Tag Archives: Jan Mojto

To Babylon and beyond

Hot on the heels of some breakout hits, German drama is paving the way for fresh stories to be told as new players enter the original programming game. Michael Pickard reports.

After the international success of Deutschland 83, a new wave of German drama is set to break out around the world.

With pay TV and SVoD services growing steadily in the country, these platforms are now getting into original drama themselves.

Among the trailblazers were pay TV channel TNT Series, which launched The Valley – In the Midst of Silence following the success of comedy drama Add a Friend.

And those successes are spreading confidence across the industry.

One of the most ambitious new series coming out of Germany is Babylon Berlin, which starts filming next month.

Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, it centres on police inspector Gereon Rath in 1920s Berlin – a hotbed of drugs and politics, murder and art, emancipation and extremism.

It was created by showrunner Tom Tykwer (Sense 8) and his writer/director team Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten, and stars Volker Bruch (Generation War) and Liv Lisa Fries.

Babylon Berlin is particularly groundbreaking as it’s a collaboration between pay TV platform Sky, X-Filme, public broadcast group ARD and Beta Film, which is distributing the series worldwide. Sky will broadcast the series in 2017 and ARD in 2018.

Furthermore, the parties have all signed on for two seasons of the series. X-Filme producer Stefan Arndt says: “We’re particularly happy that we’ll be able to complete two seasons of eight episodes each during the first shooting. This shows how enthusiastic and confident all of the partners are in our joint project.”

That Sky and ARD have come together on the project is particularly unique, signalling both Sky’s ambitions to break into original German drama and the unique financing strategy in place to bring the series to life.

From left: Hendrik Handloegten, Tom Tykwer and Achim von Borries
From left: Hendrik Handloegten, Tom Tykwer and Achim von Borries

Volker Herres, programme director at ARD-owned Das Erste, which will air the series, says: “We would like to build on the incredible success of Volker Kutscher’s novels. These are exciting stories with a historical background, and we want to present them to German television audiences in a serial production that holds up to international standards. With this goal, we benefit from a collaboration between three strong partners so X Filme and Tom Tykwer can implement the detective series in grand style.”

Beta Film’s director Jan Mojto continues: “Due to the subject, the creative energy invested in the project, the names involved, its high standards and, not least, its budget, the first international reactions to the project have been very positive. Babylon Berlin doesn’t need to take second stage to any of the major international series.”

For Sky, Babylon Berlin is just the start of its original drama strategy, which is being built on top of exclusive acquisition deals for content from US premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime.

Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Deutschland, says the series “is an exceptional project and a perfect match for Sky – bold storytelling, an outstanding cast and Tom Tykwer’s incredibly creative team.

“The co-operation between X Filme, ARD Degeto and Beta Film is an impressive example of a fruitful and fair collaboration where all the partners are striking a unique path for Germany and Austria. With Babylon Berlin, we are adding an in-house German production segment to our exclusive international agreements with such major partners as HBO and Showtime – a direction we will be moving in even more in the future.”

Christine Strobl, MD of producer ARD Degeto, adds: “Babylon Berlin is a special project and very important for ARD. With this series, ARD Degeto will be offering Das Erste audiences a real treat that can stand up to international comparison from both narrative and visual points of view. With regard to co-operation and financing, such an exceptional project deserves an exceptional approach. I am looking forward to the upcoming start of filming – judging from the screenplays, we can expect some outstanding television.”

Babylon Berlin stars Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Frise
Babylon Berlin stars Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries

For Tykwer and his colleagues von Borries and Handloegten, the project marks the end of a search for a unique story to tell on Germany television.

“For a long time, we were searching for subject matter that could tell the story of this era in all its facets,” he explains. “We finally found it in Kutscher’s novels. And after Achim, Hendrik and I spent three years working intensively on the screenplay, I can hardly wait to get started.”

Von Borries picks up: “The final years of the Weimar Republic were a time of continual crisis and constant attacks from political extremists. A rapidly growing city with immigrants from all over the world was in the middle of it all – Berlin, the international melting pot, with the pressure constantly mounting. This was a source of inexhaustible material for us as authors. And to finally have the opportunity to portray the atmosphere of the late 1920s is a challenge to us as directors – absolutely huge and incredibly exciting.”

Of course, one of the central characters in the series is the city itself, which Handloegten says was characterised at the time by its fast pace, freedom and diversity.

“But soon it was too much speed, too much freedom, too much diversity,” he adds. “It was a city that was always becoming but never was. In Babylon Berlin, the city is the protagonist. And Berlin in 1929 is a bestial, monstrous, famished and satiated, exalted and down-to-earth, elegant and degenerate, perverse and chaste… and mysterious protagonist. It is the best thing that could happen to an author and director.”

German drama is also set to receive a boost from Netflix and Amazon, which have both ordered their first original German-language series.

Matthias Schweighofer will star in, direct and produce Amazon series Wanted, about a man who becomes the target of a mysterious hacking attack that puts him and his family in danger.

Dark, described as a family saga with a supernatural twist, comes to Netflix from producers Widermann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and is directed by Baran bo Odar. It is due to air in 2017.

The story is set in a German town in the present day where the disappearance of two young children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. It goes on to take a supernatural twist that ties back to the same town in 1986.

“Dark is a milestone for the German market and for us as a company,” says producer Quirin Berg. “Baran bo Odar and (writer) Jantje Friese are outstanding talents and we are glad they shared this amazing idea with us. We feel privileged to continue our collaboration with both of them and we are all thrilled to join forces with a great team at Netflix to create something truly unique.”

By pushing the boundaries of its homegrown series, both in terms of story and where they can be found, German drama is going from strength to strength at a time when there is a growing demand to see its stories played out on the international stage.

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Max power

Maximilian: ''A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages'
Maximilian: ”A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages’

This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.

A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.

At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.

Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”

Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch
Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch

Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.

From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.

The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.

The film received good reviews, including a broadly positive analysis by The Hollywood Reporter.

Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.

Ripper Street's fourth season is in production
Ripper Street’s fourth season is in production

Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.

Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”

Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.

His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.

Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel's novel A Place of Greater Safety
Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety

The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.

Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.

Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.

Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”

With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.

Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team
Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team

Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”

Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.

Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.

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