Tag Archives: Prisoners

Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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Mipcom’s mega screening session

Mata Hari
Mata Hari has been produced by Russia’s Star Media

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.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show stars Laverne Cox (left)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show stars Laverne Cox

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).

Beta Film's Maximilian
Beta Film’s Maximilian

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.

The Missing 2 is unconnected to the first season of the show
The Missing 2 is unconnected to the first season of the show

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.

Charité
Charité centres on the Charité Hospital

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.

Run Run Shaw
Run Run Shaw

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.

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