Russian-made, English-language drama Mata Hari tells the true story of Margaret Zelle, a woman of humble origins who escaped family tragedy and a loveless marriage to become an infamous exotic dancer, courtesan and spy.
French actor Vahina Giocante reflects on playing this real-life “fantasy” figure, the audition process to win the role and why she feels at home when she’s on set.
Mata Hari is produced by Star Media for Channel One Russia and Ukraine’s Inter and is distributed by Red Arrow International.
Russian drama Mata Hari charts the extraordinary life of the eponymous exotic dancer, courtesan and infamous spy. Amelie Von Kienlin, senior VP of scripted acquisitions and coproductions for distributor Red Arrow International, gives DQ seven key facts about the sumptuous period drama.
1. To her audiences, Mata Hari was a renowned performer and exotic dancer. To her wealthy lovers she was a charming yet mysterious seductress. And to both the German and French intelligence services, she was an invaluable and trustworthy informant who was exposed as a double agent during the First World War and ultimately executed by firing squad. But few saw Margaret Zelle, the real woman behind the legend of Mata Hari, which is what this series brings to light.
2. The 12-part show is based on the real-life story of Margaret Zelle. Born of humble beginnings, Margaret escapes personal family tragedy and a loveless marriage to become the most controversial woman of her time. But for all her fame and wealth, she cannot forget the daughter that was taken away from her. Desperate to be reunited with her child, Margaret seeks to win favour with anyone powerful enough to help her – by using her mind, her information or her body. But as the world descends towards war, and as the stakes get higher than she could ever have imagined, Margaret is no longer sure which side she is on. In a way, her life becomes a performance from which she cannot seem to escape.
3. This landmark new drama about love, loss and defiance features an acclaimed international cast including Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (Sex and the City), Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), Gerard Depardieu (Life of Pi) and Vahina Giocante (99 Francs) as Mata Hari. Mata Hari is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg (Falco).
4. A number of locations were used for the production. Filming of the first and third blocks took place in Portugal. Lisbon and its vicinity, plus Porto and Sintra, were used to shoot the European architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second block was filmed in Russia and Ukraine, where we depicted military and battle scenes of the First World War and covered the life and career of Mata Hari’s Russian lover, the foreign intelligence officer Vladimir Maslov. Large-scale sets of early 20th century Parisian streets were built at the studios of the producer, Moscow’s Star Media, and the final dub and sound design were completed in LA.
5. The costumes were created by designer Xenia Mavrina, who tailored each of the main characters’ outfits. Not only did the costume team have to make clothes for the socialites and the nobles of the time, they also had to search for authentic military uniforms. The ladies’ fashion of the period was for full-length skirts (without crinolines, metal inserts or hoops), always matched with gloves, a hand purse and a hat. Bare female ankles were considered the height of eroticism. For the male costumes it was wide, straight trousers, jackets and shallow V-necks with stand-up collars. Ties were just coming into fashion, so most men were still wearing neckerchiefs, always wore a hat and would usually be carrying something in their hands such as a cane.
6. Mata Hari was filmed entirely in English. It is the first time Channel One in Russia has commissioned an English-language series, which will then be dubbed into Russian for its local audience.
7. Red Arrow International is distributing the series and has already received strong interest from broadcasters around the world. Star Media and their partners – Channel One Russia and Inter Ukraine – have done a great job to bring together a multinational creative team led by directors Berry and Berg, and a prestigious cast of international actors.
TV markets MipTV and Mipcom in Cannes are primarily known as places for buying and selling programming. But the recent surge in the quality of scripted content from around the world has given them an interesting new role – as platforms for screening new shows.
At first, the screenings were organised on an ad-hoc basis. But MipTV 2016 in April saw the launch of the Mip Drama Screenings, an array of shows selected by jury. There was even a kind of competition, with Belgium’s Public Enemy being awarded the first ever Coup de Couer.
Mipcom, which takes place next month, is also benefiting from the growing appeal of screenings. At the time of writing, market organiser Reed Midem had announced two World Premiere Screenings and eight International Drama Screenings. This is approximately twice as many screenings as last year and it’s still possible one or two more titles will be added to the overall schedule.
The first of the World Premiere TV Screenings (on the evening of Sunday October 16) is the eye-catching Mata Hari, an ambitious series about the infamous dancer, courtesan and First World War female spy.
Based on a true story, Mata Hari is an English-language drama that is produced by Star Media of Russia and distributed by Red Arrow International. It stars French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role, and features Christopher Lambert (Highlander) and John Corbett (Sex and the City) – all three of whom will attend Mipcom and take part in a Q&A session directly following the screening.
Commenting on the 12-hour series, Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale, quality and ambition of this new series mark a new chapter in Russian-made English-language drama, and we are looking forward to launching it at Mipcom.”
It is part of a growing trend towards English-language series originating in non-English markets – other examples being Versailles and forthcoming drama The Young Pope.
Screening on Tuesday October 18, 20th Century Fox Television’s much-anticipated two-hour TV special of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the other World Premiere Screening at Mipcom. A made-for-TV reboot of the iconic movie/theatre show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show sees young couple Brad and Janet stray off the highway one night and stumble upon the castle of Dr Frank-N-Furter, a gender-bending mad scientist who is keen to show off his latest creation, Rocky.
It stars Laverne Cox as Dr Frank-N-Furter, Victoria Justice as Janet, Ryan McCartan as Brad, and Adam Lambert as Eddie, the role originally played by Meat Loaf. The new version also sees Tim Curry, the original Frank-N-Furter, return as the show’s criminologist narrator.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, the editorial heritage of the project is bound to attract plenty of buyers. But it will also be interesting to see if it represents a revival of interest in the TV film format, which could lend itself well to the on-demand viewing landscape that major markets have shifted towards. It would be a major surprise if the project didn’t attract the interest of Amazon or Netflix (the latter of which works with Cox on Orange is the New Black).
Turning to the International Drama Screenings, one of the first up will be Beta Film-distributed historic epic Maximilian and Maria de Bourgogne, which will be screened on the evening of Monday, October 17. Directed by Andreas Prochaska, this sumptuous six-hour period drama is estimated to have had a budget of €16m (US$17.9m). A love story set towards the end of the Middle Ages, it stars Berlinale up-and-comer Jannis Niewoehner alongside César-nominee Christa Théret and is coproduced by MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.
Another interesting screening will be The Missing 2, an English-language thriller distributed by All3media International. Initially, the organisers of Mipcom weren’t sure if it was right to screen a follow-up season. But they were ultimately convinced by the fact that The Missing is an anthology format, part of a growing trend in scripted TV that also includes acclaimed series such as Fargo and True Detective.
The story follows a young woman who has been missing for 11 years. When she returns, she holds vital clues about another missing girl who has not yet been found.
Aside from its anthology status, the show is interesting because of the complexity of its coproduction status. It is credited as a New Pictures production for BBC1 in the UK and US premium cable network Starz, in association with Two Brothers Pictures and Playground Entertainment. It is also cited as a copro with Czar TV and BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance with the support of één (VRT) and Screen Flanders.
Screening on October 18 is Ouro, distributed by Newen Distribution. The eight-part series is a modern day adventure set in the Amazonian jungle. It tells the story of Vincent, a 20-year-old geology student, who goes to French Guiana to do an internship at a gold-mining company. His love for danger then prompts him to join forces with a local gold lord to explore an abandoned mine.
This is another show that is certain to attract a lot of interest. Aside from the fact it is part of a resurgence of interest in adventure series, it’s a Canal+ original drama, meaning it’s part of the same stable as acclaimed French scripted shows like The Returned, Versailles, Spiral and Braquo.
Continuing the popularity of challenging period drama, there will also be a screening of Carnival Films’ Jamestown, which tells the story of the first British settlers in North America’s inhospitable but magnificent wilderness. As three young women arrive in a fledgling Virginian colony, the community battles against threats from both outside and within. This is another six-parter, underlining the popularity of this format.
At the other end of the scripted spectrum, there is also a screening for AwesomenessTV’s Freakish, the story of 20 high-school students trying to survive after their school has been destroyed by an explosion that causes the surviving population to mutate.
Wednesday October 19 in Cannes will see a double bill of screenings, starting with Global Screen-distributed Prisoners (working title). Combining the international market’s interest in Nordic content with its fascination with women’s prison drama, this six-part scripted series, directed by Ragnar Bragason, is about a woman who is sent to serve time in Iceland’s only female prison for a vicious assault that leaves her father in a coma. But no one knows that she harbours a dark secret that could tear her family apart – a secret that could also set her free.
The second leg of the double bill is UFA Fiction’s Charité, also a six parter. Set in Berlin in 1888, it centres on the world-famous Charité Hospital.
Aside from telling a compelling human-interest story, the series uses the hospital as a microcosmic reflection of late 19th century Wilhelmine society. This period saw unprecedented scientific progress in medicine accompanied by radical changes in society and the economic upheavals of industrialisation. The series is directed by Sönke Wortmann and written by Dorothee Schön and Sabine Thor-Wiedemann.
Finally on the Mipcom screening slate comes The Legendary Tycoon, from China Huace Film & TV. A welcome addition to the mix, the show is set against the backdrop of the Chinese film industry and is based on the true story of Asia’s first movie mogul, Sir Run Run Shaw.
Shaw, who founded Shaw Brothers Film Studios in the 1960s, was a media mogul who popularised Chinese Kung Fu movies in the west and worked in the entertainment industry for 80 years. Known as The King of Asian Entertainment, he died in 2014 at the amazing age of 107.
There’s no question that the dramas that secured screenings at MipTV 2016 benefited enormously in terms of profile among international buyers. So it will be interesting to see if this autumn’s crop of shows get a similar boost to their distribution efforts.
There is an inexorability about the way the TV drama business is heading. From the viewer’s perspective, the emergence of large-screen HD/4K TVs, combined with high subscription fees, creates an expectation that broadcasters and platforms will deliver great shows.
For those broadcasters and platforms, this puts a stronger emphasis than ever on the pursuit of high-profile and high-quality writing, acting and producing talent. But securing that kind of talent costs a lot of money, which means subscription fees need to rise.
And so the creative arms race escalates, with the companies in charge of content delivery forced to make bolder and bolder decisions. In a way, it’s similar to what has happened with sports rights.
While the big draw with any drama is its cast, it’s noticeable that the track record of writers is also becoming more important – not just in satisfying commissioning editors, but also as a way of appealing to audiences.
This is why novelists like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø have become such a focal point. While most TV writers don’t have a public profile (because of the collaborative nature of the TV process), novelists are often respected brands – with loyal fans who follow their every move.
Against that backdrop, this week saw AT&T-backed SVoD platform Fullscreen unveil a raft of new content including a show directed and written by Bret Easton Ellis – the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction, known for cult novels like Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction and, most famously, American Psycho.
The new show, called The Deleted, focuses on the disappearance of three seemingly unconnected people from LA. The occurrence triggers a collective paranoia among a group of young people, all of whom escaped from a cult several years previously.
The project is a new departure for Ellis. Although he has tried his hand at screenwriting movies, such as The Canyons and The Informers, this is his first gig as a director. “It’s going push some boundaries and it’s definitely going to be the darkest of our original shows,” said Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos.
“We created a new kind of entertainment experience which merges the things we love about premium content and social media. We’re building it for an audience we know and love – a social-first, mobile-first generation. The future of media is going to look more like what we’re doing than what we’ve seen over the past several decades.”
Writers celebrating this week include Russell T Davies, who has just won the Bafta TV Craft Drama Writer Award for his 2015 drama serial Cucumber. Davies edged out a formidable line-up of rivals to secure the award, including Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall) and Neil Cross (Luther).
Cucumber was part of a trilogy of dramas for Channel 4 that also included Tofu and Banana. Loosely described as a sequel to Davies’ iconic 1999 series Queer as Folk, it focused on a middle-aged gay man (Henry) who has to adapt to sudden change after a disastrous date night with his boyfriend of nine years.
Although the emphasis of the story was on the social and emotional challenges faced by gay men, critic Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, said the show had a more universal theme: “The broader genre of respectability meltdown, as Henry (the central character) is accelerated from smug dullness to scenes featuring police intervention, furious colleagues and social humiliation.”
Other Bafta winners included Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan for their hit comedy Catastrophe (Channel 4). There was also a breakthrough award for actor/writer Michaela Coel, creator of fellow Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum. All in all, that made it a good night for Channel 4 in terms of its writing credentials.
Other writers in the news include Scott Shepherd, who has been signed up by Televisa US to pen a 10-part sci-fi thriller. The Seventh Day is the Mexican media group’s second foray into English-language content after Duality, starring Dougray Scott.
The series is based on Shepherd’s serialised novel of the same name. Treading a well-worn furrow, it centres on one of the few people left unharmed when most of humanity is wiped out.
Shepherd, who is actually a writer/producer, has a shopping list of writing credits that date back to Murder She Wrote and Miami Vice in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he executive produced Haven and The Dead Zone – while also contributing to the writing efforts.
For The Seventh Day, he will share writing and showrunning duties with Cindy McCreery, who also wrote on Haven. Commenting on the new project, which will be shot in Mexico, Televisa USA head of production and distribution Chris Philip said: “Scott and Cindy are once again weaving gripping stories into compelling TV. Their masterful tales fit perfectly with the wide array of sets and terrain that Televisa has to offer in Mexico, where we plan to shoot all of the series we greenlight with our pioneering production and distribution venture.”
As the expansion of Televisa illustrates, one of the most exciting developments in the international drama business is the formation of new alliances. Another interesting example of this is the Russian drama Mata Hari, based on the life of the famous female spy/courtesan. The show has been produced by Star Media in Russia and will be distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, starting at Mipcom in October.
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale and quality of this ambitious new drama is truly impressive and marks a real step change in the international ambitions of the Russian production sector.”
Red Arrow will distribute an English-language version of the show, which stars the likes of Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Rade Serbedzija (X-Men: First Class) and Rutger Hauer (Batman Begins, Blade Runner), plus French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role.
The series, which is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg, recently completed filming in Lisbon and St Petersburg, and will air on Russian state network Channel One and Ukraine’s Inter later this year.
It has been written by Igor Ter-Karapetov and Oleg Kirillov. Of the two, Ter-Karapetov appears to have the more established track record, having penned numerous series and miniseries over the last few years. Credits include spy thriller Smert shpionam, Udarnaya volna and Ubit Stalina, a Second World War drama about a plot by the Germans to kill Joseph Stalin. The latter also contains a spy component, which suggest Ter-Karapetov is the perfect writer to tackle another period espionage story.