Tag Archives: Philly de Lacey

A round of Gulf

New Zealand drama is making its mark on the international scene on the back of two ambitious coproductions fuelled by producer Screentime NZ, as CEO Philly de Lacey explains.

Isolated in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand lies more than 2,000 miles from its nearest neighbour, Australia. Yet in television drama, it is building bridges with countries on the other side of the world thanks to two series produced by Screentime NZ.

Philly de Lacey

First there was Straight Forward, which told the story of a Danish woman trying to escape her criminal past by starting a new life in New Zealand, where she must adopt a new identity to escape those trying to track her down.

Screentime partnered with Copenhagen’s Mastiff to produce the eight-part series, which debuted earlier this year.

Simultaneously, Screentime was also engineering a German-New Zealand coproduction, which led to the creation of thriller The Gulf, which launched in September on Germany’s ZDF under the title Auckland Detectives.

Produced by Screentime, Lippy Pictures (Jean) and Letterbox Filmproduktion (Bad Banks), the drama centres on the moral disintegration of Detective Jess Savage (Kate Elliot), who finds herself caught between upholding the law and morality as she investigates crimes on her home patch of Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

After losing her memory in the car crash that killed her husband, Jess becomes determined to bring the guilty party to justice. Convinced that someone is trying to kill her because of something she has uncovered in a recent investigation, she begins retracing her steps. But as she gets closer to the truth she so desperately seeks, Jess discovers that her world is not so morally black and white.

The series was later picked up by MediaWorks’ Three in New Zealand and Nine in Australia, and is set to debut this Wednesday on Sundance Now in the US.

The Gulf stars Kate Elliot as Detective Kate Savage

Screentime initially partnered with writers Donna Malane and Paula Boock, who had come up with the idea for the story. “It’s set far from the city but is a microcosm of society on this small island,” says executive producer and Screentime CEO Philly de Lacey. “It created for us a really distinct world that wasn’t too specifically New Zealand; it could be set anywhere. We had a great lead character in Jess, whose husband had just died in a car accident and she was trying to figure out what happened, which created a great and unexpected story across the series.

“Then we started talking to ZDF. They’ve got some English-language slots and typically take English drama from the UK, so it’s quite unusual for them to be looking at a drama from New Zealand. But it was quite fortuitous because the commissioning team had visited Waiheke not long before we pitched it to them. They understood the world we were talking about and they loved the idea of crime and nature together. It was something they hadn’t seen before.”

However, German crime dramas tend to have episodic elements, and ZDF was looking for three self-contained 90-minute films to screen for its local audience. This posed a creative problem for the writers and producers, who had conceived the series in six 45-minute parts.

“We then designed the series to have episodic stories that lasted two episodes and had a really great hook halfway through so we could draw the audience into each episode, but then we also had a strong serial arc that ran across the series that resolved itself at the end in a really beautiful way,” de Lacey says, explaining how Jess’s personal story dovetails with three criminal cases that have a major impact on her career.

Filmed in New Zealand, The Gulf features an entirely Kiwi cast

“What the writers also managed to do, which I thought was really clever, was take all the storylines that were seemingly completely unrelated and intertwine them in a unique way at the end. They really came up with something very special, full of beautiful, complex, multi-layered characters.

“The other thing that happened was we ended up with an entirely Kiwi cast, which I thought was pretty special for a show that was predominantly targeted at an international audience. ZDF really embraced the look of it and we were really lucky. I’m not sure how often that happens.”

Filming took place in Auckland, with the crew also spending 10 days on Waiheke, which sits in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf, the main waterway into the city near the northern tip of New Zealand’s north island.

“It’s white sandy beaches, foreboding rocky beaches, small townships. It has a small population but also a lot of holidaymakers on the island, so it made for a unique shooting location but allowed Jess also to go back to the city from time to time when she needed to,” de Lacey says.

“Anyone who’s ever visited New Zealand will have an understanding of it but, until you arrive, you don’t realise how diverse it is. One of the things we say is we have every geographical formation in the world in a very tiny space – we have mountains, fjords, white sand beaches, glaciers, subtropical rainforest. We have this crazy little microcosm of the world.”

The series will begin airing on Sundance Now in the US this Wednesday

Overseeing a series that had to work narratively in both 60- and 90-minute instalments provided de Lacey with a fresh challenge, but she says The Gulf works in both formats because it was a requirement from the start, rather than the show being retrofitted to suit one or the other.

“That was the biggest anomaly for me, but the biggest surprise was that it’s all English language with an all-Kiwi cast,” she notes, acknowledging actors including Elliot, Ido Drent, Jeffrey Thomas, Pana Hema-Taylor, Mark Mitchinson and Timmie Cameron. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to be allowed to do [with a German commissioning broadcaster] but we ended up with such a strong cast, it was so cool. ZDF really embraced the cultural nuances of New Zealand. They loved it and wanted more of it, and I thought it was interesting that they wanted to explore our world. They loved the idea of crime and nature in this world that they hadn’t seen before.”

De Lacey says the strangest part of the process was watching the series, which is distributed by Banijay Rights, later dubbed into German ahead of ZDF’s broadcast. But with the success of Straight Forward and now The Gulf, it’s unlikely to be the last time her own shows are translated for audiences around the world, such is the interest now in ‘Southern noir.’

“We set out to do something that was unique and different,” de Lacey concludes. “The New Zealand world we were able to provide is something people haven’t seen before. The story was gripping, the production was great and I’m wildly proud of the series. It brings those different cultural values together and allows you to create something you might not have come up with before. That’s what makes it really distinctive.

“Both Straight Forward and The Gulf have been really well received internationally and it’s great for New Zealanders. We’re on the other side of the world in the middle of nowhere, so it’s great our shows are starting to make an impact on the international landscape.”

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Going Straight

A mother attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to the other side of the world in eight-part drama Straight Forward. But was this Denmark-New Zealand copro as simple as its title? Executive producer Philly de Lacey and director Charlie Haskell explain.

When it comes to language, culture and distance, the countries of Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart. But that was exactly what executive producer Philly de Lacey was looking for when she was developing eight-part drama Straight Forward.

She admits the series was a “crazy idea,” with a story that sees a mother attempt to escape her criminal past by moving to the other side of the world. But 18 months later, the experience of working with partners thousands of miles away has meant de Lacey is already plotting her next global coproduction.

Screentime NZ was developing the idea for the series, created by writer John Banas, based on the premise that if someone wanted to go into hiding, New Zealand was as far away from anywhere else as possible. But that raised the question of where this person was running from.

Philly de Lacey

A drama conference for members of Screentime parent Banijay’s production group held the answer, with Denmark’s Mastiff jumping on the idea straight away.

“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you are dealing with two different languages. But the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it works perfectly.

“They are worlds apart, and that’s what really appealed to Denmark being our partner. It’s a complete contradiction to what we see in New Zealand. Copenhagen is a beautiful city with a massive history while New Zealand has a different language, landscapes and a young history. We couldn’t get more polar opposite and that’s part of the beauty of it. Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.”

Filming took place for more than four months, mostly in New Zealand, with studio space in Auckland and location shooting in Queenstown, where the story is set. A second unit later travelled to Copenhagen to pick up establishing scenes and exterior shots of the Danish capital.

De Lacey admits it’s impossible to know what lies ahead when you’re planning a TV production, never mind one that tells a story spanning thousands of miles around the world. But despite the complications of nine partners, including the Copenhagen Film Fund and New Zealand Film Commission, she says the willingness of everyone to work together made the process easier than expected.

Screentime and Mastiff split casting duties, with each forwarding tapes of prospective actors to the other. But the key to the partnership was simply knowing what the show was going to be. From the opening pitch, Mastiff and Screentime collaborated on the scripts and ideas to develop the characters, while the Danish cast in particular was hugely influential.

Straight Forward stars Cecilie Stenspil as a woman who leaves Denmark for New Zealand

“We really needed their input into the Danish scenes,” de Lacey reveals. “We had translators on set and our directors could judge the performances, but we needed to rely on our Danish cast a lot for their input, particularly into Danish culture and the way things would be represented. It was critical for us that when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements.”

Nordic streamer Viaplay will carry the series, alongside New Zealand’s TVNZ in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights holds international distribution rights (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).

The story starts in Denmark and follows fraudster Silvia Petersen (Cecilie Stenspil) as she flees her home, leaving her mother (Vibeke Hastrup) and daughter (Marie Boda) behind. Landing in Queenstown under the alias Robyn Ford, Silvia discovers her family are also in danger in Copenhagen. Dual timelines are used to show Silvia trying to hide her identity in her new home while people are trying to track her down in Denmark.

Not everything set in Denmark was shot in Copenhagen, however, with interiors and some exteriors filmed at the series’ Auckland studio. One subsequent challenge came when trying to replicate a Danish road in New Zealand, where cars drive on the left side of the road in right-hand-drive cars – the opposite to Denmark.

Filming for the series took place in both countries

To overcome this hurdle, the production team decided that everything in these shots needed to be symmetrical so when the shot was flipped, everything would look authentic. Number plates were also printed backwards.

Three directors helmed the series across four filming blocks, with Charlie Haskell taking charge on episodes three and four as well as leading the second unit in Copenhagen. Riccardo Pellizzeri led off with blocks one and four, while Peter Burger picked up block three.

Filming in Copenhagen saw Haskell fulfil a checklist of required shots: exteriors of buildings where interiors were filmed in New Zealand, atmospheric clips of the Danish city and pick-ups that would link scenes taking place in both countries, such as a phone call between two characters. He also oversaw a day and a night filming Copenhagen from above using a drone.

The director praises the attitude of the Danish cast, whom he says brought a truthfulness to their roles and ensured every scene in which they featured made sense emotionally. That was important, as Haskell couldn’t understand their Danish dialogue, and thus could judge them only on their performances.

Straight Forward is set to hit screens in 2019

“It was like putting your fingers in your ears and just watching the emotion of the performance, not what’s being said,” he explains. “They were very worried about us not knowing the language and not knowing how to direct those scenes. That was fair, but part of it was we could really see what they were doing emotionally, and that was really important. We had an interpreter on set so she could still tell us if they were saying the right lines. There was also a certain element of going up to them after a take and saying, ‘How was that, guys?’ which is very unusual.”

Haskell also highlights the way Danish, and more widely Scandinavian, dramas put performance at the centre of the series, rather than simply feeding the production “machine.”

“It feels like in New Zealand we work as a real machine; it’s fast and efficient,” he says. “Maybe it’s more based on the US model. That threw them a little bit. Just watching the crews in Copenhagen, it’s very casual. You don’t turn up at 08.00 and, bang, you’re into work mode. There’s a casual flow that is pretty unusual to watch. So they were a bit thrown by the fact we were such a relentless machine that wanted to keep working all the time. They would put the brakes on if needs be to make sure we did know what we were talking about.”

With Straight Forward due to premiere in 2019, de Lacey is already developing another coproduction, this time in Germany, and says she is putting into practice the lessons she has learned from working on this series.

“While we hope there’s a season two of Straight Forward, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” she notes. “You can’t translate the English script directly into Danish because Danes don’t speak the same way – direct translations don’t work. So a Danish writer has to translate the scene, not the words, and make sure the dialogue works for the character. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”

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