commercial starting points underlying them should bring about different results. While Tut was written by US scribes for a US channel, Kapur and Ellender come from Indian and European backgrounds respectively. This will presumably affect their approach and funding model.

Kapur, who will write the series, said: “Cleopatra is probably the most famous and the least known/understood figure of all time. Her life will reflect a modern-day parable of our lives today.” Ellender added: “As he did with Elizabeth, Kapur will reveal the human being behind the myth. We couldn’t think of a better filmmaker than Kapur to tackle this subject.”

If there’s one name you’d love to see at the bottom of your production sheet, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer. With film and TV credits that include Pirates of the Caribbean, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, Con Air, Top Gun, CSI and Without a Trace, he is a bona fide hit machine. So US cable channel TNT must be dancing in the aisles having picked up a Bruckheimer pilot called Home this week.

TNT has picked up the pilot of Jerry Bruckheimer series Home
TNT has picked up the pilot of Jerry Bruckheimer series Home

Originally set up at Fox, Home explores the secrets festering behind the facade of an idyllic suburban family. It centres on a pregnant woman who has a successful business and a wonderful home life with her husband Joe, a respected prison psychologist, and his two sons, to whom she’s stepmother. But the peace and tranquillity are shattered when she discovers long-buried secrets.

Home’s package is further enhanced by the fact the pilot has been written by Aron Eli Coleite, whose credits include Crossing Jordan, Hostages and Heroes (for which he was writer and producer for most of its run). The show is designated as a Jerry Bruckheimer Television and Warner Horizon TV production.

A notable trend in the last few years has been to fictionalise the lives of famous historical figures. Da Vinci’s Demons is a classic case in point, as is ITV’s upcoming series Houdini & Doyle (and so, for that matter, are Tut and Cleopatra). The idea behind this approach is to get pre-transmission brand awareness that will help a show cut through the clutter of competition. Imagine if, for example, Da Vinci showrunner David Goyer had said he was going to make a series about the fantastical youth of a medieval Italian genius. He probably wouldn’t have got more than halfway through his pitch.

Seth Rogen in controversial movie The Interview
Seth Rogen in controversial movie The Interview

There is a parallel process that involves taking fictional characters and giving them new settings. Traditionally, this involves looking back at the youth of the character in question (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Endeavour et al) or putting them in a different period (Sherlock). A novel take on this was announced this week by CBS, which is to pilot Sawyer & Huck. In this case, Mark Twain’s classic Mississippi characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are to be aged up and placed in modern-day America as adults.

Scripted by The Blacklist writers Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, the story will see Sawyer as a lawyer, who hires his boyhood friend Huck Finn as an investigator on a murder case. If the series progresses beyond pilot, the plan is for the characters to take on cases for people who don’t have anywhere else to turn.

In other news out of the US, NBC has acquired a drama project entitled The Bourbon Kings from Endemol Shine Studios. Based on a novel by JR Ward, the story centres on an aristocratic Kentucky family who make their fortune in the bourbon industry.

Interestingly (and what are the chances of this?), there are reports that Fox is also developing a TV series about a Kentucky bourbon empire. All that remains to be seen is whether either project will be filmed in Kentucky. A year ago, the answer to that would probably have been no. But in May the state increased its refundable tax credit from 20% to 30%, an aggressive move that will make it a viable alternative to Louisiana and Georgia, two US states that have made excellent use of film incentive schemes.

NHK Japan has picked up Partners in Crime
NHK Japan has picked up Partners in Crime

In the last couple of years, the scripted market has become accustomed to a steady stream of commissioning announcements from subscription VoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon. This week it’s Hulu’s turn to step up to the plate by announcing plans for a comedy pilot starring Seth Rogen.

The project, entitled Future Man, is about a gaming nerd who has to save the human race from being destroyed by aliens. Future Man is being produced by Sony Pictures Television and is the company’s first order from Hulu. Sounds like much safer territory than Rogen’s North Korea satire The Interview.

On the acquisition front, Asian broadcasters have been busy this week. RTL CBS Entertainment has announced it will premiere upcoming US drama Limitless in Asia within 12 hours of its broadcast in the States. Meanwhile, All3Media International has shipped new TV adaptation Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime to a number of international broadcasters including NHK Japan.

The Japanese market is notoriously difficult to crack but “Japan is Christie heartland in terms of a fanbase for the author and this show will introduce a further generation to her work,” says Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at All3Media International.

Equally upbeat is Junko Fukano, senior producer of NHK Japan, who says: “We are delighted that we can broadcast this wonderful show in Japan. Agatha Christie’s dramas have attracted a strong Japanese following, so we believe it will be hugely popular among Christie fans, and hope that it will bring even more audiences to NHK.”

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