Tag Archives: HBO Asia

Long haul

International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.

The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.

But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?

Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.

The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.

“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”

Behind the scenes of HBO Asia anthology series Folklore

Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.

Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.

That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.

“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).

“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”

Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.

Straight Forward was filmed in Denmark and New Zealand

“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”

Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.

Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.

Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”

Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.

Jenna Coleman in The Cry, which was shot in Scotland and Australia

“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”

Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.

When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”

Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”

Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.

Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.

Sweden’s Anagram headed to Germany for spy drama West of Liberty

Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”

The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”

Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.

Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.

The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.

Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.

Invisible Heroes, a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile

“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.

“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”

Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”

Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”

Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”

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Horrible histories

Eric Khoo, showrunner and director of HBO Asia’s Folklore, reveals how he drew on the region’s myths and legends to create the ambitious horror anthology series.

It’s billed as HBO Asia’s first horror anthology series. But that description fails to do justice to the creative ambition and complexity of production that went into making six-part drama Folklore.

Each episode of the scripted project takes place in one of six different Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – based on that nation’s deeply rooted myths and legends and featuring supernatural beings and the occult.

Eric Khoo

Every instalment also has a different director and is filmed in the primary language of the country in which it is set, giving an indication of just how complex the production has been.

In particular, each story seeks to modernise or update Asian horror, a genre known around the world largely thanks to films such as The Eye, Audition, The Grudge and Ring and, in some cases, their US remakes. The series also aims to showcase each country’s brand of horror, but with themes that will resonate with audiences across the continent.

Folklore, which debuts on October 7, is an HBO Asia original series produced and created by Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, who is also the showrunner and helmed episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. Other directors include Joko Anwar (Halfworlds) from Indonesia, Takumi Saitoh (Blank 13) from Japan, Lee Sang-Woo (Barbie) from Korea, Ho Yuhang (Rain Dogs) from Malaysia and Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Samui Song).

Episode one, A Mother’s Love (pictured top), is set in Indonesia. It stars Marissa Anita and Muzakki Ramdhan in the story of a single mother and her young son who discover a group of dirty and underfed children living in a mansion’s attic. Upon saving them and returning them to their families, she discovers she has snatched these children from their adopted mother, supernatural being Wewe Gombel, and must now face her vengeful wrath.

From Japan, Kazuki Kitamura (Kill Bill) leads the cast in episode two’s Tatami, in which a murder-scene writer returns home to attend his father’s funeral and begins to experience flashbacks to his childhood. He then discovers a hidden door in the house that leads to a room containing a horrifying secret from his family’s past.

Nobody, Singapore’s episode, focuses on a vampiric ghost

Singapore entry Nobody, episode three, sees a vampiric ghost known as a Pontianak awoken when a foreman and a construction worker attempt to bury the body of a dead girl instead of burning her, leading to frightening events occurring at the construction site. The cast includes Li Wen Qiang, Maguire Jian, Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Aric Hidir, Louis Wu and Dayang Nurbalqis.

Thailand’s Pob, the fourth instalment, opens when a journalist meets Pob, a Thai ghost, who confesses to a murder. The ghost asks for his story to be published but when the journalist declines, they make the deal of a lifetime. Nuttapon Sawasdee, Parama Wutthikornditsakul and Thomas Burton Van Blarcom star.

Episode five, Toyol, comes from Malaysia and features actors Bront Palarae (Halfworlds), Nabila Huda and Redza Minhat. It sees the member of parliament for a small fishing village turn to a mysterious woman with shamanistic powers in an attempt to reverse his town’s dire economic fortunes. She fixes his problems and the two become lovers – but she holds a dark secret that threatens to destroy his life.

Finally, Korean entry Mongdal follows the story of a boy who falls in love with a girl and vows to win her over at any cost. But when events take a tragic turn, his mother then determines to make her son happy, even if it means finding a bride to join him in the afterlife. The cast includes Lee Chae-Yeon (Running Man) and Jeong Yun Seok.

Thai instalment Pob, the fourth episode

A Mother’s Love and Pop were both recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Folklore standing as the 12th HBO Asia Original production to date. Other upcoming scripted series include Grisse, an eight-part period drama set in the mid-1800s within the colonial period of the Dutch East Indies.

Here, Folklore showrunner Eric Khoo tells DQ more about how the series was made.

What are the origins of Folklore?
Khoo: I’ve always been a big fan of horror and the original Twilight Zone series. As Asia has a rich culture of paranormal tales, I felt it would be wonderful if I could create an anthology series with directors from the region for HBO Asia.

Was it initially conceived as a pan-Asian drama?
I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories could shine through. I would have liked to have included other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets, but as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.

How would you describe your role as showrunner on Folklore?
As showrunner, I wanted to get the best directors for the series and give them total creative freedom so that once the scripts were sealed, they could work towards achieving their vision.

Malaysia’s Toyol was directed by Ho Yuhang

How did you work with the different directors to ensure each film was different while still part of the same overarching series?
They’re all my friends and directors who I respect. I wanted each standalone episode to be as different as possible in terms of tone, form and story, so it was important to go through their treatments first, give feedback and work on the material with them.

Did the crew stay the same or did each film have its own team?
Each director worked with their own production team, though we had several producers from Zhao Wei films to oversee the production of the individual episodes throughout Asia. We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local teams.

How did filming in different locations affect the production in terms of restrictions or opportunities?
We had to work and think smart while collaborating with the foreign production houses. Communication was key. Of course, on every shoot there are going to be challenges, but each team worked diligently to overcome them. I am very proud of the production team in each country and thankful to them for working with us towards this collective vision.

What have been the biggest challenges making the drama?
My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare!

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Half the world away

HBO Asia’s first returnable series, Halfworlds, is back on air for its second season. The network’s director of production, Garon De Silver, tells DQ about bringing this dark action fantasy drama to viewers in more than 20 countries.

While the populations of Asia may be separated by many different languages, cultures and customs there is one thing that unites them: a belief in the supernatural.

So it was this subject that proved to be a natural starting point for pay TV network HBO Asia’s first returnable series, Halfworlds.

Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley’s character speaks in Mandarin

The dark action fantasy drama, which first aired in November 2015, revealed a parallel world of bloodthirsty creatures from Indonesian mythology known as Demit, who have lived amongst humans for centuries.

Now back for a second season, which debuted on January 22, the action moves from the alleys of Jakarta to the neon-lit streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

The story focuses on a tenacious researcher named Juliet (Tia Tavee), who is trying to uncover the secret world of demons. Armed with research by her late father, she goes on a quest for answers. While searching for an ancient artefact of great power, her actions draw the attention of the local Thai demons known as Peesaj. It is not long before her pursuit leads her into the line of fire of the Peesaj leader Charlie (David Asavanond), the mortal peacekeeper Warin (Nicole Theriault) and a Peesaj named Fyter (Peem Jaiyen), who is sent to kill her.

Meanwhile, the Halfbreed Barata (Arifin Putra) is on a quest of his own that requires him to enlist the help of an old friend, Kaprey (Jake Macapagal). He is not the only one on a perilous journey, as fellow Demit Tony (Reza Rahadian) makes his presence known in Bangkok to find a lost love.

Directed by renowned Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham (Beautiful Boxer, Skin Trade), the eight-part season features a cast of leading actors from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Garon De Silver, HBO Asia’s director of production, tells DQ about the origins of the show, how it draws on Asian mythology and the challenges of creating a series that appeals in countries including China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

What are the origins of the show?
We felt there was a demand for content in the realm of a fantasy thriller and delved into Asian folklore. We discovered that despite different culture and languages in Asia, they shared common beliefs in supernatural creatures. Asians believed in the same monsters – they just had different names for them. For example, the Krasue in Thailand was an avenging female spirit represented by a woman’s head floating about with her entrails hanging out. Indonesians believed in the same creature but they called it Palasik.
These creatures may appear outlandish but are very much alive in people’s imagination across Asia. So we started to imagine these creatures being real, existing beside us and looking like us, and how they would exist in mainstream society. In Indonesia, supernatural beings are called Demit, but in Thailand, they are known as Peesaj. All across Asia they are known by different names.

Tony (Reza Rahadian) seeks a long-lost love in Bangkok

How was the story developed for HBO Asia?
Halfworlds was created and developed in-house by the HBO Asia Originals team. We then brought in Collin Chang, an LA-based writer to help flesh out the world. When we did season one, we invited renowned Indonesian director Joko Anwar to help us co-write, direct and inject a sense of authenticity and texture into the story. For season two, we brought in acclaimed Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham to help us add local nuances and grit to the narrative.

How does the show draw on Asian mythology? Is it very faithful?
Asian mythology is one of the pillars of the show – but we have taken creative license towards how we interweave the actual mythology into the narrative. We could not portray these creatures literally. We humanised these creatures from Asian mythology and added elements of their characteristics in their costumes, fighting styles or weapons.
For example, Fyter is a Seua-Saming or Tiger Spirit. In Thai folklore, that creature is born when a hunter kills a tiger and its spirit possesses him, turning him into a monster. Fyter’s fighting style and stance is meant to embody that ferocious tiger spirit. Even his wardrobe was modernist hunter chic. For Tony, who is a Genderuwo, a mythical Indonesian were-beast, his costume design was meant to illustrate the creature’s predominant trait by substituting its outlandish fur for a fleece jacket.

How did you decide to blend the different genres of horror, fantasy and thriller in a television drama?
Halfworlds not only includes genres of horror, fantasy and thriller, there is also action and romance, set to a pulsating soundtrack – a genre orchestra blending in symphony to entertain and engage audiences. But everything had to have an organic reason for being.

(L to R) Wish (Myra Molloy), Fyter (Peem Jaiyen) and Juliet (Tia Tavee)

Is it difficult to create a show that appeals across Asia?
There are challenges as there are many countries and cultures and languages that have to be reached with one story. We asked ourselves, how do we make it authentic and universal at the same time? Conceptually, Halfworlds seeks to find common ground within Asia by drawing upon the rich tapestry of its folklore, which permeates throughout the region. Ultimately, people love content that is intriguing, drawing them into worlds never before seen. In this way, Halfworlds provides the perfect vehicle to bring Asian stories together for a global audience.

How would you describe the writing process? How do the writers and directors work together?
We first created a detailed brief and an overarching mythology, which we then shared with the writer who would send us drafts. Then in a collaborative process between the directors, writer and HBO Asia, the stories were given an Asian feel and authenticity and kept in line with the mythology of the Halfworlds universe.

Who are the lead cast members and what do they bring to the series?
We have a fantastic ensemble cast of top talents from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Returning from season one are Indonesian actors Reza Rahadian, who plays fan favourite Tony, and Arifin Putra, who plays Barata.
Reza has created one of the most interesting characters on television. As an actor, Reza takes a script and adds so many layers to it, he takes the character to a place we could never have imagined, while Arifin plays Barata as a dark, tragic hero but adds a warmth to his performance, which makes him as engaging as he is enigmatic.
The rest of the cast are new to season two. Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley’s character speaks in Mandarin throughout the English series, pointing to her character’s past. Filipino actor Jake Macapagal also plays a character from the Philippines.

The series also boasts talented Thai actors, some making their acting debut, others veterans in the industry, and some accomplished singers or fighters. They including Peem Jaiyen, Tia Tavee, Emma Grant, Myra Molloy, Nicole Theriault, Jeeja Yanin, David Asavanond and Charlie Ruedopokanon. All the cast are well-known locally and have strong social media presence, which helps to promote the series further.

Cast members including David-Asavanond and Nicole Theriault have a high profile locally

How do the locations of Jakarta (season one) and Bangkok (season two) lend themselves to the story’s tone and atmosphere?
In Jakarta, the Demit were unrestrained, loose canons who struggled with the idea that they had to be subservient to mortals. It was a very dark, gritty environment, which exemplified them wanting to break out of that world.
In Bangkok, the Peesaj are trying their best to stay in the shadows – as they live within the confines of Soi P, their sanctuary. They are more disciplined as they try their best to stay off the radar.
In both seasons, Jakarta and Bangkok are not just incidental locations. They are the tapestry upon which the stories are told.

What are the biggest challenges on the show?
Doing television on a cinematic level in Asia can be challenging. We had an extremely tight shooting schedule with plenty of action set-pieces as well. Most of Halfworlds takes place at night, which means most of the series was shot at night. As there are a lot of visual effects in the series, the post-production process also took some time. But it was worth it as we strive to create a hybrid of cinema and television about Asian mythology and the underworld that has not been seen in this light across Asia or other parts of the world. This is only possible due to the very talented and generous cast and crew.

What do you want viewers to take away from the show?
Be entertained by something they have never experienced before, and be transported into a world filled with darkness and light, and pray they never find out if these creatures really do exist.

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