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Must CEE TV

With a number of drama productions from Central and Eastern Europe drawing critical acclaim in recent years, DQ finds out what’s coming next from the region and why it’s ripe for a breakout international hit.

While Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and Spain have been among the hottest territories for drama in recent years, a number of ambitious productions both in front of and behind the camera mean series coming out of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) now demand closer attention.

Over the past decade, the region’s drama output has earned plaudits on the back of HBO Europe’s original production strategy, which has led to a number of notable series – Hořící Keř (Burning Bush, 2013) and Pustina (Wasteland, 2016) from the Czech Republic; Hungarian crime drama Aranyélet (Golden Life, 2015), based on Finnish series Helppo Elämä; Wataha (The Pack, 2014), Pakt (The Pact, 2015) and Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights, 2018) from Poland; and Romania’s Umbre (Shadows, 2014) and Hackerville (2018).

Earlier this year also saw the launch of the first HBO Adria series in the shape of Success, a Croatian drama about four strangers bound together by a violent event. But while HBO continues to ramp up its own activities, it is by no means the only company that is pushing the limits of the region’s creativity.

Czech drama series Pustina (Wasteland) aired on HBO Europe

One of the most ambitious projects coming out of CEE is The Pleasure Principle, which is billed as the first international production between three countries in the region – Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

The 10-hour series, produced by Apple Film Production and distributed by Beta Film, sees police investigators from each country work together after female body parts are discovered in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, in a cross-border inquiry that leads to shady businessmen, lawyers for sale, corrupt politicians, professional killers and traces of a common past. Canal+ Poland, Czech Television and Russia’s Star Media are also on board the series.

Series producer and director Dariusz Jabłoński says it was his ambition to create a universal crime thriller using local talent and crew. Set across 10 days in the three cities, the project used different teams to make the drama in each country, all under the supervision of Jabłoński.

“We have wonderful roles for the greatest actors of every country and, after a very deep casting process that I personally attended, we have chosen the best actors. Nobody refused us,” he says. “Then we started to think about shooting. Usually, when you make films that take place in different countries, you use one crew. But we wanted to show the differences between these three countries and, because of that, we chose a more challenging path by using completely local crews.

“So every country is shot by a different DOP who created the lighting for their own city. Warsaw is rather grey, all steel and glass. Prague is more bourgeois, with yellow and beige. Odessa is green and blue like the sea. All of them came with a simple idea that was different from the others, so I didn’t have much to supervise to keep everything balanced.”

Poland’s Wataha (The Pack), another HBO Europe original

The team communicated in the common language of English across the 120-day shoot, with filming being completed in one country before moving to the next. “We didn’t make any compromise over quality. It was shot in 8K with two, sometimes four, cameras, cranes and every technical tool at our disposal,” Jabłoński says. “I hope this show will not only be exciting for the viewers but also present the technical facilities of our countries.”

Russian drama Storm, meanwhile, sees respected police detective Gradov turn to crime – and murder – to find the money to pay for his terminally ill wife’s medical treatment. When his colleague, Osokin, begins to suspect Gradov is behind a string of crimes, he becomes determined to expose him.

Produced and distributed by Yellow, Black and White (YBW) for streamer start.ru and directed by Boris Khlebnikov (An Ordinary Woman), the series focuses on a complex group of characters and the choices they make.

“It is a wholly original story that writer/director Natalia Meschaninova came up with,” explains YBW creative producer Irina Sosnovaya. “The goal we set with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context of contemporary Russia. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write a social drama we would be excited to follow.”

The rise of streaming platforms is fuelling the drama boom in the region, Sosnovaya says, with creators no longer bound by the restrictions of major TV channels. Daria Bondarenko, YBW’s head of international development, distribution and coproductions, picks up: “Digital services allow authors to be uncompromising, to be bold and to take risks without looking back, so that’s where the cream of Russian talent gravitates towards. Directors, writers and actors now work on the digital series with as much freedom as they allow.

Magdalena Cieślak

“Just 10 years ago, Russia was an unknown and unexplored market. Nowadays things have changed tremendously: we see more and more shows that travel globally, some of them awarded and recognised at prestigious TV festivals. Every new pickup of a Russian show outside our local market is a big success for the entire industry; it is the recognition that makes us noticeable as a film-producing country.”

Shifting west of Russia, TVP1 series Our Century marks the first period drama to come from producer Endemol Shine Poland (ESP). Based on the book by Albena Grabowska, it follows the fortunes of the multi-generational Winny family, woven through the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

Magdalena Cieślak, head of scripted at ESP, says she and her fellow creative producer on the show, Małgosia Retei, “were immediately taken by the story when we read the three-part novel back in 2016.”

She continues: “It was nearly a thousand pages of gripping literature, which we believed could serve as the basis for a great script. It took us some time, though, to convince the broadcaster, as period dramas seemed a very costly and risky genre at that time. What helped us was the involvement of one of the best Polish screenwriters, Ilona Łepkowska, who supervised the script development and ensured the project we pitched to TVP1 was outstanding in terms of storytelling.”

Other talent involved includes director Piotr Trzaskalski, DOP Witold Płóciennik and actors Kinga Preis, Jan Wieczorkowski and Olaf Lubaszenko.

The story begins in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and ends in modern times, covering almost 100 years of Polish history. Against this backdrop plays the story of one family whose lives are full of hidden secrets, passion, love, sacrifice and complicated relationships.

Certain book characters were cut to allow for greater focus on some of the more distinctive family members, while new scenes were created for the adaptation, which blends drama and tragedy with touches of comedy and some fantastical, dreamlike sequences that relate to one character’s ability to see the future.

Our Century is the first period drama from producer Endemol Shine Poland

Cieślak says shows like Our Century feed Poland’s current demand for homegrown series while also showcasing the “outstanding” quality achievable by the local production industry.

“Polish viewers prefer local stories and 80% of the dramas on air are created and produced locally,” she adds. “To find new ideas that will entrance the audience, we need to invest in local talent, beginning with script writing and development. Over the last two years, we have also seen more book adaptations making it to screen, so we are watching the publishing market very closely and searching for adaptation opportunities.”

Over in Croatia, the third and final season of Novine (The Paper), made by producer Drugi Plan for local broadcaster HRT and Israeli distributor Keshet International, is currently in production. Set in a busy newspaper office, the series presents a cocktail of political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal, with its characters navigating the blurred lines of morality and integrity. After exploring the media in season one and politics in season two, season three moves to the judiciary.

“If we take into consideration the size of the country and its capacity in terms of cinematography, and a specific language, we can say that Croatian high-end drama production is doing really well in European and even global terms,” says Nebojsa Taraba, producer of The Paper and creative director at Drugi Plan. “The Paper is globally available on Netflix, and HBO aired its first series from the Adria region this year, Success, which is also produced by us.

“There’s a lot being done in neighbouring Serbia – supposedly there are as many as 20 projects in different stages of pre-production and production, so high-end series are going through a real renaissance in the region.”

Nebojsa Taraba

When it comes to stories that will attract an audience, “there are no rules,” Taraba states. “People simply like strong stories they can relate to, regardless of the genre. People also like stories with some kind of social involvement and message. Luckily for us, or maybe unfortunately for us, the entire region of south-eastern Europe has many such stories, whether we tell them ourselves or someone else comes over and tells our stories. The best example of [the latter] is Chernobyl.”

Series like Chernobyl – made by the UK’s Sister Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and focusing on the 1986 nuclear disaster – demonstrate that success can be found in unearthing previously unknown stories that are ripe for dramatisation or setting a fictional story against a specific historical backdrop. Germany has created several successful dramas fitting this description, including Babylon Berlin, the Deutschland series and Ku’Damm 56.

The makers of Czech drama Dukla 61 took a similar approach to history after discovering the true story of a mining tragedy that led to the deaths of 108 people. The two-part miniseries, set in 1961, takes place in the town of Havířov, home to the Dukla mine. It focuses on the Šlachta family, with father Milan and son Petr working in the mine, where the highest-quality coal is a commodity sought at any cost.

Blending family drama and disaster epic, Dukla 61 was inspired by a single line in a book. The project was then developed and produced by Czech Television.

“There was a book with a short sentence about some disaster that was in 1961; there was just one sentence that they brought in many miners,” says Czech TV creative producer Michal Reitler. “We started researching and realised nobody knew about this disaster. We focused on this for six months and then we developed the scripts.”

Director David Ondříček picks up: “The main reason why it’s so successful is that it has a great screenplay and is very authentic in tone and has a lot of emotions. We tried to tell a story without words, especially towards the end.”

Russian series Storm was made for streamer start.ru

The creative team credit the movement of film writers, directors and producers to the small screen with advancing the Czech drama industry, with Ondříček noting that television was considered a “dirty word” just a decade ago. “It was a filmmakers’ community, but it’s changed a lot,” he says.

Reitler adds: “It helps that money is coming to development first, so we can work with writers and then decide what we will produce. There becomes a system of how to develop scripts, how to find the right authors and how to work with them to find a way to tell a story that is understandable locally and globally.

“Everyone asks us if there will be a new Czech wave like in film in the 1960s. We can feel something in the air but we don’t know what it is. There are a lot of new producers. Our generation of directors is in good shape. We’ll see. I can feel that we try to make very authentic and very good-quality shows.”

As streaming platforms mature and creative talent find new places to tell their stories, there is ambition in the region to see its series go on to become as globally popular as projects from other countries. But as ever, financing looms large as the inevitable barrier to the most epic projects getting off the ground.

“The challenges we face are not of a creative but a financial nature,” says Taraba, noting that a Croatian series might cost six or seven times less than one produced in neighbouring Italy or Austria. “It is only financial restrictions, or the low intensity of production, that can stop the creative momentum of the Croatian and the regional market right now. For the price of an episode of an average drama series in the UK or Germany, you can produce an entire season of a series in the range of The Paper in Croatia.”

Croatian drama The Paper airs on HRT and is also available on Netflix

On making The Pleasure Principle, Jabłoński adds: “We used all the resources from Eastern Europe and we had to combine them because no single broadcaster was able to finance this show. So thanks to this combination, each of our partners got the show for their own exploitation, but we controlled everything to deliver a good show not only for our audience but the international audience.

“This is a trial to check if this combination will bring the quality that will make a difference and break the glass ceiling we experience as filmmakers from Eastern Europe because we feel we’re not able yet to make international audiences excited. I hope that will change.”

With the quality of drama and ambitious storytelling coming out of the region, coupled with the continuing demand for series worldwide, Central and Eastern Europe is well placed to smash that glass ceiling and become the latest global drama hotspot.

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Welcome to Hackerville

The cast and crew behind HBO Europe’s first international coproduction, Hackerville, explain why the drama is as much about relationships and culture as computers.

Outside, it’s a bright, early summer’s afternoon in the Romanian town of Timisoara, the setting for HBO Europe’s first international coproduction. Behind the tinted windows of the gaming café location of today’s shoot, however, it’s an altogether darker, stuffier atmosphere as computer fans whir and teenagers fidget impatiently.

Hackerville is the latest venture into Romanian drama for HBO Europe after the likes of gangster series Umbre. While it might not be tackling an entirely new subject matter – ostensibly police searching for computer hackers – the rich framework on which the story is laid down allows the plot to foray into the cultures and histories of two different countries.

On the surface, that story follows two police investigators who are tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of a hacking attack on a German bank. Delve a little deeper, however, and this seems to be as much an exploration of the differing cultures of Romania and Germany as it is about the havoc that can be wreaked by talented hackers.

Reflecting this wider premise, HBO Europe has German cablenet TNT Serie on board to coproduce – and the cross-country relationships don’t end there. The story itself comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin for UFA Fiction, while Tudor Reu and Cristian Mungiu produce through Romania’s Mobra Films.

The series will air on HBO Europe across Central Europe, Scandinavia and Spain, and on TNT Serie in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and launches this Sunday, November 4. Turner International is handling sales outside the HBO Europe, TNT Serie and US territories.

Anna Schumacher, who was born in Bucharest before moving to Germany after the Romanian revolution in 1989, leads the cast as Lisa, alongside Romania’s Andi Vasluianu, who plays Adam. Voicu Dumitras (pictured above) is Cipi, the young boy seemingly at the centre of the story.

Hackerville stars Anna Schumacher and Voicu Dumitras

The roots of the show lie in an article from tech magazine Wired about the global exploits of a group of hackers. “Ralf approached me with this story he had read about the real ‘Hackerville’ in Romania,” Winger explains. “He told me he had been thinking about new ideas and I said to go check it out, so he spent five days there and came back with a whole lot of stories.

“We thought it was so fascinating. All this hacking was coming from a town in Romania – not even the capital, but a rather small city, yet they could be so effective in their actions globally. This type of story is right up my alley. I’m really interested in international collaboration and exploring new territories and cultures, so we started to develop it.”

It helped that HBO had just aired a documentary exploring the mass migration of Romanians into Germany following the 1989 revolution. And when Antony Root, HBO Europe’s exec VP of original programming, suggested that rather than having an FBI chief flying to Romania, it should be a German, a rounded vision for the show came together.

Winger admits he did not have great knowledge of Romania, so local writers were drafted in to help pen the script. “We then had a lot of discussions about Romania, Germany, Romanians in Germany, Europe. I always think these discussions that can be controversial are great food for the scripts.”

Unlike dramas driven by a single showrunner or creative lead, numerous voices had their say on the Hackerville scripts and, indeed, the production as a whole. They delivered what HBO Europe VP of original programming and production Johnathan Young describes as a “layered cake” approach to production, allowing the show to make the most of local expertise in both Romania and Germany and adding to its authenticity.

It’s a point neatly highlighted by Anca Miruna Lazarescu, from Germany but born in Romania, who directs alongside Romania’s Igor Cobileanski (Shadows). “We had to decide about Lisa’s watch, for example,” she says. “We were on the same page with the big decisions – the cast, locations – but this fucking watch kept coming up week after week.

Actor Andi Vasluianu receives instruction from co-director Anca Miruna Lăzărescu

“Lisa was supposed to wear a Casio. It was a bit of a vintage, old-fashioned digital thing. But when Igor saw it, he took one look and said, ‘This is not hip, this is not hip at all, you can get it for like 10 leu [US$2.50] at the piazza.’ I thought it was totally hip. These things are great in Berlin. It’s über hip.

“You’ll see what happens in the end, but things like this tell you so much about what is hip there and what’s cool here, and what could be boring here and what could be boring there. Things I think could be so Romanian, he’ll say, ‘No, it’s not Romanian at all, it’s a cliché about Romania.’ And I have to realise that I left 20 years ago so perhaps it’s not real and it is clichéd.”

Having been born in Romania herself, Schumacher also had some knowledge of the country, and took her experiences into the show. “Lisa speaks two languages – Romanian and German – and funnily enough it is kind of my life story too, because I was born in Romania but have lived in Germany for 28 years now,” explains the actor, who also has scenes with her actor father, Ovidiu Schumacher, in Hackerville.

“It’s amazing to balance German and Romanian cultures and languages, and a nice part of it all is that what my character is experiencing, I too am experiencing myself,” Schumacher adds.

The premise, the actor explains, is that a German bank’s IT systems have been attacked by someone based in Romania, with her character then sent to Timisoara to sort out the problem. The town of just over 300,000 people, tucked to the south of Hungary and to the East of Serbia, offers both stunning Gothic architecture and more brutal Communist-era constructions and is, as Young puts it, “very colourful with layers of history.”

“We’ve been shooting since the beginning of March, going from winter to summer in about two weeks,” he jokes, with scenes being filmed “more or less” chronologically.

“Lisa is the right person to do the job, as she speaks both languages and cyber crime is her specialism,” Schumacher says of her character. “She comes here and finds herself having more challenges than just doing her job, particularly having challenges with the culture that she’d left behind that was still inside of her.

Schumacher on set with co-director Igor Cobileanski (centre)

“She’s trying to find new ways to adapt to the person she really is,” she continues, “and maybe who she forgot she was when she was in Germany. She finds her roots and where she really comes from, she finds out things she didn’t know about herself. That changes her.”

For Young, Hackerville is “both about homecoming and a culture clash story.” It also allows Schumacher to tap into her real-life experiences – Vasluianu, who plays her male counterpart in Romania, says that when they started shooting in Romania, certain smells would evoke childhood memories for the female lead.

For the young Dumitras, who plays Cipi, these are the scents of home. Although shooting has taken in locations in Bucharest and Frankfurt, it is Timisoara – Dumitras’s home town – that has been the main hub for the production. He describes his character as a boy “with a good heart but like the genius who does stuff and doesn’t realise it has consequences.”

“He spends most of his time playing and hacking, but not many people know about the hacking. He kind of loses track of the world. He’s just playing with his games and doesn’t realise his actions may lead to unexpected effects.”

The show also explores the non-existent boundaries of being online, both in terms of hacking and playing games against others regardless of their actual location. A first-person computer game has already been created – set in Timisoara – that features in the show, and the story delves deeper into this theme of freedom.

“The juxtaposition of what you see on the ground and where you can be in the online space is really interesting,” says Young. “You can be in a basement on a computer, but in your head you could be anywhere in the world. That is a big part of the hacking and gaming story.”

Hackerville comes from Deutschland 83’s Joerg Winger and Ralph Martin of UFA Fiction

But the show, set for a November launch on both HBO Europe and TNT Serie, also includes elements of comedy and humour that differentiate it from other hacking-focused programmes.

“We started with a fear of being another hacking show; fear because they tend to centre on doomsday scenarios involving bringing down a satellite or blowing up a nuclear power station. I won’t tell you where Hackerville goes, but it doesn’t go there,” Young says.

“We wanted to make it much more of a human story, and we’ve achieved that. Part of why we’ve been able to do so is because the gaming strand parallels the hacking strand.” Both activities involve similar mindsets, he adds, offering an element of “play fun alongside the more serious undercurrent of the real world.”

The show has been largely edited alongside filming, with musical elements being added concurrently. This has meant everyone is involved in the process together at the same time, according to Young. “It’s part of this layered cake process and that is making it a very rich, collaborative experience.

“We’re very much brought up on this notion of a showrunner and writers division, and actually this is something we believe in and that we are developing in almost every other instance. But this show has evolved in a very different way. There was the idea from Ralf and Joerg, and then we had Romanian writer input.

“It wasn’t immediately apparent where the overlaps between cultures came, and it took a little bit of time to find common ground, which is why I think of it as a layer cake. We had Joerg and Ralf come in, then the Romanians and we kept building it up like that. But then when you slice through it, you have a coherent show.”

What makes it coherent, Young adds, is Schumacher, who is “an absolutely authentic German-Romanian lead who is fascinating to watch. She flips from speaking German to Romanian, and I find that magic. It’s unfakeable.”

Such authenticity underlines HBO Europe’s wider remit, according to Root, who says the company “defines itself by its localism.” Certainly, emerging from that dingy internet café in Timisoara and back onto the breezy streets after the shoot, the world of internet gaming and hacking seems a million miles away. And perhaps that’s the point.

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