Tag Archives: HBO Asia

Head scratcher

Director Jorge Dorado, executive producer Ran Tellem and the cast of The Head open up about filming the Spanish-made thriller, which is set at a remote scientific laboratory in Antarctica.

For viewers emerging from the lockdowns imposed around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, there could not be a more timely moment for a series that explores themes of isolation, loneliness and claustrophobia in one of the most remote places in the world.

But that is only half the story of The Head, a Spanish-made survival thriller that blends horror, mystery and crime in a story set at a scientific research station in Antarctica. When the summer crew departs Polaris VI, 10 people are left to continue working through the long, dark winter. But six months later, the summer crew returns to find seven dead bodies, two people missing and just one survivor – who may be a murderer.

Produced and distributed by The Mediapro Studios in association with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, the international series is written by brothers David and Álex Pastor (The Occupant), who created the show. Directed by Jorge Dorado (The Pier), it features actors from six countries and a storyline that plays out in the English, Danish and Spanish languages.

“It’s a thriller but, at the same time, it’s a ‘whodunnit’ because the story unfolds in two timelines. In one of them, you follow the struggle of these 10 people trying to survive the winter and stay alive,” explains Ran Tellem, executive producer and head of international development at Mediapro. “Then, in the other timeline, it’s about a person desperately looking for his wife, hoping that she’s still alive. In order to do that, he needs to understand what has happened and who has done it – who killed all these people and why.”

Star Alexander Willaume (left) talks to director Jorge Dorado on set

Johan Berg, played by Alexander Willaume (Below the Surface), is the audience’s guide through the story. Arriving at the Polaris to take command of the summer crew, he finds most of the winter crew dead and his wife, Annika (Laura Bach, Sprinter Galore), missing. If he wants to find her alive, Johan will have to trust Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly, Mary Queen of Scots), the young doctor who is profoundly shaken and apparently the sole survivor.

When he is told police won’t arrive for several days, Johan begins his own investigation into what happened, as Maggie’s story takes him back to the final weeks of the winter where the discovery of a headless body in the snow kickstarts a bloody chain of events.

“The really cool thing about it is before you reach the last five minutes of the show, you are not going to know anything,” Tellem tells DQ. “You think you might know but we believe you have to watch it until the end to really understand the story, the logic behind it and why it was done that way.

“Unlike other shows, here you have the score of the game after 10 minutes. Johan says, ‘I have seven dead bodies. I have two missing people.’ You know what has happened. So how interesting can it be to tell you what you already know?

“What the writers have done beautifully, and what the actors and Jorge have made so powerfully, is that even if you know what happened, there are so many things to find out about each character that it becomes a thriller. The more you advance with the episodes, you feel like a blanket is closing in on you, and you want to know the truth and you want to know the answer. And the pressure mounts.”

The research lab where the show unfolds was constructed in a warehouse in Tenerife

Dorado admits he was initially worried about helming the high-concept series, not wanting it to become a formulaic thriller. That’s why he was determined to keep The Head grounded in reality, with the scripts avoiding any supernatural or sci-fi resolution to what unfolds through the six episodes.

“My goal was to work really hard to make the audience feel this is real – [to feel like] this is something that really happened in Antarctica,” he says. “I want the audience to suffer with the characters. That’s what I tried to do from the very beginning. It’s a broken story where you have to put all the pieces together like a puzzle, so I worked with Ran and the writers to work out who the characters are and the different faces they have.”

The initial idea came from former Mediapro exec David Troncoso, who had spent time in the South Pole and wanted to create a series about a group of scientists left alone in Antarctica who suddenly find a severed head belonging to one of the group and don’t know what to do next.

The series was pitched at French television event Series Mania three years ago, while the creators and co-writer Isaac Sastre spent a week in Barcelona working over the initial story, researching life in Antarctica and speaking to a Spanish scientist who had been a research station commander at the South Pole for two winters.

“When David and Alex submit a draft script, it already looks like the show,” Tellem says. “The rhythm is very precise. The descriptions are very good. You can actually see the show. When we had six of the eight episodes, luck struck me and I found my beloved Jorge. He had a very clear vision of how he wanted to shoot the show and how it should look. He wanted to build the whole base. He handled everything from the final polish of the script to the casting, the design, the directing and the editing.”

The plot revolves around the deaths and disappearances of a crew of scientists

Though the series is Spanish made, its outlook was global from the outset, reflecting the real make-up of an international research station that employs people from all over the world. First aboard the Polaris was Bach, closely followed by her on-screen husband Willaume. The cast also includes O’Donnelly, John Lynch, Tomohisa Yamashita, Richard Sammel, Chris Reilly, Sandra Andreis, Amelia Hoy, Tom Lawrence and La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) star Álvaro Morte.

Dorado wrote outlines for each character for the actors, and also outlined their relationships to the other characters, who have all worked together before and each carry their own secrets and burdens. Then, to bring the actors closer to their characters during rehearsals, he compared each one to a specific animal.

“Johan is an elephant, because he’s strong and big but goes really slow. Or you’re an eagle because you observe everything,” the director explains. “It’s a technique they use in drama school, so they liked that and understood what it means. That was a really fun part of the process. I also wanted them to feel free to introduce their countries and their cultures, so they were free to change small things in the script. I remember John Lynch was meant to say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ He said, ‘Can I say ‘I don’t give a monkey’s’ because it’s more British?’ so he changed that.”

The actors also all took part in psychological evaluations, giving answers as their characters might in an attempt to completely understand their parts  – a process that was further enhanced when they walked onto the fully realised, 2,000 square-metre set of the Polaris inside a giant warehouse on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Working with production designer Alain Bainée, Dorado wanted the station to be not just the setting of the story but also a character, much like the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.

Katharine O’Donnelly plays Mary, the sole survivor

“There is something about a place that has been built for 100 people when there’s only 10 people living there,” he says. “It’s tiny, with small corridors and small rooms but you go to the dining room and you feel the loneliness in that huge space.”

Shooting also took place aboard an oil rig, which doubled for the Polaris’s kitchen, mess hall and some corridors. Towards the end of the 12-week shoot last summer, the cast and crew moved to Iceland, where they filmed the Antarctic exteriors.

“The big advantage being in Tenerife is it’s a small place and we were all staying in the same hotel,” Tellem says. “So the feeling of community and being together was very, very strong. The hardest order the cast was given was ‘do not tan,’ because this was classic Tenerife weather. Every day, the sun was shining. The beaches are perfect but these guys are from the South Pole. You need to keep your pale skin tone. So I think the hardest thing for them was not to get a glimpse of sun. It’s the only thing they missed from Tenerife, enjoying the sun while they were in lockdown a bit earlier than the rest of us.”

Speaking about his role as Johan, who is desperately seeking answers over his wife’s disappearance, Willaume says The Head “is a very big story confined in a very little area – and I fucking love it!

“These are not police officers trying to figure things out,” he continues. “These are real people connected to the place and trying to solve a problem. Every corner he turns, there’s a new possibility, truth or lie that keeps you interested. You keep on being fed all this information about what might have happened. He has to connect the dots and, on a personal level, find his wife and his friends. There are no aliens, nothing comes in to solve it in a weird way. This is all down to the magnificent way of telling a story and keeping the audience interested. It’s a constant mindfuck.”

The Head features an international cast speaking multiple languages

Annika’s dilemma at the start of the series is being in a male-dominated field where Lynch’s character Arthur has taken credit for their previous work together. “The interesting part is the extent to which one will go to reach justice,” Bach says of her character.

“When Johan comes to find her, he’s not only finding his wife but unravelling a truth. That’s what makes this so well written and so interesting, and very different from normal crime thrillers. Everyone has got some secrets they are trying to hide. You peel back the layers and you have no idea what to expect. This is about what we do for the people we love, injustice and what we do not to reveal everything to other people. There’s so much in there for the audience.”

Lynch’s Arthur, meanwhile, is seen as the superstar of the Polaris’ winter crew. “He’s a lauded, honoured biologist,” the actor says. “He’s a fast-disappearing white male. He’s ego-driven, seedy and has tremendous intellect and charisma. There are rumours about him and younger lab assistants, but his behaviour is swept under the carpet because he keeps making discoveries.

“We find everybody is linked. It’s not the first mission they have been on together. They are all linked by past events. It’s interesting when the past is the enemy. Each character is carrying a burden from an event deep in the past, and the script delivered complexity in spades.”

Lynch, who has also appeared in The Fall and Tin Star, says the cast knew the whole story from the beginning, “which actually helped us. We knew everything about everybody.” The advantage of knowing everything about everyone, he says, is that the cast found themselves less restricted on set.

“As long as we were clear about the timeline emotionally and otherwise, we could play a little bit with it,” he adds. “We came up with moments on set that were spontaneous and added to the deeper history of my character. That’s testament to Jorge.”

Bach says the cast fed off the director’s energy. “It’s contagious,” she says. “This is a team effort, and everybody’s giving their very best in the moment. The timelines, so many characters, it all comes together. It’s so beautiful. This is storytelling at its finest and then some.”

The Head promises to complete its story before the final credits, and with most of the characters discovered dead in the first episode, there isn’t much hope for a second season. The series debuts on June 12 on OrangeTV in Spain, Hulu Japan and in 26 countries via HBO Asia. It will also air on France’s Canal+, NENT Group platforms across Scandinavia and Globoplay in Brazil.

“I would love to do a second season, which has to be a different story and can take place in the same place with the same rules, but we will need to think of a different cast and a different storyline,” Telem adds.

“The good thing about The Head, and something we insisted on when we developed the show, is viewers watching from episode one to six will not be left hanging in the air. You get all the answers to all the questions. It’s a fulfilling experience to watch to the end.”

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Five Minutes With: Eric Khoo

The director and showrunner behind HBO Asia horror anthology Folklore talks to DQ about his latest series, Food Lore, which features eight stories from eight directors in eight different countries, all inspired by Asian cuisine.

Tell us about Food Lore.
Food Lore is HBO Asia’s newest anthology drama series, with eight stories centred around food. Over the course of each episode, we see how the characters’ lives are transformed by food.

Eric Khoo

Why food?
The taste of food evokes many cherished memories. In Asia, we love our food, especially with its cultural diversity and the richness of our street/soul food. I love food shows but they’re mostly documentaries and I wanted to do narrative stories about food.

How does the subject of food influence each episode?
Food is not just seen as a source of sustenance; it causes our characters to make crucial decisions at certain points of their lives and helps them grow emotionally. I hope when audiences watch the series, it will stir more than their hunger.

Are there other themes or topics that link them together?
Though the episodes are all very different in terms of tone and form, what they share are the different facets of human bonding.

Eight stories, eight directors, eight countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India, Japan and Malaysia. How do you manage it?
I gave freedom to the directors – talented, greedy auteurs – to be as creative as possible. The only brief I gave to them was to have food as the central character. Thus, some stories are funny while others are emotional and moving — the stories are as diverse and rich as the food.
From day one, you can tell it was a labour of love for the directors, so that helped motivate a lot of the creative process. It also helped that there was a good synergy when the directors were working with the HBO Asia team. When production commenced for each episode, our producers headed to the different countries to team up with the local production houses, so we kept our ears pretty close to the ground.

What were the biggest challenges making the series?
We had very good support from the production partners we worked with in each country. However, in terms of paperwork, it also meant we had to look into eight different sets of legal and accounting documents. So we had to come with an ecosystem of forms and agreements that could be understood and applied in all eight countries.

Khoo’s anthology series Food Lore takes in eight countries across Asia

You previously followed a similar format with Folklore, working in the horror genre. What lessons did you learn from that and how did you apply them to Food Lore?
Folklore taught us that communication and patience are very important as we are working with partners from many different backgrounds. We have reminded our producers to be in constant conversation with each country and work together with them to solve any problems that might arise.

What are the creative benefits and disadvantages of using an anthology format?
One of my favourite TV shows is The Twilight Zone and I love the nature of a self-contained, compact story. The individual episodes will essentially remain as short films without the potential of morphing into a series.

You direct episode six, Tamarind, set in Singapore. How would you describe your directing style?
I work on the fly and I love to think on the spot and be as spontaneous as possible, but I also love rehearsing with my cast and seeing them get into character. I’m extremely impatient and will seldom do more than two takes.

Who are your greatest influences?
My mother, as she was a cinephile who brought me to the pictures when I was a small boy. She got me hooked, and Bruce Lee became my idol. Music inspires me as well; I love Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach and Paul Williams.

The Tamarind episode of Food Lore, which was directed by Khoo

What are your favourite television series?
The original Twilight Zone, Breaking Bad and, more recently, Chernobyl.

How do you see the television industry developing across Asia?
These are interesting times for the television industry due to the rapid appearance of more players. Most of all, it’s no longer about television. There’s going to be an exponential increase in demand for content as streaming becomes more and more popular in the region and worldwide.

Do you approach TV differently from your film projects?
Definitely. I’m currently developing a miniseries and it’s a very different style of writing where a long form narrative needs to be considered. For a film, you only really need to think of 90 minutes of a three-act script. But for a TV series, it’ll run into hours and hours – you’ll need the right hooks to keep those eyes glued to the screen.

Japanese, Chinese and Korean drama is well known. What other Asian drama should we be watching?
The Philippines and Indonesia are markets to watch out for. They not only have established filmmakers who are coming out with content but also many budding young creatives bubbling with exciting ideas.

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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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