The cast and crew of Riviera return to the South of France for the world premiere of Sky Atlantic’s compelling crime drama. Michael Pickard spoke to the production team about creating a dark, corrupt world below the surface of this playground for the super-rich.
The story of Riviera plays out entirely on location across the south of France, capturing every aspect of this impossibly glamorous and wealthy part of the world to tell a story that uncovers a layer of darkness and corruption beneath the glossy exterior.
So it’s only fitting that the cast and crew of the 10-part series are in Cannes today to attend the series’ world premiere at MipTV.
It’s a quick return to the French Riviera for the team behind the Sky Atlantic drama, which is produced by Archery Pictures and Primo Productions, having only completed production earlier this year. The finishing touches to the show, distributed by Sky Vision, are now being put together ahead of its debut this summer.
Julia Stiles (pictured top) stars as Georgina, a Midwestern US girl turned smart, resourceful wife of the billionaire Constantine Clios. But after just a year of marriage, her immaculate new life is blown apart, literally, when her art collector husband Constantine is killed in an explosion aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch and arms dealer.
Believing there to be more to the tragedy, she sets out to uncover what happened. Dark truths about Constantine’s dealings emerge and, as she begins to realise who she was really married to, Georgina enters a spiral of moral descent as she becomes immersed in a world of lies, double-dealing and criminality.
Lena Olin co-stars as Irina, the first wife of Constantine, Adrian Lester as Georgina’s friend and art dealer Robert Carver; Iwan Rheon and Dimitri Leonidas as Constantine’s sons Adam and Christos; Roxane Duran as Adriana; and Phil Davis as Jukes, the art fraud investigator trying to get to the truth.
The idea for a series set on the French Riviera was sparked by Paul McGuinness, the former manager of Irish rock band U2 who owned a house in the region for many years. After discussing the idea with Archery Pictures execs Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier, McGuiness pitched the project to Oscar-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Borgias), who came on board as series creator, writer and exec producer.
“Paul and Neil have been friends for years, so Neil came on board and wrote the pilot script and the bible,” Marshall recalls. “Sky were very excited and greenlit the show on that and then we were off.”
Thykier says the idea began life as a film but over the course of the 18-month development period, it took shape as a television series.
He continues: “It felt fresh, exciting and entertaining. Although Riviera is about darkness and corruption that sits underneath the surface of this particular world, there was something about it that was also bright, colourful and glamorous. So the combination of complexity of character and that Neil Jordan tone, matched with one of the great locations of the world, caught everyone’s attention.
“Neil wrote the first two scripts with John Banville and then brought on some new young writers. Julia Stiles came on board to play our heroine Georgina. It sounds so easy but there were various steps along the way. In some respects, that initial creative vision that Neil provided set the blueprint for the show and we started shooting last summer until the beginning of this year.”
Marshall says that with Jordan’s list of credits, the story was always going to be about a dynastic family.
“Having done The Borgias, he was attracted to that kind of subject matter but quite quickly we realised we wanted to tell the story of one woman, Georgina Clios, who is at the heart of it,” the exec producer says. “She’s our eyes into this world. She wasn’t born into it, she climbed up. She recently married her husband Constantine so they’re madly in love at the start of the show. Then he’s killed in a giant yacht explosion.”
A grand villa in Villefranche doubles as the Clios family home, while locations along the coast were used to bring Riviera to life. As Marshall notes, “it’s set where it’s shot.”
“We began in August [last year], which was a pretty tough time to be shooting in the south of France because it’s the height of the season, so it was very expensive,” she says. “We were based in some old film studios in Nice, so everything was relatively close. It was very expensive shooting there and they have labour laws that are quite different to ours [in the UK]. There’s a limit to how long you can shoot per day, and it’s five-day weeks, which is unusual, not 11-day fortnights. But it was so worth it because you get so much value on screen. Every time we could point to the sea or some scenery, you could see they were living this opulent lifestyle, which people do down there on the Riviera.”
Thykier picks up: “It’s a cliche when people say the location is one of the characters, but bizarrely on this, it really is, I promise. We had one returning set which was the villa but, apart from that, we shot the shit out of the south of France and hopefully you’ll see it on screen. We never limited our ambitions in terms of this world because ultimately it’s the world of the 1%. It is yachts, helicopters, cars, grand hotels and grand promenades. So it was fantastic.”
The start of production was complicated, however, by tragic circumstances as shooting began three days after a truck careered into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing more than 80 people.
“A lot of our crew were from Nice and the environs so that was obviously tragic and tough,” Thykier reflects. “Any big show of that scale over that time period will have some production ups and downs but to be honest, we rather loved the crew there. In a way, the awful events meant the town was very keen to welcome to us. They wanted to show they were open for business and weren’t going to be cowed. There was a solidarity to the city and they were incredibly welcoming so we were able to access great locations.”
Behind the camera, Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War) came in as lead director, helming the first two episodes and laying the blueprints for the four directors who followed him. He worked alongside director of photography Laurie Rose and costume designer Emma Fryer to create the look and style of the series, which, as viewers might expect, drips with opulence. In particular, inspiration was taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie Le Mépris, which starred Brigitte Bardot.
“When you see Georgina and Irina, they just look completely fabulous,” says Marshall. “Irina’s wearing a selection of great dresses, trouser suits and high heels and that was really important to the look of the show as well. We wanted it to be beautiful and glamorous.”
When it came to casting the series, Stiles was first choice to play the central role. Thykier describes the actor as bright and brilliant, with an innate integrity and honesty that was necessary to lead an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom are described as morally bankrupt.
“She’s always been an incredibly attractive actor in that regard both for men and women and we needed someone to be the emotional heart of the show,” he says. “She was always our dream casting. We’re very fortunate we have a rather brilliant cast of actors around her – Lena, Adrian, Iwan – so it was good. One of the things we’re proudest of is that it’s a cast of very talented actors.”
Running the production on the ground was series producer Foz Allan, who had recently finished ITV’s supernatural drama Jekyll & Hyde when Marshall approached him about joining Riviera.
“Liza gave me a call, she asked me if I wanted to do it and you just go, ‘Yeah.’ What’s not to like?” he admits. “Neil Jordan, Sky – it was all good, and you get to live in Nice for a year!”
Having previously worked in Hungary, Kenya, Sweden and Australia, setting up in France proved to be no problem for Allan, utilising support from local producer Peninsula Films to bring together the local crew.
“Part of the treat of Riviera is lifting a curtain on a world that most of us don’t see” Allan says. “Going back and forth to Heathrow, I was finding myself more often in the expensive-watch section and I’m looking at £5,000 watches, thinking, ‘that’s quite reasonable actually’ – and the only way I’m thinking that is because I’ve been in a world where everything starts at £5,000 and then moves up. It was very exciting. Julia Stiles was genuinely a breathtaking performer. She was always on the money. Lena Olin’s mesmeric. The whole cast was great. It was long and complex but, actually, it was brilliant fun and they’re great performers. The scripts got stronger and stronger.”
Coming from CGI-heavy Jekyll & Hyde, Allan reveals that Riviera also had touches of computer wizardry. He explains: “The brand ‘Riviera’ has blue skies, right? So how often do you actually get blue skies out there? The truth is quite often but not every time you’re shooting. So you’ve got to deliver the brand in the same way. [Creator] Charlie Higson’s warped imagination for Jekyll & Hyde was as complex to make happen as Neil Jordan’s lyrical imagination for Riviera. The job is just to make sure you capture these imaginations and get them out to a wider audience.”
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge facing Allan on location. “We had to blow up a US$25m yacht, so first we had to get a US$25m yacht and then get the man who owns it not to mind that it will appear to have been blown up,” the producer says. “That was quite a complex journey.”
It was also a journey for Thykier, whose background had been entirely in the film business, compared to his former Archery Pictures partner Marshall, who has worked on Taboo and the Red Riding trilogy and has now set up on her own at Hera Pictures. Thykier describes Riviera as a “big learning curve,” in terms of both working with multiple directors and dealing with an ever-evolving script.
“I used a lot of muscles I hadn’t used before,” he admits. “We were originally going to kill a certain character at a certain point in the series, but after about two weeks shooting, they were fantastic and we found a way to keep them in. So it was that wonderful thing of being able to adapt the series to the talent we had. That was really exciting and different. But it’s long and hard. I have newfound respect for the people at the top of their game in this business because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’ve been friends with [The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures’ CEO] Andy Harries for many years and always respected him and thought he was brilliant. I now think he’s a genius! Once you’ve been through one of these big shows, you recognise it’s hard work and the people at the top of that game are really very brilliant.”
With Riviera designed with the potential to become a returning series, the cast and crew could find themselves back in the south of France not long after attending the world premiere at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.
But Marshall says it’s testament to Sky’s ambition to create British drama that stands alongside the HBO and Showtime series that also air on Sky Atlantic which has given birth to a big-budget, 10-part series like Riviera.
“Nobody else is doing that yet in the UK but Sky are because they’ve got big ambitions for their drama,” she concludes. “What’s interesting when you come to a project like this is it’s very different to making a film. There’s so much more story, it’s all about the writers, it’s very episodic. In film, the director is in charge; in television, it’s much more the writers medium. What’s exciting is it’s just all about content. People just want to make good stuff and there’s lots of opportunity at the moment which is great.”